Youth running wild

True freshmen playing in waves and making impact early for Michigan

Updated: September 11, 2012, 3:12 PM ET
By Michael Rothstein | WolverineNation

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- It might not say it on Michigan's unofficial public depth chart, but one thing is obvious two games into this season. Michigan's freshmen are going to play, likely a lot, potentially surpassing some veterans for jobs. Already, the youth movement has been coming to the Wolverines.

According to Michigan's player participation chart from its 31-25 win over Air Force on Saturday, 12 freshmen played for the Wolverines, ranging from special teams to the majority of snaps in the second half.

[+] EnlargeJoe Bolden
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioTrue freshman linebacker Joe Bolden had 10 tackles Saturday against Air Force, good for second on the team.
Michigan's leading receiver Saturday was true freshman tight end Devin Funchess. Its second leading tackler was true freshman linebacker Joe Bolden. For Michigan coach Brady Hoke, he said this is the first time in his career he has played and traveled so many true freshmen.

"It was by design," Hoke said Saturday. "And by necessity."

At some spots, such as tight end, Michigan has little choice. From the moment Funchess and A.J. Williams stepped on campus, they were going to have to play. The Wolverines, at the time, had three scholarship tight ends. When fifth-year senior Brandon Moore went down with an injury early against Alabama, the freshman and fifth-year senior former walk-on Mike Kwiatkowski were the only options.

Funchess showed up fast, catching four passes for 106 yards and a touchdown against Air Force.

"He's done a nice job," Hoke said. "He's bigger than when he got here. He's not afraid, which is good, because blocking is a big part of the Y position, which A.J. played the most of, or the U position. You still have to block.

"He did a good job at the point of attack. And he's got ability."

Many of those in Hoke's first full recruiting class at Michigan have a lot of ability.

Look at Michigan's linebackers. In the span of 90 minutes of football, both Bolden -- who had 10 tackles Saturday -- and James Ross III forced their way on the field. Bolden played the entire second half in place of fifth-year senior Kenny Demens, Michigan's leading tackler last season.

Ross ended up moving to different linebacker positions and splitting time with sophomore Desmond Morgan, who started as a true freshman last season. The freshmen might not be listed as starters, but they are pushing the veterans. Hard.

"I don't think [the veterans] are beaten out," Hoke said. "They are competing. We want to roll some guys in anyway. We roll a lot of guys in the front during the course of the game.

"But as far as they go, there is healthy competition."

Hoke knows both Bolden and Ross III will make mistakes and have things they need to improve on, notably footwork and understanding of coverages. Thing is, the veterans still need work in those spots, too.

While tight end, linebacker and kick returns with Dennis Norfleet are the obvious places freshmen are contributing, they are pushing elsewhere, too.

Defensive tackle Ondre Pipkins and defensive end Mario Ojemudia have played meaningful snaps in the first two weeks. Considering that Michigan is continuously rotating its defensive line -- 10 players through the four spots on the line, not including linebackers Jake Ryan and Cameron Gordon playing defensive line in certain situations -- that shouldn't be a surprise.

"I don't see it as more pressure," senior defensive tackle Will Campbell said. "I just see it as they are giving us time to catch our breath so we can do the best we can for Michigan."

The hardest adjustment for these precocious players is game speed. They haven't seen athletes like this with precision and talent. Campbell saw it in practice his freshman season going against two offensive linemen who ended up in the NFL.

"Steve Schilling and David Molk, they had their time with me," Campbell said. "They got me up to speed pretty fast."

While defensive line is a spot defensive coordinator Greg Mattison has always wanted to rotate, he has also started working a true freshman in at a spot not accustomed to switching -- safety. Jarrod Wilson, who coaches and players have lauded since he stepped on campus, has seen time in some packages for Michigan.

While it is unlikely he would supplant either starter there, he is grabbing some snaps, which should help Michigan in the future.

Defensively, though, having so many freshmen playing means the veterans still on the field need to be even more aware.

"With the more freshmen out there, that's how much more you have to communicate," safety Thomas Gordon said. "Those young guys being in the stadium for the first time, you get them deer eyes.

"But as long as you're out there communicating, everyone's on the same page and really won't have no problems."

In the future? Yes. Right now? There will be mistakes freshmen make. Hoke knows that. The veterans know it. So do the freshmen.

But so far, they have proved good enough to push for time and some cases, threaten a starting spot.

"It would get your attention," Hoke said. "If you're one of those guys."

Consider that notice. The freshmen, they are coming.

Michael Rothstein | email

ESPN Detroit Lions reporter