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Roundtable: Early evaluations heading into bye week

Cincinnati v Michigan Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

Ed: Hey, guys. It sure felt good seeing some consistency and playmaking ability from the offense last Saturday at Purdue (and some red zone touchdowns!), and it all started with John O’Korn. Was this just a game of luck for O’Korn, since we saw him struggle at times last year, or could he really be what this offense needs moving forward?

Von: This is exactly what the offense needed — a kick in the rear with a high-energy, quick reading quarterback like John O’Korn. The fifth-year senior made smart moves the entire game with checkdowns when they were necessary, throwing fastballs into tight windows and even being able to get away from pressure when the offensive line broke down.

The offense had been garbage in the red zone all season up until Saturday, and this wasn’t a matter of opposing defense’s being good. I’d put the blame at 30/30/40: 30 percent on the offensive line, 30 percent on the play calling and 40 percent on the quarterback position. Wilton Speight, a guy with high expectations heading into this season, has not been like the guy who balled out in 2016 (before the injury) for whatever reason. He lost 20 pounds this offseason and all signs pointed to him leading the offense and having a breakout year, perhaps setting him up for a selection in the 2018 NFL Draft, but that all seems unlikely at this point.

Although I do hope Speight is okay and the injury wasn’t serious, I also hope Harbaugh thinks long and hard about benching Speight indefinitely and play the hot hand of O’Korn.

Dan: I’m cautiously optimistic. He really got going in the second half and delivered some absolute strikes, particularly those aimed at McKeon (who has sneaky been phenomenal all year). His athleticism and accuracy on the intermediate throws added a dimension to the offense that Speight had failed to deliver to this point.

I personally don’t think Speight will return to the field anytime soon and have a terrible feeling that this neck injury was fairly serious. I’d love for O’Korn to take control of this job, but am hedging my bets a bit. He lost the Houston job, lost the starting job last year after being the presumed front-runner post-Rudock, and was believed to be behind Brandon Peters at times this year. I don’t know if he possesses Speight’s ability to progress through coverages from under center dropping back, and has a tendency to stare at the rush too quickly.

Oh, and the Indiana game was bad. He’s looked MUCH MUCH MUCH better this year though so I’m optimistic, but I need a good game against little brother first.

Colman: First off, let’s hope Wilton Speight is OK. He took a hit to the head after already taking a hit to the body which, as Harbaugh noted, was egregious and should have been another targeting penalty in that game. It’s for those types of situations the rule was set up for in the first place.

Speight has been a good player at times for Michigan as well as a warrior who has played through injury and pain to help the team win, and he has definitely helped Michigan win games. He has also rarely been the main reason Michigan has won in the last year plus. He’s made plays in clutch times, yes, but name a game he’s taken over that his play in particular was the reason Michigan won. Veteran receivers and the defense bailed the team out on many occasions. Those receivers are gone and luckily the defense has continued to flourish but eventually that level of QB play was going to catch up to Michigan again, probably against a hyped up Purdue team.

John O’Korn was the REASON this offense took off on Saturday and the main reason Michigan won the game. He took over the game with his arm and legs. This was the best quarterbacking since Speight destroyed an outmatched Maryland team last year and probably the best since Rudock annihilated Florida, and he did it in 3 quarters. O’Korn made the right reads, accurate passes and scrambled effectively when things broke down.

Was it a one time deal? Time will tell. However, Speight threw for 270 yards or more just twice all of last year (UCF and MD) and zero times this year. Michigan was 1 of 10 in the redzone with Speight this year, 3 of 3 with O’Korn. We obviously need to see this happen more than once but early returns are great.

Jared: Fans are generally very eager to jump on the bandwagon of the backup quarterback, but there may have actually been some merit to that move in this case. Obviously this was a situation where the starter was legitimately injured, and as the fellas said we really do hope he is okay; but there is no denying the switch paid off against Purdue.

I was very surprised by the fact that Wilton Speight has only gone over 270 yards twice in his career. It seemed like he was really lighting it up last season, but that really was not the case. Speight may have a firm ceiling as a game manager, and could be better suited as a backup. John O’Korn, aka Johnny Moxon, looks to have the higher ceiling right now, and is the shot of life this offense needed. Some of those throws he was making were extremely ballsy though, and I wonder if there won’t be some high risk high reward with him under center. We know Harbaugh will not tolerate turnovers.

NCAA Football: Florida at Michigan Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

David: John O’Korn has been a man waiting in the wings for an opportunity to shine. He was prepared to get in the game whenever his number was called, and that day was Saturday. He had a few early drives stopped quickly with Purdue’s front line swallowing up the run, but then he started connecting with tight ends.

Chemistry on offense is what this unit needed, and that definitely happened. I know other teams will bring a more solid defense, so part of his future success will depend on the offensive line and pass protection.

Ed: And how about that Michigan defense? I expected before the season that it would be pretty good again this year, but through four games I didn’t quite expect it to rank first nationally. What group on the defense do you think has been most impressive so far?

Von: By far the linebackers. Devin Bush is a god-send. My lord, that man can fly all over the field in a heartbeat. He is the perfect middle linebacker for Don Brown to have — fast, physical, quick to the ball and aggressive as all hell. The Floridian Missile has taken off, and I don’t see it losing steam anytime soon.

The lone returning starter on defense, Mike McCray, has been everything you could ask for out of a veteran leader. He’s not as fast as the others, but he is still as instinctive and physical as the others in the group. Pair all of this with new Viper Khaleke Hudson and you’ve got yourself one eye-popping linebacker corps.

Dan: Von’s right, these linebackers are other worldly right now. Bush and Hudson entered the week as the Big 10’s sack leaders and would still be 1 and 2 if a little guy named Chase Winovich wasn’t on pace to shatter the Michigan record books. Bush has been covered extensively at this point, and I think he’s the Bednarik front-runner, but I want to talk about Hudson for a minute.

If you watch the games, there are probably another 1-1.5 sacks he could get credit for (same with Devin, actually—thought he had 2 against Purdue), and has had other defenders bat potential interceptions away from him at the last second — think Florida game. He’s lined up at defensive end, viper, safety, and slot corner. I’m sure he’s lined up on the outside as well a handful of times. I don’t want to be hyperbolic, but the argument could be made that he’s been as good as Peppers.

Colman: It’s gotta be the linebackers...or the defensive line. Can I pick all of the above? The ‘front 7’ (3 lineman, 3 LBs, and Hudson) have been spectacular. That’s not to take away from the impressive play of our young CBs or safeties, but those guys are everywhere.

Devin Bush is a revelation, and Dan, I’ll definitely make the argument that Bush is playing better than Peppers last year. His numbers aside (which are better so far) his impact on the game is shown almost every single play. I will flatly say he’s the fastest inside linebacker I’ve ever seen at Michigan and his instincts and football IQ put him in the right spots on nearly every play. The better comparison would be Peppers to Hudson, who has filled in excellently at the Viper spot and Michigan really hasn’t missed a beat there. Noah Furbush has also frequently been around the ball and Mike McCray has been a very solid force as well.

The truly amazing aspect of the defense so far is that Chase Winovich has outplayed a soon-to-be 1st round pick in Hurst and a once-in-a-generation athlete in Gary. And both of those young men have been absolutely DOMINANT. That feels crazy to say but it’s true. Winovich has been a nightmare for everyone we’ve played. His ability to turn the corner is freakish and at 260 lbs he’s pushed around lineman 40 lbs heavier with ease.

I’m with you Ed, I thought a top 10 defense could be in the making at the beginning of the year, but not No. 1 or even top 5. Donnie Mustache has done it again! May he never leave Ann Arbor. I’ll go on a BIT of a limb and say there will be three All-Americans on this defense by year’s end and the All Big Ten teams will be littered with Wolverines once again.

NCAA Football: Air Force at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Jared: That linebacker group is the best Michigan has ever fielded, I will come right out and say it. We might somehow be better next year as well, which is scary to think about. The D-line has been a big part of the linebackers success however, as the trio of Hurst, Gary, and Winovich have been incredibly disruptive.

The impact of Hurst and Gary has been less statistical, but they are blowing up the timing of the offense every single play. Rashan Gary has been getting double-teamed a bunch, which is opening up things on the other side for the Norse God of defensive pressure, Chase Winovich. Much like the offensive line opens up holes for the running backs, the defensive line has been opening up holes for Devin Bush and co. to wreak havoc.

Let’s not ignore the secondary either. They were a huge question mark coming into the season and they have performed above average and are improving every week. Lavert Hill has the look of a future stud, and David Long had a breakout game against Purdue. Brandon Watson has been consistent throughout and Tyree Kinnel is really, really good. This defense is just nasty.

David: Devin Bush with 33 tackles so far is insane and his level of intensity has not dropped since the first play against Florida. Chase Winovich has also exceeded expectations so far with six sacks, which is enough to lead the Big Ten. His three sacks in the Purdue game was something that hasn't been done since Brandon Graham back in 2008 against Michigan State. Those to have contributed more, and it's hard not to mention the other guys up front with Rashan Gary and Maurice Hurst.

While Don Brown is all about using different packages with linebackers and the secondary, I think the secondary has done an amazing job so far. Each of the first four games presented a different style of offense and after the first half, proper adjustments have allowed Michigan to outscored their opponents 80-14.

Ed: Through four weeks, what has surprised you most about this young Michigan team?

Von: How fast some of these youngsters were able to adapt to playing live games. From the very start of the Florida game, when he almost got ejected, Devin Bush looked like one of the veteran players, yet that was his first ever start and first ever significant action at middle linebacker. Donovan Peoples-Jones returned a punt for a touchdown in his third ever game; Jabrill Peppers took three years to do that same exact thing. Tarik Black scored Michigan’s first touchdown of the season, and it sucks that he will probably miss the rest of the season but it is a sign of things to come. Hudson has fit very nicely in the Viper position. Lavert Hill is a talented cornerback and returned an interception for a touchdown in his second career start.

My point in all of this? These young guys who are now getting starting time are playmakers. The sky is truly the limit for the youth at Michigan.

Dan: The rapid improvement from Long and Hill. I was really worried after the Florida game because they got beat too many times, but Michigan was blessed with Doug Nussmeier’s inability to prepare a college football offense and Florida wasn’t able to capitalize.

They were phenomenal against Purdue’s streaky passing attack and made some really impressive break-ups, showing both the ability to get their heads around and time their moves. A strong pass-rush is a defensive backfield’s best friend, but they’ve definitely stepped up their game.

Colman: I’ll echo Von and Dan in that the young guys, especially the CBs, have pleasantly surprised with their progression and playmaking ability. The CBs looked to be a possible liability coming in and they’ve acquitted themselves admirably so far.

My biggest surprise is an unpleasant one, unfortunately. Myself and many others expected a leap from Wilton Speight in year two and that just hasn’t been the case. Injury aside, his play was average to poor and that is surprising for a Harbaugh QB. I could have lived with even a small jump in play but it seems in many ways he’s regressed. He missed open receivers in his reads and forced passes into coverage. When he did see the open man, he had many inaccurate passes and too often had happy feet in the pocket. I still have hope that he comes back healthy a gives us 2 viable starting options but his lack of progression is a bit shocking.

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

Jared: Everything mentioned above would be included in my list if surprises for this team, some pleasant others less so. I am very surprised at how good this defense is after losing 10 starters. I was very surprised as well by the regression of Wilton Speight. For the sake of variety, I will say my most surprising revelation has been the tight ends.

I am pretty sure every person who writes about or watches Michigan football was expecting breakout campaigns from Ty Wheatley and Ian Bunting this season. There have been emerging players in the position group, it is just neither of those two guys. Zach Gentry and Sean McKeon look to be way ahead of Bunting and Wheatley at this point, and both look like prototypical Jim Harbaugh tight ends. McKeon is a jack-of-all trades type who is extremely well rounded for a young guy, and Gentry is the matchup nightmare. Both have really improved their blocking and route running, which has translated to playing time and results early on.

David: One of the biggest question marks going into the season was, how will this defense respond with only one true returning starter? Well, it's safe to say they are doing better than many thought. They are allowing the lowest amount of yards in the country and are the youngest.

I knew the offense would be a work in progress and this staff will do everything to prepare for upcoming Big Ten games that will determine the season. It's very impressive how many freshmen and sophomores are in the game. While it was a blow to see Tarik Black go out due to his injury, Donovan Peoples-Jones is staying to shine.

Ed: This bye week seems to be happening at an opportune time for the Wolverines. The team is a little banged up, and the next three games — MSU, at Indiana, at Penn State — will surely prove to be serious tests. What are you most looking forward to seeing from this team in the few weeks ahead?

Von: After the Purdue game I was thinking the same thing about the bye coming at a nice time with some of the minor injuries the team is facing. And it’s always nice heading into a rivalry game to get an extra week of rest, practice and watching film.

I am looking forward to continued growth from the young players, but I absolutely need to see a lot more growth from the offensive line. The right side of the line with Onwenu and Ulizio has been pretty bad if I’m being honest. It’s at the point where I am not comfortable with any run plays going to the right side of the field. Take a look at all of Ty Isaac’s long runs and you will see they are from the left side where Ben Bredeson and Mason Cole are creating space for the runners to get those big plays.

Ulizio has been better of late in run blocking, but his pass protection needs some serious work. Jon Runyan Jr. and Onwenu were splitting some time against Purdue, and Runyan Jr. actually looked like the better of the two. Along with the quarterback decision, I hope Harbaugh thinks long and hard with Greg Frey and Tim Drevno about what to do with the right side of the line. If Runyan continues to impress, maybe put him at RT and maybe see some more time out of Cesar Ruiz at RG. It’s worth a shot, right?

Dan: Quickly touching on Von’s O-Line comments, I thought another big part of the offense opening up was Jon Runyan’s impact in helping provide some sort of push on the right side. I think it was Evans’ big run, Runyan is the dude who blew the hole open. He needs to be starting at RG or RT, I don’t really care which at this point. Onwenu/Ulizio are a disaster together.

I’m most excited to see how this team responds to the MSU night game. The Spartans are not good, again, but almost pulled off a miracle at the end of last year’s game and still own the record edge against this group of seniors. This game will have a ton of hype and having been to the last Notre Dame night game, an atmosphere that is hard to put into words.

They need to come out and start that game the way they finished against Purdue, attacking the Spartans with an enthusiasm unknown the man-kind. A beat-down of little brother followed by avoiding the trap against Indiana would go a long way in setting the stage for the Bush-Barkley matchup that might feature the best offensive and defensive players in the country.

Colman: I think we’re all on the same page with the offensive line — let’s hope they can get on the same page too. The right side has been the biggest problem, but the entire line had pass protection issues last week and was not opening up holes for the runners.

All season the running game has been boom or bust. The overall numbers look OK because of some big runs but too many runs have been stuffed for minimal gains or losses. This bye week will be essential for the big men to fix some problems and gel. The game is won and lost in the trenches and unless these guys all step up and become more consistent, there will be a loss or two in the near future.

However, I am most excited to see if John O’Korn can replicate his Purdue performance against Little Brother. If he does, the rest of the Big Ten season will look very different to me. After the first three games and a quarter of football, I had resigned to thinking the offense was going to be the reason Michigan didn’t win a Big Ten title or more. If Michigan can get solid QB play, they can beat everyone left on the schedule.

Jared: I can confirm that we are all on the same page with the offensive line, that needs to get better before Penn State. I am ridiculously excited to watch a rivalry game at night. I was at the last one and it was the craziest sports environment I have ever been in by far. MSU always plays us tough, but going up against that defense with a fired up crowd of 110,000 at night is a tall order.

I am excited to see what happens with the receivers, and who steps up with Tarik Black out. It is kind of crazy that a freshman going down hurt our depth so badly at the position, but that is where we stand. Kekoa Crawford has been less than inspiring, and it would be great if someone could step up to challenge him for playing time. He just struggles with gaining separation, and is really indecisive and frankly pedestrian in the return game. We need to see more DPJ for sure, but it would be a real boon for this team if McDoom, Collins, or Oliver Martin emerged as another option on the outside.

David: I agree with a lot of what the guys mentioned above. I want to see this solid defense continue to improve and purely dominate. I want to see toughness and the young players at WR/TE continue to improve. I loved how the TE’s were used against Purdue and feel they will continue similar play calling. It's hard to tell at this time if the next two games are close before they go into Happy Valley and take on Penn State.