ANN ARBOR, Mich. – When the Michigan football team takes the field later this month, it will do so with a cast of new faces on both sides of the ball.
On offense, the Wolverines will replace four linemen, three wide receivers and the starting quarterback. On defense, the team lost its top two corners, a linebacker and a defensive tackle.
Roster turnover means opportunity, and between the draft, transfers and opt outs, Michigan’s younger players have plenty of opportunity this season.
Some of those available snaps will undoubtedly go to members of the 2020 recruiting class. Jim Harbaugh and his coaching staff landed the No. 14 class last cycle, including 14 four-star recruits and nine three-star recruits.
In 2019, Michigan got major contributions from true freshmen Daxton Hill, Zach Charbonnet and Giles Jackson. Chris Hinton, Cornelius Johnson, Erick All and Mike Sainristil also saw some action.
Which newcomers will make an impact in 2020?
WR A.J. Henning
Recruiting ranking: Four-star, No. 102 overall player, No. 18 wide receiver, No. 2 in Illinois
If there’s one thing we learned about Josh Gattis in his first season as Michigan’s offensive coordinator, it’s that he isn’t afraid to use every weapon at his disposal.
Seven wide receivers were part of the regular rotation at some point in 2019, and three of them -- Nico Collins, Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black -- are no longer in the picture. That means there’s opportunity for true freshmen to step in.
As the top ranked player in the class, Henning makes the most sense. He also fits Gattis' scheme with elite speed, versatility and home run potential.
Henning’s offer list included schools like Alabama, Ohio State, Georgia, Notre Dame, LSU and Penn State. He’s the kind of player ready to contribute from Day 1.
DE Braiden McGregor
Recruiting ranking: Four-star, No. 123 overall player, No. 5 strong-side defensive end, No. 2 in Michigan
When McGregor committed to Michigan, he was trending toward earning his fifth star on recruiting services and would have been by far the team’s highest rated commit of the cycle.
But a serious knee injury cost McGregor his senior season, and now he comes to Ann Arbor with questions about the recovery timeline. His injury occurred in October 2019, so the delayed start to the season could work in McGregor’s favor.
Michigan has two excellent starting defensive ends in Aidan Hutchinson and Kwity Paye, but behind them, the depth chart gets a bit murky. McGregor could very well be in the mix for two-deep snaps, if healthy.
RB Blake Corum
Recruiting ranking: Four-star, No. 129 overall player, No. 12 running back, No. 6 in Maryland
It feels strange to highlight a likely fourth-string player as someone who can contribute right away, but Gattis won’t keep someone with Corum’s speed on the bench.
The 5-foot-8 freshman ran a 4.44 40-yard dash at The Opening Regional and could be a weapon on the ground or on short passing plays.
Last season, Michigan’s No. 4 running back, Christian Turner, carried the ball 44 times. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Corum receive a similar number of touches, though some might be on screen or sweep plays in an attempt to get him the ball in space.
CB Andre Seldon
Recruiting ranking: Four-star, No. 161 overall player, No. 11 cornerback, No. 4 in Michigan
Nobody shot up the recruiting rankings late in the 2020 cycle more than Seldon. He was one of the best players on the field during the Under Armour showcase week, earning his fourth star and finishing as a top 200 overall player.
Cornerback is a difficult position to play as a true freshman, but Michigan has a great need there this season. Both Lavert Hill and Ambry Thomas are gone, and only Vincent Gray seems to have locked down a starting spot.
Even if he’s not a Day 1 starter -- D.J. Turner and Gemon Green are likely ahead of him at this point -- Seldon should be part of the rotation.
S Makari Paige
Recruiting ranking: Four-star, No. 245 overall player, No. 25 safety, No. 6 in Michigan
Michigan has a number of true freshmen at safety who could make an impact this season, including Jordan Morant and R.J. Moten. But Paige has already been singled out by defensive coordinator Don Brown.
The West Bloomfield High School graduate projects as a free safety who is solid both in coverage and helping against the deep ball. That’s exactly what Michigan needs as it replaces two elite cover corners.
Paige has great size at 6-foot-3 -- something his safety classmates can’t mimic. If there are any snaps available behind Daxton Hill and Brad Hawkins, Paige could be one of the frontrunners.
G Zak Zinter
Recruiting rankings: Four-star, No. 265 overall player, No. 10 guard, No. 3 in Massachusetts
Ed Warinner has two conflicting issues at play as he tries to build this year’s offensive line. On one hand, he has four starting spots up for grabs. On the other, he has a logjam of highly rated recruits vying for jobs.
Zinter faces an uphill battle to become a starter because Michigan has so much depth at the position, but his ability to play either guard spot could put him in line as a backup, even though he’s a true freshman.
Zinter has been one of Warinner’s favorite players this offseason, according to his Twitter account. The youngster is listed at a massive 6-foot-6, 334 pounds on the team’s official roster, so if the ability is there, he’s physically ready.
Again, he likely won’t begin the season in the starting lineup, but Zinter could be one injury away from the field.
WR Roman Wilson
Recruiting rankings: Four-star, No. 354 overall player, No. 60 wide receiver, No. 3 in Hawaii
“Speed” was one of the key words in the Henning and Corum breakdowns, but the fastest offensive player on the roster might be Wilson.
He ran a verified 4.37 40-yard dash at The Opening Regional and has truly elite quickness to go with that speed. It’s a dangerous combo in the hands of Gattis.
Other than his speed, Wilson is a solid all-around receiver, with decent size and steady hands. He won’t be a starter, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Wilson fill a role similar to that of Jackson a year ago.
LB Nikhai Hill-Green
Recruiting rankings: Three-star, No. 393 overall player, No. 25 outside linebacker, No. 17 in Maryland
Hill-Green didn’t figure to be in position for much playing time this year, but after earning praise from starting linebackers Cam McGrone and Josh Ross, he appears to be in the mix.
Both McGrone and Ross mentioned Hill-Green as someone who has made an early impact on the defense, and that could be a sign that he’s competing for a backup role. Look no further than last season, when McGrone took over a starting role due to injury, to see how easily a backup role can morph into much more.
Hill-Green was an early enrollee, which further increases his chance to see the field early, even in this strange, pandemic-altered year.
LB Cornell Wheeler
Recruiting rankings: Three-star, No. 471 overall player, No. 22 inside linebacker, No. 15 in Michigan
Projecting Wheeler for early playing time takes a little more speculation than the others, but he has three key factors working in his favor.
First, Wheeler was an early enrollee, which means he’s been on campus for nine months, working out with the coaches and learning the system. We’ve seen in the past how that can translate to early playing time.
It also helps that he comes from West Bloomfield High School, where former Michigan wideout Ron Bellamy is the head coach. Bellamy runs the same defense as Michigan, so the transition for West Bloomfield players is often smoother when they get to Ann Arbor.
Lastly, Brown has already mentioned Wheeler as someone he’s been impressed with this offseason. At the very least, that could mean Wheeler gets some early reps in blowouts or if McGrone or Ross miss a series.
DB Eamonn Dennis
Recruiting rankings: Three-star, No. 484 overall player, No. 24 athlete, No. 5 in Massachusetts
There isn’t much room for Dennis to see the field on defense this year, but he will definitely be a weapon on special teams, and that could earn him some reps as a true freshman.
Dennis is reportedly the fastest player on the roster, which is saying something for a team that has Wilson, Henning, Corum, Jackson and Daxton Hill.
Whether it’s as a returner or on kick coverage, Dennis' elite speed isn’t going to waste away on the bench for eight games. He’ll almost certainly have a role in 2020.