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Michigan Football: Youth will be Served

Editor’s note: Initially published September 11, 2017

NCAA Football: Orange Bowl-Michigan vs Florida State Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The consensus storyline for Michigan this season is that the Wolverines are destined to take a step backward. It's a position that's hard to argue when you consider Michigan has to replace 17 starters from last year's team, including an NCAA-high and school record 11 players selected in last April's NFL draft. Michigan will field the youngest team in the country according to at least one publication, so it's only natural, one would think, to expect somewhat of a down year in Ann Arbor. Just don't tell that to Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines.

If Michigan is worried about breaking in so many new starters or being forced to play so many young players, the coaches and players coaches certainly don't seem to show it. When asked if he was concerned about replacing so many key contributors, defensive tackle Maurice Hurst (who would have been the 12th Wolverine drafted had he opted to turn pro) smiled, almost laughed, before responding, "Nah, I'm not worried." And if you noticed the nonchalance with which he answered, you'd believe him to be sincere. Harbaugh shared his defensive tackle's lack of concern, praising many of the young Wolverines before adding, "Young players, untalented? Bad. Young players, talented? Good." And with Michigan, it's clearly the latter. But who are these young players? And more importantly, how quickly can they get up to speed in what looks to be a competitive Big Ten East division?

One player who doesn't need an introduction is sophomore defensive end Rashan Gary. One of the most talked-about players of the off-season, not just in Ann Arbor but across the country, Gary looks poised to have a breakout season. Defensive Coordinator Don Brown has spent much of the summer praising Gary, a rare blend of power and speed, who at 285 pounds ran a 40-yard dash that not only kept pace with Michigan's linebackers and safeties, but would have made him the fastest lineman at last year's NFL combine. For good measure, Gary also outperformed Michigan's corners in some of the team's agility drills. Gary impressed in limited action as a true freshman last season, and along with Hurst, Bryan Mone and Chase Winovich, provides the Wolverines a fearsome defensive front.

Even though Michigan's defensive line will technically be all first-time starters, all played key supporting roles last season, so there is little concern up front (other than with depth). That's not the case with the rest of Michigan's defense, however, where with the exception of fifth-year senior linebacker Mike McCray, the Wolverines will rely on players with little-to-no game experience. Two such players who are expected to play key roles this season Devin Bush and Khakele Hudson. Bush showed glimpses last season, showing himself to be a ferocious hitter in limited action, and will be counted on to play a significant role for Brown and the Wolverines this year. Hudson has been one of the more pleasant surprises this summer and looks to fill a Peppers-like role for the Wolverines, being used in a number of ways and situations. The secondary will also feature four new starters. And while the Wolverines have not yet settled on their starting cornerbacks, they are set at safety, where Josh Metellus and Tyree Kinnel have impressed early and look to provide a playmaking presence to the back end of the defense.

It's a similar story on the other side of the ball, and leading the youth movement on offense is sophomore tailback Chris Evans. A game-breaking threat the likes of which Michigan hasn't seen at tailback in some time, the elusive Evans also impressed in limited action last year, and looks to see an expanded role this season. But it's at receiver where the makeover from last season will be most dramatic, as Michigan replaces its three top receiving targets from a year ago. Grant Perry, Kekoa Crawford and Eddie McDoom all return, but do so with a combined 36 career receptions (27 of which belong to Perry). The trio will be joined by Donovan People-Jones and Tarik Black, two physically gifted, true freshmen who look to make an immediate impact. At tight end, Ian Bunting leads a deep group that includes Zach Gentry, Sean McKeon and Tyrone Wheatley Jr., that will try to collectively fill Jake Butt's cleats.

The calm in the middle of this storm of youth and uncertainly is quarterback Wilton Speight. An experienced quarterback is a valuable asset for any team, but it's even more critical for Michigan this season, given so many new faces at the skill positions. For Michigan to complete for a conference championship, the Wolverines will rely heavily on Speight, and will need him to become more of a playmaker and not just a game manager.

But even if Speight takes that step forward, he can't do it alone. And with talented but young and inexperienced players all over the field, what will determine the Wolverines' season is how precocious these first-time starters prove to be and how long it takes them to get into the flow. And with a week one, top twenty match-up against Florida, Michigan will need them to get there quickly.