Five difference-makers for Michigan heading into the fall

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

All the preseason predictions are just a distraction until the real deal starts at the end of August, when college football kicks off and Michigan opens with Middle Tennessee State.

That leaves several weeks to guess records, to discuss key storylines and to pick apart everything coaches and players say leading up to the first game on Aug. 31 at Michigan Stadium. The Big Ten’s media days begin Thursday in Chicago where Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and three Wolverines, Ben Bredeson, Khaleke Hudson and Jordan Glasgow will be Friday discussing last year’s 10-3 record and the promise of this upcoming season.

And since is the time to look forward, here’s a look at the Wolverines’ five most valuable players heading into the fall:

Shea Patterson, QB

Well of course Shea Patterson. He’s the starting quarterback and everyone knows everything starts with him (well, maybe everything starts with the offensive line, but we’ll get to that later). Patterson did what he was supposed to in the confines of Jim Harbaugh/Pep Hamilton’s offense last year, and now there’s been new life injected into the offense with Josh Gattis, who talks as fast as he’d like his offense to run. Really, just listen to him — it’s hard to keep up. Gattis runs a hurry-up, no-huddle offense, and that’s what Patterson was born to lead. He did that at Ole Miss, where he started 10 games, and he feels comfortable with what the Wolverines’ will have in place this fall.

This means a lot of things, mostly that the intent is to put up a lot of points and keep the plays moving. This also could mean the shattering of John Navarre single-season passing record of 3,331 yards set in 2003. Jake Rudock in 2015 threw for 3,017 yards and ranks second. But consider that Patterson threw for 2,600 yards in last season’s offense, eighth all-time at Michigan. A Gattis-Patterson combo could light things up. Look what he did at Ole Miss in 2017 with a strong group of receivers when, in seven games he threw for 2,259 yards. The Michigan receivers are a talented bunch with Nico Collins, Tarik Black, freshman Mike Sainristil and Donovan Peoples-Jones.

Receiver Nico Collins hauled in 38 passes for 632 yards and a touchdown last season.

Nico Collins, WR

Collins is a big receiver with great hands, which means in this offense and with an on-target quarterback, he could very well be Michigan’s leading receiver. That’s saying a lot considering Peoples-Jones and Black, who has had so much promise but bad lucky with injuries, have high expectations, as well. Collins led the team last year with 632 yards on 38 catches and had six touchdowns, but Peoples-Jones had 612 yards and eight touchdowns. There’s also Black who, sidelined and slowed by foot injuries the last two seasons, has plenty to prove. But Collins is sure-handed and a big, 6-foot-4 target. And don’t forget, Gattis has coached receivers during his career as an assistant and is coaching them at Michigan. No one is saying Michigan is Alabama where Gattis was co-offensive coordinator last season. but look at what the Tide did last season — the top five receivers, including one tight end, had 693 yards or more with Jerry Jeudy leading the way with 1,315 yards and Jaylen Waddle with 848.

The offensive line

Yes, the offensive line. It’s all about the starting five and their chemistry and how quickly this group can adjust to Gattis’ new offense. Offensive line coach Ed Warinner, in his second season at Michigan, made the comment during the spring that last year was the first time in forever he had not coach in a no-huddle hurry-up, so this is like getting on a bike. He also has four returning starters with the right tackle as yet to be decided. Jon Runyan, a first-team All-Big Ten selection is at left tackle, Ben Bredeson, a captain last year, has left guard locked down, and Cesar Ruiz returns for his second season starting at center. Michael Onwenu also is back at right guard and camp will determine who will start at right tackle — Andrew Stueber or Jalen Mayfield. There was a renewed confidence among the linemen in the spring, a sense that they think they could be the strongest cog of the offense. If that’s the case, Gattis will have the ability to get his offense in place quickly.

Josh Ross, LB

Devin Bush Jr. is gone, and that’s an enormous loss for the Michigan defense. At middle linebacker, it seemed Bush was in the middle of everything and the co-captain was named the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Year, an All-American and was drafted 10th overall by the Steelers. Huge loss. Defensive coordinator Don Brown knows it’s probably going to take more than one player to replace what Bush gave the Wolverines, but Ross will likely be the player to take over that spot. Ross is a big hitter and likes the contact. He has speed, but he doesn’t have the closing speed of Bush, who could do pretty much everything asked of him. Not saying Ross can’t get there, but it will take time.

Lavert Hill, CB

David Long is gone, Lavert Hill is back. Both cornerbacks could have been gone to the NFL, but Hill decided to return and make a push this last year. He’s a first-team All-Big Ten corner but missed spring practice after having surgery after the bowl game for an undisclosed injury. He had 14 tackles last season, an interception and five pass breakups. That production was down a bit from the previous year. Redshirt freshman Vincent Gray saw more playing time in the spring in Hill’s absence, but Hill is will start opposite Ambry Thomas, more than likely. Mike Zordich who coaches the corners said in the spring said Hills “sees what his future can be” in the long term — preparing himself for the NFL — but in the more immediate future, helping Michigan win a Big Ten title. Zordich said Hill could be “lights out” this fall.

Twitter: @chengelis