Michigan fans were hoping for a calm and quiet offseason following the Wolverines' first trip to the College Football Playoff. It was anything but that as Jim Harbaugh's NFL flirtations dominated the headlines for weeks, followed by several coaching changes during the offseason carousel, including a publicized departure of offensive coordinator Josh Gattis.
As we enter the beginning of spring practices, the dust has finally settled for the Wolverines. Harbaugh is returning, signing a brand new contract, and the staff is locked in place with the hiring of new defensive coordinator Jesse Minter and a few in-house promotions on the offensive side of the ball. With that out of the way, Michigan fans can now look towards a promising future with a roster that is littered with high-end talent, but also one that loses some key components, particularly on the defensive side of the ball with six starters off the NFL.
At the onset of spring camp, here are some of the storylines we’ll be paying close attention to with the Wolverines.
5 Storylines to Watch During Michigan’s Spring Practice
1. Quarterback competition
We're discussing five different storylines here for the Wolverines but realistically, we could just talk about the impending quarterback competition for the entirety of this article as it will dominate the headlines in Ann Arbor for much of the spring/offseason. Particularly in the second half of the season, starter Cade McNamara was outstanding for Michigan, completing 64 percent of his passes with 15 touchdowns and just six interceptions. Most importantly, the now-senior quarterback led the Wolverines to heights they hadn’t gotten to in decades.
But now that the Wolverines have had a taste of the apple in winning a Big Ten title and reaching the College Football Playoff, more is wanted…and will be expected. McNamara was not the sole reason Michigan lost to Georgia in the Orange Bowl, but he was far from the solution as well, as his limitations as a passer against a championship-level defense were apparent. Enter former 5-star recruit J.J. McCarthy who saw the field intermittently during the regular season as a change-of-pace option in the wildcat and in blowout situations. Despite throwing just 59 passes in limited opportunities, the physical attributes are evident as both a runner and passer, with the ball jumping out of his hands as you can clearly see with this throw late in the game vs. Georgia.
2. Revamped coaching staff roles
This wasn't exactly the turnover Jim Harbaugh saw last year, having to replace six different assistant coaches, but the staff will look much different than it did a year ago with new coordinators on both sides of the football. With Josh Gattis leaving for Miami, Harbaugh decided to promote from within, elevating quarterbacks’ coach Matt Weiss to co-offensive coordinator alongside Sherrone Moore who will now have dual titles as co-OC and offensive line coach. On defense, Mike Macdonald departed after one season in Ann Arbor as he returned to the NFL to join the Ravens in what seemed to be a coordinated plan all along between the two Harbaugh brothers. Filling that role for the Wolverines will be former Vanderbilt DC Jesse Minter who has a longstanding relationship with the Harbaughs, having spent four years with the Ravens as a defensive assistant. Continuity is key with the Minter hiring, as he will run a similar scheme to the one that had the Wolverines in the top 10 defensively a season ago.
3. Who's replacing two potential top-10 NFL draft picks?
The Wolverines finished just 39th in the country in total sacks but 74 percent of these (25) came from bookends Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo who will both be selected very high in the upcoming NFL draft. Fortunately for Michigan, their likely replacements are talented and experienced in their own right with senior Mike Morris and Taylor Upshaw. The 6-foot-6, 278-pound Morris fits the bill physically and saw significant snaps as a rotational piece in 2021, but finished the year with just 16 tackles and one sack. Upshaw began 2021 as a starter, but saw his snap counts take a hit with the emergence of Ojabo as the season wore along. Former 4-star Braiden McGregor, entering his third year in the program, talented true freshman Derrick Moore and hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker Jaylen Harrell will all be counted on to get after the quarterback and replace the vacated production left by Ojabo and Hutchinson.
4. Progression of rising sophomores on offense
When the Georgia Bulldogs were celebrating on the podium following the Orange Bowl victory over the Wolverines, there was an image of three players standing in the background watching the celebration that resonated with fans. Those three players? Sophomores J.J. McCarthy, Donovan Edwards, and Andrel Anthony. We discussed McCarthy at length above and how his spring development will be critical to how the 2022 season will play out. Edwards fits that mold as well, as he will likely take on the 1B complementary role alongside Blake Corum in the Michigan backfield that will see between 150-200 carries. Edwards also getting the starting nod over Corum wouldn't shock anyone. Anthony will be just one component of a deep wide receiving corps that will also get veteran leader Ronnie Bell back from injury, but might have the highest upside of any in the group after what he displayed against Michigan State in Week 9 with 155 yards and two scores. The 6-foot-2 sophomore also caught the lone touchdown pass from McCarthy in garbage time vs. Georgia. A precursor of things to come from this group in 2022?
5. Early enrollees from top-10 recruiting class
Thirteen of the Wolverines’ 22 members of their No. 9 recruiting class according to the 247Sports Composite will enroll early this spring, giving them a jump at learning the playbook and participating in offseason workouts. Of the group, the two standouts that are expected to have an immediate impact in Year 1 are 5-star defensive back Will Johnson and defensive end Derrick Moore. A dual-sport athlete in high school, Johnson has the requisite size (6-2) and speed (reported 4.7 40-yard dash) to make an immediate impact in the Wolverines' defensive backfield. And he will have every opportunity to do just that with three starters in the secondary leaving for the NFL in Daxton Hill, Vincent Gray, and Brad Hawkins. Moore, a 260-pound 4-star recruit, has some positional flexibility to play either defensive end or kick to the 3-technique, and enrolling early will give the coaching staff a good look at which position suits him best.
— 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.