Ranking Michigan football's 10 most important players in opener vs. Notre Dame

Michigan opens 2018 season with ranked matchup in South Bend

Zach Gentry, Devin Bush, Khaleke Hudson and Shea Patterson will be among Michigan's most important players against Notre Dame. (Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - The long-awaited start of college football has arrived, and Michigan won't have any time to ease into Jim Harbaugh's fourth season.

The Wolverines open the season with a top-15 matchup against Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, as the two teams renew a rivalry cut off by the Fighting Irish in 2014. It's a huge game for Michigan, which faces a grueling Big Ten schedule and high expectations.

As fall camp comes to a close, Harbaugh and his coaches have given fans an idea of which players will have the biggest roles to begin the season. Some, such as Rashan Gary and Karan Higdon, come as no surprise since they've been major contributors for years.

But others will be taking on bigger roles, or contributing for the first time. There are also some returning starters who will be even more important during the Notre Dame game.

Here's a look at 10 most important players for Michigan in the opener against Notre Dame.

10. S Tyree Kinnel

Last season: 70 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 9 passes defended, 2 interceptions

Tyree Kinnel returns an interception for a touchdown against Cincinnati (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images).

Kinnel was named a captain last week as he enters his third season as Michigan's starting safety.

The Wolverines have one of the best cornerback duos in the country with David Long and Lavert Hill, but there were times last season when the secondary struggled because of the downfield coverage from linebackers and safeties.

Notre Dame doesn't figure to be one of the more dangerous passing teams on Michigan's schedule this season, but when quarterback Brandon Wimbush does pass, he'll likely stay away from Long and Hill.

Kinnell will likely have opportunities to make a big play on defense, especially if the Fighting Irish are facing long-yardage situations or if Michigan builds an early lead. It's critical that Kinnel doesn't let Notre Dame beat him over the top, and if he has a chance to force a turnover, the new team captain needs to capitalize.

9. K Quinn Nordin

Last season: 19-24 field goals with a long of 55 yards

Michigan kicker Quinn Nordin celebrates after nailing a 55-yard field goal against Florida in his first career game. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images).

After redshirting as a true freshman, Nordin's first year as Michigan's starting kicker was a success. He converted nearly 80 percent of his attempts and proved he has plenty of leg to connect from 50 yards and beyond.

Michigan, like most teams, has had trouble with clutch kicks in important road games. But Nordin was pretty reliable when it mattered most in 2017. He made two kicks from longer than 50 yards against Florida, converted both attempts in an overtime win against Indiana and went a perfect 4-4 in the bowl game against South Carolina.

If Michigan's offense struggles to complete drives, as it has since Harbaugh arrived in Ann Arbor, Nordin needs to make sure to put points on the board.

8. TE Zach Gentry

Last season: 17 catches for 303 yards and 2 touchdowns\

Zach Gentry of the Michigan Wolverines makes a 25-yard reception for a first down against Markus Bailey of the Purdue Boilermakers to set up a 4th quarter touchdown in a game at Ross-Ade Stadium on Sept. 23, 2017. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Michigan's receiving stats were pretty bleak in 2017, as leading receiver Grant Perry finished with just 307 yards. But Gentry was a bright spot, catching 17 passes for more than 300 yards.

Since converting from a four-star quarterback recruit to a massive, 6-foot-8 tight end, Gentry has shown significant improvement. He emerged as a significant downfield threat for Michigan last season, averaging 17.8 yards per catch.

We don't have much concrete evidence of what Michigan's offense will look like in 2018, but Gentry could be the most important target for Shea Patterson in the red zone. His big frame and improving skills in the receiving game have revealed why Harbaugh wanted to change Gentry's position.

7. DT Aubrey Solomon

Last season: 18 tackles, 2 tackles for loss

Michigan Wolverines defensive lineman Aubrey Solomon (5) warms up before the college football game between the Purdue Boilermakers and Michigan Wolverines on September 23, 2017. (Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Michigan is loaded again along the defensive line, as Gary enters his junior year and Chase Winovich returns for one last season. Those two players will be the focus of Notre Dame's pass protection, opening up an opportunity for others on the line.

Solomon was a hidden gem during the 2017 season, blooming into a very good defensive lineman late in his true freshman campaign. By the second half of the season, Solomon was earning starts ahead of veteran players.

Not only will Solomon have an opportunity to pick up his first college sack on Saturday, he'll also be tasked with bottling up Notre Dame's potent rushing attack.

The Fighting Irish ranked seventh in the nation last season with 269.31 rushing yards per game, thanks to Wimbush and running back Josh Adams. While the latter is now in the NFL, Wimbush is still a major threat to run, especially if Michigan's coverage is strong and the defensive line can't get enough pressure.

If Notre Dame makes a point to keep Gary and Winovich out of the backfield, Solomon is one of the leading candidates to get to Wimbush.

6. RB Chris Evans

Last season: 685 rushing yards on 135 carries, 6 TD; 16 catches for 157 yards, 1 TD

Chris Evans of the Michigan Wolverines runs for a 49-yard touchdown in the 4th quarter of a game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Ross-Ade Stadium on Sept. 23, 2017 in West Lafayette, Indiana. Michigan won 28-10. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Higdon will be Michigan's starting running back after notching more than 1,100 total yards and 11 touchdowns last season. Evans, however, will be an equally important weapon.

Evans finished 2017 with 151 total touches, compared with Higdon's 172, so he was almost as involved as the starting running back. In Harbaugh's heavy run-first offense, this tandem has to set the tone against Notre Dame.

Higdon has been extremely consistent throughout his career, averaging about 6 yards per carry, but he still doesn't have the home-run potential of Evans. When Evans has a big game, it adds explosiveness to the Michigan offense.

There have been times, though, when Evans has been a nonfactor in big games. He struggled against Michigan State, Wisconsin and South Carolina last season -- all losses for Michigan. The team only lost one game when Evans played well: Ohio State.

5. MLB Devin Bush

Last season: 102 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 5 sacks, 9 passes defended

Linebacker Devin Bush runs down a Maryland ball carrier (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images).

Unlike most of the players on this list, Bush is already one of Michigan's most productive players. He'll need to get off to another good start Saturday if Michigan hopes to beat Notre Dame.

Bush is an excellent athlete at middle linebacker, and he'll need every bit of that athleticism to keep up with Wimbush.

As a first-year starter in 2017, Wimbush completed fewer than 50 percent of his pass attempts. He was much more of a threat on the ground, rushing for 5.7 yards per carry and 14 touchdowns.

Bush spends as many snaps in the backfield as any Michigan defender, but he'll also have to be part of the effort to keep Wimbush from escaping the pocket and picking up huge gains on the ground.

It will be a battle between a fast, elusive runner and a fast, reliable tackler, and it will be one of the most important matchups in the game.

4. VIPER Khaleke Hudson

Last season: 83 tackles, 18.5 TFL, 8 sacks, 11 passes defended, 2 interceptions

Michigan football viper Khaleke Hudson (Michael Reaves/Stringer).

Hudson, like Bush, is one of Michigan's most important players in any given game. His ability to shut down the running game and drop back to help in coverage is why he's perfect for Don Brown's VIPER position.

Notre Dame will try to beat Michigan on the ground early in Saturday's matchup, and given Wimbush's struggles in the passing game, it would be a major problem for the Fighting Irish to lose yardage on the early downs.

Hudson led Michigan with an astounding 18.5 tackles for loss last season, including eight sacks. He's a ball hawk behind the line of scrimmage, and if he puts Notre Dame in a position in which it has to pass, Brown's defense will be licking its chops.

Hudson has greatly benefited from Brown's aggressive defensive style, and in a game against an offense that loves to run and struggles to pass, he should have success.

3. WR Nico Collins

Last season: 3 catches for 27 yards

Michigan wide receiver Nico Collins at the 2018 Outback Bowl between Michigan and South Carolina on Jan. 1, 2018 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. (Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Just a week before the season opener, Harbaugh announced star wide receiver Tarik Black has another serious foot injury that will keep him out for the Notre Dame game and beyond. While Michigan has plenty of talent at the receiver position, that didn't translate into production last year.

Collins is one of the players who will have to step up to fill the void left by Black's absence. Donovan Peoples-Jones and Perry will begin the season as the top receiver options, but Collins and fellow 2017 signee Oliver Martin are two of the players being looked at for the No. 3 spot.

Collins is a tough matchup because he's a good athlete with size and strong hands. At 6-foot-4, Collins is the type of player who can go up and win a jump ball if Patterson gets in trouble -- something Michigan lacked last year.

While the passing game can't get any worse than it was in 2017, losing Black is a major blow, even with an improved quarterback situation. Collins has to be a reliable target in third-down situations, even if he doesn't have the downfield explosiveness that Black provides.

2. LT Jon Runyan

Last season: 9 games played along the offensive line

Michigan OL Jon Runyan Jr. (Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The offensive line has been a major problem for Michigan the last several years, but Harbaugh has worked to overhaul the position this offseason.

Ed Warinner was brought in to lead the group, and many of the starting spots were up for grabs during fall camp.

Runyan appears to have won the starting job at left tackle after earning his first career start at right tackle in the Outback Bowl against South Carolina. He's played both tackle positions and right guard throughout his Michigan career, but he'll be asked to play perhaps the most important spot against Notre Dame.

The Fighting Irish were average in the sacks department last season, totaling 24 in 13 games. But Michigan was one of the worst in the country in terms of defending the quarterback, allowing 36 sacks in 13 games.

Only 13 of 130 FBS teams allowed more sacks than Michigan.

1. QB Shea Patterson

Last season: 166-260 (63.8 percent) for 2,259 yards, 17 touchdowns and 9 interceptions

Michigan QB Shea Patterson (MGoBlue.com)

Michigan's struggles since the end of 2016 have simply come down to quarterback play.

It's the most important position in football, and while Michigan has been excellent on defense and solid at the skill positions, the quarterback play has kept the team from meeting its goals.

Patterson was brought in to stabilize the position after a season of injuries and turmoil. He brings an explosiveness to the position that Michigan hasn't had under Harbaugh, and while he threw too many interceptions at Ole Miss, his 2017 stats would be a major improvement from Michigan's anemic passing attack.

Patterson's mobility brings a new dimension to Harbaugh's offense, and while he likely won't throw for 300 yards per game in his new system, Michigan will see massive improvement if he can hit the open throws and run the offense.

As the No. 1 overall quarterback prospect in the 2016 class, Patterson was recruited to be a superstar. As a transfer quarterback, Patterson was brought to Michigan to be solid on a team loaded at other positions.

Notre Dame was an average defensive team last season, allowing 369.2 yards per game. Patterson will face tougher challenges in the Big Ten, but in his first game wearing the Maize and Blue, he'll be tested by a team that has national championship aspirations of its own.

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