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Three key matchups for Michigan vs. ECU

ECU’s new quarterback and receivers could present a challenge.

Michigan Spring Football Game Photo by Jaime Crawford/Getty Images

It’s finally here. Michigan’s opening game against East Carolina is just two days away.

The Wolverines look poised to make a big run in 2023 despite a few minor hiccups this offseason, but this is the first time we’re actually going to see them on the field in game action.

Here are the key matchups to watch out for on Saturday in Ann Arbor.

Jesse Minter vs. Mike Houston

With Jim Harbaugh sidelined for the first three games of the year, Jesse Minter is stepping in as head coach for this one. Minter has never been a head coach in his young career, and this is just his second year at the helm for Michigan as defensive coordinator.

“(Harbaugh) said it, of just being a guardian of victory,” Minter said. “And that’s really the responsibility that I feel. And so within my own personality, within my own leadership style, to hopefully have the team function at the level I feel like we’re capable of functioning. That’s going to be the biggest goal come Saturday.”

His opponent, Mike Houston, has been a head coach at numerous levels since 2011, starting in Division II with Lenoir-Rhyne before stops in the FCS with The Citadel and James Madison, where he won an FCS title in 2016.

Harbaugh built the game plan and has coached in the lead-up to Saturday’s game, but Minter will be responsible for everything that happens on gameday. Here’s what he said he was focusing on.

“Having a pretty good idea of the game plan and what we’re trying to do,” Minter said. “Make sure it’s complementary to how both sides are trying to play, all three phases in fact, and just be prepared to be there on Saturday, make any decision that requires my say.”

Kris Jenkins vs. ECU quarterbacks

ECU elected not to release a depth chart, but offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick said Wednesday they are “prepared to play three quarterbacks.”

The Pirates lost Holton Ahlers, their starter for the last four-plus seasons, in the offseason, and Houston has a quarterback battle on his hands. Mason Garcia was Ahlers’ backup last year, making 12 appearances and one start prior to 2023. He is 12-for-32 for 120 yards and two touchdowns in his career.

Garcia is the projected starter, but if Kirkpatrick is to be believed, Michigan should also prepare to potentially see Alex Flinn, who has made two appearances for five snaps in his ECU career, and true freshman Raheim Jeter.

Kris Jenkins is projected to be one of the best defensive players in the nation this year. This is a big opportunity for him to show off what he can do against a group of inexperienced quarterbacks. His ability to disrupt play in the interior and rush the quarterback will be key to set the tone for the game.

Keon Sabb and Quinten Johnson vs. ECU backfield

With Rod Moore and Makari Paige potentially out for Saturday’s game, Johnson and Sabb could be in line for their first career starts.

ECU’s top running back Rahjai Harris missed the second half of the 2022 season after suffering a knee injury in Week 5, but he’s rushed for 1,445 yards on 360 carries and 12 touchdowns in his career so far and will be a key part of the Pirates’ offense. ECU lost two 1,000-yard receivers from last year, so Jaylen Johnson and Jsi Hatfield are the likely next men up after totaling 340 and 178 yards, respectively, in 2022.

Sabb and Johnson will have their hands full, as ECU has been a pass-happy school under Houston, with the nation’s 16th-ranked passing offense last year. But a new quarterback and a new set of receivers will help manage that challenge, especially if Michigan can establish a strong pass rush.