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5 under-the-radar players who could still help Michigan football this season

Young players make huge impact in win over Rutgers

Running back Kareem Walker of the Michigan Wolverines slips the tackle attempt by defensive back Isaiah Wharton of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights during the second half at Michigan Stadium on October 28, 2017. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)
Running back Kareem Walker of the Michigan Wolverines slips the tackle attempt by defensive back Isaiah Wharton of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights during the second half at Michigan Stadium on October 28, 2017. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – The 2017 season has been full of ups and downs for Michigan football, which climbed to No. 7 in the country with a strong September but fell entirely out of the rankings after a difficult October.

Now, as the calendar flips to the final month of the regular season, Jim Harbaugh will need some reinforcements to avoid multiple losses down the stretch. Which players who haven't already made a major impact could provide a spark in November?

RB Kareem Walker

Kareem Walker was such a high-profile recruit in 2016, it's amazing he's flown under the radar for this long. The former five-star hasn't gotten much of an opportunity to prove himself at the college level, but it appears that's going to change.

Walker redshirted last season and didn't receive a carry during the nonconference slate this year. But he more than doubled his career carries against Rutgers, gaining 34 yards and his first touchdown on six carries.

Congrats on the first TD, @umichfootball's @_KareemWalker! pic.twitter.com/V3fwQOd8xn

— Michigan On BTN (@MichiganOnBTN) October 28, 2017

He might be the most talented running back on the roster from a pure ability standpoint, but Walker is also a perfect fit for Harbaugh's offense. Karan Higdon and Ty Isaac have done a nice job carrying Michigan's rushing attack, but neither is as tough to bring down as the 211-pound Walker.

After impressing in the last two spring games, Walker was expected to be a significant part of the offensive attack. That offseason success never turned into increased playing time for Walker, but his in-game performance can't be ignored any longer.

WR Nico Collins

Michigan's offense has had a litany of issues this season, but one of the most glaring is an inability to score touchdowns in the red zone.

Out of 130 teams in the FBS, Michigan ranks 114th with a 48 percent touchdown rate in the red zone. Only Illinois ranks lower in the Big Ten.

One factor in those struggles is the lack of a true red zone target. Michigan doesn't have a player with the combination of size and an ability to create separation off the line of scrimmage. Maybe the injured Tarik Black would have been that target, and in the future it might be Donovan Peoples-Jones or one of the young tight ends.

But in the immediate future Harbaugh might turn to true freshman Nico Collins.

Collins got into Michigan's game against Purdue, but he wasn't targeted until quarterback Brandon Peters looked his way against Rutgers. Collins hauled in his first catch on a comeback route and bowled forward for a 12-yard gain.

It wasn't flashy, but it was effective. That's what a 6-foot-4 wide receiver with strength and quickness can do.

The Wolverines have been desperate for somebody to catch a fade pass this season. They even tried throwing one to 6-foot slot receiver Eddie McDoom. Collins is much more likely to have success in that department, and now that he's clearly not redshirting, he could become a more important part of the offense.

DL Aubrey Solomon

Aubrey Solomon has gotten more playing time than anyone else on this list, but he's still living in the shadows of stars such as Maurice Hurst and Rashan Gary along Michigan's defensive line.

Solomon was Michigan's top-rated defensive recruit in last year's class, and he's lived up to the hype in a limited role. The true freshman has been solid in the run-stopping game, racking up 10 tackles and getting in on two tackles for loss.

Solomon has the tools to be a good pass rusher, and Michigan has struggled in that department during its biggest games. There wasn't enough pressure on Brian Lewerke, of Michigan State, or Trace McSorley, of Penn State, in Michigan's two losses. Solomon could help change that.

In his first career start last weekend, Solomon made three tackles and contributed to a tackle for loss. If nose tackle Bryan Mone continues to struggle, his playing time will only increase.

DL Kwity Paye

True freshman Kwity Paye was one of the quietest commitments to Michigan's 2017 recruiting class, even though he was named the No. 1 player in Rhode Island.

Paye didn't get much time on Michigan's crowded defensive line to start the season, but over the last two weeks, he's starting to make a name for himself.

Like Solomon, Paye has made a couple of nice plays in the backfield. He registered his first career sack against Penn State and added a second against Rutgers. He's made four tackles in the last two games.

Paye is strong and quick, and there's plenty of room for defensive linemen to join the rotation in Don Brown's aggressive system.

KR Ambry Thomas

Cornerback has been a position of strength for Michigan this season, with Lavert Hill and David Long locking down opposing wide receivers. The sophomore duo has made it difficult for anyone outside of Brandon Watson to get into the mix at cornerback, so Ambry Thomas isn't playing much on defense.

But recently he's found a way to make a difference on special teams, and that's extremely important for an offensively challenged team like Michigan.

Thomas nearly broke another huge kickoff return last weekend, fielding a kick at the 7-yard line and returning it 32 yards to Michigan's 39. That might not immediately catch your eye, but for a team that struggles to move the chains and has a kicker with huge range, field position is critical.

Thomas' first really good kick return came at Penn State, when he scampered down the left sideline for 43 yards. He looks comfortable returning kicks, and his 25.1-yard average is good enough to trust him bringing the ball out.

He made a couple of bad decisions with the ball early in the season, but that's to be expected from a true freshman. If Thomas breaks a big return against Wisconsin or Ohio State when Michigan really needs a score, it could change the course of the entire season.

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