6. How comfortable will the defense get in Don Brown’s system?
Michigan is currently ranked #2 in the country in Defensive S&P+, and in more old-school measurements, they’re #24 in yards allowed (#16 against the pass, #57 against the run) and #19 in scoring defense. So, they’re definitely fine - as I’ve said before, Michigan football has ‘Michigan problems,’ and the concerns about Michigan’s new schemes is one of them.
Some people have focused on the long plays given up or opponents’ use of spread concepts like spacing or tempo. And, these are legitimate worries that will be worth keeping an eye on. This is also the first year in a new system, and that can limit players’ instincts and ‘game speed.’
Bringing back Jourdan Lewis will certainly help with some of this, as he’s easily one of the game’s ten best players. Other starters will gain experience and comfort as the season goes on, and the young guys will be able to make more of an impact as they get settled in, too.
Plus, you know that Don Brown is looking down the road at Wisconsin, MSU and Ohio State, and holding back just a little bit - focusing on everyone mastering the basics. I’m not really worried about the players getting adjusted to what they need to do over these first few weeks of the season, since Don Brown has proven himself to be a winning coordinator and someone who can get his players to buy in and play well in that system.
All signs point to this defense becoming even nastier and more suffocating as the year goes on. They’ll be ready to roll when it matters.
5. When will it truly click for Wilton Speight?
The fateful moment for Colorado came when Jim Leavitt sensed that Michigan’s quarterback was a little uncomfortable early, and dialed up a blitz that sent Speight to the ground and the football into the arms of a Colorado defender and the end zone.
Colorado went up 14-0 thanks to that blitz and the subsequent injury, and Speight finished the quarter with a grisly-looking stat line of 2/9 for 16 passing yards and a sack fumble. A few of those incompletions could have easily been interceptions, which would have made the game even more harrowing to start.
But Michigan’s passing game also helped pull Michigan out of the hole. Not with big plays, or long touchdowns, but with consistency. Michigan needs that from Speight while the running game finds its rhythm.
And yet, Speight also hasn’t scratched his potential, either. He’s more than just Mr. State Farm.
Speight has shown plenty of arm strength through three games as the starter, plus the ability to make all the timing throws and a cerebral leadership to take this team through tough situations. The odds are likely that Speight turns into one of the Big Ten’s more feared quarterbacks over the second half of the season; doing so would give Michigan’s offense another gear and the ability to put away better teams sooner.
4. Can Michigan get that elite defensive line back?
In an off-season full of hyperbole, the one thing we could undeniably hang our hat on was the defensive line. But with two emerging stars (Bryan Mone, Taco Charlton) out with injuries, and a new scheme that emphasizes blitzing 220-pounders, this line hasn’t had a chance to really shine.
They’ll get that chance in the coming weeks. Mone and Charlton will hopefully be on the field soon, and uber-freshman Rashan Gary is starting to look comfortable out there.
There’s also an interesting X-factor here in Chase Winovich. The first-year defensive lineman has been one of the line’s top performers, as Pro Football Focus described in a breakdown of the UCF game:
Chase Winovich led the team in total pressures, as he had one sack, one quarterback hit and an additional two quarterback hurries. However, when it came to run defense, it was Wormley and Glasgow who were unstoppable, as they combined to record seven defensive stops.
Once Michigan gets Mone and Charlton back, they should be in fine shape.
3. Can this team stay healthy?
This one is pretty straight-forward. Sometimes, everything can unravel almost instantaneously. Michigan needs to continue to get better at a few positions, and it’s likely they’ll do just that. But they also need to stay healthy, or else this team could start finding its way into actual trouble.
After all, as the Catalan proverb once stated, “From the bitterness of the Hoke era, man learns the sweetness of health.” Or, something like that.
2. Is the run game ready for Big Ten play?
Mason Cole has been excellent, as expected; Kyle Kalis has been a relief (to me) and very solid. I’m also not worried about Grant Newsome, Erik Magnuson, or Ben Bredeson, though they’re not quite as consistent as you’d really like. Ben Braden’s done some good things, too, so overall the play and depth of this unit would probably grade out as a B or a B- right now, which is a relief.
Overall, this group is in much, much better shape than it was a year ago. But their strength is in the pass game, and when it comes to the run there isn’t as much mauling as you’d normally see in a sturdy, reliable road-grading attack. Part of this is simply youth. Another part of it is synchronizing and callousing - gaining experience with each other.
Harbaugh has found a way to manufacture yards before, and he’ll have a great group of backs with which to do it. But it all starts up front, and this group needs to start to lead the team pretty soon.
- Can the safeties start to dominate ... and stay healthy?
In a larger sense, there are two main questions about the safety position: the first, how good this group can be this year, and the second, how good they can be down the road. That long-term question hasn’t worried me so far, though it is worth keeping an eye on; as for this season, I am now officially worried.
Dymonte Thomas has struggled so far. There was his poor angle against UCF that produced an 87-yard score, and he was again victimized by Colorado’s speedy receivers - such as on this play for a score, or this other one to make it 21-7.
Beyond just a matter of poor angles, Dymonte has shown the lack of world-breaking speed that helps to cover up those momentary mistakes. He can’t afford to not be anticipating and reacting quickly, basically, and hope to still make the play. Hopefully he manages to find that level of instinct over the next month or two.
Delano Hill has been better at free safety, and he’s looked more athletic, but the depth behind those two is reminiscent of creeping to the edge of a cliff and looking down. Tyree Kinnel has been a stud on special teams, but if he were forced to start, you’d assume those special teams reps would diminish. And after Kinnel, you’re playing either Khaleke Hudson or Jordan Glasgow, a true and a redshirt freshman.
For one of the most mentally challenging positions on defense, it will be key for the Wolverines’ starters to stay healthy and for Thomas to get settled in for the rest of the year.