5 freshmen who could make an impact for Michigan football this season
Wolverines need major contributions from young players this year
ANN ARBOR, Mich. – College football season is only three weeks away, and the Michigan Wolverines will begin the season with as many question marks as any other team in the nation.
Despite a disappointing 1-3 finish in 2016, Michigan was one of the top teams in the country, winning 10 games and losing just three by a total of five points.
But Jim Harbaugh was forced to conduct a major roster reboot this offseason, as 10 defensive starters and almost every offensive playmaker either graduated or moved on to the NFL. As a result, Michigan football will be led primarily by younger players this season, and with younger players comes unpredictability and inconsistency.
Luckily for the Wolverines, Harbaugh pulled in one of the nation's elite recruiting classes to help fill some of the gaps left on both sides of the ball. The 30-man recruiting class ranked fourth in the nation, according to 247 Sports.
How much impact can fans expect to see from true freshmen? Last year, there were several contributions from the 2016 class, including running back Chris Evans and wide slot receiver Eddie McDoom on offense, and No. 1 overall commit Rashan Gary on defense.
Here are five players who could step onto the field and make an immediate impact for Michigan in 2017:
OL Cesar Ruiz
Recruiting rank: No. 1 center, No. 42 overall
One of the areas where Michigan lost several veteran players is on the offensive line, as Ben Braden, Kyle Kalis and Erik Magnuson completed their fifth years.
Mason Cole decided to return for his fourth year, giving Harbaugh options depending on how the rest of the position group performs. Cole began his career starting at left tackle as a true freshman, but has since shifted to center. If Ruiz performs well this offseason, it's possible Cole could move again to make room for the nation's top center recruit.
Ruiz fits the bill of a run blocking interior offensive lineman as Harbaugh continues to build a stronger ground attack. It's also critical for the Wolverines to have stability at the center position, as snapping miscues have haunted them in the recent past.
Harbaugh isn't afraid to play young lineman if they're ready -- Cole is a perfect example. With so many positions to fill, it's possible Ruiz could get into the rotation early in his career.
WR Tarik Black
Recruiting rank: No. 17 wide receiver, No. 118 overall
When it comes to Michigan's young receivers, most fans are excited about No. 1 overall wideout and Detroit Cass Tech graduate Donovan Peoples-Jones, and for good reason. But anyone who watched the Michigan spring game knows that Tarik Black has just as good a shot to make an impact this season.
Black was the No. 1 player to come out of Connecticut last year, and he appears to have immediately integrated himself as an early enrollee. During the spring game, Black caught four passes for 50 years, including a critical touchdown from backup quarterback John O'Korn late in the game.
Black is 6 feet 4 inches tall and gets down the field quickly. He showed he can use his combination of size and speed to make big plays, which is exactly what Michigan needs on offense.
Black and Peoples-Jones are among a deep crop of wide receivers who have a chance to crack the rotation this season. Starters Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson graduated, and star tight end Jake Butt also moved on to the NFL. There are plenty of catches to go around for the newcomers.
Recruiting rank: No. 2 defensive tackle, No. 24 overall
Aubrey Solomon had one of the strangest recruiting sagas in Michigan history, but after committing, de-committing and re-committing on National Signing Day, the five-star recruit figures to be one of the earliest contributors.
The U.S. Army All-American defensive lineman was highly coveted throughout the country for his elite pass-rushing ability. Solomon's quickness and knack for getting into the backfield will give him a chance to get on the field as a true freshman, even though the defensive line should be a strength for Michigan.
All four of the Wolverines' starting defensive linemen -- Taco Charlton, Chris Wormley, Ryan Glasgow and Matt Godin -- are gone, so Solomon has a chance to be more than just a depth player.
CB Ambry Thomas
Recruiting rank: No. 12 cornerback, No. 91 overall
Remember 18 months ago, when Harbaugh was being criticized for not recruiting the state of Michigan hard enough? He assuaged those concerns by landing each of the top six commits in the state this offseason, and some of them could be critical pieces right away.
Thomas was a major get for Michigan out of Martin Luther King High School in Detroit. The speedy corner committed to the Wolverines over Michigan State and even showcased the No. 1 jersey during camp.
Michigan was loaded in the secondary last season, with All-American Jourdan Lewis and breakout star Channing Stribling leading the way at cornerback. This season, both starters, along with Jeremy Clark, who was not granted a sixth year by the NCAA, are gone, leaving the defense in a tough spot.
Cornerback is one of the most difficult positions for true freshmen to step in and make an immediate impact, but Thomas could get that opportunity. He could also contribute in the return game for Michigan, as he was an electric wide receiver and returner in high school.
Recruiting rank: No. 21 safety, No. 251 overall
Jaylen Kelly-Powell is probably the longest shot on this list to make a major difference as a true freshman, but his talent combined with the positional need give him a fighting chance.
One of the attributes working heavily in Kelly-Powell's favor is his versatility, which he showcased at the Michigan spring game. He was one of the top safety recruits in the country, but Michigan has also tried him out at cornerback and nickel.
In addition to losing its top three cornerbacks, the Wolverines also saw safeties Delano Hill and Dymonte Thomas move on to NFL opportunities. The entire secondary is open for newcomers, and most of the positions will be filled by players from the 2016 and 2017 classes brought in by Harbaugh.
Kelly-Powell is an aggressive, athletic safety, so he fits right in with Don Brown's defensive scheme. The Cass Tech graduate will have an opportunity to step into the rotation if he performs well this fall.
What to expect
Regardless of which holes are filled by young players, Michigan's season will rely heavily on this freshman class because of the massive roster turnover.
All five players on this list were early enrollees at Michigan, so they've had much longer to get used to the team's system and train for the college game. If there was ever a year for freshmen to break out, this is when Michigan needs it most.
It won't be easy. Right off the bat, the Wolverines will leave Ann Arbor for a battle with SEC East champion Florida in Cowboy Stadium. Harbaugh will learn a lot about his young players on that stage.
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