Peach Bowl absentees create opportunity for young players

Football

ATLANTA — As it has in every season since the establishment of the College Football Playoff, the last month of nationwide college football discourse has been dominated by news of players sitting out of non-playoff bowl games to protect their NFL stock.

And, in a trend that has become just as predictable as players skipping bowl games, each move was met with a mix of justification and outrage from media and fans, alike. But no matter your stance on the issue, the benefit of NFL-bound players skipping bowl games is obvious — it gives their potential replacements an invaluable chance to shine when they might otherwise be mired down the depth chart.

Michigan — with Rashan Gary, Devin Bush, Juwann Bushell-Beatty, and Karan Higdon all sitting out of Saturday’s Peach Bowl matchup against Florida — is no exception.

Michigan Wolverines practice on Wednesday, December 26, 2018 at the Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Michigan will face Florida in the 2018 Peach Bowl on December 29, 2018. (Jason Parkhurst via Abell Images for the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl)

The biggest positional question mark is who will take over the Wolverines’ backfield in Higdon’s stead. The leading candidate may not be in Atlanta on Saturday after Michigan secured four-star Zach Charbonnet’s signature on signing day last week. But among returners, junior Chris Evans, junior Tru Wilson, and freshman Christian Turner will all attempt to stake their claim to the 2019 backfield on Saturday.

“Those are the guys that we’re gonna count on to be able to go out and run the football for us, as well as protect our quarterback,” passing game coordinator Pep Hamilton said on Thursday. “… And that’s probably the biggest challenge for any young running back. You know, being able to gain the coaches’ trust in pass protection. That’s something that we’ve given a lot of attention to leading up to this bowl week, and we’ll keep our eye on on gameday as well.”

“My favorite (is) Christian Turner,” added sophomore receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones, when asked about freshmen who have impressed during the bowl season. “I just love how he practices, his attitude. I can see him having a pretty big season in the future.”

The defensive replacements are more predictable, as Gary’s midseason injury paved the way for sophomore Kwity Paye and junior Josh Uche to see significant playing time at defensive end.

“We’re able to manufacture production out of that position pretty solidly between those two guys, as you saw (when Gary was out),” said defensive coordinator Don Brown. “That just needs to continue this weekend.”

The equation is a bit more complicated at linebacker, where junior Devin Bush has started every game over the past three seasons before electing to sit out the Peach Bowl after suffering an injury against Ohio State. With junior linebacker Khaleke Hudson still undecided on declaring for the draft, sophomore Josh Ross figures to fill the lone vacated starting spot in the middle of the Wolverines’ defense, though the spread of playing time behind him could be interesting.

“I got a lot of confidence in (Ross) moving forward,” Brown said. “The big thing is, I knew pretty early in the process cause Devin was hurt, so at least I’ve been able to prepare him for the challenges ahead.”

But each complication that presents itself on Saturday will mean that Michigan has one fewer question to answer when it kicks off its 2019 season. And while the Wolverines insist their focus lies entirely on Florida, that can only be to their long-term benefit.

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