The Michigan Wolverines had a less than ideal season in 2020. Inconsistent quarterback play, injuries, coaching gaffes, and COVID-19 derailed a season that was somewhat promising with hopes of a new era beginning with Joe Milton.
The bright side is that we got to see a lot of the future of the football program because of their struggles. Several younger players took the field throughout the season as the coaching staff began to throw things at the wall to see what would stick. Some splats on this hypothetical wall were louder than others, and a few stuck. While others were like a poorly hung painting that needed a few adjustments to be secured.
Let’s take a look at five players who are flying under the radar but could play important roles in 2021.
OL Zak Zinter
Sophomore Zak Zinter was thrown into the thick of things after injuries decimated the offensive line in 2020. He saw playing time in every game of the season, mostly playing on the special teams unit to open up the year.
However, the true freshman found himself starting the last four games at right guard and did a stand-up job. Sure, there were errors, but an offensive line that is constantly being shaken up due to injuries makes it difficult for anyone to be successful.
He comes into 2021 as a bonafide starter due to his play in those games and his versatility. Zinter played tackle in high school, right guard last season, and has even taken a few snaps in spring at center. Harbaugh has said publicly that he would trust Zinter playing at any of the five positions on the offensive line.
Harbaugh put Zinter up there with some of the most veteran names on the team as sure-fire starters in an interview with Jon Jansen on the In The Trenches Podcast: “Ryan Hayes, Zak Zinter, Andrew Stueber, they are guys that had that experience that are very good players, put an exclamation mark on that in the spring, I would call them three solid starters of the top five.”
Harbaugh continued by saying that the flexibility that the offensive line has with Zinter and fifth-year senior Andrew Stueber will assist with the formulation of the unit as a whole. The former four-star recruit could really garner some attention from the next level if he continues to impress in his sophomore season.
WR A.J. Henning
Lost in a sea of small and speedy wide receivers a season ago was A.J. Henning. The slot position was caked with guys like Mike Sainristil, Ronnie Bell, Roman Wilson, and Giles Jackson in 2020. But, the former borderline Top-100 recruit in the country should get some more run this season with Jackson leaving the program.
In five games of play a year ago, Henning had six catches for 59 yards in six games. In total, eight touches in a freshman campaign that disappointed based on the amount of hype he brought with him to Ann Arbor.
Was it Henning’s fault? Clearly not, the offense never got rolling and poor quarterback play was costly for what appears to be a very talented young group of receivers.
Henning’s ability to play both as a slot receiver and a gadget back should allow him plenty of opportunities this year in the offense. It seems like he and signal-caller McNamara built a bit of a rapport last season — four of Henning’s six receptions were off the arm of McNamara.
If there is going to be a younger wideout to make a significant jump this season, I’d put my money on Henning.
DL Chris Hinton
Carlo Kemp has moved on from the program and it’s time for a former five-star defensive lineman to be leading the way in Chris Hinton. The junior has seen quite a bit of playing time in his career, 18 appearances to be exact.
Hinton started four of the six games a season ago and finished with 13 tackles, two for loss, and a sack in his sophomore campaign. In a normal season where he is projected to be the big dog in the middle, he could finally explode into the superstardom that was once projected of him.
The junior was once a defensive end in high school, showcasing his speed at 300-plus pounds. He has been a shell of what was projected of him coming into Ann Arbor which is why he is underrated heading into this season. Harbaugh even brought in 358-pound grad transfer Jordan Whitley out of Oregon State for an extra boost to the line. But, faith has to continue to be put in the process with Hinton who should serve as one of the most important pieces of this defensive line in 2021.
TE Erick All
When Erick All’s name is said, several Michigan fans likey shudder because of the plethora of drops he had a season ago. Some are already wanting to write him off because of it. Still, he was one of the top targets by Michigan quarterbacks a season ago but continuously let opportunities pass him by because of poor hands.
It seemed early in the season the game was just a little too big for him. All spoke of getting in his own head when the ball was coming to him in a big moment. With a year under his belt, and sturdier hands developing towards the late part of the season, he should be set to take over as the full-time starting tight end after Nick Eubanks went pro.
All has been called a budding star, the coaching staff has said that they don’t know what his ceiling is, and Jim Harbaugh told ESPN in the broadcast of the Minnesota game that he could be the best tight end that he has coached.
All blocks well, runs good routes, and is a big 6-foot-2, almost 230 lbs. If he can stay cool in the spotlight he should be in line for a breakout year.
EDGE Braiden McGregor
People forget about Braiden McGregor because he was out all of last season with an injury. In his final high school game, the Wolverines’ top recruit in the 2020 class tore his MCL and meniscus. He spent all of last season rehabbing. In his senior season, the prospect had 99 tackles and 8 sacks as an edge rusher. Clearly, McGregor has the capability of disrupting offenses frequently.
With Kwity Paye off to the NFL, Michigan is absent of a starting edge rusher. There is a good chance McGregor could leapfrog guys like Taylor Upshaw at some point in 2021 and be the starter alongside Aidan Hutchinson. The crazy thing is that the two are already a very similar size. Hutchinson clocked in this spring at 6-foot-5, 269 pounds while the much younger McGregor is 6-foot-4, 260. The Port Huron-native hopes to have a similar impact as a young Hutchinson on the roster this fall.