On a team that is heavy on youth on both sides of the ball, there’s ample opportunity for several true freshmen to have an immediate impact for Michigan in 2010. Two players, QB Devin Gardner and P Will Hagerup, have been discussed in great detail here — Gardner will hopefully redshirt, while Hagerup is all but assured to be the starting punter from day one. Today, I’ll look at five other freshmen who have the best chance at seeing the field this fall:
- CB Cullen Christian: While Demar Dorsey attracted most of the attention this summer, Christian was a forgotten man despite being a top-100 prospect (and top-8 cornerback) to both Rivals and Scout — higher rankings than Dorsey received from either service. At 6-0, 187 pounds, Christian has the size to play a physical bump-and-run style, and while he doesn’t possess track-level speed, he has the athleticism to potentially be a shut-down corner. Christian is also supposed to be very strong in zone coverage, which should be a big help on a team expected to play a lot of Cover 3 on defense. With Justin Turner still struggling to pass J.T. Floyd on the depth chart, Christian has a golden opportunity to step right into a spot on the two-deep, and with a strong fall camp there’s a very good chance he could unseat Floyd for a starting spot opposite Troy Woolfolk. Besides Hagerup, Christian has the best chance of any true freshman to open the season as a starter, and at the very least he could have a Leon Hall-like impact as the third corner on a team desperate for help in the secondary.
- S Marvin Robinson: The other consensus four-star secondary recruit, Robinson has the ability to play free or strong safety in Michigan’s defense. Cameron Gordon (free safety) and Jordan Kovacs (bandit) appear to have two of the three safety spots locked up, but the competition is wide open at spur, where Thomas Gordon, Mike Williams, and Brandin Hawthorne are all battling for one starting spot. Robinson should immediately shake up that competition, especially since the spur position seems tailor-made for a player like him — Robinson’s strengths are his size (6-2, 200), speed, and hitting ability, while he lacks refined coverage skills for the time being. None of the veterans at the spur position have separated themselves from the pack, so Robinson has a great chance to step in and compete for not just playing time, but a starting role. If he can show enough ability in pass coverage, his physical tools will be tough to ignore. Even if he doesn’t see the field immediately, I expect Robinson to get more and more playing time as the season wears on — if he doesn’t take the job from day one, of course.
- DE Jibreel Black: With Greg Banks moving inside to defensive tackle, Will Heininger shelved for the foreseeable future with a torn ACL, and Anthony LaLota still learning the ropes at defensive end, there’s a good opportunity we’ll see some young blood backing up Ryan Van Bergen. Jibreel Black, Scout’s #174 overall prospect in the class of 2010, is the most likely DE in the class to see the field early, and he could have an immediate impact as a pass-rushing specialist. At 6-2, 258 pounds, Black isn’t the prototype defensive end, but he has enough size to hold his own at the college level, and he has shown he can get to the quarterback against tough competition — Black tallied three sacks and was named his team’s defensive MVP in the Ohio North-South All-Star Game despite playing out of position at defensive tackle. Many have compared him to Brandon Graham (albeit with lower recruiting ratings), and it doesn’t appear Black is shying away from the comparison — he will wear #55 in the fall. He certainly appears to have the same confidence as Graham, saying after his All-Star performance, “I’ll be doing the same thing [when he plays in Ohio Stadium again in 2010]. Pryor better watch out.” If Black can come close to backing up that talk, he should be a key player in the defensive rotation this fall.
- RB Stephen Hopkins: With veterans Vincent Smith, Mike Cox, Fitzgerald Toussaint, and (if he qualifies) Michael Shaw all battling for the starting job, it’s unlikely Hopkins will get a chance to be Michigan’s every-down back. That doesn’t mean he won’t see the field, however, as the 6-0, 227 pound Texas product should make an immediate impact as a short-yardage back. Hopkins actually cut weight after showing up in the spring looking more like a fullback than a tailback (not to mention looking very much like a wide-eyed freshman in the spring game, as evidenced on the right), so hopefully he’ll also show a little quickness to go along with some serious North-South power. With Brandon Minor now at training camp with the Chicago Bears, Michigan could really use a physical presence on the goal line and in third-and-short situations, and Hopkins should easily slip into that role in the fall.
- SR/PR Drew Dileo: What? Consensus low three-star Drew Dileo, you say? The lowest-rated receiver in a class boasting five of them? Yes, but not because of what Dileo brings to the table on offense, where I expect he’ll be behind Roundtree, Odoms, Robinson, Gallon, and Grady among the slot receivers. Where Dileo has a great chance of carving out a role on this team is returning punts — he excelled at both kickoff and punt returns in high school (just check out his highlight tape), and while Darryl Stonum will again be the team’s primary kick returner, the competition to return punts is wide open. Dileo is sure-handed, something which the coaching staff will certainly welcome, and he displays very good field vision and the ability to make people miss. He possesses good acceleration and isn’t afraid to pick a hole and go, but lacks the top-end speed that would be ideal in a returner. Still, having a punt returner who can consistently pick up yardage while not putting the ball on the ground would be more than okay for a team that has unsuccessfully searched for an answer at punt returner the past two seasons.
Honorable Mention: WR Jerald Robinson, WR Ricardo Miller, S Josh Furman, S Carvin Johnson