ANN ARBOR, Mich. – It happens every offseason among Michigan football fans: The number of offensive skill players generating hype far exceeds the number of those who will actually make a significant impact.
Michigan appears to be loaded at both wide receiver and running back, but how many players can really fit into the mix?
The transfer landscape in college sports has greatly affected the way Michigan approaches the running back position.
In the past, many of Michigan’s great tailbacks were work horses. Recently, Mike Hart, Chris Perry and many others come to mind.
But during the Jim Harbaugh era, it’s been more of a committee approach. Last year, for example, Hassan Haskins, Zach Charbonnet, Chris Evans and Blake Corum were all significant parts of the running back rotation, at one time or another.
Is that a product of trying to keep everyone happy and avoiding attrition? I think so.
Going into 2021, one of the biggest questions facing the offense is how carries will be distributed.
Haskins, Corum and true freshman Donovan Edwards figure to be the three running backs competing for playing time.
Haskins, a former three-star recruit, has earned first-team reps the last two seasons. In 61 carries last year, he averaged 6.1 yards per attempt and scored six touchdowns. He was one of the lone bright spots of an otherwise difficult season.
He doesn’t get as much love because of his low recruiting ranking, but Haskins has been very productive since rejoining the backfield in 2019 (he switched briefly to linebacker early in his Michigan career). An argument could be made that Haskins -- one of the best running backs in the country at gaining yards after contact -- should get the lion’s share of carries.
The problem is Michigan has two other options, and both are immensely talented.
Corum only ended up with 26 carries last season, but coaches have praised his improvement during camp. Most offseason player hype falls on deaf ears these days, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Corum, a former top 150 recruit, break out in a big way.
Then, there’s Edwards. As the fourth-ranked running back in last year’s class, Edwards is the most lauded talent of the bunch. There’s no doubt he could slide into the offense and handle double-digit carries right away.
The question is: Would that be best for the team?
Sure, having too many options is a good problem, but Michigan hasn’t necessarily gotten the most production out of the backfield recently, despite the raw talent level.
Haskins will almost certainly be the lead running back to start the season, but how many carries will he surrender to Corum and Edwards? It’s a tricky balancing act.
My prediction is Haskins will receive about 60% of the carries, with Corum and Edwards each getting about 20% to start the season. Don’t be surprised if Michigan has multiple running backs on the field in some sets.
If you think the running back rotation is crowded, wait until you see this list of receivers.
Heading into the season, it feels like any of these eight could play a significant role: Andrel Anthony, Daylen Baldwin, Ronnie Bell, Christian Dixon, A.J. Henning, Cornelius Johnson, Mike Sainristil and Roman Wilson.
Obviously, some of these receivers are fighting for different spots. Someone like Johnson will spend most of his time out wide, while Sainristil is hoping to start in the slot.
Speaking of Sainristil, he’s sort of the poster child for Michigan offseason hype. Before his freshman season in 2019, Sainristil was perhaps the most popular name coming out of fall camp. Coaches raved about his speed and improvement as a receiver, and many expected him to be a starter.
Since then, Sainristil has caught just 15 passes for 227 yards in two seasons. It’s no fault of his own, but it serves as a warning about buying into offseason darlings.
As a junior, Sainristil will once again have a chance to break through, though he’s got plenty of competition. Henning, Wilson and Anthony have elite speed, and both Johnson, Baldwin and Bell will play a ton out wide.
Baldwin caught 26 passes for 540 yards and seven touchdowns with Jackson State last season and committed to Michigan as one of the top transfers in the nation. At 6-foot-3, he’s a perfect compliment to Michigan’s smaller, faster receivers.
Bell is by far Michigan’s most accomplished receiver, with 82 catches for 1,304 yards and four touchdowns to his name. He might not be elite in any single category, but the sum is greater than the parts, and Bell is Michigan’s most reliable target.
Besides Bell, Johnson is probably the best bet to crack the starting lineup. He was the team’s No. 2 receiver last season and has a solid combination of size and speed.
Wilson might be the fastest player on the roster, but don’t forget about Henning. The former four-star recruit had a quiet freshman season, but could be used in a variety of roles on offense and special teams.
There’s no doubt Bell and Johnson will be two of the most targeted receivers on the team. Beyond them, the waters get a bit murky.
We haven’t seen Baldwin in a Michigan uniform, but his talent is obvious, and he wouldn’t have joined the Wolverines to sit on the bench. Expect him to make an impact right away.
Sainristil, Wilson and Henning are an interesting trio. All three have elite playmaking potential, but we haven’t had much chance to see it translate to the college level. I would expect Wilson to be the most productive of the three this season, but they’ll all get opportunities.
Freshmen Anthony and Dixon are highly touted recruits, but they might fall victim to Michigan’s depth at the position. Anthony has gotten some offseason buzz, but we don’t know what that’s worth.
My ranking of these eight receivers, in terms of how much production I expect this season:
- Ronnie Bell
- Cornelius Johnson
- Roman Wilson
- Daylen Baldwin
- Mike Sainristil
- A.J. Henning
- Andrel Anthony
- Christian Dixon