The Wolverine

2021 Michigan Football Preview

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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44 ■ THE WOLVERINE 2021 FOOTBALL PREVIEW Of the five who made this list last year, only two — defensive end Kwity Paye and wide receiver Ronnie Bell — played in more than three games, and even Paye missed two games due to injury. Two, Collins and Thomas, didn't play at all, and defensive end Aidan Hutchinson broke his ankle in game three at Indiana. The point is you just never know what to expect. But here are our choices for the best of the best heading into the 2021 campaign, based on this spring and past performance: 1 Junior Defensive End AIDAN HUTCHINSON — Hutchinson was the Big Ten's top returning defensive end last season, based on his Pro Football Focus (PFF) grade of 82.9. While he was good in the season's first two games before suffering an injury in game three at Indiana, he wasn't dominant and didn't get off blocks the way he's capable. He was held without a sack or a tackle for loss in his two- plus games despite getting some favorable matchups, but he'll get plenty of opportunity this year to show he's more 2019 Hutchin- son (4.5 sacks, 10 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles) than 2020. Quarterbacks got the ball out quickly last season throwing against U-M's tight man coverage, but you'll see more zone this year — and more of Hutchinson in a stand-up, outside linebacker-type role. They need him to dominate. 2 Sophomore Safety Daxton Hill — The 6-0, 192-pounder is now one of the veterans on this defense, and he's playing like it. Coaches and teammates alike said he was very comfortable in the secondary dur- ing the spring. He looked outstanding in coverage (not only playing safety but situationally at corner as well), showing off great instincts to go with his natural athletic skills. Hill was an "absolute freak" in the half of the spring game he played, per observers, and is primed for an All-Big Ten season in his third year. He might be the team's best overall ath- lete, and the coaches will use him as such. 3 Junior Wide Receiver Ronnie Bell — The fourth-year wide- out posted 401 receiving yards last year in only six games, including six catches for 149 yards and a score at Indiana, and he just has a knack for getting open. He's also an outstand- ing blocker, a selfless player and a true team guy. The 6-0, 190-pounder still needs to be more consistent with his hands, but he's U-M's best skill position player and has a chance to be a 1,000-yard receiver this year. 4 Redshirt Sophomore Running Back Has- san Haskins — Each year, fans seem to try to replace Haskins with 'someone better,' but the 6-1, 220-pounder always seems to respond by raising the bar. He isn't the fastest back, but he's got great feet and balance, and breaks tack- les. He finished the abbreviated 2020 season with a pair of 100-yard games in a win at Rutgers and a loss to Penn State, averaged 6.1 yards per carry on the year and continued to improve as a pass blocker. The next step will be to get him involved a bit in the pass- ing game. He didn't notch a single reception last year out of the backfield, and has just six career catches for 40 yards. 5 Fifth-Year Senior Safety Brad Hawkins — He's not flashy, but Hawkins has become a very solid option from the back line of the Wolverines' defense. His cover skills have improved, he's a solid tackler and he's always been very good in run support. He was the sixth-leading tackler two years ago (53) despite missing two games due to injury — and was dubbed a first-team All-Big Ten flex defender by PFF — finished fourth in stops last fall (39 in six games) and will be expected to anchor a defense that's going through an overhaul up front. The secondary will likely be tested in the run game while the revamped front seven gets acclimated. BY CHRIS BALAS T he 2020 season was a disaster in many ways, due mostly to the CO- VID-19 pandemic that limited the number of games many schools played, including Michigan. The Wolverines missed spring ball entirely, and then while sev- eral players had to sit out for periods of time in the fall, some of the squad's better players (including wide receiver Nico Collins and cor- nerback Ambry Thomas, two third-round picks in the 2021 NFL Draft) opted out completely. In short, the team never really found a groove. Head coach Jim Harbaugh got a pass for his team's 2-4 showing as a result, and he signed an extension in the winter. He's fired up to 'bet on himself' and prove last year was the anomaly on an otherwise solid (minus the Ohio State rivalry) résumé, but he's got some work ahead of him with a young team. Here's our annual look at some of the best and most intriguing players, biggest ques- tion marks and more heading into this year's campaign: 2021 2021 Season Preview Season Preview A Primer On Michigan's Outlook Entering Year Seven Of The Jim Harbaugh Era 2021 SEASON PREVIEW Top Five Players Heading Into The Season PHOTO BY PER KJELDSEN

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