Michigan Football: 8 Underclassmen Who Will Be Major Contributors in 2014
Without a doubt, one of the primary reasons that expectations were high for the 2013 Michigan football team was the influx of young talent. Head coach Brady Hoke reeled in the seventh-ranked recruiting class in 2012 and the fifth in 2013, per rivals.com, and has created an environment in which underclassmen can compete for starting roles.
After beginning the 2013 season with five consecutive wins and climbing as high as 11th in the Associated Press' poll, the Wolverines finished their eight-game Big Ten schedule at just 3-5. For a team many people picked to win the Legends division, this was certainly a disappointing season.
However, despite all of its failures this year, Michigan is poised to succeed over the next few years on the shoulders of a select group of standout underclassmen.
The Wolverines had a healthy number of freshman and sophomores who excelled in key roles in 2013, and they're primed to make even larger contributions in 2014.
Let's take a look at eight underclassmen who will be major contributors to next year's squad.
Jehu Chesson played a larger-than-expected role in the Michigan offense after a season-ending foot injury to Amara Darboh moved him up the depth chart. The redshirt freshman has seized the opportunity, finishing the regular season with the third most receiving yards on the team with 213, according to mgoblue.com.
The fact that he was third on the team with just 213 yards highlights how thin Michigan has been at receiver this year; 66.5 percent of the team's receiving yards belong to Devin Funchess and Jeremy Gallon.
His development in the offseason is imperative to the success of Michigan's passing attack in 2014.
The 6'3" former track star has all the tools to be a major contributor next year, and he has the potential to develop into a formidable deep threat. With Bo Schembechler MVP Award winner Jeremy Gallon graduating in May, Chesson will have to step up and help fill the void.
Chesson's performance on the road in East Lansing earlier this year provided a glimpse into what kind of player he can be. In a game in which the Wolverines were thoroughly dominated, he was able to find space and record an impressive 88 yards receiving against Michigan State's dominant defense to lead the team.
The Big Ten's Kwalick-Clark Tight End of the Year award winner needs no introduction. Devin Funchess has had a breakout season for the Wolverines and has consistently created matchup nightmares for opposing defenses.
The sophomore lit up the stat sheet in 2013, finishing the regular season second on the team behind only Gallon in both receptions (47) and yards (727). He also emerged as a major red-zone threat, routinely beating defenders on jump balls and creating space for Gardner to connect with him.
Oh yeah, and at 6'5" and 235 pounds, he can also hurdle would-be tacklers. He's an incredible individual contributor, and his NFL potential hasn't been lost on pro scouts.
He's currently ranked as the number one tight end in his class by nfldraftscout.com.
Funchess does need to shore up his pass catching, as he developed an unfortunate case of butter-fingers late in the season. He had several key drops in Michigan's 24-21 loss at Iowa, and he dropped multiple key passes (including a would-be touchdown) against the Buckeyes.
His six touchdown total in 2013 will likely increase in 2014, as he'll likely assume the responsibility of Gardner's primary target. Simply put, Funchess' ceiling is remarkably high.
James Ross III
When you lead your team in tackles as a sophomore, you're doing something right.
James Ross III, who started eight games in 2013, has had a very productive season with 81 tackles and five tackles for loss. He saw an increased share of playing time due to Jake Ryan's ACL injury in the offseason and developed into a formidable presence in the middle of the defense.
In all likelihood, Ross will retain the starting job in 2014 at the Will linebacker position next to Ryan at the Sam and Desmond Morgan at the Mike, per mwolverine.com.
Ross' role in defensive coordinator Greg Mattison's base 4-3 defense requires him to cover a lot of running backs and slot receivers in the passing game, but Ross' most important responsibility is containing the run.
Ross' stats in 2013 prove that he's capable of doing that, but the loss to Ohio State made it painfully clear that the Wolverines have to drastically improve their overall run defense. The Wolverines finished just fifth in the Big Ten in rushing defense, according to bigten.org.
Ross has certainly established himself as one of the standout underclassmen on this team, and he'll play a major role in 2014.
Freshman running back Derrick Green arrived in Ann Arbor in the spotlight as the lone five-star recruit in Hoke's 2013 recruiting class, according to rivals.com.
Unfortunately, the Hermitage High (Va.) product showed up at fall camp weighing 240 pounds (25 pounds over his high school playing weight, per ESPN.com) and admitted he wasn't in great shape.
But when he finally got the opportunity to carry the ball a significant number of times at Northwestern in Week 12, he was ready.
“I got into my rhythm, [and] started to get going," Green said, as reported by Mark Snyder of freep.com. "I think that helped me a lot to be productive.”
He carried the ball 19 times for 79 yards, and while those numbers didn't blow anyone away, it was a bit of a coming out party for the freshman. He showed the bulldozing running style that Michigan fans had been waiting for, breaking tackles and gaining tough yards in the process.
With Toussaint graduating, Green will likely assume the responsibility of Michigan's primary back in 2014. We know that Hoke loves to pound the ball, and Green and fellow freshman De'Veon Smith have the ability to form a punishing one-two punch.
He'll be a central piece of the offense in 2014.
Blake Countess' return from a devastating torn ACL injury in Week 1 of the 2012 season against Alabama has been spectacular.
He's consistently taken on the opposing team's best receivers, and his six interceptions this year tied him for most in the Big Ten. He also led the conference in interception return yards with 169, per sports-reference.com.
This kid is impressive and has been a consistent performer on a Michigan defense that's struggled against the pass. The Wolverines finished the regular season ranked seventh in the Big Ten in passing yards allowed with 228 yards per game, according to cfbstats.com.
However, with top-recruit Jabrill Peppers likely joining Countess in the secondary next year, these two have the opportunity to form one of the most dynamic cornerback tandems in the country and greatly improve on that statistic.
Redshirt freshman Kyle Kalis was inserted into the starting lineup in his first eligible game as a Wolverine after coming in as the fourth-rated offensive lineman in his class, according to rivals.com. Six games into the 2013 season, however, Kalis was benched in favor of true freshman Kyle Bosch.
But Kalis didn't make any excuses.
After Hoke reinserted him into the starting lineup prior to the Ohio State game, he addressed his decision by saying, "He responded by working technique and fundamentals," as reported by Nick Baumgardner of mlive.com. "He had an opportunity to watch a little bit, and sometimes that's important."
Like the offensive line unit as a whole, Kalis had a rough year. But he has the grit and the raw talent to help anchor the line next year in senior Taylor Lewan's absence.
Playing offensive line as a freshman is a notoriously difficult task. With another offseason to work closely with offensive line coach Darrell Funk and former offensive line coach Hoke, expect to see dramatic improvement from Kalis in 2014.
Freshman De'Veon Smith has the most limited game experience of any underclassmen on this list, but if you watched him run this year, you understand that he's quite capable of being a major contributor in 2014.
Smith, who played his high school football at Howland High in Warren, Ohio, arrived on campus under the radar despite being ranked as the 11th-best running back in his class by scout.com. Derrick Green drew the majority of the the fanfare, but when Smith's carried the ball this year, he's looked just as good as Green.
Hoke probably describes Smith most accurately by saying, "He's a slasher. A very downhill, physical guy who has good balance," as Nick Baumgardner of mlive.com quotes. He finishes his runs with force, typically falling forward to gain a few extra yards.
After Hoke notably left Smith off the travel list for the Michigan State game, he found his way back into Hoke's good graces and made it into the game plan at Northwestern.
Smith's eight carries for 41 yards in that game showed Hoke enough to continue using him in small doses in the next two games, and he'll likely play a role in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl against Kansas State as well.
While Smith's 22 carries provide us with a sample that's 27 percent of the size of Green's and just 7.5 percent of Toussaint's, his average of five yards-per-carry are well ahead of both Green (3.2 YPC) and Toussaint (3.5 YPC), per mgoblue.com. There's certainly something to be said for that.
He has a very real chance to develop into a big-time playmaker for the Wolverines next year.
When the lights shone brightest this year, freshman Jake Butt responded in a big way.
Prior to the Ohio State game, his highest single-game receiving output was 30 yards against Nebraska. But against the Buckeyes, Butt became the third receiving option that the offense had been missing all year and amassed 85 critical yards on five catches.
Used primarily as a blocker throughout the 2013 season, he also hauled in a tough touchdown grab with 5:01 left to tie "The Game" at 35.
Butt is more of a traditional tight end than Funchess, and his contributions to the 2014 Wolverines won't stuff stat sheets like Funchess' will. Having said that, Butt will likely see a lot more targets next year, and with defenses keying on Funchess, he'll find himself in positions to make plays.
Michigan fans have a lot to be excited about in Jake Butt.