Michigan heads into NSD next Wednesday with the 4th-ranked recruiting class in the country, but Jim Harbaugh is not done yet. With 26 players already committed, the Wolverines could add as many as seven more players by the end of the day Wednesday, and could challenge Georgia for the 3rd-best class of 2017. Having such a highly ranked class is a good sign for the Wolverines who are graduating one of the biggest classes ever with 41 seniors. Losing 7 starters on offense and 10 on defense leaves a lot of shoes to be filled on a 10-3 team that was ranked as highly as number 3 in the country last season. The offseason will be full of competition for playing time as a record 11 early-enrollees will battle with a number of 2015 and 2016 recruits for playing time on a wide open depth chart this season. In today’s blog, I will examine the 2017 offensive depth chart, position-by-position.
Note: All recruiting rankings are via 247 Composite Rankings and all player stats are via ESPN.com
Returning: Wilton Speight (RS Jr.), John O’Korn (5th year), Brandon Peters (RS Fresh.), Alex Malzone (RS Soph.)
Departed: Shane Morris (Transfer to CMU)
Commits: Dylan McCaffrey (4* recruit, #5 rated Pocket Passer)
Remaining Targets: None
Despite Jim Harbaugh publicly calling Wilton Speight one of the best returning quarterbacks in the country, this is one of the most critical position battles of the offseason. I expect it to be a 3-man race between Speight, Peters, and O’Korn. Ultimately, it will come down to whether or not Peters, the most talented of the three, is game-ready enough to challenge Speight for the starting job. With a whole new group of starting wideouts, Speight won’t have the advantage of chemistry as he looks to regain his spot. I believe Speight will start the season under center against Florida in Arlington, but don’t expect Harbaugh to declare a starter any time soon. Look for McCaffrey to take a redshirt year and learn the offense.
Returning: Chris Evans (So.), Ty Isaac (Sr.), Karan Higdon (Jr.), Kareem Walker (RS Fr.), Kingston Davis (RS Fr.)
Departed: De’Veon Smith, Drake Johnson
Commits: O’Maury Samuels (4* #21 RB), Kurt Taylor (3* #53 RB)
Remaining Targets: NOT NAJEE!
By far the biggest story at the running back position this offseason was Michigan’s inability to flip Alabama commit Najee Harris. However, despite that recruiting loss and the loss of leading rusher De’Veon Smith, running back is probably the most stable position heading into the offseason. Chris Evans (7 ypc) was explosive and consistent for the Wolverines and had just 232 fewer yards than Smith on 97 fewer carries. Karan Higdon will also be back, but look for RS Freshman Kareem Walker to claim the backup spot and make an impact. Walker, the 4th-ranked RB in the class of 2016, should be primed for a breakout year after sitting out his freshman year to focus on academics. I’d be surprised if Samuels or Taylor made an impact as true freshman, but then again, who was expecting Chris Evans to be the Wolverines’ most efficient rusher last season? No Najee? No problem. Chris Evans will be an All-conference back in 2017.
Returning: Khalid Hill (5th year), Henry Poggi (5th year)
Departed: Bobby Henderson
Commits: Ben Mason (3* #32 ILB)
Remaining Targets: None
With Khalid Hill’s decision to return to school, this is another stable position offensively. Hill had 13 total touchdowns (10 rushing, 3 receiving) and will be the go to short yardage back, especially with power back De'Veon Smith moving on to the NFL. Poggi should be a key blocker in the pro-style passing game, but if Michigan runs more spread, as Harbaugh has hinted at with the hire of the Browns Pep Hamilton (and Harbaugh reportedly told wide receiver target Nico Collins that there will be more spread run next season), then Poggi’s role could be diminished.
Returning: Eddie McDoom (So.), Moe Ways (RS Jr.), Drake Harris (RS Jr.), Kekoa Crawford (So.), Grant Perry (Jr.), Nate Johnson (So.)
Departed: Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson
Commits: Donovan Peoples Jones (5* #1 WR #12 Overall), Tarik Black (4* #17 WR)
Remaining Targets: Nico Collins (4* #23 WR), Oliver Martin 4* #28 WR)
Michigan loses its top 3 receivers in Darboh, Chesson, and Jake Butt. The trio combined for 138 receptions, 1908 yards, and 13 touchdowns. For perspective, Michigan had 228 catches, 2756 yards, and 20 touchdowns as a team. Key contributors Perry (whose status on the team is in question following allegations of sexual assault), McDoom, and Crawford will try to hold off an elite group of freshmen who are big, talented, and hungry for success. Expect DPJ and Black to challenge for playing time right away as early-enrollees. I expect DPJ and Crawford to be the two starters on the outside and either McDoom or Perry to start in the slot. However, whoever wins the starting job will likely cede time in a veritable revolving door of receivers, as the Wolverines will have an opportunity to duplicate what they did with the defensive line in 2016: they could conceivably have 2 full units of receivers rotate on to keep everyone fresh all the time. B1G defensive backs beware, this is a receiver corps to be feared regardless of who is throwing to them.
Returning: Devin Asiasi (So.), Tyrone Wheatley Jr. (RS So.), Ian Bunting (Sr.), Zach Gentry (RS Jr.), Sean McKeon (So.), Nick Eubanks (So.)
Departed: Jake Butt
Remaining Targets: None
The Wolverines lose fan favorite and team captain Jake Butt, but tight end production probably won’t fall off much. Asiasi and Wheatley Jr. both showed flashes of excellence in 2016 as each caught touchdowns backing up Butt. Asiasi was a key win on the recruiting battlefield for Michigan in 2016; expect to him to have a breakout season as a productive receiver in the offense. Bunting should retain his role as a talented backup run blocker and pass catcher for the Wolverines. Fans will surely want to see Gentry (6’ 8”, 4.5 40-yard dash) show off his athletic ability and prove himself as a mismatch against slower linebackers and smaller safeties. But with TE being such a loaded position, Harbaugh has reportedly considered trying out the former quarterback at wide receiver. If Gentry can make an impact, it will be an added bonus to an already deep and versatile group at the tight end position.
Returning: Ben Bredeson (So.), Grant Newsome (Jr.), Juwan Bushell-Beatty (RS. Jr.), Nolan Ulizio (RS Jr.)
Departed: Erik Magnuson
Commits: Chuck Filiaga (4* #15 OT), Joel Honigford (3* #50 OT)
Remaining Targets: Mekhi Becton (3* #44 OT)
This recruiting cycle has been a rough one at the offensive tackle position. Projected Michigan target Isaiah Wilson chose Georgia instead, long-time commit Kai-Leon Herbert flipped to Miami less than two weeks before signing day, and it took a major unexpected recruiting victory in 4-star Chuck Filiaga from Texas to salvage the position in the 2017 class. This will be a key position in terms of 2018 recruiting for Michigan and new offensive line coach Greg Frey. For the 2017 season, Bredeson should hold down the blind side, and Juwan Bushell-Beatty should be the man on the right for the Wolverines. If Newsome can recover from a gruesome knee injury he suffered in 2016, he should compete for playing time with both Bredeson and Bushell-Beatty. There are also high hopes for Filiaga to come in and be a factor right away. The talent at the tackle spots is young, but has a high ceiling.
Returning: Michael Onwenu (So.), Jon Runyan Jr. (RS So.), David Dawson (5th year), Stephen Spanellis (So.)
Departed: Ben Braden, Kyle Kalis
Commits: JaRaymond Hall (4* #32 OT), Andrew Stueber (3* #48 OT)
Remaining Targets: Tedarrell Slaton (4* #2 OG)
I’m being a bit speculative in calling Hall and Stueber guards, but this is the position I believe they will end up playing, with a number of tackles committed, but no true guard in the class. However, I expect Onwenu to start along with 5th year senior David Dawson in 2017, giving the new commits time to learn the position. During bowl practices, much of the chatter coming from practice surrounded the battles happening between Onwenu and star defensive end Rashan Gary. If Onwenu can hold his own against Gary, expect to make a major impact at guard this season. If Cesar Ruiz can start at center while Mason Cole moves to tackle (see below), then Ben Bredeson could move back to guard and start. Otherwise, expect it to be Dawson until a younger player steps up and takes his spot. Tedarrell Slaton would be a huge get at the position, but he’s probably going to Florida.
Returning: Mason Cole (Sr.), Patrick Kugler (5th year)
Departed: Ben Pliska
Commits: Cesar Ruiz (4* #1 Center)
Regardless of whether or not Mason Cole remains at the center position, he will be the key piece of a young offensive line. A projected 3rd round pick, Cole returned for his senior year along with defensive end Mo Hurst to give Michigan some seasoned veterans on what will otherwise be young lines on both sides of the ball. If Ruiz shows he is game-ready this spring as an early enrollee, Cole could be moved back to tackle. There’s a lot riding on Ruiz’s shoulders, but at 6’ 3”, 315 pounds, the number 1 ranked center of the class might just be able to handle the pressure.
Projected Two-deep Offensive Depth Chart
QB- Speight, Peters
RB- Evans, Walker
FB- Hill, Poggi
WR 1- DPJ, Ways
WR 2- Crawford, Black
Slot WR- McDoom, Perry
TE- Asiasi, Wheatley
Left tackle- Bredeson, Newsomw
Left Guard- Onwenu, Runyan
Center- Cole, Ruiz
Right Guard- Dawson, Spanellis
Right Tackle- Bushell-Beatty, Filiaga