September 23, 2021

What Michigan star WR Ronnie Bell’s season-ending leg injury means for the Wolverines offense

Michigan’s leading returning pass catcher, wide receiver Ronnie Bell left the Wolverines’ 47-14 win over…

Michigan’s leading returning pass catcher, wide receiver Ronnie Bell left the Wolverines’ 47-14 win over Western Michigan in the second quarter Saturday with a leg injury following a 31-yard punt return. After getting helped off the field, he was carted into the tunnel to an ovation from the fans at Michigan Stadium, who were treated to three first half highlights from the senior playmaker.

On Monday, coach Jim Harbaugh announced that Bell will miss the remainder of the season.

The injury was an especially cruel blow for Bell and the Wolverines after he showed flashes of brilliance in the opening half. First, Bell made a spectacular one-handed catch along the sidelines that was wiped off due to a questionable offensive pass interference call. But on Michigan’s next possession, Bell got redemption by beating man coverage out of the slot for a 76-yard touchdown reception from quarterback Cade McNamara.

Western Michigan punted on its next possession, and Bell broke through on the return to set Michigan up in WMU territory. It was quickly apparent that something was wrong as he struggled to get up. Bell buried his head in a towel as the cart carried him from the playing surface, indicating a severe injury.

Pressure on Cornelius Johnson

Bell looked like a star in the first half on Saturday, the type of player capable of helping an inexperienced quarterback in McNamara adjust comfortably during his first season as a full-time starter. Now that pressure falls squarely on Johnson to fill the role of the team’s top receiver. Johnson entered Saturday with just 20 career receptions, but he came on strong last season and showed good chemistry with McNamara by hauling in five catches for 105 yards and two touchdowns in a win over Rutgers. At 6-foot-3, the former four-star prospect has the frame to be a primary target. He was the only Michigan receiver other than Bell to catch a pass in the first half on Saturday but finished fifth on the team in yards by the final buzzer.

No one on Michigan caught more than three passes in the game, and only one other player had more than 23 yards receiving. Considering the Wolverines scored three rushing touchdowns on the afternoon, this ground-based attack may lean even more heavily in that direction as the season goes on if other receivers do not step up.

The good news for Michigan is that Johnson did show flashes of being a big-play threat in his limited role last season. While Ronnie Bell was the more heavily-featured player in Michigan’s passing attack, Johnson averaged more yards per reception than Bell and more air yards per target. He finished just behind Bell when it came to yards per route run.

Still, a passing attack works better when it has two deep threats, and Johnson is likely to garner more attention from opposing defenses now that Bell will no longer be on the field. So he’s not the only one who will have to step up and take on a bigger role. Players like A.J. Henning are likely to see more targets going forward.

Special teams debate

It seems that nearly every decision Harbaugh makes is scrutinized, and perhaps that’s to be expected a program of Michigan’s prestige. There will certainly be questions about why Bell was playing on special teams after he was not a factor in the return game during the 2020 season. However, Bell returned two punts in 2018 and eight in 2019, so he was a trusted option for the staff after last season’s primary punt returner, Giles Jackson, moved on.

Ronnie Bell’s highlights

Michigan fans gave Bell a loud ovation as he left the playing field. They surely appreciated the highlights he provided before the injury. Here is a glimpse at what he’d done before leaving the game.