Revisiting Michigan's Six Biggest Questions
Now that we're on the far side of July 4th, I figured it was time to revisit a segment I've done periodically during the off-season: taking a look at our weaknesses.
This became the focus of Michigan's fans as soon as the clock hit zero on the 2014 season, as soon as the team started walking into the locker rooms of Ohio Stadium. Michigan wasn't good anymore. They had just lost to Ohio State 42-28, they'd lost ten of the last eleven years, and Ohio State hadn't lost a regular-season conference game in three seasons, since Michigan beat Luke Fickell in 2011. The off-season was going to become our redemption; the team was going to stay to even hope to be champions. If we wanted to make it back, we would have to win the off-season.
It started with finding a new coach, someone who would also clean house, and we hit a grand slam. Then, Jim Harbaugh recruited a staff, got to work recruiting the 2015 and 2016 classes, and didn't bother recruiting radio show hosts pretending to be players. We added transfers, expanded the athletic department, flew down south and out west to make our presence felt, and told players they would have to work harder than they ever did under Hoke. We added enough experience to jump from #122 on Phil Steele's Two-Deep Depth Chart to #1. We stopped apologizing, and we went to work.
The results, for having played no games between last December and now, have been simply extraordinary. The secondary is solidified, with Jabrill Peppers, Wayne Lyons, and Jourdan Lewis forming a much stronger core than last year's trio of Lewis, Countess, and Taylor. The rest of the defense is morphing into a unit that can rush the passer and be more flexible against spread offenses. The growth on the offense has been a little slower, but there's a quarterback battle, plenty of additions at tight end and a running back rotation that might turn into the best in the Big Ten before long.
It's a good sign that when I started this, questions were as gaping and problematic as, "Is the quarterback position in good shape?", and "...Development?" Now, the big issues are increasingly specific. Who will win particular positions? Which freshmen will make an impact, and how does the quarterback position establish itself for 2016 and beyond? The questions have gotten healthier, and that means the team is getting ready to be successful.
6. What does the front seven look like?
Everything is on the table, from a dramatic switch to a 3-4 to keeping a lot of 4-3 looks (which Michigan used for the spring game). With the diversity in D.J. Durkin's playbook, absolutely nothing would surprise me.
But that also means we don't know what this front seven looks like. Durkin probably won't be revealing much - in fact, he's perfectly positioned to scout his roster and hide its weaknesses from opposing coaches. And as much as D.J. Durkin reportedly changes his game plan week to week, it will take some effort even during the season to figure out what comes next. Players will be getting trained, weaknesses will be addressed and also hidden, and the game plan will be tailored to each team we face. But who actually sees the field, and in what packages, and what they produce ... most everything is up in the air.
Basically, all we know right now is that we have a solid number of linebackers, and we have an absurd number of linemen. You know the lists: Willie Henry, Bryan Mone, Mo Hurst, Taco Charlton, Chris Wormley, Ryan Glasgow, Henry Poggi, Mario Ojemudia, and Lawrence Marshall up front, and Joe Bolden, James Ross III, Ben Gedeon, Desmond Morgan, and Royce Jenkins-Stone not far behind. Those lists might not be accurate, though, with players changing positions and even leaving the defense entirely. Royce has played at weakside end, and Mario and Marshall would be candidates to bolster the linebackers.
Still, the simple fact is that depth is not an issue. The defensive line especially, which rotates more than any position on the field, will have 320-pound muscle and 250-pound bags of tricks. Durkin will play around and come up with some depth charts, but even those might change game to game.
5. How good is the special teams' face lift?
Michigan's special teams were mediocre once again last season, and it's been several years since Michigan had a winning group of special teams players. With Jim Harbaugh and John Baxter, two proven special teams coaches, that's about to change.
The three key players for Michigan last year were Will Hagerup (gone), Matt Wile (gone), and Dennis Norfleet (possibly gone). The kicking position should be a battle between Andrew David (an incoming scholarship freshman) and Kenny Allen (a senior preferred walk-on), while the punting duties will be decided between Allen and Blake O'Neill. Both these positions are up for grabs, and how well the starters perform is a complete unknown. Hagerup's production will be pretty easy to top, but Wile was almost automatic inside the 40-yard line and perfect on PATs.
There are also question marks about the kick-returning and punt-returning positions, with no less than a dozen players trying out during spring ball. It's common for athletic first- and second-year players to shine in the return game before they segue to something else, in which case Brian Cole, Jabrill Peppers, Freddy Canteen, or Brandon Watson might be considered front-runners over vets like Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson, or Wyatt Shallman. Even if Dennis Norfleet returns, I don't see him competing for special teams duties. The competition is strong, but can one of these guys manage to do what Norfleet never could? The last time a Michigan Man returned a non-blocked kick for a touchdown was 2009 - six years ago.
4. Can we win the turnover battle finally, please?
It was a joke in a season full of them - ten forced turnovers against 26 given up. On average, we lost the turnover battle by 1.33 per game. That's unsustainable for a team that hopes to win.
Turnovers were a problem in 2013, as well, as the offensive line fell apart and Devin Gardner was responsible for 17 of Michigan's 21 turnovers. With a little more experience and a slowly improving line, that number was supposed to go down. But it was not to be: the team suffered 26 turnovers in 2014, and Gardner had 18.
Now, the team should return to the run game. There's a reliable option at quarterback (Jake Rudock) and a unified game-plan on offense, rather than an awkward blend of Nussmeier's playbook and Hoke's comfort. The defense will be getting faster (Peppers), tougher (Morgan), stronger (Mone), more experienced (Lyons), more disciplined (Lewis), better positioned (Wilson), better coached, more unpredictable, deeper, and have more to prove. Mattison was a fine coordinator, but his defenses had a reputation, even in Baltimore, for not producing turnovers. 'Bend, don't break' can work, but it wasn't what Devin Gardner and a turnover-prone offense needed last year.
3. Who's starting at quarterback, and what does that mean for the future?
This position is in good hands, but the question is whether Jim Harbaugh has a great quarterback in 2016 ... or sooner. That's the year, of course, that John O'Korn is eligible, and everyone else will have been in the system for a full season. Zach Gentry and Alex Malzone will both have time to get their feet set and make a case for why they should run the show. Even more talent will be coming in the 2016 class.
But what about Shane Morris? Not long ago, Sugar Shane was hailed as the savior for a team suffering from excruciating inconsistency. For that matter, what about Wilton Speight? If the vestiges of Hoke's administration do not pass muster, it will be a couple of years with few veteran options.
2. What do the pass catchers bring to the table?
To some extent, this has gotten swept aside by concerns over the quarterback and OL positions. But the tight ends and wide receivers combine for a lot of questions.
At first glimpse, a depth chart of Jake Butt, Ian Bunting, Henry Poggi and Chase Winovich is dramatically improved from last year's rotation at tight end. And while it's hard to be too worried about it after Jake has healed and Harbaugh provided a talent transfusion, the fact remains that Bunting, Poggi and Winovich combine for zero collegiate catches. Despite his raw athleticism, Winovich did little in the spring game to dispel the adage, "there's a reason they were placed on defense." Bunting has gained a very impressive amount of weight so far, but at 243 he still has room to grow.
And, it's impossible for the tight ends to cover most of the receiving duties. Michigan's quarterback will need some production from Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson, the two most experienced receivers on the roster. The problem is, like with Devin Funchess before them, they haven't caught a high percentage of passes - especially Darboh. It's not just on Devin Gardner, who, for all his other faults, had a completion percentage last year of 61.5%. But Darboh caught only 53.7% of his passes, and Chesson caught a (somewhat) more respectable 58.3%. Freddy Canteen was terrible in limited action (38.5%), and the only receiver with a reassuring baseline (Dennis Norfleet, 68.2%) got most of his catches behind the line and might be gone before the season anyway.
Can the receiving corps get an infusion of athleticism? Can they work with a new quarterback to at least solidify their catch rates? And who steps up behind Darboh and Chesson? Harbaugh will be relying on a lot of first-year players at tight end, and a lot of freshmen at wide receiver. Some of this might cause problems.
1. Who on the offensive line can be high-caliber?
Depth is still an issue, but the line becomes less of a question mark as the focus turns to, how elite can they make themselves? Who grapples with their talent and creates a small chapter in a Michigan legacy? Ben Braden has size at either tackle or guard, and a move to left guard might be good for him. Kyle Kalis looks healthy, and Mason Cole is already a well-trusted, reliable player wherever he ends up. If he has to man the center position, the coaching staff and his unreal level of growth already are indicators he'll be fine.
What's nice, though, is that Cole's move to center might not be necessary after all. Patrick Kugler is apparently coming along very nicely, and Graham Glasgow (who would also be fine at guard) will probably be back from suspension sooner rather than later. Depth at tackle is a little thin, but a two-deep of Braden, Magnuson, Cole, and Tuley-Tillman is enough to worry more about quality from the starters, and less about bleak scenarios if a play ends horribly.
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