Michigan spring football: Five storylines to watch
Time heals all wounds, it has been said, and maybe three months are enough for Michigan fans to move past the finish to last year's 10-3 season.
The Wolverines lost to Ohio State in the regular-season finale, 62-39, then fell to Florida in the Peach Bowl, 41-15. Much has happened since. There have been plenty of departures and additions, and with spring practice underway Sunday, undoubtedly their focus is on what’s ahead. Hope springs eternal, it also has been said, with the emphasis here on “spring."
Michigan will wrap things up on April 13 in a public spring game/practice at Michigan Stadium — practice the Saturday before is expected to be open to fans, as well, much like before the start of last season — and there’s plenty to work on until then. As Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh prepares for his fifth season, here are five storylines to keep an eye on during spring practice.
The Gattis Effect
The Gattis Effect is also known as his ever-popular Twitter hashtag, #speedinspace.
There are four new coaches on staff this season, including Ben McDaniels who was elevated from offensive analyst to quarterbacks coach. Anthony Campanile was hired as a defensive assistant, and Shaun Nua is coaching the defensive line, but it is Gattis’ hiring as offensive coordinator that has drawn the most attention and will be the most scrutinized. Starting now.
Gattis arrived in Ann Arbor after spending a year as co-offensive coordinator at Alabama, giving him instant credibility as a respected 35-year-old offensive mover and shaker. What he wants to do is shake up the Michigan offense, and Harbaugh is on record saying he has handed over the keys to Gattis.
Harbaugh always will have his fingerprints on the offense, but Gattis, who has coached receivers primarily coming up the coaching ranks and will do so at Michigan, has a fresher, more energized take. He also has strong skill players to work with, especially the receivers, including Donovan Peoples-Jones, Tarik Black and Nico Collins, and quarterback Shea Patterson, who started all last season, returns. Will fans see a new-fangled offense during those open practices? Will Michigan show its cards? That won’t happen in the fullest sense, but expect a tease of what’s to come, a hint at what #speedinspace actually means.
Run, run, run
Who will run the ball for Michigan this fall? Chris Evans, the elder statesman of the group, was projected to play a large role, but his status remains unclear. Early last month it was announced Evans was not a member of the team “at this time,” which seemed to suggest the door was still slightly open for him to return. Evans shared on Twitter he was going “through some academic issues,” was working through them and said he planned to continue his career at Michigan.
Christian Turner, a redshirt freshman, earned plenty of praise during bowl practices and should receive plenty of reps during the spring, along with Tru Wilson, who had 364 yards on 62 carries last season. There are high hopes for freshman Zach Charbonnet, but after minor surgery in the offseason it is not clear how much work he will be able to do this spring.
Year Two: Offensive line under Ed Warinner
Warinner simplified things as soon as he arrived at Michigan last year and the linemen responded quickly and definitely showed improvement from the previous few years.
Four of the five starters return, with the exception of Juwann Bushell-Beatty at right tackle. Warinner will spend the spring determining if Andrew Stueber, who filled in for Bushell-Beatty the last two games, making starts at Ohio State and the bowl, is the right piece to fill that vacancy. Spring is the time to try different players at different spots, after all.
Jon Runyan was first-team All-Big Ten last season at left tackle and said he did not practice at right tackle during bowl practices, but perhaps he flip-flops allowing Jalen Mayfield to move in at left tackle.
Harbaugh always preaches a meritocracy and that technically means no position is set in stone. While Ben Bredeson, a captain last season, has been a three-year starter at left guard, and Cesar Ruiz appears locked in at center — OK, some spots are pretty much set in stone — Michael Onwenu is going to have to fight off the competition at right guard. Stephen Spanellis practices at center and guard, and Chuck Filiaga’s potential has been talked about since he was a recruit, so those two could be challengers at right guard. Warinner will have a busy spring.
Don Brown and staff filling holes
As emphasized by their performances during the NFL Combine, defensive end Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich, linebacker Devin Bush and cornerback David Long are leaving big shoes to fill.
Brown, the Wolverines’ defensive coordinator, and his assistants will have considerable work to do this spring to figure out who their replacements will be. Kwity Paye and Aidan Hutchinson are the ends most likely to move into bigger roles, although the staff will learn more about Central Michigan transfer Mike Danna when he arrives after graduation.
Tackle Bryan Mone also is gone, along with Lawrence Marshall. This would have been the time for Aubrey Solomon to take on more responsibility, but he transferred. Carlo Kemp moved from outside to the inside of the line last season, and he is expected to resume that role, along with Michael Dwumfour.
The line is where some of the freshmen might be able to get playing time, because this isn't the deepest group. Bush is going to be really, really, really missed. Really. Josh Ross took over during the bowl game, but Brown before the bowl mentioned Cameron McGrone had impressed. Stay tuned.
Ambry Thomas will get the first look to replace Long at corner, and with safety Tyree Kinnel graduated, there are a few options there. J’Marick Woods is one to watch, but freshman Daxton Hill should be a factor in preseason camp.
Odds and ends
There are plenty of other storylines to follow this spring. Winovich mentioned last Friday after his Pro Day workout that fullback Ben Mason wants to play more defense this fall. Mason was also a linebacker in high school and arrived here initially in that role. He was named the team’s “toughest player” in 2017, and Harbaugh always has enjoyed discussing Mason’s physical strength and how he can plow through people.
The kicking situation will be an interesting one to watch. Quinn Nordin has the big leg and a fiery competitiveness, but Jake Moody took over the job late during last season as a freshman and kicked well in the final three games, making 10 of 11 attempts.
So, isn’t quarterback a position battle to watch? Of course it is, but this is Patterson’s job. Dylan McCaffrey looked smooth and comfortable when he played last season, and Joe Milton is itching to play. With Gattis now calling the shots and adjusting to his new program and personnel, you’d suspect they’ll all get plenty of reps this spring with Patterson leading the way.