Everybody knows the story of the 2018 recruiting class. The staff missed on many of their top tier targets, including two flips to SEC schools from their highest ranked commits. The 19-man class was filled mostly with high upside projects that included only seven four-star commits and twelve three-stars.
The program has gotten back on track, with the current class sitting at 8th in country, compared to 22nd last year. But now that the regular season is finished, it’s a good time to look back and see how the freshman class fared in their first year with the team.
Overall, the class gets a big ol’ incomplete. With great depth from the large 2016 and 2017 classes, there wasn’t much playing time for the freshman, many of whom were expected to take a couple of years before they’re ready to see the field. The new redshirt rules also means that the staff was willing to sprinkle in some playing time, but limit it to four games in order to get an extra year of eligibility.
Still, there were some surprise contributors, and a few guys flashed serious promise. Here’s how everyone performed in 2018.
Only three members of the class are on track to not preserve their redshirt, and one isn’t even on scholarship.
The least surprising player to see significant snaps was Aidan Hutchinson, who was the highest ranked player in the class. Hutchinson was immediately part of the defensive line rotation, playing in all 12 games. On the season, he tallied 15 tackles, with 1.5 tackles for loss.
He showed major potential that could portend a starting spot on the defensive line next year after Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich leave. Plays like this against Maryland show that the outstanding defensive line development by Greg Mattison could continue to roll next season.
Now to find the next major contributor, we must go from the highest ranked player to the lowest. No doubt the biggest surprise of the 2018 class was the performance of Ronnie Bell, who had become a symbol of the staff’s recruiting struggles.
A two-star with only an offer from Missouri State – in basketball – when he committed, Bell caused a lot of griping from Michigan fans who were in despair over the recruiting class. Still transitioning from basketball to football, it was supposed to be a while until we saw Bell on the field.
Instead, he went out and played in all twelve games, catching eight passes for 145 yards and two touchdowns. Those stats aren’t eye-popping by any means, but from someone who was expected to not even see the field, they’re huge. He’s been the benefactor in the slot of a few RPO’s, like this one against Indiana.
The staff also seems to be excited with Bell’s athleticism, having him run five jet sweeps, which gained negative two yards, and returned two punts. The wide receiver depth chart is crowded with a stud trio ahead of him, but he’ll find reps somehow and could be in for a breakout as a junior.
Finally, the last contributor, who wasn’t even on scholarship this season. Kicker Jake Moody had been the designated kick-off man for the entire season, and did a fine job. On 85 kick-offs, he’s sent 40 back for touchbacks. But, after starter Quinn Nordin was banged up at the end of the season, Moody stepped in without missing a beat.
In his first start against Indiana, he made a school record six field goals, and added two more against Ohio State without a miss. None of his attempts have come from longer than 40 yards, so his leg strength hasn’t been tested yet, but the accuracy is clearly there.
This next trio of players saw some brief action in garbage time, but had enough meaningful plays to be mentioned.
The first is quarterback Joe Milton, who was a darling of spring practice, impressing the staff with his development that was much farther ahead than they anticipated. Still, he started the season as the fourth string and only attempted three passes on the season.
The four-star completed two of those passes for 45 yards and an interception. He also carried the ball six times for a non-sack adjusted 20 yards, with a touchdown. He’s flashed his ability to run the ball, most notably in the Wisconsin game on his winding, 23-yard scramble.
After the Dylan McCaffrey injury, Milton was battling Brandon Peters for the back-up spot. Thankfully he was never needed in actual game time, but he did throw an interception against Ohio State when the team was in desperation mode.
If Shea Patterson returns next year, he’ll continue to fight for the back-up role. If Patterson leaves, it’ll be a competition for the starting job between him and Dylan McCaffrey, and maybe Peters if he doesn’t transfer.
Another skill player who saw brief action was Christian Turner. He was banged up with a wrist injury early on, but in two appearances, Turner carried the ball 13 times for 63 yards. He seems to be a tough back with good balance who will be a struggle for one player to bring down. Take his season long run of 19 yards against Nebraska as evidence.
As Karan Higdon leaves next season, Turner will be fighting for many more carries with Chris Evans, Tru Wilson, and Zach Charbonnet. Given how Harbaugh likes to have a backfield by committee, Turner will have a good chance to see more action.
The status of the offensive line was in serious doubt at the beginning of the season before Ed Warinner worked his magic. Given that, Jalen Mayfield, despite being a true freshman, was a popular prediction to be starting by the end of the season, including by me.
He received a bunch of hype in summer camp, and Jon Runyan was miles away from the first team Big Ten performer he’d end up as. While legitimate playing time never materialized, the four-star still titillated the fan base with a few dominant reps.
Pay no mind that this was against a MAC backup, Mayfield is the savior! While Andrew Steuber replaced an injured Juwann Bushell-Beatty at the end of the year, it was probably more of a redshirt-saving measure for Mayfield, who has played in three games this season. This offseason will be a competition between the two for the right tackle spot. If Mayfield doesn’t win that, he has to be the favorite to replace Runyan after 2019.
Special Teams cameos
This next group of players all got in between one and four games this year, basically all on special teams.
Ben VanSumeren played the most, appearing in four games on special teams. He was moved from fullback to linebacker, but will probably move back to offense after Jared Wangler leaves this season.
Another player to make a move from offense to defense was Hassan Haskins, who was warming up with the linebackers before games this year. He saw two games on special teams this year.
Barrett also moved to linebacker this season as a potential viper in the future. If Pep Hamilton leaves and Michigan hires a more innovative offensive coordinator, Barrett could be a real weapon on offense.
Gray was the beneficiary of some surprising camp buzz, and could be a candidate to replace David Long or Lavert Hill if both leave for the NFL.
I was surprised Cam McGrone didn’t see the field more this season. He is the perfect linebacker for Don Brown, and seemed like he could get some run, especially in garbage time. Instead, Josh Ross usually bumped over to the Mike linebacker spot to prepare him for next season. Jordan Anthony was also ahead of him.
Schoonmaker was always seen as a project who needs to adjust from Connecticut high school football to the Big Ten. The tight end depth chart is still very crowded above him.
Everyone else who wasn’t mentioned hasn’t played at all this season and are headed for redshirts. I’m not sure of any injuries to these guys, so that could be one reason beyond anything I mention.
The two players that seemed the most likely to see the field to me were Myles Sims and Mustapha Muhammad. They were both solid four-star recruits who could’ve at least contributed on kick-offs. Sims is especially interesting considering he’ll be in the running for a starting cornerback spot next season and it would’ve been helpful to get some reps.
The defensive line duo of Taylor Upshaw and Julius Welschof were raw prospects and always expected to redshirt for different reasons. Upshaw has the bloodlines, but only played football for a few years, and Welschof is transitioning from Germany.
Ryan Hayes is another unsurprising redshirt, as he’s a tight end/tackle tweener that needs to make his body offensive lineman-sized before he can be put on the line.
Finally, a defensive back troika has been virtually unheard of this season. Gemon Green, German Green, and Sammy Faustin are all safety/cornerback hybrids that haven’t found a spot yet. With potentially three spots open in the secondary next year, they will have the opportunity to prove themselves.
The new redshirt rule shook up the dynamic of how freshmen were used this season, but the Michigan staff still seemed hesitant to push their usage to the max. Adding a layer of intrigue to the bowl game will be seeing if the coaches take the leash off and get as many guys on the field as they can. Only Ben Van Sumeren has played four games, so everyone else has either burned the redshirt or has eligibility to play one more game.
With the potential of several starters sitting out to prepare for the NFL draft, this could be the chance for several young players to make the first strike in locking down a starting spot for 2019.
The 2018 class didn’t make a big impact on the field this season, but they were never expected to or needed. In a class filled with low floor, high ceiling projects, it may take a while to see who the real impact players are.