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How lack of spring practices may affect Michigan Football’s ‘meritocracy’

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Limited practice reps might be good news for known commodities, or will it?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 23 Michigan at Indiana Getty Images

The Michigan Wolverines — like the rest of the college football world — will not be holding spring practices due to the restrictions from COVID-19. At this point, it still remains to be seen whether or not the college football season starts on time (or yikes, maybe at all?) this year, so a lot of things are still very much in the air.

Assuming that we have a season, there is going to be a fall camp at some point. They cannot just throw the shoulder pads on, then travel out to Washington and play a football game. The 2020 edition of Jim Harbaugh’s program has a decent amount of position battles and question marks set to play themselves out, but how will it affect the fight for snaps and playing time?

That is hard to predict, as there are two schools of thought here. The first is that it might be good news for the known — or at least, upperclassmen — commodities on this football team. The staff certainly has an idea of what things will probably look like with mental depth charts or something written in pencil, but that would usually be something quickly adjusted on the fly with a larger sample size of tape from these practices to look over. When they go the go-ahead to start running practices and camps again, the staff might look to that mental depth chart and roll with them, as they have a much more condensed time to prepare themselves to play football games.

On the flip side, the downtime we are all currently experiencing might serve as a refresh button and hard reset. In the here and now, who knows who is staying in shape or developing on their own away from campus? The summer/fall might also see the meritocracy talk around Harbaugh’s program as high as ever. A blank slate for everyone in which to work off of. This would allow the staff to roll the footballs out onto the field and see what happens in a way we have not quite seen before.

So which train of thought prevails here? Truthfully, it might be a marriage of the two. At quarterback and on the offensive line, it is hard to see how all of this does not benefit the incumbents or those who left bowl practices with an idea that they are next in line. That probably is good news for Dylan McCaffrey’s odds of winning the quarterback job, but makes the fall camp battle he has with Joe Milton all that more interesting. Just how much ground is Milton able to gain on McCaffrey, who is entering his fourth season in the quarterback room (Milton’s third) is going to be fascinating.

As far as the offensive line goes, you have your returning starter in Jalen Mayfield, who is going to play either left or right tackle. Ryan Hayes, Andrew Stueber, Chuck Filiaga and Zach Carpenter might be the other four guys, but Nolan Rumler and Andrew Vastardis should factor in here, as well. It seems like things are relatively known here despite the need for new bodies.

It is at almost all the other positions where the free-for-all and snaps available will likely be a chaotic race to the season opener.

Such as:

  • The running back pecking order: Zach Charbonnet, Hassan Haskins, Chris Evans, Christian Turner, Blake Corum
  • Wide receiver depth behind Nico Collins and Ronnie Bell
  • Defensive line rotation (namely on the interior)
  • Linebacker positions not manned by Cam McGrone
  • Cornerback depth behind Ambry Thomas and Vincent Gray

To say we know how Harbaugh and his staff are going to handle all of this would be an exercise in futility, namely because what we are dealing with in this global health crisis is unlikely anything we have seen before. We are watching our leaders struggle with how to handle it, let alone what our football coaches are deciding to do.

It is impossible to evaluate when you do not have practice film to evaluate or have live snaps to witness. There are certain things players can do on their own in the time leading up to getting the ok to practice again, but none of it really matters until the Wolverines are back in a spot where it is time to compete.

If Michigan Football truly operates under a meritocracy, then we are going to see a fall camp unlike any other in Ann Arbor. With not much time to sort out some of the team’s biggest question marks, I would expect the staff to push pretty hard for results. And if you do not perform in this camp, they may have guys that were penciled in as contributors standing on the sidelines until they are where they want them to be.

That might be the way to handle it, but we’re not qualified to make those types of decisions. It stands to reason that veterans are going to get the first crack at most opportunities, but they’ll have to be ready or be passed on the depth chart. Every program in the country is going to deal with this, so it is not a problem unique to the Wolverines.

What will be unique is how Harbaugh and company decide to go about their business.

There are a lot of things to look forward to when all of this nonsense is over, especially a return to sports and competition. Never has the desire to be a fly on the wall in Schembechler Hall been higher around these parts.