Camp buzz: 5 Michigan players who have increased 2021 playing time

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Sometimes we get some inside intel where we’ll get a good idea of who has been emerging in fall camp. Other times, we can make informed opinions based off what we’ve heard in media availability. This is a case of the latter.

With all of the fall camp press conferences now in the books as Michigan football moves onto game week, you can gather who will be big contributors based on either what the coaches are saying or their teammates. Likewise, if a player actually speaks with the media, that’s as sure of a sign as possible that they’ll see the field early and often.

With that in mind, here are our five candidates to see the field a lot more in 2021 than they ever have before in Ann Arbor.

List

Final Michigan football 2021 offensive depth chart projection

TE Luke Schoonmaker

Photo: Isaiah Hole

While Erick All had long been thought of as the starter at tight end, it was Luke Schoonmaker who the staff trotted out to talk with the media this past week. The fourth-year tight end started seeing the field in 2019 but had reportedly been building his skillset this offseason, transforming his body and getting into a place where he can not only contend for playing time but potentially a starting role. "He's just continued to grow, continued to get better," tight ends coach Jay Harbaugh said. "He's pretty unusual in the sense that he's a pretty balanced guy. Those guys don't come around a lot in college football, where you have a guy that legitimately play on the line of scrimmage and block most everybody that will line up across from him. He works great in combination blocks, he can stretch the field vertically. He runs way better than people can imagine. And then he can pass protect, too. He's kind of an unusually well-rounded guy and in the last year, all he's done is been able to build his skills up in different areas. He's made himself a helluva player." We actually project Schoonmaker to be a co-starter with All.

LB Nikhai Hill-Green

Photo: Isaiah Hole

We now know just how good Nikhai Hill-Green has been in the eyes of the coaches. Mike Barrett was thought of as the starting WILL linebacker entering fall camp, but the emerging second-year linebacker from Baltimore (MD) St. Frances Academy had other plans. With all the hype this offseason appearing to be founded, it seems as if he's locked in a starting role. “He’s had a really good offseason,” linebackers coach George Helow said. “Nikhai had a plan this offseason, really got after it while in the weight room. Changed his body. Had a great camp. He’s our starting WILL linebacker right now. He’s earned the right to start. Does everything you ask him to do. And he’s very coachable. He’s playing with his hands downhill. Has a good understanding of the defense and what we’re trying to do. He’s unbelievable in meetings — big eyes, big chest. Takes great notes, wired the right way. Just very excited about how he’s done and hopefully what he’ll continue to do.” Regardless if Barrett manages to wrest away the job again somehow, Hill-Green is here to stay and will be a pivotal part of the rotation in the inside this coming year.

DT Mazi Smith

Photo: Isaiah Hole

Even before fall camp started, no one earned more hype this offseason than Mazi Smith. The interior tackle had completely transformed his body, now looking like a formidable mixture of big and lean. And it came at the perfect time, as Smith is sorely needed up front in Mike Macdonald's new defense, one that will often put three tackles up front. At Big Ten media days, Jim Harbaugh spoke about what has allowed Smith to enter the fray as a (literal) big contender up front. “Mazi, first of all, he’s completely changed his body to a power-pack," Harbaugh said. "Big, wide, thick, strong, and retained his speed and athleticism. His strike, his knockback. Real desire that he has always shown since day one. He keeps getting better every day, getting stronger every day.” Smith seeing the field early and often is a lock.

WR Andrel Anthony

Photo: Isaiah Hole

Jim Harbaugh's favorite recruit in 2021, Andrel Anthony has been making strides before he's even put on a winged helmet in front of a crowd. The wide receiver position is deep for Michigan this year, but if there's one young player ready to showcase his skills once the season starts next week, it's the former East Lansing (MI) standout. "Andrel Anthony continues to make a play a practice," Harbaugh said two weeks ago. "He’s got a streak, it’s like a Lou Gehrig hitting streak. He would do it in spring ball where — wait for it, it’s gonna happen, he makes it. There’s a play a practice of the big chunk variety. He continues to be really good as well." It would be more of a surprise than not if Anthony becomes a factor for the offense in 2021.

S RJ Moten

Photo: Isaiah Hole

Last, but not least, is RJ Moten, the second-year player from Delran (NJ). When the staff gives the media a player for a press conference, as it did with Moten last week, they generally won't be riding the bench. Moten, along with fellow second-year safety Makari Paige, will look to spell stalwarts Daxton Hill and Brad Hawkins, and certainly could be ready for primetime. His inclusion in media availability is certainly a sign that Moten will be a factor in 2021. “He's a dude," safeties coach Ron Bellamy said. "The safety room is probably one of the stronger positions on the team, just because it's loaded with obvious talent. They did a great job recruiting that position. And RJ is one of those guys that anything he sees, he's gonna strike. “So beware if you're a ball carrier. RJ loves the game. He's another one -- passionate about the game of football. He's loud, boisterous, loves football. Loves the approach to the game and a smart kid. Very, very inquisitive about things. If he doesn't know, he always wants to know the answer. Those make great football players.” Moten also looks like a hard-hitting safety now, fully having taken advantage of the winter and summer conditioning programs.

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