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Michigan Sports Roundtable: Fascinating position battles all over the place

Speight vs. Peters might be the headline maker, but this team has a dozen other position battles with ramifications on the season.

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

Nick: Hello gents! Had a busy summer so far?

James: Busy like you wouldn’t believe. But it’s always nice to get away for an hour or two and talk Michigan sports.

Will: Always busy. But busy is good. And so is talking all things Michigan. Let’s roll!

Nick: Well, then let’s get to it. I wanted to throw this question out first and just kind of go from there - what’s the biggest storyline around this football team going into fall? We’ll go until we’re talking about the janitors.

Will: At the risk of speaking to the team’s strengths, I think the possibility of the defensive line being as strong, if not stronger, than last year’s is a huge storyline. Rashan Gary, too easy. But the rest of the crew are poised to have breakout seasons, as well. And this unit should prove to be the anchor of the defense, yet again.

James: I think the biggest storyline is the unexpected battle at QB. Coming off of Wilton Speight’s perfectly serviceable season in 2016, I think the consensus was that he would cruise to the starting spot again for 2017. Speight’s (injury induced) struggles from the end of last year spilling into the Spring Game in the form of rust surprised many, myself included - as did Brandon Peters’ performance. Perhaps teeing up an honest to god QB battle during fall camp.

Nick: Haha, see, I think you’re both wrong. I think the biggest storyline is the team’s youth, and the second-biggest storyline is the quarterback battle. And after that, you’ve got a tier of conversations that has the O-line, the secondary, and the wide receiver group (which I think most people expect to be fine, but will be fascinating to watch). I myself am fascinated by the defensive line quite a bit, but I don’t think it’s a big storyline. We’ll make sure to talk up Carl Myers a little bit later, though, and get into it.

Will: The youth is a big storyline, but I feel that breathes into a perennial storyline - can next year’s team overcome the loss of talent and experience to the NFL? Obviously, this year that familiar story is bigger than most, with so many Wolverines donning NFL jerseys for the first time next year. But that’s why I think the D-line, and the other areas of assumed strength, are so critical. It’s not so much who is going to step up and fill the voids as it is who is going to carry over the success from last year.

Nick: This fact struck me yesterday: out of Michigan’s 11 NFL Draft picks, eight were on the defensive side. Nuts.

James: For those who can’t quite remember the draft, the three offensive picks were Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson, and Jake Butt.

Nick: So what does that say about Michigan’s pass offense?

James: Well, I think it tees up both the youth issue and the QB issue perfectly. Michigan hasn’t had a ton of continuity recently in the WR department, and that’s going to continue next year. Losing two relatively experienced leaders in Darboh and Chesson from the group magnifies the youth aspect that much more. The good part is that there is plenty of talent there, starting with early enrollees Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black. Having those two go through Spring workouts with the team could go a long way toward establishing depth for a receiving corp that is otherwise lacking in on-field experience.

NCAA Football: Citrus Bowl-Michigan vs Florida
It’s still not clear if Grant Perry will be allowed to return this year. Perry finished with 183 yards in his sophomore year, and his 52.0% catch rate was third-worst on the team (behind Kekoa Crawford and Devin Asiasi) among players with at least five targets.
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Will: The possible return of Grant Perry, along with Eddie McDoom and the others will play large, at least in the early part of the season. Florida will prove a test for Michigan across the board. I wish it were our second game, as we’re going to be working out a lot of kinks in game one. And the passing game is one area where it takes a couple games to really get the timing down. The defensive tackles and other grunt positions are pretty much ready to roll from snap one, but the QB-WR dynamic just takes time.

Nick: Yeah, I think that’ll be an interesting part of the chess match between Michigan and Florida, and two rosters that will both have a lot of new players in major roles: how Michigan uses the slot receiver. We didn’t really lean on it too much last year, with Eddie McDoom doing sweeps and Grant Perry in and out of the lineup. But this year we have McDoom, who I think will be a starter, Grant Perry, Nate Johnson, and walk-on spring sensation Nate Schoenle. That’s a stacked group, for being fairly unproven.

James: Don’t forget Mo Ways and Kekoa Crawford who did see the field a little bit last year. Crawford had 4 catches for 47 yards and a TD, and Ways had 2 catches for 24 yards.

Nick: Well, that gets into the X and Z receiver positions. In my head I expect Kekoa to challenge for that #1 option next year, along with Tarik Black and Donovan Peoples-Jones, with McDoom getting his 500 yards as well. But you’re right, there are plenty of options all over the place and the ‘youth’ factor can be a little overblown.

Will: Not to mention Harbaugh’s teams lean heavily on the tight ends. The departure of Jake Butt, while significant, won’t end that. Ian Bunting and the rest are a strong crew, and they should bolster the passing game as the young WRs play catch up.

NCAA Football: Michigan Spring Game
Kekoa Crawford, Ambry Thomas and Josh Metellus share a moment during the spring game.
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Nick: Yeah, to argue against myself now, I guess, I do think Florida would be expecting their linebackers to be challenged in the pass game regardless of whether we use the slot, because of those tight ends. The slots just offer more game-breaking ability deep, and we’ll be able to challenge linebackers’ speed as well as their toughness in the run game.

Maybe what will actually break Florida’s defense will simply be speed, which would make for an awesome storyline after the game - guys like Kekoa Crawford, DPJ, Doom in the slot, and a little Tarik Black mixed in to move the chains. Sprinkling in a little tight end action from Tyrone Wheatley, Jr., Bunting, Gentry and Eubanks.

God, this offense is going to be fun to watch.

James: And Chris Evans mixed in out of the backfield. There are plenty of weapons, there sure isn’t a want of talent, it’s just young, mostly unproven talent.

Nick: So, let’s talk about the offensive line a little bit, because this is the one thing that could derail this pass offense - unless you really want to be a Debbie Downer and talk about turnovers by the quarterback, which hopefully won’t be a problem but realistically might be.

What are you expecting from this offensive line this year? Will the storyline of Michigan’s offensive line holding the team back finally die already?

Will: This is what’s separating us from greatness, right? Listen, I don’t think Michigan deserved to be in the playoffs last year. They weren’t a top 4 team. They just weren’t. But I think that falls mostly on the offensive line (not the referees in Columbus).

James: *cough* JT was short *cough*

Nick: *cough* *cough*

Will: And if they clinch the Big Ten, make the playoffs, knock off OSU - all the benchmarks we care about, year in and year out - I think it will be because the offensive line finally stepped up to an elite level. They failed to outplay elite defenses last year. Running over fair-to-midland teams is not a mark of greatness.

Nick: Hmm, I thought they right at the same level as either Washington or OSU last year, but I was fine with them walking into the chainsaw that was Alabama and Clemson. I don’t think we could have beat either of those teams. But I agree about the offensive line. They just couldn’t get push at the line of scrimmage when it really mattered.

Photo credit: Bryan Fuller, MGoBlog

So, who do you think the starting five will be?

James: Fortunately there should be some familiar faces. On the left side it looks like Mason Cole and Ben Bredeson will settle into the LT and LG slots, providing as much experience and leadership as they can. At center, I think Kugler wins out over Ruiz - likely due to his years of experience being the first or second man off the bench for the OL. On the right side we’re likely to see Mike Onwenu and Juwann Bushell-Beatty, but those are more up in the air. I think they’ll be the starting points, but Jon Runyan and Chuck Filiaga could make some noise as the season progresses.

Nick: I was a big JBB hopeful, and I didn’t expect much from Patrick Kugler after last year. It seems like Kugler has impressed the coaches this off-season, while JBB has disappointed and might be stuck as a reserve - and since he’s a redshirt junior, he’d probably be on the outs after a very quiet career. I do think Runyan ends up being the starting RT and Filiaga stays as a reserve out of the gates, even though he’s got a lot going for him talent-wise. Will?

Will: Kugler is strong, but I like Ruiz to overcome him, if not in the preseason, somewhere during the season. The kid’s just college ready.

Nick: Yeah, physically he’s definitely ready to go, and they’ve got a few of those young’uns coming up. Not just the offensive line, but the whole roster, really. This will be a very different kind of viewing experience than last year - Michigan will probably be just as explosive, but more erratic and inconsistent at times, than they were in 2016.

Hello! Hope you enjoyed our discussion, and we’ll continue this conversation for another time, possibly published next Wednesday. We’ll move over to talk about the defense some more and also preview some of the more interesting matchups with Florida. Thanks, and Go Blue!