UM's redshirt-freshman duo starting to make noise, should be key vs. Penn State

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Michigan's Hassan Haskins runs away from the Illinois defense to score a touchdown last week.

Ann Arbor — Neither has played at Penn State and experienced the craziness of the full-stadium white out in prime time on a big national stage, but that doesn’t seem to matter.

Cam McGrone and Hassan Haskins are redshirt freshmen who have embraced larger roles for Michigan the past few weeks and seem unfazed by anything, no matter how big the task or how daunting the challenge.

They are expected to play significant roles when No. 16 Michigan plays at No. 7 Penn State at Beaver Stadium Saturday night in prime time. The Nittany Lions beat Michigan, 42-13, two years ago in a similar setting, also with ESPN’s College GameDay originating from the campus.

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Michigan is 5-1, 3-1 and Penn State is 6-0, 3-0.

McGrone took over at middle linebacker in the Wisconsin game a month ago when starter Josh Ross suffered a high ankle sprain, and Haskins, who had been moved to linebacker, still thinks like one as featured back in the Wolverines’ running back-by-committee approach.

Since the Wisconsin loss, McGrone has started all three games and has 24 tackles, 3.5 for loss, 2.5 sacks, one forced fumble in the fourth quarter of the game at Illinois last week. He also had a career-high 11 tackles against the Illini.

Meanwhile, also in the Illinois game, Haskins led the team in rushing with 125 yards on 12 carries and scored first career touchdown on 29-yard run. Had three 20-yard runs — 29, 28 and 24 — in that game. Zach Charbonnet rushed for 116 yards, giving Michigan two, 100-yard rushers for the first time since 2017.

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The Wolverines will need both young players to make big impacts against favored Penn State.

"His progression has been ascending each and every week," Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said of Haskins. "First started seeing some 'wow' type of plays in practice and now you're seeing them in the games. His ability to see holes, sink his hips, get yards after contact really showed up in this (Illinois) game."

Michigan linebacker Cameron McGrone sacks Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley.

Haskins has shown how tough a runner he can be.

“I feel like I’ve got a defensive mindset,” he said this week.

He exhibited speed and his physical nature on a couple runs at Illinois. He took out one defender while sprinting down the sideline and broke a couple tackles on another run.

"The dude's a hard runner," tight end Nick Eubanks said this week. "There were plays I was blocking, and I'm thinking the play is over, and this dude springs out from a tackle and keeps his feet going."

A few weeks ago, defensive coordinator Don Brown was on the Inside Michigan Football radio show and suggested McGrone is close to the speed All-American Devin Bush had while at Michigan. Bush now is in his rookie season with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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"He has the ability to get out in the flanks and cover running backs out of the back field, which is a huge deal,” Brown said. “I would like to take him and Devin and run them in a 40. I think that would be an interesting race. Devin would probably win, but not by much."

Brown started mentioning McGrone during bowl practices as someone to keep an eye on. He had six tackles at Wisconsin and has been starting since while Ross remains sidelined.

“If you go back and watch, I thought he was getting in there, making some plays and playing with confidence,” Anthony Campanile, who coaches linebackers, said this week referring to McGrone’s play at Wisconsin. “I just think every week he’s gotten better and better. Playing faster and faster. And on the practice field, too.”

While Brown brought up McGrone’s name during bowl practices last December, it was during preseason camp that he caught more attention from Campanile, in his first season with the Michigan staff, and Harbaugh. He had had a productive spring and carried that into camp.

"The physical part of the game was eye-opening,” Harbaugh said of McGrone. “He was challenged in that area and the response was almost immediate, and physical. His speed, his athleticism and his running ability. And since he’s been playing, he’s playing great, great football."

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McGrone is firmly entrenched at linebacker, and Haskins enjoyed his time at that position and said he’s grateful he had the experience because it has helped him see the field differently as a running back.

But if Haskins ever wants to get back on the defensive side, his teammates said they’d welcome him back. He worked with Khaleke Hudson at the viper position and Hudson said the door is always open.

 “If we ever needed him he could definitely come back and play on the defensive side of the ball,” Hudson said.

For now, though, Haskins is happy to be running the ball, and McGrone is settling in on defense.

Twitter: @chengelis