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Up-close look sways DiNardo’s view of Michigan

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo arrived in Ann Arbor on Monday not expecting to leave with a changed opinion of Michigan.

The BTN bus, including show host Dave Revsine, and analysts Howard Griffith and DiNardo, is making its annual trek to all the Big Ten schools during preseason football camp. The three were able to watch Michigan practice before heading to East Lansing to observe Michigan State on Tuesday.

BTN will have a split, 90-minute show Tuesday night because Michigan practice ran so late Monday. Typically the shows air the same day as practice, so UM and MSU practices will be covered beginning at 5 p.m. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh did sit down for an interview Monday after famously opting to be the only Big Ten coach last year not to talk to the BTN crew.

DiNardo wasn’t buying into the preseason love Michigan has received and certainly not the projection by some that the Wolverines could be a playoff team. He left practice Monday, however, feeling like the preseason hype could be fulfilled and that Michigan has the talent and coaching to potentially win all its games this fall.

“This is not what I expected,” DiNardo said Tuesday morning, while also clarifying he’s not predicting Michigan to win every game — just that the Wolverines have that potential. “I went into the tour saying Michigan is overrated. I’m backing off that. I think they’re rated accurately. I thought because of all the offseason publicity people bought into that because of all that attention.

“They’re absolutely better than I thought.”

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DiNardo said of the Big Ten West division teams he would be “surprised” if any of those teams has more talent than Michigan, and that includes defending division champ Iowa.

His expectation is that Michigan State, having not seen the Spartans as of Tuesday morning, will have a very good team, “but not its best team in the last two, three years.” So then it comes down to Michigan and Ohio State in Columbus at the end of the regular season. The BTN crew already has visited the Buckeyes during camp.

“I’ve seen Ohio State, and (players) one through 85 may be more talented (than Michigan), but you can’t play all 85,” he said, adding that if the Wolverines find the right combination of 11 on both sides of the ball, “they can be as good as anybody.

“Do they have as much talent as Ohio State? Again, I don’t think there’s that much difference. I don’t think Ohio State beats them because they have more talent. I don’t think Michigan wins because of more talent. We’re back to whoever plays better in that game. They’ve (the Wolverines) closed the gap.”

While most are discussing the quarterback situation at Michigan, DiNardo said he and Griffith first analyzed the offensive and defensive lines.

“You get to practice, and we always start with both lines,” DiNardo said. “If you look at Michigan’s offensive and defensive lines, you come to the conclusion they can block anybody they play and stop anybody they play. They’re deeper in the offensive line than they’ve been, and we’ve been following some of these young guys for several years.”

Speaking of the young guys, DiNardo thought freshman offensive lineman Ben Bredeson stood out, as did Cass Tech’s Michael Onwenu, who is listed as an offensive lineman, but practiced Monday on the defensive line. Harbaugh said after practice Onwenu has been practicing on both sides and referred to him as one of his “favorites.”

As far as the quarterbacks, DiNardo was impressed with Wilton Speight and John O’Korn, the two main contenders for the job.

“Both quarterbacks were good, but I thought Speight had a better day,” DiNardo said. “They’re (Michigan) in a better position today (at quarterback) than they were a year ago at this time.”

DiNardo is interested to see how Michigan’s run game develops. He believes it would behoove Michigan to develop a dominant back like Ohio State had last year with Ezekiel Elliott, rather than shuffling in a committee of backs.

“The fact he could have that kind of production leads you to be a game-changer,” DiNardo said, referring to Elliott. “If there are two, three backs, defensively you’re not saying, ‘This guy could beat us. We can still beat them if the tailback position has 150 yards, but if one player has 150 yards that’s a difference.’ That’s a missing piece.”

Defensively, DiNardo agreed with most assessments — Michigan’s line and secondary are exceptionally strong, but linebacker lacks depth and experience. Still, he was impressed with freshmen Devin Bush Jr. and believes he will see playing time early, and also singled out Carlo Kemp.

Of course the freshman everyone is talking about is tackle Rashan Gary, the No. 1 recruit out of high school last season. DiNardo was impressed but also reminded that Gary is still young. He compared him to Michigan redshirt sophomore Jabrill Peppers, also a hotshot recruiting coming out of the same school, Paramus (N.J.) Catholic, during his freshman season.

“He’s the real deal. He’s going to play,” DiNardo said. “We saw Peppers when he was a freshman and the difference between him and Peppers, Peppers was so much more mature. Gary is a very good kid, a great body, impressive in drills. During the team period, they rushed the passer, the quarterback would throw, and he will stand there and then start running. He’ll grow every day. (Defensive line coach Greg) Mattison will show him the tape and tell him, ‘Rashan, when the quarterback throws you have to run downfield.’ He’ll see the older guys never stop running. That first year, you would have thought Peppers was a senior. He got it.”

Speaking of Peppers, DiNardo left Ann Arbor unsure where exactly Peppers will play. A safety on defense last season, Brown now calls him a “hybrid linebacker” and Harbaugh has said he could play so many roles, including on offense and certainly on special teams in the return game.

Don Brown is the new piece to the defense as the coordinator, after leading Boston College last season to the No. 1 statistical ranking in total defense. The players, from all accounts, enjoy playing for him and like his all-out attacking approach. Some have referred to him by the nickname, ‘Dr. Blitz.’

DiNardo is curious how Brown will call defenses early in the season against a not-so-threatening non-conference schedule. Will Brown hold his cards? Or will he show a few here and there because game reps offer so much more feedback and experience than practice reps?

“It will be interesting how the defense evolves,” DiNardo said. “How high risk it’s going to be will be interesting. I think he’ll find his niche, but his niche here doesn’t have to be the same exact niche he had at BC.”

While DiNardo’s opinion of Michigan has changed, he isn’t surprised that in Harbaugh’s second season the Wolverines could be legitimate contenders.

“(Former coach) Brady (Hoke) was recruiting good players,” DiNardo said. “At Rutgers, Kyle Flood left Chris Ash a decent roster. It does have something to do with who you’re following as a coach. Brady did a good job. It’s not really second year of personnel development. It’s the second year of the new culture.”