The Michigan Wolverines have as much talent returning in 2023 as any Michigan team in recent memory. Expectations are sky-high across the board especially considering that the coaching staff has remained intact –to this point anyway.
However, despite a large number of returning starters and experienced reserves, there are still several key positional battles that could be the difference between a national championship, and another off-season full of “what ifs.”
Here are a few positional battles to keep your eyes on as spring football quickly approaches.
Who is the best edge rusher on the defense? With the departure of Mike Morris to the NFL Draft, and the transfer of Eyabi Okie to his fifth school, this is a question that will linger until the East Carolina game. All signs point to Jaylen Harrell as one of the starters because of his versatility and experience, but who steps in opposite him to be the premier pass rusher?
Last year’s no-star defensive mantra was great, but when push came to shove, the Wolverines greatly missed having a star on the edge to take over games. Which player on this team can consistently win one-on-one match-ups and force offenses to always account for their alignment?
It’s primarily a three-man race between a promising veteran, a transfer, and a rising sophomore. But don’t count out an incoming freshman from cracking the rotation his first year on campus.
Favorite: Braiden McGregor
Contenders: Derrick Moore, Josaiah Stewart
Dark horses: TJ Guy, Enow Etta, Tyler McLaurin
Michigan will need to replace No. 1 wide receiver and team captain Ronnie Bell, as well as the depth-providing –albeit wildly underperforming– Andrel Anthony. Cornelius Johnson (if he returns) and Roman Wilson will be two of the top guys, but this Michigan offense likes to use three primary wide receivers in their passing attack and rotate a fourth.
The Wolverines have a plethora of talent in the receiver room, but most of it is unproven. Do one of the three talented freshmen from last year take that sophomore leap? Does AJ Henning finally put it all together as a pass catcher?
Favorites: Tyler Morris, Darrius Clemons
Contenders: AJ Henning, Amorion Walker, Cristian Dixon
Dark Horses: Peyton O’Leary, Karmello English
Michigan’s secondary is loaded next season with four of the five positions returning impactful starters from last season: Will Johnson, Rod Moore, Mikey Sainristil, and the combination of RJ Moten/ Makari Paige. But who will start opposite Johnson at the other corner with the losses of DJ Turner and Gemon Green?
The Wolverines have several options, although all of them are unproven commodities. Do they turn to the veteran Jalen Perry and hope for a Gemon Green-esque career arc? Can Ja’Den McBurrows stay healthy? Or does Michigan look to the transfer portal, or to converting one of their talented young safeties (Keon Sabb, Zeke Berry) into a starting corner?
Favorite: Ja’Den McBurrows
Contender: Jalen Perry
Dark horses: Jyaire Hill, Keon Sabb
Dark USC Trojan horse: Domani Jackson
Michigan uses more variations of tight end personnel groupings than any team in the Power 5. While the transfer of Erick All and the departure of Luke Schoonmaker have rightfully dominated the headlines, the Wolverines also lost Joel Honigford and Carter Selzer who provided valuable depth for several formations.
Colston Loveland is the No. 1 tight end next year with a bullet, but who will emerge as TE2 or TE3?
Favorites: Max Bredeson, AJ Barner
Contenders: Matthew Hibner, Marlin Klein
Dark horse: Josh Beetham
Junior Colson is the starting MIKE in permanent tattooed ink, but who will start next to him as the WIL linebacker? Nikhai Hill-Green was supposed to be the guy, but injuries derailed his entire 2022 season and allowed Michael Barrett to flourish to the tune of 72 tackles, five tackles-for-loss, 3.5 sacks, and two interceptions. All four of those numbers were top five on the defense last year.
But the battle doesn’t stop there. What about the ascension of true sophomore Jimmy Rolder who played as a rotational linebacker last season? The incoming Nebraska transfer Ernest Hausmann –who finished as the best player on the Cornhuskers’ defense over their final three games– did not transfer to Ann Arbor to ride the pine.
Favorite: Michael Barrett
Contenders: Nikhai Hill-Green, Jimmy Rolder, Ernest Hausmann
Dark horses: Jaydon Hood, Semaj Bridgeman
Running Back (No. 3)
In 2023, Michigan will again feature the best running back duo in the country with Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards. But if the last two years have taught us anything, any injury that can happen will happen, especially to the running back position.
While the Wolverines are expected to split snaps even more evenly between their dynamic top two backs, a consistent third rusher needs to step up and help shoulder the load. Can rising sophomore CJ Stokes cut out the fumbles and add a little more power to his game? What is Kalel Mullings’s ceiling with an entire year dedicated to one position? Or could one of the incoming freshmen usurp an upperclassman?
Favorite: CJ Stokes
Contenders: Kalel Mullings, Cole Cabana
Dark horse: Isaiah Gash, Benjamin Hall
Another year, another positional battle for Greg Crippen. Last year, Crippen battled with eventual Rimington and Outland Trophy winner Olu Oluwatimi for the starting position. This year, while another battle is on the horizon, this one will be much more competitive.
Drake Nugent is a Stanford transfer and former team captain of the Cardinal, hoping to enjoy the same Michigan boost as former Virginia transfer Oluwatimi. While Nugent has the experience over Crippen, talent for talent, they are very similar.
Favorite: Drake Nugent
Contender: Greg Crippen
Darkhorse: Reece Atteberry
Right Tackle/ Left Tackle
This battle is interesting because of all the different scenarios to consider. At right tackle last season, Trente Jones won the job and relinquished it to Karsen Barnhart due to injury, but once healthy, Jones was never able to reclaim his position.
Will both of them start next season with one moving over to left to fill the void left by Ryan Hayes? Or will highly touted Arizona State transfer LaDarius Henderson or Stanford transfer Myles Hinton shake things up?
Favorites: Trente Jones, LaDarius Henderson
Contenders: Karsen Barnhart, Myles Hinton
Dark horses: Jeffrey Persi, Tristan Bounds
Who is going to replace Jake Moody, the greatest kicker in the history of Michigan football? Without a reliable kicker, Michigan has at least two to three more losses over the course of the last two seasons. Kicker is often overlooked but is one of the single most important and influential positions on the football field. Just ask Ohio State.
Favorite: Tommy Doman
Contender: Charlie Mentzer
Dark horse: Adam Samaha
Who is going to be the new fourth-down quarterback? As Iowa showed last season, a great punter can change the complexion of games and dictate outcomes by flipping field position. While difficult, Brad Robbins can be replaced. However, his facial hair game cannot.
Favorite: Tommy Doman
Contender: Charlie Mentzer
Dark horse: Adam Samaha
**If Kris Jenkins declares for the NFL Draft then there will be a key battle to watch there between Kenneth Grant and Rayshaun Benny to see who starts alongside Mason Graham.