ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Who will be the most valuable player on the Michigan football team this season?
In a normal year, we would have a more clear-cut list of candidates. But with just three weeks until the start of the season, we don’t even know all the starters.
The quarterback, three wide receivers and four offensive lineman are gone from last year’s starting offense. On defense, the secondary and linebacking corps will welcome some new faces.
This year’s MVP could be anyone from a returning starter or someone who’s never taken a meaningful snap.
Here are five candidates from both sides of the ball.
QB Joe Milton
It’s impossible to have a preseason MVP conversation without the starting quarterback, and it appears that job belongs to Milton.
His only reps at the college level have come in blowouts, but Milton possesses the talent and pedigree to be a solid quarterback for Michigan. He was a four-star recruit and top 10 pro-style passer in the 2018 class, and has been part of the program for two and a half years since enrolling early as a true freshman.
Michigan football offseason hype: Let Joe Milton write his own story
Milton’s arm strength has never been questioned, and he’s already demonstrated an ability to improvise when plays break down. From what coaches and teammates have said this offseason, Milton is also a smart player and a worthy leader.
It sounds like he has what it takes to be Michigan’s starting quarterback, and considering Shea Patterson won the award last season, that alone puts Milton in the mix.
OL Jalen Mayfield
Replacing four starting offensive linemen will be a daunting task for Ed Warinner this season, but it could have been even worse. Mayfield has been officially reinstated after he originally opted out of the 2020 season.
Now the Wolverines have a familiar face to anchor a much younger unit. As a potential first-round draft pick, Mayfield certainly belongs in Michigan’s MVP conversation, even though he won’t stuff any stat sheets as an O-lineman.
Mayfield will have to be a leader on the line this season as the offense welcomes so many new playmakers, including Milton. Even if he doesn’t ultimately win team MVP, Mayfield could end up being the most important player.
RB Zach Charbonnet
This subhead should really say, “Whoever wins the starting running back job.” But since Charbonnet is the favorite, we’ll focus on him.
Last season as a true freshman, Charbonnet battled injuries to score 11 touchdowns while rushing for 726 yards and an average of 4.9 yards per carry.
There were times when Hassan Haskins was even better than Charbonnet, but again, it’s unclear if Michigan fans have ever seen the latter at full health.
Charbonnet seems to be at 100% heading into 2020, and with a successful freshman campaign behind him, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a breakout season.
WR Ronnie Bell
Bell was one of the team’s most valuable players last season, so there’s no reason to count him out of the race in 2020.
Now that Nico Collins and Donovan Peoples-Jones are gone, it’s reasonable to expect Bell to be even more of a focal point in the offense. He caught a team-leading 48 passes for 758 yards last season, but only found the end zone once.
The play that everyone remembers from 2020 was the dropped game-tying touchdown against Penn State, but Bell came through for the Wolverines more times than not. In an offense that featured three former elite wide receiver prospects, it was the two-star who became Patterson’s No. 1 option.
Bell begins his junior year as WR1, and if he has a strong rapport with Milton, he could put up even bigger numbers.
WR Giles Jackson
It doesn’t feel quite right to label Jackson as just a wide receiver because, in reality, he fills a number of roles for Michigan.
As a true freshman, Jackson had nine catches, 10 carries and 24 kick returns. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him return punts now that Peoples-Jones is in the NFL.
Jackson put his speed on display during a 97-yard kick return touchdown to open the game against Maryland, and now that he’s moved up the wide receiver depth chart, he should be much more involved in the offense.
Josh Gattis' philosophy is to get his best playmakers the football in space. Jackson is definitely one of Michigan’s best playmakers, so he should benefit from slotting in right behind Bell as the No. 2 receiver.
Jackson will be a top target in the passing game, an option on misdirection runs and a weapon on special teams. The stats could really add up this season, and that would put him squarely in the MVP race.
LB Cam McGrone
If there was one favorite on this list who stands out above the rest, it would probably be McGrone.
After taking over at middle linebacker last season, McGrone was the best defensive player on the team. He made 66 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss and four sacks while filling the massive hole left in the middle of the defense by Devin Bush’s departure.
McGrone will be the starter from day one this season, flying from sideline to sideline and making plays in opposing backfields. If he can build on what he started last season, he’ll be the favorite to win MVP, especially for a team that has been much better on the defensive side of the ball in the Jim Harbaugh era.
DE Aidan Hutchinson
The defensive line was an issue for Michigan last season, but that was no fault of Hutchinson’s. In his first season as a full-time starter, he racked up 68 tackles, 10 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks.
He also batted down six passes and forced two fumbles. In reality, Hutchinson probably could have been Michigan’s 2019 MVP.
His ability to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks will be even more important this season, as Michigan breaks in a secondary that doesn’t feature established cornerbacks such as David Long, Lavert Hill and Ambry Thomas.
Hutchinson has been a playmaker since he stepped on the field as a true freshman. Now he’ll be asked to help McGrone lead the entire defense.
DE Kwity Paye
Hutchinson’s partner in crime, Paye is just as likely to take home the MVP award from the other side of the defensive line.
Last season, Paye was the team’s top pass rusher, totaling 12.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. He might not be as athletic as Hutchinson, but Paye knows how to wreak havoc in the backfield, and that might be the most important factor for Michigan’s defense this year.
With so many questions facing the interior defensive line, Hutchinson and Paye need to be even better than they were last season. Then they would both be candidates for team MVP.
DB Daxton Hill
When he arrived in Ann Arbor, Hill was a five-star recruit and the No. 1 safety in the 2019 class. He started showing his potential late in the season, and now the only question is where he’ll line up to start his sophomore campaign.
There are rumblings about Hill moving to cornerback to help Michigan fill the gap left by Thomas. Don Brown said he might be the best coverage guy on the roster, so that move could make a lot of sense.
No matter where Hill ends up in the secondary, he has a chance to be the best player on the team. He has elite speed and instincts, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him come up with multiple turnovers as a full-time starter.
Hill could also be a special teams playmaker. He helped Michigan execute a critical fake punt against Army, and his speed alone makes him a home run threat with the ball in his hands.
Viper Michael Barrett
If any player on this list qualifies as a sleeper, it’s definitely Barrett. He’s never had a significant role on defense, so winning MVP would be a massive leap.
But if Barrett starts at viper, which seems likely at this point in the offseason, he’ll have a unique chance to stuff the stat sheet on defense.
Jabrill Peppers and Khaleke Hudson always posted some of the most impressive stat lines on the Michigan defense because Brown used them to blitz, attack ball carriers and sag into coverage.
Hudson’s sophomore season was the most extreme example. In 2017, he finished with 83 tackles, 18.5 tackles for loss, eight sacks, 11 passes defended, two forced fumbles and two interceptions.
If Barrett wins the job and puts up even a fraction of those numbers, he could find himself in the MVP mix.