The spring game is the best; nothing tells us everything and nothing about the future Michigan Wolverines football team quite like this semi-competitive scrimmage tradition.
For most of the Jim Harbaugh era, this weekend has been an opportunity for quarterbacks to battle it out for the starting position, but there is no quarterback competition to be had this year. J.J. McCarthy is cemented as the starter and, quite frankly, most of the offense is already known.
But a few positions of concern remain, and this scrimmage provides a unique opportunity to speculate wildly and overreact for the next five months until kick-off against East Carolina.
Here are three things I will be watching and overreacting to on the Michigan offense this weekend.
Every RB not named Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards
Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards are going to be the best running back duo in college football this year. Corum will be unavailable in the spring game as he recovers from his knee injury, and Edwards is only expected to take a moderate number of carries in the game.
The battle behind them, however, is fascinating. The third running back on Michigan’s depth chart is one of the most important positions on the team. Think back to last year; third-string walk-on running back Isaiah Gash helped convert a fourth down to keep the season alive against Illinois. And against Ohio State, Kalel Mullings completed a third down jump pass on a key scoring drive.
Michigan’s third running back spot is wide-open with a number of suitors lining up to compete. Gash is now on scholarship and sophomore CJ Stokes could be a game-breaker if his ball security improves. Mullings is now 100% focused on the running back position compared to the weekly flip-flopping last season, and third-year backup Tavierre Dunlap is still in the mix.
A few new faces will also give it a shot, as true freshmen thunder and lightning duo Benjamin Hall and Cole Cabana seek to make an immediate impact. Hell, maybe Danny Hughes wakes up on Saturday and yells, “IT’S DANNY TIME” in the mirror as he makes his bid for the position.
The third running back will play a pivotal role, and this weekend is an opportunity for somebody to stand out.
Cornelius Johnson and Roman Wilson are the top two wide receivers on the team, but who is next? Ronnie Bell is off to the NFL, Amorion Walker is playing defense, and Andrel Anthony moved to Oklahoma.
Michigan likes to use three receiver sets and rotate guys due to perimeter blocking obligations, so there is really an opportunity for two receivers to gain a lot more playing time.
Senior A.J. Henning feels like one of the frontrunners, but he has never been quite able to put it all together as a pass catcher. Rising sophomore Tyler Morris has a solid rapport with McCarthy (high school teammates) and was able to earn some valuable playing time as a freshman last season.
First-team all-physique (6-foot-3, 214 pounds) receiver Darrius Clemons stood out in the spring game last season, but it never materialized in the fall. Other names to watch are junior Cristian Dixon, jump-ball specialist Peyton O’Leary and lightning bolt Eamonn Dennis.
This position is wide-open, but remember that if you are not a physical blocker (or a reliable route-runner) in Michigan’s offense, it might be time to move to Oklahoma.
Michigan’s two-time Joe Moore Award-winning offensive line returns three of five starters from the College Football Playoff, and seven players with meaningful (non-garbage time) game experience.
Trevor Keegan and Zak Zinter are locked into the guard positions, but the tackles and center position battles are intriguing. Stanford transfers, center Drake Nugent and tackle Myles Hinton (brother of Chris), are both recovering from minor injuries, so we are unlikely to see them on Saturday.
Arizona State transfer LaDarius Henderson is the best of the transfer trio, but he is still finishing his ASU degree. So who are the names to watch in the spring game?
Karsen Barnhart and Trente Jones are once again duking it out at right tackle, and Barnhart has even been repping at left tackle this offseason. Honestly, Barnhart might be the most valuable lineman because of his ability to seamlessly play four positions.
Giovanni El-Hadi was a breakthrough player last season when he filled in for the injured Keegan. Center Greg Crippen knows he is in for another battle with a transfer for the starting job. Jeffrey Persi backed up Ryan Hayes at left tackle and even started against Rutgers. And rotational utility interior lineman Reece Atteberry has filled in adequately when called upon, but he has also dealt with injuries throughout his career.
The questions surrounding the group only mount when position changes are considered: “What if El-Hadi wants to kick out to tackle?” Maybe Raheem Anderson wants to challenge for the center position after playing as the backup last year due to the decision to redshirt Crippen.
The spring game will give us our first glimpse into the two-deep minus the transfer players. Here is my guess as to what it will look like on Saturday.
LT- Karsen Barnhart, Jeffrey Persi
LG- Trevor Keegan, Giovanni El-Hadi
C- Greg Crippen, Raheem Anderson
RG- Zak Zinter, Reece Atteberry
RT- Trente Jones, Tristan Bounds
With that said, I fully expect Henderson to take over at left tackle, Barnhart to kick back to right tackle, and Nugent to win the starting center job in the fall.