Michigan football: Projecting the Wolverines' 2021 starting lineup
Michigan is losing a couple of running backs and a key defensive standout entering the 2021 season: Chris Evans, a 5th-year senior (but still had one year due to COVID-19), declared for the 2021 NFL Draft. Zach Charbonnet entered the transfer portal. Kwity Paye, a defensive end, also chose to throw his name into the upcoming NFL youth spree.
The Wolverines finished a truncated season with a 2-4 record, which will be mostly remembered for the cancellation of three games: Maryland, Iowa and some school that played for the national championship vs. Alabama — a team that usually plays UM on the final Saturday of November on an annual basis.
Here’s a look at the projected starters on both sides of the ball for Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan team in 2021. There will be a lot of familiar candidates for the top jobs and also a couple of possible challengers from the ranks of the underclassmen. Of course, spring ball will provide a much clearer vision, but these predictions should provide a solid baseline from which to project.
Andrew Vastardis, who started the 2020 season at center, still has one more year of eligibility — as do all of the players who participated in the COVID-19 season — and seems likely to compete for the job this spring. Zach Carpenter transferred, leaving room for 3rd-year freshman (yeah, that’s a thing now) Greg Crippen or even 2nd-year frosh Reece Atteberry to slide in and take over the center position.
As far as the O-line is concerned, let’s start from the left and work our way over to right tackle.
LT: Andrew Stueber/Karsen Barnhart
LG: Trevor Keegan/Chuck Filiaga
RG: Chuck Filiaga/Zak Zinter
RT: Ryan Hayes/Willie Allen
Michigan has somewhat of a puzzle-piece type of situation entering 2021 — there are roughly 8-10 players who’ll make legitimate runs at starting positions along the line, with 5 of them winning their respective competitions (obviously).
Michigan’s quarterback situation has been one of the most written about topics in sports for the past decade-plus. When will the Wolverines have a true pro-style superstar under center? The PSQB is ideal for Michigan’s system, yet UM has struggled to develop a true under-center QB since the departure of Chad Henne in 2007.
Yeah, it’s been that long since UM has had such a luxury.
Luckily for UM, there are two prime candidates on the roster: Cade McNamara — who, as a redshirt sophomore in 2020 leapfrogged starter Joe Milton — and true freshman JJ McCarthy, a 5-star 2021 recruit who’s ranked among the top players of his class (No. 2 PSQB and No. 21 overall).
The chances of Milton emerging as a starter are very slim, so it’s easy to project a QB battle between a couple of young guns.
With Charbonnet’s departure into the portal, there is an open third spot to fill in the backfield. Christian Turner also transferred, landing at Wake Forest. Michigan will likely continue its committee approach to the run game, rather than just strapping itself to a featured back. Hassan Haskins should still remain at the top of the food chain, but the Wolverines have a trio of young backs who will see the field — at least 2 of 3 from the pool of Blake Corum, a sophomore; and true frosh Donovan Edwards and Tavierre Dunlap.
QB: Cade McNamara/JJ McCarthy
RB: Hassan Haskins/Blake Corum
WR: Ronnie Bell/Xavier Worthy (true frosh)
WR: Cornelius Johnson/Mike Sainristril
Slot: Giles Jackson/AJ Henning
TE: Erick All/Luke Schoonmaker
If he so chooses, Josh Ross can return for a 6th year as a linebacker at Michigan (COVID-19 rules) — so that’s a plus for the Wolverines’ defense. However, promising underclassman LB Cam McGrone has declared for the draft, so that leaves Michigan with a hole to fill among that position group — a group that has been deep during Harbaugh’s tenure.
So, there is no questioning that someone will make a jump this spring.
That’s expected for Michigan, which now has former Baltimore Ravens linebacker coach Mike MacDonald running the defense.
“Mike is an excellent defensive mind who is highly respected across the NFL,” Harbaugh said in a team release. “He has been a valuable member of the Baltimore Ravens staff, and shown a passion for teaching, coaching and developing his players. We are excited about everything that Mike brings to our defense, team and university, and look forward to welcoming him and his fiancé Stephanie to our Michigan Football family.”
MacDonald should be able to quickly incorporate redshirt sophomore Khalel Mullings and incoming recruits Jaydon Hood and Cornell Wheeler to help fill the LB position vacated by McGrone.
Treshaun Hayward, formerly at Western Michigan, should also compete for a starring role within Michigan’s linebacker group. The former MAC DPOTY will certainly push the competition in Ann Arbor. Harbaugh always says “iron sharpens iron,” so expect that mentality from the former WMU star — oh, he’s also from Ann Arbor, so that might light a fire beneath him as well.
MIKE: Khalel Mullings/Khalel Mullings/Cornell Wheeler
WILL: Josh Ross/Nikhai Hill-Green
SAM: Treshaun Hayward/Junior Colson
VIPER: Michael Barett
Aidan Hutchinson (pictured above) suffered a season-ending leg injury in Week 3, preventing one of the Big Ten’s top pass-rushers from truly showcasing his ability during his junior year. The potential NFL first-round pick will absolutely be the anchor of the D-line. Three years ago, Harbaugh compared Luiji Vilain to former star DE Chase Winovich. Vilain suffered through injuries since arriving in 2017, so he never really reached his peak with the Wolverines.
Needless to say, the Wolverines will be looking to secure solid linemates for Hutchinson.
SDE: Aidan Hutchinson/Gabe Newburg
WDE: Taylor Upshaw/Kechaun Bennett
NT: Donovan Jeter
DT: Christopher Hinton
Michigan’s secondary was torched on a regular basis in 2020, so correcting mistakes will be a priority for the No. 13 passing defense in the Big Ten. Gemon Green was a bit steadier than Vincent Gray, who was on the wrong end of several 20-yard-plus connections this past fall. With that said, expect both of them to return as starters.
RCB: Vincent Gray
LCB: Gemon Green