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All 12 three-stars from 2018 recruiting class could help make or break Michigan football season

Jim Harbaugh’s most criticize recruiting class about to take on major role

ANN ARBOR, MI - OCTOBER 6: Ronnie Bell #8 of the Michigan Wolverines dives for a first half touchdown while playing the Maryland Terrapins on October 6, 2018 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
ANN ARBOR, MI - OCTOBER 6: Ronnie Bell #8 of the Michigan Wolverines dives for a first half touchdown while playing the Maryland Terrapins on October 6, 2018 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Michigan football has reached the point where some of the lower ranked players from Jim Harbaugh’s most criticized recruiting class will start taking on major roles, and that could make or break the 2020 season.

Michigan never has much trouble recruiting, but that doesn’t mean the entire roster is made up of four- and five-star players.

Throughout the Harbaugh era, almost half of the high school players who commit to Michigan have been three-star recruits. Very few teams -- Alabama and Ohio State are the best examples -- fill their recruiting classes exclusively with four-stars and five-stars.

That can create a bit of a talent gap, which we’ve seen in Michigan’s games against Ohio State the last two decades. But there have been plenty of successful three-star recruits, too. For example, Khaleke Hudson, Josh Uche, Josh Metellus and Kwity Paye all started for Michigan’s defense last year.

Every single recruiting class is important, and the Wolverines have reached the point where the 2018 class -- by far Harbaugh’s most criticized group -- has to make major contributions.

Remembering the 2018 recruiting cycle

The 2018 class was recruited amid Michigan’s worst season of the Harbaugh era. After starting the season 4-0 and climbing to No. 7 in the nation, Michigan lost five of its final nine games, including to both rivals, all three ranked opponents and South Carolina in the Outback Bowl.

The result was Michigan’s only full recruiting class to be ranked outside the top 20 since Harbaugh took over.

Frustration about the class -- which featured zero top 100 players, seven four-stars and 12 three-stars -- was palpable. Michigan’s recruiting has since rebounded, but that 2018 unit will play a major role in the coming seasons.

Every single one of those former three-stars could see the field in 2020.

Ronnie Bell

Recruiting ranking: No. 1,473 player in 2018 class, No. 212 wide receiver, No. 18 in Missouri

Role: Guaranteed starter

Nobody better exemplifies the 2018 class than Bell, and everyone who follows Michigan football knows his story. He was an unranked recruit committed to play basketball for Missouri State when Harbaugh offered him a football scholarship -- seemingly out of nowhere.

Bell popped up on recruiting sites as a three-star after committing to Michigan, but he still wasn’t even ranked inside the top 200 receivers in his own class.

Fast forward two years. When Michigan takes the field later this month, he’ll be the No. 1 receiver on the depth chart.

Bell hasn’t only surpassed his recruiting expectations, he’s flourished as one of Michigan’s top players. He forced his way onto the field as a true freshman and led the team with 48 catches and 758 receiving yards as a sophomore.

Recruiting rankings matter. Historically, the teams that make the College Football Playoff and win championships are the ones that recruit at an elite level. But Bell is just another example that there are exceptions to the rule.

Hassan Haskins

Recruiting ranking: No. 975 player in 2018 class, No. 49 running back, No. 11 in Missouri

Role: Guaranteed (shared) starter

Haskins' rise up the depth chart is nearly as unlikely as Bell’s, though for a very different reason.

Barely ranked inside the top 1,000 players in the 2018 class, Haskins came to Michigan and was moved from running back to linebacker. He only appeared in three games as a freshmen, all on special teams.

Then, before his sophomore season, he returned to the running back room. Buried behind Chris Evans, Zach Charbonnet, Christian Turner and Tru Wilson on the depth chart, Haskins seemed like the type of player who might get the occasional carry by his fourth or fifth year on campus, but nothing more.

Instead, he got an opportunity midway through the 2019 season and literally ran with it. Haskins finished the year with the best rushing average on the team, gaining 622 yards on 121 carries (5.1 yards per rush) and scoring four touchdowns.

Now, he enters 2020 as part of a starting tandem with Charbonnet -- a former high four-star and top 100 recruit.

Vincent Gray

Recruiting ranking: No. 700 player in 2018 class, No. 63 cornerback, No. 18 in Michigan

Role: Guaranteed starter

Don Brown has been blessed with elite cover corners over the last several seasons, from David Long to Lavert Hill to Ambry Thomas. Now that all three are gone, the secondary is a huge question mark.

It says something about Gray that even at a position that included two of the three stars mentioned above, he found a way to play in all 13 games as a redshirt freshman.

Gray always seemed like a player who might outperform his recruiting ranking. He’s 6-foot-2 with good speed and had nearly 30 scholarship offers coming out of Rochester Adams High School.

Last season, Gray played meaningful snaps against the likes of Wisconsin, Notre Dame, Michigan State, Ohio State and Alabama. That experience helped prepare him for this year’s tall task of being the No. 1 cornerback.

Long, Hill and Thomas were all highly ranked four-star recruits, so handing the reins over to a player who was ranked No. 700 in his class is a massive change.

Michael Barrett

Recruiting ranking: No. 751 player in 2018 class, No. 61 athlete, No. 72 in Georgia

Role: Probable contributor

Barrett has yet to secure a starting job on Michigan’s defense, but he looks like the frontrunner to replace Hudson at viper.

The viper position is what makes Brown’s defensive philosophy stand out. It needs to be filled by a player who can blitz, tackle in the open field and drop into coverage on passing downs.

Jabrill Peppers was a perfect fit. Hudson -- the No. 386 player in the 2016 class -- held the job for three seasons.

Barrett is the type of athlete best suited to fill the position. If he wins the job, he’ll be one of the X factors for Michigan’s defense all season.

Ben VanSumeren

Recruiting ranking: No. 624 player in 2018 class, No. 50 athlete, No. 12 in Michigan

Role: Probable contributor

When Michigan recruited VanSumeren, he was listed as an “athlete.” He started his college career as a running back, then moved to fullback, and now he’s on the opposite side of the ball entirely.

Like Haskins, VanSumeren’s position change smelled like the type of move that would leave him buried on the depth chart for most of his career. But again, like Haskins, it’s starting to seem like that’s not the case.

While talking about the defense just last week, Brown implied that VanSumeren is the favorite to be No. 1 at the SAM linebacker position, which was vacated by Uche. Michigan might not use the SAM linebacker as much this season, but that VanSumeren has already worked his way to the top of the depth chart was a major revelation.

The Harbaugh era is littered with successful position change stories -- Zach Gentry, Khalid Hill, Chase Winovich and Haskins, to name a few. That’s enough to lend the VanSumeren rumblings some credence.

Julius Welschof

Recruiting ranking: No. 645 player in 2018 class, No. 28 strong-side defensive end, No. 1 in Germany

Role: Possible contributor

With so many recruiting websites covering high school players and dissecting every moment of the Michigan football calendar, there’s almost never a player who comes to Ann Arbor as a mystery.

But Welschof has always been a bit of an unknown commodity.

Michigan’s coaches were excited to land the 6-foot-6 German, who comes into his redshirt sophomore season at 286 pounds.

Brown said developing Welschof has taken a little longer than he expected, but now he’s in the mix for reps at defensive tackle. He was recruited to be a pass rushing defensive end, but Michigan’s need is inside, and Welschof has enough size to make the move.

We really don’t know what Welschof can do, especially since access to practice has been limited by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic this offseason. But it sounds like this year, fans might finally get a glimpse of why coaches were so high on this player.

Sammy Faustin

Recruiting ranking: No. 592 player in 2018 class, No. 54 cornerback, No. 93 in Florida

Role: Possible contributor

Originally recruited as a cornerback, Faustin figures to be in the mix as a backup safety this season.

The Wolverines will return both starting safeties in Brad Hawkins and Daxton Hill, but behind them, snaps are up for grabs. Three four-star safeties committed to Michigan in 2020, but since it’s his third year in the program, Faustin has a leg up on them.

In the past, Brown has been able to plug two or three elite defensive backs into the lineup and not worry about them throughout the season. But this year, he might have to do some mixing and matching to find the best combination.

If that’s the case, Faustin’s versatility as a former coverage corner who moved to safety could open up opportunities for him to see the field.

Luke Schoonmaker

Recruiting ranking: No. 796 player in 2018 class, No. 39 tight end, No. 3 in Connecticut

Role: Possible contributor

Harbaugh always got credit for featuring tight ends, but now that Josh Gattis has taken over as offensive coordinator, their role is still being ironed out.

Mustapha Muhammad was expected to be the star tight end from this class, but he’s no longer with the team, so now it’s Schoonmaker who finds himself battling with fifth-year senior Nick Eubanks and sophomore Erick All for reps.

In 2019, Schoonmaker carved out a semi-regular role for himself as a blocker, appearing in nine games at tight end. He only caught two passes, but gained 54 yards and scored a touchdown.

Sean McKeon had a major impact on Michigan’s offense late in his career, even though he wasn’t much of a target in the passing game. Schoonmaker could have a similar role, since there’s no obvious star on the roster at the position.

Gemon Green

Recruiting ranking: No. 382 player in 2018 class, No. 35 cornerback, No. 52 in Texas

Role: Possible contributor

Green is one of the players in the mix for reps at the cornerback position, and though he probably won’t break camp as a starter, Michigan often has to go three or four deep at cornerback over the course of a game, and he’s likely to be part of that group.

Size is an advantage for Green. The question is whether he can stick with Big Ten receivers in Brown’s aggressive scheme.

The players likely to land ahead of him on the depth chart are also unproven, so don’t be surprised if Green ends up on the field for meaningful snaps at some point in 2020.

Christian Turner

Recruiting ranking: No. 508 player in 2018 class, No. 22 running back, No. 54 player in Georgia

Role: Longshot contributor

Turner originally opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19, but he has since opted back in and returned to a loaded running back room.

Last season, Turner carried the ball 44 times. It would be a surprise if he touched the ball that often this year, though.

Not only have Charbonnet and Haskins established themselves as a strong one-two punch. Evans is back and speedy true freshman Blake Corum has joined the mix.

Turner will probably start the season fifth on the depth chart. But he’s had a significant role before, so he can’t be counted out.

Taylor Upshaw

Recruiting ranking: No. 561 player in 2018 class, No. 25 strong-side defensive end, No. 88 in Florida

Role: Longshot contributor

If there’s one position Michigan has room for young players to work their way onto the field, it’s defensive tackle. Like Welschof, Upshaw figures to be in the mix for backup reps.

Team captain Carlo Kemp and former five-star Chris Hinton will likely start at the two defensive tackle spots, but Michigan always uses a deep rotation along the line.

Brown has praised Upshaw’s physical development this offseason, but he’s still only up to 256 pounds, which is well behind some of the other defensive tackle candidates, such as Welschof and Donovan Jeter.

German Green

Recriting ranking: No. 1,225 player in 2018 class, No. 97 safety, No. 176 in Texas

Role: Longshot contributor

German Green is going to have a much tougher time getting on the field this season than his brother, mainly because of the difference between Michigan’s depth at cornerback and safety.

With both starters returning at safety, Faustin knocking on the door and three highly touted freshmen coming in, German Green faces an uphill battle to see meaningful snaps on defense this season.

A reasonable expectation for German Green this season is a fringe two-deep safety and a contributor on special teams.


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