There is no shortage of talented players returning to Michigan for the 2021 season, including second-year players who recieved significant reps as freshmen during the 2020 season. Guys like Roman Wilson, AJ Henning and Makari Paige will likely become significant contributors during their second year in Ann Arbor. However, there are five players in particular that I expect to take a giant step forward for the 2021 season.
Braiden McGregor, Defensive End
Braiden McGregor was arguably the top player in the 2020 class and was rated as a top five defensive end nationally. The 6-5, 250 pound prospect out of Port Huron (Mich.) was dominant throughout his high school career, wreaking havoc on the defensive side of the ball and establishing himself as a legitimate offensive threat as well. During his junior year of high school, McGregor finished the year with 99 tackles and added three touchdowns lining up as a tight end. Unfortunately, McGregor suffered a significant injury when he tore his MCL and his meniscus in what would be his final high school game.
While much of his first year in Ann Arbor was focused on rehabbing, McGregor will likely play a major role for this new look defense in 2021. He’s big, he’s fast, he’s strong, he’s healthy - and now he’s ready to remind the college football world why he was one of the most sought after defensive end prospects in the country.
Chris Hinton, Defensive Tackle
Chris Hinton was the second highest rated recruit within Michigan’s 2019 class that finished No. 1 within the Big Ten. The 6-4, 303 pound prospect was also rated as a top five defensive end in the nation, receiving 23 offers that included programs like Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Georgia.
Though Hinton has seen the field as both a freshman and a sophomore, he’s yet to assert himself as the dominant force he is capable of being up front for the Michigan Wolverines. Totaling just 23 tackles during his first two seasons, expect Hinton’s production to increase dramatically in 2021 where he will likely serve as one of the most important pieces up front for the Wolverine defense.
Blake Corum, Running Back
Blake Corum became a familiar face during his freshman year as part of a four-back rotation for the Wolverines. Even though the sample size was small, Corum showed flashes of what made him such a highly-rated running back recruit out of St. Francis Academy (Md.). During his freshman year, Corum set a career high with 27 yards rushing against Penn State and two rushing touchdowns against rival Michigan State.
With Sophomore running back Zach Charbonnet announcing his intention to transfer, the running back room in Ann Arbor will be a little less crowded in 2021 - providing Corum with the perfect opportunity to establish himself as the top running back in Ann Arbor. With just 26 carries during his freshman campaign, expect Corum’s contribution - and carries - to increase significantly in 2021.
Cade McNamara, Quarterback
This is probably the most obvious choice for breakout player of the year for the 2021 season. McNamara burst onto the scene in week five where he led the Wolverines back from a 17-0 deficit en route to a triple overtime win against Rutgers. McNamara finished the game going 27-36 for 260 yards and four touchdowns through the air, adding another touchdown on the ground for a total of five scores on the night.
Yes, it was Rutgers, but McNamara’s performance on that evening was impressive given the circumstances. Though McNamara was named the starter the following week at home against Penn State, he suffered a shoulder injury early in the game that significantly impacted his performance and would ultimately bring his 2020 campaign to an end.
While McNamara was a dark horse in the quarterback competition in 2020, he enters 2021 as the unanimous favorite. Many within the fan base are eager to see the JJ McCarthy era begin, but they’ll likely need to wait until 2022.
Daxton Hill, Defensive Back
As fellow writer Brandon Brown pointed out earlier this month, all signs are pointing to Daxton HIll making a switch to cornerback for the 2021 season. With the return of senior safety Brad Hawkins and sophomore Makari Paige vying for minutes, a position switch for a talent like Hill makes perfect sense - particularly with the way Michigan struggled in coverage during the 2020 season.
Though tremendously talented, Hill has yet to live up to the hype that surrounded his high-profile recruitment - a recruitment that included an intense battle between Michigan and Alabama. With a new defensive coaching staff calling the shots in Ann Arbor and Hill entering his third season with plenty of experience, I expect him to finally realize his full potential in 2021.