The year 2017 is thrown around a lot in these parts, with players and coaches alike pointing to that year’s elite defense as a reason to be optimistic even after losing key pieces on the defense and at running back.
But there’s another reason 2019 is like 2017 for Michigan football — an influx of hyped freshmen, many of whom are likely to see playing time on both sides of the ball.
When asked Monday what true freshmen stood out to him, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh listed off 10 different guys he could see getting playing time. That, to put it mildly, is a lot.
Some of them got mentioned as players who would contribute on special teams, the typical path of a freshman who’s simply blocked by those with more experience. Others, though, got more than a passing mention from Harbaugh and the other coaches.
Despite sitting out spring practice after knee surgery, freshman running back Zach Charbonnet has worked his way into the rotation with sophomore Christian Turner and senior Tru Wilson. Though he couldn’t get on the field, he took notes, listened and asked questions, engaging himself at a level most don’t. And now that he’s back to 100 percent, it’s been hard to tell that he missed time at all.
“He’s just really relentlessly consistent with his approach,” said running backs coach Jay Harbaugh. “Every single day, he's really eager to do well, he’s coachable, he likes to practice, he wants reps, he wants to play special teams and very rarely does he make a mistake and not correct it, and it’s very rare for him to repeat mistakes.”
As if that weren’t enough, Jay Harbaugh then added that Charbonnet was “more mature than most incoming freshmen at any position,” a vital trait at a position that lost so much.
Safety Dax Hill, who famously flipped his commitment from Michigan to Alabama then back again, is just the fourth safety for now, according to safeties and special teams coach Chris Partridge. But he’ll get playing time. He’s worked out at free safety, nickel corner and special teams, and he’s in the mix at kick returner because of his speed.
And despite his seemingly lukewarm assessment of Hill as fourth on the depth chart, Partridge also noted that Hill was way ahead of a typical learning curve for a player like him and has the upside of an All-American.
“He can run, he can tackle, he’s a great young man, he’s got a great work ethic,” Partridge said. “He’s as advertised. We’re very excited about him. He’s a really good cover guy. That’s where he’s excelled. But he’s gonna be an all-around great player. He’s really good and he knows the game, he’s knowledgable, he’s smart, he cares and he’s got a strong work ethic.”
Wide receiver Mike Sainristil seems on the outside like another guy ticketed for special teams — with a trio of touted receivers entrenched in the depth chart — but the coaches praise him as more than that. Of course, he’ll play there, too, as he’s firmly in the battle for punt and kick returner, but even as Jim Harbaugh listed off freshman after freshman, he left the special teams designation off Sainristil.
On the defensive line, Mazi Smith and Chris Hinton have earned praise from multiple coaches and players as the future at the position. While neither is likely to start, at least not right away, the position is thin and Smith and Hinton will provide crucial depth. DJ Turner, a cornerback, will likely play a bigger role than expected with junior corner Ambry Thomas unlikely to play for the first few weeks.
It’s likely that not all these players will hit. Some of them will be more hype than production and some really play mostly on special teams until they get acclimated. But if even a majority of these players are advertised, the Wolverines will follow the blueprint of 2017 — and likely avoid the overall disappointing season that year eventually brought.