It’s late January, snow is falling, the temperatures are frigid, and your attention turns to one thing — college football, specifically. Of course it does. Because? Just because.
Sure, the season officially ended a few weeks ago with the national championship game, but once the uneventful February signing day — a shell of itself now that there’s an early signing period in December — passes, there is spring practice to look forward to before offseason workouts and then, at last, preseason camp.
With spring football on the horizon, throw another log on the fireplace and consider a handful of Michigan players who should have bigger impact in the fall.
Defensive coordinator Don Brown was discussing his personnel before the bowl game and mentioned Thomas, a sophomore last season, as a player who “gets left out.” Oh, people know who Thomas is and what he’s capable of, not to mention his lightning speed — remember the 99-yard kickoff return at Notre Dame in the season opener? — but he didn’t see the field much at cornerback. Lavert Hill is returning but David Long left early to prepare for the NFL Draft, and that means there is a spot to fill. Thomas should be penciled in for now. Also don’t forget that he’s a player who during his freshman year made it clear he’d like to play some offense too, and he has, although not much. Now, there shouldn’t be a huge need for him, but speed like his could be exploited here and there.
Hutchinson arrived as a bright-eyed freshman year determined to make an impact. When starting defensive end Rashan Gary was injured and out for three games, Hutchinson wasn’t the first called to fill the void, but he did get called. He had 15 tackles and 1.5 for loss last season and showed considerable promise. Gary, a projected first-round NFL Draft selection, took Hutchinson under his wing last season and considered him his “little brother.” He praised Hutchinson for always asking questions and being a quick learner. If Hutchinson keeps making the strides he showed his freshman year, but the time he gets through this upcoming season, everyone might start referring to his father, Chris Hutchinson, the former Michigan All-American defensive lineman, only as Aidan’s dad.
With leading rusher Karan Higdon gone, Chris Evans will have to step into a bigger role that includes leading the running backs room. One of the names that got considerable run before the Peach Bowl was Christian Turner, the freshman running back. He did get an opportunity in the bowl with Higdon opting to skip the game, and from all accounts, he has been impressive. Quarterback Shea Patterson, while discussing the Wolverines and their upcoming season, referred to Turner as a “hell of a running back.” Evans before the bowl said Turner had transformed from a “high school-type running back” and had developed more patience, finding and hitting holes.
Michigan returns its offensive line intact from last fall with the exception of right tackle. Juwann Bushell-Beatty has run out of eligibility and young Andrew Stueber got an opportunity late in the season. He started at right tackle at Ohio State and in the bowl game. The Michigan staff has been excited about the Connecticut native’s potential since his arrival and as winter conditioning progresses, he will have a jump on the competition heading into spring practice because of the advantage of those two starts in big games.
In a room crowded with talent, it’s any wonder that receivers not named Donovan Peoples-Jones, Nico Collins or Tarik Black will play bigger roles in the fall. Martin will be a redshirt sophomore and has shown playmaking skill in his limited work. He had 11 catches for 125 yards and a touchdown last season. He is quick and can be the sort of change-up from the primary receivers this offense could use.