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Wojo: Evans leads Wolverines’ youth movement

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — You don’t make sweeping proclamations after one play, luckily for new starter Wilton Speight, who tossed an interception on his first pass. You don’t make sweeping proclamations after one game, especially when the opponent has severe jet lag and a major talent lag.

But you can feel comfortable saying this after Michigan opened with a 63-3 blasting of Hawaii: The Wolverines aren’t waiting around for anything or anybody.

There was running back Chris Evans in his first college game, slicing through the Rainbow Warriors for touchdown runs of 18 and 43 yards. There was new coordinator Don Brown’s defense blitzing again and again, with linebackers Jabrill Peppers and Mike McCray hitting everything. There were 16 — yes, 16 — true freshmen making their debuts Saturday, not because they were needed to beat Hawaii, but because in Jim Harbaugh’s system, if you can make plays, well, you will be asked to make plays.

There has never been a Michigan opener quite like this, from the margin of victory to the virtually flawless offense — zero punts, seven-for-seven on third-down conversions — to the record number of freshmen on the field. In college football today, if you have depth, you use it before you lose it. And with his seventh-ranked Wolverines, Harbaugh is churning bodies and accelerating timetables. He calls it a meritocracy, in which the best play regardless of class or star quotient, and Michigan has a batch of talented fresh faces.

The most important guy, of course, is Speight, the redshirt sophomore who won the quarterback job, botched the first play, then showed why he won the job by coolly rebounding. Harbaugh wasn’t kidding when he talked about the ferocity of competition, and he loved that Michael Jordan hit the same points when he addressed the Wolverines the night before.

Jordan was in town for the debut of Michigan’s new Jordan-branded Nike uniforms, and he was duly welcomed by the marching band’s Jumpman formation at halftime. The band also featured a gigantic Harbaugh head that swayed humorously to the music, in case anyone forgot how this all started.

Ready to go

There’s an audacity about what Michigan is trying to do under Harbaugh, and it includes the audacity of youth. Oh, the Wolverines have plenty of senior starters, although some — Jourdan Lewis, Maurice Hurst, Ben Braden — were held out for precautionary reasons with minor injuries. Others, such as senior runner De’Veon Smith, got dinged up. Smith left with bruised ribs that aren’t expected to be serious, but created an opening for Evans.

The 5-foot-11, 200-pounder from Indianapolis ran for 112 yards on eight carries — only the third freshman in program history to top 100 yards in his first game — and showed vision and burst. It might have surprised others, but the Wolverines had seen it throughout training camp.

Speight flubs first pass, then sparkles for Michigan

“He’s a special football player, and you really didn’t get to see everything he can do,” Harbaugh said. “He can catch the ball out of the backfield, line up as a receiver, work as a punt and kick returner. He does special things, and I expect big things going forward.”

And there’s no time to wait. Freshman Ben Bredeson played quite a bit at guard. Top recruit Rashan Gary got noticeable time on the defensive line. Superbly named freshman receiver Eddie McDoom already elicited “Doooom!” chants from the crowd with a couple catches. Touted cornerback David Long played a lot in Lewis’ absence. Huge lineman Michael Onwenu from Detroit Cass Tech pulled off a remarkable feat, playing offense and defense in his first game.

Sometimes it makes perfect sense to redshirt freshmen, unless they’ve earned a longer look. That philosophy was the story of the day, helped by meager resistance from Hawaii.

“Coach Harbaugh thinks you get better at football by playing football,” center Mason Cole said. “For those guys to get that experience in front of 110,000 people, you can’t beat that. It’s irreplaceable. They were all prepared, and we were all ready to go.”

No pressure, just don’t mess up

Evans was as eager as anyone, and when Jordan fielded questions in the team meeting room Friday night, Evans was the first to raise his hand. He asked how Jordan made it through the famous 1997 Finals game when he battled the flu but scored 38 points.

“He said it was his love for the game, that no matter what was going on, even feeling sick, his love for the game overcame all that,” Evans said. “I knew I was gonna get a couple (carries), and I just made sure I made the best of it. I couldn’t mess up, or that could be my last time.”

Evans is an interesting case of deceptive looks. He wears glasses (contacts during the game) and has sported a high-top haircut since he was a kid watching Will Smith on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”

Evans was one of the products of Harbaugh’s initial satellite-camp tour to Indianapolis a year ago, and committed to the Wolverines shortly thereafter. He was a three- or four-star recruit without a defined position, and he dreamed of playing for Ohio State. The Buckeyes finally offered a scholarship but it was to play defensive back, and that assured Evans would become a Wolverine.

Smith will start when healthy, presumably, but there’s no guarantee for most positions. Speight edged out John O’Korn and was composed and accurate following the interception, finishing 10-for-13 for 145 yards and three touchdowns. His second drive also didn’t begin optimally, on Michigan’s 2, but once he completed a 16-yard pass to Jehu Chesson, he was fine.

Production will keep a player in the lineup and mistakes will get him pulled, regardless of class. Just as Evans raised his hand quickly in the Jordan meeting, he raised his profile quickly in practice.

“I didn’t really know much about him,” Speight said. “After two days of training camp, we all knew who Chris Evans was. Best part about it is, he doesn’t let anything get to his head. He just goes about his business.”

Harbaugh said he initially thought eight freshmen might play this season. Then he started thinking it might be 10. Now he’s upped it to 17-20.

This was a tuneup as lopsided as expected, and it’s not necessarily a precursor to more. But it is the latest sign the Wolverines aren’t looking back, and aren’t holding anything back.

Roll call

Here are the 16 true freshmen who played in Michigan’s season-opener against Hawaii on Saturday:

TE Devin Asiasi

OL Ben Bredeson

LB Devin Bush

WR Kekoa Crawford

RB Kingston Davis

DL Michael Dwumfour

RB Chris Evans

DE Rashan Gary

CB Lavert Hill

S Khaleke Hudson

CB David Long

WR Eddie McDoom

TE Sean McKeon

S Josh Metellus

OL / DL Michael Onwenu

LB Josh Uche