ANN ARBOR, Mich. – The sting of Michigan football’s final two games still hasn’t worn off, but it’s not too early to look ahead to the 2019 season.
Michigan came within one game of a possible College Football Playoff berth this season, but blowout losses to Ohio State and Florida revealed the Wolverines are still outside the tier of elite teams.
Now Jim Harbaugh will turn his focus to next year, as Michigan hopes to take the final step that has eluded it for more than two decades.
There will be plenty of talent to replace, as star defensive linemen Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich, All-American linebacker Devin Bush and 1,000-yard rusher Karan Higdon move on to the NFL.
Michigan could also lose its top cornerback in David Long and tight end Zach Gentry to the NFL. Neither has announced a decision about their final year of college eligibility.
Unlike in 2018, when very few true freshmen — Jake Moody, Ronnie Bell and Aidan Hutchinson — made true impacts, Harbaugh will need some help from the 2019 class right away.
Ohio State and Florida exposed some of the glaring weaknesses on Michigan’s roster, but luckily, the coaching staff identified those holes much earlier and addressed them on the recruiting trail.
Here’s a look at how the 2019 class should shore up some of the issues that brought Michigan’s playoff hopes crashing down.
Michigan was dominated in just about every aspect in Columbus, but the most glaring difference between the two teams was speed at the skill positions.
Ohio State torched Michigan’s secondary with crossing routes that allowed receivers to catch the ball in stride an rack up yards after the catch. Though the Wolverines had effective linebacker and secondary play all season, they couldn’t keep up with the Buckeyes in space.
On the other side of the ball, Michigan couldn’t replicate that big play ability to keep up with Ohio State. The result was an embarrassing loss in the biggest game of the year.
Harbaugh went straight to the top to address the problem, landing perhaps the fastest player in the entire recruiting class: Daxton Hill.
The No. 1 safety in the nation and No. 8 overall player ran a 4.30-second 40-yard dash and 4.22-second shuttle run. He was awarded a 10/10 speed rating by 247 Sports.
Hill is a game-changer for the Michigan secondary because he can play safety or cornerback, depending on what Ryan Day throws at them in the coming years. He can keep up with anybody in the country, which was lacking in Michigan’s current secondary.
Michigan also has a commitment from the No. 29 safety in the nation, Quinten Johnson, who’s nearly as fast as Hill. Johnson ran a 4.48-second 40-yard dash and a 4.13-second shuttle run.
Johnson gives the Wolverines another excellent speed option behind Hill when teams such as Ohio State are shredding them through the air.
Four-star cornerback Jalen Perry is also a change of pace from the defensive backs Michigan has recruited the past couple of seasons. Perry has solid size at 6-foot-1, but he’s also got better speed to stick with receivers in coverage.
On offense, Michigan landed a pair of four-star receivers with good speed, especially Giles Jackson. The Oakley, California, native posted a ridiculous shuttle time of 3.85 seconds and ran a 4.43-second 40-yard dash.
Jackson is a versatile offensive weapon who should give Michigan a chance to open up the offense and try to keep up with offensive juggernauts such as Ohio State.
Cornelius Johnson is the other receiver in Michigan’s class, and though he doesn’t have Jackson’s standout speed, he’s fast enough to be a mismatch for bigger defenders who will try to counter his 6-foot-3 frame.
Michigan is playing catch-up against the elite teams in terms of speed, but it appears the coaching staff is making that a priority on the recruiting trail.
Running game consistency
Michigan’s rushing attack was solid for most of the 2018 season, but in the biggest games, the offense struggled to move the ball consistently on the ground.
In 519 runs this year, Michigan averaged 5 yards per carry. Higdon led the way with a 5.3-yard average and 1,178 total yards.
But running struggles were a common theme in the team’s losses.
Against Notre Dame, Michigan managed just 58 rushing yards on 33 carries — an average of 1.8 yards per attempt. Even Higdon struggled, averaging 3.4 yards on 21 carries.
At Ohio State, Michigan ran the ball 40 times but wasn’t explosive, averaging just 4 yards per carry. Short runs of 1 or 2 yards put the offense in third-and-long situations, which allowed the Ohio State defense to get off the field far too often.
Michigan averaged just 2.6 yards per carry in the Peach Bowl, most notably failing to pick up 1 yard in two attempts on the opening drive. After a long touchdown run was called back, Michigan turned the ball over on downs and didn’t score.
A consistent rushing attack starts up front, and Michigan loaded up on talented offensive linemen. The 2019 class has four four-star linemen and two three-star linemen, including three ranked among the top 200 players in the nation.
The top-ranked player among the five is Nolan Rumler, the No. 9 offensive guard in the nation. The Akron, Ohio, native has good size and athleticism, which he’s putting on display at the Under Armour All-American practices.
Rumler is being asked to play center for the first time at the practices, and he played tackle in high school, so he’s versatile enough to see early playing time if Michigan needs to fill a hole along the line. He specializes as a run blocker, so it’s a sign that offensive line coach Ed Warinner is making the running game a priority.
Trevor Keegan and Trente Jones were the No. 17 and No. 18 offensive tackles in the class, respectively, and top 170 players.
Keegan, the No. 1 player from Illinois, and Jones, the No. 21 player from Georgia are both massive at 6-foot-6. Keegan is considered a dominant run blocking tackle while Jones is a more well-rounded prospect, but both are clearly expected to help bring consistency to the running game.
Karsen Barnhart is the last of the four-star linemen, signing with the Wolverines out of Paw, Paw, Michigan. At 6-foot-4, 273 pounds, he got a scholarship offer because of his athleticism — he even played some tight end and receiver in high school, along with basketball — and is a good complement to some of the bigger linemen in the class.
Zach Carpenter and Jack Stewart weren’t as highly ranked as the other four signees above, but they’re both 6-foot-5 and Warinner likes their upside. Carpenter is more of a big, powerful blocker who could open up holes between the tackles, while Stewart is an athletic blocker who might be better at pass blocking.
The offensive line made improvements in 2018, but it’s been an issue for Michigan for more than 10 years. This six-player group shows the team’s commitment to shoring up the line and committing to a more consistent running attack.
Running back commit Zach Charbonnet will be the beneficiary of this offensive line group. He’s the No. 3 running back in the class and No. 42 player overall, so Charbonnet should see snaps as a true freshman in the upcoming season.
Charbonnet has good size and strength to go with excellent speed. He’s also a threat to catch passes out of the backfield, which gives Michigan a new dimension it’s been missing for years.
Harbaugh used seven scholarships to address the running game in the 2019 recruiting class, and it will need to pay immediate dividends.
Going into the 2018 season, the defensive line was expected to be Michigan’s greatest strength, but in the game that mattered most, it was nowhere to be found.
The Wolverines couldn’t get any pressure on Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins, allowing him to stand comfortably in the pocket and pick apart the secondary. It was perhaps the most shocking development of the game and exposed a new issue to address in recruiting.
Don Brown will have a handful of strong edge rushers returning next season, led by Josh Uche, who had seven sacks this season, and Kwity Paye, who finished with 5.5 tackles for loss in limited playing time.
Michigan had 11 players with at least one sack this season, and Michael Dwumfour was the only defensive lineman. He had three sacks and four tackles for loss playing on the inside of Michigan’s defensive line, but with Gary and Winovich leaving next season, he’ll need some help getting pressure on the inside.
Luckily, Michigan landed two top 150 defensive tackles in Chris Hinton and Mazi Smith.
Hinton, the No. 5-ranked tackle in the nation, had offers from the likes of Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, Ohio State and Notre Dame because of his elite size and strength. He’s not considered a great athlete but has the strength and technique to be a strong inside presence for Michigan in the future.
Smith, the No. 4 player in Michigan out of Grand Rapids, is the opposite. He’s an impressive athlete with a high ceiling to be a pass rusher on the inside or on the edge of the line. Smith’s offer list was similar to Hinton’s because of his elite potential.
Michigan should have a decent pass rush next season, but if one of the freshman defensive tackles can join the rotation, it would be a big lift for Brown’s aggressive system.
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