ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The Michigan football team is coming off a season in which it notched its second consecutive 10-win campaign, earned a berth in a New Year’s Six bowl game and finished in the Associated Press top 10.
Sounds like a season that should bode well for Michigan’s future, right?
Not so fast. Jim Harbaugh and his Wolverines have to prepare for a new season without the heart of their starting lineup from 2016, players who have either graduated or left school early and are preparing to play in the NFL, including consensus All-American Jabrill Peppers. Michigan loses 18 starters: seven on offense, 10 on defense and one on special teams.
Michigan got a jump on its future with the signing of an incoming freshman class that is ranked No. 5 in the nation by 247Sports, and it will begin preparing for the fall on Friday, when the Wolverines open spring football less than three months removed from their 33-32 loss to Florida State in the Orange Bowl.
— Sean Magee (@UMichMagee) March 7, 2017
Here’s what to keep an eye on as Michigan prepares to start spring practices. Land of 10 will look further in-depth at these questions (and a few more) this coming week:
How will Michigan replace pivotal players — beyond just Peppers?
Peppers, Michigan’s most versatile player in 2016, is projected to be a first-round draft pick. His departure alone leaves voids on defense (at linebacker), offense (in the Wildcat formation) and on special teams (as a returner). Of Michigan’s 14 invitees to the NFL combine, all had some sort of strength, including CBs Jourdan Lewis and Channing Stribling, who last season combined for 6 interceptions and 24 pass breakups; WRs Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh, who combined for 1,362 yards and 9 touchdown catches; and DLs Chris Wormley and Ryan Glasgow (82 combined tackles, 10 combined sacks).
It might be easy to pencil in up-and-coming players, but more definition at each position will come out of development, and spring drills can only simulate so much as far as in-game experience goes.
How will Michigan’s coaching changes impact the program?
Assistant head coach/passing game coordinator Pep Hamilton is one of three new or reshuffled assistant coaches on Harbaugh’s staff, joining Greg Frey, Michigan’s first-year tackles and tight ends coach/run game coordinator, and Jay Harbaugh, who moves from tight ends coach to running backs coach — his first time coaching the position.
Hamilton has worked with NFL quarterbacks such as Andrew Luck, Chad Pennington and Jay Cutler, and at Michigan will also have the task of grooming a young receiving corps. Frey will inherit Michigan’s tight ends, who lost Jake Butt to the NFL, and will help with the development of Michigan’s offensive line, which loses three starters.
How will Michigan’s early enrollees play into its 2017 roster?
Of its 11 early enrollees, Michigan has a 5-star recruit in WR Donovan Peoples-Jones, and eight 4-star recruits who enrolled in January and who have been training with the program. That type of head start could give each of those players a certain edge in the program as they compete for spots.
The speed of the college game is much faster, and freshmen will go against older, stronger and more mature players. With holes to fill at wide receiver and in the secondary, freshmen such as Peoples-Jones and safety Jaylen Kelly-Powell could get looks with strong spring practices.
What can QB Wilton Speight do to further develop consistency?
Speight had a solid year, completing 61.6 percent of his passes for 2,538 yards, 18 touchdowns and 7 interceptions in 12 games. He’s the incumbent starter at the position, leaving the spring intrigue at the No. 2 spot, where John O’Korn, Brandon Peters and Alex Malzone could compete for the backup job.
Speight is expected to further come into his own this fall under the tutelage of Hamilton, who replaces passing game coordinator Jedd Fisch, who joined UCLA’s staff in January as its offensive coordinator.
What will be the best strategy for the running game?
This will become Jay Harbaugh’s area of expertise, and it could involve both learning on the fly and a philosophical change. Michigan rotated four running backs in 2016 under position coach Tyrone Wheatley (who joined the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars in the same position in January), and that quartet amassed 2,302 yards and 25 touchdowns — leading the most productive Michigan ground in the last four seasons.
Leading rusher De’Veon Smith (846 yards and 10 touchdowns) has graduated, which could open the door for someone to become Michigan’s bona fide No. 1 running back. Right now, on paper, that appears to be Chris Evans (614 yards, 4 touchdowns in 2016).