ANN ARBOR, Mich. – As Michigan football heads to Rutgers this weekend in search of its ninth-straight win, the game itself isn’t generating much buzz.
The No. 4 Wolverines are favored by more than five touchdowns against the Scarlet Knights, and this game has been a blowout three straight years in Michigan’s favor.
But the NCAA’s new redshirt rule could add some intrigue for hardcore Michigan fans who follow recruiting and the development of young players. Under the new rule, players can participate in four games throughout the year and still qualify for a redshirt.
In other words, Jim Harbaugh can put players into four games without wasting a year of eligibility.
There are two ways coaches can use the new rule to their advantage. They can save younger players as secret weapons for big games, not putting their skills on tape until they’re needed, or they can allow them to play in a few blowouts to get their feet wet and aid their growth in future seasons.
Saturday’s game should be an opportunity for the latter. Harbaugh has several players who have appeared in fewer than four games and don’t figure to be major factors down the stretch.
If Michigan blows out Rutgers as expected, many of the younger players could get an opportunity in the second half.
Here are eight exciting young players who have appeared in fewer than four games and could see the field against Rutgers.
WR Michael Barrett
Games played: SMU
Michael Barrett was an under-the-radar recruit last year, ranked as a three-star and the No. 753 player in the country, but he had scholarship offers from some major schools, such as LSU, Michigan State, Nebraska and Tennessee.
Barrett chose Michigan, and Harbaugh elected to make him a wide receiver. He appeared in the SMU game earlier this season, but didn’t get to touch the ball.
Even though he wasn’t highly ranked on the recruiting trail, Barrett is an intriguing player for Michigan fans because the coaching staff appeared to consider him a diamond in the rough. It wouldn’t quite be a Ronnie Bell-type underdog story, but Barrett is an exciting athlete.
RB Christian Turner
Games played: Nebraska, Wisconsin
Christian Turner is one of the few players on this list who’s actually accrued some stats this season.
The freshman running back carried the ball 10 times against Nebraska, gaining 55 yards in the blowout win. He also got three carries during the night game against Wisconsin, picking up eight yards.
Turner is a critical player for Michigan’s future because he was the highest-ranked running back in the 2018 class. After Karan Higdon graduates, Turner will be in the mix to see significant carries next season.
In fact, with Hassan Haskins moving to linebacker, he’s the only running back left from the 2018 class.
The Wolverines have a pair of electric running backs committed to the 2019 class in Zach Charbonnet and Eric Gray, so Turner has to take advantage of his opportunities this season.
OT Jalen Mayfield
Games played: Western Michigan, Nebraska, Maryland
The situation for Jalen Mayfield is unique because he’s already played in three games, and assuming Harbaugh wants to preserve his redshirt, he can only play in one more game.
Mayfield was a four-star offensive tackle and the highest-ranked offensive line commit in the 2018 class. During the offseason, he was pegged by the coaches as one of the young players impressing them with his improvement.
Mayfield is also at a position of need, as he’s played left tackle in all three games. His development is especially key after the transfer of tackle James Hudson.
If Ed Warinner trusts Mayfield as one of his top backups, he might not want to waste the freshman’s last game in a blowout. If not, the Rutgers game would be a perfect opportunity to give him extended snaps.
LB Cameron McGrone
Games played: Nebraska
The No. 2 overall player in Michigan’s 2018 class, Cameron McGrone is one of the top candidates to be Don Brown’s next elite linebacker.
As a senior in high school, McGrone made 84 tackles and 14 tackles for loss in just seven games.
While Michigan certainly would like to finally get that elusive shutout this weekend, it’s more important to give the young players a taste of Big Ten football, even if it’s against Rutgers.
McGrone could be a big part of the defense next season, so look for him to get some second-half snaps.
DL Taylor Upshaw
Games played: None
The Wolverines are absolutely loaded on the defensive line, so it’s hard for true freshmen to get into the mix.
Aidan Hutchinson has already appeared in nine games, recording 12 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and forcing a safety. There are only three games left in the regular season, so Taylor Upshaw could join his classmate this weekend.
Upshaw was an early enrollee at Michigan, so he’s been on campus much longer than most of the other true freshmen. He might even get a sack if he plays against Rutgers, since there are plenty of other pass rushers to worry about on Michigan’s defensive line.
DL Julius Welschof
Games played: None
Nobody in Michigan’s 2018 recruiting class is more intriguing than Julius Welschof, a lightly recruited lineman from Germany.
Michigan was his only major scholarship offer, but there’s plenty of excitement around the 6-foot-6, 250-pound athlete from overseas.
Michigan basketball fans will remember Moe Wagner’s path to Michigan from Germany, and if Welschof can contribute anything close to what Wagner did for John Beilein, his college career will be a success.
TE Mustapha Muhammad
Games played: None
Harbaugh is known for getting tight ends involved in the offense, and 2018 has been no different as Zach Gentry is among the team’s leaders with 25 catches and 350 receiving yards.
Muhammad was a major get on the recruiting trail, as he was a four-star recruit and the No. 6 tight end in the nation. He chose Michigan over Alabama, Clemson, Auburn, Georgia, LSU, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Penn State, Southern Cal, Texas and a host of other elite programs.
With Gentry, Sean McKeon and Nick Eubanks, Michigan is pretty loaded at tight end, so Muhammad hasn’t seen the field yet this year. But if the score gets lopsided against Rutgers, there’s no reason not to give the freshman some playing time, unless the staff is saving him for Ohio State and the postseason.
QB Joe Milton
Games played: Wisconsin
It would be great to see Joe Milton on the field Saturday, but the quarterback situation got much more complicated when backup Dylan McCaffrey broke his collarbone against Penn State.
Milton has only appeared in one game this season, but since Michigan could theoretically still play an extra game in Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship and two games for the College Football Playoff, Harbaugh has to handle his redshirt carefully.
Michigan would love to preserve Milton’s year of eligibility, especially since he appears to be the quarterback in waiting after McCaffrey. It’s possible that he wouldn’t take over the starting job at Michigan for another three years, so wasting a season in 2018 wouldn’t make sense.
Milton carried the ball twice against Wisconsin, showing his skill and patience on a 23-yard dash and losing a yard on his other carry. Milton has a strong arm, and he’s a smart football player, so watching him play against Rutgers would be a treat for Michigan fans.
But if Shea Patterson were to suffer an injury down the stretch, Michigan might need Milton to step into a bigger role with playoff hopes on the line. There’s a way to do that and still preserve his redshirt, but he would have to stay on the bench for the Rutgers and Indiana games, most likely.
If Brandon Peters beats Milton for the backup quarterback spot, then Milton will likely get some reps against Rutgers. If not, the coaching staff might have to keep him on the sideline as an insurance policy down the line.
A few of Michigan’s freshmen, such as Bell, Hutchinson and Jake Moody, have already surpassed the number of games to redshirt this season. Those players will almost certainly be on the field this weekend, because there’s no longer a reason to keep them on the sideline.
Other freshmen simply might not be ready for college action, such as Haskins and Ryan Hayes, who have both made position changes.
There are also players who are right on the edge of burning a full year of eligibility, such as Ben VanSumeren, who’s already appeared in four games, and it might not be worth it in a blowout.
Obviously, there are many different ways coaches can handle the new redshirt rule, and Harbaugh will be juggling how it affects each player going forward. But there’s no doubt some of Michigan’s true freshmen will get a chance this weekend.
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