Sat. Mar 2nd, 2024

Michael Cohen

Michael Cohen

College Football and College Basketball Writer

In more ways than one, the decision by Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh to leave Ann Arbor and take over the Los Angeles Chargers started the proverbial clock. 

Not only did Harbaugh’s departure thrust athletic director Warde Manuel and university president Santa Ono into a race against time to find a suitable replacement before too much of the program’s infrastructure crumbles, as was the case at Alabama and Washington. It also opened the 30-day window during which anyone on Michigan’s roster can enter the transfer portal despite the portal itself being closed. A luxury afforded to any team whose coach exits stage left. 

Though the Wolverines lost more than a dozen players who will be selected in the 2024 NFL Draft, the framework of Michigan’s roster still houses a handful of potential first- and second-round picks in the 2025 NFL Draft. In other words, those are exactly the kinds of players coaches around the country might be eyeing now that Harbaugh is gone. And while tampering with players on other rosters remains against the rules, the largely unregulated world of NIL collectives and pay-for-play inducements means there’s always a way to get the message across. No one doubts that certain members of Michigan’s roster will be approached with financial offers. 

One of the reasons promoting offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore to head coach makes sense is to guard against those kinds of buzzards. Of all the candidates Michigan might consider, Moore likely has the best chance of keeping the roster’s nucleus intact, especially if he retains some of the other assistants from Harbaugh’s staff. Here’s a look at some players whom Moore — or whoever else might be running the show in Ann Arbor — will be eager to protect:

Defensive tackle Mason Graham

Though he entered the season with far less fanfare than fellow defensive tackle Kris Jenkins, who left school early and is expected to be taken in the first two rounds of the draft, Graham blossomed into the player most respected by opposing coaches. The 6-foot-3, 318-pound true sophomore was a game wrecker from his position along the interior of Michigan’s defensive line, ending the season as the Wolverines’ highest-graded defender by Pro Football Focus. He finished first among defensive tackles with 7.5 tackles for loss and second in sacks with 3. His total of 29 quarterback pressures was six more than any other interior lineman and ranked tied for second on the team overall, trailing only edge rusher Jaylen Harrell’s tally of 31. The slicing tackle for loss Graham made in overtime against Alabama should be remembered among the plays of the year for Michigan. With Harrell and fellow starting edge rusher Braiden McGregor both declaring for the NFL Draft, there’s a strong chance the Wolverines will rely more heavily on Graham as an interior pass rusher next season.   

Cornerback Will Johnson

One of the statistics that floated across social media during the buildup to the Rose Bowl between Alabama and Michigan focused on where the two programs ranked in the 247Sports Team Talent Composite, a metric that tracks the overall caliber of a roster based on player recruiting rankings. With 18 former five-star prospects, the Crimson Tide sat atop the country. Michigan, which claimed only two former five-star recruits, ranked 14th. Johnson was one of those players and quickly ascended to the upper echelon of defensive backs in college football during a marvelous true sophomore season. He allowed just 17 receptions for 267 yards and zero touchdowns in 12 games, according to Pro Football Focus, and limited opposing quarterbacks to a staggeringly low NFL passer rating of 29.1 on passes thrown in his direction. When it mattered most, defensive coordinator Jesse Minter trusted Johnson to shadow star wideouts Marvin Harrison Jr. from Ohio State and Rome Odunze from Washington. Johnson finished second on the team in interceptions with four.

Who will stay at Michigan and who will follow Jim Harbaugh to the Chargers? | Joel Klatt Show

Who will stay at Michigan and who will follow Jim Harbaugh to the Chargers? | Joel Klatt Show

Tight end Colston Loveland

There’s a reason Alabama head coach Nick Saban highlighted Loveland as a potential matchup problem ahead of this year’s College Football Playoff semifinal. The 6-foot-5, 245-pound true sophomore caught 45 passes for 649 yards and four touchdowns this season to emerge as one of Michigan’s primary targets in the passing game alongside wide receiver Roman Wilson, who led the team with 48 catches for 789 yards and 12 scores. His combination of elite movement skills and high-level body control made it easy for offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore to deploy him from various locales: Loveland played 49.8% of his snaps from a traditional in-line position, 35.7% of his snaps from the slot and 13.4% of his snaps on the perimeter. Though he was relatively quiet during postseason play — only 8 catches for 99 yards against Iowa, Alabama and Washington combined — Loveland flashed his importance by snagging five passes for 88 yards against Ohio State, both of which were team-high totals. The departures of Wilson and No. 2 wide receiver Cornelius Johnson will make Loveland more important than ever in 2024. 

Running back Donovan Edwards

Many people inside and out of Schembechler Hall forecasted Edwards as one of the sport’s breakout stars after he rushed for 991 yards and seven touchdowns as the primary backup to Blake Corum in 2022. Edwards himself gave strong indications that he was aiming for the 2023 campaign to be his final year at Michigan. But almost nothing went according to plan for Edwards, a true junior, who entered the national championship game having topped 50 yards in a game just once. His contributions in the passing game weren’t much better — 30 catches for 249 yards — despite repeated assurances from running backs coach Mike Hart that Edwards could be one of the best slot receivers in the country. And then the dam broke against Washington: six carries for 104 yards and two lengthy touchdown runs that gave the Wolverines what proved to be an insurmountable early lead. Edwards announced his intention to return for another season in what should be his first opportunity as Michigan’s featured tailback following Corum’s departure. He is the only returning tailback who carried the ball more than 36 times in 2023.    

Safety Rod Moore

From the moment Moore arrived on campus as an undersized and under-recruited defensive back in the 2021 recruiting cycle, his work ethic and attention to detail meshed seamlessly with the revamped culture Harbaugh was forging. Moore logged more iPad film hours than anyone on the team during his first fall camp, according to Harbaugh, and forced his way into the starting lineup in the latter stages of his freshman season despite weighing just 173 pounds. Fast-forward to 2023 and Moore had developed into the hard-hitting, assignment-sound anchor for Michigan’s secondary, equally adept at lowering his shoulder and making plays on the ball. He finished tied for third on the team in interceptions (2) and tied for third in pass breakups (3) while never getting flagged for a penalty — the totality of which earned him third-team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches. His late-game interception to seal a third consecutive win over Ohio State sparked NIL opportunities for Moore and will go down as one of the defining plays of Michigan’s three-year run to the pinnacle of college football.

Defensive tackle Kenneth Grant

Dubbed an “absolute, absolute gift from the football gods” by Harbaugh in the summer of 2022, Grant exploded onto the scene after logging just 104 snaps last season. The 6-foot-3, 339-pound interior lineman left coaches and teammates in awe with a combination of girth, power and quick-twitch athleticism rarely seen among players this size. So valuable were Grant’s contributions that he began usurping playing time from Jenkins, a potential top-50 pick, down the stretch. Both players logged 199 snaps from Week 11 through the end of the season, though Grant narrowly edged Jenkins against Penn State (33-32), Maryland (35-33), Ohio State (32-30) and Washington (37-34). Grant led all defensive tackles with 3.5 sacks and finished second among his position group in quarterback pressures (23) and tackles for loss (5). His incredible chase-down tackle of Penn State running back Kaytron Allen more than 30 yards downfield went viral and showcased Grant’s rare athletic gifts. He and Graham will form arguably the best duo of defensive tackles in college football next season.  

Edge rusher Josaiah Stewart

There were questions about which version of Stewart the Wolverines were getting when they accepted the Coastal Carolina transfer in December 2022. A former three-star recruit from Everett, Massachusetts, where Sainristil once starred at the same high school, Stewart earned Freshman All-American honors after recording 12.5 sacks, 15.5 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles in 2021. Then his production dipped to 3.5 sacks, 10 tackles for loss and one forced fumble the following year before Stewart entered the transfer portal. Minter and graduate assistant Dylan Roney, who works with Michigan’s edge rushers, pitched the undersized Stewart on being part of a four-man rotation alongside Harrell, McGregor and Derrick Moore. They liked the raw power and physicality Stewart played with despite being undersized at 6-foot-1 and 230 pounds during his time with the Chanticleers. The idea worked. With guidance from Ben Herbert, the team’s director of strength and conditioning, Stewart added 15 pounds and developed into Michigan’s most potent pass rusher. He finished second on the team in sacks (5.5), tied for second in quarterback pressures (29) and third on the team in tackles for loss (8.5) despite playing the fewest snaps of the Wolverines’ four edge defenders. His rate of one quarterback pressure every 12 snaps was best on the team. 

Quarterback Alex Orji

The prolonged deliberations of starting quarterback J.J. McCarthy, who ultimately entered the NFL Draft, and the weeks of uncertainty surrounding Harbaugh’s future have mired the Wolverines in a difficult spot at the game’s most important position. A thin and inexperienced depth chart leaves Michigan without an obvious replacement on the current roster as former Indiana transfer Jack Tuttle seeks a seventh year of eligibility and younger reserves like Orji, Davis Warren and Jayden Denegal want for experience. Blue-chip recruit Jadyn Davis enrolled early to begin practicing with the team during the College Football Playoff, but the idea of starting a true freshman in 2024 still seems a little far-fetched. While fellow Big Ten powers Oregon (Dillon Gabriel, Dante Moore) and Ohio State (Will Howard, Julian Sayin) were shopping for signal-callers in the transfer portal, the Wolverines were stuck in a holding pattern. But if anyone from Michigan’s current batch of quarterbacks is going to emerge as a viable starter, Orji seems the likeliest choice in a run-heavy scheme. The 6-foot-3, 236-pound wrecking ball is regarded as the best overall athlete on the team and mans the position with legitimate dual-threat ability. He carried 15 times for 86 yards and a touchdown this season in a specialized role as Michigan’s wildcat quarterback, including a key 20-yard run against Ohio State. Still, there are plenty of questions about Orji’s poise and accuracy in the passing game after he attempted just one pass in the last two seasons combined. 

Who should replace Jim Harbaugh as the head coach at Michigan? | Joel Klatt Show

Who should replace Jim Harbaugh as the head coach at Michigan? | Joel Klatt Show

Others to watch

Inside linebacker Ernest HausmannThe former Nebraska transfer played third fiddle to starters Junior Colson and Michael Barrett this season. He still finished third on the team in tackles with 46 despite playing the 16th-most snaps among Michigan’s defensive players. With Colson and Barrett off to the NFL, Hausmann is in prime position to step forward in 2024. 

Edge rusher Derrick MooreAfter toying with his weight and positional usage in 2022, Moore settled in as a bonafide edge rusher (6-3, 258 pounds) during his sophomore season. He racked up 26 quarterback pressures, 5 sacks and 6 tackles for loss in 410 snaps. Moore and Stewart project as the team’s starting edge rushers ahead of spring practice. 

Quarterback Jadyn Davis: Once rated the No. 1 quarterback in the 2024 recruiting cycle, Davis committed to Michigan last March as a potential heir to McCarthy’s throne. He’s now viewed as the No. 93 overall prospect in the 247Sports Composite and the No. 7 signal-caller behind Julian Sayin (Alabama-Ohio State), DJ Lagway (Florida), Dylan Raiola (Nebraska), Air Noland (Ohio State), Luke Kromenhoek (Florida State) and CJ Carr (Notre Dame), the grandson of former Michigan coach Lloyd Carr. 

Running back Jordan Marshall: The Cincinnati native chose Michigan over Ohio State last March in one of the biggest recruiting wins the Wolverines have scored in years. He’s rated the No. 80 overall prospect and the No. 7 tailback in the country for the 2024 recruiting cycle. With Corum leaving for the NFL, some believe Marshall will contribute as a true freshman next fall.

Read more:

Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Cohen13.

 

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