Projecting Michigan’s 2020 starters in the absence of spring football
This past Saturday would have been Michigan’s spring game if not for COVID-19, but in its absence all that remains is speculation on what we might have seen. The biggest takeaway from spring games is typically getting a peek at the rotations and seeing who works out with the first team. Luckily, we’re not totally in the dark. The 2019 season offered plenty of clues as to who could be among the Wolverines’ starters in 2020. The Daily’s football beat projected Michigan’s starting lineup and broke it down, position by position:
Quarterback: Dylan McCaffrey
This position has been a highly-publicized battle between redshirt junior Dylan McCaffrey and redshirt sophomore Joe Milton. Both have their pros and cons — Milton has a big arm but lacks accuracy, while McCaffrey has more speed but less arm strength. Neither has had many in-game reps the past few years and without a spring season, it’s nearly impossible to tell where the battle is at. That said, the lack of spring practice probably gives McCaffrey, with his extra year of experience — something Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh values immensely — the edge. Still, offensive coordinator Josh Gattis has expressed a desire to use both quarterbacks extensively in 2020 and this position should continue to be one of intrigue throughout the season.
Running back: Zach Charbonnet and Hassan Haskins
Arguably Michigan’s deepest offensive position group, this season’s running backs room should be among the Wolverines’ strong suits. The run game has two reliable workhorses in sophomore Zach Charbonnet, who broke the program’s freshman rushing touchdown record last season, and redshirt sophomore Hassan Haskins, who made a strong impression in the second half of 2019 after converting from linebacker. Beyond that, Michigan will welcome back senior Chris Evans from a one-year academic suspension, while freshman Blake Corum and redshirt sophomore Christian Turner could factor in as well. In Gattis’s up-tempo offense, there’ll be plenty of snaps to go around.
Wide receiver: Nico Collins, Ronnie Bell and Giles Jackson
Michigan returns its two biggest producers at the position in Ronnie Bell and Nico Collins, making this one of the offense’s strongest spots headed into next year. We already know that Bell can produce at a high level in the college game, as he broke out last year to become Shea Patterson’s favorite target. Collins comes into next season as one of the most potent big-play threats in the conference, standing 6-foot-4 with jump-ball ability that stands out. Behind them, Giles Jackson figures to get a bulk of snaps in the slot or H-back positions after a freshman year that saw Gattis get better and better at leveraging Jackson’s unique skill set.
Offensive line: Jaylen Mayfield, Chuck Filiaga, Zach Carpenter, Andrew Stueber and Ryan Hayes
This group is arguably Michigan’s biggest question mark outside of quarterback going into 2020. The unit loses four starters from a year ago, leaving only junior right tackle Jalen Mayfield. All four of those departures could be selected in this weekend’s NFL Draft, which speaks to the talent that the Wolverines are losing at the position. Fortunately for Harbaugh, he and his staff have recruited well at the position recently, leaving Michigan with a deep but unproven group for 2020. Ryan Hayes figures to slot in at left tackle, where he started in place of the injured Jon Runyan early last season. Hayes is a 6-foot-7 former TE, giving him a prototypical tackle’s body.
At guard, Stueber and Filiaga are the most likely starters. Stueber was in a battle with Mayfield for the starting right tackle position last year, before tearing his ACL in fall camp. Though he was playing tackle before the injury, his bigger frame means he’ll likely shift to guard to make way for Hayes and Mayfield at tackle. As for the other guard spot, Nolan Rumler was a four-star recruit in 2019, giving him the highest upside of Michigan’s potential options, but Filiaga’s additional two years of experience make him the most likely option. He’s been the Wolverines’ backup left guard for the past two seasons, seeing snaps in eight total games.
Michigan’s biggest challenge on the offensive line will likely be replacing center Cesar Ruiz, a potential first-round pick on Thursday. The top candidates seem to be sophomore Zach Carpenter and fifth-year senior Andrew Vastardis, who has backed up the position the past two years. Carpenter, though, received plenty of buzz last year and was named Michigan’s offensive scout team player of the year.
Tight end: Nick Eubanks
Tight end has a surefire starter in Nick Eubanks after he was granted a medical redshirt and elected to come back for a fifth year. In 2019, Eubanks split time at the position with Sean McKeon and hauled in 243 receiving yards with four touchdowns as one of the Wolverines’ primary red-zone targets and continued to grow as a blocker. With an extra year, he should be even better. Behind him, Michigan has a pair of intriguing underclassmen in redshirt sophomore Luke Schoonmaker and sophomore Erick All, both of whom saw time at the position last year and should be more than capable of relieving Eubanks or sharing the field in multiple-tight end packages.
Defensive line: Aidan Hutchinson, Kwity Paye, Carlo Kemp and Chris Hinton
In junior Aidan Hutchinson and senior Kwity Paye, Michigan’s defensive line brings back its two highly-productive bookends from a season ago. The duo, which flaunts a self-proclaimed nickname of “salt n’ pepper,” combined for a total of 118 tackles last year. Twenty-two of those came behind the line of scrimmage, 11 of which were sacks. Take notice of the havoc they wreak this fall, as there’s a real possibility they’ll both be playing on Sundays in 2021. As for the interior defensive line, fifth-year senior Carlo Kemp is set to headline a group. After spending a year acclimating to the college level, sophomore Chris Hinton — a former five-star recruit — should be ready to contribute as well. If either one of them goes down, redshirt freshman Mazi Smith, the Wolverines’ fourth-ranked recruit in 2019, could see time at nose tackle.
Linebacker: Cameron McGrone, Josh Ross and Michael Barrett
Middle linebacker Cameron McGrone was one of Michigan’s biggest impact players last season and should immediately be one of the best players on the defense in 2020. Beside that, though, the linebacker spots are a bit complicated. The Wolverines lose VIPER Khaleke Hudson and Jordan Glasgow. Senior Josh Ross, who played just three games last season due to injury, has the most experience of defensive coordinator Don Brown’s options at the WILL spot, though Anthony Solomon will likely see playing time as well. Replacing Hudson, a three-year starter, at VIPER won’t be easy but Michael Barrett currently looks like the clubhouse favorite after Jordan Anthony entered the transfer portal in December.
Safety: Daxton Hill and Brad Hawkins
Well, this one’s easy. Senior Brad Hawkins started 10 games a year ago, becoming an entrenched starter alongside Josh Metellus despite originally being recruited as a wide receiver. At the other safety spot, sophomore Dax Hill will slot in for Metellus and instantly become one of the key pieces in Michigan’s defense. A former five-star recruit, Hill made a slew of impact plays in limited action last season, both at safety and on special teams. The real question for this unit is who steps in if one of Hawkins or Hill goes down, or if Hill plays slot corner on nickel looks. Given the Wolverines’ inexperience at safety behind Hill and Hawkins, Brown will hope to minimize those situations, but if need be, he could turn to junior Sammy Faustin, who appeared on defense in three games in 2019. Freshman Jordan Morant and sophomore Quinten Johnson are also options. Both were four-star recruits coming out of high school, but neither has played a single snap of college ball.
Cornerback: Ambry Thomas and Vincent Gray
Like at safety, Michigan’s top two cornerbacks are well ahead of the pack. Ambry Thomas was the Wolverines’ best corner in 2019 and will be expected to be one of the best in the Big Ten as a senior after eschewing the NFL Draft. Opposite him, junior Vincent Gray is poised to replace Lavert Hill after being Michigan’s go-to number three corner a year ago. Beyond those two, though, the situation gets murky. Brown could opt to play Hill at slot corner, where he saw extended action in the second half of 2019, but that leaves a gaping hole at safety. Instead, the most likely option is DJ Turner, a sophomore who only appeared on special teams last season. Junior Gemon Green and sophomore Jalen Perry are also options, though Perry has yet to see game action and Green has only gotten defensive snaps once in his career. Four-star freshman Andre Seldon is a wild card at the position, though he comes in at 5-foot-8, 154 pounds, so Michigan will likely try to beef up his frame before giving him extended snaps.