The dog days are coming, and that’s a good thing. With Big Ten Media Days kicking off on Monday, Land Of 10 is breaking down the three biggest questions each team is hoping to answer coming out of Chicago. We’ll post two per day, with one from each division, turning this time in the Big Ten East to a storied program trying to return to Big Ten prominence.
1. Who will play quarterback?
A year ago, Jim Harbaugh supposedly didn’t have a proven quarterback for his first season in Ann Arbor, and then Iowa transfer Jake Rudock threw for the second-most yards in school history. It was a nice Band-Aid approach to a position Michigan is historically great at but has lacked in recent years. Rudock is off to the NFL, and although the skill talent around the new guy should be significantly better, Harbaugh will still need a new upperclassman to show the smarts to quickly pick up a system and deliver.
Harbaugh appears to have three choices right now. They are:
- John O’Korn, who was the American Athletic Conference’s Freshman of the Year at Houston in 2013 before he lost the job and transferred;
- Junior holdover Wilton Speight, who impressed with some late-game heroics against Minnesota last season but is otherwise unproven;
- Former four-star recruit Shane Morris, a senior who has had a rough career so far.
Harbaugh has a way of elevating quarterback play everywhere he goes, so Michigan should have faith, but that doesn’t mean the decisions are exactly easy. With the 49ers, he wrestled between the quarterback he inherited in Alex Smith and the one he drafted in the second round in Colin Kaepernick. This decision could be similar in a sense of it being O’Korn vs. Speight and Morris, but like with Rudock a year ago, O’Korn only has one year in which he can deliver on his presence at Michigan.
The Big Ten overall is fairly thin on returning starting quarterbacks that teams feel good about. Michigan’s ability to nail this position, for an offense that returns perhaps the best set of skill players in the league and an offensive line with some questions, will be one more way it can catch up to its elite competition.
2. Do Don Brown’s changes on defense mean ascension or a transition year?
Like the quarterback position, Harbaugh came in with someone new to Michigan to run its defense last year and only saw raging success. D.J. Durkin’s multiple-front attack had a way of stymying quarterbacks and putting star players like Jabrill Peppers and Jourdan Lewis in position to make plays. As a result, the Wolverines finished fourth in the country in total defense.
But like Rudock, Durkin is off to a bigger challenge now after taking the head coaching job at Maryland. Harbaugh replaced him with quite the splash hire in Don Brown, who led Boston College to the No. 1 defense in the nation last season. It was typical Harbaugh arrogance — we’ll just get the guy from the No. 1 defense — but with it will come a decent change in scheme.
Brown plans to take Durkin’s multiple-front look and solidify it with four down linemen. He then peppers the offensive fronts with blitzes from all over the field. It’s the style he rode the the No. 1 defense in the country, and Harbaugh has given him the authority to do it again at Michigan. It’s something different from traditional Harbaugh defenses of the past, but everyone is all-in.
Will this mean more freedom for stars like Peppers and defensive end Chris Wormley? Or will it take time to transition from what was already working, a huge gamble that could hurt against the elite teams in the league?
3. Is there anything Jabrill Peppers can’t do?
The question is hyperbole, but only slightly. Michigan’s freak show has already logged time at safety, cornerback, nickel back, return man, running back and receiver in his college career, which is technically only half over, in eligibility, anyway). This season, Peppers will check one more box off with a new base position to try: strongside linebacker.
It’s a move by Brown to get Michigan’s dynamic playmaker even closer to and more involved in as many plays as possible this season. It will make him hard for other offenses to avoid. He’ll work a hybrid role between outside linebacker and secondary play, depending on the situation.
Peppers has more than excelled at his different roles so far, as he earned an All-Big Ten second team spot as an all-purpose player. But this one feels of a higher degree of importance than taking a few handoffs or running routes out of the slot on offense.
This year, Peppers feels like the true chess piece of what should be the best defense in the conference and one of the tops in the nation. In Brown’s blitz-heavy scheme, it’s going to mean Peppers has the freedom to use his many different skills in addition to the element of surprise.
It’s a lot for any one player to handle, both mentally and physically, and Brown has to be careful he’s not turning his best athlete into a jack of all trades but master of none. It’s the defensive equivalent of what Ohio State did with Braxton Miller last season, but the Wolverines will be counting on Peppers even more in what is likely his final season in Ann Arbor.
After all, it’s time they finally knock off some of the Big Ten’s elite, the next step in Harbaugh’s project of returning Michigan to glory. The Wolverines haven’t done much of it in years, and this season the tests will be tough with the top three finishers from last year (Ohio State, Michigan State and Iowa) all coming on the road.
The best players make the big plays to change marquee games, and that’s what Michigan will hope Peppers can accomplish in a do-everything role this season.
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