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Thursday Morning Brews (2/26/15)

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Five Players Michigan Needs to Step Up

Spring practice is underway, which makes it another year before we can look forward to Christmas-Thanksgiving-New Year's-birthday-family-reunion-first day of school. It's a time of evaluation and application, and the things people take out of spring will help build their entire season. Depth charts might not be written, but that's good. They shouldn't be.

We can look at some key players, though. Knowing this team's weaknesses, there are a few guys who will have a big impact if they tap into their potential. If these guys succeed, this team can go far.

1. Jabrill Peppers
Peppers' move to the secondary does a lot of good things for Durkin's defense. It puts Peppers' teammate, Jarrod Wilson, in a much better position to succeed as well: last year at free safety, Wilson struggled with pass coverage and looked more comfortable with the physical side of his safety position. But of course, a jarring tackle doesn't help after allowing a 20-yard pass. Wilson's a great safety, but he was out of position.

This also protects the corners' ability to play tight man coverage, knowing that Breezy can clean up a busted play. And with offensive coordinators trying to hide deep threats in the slot, or force one-on-one coverage against safeties, Peppers gives Michigan a very capable answer to a lot of the things passing offenses try to do. That he helps make everyone else's jobs in the backfield easier is just icing on the cake.

2. Shane Morris

Michigan's offense, under both Al Borges and Doug Nussmeier, was an exercise in how often a team could possibly transmit their plays to the defense. Whether it was running behind a lead fullback into a 10-man box because there was only one receiver on the field, or subbing in Justice Hayes on a 3rd and 4 (hey, that wouldn't be a pass play, would it), Michigan's offense was not kind to its players.

This will almost certainly not be the same Shane Morris that we've seen over the last two years - zero touchdowns, five interceptions, 49.4% completions, and an anemic 4.5 yards per attempt. However, what Michigan has is uncertain. Morris is mobile, certainly, and he can throw the ball to any part of the field. Can he make progressions? Can he get comfortable in the pocket? Nobody needs Harbaugh more than him.

3. Freddy Canteen
Life is easy when there's a good rushing attack to move the chains, but it's also easy if there's a receiver who can consistently break free. A lot of people are looking at Darboh to be that guy, and he'll certainly be a main part of the offense with his ability to block on the perimeter and make catches.

But Michigan needs a little bit more. Freddy Canteen provides more of a deep threat, and he might be entering fall camp at a sturdy 190 or 195 pounds. With that muscle comes the chance to do more things on the field - like block for his teammates in the open field or force some space from a cornerback. He has more athleticism than Darboh, and that's a good building block.

4. Mario Ojemudia
Ojemudia is turning into a great player, and he has a chance to really turn heads this year. In a 4-3, Ojemudia is likely taking over for Frank Clark, and there's no doubt Rio would succeed there. His strengths are his quickness off the ball and ability to sniff out plays. In the run game, he plays solidly, and gives the defensive line the chance to force negative plays.

But Mario also gives Durkin a little flexibility with scheme. In a 3-4 defense, Ojemudia's combination of instincts, speed and size would make him a great weakside linebacker. Whatever Durkin does this year, Ojemudia will supply a greater amount of play-making than Michigan fans have been used to.

5. Ben Braden

The right side of the offensive line - Kyle Kalis and Ben Braden - was a weak link a year ago. But as much as Braden under-performed - whiffing on too many blocks, or showing no push on the line of scrimmage - he's got all the raw tools to become a cornerstone tackle. The game was still moving too fast for him, causing him to freeze at certain times or not get his hands on a defender quickly enough. But at other times, he showed what he's capable of.

The agility he showed for a 320-pounder was a rare sight. Braden possesses long arms, great balance and quick feet, and he recently showed up for spring ball with another nine pounds of muscle. In fact, at 331 pounds, Braden is Michigan's heaviest player. He's heavier than anyone else on Michigan's roster by at least five pounds, and if Shane Morris wins the starting job, Braden would be the one holding down the blindside. He has the athleticism to do it - he just has to trust his skills and technique.

Hitting the Links Wants to Be Drafted

Replacing Devin Smith

Michael Thomas is a complete receiver for the Buckeyes, and there's also the tight end Nick Vannett. H-Back is also set with Jalin Marshall and Dontre Wilson. After that, you're looking at guys like Corey Smith (255 yards last year) and guys who haven't played. One incoming freshman, K.J. Hill, is an immediate deep-threat option in the same mold as Devin and may play early.

Notes from the NFL Combine

Combine workouts featured a lot of Miami players, which begged the question how they lost so many games. Also, Mariota vs. Winston, and Kenny Bell runs a 4.42, and a jump that might be a world record.

Best Performers from the Conference

Trae Waynes put up a 4.31 forty, which earned him $100,000 from Adidas. As an hourly wage, that would be about $83.5 million, if you were wondering.

Big Ten's Best Tight Ends | Receivers | Running Backs

Off Tackle Empire is ranking the best five at each position in the conference; these were the best. An intriguing name that hasn't been mentioned in the Brews is UAB transfer and Indiana running back Jordan Howard. Howard had more carries than all but three other guys last year, and he produced plenty of yards at a decent 5.2 average. He's bigger, a little slower, but has the intangibles.

Big Ten Spring Outlook: Offensive Line | Receivers

Michigan makes the list as a sleeper unit, while Michigan State takes top honors. The Spartans' line has been under the radar for years, but they have paved the way for a 1,200-yard rusher in six of the last eight seasons.

The receivers' list highlights some of the up-and-coming talent in the Big Ten. Whether it's De'Mornay Pierson-El or Leonte Carroo, there is talent outside to stretch the field, and that couldn't be said four or five years ago.

Twenty Running Backs on the Rise

Plenty of Big Ten names are mentioned, showing how much depth the conference has even without last year's stars. Ty Isaac makes a brief mention.

Northwestern Off-Season Storylines

Northwestern is an interesting team in 2015, with a young defense and a chance to re-invent their offensive attack. If a few unheralded players turn into stars - here's looking at you, Clayton Thorson, Anthony Walker, and Justin Jackson - Pat Fitzgerald might earn himself some breathing room in Evanston.

The Eastern Michigan Preview

A really well-written preview by Bill Connelly, this also starts a two-week journey through the MAC Conference.

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Brady was starting by his second year.