2016-17 Michigan Football Season Preview

I almost ran out of time to do this, but I’ve managed to squeeze in a bit of free time during training camp to crank something out. Needless to say, Michigan has the potential to be great this year. Quite frankly, I think the team this year has a better chance to win the Big Ten than the team next year…at least on paper. Michigan has 14+ senior starters and if one of the QBs (O’Korn or Speight) can get it figured out and be a game manager, this team can go far.

As of the start of writing this post, there still is not a depth chart out and I would not be surprised if one is not released until the Friday before the game. I would also expect there to be a lot of ORs to be on it. Right now a lot of it is guess-work based on flimsy evidence, what has been seen in practice videos and what has been said to the media….so totally rock solid analysis on the two-deep coming up.

Offense

Like last year, quarterback is the biggest question mark on the roster. Jake Rudock went through some growing pains last year, but I don’t think that Speight or O’Korn will have those…at least not in terms of learning the playbook and executing. They have been around it for well over a year now and I think they should have a pretty good grasp of the offense at this point. I heard that O’Korn was the guy last year, but everything has started to trend in Speight’s direction. Speight was a guy that always had the physical tools and if he developed under the right staff, could be a good college starting quarterback. I’m putting my money down on Speight as my guess as the starter. But the bottom line is they do not have to do that much. They won’t need to throw for 300 yards and 4 touchdowns every single game for this team to win. The defense is stout, and so long as they score 21 points and do not turn over the ball too much, they are going to have a damn good chance of winning every single game on the schedule.

Returning all of your running backs except for Derrick Green and adding Kareem Walker is going to bode well for the running game, in theory anyways. I would expect De’Veon Smith to the be the starter and get the majority of the carries with Ty Isaac and Drake Johnson splitting the rest of the work. Karan Higdon and Walker will get worked into the mix, surely…but those three should be the main ones getting the work. Isaac is going to have to get his fumbling under control and Drake is going to have to stay healthy. Both of them have talent, but have some issues that can hinder their ability to contribute. Overall, the Wolverines have a plethora of different style running backs and I have the utmost confidence that the running game will be working well this next season.

Fullback/H-Back is really between two people in my eyes, Henry Poggi and Khalid Hill. Poggi showed promise last year but had some room to grow at his new position and Hill has been steady throughout his career. They’ve got big shoes to fill with Sione Houma and Joe Kerridge gone.

Last year, wide receiver was a bit of a question mark after Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson. Grant Perry stepped up as the slot receiver and I would expect that Perry continues in that role. Darboh and Chesson both had major breakout years and they will definitely be major weapons that are leaned on this year. Grant Perry, Moe Ways and Drake Harris will be the next three in line, but Perry said that none of the freshman wide receivers will redshirt. It’s a shame that Ahmir Mitchell could not stay out of trouble and that the early enrollee is going to transfer. He could have had a major impact on the field next year and it sucks to lose him. That being said, he’s not the only talented freshman wide receiver that Michigan signed. Kekoa Crawford, who is wearing the #1 jersey, is apparently a stud and Eddie McDoom has been flying around the field. I don’t love giving the #1 jersey to a freshman…but if Harbaugh is okay with it, then so be it. Another guy to keep an eye on who absolutely will play and be a contributor is true freshman Chris Evans. The guy just makes plays and he is my freshman on offense to watch this year. I’ve listed him with the wide receivers but he will get reps at running back; he’s an athlete in the purest sense of the word.

At tight end, you have the best tight end in the country in Jake Butt (and a co-captain). The guy is an absolute stud and I expect him to go in the first round next year. His body control is unbelievable and he’s going to be a major mismatch problem and the perfect security blanket for whichever QB wins the competition. After Butt, there is a major logjam behind him. Ian Bunting will be the second tight end and get quite a few reps. Following him though it’s a bit of a toss-up. I would expect TJ Wheatley to play since he’s basically a robot. He’s one of the craziest physical freaks I’ve seen in terms of size and speed. Zach Gentry, the former quarterback, has been working at tight end and could be a guy that gets to contribute but I think he’s squarely fourth. I thought Devin Asiasi would redshirt as a freshman but apparently he has had a great camp (apparently) and is heavily in the mix to get some serious playing time behind Butt and Bunting (the clear-cut 1-2). I’m assuming that Nick Eubanks will redshirt as a freshman because both he and Crawford are wearing #1 so they cannot be on the field at the same time. The biggest takeaway here is that of four Michigan’s top five tight ends, two of them are 6’6″ and two of them are 6’7″…good luck covering that.

It sounds like the starting offensive line has been completely finalized except for the left tackle spot. It was expected that Grant Newsome would be the starter but it sounds like true freshman Ben Bredeson is giving Newsome all that he can handle and is neck and neck with him for the starting job. Ben Braden should start at left guard, Mason Cole has moved to center to replace Graham Glasgow, Kyle Kalis and Erik Magnuson return at RG and RT respectively. The offensive line may be re-shuffled compared to last year, but it should be good…should be. Cole has the talent to play any position on the line and everything I’ve heard and read about him at center has been nothing but positive. The other three players on the line very likely have improved since last year and they have not had to learn anything new…all they’ve had to do is develop. It’s an experienced group that was average on the right side and as a unit last year was 79th in yards per carry…but I’m being optimistic and putting faith in the coaching staff that they will be better. I would expect Juwan Bushell-Beatty, David Dawson and Patrick Kugler to be the primary backups, but let’s hope we don’t have to go down that road. Not that they couldn’t be solid players, but it’s better to have your offensive line healthy (duh). Also, do not be shocked if Bredeson starts at guard over Braden…it seems like the staff loves this kid and wants to find a spot for him to start.

Defense

Alright, so now that the quick offensive preview is done, let’s take a look at the defense.

It’s a different system this year, but Don Brown is a beauty and a great defensive coordinator. You lose the DC of the #3 defense in the country and replace him with the DC of the #1 defense in the country and you’re doing alright. Brown’s known as Dr. Blitz so you can expect a lot of blitzes and different looks. You can learn more about the defense you can expect to see in this post on MGoBlog…I highly recommend it. They also did a post on the trap coverage that they use and it is very interesting as well. The short version is to expect a lot of blitzing with either cover 2 or a single high safety…you will not see corners starting 10 yards off the line of scrimmage much anymore.

The defensive line is the strongest part of this team…offensive or defensive. Chris Wormley is an absolute monster on the defensive line and I was a bit surprised that he did not turn pro after last season. That being said, I’m very happy he did not and his teammates obviously are since he was named a co-captain. Losing Willie Henry is tough, but getting Bryan Mone back from injury is massive. Mone missed all of last year with a broken femur and he was one of the best players on the defensive line as a true freshman. Mone or Ryan Glasgow will start in the middle next to Wormley and Taco Charlton will round out the defensive line with Rashan Gary at the defensive end spots. (Update: originally had Mone and Glasgow listed as starters but they’re both nose tackles so they won’t both start). Wormley will be a guy that shifts outside quite often because he is so versatile and I would expect Mone and Glasgow to play together in the middle quite a few times when that happens. Maurice Hurst and Matt Godin are the other defensive tackles that fill out the two-deep and Lawrence Marshall and Chase Winovich are the other defensive ends. Winovich is now on his third position at Michigan and I’m curious to see how he does with the change. Taco Charlton is a guy that I have been a fan of since he was a freshman and he took major strides last year. He has an opportunity to be a double-digit sack guy and he has fantastic pass rushing skills. This is a very deep unit and they are going to have to be elite to help out the inexperienced linebacking core.

The linebacking unit is going to be a different looking group after losing Joe Bolden, James Ross, Desmond Morgan and Royce Jenkins-Stone (though he played some DE too). It is an inexperienced group, but there is some talent there. Jabrill Peppers is going to end up taking over the SAM linebacker role and will cover slot wide receivers when teams run 3+ (he’s also going to play some safety). This allows your most athletic player to stay on the field more often and as it is, one of his best assets is his tackling ability and ability to get upfield quickly. Peppers hybrid role is very similar to the one that Darron Lee played for Ohio State last season. The other linebacking spots will be filled by Ben Gedeon or Mike Wroblewski in the middle and then Mike McCray and Noah Furbush will backup on the outside. Gedeon and McCray are both very athletic and I think they will do some damage with the defensive line handling opponents up front. A great defensive line can make even an average linebacking unit look fantastic. I would expect true freshman Devin Bush to play early and often and the same goes for safety/hybrid Khaleke Hudson. He’s going to play the hybrid role like Peppers and his elite athletic ability is going to be very useful. Peppers though is just a different breed. Harbaugh says he could play 11-12 positions of the starting 22 and I believe him. He will also be used on offense and returning punts again…though sparingly to start the year to save his legs, I’m sure.

The secondary is very stout at cornerback, led by one of the best cornerbacks in the entire country in Jourdan Lewis. His development has been simply superb and he is truly an elite shutdown cornerback. The second starting corner spot is up for grabs between Jeremy Clark and Channing Stribling…both of whom are very tall corners and will complement Lewis very nicely. After those three though, it will be the young players that have to step up like Brandon Watson, Keith Washington, David Long and Lavert Hill. Watson is the oldest of the group as a redshirt sophomore, Washington is a redshirt freshman and the other two are freshmen. With three senior cornerbacks vying for two starting spots, it’s going to be crucial for the other four to get playing time early in the year and there is a zero percent chance Long and Hill redshirt. At safety Dymonte Thomas and Delano Hill (Lavert’s older brother) are clearly entrenched as the starters. After those two, freshman Josh Metellus and Tyree Kinnel are all that are left. Both do not have a lot of experience so if something happened to Thomas or Hill, I would expect Clark or Peppers to move back to safety. As you can see, the secondary is very young after the starters and keeping the starters healthy is going to be crucial for the success of the defense. It really is the only question mark on defense in my mind.

In terms of the specialty units…Kenny Allen is going to handle kicking and punting (channeling his inner-Hayden Epstein). Hopefully his leg does not get too worn out. I’m not sure who the returners will be, but if I had to guess, I would assume that Peppers would continue returning punts and Lewis and Chesson would return kicks.

Freshmen To Watch

Like last year, I’m not going to pretend to know everyone that will be redshirted and everyone that won’t. The only thing that has been made clear is that none of the wide receivers will be redshirted. I’m not going to list all of the freshmen in the class, as talented as they are, just the top 5 that I expect to contribute right away.

DE Rashan Gary (because duh)

LT Ben Bredeson

ATH Chris Evans

S/LB Khaleke Hudson

LB Devin Bush

Kekoa Crawford, Eddie McDoom, Kareem Walker and David Long were the other four that I was considering putting on here. McDoom and Long have had rave reviews coming out of camp and apparently McDoom has the juice. Harbaugh has said that there are 10 freshmen currently on the two-deep…well this would be 8 of them and I’m thinking that Lavert Hill and Devin Asiasi would round out the last two spots. It will be interesting to see the first depth chart of the year and see which freshmen will play right away.

SEASON PREDICTION

Last year I predicted that Michigan would be 9-3 in the regular season and that people should expect 10-3 (with a bowl win) as the best case scenario…oddly enough that’s what happened. It’s nice when things work out. Some could say that Michigan was two plays away from being 11-1…but Minnesota going for two and missing it balances out at least one of those games, so lets say Michigan could have been 10-2. Pretty damn solid for Harbaugh’s first year.

The schedule this year though is not so kind with road trips to Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State. I’m trying my best to temper my expectations, but there is just so much talent on the roster that if Speight or O’Korn can just be solid, this team can go very far.

Date Opponent Location Time TV  Prediction
Sat., Sep. 3 vs.Hawaii Hawaii Michigan Stadium 12:00 p.m. ET

GT

TV: ESPN
W
Sat., Sep. 10 vs.Central Florida - Military Appreciation Central Florida – Military Appreciation Michigan Stadium 12:00 p.m. ET

GT

TV: ABC OR ESPN
W
Sat., Sep. 17 vs.Colorado Colorado Michigan Stadium 3:30 p.m. ET

GT

TV: BIG TEN NETWORK
W
Sat., Sep. 24 vs.Penn State Penn State * Michigan Stadium TBA

GT

        W
Sat., Oct. 1 vs.Wisconsin Wisconsin * Michigan Stadium TBA

GT

        W
Sat., Oct. 8 atRutgers Rutgers * Piscataway, N.J. 7 or 8 p.m ET
TV: ABC/ESPN/ESPN2
         W
Sat., Oct. 22 vs.Illinois - Homecoming Illinois – Homecoming * Michigan Stadium 3:30 p.m. ET

GT

        W
Sat., Oct. 29 atMichigan State Michigan State * East Lansing, Mich. TBA         W
Sat., Nov. 5 vs.Maryland Maryland * Michigan Stadium TBA

GT

        W
Sat., Nov. 12 atIowa Iowa * Iowa City, Iowa 7:00 p.m. CT

GT

TV: ABC/ESPN/ESPN2
        W
Sat., Nov. 19 vs.Indiana Indiana * Michigan Stadium TBA

GT

        W
Sat., Nov. 26 atOhio State Ohio State * Columbus, Ohio TBA         L
OVERALL       11-1

I don’t know if Michigan can beat Ohio State on the road yet, but I think they have a better chance to beat Ohio State this year than they do next year. In the end, I’m going to err on the side of caution and predict that they end up 11-1 in the regular season. Could that land them in the playoff? It’s very, very possible. Do I think Michigan can go undefeated this year? Absolutely, they have a lot of key pieces in place to do it. For me, 10-2 is the minimum expectation for the record, provided that everyone stays healthy. Rome wasn’t built in a day…but Jim Harbaugh seems to be ahead of schedule with his rebuild in Ann Arbor.

[Photo via: The Sporting News]
[Photo via: The Michigan Daily]
[Photo via: Maize N Brew]

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