Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer, August 11, 2017
ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Year 3 of the Jim Harbaugh era has dawned, and things are changing. On our first visit in 2015, Harbaugh likened camp to being on a submarine. But things have loosened a bit since then, as the Wolverines look to push their way up the standings in the Big Ten East.
It won?t be easy, as many key players are gone, including a national-high 11 NFL draft picks. And where is the mojo? Michigan lost three of its last four games in 2016. And it is in the midst of its second-longest Big Ten title drought (12 years and counting). The only longer dry spell was from 1951-63 (13 years). This is a big season for Harbaugh.
Here are five things I learned at Friday?s practice.
1. This is an athletic offensive line. There is a lot of potential, as Michigan searches for ?the five best guys.? And, the unit has something to prove vs. quality opponents. Michigan averaged just 2.8 yards rushing per carry vs. Iowa, 2.1 yards per carry vs. Ohio State and 2.5 yards per carry vs. Florida State in the Orange Bowl last year. The Wolverines lost all three of those games. Gotta like left tackle Mason Cole, who has been an impact player since he stepped on campus. So powerful. And Ben Bredeson is a mauler inside at left guard. I also like center Patrick Kugler, who is the son of a coach. And, it shows. The right side of the line is in more flux with lots of moving parts, with guys like Michael Onwenu, John Runyan Jr., and Juwann Bushell-Beatty in the mix. Onwenu (guard) and Bushell-Beatty (tackle) were on the first team today. And keep an eye on true frosh Cesar Ruiz, the No. 1 center in the Class of 2017. He could play sooner rather than later. Tim Drevno and Greg Frey (who coaches tackles) coach this unit well.
2. It will be interesting to see what Pep Hamilton can do with the quarterbacks. Wilton Speight did some nice things last year, but he needs to improve. He needs to play better under pressure and throw deep with more accuracy. He is competing for the job with redshirt frosh Brandon Peters and senior John O?Korn, according to Jim Harbaugh. Each had their moments today. I like Peters a lot; no doubt he has the best arm and most upside. But would the staff really eschew the experience of Speight for the promise of Peters? O?Korn is a long shot to win the job, in my eyes.
3. The defensive front is outstanding. The unit lost a lot of talent in Chris Wormley, Taco Charlton and Ryan Glasgow, but I still love its potential–even depth is a bit iffy. Don't be surprised if uber-talented DE Rashan Gary breaks out. We got flashes last year; he looked good on this day in camp. He has such a wicked combination of size and speed. He's also explosive. Amid the hub-bub over Gary, don?t forget about DT Maurice Hurst. The guy almost turned pro. He is a monster. And NT Bryan Mone is a monolith inside. There can?t be a better nose tackle in the Big Ten. In fact, the tackle tandem of Hurst and Mone may not have a peer in the conference. It will be interesting to see how ?BUCK? Chase Winovich develops; he was out today along with true freshman DT Aubrey Solomon. Youngsters Luiji Vilain and Kwity Paye looked good off the edge today. As did Donovan Jeter, who looks like a young Wormley.
4. Chris Evans has gotten bigger and shows a burst. Evans got his feet wet last season and showed some promise. Maybe he can be a star and the first back at Michigan to rush for 1,000 yards since Fitz Toussaint in 2014. Big Ty Isaac is still in the fold but hasn?t impacted as many anticipated after his transfer from USC. And don?t forget about Karan Higdon. Redshirt freshman Kareem Walker is back after missing last year; he made a nice catch way down field in one drill. If these guys can keep the chains moving, it will help the developing wideout corps.
5. There is talent among pass-catchers, but it is mostly inexperienced. No school lost a better trio of pass-catchers than Michigan, which bid adieu to Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson and Jake Butt. Maybe my fav guy is Nate Schoenle, a walk-on who will impact this fall. He will be a fan favorite. I also like Eddie McDoom, who saw some action last year. But he is smaller and more of a jet-sweep guy. Kekoa Crawford showed nice speed in and out of cuts on this day. True freshman Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black have the size and speed that coaches crave. Don?t be shocked if one starts. And the return of Grant Perry is huge. He recently was reinstated following an off-field issue. And he's wearing Jake Butt?s old No. 88. Mo Ways was in shorts. Tyrone Wheatley Jr. looks good at tight end. The Michigan legacy moves well for a big man. And he made some nice catches on this day. This team loves to use tight ends, so as many as four or five will see time in the fall. Ian Bunting catches your eye along with Nick Eubanks and lanky Zach Gentry, a mismatch waiting to happen.