Michigan opens its season on Thursday, Sept. 3 at Utah. Here are five key issues facing the Wolverines' offense.
It's been a while since Michigan has had a good quarterback battle, and it's been simmering since the rumors began that Iowa two-year starter Jake Rudock was planning to transfer as a graduate to Michigan for his final year. Rudock lost his starting job based on a pre-spring Iowa depth chart and opted to move on. Meanwhile at Michigan, junior Shane Morris is the only returning quarterback on the roster with any meaningful playing time. Morris, who emerged from the spring game as the leading QB, has repeatedly said this is his job to lose. Rudock has referred to himself as a "facilitator." They both want the job and coach Jim Harbaugh, a former Michigan quarterback and NFL veteran, has said the competition is wide open. Rudock last season was accurate (213-of-345, 61.7 percent) and didn't make many mistakes. Morris hasn't had enough time to show exactly what type of quarterback he can be, but he assured reporters before camp he has matured. He still throws a bullet left-handed. Backing up are Wilton Speight and true freshmen Alex Malzone and Zach Gentry.
The run to No. 1
You'll have to go back to 2007 and Mike Hart, who finished his career as Michigan's all-time leading rusher, to find a back who made a consistent difference in the running game. Of course, Denard Robinson ran all over the place from his position at quarterback, but it's been that long since a true back has stood out. USC transfer Ty Isaac gives the position group new life, but juniors Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith have shown signs the last couple of seasons that they can do the job. But can they do it throughout a long season? Drake Johnson became a bright spot in the run game the final month of last season until the regular-season finale at Ohio State when he suffered his second torn anterior cruciate ligament. Johnson has been ahead of schedule in his recovery and could be the back to emerge from this group. New running backs coach Tyrone Wheatley, the former Michigan standout in the early 1990s, said while he would like to be able to settle on a lead back early, he will not wait to pull a back if he's not producing, saying the theory that a back needs more reps to get into a rhythm is a fallacy.
Michigan's offensive linemen the last two seasons have had their share of critics. In fact, they can count themselves among those who have pointed the finger at their performances. They have said they've had enough of being blamed for the skimpy offensive output the last two years. Offensive coordinator Tim Drevno also coaches the offensive line, and he's been known for quick turnarounds when it comes to line play. He will have a group of veterans, although it's hard to call sophomore left tackle Mason Cole a veteran. Cole did start every game last season as a freshman. Erik Magnuson, Kyle Kalis and Ben Braden have had plenty of starting experience, as has Graham Glasgow, who has moved back to the familiar position he occupied for the better part of the 2013 season at center. But talking about being better doesn't always mean things will get better. The linemen said much of the same things a year ago at this time and the Wolverines finished dead last in the Big Ten in total offense (333.0 yards) and second to last in scoring (20.9 points).
Breakout season for Butt?
Jake Butt has been a promising tight end at Michigan since his arrival and even after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament. Maybe this will be his true breakout season. Butt had 21 catches last fall and averaged 10 yards a reception. He scored two touchdowns. Jim Harbaugh has emphasized the tight end in his offenses, so this bodes well not only for Butt but also for fellow tight ends A.J. Williams and Ian Bunting. Khalid Hill, out last spring because of injury, is back and will challenge for time, and Chase Winovich and Tom Strobel moved positions to tight end. Tyrone Wheatley Jr. is a freshman tight end. The focus will be on Butt, who is athletic and a skilled pass-catcher. Michigan's pass game won't be centered around him, but he will play a large role and add that physical dimension.
Devin Funchess is gone after leaving a year early for the NFL, but it isn't as though he left a legacy of big scoring catches. Still, he was a mismatch for defensive backs. The Wolverines have talent at receiver, but their performances last fall and in the spring game were tainted by dropped balls. It seems Amara Darboh, who had 473 receiving yards in 2014, and Jehu Chesson, who was hobbled during the season by a leg injury, are the locks to get the bulk of the work, but Freddy Canteen, who talked a big game as an early-enrollee freshman a year ago, should have an opportunity to back up that talk. Anotehr receiver to watch is Maurice Ways. He got a lot of attention from the new staff during the spring and is a big target at 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds. Drake Harris, who missed last season with a hamstring injury – his high school senior season was also a wash also because of hamstring issues – is healthy and will challenge. There has been a good deal of talk about freshman Brian Cole, and Jack Wangler has worked hard for playing time, coaches have said.