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Projection guru and ESPN analyst Phil Steele gives us an inside look at his predictions for Michigan

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Phil Steele talks his predictions about Michigan and which young players may emerge this fall.

Phil Steele is considered one of the most respected sportswriters and accurate analysts in predicting college football. He is featured on ESPN, radio shows across the country, and creates one of the most in-depth magazines that’s about to hit shelves tomorrow. The die-hard fans who pre-order the magazine have already seen it and the opportunity to soak up Phil’s 2017 projections for their favorite teams.

Phil Steele

When It All Started

For those of you who may not know, Phil started the magazine back in 1994 by creating a black and white version. Seven years later, he moved it to color and now has over 100,000 subscribers that can’t wait to get their hands on the now 352 page college football preview magazine.

Maize N Brew had the opportunity to get an early inside look at his outlook on Michigan for 2017 with a complete breakdown by position group and who he has that may emerge as breakout players from this young team.

First things first folks; I have to mention and begin with what he said at the end of our discussion last week that Michigan fans will truly appreciate while you may not completely agree on his projections for this years inexperienced team.

“My favorite helmet in the world is the Michigan helmet and will always have that one on the cover of my magazine because its been my favorite since I was a little boy.”

Michigan went from one of the most experienced teams in 2016 to the least with a program record 19 guys moving on to the NFL. In terms of overall experience, Phil has Michigan last at No. 130 of 130 teams in his latest two-deep experience rating. While Michigan has only five returning starters, four on offense and one on defense, the talent level up next could emerge by maturing early and exceed projections set by many experts. This is the second recruiting classes under Jim Harbaugh and what’s so intriguing is the group of starters may very well include over 10-12 sophmores and several true freshman. Very little of the starting rotation will be seniors, and Phil broke down in more detail how he ranked each position group and who can emerge this fall as impact players when it counts.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Ohio State Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Here, We, Go: The Interview

The Defense

First, we discussed the defensive line that has only one returning starter. He has Michigan at ninth overall in the country, only four spots down from last year at this time, and second in the conference. Phil commented further saying, “Naturally, there are some key losses with Wormley, Glasgow, Godin and Charlton, but I love the guys coming in their place. Rashan Gary is going to be one of the top defensive lineman in the entire country. He’s got the size at 6-5/293 pounds and did not disappoint as a true freshman last year, he showed some dominance at times. Then you’ve got Maurice Hurst, one of the top defensive guys in college football returning, so those are two nice pieces to have up front. You’ve also got Bryan Mone, he has a thick body and tough to block up front, also Winovich can come in off the other defensive end spot who’s coming back with five sacks last year. That’s a pretty talented first four then, even the backups like true freshman, Aubrey Solomon, to come in step in like Gary did last year. Carlo Kemp also bulked up to 250 pounds and is my No. 27 rated linebacker out of high school playing defensive end. With Gary and Hurst, along with plenty of other talent, I’ve got them ranked as one of the top 10 defensive lines in the country coming into the season.”

Phil mentioned some breakout players to watch out for this fall in the secondary group. “So much talent went out the door, but so much talent that’s available. I think Devin Bush Jr. is going to come in and do extremely well, who was my No. 28 rated linebacker coming out of high school, and got his feet wet last year. I think another favorite is Mike McCray that will be up for all-conference preseason nominations as the lone returning starter on defense who had 4.5 sacks last year.”

The Quarterback Position Situation

The starting quarterback is still not determined with many leaning with the return of Wilton Speight and Phil has Michigan rated No. 4 in the Big Ten at that position. “Speight of course has to beat out Brandon Peters, who’s got a big arm and a bright future. Speight completed 204-of-331 passes for 2,538 yards in 2016. Generally when I look at quarterbacks, you see the biggest improvement from the first year as a starter to the second year as a starter, because they now have the experience. Speight was banged up at the end of the year for the last two or three games and far from 100%. If he holds onto the job, I think we see a different and an improved Wilton Speight, so yes, he can top that 3,000 yard mark, especially if the freshman wide receivers are as good as we think they are, if he can hit some big passes, even a 20 yard toss with their speed and get in the endzone.”

Wide Receiver and Running Back Groups

This receiver group of freshman coming in is very talented and one of the best in many years for Michigan. Phil added his thoughts saying it was pure projections at this position. “When the third week rolls around, I’ve got 6-4 Tarik Black starting as one with a big catch radius and can take the top off the defense. While he wasn’t overwhelming in the spring, I think Donovan Peoples-Jones as my No. 1 rated receiever out of high school that is a rate athlete with the size, strength, speed, that great verticle leap. I think those two guys emerge and maybe they won’t start the season opener in Texas, but I think the end of the season those are the top two receivers, but also see Nico Collins getting in the mix.”

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

Phil had the running back group rated at No. 4 in the conference and here’s why. “I went with Chris Evans as a starter, but I do think it’s going to end up being a running back committee. I dont think there’s one guy that gets the ball and gets 1,500 yards this year. It’s tough to duplicate the size of Ty Isaac at 6-3/240 pounds. You’ve got alot of different talents back there and also see Kareem Walker as one that could emerge. He was the No. 2 rated running back coming out of high school. True freshman O’Maury Samuels, also and my No. 29 rated recruit from New Mexico with a big high school career, could also get in the mix. Evans, Isaac, and Walker all get alot of carries.”

A Unique Situation At Offensive Line

Offensive line was also rated No. 4 in the conference and Phil commented why its such a unique situation. “Yeah, I think Cesar Ruiz probably gets in at center as a freshman and puts them with unusual size there at 6-4/336 pounds and generally you put the smallest guy at center. Kugler then slides to one of the guard spots and makes it for a very talented group. I think the top two guys are at the tackles, I like Runyan at right and Cole at left tackle spot. They have only two returning starters, but I’ve got them higher than you would think with that level of experience at the No. 25 rated offensive line in the country.”

Freshman Class And Potential Impact Players

This is the true second recruiting class for Jim Harbaugh with many who can quickly turn into impact players. “You have to think one of the guys at defensive back and I’m not sure who’s going to win the job. With J’Maric Woods, Jalen Kelly-Powell, Benjamin St-Juste and Ambry Thomas, anyone of those has the potential to be an impct player. The others on offense we already talked about earlier at receiver can be and also Solomon on the defensive line.”

The 2017 Season Outcome

“Let’s keep in mind that Michigan last year was 10-3 and their losses were by 3, 1, and 1 point, so they weren’t very far away from being the Big Ten champ last year and getting in the playoff. They only have five returning starters so one of the most inexperienced teams in the country, and see the opener against Florida as a very pivital game. I am very high on Florida this year, but I’ve got this game as a pure toss up. I know Vegas right now has Michigan a 3.5 point favorite, but Florida has more experience than Michigan based on returning starters. I’m not too concerned with Cincinnati and Air Force, I think they win both of those by three touchdowns.”

NCAA Football: Penn State at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

He also commented on three tough conference games and matchups that will shape the conference saying, “Michigan had their way with Penn State in Ann Arbor last year, but that team they played in the first half of the season last yesr would not have been competitive with the team they had at the end of the season. They gained a level of confidence against Ohio State and its a deep team that Franklin has with 15 starters returning that improved last season. Wisconsin also has the potential to perhaps go 12-0 with 15 returning starters; they finally get the run game going and a veteran quaterback to possibly win their division. If I look at the schedule, those two will be tough road games.”

He broke down the final game in Ann Arbor and one of the most anticipated games of the season in college football. “Ohio State is stacked with 15 return starters and Michigan is much like their team last year where they had only six returning starters. When you only have five returning starters, you’re an inexperienced group, but at the end of the season you’ve got 11 games under your belt. At that point, you’re basically a returning starter and Michigan’s got the talent to play with Ohio State. The advantages for Michigan is two fold, it’s in Ann Arbor and the unit will have 11 games before they play. With all those factors, it should be will be a heck of a game at the end of the season.”

Phil has the Wolverines finishing third in the Big Ten East division. “I did pick them third in the division, but it concerns me. If this team matures quicker than expected, and let’s face it, they’re more experienced than five returning starters with guys on defense like Gary, Winnovich, and Hurst. They’ve got alot of talent on the defense lin and they get the Wisconsin and Ohio State games late in the year, so it could be a big plus. I’m a bit concerned like I said about the pick in the east, but that’s where I’ve got them, it’s due to the experience level and schedule.”

Outcome Past 2017

It’s a bright 2018 season based on what Phil predicts past this year. “Yes, I can see potentially them being the favorites to win the Big Ten next season because of being so inexperienced this year. You look at the lineup of starters that are seniors you’ve got about four on this years team starting and you may loose a couple others to the NFL draft early. Overall, Michigan is going to be one of the most veteran teams in the country next year. I love the talent that Jim Harbaugh is bringing in and what clearly states that is in the front of my magazine where I rank the units. Here’s a team with five returning starters that ranks in my top units in all eight postion categories. If that’s the case when thet’re this inexperienced then look out for them next year so I think the breakout season is very soon.”

Rome Trip and Studying Abroad

The trip to Rome was brought up because I wanted to get his take on the abroad trip idea. “You know what, if you can do it and its within the rules, I say do it. It’s a great experience for the kids and may help land a top notch recruit. Will the NCAA eventially change it? I’d say likely, but as long as you can do it, I have no problems whatsoever.”

Every Michigan fan would love to get revenge on Ohio State and play in the Big Ten Championship. While that could happen if this team matures and develops quickly throughout the season, the following year could be that breakout year everyone is eagerly waiting for and a playoff birth. Phil had Alabama and Clemson above 100 in his 2016 experience chart, and both played in the National Championship. Anything can happen and everyone knows what that Jim Harbaugh is capable of quick turnarounds.

Our thanks to Phil Steele for his insights and projections on his perspective about Michigan.

David Noe