Leading storylines as Michigan kicks off spring football practice

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Jim Harbaugh, entering his fourth season as head coach, has added a transfer quarterback and new assistants since going 8-5 in 2017.

While the Michigan men’s basketball team continues to make its NCAA Tournament run, spring football practice is nearing and there are numerous questions.

Jim Harbaugh is entering his fourth season as head coach, and he has had plenty to consider coming off an 8-5 season. He has added a transfer quarterback, Shea Patterson from Ole Miss, he has hired several new assistant coaches, and is approaching what many would consider a pivotal season for him.

It all starts with spring practice, which kicks off Friday.

Michigan will host its spring game on April 14 at Michigan Stadium at 7 p.m. It will be free and open to the public and will be televised live on BTN

Gates will open at 5 p.m. and the first episode of "All or Nothing: The Michigan Wolverines," the new docuseries from Amazon Prime Video chronicling the 2017 season, will be shown on the videoboards starting at approximately 5:20 p.m.

The eight-episode series will be released April 6 on Prime Video.

This will be the second time in three years that the Wolverines play a spring game at night. The 2016 scrimmage was held at 6 p.m.

As Michigan readies for spring practice, here’s a few storylines to keep an eye on:

The quarterbacks

Is Shea Patterson going to be eligible this fall? That’s been THE question since he transferred from Ole Miss That decision will come from the NCAA — eventually — but until then, Patterson can practice. Brandon Peters became the starter late last season. He endured a concussion that held him out of the Ohio State game and he admittedly had a sub-par performance in the bowl game. But experience is always important and he has that edge as he competes with Patterson, a starter at Ole Miss before suffering a torn posterior cruciate knee ligament that sidelined him in late October and for the rest of the season. Redshirt freshman Dylan McCaffrey has had a year in the system under pass-game coordinator Pep Hamilton, and Joe Milton is an early enrollee freshman.

The offensive line

This has been a storyline — really, THE storyline — the last several years. Mason Cole, who played left tackle for three seasons and his preferred center for one, is gone. He played left tackle last year, filling in a large gap left when Grant Newsome’s gruesome knee injury during the 2016 season held him out all last year. Patrick Kugler finally got a chance to start during his career and took over at center. Ben Bredeson has started at left guard the last two seasons, and by the end of last season, freshman Cesar Ruiz was at right guard. Newsome has been working hard to get back to football. Whether he will be fully cleared to play has yet to be determined but regardless, finding tackles will be key. Could Bredeson move to a tackle spot to give Michael Onwenu and Ruiz the guards? That’s possible. Ruiz or Stephen Spanellis could play center, so will Michigan look at younger untested tackles like James Hudson, Andrew Stueber, Joel Honigford and Chuck Filiaga?

The coaching staff

Tim Drevno, the offensive coordinator and offensive line coach the last three seasons is gone, as is safeties coach Brian Smith, offensive line/tackles coach Greg Frey and strength coach Kevin Tolbert. Harbaugh hired Ed Warinner as senior offensive analyst but has since been elevated to offensive line coach. Warinner has been credited with producing some great Ohio State offensive lines before heading to Minnesota for one season last year. Former Florida coach Jim McElwain is the receivers coach and Hamilton returns. Sherrone Moore, formerly of Central Michigan, will coach tight ends, and Al Washington was added to the defensive staff. Ben Herbert is the new director of strength and conditioning. Phew. That’s a lot of changes. They have all had time to get acclimated to their new staff and the players, but while players are always asked about team chemistry, what about the coaching staff? Will this group gel? Will the chemistry be there to make this click this year?

Tarik Black, a standout receiver early in his freshman season before breaking a foot, can finally get back into high-tempo practice mode.

The receivers

Spring practices will give the young receivers a chance to final start to come of age. This is also when Tarik Black, a standout early last year during his freshman season before suffering a broken foot, finally gets back into high-tempo practice mode. He was the team’s leading receiver before the injury and seemed to quickly adjust to the college game. Having him back is enormous along with Donovan Peoples-Jones, also a freshman last year. Peoples-Jones took longer to get comfortable in the offense, but he started showing more and more signs toward the end of the season. Overall, this is a talented group that should only get better this spring. And don’t sleep on the tight ends. Sean McKeon and Zach Gentry should play a bigger role in the receiving game this year.

Lawrence Marshall, middle, returns to the defensive line for his fifth season.

The defense

Michigan’s defense has been the strength of this team the last several years, largely because of defensive coordinator Don Brown. He and his staff will work this spring on developing depth, because they have most of their starters, like Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich, are back. Maurice Hurst and Mike McCray have to be replaced. As far as the defensive line, is this when Bryan Mone and Lawrence Marshall take a stand in their fifth years? Donovan Jeter, Michael Dwumfour and Aubrey Solomon will have a say, as well. Who will take over at McCray’s spot. Brown has talked a lot about Josh Uche and Devin Gil and Josh Ross. Don’t forget Drew Singleton and Jordan Anthony. The secondary was young last season and turned some heads. Michigan will look to develop the safety depth more this spring.