Michigan football: Young players who could make or break 2017 season

Jim Harbaugh needs major contribution from young players

Jim Harbaugh looks on during Michigan football's spring game (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images).
Jim Harbaugh looks on during Michigan football's spring game (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images).

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – When Michigan football took the field against Hawaii to open the 2016 season, fans had a pretty good idea of what to expect from Jim Harbaugh's second team.

Coming off a 10-win season, the senior-laden Wolverines were ranked securely inside the top 10 of every major ranking. Almost every single starter on both sides of the ball had spent at least three years in Ann Arbor, and it was clear that the team had enough talent to win it all.

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As it turned out, Michigan lost three games by a total of five points and missed out on a playoff spot by one play in Columbus. The team was stacked with experience and a step behind on talent, but it gave fans more or less what they expected.

This season couldn't be more different.

Harbaugh's team is all youth and inexperience. While the raw talent level has clearly risen, Michigan's season could go either way depending on the development of young players.

With youth comes a wider range of potential outcomes, both good and bad. Which young players will have the most impact on Michigan's 2017 season?

Sophomore LB Devin Bush

Michigan's entire defense was gutted this off-season, with 10 starters moving on to the NFL or graduation and only Mike McCray back for another year. The gaps at linebacker left by Ben Gedeon and Jabrill Peppers need to be filled, and sophomore Devin Bush seems likely to get an opportunity.

Bush was a significant contributor as a true freshman, playing in all 13 games on special teams and also mixing in on defense. Bush picked up 11 tackles on kick coverage and at linebacker, and he showed a knack for getting to the ball carrier.

Bush came to Michigan as a four-star linebacker with a ton of upside. He did it all in high school but specialized in making plays in the backfield. Peppers and Gedeon played a huge role in stuffing the run last season, and Bush will have to help fill the void for Michigan's defense to be as formidable going forward.

Other LB options: Josh Ross, Jordan Anthony, Drew Singleton

Redshirt sophomore TE Tyrone Wheatley Jr.

Harbaugh has a reputation around college football and the NFL for masterminding the use of tight ends in his offense. This year, he'll have to find an unproven young player to take charge of the unit.

Michigan is surprisingly thin in terms of experienced tight ends after Jake Butt, one of the best tight ends in school history, graduated and exciting freshman Devin Asiasi transferred to UCLA.

Butt and Asiasi played very different roles last season, with Butt becoming one of the most dangerous offensive weapons in the Big Ten and Asiasi spending most of his time blocking next to the offensive line. Harbaugh will have to fill both of those roles this season, and he's got the young talent to do it.

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Perhaps the most likely tight end to contribute behind redshirt junior Ian Bunting is Tyrone Weatley Jr., who caught a touchdown in the spring game and looked ready to step into the rotation.

Wheatley is a matchup nightmare with good hands and a 6-foot-6-inch, 276-pound frame. He caught three passes last season for 35 yards and a touchdown, but this season he should be a much more prominent part of the offense.

There's no Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson or Butt to throw to this season, and the tight end is a huge cog in the Harbaugh offense. If Wheatley emerges as a reliable target this season, it would be huge for Michigan. If not, the offense will have to overcome even more inexperience at wide receiver.

Other TE options: Nick Eubanks, Sean McKeon

Sophomore CBs David Long and Lavert Hill

Cornerback is a difficult position for young players, especially against the dynamic offenses on Michigan's schedule this season. Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett and Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley will provide two of the greatest challenges for Michigan's defense this season, and if the young cornerbacks aren't up to the challenge, Michigan won't have a chance in the Big Ten East Division.

David Long is one of Michigan's top cornerback recruits in recent memory, committing to Harbaugh in 2016 as the eighth-best in the country at his position. He didn't see the field much as a true freshman, mixing in at cornerback in four games, three of which were blowouts.

Long has all the tools to be an excellent defensive back. He has elite speed and good size, so he can stick with all types of receivers. Even as an elite defense last year, Michigan was desperate for play-makers, and Long could be a guy who forces turnovers and makes big plays.

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Lavert Hill's commitment came with some added buzz in Ann Arbor as the Wolverines beat out the in-state rival Spartans for the Detroit Martin Luther King High School standout. Hill's older brother, Delano Hill, played safety for the Wolverines the last four seasons.

Lavert Hill was the 12th-ranked cornerback in the 2016 recruiting class and provides good speed in the secondary. He got more time than Long as a true freshman, appearing in nine games at cornerback and starting at safety against Michigan State.

Michigan lost its top three cornerbacks in Jourdan Lewis, Channing Stribling and Jeremy Clark, so Long and Hill will be critical in replacing that NFL talent.

Other CB options: Ambry Thomas, Benjamin St-Juste

Freshman C Cesar Ruiz

As Harbaugh continues to work toward a true pro-style offense at Michigan, the last piece to the puzzle is a dominant rushing attack. The Wolverines haven't had an elite running game in a decade, and to turn that around, it starts with the offensive line.

Ben Braden, Kyle Kalis and Erik Magnuson graduated at the end of the 2016 season, and Grant Newsome is still recovering from a brutal injury he suffered against Penn State. That leaves at least three spots open on Michigan's offensive line.

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Mason Cole returned to Michigan for his senior season, and his versatility will help dictate the new-look offensive line. One possible scenario is that Cole moves from his center position to make room for Cesar Ruiz, who was the No. 1 center in the country when he committed to Michigan.

Cole started at left tackle as a true freshman and has since moved to center, so he could play multiple positions on the line, depending on which young linemen prove they can contribute.

Ruiz is a 300-pound center, but he's also quick and athletic. As an early enrollee at Michigan, he's had more time to assimilate to the college game than a typical true freshman, so there's a chance he'll see the field right away.

Other OL options: Michael Onwenu, Chuck Filiaga

Freshman WR Tarik Black and Sophomore WR Kekoa Crawford

As I mentioned above in the section about tight ends, Michigan's arsenal is very light in terms of returning offensive weapons. Harbaugh has to replace three players who combined for 138 of the team's 228 total catches (60.5 percent) and top receiving back De'Veon Smith.

Donovan Peoples-Jones is widely expected to be a key contributor to the Michigan offense right away. As a five-star recruit and the No. 1 wide receiver in the entire 2017 class, the Detroit Cass Tech product has all the tools to be the team's top target.

But offenses aren't built around a single receiver. For the passing attack to be truly lethal, Michigan will need at least two receivers who can make plays downfield while versatile weapons like Chris Evans and Eddie McDoom make plays out of the backfield and the slot.

Kekoa Crawford got a nice taste of the college game last season, playing in all 13 games while wearing the coveted No. 1 Michigan jersey. Crawford caught four passes for 47 yards and a touchdown and ran the ball three times for 15 yards. He has a wide range of skills, but Michigan needs his potential to translate to results in his sophomore campaign.

True freshman Tarik Black could also be a dangerous weapon. In fact, he stole the show from Peoples-Jones during the spring game, catching four passes for 50 yards and a touchdown from backup quarterback John O'Korn.

Black is 6 feet 4 inches tall and can make plays down the field. He can win a jump ball and has reliable hands, so it's not a surprise that he emerged as O'Korn's favorite target in the spring.

Harbaugh has recruited a deep group of young receivers the last two years, and now he needs that talent to translate on the field.

Other WR options: Nate Johnson, Oliver Martin, Nico Collins, Brad Hawkins