We are under two weeks away from the kickoff of the Michigan Wolverines football season, and it is time to prepare to see some names on the field that fans may not be accustomed to who are making plays for the Maize and Blue. We’re not talking about former five-star safety Dax Hill or sophomore stud running back Zach Charbonnet. Both are poised to shoot into stardom in their second year after playing significant roles as true freshmen. Instead, we will focus on players who are under the radar and have the potential to contribute in key ways this season. Here are three of those guys to keep an eye on.
No. 1: Sophomore Wide Receiver Cornelius Johnson
Everyone wants to talk about Giles Jackson and Mike Sainristil as the up-and-comers in the wide receiver room heading into their second year in Josh Gattis’ system, but their counterpart Cornelius Johnson deserves just as much praise heading into the 2020 season.
It is a little bit baffling because Johnson was the highest-rated of the three in the 2019 recruiting class, but both Jackson and Sainristil have played larger roles in the offense up to this point because their skills fit the needs the Wolverines had in the wide receiver room last season. “Speed in Space” was the mantra Gattis implemented in year one, but the receiving corps was built to be a vertical threat offense with a bunch of big bodies.
The roles have reversed as Johnson has a rather large frame at 6-foot-3, 205 lbs, similar to Nico Collins, Tarik Black, and Donovan Peoples-Jon-type receivers who are now absent from the team. Now, all three are gone, and Jackson, Sainristil, and projected No. 1 wide receiver Ronnie Bell are left with an average height of 5-foot-10. Johnson will fill a much-needed role as a guy who can go up and get a 50-50 ball that quarterback Joe Milton loves throwing.
Bell spoke with the media at the end of September and gave his admiration for Johnson: “As for guys that I think have made a jump, definitely CJ, Cornelius Johnson and Mikey Sainristil. Both of those guys have been just dominant during the offseason and the little preseason we’ve been having.”
Gattis echoed a similar message to the media, “There’s always a jump from year one to year two,” Gattis said. “To see those guys make that jump this offseason from a skill standpoint has been really impressive. Those guys are going to have a bigtime impact on the offense.”
No. 2 Sophomore Interior Defensive Lineman Chris Hinton
In the 2019 class, Michigan snagged two five-star prospects. One was the aforementioned Daxton Hill. The other was Chris Hinton who has somewhat been in his shadow. If Hill would have committed to Alabama and veered away from Michigan, Hinton would have been the focal point of this class and the most anticipated player from it. Instead, Hill saw a quality amount of minutes as a true freshman and received all the hype while Hinton was a bit further down the depth chart in year one.
Now, Hinton is primed to compete for a starting role with senior Donovan Jeter alongside senior captain Carlo Kemp. Hinton is notorious for being an athletic 300-pounder. In fact, he routinely lined up on the outside in his high school days even with his large frame. In year two in Don Brown’s system, he is going to be more comfortable and ready to make an impact.
Here is what the Michigan defensive coordinator said about the emerging defensive lineman in early October:
“He’s a tremendous young man. This guy, I used to joke with him last year, what would you rather be, a slug or a bullet? I want him to be a bullet. He’s improved his short-area quickness. His COD, change of direction, tremendously. We’re starting to see those benefits.”
No. 3 Redshirt Freshman SAM Linebacker David Ojabo
Josh Uche was one of the more productive EDGE rushers the Michigan Wolverines have seen this decade. Now, they will be tasked with replacing the 7.5 sacks that went with Uche to the NFL.
Brown told reporter, “David Ojabo, I think, has a lot of similar traits that Josh Uche has.” If those words ring true, it will be difficult to keep the 6-foot-5 former defensive lineman off the field. Ojabo made the shift from a defensive end to a SAM linebacker this offseason which means the coaching staff is clearly impressed with his athleticism and wants to get creative to find a way to get him on the field.
Michigan linebacker’s coach Brian Jean-Mary told the Inside Michigan Football Show, “David Ojabo (has) done some really good things. He’s been with the D-line, obviously last year, so he’s still learning the position. But very, very athletic kid who can add to the pass rush of what we do as far as getting after the quarterback.”
Ojabo’s family is from Nigeria and moved to Scotland where the redshirt freshman was stuck at the early stages of the pandemic. He is still learning the game of football as he was a soccer player and didn’t touch the gridiron until midway through his high school days.
He now has the potential to see some playing time in 2020 in a rather depleted spot. Ben VanSumeren is the prospective starter moving from fullback to linebacker. But Ojabo is certainly going to continue to push for a major role on this defense.