Different year, same old story last season for the Michigan Wolverines as another promising start came to a crashing halt in the last two games. The Wolverines were first run out of the stadium in the season finale against Ohio State, and then had a dreadful performance in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl against Florida in a 41-15 blowout defeat.
Despite the underwhelming results and several early departures to the NFL on the defensive side of the ball, expectations remain considerably high for the Wolverines entering next year as they come in at No. 8 on Athlon’s Pre-Spring Top 130 Teams rankings, with Ohio State as the only Big Ten team ahead of Michigan on the list. Head coach Jim Harbaugh made some drastic changes to his coaching staff, especially on offense, in hopes to finally get over the hump and lead his team to a possible Big Ten Championship Game appearance and beyond. Will that be enough to offset some of the losses of several key defensive playmakers in 2019?
That is a question for down the road. For now, let's take a look at some things to keep an eye as the Wolverines are set to return to the practice field.
5 Storylines to Watch During Michigan Spring Practice
The offensive woes are well-documented for the Wolverines. Shea Patterson brought stability to the quarterback position, but that still was not enough to get Michigan over the hump as the offense crumbled against top-shelf opponents. That is where Josh Gattis comes in as he arrives in Ann Arbor after a one-year stint as the co-offensive coordinator at Alabama where the Crimson Tide averaged a little more than 45 points per game in 2018.
Jim Harbaugh has already stated that Gattis will be given full control of the offense and play-calling — music to the ears of Michigan fans as there was no full-time offensive coordinator last season. Those that will benefit most from Gattis’ arrival? That is expected to be wide receiver trio Nico Collins, Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black, who make up what is perhaps the most talented position group on the roster. If Gattis can find a way to diversify the offensive play-calling, and get Michigan’s collection of playmakers the ball in space, this could be the type of offense fans have been clamoring for.
2. Who starts at running back?
No position on offense is under more of a spotlight this spring than running back where the Wolverines need to replace their top two rushers from last season in Karan Higdon and Chris Evans. Higdon ran for 1,178 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2018, becoming the first Michigan running back to top the 1,000-yard mark since 2011. Evans was in line to take over the starting job as a senior, but is no longer with the team due to academic issues.
With Evans’ dismissal, walk-on Tru Wilson is now the leading returning rusher, but Michigan will have a few other options this spring, including redshirt freshmen Christian Turner and Hassan Haskins. There's also true freshman Zach Charbonnet, a 6-foot-2, 215-pound back out of California who had an extensive offer list from a number of Power 5. An early enrollee, Charbonnet is already on campus and taking part in workouts but he also is recovering from minor offseason surgery that will limit his participation in spring practice.
3. Who will emerge along the defensive line?
This will look like an entirely new group as the Wolverines lose two starters in Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich to the NFL, two rotational players in Bryan Mone and Lawrence Marshall who graduated, another key reserve in former 5-star recruit Aubrey Solomon who transferred to Tennessee, as well as position coach Greg Mattison, who left to become the co-defensive coordinator at Ohio State.
Defensive end is slightly less concerning heading into next season as the Wolverines have the perceived depth to overcome the losses of Gary and Winovich. Junior Kwity Paye filled in admirably for Gary while he was hurt during the month of October, and finished the year with 5.5 tackles for a loss and two sacks. He will occupy one starting spot with sophomore Aidan Hutchinson likely taking the other after playing sparingly as a freshman, but the staff is high on his potential. Central Michigan graduate transfer Mike Danna was added last month after racking up 9.5 sacks last season with the Chippewas and will be in the mix as well.
The situation at tackle is more pressing as there is a considerable lack of proven depth behind projected starters Michael Dwumfour and Carlo Kemp. That will put even more pressure on true freshmen Chris Hinton and Mazi Smith to be prepared to contribute immediately.
4. New starters at safety and cornerback
Starting cornerback David Long departed early for the NFL while starting free safety Tyree Kinnel has since graduated, leaving those spots open in the secondary. Unless a surprise contender emerges at safety, that starting job is unlikely to be solidified in the spring as the Wolverines await the arrival of five-star freshman Daxton Hill, who will add playmaking ability and speed to a defensive backfield that is lacking in both areas.
As for who lines up at cornerback across from first-team All-Big Ten performer Lavert Hill, it would be a major upset if it were not junior Ambry Thomas. The third-year cornerback has split time on both offense and defense during his first two seasons in Ann Arbor, but is arguably one of the fastest players on the team and is one of the only returning players at the position with any extensive playing experience. A host of redshirt freshmen, including Myles Sims and Vincent Gray, are expected to be in the mix for playing time this spring.
5. Who replaces Devin Bush?
There may be a Michigan teammate or two drafted ahead of Bush come April, but there was no one more valuable on the Wolverines' defense last year than him, as Bush finished 2018 with 66 total tackles, 4.5 sacks and four pass deflections. We did get a brief preview late last season of what life will be like without Bush as he decided to sit out the bowl game against Florida. The Wolverines proceeded to allow more than 250 rushing yards as a result. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that the player likely stepping into Bush’s role, junior Josh Ross, has extensive playing experience after appearing in all 13 games last season, recording 54 total tackles and a sack. Ross is nowhere nears athletic or dynamic as Bush, but he is steady and has enough experience under his belt that the position should remain in good hands.
— 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.