Michigan spring football: 5 storylines to watch

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

This is the time of the year-round football season when moods are light and coaches and players seem overjoyed about putting pads on again for the first time in nearly three months.

It’s time for spring practice, when coaches, by the conclusion of the 15th practice, have a good idea which players might be potential starters. It also gives coaches an opportunity to tinker with position changes.

For Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines, coming off back-to-back 10-3 seasons, this will be the beginning of reworking a team that lost 18 starters from last season. He will have to overhaul the defense, in particular, considering the entire secondary is gone, and also rebuild an offensive line that lost three starters.

This also will be an important time for the 11 early enrollee freshmen to establish themselves and make clear they intend to be on the field this fall.

Michigan opens spring practice today, and will hold 12 practices at Glick Field House Ann Arbor, and a spring game on April 15 at Michigan Stadium, before heading to Rome. The Wolverines will hold their three final spring practices, April 27-29, in Italy.

Here are five things to look for this spring:

Finding a starting five

Three starters are gone, and one assistant coach was added to the staff to help coach the offensive line. Greg Frey, who coached Michigan’s offensive line for three years under Rich Rodriguez, was hired from Indiana to coach tackles and tight ends. He will work with Tim Drevno, Michigan’s offensive coordinator who will handle the interior line. So about those three starters — how they can be replaced is among the priorities of spring practice. Will Mason Cole remain at center or bump back out to tackle? Will freshman Cesar Ruiz, a center in high school, have a shot at starting as Ben Bredeson did last year at guard? Will ginormous Michael Onwenu get his chance to make a big — stress on big — impact? The spring should answer all these questions.

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QB bar set high

Wilton Speight was named the team’s most improved player last season, and his mother joked at the season-ending banquet he had to improve considering his first play of the season was an interception. Also at the bust, Harbaugh said Speight will head into this fall “as one of the top quarterbacks in the country. I truly believe that.” That’s quite a change from two years ago at this time, Harbaugh’s first spring, when he was seen on HBO chewing out Speight. Perhaps more interesting will be the position battle behind Speight. Brandon Peters redshirted last year and will have an opportunity to compete for the job along with John O’Korn, Speight’s backup last season.

Run, run, run

Michigan has used a tailback-by-committee approach the last two seasons, and De’Veon Smith has moved on. So now what? Probably more of the same with the committee, with some slight changes. Chris Evans got quite a bit of playing time last season as a freshman and said he hoped to add weight and become more involved in pass protection. Kareem Walker is expected to make a charge after drawing high praise during bowl practices. But don’t forget Ty Isaac and Karan Higdon. The 15 spring practices also will give Jay Harbaugh a chance to get acclimated to coaching a new position group. With the departure of Tyrone Wheatley, who coached running backs the last two years, to the NFL, Harbaugh moved from coaching tight ends.

Filling defensive holes

It feels like the entire defense is gone, and it pretty much is, which means this spring will give a lot of players a lot of chances. The departing starters have said there won’t be much drop-off on the defensive line, especially considering Maurice Hurst, Bryan Mone, Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich are back and saw significant playing time last season. The secondary will be all new starters now that Jourdan Lewis, Channing Stribling, Dymonte Thomas, Delano Hill and Jeremy Clark have moved on. Lavert Hill and David Long are two young contenders. And of course, Michigan has to find replacements for Jabrill Peppers and Ben Gedeon at linebacker. Hill recently said he thinks this group could be better than last year’s because there is so much depth.

Catching on

With Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson having moved on, the Wolverines will be on the young side at receiver, but they have plenty of talent with returning sophomores-to-be Eddie McDoom and Kekoa Crawford, in addition to veterans Moe Ways and Drake Harris. Early enrollee freshmen Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black are two to watch this spring. Peoples-Jones is the five-star prospect from Detroit who is expected to make an impact during the spring and then this fall.