ANN ARBOR Michigan receiver Jason Avant is a playmaker, but he will never be confused with former All-American Braylon Edwards.
Avant doesn t have the same quickness or leaping ability.
Yet he was the big man in the Big House yesterday, catching a career-high nine passes for 127 yards and a touchdown in a 33-17 season-opening victory over Northern Illinois.
And Edwards, Avant s former teammate and good buddy, witnessed his performance from the sideline.
It was Michigan s first game without Edwards in uniform since the 2001 season, and Avant s second career 100-yard outing.
Replacing Edwards, theCleveland Browns No. 1 draft pick, was easier than everyone thought, right?
Well, not really.
Inside that famous winged helmet was a very nervous co-captain whose face was drenched in sweat.
I was pretty scared, Avant said. I tried to disguise it.
Avant got rid of his jitters pretty quickly.
He figured in Michigan s opening 14-play drive, scoring on a four-yard catch in the corner of the end zone. He went up over Northern Illinois cornerback Adriel Hansbro to pull the ball down with a mini Edwards-like leap.
I m just going out there and trying to do my job, Avant said. I m not worried about winning the Biletnikoff Award, like Braylon did. It s a win-for-Michigan deal for me. I figure if I go out there and play hard every play, then everything else will take care of itself.
Avant had seven catches for 104 yards in the first half. He had three clutch third-down catches of 18, 18 and 13 yards that resulted in first downs.
And he didn t show any rust from the arthroscopic knee surgery that ended his season after the Ohio State game last year.
Avant was the go-to-guy yesterday. His more highly touted sidekick, Steve Breaston, was a non-factor, limited to just two catches for 15 yards.
Quarterback Chad Henne shrugged off the suggestion that he favored Avant.
We went with our first progressions today, and he was the first one open, Henne said. So we just took advantage of it.
It s a good thing Avant found a way to get open in the first half, when Michigan built a 27-10 lead.
He and tailback Mike Hart, who ran for one touchdown in the opening half and caught a pass for another score, helped take the heat off Michigan s lackluster defense.
So did pesky Northern Illinois, which offset 411 yards of offense by coughing up four fumbles and an interception. The Huskies also had a field goal blocked.
Avant, who spent a good portion of the offseason lobbying for more passes to be thrown his way, is in his third year as a starter.
He figures his senior season will be his best yet. And who can argue after yesterday s solid start.
Passing is always the pretty thing to do, Avant said, but the running game is the heart of Michigan.
Avant, a quiet kid who grew up on the south side of Chicago in a community littered with gangs, drugs and violence, always seems to find himself in the middle of the action.
He may not have the same skills that Edwards does, but Avant is pretty sure-handed. He rarely drops the ball.
It s no wonder Henne keeps looking his way.
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