When the Michigan football team takes the field the weekend of Oct. 24, it will do so without a handful of key pieces.
Offensive tackle Jalen Mayfield and cornerback Ambry Thomas declared for the NFL Draft last month, leaving the Wolverines without their lone returning starter along the offensive line and top cornerback. On Wednesday, mere hours after news broke of a unanimous decision to begin a Big Ten football season, Sports Illustrated reported that senior wideout Nico Collins signed with agent Drew Rosenhaus and the Detroit News reported that redshirt junior quarterback Dylan McCaffrey has opted out of the 2020 season and intends to transfer.
With four marquee players no longer in the fold, The Daily broke down how Michigan can fill the voids this fall:
Replacing Nico Collins
Perhaps the Wolverines’ most dangerous offensive threat a season ago, Collins’s decision to sign with an NFL agent leaves Michigan without its top vertical threat. Collins recorded 37 catches for 729 receiving yards and seven touchdowns as a junior, including a 165-yard, three-touchdown outburst against Indiana in November.
The Wolverines’ wide receivers room already took a hit when Donovan Peoples-Jones declared for the NFL Draft following his junior season, and with Collins now gone, it appears the team’s top returner will be junior slot receiver Ronnie Bell. Behind him, sophomores Giles Jackson, Mike Sainristil and Cornelius Johnson showed flashes of potential as true freshmen last fall.
Without the 6-foot-4 Collins, offensive coordinator Josh Gattis’ emphasis on speed will only become more important. Jackson and Sainristil are two of the fastest players on the team, while the Wolverines will also welcome a pair of four-star burners in A.J. Henning and Roman Wilson
Replacing Jalen Mayfield
Losing Mayfield — who is tabbed as a projected first-round pick by some analysts — is a major hit to offensive line coach Ed Warinner’s group. Coming off a 2020 NFL Draft that saw all four of the Wolverines’ draft-eligible linemen get selected, Mayfield was set to return as the only experienced starter. But now, Warinner will be tasked with managing five fresh faces.
In a Zoom call with reporters earlier this month, redshirt sophomore offensive tackle Ryan Hayes said the unit taking first-team reps includes him at left tackle, fifth-year senior Andrew Vastardis at center, senior Andrew Stueber at right guard and redshirt freshman Karsen Barnhart at right tackle, with senior Chuck Filiaga and redshirt freshman Trevor Keegan rotating at left guard. Behind that group, Hayes named freshman Zak Zinter as someone who’s impressed so far, while redshirt freshman Zach Carpenter was in the summer conversation for starting center duties.
After ranking 112th nationally in sacks allowed during the 2017 season, Michigan’s offensive line has markedly improved since Warinner’s arrival in 2018. But without Mayfield, this season could be his biggest challenge yet.
Replacing Ambry Thomas
When Thomas announced he’d be returning for his senior season in January, it provided some much-needed experience for a cornerbacks group that lost Lavert Hill to the 2020 NFL Draft. Thomas started all 13 games at cornerback last year, recording 38 tackles and three interceptions en route to a third team All-Big Ten selection.
Without Thomas, the Wolverines’ top cornerback will be redshirt sophomore Vincent Gray, who appeared in all 13 games last fall. Candidates to start opposite Gray and in the nickel include redshirt freshman D.J. Turner and true freshman Andre Seldon, neither of which have any in-game college experience at cornerback. Redshirt freshman Jalen Perry and redshirt sophomore Gemon Green could also carve out roles.
In Thomas, the Wolverines also lose an explosive kick returner. Jackson, who returned a kickoff for a touchdown against Maryland last fall, figures to handle the majority of return duties this fall.
Replacing Dylan McCaffrey
After totaling 242 passing yards, 166 rushing yards and five total touchdowns across 13 career appearances, McCaffrey will finish out his remaining two years of eligibility elsewhere.
By all accounts, McCaffrey’s decision to opt out and transfer is an indicator that the starting quarterback job belongs to redshirt sophomore Joe Milton. With Milton and his cannon of an arm under center, Michigan’s offense unlocks another dimension of verticality. Milton showed flashes of potential against Rutgers last September, completing three of his four passes for 59 yards and a touchdown.
As Milton slides into the starting role, redshirt freshman Cade McNamara becomes the presumptive backup. The Wolverines also added three-star pro-style quarterback Dan Villari to their 2020 recruiting class last December.