Michigan set to start spring practice shake-out

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

It has been less than two months since Jim Harbaugh was hired as Michigan's football coach.

He's hired a staff, polished off his first recruiting class, and tweeted his way into the hearts of the Michigan faithful with a subtle jab at rival Ohio State, not to mention a photo gallery of sorts with a variety of celebrities.

Harbaugh likes to quote other great quotes that pertain to competition and teamwork, and enjoys a good slogan that can be embraced by his players.

Certainly, he has not invented the wheel in terms of coaching, but what is emerging is the style with which he goes after the prize. He has used multi-syllabic words like "meritocracy" to explain how he expects his team to be shaped. Meritocracy sounds more focused and goal-oriented than simply saying, "competition," and in some ways suggests a level of toughness that by most accounts has been missing.

He also has written on Twitter that progress will be "determined by talent, execution and effort," and while the players already have been working out with strength coach Kevin Tolbert, the real test begins Tuesday with the first day of spring practice.

There are 15 practices that culminate with a spring game April 4 at Michigan Stadium.

While Harbaugh certainly will have a better idea what his personnel is like and where the puzzle pieces will fit, expect him to come up with a depth chart written in easily erasable pencil by the end of spring practices.

Perhaps more important for the players the next few weeks is to display a level of toughness Harbaugh enthusiasts believe he instantly will bring. Playing with toughness is something that has distinguished Harbaugh teams in the past, and unquestionably he intends to instill that at Michigan.

Here's a look at what to watch during the spring:


Shane Morris will be a junior and has the only game experience. Wilton Speight was redshirted last year and got plenty of practice reps but not enough with the first string to know just how good he is. Then there's freshman Alex Malzone, who enrolled last month and will participate in camp, getting a leg up on freshman Zach Gentry.

This will be a three-man race under a coach who knows quarterbacking — as a player at Michigan, during a long NFL career, and then a coaching career highlighted by his development of quarterbacks. Morris has the experience and throws a bullet, but among the knocks are accuracy and lack of real touch.

Offensive line

This position might be of as heightened importance as the quarterback.

The Wolverines return all five starters from a line that, without a doubt, improved, but by no means is this an offensive line that harkens back to the days of old. Michigan played well the last two seasons against Ohio State, even with the maligned offensive line two seasons ago, so maybe those performances should be chalked up to the rivalry. With that in mind, it might be important to temper the enthusiasm of calling it a vastly improved line — the improvement was shown against Indiana, Northwestern and Maryland.

Mason Cole started as a freshman and played every game at left tackle, while Ben Braden started at right tackle. Jack Miller was at center, a position Graham Glasgow mostly occupied in 2013 before playing guard. Erik Magnuson, a tackle in 2013, moved to guard before Kyle Kalis entered the lineup. Redshirt sophomores David Dawson and Logan Tuley-Tillman could potentially work their way into the lineup.

System speak

During the first seasons under Al Borges and Doug Nussmeier, there was so much talk among the players, particularly the quarterbacks, about understanding the offense and terminology.

Patience will be lacking this season under Tim Drevno because the offensive output has been dreadful the last two seasons. The players clearly must quickly get on the same page with Drevno and vice versa.

On defense, the transition might not be as difficult under D. J. Durkin. Greg Mattison, the coordinator the last four seasons, was retained and will coach the line.


Michigan has some solid talent returning in the front seven, but what about the secondary, which endured its share of big plays allowed last season?

What was missing last season was a player no one really knows much about on the college level, but who has the expectations of an already proven player — defensive back Jabrill Peppers (injuries). The diamond of the 2014 class, Peppers reportedly will move to safety, but regardless where he plays, simply getting him on the field will be the goal.

Jourdan Lewis and Channing Stribling will try to turn heads, but for Blake Countess, this could be an important stretch. Can he regain what distinguished him as a freshman before a season-ending knee injury the following season?

Extra points

Running back Derrick Green returns from a broken collarbone, but Drake Johnson, who came on late, is out recovering from a second torn ACL.

De'Veon Smith is experienced, but then there's the unknown of USC transfer Ty Isaac.

... The kicking game is an unknown with kicker Matt Wile and punter Will Hagerup gone.