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The Challenges, And Potential, Of Michigan’s Pass Offense

NCAA Football: Indiana at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Good morning/afternoon! Over the next few weeks we’re going to be looking at various parts of the Michigan football team from a roundtable format. Feel free to follow along and let us know your thoughts as well.

Nick Bodanyi: Hey, guys. So, the best place to start talking about Michigan’s pass offense - both for this season and next year - is Wilton Speight. How would you sum up his play?

Von Lozon: I wasn’t a huge fan of Speight early on. His first pass of the season went for an interception against Hawaii, so that was the worst first impression he could’ve left on Michigan fans.

But the progression he made over the course of the season was nice. He became a dependent passer with good pocket presence, timely, accurate throws and a pretty decent deep ball. Everything was going great up until the Iowa game. Speight injured his shoulder on a sack and wasn’t the same QB after that. He was the reason Michigan kept it close with Ohio State, and he was also the reason the Wolverines lost to OSU.

Being at the Florida State game was tough for me simply because Speight looked like a completely different QB. He couldn’t make those accurate passes he made earlier in the year. And I’m pretty sure he only threw two deep balls in that game. If this team wants ANY chance of competing in the tough Big 10 East division, they will need Speight, or whoever the starting QB is, to step up and be consistent all year long.

Tanner Wooten: It was good until it wasn’t. After the Maryland game, my thought was “Harbaugh did it again.” Speight was playing perfect football. Making so many good decisions and his arm strength looked improved.

Then the Iowa game happened and many people questioned if they could beat Ohio State, even if Speight was healthy. After the debacle with O’Korn, I had never been so ecstatic to see a quarterback out under center for Michigan. I think Speight would have been one of the main reasons Michigan won that game, but he was also the main reason they lost. Too many turnovers, and the bad play continued into the Orange Bowl. He played better as the game went on, but that bad stretch towards the end of the year leaves things less than decided at QB1.

Garrett Hein: Taking the season as a whole, Speight looked a lot like the rest of Harbaugh’s interim quarterbacks. He was good, bad, intelligent, inexperienced, poised, rattled. Unfortunately, he never found his timing throwing deep, and it handicapped the offense.

Game by game, though, he improved significantly. Early in the season he was throwing flat-footed and lacked an ability to shift his weight consistently to make good and accurate throws. As his mechanics improved, so did his confidence. I think when the offensive line let him down later in the season his general confidence and timing took a major hit (his shoulder injury was no help, either) and that led to some of the poor decisions that cost the team dearly.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Ohio State Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Nick: One of the big storylines for this team is obviously the wide receivers, but it’s also worth pointing out this offensive line could potentially have two new starting tackles - and this after a year where Wilton Speight got injured and seemed to lose his mojo under pressure (two turnovers against Ohio State, struggling for a big part of the Florida State game).

Whoever’s back there at quarterback, will they have time in the pocket? And if they don’t, would it be better to have Speight, Peters, or O’Korn back there?

Von: They will have time in the pocket, but like most of the offense in 2017 it will be a work in progress. Chuck Filiaga is an impact guy right away in my opinion. I expect him to start on the right side. Losing out on five-star OT Isaiah Wilson hurts because he would’ve helped right away on the left side. But the Wolverines also have 6-foot-5, 282 pound four-star OT Ja’Raymond Hall, who could, down the road, be a nice addition to the offensive line.

Also, Cesar Ruiz, the top center recruit in the 2017 class, was a very underrated get for Jim Harbaugh. He is going to be relied on heavily in 2018, if not right away. And that would push Mason Cole out to tackle again.

Tanner: With the addition of Greg Frey to coach the offensive tackles and tight ends, I’m feeling a lot better about the offensive line than I was after the season. With Drevno and Frey working together, I think the offensive line and running game will be much improved. My thought on the potential starting offensive line is Ruiz, Bredesen, Kugler, and Cole can move around enough to find a good balance. We will see on the freshman tackles, but I think Ruiz is capable of playing right away. Whether that be at guard or center remains to be seen, but the flexibility of Cole and Bredesen isn’t a bad thing.

Garrett: First, I don’t think it matters too much which quarterback is under center. So the offensive line goes, so Michigan goes. It’s going to be the most important puzzle piece for success in 2017. There is reason to be hopeful, like Von and Tanner have laid out, and I would add that we finally have depth this year. It’s still a largely inexperienced unit, but we haven’t had good depth at these positions in a long, long time.

Second, Harbaugh and Drevno developed mostly three, some four star OL recruits at Stanford into NFL draft picks. With the talent Michigan has at the moment, that pedigree is important. There’s a chance we see a major improvement in this 2017 unit. And with Frey moving in to help with the running game/scheme, there should be some pressure taken off the passing game. I’m cautiously optimistic.

Photo credit: Eric Upchurch, MGoBlog

Nick: So, let’s finally hit one of the biggest stories of this team, which is who’s going to be catching the football. Maybe it’s optimistic to say that we can replace Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson and Jake Butt and still be as good as we were, but Harbaugh’s been able to replace key guys a number of times. Are you optimistic? If so, why?

Von: I am extremely optimistic in the WR group for 2017. Just check out the tape for the recruits and you will see why. Donovan Peoples-Jones, Tarik Black, Oliver Martin, Tarik Black. These are impact guys, and especially Black in my opinion. And not to mention the tight ends on the roster already.

Losing guys that you’ve familiarized yourself with is never fun, but this roster is loaded with talent. The only thing that worries me is that a lot of the guys expected to largely affect the team next year either have no collegiate experience or very little. Regardless, I am very encouraged with where the offense is heading.

Tanner: Very optimistic. Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson were very good players, but Donovan Peoples-Jones is a once-in-a-decade type talent to come through Michigan. Athletically he is one of the best in the country and has showcased that throughout his high school career. He is going to play immediately and being on campus early will speed up that process even more.

With Nico Collins now back in the fold, you have 6’4 Tarik Black and 6’5 Nico Collins competing outside. Along with Sean McKeon, who has a ton of potential, and Devin Asiasi and Tyrone Wheatley Jr. being complete maulers and decent-ish pass catchers as freshmen, Michigan will have no shortage of weapons.

Garrett: Paul Finebaum is going to be very angry this year. Alabama might have technically had a slightly higher WR recruiting score than Michigan, but they don’t have Harbaugh or Drevno or Donovan Peoples-Jones. When Michigan’s offense out-paces 2016 to start the season, Paul should have some very loud, hot takes about how arrogant and insufferable everyone in Ann Arbor is.

I think we’ll see a lot of McDoom. His speed will be valuable on the edge and I think Harbaugh will use DPJ to draw coverage away from the rest of the group, and getting the ball in the flat to McDoom should lead to some big plays if we let the kid use his speed and open space talent to move the ball.

Nick: Alright, prediction time: who’s a guy you think is going to break out next year?

Von: Not sure he will “breakout,” but I really like Tyrone Wheatley, Jr. He only had three catches for 35 yards and a touchdown last season, but something in my gut tells me he can have an outstanding 2017 year with Jake Butt gone. At 6-foot-6, 270 pounds, he is a beast of a human being. Many think Ian Bunting will have a greater impact at tight end next year, but I beg to differ. I think both will have their time, but give me Wheatley, Jr. to have a “breakout” year, if you will.

Indianapolis Colts v Denver Broncos
Pep will be able to help several break-out candidates.

Tanner: On offense, I’m thinking it’s going to be Ben Bredeson. I think he’s going to help anchor an offensive line that is much improved and I think he has an All Big-Ten type of year, and maybe sees honorable mention All-American selections. On defense, I’m going with Josh Metellus. With Jabrill Peppers heading to the NFL, Metellus looks like the guy to take over the Viper position after he filled in in the Orange Bowl. I liked what I saw from Metellus in 2016, and think he turns the corner in a big way in 2017.

Garrett: I struggle to tag anyone in the passing game as a breakout player in 2017, but mostly for reasons I leave to future unit conversations. Regardless, since I have to pick, I like Ian Bunting to step up and fill Butt’s shoes. He showed late in the season that he can be a viable option, and he seemed to have a budding relationship with Speight. We’ll see how that all translates to 2017, but I think we’ll see that Bunting becomes a reliable and favorite target.

That being said, any one of our current or incoming wideouts could have a huge year. With DPJ, Tarik Black, Nico Collins, Oliver Martin, Ian Bunting, Eddie McDoom, and Grant Perry, defenses are going to run out of talented players to guard these guys. What defense in the country can go toe to toe with us, talent-wise, when we line up five-wide empty set?

Nick: And lastly, how good is Michigan’s quarterback next year?

Von: With all the question marks heading into the next season, this may be my biggest question mark. Speight played so bad down the stretch that he may have a big competition come spring. It’s already been said that every QB will compete for the job, but I think Brandon Peters has a legitimate chance to be the starter in 2017. He’s unproven, and Speight looked good before his injury, but Peters is going to give Speight a run for his money. Whoever starts will be the right guy, as I have 100 percent trust in Harbaugh’s pick for the position.

Tanner: There’s going to be a lot of production from whoever is playing quarterback. Whoever it is is going to be in their second or third year of the system and don’t underestimate the Pep Hamilton impact. Hamilton is one of the most respected coaches in football and was in line to be one of the hottest coaches candidates before things went south with the Colts. I think incorporating some different looks by way of the spread will only help the quarterback get his guys the ball in space and that’s going to make a big difference.

Garrett: I’m going to become a broken record on this, but it all comes down to the offensive line. The passing game will be in good shape with either Speight or Peters under center. If the line can give the QB adequate time to read the defense and step up in the pocket, that will take a lot of pressure of a young, ultra-talented receiving group and ultimately produce a lot of yards and points.