Free Press sports writer Michael Cohen breaks down Michigan football’s 47-14 win over Western Michigan, and looks at three players who helped or hurt their stock Saturday at Michigan Stadium:
QB Cade McNamara: New Michigan quarterbacks coach Matt Weiss said McNamara is the type of player people will always question because of perceived imperfections in his game, and that statement was proven true Saturday when true freshman J.J. McCarthy made the most eye-popping throw of the afternoon. But the only reason McCarthy saw the field against Western Michigan was because of how well McNamara played through the first two and a half quarters, which was all he needed before coach Jim Harbaugh made substitutions. The Wolverines scored points on six of the seven possessions McNamara played to take command of the game. He finished 9 for-11 for 136 yards and two touchdowns in the second start of his career.
OLB Aidan Hutchinson: There was nothing about Hutchinson’s performance Saturday to indicate he changed positions from a hand-on-the ground defensive end in a 4-3 alignment to a stand-up outside linebacker/edge defender for new coordinator Mike Macdonald. He looked comfortable and influential. Hutchinson generated pressure on 18% of his pass rush attempts against Western Michigan in producing one sack, two quarterback hits and one hurry, according to Pro Football Focus. Hutchinson’s strip sack of quarterback Kaleb Eleby halted a promising drive in the third quarter before his field goal block extinguished the possession altogether.
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DB Daxton Hill: Macdonald and his coaching staff will be grinning from ear to ear after Hutchinson and Hill — the defense’s two most talented players — turned in the two best performances against the Broncos. Hill was the first player Harbaugh mentioned postgame because of how ubiquitous Hill’s presence was in all areas of the field. Western Michigan correctly predicted Hill would play as a slot corner, but that meant little when it came to neutralizing him. Better than 92% of Hill’s snaps came from the nickel position as he played cat and mouse with Eleby, disguising his coverages and pass rushes like a savvy veteran. Five of Hill’s six tackles were solo, and he blew up multiple wide receiver screen passes. Eleby threw six passes in Hill’s direction and the net gain for the Broncos was 12 yards, according to PFF.
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ILB Michael Barrett: A year ago, Barrett played the influential viper role in former coordinator Don Brown’s defense and hardly left the field: He averaged 72 snaps per game during the shortened 2020 season, according to PFF. On Saturday, the story was upended. Barrett had already lost his starting job to Nikhai Hill-Green during camp and saw true freshman Junior Colson, a former four-star prospect from Tennessee, enter as the first linebacker off the bench behind Hill-Green and Josh Ross, the other starter. Barrett played five snaps compared to 19 for Colson, 37 for Hill-Green and 51 for Ross.
WR Cornelius Johnson: Michigan’s second-leading receiver a year ago in total yardage and leader with three receiving touchdowns was quiet Saturday. The junior from Connecticut was on the field for more passing plays than any other Michigan receiver but caught only two balls for 15 yards on a pair of targets from McNamara. Surprisingly, Johnson actually lost ground in terms of his yards after catch (minus-1), according to PFF. Much more will be expected of him if the injury to No. 1 receiver Ronnie Bell proves serious. Johnson must step forward.
OLB David Ojabo: Lauded by teammates as a player who flashed significant pass rush ability during camp, Ojabo left plenty to be desired in Saturday’s opener. Not only did he commit a silly taunting penalty that cost the Wolverines 15 yards and extended a Western Michigan drive that ended with a touchdown — Hutchinson described the penalty as “dumb” — but Ojabo also received the lowest tackling grade of any U-M defender by a wide margin, according to PFF. Using a 0 to 100 scale for grading, Ojabo received a 25.6 for his tackling performance while the next-lowest starter, Hill-Green, was more than 20 points higher. For reference, defensive backs R.J. Moten and Hill were Michigan’s two best tacklers with scores of 83.2 and 82.3, respectively.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan football's most important players starred in opener