As Harbaugh’s first two full recruiting classes mature into upperclassmen, Michigan’s roster has gained talent and depth at most positions. There are still some gaps that will allow some true freshmen to step in immediately and start contributing to the team.
Some of these players are obvious, while others will be surprising and welcome performers in 2019. Based on roster depth and individual talent, I’ve divided the 2019 class into three groups that detail how much time each of them will see in their first year on campus.
Unsurprisingly, this list includes the highest-ranked players in Michigan’s 2019 class, who all fill positions of need on the roster. Along the defensive line, Michigan grabbed the No. 4 and No. 11 defensive tackles in the nation at a position that is looking for players to take a step up this season. Mazi Smith enrolled early, which should help him get a leg up on Chris Hinton, who was last seen destroying the competition at the All-American Bowl in January.
Smith has a quick first step and is already listed at 303 pounds on Michigan’s roster, making him a candidate to be used at nose tackle on passing downs. Hinton transitioned from defensive end to tackle, so he’ll be used more at the 3-tech position, where he’ll back up Carlo Kemp and Donovan Jeter. Defensive linemen rotate heavily, so both Smith and Hinton will likely see action in more than five games, especially if the coaches give them reps early on to season them for big games later on.
Jim Harbaugh mentioned on his Attack Each Day podcast back in April that Daxton Hill will probably have to play early and often, making him an easy choice for this list. That remark doesn’t speak well to the safeties already on the roster trying to replace Tyree Kinnel, but if the staff were to bring in anyone, it might as well be the No. 1 safety in the country. Given Hill’s outstanding athleticism and instincts, he should be able to play from Day 1. There will be some freshman mistakes involved, but by the end of the season he can be an above-average starter.
On offense, Zach Charbonnet similarly steps into a running back stable that he can take over easily if he lives up to his reputation. Like defensive line, Harbaugh likes to use a rotation at running back, but that may change under Josh Gattis. In any case, if anyone is going to take the reins at the position this season and become the bell cow back, it’s Charbonnet, who has the best pedigree by far out of any of the potential contributors.
The biggest breakout star of the spring was unquestionably slot receiver Mike Sainristil, who created a lot of hype around his performance during the spring game. Right now, Michigan’s roster is heavy on outside receivers over six feet, and lacking on options in the slot. Sainristil stepped in seamlessly and showed he has the skill set to thrive in Gattis’ offense. With more three- and four-receiver sets expected this season, Sainristil will be able to carve out a niche for himself in the offense coming out of the slot.
With the new rules taking effect last season, it became possible for coaches to use freshmen in up to four games without losing their redshirt eligibility. This opened up opportunities for young players to see limited game time and gain some valuable experience on the field. The guys in this category are mostly blocked by experienced starters at their position or are a little raw to be playing full-time, but have a good shot at contributing sooner than later.
On offense, there are a few players at skill positions that could see reps in some games. This includes Cornelius Johnson, Giles Jackson and Erick All.
Johnson is blocked by the big three receivers from the 2017 class, as well as Ronnie Bell, on the outside. All is similarly blocked by a stacked tight end room and will need some time to bulk up, despite some rave reviews from spring camp. Both will probably get some time late in blowouts, but I wouldn’t expect much until the depth chart clears a bit in front of them.
Jackson is the player I was closest to putting in the first category given his ability in the slot, but I think DPJ, Sainristil and Bell will get most of the reps on the inside. However, I could easily see him carving out a role and having a similar breakout as Sainristil during fall camp. At the very least, his speed will be useful on special teams.
Finishing off this side of the ball, the only offensive lineman I included in this category is Nolan Rumler, who was continuously praised for his high floor and college-readiness as a high school prospect. He seems the most likely player to see some reps late in games, but even then the depth along the interior of the line may prevent that.
On the defensive side of the ball, there are a couple more candidates to get some snaps. David Ojabo is still sushi raw after only playing 1.5 seasons of football in his life, but he did enroll early and got some buzz in the spring. If he’s ahead of schedule, he could see some time. Linebackers Charles Thomas and Anthony Solomon could at the very least get some time on special teams, but will need to bulk up a bit before they’re ready to contribute on defense, especially Solomon.
In the secondary, DJ Turner and Jalen Perry should get some run at cornerback, given the lack of top-tier options behind the current starters. If either perform well in their auditions, they could set themselves up in pole position to replace Lavert Hill in 2020. Similarly, Quinten Johnson could take advantage of the lackluster performance of the current safeties on the roster Harbaugh hinted at and try to set himself up to take over for Josh Metellus next season.
Pack Away For Later
Now for the guys whose adjustments to college will take some more time for whatever reason. They may get a cameo in a game or two, but some bad injury luck or an unexpected breakout, won’t be contributing until a few more seasons.
At quarterback, Cade McNamara is an obvious redshirt candidate given the talent ahead of him. All the backup reps are going to be given to Dylan McCaffrey and Joe Milton to help start the process of picking Shea Patterson’s replacement next year.
A few of McNamara’s potential targets in George Johnson and Quintel Kent will also take some time. Johnson is transitioning from playing quarterback for his high school team, and Kent is one of the lowest rated players in the class and has plenty of talent in front of him.
Almost all the members of the offensive line class are basically locks to redshirt, which is a welcome situation after Michigan had to spend the last few seasons throwing in unprepared starters as freshmen. At tackle, Trente Jones and Trevor Keegan will get to fight for Jon Runyan’s vacated spot next year, but that will most likely go to the loser of the Jalen Mayfield/Andrew Steuber battle this year.
Karsen Barnhart and Jack Stewart could start out at tackle, but are just as likely to find time at the interior at some point. Zach Carpenter has always been an interior prospect and will have to battle the likes of Chuck Filiaga, Joel Honigford and Stephen Spanellis in the coming seasons.
On the flip side of the line, Mike Morris is a bit of a tweener and will take some time to bulk up if the goal is to move him to defensive tackle. If he ends up seeing extensive time this season, something has gone very wrong. Meanwhile, Gabe Newburg was banged up a bit during his senior season and could take some time to recover, but does seem to have a high floor because of his technique, so we could see him sooner than later.
Finally, there hasn’t really been a consensus yet on where Joey Velazquez will play yet. He’s usually been talked about as a Viper, but could also be used as a rush linebacker if he adds some size. Either way, he’ll need some time to figure out where he’s going to play and at most will see some special teams reps in his first season.
Football season is full of surprises, so there will be breakout players and disappointments, but based on the information that is out there as of now, these outcomes seem the most likely. If you have a different opinion on how much you think an incoming freshman will contribute in 2019, let us know in the comments below!