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Here’s why Don Brown envisions playing more true freshmen on defense this season

Dr. Blitz is excited about several guys.

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Michigan Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Many of Michigan’s true freshmen a season ago were able to earn solid playing time, but most of them were on the offensive side of the ball. Only Daxton Hill and Christopher Hinton saw significant playing time as true freshmen on defense, but that may change for the Wolverines in 2020 thanks to the unforeseen circumstances of COVID-19.

In speaking with reporters over Zoom on Wednesday, Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown said he anticipates playing more true freshmen this year thanks to the NCAA allowing any player to play this season and not have it go against their eligibility — essentially having this be a redshirt season for everyone — due to the pandemic.

“Yes, I think we will,” Brown said. “Obviously, keeping your fingers crossed with this COVID issue as well — you just don’t know what’s gonna happen on a week-to-week basis in terms of your roster, so you’ve got to be prepared. The one thing that coach Harbaugh has stressed to all of us coaches is, ‘Coach everybody. Make sure everybody gets coached.’ And that has all got taken to heart. And we are coaching the first-day freshman and the senior that’s never got on the field because you just don’t know who’s gonna end up playing for you on Saturday afternoon. So that’s been an important battle cry.”

Brown pointed out a few true freshmen who have already turned heads in camp this fall, including linebackers Kalel Mullings and Nikhai Hill-Green.

“(Mullings is) 6-foot-2.5, he’s 241 pounds and he’s 17 years old playing the MIKE linebacker position. He can run now,” Brown said. “Nikhai Hill-Green plays the WILL next door to him. They were both just in my office. They love football. They love being around it. I just see the sky’s the limit for those guys.”

With Cameron McGrone and Josh Ross ahead of them on the depth chart, it may be difficult to find consistent playing time for those freshmen this season. It may be easier for some of the guys in the defensive backfield to see more playing time. Brown highlighted safety Makari Paige as a guy standing out, who would greatly benefit from Daxton Hill playing more cornerback this season.

“This Makari Paige is playing at a high level,” Brown said. “And he’s a young man that we feel can jump in there and help us at early stages for sure.

“He’s a safety all the way — tremendous length. I’m gonna be conservative and say he’s 6-foot-2, I think he’s taller than that. He really plays well over the slot. But we have a number of guys playing pretty well over the slots, and the good thing is we have good, young receivers, so we’re getting challenged every day. It’s nice to be able to get a good look at our guys in terms of competitive situations.”

Nickel cornerback Andre Seldon also has impressed Brown, but he has missed some time due to injury, along with linebacker Cornell Wheeler.

All in all, it looks like Michigan’s defense will see more true freshmen contributors this season than previously. Since Brown’s arrival to Ann Arbor, it usually takes freshmen a while to really get it going and earn significant playing time on defense. That all could change as soon as Oct. 24 when Michigan takes on Minnesota in the season opener.