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Observations from Rome: Running Backs, Goal Line Look Great, More

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Wrapping up Spring Practice

Eric Budin

Beyond the hoopla of meeting the Pope, touring the Colosseum and SEC fans going into conniptions about Harbaugh thinking outside the box with a Rome trip, Michigan ran its last three Spring practices this week. Maize N Brew was there to watch and share some observation before the team disperses for the summer.

The practices on Thursday and Friday were low contact (helmets only on Thursday) and Saturday was full gear but minimal tackling. So it was hard to reach many definitive conclusions, especially on the defensive side of the ball. But there were a few key takeaways from the end of Spring Practice.

Quarterback Controversy Misdirected

Coming out of the Spring game, there was a lot of discussion about Brandon Peters making a serious run at QB1. Nothing that happened in Rome would support that story line in any way.

Peters was treated like the third string QB, and absolutely played that way. Wilton Speight and John O’Korn took the vast majority of the snaps on Friday and Saturday. The gap between the number of snaps that Peters took on Saturday vs. Speight/O’Korn was greater than gap between Peters and Sessa and Hewett (they used him to practice against the triple option in prep for Air Force). Think about that.

When Peters did get his chances, he was really off. Even in drills he wasn’t hitting receivers in stride and during the scrimmage he throw a couple of really bad INTs (one to Noah Furbush, and one to a practice squad player so this wasn’t against the starting D). He also had a throw that was at least 20 yards from anyone on the field. Hopefully, he just had a couple off days, and will show more of his promise back in the States.

Speight and O’Korn both looked very solid over the course of practice and scrimmage. Speight wasn’t as dialed as he was mid-season last year, but he looked much better than during the Spring game. He had one INT in the scrimmage, but he came back on the next series and threw a beautiful 40 yard TD strike to Tarik Black. If anything, O’Korn looked slightly better. He was sharp in practice and the game, and showed some nice touch on a few passes, including a beautiful fly route to Nate Johnson that got the biggest gasps from the crowd on Friday.

Real Depth in Other Skills Positions

The running backs core all had an impressive showing in Rome, with Chris Evans, Karan Higdon, Ty Isaac and Kareem Walker all seeing significant touches. Evans got almost all the first team touches, and showed his speed as he broke to the outside often. He looked very relaxed and certainly goes into the season as the clear number one.

The other three backs showed why they should all get significant snaps during the season. If anyone stood out, it was Higdon on Saturday (he was a late arrival to Rome), with his combination of cuts and speed yielding most of the longest runs. Walker looked extremely fast and found some interior seams that he exploited. He also got a lot of touches in the goal line drills, so look for that next season. Isaac didn’t get as many touches on Saturday, but he looked really good during Friday’s practice.

Having Black and Donovan Peoples-Jones enroll early is definitely going to pay dividends next season. Watching them in drills is mesmerizing. They are so fluid and precise in their movements, even on a slippery field on Friday. Watching the other receivers follow them highlighted what a potent duo they will be in the coming year. Moe Ways, who looked good overall and was gettting first team touches, was right after Black and looked awkward in comparison. Nate Johnson also had a really solid showing in Rome, including making some circus catches in practice.

The tight end spot also seems to be in good shape. Of all the players in Rome, Tyrone Wheatley really caught my eye. He was so smooth in his routes, seemed a half step faster than last year and I didn’t seem him drop a single pass in scrimmage or in drills. He totally passed the eye test as a receiver and looked good in some blocking drills. Ian Bunting is still the starter, but Wheatley will see the field a lot. And Ian McKeon looked solid as well, making a few really nice plays in Saturday’s scrimmage.

Offensive Line Solid, Particularly at the Goal Line

Going into the off-season, the o-line was clearly the biggest area of concern. They seem to now be gelling as a unit and had a very solid scrimmage on Saturday, more than holding their own.

Before we get too excited, let’s caveat that it was only a scrimmage and they didn’t have to deal with a lot of blitzes or even stunting. But the first unit of Mason Cole, Ben Bredeson, Patrick Kugler, Michael Onwenu and Jon Runyan protected well on passing downs, and really opened some holes on for the backs.

The biggest area of optimism was during the goal line drills, where about 75% of the time the offense got the score. The defense was absolutely trying their hardest to get the stop and Rashan Gary was in full-motor mode, so these plays were about as live action as we had on the trip.

Also of note, Cesar Ruiz got a lot of reps under center and looked solid, as did Stephen Spanellis. Juwann Bushell-Beatty wore the no-contact red jersey for much of the time and Grant Newsome just watched (he left practice on Friday for treatment).

Defense

Similar caveats apply here, as it’s really hard to draw many conclusions about a defense when are aren’t able to tackle or even hit for much of the time.

The defense seemed to all know their schemes, as there were almost no broken coverages the entire scrimmage. Again, the offense was fairly vanilla and the defense didn’t face a lot of misdirection. As noted above, in the goal line drills, the offense seemed to get the better of the d-line.

Don Brown was shuffling players in and out a lot, so more than anything it was a great chance for a lot of people to see the field. The few players that stood out were Hurst, who broke through the line a couple times, Hudson was good in coverage and made some great plays and Rashan Gary was Rashan Gary. You could see Gary’s quiet intensity is everything, from the drills to the end of practice sprints to how hard he was going on the goal line plays. Of the freshman, Benjamin St. Juste made a few plays and looked very comfortable.

Special Teams Notes

I think we have our kicker. Quinn Nordin looked really good, with leg and accuracy. His 55 yard field goal (that would have been good from 60+) actually drew the loudest cheer of the day from the soccer-loving Italians in Saturday’s crowd. And he made almost everything he attempted.

Punting, however, is another story. Will Hart punted a little better on Saturday, but he was shank-city on Friday, to the point that the returners seemed visibly frustrated. Top-rated recruit Brad Robbins will definitely look to take over when he arrives in August.

It was exciting to see Evans back returning punts, where he and Nate Johnson took turns. Evans flew to the balls (which were fairly erratically scattered) and was able to gather them in stride. Any drop off on punt returnes from Peppers leaving should be minimal.

A Few Missing In Action

The only downside of holding practice in Rome was that the difficult logistics kept some of the players from attending some or all of the practices and missing much of the Rome experience. Because of finals, a number of players had to fly in late (I can’t imaging many SEC schools letting finals get in the way).

There were about fifteen players who flew over in time for only two practices and another ten that just made it in time for Saturday. And a few players were not able to come at all, including David Long, Drake Harris and Eddie McDoom (who apparently is still in a foot boot).