Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer, February 24, 2016
Jim Harbaugh?s debut could not have gone much better. He inherited a 5-7 team and turned it into a 10-3 squad that punctuated the season with a domination of Florida in the Citrus Bowl. The losses all were ?quality,? as the Wolverines fell at Utah in the opener–barely, vs. Michigan State (in one of the craziest endings ever) and vs. an Ohio State club that no doubt is the better program ? for now.
The future bubbles with promise, as Harbaugh continues to fold in talent that he has recruited. And he?s getting some studs. Most of last year?s key contributors are back, but the offense needs more playmaking ability as it searches for a quarterback. The top running backs return but are largely pedestrian, and a veteran line with four starters is back but needs to improve. The best part of the attack is an experienced corps of pass catchers and a stud tight end.
The defense carried a big load in 2015 but must rebuild at linebacker. Another twist: coordinator D.J. Durkin left to coach Maryland, with former Boston College DC Don Brown taking over. Any hiccups in the transition?
Here are three areas to watch this spring, which Michigan will kick off amid much fanfare in Florida at IMG Academy before finishing drills in Ann Arbor with a night game.
1. Quarterback. Jake Rudock flew in last year from Iowa and saved the day as a graduate transfer, playing an efficient and, at times, prolific brand of football in leading Michigan to a smashing debut under Jim Harbaugh. Now, Rudock is gone. Who steps in? There is no shortage of candidates, with six competitors. Junior Shane Morris, who redshirted last year, may be the favorite. The lefty is the most experienced option with eight games played. Sophomore Wilton Speight is the only other contender who has played in Ann Arbor, and he looked good in relief of Rudock last year in taking Michigan to victory at Minnesota. Keep an eye on John O?Korn, a transfer from Houston who was AAC Freshman of the Year in 2013. Redshirt freshman Zack Gentry was the QB gem of Harbaugh?s first recruiting class but may move to tight end. Alex Malzone is another redshirt freshman in the mix. Early enrollee Brandon Peters is on campus and could be a factor. Harbaugh loves competition. And, he?ll have plenty of it here. Keep an eye on O?Korn, who may be the most talented of the bunch.
2. Linebacker. Some big holes to fill with Joe Bolden, James Ross and Desmond Morgan gone. With a lack of experience at the position, new coordinator Don Brown may play a 4-2-5 scheme. Look for senior Ben Gedeon to start at an inside spot. He?s the only vet with appreciable experience. True freshman early enrollee Devin Bush Jr., could have another inside slot. He?s a primo athletic upgrade over his predecessors; he just needs to get up to speed quickly. His dad has been hired as a defensive analyst. Junior Noah Furbush is a vet who could start if the scheme calls for three linebackers. Sophomore Reuben Jones, junior Chase Winovich, a former tight end, and junior Jared Wangler are other options.
3. Running back. Michigan needs a difference maker here. De?Veon Smith is healthy and a proven option. Drake Johnson is healthy, too. Ty Isaac is out of the doghouse and a physical force, while former five-star recruit Derrick Green is transferring. But none of these guys wow. So, true freshman early enrollees Kareem Walker and Kingston Davis will have a shot to impress. Walker comes more touted than Davis, but Davis is a bigger back that Harbaugh loves. It will help the backs if the line continues to improve. And, it should. Keep an eye on center with Graham Glasgow gone. Left tackle Mason Cole will be getting a look there in the spring.
MICHIGAN SPRING INFO
Record: 10-3 overall; 6-2 Big Ten/3rd East (beat Florida in the Citrus Bowl)
Spring ball starts: Feb. 29
Spring game: April 1
Key starters back: G Ben Braden; TE Jake Butt; WR Jehu Chesson; OT Mason Cole; WR Amara Darboh; NT Maurice Hurst; G Kyle Kalis; CB Jourdan Lewis; OT Erik Magnuson; SS Jabrill Peppers; RB De?Veon Smith; CB Channing Stribling; DT Chris Wormley
Key starters gone: LB Joe Bolden; C Graham Glasgow; DE Willie Henry; LB Royce Jenkins-Stone; FB Joe Kerridge; LB Desmond Morgan; P Blake O?Neill; LB James Ross; QB Jake Rudock; FS Jarrod Wilson
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