Welcome back! Let’s keep these rankings rolling. For anyone who missed the first rendition of this series, I am ranking each position group for the Michigan Wolverines heading into the 2020 season. In the previous edition, I gave my number 6-10 rankings, which you can here. Today I will be continuing with the top 5 position groups as of right now in my opinion. Let’s get started!
Michigan’s pass defense last year was mediocre. Against opponents that didn’t have big time receivers, the pass defense was for the most part good. Unfortunately, in arguably the four biggest games of the year (Penn State, ND, OSU, Alabama), those opponents averaged 238 yards through the air. I can’t fault that completely on the cornerbacks though, as the DL only achieved 5 total sacks throughout those four games. I still believe we play way too much man coverage in those big games. One of the guys who would consistently get left on an island with the best receiver was Lavert Hill, who was signed as an UDFA this past month by the KC Chiefs. Lavert definitely didn’t have the senior season I was hoping he would, and I know he wasn’t necessarily loved by the community (I’m looking at you Blake). So, with Lavert departing, that leaves Ambry Thomas and Vincent Gray to lockdown this fall. Ambry had a breakout year as a corner last season, and while there were definitely some rough moments along the way, I liked what I saw from him a lot. I think his coverage skills are going to continue to improve, and I hope to see him emerge as another leader at the back of the defense. Vincent Gray should flank Ambry on the other side of the field for the most part this upcoming season. Now a junior, I honestly don’t remember a ton about his play from last season but nothing negative sticks out in my mind. Another guy to watch out for is Jalen Perry. 4-star recruit rated 91 on 247, this guy could have a breakout year. I look forward to watching this position this season as they will have plenty of opportunities to prove themselves against stiff competition.
4: Special Teams
I’ve combined all aspects of special teams into this ranking. Punters, kickers, returners are all included. Starting with punters, this is the only real loss for the special teams unit in my opinion. Will Hart was a fantastic punter, averaging 44 yards a kick last season. His departure will sting for sure, but I feel Brad Robbins will step in and do a fine job. Against OSU where he got the start, he punted for 4 times (figures) for an average of 42 yards. As someone who was there to witness the slaughter, I remember it being pretty windy too. Onto kickers, this one is interesting. It seems that fan favorite Quinn Nordin has returned to the team, making the kicking situation all that more interesting. Nordin and Jake Moody were changed out throughout the entire season, both having ups and downs. Nordin hit that infamous 57 yarder right before halftime against Alabama, while Moody posted a video on social media of him hitting a 69 yarder! It should be a great battle if Nordin does return, but I feel confident no matter who gets the start. Donovan Peoples Jones was drafted this past month, leaving our punt returner position vacant. I expect either Giles Jackson or Ronnie Bell to step in and fill this void, and truthfully, I felt this should have been done last season. I didn’t care for DPJ returning punts and after Giles Jackson took over kickoff duties about halfway through the year, I felt he should’ve taken over punting as well. Either way I’m happy that position is getting a new face to take responsibilities. There’s not much more to say about special teams. I think all phases will be solid for the most part and there’s experience in every phase. That’s really all you can ask for in your special teams and I think this will be a strong point for the roster this upcoming year.
3: Defensive Line
A group that didn’t have a great 2019 is poised for a breakout in my eyes. The line failed to create pressure and help out the secondary, and run defense was a big issue against Wisconsin and OSU. The line lost three main contributors, Uche and Danna to the NFL, and Dwumfor to the transfer portal. Dwumfor and Danna had decent years last year, but nothing that can’t be replaced. Josh Uche is going to be the real loss for this DL, as he had a great senior season with 35 total tackles and 8.5 sacks. I loved his play and how he constantly shifted around the defense, and I think the Patriots got a great versatile player who is going to do very well in the league. As for his replacement, I think Cam McGrone has a similar skill set. McGrone and Uche are similar in size, both 6’1 and about 230-240, and both specialize in run defense and rushing the QB, while lacking in pass coverage. As for the line itself, Carlo Kemp was awarded a fifth year, and I expect him to be one of the anchors of the defensive line. Kemp has steadily improved over the course of his career, accounting for 40 total tackles and 2 sacks last season. Another veteran I expect to lead the line is Kwity Paye, who announced back in December he would be returning for his Senior season. You’re going to find out I like the guys on our line a lot, and Kwity is no exception. 50 total tackles and 6.5 sacks last season was very solid, and I think he’s primed for another big year. Lastly, arguably the biggest breakout player of the defense last season was Aidan Hutchinson. This guy is one of my favorite players to watch on the entire roster. I love the energy and passion he brings to the edge, and I fully expect to see him mature into a four-down rusher by the end of the season. Besides these veterans, there’s a few young sophomores who I expect to get some serious playing time this upcoming season. Chris Hinton and Mazi Smith were 2 of the 4 highest recruits in our 2019 class, and I think they both have the potential to contribute significantly to this line this season. I clearly feel this is one of the deepest and most talented groups of players on our roster, and I’m super excited to watch them go to work and take a major step forward from last year. If they can create constant pressure and help out the secondary, it will be a huge win for our defense.
2: Running Backs
This is where things get very tricky. Numbers 2 and 1 were very close for me, but I ultimately put our backfield in at the number two slot for now. With a new quarterback coming in this season, it is going to be absolutely essential for the run game to be working while the new play caller gets settled in. The good news is that I believe we have one of the deepest backfields in the BIG 10, if not the whole nation. Zach Charbonnet, Chris Evans, Hassan Haskins, and Christian Turner are all capable backs who could start for a lot of programs. I really don’t know how the carries will be divvied up amongst these young men, but I think they all excel in different ways. Charbonnet is the run through the tackles guy, who also has that second gear once he breaks free. Chris Evans is a very elusive back who has great hands out of the backfield. Hassan Haskins is a do it all kind of guy, he’s athletic, he gets downhill quick, he has good vision. Christian Turner has got some serious speed, and on jet sweeps or screen passes, he can be a super dangerous weapon if used correctly. I really hope we get to see all of these guys implemented into the offense consistently, it would be a shame to waste the clear talent we have in this group. If I had to guess, I see Charbonnet and Haskins carrying the bulk of the carries on your average run plays, with Evans and Turner being utilized on pass options and outside runs more. Lastly, although I said I wouldn’t talk about recruits for this ranking, I have to mention highly touted 4-star recruit Blake Corum. Arguably the best or second-best recruit in the 2020 class, watch out for him to make an immediate impact and get some playing time. I think this group as a whole has the potential to really carry the offense and keep defenses honest, and open up those airwaves for the…
1: Wide Receivers
I’d be lying to you if I didn’t have our receiving corps at the top of this list. Nico Collins, Ronnie Bell, Giles Jackson, and Mike Sainristil is a deep and experienced group of wideouts who have some great versatility. This group did lose two stars in Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black, but both Ronnie and Nico had almost if not as many receiving yards as DPJ and Black combined (DPJ and Tarik had 761 combined while Ronnie and Nico had 758 and 729 respectively)! Ronnie Bell was probably the most surprising breakout player of the year last season, and he has become one of my favorite Wolverines in recent memory. That being said, I feel confident saying that our two most productive and honestly well-rounded receivers are back for 2020, and hopefully with an accurate thrower and a more pass heavy scheme in place, this group should excel. We saw what happened in the second half of the season, starting with the Penn State game. When Gattis and company got aggressive with the play calling, Michigan for the most part was able to move the ball at will. Even in parts of the OSU and Alabama games you could tell the defense was reeling and Michigan had their foot on the gas. That’s the game plan and play calling I love to see and with the athletes we have on the perimeter, there’s no reason we shouldn’t utilize this group to their maximum potential. These guys are going to BALL OUT next season and I’m all here for it.