Michigan is coming off back-to-back 10 win seasons - although last season's outcome had a decidedly more sour ending than the one previous. With all of the personnel losses to graduation and early departure, we are taking a look at some of the unknowns going into the 2017 season. Up first, the offense.
5. Can Wilton Speight take the next step in his development?
Wilton Speight’s 2016 season was an up-and-down affair, but would widely be considered a solid, but underwhelming, year.
Last season he completed 61.6% of his passes for 2,538 yards, with 18 touchdowns against 7 interceptions. That is not exactly lighting the world on fire, but it is certainly not disastrous either. He looked like the second coming of Ben Roethlisberger at times (UCF, Illinois), and completely overmatched at others (Iowa, FSU). Chances are good he locks down the starting job once again this season, but it remains to be seen what kind of ceiling he really has at the position.
Sometimes he connected on these, sometimes he didn’t.
Speight’s greatest strength was arguably his pocket presence, as he had a knack for escaping trouble and creating something out of nothing. He also throws an above average deep ball if he’s not running for his life, and should have speedier wide receivers in the fold this year to take advantage.
So there are building blocks to work with. A large part of Michigan’s success next season depends on whether or not he is able to take that next step in his development and make the jump from decent, to good, or perhaps even elite.
Harbaugh’s track record with quarterbacks combined with Speight’s solid performance last season, along with a bevy of talent behind him are the reasons concern is not higher here.
4. Is there a feature back on the roster?
The steady hand that was De’Veon Smith is as close as Michigan has come to having a feature back since Mike Hart, and although Smith was an absolute warrior that gave his all every play, he never struck fear into the hearts of defenses. Michigan is hoping it has someone on their roster who can do just that, but we don’t know for certain just yet.
There are some intriguing options, beginning with the leading returning rusher, sophomore Chris Evans. Evans showed patience and burst behind a so-so offensive line, and looks to have game breaking speed, averaging an impressive 7.0 yards per carry on 88 carries last season. If Evans can put on some weight and improve on his pass protection, he might be the back Wolverines fans have been waiting for.
Karan Higdon and Ty Isaac are two contributors from last season who will still be around in ‘17. Isaac was a 5-star coming out of high school, but has never really shown consistent burst or willingness to run through tackles. He also is an absolute liability when he has to switch his ball-carrying arm to his left.
Higdon is a potential wildcard, and looked to be a perfect blend of speed and power at times last year, even though he was still learning the subtleties of the position. Karan runs naturally low to the ground and can make defenders miss. Not a burner by any means, but Higdon has good game speed and can get to the second level of a defense.
The other wildcard is redshirt freshman Kareem Walker. He was one of the top running backs in the country out of high school, but ran into a few academic speed bumps his freshman year. There is some hype building around this kid, he is one to keep a close eye on.
Kingston Davis is a massive, yet lesser talked about sophomore that could get some run, potentially at fullback. O’ Maury Samuels and Kurt Taylor are the incoming freshman. Neither get a lot of hype, but Samuels is incredibly athletic and looks like a college ready player. He could be the Chris Evans of this class.
The switch to Jay Harbaugh as running backs coach is also worth noting, but there is enough proven options and talented youngsters to keep make this less of a concern than some other spots.
3. What do Frey/Hamilton bring to the offense?
Michigan shifted its coaching staff around substantially this offseason, replacing Jedd Fisch with Pep Hamilton as Assistant Head Coach/Passing Game Coordinator, and adding Greg Frey as Tackles & Tight Ends/Running Game Coordinator.
Hamilton comes aboard with over 10 years of NFL coaching experience, having success coaching guys like Andrew Luck, Jay Cutler, and Alex Smith in the past. His work with Luck in particular is very promising, as he helped guide him to his best season in 2014- when the Colts set a franchise record for passing yards in a season (think about that in context). He was most recently with the Cleveland Browns as an assistant coach, but it would seem downright unethical to blame any passing game flaws in Cleveland on him.
Greg Frey comes over from Indiana where he coached the offensive line for the past 6 years. He turned 2 and 3-star guys into consistent, and sometimes dominant lineman. Jason Spriggs and Dan Feeney were both lightly recruited prospects that are now in the NFL, due in large part to the excellent player development in Bloomington during their time there.
Hamilton is an intriguing hire with large shoes to fill, as he will be taking over the role that Jedd Fisch excelled at over the last 2 years. His NFL experience, creative offensive philosophies, and relentless energy will be an asset in recruiting, which may prove to be Hamilton's strongest contribution. He does not quite have the track record that Jedd Fisch had, but he is an exciting, ascending young coach with an stockpile of talented quarterbacks to work with.
Frey may prove to be the more impactful hire on the field, at least in year one. His track record for developing excellent offensive lineman has to help calm the nerves of Wolverines fans anxious about starting true and redshirt freshman on the line next year. If he can come in and accelerate the development of these young guys, even slightly, and prepare them for a Big Ten schedule, it will afford the rest of the offense the chance to grow into something potentially special.
2. If we throw a pass, will we also catch said pass?
The 2016 Wolverines had three reliable pass catching options on the team that will not be around in ‘17. Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson, and Jake Butt accounted for almost two-thirds of Michigan’s receiving yards last season, and they are all on to the NFL. Take away Grant Perry with his uncertain legal situation, and you are left with virtually no returning production from a pass catcher on the roster.
In order for Speight to have any chance of taking that aforementioned “next step,” at least one - but preferably two or three - reliable options will need to step up in that department.
Luckily, there are some tantalizing options waiting in the wings, especially at receiver. The ‘17 class is oozing with young, physically imposing talent. Donovan Peoples-Jones, Tarik Black, Nico Collins, Oliver Martin, and even Brad Hawkins all look like talent upgrades. It seems almost inevitable that at least one of these guys takes off in the spring and sees heavy rotation this season.
From the ‘16 class, we are still waiting to see what we have in Nate Johnson and Kekoa Crawford. Eddie McDoom was the end-around specialist with the absurdly cool comic book name, but he will have the chance to show he is ready for a larger role, possibly in the slot.
Drake Harris and Moe Ways are the elder statesmen. Neither one has done much up to this point, but both are going to have the leg up on the young guys when spring practice kicks off. Harris is interesting because Speight seems to have great chemistry with him. The two are close friends and Speight does seem to try and get him the ball when he is on the field.
Moe Ways looked ready to contribute before a foot injury sidelined him in ‘16. He is a strong blocking receiver so he will at the very least see the field in that capacity.
At tight end, Ian Bunting and Tyrone Wheatley will likely see the bulk of the targets, and there is some reason for optimism between the two. Bunting stepped in when Jake Butt went down in the Orange Bowl and performed respectably.
Tyrone Wheatley Jr. is a massive human that moves incredibly well for his size, and it wouldn’t surprise many to see him become more involved this year. Zach Gentry turned some heads this spring with his Michigan spring combine performance. He has NFL measurables, but is still learning the nuances of the position.
The lack of proven options is the only reason (albeit a big reason) this is a major concern, because talent abounds amongst the youth. The ‘17 receiver haul is one of the most ridiculous at any one position in Michigan history. Yes there is cause for concern, no you shouldn't be surprised if this turns into a position of strength by the end of the season.
1. Can young guys on the line step up?
The offensive line has been a point of perpetual unease for what seems like forever, only resembling something that might pass for consistency once Harbaugh and Drevno got to town.
They lose a group of guys that seemed to be on the team since the late 90’s. Kyle Kalis, Ben Braden, and Erik Magnuson are all headed on to greener pastures, and that is either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on who you talk to or how you look at it. What it means for certain is that there will be some young blood on the offensive line next year.
Mason Cole is still around, which should help fans sleep a little easier at night. He has been Michigan’s best offensive lineman, essentially since his first day on campus. He played extremely well at center last year, but can play anywhere on the line, which could allow Harbaugh to shuffle some guys around to fit to their particular strengths. Ideally he would stay put at center and guys would step up around him, but that may not be the case.
Grant Newsome is technically the returning left tackle, but he is recovering from a gruesome knee injury and his status for this year is murky at best. If he is able to come back at even seventy-five percent, he will win the left tackle job and hold it down admirably. The dude is an absolute warrior for being as far along in his recovery as he is, so we can only hope.
That means there are at least three, possibly four spots on the line for young guys to come in and compete for playing time. Ben Bredeson made eight starts at left guard last year, and that playing time will be incredibly valuable to him and the offensive line as a whole moving forward. He was overmatched by older, more physically imposing players later in the year, but showed some flashes that reminded why he was so highly recruited.
As for the other options at tackle, there are a few, none of them proven. Junior tackle Juwann Bushell-Beatty came in when Newsome went down last year, but he looked nowhere near ready to be a starter.
Mike Onwenu saw some run last year on both the offensive and defensive line, mostly in garbage time, but he is a LOAD of a man that can really move his feet. He is a strong candidate to lock down the right guard position and has all-pro potential moving forward.
The guys to watch here are the freshmen Cesar Ruiz and Chuck Filiaga. Ruiz is a true center, but it’s possible Cole slides back out to tackle to allow the talented Ruiz to take over. Filiaga is another talented youngster that could come in and challenge immediately.
A couple guys we haven’t seen yet: Jon Runyan Jr. and Nolan Ulizio are also still in the mix. Runyan comes from good stock, and is apparently the most athletic lineman on the team according the Michigan spring combine reports. Ulizio is a darkhorse candidate for a tackle position.
Andrew Steuber and Joel Honigford are the other incoming freshman. The coaching staff is high on both of these guys, but they probably need a year in the weight room before they are ready to contribute.
The fact that this is such an important position is ultimately what makes this the number one concern for Michigan going into the 2017 season. If we knew for certain that Newsome would be back at full strength, that would help alleviate a great deal of stress. As it stands now, young guys need to get acclimated to the offense quickly, or the offense could face substantial growing pains this coming season.