Michigan enters spring practice with question marks on both sides of the ball, but that’s not the main storyline in Ann Arbor. The return of Jim Harbaugh to the Maize and Blue has the Wolverines back on the rise in the Big Ten. Harbaugh has been a successful coach at each of his three stops, including a 29-21 mark at Stanford. Needless to say, it won’t be long before Harbaugh has Michigan back into Big Ten title contention.
What’s ahead for the Wolverines in Harbaugh’s first spring practices? I asked Joshua Henschke (@JoshuaHenschke) of MaizenBrew.com to help us preview Michigan and answer some of the key questions and storylines to watch.
1. What’s a realistic goal for Michigan in Jim Harbaugh’s first season? There’s no doubt Harbaugh is one of the best coaches in the Big Ten, but does he have the talent to produce a three or four-game improvement in the win column in 2015?
I think the best, and most realistic, goal for Jim Harbaugh this season is to show that this team has a pulse. The talent is certainly there, but there were obvious developmental issues that plagued the team under former head coach Brady Hoke. I think it's a bit unrealistic for Michigan to compete amongst the cream of the Big Ten crop right away, but an eight- or nine-win season is certainly not out of the picture. The home schedule is favorable, which includes both Michigan State and Ohio State at home, and Notre Dame is no longer on the schedule. The opportunity to make some noise is there, but the true question is whether it can all come together in such a short amount of time.
2. Shane Morris is the team’s most experienced quarterback heading into spring practice, but how secure is his lead for the No. 1 job? Out of the inexperienced options – Alex Malzone, Zach Gentry and Wilton Speight – which one is the biggest threat to Morris?
Logic says that Speight would be the biggest threat to Morris due to him being a returning player ready to play after a redshirt year. Granted that every quarterback will get a fresh start by having to learn a new offensive scheme, at face value it seems like its Morris' job to lose. However, and this is my own darkhorse pick, don't count out Malzone the true freshman, either. From all accounts, he has been impressing coaches so far and will have the winter and spring under his belt due to him being an early enrollee. These spring practices will be very valuable to the young quarterback. No matter which way it goes, it'll be an interesting decision to keep an eye on.
3. With the loss of receiver Devin Funchess, and the uncertainty at running back, the skill positions will be two areas of intrigue this spring. Are there any players primed for a breakout year to replace Funchess at receiver? What type of impact can USC transfer Ty Isaac have at running back?
Michigan returns a couple familiar faces to their wide receiver group this season. Funchess didn't do much last season statistically, so there's certainly a chance for someone to step in and see some passes thrown his way. Someone that comes to mind immediately is redshirt freshman Moe Ways. A local guy out of Detroit Country Day high school, I was always a fan of his highlight tape coming out of high school. With the path in front of him a bit packed last season, Funchess' loss means that Ways could certainly get an opportunity to see major playing time in 2015.
As far as the running backs go, it would not be a surprise if Isaac is named the starter. With his redshirt year due to NCAA transfer rules, he has put on weight and weighs about 240 pounds, which is great for a running back his size. He is a former five-star recruit in high school so he definitely has a high ceiling. Of course, you have the original crew of Derrick Green who is returning from a broken clavicle, De'Veon Smith and Drake Johnson who is recovering from a second torn ACL. The returning players haven't exactly lived up to the hype, but Green was performing much better in the games leading up to his injury. I think there will be a healthy mix of running backs that will be used this season. However, Michigan is certainly looking for "the guy" to carry the load, something it hasn't seen since the days of Mike Hart.
4. Lost in the offensive troubles was a defense that allowed just 4.8 yards per play in 2014. Can this unit be as effective (or better) in 2015?
There's plenty of reasons to be hopeful about the defense, mainly due to the fact that it returns most of its starters from a year ago. The obvious big loss is linebacker Jake Ryan, but a guy like Joe Bolden or Ben Gedeon should fill that role and do well there. If new defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin is all that he is hyped up to be, there's certainly a chance for Michigan's defense to be much better than what it was a year ago. The younger players have experience, it returns a healthy Jabrill Peppers and I believe the moves Harbaugh has made on the defensive side of the ball will have an excellent impact.
5. What type of impact will a healthy Jabrill Peppers have in Michigan’s secondary? Does he fit in at cornerback or safety in coordinator D.J. Durkin’s scheme?
I kind of touched on it a little bit in my previous answer, but having a healthy player like Peppers back is huge for Michigan. Durkin has told reporters that he plans on using Peppers at both cornerback and safety. I still believe we will see him mainly at safety because the needs for him at that spot far outweigh the needs at corner. Having him back adds another element to the Michigan defense. I can recall last spring and the little he played last season just how much of a better player he was compared to the rest of the Michigan defense. That's not an insult to the rest of the players, but he's just that talented. Now, it's time to see that unfold on the field.
- Follow @MaizenBrew for the latest news and analysis on Michigan for the 2015 season.
Athlon Sports Pre-Spring Outlook on Michigan:
There’s no doubt Michigan is going show improvement in 2015. Harbaugh is one of the nation’s top-10 coaches, and the Wolverines will get back to the postseason. How high this team can climb in the standings depends on the development of the quarterback position, as well the continued improvement from the offensive line and skill players. The defense has a few holes, but this unit should be among the best in the Big Ten. Ohio State and Michigan State should be picked higher in the West Division, but after the Buckeyes and Spartans, there’s an opportunity for Michigan to claim the No. 3 spot and build to an even better 2016.