Michigan football: Wolverines' success came from everyone, not just the stars
By now, the names Cade McNamara and Aidan Hutchinson have been drilled into the heads of everyone who follows college football.
It’s been for good reason, too.
McNamara, the quarterback, and Hutchinson, the All-America defensive end, have led their respective units to their current championship-level play. Go ahead and throw running back Hassan Haskins in there, too — he’s scored a UM single-season record 20 rushing touchdowns this season.
During the regular season, Michigan had an 11-1 QB, a Heisman-worthy DE, a record-breaking RB and a slew of others. Oh yeah, linebacker David Ojabo was pretty good too. With 10 sacks, he’s four behind Hutchinson, who set a school record. Like Hutchinson, Ojabo has been projected as an early first-round pick in the upcoming NFL Draft.
That’s just glazing over the star players — the stuff that everyone knows and talks about.
But what about guys like Caden Kolesar, Kris Jenkins, Daylen Baldwin and Andrew Vastardis? Those players carried out important roles for the Big Ten-champion and College Football Playoff-bound No. 2 Wolverines.
Let’s take a look at how they helped support a team that thrived on star power but also saw several depth guys step forward.
What a story
Kolesar has a truly interesting backstory. The former walk-on and practice squad all-star’s father, John, played at Michigan with coach Jim Harbaugh, a former star quarterback. That makes for cool conversation, right?
Not only is there that connection, but the special teamer/DB helped Michigan win a conference championship when everyone doubted its ability. Sound familiar? A walk-on story to remember … the guy ended up playing a pivotal role simply by being a team player. Harbaugh complimented this year’s team for its work ethic, brotherhood, attitude and commitment — along with others, Kolesar embodied that.
His hard work paid off during the Big Ten Championship Game, as he came up with a hugely emotional interception during Michigan’s 42-3 romping of Iowa in Indianapolis. The game was already decided, but hawking the misdirected pass and snagging a pick was definitely Kolesar’s biggest play, to date, at Michigan.
Kolesar had a pair of 12-yard punt returns during a 31-10 Week 2 win over Washington and has been one of the Wolverines’ steadiest on special teams.
He may end up coming up big against Georgia in the Orange Bowl, or against another team further down the line. Punt return? Fumble recovery? Interception? Sack or PBU? Kolesar has a lot to offer and has several times been called “valuable” by Harbaugh.
Michigan’s D-line really came around after the first 4 weeks of the season. Depth was a bit of an early concern, but the Wolverines proved that they were, once again, stacked on the D-line. Kris Jenkins didn’t register any major stats this season, but he was an excellent pass-rusher. He was effective when he played, finishing with 15 total tackles and a share of a TFL.
Appearing in all 13 games to date, Jenkins was credited with 1 QBH but probably had a few more than that. He was certainly one of Michigan’s top reserves in 2021 and was a great complementary piece to the D-line. With two tackles against Iowa in the B1G title game, Jenkins was part of a dominant defensive unit that had 4 TFLs, 2 sacks and applied constant pressure to Hawkeyes QBs Spencer Petras and Alex Padilla.
Perhaps a reward for his efforts, Jenkins started — his first start, at that — at EDGE for the Wolverines against the Hawkeyes.
Man in the middle
Andrew Vastardis has evolved over the past 2 seasons, becoming one of Michigan’s most valuable and least-talked-about players. The senior center has been No. 1 in the middle during the past 2 years and transitioned into a real-deal leader in 2021, being named a team captain and receiving All-Big Ten honors (1st-teamer, media).
In 2020, former Michigan standout DL Carlo Kemp referred to Vastardis as a “Mack Truck,” saying he could easily hold his own against menacing defensive linemen.
Sure, he might not be a true “underdog” or “unsung” — after all, he earned 1st-team all-conference honors. However, Vastardis was never viewed as a star. In fact, entering 2020, some questioned his ability to serve as a solid centerpiece. Years earlier, Cesar Ruiz and Mason Cole had set the new standard for Michigan centers — so it was going to be an uphill climb for Vastardis, who didn’t see immediate action like Ruiz and Cole.
Early this season, the Wolverines were looking for answers at the wide receiver position; it wasn’t going to be easy to replace the production of Ronnie Bell, who was lost due to knee injury in Week 1. Daylen Baldwin, a senior transfer, stepped up to the challenge and became one of UM’s top receivers during the early-middle portion of the season.
He didn’t have a catch vs. Iowa in the Big Ten title bout, but he played. He’s been scarce lately but was certainly a much-needed boost when Michigan needed an extra push.
Baldwin can be a deep-ball threat during this 4-team postseason. Averaging 15.6 yards per catch, Baldwin raked in 250 yards (No. 5 overall on team) and scored 2 touchdowns. Both of his touchdowns were missiles from QB JJ McCarthy — 56- and 69-yarders.
The case for “unsung” could be made for a few players. Michigan’s run through 2021 was highlighted by superior play from star athletes, but the entire team contributed to one of the best seasons in program history. Granted, UM needed Hutchinson to be Heisman-worthy, Haskins to run wild and McNamara to be a field general — without that, UM wouldn’t have come close to competing for a conference banner.
But stars also need a supporting cast.
With that said, let’s end this puppy with some honorable mentions:
WR Mike Sainristril — 14.75 yards per catch, 2 TDs, 295 yards
DL Mike Morris — not a ton of stats to cite but he was a major contributor to depth of the D-line
LB Jaylen Harrell — same as Morris’ situation … not a ton of stats. Harrell, a sophomore, played in all 13 games and really came on vs. Ohio State and Iowa