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Roundtable: Breakout Michigan football players for 2017

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Photo credit: Dustin Johnson, Maize n Brew

Ed: Hey, guys. This should be a fun one. It’s June, so naturally we should be able to provide the most accurate and insightful predictions for the upcoming football season. Signing day, spring ball and the Rome trip are all in the rearview, and we’re just over two months until kickoff in Dallas.

Let’s start with the offense. Michigan’s losing a lot from this side of the ball, including its top three receivers and its starting running back (not to mention that fella named Peppers who stepped in from time to time). Who do you see breaking out in 2017 to make up some of the lost production?

Dan(tonio): I feel like the overlooked guy right now is the QB that led the boys to within a touchdown of the Big 10 East title last year: Wilton Speight! I know that Harbaugh has always had sort of a wandering eye when it comes to quarterbacks—hello Alex Smith—but this feels kinda obvious to me. He’s the biggest name on that side of the ball who’s back and for the majority of last year he was as good as any QB in the country.

Fully healthy, he’s got to be the guy they lean on most, no? Plus, he’s the guy who allegedly convinced Harbaugh to hop on the #1 ranked Sports Podcast which was a gift in itself. Real gritty leadership right there.

Josh: I’m going to go with Chris Evans. We all saw the flashes of his potential throughout the past season, but I truly believe 2017 will be his coming out party. He has the vision and the speed to find the hole and go, which is hard to find.

Couple that with his added weight and now you've got a potential 3-down back. With his speed, hands and overall versatility, it'll be interesting to see how much he is lined up in the slot or is used as a receiver in another roll as well. It will be hard for the coaching staff to keep him off the field.

MLJ: I do hope for Speight and I expect Evans to have a great year. I also think Karan Higdon will have a good year with an OL that is improved, especially in the running game.

But these things are supposed to be fun, right? So, I’ll punch my ticket to go down in flames and choose Ty Isaac. Every year he gets a little bit closer to being that hard-nosed back that Jim Harbaugh is looking for and I’m gonna bet this is the year. We get odds, like the race track?

David: Since we have so many question marks on offense, I am going with an incoming freshman, Tarik Black. The 6-4 WR will be competing for a lot of playing time and will likely be catching balls from 6-6 Wilton Speight.

I expect Evans to have a breakout year on the ground if the O-line can develop and improve as the year goes on. While we have seen some athletic wide receivers lately, this group of freshman are tall and crazy talented. Adding in a tall QB with the new and tall target weapons, it could be the recipe for a solid offense in the air that we haven't seen in recent years.

Colman: The easy answer here for me is Chris Evans. Harbaugh loves to run to set up play action passing and Mr. Evans seems to be our #1 guy. He has the speed and slipperyness (yes, I know that’s not a word) to make big plays for the offense.

HOWEVER, as we all know Harbaugh also loves his TE’s as well so I’ll go on a bit of a limb and say Tyrone Wheatley Jr. has a breakout. Quite simply, he is a gigantic man with loads of athleticism. We got to see flashes of his vast potential last year and now being the main guy puts him in a spot to be the safety blanket for Speight or Peters. When he gets loose behind the LB’s, like we saw Butt do so many times, and a defensive back tries to take him down hilarity will ensue.

Ilinois v Michigan Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Chris: I can’t argue with the Chris Evans, Tarik Black, or any other picks in this roundtable. This Michigan team is so unproven yet so talented that you can blindly place your finger on the roster and make a case for a breakout year for whichever player your finger lands on. So, I’m going to choose a Wolverine who has been a bit overlooked but has all the right tools to become an all-star this season. That man is Kekoa Crawford.

Standing at 6’2 and just shy of 200 pounds, Crawford will actually be one of the smaller targets on the field. But, he has the speed and strength to be the go-to guy on our roster. In fact, he was already one of Michigan’s best downfield blockers last season. With the loss of Drake Harris and possibly Grant Perry, Crawford now surprisingly finds himself as one of only four elders in the receiving core, along with fellow sophomores Nate Johnson and Eddie McDoom, and senior Mo Ways.

I definitely do not predict Crawford allowing true freshmen to show him up in what is supposed to be his breakout year. Last season, we saw flashes of great playmaking ability from Kekoa and his versatility to play X, Z, or slot receiver. Throughout the spring, there has only been good news about Crawford stepping up into a leadership role. Expect big things from #1 during the 2017 season.

Cooper: Well, the best options have already been chosen (this is what I get for being late to my first roundtable) so I’m gonna go out on a bit of a limb and say Nate Schoenle. The Gabriel Richard product earned steady buzz throughout spring camp and looks poised to make some noise at the slot. With Grant Perry still in limbo due to legal issues, McDoom having not shown much in terms of downfield catching ability, and Nate Johnson showing less-than-precise hands fielding punts during the spring game, there are snaps available.

I expect Evans to make an appearance there at times — he was a very effective receiver in high school — and, even if his development is completely stagnant, McDoom will still have a package on sweeps. Perry also seems to be trending towards rejoining the team in full.

Still, being on the receiving end of a beautiful throw from Peters to set up the game winning field goal in the spring raised eyebrows, as it displayed athleticism and size (he’s listed as 6’2) that indicates he’s no ordinary walk-on. Plus, he wears #35 and I will always pull for receivers wearing fullback numbers.

Alex: Like Cooper said above, all great picks. It’s a heck of a feeling to be coming into the season with so much unknown yet such high expectations, and Harbaugh’s recruiting has allowed a replenish mindset versus a rebuild.

I’m going to go with the tight ends group as a whole. Losing Jake Butt after a phenomenal career and Devin Asiasi to transfer would normally leave this positional group’s cupboard quite bare but the way things look, we’ve got a slew of players ready to step up. Jake Butt said Ian Bunting has the skills to be a star and we saw a glimpse of that in the Orange Bowl with 3 catches for 40 yards after a rather quiet season.

In addition, you have Tyrone Wheatley Jr., Nick Eubanks, Sean McKeon and Zach Gentry which is quite a stable of TEs. Unproven but with a world of potential. I’m excited to see how the tight ends respond as they’re a huge part of the offense and if a player or two emerges as a go-to guy, the offense will have an opportunity to do big things again in 2017.

Photo credit: Bryan Fuller, MGoBlog

Ed: Very thorough, fellas. Now let’s move over to the defensive side of the ball. If you thought Michigan was losing a ton from offense, this unit may be hurt even more by the record-breaking 11 draft picks. The line will lose depth (at least initially), the linebackers will need to replace two starters and the secondary will be a very young unit. Who do you see breaking out in 2017?

Dan: If we’re going with straight numbers, I think Chase Winovich is a solid answer. He’ll be playing at a position that tends to generate big numbers in Don Brown’s defense while playing opposite of Rashan Gary, who will dominate most of the headlines and defensive gameplans. Taco Charlton built himself up to a first round pick last year in the same role, and it’s hard to see Winovich’s effort and hustle generating any less production with a bit less depth behind him taking snaps away.

Josh: I’ll say Tyree Kinnel. With the amount of veteran talent lost in the secondary, having a leader in that group is invaluable. The good news is that according to multiple reports, Kinnel has become a much more vocal player this offseason and a true captain of the defensive backfield. With his skill set and potential, it won't surprise me if he ends up as an All-Big Ten athlete this year.

Photo credit: Patrick Barron, MGoBlog

MLJ: I’m guessing Rashan was disqualified on account of it not being fair? If not, I’ll take that safe bet. I do like Chase this year, I liked how he found a position last year and I expect that he will make the most of the opportunity this year.

If I can’t take Rashan, I’ll go against the grain and take Khaleke Hudson. This guy was meant to play Viper in Doc Brown’s D and though he is not quite the athlete that Jabrill is, he did room with him last year. And if you didn’t catch his performance in the Semper Fi bowl year before last — he is scary good.

David: I am going with Maurice Hurst, who's in a position to be a true leader for this group and continue where he left off last year. He has the top pass-rushing productivity among defensive tackles in the nation returning this year. While Rashan is young and a crowd favorite and getting a lot of praise by Don Brown, I see Hurst to step up and lead this group to develop one of the best defenses in the nation.

Colman: So many options with such a young defense! Gary is first to mind, of course. Don Brown just called him maybe the best he’s ever coached. People who follow college football nationally will remember him as being the #1 recruit out of high school, so I don’t know if that will count as breaking out when it’s pretty much expected. He’s going to be awesome, this is a given.

I’ll throw out Devin Bush Jr. here too. He has the pedigree to be a great one for us and showed in the spring how quickly he flies around the field and knives through the line for TFL’s. I could see him leading the team in tackles and being an All-Big Ten performer.

Chris: This defense is going to be so much fun to watch. Every starter in our linebacker and defensive line units is poised for a great year. They will be the centerpieces of Michigan’s success throughout the season. But, if the Wolverines are going after championships this year, the front seven won’t be able to do it alone. We need a star in the secondary. And for that reason, I am predicting Tyree Kinnel at strong safety as the defensive breakout player for 2017.

We have seen his athleticism and ability to track down the football on special teams and as a backup safety over the past two seasons. He looks to be excellent against the run, though still a bit unproven in coverage. Even so, Kinnel is the only player who I am comfortable penciling in as the projected starter in our secondary as of now. He will be a leader for all the underclassmen and a reliable player who is already experienced in Don Brown’s defense.

Colorado v Michigan Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

Cooper: Offensive lineman the world over will fear Rashan Gary by the end of this season. I’m gonna take another risk and say Bryan Mone, though.

The injury concerns are very real and very prevalent and, combined with the depth behind him, don’t look likely to subside anytime before February. That being said, he’s been so close for so long. People still whisper about his ranking as the #3 player on the team going into the 2015 season and he’s shown flashes before. Towards the end of last season it seemed like he was really rounding back into form and he’s made it through spring healthy.

A productive, injury-free fall camp could see Mone finally realize his potential. Wouldn’t be shocked to see him get some All B1G recognition if things shape up the right way.

Alex: A young yet talented defense has a high bar to match from 2016. As shown in the spring game, Rashan Gary is a physical specimen and will only continue to thrive in Coach Brown’s defense. He’s a no brainer and will be a star at the next level and hope to see some serious growth in 2017.

The two guys I’m really excited about are Devin Bush and Khaleke Hudson. They showed in the spring game their ability to fly sideline to sideline, hit the right gaps and play effectively in coverage, which was a huge confidence booster after losing so much talent on that side of the ball.

Probably the best part about Coach Brown and his defense is he’s given the players the tools and schemes to be successful as a unit and it’s on them to step up to the plate and hit it out of the park. I think there’s a scary amount of young talent on this defense and they won’t have to wait long for a test with the opener versus Florida.

Poll

Who’s your pick for the biggest breakout player on offense (other than Chris Evans)?

This poll is closed

  • 6%
    QB Wilton Speight
    (71 votes)
  • 3%
    QB Brandon Peters
    (41 votes)
  • 4%
    RB Karan Higdon
    (47 votes)
  • 5%
    RB Ty Isaac
    (61 votes)
  • 6%
    RB Kareem Walker
    (69 votes)
  • 9%
    WR Kekoa Crawford
    (98 votes)
  • 21%
    WR Tarik Black
    (221 votes)
  • 13%
    WR Donovan Peoples-Jones
    (140 votes)
  • 1%
    WR Eddie McDoom
    (20 votes)
  • 8%
    TE Ian Bunting
    (88 votes)
  • 10%
    TE Tyrone Wheatley, Jr.
    (104 votes)
  • 3%
    TE Zach Gentry
    (33 votes)
  • 0%
    TE Nick Eubanks
    (9 votes)
  • 0%
    TE Sean McKeon
    (2 votes)
  • 2%
    Other
    (27 votes)
1031 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Who’s your pick for the biggest breakout player on defense (other than Rashan Gary)?

This poll is closed

  • 13%
    DT Maurice Hurst
    (123 votes)
  • 5%
    DT Bryan Mone
    (46 votes)
  • 8%
    DE Chase Winovich
    (76 votes)
  • 27%
    LB Devin Bush, Jr.
    (251 votes)
  • 2%
    LB Mike McCray
    (25 votes)
  • 27%
    LB/S Khaleke Hudson
    (247 votes)
  • 2%
    S Tyree Kinnel
    (20 votes)
  • 3%
    S Josh Metellus
    (31 votes)
  • 2%
    S Jordan Glasgow
    (19 votes)
  • 2%
    CB David Long
    (27 votes)
  • 1%
    CB Lavert Hill
    (11 votes)
  • 1%
    CB Keith Washington
    (12 votes)
  • 1%
    CB Drake Harris
    (11 votes)
  • 0%
    Other
    (7 votes)
906 votes total Vote Now