The Michigan Wolverines return the third most production of any Power Five team in the country, but as we are reminded time and time again, national championships are won by players deeper on the depth chart.
Yes, the starters are important and carry the largest responsibility of winning, but the rotational players also carry weight as well. Think back to running back to Week 11 last year with Isaiah Gash’s fourth down conversion against Illinois. Gash —a walk-on— finished fifth on the team in rushing yards but was called upon as a receiver to preserve Michigan’s undefeated season.
Even presumptive 2023 starters in the secondary Makari Paige and Will Johnson began last season as non-starting rotational pieces until they were too important to keep off the field.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh has done a great job at developing the depth of the roster to keep starting-caliber players sprinkled throughout the three-deep. Some of these players could develop into starters, while others will just be key pieces off the bench for the duration of their careers.
Here are five of the most important non-starting Wolverines for the 2023 season.
TE Max Bredeson
Max Bredeson will never be higher than tight end No. 3 in 2023, but his versatile skillset and propensity as a blocker will make him an invaluable piece to this offense. Living up to the name Bredeson, blocking is how Max rose up the depth chart last Fall as one of offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore’s favorite H-backs.
Bredeson helps pave the way for Michigan’s running backs and takes on a chunk of the dirty blocking jobs to preserve budding star tight end Colston Loveland. Just watch Bredeson eliminate a Penn State linebacker sent on a run blitz to understand what he brings to this offense.
Bredeson will never be the headliner; hell, he will never be the supporting star, but the next time the offensive line is praised, let’s ensure we include the tight ends, especially Mad Max.
G Giovanni El-Hadi
Giovanni El-Hadi is a starting offensive guard at 99% of programs across the country, unfortunately, he just happens to play the same position as a pair of All-American favorites at Michigan. But if we have learned anything from the last two seasons, it’s that if an injury can happen on the offensive line, it will happen.
Just last season, El-Hadi started three games in place of an injured Trevor Keegan and showed zero signs of a drop-off. Or think back to 2021, Michigan had to use five different guards against Nebraska due to injuries piling up before the Bye week.
It could be East Carolina or it could be against Florida State in the national championship, but this offensive line will need Giovanni El-Hadi this season.
RB No. 3
Michigan relies on its running back depth unlike any other program in the country. Two of the most important PASSES (Donovan Edwards vs. Iowa; Kalel Mullings vs. Ohio State) of the last two seasons have come from the Wolverines’ RB3. This reliance demonstrates an uncommon trust from a position that is usually exclusively relegated to special teams and heavy pass protection situations.
But who is going to be Michigan’s third running back?
Most are eager to anoint freshman Benjamin Hall as running back No. 3 and the future of the position, while others believe Kalel Mullings will bring physicality and short-yardage efficiency to the position. Rising sophomore CJ Stokes is still in the mix after showing flashes of greatness in 2022 and albeit a case of rookie fumble-itis.
One of these three will play a critical role behind Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards, especially until one of the top two prove then can play an entire season without missing time due to injury.
LB Michael Barrett
Michael Barrett has appeared in 49 games for the Wolverines and will hopefully leave Ann Arbor having appeared in 64. Despite this experience and starting every game last season, Barrett will have a smaller role in terms of snaps in 2023 but could have twice the impact.
With the transfer of Ernest Hausmann to Michigan, Barrett will be relegated to rotational duties sooner than later. However, this is where he is at his best. While an average starter, Barrett is excellent as a versatile, high-motor, hard-hitting specialist.
Barrett is overqualified for this role and that is why he will thrive. He is not a prototypical three-down linebacker, but in this new role, defensive coordinator Jesse Minter can exploit all of Barrett’s strengths.
Specifically as a third-down player, we could see Barrett used similarly to this Georgia scheme which uses speedy second-level players to pressure quarterbacks when they are forced to break contain.
Furthermore, Barrett’s experience will allow the Wolverines to rotate three linebackers comfortably and mitigate overuse, and injuries.
EDGE Josaiah Stewart
Coastal Carolina transfer Josaiah Stewart came to Michigan to prove himself. After his record-setting freshman season in Conway, Stewart and the entire defense regressed and now the junior is looking to take the next step in his development as a Wolverine.
This transfer fits like a hand in a glove for Michigan who need to replace Eyabie Okie’s pass-rushing prowess and sure up its depth on the edges. Jaylen Harrell is expected to start in big or small fronts, with Derrick Moore and Braiden McGregor presumably being tasked to start opposite.
Stewart’s explosion off the edge will get him onto the field early and often with a chance to move into starting territory. His skills stopping the run will be tested, but from the day he set foot on campus, he became the most talented pass rusher in the room.