Michigan’s class of freshman recruits for this season are as highly rated as any the program has had since the ranking of prospects by recruiting services took hold in the early 2000s. The 247Sports composite system had the Wolverines with the fifth-best class in the country, led by No. 1 wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones, and No. 2 defensive tackle Aubrey Solomon.
Michigan’s original 2017 class of 30 players signed included six ranked in the top 90 of the country regardless of position, 12 of the top 181, and 20 of the top 301 players. Defensive end Corey Malone-Hatcher, who was rated No. 268, was forced to retire because of an Achilles injury suffered in high school that hasn’t healed enough to allow him to play.
Those ratings helped raise the expectations for this season even though Michigan faced replacing 17 starters while 11 players were selected in the NFL draft in April.
Going from a high school player, no matter his star rating, to Division I football is a difficult transition. There is an obvious physical maturity that must take place, but the adjustment to college life away from football is also a factor.
So how has this freshman class done through the first four games? Pretty well, actually.
Half of the original 30 have played this season, with Peoples-Jones, fellow wide receiver Tarik Black and punter Brad Robbins having started games. Solomon is getting an increasing number of snaps each game, while cornerback Ambry Thomas has played some behind Lavert Hill, David Long and Brandon Watson besides being a constant on special teams.
Here’s a look at the class, how it has done and what to expect the rest of the season.
A fractured left foot halted Black’s promising freshman season. He has had successful surgery, and possibly could return for a bowl game but his loss takes away a deep threat and big body from the Michigan passing attack. Black had 11 catches for 149 yards and 1 touchdown before he was injured in the fourth quarter against Air Force. If Black does not return, there is a chance he could receive a medical redshirt.
Michigan taking advantage of Florida's young secondary. Caught peeking. pic.twitter.com/WI9MDzoMsV
— CFB Chalkboard (@CFBChalkboard) September 2, 2017
The Detroit Cass Tech alum has 60 yards on 3 receptions, but Peoples-Jones really showed why he was highly touted when he returned a punt 79 yards for a touchdown against Air Force. Even more impressive was that it came a week after he was benched from those duties because he wasn’t taking control the way the coaches wanted. Peoples-Jones learned his lesson and applied it. That’s a great ability to possess.
The stats say Solomon has made 4 tackles, getting 0.5 for a loss. Stats don’t tell the story of defensive tackles, especially not in Don Brown’s defensive scheme. Tackles are doing their jobs when they hold up at the line of scrimmage, preventing blockers from getting to linebackers, like Devin Bush, to make tackles. Solomon is getting work behind starters Bryan Mone and Mo Hurst. He didn’t play until the fourth quarter against Florida in the opener, but he’s playing more snaps early as the rotation dictates.
Thomas was the replacement when Long and Watson were banged up against Florida. While the secondary has been on a short rotation so far this season, Thomas is making his contribution. The Detroit Martin Luther King alum had a forced fumble and recovery on kickoff coverage against Florida in the second half, a turnover that led to a field goal.
Robbins was rated the No. 1 punter in the country and he showed his hang time ability in his first appearance last week at Purdue. He got plenty of practice with 7 punts, averaging 40.6 yards per punt. Robbins forced Purdue returners to call for 5 fair catches. Will Hart punted the first three games, but the job appears to belong to Robbins now.
Getting their feet wet
The other 10 freshmen to play have done so mainly on special teams, although there have been a few who have gotten snaps on offense and defense.
Cesar Ruiz was the top-rated center in the country, but he’s learning the ropes by being used as an extra tackle in certain offensive sets. Fifth-year senior Patrick Kugler has played well as the starter but Ruiz could still see time at the position later in the season.
Cornerback Benjamin St-Juste, safety J’Marick Woods, fullback Ben Mason and linebacker Josh Ross have played in all four games on special teams. Woods has gotten a couple of snaps on defense but junior Tyree Kinnel and sophomore Josh Metellus have played the majority of the season as the safeties.
Brad Hawkins, who was moved from wide receiver to safety during preseason practices, has played the last three games on special teams. Defensive end Kwity Paye played the first three games in late action. Safety Jaylen Kelly-Powell and running back O’Maury Samuels have each played in two games. Kelly-Powell, like Woods and Ruiz, could find more playing time on defense in the final eight games of the regular season.
Still to come
Some players are destined to be redshirted, barring injuries to players in front of them. Redshirt is not a dirty word, although in a time of instant gratification one sometimes wonders if everyone realizes that.
Quarterback Dylan McCaffrey heads that list, although depending on the severity of Wilton Speight’s injury, he becomes the No. 3 signal caller behind John O’Korn and Brandon Peters. Offensive linemen JaRaymond Hall, James Hudson (who was moved from defensive line) and Joel Honigford are also prospective redshirts. Andrew Stueber played in the first game against Florida, so unless he has an injury, he cannot redshirt this season. Running back Kurt Taylor has a promising future but this is a position of depth for the Wolverines.
Defensive end Donovan Jeter is out for the season with an injury, giving him a chance to receive a medical redshirt. Fellow linemen Phillip Paea and Deron Irving-Bey are candidates to redshirt as they develop behind older players.
Two players whose names keep popping up in questions from fans are wide receivers Nico Collins and Oliver Martin. Neither has been in a game yet, although both have been in uniform. It’s a tough position to break through into the lineup, although both were regarded highly enough entering the season that they could be on the field sooner rather than later.
That leaves four more players from the class: offensive tackle Chuck Filiaga, linebacker Jordan Anthony, linebacker Drew Singleton and defensive end Luiji Vilain. Filiaga has been dressing for games and has warmed up with the second unit at left tackle behind senior Mason Cole. Would Michigan coaches choose to burn Filiaga’s redshirt for the opportunity to play a few snaps late in a blowout game? Anthony, Singleton and Vilain face similar questions unless they show they can contribute on special teams first.