Bob Wojnowski and John Niyo break down Michigan and Michigan State for the 2017 college football season. Detroit News
Ann Arbor — You hear whispers and snippets, and occasional hints of hype. But mostly, this Michigan team is a mystery, with all the young guys and fresh faces.
Hey, maybe that’s an unspoken reason Jim Harbaugh took so long to unveil his roster, finally released Wednesday — he’s not quite sure what he has. Neither are we, with still no depth chart, unfortunately. We’ll see quickly when Michigan faces Florida in Dallas, although the Gators’ roster is a mess, as they’ve now suspended a whopping 10 players for Saturday’s game.
The only thing we know for sure about the Wolverines is, they’re teeming with potential. Other certainties? Good luck with that. Wilton Speight probably will start at quarterback, and he should. But he’d better play like a seasoned veteran because the Wolverines can’t afford big mistakes with all their youth, and John O’Korn has emerged as a viable alternative.
The defense returns only one starter, linebacker Mike McCray, and yet looks like the team’s strength again. The offensive line is revamped, and might be the team’s question mark again. The Wolverines were 10-3 last season but stumbled in tight quarters, by the narrowest of margins, unable to scrape out a few more inches or a few more plays, dropping three of their last four by a total of five points.
It still galls them. It should drive them. The question isn’t talent — Michigan is sufficiently stacked, and for all its personnel losses, is ranked 11th. The question is timing, whether a bunch of players can mature ahead of pace. The clues from behind the Blue curtain is that there might be growing pains, followed by a significant growth spurt.
“We know the depth we have, how talented we are, we’re just a little inexperienced,” said senior captain Mason Cole, who anchors the offensive line. “We got so many young guys that haven’t been able to showcase their skills yet because we had so many seniors. These freshmen skill players, some of the plays they’ve made in camp, they really wow you. When we play Florida, to be able to watch them for the first time put on a show, it’s gonna be unbelievable.”
Next men up
Sophomore running back Chris Evans should get more chances to display his game-breaking ability. Freshman receivers Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black keep drawing raves. Speight dropped weight, and his mobility remains an underrated element, but he simply can’t throw the odd critical interception.
There’s no denying where this Michigan season must begin, if it’s to go somewhere uncharted. You know, like to the Big Ten championship game. That’s a possibility only if two things happen: The defensive line is as good as expected, and the offensive line is better than it’s been.
With Maurice Hurst and Rashan Gary, along with Bryan Mone and Chase Winovich, the defensive line could be menacing. It had better be menacing because the all-new secondary will be tested.
Gary is the one who could take a gigantic leap, the former No. 1 overall recruit who played behind all those NFL prospects. He finished with only one sack and admits he was frustrated with his production. He showed in bursts why the hype was warranted, and yet not fulfilled.
“I went through stages last year where I didn’t know what I was doing,” Gary said. “Now I know everything I’m doing. We got goals to be the best defense, the best defensive line, in the nation. To be honest, we got so many playmakers that people don’t know about, you’re just gonna have to wait for the opening game.”
The coaching staff challenged Gary to be more of a vocal leader, and he really has no choice. Only a sophomore, he’s one of the more experienced guys. He roomed during training camp with touted freshman defensive tackle Aubrey Solomon, and calls him a “beast.”
There’s a palpable hunger with this team, and not just because Gary said he cut back on his ice cream consumption, dropped 11 pounds and lowered his body fat. It’s because of the squandered opportunity a year ago, when Michigan took a 9-0 record to Iowa, lost 14-13 on a last-second field goal, and two weeks later, lost the 30-27 overtime thriller to Ohio State.
Harbaugh has chewed those defeats like glass. The trip to Rome gained all the attention, but once training camp started, there wasn’t a ton of fun. The Wolverines have a lot of forging to do, starting with the offensive line, which was effective but not punishing last season. Here’s a telling barometer: Michigan averaged 249.5 yards rushing in the 10 wins and 92.7 in the losses.
‘Something to prove’
Three starters departed, and a free-spirited approach has been honed into something more serious.
“Their physicality has grown, the athleticism is very good,” Harbaugh said. “They’re a locked-in group, a more focused group. Not as much fun and games and joking and laughing.”
The coaching staff is pushing it, and not handing out positions lightly. Of course we only have clues, not lineups, based on Harbaugh’s depth-chart blackout. Most programs, including Michigan State and Ohio State, released theirs, although Urban Meyer’s chart listed co-starters at no less than seven positions.
It’s assumed Cole and left guard Ben Bredeson remain starters, and that fifth-year senior Patrick Kugler will open at center.
“Me and Mason realize this year is on us,” Kugler said. “Coach (Tim) Drevno always says we’re the heartbeat of this team, and we took that to heart. … We absolutely have something to prove. We know what we’re capable of, and we have to show everyone now. We’re just as talented, if not more, than last year’s group.”
The revelation will have to come quickly if Michigan is to win its first Big Ten title since 2004. The schedule isn’t merciful, with only four Big Ten home games and trips to Penn State and Wisconsin. And there’s still that little issue of solving the Buckeyes. By talent, the Wolverines have a shot. By timing, you wonder.
“Our focus this year is to realize how close we were to being so great last year, to being in the Big Ten championship, to being in the playoffs,” Cole said.
“If it just takes being a little more serious to win those close games, that’s what we have to do.”
They’re haunted by those narrow margins of defeat. They’re also enlightened, knowing the margins for error are even smaller now.