While the freshman campaigns of many Michigan Wolverines provided glimpses of their potential, it’s in their sophomore year that players often make the most significant strides. With the way college football has progressed in the new era of NIL, the transfer portal and waivers to play more than four years, sitting and waiting your turn has not become a guaranteed path. For these five rising sophomores, the work that was put in during their first season will lay the seeds for a potential breakout season in 2024.
Semaj Morgan: Expanding His Role
After a freshman year filled with highlight-reel plays, Semaj Morgan is expected to take on an even more significant role in the offense next season. Of all the freshmen in 2023, Morgan had the biggest impact. In his very first Big Ten game against Rutgers, Morgan made a nice adjustment for a touchdown to burst onto the Michigan football scene. A few games later, he juked out half of Indiana’s defense for a touchdown for his only catch of the game.
En route to defeating Purdue, Morgan turned on the jets for a 44-yard touchdown run. He also ran through players and horse-collar tackles against Maryland for a big touchdown. And finally, he’s the guy who jumped in during the Big Ten Championship Game when there was some opportunities on the punt returner job and followed it up with an electric 87-yard punt return. Just about every time Morgan got his hands on the football, he turned it into a big play and made a lasting impact on the season.
As for 2024, Morgan is in line to be the primary slot receiver for a team that lost its top two options in Roman Wilson and Cornelius Johnson. While he did fumble a punt against Alabama in the Rose Bowl, he took the criticism well and wasn’t afraid to return two punts in the National Championship Game against Washington for 27 total yards.
As defenses key in on him, Morgan’s ability to adapt and overcome double teams and complex coverage schemes will be crucial as I expect for him to see a lot more playing time next season.
Benjamin Hall: Becoming the No. 2
For Benjamin Hall, the path forward is about becoming the feature back in Michigan’s offensive scheme. With his blend of size and speed, Hall has the tools to be a three-down back who can wear down defenses.
Hall entered the season as fifth on the depth chart behind Blake Corum, Donovan Edwards, Kalel Mullings, and came in with highly-touted recruit, Cole Cabana. The three-star from Georgia quickly started to turn heads during the 2023 Spring Game when he rushed for 96 yards and a touchdown. While an injury at the beginning of the season slowed his production a little bit, the 5-foot-11, 234-pound 18-year-old rushed for 58 yards on nine carries in Michigan’s 52-7 win over Indiana.
As Corum leaves for the NFL Draft, all of the running backs on the depth chart have an opportunity to fight for more minutes. Edwards is expected to be the workhorse, but the No. 2 position is wide open for the taking. Given the amount of playing time Hall received his freshman season, there is a lot of potential for him to step in as a goal-line back who can play significant minutes if given the chance.
DJ Waller Jr.: Solidifying the Secondary
DJ Waller Jr. has a golden opportunity to anchor Michigan’s secondary. With his 6-foot-3, 205 pound frame and athleticism, Waller can match up against the Big Ten’s best receivers. Waller saw decent playing time his first season for the Wolverines, appearing in 11 games and making 12 tackles with one pass breakup.
The key for Waller is the amount of praise he received. Throughout the season, guys like Will Johnson, Quinten Johnson, and defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale spoke volumes about Waller’s potential. Waller was named Defensive Freshman of the Week five times in 2023 for his performance against UNLV and Bowling Green, Indiana, at Nebraska, at Michigan State, and has the chance to build on it with the departure of Johnston, Josh Wallace and Mike Sainristil.
As of now, the No. 2 cornerback position is open as well.
Jyaire Hill: Establishing His Presence
Jyaire Hill’s trajectory from a standout high school athlete to a promising collegiate player underscores the potential impact he can have for the Wolverines. During his time at Kankakee High School in Illinois, Hill was nothing short of spectacular, amassing impressive statistics that included 42 tackles his senior season, including five tackles for loss with two sacks, three forced fumbles and three interceptions. He also was involved on offense, totaling 186 receiving yards and 129 rushing yards, finding the end zone 10 times as a senior. His ability to change the course of a game with his defensive plays was evident, earning him a four-star prospect rating and placing him among the top cornerbacks in the nation.
Coming to Michigan, Hill didn’t get much playing time his freshman season, having to sit behind four cornerbacks with a lot of experience. He did appear in four games as a defensive back, but was given a redshirt to preserve another season. Hill’s athleticism, demonstrated by his 4.59 40-yard dash and agility in the 100 meters, combined with his physical play and ball skills, makes him a formidable force on the field with proper coaching.
Much like Waller, Hill will compete for the No. 2 and 3 cornerback positions next season and has the chance to prove himself to the coaching staff.
Adam Samaha: Next Man Up
The Wolverines have been fortunate in recent years to have reliable kickers that seemingly come out of nowhere but give fans a sense of peace when they line up for a kick. Between Quinn Nordin, Jake Moody and now James Turner, the Michigan kicking game has been one of the best in the country under Jim Harbaugh.
Now that Turner is out of eligibility, the Wolverines need to look for someone new to kick in high-pressure moments throughout the season. On the shortlist is punter Tommy Doman and freshman Adam Samaha.
Samaha was a three-star prospect out of high school who accumulated many accolades, including setting the school record for the longest field goal in a game (49 yards) during his senior season. In 2022, he converted 11-of-14 field goals and was perfect on extra points. Samaha also hit 50 touchbacks on 56 kickoffs during his junior year.
While he only appeared against Indiana in 2023, kicking the extra point in garbage time, there has been a lot of praise for his ability to make long kicks and stay consistent.
I believe there will be a competition at the placekicker spot during spring ball between Samaha and Doman. However, since Doman punted the ball so well in 2023, it may be best to let Doman focus on punting and provide Samaha more reps as the kicker.