ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Jim Harbaugh knew he would need contributions from young players this season after the Michigan football program lost nine players to the NFL.
In the opener against Middle Tennessee State, that's exactly what happened. The Wolverines got help from new starters on both sides of the ball, but three freshmen stood out above the rest.
RB Zach Charbonnet
True freshman Zach Charbonnet was the most obvious standout. After winning a heated three-way battle to become the starting running back, Charbonnet gained 90 rushing yards on just eight carries in his college debut.
He also caught two passes for nine yards, finishing with 99 yards from scrimmage on 10 touches.
Charbonnet's performance was highlighted by a 41-yard run early in the fourth quarter, but he also had carries of 14, 13 and 9 yards. His only run of fewer than 3 yards came on a fourth-and-1 at the goal line, when he was stuffed for no gain.
Charbonnet was also a perfect 9 for 9 in picking up blitzes, according to Harbaugh. He said he's never seen so many blitz pickups without a whiff in one game and praised Charbonnet for being more advanced than a typical freshman.
That was clear Saturday, as he excelled in the running game, contributed as a pass catcher and also did the little things that will keep him on the field in the future.
OT Ryan Hayes
Some of Charbonnet's success was thanks to redshirt freshman Ryan Hayes, who stepped in as the starter at left tackle for an injured Jon Runyan Jr.
Hayes became the team's first backup at tackle when Andrew Stueber tore his ACL. The offensive line depth was tested early, as Hayes was forced to play from the first snap of the first game.
He was more than ready for the challenge, not allowing a single quarterback hurry in the game. Harbaugh was so impressed with Hayes, he named him the offensive player of the week.
Michigan ran the ball well and kept Shea Patterson reasonably comfortable without arguably its best offensive lineman. That's a testiment to Hayes stepping in and flourishing in his first college game.
CB Vincent Gray
Another redshirt freshman who had an outstanding game was Vincent Gray, a former three-star cornerback out of Rochester.
Gray earned the No. 3 cornerback spot behind Lavert Hill and Ambry Thomas, and he was tested right away against Middle Tennessee State's spread offense.
Gray made four tackles in his debut, including one tackle for loss that saved a touchdown on the left sideline. Gray was on an island and made the stop in the open field.
He was strong in coverage, as well. That will be a major key for Michigan, which struggled at the No. 3 cornerback position in big games last season.
Thomas, who made an interception and recovered a fumble in the game, looks to be healthy after his offseason battle with colitis. If Gray continues to improve, Michigan will have a strong top-three cornerbacks and plenty of talent for the future.