Earlier this week, I ranked my Top 22 players for Michigan entering spring ball (as did Steve). Now, we're putting out the five players that need to be on that list by the end of the 2019 season for U-M to reach its full potential.
R-Fr. OT Jalen Mayfield: Admittedly, I was a pretty staunch critic of Jon Runyan Jr. early in the 2018 season but after a poor game against Notre Dame in the opener, he rallied to earn All-Big Ten first-team honors. Still, the struggles he had against elite four- and five-star edge rushers at Notre Dame resurfaced when he faced similar or better talent at Ohio State and in the bowl game against Florida.
Runyan is a serviceable left tackle in the mold of Mason Cole or Mark Huyge or Perry Dorrestein. He's not a Jake Long, Taylor Lewan or even Adam Stenavich caliber left tackle. Michigan needs one of the latter for this line to take the step from above-average to great in 2019, and someone like Mayfield, who has better feet, quickness and athleticism could usher in that era, either supplanting Runyan or kicking him over to right tackle.
Jr. LB Jordan Anthony or R-Fr. LB Cam McGrone: Who starts at inside linebacker for the Wolverines? Devin Gil is a returning starter but has likely reached his ceiling, and it's not good enough. Joss Ross is the favorite to start at MLB after holding down that role as a reserve in 2018 and filling in for Devin Bush before and after Bush's season-ending injury against Ohio State. But make no mistake, Michigan is losing one of its all-time greats at LBs and this position needs another stud to emerge.
R-Fr. RB Christian Turner: Everybody is on the Zach Charbonnet hype train, and I get it. He was ranked a Top 50 recruit (247Sports.com had him as high as No. 38), and he has every ingredient you want out of a bona fide No. 1 ball carrier - size, power, speed and vision - but I'm reluctant to crown a true freshman, even in today's game of college football. Why? Because they haven't fared well in Michigan history.
Over the last 20 years, U-M has signed 39 running backs. How many rushed for 600 yards or more as a true freshman? Two. Mike Hart in 2004 and Chris Evans in 2016. Additionally, only four true freshman nationally rushed for 800 yards or more a year ago - a pretty standard tally for a primary rusher.
That's why I'm banking on a returning player, and with Evans currently not on the roster due to an academic issue, the best bet is on Turner.
Michigan should be a much more prolific passing team in 2019, but every great team needs a great running back. Consider that the average rushing total for the top running back on each of the four playoff teams last year was 1,146 yards per man, and that in five years of college football playoffs the average rushing tally for the top ball carrier on each of the 20 teams has been 1,227 yards.
U-M hasn't had a running back hit that mark since Hart in 2007 (Denard Robinson did it twice, in 2010 and 2012 as a quarterback).
Jr. S Brad Hawkins: Similar to the Charbonnet, I'm cautious when it comes to penciling in true freshmen as starters and instant impact performers. This isn't 2008 and Rich Rodriguez's first season. Jim Harbaugh's program has enough viable options at safety, Hawkins being one of them. He got plenty of run last year, and following his ND nightmare battled back to be a reliable fill-in at the position. U-M will need someone to bookend senior Josh Metellus, preferably someone with better coverage and ball skills than departing senior Tyree Kinnel possessed. A former wide receiver, Hawkins could be that guy.
Fr. DT Mazi Smith: The depth chart at defensive tackle after senior starters Carlo Kemp and Michael Dwumfour is junior Donovan Jeter, with his three career tackles, and then Smith and classmate Chris Hinton (plus a variety of walk-ons). Hinton might have greater upside than Smith but he played end most of his high school career and will likely need more time transitioning to the interior of the line. That puts the onus on Smith, who as an early enrollee and a 300-pounder will have a greater chance to provide depth at the defensive tackle position in 2019.