UM can make the case to recruits that even in a top 10 program, it will play freshmen if they’re worthy. And they have the evidence this season to prove it.
A look at UM’s 2017 class and how they’ve fared, by position:
• Receiver: Jeff Thomas’ speed has been an enormous help, particularly in games from mid-October through mid-November - both on vertical throws (including an 82-yard touchdown) and then on shorter throws that have allowed Thomas to use his speed to gain yards after catch.
He’s averaging 21.9 yards on 14 catches but has just one catch for 33 yards in the past two weeks. He must be a big factor Saturday with Ahmmon Richards out for the season because of a knee injury.
“He’s helped us win, made plays for us, has been starting the last few games,” Mark Richt said of Thomas.
“Those guys, the true freshmen that are playing right now, a year from now they’ll be so much better at what they do.”
Speedy Mike Harley Jr.’s contributions as a receiver have been more limited (7 catches, 73 yards), but Richt said that opposing cornerbacks “don't like him because he's so tenacious as a blocker.”
Evidence Njoku is redshirting after knee surgery.
• Running back: Deejay Dallas impressed teammates in the spring with his ability to outjump defensive backs, but he has made his biggest contribution since moving to running back after Mark Walton’s injury, with 114 yards on 27 carries, including a couple out of the Wildcat, and three catches for 70 yards.
Richt made clear Wednesday that he sees him staying at running back.
“Deejay has got enough versatility where we’ll figure out ways to use him,” Richt said. “He’s going to probably live in the running back slot, but we’ll find ways to use him as a receiver and in the Wildcat.”
UM is redshirting Robert Burns, who has been slowed by a spring shoulder injury. Durability remains a serious concern with Burns, who was often injured in high school. He might be no higher than fourth or fifth on the depth chart next season with the arrival of Lorenzo Lingard and Camron Davis.
• Offensive line: Guard Navaughn Donaldson generally has been very good since returning from injury; he was UM’s best lineman against Notre Dame.
Corey Gaynor had some good moments filling in for Donaldson - he figures to eventually start here at guard or center - but hasn’t played the past two weeks.
UM has high hopes for Kai Leon Herbert, who hasn’t played since the opener but could be a starting tackle next season. Tackle Zalon’tae Hillery and guard Zach Dykstra also are redshirting; both are developmental prospects.
• Tight end: Brian Polendey, who has played a bit in five straight games after not playing the previous five, is battling Scott Patchan to be Michael Irvin Jr.’s backup Saturday. He’s a skilled blocker but UM wants to see progress as a receiver.
If he doesn’t improve in that area, he could be quickly passed by ballyhooed incoming recruits Brevin Jordan and Will Mallory.
• Quarterback: UM insiders say evcn though N’Kosi Perry didn’t win the starting job, Richt is “all in” on Perry, has worked to build their relationship and believes he’s going to be a very good player.
If Malik Rosier is underwhelming the rest of the season, Perry likely would be given a chance to compete with him for the 2018 starting job.
Cade Weldon struggled in spring and summer practices and it’s difficult to see him being higher than fourth on the depth chart next year.
• Defensive line: All three freshmen could be future high draft picks – ends Jon Garvin and D.J. Johnson and tackle Jon Ford.
“We have three freshmen that have potential to be superstars someday,” defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski said.
UM is deep at end, but Johnson has appeared in only one game the past six weeks (he missed one for family reasons).
“He’s not far away,” defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said. “We’re aware we’re losing two great senior ends in Chad Thomas and Trent Harris. Certainly athletically, for a man his size who can run is special and unique.”
Garvin has only six tackles but two are strip sacks where he recovered the fumble.
Ford has played a bit in two of the past three games and Diaz said on Wednesday that “Jon is so big and strong, hard guy to move out of there. He came in late and you can tell where he missed August just assignment-wise.”
• Linebacker: UM likes the upside of De’Andre Wilder – who is playing more amid Charles Perry’s season-ending injury - because “he adds an element of speed, which you want,” Diaz said. “We have been impressed with him since he’s been here.”
Waymon Steed is redshirting after last year’s knee injury in high school.
Bradley Jennings Jr. has played in all but one game – mostly special teams - and Diaz said Jennings “is one of our top guys at linebacker right now in terms of being physical, has a great pop in his body. The way he takes on blocks and tackles, he’s probably one of our hardest hitters already. Just (has to learn) the down to down assignments and just the urgency you have to play with to be an every down guy.”
• Safety: Amari Carter (6-2, 197 program) and Derrick Smith (6-2, 200) have received considerable playing time and “are going to be unbelivable football players here,” safeties coach Ephraim Banda said Wednesday.
“Derrick is going to a freak. He's a hidden gem. He's got length. He's got speed. You can coach him hard. Not a highly recruited kid. He wasn't in a battle with Florida State or Florida or Alabama. But he became here and is a great player. The best thing about him is he understands the standard and what it takes to be great here.
“Amari's consistency and running to the ball and tackling [are impressive] and he really understands the game. His ability to learn is phenomenal for a freshman. His maturity and the way he was raised by his mother and his family, you don't see a lot in kids these days. He tackles. He takes coaching.”
• Cornerback: Freshman Trajan Bandy, in recent weeks, has played as much as senior Dee Delaney (a potential NFL draft pick who has been working his way back from a knee injury) and more than junior Jhavonte Dean (the nation’s No. 1 junior college corner last season).
Bandy, who had the interception return for a touchdown against Notre Dame, “is cut from the same cloth as Jaquan Johnson,” Banda said. “When God made Jaquan Johnson, a year or two later he made Trajan Bandy out of the same cloth. They go hard. They care. They are not tall but stocky and are big broad shoulder kids.
“They play the game at one speed always. Sometimes you have to slow them down. We are so thankful we got Trajan Bandy. We knew he would be a good player and obviously he's panned out and he's going to be even better.”
• Punter Zach Feagles. Ranks just 120th of 125 major college punters with a 38.2 average and was a liability against Pitt.
“He’s had his ups and downs but he’s a great talent and we believe in him,” Richt said.