Five-star freshmen poised to make impact for Michigan, Michigan State this season
McDowell, Peppers among potential impact freshmen
As the calendar turns to summer and college football teams enter the most important workouts of training camp, talented freshmen fight to prove themselves and earn valuable playing time during their first season on campus.
The Michigan Wolverines and Michigan State Spartans are among the teams expecting major contributions from young players during the 2014 season. Strong recruiting classes have put both teams in position to make some noise in the new-look 14-team Big Ten.
But which recruits are ready to make an immediate impact in the college game?
Not all highly-ranked recruits can step on the field and contribute right away; in fact, many of the best athletes receive redshirts and sit out their freshman years.
In East Lansing, head coach Mark Dantonio hopes that the roller coaster ride that brought defensive tackle Malik McDowell to Michigan State will pay off this fall.
McDowell: DT, Southfield, Mich., 6 foot 6, 290 pounds
After McDowell announced that he wanted to play for Dantonio at Michigan State, there was only one roadblock standing in his way: his mother.
Joya Crowe made it clear in February that she didn't want her son to become a Spartan, instead favoring the other three schools on his list. As a result, a staged signing on February 5 that should have sealed the deal for Michigan State jump-started a whirlwind of confusion as speculation swirled around what the 17-year-old would do.
On April 2 the adventure came to a close when McDowell stuck to his MSU commitment and officially signed his letter of intent. Now that the distractions are behind him, the five-star recruit has a real chance to help the Spartans compete for another Big Ten title.
Michigan State lost a veteran defensive tackle this offseason when starter Tyler Hoover graduated and signed with the Indianapolis Colts as a free agent. Hoover started 11 games for the Spartans last year, recording four sacks and 31 tackles. If McDowell proves himself over the next two months he could be placed among the group of tackles that fill the hole Hoover left.
The hard-nosed defensive mindset at Michigan State should play a major role in McDowell's improvement as the freshman showed flashes of brilliance in defending the run during high school.
McDowell has no problem holding his ground and wrapping up running backs, but his opportunity to become an elite player at Michigan State hinges on his ability to get into the backfield and make plays behind the line of scrimmage. Michigan State won 12 games last season playing with an aggressive defense, so McDowell has to find a way to attack the offense rather than wait for running backs to come to him.
His motor as a pass rusher is what made McDowell such a can't-miss recruit. Much like the rest of the Spartan defense, McDowell doesn't bother with trying anything flashy. The 290-pound defender can bull rush offensive lineman to bother quarterbacks and pick up the occasional sack.
McDowell's sheer talent earns him a chance to make an impact for Michigan State this season, but he'll really have to impress coaches this summer to find playing time on a deep defensive roster.
Best-case scenario: McDowell sees the field for MSU and plays an important role late in the season
Worst-case scenario: McDowell redshirts in 2014 to build strength and compete for a starting job in 2015.
During the recruiting process of 2013 Brady Hoke landed one of the most highly-rated recruits in Michigan football history: Jabrill Peppers.
Peppers: CB, Paramus, N.J., 6 foot 1, 205 pounds
The No. 2 overall recruit is not only expected to make a difference for the Wolverines this season, he's absolutely necessary in order to turn around an unproven defense.
Michigan is coming off a season in which the defense tied for 23rd in the country with 17 interceptions. But that number is deceiving: teams were having so much success through the air against Greg Mattison's defense that they were throwing more frequently. Starting cornerback Raymon Taylor struggled to shut down Big Ten receivers and a committee of defensive backs provided little support for All-Big Ten first-team cornerback Blake Countess.
Michigan allowed over 3,000 passing yards last season, surrendering 231.3 per game. The secondary fell apart in the final three minutes against Penn State, resulting in Michigan's first loss of the season, only to allow over 400 passing yards in its next game against Indiana. Mattison's defense was far too inconsistent in defending the pass and he needs Peppers to change that in 2014.
Peppers unfairly drew comparisons to Michigan great Charles Woodson before even stepping foot in Ann Arbor. The five-star cornerback projects as the best freshman defender in the country, but Woodson was one of the greatest ever en route to becoming the first defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy.
Hoke will likely try Peppers in a variety of positions to take advantage of his versatility. Peppers should earn a chance to revive a punt and kick return game that has been dormant at Michigan since Steve Breaston graduated in 2006. His elite athletic ability and quickness equip him with the skills to make special teams a factor for Michigan.
But his most important contribution will be shoring up the secondary, where he gives the Wolverines a ball-hawking corner that can erase an opponent's top receiver. In high school Peppers often looked like the receiver on defense, making plays on the ball before offensive players could react.
Peppers is clearly the most college-ready recruit on the team and could be one of the top defenders in the country at some point in his career. In 2014 Hoke will ask Peppers to familiarize himself with the college game, and improve both on defense and special teams.
Best-case scenario: Peppers dazzles with highlight reel kick returns and leads the Michigan secondary in a bounce-back season.
Worst-case scenario: Peppers battles through freshman mistakes and struggles to live up to expectations in 2014, frustrating fans that expect greatness from the very beginning.
Michigan State opens the season against Jacksonville State on August 29, while Michigan welcomes Appalachian State to the Big House for the season-opener on August 30.
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