Walk-ons, as I’ve said before, are the weird black sheep of the recruiting family - at least when it comes to media coverage. Numerous teams have been able to turn walk-ons into NFL players (like Iowa, Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Michigan State, to name a few). Michigan even has a famous trio of brothers who were all walk-ons, plus a star safety you may remember in Jordan Kovacs. And under Jim Harbaugh’s tutelage, the walk-on program is even more emphasized and important than it was before.
This cycle, there are fifteen confirmed preferred walk-ons who will join the scholarship additions. They all have a good amount of potential, even though they probably won’t get much mention during the off-season. Still, let’s take a closer look at who these guys are and what they bring to the table.
Sean Fitzgerald, DT/OG
Fitzgerald is a great addition. The 6’3”, 295-pound lineman has the size and strength to contribute at a Big Ten level, and his combination of strength and pad level are hard to find. (Flexibility is a good sign for a big guy, and Sean has it.) You won’t win any 100-meter dashes with Fitzgerald, but he is deceptively quick around the hole - which is good for both interior disruption on defense and some gap blocking on offense.
I would lean toward projecting him to defense instead of offense, but he’s really just a classic big ugly: put him anywhere in the trenches and he’ll be fine. Like I said, a great pick-up.
Jess Speight, OG
There’s one other lineman in this PWO class, and it’s the “little” brother of Wilton Speight. Jess weighs in at 6’4”, 275, and he’s another guy with flexibility and size. Speight is slimmer and not as strong, but his footwork is very solid for any big man, and particularly a walk-on.
I think his best position at the next level is the interior offensive line; his pass blocking will be a weakness despite his footwork because of some stiff hips, and he’s at his best in a phone booth with another lineman. He’ll be good depth once he’s put on some muscle over the next few years.
Adam Fakih, LB
Fakih is a guy with the right frame (currently at 6’2”, 210), good hands, and solid athleticism. He lacks top-end speed that would’ve made him a much more coveted prospect, but his footwork and use of angles helps mitigate those concerns.
This is another case where we’ll have to see what happens as he starts to gain muscle. If he maintains or even gains speed (which will happen sometimes as guys get heavier), he’s a very good Division-I prospect. If he doesn’t, I doubt he’ll see the field except for special teams.
Tyler Plocki, FB/LB
My two favorite traits of Tyler Plocki are that he’s a heads-up guy and really good at changing direction. He’d be a very good decision-maker as a linebacker, with terrific side-to-side or “scraping” speed, and he also has the potential to be a dynamite fullback once he packs on some muscle to his 6’1”, 215-pound frame.
He might not show up on the recruiting rankings with the big-name players, but Plocki is a glue guy with an underrated, all-around set of skills. I like his potential to make an impact quite a bit.
Chris Hanlon, TE
Hanlon, a 6’3”, 220-pound tight end out of Florida, reminds me of Sean McKeon from the 2016 cycle: completely under-the-radar, a little under-sized for a tight end, but great speed and pure play-making. The blocking’s very solid, as well. In fact, if it weren’t for the next couple fellows, Hanlon would probably be the best of the bunch among the PWOs.
Hunter Reynolds, S/CB/WR
I’ll get this right out there: how in the heck did this guy only get an offer from Stetson? I’m more excited about Reynolds than a couple of the scholarship players, not kidding.
Hunter is a 6’0”, 190-pound athlete out of Connecticut, which is Don Brown’s old stomping grounds and a recent gold mine for Michigan recruiting. Athletically, he’s got good top-end speed and can change direction without slowing down (a great skill for a corner). He’s also great going side to side. There isn’t a lot of film showing his defensive technique, but the raw potential is there.
Jack Young, WR
Out of all the positions you think of for walk-ons, wide receiver isn’t usually one of them. But, here we are - Harbaugh’s made sure to add wide receiver walk-ons in past classes, too, although I don’t expect those guys (except for Simeon Smith) to make the field.
Young is definitely a step up in terms of athleticism from past walk-ons, and he’s also an extremely solid 6’1”, 190 pounds. He’s the fourth or fifth guy on this list where I’m surprised he’s actually a walk-on, so an obligatory tip of the cap to Jim Harbaugh here. He’s put in some serious work on recruiting or at least finding these guys when no one else has.
Young is a deep threat-type receiver who can grow his route tree over the next couple seasons, and I definitely expect him to make an impact sooner or later.
Evan Latham, WR
Next up, we have Evan Latham, who’s a solid but not staggering prospect at the next level. His size isn’t listed anywhere, but I’d peg him conservatively around 5’11”, 185. He’s a raw prospect with great hands, solid speed, a good core, and good spatial awareness. Still, I wonder if he’s going to be able to make waves against a terrific scholarship class and other good walk-ons.
Jared Davis, LB
Michigan adds a Signing Day PWO thanks to Jared Davis, a 6’1”, 190-pound native Michigander out of Frankenmouth. Davis is a little bit more of a project than some of these guys - he definitely has a lot of experience in the run game, and he’s at his most comfortable hitting people and stopping what’s in front of him. His raw speed doesn’t stand out at first, but he’s a pretty good athlete.
Jared’s best chance to make an impact is to gain muscle (a lot of muscle) and try to make an impact on special teams and factor into the run game. Hopefully his reps and toughness can build up some instincts that turn a run defender into a play-maker around the line.
Ryan Veingrad, DE/LB
The 6’3”, 230-pound cancer survivor has already written a great story to his life by beating Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Now, his goal will be much more pedestrian: try to make an impact in college football.
He’ll have a chance if he bulks up and shows his signature toughness in the run game. He’s already fundamentally sound and capable around the ball, but he’ll need to model his game after Chase Winovich to find a way to make plays and rush the passer with his shorter frame. I certainly expect him to make the field on special teams, at the very least.
Jake McCurry, WR/S
This one slipped through the cracks: I didn’t know McCurry had been committed to Michigan as a PWO for some time. Once again, Michigan adds a surprisingly athletic guy in the pass game, as evidenced by his two-star ranking on 247Sports. He reminds me a lot of Grant Perry - 6’0”, 180, a guy who finds a way to get open. A really solid pickup for the Maize and Blue.
Adam Shibley, LB
Shibley is another guy I’ve found about - he’s a very exciting prospect at linebacker, and someone I’m going to mention in depth charts going forward.
His film shows a guy who’s fast enough to cover in the flat very well, has great change of direction, great lateral speed, is extremely active around the ball, has toughness in the run game and comfort with handling blocks, and is definitely a scholly-type guy filtering through the walk-on program. Yet another home run here.
Matt Baldeck, LS
I have a bald-faced confession: I’ve done no research about Matt whatsoever. At all. Still, I’m confident he’ll be a pretty good long snapper for Michigan. Call it a long shot. Ahh, I’m hilarious.
Matt Brown, LB/FB
Very late to the process, we have a flip: the 6’0”, 220-pound lacrosse player has decided to try out for Michigan football instead. He’s a hard-hitting, gnatty, quick-footed player on defense, with good hands and a nose for the ball. Brown is a good athlete (not a great one) who’s comfortable with his technique and the timing necessary to make decisions as a play unfolds. These are all good intangible traits for an effective linebacker.
Again, I would say he’s a good candidate to make an impact down the line, though I’ll be curious to see where he plays. If I had to guess, I’d say he’s a more pure linebacker than some of the other candidates for a switch, but we’ll see.
Tristan Hughes, QB
I wrote in more detail about Hughes here; basically, I think he’s a fun player to watch and maybe a productive quarterback for a G5 team but not really a guy I think can break out at Michigan.
So, it’s safe to say this is a very good class, not only with the scholarship players sending in their national letters of intent but also these guys, who probably won’t get much attention during the summer or fall. Luckily, media attention isn’t necessary to grow and get better as a football player, and in many cases staying under the radar is an asset for motivating players to show what they’re able to do.
There will certainly be other walk-ons who make it onto the fall roster, and if anyone else commits as a PWO to the ‘17 class I’ll make sure to update the list. But this is already a great group as is, bolstering the play-making ability on the offense plus a little on the defense and the line of scrimmage. Best of luck to all of these guys.