Last year was an anomaly for Michigan’s football program.
Decimated by injuries, opt-outs and COVID-19 protocols, several true freshmen were thrust into large roles for the Wolverines.
Running back Blake Corum, safety Makari Paige, offensive lineman Zak Zinter and receivers Roman Wilson and AJ Henning each saw significant playing time in 2020 for first-year players.
But with the NCAA issuing a blanket waiver for all fall student-athletes, freshmen didn’t have to worry about burning their redshirt, regardless of how many games they played.
Heading into 2021, Michigan appears to have more depth at multiple positions. Plus, the redshirt benchmark has returned, so any freshmen playing in four or more games would burn a year of eligibility.
But with that said, there are a handful of true freshmen on this year’s team that could have an immediate impact. Here are five to watch in 2021. Not surprisingly, all five were early-enrollees and took part in spring practices.
Running back Donovan Edwards
The question for Edwards is not if he will play this season but how much. Tabbed as the No. 42 overall prospect in the 2021 class, Edwards is the top-ranked running back recruit Jim Harbaugh has landed at Michigan.
“Donovan will play Week 1,” offensive coordinator Josh Gattis said Aug. 5. “That’s no secret in this building, the type of talent that he is.”
With his size (6-foot, 202 pounds), speed and athleticism, Edwards has all the makings of a dynamic college running back, but his playing time will hinge on how quickly he can pick up the offense and comprehend all the intricacies of playing the position at the college level.
The former four-star prospect is coming off a Division 1 state championship with West Bloomfield where he rushed for 257 yards and three touchdowns in the title game.
“He’s just an explosive player,” first-year running backs coach Mike Hart said during fall camp. “I think a lot of you guys have seen his high school tape. Those kind of runs he made in high school, he has the ability to make those in college. When he switches gears, you can tell he doesn’t look out of place.
“A lot of freshmen when they come in, getting used to the speed, getting used to the speed on defense and making people miss, I think it takes a little transition normally. And it’s still a transition for him. He isn’t where he needs to be, but you can see that he has the skill set to be really, really special one day, if he gets better. He’s not there yet. But if he continues to grow, continues to take coaching, which he does, he has a chance to be a really good player one day.”
Linebacker Junior Colson
Senior Josh Ross and redshirt freshman Nikhai Hill-Green will open the season as Michigan’s starting inside linebackers, but there isn’t much depth behind them. New linebackers coach George Helow said Thursday that Colson “absolutely” could see playing time this fall.
Michigan’s top-ranked defensive recruit in the 2021 class has missed some time during camp because of injury but returned to practice late last week. Colson stands 6-foot-2 and weighs 225 pounds.
“Junior is a guy who is athletic, that’s big, that has the frame, has the legs,” Ross told reporters Thursday. “You’re looking at him like, ‘Man, you’re a freshman? You don’t even know what you’re capable of.’ But as far as the athleticism piece, that dude is athletic. That dude is fast and can move and is really a good linebacker, is going to be a great linebacker for years to come.”
Receiver Andrel Anthony
The Wolverines are deep at receiver, but Gattis has shown he likes to rotate multiple guys at the position. Wilson and Henning both saw playing time as freshmen, and Anthony could give the team another option on the outside. The 6-foot-2, 185-pound East Lansing native has been mentioned as one of the fastest players on the team during fall camp.
“Andrel Anthony continues to make a play a practice,” Jim Harbaugh said during camp. “He’s got a streak, it’s like a Lou Gehrig hitting streak. He would do it in spring ball where — wait for it, it’s gonna happen — he makes it. There’s a play a practice of the big chunk variety. He continues to be really good as well.”
Anthony was a three-star prospect out of East Lansing High and ranked No. 527 overall.
Quarterback five-star J.J. McCarthy
There’s a chance McCarthy doesn’t play a meaningful snap all season. There’s also a chance he becomes the starter but the end of the year. Harbaugh has been hesitant to put his young quarterbacks in pressure situations in the past, but McCarthy, the top-ranked quarterback recruit Harbaugh has signed during his Michigan tenure, is a special talent.
The five-star recruit led Nazareth Academy in Illinois to three straight state championship appearances before transferring to powerhouse IMG Academy in Florida, where he helped the team finish undefeated.
McCarthy entered fall camp as the backup behind Cade McNamara and appears to have fended off Alan Bowman so far for the No. 2 spot. The Wolverines needed to play two quarterbacks last season because of injury and possibly could have needed to use more if their last three games weren’t canceled because of COVID-19.
McCarthy could be one injury away from being the starter. And even if the quarterbacks are able to stay healthy all season, it wouldn’t be surprising to see McCarthy get a few snaps in a blowout game either.
“He’s off to a fast start and playing really well,” Harbaugh said. “Improving as well. Improving on those abilities of, ‘You don’t have to win the whole game yourself.’ Every single down, being a guy that distributes the ball to as many playmakers that we have in the backfield and at the wide receiver position. He’s taken to that and his growth has been exponential that way.”
Center Greg Crippen
It’s rare for a true freshman lineman to receive playing time, but Crippen has already cracked the two-deep. Either sophomore Zak Zinter or sixth-year senior Andrew Vastardis will get the start at center in the opener, but Crippen appears to be the next guy in.
“Greg Crippen continues to be a standout,” Harbaugh said.
The four-star recruit also has previous chemistry with McCarthy as IMG’s starting center last season.
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