When's The Last Time Michigan Featured One Of CFB's Elite (Insert Position)?
Staff of WolverineDigest.com
For months (years? a decade?) Michigan fans have been asking themselves when the program would once again feature an elite quarterback - by elite, ranking among the five best signal-callers in college football. This got me thinking about every position on the field, when is the last time any Wolverine at running back, wide receiver, tight end, defensive tackle, etc., was considered among the very top tier in college football for a specific season.
Quarterback - 2010 - Denard Robinson
This is certainly debatable as Robinson ranked 20th nationally in pass efficiency rating, 12th in yards per attempt and his touchdown-to-interception ratio of 18:11 paled in comparison to the likes of Auburn's Cam Newton (30:7), Stanford's Andrew Luck (32:8), and Alabama's Greg McElroy (20:5), but Robinson was a different kind of quarterback than most (Newton the exception).
He ranked second nationally in total offense with 328.6 yards per game, ranking fifth in rushing, and was responsible for 32 touchdowns. He finished sixth in the Heisman voting and while there were a few struggles in big games (most notably against Michigan State), Robinson was consistently the best player on the field every time Michigan put on the winged helmets.
So who were the five best QBs in 2010: Newton, Luck, Oklahoma's Landry Jones, Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden and then ... about 10 quarterbacks could argue to be fifth, including Robinson. That's not quite the ringing endorsement but it puts him in the conversation.
Running Back - 2006 - Mike Hart
Hart will always be knocked for what he wasn't - a home-run threat, but Hart was as reliable as they come, rushing for 100 yards or more in 9 of 13 games (and missing 100 yards by nine, five and eight yards in three more contests).
In five games against ranked opponents, he averaged 103.2 yards and scored six TDs, including a 142-yard, three-touchdown effort at Ohio State that had U-M won would be remembered as a legendary effort in THE Game.
Officially, Hart finished seventh nationally with 1,562 yards but taking into account competition, he would rank among the best in the country that year along with Rutgers' Ray Rice, West Virginia's Steve Slaton and Arkansas' Darren McFadden.
Wide Receiver - 2007 - Mario Manningham
As a junior in 2007, Manningham had 100 yards or more and at least one touchdown in six consecutive contests, had seven 100-yard efforts overall and 12 receiving TDs, his dominance only stunted when quarterback Chad Henne missed time due to injuries. Along with Texas Tech's Michael Crabtree, Manningham was the most feared wide receiver at the Power 5 schools in 2007.
Tight End - 2016 - Jake Butt
It was just four years ago that Butt was the Mackey Award winner as the top tight end in the nation, so that easily qualifies him as one of the best in the country at his respective position. Named the Big Ten's Tight End of the Year in both 2015-16, Butt could qualify for either season. Over those two years, he averaged 49 catches for 600 yards and four touchdowns.
Center - 2019 - Cesar Ruiz
The hard part about offensive line is the subjectivity. Ruiz was not named an All-American and wasn't even recognized as the All-Big Ten first-team center last season, but ProFootballFocus.com loved him (he was named the top pass-blocking center in college football in 2019 by their site). Not that the NFL Draft is the definitive arbitrator but Ruiz was a first-round pick this past April and was the first center to come off the board.
Guard - 2000 - Steve Hutchinson
No offensive guard at U-M since Hutchinson has earned first-team All-America honors, and for his final two years he might not have only been college football's top guard, but perhaps its top overall lineman. A four-time All-Big Ten first-teamer, twice a first-team All-American, the 2000 Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year and a first-round pick, Hutchinson is one of the program's greatest OL.
Tackle - 2013 - Taylor Lewan
Like Hutchinson, Lewan was a first-team All-American twice in his career, and was twice named the Big Ten's top offensive lineman (in 2012-13), following in the footsteps of Jake Long, who won it twice in 2006-07. Lewan wasn't well-liked (and still isn't), but he was, inarguably, one of college football's top offensive tackles during his final two seasons.
Defensive End - 2017 - Chase Winovoch
Playing Michigan's weakside end position, Winovich created plenty of chaos as a junior, recording eight sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss. With his flowing locks and penchant for being involved in the muck constantly (he had an incredible 79 tackles - the most by a Michigan defensive end in more than 20 years), Winovich joined the likes of Ohio State's Nick Bosa and NC State's Bradley Chubb as D-Ends no quarterback wanted to see bearing down on them.
Defensive Tackle - 2017 - Maurice Hurst
Among all the internal debates I had, defensive tackle, tight end and linebacker offered the clearest evidence for a recent Wolverine. Hurst was in full-fledged beast mode in 2017, recording more tackles for loss (14.5) than any Maize and Blue interior lineman had recorded since Jason Horn (18) in 1995. Hurst was a consensus first-team All-American as a senior, Michigan's MVP and, more importantly for this exercise, was awarded the highest grade by any interior defensive lineman (96.5) in the history of ProFootballFocus.com.
Interior Linebacker - 2018 - Devin Bush
Will Cam McGrone be worthy of such distinction this season? Perhaps, but he's not at Bush's level yet. Frankly, few to wear the winged helmet have ever played at Bush's level. Already off to a rousing start in the NFL, Bush was named a first-team All-American by five media outlets as a junior, including four of the five that determine "consensus" status (he was awarded such distinction). Bush was also the Big Ten's Linebacker of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year.
Outside Linebacker - 2016 - Jabrill Peppers
A Heisman finalist, Peppers made game-changing plays as a returnman and played offense too, but his work defensively as a hybrid linebacker/safety/nickel back provided Michigan considerably flexibility. After recording 9.5 tackles for loss in U-M's first three games, Peppers only had six the rest of the season, but there is no arguing how his incredible athleticism, speed and versatility made him one of the most unique players in college football in 2016.
Cornerback - 2018 - David Long
Somehow All-America honors and recognition by the Thorpe Award committee (top defensive back in college football) eluded Long, but using the advanced metrics of ProFootballFocus there was no better cover corner in football in 2017-18. Opposing quarterbacks posted passer ratings of 11.9 and 36.9 against Long, the best performance by any cornerback in college football either year. That he never got his due can be traced to his lack of "big" numbers - he had just one interception and eight pass breakups in 2018, however opponents completed a mere 29.0% of their throws in his direction.
Safety - Tommy Hendricks - 1999
No other position on the team has gone as long as safety has without an elite player in college football. Delano Hill was very good, as was Josh Metellus (and maybe Daxton Hill will be), but Michigan fans have to harken back two decades to find the last great safety. A three-year starter and an all-conference first-team performer as a senior in 1999, Hendricks was a ferocious run-stuffer but also had the complete game to play centerfield (something All-American Ernest Shazor struggled with in 2004).