The Wolverine

2022 Michigan Football Preview

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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Page 37 of 163

1 Center Olu Oluwatimi — The Virginia graduate transfer hasn't proven it at Michigan yet, but we're not going to punish him for excelling at the highest level somewhere else, either. The standout finished second in the Rimington Trophy voting last year (nation's best center) and was a beast in spring practice. He is the favorite to win the Rimington this year and had an outstanding spring replacing Andrew Vastardis. 3 Offensive guard Zak Zinter — Harbaugh called Zinter "possibly Michigan's best offensive player" heading into last year, and that was with only six games under his belt. While injuries limited the 6-6, 320-pounder at the beginning of last year — he had surgery on his hand that hindered him for weeks — he steadily improved until he became the dominant force most assumed he would be by the end of the year. The junior is a future early-round NFL Draft pick, and he's probably going to be a first-team All-Big Ten choice, if not an All-American. He has the potential to be U-M's top player overall. BY CHRIS BALAS T o say the monkey is off Michigan football's back simply doesn't suffice for a proud program that hadn't won a Big Ten title since 2004. No, the 2021 season was more like traveling to Skull Island and capturing King Kong given how thirsty the Wolverines and their fans were for a title. Last season's championship performance — one that included a 42-27 pounding of rival Ohio State in Michigan's first victory over the Buckeyes since 2011, a 42-3 Big Ten title game win over Iowa and a first-ever College Football Playoff appearance — pretty much came out of nowhere. Head coach Jim Harbaugh probably wouldn't say as much. In fact, he said after the first spring practice a year ago that it felt "different" than the disappointing 2-4, pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign. And it certainly felt like it as the season progressed. Minus a few hic- cups, including a controversial loss in East Lansing and a disappointing showing against eventual national champ Georgia in the CFP semifinals, you couldn't have asked for much more. "It was a great season," Harbaugh said after his team's 34-11 loss to the Bulldogs. "To me, it's one of the best seasons in Michigan football history. We were trying to make it greater." But it was "still a beginning" for the team, he said. Though several have moved on to the NFL, including an elite pair of edge rushers in Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo, there's plenty of talent returning. Those players now have an idea of what it feels like to be champions, and that taste has left them hungry for more. Here's our annual look at some of the best and most intriguing play- ers, biggest question marks and more heading into this year's campaign: 2022 2022 Season Preview Season Preview The Reigning Big Ten Champs Enter Year No. 8 Under Jim Harbaugh Hungry For More 2022 SEASON PREVIEW TOP FIVE PLAYERS HEADING INTO THE SEASON The quintet who made this list last year met the hype and more in becoming leaders who excelled on and off the field. Four — end Aidan Hutchinson, safeties Daxton Hill and Brad Hawkins, and running back Hassan Haskins — are off for a shot at the NFL, their Michigan legacies secure. Only graduate student wide receiver Ronnie Bell returns. He was No. 3 on last year's list but was injured and lost for the season in the second quarter of the opener last fall. He still played a key leadership role as a co-captain on the 2021 championship squad and should do so again in 2022. Our choices for the best of the best heading into this year's campaign, based on this spring and past performance: 36 ■ THE WOLVERINE 2022 FOOTBALL PREVIEW 2 Running back BLAKE CORUM — We're still in wait-and-see mode a bit, only because Corum needs to prove he can get the tough yards after contact. That's an area in which Hassan Haskins excelled last year, and it was critical in several games. Still, 6.7 yards per carry is outstanding, and Corum would have exceeded 1,000 yards had he not gotten hurt. The 5-8, 200-pound junior will be the featured back this year, and we have high expectations. PHOTO BY LON HORWEDEL 4 Receiver Ronnie Bell — Bell posted 401 receiving yards in only six games in 2020, and he was off to a great start last year before going down with a knee injury. He scored on a 76-yard TD reception and notched a 31-yard punt return against Western Michigan before being lost for the season in the second quarter. While the graduate student was limited in spring ball, he was back to full strength by the end of April and ready to lead a young and talented receiving corps. He might be a 1,000-yard guy if it weren't for all the talent in the wideout room and at tight end. They'll share the wealth, but Bell is still the best bet to lead the team in receiving. 5 Defensive tackle Mazi Smith — Smith more than lived up to high expectations in 2021, manning the middle for a defense that made huge strides. He notched 37 tack- les, 2.5 tackles for loss, 4 pass breakups and 21 pressures last season despite drawing added attention from defenses. The 6-3, 326-pound senior is back and stronger than ever, head coach Jim Harbaugh reported this spring, and might be the Wolverines' most improved player on either side of the ball.

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