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Michigan Football's Six Biggest Questions, Post-Spring

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Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Jim Harbaugh made waves when he equated the first day of spring practice (and later fall camp, too) to the birth of a team. It's a refrain he's gone back to several times before and since he came to Michigan.

And, to be sure, spring football does have a strong sense of discovery and newness. Veteran players who did amazing things are now gone; young guys who haven't proven themselves try and fail. It's like learning to walk, or, in this case, learning to hit people in pads.

Anyway, you could say it's the perfect time to take stock of the biggest questions. The last time we did this the Wolverines were coming off a thoroughly dispiriting loss to Ohio State. The offensive and defensive lines had been manhandled, and the Buckeyes had walked away with their thirteenth win in the last fifteen seasons. There were much more important questions then than there are now.

Four months later, after taking care of business against Florida and attacking the off-season with enthusiasm unknown to mankind, Michigan is growing up. Where once there were big questions, now there are just questions - and some tepid ones at that. Is the safety position too thin, with Dymonte Thomas, Delano Hill and Tyree Kinnel? What about the second cornerback spot, opposite the All-American? Are the fullbacks going to be good enough fullbacks? As it stands, there are only two positions remaining that elicit major concern: the linebackers and the offensive line. Michigan, overall, has fantastic (and still improving) depth, which will help it handle a normal amount of injuries. The athleticism is almost on par with teams like Ohio State, and it's getting better with every recruiting cycle under Jim Harbaugh. How much can you really critique a team that looks top-ten caliber, and still hasn't hit its ceiling yet?

Well, we'll try anyway.

6. How good is the fullback position?

Those who say the position is dead - or worse, that it's not fun to watch - would be surprised by what Sione Houma and Joe Kerridge did this past year for Michigan. They were, in fact, extremely entertaining. Both entered 2015 with 0 career rushing touchdowns; they would combine for six in their final season together. That's as many as De'Veon Smith had in each of the last two years to lead the team.

It will be interesting, then, to see what happens to the position in 2016. Khalid Hill, Henry Poggi, and Wyatt Shallman have all changed positions to give it more depth (Shallman still doubles as a running back), but that group underwhelmed in the spring game, in my opinion. Not many fullbacks are 6'2" or taller, as all three of those gentlemen are, but the message is clear - no excuses. Know the assignment and have the physicality to get the job done. Poggi gave up his body willingly but was stopped with regularity by smaller defenders. Khalid Hill fared better but had a hard time getting his hands on guys in space. Wyatt Shallman was decent but not memorable.

The answer here will probably be three-fold. Answer number one: let them develop their physicality during the summer. Answer number two: rely on fifth-year senior Bobby Henderson. The 5'11", 245-pounder quietly did everything you'd need out of a fullback in the spring game, even if he did it without the flash and dash of Houma. Answer number three: more tight ends and receivers.

Again, if this doesn't feel like a big problem, you would be right.

5. Can the offense create home run plays?

Perhaps the biggest surprise of spring football was the emergence of Wilton Speight as the front-runner for Michigan's starting quarterback position. It was such a surprise, in fact, that many writers are still publicly expecting John O'Korn to take over control of the race by the time September 3rd rolls around.

But if we assume, for a moment, that Michigan's brain trust values efficiency over the kind of potential that John O'Korn brings ("physical intangibles" is a funny term to that effect), and that Speight will have the leadership and problem-solving qualities needed to excel at that position, then we could be looking at an offense heavy on efficiency and light on explosiveness.

This is a good thing, of course. Efficiency is paramount; moving the chains keeps the offense on the field and gives more opportunities to probe for big plays. And efficiency will always be Michigan's calling card, whether it's the physical running backs Michigan is stockpiling, the stable of tight ends or the precision route running offered by Jehu Chesson, Amara Darboh and Grant Perry. So the offense, as a whole, is fine.

Plus, college defenses are not going to perform like NFL defenses. There will usually be a mistake somewhere in the secondary sooner or later that will open up opportunities. But it would be nice to have a reliable downfield presence, a 'can opener' that can take the top off a defense at any time and who makes it harder for the safeties to choose where to go. Besides Jehu or Amara, can anyone else bring the highlights?

4. How quickly can the defense get to the quarterback?

How do you take a top-five defense and make it better? In the case of the Wolverines, try adding a little more havoc. While D.J. Durkin's Wolverines were excellent across the board, they ranked outside the top 25 nationally in sacks and tackles for loss, and the lack of subsequent turnovers cost this team an eleventh win.

Scoring defense 6th 16.4 points per game
Total defense 4th 280.7 yards per game
Pass defense 3rd 158.5 yards per game
Run defense 16th 122.2 yards per game
Sacks 35th 2.46 per game
Tackles for loss
42nd 6.8 per game
Third Down Defense
4th 27.6% conversion rate
Passer Rating Defense
1st 94.60
117th 12
78th 10

Don Brown will bring a more aggressive, blitzing defense that heavily focuses on the run. With aggressiveness comes risk, but Brown hopes to take away the foundation of an opponent's attack and force offenses out of their comfort zone. Get them on their heels, take an occasional body blow.

To do that, Brown has bolstered Michigan's defensive line with some lighter, more nimble weapons. Chase Winovich has gotten a lot of attention here, but another intriguing option is redshirt freshman Reuben Jones. At 6'4", 222 pounds, Jones has the body type of an elite pass rusher. Both Jones and Winovich were still piecing together what they're capable of this spring.

Brown will also have a couple very good blitzing linebackers in Jabrill Peppers and Devin Bush, Jr., and the kind of secondary to hold up to most pass-catchers. With an uptick in pressure being put on opposing offenses, Michigan's defense could finally start forcing turnovers.

Credit for all images: Rick Osentoski, USA Today

3. Will they find the missing inches to beat the rivals?

Sure, you could say that Michigan's schedule is easier than most. Or perhaps you're optimistic that Michigan is a force to be reckoned with. Regardless, it's easy to see anywhere from a 5-2 start to a 7-0 start heading into Michigan State week, thanks to games against Hawaii, UCF, Colorado, Penn State, Wisconsin, Rutgers and Illinois.

But the season will be measured against MSU on October 29th and OSU on November 26th. Those games will serve as measuring sticks on the one hand, and a chance at some revenge on the other. Last year's team was great, made a lot of memorable plays and did it all ahead of schedule. But 42-13 and 27-23 will stick out to Michigan fans as missed opportunities. There will be a lot to prove when these teams meet again.

2. How's the depth at linebacker?

The starting three - McCray, Gedeon, Peppers - are talented and exciting defenders. They have speed, size, and experience. But with McCray's injury history, and Jabrill doing everything from producing, directing, and writing, depth will be key. Luckily, Michigan has it - well, sort of.

Linebacker Depth
Michael Wroblewski 6'2", 246 Devin Bush 6'0", 220
Noah Furbush 6'4", 242 Jared Wangler 6'2", 231
Alex Kaminski 5'10", 215

There are also a small handful of guys who, as I mentioned before, are linebacker-sized and trying to make a dent along the defensive line: Carlo Kemp, Chase Winovich, Reuben Jones, and Shelton Johnson. If injuries do ravage the linebacking corps, it wouldn't be quite the emergency that would happen if the offensive line was forced to explore its third-string talent. But we'll see if guys can stay healthy, and how the back-ups develop during the year.

Oh, and Mike Wroblewski: very nice player. Not the most athletic, but he brings the work pail and gets the job done at middle linebacker. I wouldn't be worried about him getting heavy minutes this year.

1. How does the offensive line perform?

Let's start out on a positive note. Mason Cole is awesome. At one point in the spring game, he took on a block against Bryan Mone that helped spring Ty Isaac for a big gain, then a few minutes later picked up a stunting Jabrill Peppers to prevent a sack. I tip my hat in his general direction. Not many players can do that.

Here's some more positivity: while the depth is a big concern right now, there could be a point in November where the team has a manageable two-deep. If Cole & Co. stay healthy, guys like Patrick Kugler and David Dawson could have a while (as much as a year and a half) to mold themselves into valuable contributors. Juwann Bushell-Beatty had some decent moments in the spring game, though there was another under-the-radar lineman who stood out to me even more than JBB.

For somebody who's been almost completely ignored by the media, Jon Runyan acquitted himself quite well last week. When the Michigan legacy made it to campus, he was listed at a relatively svelte 6'4", 275. Now up to 304, he played guard for the Blue team and showed off a great combination of size and mobility. Like Bushell-Beatty, he has a lot more technique to learn, but the potential is there - and that's about all you can ask of a guy who's coming off a redshirt.

And when you count the three four-star linemen headed to campus this July, there's a decent amount of warm bodies to tackle 2016 and beyond - assuming Michigan can stay healthy and develop their guys.

Alright, let's end it on the positive note.

Et cetera:

  • Kingston Davis looked very good in the spring game, right on par with Kareem. I don't think Jim Harbaugh will find any problems this year getting somebody to tote the rock, even if a few guys get dinged up.
  • Jim Harbaugh made some good choices about who to early enroll.
  • There have been some whispers that Jabrill will leave early for the NFL (nothing confirmed, of course). With 2016 definitely being Ben Gedeon's last year, it will be important that young guys get some playing time. The same can be said about the offensive line, with three starters playing their last year.
  • Jim Harbaugh's purgatory seems to be a position change to a toughness-required part of the team.
  • If Michigan is pressured into using a fourth safety, I expect Jordan Glasgow to hear his number called. This may or may not be a surprise, but the walk-on Glasgow brother has done well. Jordan needs to tighten up his pass coverage and feel the game slow down a little more, but he gives 100% and the athleticism is there.