ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The loss of 18 starters to graduation and the NFL will create plenty of opportunities for the Michigan football team’s returning players this upcoming season.
Michigan opens its spring football practices on Friday, and while it loses a few big names — including consensus All-American Jabrill Peppers, TE Jake Butt and CB Jourdan Lewis — the spring will provide a chance for Michigan’s younger players to earn a leg up for playing time (and possibly starting jobs) in the fall.
— Michigan Football (@UMichFootball) March 19, 2017
Here are five returning Michigan football players to watch, and what they have to gain from spring practices:
Chris Evans, RB
Evans was Michigan’s second-leading rusher in 2016 (614 yards, 4 touchdowns) as part of a four-player rotation in which each back got more than 70 carries. With Jay Harbaugh taking over as running backs coach, it could likely bring a change in philosophy in Michigan’s running game, and that could open the door to having one true running back. On statistics alone, Evans is the front-runner in that competition, and an impressive spring would help the freshman’s cause to earn the No. 1 spot.
Rashan Gary, DL
Gary burst onto the defensive line as a true freshman and had 27 tackles, 1 sack and 7 quarterback hurries in 13 games, and exhibited a combination of strength, speed and athleticism. He lived up to the billing of being the nation’s No. 1 recruit in 2016, and still has a huge upside. Giving younger players reps — in Gary’s case, less than five months out of high school — is part of position coach Greg Mattison’s philosophy of cultivating depth on the line and Gary showed his early value and potential. Gary has a chance to raise his ceiling and to refine his skills, and can position himself for a starting spot on the defensive line, which loses three starters to graduation.
Mike McCray, LB
In an offseason full of losses to graduation and to the pros, McCray chose to return for a fifth year of eligibility with the Wolverines for the 2017 season. McCray is anticipated to emerge as a leader, not just among the linebackers but within a defense that skews on the younger side. In particular, the linebacker corps — with the departures of Peppers and Ben Gedeon — and the secondary have some big voids to fill. In 2016, McCray was second on the team in tackles (76) and had 4.5 sacks for 30 yards of losses, 2 interceptions, 7 pass breakups and 5 quarterback hurries.
Michael Onwenu, OL
Onwenu shifts from defensive line to offensive line and could be a potential surprise for the Wolverines. The 6-foot-3, 350-pound lineman played in nine games on both sides of the ball in 2016, including on the offensive and defensive lines in routs of Hawaii and Rutgers. Onwenu is athletic, deceptively nimble for a lineman of his size and has a solid football intelligence. His performance on the defensive line as a freshman impressed Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh pointed to Onwenu’s versatility as an asset. Even in the fall, Harbaugh had Onwenu penciled in on an offensive line that lost three starters and needs to groom its depth.
Wilton Speight, QB
The quarterback is always a focal point of a football team, and Speight enters spring practices as the incumbent starter. As a redshirt sophomore, Speight threw for 2,538 yards on 204-for-331 passing, with 18 touchdowns and 7 interceptions in 12 games. Speight proved himself to be consistent in 2016, and has the chance to show that the work he has put in during the offseason will continue to cement his status as Michigan’s starter. Speight’s development should also be furthered with the addition of assistant head coach and passing game coordinator Pep Hamilton, who has groomed NFL quarterbacks such as Andrew Luck and Chad Pennington.