Yeah, here we are. The QB Whisperer was anything but last year. Wilton Speight was bad and then got hurt, John O’Korn was abysmal, and Brandon Peters was very raw and then got hurt. Yes, all were put in bad situations with a bad offensive line and young receivers, but a good QB probably drags last year’s team to 11-2 (beat MSU and either Wisconsin/OSU + bowl game). The QB play was just so dang brutal all year and upon watching the Amazon documentary “All or Nothing”, it seems apparent that coaches knew the QB play was going to be bad back in the summer of 2017. Indeed, the murmuring that summer wasn’t terribly hopeful, especially with Harbaugh not announcing the QB until the first game of the season, and the spring game, with Speight’s awful showing, didn’t help.
Quite simply, if the 2018 team finally puts it all together, it will start with the quarterback. With Shea Patterson finally being cleared, he’s all but certain to be the guy. He’s still not a finished product, but even unfinished in 2017, he was light years ahead of what Michigan had last year. So this summer I will be following to see what the rumors are about, how his play is, and how he’s fitting in. If Harbaugh works the magic that he did with Jake Rudock, Colin Kaepernick, and Alex Smith on Patterson, it could be a terrifying result for opposing defenses. Patterson’s ability to extend plays with his feet will help the offense with a shaky offensive line and will give Michigan a dual threat, dynamic QB they haven’t had under Harbaugh. Can he keep the turnovers down? Harbaugh was all about limiting those with Speight, so I’m optimistic, but hopefully it won’t compromise Shea’s big play ability.
Outside of defensive end and cornerback, this is the group I’m most sure about. Higdon emerged as the feature back in the Michigan State game and over those last 9 games, he rushed for 858 yards on 131 carries, including a pair of 200 yard games. He fell 6 yards short of being Michigan’s first 1,000 yard rusher since Fitzgerald Toussaint, but the senior will get there this year as long as he’s healthy. He’ll have a case for being the best back in the Big Ten, and with Chris Evans as the speed option, it’s a one-two punch I’m very satisfied with. No matter who wins the 3rd spot, either Kareem Walker or O’Maury Samuels should be fine in the Ty Isaac role. This will be a strength of the offense. Moving on.
If you’re looking for one group to make the most improvement outside of quarterback, this is it. Freshmen receivers suck because they’re raw and unrefined and the fact that a majority of Michigan’s wide receivers were freshmen last year was a problem. The injury to Tarik Black was also a killer, as he was the only college ready freshman WR Michigan had, which was even more crucial given that they’re only outside sophomore option, Kekoa Crawford, turned into a pumpkin. But Black will be back, and assuming growth from freak athlete Donovan Peoples-Jones, which we’re already hearing good things about, Michigan could have the best tandem of wide receivers on the outside in the conference. And that would be a huge upgrade from this generally terrible position group a year ago. With wily senior Grant Perry in the slot, and Nico Collins, Oliver Martin, and Eddie McDoom chipping in, this could go from one of Michigan’s worst groups a year ago to one of the best ones this fall. Look for continued good things out of summer camp, especially with new WR coach Jim McElwain.
Michigan was replacing Jake Butt last year and he was an every down tight end. While we thought it was going to be Ian Bunting, it turned into a mix of Sean McKeon and Zach Gentry, who both showed flashes of brilliance. Both were new to the position and the word out of camp is they’ve both shown a lot of growth and are 1A/1B types at this moment. Nick Eubanks, who showed a brief glimpse of his potential before injury (skip to 4:17), is healthy and in the mix. Like the wideouts, this group was raw in 2017 but could be really good in 2018, and has the potential to give whoever the QB is a lot of weapons. I’m feeling pretty good with the tight ends, but will be watching to see if we have any word on how the depth chart will officially shakeout.
The hammering panda is gone, but Ben Mason should be an excellent replacement. He has a meniscus issue, but will be back for summer camp. No worries and nothing really to follow here.
In the offseason, Harbaugh made the long-needed switch and replaced Tim Drevno with Ed Warinner. Drevno was a catastrophe, both at putting together lines, but also at recruiting big name tackle talent. Ed Warinner built consistently excellent lines at Ohio State, including creating NFL talent like Taylor Decker, Billy Price, and Pat Elflein. He will be a boon to the program and a huge upgrade over Drevno in the long run. But will he alone be enough to put a competent unit out there in 2018? This is what I’m watching for in the summer.
In 2017, the offensive line was a total mess. They couldn’t pass protect if their lives depended on it, couldn’t recognize a stunt/twist, and had ugly coordination issues. Greg Frey and Tim Drevno working in unison was a dumpster fire. The schemes were bad and there was little improvement as the season went on. The 2018 line seems to have Cesar Ruiz and Ben Bredeson at C and LG, respectively. The word is that both of them are making a lot of growth to become potentially above average players, which would be a welcome sight. Mike Onwenu is still the favorite at RG, but Stephen Spanellis is supposedly having a good camp. All things considered, it will likely be Bredeson-Ruiz-Onwenu inside and I’m fine with that. That should be a competent interior that would likely be quite good in run-blocking, and hopefully one that can at least keep the QB upright, especially if Ruiz is as big of an upgrade at line calls over Pat Kugler as he’s made out to be. This is important since Kugler’s inability to lead the group even as a senior was what almost murdered Brandon Peters last year.
On the outside, it’s the wild west, with Michigan having both tackle positions open, yay! /s. Juwann Bushell-Beatty and Jon Runyan are returning and neither are too appetizing of options. I do think JBB can improve under Warinner to where he could be an okay RT who you shield with the TE, but that still leaves a question at LT. The redshirt freshmen options are James Hudson, Chuck Filiaga, and Andrew Stueber. Hudson is making a big push and supposedly has now closed the gap between himself and JBB. With lots of summer to grow, I’d probably bet that Hudson swipes the LT spot from Bushell-Beatty and that’s everyone’s best case scenario. But being better than JBB at LT is not a high bar to clear, so how well he can perform there is very crucial. Overall, the entire line, but specifically the tackles, are Michigan’s most crucial area. If this line becomes say, average, the team can win the Big Ten and play for a National Title. If it stays anywhere near where it was a year ago, yikes. So follow the living daylights out of the OL situation, especially about who wins the RG spot and then the tackles.
General Feelings about the offense
I think there’s a big potential for drastic improvement here, which isn’t saying a lot. 2017’s group was 85th in S&P+ offensively and that feels generous. The weapons at the skill positions will probably(?) be the best that Harbaugh has had in his Michigan tenure. You could go from having no WR weapons for much of last year to having 2 deadly ones, and from having no solid TE’s to having 2 or 3. And with Shea Patterson is eligible, Michigan will likely have its best QB (probably by far) in Harbaugh’s tenure. The offensive line is what’s holding everything back and there’s two ways to think about this. On one hand,
Michigan should have the best DE combo in the country. Chase Winovich and Rashan Gary were picked as All-Big Ten First Team by one group (media or coaches) and Second Team by the other. Winovich is probably close to a finished product, which is not an issue given those accolades, but Gary can get even better, which is terrifying. The only thing to follow is who will get to mix in as backups. Carlo Kemp will for sure, but who else? Tough to tell at the moment.
Michigan loses a star in Mo Hurst, but they’ve got a talent here. Sophomore Michael Dwumfour is having the monster hype train spring and it will be interesting to watch if it continues into the summer. He’s likely a starter, next to a 1A/1B nose tackle situation of Bryan Mone and Aubrey Solomon. Lawrence Marshall will also get some snaps. Again, how the rotation figures out is worth watching, along with the Dwumfour thing. Even before the Dwumfour hype, I was pretty content here. If he lives up to the hype, the D-Line could become 2016-level suffocating.
Devin Bush is back and he’s still a monster. A First Team All-Big Ten player a year ago, Bush should be an All-American this year. Michigan loses Mike McCray, which hurts leadership but they will be replacing him with someone way more athletic. Much the way Ben Gedeon was a good player but Michigan didn’t miss him because Devin Bush is an athletic beast, the same thing should happen here with McCray’s replacement, whether it’s Devin Gil, John Ross, or Drew Singleton. All of those guys could be instant upgrades too, so follow who it is, and I will be delightfully following it. To round it out, Khaleke Hudson returns and he’s ferocious. He needs to improve in his pass coverage, and I have no doubt he will. This positional group will be loaded, so watch with glee as we found out what other heat seeking missile joins the club.
*giggles maniacally* This group might be the strongest of all. Yes, the defensive ends are terrific and the depth behind them is good. The depth here is mind-boggling. First off, Michigan returns David Long and LaVert Hill, who went from never playing in 2016 to being arguably the best corner tandem in the country in their first year. By the Ohio State game, teams just refused to throw at them. On a rank of the lowest passer rating allowed by corners in college football when targeted in the regular season, Long was #3 and Hill was #8. Yeah. But wait, there’s more! Ambry Thomas was a top 100 recruit in the class of 2017 and now he’s ready to make the same jump Long and Hill made last year, according to reports. Oh, and Michigan’s also returning pleasant surprise corner Brandon Watson, who was awfully good as a nickel a year ago. The depth is ridiculous and the starters are ridiculous. There’s really nothing to watch, just follow the stream of rumors if you want to get aroused.
The weak spot of the defense in the sense that it’s the only group that’s not murderous. Tyree Kinnel and Josh Metellus are back and they were both fine in 2017 *shrug*. Kinnel is like McCray was, a senior leader who has athletic limitations. That’s fine. Hopefully he gets a bit better in pass coverage. Metellus is also fine and he should show more improvement in his second year as a starter. J’Marrick Woods and Jaylen Kelly-Powell are also supposedly mixing in and it will be worth watching how many snaps they will end up in line to take. There have been rumors that one might steal a job but that doesn’t seem too likely right now. Not a ton to follow, also not a ton to cackle about. *shrug*
General Feelings about the defense
This group is going to be really freaking good. Last year’s group was #10 defensively in S&P+ and it had 10 new starters. This year’s group has 9 returning starters. I expect it to return to 2016ish levels, somewhere in the top 3 range. The defense will be good enough to win a National Title, no question (as it was in 2016, too). The pass rush will be fearsome, the linebackers will be assassins running sideline to sideline, the CB’s will form a No Fly Zone of their own. Yes, the safeties can improve, but they won’t be the reason Michigan doesn’t win a Big Ten/National Title if this team doesn’t. The one thing I would like to see the team work on is keeping quarterback contain. That was a killer against Ohio State, and all of their tough games this season besides Wisconsin have varying degrees of mobile QB’s: Michigan State (Lewerke), Notre Dame (Wimbush), PSU (McSorley), OSU (whoever wins the battle). It hurt them big time against MSU and PSU in 2017, too. And it makes sense, really. When you have a blitzing-heavy defense that is aggressive, the pockets will collapse and with the secondary’s ability to lock down receivers, if no one is open and the QB wasn’t sacked, a mobile one is going to take it on the run. But overall, follow the defensive rumor mill whenever you want to get excited and start foaming at the mouth.
Team Related Feelings
I don’t do preseason rankings and thus I can’t give you an idea of where this team should be ranked nationally. They have a really great defense and what should be a good offense. They do face a difficult schedule but I hate when people bring that up all the time. It’s such a loser’s mentality to look at a schedule and then start making excuses. If this team is a team of champions, they will be champions, period. Here’s what I do know: this team is more talented than every team on their schedule save for Ohio State where it’s pretty equivalent. Notre Dame is losing big chunks of their defense, their running back, their best WR, and their NFL caliber left side of the offensive line. That’s a game Michigan should win. Wisconsin is the same team every year: tough defense that keeps them in games, okay QB who makes a couple “huh?” plays (both good and bad), and a physical running game. Long story short, they don’t really scare me and that’s a home game. You need to win that one. Penn State lost the most dynamic player in college football, most of their defense, and their super important offensive coordinator. And you get them at home. That’s a game you need to win. Then there’s Michigan State. I was raised an MSU fan, I know how great of a coach Mark Dantonio is. But Michigan’s defense also dominated Michigan State’s offense last year. You’re also really motivated. It’s a game that quite frankly, you need to win for more reasons than one. Then there’s Ohio State and *shrug*. You’ve been close two straight years, maybe third time’s the charm. I don’t know. On the off chance Michigan is 11-0 going in, then we’ll talk. But all in all, this is a good team that will be playing lots of good teams. The expectation is double digit wins. Let’s see how it goes.