Every year, there are a handful of players that fly under-the-radar entering a new season for a variety of reasons. Players coming off injuries, depth chart burials, lack of big play exposure, or just simply play at a position that does not garner extended-praise.
Some people just do not appreciate left guards pulling and blocking at the second level as much as one-handed receptions.
Think back to just last season for several examples. David Ojabo became a starter that accrued 35 tackles, 12 tackles-for-loss, 11 sacks, and five forced fumbles. And he entered the year with only one (!!!) career tackle and zero tackles-for-loss, sacks, or forced fumbles during his first two seasons in Ann Arbor.
DJ Turner, Andrew Vastardis, Rod Moore, and Andrel Anthony are other great examples just from Team 142 of under-the-radar players who played a pivotal role in the team’s success.
So who are some of those potential key pieces for 2022 that are not making the headlines?
Graduate Senior Defensive Lineman Julius Welschof
Julius Welschof has been on the tip of everyone’s tongue since his arrival in 2018. “Have you seen this kid from Germany?!” “Imagine what he could be with his frame!” But sadly, it has more recently become, “Is that Welschof in the game? I forgot about him.”
Listed at 6’6, 288 pounds, Welschof moonlights as the Colossus of Rhodes and is only a year removed from appearing on Bruce Feldman’s annual “freaks” list. Welschof has all the traits necessary to succeed, but just hasn’t put it all together on the field.
Could this be an Ojabo-esque situation where when it clicks it CLICKS for the 25-year-old German?
Junior Linebacker/ Running Back Kalel Mullings
If you did not consume any spring game content, the dual position listing is not going to make any sense. But if you did, you saw the flashes of potential as a run-stopping linebacker and as a punishing running back.
Listed at 6-foot-1, 236 pounds, Mullings is a force of a human that could add valuable depth and versatility to both position groups. At linebacker, he excels at filling gaps, but also possesses enough speed to run in open space with opposing skill players.
As a running back (which he also played in high school), Mullings could take some of the short yardage, bruising carries away from the lethal 1-2 punch of Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards and help preserve their health down the stretch.
Also, given Hassan Haskins’s recent success switching between running back and linebacker, it is difficult to not be giddy about Mullings’s potential.
Senior Offensive Lineman Karsen Barnhart
Karsen Barnhart is currently in a battle with Trente Jones for the starting right tackle position, but all signs indicate it is a battle he will lose. However, this ‘loss’ goes beyond simply being beaten out in a positional competition
By keeping Barnhart as the utility fifth linemen is a chess move by the coaching staff. Unlike Jones, Barnhart can play either guard or tackle position seamlessly and for a unit that will undoubtedly have some injury turnover, plugging and playing Barnhart mitigates any substantial drop-off in performance.
Being the fifth offensive linemen is a dubious honor, but having a versatile player like Barnhart in that role could be the difference between a return trip to the College Football Playoff or third place in the Big Ten East.
Graduate Senior Wide Receiver Ronnie Bell
Ronnie Bell has quickly become epilogue to any bar conversation when discussing returning Michigan talent in 2022. “Offensively, the line could be even better, Corum and Edwards could be the best running back duo in the Big Ten, AND RONNIE BELL IS BACK!”
Bell —injured in the first game of 2021 against Western Michigan— was unquestionably the best skill position player for the Wolverines in his extremely limited action. The team captain hauled in one pass for a 76-yard touchdown and a circus one-handed reception on the sidelines that did not count because of a bogus OPI call.
With his third and final touch of the game, Bell was making an electric punt return and solidifying his Biletnikoff campaign when BAM, one awkward hit and his season was over.
If Ronnie Bell can get back to 100%, he will be WR1 and in contention to be the first Michigan receiver with 1,000 yards in nine years.
Graduate Senior Linebacker Michael Barrett
Michael Barrett is the knight on defensive coordinator Jesse Minter’s chess board; while not as prominently used as the queen, Barrett can maneuver around the defense like very few players because of his size and versatility.
As a limited starter last season, Barrett was inserted against up-tempo spread offenses when defensive substitutions were limited to negate any potential mismatches. Barrett is big enough to hold his own against the run and athletic enough to cover out in space.
Barrett will be an X-factor in certain match-ups especially against Penn State and Ohio State.
Honorable Mention: Defensive Tackle Kris Jenkins, Safety Makari Paige, Defensive End Derrick Moore, Wide Receiver Darrius Clemons, Defensive End Taylor Upshaw