Depending on how early you start your countdown, we are getting tantalizingly close to the start of the 2018 Michigan football season.
If you’re like me, just saying that out loud is enough to heat your blood to temperatures only found on the surface of Venus or under Lovie Smith’s seat. With the season on the horizon, the Maize n Brew staff are diving into everything Michigan football, from the roster, the schedule, the staff, all the way down to the type of product Chase Winovich uses in his hair.
This week, I am breaking down my top five candidates for a breakout season in 2018.
Kwity Paye and Carlo Kemp
I have about a dozen players I want to talk about here, but we have to narrow this down to a workable list.
Both of these guys are going to see the field. One or both will be a star — the defensive line history of late all but guarantees it. Kemp is the more likely contributor this season, but Paye has the higher ceiling. I could see Paye coming in and contributing like Mario Ojemudia did early in his career, but his ceiling is much, much higher.
Kemp is more athletic than Ryan Glasgow right now, and seems to be coming along with his technique based on some of the summer chatter. His ceiling is Mike Martin, his floor is Brennan Beyer. That should excite fans.
Luiji Vilain surpasses both Paye and Kemp as far as potential, but has been dealing with injuries. If Vilain gets past injuries and finds a way into the rotation, I expect him to be an absolute beast.
5. Josh Uche
With all of the hype coming out of summer camp about Michael Dwumfour, I decided to go a different route — if for no other reason than to highlight some of the other guys that could see a big jump in playing time and production.
My good friend Von Lozon also highlighted three under-the-radar players he expects to break through if you want to hear some of the other names likely to be called this season.
Uche saw more time as the season progressed last year, and really flashed potential as a pass rushing specialist. He only registered one sack, but with only two games as a sample size, it is safe to say he will outperform those totals this year.
What I like about Uche is his explosiveness and violence at the outside linebacker position. Listed at 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds, he has ideal size for the position. He has a ways to go in pass coverage and run stuffing, but he has all the tools to do so.
Uche had a couple plays toward the end of the year where he really jumped off the film with his penetration and quickness. He can get into the backfield in a hurry, and if nothing else I expect him to rack up some quarterback pressures this season.
4. Ambry Thomas
Of all the player on this list, Ambry Thomas might be the one I am highest on. Picture Jabrill Peppers speed with Jourdan Lewis or Leon Hall coverage skills and you start to understand the potential of Thomas.
The truly surprising fact is he might see less time than others on this list due to the fact he is sitting behind two likely first round draft picks in Lavert Hill and David Long. Mark my words though, you will see Ambry Thomas in 2018. Whether it be on kick/punt returns or in coverage, he is too good to sit on the sidelines. I would not be shocked if he saw a few touches on end-arounds or screen passes either.
The 2019 defense will once again be dominant, and Thomas is a name you should expect to see on every defensive awards watchlist.
3. Donovan Peoples-Jones
This one seems obvious to close followers of the Michigan program, but on a national scale DPJ is relatively unknown outside of his recruiting ranking.
He came to the program with the athleticism to contribute immediately, but was less polished as a collegiate receiver than Tarik Black (too obvious of a breakout player for this list). If you watch his progression through the 2017 season, he got better every time he took the field.
Had Brandon Peters not been injured against Wisconsin, he would have gone for over 100 yards receiving and we would have won the game, but that is a depreciating line of thought that will drive any fan insane.
He will likely also see time on return duty, giving Michigan one of the most dangerous return combos in the country with he and Ambry Thomas.
What I love about DPJ’s game is he was fast and physical as freshman. He didn’t quite have the size or strength to bully cornerbacks yet, but if he has bulked up you could see that added to his arsenal. His route running was not super crisp and he made some mental mistakes early on, but that is what you expect out of a true freshman wide receiver. The fact he was getting noticeably better as the season progressed suggests big things for Peoples-Jones.
He and Tarik Black could be the next coming of Braylon Edwards and Mario Manningham. Allow yourself to get excited.
2. Cesar Ruiz
This is my absolute lock of the group. Highly-ranked recruit? Check. Size for the position? Check. Athleticism? You better believe it.
Early talks out of camp are he is already the best center Michigan has had since David Molk. It’s been awhile, but that 2011 offense was humming on the ground, and that was with Fitz Toussaint and Vincent Smith in the backfield. With a far more talented backfield of Evans and Higdon, I anticipate the biggest rushing year since Chris Perry.
Ruiz will likely be the best offensive lineman on the team by the end of the year, if he’s not already.
1. Zach Gentry
Fellow Maize n Brew writer Andrew Bailey and I call him Treebeard, because much like the heroic and steady tree from Lord of the Rings, this guys is tall, steady and a godforsaken hero.
The main difference is he has the athleticism of any of the top tight ends you have seen go in the first round of the draft these past years. Gentry’s lack of stats last year are 100 percent due to a lack of consistent quality quarterback play and a lack of deep shots.
Pick any game in the second half of the season from last year and just watch Gentry. He comes free in almost every play where he is on the field. There just aren’t any linebackers that can hang with him, and safeties are going to have a hell of a time dealing with his 6-foot-7, 250-pound frame. Even when a defender is within five yards of him, his size and strength gives him the advantage in any jump ball situation.
I am of the opinion that Gentry could be the top tight end in the country. The most apt comparison for this guy is Zach Ertz, but he somehow has a higher ceiling. Gentry is a better all-around athlete than Mark Andrews or Eric Ebron, and is still growing into the position. His blocking has improved enough to allow him to stay on the field for 85 percent of the plays in 2018.
The more all-around tight end Sean McKeon will be on the field slightly more, and could be the most complete tight end in the country as a junior in 2019. If I am Shea Patterson, I am leaning on Gentry to be my safety valve and a top option for big plays, even above the lightning rod Tarik Black. If Gentry isn’t taken in the top two rounds of the NFL draft, something went wrong this season.
What do you think of my list? Let me hear it in the comments below!