Consecutive top-10 recruiting classes for Michigan should keep the Wolverines right in the thick of the Big Ten heading into 2017
The 2016 college football season was moving along quite smoothly for Michigan until one raucous weekend in Iowa City where a last-second field goal sent things in a downward spiral. The Wolverines wound up losing three out of their last four games, including a nail-biter at Ohio State and the Orange Bowl to Florida State, after starting the year 9-0.
Heading into 2017, as many as 17 starters have moved on, in addition to a number of key contributors sprinkled all over the depth chart, leading some to think this will be a rebuilding season in Ann Arbor. That said, Jim Harbaugh has now brought in consecutive top-10 recruiting classes to replenish the depth and prevent Michigan from taking a dip in the Big Ten standings.
This spring will be critical for a roster littered with underclassmen ready to produce heading into next season.
5 Storylines to Watch During Michigan’s Spring Practice
1. Who is Catching Passes from Wilton Speight?
This may be the biggest question mark surrounding the Wolverines heading into next season as the leading returning receiver is fullback Khalid Hill. Gone are 138 receptions, more than 1,900 yards and 13 touchdowns between senior wide receivers Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson and tight end Jake Butt, so Harbaugh made it a point to restock the depth at those positions, bringing in a combined 11 freshmen in each of the last two recruiting classes with the ability to catch the football.
Sophomores Kekoa Crawford and Eddie McDoom received extensive playing time last season despite experienced seniors ahead of them on the depth chart and should start on the outside and in the slot, respectively.
The starter opposite Crawford, though, is up in the air. Michigan brought in five wide receivers in the latest recruiting class, including five-star prospect Donovan Peoples-Jones, the highest-rated recruit of the group. Fourth-year juniors Drake Harris and Maurice Ways also will factor into the mix but neither has made much of an impact at this point in their careers. It would be a surprise if a freshman is not in the starting lineup in Week 1.
At tight end, there is no replacing Butt though Harbaugh puts a premium on the position in recruiting and there are a number of intriguing candidates in the pipeline including Ian Bunting, Tyrone Wheatley Jr. and Sean McKeon.
2. Will Someone Emerge at Running Back?
The last time the Wolverines had a running back finish with 1,000 rushing yards was 2011 and with no clear-cut starter heading into the spring, that streak could potentially be extended. That’s not to say Michigan hasn’t been able to run the ball, as the Wolverines averaged more than 212 rushing yards per game as a team in 2016.
Four players will vie for carries in spring practice including leading returning rusher Chris Evans, who ran for 614 yards as a freshman. While the second-year back is the favorite to start, there are questions with regards to his size (5-11, 200) and if he can tote the rock for a full season. Upperclassmen Karan Higdon and Ty Isaac will likely serve as the backups behind Evans, though each will have ample opportunities for reps as the coaching staff prefers to rotate rushers to keep them fresh throughout the year.
The wild card of the group is redshirt freshman Kareem Walker, who sat out last year due to academics. Walker’s name was mentioned frequently during bowl practices last December as a player that will contribute this fall.
3. Offensive Line Shuffle
Offensive line play improved dramatically in 2016, but three seniors graduated leaving a number of questions about who will replace them up front.
Mason Cole put off the NFL for another year to return for his senior season, but he may not remain as the team’s starting center. Fellow senior Patrick Kugler and four-star freshman Cesar Ruiz could be options in the middle if the team needs Cole to kick back out to left tackle. Sophomores Ben Bredeson and Michael Onwenu are both promising prospects who should man the guard spots.
At tackle, very little experience is returning, which is a cause for concern. Juwann Bushell-Beatty started in place of Grant Newsome when he went down with injury, but looked overwhelmed at times. Newsome is still rehabbing after suffering a gruesome leg injury and is not likely to be ready for the start of the season. Other than that, it’s a sea of unknown.
4. Full Rebuild in the Secondary
All four starters depart from a secondary that helped Michigan finish first in the FBS in pass defense, allowing just 142 yards per game and 11 total touchdowns through the air. Starting cornerbacks Jourdan Lewis and Channing Stribling graduated. Reserve defensive back Jeremy Clark was denied a sixth season of eligibility by the NCAA after applying for a medical hardship waiver. And both starting safeties are gone as well in Dymonte Thomas and Delano Hill. The subsequent question then becomes – Who replaces them?
Unless there is major movement during the offseason from a surprise contender, the starting tandem on the outside will likely wind up being sophomores Lavert Hill (brother of Delano) and David Long, both of whom were four-star recruits out of high school. Junior Brandon Watson, as well as highly-touted freshmen Ambry Thomas and Benjamin St-Juste will factor into the mix.
At safety, junior Tyree Kinnel seems as sure a bet as any to lock down one starting job, while sophomores Khaleke Hudson, Josh Metellus and junior Jordan Glasgow are all potentially up for two spots on the starting defense – at safety or the viper linebacker spot that Jabrill Peppers occupied in 2016.
5. Searching for Special Teams Standouts
Often overlooked, the Michigan special teams units will be focused on heavily during spring ball as their two main contributors from last season are gone in return specialist Peppers and placekicker, punter and kickoff specialist Kenny Allen.
Allen closed the year connecting on 15 straight field goals and finished in the top 30 in country in punting average. If that wasn’t enough, Allen also finished eighth in the nation in kickoff average and 51 touchbacks.
Likely taking Allen’s place is Quinn Nordin, a redshirt freshman who was regarded as the nation’s top kicker in the 2016 recruiting class. Nordin won’t be asked to handle both kicking and punting duties as Allen did, but is widely viewed as the odds-on favorite to win the starting job as the full-time placekicker. Freshman Brad Robbins, a late addition to the 2017 recruiting class, will compete with a host of others for the starting punter job.
Pre-Spring Outlook for Michigan in the Big Ten
While it is certainly expected Michigan will take a slight step back considering all the personnel losses from a year ago, Jim Harbaugh has done an excellent job restocking the depth with his previous two recruiting classes, both of which finishing at or close to the top five. The development of those younger players will play a big part in how the 2017 season will play out for the Wolverines. Like with most seasons, though, this year will again come down to how Michigan fares against the big boys of the Big Ten in Penn State and Ohio State.
— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois University. For College Fantasy Football insight, be sure to follow him on Twitter @MikeBainbridge2.