OR: JABRILL PEPPERS AND COMFORTING UNCERTAINTY
Three receivers make this post. This guy isn't one of them.
For the first time in years, Michigan's depth chart isn't patched together with duct tape and hope, so the incoming freshmen of 2014 don't have as many opportunities for early playing time as past classes. This is worth celebrating, especially when one particular freshman is poised to make a big impact at a position with some experienced depth anyway.
After Jabrill Peppers, there isn't a clear role for any of the incoming freshmen, and getting this list up to five involved a few reach picks. Again, this is good. Without further ado, here's the list.
1. JABRILL PEPPERS, CB/KR/PR (6'1, 210; 5*, 247 Composite #1 ATH/CB)
Surprise! Despite the presence of four older cornerbacks with significant game experience (Blake Countess, Raymon Taylor, Jourdan Lewis, and Channing Stribling), Peppers is simply too talented to keep off the field. He should see immediate time in Michigan's nickel package, either as the nickelback or playing on the outside with Countess in the slot, and as the season progresses he'll challenge Taylor for a starting spot—with his size, athleticism, and ability in run support, Peppers is an ideal fit on the boundary.
With apologies to Fearless Leader, I believe Peppers will make an instant impact in the return game, as well. While Dennis Norfleet consistently threatened to break long returns, they rarely materialized last year. Michigan had just one kickoff return of 40+ yards (T-89th nationally) and none of 50+; just two punt returns went for 20+ (T-58th), one 30+, and zero 40+. Averages were middling at best: 49th in kickoff returns and 91st in punt returns. Fielding kickoff returns, at the very least, would be a great way to get Peppers the ball without overwhelming him with too much responsibility. If he has a role on offense this year, it'll likely be limited to just a handful of plays.
2. FREDDY CANTEEN, SLOT (6'1, 170; 4*, #41 WR)
Canteen is the player going solo/the one with insanely quick feet
Slot receiver is one of a small number of spots with total uncertainly on the depth chart. Just two players return there: Norfleet (six career "catches" that were actually end-arounds) and sophomore Da'Mario Jones, who only saw time on special teams last year. While Doug Nussmeier may have a different outlook, thus far the coaches have been hesitant to give Norfleet a significant role. A relative unknown committed to Central Michigan before Michigan came calling, Jones never rose above middling three-star even after flipping his commitment. This spot is wide open.
Enter Freddy Canteen, who went from completely off the radar when his high school didn't play actual games in 2012 to a hot camp commodity with ever-rising rankings in 2013. At 6'1, he's got the size this coaching staff covets, and his route-running is very advanced for an incoming freshman. On top of that, he's got speed to burn and a phenomenal name. What more can one ask for? It wouldn't surprise me at all if Canteen, an early enrollee, is the starter in the slot from day one.
3. IAN BUNTING, TE/FUNCHESS (6'7, 233; 4*, #11 TE)
Photo credit: J. Geil/Chicago Sun-Times
Bunting wouldn't have cracked this list a couple weeks ago; then Jake Butt went down with a torn ACL. Now Michigan is down to one tight end that actually catches passes, and that's only if you believe Devin Funchess is still a tight end. AJ Williams is almost exclusively a blocker (and he's still working on that), while Jordan Paskorz is a former linebacker without a catch to his name. Khalid Hill comes off a redshirt and could factor in as an H-back, but that's about it as far as tight end depth goes. There's room for another pass-catcher.
The question is whether or not Bunting will be at all ready to put his hand in the dirt; even in high school, he did most of his damage split out wide. At 233 pounds (on a 6'7 frame), he needs to bulk up significantly to be able to hold his own as a blocker. As an enormous receiver with great hands, however, he can at least see the field as a third-down/red-zone specialist; putting him on the field with Funchess poses major matchup problems for opposing defenses.
4. BRYAN MONE, NT (6'4, 328; 4*, #8 DT)
Another player on the list due to injury on the current roster, Mone could be forced into duty at nose tackle if Ondre Pipkins is limited in his return from a torn ACL. The only other true NT on the roster is redshirt freshman Maurice Hurst, who was listed at 270 pounds on last year's roster.
Mone's stock fell from near-consensus top-50 player to borderline top-100 prospect (or, in Rivals' case, flat-out three-star) after he looked overweight and out of shape at the Under Armour game. Mone put on a ton of weight in a short period of time before his senior season and it clearly affected his conditioning. Luckily for Michigan, he's enrolled early, so efforts to turn bad weight into good are already underway. It's highly unlikely Mone is ready to play a major role, but Michigan might need him to hold his own in sporadic rotation snaps and short-yardage situations.
5. MICHAEL FERNS, ILB (6'3, 235; 4*, #6 ILB)
Another early enrollee, Ferns isn't likely to see much early action on defense. James Ross and Desmond Morgan have the two ILB spots locked down, and both have viable backups with playing experience in Ben Gedeon and Joe Bolden. If there's an injury, however, Ferns is the incoming linebacker best suited to see the field with his size and status as an EE.
Ferns also fits right in on special teams—with his athleticism, he could make an immediate impact on coverage units. This will be a frustrating way to burn a redshirt if Ferns doesn't get some in-game experience at linebacker, but it's inevitable that the coaches will burn a linebacker's redshirt for special teams, and it may as well be the one most ready to see the field.
HONORABLE MENTION: WRs DRAKE HARRIS & MOE WAYS
Both Harris and Ways look like college-ready receivers; Harris benefits from enrolling early, while Ways has the bulk and blocking ability to see the field as a freshman. They'd be higher on the list if playing time on the outside wasn't so hard to come by. Funchess and Jehu Chesson should lock down the starting spots, Amara Darboh is another starting candidate now that he's healthy, and two other options come off redshirts in Jaron Dukes and Csont'e York.
Harris is coming off a hamstring injury that cost him his entire senior season. Ways made great strides from his junior to senior seasons but could still use some, er, seasoning. It'd be great if Michigan was able to redshirt both of these guys, especially if Canteen can also contribute on the outside.