You won’t become college football’s most successful program just by receiving input from your high school students. Instead, younger players have to move up. Such was the case in Ann Arbor, with the most recent data point coming from linebacker Junior Colson, who was named a 2021 Freshman All-American.
But what about those who changed the game so much that they’re among the best first-year players of all time in all of the sport?
ESPN numbers guru and analyst Bill Connelly compiled a list of the top 50 true freshman seasons of all time, and two former Michigan football players made it, starting with one player who ended up being a starter for four years at most, a key position at the Matchfield.
41st QB Chad Henne, Michigan (2004)
He never really improved – his passer rating has hovered between 130 and 143 in all four years of his career – but Henne was an overwhelming success from the start. The blue chipper from Reading, Pennsylvania, threw for 2,743 yards and 25 touchdowns and led the Wolverines to a 9-3 season. In a classic Rose Bowl loss to Texas, he went toe-to-toe with Vince Young, throwing for 227 yards and four touchdowns.
It is true that Henne never really found another gear, but only acted as an above-average quarterback throughout his tenure. But given the fact that he was able to come in and put in the kind of performance that he did as a true freshman at such a demanding position, that’s something to enjoy.
Of course, the other player mentioned is a GOAT himself, the only defensive player to ever win the Heisman Trophy.
34. CB Charles Woodson, Michigan (1995)
You won’t be the only defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy in 60 years if you don’t start generating attention right away. Woodson, a record-breaking rusher from Ohio, came to Michigan to play defense and became the first stringer almost immediately. He caught five passes in his freshman season, including two in a 31–23 rivalry win over Ohio State.
Of course, Woodson’s junior season was his crowning glory, as he took home the award for the nation’s top player that year and upset Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning for the award.
While that sort of greatness is something all players aspire to, Michigan will certainly need a freshman or two to play at such a level for it to be on this list in the future for Michigan to repeat last year’s success.