14 starters Michigan football might need to replace next season and options to take over those spots
Jim Harbaugh could lose more than half of team’s starters this off-season
ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Michigan football will see plenty of turnover on both sides of the ball this off-season due to graduation and players leaving for the NFL draft. Who will take over those open spots?
The Wolverines were preseason Big Ten favorites heading into 2019 because of the number of returning starters. That won’t be the case next season, as more than half of Michigan’s starters could be moving on.
Some of the possible replacements have already seen significant playing time. Others haven’t seen the field at all. There will be even more unanswered questions heading into September next year.
Here’s a look at the players Michigan could lose, along with the most likely replacements.
QB Shea Patterson
Shea Patterson finished the season strong after a shaky start, passing for 2,828 yards and 22 touchdowns with just six interceptions. He also scored five rushing touchdowns and completed 57.3% of his pass attempts.
When he transferred to Michigan from Ole Miss two seasons ago, Patterson was hailed as a former five-star recruit and the No. 1 quarterback in the 2016 class. He never quite tapped into that elite billing, but he provided stability for a Michigan offense through a drastic system change.
Patterson saved his best performance for the rivalry game against Michigan State, throwing for 384 yards and two touchdowns. He tossed five more touchdown passes the following week against Indiana.
Overall, Patterson’s career in Ann Arbor was a good one, but the Wolverines will now look to a group of relative unknowns.
Replacement: Dylan McCaffrey
Other possibilities: Joe Milton
There’s no doubt quarterback will be the talk of the town next summer, as three former four-star recruits -- Dylan McCaffrey, Joe Milton and Cade McNamara -- duke it out for the starting spot.
McCaffrey has been the backup the last two years, suggesting he has a leg up on the competition. The brother of NFL star Christian McCaffrey has thrown 35 passes in his career, completing 18 of them for 242 yards and three touchdowns.
Mobility has been a strength for McCaffrey in his brief stints on the field. He’s gained 166 yards on 23 carries and scored two touchdowns.
That mobility has been a blessing and a curse, though. McCaffrey has missed significant time each of the last two seasons after taking massive hits while running the ball.
The Wolverines haven’t had an elite playmaker at the quarterback position in more than a decade. Is McCaffrey that guy? He hasn’t had a chance to really showcase it yet, but we’re finally going to find out.
WR Nico Collins
Status: Possible early NFL draft entrant
The most painful loss for the offense this season will be if Nico Collins declares for the NFL draft, which seems exceedingly likely. Collins finished second on the team with 33 catches and 681 receiving yards. He led the team with seven touchdown catches.
The raw numbers don’t tell the full story of Collins’ production. He drew a ton of pass interference penalties this year and moved the chains on plenty of critical downs. His true breakout game was at Indiana, when he caught six passes for 165 yards and three touchdowns.
Michigan has plenty of talented receivers, but Collins is the best. His combination of size, speed and reliable hands made him a jump ball specialist as well as a home run threat after the catch. He’ll be an early draft pick, whether that’s in 2020 or 2021.
Replacement: Cornelius Johnson
Other possibilities: A.J. Henning, Roman Wilson
Wide receiver is the position in which Jim Harbaugh has been most willing to use true freshmen, as evidenced by Collins and Donovan Peoples-Jones two years ago and a handful of players this season. For that reason, four-star commits A.J. Henning and Roman Wilson can’t be counted out as major contributors as soon as they step on campus.
Cornelius Johnson is the only player who can come close to matching the size and speed combination of Collins, though. He’s listed at 6-foot-3 and has already displayed flashes of his talent as a true freshman.
Johnson only caught four passes for 61 yards and a touchdown this year, but he was on the field quite a bit. His biggest moment was a 39-yard touchdown catch late in the Michigan State victory.
WR Donovan Peoples-Jones
Status: Possible early NFL draft entrant
It would be a blow for Michigan’s offense to lose both Collins and Peoples-Jones, but that feels like the most likely scenario.
Peoples-Jones was the No. 1 receiver in the 2017 recruiting class and the top player in the state of Michigan. That talent really started to come out when he returned from injury this season.
The junior wasn’t healthy until the Rutgers game, but he finished as the third-most productive receiver on the team with 33 catches for 404 yards and six touchdowns. He also returned 23 punts for an average of 7.6 yards.
Replacement: Mike Sainristil
Other possibilities: Giles Jackson, Henning, Wilson
Mike Sainristil was one of the talks of the off-season when he enrolled early and got comfortable in Josh Gattis’ offense, but he had a mostly quiet true freshman season.
He came to life toward the end of the year, though, catching six passes for 129 yards and a touchdown in the second half of the season. His speed and ability to make big plays after the catch make him a logical replacement for Peoples-Jones, if necessary.
LT Jon Runyan
Stability across the offensive line was one of the main reasons Michigan had such high preseason expectations. That unit will face much more attrition before 2020, starting with its fifth-year senior tackle.
Jon Runyan had another excellent season, earning Big Ten First-Team honors from the coaches and the media. He was as advertised after returning from injury early in the season and kept Patterson mostly clean from the blindside all year long.
Once an unheralded three-star buried on the depth chart, Runyan will now be an NFL draft selection. Offensive line coach Ed Warinner deserves a lot of credit for his development.
Replacement: Ryan Hayes
Other possibilities: Andrew Stueber, Trente Jones, Jalen Mayfield, Trevor Keegan, Jack Stewart
Michigan has a wealth of talent in the offensive line room and a great tutor in Warinner. One player who has been consistently praised by coaches is soon-to-be redshirt sophomore Ryan Hayes.
Hayes filled in at the tackle position early in the season when Runyan was out, and he did a nice job. A full-time starting spot never arose this season, but now he’s got the inside track to take over for the next couple of years.
If Michigan elects to go in another direction, one of Andrew Stueber or Jalen Mayfield could end up on the left side. They were in a heated battle for the right tackle spot this off-season until Stueber injured his leg.
They also landed three talented tackles in the 2019 class in Trente Jones, Trevor Keegan and Jack Stewart. Harbaugh would prefer not to use them so early in their careers, but they’ll be in the mix.
LG Ben Bredeson
Michigan isn’t only losing a four-year starter in Bredeson, it’s also saying goodbye to a two-year captain.
Bredeson could have been an early-round pick in last season’s draft but elected to return for one more season. He was the best left guard in the Big Ten, earning First-Team honors from both the coaches and the media.
Michigan knew it stole a talented lineman when it plucked Bredeson out of Wisconsin’s backyard, and he didn’t disappoint.
Replacement: Chuck Filiaga
Other possibilities: Nolan Rumler, Karsen Barnhart, Andrew Vastardis
The replacement options on the interior offensive line are less clear than at the open tackle position. Chuck Filiaga was the first backup for Bredeson this season, so he’s an obvious choice to win a starting job.
Filiaga was a highly rated recruit out of Texas and has long been knocking on the door of the offensive line rotation. He appeared in most of Michigan’s games the last two seasons on special teams and at the guard positions.
Former walk-on Andrew Vastardis is also a backup guard who could be in the mix. True freshmen Nolan Rumler and Karsen Barnhart were believed to be players who could contribute early in their careers.
C Cesar Ruiz
Status: Possible early NFL draft entrant
If he elects to declare for the NFL draft this off-season, Cesar Ruiz will likely be one of the first players selected at his position. If he returns, it would be a huge win for the Wolverines at the heart of the line.
Ruiz isn’t just a great athlete, he’s one of Michigan’s smartest offensive players in terms of reading a defense before the snap. He would be an incredibly valuable asset for a team breaking in a first-time quarterback.
The former No. 1 center in the 2017 recruiting class was named to the Big Ten Second Team from the coaches and Third Team from the media.
Replacement: Stephen Spanellis
Other possibilities: Zach Carpenter
Every year Stephen Spanellis wins an academic award at the team banquet and delivers an incredible speech. Next year, he might get a chance to show what he can do on the field.
Spanellis went viral after the Notre Dame win for blocking a defender all the way down field and pancaking him on the sideline. If Ruiz declares for the draft, he could be a starter for his fifth season of eligibility.
RG Michael Onwenu
The fourth and final member of Michigan’s All-Big Ten offensive line is Michael Onwenu, who earned Third Team honors from the coaches and an honorable mention from the media.
Onwenu was the three-year starter for Michigan after committing out of Detroit. He was never Michigan’s top offensive lineman, but he was a consistent presence for three years.
Replacement: Nolan Rumler
Other possibilities: Filiaga, Barnhart, Vastardis
Michigan is going to have to play a young player at one of the guard positions unless Warinner wants to go with a possible lineup of Filiaga, Spanellis and Vastardis along the interior.
Rumler was thought to be one of the most college-ready players in Michigan’s six-man offensive line class last year, and if that comes to fruition, the timing would be perfect.
TE Sean McKeon
Sean McKeon will end up being one of those players fans don’t realize they miss until he’s gone. The senior has been the best blocking tight end and a solid option in the passing game his entire career.
In his career, McKeon caught 60 passes for 668 yards and six touchdowns. He appeared in 39 games.
The Wolverines will be just fine at the position, especially with Nick Eubanks returning for one more season. But who will take over the snaps left open by McKeon’s departure?
Replacement: Erick All
Other possibilities: Luke Schoonmaker
True freshman Erick All appeared in almost every game this season despite making only one catch. That shows the coaching staff values his contributions outside the passing game.
All was tabbed as a player who could contribute early in his career, and since Michigan still likes to use two tight ends regularly, he’ll be in a battle with Schoonmaker for the snaps when Eubanks isn’t on the field.
LB Josh Uche
Status: Leaving for NFL draft
On Wednesday night, pass rushing specialist Josh Uche announced he will be entering the 2020 NFL draft. He’s a difficult player to name a replacement for because he filled such a unique role.
Uche posted a career-high 8.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss this season, raising his career totals to 16.5 sacks and 20.5 tackles for loss. He’s one of the best pure pass rushers in the nation and gave Michigan a lethal weapon on obvious passing downs.
Replacement: David Ojabo
Other possibilities: Charles Thomas, Mazi Smith, Mike Morris, Taylor Upshaw
Picking David Ojabo is a bit of a Hail Mary, especially since he hasn’t appeared in a college game. But there are some similarities that suggest he could be the type of passing rushing specialist that Uche provided.
First of all, Ojabo is 6-foot-5, 245 points. He’s bigger than Uche, but his calling card is speed and the ability to beat offensive lineman and get into the backfield. Michigan landed Ojabo because of his raw skills -- he’s only been playing football for a few years.
If everything clicks for Ojabo, there’s no doubt he has the ability to become an Uche-like terror for opposing quarterbacks. Will that be next season? It seems like a bit of a stretch.
There’s a possibility Michigan concedes that there isn’t another Uche on the roster and goes with a more traditional defensive lineman or linebacker. There are plenty of options on the roster there, including Mazi Smith, Charles Thomas and Mike Morris.
DT Carlo Kemp
It’s unclear if Michigan would be able to get another year of eligibility for Carlo Kemp. He played against Colorado and Rutgers as a freshman, when the redshirt rules were different, according to his bio.
Kemp was an undersized defensive tackle for the Wolverines this season, but he held his own for the most part. Michigan didn’t have a Taco Charlton coming up the middle, but Kemp and Dwumfour were serviceable and, at times, very good.
There appear to be some young players with huge upside waiting in the wings to take over these spots.
Replacement: Chris Hinton
Other possibilities: Mazi Smith
True freshman Chris Hinton started to see the field more and more toward the end of the season, perhaps a sign that the former five-star recruit is ready to take the next step in 2020.
Hinton and Smith were two of the top-ranked players in Michigan’s elite 2019 recruiting class, along with the likes of Daxton Hill and Zach Charbonnet. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see them both contributing next season.
DE Mike Danna
Michigan only got one season of Mike Danna, but the Central Michigan transfer was as advertised, providing depth along the defensive line and finishing the season with three sacks and 35 tackles.
With so many question marks facing Michigan’s defensive line heading into the season, landing Danna was a key security blanket for Don Brown. He wasn’t officially a starter, but he played enough in a rotation with Kwity Paye and Aidan Hutchinson to be considered among the team’s top linemen.
Replacement: Luiji Vilain
Other possibilities: Upshaw, Julius Welschof, Morris, Phillip Paea, Gabe Newburg
This selection suggests Michigan might not have as much depth at the defensive end position next season, though Luiji Vilain was once a top-100 recruit.
Injuries and inconsistent playing time have help Vilain back his first three seasons in Ann Arbor. He was finally health enough to see the field in 2019 and made seven tackles and a sack.
Fortunately for Michigan, there are a handful of high upside players who could also get into the rotation, such as Julius Welschof and Morris. Both were three-star recruits with high ceilings coming into Michigan.
LB Khaleke Hudson
Who will be the next viper for Michigan? Will Brown still be around to use a viper?
Khaleke Hudson took over for Jabrill Peppers at the position three years ago and was on the field for pretty much every snap along the way. Now Michigan will look for a player with his unique combination of coverage and tackling skills to take over the super utility role.
Hudson has made 232 tackles, 12 sacks and 26 tackles for loss in his career. He hasn’t missed a single game since 2016.
Replacement: Anthony Solomon
Other possibilities: Michael Barrett, Joey Velazquez
Brown will likely try to find another young player to mold into a long-term viper, and Anthony Solomon fits that bill.
Solomon was a four-star outside linebacker in the 2019 class and makes up for his size with quickness. During his recruiting process, Solomon said Michigan was considering him for the viper position.
Michael Barrett is already establishing himself as a playmaker on special teams, but he could seemingly play a number of positions when he breaks the defensive rotation. He’s listed as a linebacker at a similar size to Solomon, so Barrett should be in the mix for the open spot.
CB Lavert Hill
When Michigan lost David Long a year ago, Lavert Hill decided to return to Michigan and be the No. 1 cornerback. He certainly didn’t disappoint. Hill was a lock-down corner who was rarely targeted by opposing quarterbacks.
Hill has picked off six passes and defended 28 more throughout his career. He has a career-high three picks and 12 pass break-ups this year.
The Detroit native was a contributor from the moment he stepped on campus and will be selected in the upcoming NFL draft.
Replacement: Vincent Gray
Other possibilities: D.J. Turner, Gemon Green
Vincent Gray has seen plenty of playing time as a redshirt freshman, filling in as the team’s No. 3 cornerback. With Hill gone and Ambry Thomas moving up to No. 1 on the depth chart, Gray will have to be on the field much more as a redshirt sophomore.
Turner struggled at times this season but mostly held his own. Michigan’s staff has a good history of preparing new cornerbacks to take over as starters, and considering what Gray showed in his first taste of college action, he figures to follow that same path.
D.J. Turner was among the players coaches mentioned as being in the mix for cornerback reps this off-season, but the true freshman out of IMG Academy didn’t get much action.
S Josh Metellus
Josh Metellus really turned into a solid player for Michigan the last two years, making five interceptions, breaking up 16 passes and totaling 111 tackles in 2018 and 2019.
For his career, Metellus has 176 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, five picks and 21 pass break-ups. He came to Ann Arbor as a hard hitter and leaves as a more well-rounded safety.
The one knock on Metellus was speed, as evidenced when Michigan went up against faster receivers in the Penn State and Ohio State games. While losing Metellus will be a blow, this is also an opportunity for the Wolverines to get faster on defense.
Replacement: Daxton Hill
Other possibilities: Quinten Johnson, German Green
Daxton Hill was on the field more often than not by the end of the season, especially when starting safety Brad Hawkins went down with an injury.
But there’s nobody blocking the former five-star safety next season, and Hill should be an unquestioned starter from Day 1.
Hill was the No. 1 safety in the 2019 recruiting class and chose Michigan over offers from every major school in the country. He’s one of the fastest players in the country and showed his ability to change the game on special teams and defensively at times this year.
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