Let’s cut right to the chase. On Saturday, the Michigan football team beat Rutgers, 52-0. It was such a bad performance for the Scarlet Knights that they fired their coach the next day.
So, for the Wolverines, that meant that most of the regular starters were out of the game by the third quarter and others had a chance to shine.
There were a lot of contributors you might not be familiar with, younger players who suddenly showed up and made an impact. The Daily introduces you to some of those players, what they did and what it could mean for the future:
Sophomore linebacker Cam McGrone
McGrone got the start at middle linebacker in place of Josh Ross, who was out with an injury. He made several eye-popping plays and was all over Rutgers quarterback Artur Sitkowski in blitz packages. Though he was credited with just one tackle and one quarterback hurry, it was clear that McGrone’s speed could be a difference-maker.
“If he keeps playing like this, he’s gonna be a star,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said after the game. “The way he runs, again, he played really well last week, but his physicality is just really, every week, going higher and higher.”
McGrone has also proved to be a larger-than-life presence off the field, making the kinds of bold press conference proclamations that players like Chase Winovich used to have.
Most notably, McGrone offered up a prediction that Michigan would rebound from its early struggles.
“We know we’re gonna see (Wisconsin) again in Indy, my hometown, for the Big Ten Championship,” McGrone said. “ … I know when we see them again, we’re gonna smack them in the mouth.”
Though he drew some comparisons to Devin Bush with his sideline-to-sideline speed, McGrone isn’t going to be that guy right away. He’s still raw, and he showed that in the loss to Wisconsin, where he struggled as Ross’ replacement. But if McGrone adds a little more polish, the Wolverines might have another great linebacker on their hands.
Freshman safety Dax Hill
Early in the second quarter, Michigan stalled on an offensive drive for the first time all game. Will Hart’s punt wasn’t great — it traveled just 41 yards — but just as the Scarlet Knights’ returner caught the ball, Hill flew in his face, leveling him and preventing a return. As Hill walked off the field, he wagged his fingers, a warning to future kick returners everywhere.
“The punt coverage was such a big thing from last week to this. Last week he was a gunner and pretty much in that same similar position and was hesitant,” Harbaugh said. “And all you really had to do was just coach him on it and that’s what he did and no hesitation today, you saw him make one of those big-time plays as a gunner.”
Hill — a five-star recruit — was expected to contribute right away, but he’s been largely absent in the first few games. Saturday, then, was somewhat of Hill’s coming-out party. In addition to his contribution on special teams, Hill saw time at safety in the second half, finishing with four total tackles and 0.5 tackles for loss.
He, too, is a player who could make a difference on defense with his speed, and the coaching staff already seems to have seen enough to give him more of a look.
“He just keeps coming, keeps coming along and he’s growing as a football player very quickly and he’s so fast and that speed shows up,” Harbaugh said. “It shows up when it shows up and you see it, you see it with Dax Hill, you see it with Cam McGrone, you see the guys like that, so he’s come along. … I probably predict he’ll be getting more and more time.”
Redshirt freshman quarterback Joe Milton
In Madison, the Wolverines’ normal backup quarterback, redshirt sophomore Dylan McCaffrey, took a big hit and went down with a concussion. With that, Milton, usually the third-string, slotted into the backup role.
Though Milton has a cannon for an arm, he has struggled with accuracy in the past and is seen as turnover prone. But on Saturday, he came in during the third quarter with the game long over and provided about as good an audition as he could hope for against the hapless Scarlet Knights.
“He’s a leader,” said sophomore running back Christian Turner. “He doesn’t have the starting job right now, he knows that, but he doesn’t go out there and be lackadaisical or not being fully there. He knows what he’s doing. He’s just a good guy to have out there.”
The offense kept humming with Milton in the shotgun. He ran a bootleg for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter and later threw for another.
Milton won’t see the field much this year with two more experienced signal-callers in front of him, but he’s popular among his teammates and if he plays well in limited time, he could carve out a bigger role next year.
“I’ve been waiting for him to get his chance,” McGrone said. “Seeing him in the end zone, it warmed my heart a little bit, man. I’m pulling for that guy, man.”
Other skill-position players
Sophomore running back Hassan Haskins spent 2018 confined to special teams. He appeared at running back against Middle Tennessee and Wisconsin, but had just three combined attempts for negative-three yards.
On Saturday, Haskins got an extended look with the score out of hand and two of the Wolverines’ top three backs coming off of injuries. He was Michigan’s second-leading rusher on the day, gaining 45 yards on nine attempts, and had a game-high 15-yard rush.
Haskins is blocked from extended playing time by Turner, senior Tru Wilson and freshman Zach Charbonnet, but Haskins seems to have secured himself as the No. 4 option and a capable replacement if Wilson and Charbonnet continue to struggle with injuries.
Freshman wide receiver Giles Jackson flashed some stuff with a 23-yard touchdown from Milton in the fourth quarter. Though he is even more blocked than Haskins, with four older, mega-talented receivers in front of him, Jackson has been given the chance to showcase his speed as Michigan’s primary kick returner — he returned one kick for 13 yards Saturday — and has stood out from the pack a little more than any of the Wolverines’ other freshman receivers.
“It’s the freshmen out there now and we’ll see what they can do,” Harbaugh said. “And they got valuable reps and they played well, they’ve been getting a lot of work. … Good to see them execute the plays that were called.”