It is well-documented that Michigan took heavy graduation losses following the 2016 season. The Wolverines have just six returning starters — five on offense and one on defense.
The heavy losses obviously create many opportunities for younger players and in many cases require the younger Wolverines grow up and contribute quickly. Success for Jim Harbaugh in his third season at the helm requires quick and strong contributions from these underclassmen.
A look at the Wolverines’ nine most important 2017 underclassmen. If Michigan is going to make a push for its first Big Ten title in over a decade, these nine underclassmen must live up to their talent this fall in Ann Arbor.
9. CB Lavert Hill, sophomore
Why he’s here: Like his highly recruited counterpart David Long, Hill will be a key player this fall. He’s a talented, athletic defensive back who should team with Long to provide Michigan with a couple of ball-hawking cornerbacks for the next few years in Ann Arbor.
8. CB David Long, sophomore
Why he’s here: Long was a prize recruit in 2016, and after one season as an understudy, he is ready to take a leading role in the Michigan secondary. Long is über-talented and should be a great cornerback, but he and Hill will be pushed by incoming freshman Ambrey Thomas. Michigan’s secondary is inexperienced but it also is taalented and deep.
7. LB Devin Bush Jr., sophomore
Why he’s here: Bush was impressive on special teams and in spot duty as a freshman in 2016 and is widely expected to lock down the outside linebacker spot for the Wolverines in 2017. Bush is undersized but athletic and fast. It was obvious as a freshman that he was a “kid of a coach,” as he has great instincts and loves to hit. He should break out for Michigan in 2017.
6. DT Aubrey Solomon, true freshman
Why he’s here: This was a big “get” for Michigan in the 2017 recruiting cycle. Solomon committed to Michigan, then decommitted, which left many to believe he wouldn’t be a Wolverine. But Harbaugh didn’t give up and Solomon ultimately decided Ann Arbor was the place for him. He could see immediate playing time. Michigan is talented but inexperienced on the defensive line, so look for Solomon to make a move for playing time behind projected starters Maurice Hurst Jr. and Bryan Mone.
5. G Michael Onwenu, sophomore
Why he’s here: Harbaugh and company love what Michael Onwenu brings to Michigan’s offensive line. He’s a phenomenal athlete in a huge package who can play multiple positions, including defensive line, as he did on occasion last season. Michigan is expecting Onwenu to lock down the right guard spot as a sophomore and become the road-grading blocker that Michigan has lacked in recent years.
4. C Cesar Ruiz, true freshman
Why he’s here: There may be no more important underclassman than Ruiz. Ruiz is a rare commodity, as he is a true center and played the position exclusively in high school. If Ruiz can win the position, he gives Michigan much more flexibility as it rebuilds an offensive line that must replace three seniors in Kyle Kalis, Eric Magnuson and Ben Braden. Ruiz at center allows Michigan to bump senior Mason Cole back to left tackle. Cole played two seasons at left tackle before moving to center in 2016. Grant Newsome’s devastating knee injury likely will prevent him from playing in 2017, so Cole’s move would be a big benefit for the offensive line.
3. WR Donovan Peoples-Jones, true freshman
Why he’s here: Peoples-Jones was the prize of Harbaugh’s 2017 recruiting haul. The losses of starting receivers Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson will force this talented newcomer into immediate action, where he is expected to carry the load with fellow incoming freshmen Tarik Black, Oliver Martin and Brad Hawkins. Peoples-Jones has wowed teammates and coaches alike with his athleticism early in spring practice.
2. DL Rashan Gary, sophomore
Why he’s here: There isn’t much more to be said about the No. 1 overall recruit in 2016. Gary played significant time as a freshman and is expected to contribute in a huge way this fall in Ann Arbor. Gary is a freakish athlete who wowed the coaching staff and teammates by running a 4.57-second 40-yard dash in spring practice. Most observers expect 2017 to be his breakout season, and it can’t come soon enough as Michigan lost a ton of production to the NFL draft with the departures of Taco Charlton, Chris Wormley and Ryan Glasgow.
1. RB Chris Evans, sophomore
Why he’s here: Michigan hasn’t had a 1,000-yard rusher at running back since Fitzgerald Toussaint accomplished the feat in 2011. That’s a long time to go without a potent rushing attack if you are Michigan. Harbaugh and company say they don’t want a “feature” back, but they certainly would like a back who can grind out yards to help the Wolverines close out games. Evans has the early lead at this position and will be counted on heavily in 2017. If Evans can’t build on a solid freshman year, look for Kareem Walker to get his shot after sitting out 2016 to concentrate on academics.