Are the off-seasons getting longer? It certainly feels like it, but maybe that's just because Michigan football is getting more exciting. Regardless, we're now in the home stretch, believe it or not, and August will bring us spring practice news and optimism unknown to mankind. Seriously, who's got it better than us?
In the meantime, one thing that hopefully doesn't go out of season is the art of making bold predictions. On top of that, it's been a while since I've written anything that I was probably going to regret later. So let's jump right into it, shall we? Enjoy this trip through the 2016 season.
You know what, this actually isn't even an original prediction. People have been betting against De'Veon for most of his career, haven't they? Smith is a great team player and a bedrock of this team, and those are traits that have long endeared him to Harbaugh. Not only that, but turning on film of the Florida game will quickly make you a believer in what De’Veon can do. He’s great in short spaces, takes multiple tackles before going down, and turns runs for a loss into reasonable gains. You’d need a terrific tailback to usurp him.
And, that’s what Isaac might be. Isaac is the more explosive athlete, and he seems more mature and dialed in than ever before. Consider this: in 2015, Smith averaged 4.2 yards a carry on 180 carries with 6 touchdowns. Among fullbacks and running backs, this was the fifth-best average on the team. Isaac, on just 30 carries, had 6.8 yards a carry - the best mark among ball-carriers.
Work ethic and ball control were a big reason why Isaac didn't see more touches, but if he's cleaned those up, we could see a much healthier De'Veon Smith sharing reps with a five-star guy in Isaac who can take the top off the defense. Later on in the season, Michigan will start facing some tough defensive lines in Michigan State, Iowa, Indiana and OSU .... and it will help to have a back with Isaac’s combo of speed and size.
Yeah, let's talk about it. The elephant in the room this off-season hasn't been the satellite camps or Harbaugh's Harbaughiness; it's the fact that everyone around the country expects Michigan to be a top-five team. Fans here at home are pretty dialed in (just like the players) on what this team needs to accomplish to succeed. But let's just talk about the "what if" for a second.
Michigan would need to beat MSU and Ohio State, win the East and dispatch the champion from the Western Division. Assuming all those things, they're in. There's almost no chance a conference champion with this kind of talent, a brand like Michigan and a Big Ten schedule based out of the East would be left out of the playoff. The biggest question is: can Michigan finally beat MSU and OSU? Answer: they have a very good shot in both those games, and they're due for a win in both those rivalries.
Think of it like Kill Bill: take out one, take out another, and another, one at a time, and then you get to meet Bill. What happens then is anyone’s guess.
You could spend all day talking about the young talent on this roster that may or may not make a big impact this season. Defensive line? Gary. Linebackers? Mbem-Bosse, and Bush. Secondary? Hudson. Long. Kinnel.
At receiver, the sheer number of young guns is maybe the most noticeable. Drake Harris and Mo Ways have gotten hype for a while now, but they share 9 career catches for 79 yards. With the 2016 class, Michigan is inviting four-stars Ahmir Mitchell, Chris Evans, Dylan Crawford, Brad Hawkins (hopefully), and three-stars Nate Johnson and Eddie 'Doom' McDoom to the party, as well. All aboard the hype train ... for the 2017 season. The quarterback position should be looking great by then, too.
But for 2016, I'm going to go ahead and assume that this unit relies mostly on the old-timers. Jehu has amazing speed, great hands, and blocks extremely well, and this season will be his chance to earn a first-round spot in the NFL Draft next year. I think he comes close to that, but doesn’t get it. In the meantime, he will blow away the competition.
Last season, Michigan ran the ball 491 times, as opposed to 415 passes. There were many games earlier on where Michigan took it easy on the passing game because they didn't feel confident in it. Even with a new quarterback, that will probably change going forward, right?
Sure, but this staff will also be feeling more comfortable with the run, too - and this staff loves to run the ball. Jim Harbaugh has more options now than ever: De'Veon Smith, Ty Isaac, Drake Johnson, Kareem Walker, Kingston Davis, Karan Higdon, Wyatt Shallman, Khalid Hill, Chris Evans, Khaleke Hudson, and Bobby Henderson. If all of them come in and compete, Harbaugh will try to give them a few touches.
Harbaugh will also have a more physical offensive line this year, with better interior depth than Michigan has had in quite a while, and a deeper stable of tight ends to help make the running game more multiple and effective.
At the end of the day, the goals in this offense are the same. Taking care of the ball is paramount, and Michigan will be breaking in some inexperienced quarterbacks - alongside an occasionally shaky left tackle in Grant Newsome. Controlling the clock is important, especially early in the year to build reps and control the tempo. And, early-season games against Hawaii, UCF, and Colorado will be a perfect opportunity to test the players’ vision and toughness.
Yeah, not just one, two. Spring reports indicated a big drop-off between the mostly veteran starting crew and the young talent on the roster. But those young guys have had a summer to prepare that talent, and Coach Drevno is good at getting guys to grow quickly. This will be decided by something immeasurable - how the young guys prepare, and how emotionally ready they are for all the challenges that come with this level of play.
Needless to say, I’m not exactly confident in a starting five of Newsome-Braden-Cole-Kalis-Magnuson. Kalis probably looked like the second-best lineman in the spring game, but he’s been inconsistent throughout his career and still hasn’t come close to his five-star billing. Braden has been average, at best, and doesn’t use his hands well. Newsome has looked shaky at times.
Amongst the backups, we don’t know exactly who has the acuity and comfort to thrive at this level. But Patrick Kugler, Jon Runyan, David Dawson, and even Michael Onwenu are worth keeping in mind when fall camp rolls around. The starting roles have not officially been given out yet, and once they are, there will still be a long season to improve and grow. If guys like Braden and Kalis don’t find another gear, they might get passed over as seniors.
What’s the current projection at tight end - Jake Butt as the star, Ian Bunting and Tyrone Wheatley, Jr. backing him up? I’ll predict we see that and a whole lot more, from Devin Asiasi to Zach Gentry and Sean McKeon; even Khalid Hill if he moves over from fullback. The wide receiver position is green, the running game needs to take off, and the tight ends will be able to fill in those deficiencies while adding another dimension to the playbook. I think Harbaugh unleashes the beast.
All these guys are good players, and as a position this group could challenge the defensive line or the running backs as one of the team’s best. McKeon, Wheatley, and Gentry are exciting athletes, Asiasi is a freak of nature à la Rashan Gary, and even Hill looked solid in the spring game when it came to running routes and moving in space. Plus, unleashing this beast will give Harbaugh good ammo to close out the 2017 cycle with more elite tight ends. So far, Michigan only has one committed.
Sam Webb, who’s well connected with the program, has released a prediction that Michigan will be starting Rashan Gary, Chris Wormley, Ryan Glasgow at the nose, and Taco Charlton on the weakside, backed up by Lawrence Marshall, Mo Hurst, Bryan Mone, and Chase Winovich, respectively. That could change from here to Week 1, of course, but it makes a lot of sense.
This gives Michigan an elite two-deep at the tackle positions, but it also gives them a 295-pounder starting at one end and a 285-pounder at the other. This will be a great run defense, not only explosive but also stout at the point of attack and capable of subbing in players who can continue to terrorize opposing linemen.
And once you consider the benefits of blitzing linebackers clogging up various gaps, smart coordinating from Don Brown and everyone working in a team effort, this will be a lot of fun to watch.
Call this one an intuition. Every year there are players we didn’t see coming; Grant Perry in 2015, Mason Cole in 2014, Channing Stribling the year before that. Somebody who wasn’t supposed to excel for whatever reason, but did anyway.
This 2016 class could be rife with people like that. There’s incredible talent in the “lower half of the class,” and in my opinion the freshmen have a chance to make a big dent this season. So, I could have picked most anybody here - any less heralded prospect with competition inside the class - and stood a decent chance of being right.
But Davis has been getting ignored for a while now, and he’s responded by proving people wrong on the field every single time, from this year’s spring game back to his high school days when people were calling him a fullback. I don’t think he’ll dominate in 2016; I don’t think he’ll start. But I think, finally, he gets noticed.