Michigan football: Key role players, scenarios for the stretch run
Following Saturday’s 52-17 flattening of Rutgers, Michigan is now in prime position to aggressively hunt a Big Ten championship.
A slow start didn’t hinder the No. 4-ranked Wolverines, who trailed 17-14 at the half but used a turnover-filled, offensively-friendly 3rd quarter to put away the Scarlet Knights in Piscataway.
Once they get their motor revving, the Wolverines have one of the most lethal offenses in all of college football, evidenced by their fourth 50-plus point game of the season Saturday.
We all the know the headliners, the mainstays and the every-day stars.
But what about the rest of the Wolverines? What about the key role players and others who aren’t always in the limelight? Those guys are going to get their shine in this piece, because Michigan has been all about the “next man” mentality all season and has seen production from just about everyone from No. 1 to No. 3 on the depth chart. Jim Harbaugh truly has his deepest, most talented team since taking over in Ann Arbor prior to the 2015 season.
Once compared to Jabrill Peppers, Michael Barrett was supposed to be Michigan’s next big thing at the VIPER position that was popular in former coordinator Don Brown’s defense. Things haven’t exactly gone that way for Barrett, who’s spent the majority of his career as a reserve linebacker. However, on Saturday, he notched his first career interception, helping to set up a touchdown.
He also had a 31-yard pick-6 in the third quarter.
With 37 tackles, Barrett has the second most on the team. Linebacker Junior Colson leads with 61 stops. As the Wolverines’ defense continues to apply pressure, Barrett will certainly be among their top contributors. He’s had his best season in Ann Arbor and hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down.
The 6-foot, 233-pound senior knows his way around the field and has a deep understanding of the playbook’s schemes/concepts. Look for Barrett to be a major factor for the Wolverines during this final stretch of the regular season — and beyond.
Turn the Paige
He didn’t play Saturday vs. Rutgers, for undisclosed reasons, but Makari Paige has developed rather nicely through the first 9 games of the season. For a while, the junior safety struggled in zone concepts but has since improved due to rigorous study habits.
“It’s been difficult,” Paige said in October, per MLive. “I couldn’t really learn the playbook because I was so used to playing man-to-man my whole career. Being able to learn the zones and understand fully the defense, it’s been hard. But now I understand that more.”
With 22 tackles, Paige is No. 7 among UM players. His 2 pass deflections are tied for the most of any DB on the roster.
At 6-4 and 200 pounds, Paige has the size and length to contend with big-bodied receivers. He had a career-high 6 tackles during Michigan’s 29-7 win over Michigan State and has routinely been — despite the learning curve with zone concepts — one of the Wolverines’ top men in coverage.
Freshman Will Johnson, one of the highest-rated defensive recruits in Michigan history, came up with a pick vs. Rutgers and looks like he’s quickly fitting into the defense. He had a career-high 3 tackles vs. Iowa and his 29-yard interception provided a major boost for the Wolverines in New Jersey.
The former 5-star prep has all the tools necessary to evolve into a star in Ann Arbor. Look for him to continue his maturation and provide depth and athleticism to a defensive backfield that has allowed just 6 passing touchdowns — the second-least among top-10 teams in the category — and holds teams to just 5.35 yards per pass attempt. As of now, Michigan has the No. 9 passing defense in the country. While Johnson hasn’t been a key contributor thus far, he is in position to step into the spotlight and finish as one of the Wolverines’ top defensive backs.
The 3rd quarter
So this isn’t a player, it’s a thing: Michigan’s third quarters have been nothing but dominant this season.
With 28 points in the first act following halftime against Rutgers, the Wolverines’ pushed their 3rd-frame dominance to an 84-6 scoring edge. Yes, it’s important to start off with a bang, but if that’s not doable, it’s advantageous to be able to dominant segments of the game. If not for 28 vs. Rutgers, Saturday could have been much different for the Wolverines, who trailed 17-14 at the break.