Plenty of question marks for the Wolverines at the onset of spring ball
Tough to imagine with almost a foot of snow still on the ground up north, but spring practices are already upon us with the Michigan Wolverines beginning camp this week. The Wolverines hit the practice field coming off an abysmal 2020 season, finishing 2-4 with one of the worst statistical defenses in program history, allowing 34.5 points and 434.3 yards per game. Offensively, it wasn't much better; the Wolverines finished in the bottom half of the Big Ten in rushing and threw for fewer than 100 yards in two of their last three games.
Much of the offensive core returns in 2021, as do some key playmakers on defense, so a rebound season is likely. Catching Ohio State in the Big Ten East standings next year is probably an unrealistic goal, but there are reasons to believe Michigan can make a push towards the top of the conference next season. That all starts this week as Athlon Sports takes a look at some things to keep an eye on for the Wolverines this spring.
5 Storylines to Watch During Michigan's Spring Practices
1. Quarterback competition
One name was already removed from said competition this past week as last year's opening week starter Joe Milton announced his decision to transfer from the program with three years of eligibility remaining. Unfortunately, that's been a common theme during the Jim Harbaugh tenure with players hitting the portal, and Milton marks the second quarterback to ship out this offseason alone with Dylan McCaffrey also leaving.
Milton's departure now leaves just three scholarship quarterbacks currently on the roster – sophomore Cade McNamara, freshman Dan Villari and incoming 5-star recruit J.J. McCarthy, an early enrollee. McNamara is squarely in the pole position now entering the spring after playing in four games a year ago, completing 60 percent of his passes with five touchdowns and zero interceptions. Whether that lead will be extended by the end of spring camp or if one of the two freshmen close the gap is, by far, the biggest storyline for the Wolverines at the onset of camp.
2. Revamped coaching staff roles
The Wolverines have now hired six new coaches this offseason, with the latest addition being former Baltimore Ravens running backs coach Matt Weiss joining the staff this past weekend, reportedly to coach quarterbacks. Weiss' addition comes as a result of linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary leaving for Tennessee last week, forcing Harbaugh to reshuffle the board once again with his new assistants, none of whom are above the age of 40.
The two most notable additions to the staff – Mike Macdonald comes over from the Ravens to coordinate the defense and a familiar face in former Michigan running back Mike Hart was named the new RBs coach after spending the last few seasons with Indiana.
Thus far, the new hires have been met with rave reviews, as the group has hit the ground running with the current roster and prospective recruits.
3. How will the defensive scheme look under Macdonald?
Given that Macdonald has never been a defensive coordinator at any level previously, there is little evidence as to what scheme the Michigan defense will run in 2021. That said, there are some clues from his previous stops as to what this defense might look like moving forward.
During the "In the Trenches" podcast on the MGoBlue website, Macdonald gave out some standard coach-speak, describing his philosophy as wanting to be "multiple" and "aggressive" while mixing coverages in the secondary. Most seem to believe, given Macdonald's prior experience with Georgia and the Baltimore Ravens that Michigan will move closer towards a 3-4 scheme. The Wolverines also placed a heavy emphasis on the defensive line in this year's recruiting class, adding three defensive tackles late in the window, alluding to the preference of more beef up front.
4. Fixing the secondary
We pointed out above how dreadful the Michigan defense was in 2020, and much of that was due to the struggles on the back end as the Wolverines allowed more than 250 passing yards per game which ranked 90th in the country. According to Pro Football Focus, Michigan was 78th nationally in pass coverage grades with just a single player – a backup safety – with a rating above 70.
Juniors Gemon Green and Vincent Gray will likely return as the starting duo at cornerback, but Gray in particular struggled mightily in 2020, allowing a 110.6 quarterback rating with just two pass breakups in six games. Perhaps the change in scheme will lead to improved play with both Gray and Green, but Michigan needs more depth to emerge at this position this spring to challenge for a starting job.
The Wolverines should be just fine at safety with senior Brad Hawkins returning with his extra year of eligibility, and former 5-star recruit Daxton Hill, the most versatile playmaker on the entire Michigan roster.
5. More offensive difference-makers needed
Michigan appears to have their starters in place at the skill positions with Hassan Haskins in the backfield, Cornelius Johnson and Ronnie Bell on the outside at receiver and Erick All starting at tight end. While all productive and capable players, Michigan lacks true game-breaking ability that some of the top-tier teams in the country possess. Hence why Michigan hasn't appeared in a conference title game or even sniffed the College Football Playoff since its inception.
The staff took some steps to addressing that issue with this year's recruiting class, adding three playmakers who potentially fit the mold of a difference-maker. We touched on McCarthy above, who will have every chance to win the starting QB job right from the get-go. Harbaugh signed another 5-star prospect in running back Donovan Edwards who should enter the backfield rotation immediately as well after Michigan lost a pair of backs to transfer in the offseason. The Wolverines also added 4-star receiver Xavier Worthy who had offers from Alabama, Georgia, LSU and other high-profile majors, and will add a speed element that Michigan currently lacks as he ran a 10.55-second 100-meter dash as a sophomore.
— 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.