ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Michigan coach Brady Hoke knows from experience that November is the month when teams fight for championships in college football. And while he has never done that with three freshmen starting on defense, it isn't a fact that bothers him too much.
"The best players have to play," Hoke said. "If we don't play the best players no matter who they are, where they're from, what age they are, then we're cheating the program."
A few freshmen have stepped up in this much-improved Michigan defense from a season ago, doing everything but "cheating" the program.
True freshman cornerback Blake Countess started his first game Saturday after coaches decided to move fifth-year senior Troy Woolfolk to safety. Countess has registered 27 tackles, good enough for seventh on the team, broken up four passes and forced a fumble. And when Countess went out of the game, true freshman Raymon Taylor replaced him.
Senior defensive end Ryan Van Bergen said he has been very impressed with Countess' reliability in man coverage.
"If you watch, typically other teams will try and pick on a freshman specifically in the secondary because of how exposed they can be," Van Bergen said. "I don't think anyone has been trying Blake. ... But he's been consistent and that's one thing you look for in a freshman.
True freshman Desmond Morgan has started two games at the weakside linebacker position. Coaches had been impressed with him during fall camp, but Morgan suffered a hamstring injury shortly before the season opener. He was unable to make much of an impact early in the season but has since come on strong.
Redshirt freshman Jake Ryan has started at the strongside linebacker position for six games this season. He has five tackles for loss.
All around, the freshmen have been impressive to Hoke.
"A lot of freshmen hit the wall sometimes," Hoke said. "So far, these guys have been able to persevere and keep learning and getting better from a fundamental and technique standpoint."
Michigan spent most of its bye week focusing on fundamentals and techniques, and Hoke mentioned that several freshmen had stepped up during that time. But with a core group of freshmen that has been quick on the upswing and strong on the field, the Wolverines are looking at fielding a very experienced defense for the next few seasons.
The freshmen have proved vital in a revamped Michigan defense, which has yet to give up any home run plays and is ranked No. 6 in the country in scoring defense (14.6 points per game).
"They're going to make a mistake like anybody else would," Van Bergen said of the freshmen. "But make sure that they don't repeat the same mistakes, because that's when you get hurt."
Chantel Jennings covers University of Michigan sports for WolverineNation. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or or on Twitter @chanteljennings.