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​Roundtable: Offensive storylines to watch in 2017

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

Ed: Hey, guys. So fall camp is finally underway and football’s back. Feels like a long time coming, doesn't it? That said, let's pick up our chat from last week and switch gears to the offense.

There are a lot of key pieces returning this year, yet with a Harbaugh team you just never know who will take the field come game time. If this offense is going to continue moving forward, it's going to revolve around the quarterback position. So I ask you: Is this still Speight's job to lose, or is there truly a basis for all the chatter surrounding Peters — or others — coming out of spring camp and competing for the starting role?

Colman: It seems like forever since the bowl game and I can't wait to see how we look game 1. It's always very telling and starting with a good Florida team will be a great test.

Yes, this is Speight’s job to lose but also yes, there is basis for chatter about the other QBs. Speight has the most experience, had good (but not great) numbers, and he showed a great feel for the pocket while making few big mistakes (although some were HUGE as we all remember). Both things have to rank highly on Harbaugh’s checklist for his QBs. Those things typically come with some natural instinct and experience, neither of which can be taught.

This buys him first dibs but not a guarantee. We know Harbaugh has no problem switching QBs midstream and will go with the best player at the time. The chatter is definitely legit and continues the meritocracy that goes for every position.

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

Jared: I’ve been experiencing some severe, at times concerning, football withdrawals, so fall camp is arriving at the opportune time. I agree with Colman, Speight gets the first crack at it, but I don’t think Harbaugh saying this a three-way tie is just coach speak. Last season he had no problem saying that Speight was a little ahead of O’Korn but they were still battling, and that was the case.

I believe at this point, on day one of camp, all three of those guys are legitimately tied on the depth chart. I don’t know what Colman was referring to by “midstream”, but I don’t see Harbaugh switching up the QB in the middle of the season unless whoever is starting is directly costing us games.

To be competitive, we only need a game manager who will keep us in favorable down and distances while our run game and defense set the tone. Speight is nothing if not an effective game manager. He is your starter, and I think he takes some steps towards being more than just a game manager this year.

Von: I don’t believe for a second that Speight, Peters and O’Korn are tied for first. This is Speight’s team and everyone, deep down, knows that. We more than likely would not be having this conversation had Speight not been injured in the Iowa game and having it linger throughout the rest of the season.

Speight threw for 15 TDs and just 3 INTs before his injury, along with a completion percentage of 64.5. In the Iowa, Ohio State and Florida State contests, Speight threw only 3 TDs and 4 INTs with a completion percentage of 53.8. Now that he’s back to health, Speight will once again show why he should be the starter.

Fans have been drooling over Peters, with good reason, but he will be the guy next year. When in doubt, trust Harbaugh. If Speight leads the offense on the first snap against Florida, just remember that Harbaugh made that decision.

NCAA Football: Michigan Spring Game Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Josh: I disagree with the others’ thoughts. I have nothing against Speight, but I see Peters winning the competition. It has been made clear by coach Harbaugh as well as various “insider reports” that Peters has shown to be the more gifted passer. It's easy for #TeamPeters to look at his spring game footage and say it's no comparison between Brandon and Wilton, but it's also easy for #TeamSpeight to say that Brandon was mostly playing against the 2nd team defense so his performance was inflated.

No matter how you slice it, though, Brandon made some STELLAR throws. Take his sideline pass to Eubanks in the 1st half (that was dropped), and the 2nd half dime to Nate Scholene. Those were NFL caliber throws. As long as Peters can end camp with a more vocal approach and a command of the huddle, it looks like he will be too good to keep off the field.

David: This young team needs a true leader and Speight is in a great position to be that guy. I feel while the others are competing for the job, it's more to prepare Speight and push him to prepare before Florida.

This offense is going to be totally different than the last few years and I feel that we will see some quickness and speed we haven't in the past. If Speight can go into the Florida game with the job then it’s his to lose. No signs of injuries and he's put in the time since the spring. He watched every play on film from last year after the Rome trip, then worked out in San Diego with Steve Clarkson, Lamar Jackson and UCLA’s QB Josh Rosen.

He's the man at QB and trust this staff to do everything they can to prepare him.

Dan: I agree with Von that this seems like a lot of mid-summer hype out of boredom and lack of any true storylines. This is Wilton’s team. Dude even looks like Harbaugh for crying out loud. Deep down, I think he was somewhat beat up at the end of last year because everything from his aggressiveness to his mechanics seemed off.

In his defense, Darboh and Chesson’s separation dropped considerably — not surprising when you look at the defensive backs of Iowa, OSU, and Florida State — and there didn’t seem to be many alternative options besides Jake Butt. I think Speight’s style both as a leader and on the field is a really good complement to the youth and athleticism infusion coming in this year.

NCAA Football: Michigan Spring Game Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Ed: Glad you brought up Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson, Dan. Regardless of who is slinging the ball for the Wolverines on September 2nd, it hurts that guys like Darboh, Chesson and Jake Butt are gone. Those were playmakers — and made up 69% of the receiving production last year, I might add. So who steps up to fill the void? Maybe some of these highly-touted freshmen, or maybe a returning guy like Kekoa Crawford or Maurice Ways?

Colman: With a historic haul at WR it's easy to overlook the guys that have already suited up. I love what Crawford brings to the table and believe he'll play a big roll this year and make the biggest impact in both the passing and running games.

At slot, Schoenle has gotten a lot of hype and we can McDoom the heck outta folks, not to mention Nate Johnson and the possibility of Perry making an impact again, so I think we're at worst the same there. As for the new guys, Black and DPJ will both contribute heavily.

Overall, I think we'll be more dynamic at the WR positions. Butt is the biggest loss, but at TE University you know a guy will step up. My guy is Wheatley but I could see Bunting blowing up too. Combined I think our TE group surpasses 1,000 yards and I would not be surprised if Gentry, Eubanks and/or another guy gets in the mix.

Jared: I think we are going to be alright at WR, but I am a little unsure about the TE position. Losing Asiasi was such a major blow, as he was the heir apparent at that spot. Both Bunting and Wheatley have the tools to be as good, if not better, than Jake Butt, we just haven’t seen a ton from them yet.

The guy I keep pulling for is Zach Gentry. The dude is absolutely massive (6’ 7’’- 245 pounds), and can move incredibly well for his size. TE is not a position that is picked up overnight, so it makes sense he has yet to get it all figured out, but if he ever does he will be an absolute freak.

You could pull the name of any wide receiver on the roster out of a hat to guess who might be the leading receiver, and it would be just as good of a guess as I can come up with right now. For all we know, Nico Collins is the next Braylon Edwards and DPJ is some sort of football playing alien with tentacles for hands. We just don’t know anything about this group other than they have talent to spare. I’ll go with my gut and say Tarik Black is our go-to receiver this season, with Kekoa Crawford just a shade behind him.

Von: I agree the tight end position is much weaker due to the losses of Butt and Asiasi, but the guys Michigan has are more than capable of making up for their departures. I think Wheatley can be an All-American type of player, as his all-around game can be great. Throw in Ian Bunting and the speeding Gentry and you’ve got yourself three real nice tight ends to work with.

As for receivers, I agree with Colman on his comments regarding Crawford. He’s got good size and is a great blocking receiver already. He will make impact after impact with the team this year, you can count on that.

I also fully expect Tarik Black and DPJ to have significant playing time this season, but don’t forget about Grant Perry and Eddie McDoom, two guys who work wonders from the slot. Pair all of this with 6-foot-5 Nico Collins (finally a red zone target!) and you’ve got yourself a young, talented offense.

Josh: I agree with Von’s thoughts almost to a tee. As for tight ends, I see Tyrone Wheatley Jr. having a HUGE season. He definitely has all the tools to be a great tight end here, and I think this is the year he does it. I also think Ian Bunting finally puts it all together and proves to be a nice complement to Ty. The young guys are studs as well. Zach Gentry showed his shiftiness in the spring game on that beautiful run after the catch by way of Brandon Peters in the spring game. Sean McKeon and Nick Eubanks are looking very good as well. So even with the loss of Butt and Asiasi transferring, this unit is in good hands.

Now onto the receivers... I honestly feel great about almost all of these guys. The way I see it shaking out as far as starters go is Tarik as the X (left outside receiver), Crawford in the slot as the Y, and Peoples-Jones as the Z (right outside receiver). I think these three are not only the most talented, I think they fit together the best because of their complementary skill sets. As for rotational guys, I don't think there's a guy on this roster that won't get time (outside of any walk-ons, that is). With the early rotation, I'd expect Scholene and Perry to rotate the most but as the season goes on, all of these guys will see a significant amount of snaps. This is the best I've felt about our receiving corps, top to bottom, in a long time.

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

Dan: Echoing some others, I think Crawford may be the best positioned for a breakout year. His ability to be used as a Percy Harvin type playmaker as well feeds into that. Bunting finished the year strong and all three tight ends holistically have incredible tool sets. Replacing Butt will be impossible, but look for that group to improve as the year goes on.

I like the versatility that the receiving core has this year compared to Darboh/Chesson who measured out as near identicals (height less than an inch, wingspan less than an inch, .04 40 difference, half inch vert difference). Perry and Crawford bring different things to the table and the army of freshmen should be able to splash. Evans should emerge as a productive, if not electric safety valve.

David: I think our size with some of these young WR’s will be in our favor to help, especially with a potential 6-6 Speight throwing to them. While I know how talented this freshman WR group is, I like Crawford and McDoom to step up. They have seen the guys last year working side-by-side with them and know what it takes.

I also am very excited to see what kind of year Ty Wheatley Jr. will having lost weight. He could be the next guy up at TE at 6-6 catching balls from a tall Speight. Whoever gets the QB job will have plenty of size to throw the ball and allow them to make plays. McDoom is one of the shortest at 6-1, so with Donovan Peoples-Jones at 6-2 and Tarik Black at 6-4, our size can allow for a lot of success in the air.

NCAA Football: Orange Bowl-Michigan vs Florida State Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Ed: Okay, let's shift to the big guys up front. There will be a few new faces on the offensive line this year. You can talk about individual talent all day long, but I want to know big picture: Can this group gel, and how long is it going to take?

Colman: Although not dominant by any means, last year’s line came together nicely despite a major injury and individual breakdowns at times. I see this year's line as a more talented version regardless of experience levels. Drevno and Frey are two of the very best OL guys in college football and will get these guys to vibe immediately. Depth is a concern but if we stay relatively healthy I think our offense has a bigger year statistically, especially in the running game. The line, as always, will be a huge factor in that.

Jared: Could not agree more with my colleague. I for one, am relieved to see Kalis and Braden move on. They were great Michigan men and I appreciate everything they have done for us, but we need new blood up front badly, and I am excited about the guys coming up. Top to bottom, this current group of linemen already has more potential NFL talent than any of the lines in the past 5 years. Onwenu and Bredeson will be All-Big Ten talents, Ruiz looks like he could play for the Ravens tomorrow. If we get our right tackle position figured out, this is our best line since 2011.

Von: Michigan, in my opinion, lost all three games last season because of the offensive line. With that said, I am surprisingly not too concerned about it heading into this season. The addition of Greg Frey is going to be huge for the line; what he did with Indiana’s O-line was outstanding and he can absolutely do a similar, if not better job with the guys Michigan currently has. With guys like Cole and Bredeson returning, and beasts like Cesar Ruiz and Chuck Filiaga coming in, the O-line is in good hands.

Josh: I think this will end up being the best offensive line we have seen around these parts in a while. It's well documented how optimistic for this upcoming season I am and the play of the offensive line is no exception to that. As Von touched on, Greg Frey is a huge get for the line. He's going to help make this unit great again (that was not meant to be a Trump pun, whoops).

The only question I have is at right tackle, and regardless, I think it ends up well any way you slice it. Our best case scenario, in my opinion, is that Runyan Jr./Bushell-Beatty/Filiaga/Stueber win that spot hands down. Your line in that scenario, from left to right is, Cole/Bredeson/Kugler/Onwenu/(Insert player here) and then Ruiz as your first rotating man in. The worst case scenario, which I don't think is all that bad goes something like this. No one steps up at RT to give the staff a real comfortable option there, Bredeson slides over to RT, Ruiz is plugged in at LG and the line shakes out with the five of Cole/Ruiz/Kugler/Onwenu/Bredeson.

I could go on and on talking about how excited I am with finally having an o-line but I'll stop with this for now. As I mentioned earlier, I think they gel very nicely and by the end of the year, end up being an upper echelon offensive line in the conference and the nation.

Dan: The line is young, but the early season slate should help. Florida’s defensive line is going to be talented, but they lost a handful of their top rotation guys as well as their top two linebackers. They also replaced their defensive coordinator, though in-house. This will create a solid opportunity for the Michigan line to get their feet wet with another defensive line looking to do the same thing.

With giant question marks in the secondary (top 3 starters drafted, lone remaining one out for the year), Florida will likely play more conservative up front which should help UM adjust. The mix of youth/experience should have this group playing better by the end of the year, but the real prize will be the next 2-3 following.

David: The offensive line is one of the biggest question marks for this young group. I see it playing out like this:

LT: Cole
LG: Bredeson
Center: Kugler or Ruiz
RG: Onwenu/350 lbs
RT: Runyan Jr. or Bushell Beatty

This unit has the ability to create a solid offense to help control the clock. One of the pieces missing for many years is a solid O-line and our backs have been good, but not great. If this team can mature and develop over the year, they will have 10 games under their belt before ending the season at Wisconsin and at home against Ohio State. Right tackle is one spot we need to get someone to step up with the Newsome injury.

Ed: Alright, now let's wrap this up with the ball carriers. This running back corps will have a little depth to it this year, or at least some healthy competition. Give me one guy you think will be making the biggest strides in 2017.

NCAA Football: Penn State at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Colman: If you said biggest impact I’d say Evans without question. We have a ton of talent here but the guy who will make the biggest strides is Ty Isaac. His size and speed combo is unmatched on the roster and as long as he stays out of the dog house with the big man he’ll make big plays both running and catching the ball.

When he gets to the flats and gets one on one with CBs I get very excited. My crystal ball shows me some big chunk yards in this guy's future. I'll give ya what the kids call a “Hot Take” and say he gets 800+ yards from scrimmage as the #2 RB.

Jared: I love the Ty Isaac call. We should be showing more respect to our senior citizens. Honestly though, I could see Isaac finally breaking out this season. He has so much raw potential that has only been seen in small bursts. If we are saying biggest strides though, that is easily Kareem Walker, as he didn’t even play last year.

He is probably number 4 on our RB depth chart — which as we know about Harbaugh-coached teams, means he will play a bunch. He may have the highest ceiling of anyone in the RB room as well, which is a scary thought — as Chris Evans looked like Warrick Dunn mixed with LeSean McCoy at times last year. I’m also really high on Karan Higdon, who has a tremendous balance of speed and power. We are as loaded at the running back position as we have been in a decade, it’ going to be fun to watch.

Von: I am the president of the Karan Higdon fan club. I love this dude. He runs as hard as anyone currently on the team. The guy fights for yards and doesn’t stop. He looked great in limited playing time last year, so I hope he gets more playing time this year with Smith gone.

But Evans will obviously make the biggest strides this year, if all goes right. I expect him to be the starting RB every game and get the bulk of the carries. No disrespect to Smith, but I was rooting for Evans to be the starter about halfway through last season. Evans is just that good. His touchdown in the Orange Bowl was ridiculous, so if we can see a few more of those from him this year, that’d be pretty nice.

I expect Walker and Isaac to get solid playing time, too, but I’m #TeamEvans and #TeamHigdon.

Josh: If Von is the self-appointed president of the Karan Higdon fan club, then I want the same title but for the Chris Evans following.

We all saw the flashes of Evans’ ability throughout the year, culminating in what should've been the game-winning touchdown against FSU, #SAD! With the improved O-line, I think Chris will have a fantastic year that will garner national attention. His complements in the backfield aren't too shabby either. I'm very bullish on the returning guys, but especially one in particular (which will make Von happy), and that's Karan Higdon. I too love the way Karan runs, it brings back memories of Mike Hart bouncing off of tacklers, and emerging from holes that at first looked like he would never get through.

I expect Evans to get around 15-18 carries a game, Higdon 12-15, Issac 10-12, Walker 6-8. I wouldn't be surprised at all if we see O’Maury Samuels touch the field a good bit this season as well. I think this position is even deeper than last year and I think they'll impose their will throughout the season. It's definitely something to get excited about.

Dan: This is the toughest call. Doing some research for another piece, Higdon’s explosive stats last year are shocking — home run threat literally every time he touches it. Evans needs to run lower and with a hair more power if he’s going to be the feature back. In years past, Harbaugh has loved using his primary back as an early game battering ram and late game finisher, utilizing the other backs prevalently to fill the middle of the game.

I think Higdon/Isaac/Evans all plan to get 10-12 touches per game to start the year with the numbers skewing towards the hot hand. I’m going to say that Evans sees the most improvement though this year because I get a feeling that we’re going to see a very different offense than last. Without the bonafide NFL picks outside and at tight end, the offense will have to get more creative and flexible. With Evans, Higdon, and Isaac all being considerably more explosive than Smith, the running game could look very different. In a more modern/flexed offense, Evans could thrive.

David: This is such a great group that is hungry. I am a huge fan of Chris Evans ever since earlier last year when we started seeing what he can do. His ability to cut and make quick moves through the defense allows for a lot of potential this year.

Florida had the No. 6 rated defense at the end of the year and has 14 returning starters, so right out of the gate our running backs will be tested. Their next big defensive test doesn't come until Penn State on October 21.

I also am excited to see incoming freshman O’Maury Samuels who could quickly get in the rotation with his speed and physical play. This will be a fun group to watch and see who will emerge after the first few weeks before conference play begins.

Eric: Weighing in here late. At QB, I am firmly in the Von camp on this being Speight’s team. The inexperience across the rest of the offense (compelling cases are made above for almost everyone on the two-deep roster) underlines the need for a steady hand.

I personally think that the key other skill guys will be Evans and Isaac (they will get 80% of the RB carries), Crawford and Black at WR and Wheatley at TE. But while part of the Speight choice is out of conservatism, I actually think Harbaugh and Drevno are going to throw a ton of packages out there (McDoom, 4-WR sets and even 3 TE). Having Speight as a constant will let them do that and grow the rest of the personnel.

Four weeks until we get a lot of questions answered! As noted above, some pretty clear sailing until PSU if they can get by the Gators.