First question: Which true freshman will have the biggest impact on the field this season?
Joe: Gotta be Darryl Stonum. The receivers are very suspect right now (along with quarterback and o-line, but oh well), and the guy has the ability to make an impact right away. And we'll need him.
Webstarr: Damn you, Joe. I'm going with Stonum too. Although I think McGuffie will experience the greatest impact when he tries to jump over a college safety's head, Stonum ("Stones"?) is going to be the biggest freshman difference maker. Don't forget that he came early so he's got a leg up on the other guys as far as getting up to speed. Plus, I like how Mallett might have had something to do with his coming here (he claims this, I promise), but nothing to do with his staying. As a general rule, not following Mallett is a positive. Also, there's more room for wideouts in the new system, obviously, so a freshman receiver is more likely to make an impact than a freshman running back, especially with our currently cluttered backfield.
Sam (aka Sweegor the Magnificent): Which true freshman will have the biggest impact on the season?
First, who won't: Despite astronomical hype, even Michigan homer and recruiting guru Josh Helmholdt argues that the Sam McGuffie he saw frontflipping over defenders at the Army All-American Game was not ready for an immediate impact. He is a remarkable athlete, like his teammate Michael Shaw, and a perfect fit for the spread, but neither is physically mature enough to beat out Carlos Brown, Brandon Minor, or even Kevin Grady, the former 5-Star who still possesses every tool except vision (though after seeing his mug shot, this begins to make a little more sense). The same complaint registers even stronger for rabbit chasers Roy Roundtree, Martavious Odoms and Terrence Robinson. Because such players (5'3", 125, 4.2, Hobbies include playing tag against squirrels) are new to Michigan fans, the fan base is being incredibly unrealistic about their potential for immediate impact. Little quick guys are like any other type of recruit: Only about half ever make an impact at all and those that do tend to make it in the third, fourth or fifth year in the program. We all have reason to be excited about our spanking new phalanx of punt returners (and they keep coming--welcome Jeremy Gallon), and the ways Rod will find to get them the ball, but it's unlikely that any of them individually will have a statistically impressive year.
If Dann O'Neill or Ricky Barnum get significant playing time, the most valuable freshman will be the student manager who has to keep carting Steven Threet and assorted back-ups off the field. They're offensive linemen; pray that they redshirt. BooBoo Cissoko is an enormously talented athlete but played against poor competition in high school and demonstrated his lack of technique while getting destroyed in the Army All-American Game. He'll be a stud eventually, but don't look for him to beat out Troy Woolfork this year. Darryl Stonum is a prototype outside wide out, but the position figures to play a smaller role than in past years and we already have Junior Hemingway and Greg Mathews at the position. Mike Martin is a future star but is playing behind two solid returning starters. Kevin Koger and Brandon Moore play a position that, as far as we know, no longer exists.
Justin Feagin is a logical choice, simply for the enormous need at the position. While he seems like a hard worker and a good kid, seeing anything more than a few plays a game with a dumbed-down playbook would be terrifying. True freshman quarterbacks rarely succeed and when they do, they're normally 5-Star Quarterbaclss like Chad Henne and not 3-Star Safeties like Feagin. I'll keep my expectations just above the floor until he proves me wrong.
There is one position with both a lack of experience and a wealth of incoming talent: Linebacker. Only Obi Ezeh returns as a starter--everyone else is a question mark. Marell Evans and Jonas Mouton are both talented and fast (players on the team raves about Evans and his speed anytime they're given the chance), and both should fit into the new attacking, blitzing defense. Given their lack of experience, however, we have to assume the competition will be open, and several players will get snaps at the SAM and the WILL. J.B. Fitzgerald is the best bet among the freshmen to push for playing time and eventually receive it. He has a college body already and is by all accounts a remarkable athlete. He may not end up starting but he should get plenty of snaps. While the 2008 class will eventually be remembered for beginning the transition to the spread, the most valuable true freshman of the 2008 season may very well be a nuts and bolts attacking outside linebacker, the kind of which we've seen at Michigan for the last decade.
(ed. I was going to edit down Sweegor's rant for the sake of symmetry, but that was too beautifully done. This guy really should have his own blog.)
Ace: 2008 may be the Year of the Rat in the Chinese Zodiac, but in Ann Arbor, it is the Year of the Rabbit-Chaser. While there will be a place in Michigan's offense for the traditional outside possession wideout, much more attention will be placed in the slot than years past. Rich Rodriguez likes to have a couple fast little buggers in the slot (think freshman Steve Breaston) who can turn a five-yard hitch into a 80-yard back-breaking touchdown. At West Virginia, Darius Reynaud was that fast little bugger. He was only 5'9" and looked like he should play running back, but finished his 3-year career at WVU ranked 5th in school history in receptions and 3rd in receiving touchdowns. A little Reynaud sampler:
Who is going to step in at Michigan and play that role? The Wolverines don't have any upperclassmen who have the speed or moves to play in the slot. Three freshmen have been brought in who will have the chance to play there: Martavious Odoms, Michael Shaw, and Terrence Robinson. Shaw, who played running back in high school, is caught in the unfortunate position of being caught in a logjam at RB, while not being the prototypical slot guy Odoms and Robinson are. Out of Odoms and Robinson, I expect Robinson to be the player who emerges as Michigan's starting slot receiver, and will soon be the recipient of countless WR screens, reverses, and two-yards crossing routes designed to get him in space. I also expect to see him in the mix at kick returner, a role that has been filled by a bunch of players who couldn't break their way out of a glass house since Breaston graduated.
Why do we want Terrence Robinson in space? This is why (Robinson is #7 in white):
The kid is incredibly fast, can catch the ball, and has the ability to juke while running nearly full speed. Yes, he is quite small (5'9", 170 lbs.) but if Rich Rodriguez has proven anything in his coaching career, it is that you can't hit what you can't catch. For those who don't remember, Steve Breaston also played quarterback in high school, and was so paper-thin fans worried he would snap in half when hit squarely, and he was able to transition pretty well into playing the slot and being a dynamite kick returner. I fully expect Robinson to have the same kind of impact next season. He is Darius Reynaud minus the power, but with more speed and moves. If Rodriguez could turn Reynaud, who went undrafted in 2008, into a receiving weapon at West Virginia, he should certainly be able to turn Robinson into an absolute terror in the slot this year.
[Note: If Odoms beats out Robinson as the designated slot guy/returner, just switch my vote to him. You can basically just swap "Odoms" for "Robinson" for that entire post and it would still ring true. I'm totally cheating, but you get the idea. Slot guy = big deal.]
Stay tuned for our next edition, when we figure out how much everyone should write (I'm guessing somewhere between Joe [haiku] and Sam [War and Peace]). Also, we'll be taking our stabs at which returning player will have a breakout season this year.