5 Michigan football commits most likely to play in 2017

Jim Harbaugh lands 30 new commits, No. 5 recruiting class


ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan football team polished off an historic recruiting class this week, signing 30 new players and the No. 5 group in the country, according to 247 Sports.

Michigan is coming off its second straight 10-3 season and came a few points away from a spot in the College Football Playoff. With back-to-back top 10 recruiting classes on the roster, Harbaugh has Michigan in a position to compete for a Big Ten title.

But to compete at the top of the conference in 2017, the Wolverines will need major contributions from young players. Michigan loses 10 defensive starters, three starting offensive lineman and its top three receivers in 2017.

No single class can fill all those holes, so some of the Wolverines who announced their commitment to Michigan Wednesday will surely have to play a significant role when September rolls around.

Here are five of the true freshmen who could see significant playing time during the upcoming season:

Donovan Peoples-Jones

Position: Wide receiver
Rating: 5-star (No. 1 WR)
Other WR who could play: Tarik Black, Oliver Martin, Nico Collins

Peoples-Jones is obviously a strong candidate to play for a variety of reasons, his sheer athletic ability chief among them. The Detroit Cass Tech product was the top ranked receiver in the country and the No. 1 player in the state of Michigan.

A unique combination of size and speed give Peoples-Jones a chance to be one of Michigan's impact receivers next season, even though he'll be just 18 years old when the season begins. For obvious reasons, freshmen don't have the polish of other players when they step on the field early in their careers, but Peoples-Jones' raw talent gives him a leg up on the rest of the wide receivers. High school football fans in Detroit know Peoples-Jones can win a jump ball and adjust to passes, which is critical for a team without a proven quarterback.

Peoples-Jones will also benefit from changes in the position group, as starting wide receivers Amara Darbon and Jehu Chesson and tight end Jake Butt all graduated this season. Grant Perry's future is also uncertain after he was hit with sexual assault charges in December. That leaves Peoples-Jones in a position battle dominated by sophomores and freshmen. As the No. 1 wideout in the country, Peoples-Jones has the inside track to earning that playing time.

Don't forget: Peoples-Jones is already on campus as an early enrollee, so he'll work with the Michigan coaches for the rest of the off-season and be much more in tune with the offense when fall camp arrives.

Ambry Thomas

Position: Cornerback
Rating: 4-star (No. 13 CB)
Other CB who could play: Benjamin St-Juste

From one Detroit native to another, Ambry Thomas has a realistic chance to earn some playing time on the other side of the ball. As a fellow early enrollee, Thomas and Peoples-Jones will probably enjoy their fair share of head-to-head battles before the team flies to Dallas to open the season against Florida.

Thomas' position is a little different than Peoples-Jones' in that cornerbacks don't transition as easily into the college level. Michigan's defense is coming off a season in which it fielded four seniors in the starting secondary and two excellent corners in Jourdan Lewis and Channing Stribling. Handing major minutes to a true freshman would be a huge contrast from the veteran presence the Wolverines enjoyed at the position in 2016.

But Thomas has all the physical skills to be a strong player at the position, including the speed and coverage ability to stay with Big Ten wide receivers. As an early enrollee, Thomas has eight an entire off-season to acclimate himself to the college game and earn a spot in the rotation with sophomores like David Long and Levert Hill.

Aubrey Solomon

Position: Defensive tackle
Rating: 5-star (No. 2 DT)
Other DT who could play: James Hudson

Michigan put an exclamation point on the recruiting class on National Signing Day when Solomon chose the Wolverines over Alabama and Georgia. The No. 2 defensive tackle in the country, Solomon fits the mold of the players in Harbaugh's 2017 class: Big and athletic.

Solomon is a quick defensive tackle who can get into the backfield and pressure the quarterback. Every team has room for an inside rusher, but Michigan is especially in need of defensive lineman as all four starters move on to the next level. Tackles Ryan Glasgow and Matthew Godin locked down opposing rushing games last season while pressure came from the edge, but Solomon has the ability to provide pressure up the middle.

Solomon isn't an early enrollee, so he'll have to pick up Don Brown's scheme quickly to get on the field in 2017, but his natural skills, combined with the expectations of playing time from a five-star player, should result in Solomon playing some snaps early in his career.

Jordan Anthony

Position: Outside linebacker
Rating: 4-star (No. 8 OLB)
Other LB who could play: Drew Singleton, Josh Ross

For the past several years, Michigan's weakness on defense came at the linebacker level. Brady Hoke didn't supply Harbaugh with an embarrassment of riches at the position, and the players who are most likely to contribute are sophomores and freshmen.

Starters Jabrill Peppers and Ben Gedeon have moved on this off-season, leaving two starting spots open next to veteran Mike McCray. Even though Anthony isn't as highly ranked as classmate Drew Singleton, he might have a better chance to see the field right away.

Singleton spent much of his high school senior season sidelined by a knee injury, and though he's expected to be an excellent player at Michigan, he might benefit from a slower path to the field. Anthony, on the other hand, could be part of the rotation from the opening game due to a lack of depth at the position.

Anthony could help fill one of the voids left in Peppers' absence: open-field tackling. The IMG Academy star was one of the best pure tacklers in the 2017 class and that should transition to the next level. His coverage skills need work, but none of Michigan's linebackers are overly strong in that aspect. Look for Anthony to crack the rotation at some point in 2017.

Cesar Ruiz

Position: Center
Rating: 4-star (No. 1 C)
Other OL who could play: Chuck Filiaga

Ruiz is the final name on this list, but he could be the most important. Tim Drevno's handling of the offensive line could be the factor that defines Michigan as a solid team or a true contender in 2017, as it tries to replace three starting linemen.

Graham Glasgow, Erik Magnuson and Ben Braden were inconsistent as fifth-year seniors, but they had their fair share of good moments. Replacing three veterans with first- or second-year players on the offensive line will be a true test of Michigan's offensive staff.

Ruiz is one of the players who could step in and earn playing time right away, especially as an early enrollee. "Saucy" Ruiz has a huge frame, but it's his explosiveness that makes him the No. 1 center in the class. He's an athletic offensive lineman and will greatly benefit from a half-year of work with the coaching staff to improve his fundamentals.

If Ruiz can earn playing time at center, that would allow last year's starter, Mason Cole, to lock down another position. Cole's versatility is an asset, but if Ruiz doesn't prove himself at center, Cole might have to stay where he is.

Michigan fans should be excited about this year's class. Harbaugh has now brought in 56 of his own players since 2016 and is starting to implement his style of football in Ann Arbor. Will there be growing pains? Of course. But with elite talent at the important positions and a strong coaching staff, Michigan is heading in the right direction.

Unfortunately, college football will step out of the spotlight for a few months. The countdown to the spring game has begun.

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