The Michigan Wolverines are wrapping up the offseason and begin fall camp on Aug. 6 with no shortage of question marks on the roster and pressure to get things turned around. A hard reset button was hit in the form of a complete overhaul of the defense and tweaks to the offensive dynamic.
One aspect that remains is head coach Jim Harbaugh, who is hoping to lead the program into the second wind of his tenure after signing an incentive-laden contract extension in January. The changes he made on the field and behind the scenes have had several months to materialize. Now it is time to hit the field.
Here are some of the position battles to keep the closest eye on in the lead-up to the Sept. 4 opener against Western Michigan.
Cade McNamara vs. J.J. McCarthy vs. Alan Bowman
Michigan is adamant that Cade McNamara is the starter heading into fall camp and that it seems unlikely he lets go of that job. Could that change down the line somewhere this season? Potentially. However, it feels like as close to a lock as it can get that McNamara takes the first snap on Sept. 4.
The more interesting battle is who is next in line. J.J. McCarthy is the future, but the Wolverines have a former starter entering the fold when Texas Tech transfer Alan Bowman takes the field during camp. Harbaugh said that Bowman was added to increase the depth in the room after Joe Milton and Dylan McCaffrey transferred out but has impressed this summer.
Bowman would really have to surge to supplant McNamara in the month leading up to the opener, which puts him more in line to duke it out with McCarthy for the No. 2 job. The ideal scenario for them might be that McNamara shines this year and Bowman can be a capable backup. This would allow for McCarthy to play the four games he is allowed to preserve redshirt status, but Michigan will play him if he’s ready to go and the best option behind McNamara.
Hassan Haskins vs. Blake Corum (vs. Donovan Edwards?)
Hassan Haskins is a known commodity and the best running back on Michigan’s roster. He has proved this over the last few seasons. Blake Corum is neck-and-neck with him right now with true freshman Donovan Edwards next in line for carries.
Fans fall in love with the idea of a bell-cow back that carries the ball 35 times a game, but Michigan might not need to do that. Haskins is the player that you can throw at the teeth of the defense to pick up tough yards, while Corum could be more of a threat outside the tackles and as a pass-catcher. Edwards might be an ideal hybrid of both.
The strength of this offense will hinge on how well they can run the football given that this is arguably their most talented position group on the roster. Haskins is probably a safe bet to get the “starting” nod, but there’s going to be a lot of fluidity to this group. The competition among the three of them could be the most fun to watch during fall camp. Having former Michigan star and new running backs coach Mike Hart at the helm of this room should go a long way in sorting out the pecking order.
Every wide receiver not named Ronnie Bell vs. every other wide receiver not named Ronnie Bell
Ronnie Bell is locked into Michigan’s starting lineup. Other than that? There is a heck of a lot to work out here. Cornelius Johnson, Mike Sainristil, Roman Wilson, AJ Henning and transfer Daylen Baldwin will all fight it out for snaps. A pair of true freshmen in Andrel Anthony and Cristian Dixon might have something to say, as well.
Bell, Johnson and Sainristil were mentioned by Harbaugh at Big Ten Football Media Days as the top three heading into camp. Wilson is the closest thing to a home run threat on the roster. AJ Henning could be a nice chess piece that steps into the Giles Jackson role. Baldwin is a bit of an unknown but was a late bloomer as a prospect that broke out at Jackson State last year. Michigan likes him a ton and fought off Ohio State and Penn State for his services in the transfer portal.
The Wolverines have talent here, but a few guys will separate themselves during fall camp. They might not have a true No. 1 to go to, but this is still a nice group to work with. Erick All, Luke Schoonmaker, Matthew Hibner and Louis Hansen also will factor in, but tight end usage in this offense has diminished over the last few seasons.
Chuck Filiaga vs. Trevor Keegan vs. Andrew Vastardis vs. Karsen Barnhart
There was not a position group in 2020 more affected by a lack of spring football and hastily thrown together training camp than the offensive line. Even when they practiced together, the units were split to prevent a potential COVID outbreak. A return to normalcy should make it easier to find who the best five are. That is the task of new offensive line coach Sherrone Moore, who moves from coaching the tight ends and also holds the title of co-offensive coordinator.
Three of those five players are locked in with Ryan Hayes at left tackle and Zack Zinter (center or guard) and Andrew Stueber (guard or tackle) penciled in. Veteran guard Chuck Filiaga has been mentioned as having one of the best offseasons on the team. Karsen Barnhart (tackle), Andrew Vastardis (center) and Trevor Keegan (guard) and Filiaga will fight to fill the final remaining spots. Don’t sleep on Jeffrey Persi either, who was up to 6-foot-7, 302 pounds on the spring roster that was released earlier this year.
Having positional flexibility with two of the three players locked into the lineup helps Michigan toy with every possible combination to find its best five linemen. The success of that group could make or break an offense that probably needs to carry this team for a chunk of the year while the defense gets up to speed.
Vincent Gray vs. DJ Turner
Unless something crazy happens in fall camp, it does feel like Michigan’s defense is mostly set at most positions. Depth is a major question mark at all three levels, so that might not be the biggest endorsement of the state of affairs.
The biggest battle as of now that is public heading into camp has to do with Michigan’s starting cornerback duo. Gemon Green is locked into one of those spots as of now, per Harbaugh, with Vincent Gray and DJ Turner set to compete for the other job. Both Green and Gray had rough starts to the 2020 season but did improve as the year went on. Turner is a player that Michigan has been waiting to come on for a few seasons now. It appears the wheels are in motion for that to happen.
Is there a potential battle that you see brewing ahead of fall camp? Sound off in the comments below and take the conversation over to our Discord server here.