ANN ARBOR, Mich. – It seems like every season a handful of true freshmen step into significant roles for Michigan football, but could it only be one this year?
2021 recruiting class
Jim Harbaugh landed the No. 13 recruiting class in the country this offseason, headlined by five-star quarterback J.J. McCarthy.
The class includes 11 four-stars and 10 three-stars. Four of the top seven players from the state of Michigan committed to the Wolverines, and there are six in-state stars total in the class.
With Mike MacDonald taking over as defensive coordinator and installing a new scheme, Michigan went hard after defensive linemen and edge rushers, landing six total. The defensive line has been a weakness for Michigan the last two seasons, and MacDonald got to work addressing that.
On the other side of the trenches, Michigan landed four offensive lineman.
The class included two running backs, two receivers and one tight end. Defensively, Michigan added three linebackers and a pair of defensive backs.
Michigan needs to improve up front on both sides of the ball, but that’s not likely to include any true freshmen -- at least not this year.
Michigan has question marks on the offensive line, but in terms of personnel, the depth chart is pretty crowded.
Ryan Hayes and Andrew Stueber are veteran locks to start on the line, and sophomore Zak Zinter could end up being the best of the bunch. Sixth-year senior Andrew Vastardis is a returning team captain, so even if he doesn’t have a starting spot all season, he’s likely to see the field before any of the freshmen.
Then, there’s the loaded 2019 class, which includes Trevor Keegan, Trente Jones, Nolan Rumler and Karsen Barnhart. All four are likely in the two-deep.
Fifth-year senior Chuck Filiaga was a starter last season, and while he’s had his struggles, he’s safely in the two-deep, most likely.
Reece Atteberry and Jeffrey Persi, two members of the 2020 class, could also see time in case of injury.
That means somewhere between nine and 11 players will likely be above the true freshmen on the offensive line depth chart. Sure, Greg Crippen, Raheem Anderson and Giovanni El-Hadi will see some action, but they likely won’t burn a year of eligibility, meaning Harbaugh would limit them to four games.
The defensive line also has depth, but less certainty.
Michigan will run a 3-4 under MacDonald, with star pass rusher Aidan Hutchinson coming off the edge and only three traditional down linemen.
Chris Hinton and Donovan Jeter are the closest Michigan has to known commodities on the defensive line, while Mazi Smith is hoping to join Hinton, his classmate, as a staple in the starting lineup.
The options beyond those three are aplenty, but none really stand out. Julius Welschof has been a longtime project for the coaching staff, while Jess Speight is in his fifth year with the program. Both figure to be prominent backups.
Rayshaun Benny and George Rooks could see some snaps this season, but based on the buzz (or lack thereof) following fall camp, they don’t seem to be in the two-deep.
Other defensive options
Could the new defensive scheme open up early playing time for freshmen linebackers Junior Colson and Jaydon Hood?
Frankly, even though the position wasn’t a strength for Michigan last season, Colson and Hood aren’t likely to see major roles this year. Their futures look bright, but the veterans have the top of this depth chart locked down.
Josh Ross is back for another season at middle linebacker, and Harbaugh has already named Nikhai Hill-Green a starter alongside him. The other two starting “linebackers” will be edge rushers -- Hutchinson and whoever wins the job opposite him (David Ojabo and Taylor Upshaw seem like good bets).
Michael Barrett, the starting “viper” last season, will be in the mix, as will second-year player Kalel Mullings and junior Anthony Solomon.
The secondary, meanwhile, has no question marks. Daxton Hill and Brad Hawkins return as the starting safeties, while Harbaugh named Gemon Green, Vincent Gray and D.J. Turner the top three cornerbacks.
Last year’s trio of Makari Paige, Jordan Morant and R.J. Moten will fill up the depth chart at safety.
Rod Moore and Ja’Den McBurrows will likely have to wait their turn.
Offensive skill positions
The best chance for true freshmen to break into significant roles is at offensive skill positions, and even that will be no easy feat.
Cade McNamara has already been named the starting quarterback, so it would take a slow start or an injury to get J.J. McCarthy on the field.
Louis Hansen is a talented tight end, but there are at least three options above him in Erick All, Luke Schoonmaker and Matthew Hibner. Tight ends could also have a decreased role in this offense.
The most likely freshman to play a major role appears to be running back Donovan Edwards. At this point, he’s the only newcomer who definitely has at least some type of guaranteed role -- however small it might be.
Edwards will start the season as the No. 3 running back behind Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum. Stealing carries away from them won’t be easy, but Edwards has the talent -- and the opportunity -- to do it.
While most of his classmates won’t see the field at all the first few games, Edwards will at least get a few carries to prove himself. All he has to do is capitalize on those opportunities.
Wide receivers Andrel Anthony and Christian Dixon could also see the field, but will they play “major” roles? Most likely not. Michigan has two established starters in Ronnie Bell and Cornelius Johnson, as well as veterans Mike Sainristil and (Jackson State transfer) Daylen Baldwin.
Roman Wilson and A.J. Henning got their feet wet last season, as well. It wouldn’t be a shock to see either blossom into a No. 1 type option.
When you run down the list of Michigan’s 2021 recruits, only a handful even have a chance to be significant contributors this season.
Think about it: The most prominent role for a true freshman is third-string running back. That’s not a knock on the incoming class, but more so an assessment of where the roster currently stands.
Michigan has a deep crop of returning players at all the positions where freshmen would typically make an impact. The 2021 class will undoubtedly leave its mark on the program, but I’d bet against it happening this season.