- Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Every Michigan offensive play has a little bit of magic to it. Seriously. Not Criss Angel stuff. Something more intricate.
Try the sleight of route.
In his third year as Michigan’s wide receivers coach, Jeff Hecklinski teaches all of his receivers to leave the line of scrimmage the same no matter the play. Run? Pass? Doesn’t matter. Make like you are running a route.
Try, actually, to go deep. Be so precise, so similar, opposing corners and safeties are unsure of what is coming. Get them to start backpedaling or, better still, turn to cover a deep route.
Then, Michigan’s receivers know they have accomplished exactly what they needed.
The importance of this will only increase for Michigan as its offensive philosophy shifts to a pro-style offense predicated on the success of play-action sells from the quarterback and receivers.
Opponents have noticed the blocking. Defensive backs understand facing Michigan’s receivers will be tougher. Not because of their skills, but because of what they do without the ball.
“They act as if they are more excited to block than they are to catch a pass,” Minnesota safety Brock Vereen said. “Sadly, I’m not even exaggerating.”
This starts in the preseason, when Hecklinski has 15 minutes daily to work with his receivers. Half of each session, his receivers will not touch a ball.
Instead, he will motion to the usual offensive linemen tool, the five-man sled. Most college receivers know how to catch. Many run crisp routes. At Michigan, blocking passes all of that.
Blocking at Michigan, Hecklinski explains, is the easiest path to playing.
“We’ll do some two-man sled work, do some five-man sleds, hit some bags,” Hecklinski said. “A lot of the same things the offensive line does. The offensive line, they train to block every day. We can incorporate those drills into the stuff we do.”
Hecklinski rarely sees live what he teaches accomplished in games. Perched in the coaches’ box, his in-game job is to watch the interior of the offensive line against the linebackers, so he only knows the exploits of his receivers when they tell him on the headset between series. They’ll celebrate pancaking a cornerback or hitting their general goal of combined double-digit knockdowns every game.
Hecklinski reviews receiver tape the next day. Based on what he watches -- and how beat up his players are -- he’ll taper the blocking work back to one session a week as long as the results are showing up in games.
By then, Hecklinski’s message reached his players.
“A lot of wide receivers won’t use all that energy,” Purdue cornerback Ricardo Allen said. “Like if it is a running play to the other side, why do I need to run full speed? Why do I need to go cut this safety off? People like Denard [Robinson] was probably very happy he had receivers like Roy Roundtree and [Jeremy] Gallon last year. He got 50- and 60-yard runs because the corners were never able to go in on the run.”
Hecklinski’s blocking mantra, always based on hitting hard, evolved as he moved with Brady Hoke from Ball State to San Diego State and then to Michigan. At Ball State, he said, he used to teach his receivers to cut block consistently.
Hecklinski removed cut blocking upon arrival at Michigan for two reasons. First, a shift in blocking rules in college football made cut blocking a riskier choice with penalties. The second dealt with the ability of the defensive backs his receivers faced.
This began at Ball State and became clearer when the staff put together in the MAC and Mountain West reached the Big Ten.
“They are like those Weeble Wobbles that you had growing up,” Hecklinski said. “You can throw a great cut and he’s right back up making a play and golly, that’s a great cut.
“You got him down, took his legs out and then he pops back up it’s a three-yard gain. So we took all cut blocking out of it.”
Now, he wants his players to act as boxers on the perimeter. He uses analogies to other sports but this is a favorite. He wants his receivers to treat each play as a mini-boxing match.
“I’m going to try and throw my right uppercut as hard as I can and we’re going for the knockout punch every time,” Hecklinski said. “I’m trying to Mike Tyson you in the first round.”
Start with an initial rope-a-dope. Hit as hard as you can. Try to run through the chest or shoulders of a defensive back. Blow him up. Knock him down.
It’s simple, really. If Michigan is successful, what starts at deception fast turns into big-play blocking devastation.