Michigan has only five returning starters after 18 are now part of an NFL team. Brady Hoke and his staff recruited them, but over the last two years, Jim Harbaugh and company developed them into what they are today.
With one of the youngest and inexperienced teams in the country, lets look at five big questions heading into this fall. My recent interview with ESPN’s Phil Steele provided a deeper observation of this team and his projection for this season. My honorable mention question, and one we we tackle soon in an upcoming roundtable, is about kickoffs and punt return playmakers.
Five Question Marks Heading Into The 2017 Season
1. Who will lead this team onto the field to play quarterback against Florida?
My guess is Wilton Speight, but Brandon Peters will compete in fall camp to get the job. Speight had 2,538 yards in 2016 and with the new but young look at offense, he could break the 3,000 mark with several breakout players. Tyrone Wheatley Jr. was added to the John Mackey watch list, an award Jake Butt won last year. Speight also was recenty added to the Maxwell Award watch list and could be in a position to be one of the best in the Big Ten.
2. How will the defense and secondary look with only one returning starter?
The fact that Rashan Gary, Mike McCray and Chase Winnovich is not part of that stat is a bit comical. All three will likely start at DE and having Hurts/Mone at DT, the opposing OL groups will have their hands full. I could see Winnovich being a breakout player for this unit and leading the team in sacks or tackles for loss. The focus will be off him trying to figure out how they will fight off the others to get the play off.
Don Brown and his blitz style will be equiped with several to create havoc. The potential lineup is as follows:
DE: Rashan Gary and Chase Winnovich, with Carlo Kemp right behind them to contribute. Gary is 6-foot-5/287 pounds with a 4.57 40-yard dash, which is the fastest among all defensive linemen and the linebackers. He is more like a Taco Charlton with 27 tackles, 5 tackles for loss and one sack last year. Even though Winnovich was not a starter, he had 35 tackles last season and could be one of the breakout players on defense this fall.
DT: Maurice Hurst and Bryan Mone, with freshman Aubrey Solomon potentially at the end of the season or high contributor. Hurst is consistent upfront with 34 tackles, 11.5 for loss, and 4.5 sacks last season. He could be more like Chris Wormley who had 40 tackles last year. Michael Dwumfour is another player that didn’t get a ton of play in 2016, but could this season.
LB: Devin Bush Jr. and Mike McCray (added to Butkus award watch list), with Noah Furbush and Drew Singleton to contribute.
The secondary is one group that will be less experienced, but the talent level is impressive. I look at a potential lineup as follows:
Safety: Josh Metellus and Tyree Kinnel
CB: Lavert Hill and David Long, with freshman Ambry Thomas and Benjamin St-Juste to contribute.
Viper: Khaleke Hudson
3. How quickly can the offensive line gel and mature over the first two months?
The potential top 5 matchup is October 21 against Penn State, who has potentially one of the top five OL and DF groups Michigan will face. The environment at night in Happy Valley has not been so happy in recent years for opposing teams, just ask Michigan and Ohio State players. Finding a dominant run game to control the game late is what this unit has the opportunity to accomplish.
I see a potential starting lineup as follows:
LT: Mason Cole
LG: Ben Bredeson
C: Patrick Kugler or freshman, Cesar Ruiz
RG: Michael Onwenu
RT: Jon Runyan
The weakness for many years since the Lloyd Carr era has been this offensive line, and if you look at who is being recruited in 2018, this is now a priority for the future Wolverines. Ben Bredeson is one many may not look to right now, but may be a name to keep an eye on as the season goes.
Michigan recruited several highly rated athletes on the offense and they have an opportunity to make a quick impact. Chris Evans is in a position to lead the RB group with several behind him ready.
We also have a group of TE’s and WR’s could be just as good from last year, if not better. Tyrone Wheatley Jr, Ian Bunting, Eddie McDoom, Moe Ways, Khalid Hill and Henry Poggi all are preparing to creat some offensive firepower. Hill had a touchdown in eight games with 10 toal for 25 carries. McDoom is one that has experience from last season and one to keep an eye out for this fall, along with Tarik Black and Donovan Peoples Jones.
4. How can the team compete in tough road games?
The true road games is what measures a team’s ability and grit to finish business when the pressure is at its peak. The team has two challenging road games after Florida with Penn State and Wisconsin. The good news, Michigan has six games before playing at Happy Valley giving this young group time to mature. If they improve and mature early on it could be a top five win on the road with Rutgers, Minnesota, and Maryland to follow. A win there would push all the momentum the Wolverines need for the game at Madison on November 18 before the showdown on November 25 against Ohio State.
A few trap games to note are at Indiana on October 14 and Maryland on November 11. I see Maryland being the tougher of the two, based on their defensive lines being one of the top 5 that the Wolverines will face.
The team last year was talented enough to win all three games they lost in 2016 by a combined five points. New and rising talent on both sides with very little experience also means no memories of tough close road losses.
5. Can this team beat Ohio State?
One of the most important measurements for a coach is how did they compete against Michigan State and Ohio State. Jim Harbaugh took over a banged up program to quickly turn it around having 20 wins in two seasons. He took a program record to the 2016 NFL Draft, so we know he can develop players.
On paper right now, Ohio State wins. On defense, they return all 11 linemen that had a tackle last year, the 2016 Big Ten DL of the year and the No. 5 ranked defense at the end season. Their offense is the top ranked Michigan will face and No. 31 overall at the end of last season. They also collapsed against Clemson getting shut out showing the offense is not so dominant, but returns 15 starters including JT Barrett. Also important, this time it’s at home.
The good news, Michigan will have their toughest games spread out giving them 11 games to add experience, which by that game the starters feel more like seasoned veterans. It all depends on how quick can this team mature and improve over the year and avoid any losses against teams they should beat. Losing against Florida doesn’t mean they are out of the Big Ten and College Football Playoff picture. A win would be great and can be a quick barometer what this team has accomplished in fall camp, so believe this coaching staff will get this young team prepared.
The answer is that game can be won if the big question marks above go in Michigan’s favor and they could become one of the biggest surprises of the season.
While many experts and analysts like Phil Steele say 2018 is the year Coach Harbaugh has a true potential CFP team, no one should look past this young Michigan team. Just look at what this staff has done in the last two years. September can’t get here fast enough.