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Michigan football’s most underrated players heading into 2023

These players will have a big impact on the 2023 season.

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Texas Christian at Michigan Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Everyone is familiar with Michigan football’s headliners — quarterback J.J. McCarthy, running back Blake Corum and corner Will Johnson. Going even further, this team is full of household names so it’s only fitting they introduce themselves Goodfellas style:

There was Donovan Edwards (“Hey, how ya doing?”), Mikey Sainristil (*inaudible Italian*), Chris Hinton’s little brother Myles (“How ya doing, buddy?”), and his guys Trevor Keegan (“Staying out of trouble?”), Double Z Zak Zinter (“Hey pal, how ya doing?”), and there was Junior Colson (“I took care of that thing for you.”), Rod Moore (“What’s up, guy?”), Colston Loveland (“I saw that guy, yeah, I wanna see him.”), and Cornelius Two Times because he scored on Ohio State two times last season.

But what about the other guys? The players who don’t immediately come to mind but will undoubtedly have an impact on the 2023 season? The NBA Playoffs are currently underway and Kenny Smith from Inside the NBA frequently reiterates the 3-9 guys on the roster are the ones responsible for the championship.

These are Michigan’s “3-9 guys.” The players who could swing the season, and the most underrated Michigan Wolverines entering the 2023 season.

LT LaDarius Henderson

Ask any fan to discuss the offensive line and it’ll probably go like this:

“Well, both guards, Zinter and Keegan are back, which is huge, and not to mention the Stanford transfers Nugent and the other Hinton. Both were on Jansen last week and Nugent is a straight DOG. Right tackle will be a battle for Hinton with Barnhart and Jones both returning. OH! And that Arizona State transfer is coming, too.”

That Arizona State transfer is former Sun Devils team captain LaDarius Henderson, who has 29 career starts under his belt. Henderson is a 6-foot-5 guard with tremendous length who will play kick out to tackle for the Wolverines. It’s understandable most aren’t familiar with him yet, but he has the potential to be the best offensive lineman on the team this fall.

DT Rayshaun Benny

Despite losing Mazi Smith to the Dallas Cowboys, Michigan is expecting zero drop-off along the defensive interior with the duo of Mason Graham and Kris Jenkins both expected to take a leap. Even considering the lofty expectations surrounding Graham and Smith, neither is the hottest name at the position post-spring.

All the rave in the offseason has been centered around sophomore — and the first pick in the 2023 spring game — Kenneth Grant. The hype is understandable because Grant is so massive (6-foot-3, 356 pounds) and so intimidating you would expect his last name to be Clegane.

But when discussing the defensive tackles, one name has been lost in the shuffle: Rayshaun Benny. His numbers won’t wow anyone, but his impact and improvement as a depth-providing rusher last season were undeniable.

Look no further than Ohio State quarterback CJ Stroud’s first interception against the Wolverines last season. Benny may never be the headliner in Ann Arbor, but he is a starting-caliber defensive tackle at 90 percent of Power Five programs and elevates the floor of the entire defensive line.

TE Max Bredeson

Colston Loveland is the headliner at the tight end position, and transfer AJ Barner has also garnered a lot of praise. But Max Bredeson is an invaluable piece to this scheme and should be thought of differently.

Bredeson is the evolution of the fullback position more than a traditional tight end. Offensive coaches have forgone the idea of the old school fullback because the position limits schematic advantages by having one less pass catching-threat on the field. But he has become a valuable weapon for Michigan's offense by being a tight end who can block between the tackles and on the edge, and consistently catch.

Bredeson is mostly used in a hybrid H-back role and is often the escort for Michigan’s ground game success. The next time Corum, Edwards or even McCarthy breaks a big run, look for No. 82 laying waste to a defender and paving the way.

WR Cornelius Johnson

But wait, I mentioned him above in the Goodfellas intro? Yes, I did, but he is still underrated, despite his fan familiarity, entering his fifth season.

Two positions have been consistently brought up as areas of transfer need: corner and wide receiver. Even in fun hypothetical games of, “If you could add one player to this team” discourse, the answers are frequently corners and wide receivers.

When spoken about positively, the attention in the wide receivers’ room is mostly shown to Roman Wilson or one of the unknown but exciting commodities like Darrius Clemons or Tyler Morris. It is surprising how little the expectation has been surrounding Johnson, who has been a top-two receiver on this team for three consecutive years.

CJ has been a blanket of reliability, a consistent blocker in space and has shown up in big moments against Ohio State each of the last two seasons. So why the little hype? Perhaps it’s because he is too well-known and has never consistently played at the high level he has shown in flashes. Maybe it’s because he is a B-player everywhere, but lacks the true star power in any facet of his game.

CJ’s trajectory reminds me of Ronnie Bell entering 2021; very well known, good but not great. However, something changed for Bell that offseason, and with CJ finally playing with a two-year quarterback for the first time in his college career, something could change for him, too.

LB Michael Barrett

There has been a lot of noise surrounding the Nebraska transfer linebacker Ernest Hausmann. So much so, some pundits think he could be even better than Junior Colson. Let’s all settle down with the blasphemy, but the tandem of Colson and Hausmann is exciting. But where does that leave 2022 starter Michael Barrett?

In terms of returning production, Barrett ranks:

  • No. 2 in tackles (72)
  • No. 2 in sacks (3.5)
  • No. 3 in interceptions (2)
  • No. 4 in tackles for loss (5)
  • No. 1 in years at Michigan (6)

With the injury to Nikhai Hill-Green last season, Barrett was thrust into a starting role and flourished for the most part next to Colson. Barrett struggled in some run fits with instinctual reactions, but in pass coverage and as a sure-tackler, he excelled.

With Hausmann entering the fold, Barrett is still a valuable piece for defensive coordinator Jesse Minter to deploy in coverage and as a blitzer. Furthermore, the added depth at this position should help keep all three healthy for the postseason.