Predicting all 26 starters for Michigan football vs. Middle Tennessee State

Wolverines heavy favorites in season opener

Shea Patterson calls out signals while playing Maryland on Oct. 6, 2018, at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - The Michigan football team is set to kick off the season Saturday at home against Middle Tennessee State.

Jim Harbaugh's team has high expectations heading into his fifth year as head coach. Michigan is ranked No. 7 in both preseason polls and was picked by writers as the favorite to win the Big Ten.

Many of the players who led Michigan to a 10-3 record last season have returned, but there will also be new faces contributing on both sides of the ball. Harbaugh has piled up strong recruiting classes over the last four years, building critical depth that should be able to lessen the blow of losing NFL talent.

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Here's what Michigan's starting offense, defense and special teams could look like Saturday.

Offense: The offense only really has two question marks in terms of the starting 11: Who will be the No. 1 running back and who will start in the slot? The roles of the tight ends are still a question mark heading into the first year under Josh Gattis, but they're expected to be utilized to some extent.

QB: Shea Patterson

Harbaugh wants both Shea Patterson and backup Dylan McCaffrey to play, but there's no question who will start under center. Gattis' offense is better built for Patterson's skill set, and the Wolverines are hoping to see what made him a five-star recruit in the 2016 class.

RB: Zach Charbonnet

Until the last two weeks, it felt like Christian Turner would be the starter in the opener simply because he's been in the program for a year. But Harbaugh and other coaches are starting to sing the praises of Zach Charbonnet, and it feels like the true freshman could get the nod. This is probably the toughest position to predict.

WR1: Nico Collins

Nico Collins was the team's best receiver last season, and even though the smaller, faster weapons are expected to be better utilized in Gattis' scheme, that doesn't change how valuable Collins will be as an elite No. 1 option.

WR2: Donovan Peoples-Jones

He has been battling injury issues all offseason, but Donovan Peoples-Jones is expected to be out there for the opener, and he'll probably lead the team in targets. Peoples-Jones is fast, quick and elusive, so if Michigan gets him the ball in space, he might lead the team in more than just catches and touchdowns this season.

WR3: Ronnie Bell

As much as Michigan coaches have praised true freshman Mike Sainristil this offseason, Ronnie Bell seems to be the most likely starter in the slot. Harbaugh called him the most-improved returning offensive contributor this week and he's already shown an ability to turn short passes into big plays.

TE: Sean McKeon

Michigan has a handful of young, exciting options at tight end, such as redshirt freshman Mustapha Muhammad and true freshman Erick All. But the coaches rave about Sean McKeon's value not only as a blocker, but in the receiving game. He took a step back in that aspect last year, but he'll have a major role once again as a senior.

LT: Jon Runyan Jr.

Last season was a breakout campaign for Jon Runyan Jr., earning first-team All Big Ten honors. He decided to stay in Ann Arbor for another season and will be the starter at left tackle. He's the only player left on the roster from Harbaugh's very first recruiting class at Michigan in 2015.

LG: Ben Bredeson

A team captain for the second year in a row and a fourth-year starter, Michigan couldn't ask for a more reliable left guard than Ben Bredeson. He could have been an early-round NFL draft pick, but chose to return to Michigan after perhaps his best college season.

C: Cesar Ruiz

It's easy to see why Cesar Ruiz was the No. 1 center and a top 50 overall player in the 2017 recruiting class. He's been a contributor since stepping on campus and will anchor the line once again this season.

RG: Michael Onwenu

Former Cass Tech star Michael Onwenu is listed at an even 350 pounds heading into his final college season. Onwenu is the fourth and final returning starter on an offensive line that's expected to be among the best in the Big Ten.

RT: Jalen Mayfield

Right tackle would have been a tough position to predict if not for the season-ending injury to Andrew Stueber. The redshirt sophomore was battling with Jalen Mayfield for the only open starting spot on the line until the injury, and now it's clear Mayfield will get a chance to lock down the spot.

Defense: Unlike the offense, the defense needs to fill several holes in the starting lineup. Devin Bush, Rashan Gary, Chase Winovich and David Long were all NFL draft picks, leaving Don Brown to try to pull off a 2017-esque retooling effort.

DE: Kwity Paye

Kwity Paye forced his way onto the field as a true freshman and emerged as one of the team's best playmakers in the backfield last year. Now, as a starter, Paye will be asked to take another step forward as the team's No. 1 defensive end.

DE: Aidan Hutchinson

One of only three true freshmen who didn't redshirt last year, Aidan Hutchinson worked his way into a defensive line rotation loaded with proven college players. Now the door is open for him to be one of the top defensive stars.

DT: Carlo Kemp

The interior defensive line is considered a potential weakness for Michigan, but Carlo Kemp is a safe, reliable veteran to lead the group. He hasn't been much of a factor in the pass rush, but Kemp is a good run defender and a third-year starter for a defensive line that has plenty of new faces.

DT: Michael Dwumfour

Michael Dwumfour is the presumed second starter on the interior defensive line, but the Wolverines could also go with redshirt sophomore Donovan Jeter or true freshmen Chris Hinton or Mazi Smith. Dwumfour has shown an ability to rush the passer, so that could give him the edge as a starter.

MLB: Josh Ross

The toughest player to replace on defense will be Bush, who not only made big plays in the backfield but also went sideline to sideline in terms of defending the running and short passing games. Josh Ross will be asked to take over for Bush, and while he can't replace the recent top-10 NFL draft pick, he's a former four-star recruit and a solid tackler with good speed.

OLB: Devin Gil

Bush and Josh Metellus have played major roles on the Michigan defense the last three years, and now their former high school teammate will have a chance to do the same. Devin Gil will likely be the starting outside linebacker Saturday as the position remains a question mark. Redshirt freshman Cam McGrone could be on the doorstep if Gil struggles.

Viper: Khaleke Hudson

In 2017, Khaleke Hudson was one of the most dynamic defensive playmakers in the country. Last year, after getting kicked out of two early games for targeting, he wasn't quite himself. If he can get back to his old form -- when he led the team in tackles for loss and pass breakups -- Hudson can be a major asset to both the run defense and the secondary.

CB1: Lavert Hill

Michigan would have been in trouble if Lavert Hill left with Long for the NFL draft. Instead, he takes over as the No. 1 cornerback after grading out as one of the top coverage corners in the country last season.

CB2: Vincent Gray

This spot belongs to Ambry Thomas once he's fully healed from colitis, but with Michigan as a five-touchdown favorite in Week 1 and a triple-option offense coming to town in Week 2, it seems like a good idea for Michigan to take it easy on Thomas until after the bye week. Vincent Gray is only a redshirt freshman, but Harbaugh has mentioned him in every conversation about cornerbacks as an offseason standout. He seems like the next man up until Thomas returns.

SS: Josh Metellus

Josh Metellus had an excellent 2018 season as a full-time starter, making 48 tackles and three interceptions. He's another player who could have entered the NFL draft but decided to return for his senior season.

FS: Brad Hawkins

Five-star freshman Daxton Hill, the No. 1 safety in the 2019 recruiting class, was expected by most to win the starting job left by Tyree Kinnel, but Harbaugh doesn't seem to be handing the job to the newcomer. Harbaugh specifically said this week that Hill has earned special teams reps and will work his way in at safety. That doesn't sound like he's a starter yet, so Brad Hawkins gets the nod. He made massive improvements last season, his first significant action at safety after moving from wide receiver.

Special teams: Michigan has options at all four specialist positions, which is a luxury since the injury risk for returners is so high. The battle to be the No. 1 field goal kicker might be the second-best battle in camp behind the running back spot.

K: Jake Moody

Quinn Nordin has a world of talent as a place kicker, but that doesn't diminish what Jake Moody accomplished when he took over last season. He made 10 of 11 field goal attempts, including two in Columbus and a 48-yarder in the Peach Bowl. Nordin's issue has been the mental side of kicking, and that's impossible to replicate in practice. Moody proved his worth in the final three games last season and should have the inside track to start.

P: Will Hart

Harbaugh confirmed Monday that Will Hart will be the starting punter once again this season after taking home Big Ten honors last year. Hart averaged 47 yards per punt, booted 19 for at least 50 yards and landed 15 inside the 20-yard line.

KR: Mike Sainristil

Michigan has a handful of options for returning kicks, including Thomas when he returns. Bell could be another option, but if he's getting a starter's share of snaps on offense, Harbaugh might want to go in another direction. Mike Sainristil is the backup slot receiver and has the quickness to break a big return, so he seems a likely choice.

PR: Donovan Peoples-Jones

Donovan Peoples-Jones was excellent returning punts last season and should be the starting punt returner once again, if healthy. A Peoples-Jones injury could open the door for Bell, Sainristil or any of the speedy true freshmen to get in the mix at punt returner.

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