The 2015 version of the Michigan Wolverines surprised many by winning 10 games in Jim Harbaugh’s first year at the helm, including a blowout 41-7 victory over Florida in the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day.
Because of last season’s success, the 2016 squad faces real expectations of not only competing in the Big Ten East with rivals Michigan State and Ohio State, but also ultimately contending for a College Football Playoff spot when it is all said and done. The Wolverines will return as many as 15 starters, but don’t let that fool you – some key positions still need to be ironed out before the Sept. 3 season opener against Hawaii.
5 Storylines to Watch in Michigan Spring Practice
1. New Starting Quarterback
Michigan fans were severely unimpressed with the addition of graduate transfer Jake Rudock from Iowa last offseason, but the move proved to be an outstanding one as he became just the second quarterback in the program’s history to throw for 3,000 yards in a single season. Rudock now departs, leaving a gaping hole at quarterback, but one that most feel confident will be filled due in large part to the trust in Harbaugh to locate his next signal-caller. So who wins the job?
The overwhelming favorite is former Houston transfer John O’Korn. As a freshman, O’Korn threw for 2,800-plus yards and 25 touchdowns, but wound up moving on from the program after losing his starting spot to Greg Ward Jr. Junior southpaw Shane Morris remains on the team and will compete with O’Korn, but has not shown the consistency or accuracy in brief stints on the field to yield much consideration. Sophomore Wilton Speight and true freshman Brandon Peters will be in the mix, but it will be a major surprise if O’Korn is not under center come Week 1.
2. Revamping the Linebacker Corps
Gone from last season are all three starting linebackers in James Ross, Desmond Morgan and Joe Bolden, as well as key reserve Royce Jenkins-Stone who was first off the bench. That is a combined 229 tackles between the four of them. There is some thought that new defensive coordinator Don Brown – formerly of Boston College – could move to a 4-2-5 scheme that could see either Jabrill Peppers or safety Delano Hill provide additional run support on earlier downs.
So who are the top candidates to fill those two key linebacker spots? Junior Ben Gideon played extensively in a reserve role last season and should assume the middle position. Sophomore Reuben Jones could see some time at linebacker, despite being recruited to play end. Jones saw time at the spot during bowl practices. Freshman Devin Bush Jr. also is expected to see playing time immediately as he enrolled early this winter. This is the one spot on the team where depth will need to develop quickly this offseason.
3. D-Line Standouts
The Wolverines will undoubtedly sport one of the top defensive lines in the entire country next season with nearly everyone returning with the exception of NFL Draft early entry Willie Henry. Back from last year are ends Taco Charlton, Chris Wormley and Lawrence Marshall, along with tackles Maurice Hurst and Ryan Glasgow.
The Wolverines will also regain the services of sophomore Bryan Mone who was slated to start at the nose before a broken leg ended his 2015 before it even started. And don’t forget to include this year’s No. 1 overall recruit, Rashan Gary, who committed to the Wolverines over the likes of Clemson, Alabama and others. Gary figures to be in the rotation immediately amongst the tackles, and is more than athletic enough to play on the strong side at end – part of the reason he was so sought after in recruiting.
Harbaugh has placed an emphasis with his two recruiting classes on building up the trenches on both sides of the ball, and we should see the benefits of that in 2016.
4. Competition at Running Back
Not since 2011 have the Wolverines had a running back top 1,000 yards in a season (Fitzgerald Toussaint), so Harbaugh is hoping to have found a difference-maker in freshman Kareem Walker, the No. 4-rated running back in this year’s recruiting cycle. The Wolverines thought they brought in the future three years ago, though, in five-star recruit Derrick Green, but he has since transferred from the program.
Back from last year are holdovers De’Veon Smith and Drake Johnson, who combined for 167 yards in the bowl win over Florida, but neither have the kind of game-breaking ability that is required at the position. Also returning is former USC transfer Ty Isaac, but he wound up in the dog house in the latter portion of the season. Expect a back-by-committee approach until someone separates themselves from the pack.
5. Harbaugh vs. ...
It’s been a little over a year now since Harbaugh took over as Michigan’s head coach and has seemingly been able to ruffle feathers in every corner of college football’s landscape. Last summer it was invading SEC and ACC territories by holding satellite camps for prospective high school recruits. In January, it was frustrating fellow Big Ten coaches with recruiting tactics by poaching committed recruits. Earlier this month, Harbaugh is taking shots from SEC commissioner Greg Sankey for holding spring practices at recruiting hotspot IMG Academy in Florida in March. And now, Harbaugh is throwing those shots right back at Georgia head coach Kirby Smart for questioning his motives with these spring practice tactics.
Did we really expect anything less when Harbaugh returned to the college ranks?
So now the question is - who will Harbaugh aggravate next? The surprising answer could be... nobody. Last year was about getting Michigan back into national prominence. Done. Now, Michigan enters 2016 with real aspirations of competing for a conference championship and possibly more. Expect the noise surrounding Harbaugh to quiet down as these Wolverines narrow their focus on what could be a promising 2016 season.
Pre-Spring Michigan Outlook in the Big Ten
With major defections from both Michigan State and Ohio State this offseason, Michigan is in prime position to close the gap on their distant rivals. There is little question that the defense will be just as good, if not better, in 2016 than it was last year with possibly the best secondary and defensive line combination in the country. The linebacker corps needs to be rebuilt, but there is the utmost confidence that Harbaugh and Brown can locate players to fill those spots. The key question is at quarterback where there is major uncertainty heading into the spring. If one stands out from the pack, expectations will be through the roof for this Michigan team to compete with the big boys of the Big Ten East.
— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois University and current writer for CollegeFootballGeek.com. Make sure to follow him on Twitter @MikeBainbridge2