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Who does Michigan need to break through this year?

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With 20 starters returning, the cupboard is hardly bare in 2018. However, who needs to step up for Michigan to take the next step?

NCAA Football: Outback Bowl-Michigan vs South Carolina Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Brian Griese in 1997. Mario Manningham in 2006. Ryan Glasgow in 2016.

All three represent Michigan players that broke through to elevate decent teams from the year before into nationally relevant ones.

The Wolverines will surely outdo their 8-5 mark from last year by value of 20 returning starters*. They need certain positions and certain players to emerge into reliable and consistent contributors if they want to approach their lofty goals of a Big Ten Championship and beyond.

*Many players split starts last year, which led to the higher number than some other reports*

Left and right tackle — Jon Runyan, Jr. and Juwann Bushell-Beatty

Michigan’s tackles never passed the eye or paper test last year.

Runyan and Bushell-Beatty ranked No. 148 and No. 167 respectively in pass blocking efficiency according to Pro Football Focus (evaluated 232 power conference tackles). The issues led to an abysmal number of sacks and tackles for loss allowed (No. 110 and No. 91 in the country, respectively). The eyes didn’t lie, either, seeing two quarterbacks crumble on the turf as fans helplessly endured John O’Korn.

As a redshirt senior, Bushell-Beatty looks to Ed Warinner to take advantage of his last chance. Warinner’s success is well-documented, as he produced NFL lineman after NFL lineman for Urban Meyer and Ohio State. Former Michigan running back Chris Howard, writing for Land of 10, declared the hire, “Jim Harbaugh’s best of the offseason.”

For the 6-foot-6, 315-pounder, strength and size are not issues. Perhaps now with a capable tutor, expect the physical and the mental to better align.

Runyan, Jr. obviously has the heritage, with his father excelling both in Ann Arbor and for the Philadelphia Eagles. The past has so far not led to present success.

Runyan lost the starting right tackle spot to both Bushell-Beatty and the woeful Nolan Ulizio. When he did play, he was functional, but not ideally tackle-sized at 6-foot-4.

Isaiah Hole of Wolverine Wire reports Runyan is the big surprise of the spring and summer, potentially locking down a spot. If he falters, Michigan would have to rely on redshirt freshmen such as Chuck Filiaga, Andrew Stueber or former defensive tackle James Hudson.

A freshman starting over Runyan would cause concern. Two freshmen starting at both tackles would cause mass hysteria.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Wide receiver — Donovan Peoples-Jones

Shea Patterson needs reliable targets.

At this point, the Michigan passing game — which mustered only nine touchdowns last year — severely lacks big-play potential. Last year’s No. 86 passing attack per S&P mostly returns a bunch of safety valves in Sean McKeon, Zach Gentry and Grant Perry.

If the former two are Jake Butt 1A and 1B, Patterson needs complementary perimeter threats in the mold of Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson.

Enter Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black.

Black seemed destined for a stellar debut, catching 11 passes for 149 yards in three games before busting his foot for the year. In his stead, Peoples-Jones scuffled to 22 catches for 277 yards and zero touchdowns.

5-star receivers typically find their footing by year two, as less than a third even break 500 yards receiving in their freshman debuts, dating back to 2000.

The great Michigan receivers exploded in their sophomore years. Braylon Edwards preceded three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons with a measly three catches for 38 yards. The same goes for David Terrell, Desmond Howard and many others.

The raw athleticism is there — see punt returns against Air Force and Ohio State — for Peoples-Jones to transform into the necessary final weapon in Patterson’s arsenal.

This catch over Wisconsin’s grabby secondary gives hope.

Safety — Josh Metellus

The dropped interception against Ohio State still stings.

With Michigan up 14-0 in the second quarter against the Buckeyes. J.T. Barrett made the same mistake he made to blow the game against Iowa.

He whipped the ball right into Josh Metellus’ hands, only to see the sophomore safety fail to corral it. A play later, Barrett scrambled for a score, catalyzing the comeback.

It capped a frustrating, albeit not wholly unsuccessful, starting season for the now junior leader. Quarterbacks often picked on him with inch-perfect throws on fades.

He also struggled tackling in space, combining with Tyree Kinnel to miss 17 tackles, according to Pro Football Focus. It undermined the defense in a similar fashion to safeties of old.

For years, safeties crippled otherwise solid Michigan teams. Ernest Shazor could obliterate Purdue receivers, but he couldn’t run step for step with spread quarterbacks in 2004. Stevie Brown got torched as an underclassmen against Appalachian State, forcing a move to a hybrid linebacker. Jordan Kovacs, as inspiring as he was, was limited athletically, typified by his blown coverage against South Carolina to lose the 2013 Outback Bowl.

The defenses under D.J. Durkin and Don Brown changed this problem. Michigan ranked first nationally in passing yards allowed behind Jarrod Wilson in 2015, and Delano Hill and Dymonte Thomas in 2016. This fueled top five finishes for the whole defense in points and total yards.

While 2017 still produced a top 10 unit, the woes of Metellus (and Kinnel, to be fair) led to a regression. If the upperclassmen fail to improve, talented underclassmen such as Jaylen Kelly-Powell and J’Marick Woods are waiting in the wings.

Young safeties spell trouble, so Metellus needs to steady his game for 2018.

Punter — Brad Robbins

Michigan needed a punter to win field position games in 2017. Brad Robbins (and Will Hart) didn’t get it done.

Robbins, a formerly highly-ranked kicker per Kornblue Kicking, struggled with inconsistency in his first year. He ranked in the bottom third out of eligible punters in average with 40.4 yards a boot. Since 12 of those 64 punts went out of bounds, his net average actually ranked in the bottom 10.

Last year’s Ray Guy Award winner was Texas punter Michael Dickson. As a freshman, he averaged only a yard more than Robbins. He boosted his average over six yards for his sophomore and junior campaigns. Robbins looks for a similar trajectory, both literally and figuratively.

With slugfests looming against Wisconsin and Michigan State, you need a punter to push back the offense, allowing the defense to force three-and-outs to win better field position.

With an offense facing a few question marks, Robbins’ leg can indirectly manufacture points.


Who is missing here? Who do you think needs to emerge in 2018?