Despite a massively underwhelming 2017 campaign, expectations are considerably high for the Michigan Wolverines in '18. Coming in at No. 7 in Athlon Sports' Way-Too-Early Top 25, the Wolverines bring back 18 starters and are littered with experience after being forced to play so many underclassmen last season.
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The pressure remains on Jim Harbaugh and his staff entering 2018 as he is now 1-5 against his closest rivals and has yet to make an appearance in the Big Ten title game. With perhaps his best roster since being in Ann Arbor, Harbaugh needs to have his team in the mix to compete for a championship this season. Otherwise, many will start to wonder what was thought to be unthinkable — if he is the right man to lead this program moving forward.
That is a question for much further into the future. For now, as spring football is on the horizon next month, let’s take a look at five players to watch in the coming months for the Wolverines.
Shea Patterson, QB
We all know the situation by now. The former Ole Miss transfer is currently awaiting a decision from the NCAA as to whether or not he will be able to play in 2018. Widely expected to be granted eligibility, Patterson is already participating in winter conditioning with the team and would likely step in as the starting quarterback from the get-go when taking first snaps in the spring. As noted previously, Michigan has a load of experience returning up and down the roster, but if Michigan is to challenge the Ohio States and Penn States of the world, it is imperative they get MUCH better play out of the quarterback position. Last year’s starter Brandon Peters remains in the wings, but there is not much confidence he is the guy anymore after his performance in the Outback Bowl loss to South Carolina.
Aubrey Solomon, DT
Most spots on Don Brown’s defense remain intact from last season where Michigan ranked No. 3 in total defense, allowing just 271 yards per game. The Wolverines will have two spots technically up for grabs this spring, defensive tackle and linebacker, where two seniors graduated in Mike McCray and All-American Maurice Hurst. Some of the younger, speedier linebackers figure to be an upgrade over McCray, but the Wolverines have a tall task in replacing the disruptive force that Hurst was in the middle of their line. Solomon garnered three starts in his first year, and really began to flash that five-star talent towards the end of the season. While he may start at nose tackle as opposed to 3-technique where Hurst played, Solomon will be counted on dominate the middle of the line in a similar fashion in 2018.
Casey Hughes, DB
Patterson’s transfer garnered most of the headlines but Michigan added another experienced player in the offseason in Hughes. The former Utah defensive back started 11 games last year at cornerback, registering 35 tackles, a sack and two forced fumbles. Harbaugh stated that Hughes’ position in 2018 is TBD as Michigan already has their starting corners in place with Lavert Hill and David Long. Hughes could see time at nickelback, but some expect him to challenge for time at safety as the Wolverines struggled in coverage at that spot. Either way, Hughes gives the Wolverines additional depth at a position of strength.
Grant Newsome, OT
Newsome will likely not participate fully in spring practice, but remains a potentially crucial piece on the Michigan roster as the Wolverines have a huge hole to fill at left tackle. Newsome, if you recall, broke his leg in a gruesome on-field injury back in 2016 and needed surgery to keep his leg from being amputated. Newsome was sidelined for all of 2017, but is reportedly healthy and waiting for the clearance of doctors before seeing the field once again. Newsome will be in the mix to start at left tackle this season along with a pair of redshirt freshmen vying to replace Mason Cole, who started 25 straight games there after switching over from center. Michigan also is reportedly in the mix for Rice transfer Calvin Anderson, who would be another candidate at left tackle.
Kareem Walker, RB
Karan Higdon and Chris Evans return as the clear top two running backs in the rotation after combining for 1,679 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns last season. There is a spot open as the No. 3 back with Ty Isaac graduating, and there are carries to be had as the third-leading rusher for Michigan under Harbaugh has averaged 68 a season. Walker (above, right) had just 20 rushing attempts in 2017 and would appear to be in line for more work this fall, but his role has been in question after not traveling with the team for the Outback Bowl. All reports have been refuted to this point that Walker was dismissed so he remains with the team, but the redshirt sophomore will need to show something in the spring as the Wolverines brought in three more freshmen running backs this offseason. This could be Walker’s last opportunity.
— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois University. Follow him on Twitter @MBainbridgeCFF.