Click HERE to sign up for a subscription to TheWolverine.com and get your FREE gift code for $99 in Michigan apparel and gear!
Michigan didn’t have many surprise players emerge in 2018, but a few wound up making bigger contributions than originally expected.
With that in mind, we’ve taken a look at the five most pleasant surprises, based on what was expected of each player prior to the season began:
5. Junior running back Tru Wilson
He basically makes this list by default, seeing as how there were so few players to choose from.
It became well-known before the year began that Wilson was going to be the team’s No. 3 back behind senior Karan Higdon and junior Chris Evans, with head coach Jim Harbaugh admitting as much in fall camp.
Wilson didn’t make an enormous impact on the ground, but his 355 yards were the third most on the team and his 6.0 yards per carry were the most of any player who had at least 11 carries on the year.
The junior didn’t put on any sparkling single-game performances — his rushing high was 58 yards at Rutgers — but it should be noted that he received more than seven carries in a contest just twice all year.
Perhaps what made Wilson so valuable, though, were his pass blocking skills. He became known early on as an outstanding pass blocker from the backfield, an area that Higdon and Evans struggled with mightily in 2017.
With Higdon graduating following the 2018 campaign, Wilson should be in line to see a much larger role next year with no clear apparent at running back.
4. Junior linebacker Josh Uche
His defensive teammates raved about his improvement all spring and fall, but it’s not uncommon to hear stories of practice field heroes who never go on to accomplish anything on game days.
That wasn’t the case with Uche.
He had only played sparingly during his first two years at Michigan, but exploded in 2018 by leading the team in sacks with seven, while checking in third in tackles for loss with eight.
Uche’s sacks always seemed to come at the most opportune times as well, with none of them more impactful than his game-winning/ending sack to preserve the 20-17 victory at Northwestern in late September.
To put in perspective how productive Uche was during his time on the field, consider this: he posted the aforementioned stats while never playing more than 19 snaps in a single game, and saw more than 10 snaps in just six contests.
On top of that, the junior only compiled 14 total stops on the year, meaning over half his tackles were for loss (eight).
Uche’s playing time was limited due to a crowded linebacking crew made up of juniors Devin Bush and Khaleke Hudson, redshirt sophomore Devin Gil and sophomore Josh Ross.
He should see an increased role in 2019, however, that expands beyond just playing on passing downs.
3. Freshman receiver Ronnie Bell
Granted, Michigan’s receiving crew was thin coming into 2018 (just six scholarship wideouts), but was loaded with talent in the likes of sophomores Nico Collins and Donovan Peoples-Jones, senior Grant Perry and redshirt freshmen Tarik Black and Oliver Martin.
Black’s injury in fall camp certainly opened the door for Bell, and the freshman took advantage it.
He hauled in eight receptions for 145 yards and two touchdowns on the year, with his yardage total being the fifth highest on the team and the third highest among U-M’s wideouts.
The statistics didn’t just come in blowouts either.
Bell saw meaningful snaps in all 12 games, evidenced by his 22-yard touchdown grab that blew the game open right before halftime against Maryland, turning a tight three-point game into a 10-point one.
The Wolverine coaching staff also showed a tendency at times to experiment with the freshman in the running game, giving him five carries on jet sweeps.
Bell should continue to see an expanded role in 2019, even though every receiver outside of Perry is scheduled to be back.
2. Freshman kicker Jake Moody
After Quinn Nordin made 19 of his 24 field goals in 2017 as a redshirt freshman, he appeared to have a stranglehold on the starting kicking job.
That certainly wound up being the case for the majority of 2018 — Nordin once again kicked every field goal through the team’s Nov. 3 blowout win over Penn State, while Moody handled the kickoffs.
A sickness to Nordin prior to the Nov. 17 game against Indiana opened the door for Moody, though, and he capitalized.
The freshman proceeded to make all six of his attempts against the Hoosiers — a Michigan and Big Ten record, and an NCAA record for a freshman — and followed that up by connecting on both of his attempts at Ohio State, including a career-long 39-yarder.
It may seem odd to have Moody this high on the list due to his small sample size this season, but the immediate success he had was eye-opening.
On top of that, the fact that he now appears to have ownership of the kicking job over Nordin is incredibly noteworthy, as the thought of Nordin not being the primary kicker prior to the season was ludicrous.
1. Redshirt sophomore punter Will Hart
After then-freshman Brad Robbins grabbed the starting job from then-redshirt freshman Will Hart after just three games in 2017, the former was heavily expected to be the primary punter once again in 2018.
Injury caused Robbins to miss the entire year, though, and as a result, Hart got his old job back.
After struggling last season (37.7 average), not only did Hart transform himself into the top punter in the Big Ten, but one of the best in the entire country.
He averaged 47.6 yards per boot, which would have been good for the fourth best mark nationally if he had enough attempts to qualify (qualifiers must average 3.6 punts per game, and Hart averaged 3.2).
The Big Ten recognized the redshirt sophomore’s heroics at season’s end, however, and named him the league’s Punter of the Year.
Hart’s emergence in 2018 was surprising for a number of reasons, with the top one being that he wasn’t even expected to be the primary punter this season.
Once it was revealed that Robbins was out with injury, the redshirt sophomore dazzled by putting on spectacular performances every week during the first half of the season — in fact, Hart averaged at least 45 yards per punt in six of U-M’s first seven contests, including four games where he averaged at least 50 yards per boot.
• Talk about this article inside The Fort
• Subscribe to our podcast on iTunes
• Learn more about our print and digital publication, The Wolverine
• Like us on Facebook