Despite an immensely underwhelming 2017 season, expectations are considerably high for the Michigan Wolverines entering next year. Coming in at No. 7 in Athlon’s Way-Too-Early Top 25, the Wolverines bring back 18 starters and are littered with experience after being forced to play so many underclassmen.
The pressure is still firmly on Jim Harbaugh and his staff entering 2018 as he is now 1-5 against his closest rivals and has yet to make an appearance in the Big Ten title game. With potentially his best roster since arriving in Ann Arbor, Harbaugh needs to have his team squarely in the mix to compete for a championship this season. Otherwise, many will start to wonder what was thought to be unthinkable when Harbaugh was hired — if he is the right man to lead this program moving forward.
That is a question for down the road. For now, as spring football is on the horizon, let’s take a look at five storylines to keep an eye with the Wolverines.
5 Storylines to Watch During Michigan’s Spring Practice
1. Waiting game
Michigan continues to be in a holding pattern at the moment as the school is currently awaiting a decision from the NCAA as to whether or not Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson will be eligible to play in 2018. As we wait for a ruling, Patterson is already participating in winter conditioning with the team and would likely step in as the starting quarterback from the get-go when taking first snaps in the spring. As noted previously, Michigan’s roster is filled with returning experience, but if the Wolverines are to challenge the likes of Ohio State and Penn State in the Big Ten East Division, it is imperative they get better play from the position. Last year’s starter, Brandon Peters, will challenge for the job, but there is not much confidence he is the guy anymore after his forgettable performance in the bowl game against South Carolina.
2. Who plays left tackle?
Mason Cole is gone after starting 25 straight games at left tackle after switching over from center. Michigan missed out on Rice graduate transfer Calvin Anderson, who could have stepped in immediately. Former starter Grant Newsome is unlikely to participate much this spring as he continues to recover from a gruesome leg injury suffered back in 2016. Newsome was sidelined for all of 2017, but is reportedly healthy and waiting for the clearance of doctors before seeing the field once again. If Newsome does not return to form, look for one of the underclassmen to get a hard look, including redshirt freshmen James Hudson, Chuck Filiaga and Joel Honigford.
3. Young guns at wide receiver
Michigan wide receivers accounted for all of three touchdowns in 2017 – THREE. For reference, Navy wide receiver Tyler Carmona had four all by himself, and the Midshipmen averaged just eight passing attempts per game! No, it was not all on the receivers as quarterback play was dreadful, but the Wolverines have a collection of young, talented receivers that will be counted on to produce in 2018 regardless of who is at QB. Tarik Black will return after suffering a season-ending injury in Week 3 against Air Force. He immediately established himself as a big-time deep threat in the opening game against Florida, catching a 46-yard touchdown pass in the first half. Fellow starters Donovan Peoples-Jones and Grant Perry both return as well. The intrigue here is some of the younger prospects such as former 4-star recruits Nico Collins and Oliver Martin who saw minimal playing time in their freshmen year, but have a far higher ceiling than some of the upperclassmen on the roster. Total up these components and the Michigan receivers will definitely combine for more than three touchdowns in 2018.
4. Up the middle
Most spots on Don Brown’s defense remain intact from last season where Michigan ranked third nationally at just 271 yards per game allowed. The Wolverines should be stout on the edges with both starting defensive ends and cornerbacks returning. Where the coaching staff will have to figure some things out in spring camp is up the middle as there are two spots technically up for grabs – linebacker and defensive tackle – following the graduations of Mike McCray and All-American Maurice Hurst. Both starting safeties return in Tyree Kinnel and Josh Metellus, but neither played well down the stretch, allowing big plays and making critical mistakes in coverage. Sophomores J’Marick Woods and Jaylen Kelly-Powell will have a chance this offseason to unseat the two upperclassmen.
5. No. 3 running back
Karan Higdon and Chris Evans return as the clear top options at running back after combining for 1,679 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns last season. There is a spot open behind them with Ty Isaac graduating, and there are touches to be had as the third-leading rusher for Michigan under Harbaugh has averaged 68 carries a season. Redshirt sophomore Kareem Walker had just 20 carries in 2017 and would appear in line to receive more work, but his role on the roster has been in question after not traveling with the team for the Outback Bowl. All reports suggesting that Walker was dismissed have been refuted thus far, but he will need to show something in the spring as the Wolverines brought in three running backs in their latest recruiting class. This may be Walker’s last opportunity.
— 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.
(Top photo courtesy of @UMichFootball)