Here’s how the Wolverines’ position groups stack up according to proven and potential talent
(Note: This story originally appeared on the popular Michigan Wolverines sports site Maize n Brew)
By Will Martin
Our football fast is almost over, Wolverines fans. On Sep. 2, Michigan will take the field against the Florida Gators in Arlington, Texas, with the youngest roster of Harbaugh’s tenure. Nothing like facing another powerhouse program to mature a young squad, right?
But what this team lacks in game experience (it’s replacing 17 starters) it makes up for in talent. Raw talent, perhaps, but crazy talented, none the less. Here’s my ranking of Michigan’s position groups based on talent, both proven and unrealized. Shoot me your own in the comments section, and maybe I’ll reply and tell you why you’re wrong.
No. 1: Defensive Line
Unless you’ve been actively avoiding season previews, you’ve heard about the nation’s greatest player to have never started a game, Rashan Gary. The freakishly athletic sophomore defensive end has made nearly every pre-season All-American list, turning heads in practice with his work ethic as much as his 40 time (under 4.6 seconds). He’s joined on the squad by another pre-season all-everything favorite, senior defensive tackle Maurice Hurst, perhaps the nation’s best interior line pass rusher.
While Gary and Hurst anchor the line, they are hardly the only standouts. Expect seniors Chase Winovich (9.5 TFL and 5 sacks in 2016) and 310-pounder Bryan Mone to hear their names called on Saturdays, with support from emerging talents Carlo Kemp, Donovan Jeter, Luiji Vilain, Kwity Paye, Michael Dwumfour, and, of course, 5-star beast Aubrey Solomon.
No. 2: Wide Receivers
I’m a live-in-the-present kind of guy, but I can’t help but dream of Michigan’s passing game a couple years down the road. Brandon Peters should be firing on all cylinders and he’ll be throwing to what is probably one of the nation’s best recruiting classes of wide receivers in recent years.
Speedster Eddie McDoom, Kekoa Crawford, and the recently reinstated Grant Perry return to provide some experience to the receiving corps, but it’s the newcomers that have us all excited. Tarik Black, Donovan Peoples-Jones, Oliver Martin and Nico Collins were all elite high school recruits on their own merits. Combined, these guys could be unstoppable in the future – hopefully, the near future. Nothing in spring or fall practice indicates they are over-hyped, so expect to see plenty of young faces hauling in passes this fall.
No. 3: Quarterbacks
When Brandon Peters has a standout spring game and he’s not even in the conversation about who’s starting in September, things are boding well under center. Harbaugh said recently that returning starter junior Wilton Speight and senior John O’Korn have separated themselves from the pack (the “pack” being Peters, likely redshirt freshman Dylan McCaffrey, and future graduate transfer Alex Malzone).
Let me spoil this for you: Speight will start. But keep drinking the Harbaugh quarterback competition Kool-aid all you want. That said, this is a talented crew. Speight had consistency issues last year, especially when banged up late in the season, but the guy has a year of experience behind him and an off-season of heavy conditioning. O’Korn is mobile, strong-armed, and says he’s got his groove back, thanks to the tutelage of Pep Hamilton. Add Peters to the mix, and that’s three fellas who could start at a lot of programs.
No. 4: Running Backs
Chris Evans is the favorite to break out in this talented bunch, but keep your eye on Karan Higdon. And Ty Isaac. Kareem Walker might be ready to show us something, too. You get my point: this will be running back by committee, but with this much talent, that’s a good thing.
Evans is elusive, explosive and packed on enough weight in the offseason to be an every-down back. But he won’t need to be. I think Higdon will compete with Evans for carries because the dude just runs hard and find gaps. That’s irreplaceable talent in a Harbaugh backfield. And let’s not forget the “Hammering Panda”, fullback Khalid Hill, who was good for a team-high 13 touchdowns last season, most within a yard or two of the goal line. He’ll get help from big men Henry Poggi and true freshman Ben Mason, over whom Harbaugh has a serious man crush.
No. 5: Tight Ends
Enough with bemoaning the loss of Jake Butt and Devin Asiasi. They’re talented guys and I wish them well, but they didn’t leave the cupboard bare. Ian Bunting Jr. has the goods to be the team’s go-to receiving end, and Ty Wheatley Jr. is big enough to move bodies off the line and athletic enough to be a target. Both should be among the better Big 10 tight ends this season.
This is also a deep squad, especially regarding pass-catching ability. Sean McKeon, Nick Eubanks, and former quarterback Zach Gentrycan all spread defenses with their athleticism and should work into the rotation.
No. 6: Linebackers
There’s enough athleticism among Michigan’s linebackers to make the Wolverines’ front seven better than last season. No, really. Like the rest of the inexperienced defense, they’ll need to get their sea legs under them, but the athleticism among linebackers has improved the past couple recruiting classes.
Replacing the irreplaceable Jabrill Peppers at VIPER (linebacker-safety hybrid) will be Khaleke Hudson. He’s been described by his coaches as a “violent” player. In this town, that’s a compliment. Another heavy hitter is Devin Bush Jr., who saw some playing time in 2016 and excelled in the spring game. He should replace NFL draftee Ben Gedeon at middle linebacker in the fall. Mike McCray, the sole returning defensive starter, should be a standout at weakside linebacker. Expect Noah Furbush, Mike Wroblewski, Jordan Glasgow, and Josh Uche to get some significant playing time as Don Brown mixes up his defensive looks.
No. 7: Secondary
The secondary might be Michigan’s biggest source of concern in 2017. But it’s also thick with talent. The big question is, how steep is the learning curve for this group of first-time starters?
Cornerbacks David Long and Lavert Hill saw playing time last year, and they have the talent to hang with the best of the Big 10. Safety Tyree Kinnel has significant game-time experience, as well, and has stepped up in spring and fall practice. Josh Metellus, who filled in for the injured Peppers at last season’s Orange Bowl, returns to safety and should start. Cornerbacks Keith Washington and Ambry Thomas should compete for playing time, as could safeties J’Marick Woods and Jaylen Kelly-Powell. And Canadian cornerback Benjamin St-Justemight surprise us all. Also, former wide receiver Drake Harris made the switch to the secondary, where he’ll be a big body. If he avoids injury, he could contribute later in the season.
No. 8: Special Teams
This is all about the potential. Michigan has the top-rated kicker and punter from their respective recruiting classes. And nothing from their practice efforts indicate placekicker Quinn Nordinand punter Brad Robbins can’t bring it on Saturdays this fall. In fact, during the spring game, Nordin nailed a 48-yard field goal with room to spare (video below).
Bigger questions arise regarding return specialists. Peppers was an elite punt returner, and he’ll be tough to replace. McDoom, Evans, and Long all possess elite speed, but we’ll have to wait to see if that translates to the return game.
No. 9: Offensive Line
Prove me wrong, boys. Prove. Me. Wrong.
More than any position group in the past several years, the offensive line has held Michigan back from elite play. Under Harbaugh they have been able to push around inferior defensive fronts (an improvement over Brady Hoke’s teams, at least. Remember the nailbiter against Akron, anyone?), but Michigan’s offensive lines are yet to outplay top-notch defenses.
Mason Cole is a bright star in this group, and should own the critical left tackle spot. Another area with promise is center, where Patrick Kugler is competing with top-rated high school center Cesar Ruiz; either should hold their own coming off the ball. Ben Bredeson and Michael Onwenu are likely starters as guards, and both have shown promise in practice. Right tackle remains uncertain. There’s just not enough proven talent here to get me overly excited. But I’ve never wanted to be wrong more. Herein lies difference between a good and great season.