Five games into its season, the Michigan football team has exceeded the expectations of many.
After outscoring their last four opponents by a combined 122-14, the Wolverines have climbed to No. 18 in the AP poll, have the ninth-highest odds to win the national championship, according to Bovada, and boast the nation’s No. 2 overall defense.
Despite the apparent improvement since last season, the success can almost entirely be attributed to players who played last year.
Of Michigan’s 14 true freshmen on scholarship, just defensive back Tyree Kinnel and wide receivers Brian Cole and Grant Perry have seen game action, and even they have only seen the field sparingly.
But with upcoming matchups against No. 13 Northwestern and No. 3 Michigan State, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has reached the point in the season where he’s no longer afraid to deploy all of the troops.
“Now’s the time,” he said. “We truly believe there are no more freshmen. When they go through a month of training camp and four games, when you’ve played four games, a third of a season, nobody is a freshman anymore. … If they’re gonna show that they can contribute as a freshman, now’s the time to do it.”
At his weekly press conference Monday, Harbaugh said that running back Karan Higdon, cornerback Keith Washington and defensive ends Reuben Jones and Shelton Johnson are also close to seeing game action.
Not coincidentally, junior cornerback Channing Stribling and junior running back De’Veon Smith missed Saturday’s game with injuries, while senior defensive end Mario Ojemudia tore his Achilles and is out for the entire season.
The injury bug is one path for freshmen to see the field, but with a suddenly legitimate chance at contending for a conference title, the quickest way to see game action is simply being the best player on the field — the same standard for everyone else.
“Personally, I’ve never been one to come in and not play football for a year, and I don’t think any of them feel that way either,” said senior linebacker and team captain Joe Bolden. “If you want to come in, you want to play, do something about it. Get yourself on the field.
“Freshmen aren’t freshmen anymore. You’ve been here long enough, you know the way to carry yourselves and how to practice and how to help the team get better, and that’s what we expect of them every day.”
Though he only played on special teams against Maryland, Kinnel served as an example of Bolden’s message — the freshman earned playing time simply by competing in practice. Whether it was informal team races or just effort in drills, Kinnel made the coaching staff an offer they couldn’t refuse, and they didn’t want to.
“He just seemed like a guy who was screaming to ‘Get me on the field, Coach,’ ” Harbaugh said. “Not in the vocal way or coming into the office like, ‘Hey, I need more playing time,’ but in the best way: with what he did on the field and how he was competing in practice and in competitions. So I listened.”
The drawback to that approach, of course, is that playing true freshmen requires them to burn their redshirts and extra year of eligibility.
Former Michigan coach Brady Hoke drew criticism for playing too many true freshmen when they weren’t ready and losing the extra eligibility. Harbaugh isn’t Hoke, but his time coaching at both the college and professional levels taught him that worrying about burning a redshirt can burn a team.
“It’s always been my feeling that those who can play as true freshmen ultimately become the best players,” Harbaugh said. “You get better at football by playing football, and the ones that are mentally and physically ready to do that as true (freshmen) have a chance to do that.”