Michigan looks for answers at QB, LB, RB spots

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Running back De’Veon Smith led the Wolverines with 781 yards rushing and six touchdowns on 180 carries.

The biggest question heading into Michigan’s offseason is who will start at quarterback, but that’s not the only issue.

Michigan finished 10-3 in coach Jim Harbaugh’s first season, which he described as his “favorite year in football” after a dominating 41-7 victory over Florida in the Citrus Bowl. Certainly, it set the bar high, but the Wolverines in 2016 have broader questions to answer. Can they beat rivals Michigan State and Ohio State on the road? How will the defense look under new coordinator Don Brown? After going minus-four in turnover margin last season, can they finally get to the plus side?

But first things first, who will start at quarterback?

Jake Rudock threw for 3,017 yards this season, the second-highest single-season total at Michigan behind John Navarre’s 3,331 yards, and had a school-record streak of five games passing for 250 yards or more. He was 24th nationally in completion percentage.

John O’Korn, a transfer from Houston who sat out this season and led the scout team in practices, was the American Athletic Conference Freshman of the Year in 2013 after throwing for 3,117 yards and 28 touchdowns at Houston. He would seem to be the favorite heading into spring practice, but Shane Morris wants to have something to say about that.

Morris said before the Citrus Bowl he intends to be back at Michigan competing for the job. After losing out to Rudock in preseason camp, Morris and Harbaugh agreed he would not play this season so he could redshirt and have two years of eligibility.

The quarterback pool is big. Also challenging for the job will be Wilton Speight, who was Rudock’s backup this season and led Michigan to victory at Minnesota after Rudock left the game with an injury to his ribs; redshirt freshman Alex Malzone; freshman Zach Gentry, who dabbled at tight end during bowl practices and might stay at that position; and incoming freshman Brandon Peters, who will begin taking classes this month and will participate in spring practice.

Running back

Junior De’Veon Smith looked in the Citrus Bowl like the running back he appeared he could be in nonconference games against Oregon State and BYU when he rushed for 126 and 125 yards, respectively. He suffered an injury to his right ankle/foot in the BYU game and he never looked the same until the bowl game when he ran hard for 109 yards on 25 carries. The Wolverines’ run game was sluggish late in the season, but Smith’s performance along with Drake Johnson’s — he had 58 rushing yards and a touchdown and said after the game his knees finally felt pain-free — helped Michigan to 225 yards rushing against Florida. Derrick Green didn’t make the trip to Florida and Ty Isaac wasn’t a factor. Freshmen backs Kareem Walker and Kingston Davis are early enrollees and could compete for playing time this fall. Michigan must replace productive fullbacks Joe Kerridge and Sione Houma, who had five touchdowns this season.

Wide receivers

Michigan developed considerable experience at this position this season. Jehu Chesson was voted the team’s MVP and emerged as a big-play threat once he and Rudock established chemistry and timing. Chesson had 118 yards receiving and a touchdown against Florida and finished the season with 764 yards and nine receiving TDs, all of which came in the final six games. Amara Darboh finished with 727 yards and five touchdowns. Freshman Grant Perry had three catches in the season opener but he wasn’t relied on much during the season until the final month when he got back into the mix. And in the bowl game, Perry was the second-leading receiver with five catches for 51 yards and a touchdown. Ahmir Mitchell is a 6-foot-3, 203-pound four-star early enrollee from New Jersey, and he told NJ.com last year he doesn’t plan to redshirt and wants to “fight for a spot right away.”

Tight ends

All-American Jake Butt has opted to return for his final year of eligibility rather than jump to the NFL and will be a focal point of the offense next season. He wants to set tight end records at Michigan and is well on his way. Ian Bunting and Khalid Hill each had a catch in the bowl game, and during bowl practices, quarterback Zach Gentry worked at tight end. Michigan will have to find a replacement for A.J. Williams, who was always was noted for his blocking skills during his career.

Offensive line

Center Graham Glasgow, the only departing member of the line that maintained the same starting group the whole season, had his “I told you so moment” after the game. After all, he kept saying the line was improved even though the rushing numbers late in the season weren’t backing him up, and the line played its best overall game in the bowl. The line might get shuffled next fall, but of course the most significant change will be at center. Patrick Kugler was Glasgow’s backup and left tackle Mason Cole worked at center last spring. And then there’s the potential Michigan might add Texas graduate transfer center Jake Raulerson, who will visit this month. It will be interesting to see how tackle Grant Newsome works into the lineup since he drew praise from coach Jim Harbaugh and seems to be a player who has worked his way into playing time.

Defensive line

This could be the elite position group of the team with nose tackles Ryan Glasgow and Bryan Mone returning from injuries. When Glasgow tore a pectoral muscle and was out the final three regular-season games, teams were able to run more freely against the Wolverines. The line also lost Mario Ojemudia in the Big Ten opener. End Chris Wormley finished with 14.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks and will be back for his final season. Tackle Willie Henry is likely to return, giving the line depth and experience, along with Maurice Hurst and Taco Charlton, who made key contributions.

Linebackers

This group will get a facelift next season after the departures of Joe Bolden, Desmond Morgan and James Ross. Ben Gedeon, who will be a senior, is the only linebacker returning with experience. Reuben Jones, a defensive end, was moved to inside linebacker during bowl practices. Four-star early signee Devin Bush Jr. is expected to challenge for a starting spot this fall.

Defensive backs

This group is versatile and talented and will challenge the line as the top position group on defense next fall. All-American cornerback Jourdan Lewis added a pass breakup in the bowl game and set a single-season Michigan record with 22, and he will play opposite Channing Stribling or Jeremy Clark. Safety Jabrill Peppers, the Big Ten’s freshman of the year and All-Big Ten first team selection, is again expected to be a difference-maker not only on defense, but in the return game and on offense. Safety Jarrod Wilson, mostly underrated for his work as “quarterback” of the secondary, is gone and Delano Hill and Dymonte Thomas, who each had four tackles in the bowl game, will challenge for that job.

Special teams

Kicker Kenny Allen has indicated via Twitter he will be back next season. He filled in as punter for the bowl game because Blake O’Neill was out with a leg injury. O’Neill, an Aussie kicker and graduate transfer, was an asset for the Wolverines, and it’s unclear how Michigan will replace him. Special teams coordinator John Baxter said during the season he would explore finding another Australian kicker. Andrew David, a freshman this season, also is a potential option. As for the return game, Peppers will continue in that role as a returner, as will Chesson and Lewis.

angelique.chengelis@detroitnews.com

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