Sophomore wide receiver AJ Henning is a dynamic player. He has made several big plays this year but for some reason, he's been watching from the sidelines far more than he's been on the field.
Through four games, Henning has played just 40 snaps. For comparison's sake, jumbo tight end Joel Honigford played 37 snaps against Washington alone. The comparison isn't meant to disparage Honigford, but it is surprising that a former offensive lineman who nows plays tight end is on the field that much more than one of the most dynamic players on the roster.
For Henning, 11 of his snaps came over the last two weeks — six against Northern Illinois and five against Rutgers. I think that total is telling because Henning wasn't on the field in an incredibly lopsided blowout against NIU or in a tight conference game against the Scarlet Knights.
The lack of playing time for Henning is puzzling for several reasons.
One reason is that it seemed like all of the wide receivers would be asked to step up in Ronnie Bell's absence. For now, a committee approach seems to make sense in order to find out how to replace Bell. Henning seemed like one of the obvious candidates to contribute more because he's similar to Bell. They're close to the same size, both great after the catch and versatile enough to play multiple receiver positions.
Another reason is because he's been damn good with his very limited opportunities. While on the field for those 40 snaps, Henning has only touched the ball five times on offense, but he's been very productive. He's averaging 27.2 yards per touch and has a 74-yard touchdown under his belt. He's shown that he can be explosive as a receiver and out of the backfield on pop passes and jet sweeps. He has also gotten his hands on six punts, but even with those included, he has just 11 touches over the course of four games as one of the more versatile, speedy athletes on the roster.
Finally, he's pretty clearly needed. Michigan's passing offense has been nonexistent through four weeks. Sure, that's been due to U-M's dominance on the ground during the first three games, but the passing game has just looked out of sync as whole. Through those first three weeks, Michigan's running game was unstoppable. The team was winning by a lot and rushing for an average of 350 yards each week, so there wasn't much to complain about. The passing game looked unproven and a little shaky, but three dominant wins is three dominant wins. Then Rutgers came to town and shut down U-M's run game and the offense entirely in the second half. Jet sweeps, end arounds and reverses had worked well for Michigan during the first three games and then we saw zero of them against Rutgers.
It just doesn't make much sense.
The issue extends beyond Henning too. Fellow sophomore wide receiver Roman Wilson, who might be even faster and more explosive, played just five snaps last week and also has just five touches on the season. After playing a lot against Western Michigan (32 snaps) and Washington (56 snaps), Wilson's usage dropped off considerably. Again, in a game against Rutgers where offense, big plays and a spark were needed in the worst way, Wilson was on the sidelines for 50 of 55 snaps.
Finally, there's Donovan Edwards. The dynamic freshman running back has played just 31 snaps on the season. Against Washington, Edwards played just two snaps and last week against Rutgers, a single snap. He carried the ball eight times against Northern Illinois for 86 yards and two scores and showed why he was so coveted as a recruit. Edwards is obviously behind Blake Corum and Hassan Haskins, who have been great, but he's too talented to be a spectator. I'm not saying he should play 50 snaps per game, but he's good enough and versatile enough to be on the field getting touches.
Michigan's offense needs more balance, more plays that challenge a defense horizontally and vertically and an emphasis on getting the ball into the hands of its speediest, most dynamic players. Henning, Wilson and Edwards are those kinds of players and they've been mostly watching from the bench. That needs to change against Wisconsin in order for the Wolverines to have a chance at winning in Madison.