Running back, kicker spots still in play as Michigan solidifies lineup ahead of opener
Ann Arbor — In the early stages of game week, Michigan is fairly close to having its lineup settled heading into the season opener with only a few starting positions to finalize.
Quarterback? Check. No news flash here, but Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh confirmed Shea Patterson as the starter for the Wolverines’ first game Saturday night against Middle Tennessee State at Michigan Stadium.
“Lord willing and the creek don’t rise,” Harbaugh said Monday at his weekly in-season news conference.
This will be the debut of first-year offensive coordinator Josh Gattis’ newly installed no-huddle pro-spread for which Patterson is ideally matched.
Harbaugh maintained what he said last month at Big Ten media days that he’d like to get backup Dylan McCaffrey valuable playing time in every game and that hasn't changed. But the staff has made clear throughout camp that Patterson has shined and that this is his offense to run.
“All options are open that way,” Harbaugh said. “We’d like to definitely play both.”
There had been a raging competition from spring until recently in camp at right tackle between Andrew Stueber, who started the last two games last season, and Jalen Mayfield. Stueber will miss the season, however, after suffering a torn ACL. Mayfield will start at right tackle, and Ryan Hayes is the backup at both tackle spots.
“Neither (was) giving an inch at any time,” Harbaugh said. “You feel for Andrew Stueber because of that. It’s so important to both of them. He’ll be back. Jaylen Mayfield was right there the whole time. Didn’t know which way it was going to go.”
Patterson will have plenty of targets in this offense, particularly receivers Nico Collins, Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black. Peoples-Jones missed spring with a groin injury but had a strong camp.
“Past performance usually predicts future success,” Harbaugh said of Peoples-Jones. “One of my all-time favorite players. His physical courage is one of the things that stands out to me the most about Donovan. He is a tough guy. He does so many things for the team in terms of receiving returning. Excited for Donovan’s year.”
“Tarik Black really doing well,” Harbaugh said. “He’s had a very good camp. He had a good spring. He’s been very good, especially over the last five practices. Really standing out at a high level. The other receivers, Ronnie Bell — if you said who’s our most improved player on offense who played last year, I would say Ronnie Bell. He’s been great. His body’s changing from a basketball physique to a football physique. He’s made ascending strides. Very positive.”
Earlier in camp Harbaugh said cornerback Ambry Thomas, expected to be a starter this season now that David Long is in the NFL, was diagnosed with colitis and had lost a substantial amount of weight that he re-gained. Thomas returned to practice last week but there’s no determination on whether he will play this week. Vincent Gray has used the extra reps in practice to make a case for him playing.
“Ambry has been back in meetings, position meetings,” Harbaugh said. “He is participating in portions of practice. This week, in terms of whether he plays or not will be decided by him and the doctors.”
Cornerback Lavert Hill said Monday that Thomas looks good.
“Ambry been cool, he been good, he been working hard just getting back ready,” Hill said. “He looks pretty fine to me.”
A couple spots that haven’t been decided are kicker and running back. Kickers Quinn Nordin and Jake Moody have been neck-and-neck since the spring. Will Hart, the Big Ten Punter of the Year, returns as the punter.
“Will was great last year and has had a great offseason and he’s continued to be really good in camp,” Harbaugh said. “Just keeps getting better and better. Quinn Nordin and Moody both are kicking very well. It hasn’t been determined yet. Same with the returners.”
Not surprisingly, Harbaugh wasn’t ready to name a starting running back. Tru Wilson entered the season as the most experienced back, and has been competing against Christian Turner, who coaches and players spoke highly of during the bowl practices, and then there’s freshman running back Zach Charbonnet.
“(He) has stood out and done extremely well,” Harbaugh said of the freshman who enrolled early but missed spring practice with a previously scheduled knee procedure.
Speaking of freshmen, Harbaugh said about a dozen have distinguished themselves in camp. Not surprisingly, safety Dax Hill, the Wolverines’ highest-rated recruit in this class, has impressed.
“Dax Hill is everything as advertised, doing a great job,” Harbaugh said. “He’s going to play a lot on special teams. He’s going to work into that safety position. He’s done extremely well.”
He’s also been impressed by Mazi Smith, Chris Hinton, D.J. Turner, among others.
“Mazi Smith came in as a mid-year, he’s been really good,” Harbaugh said. “Also Chris Hinton. You look at him and say that’s somebody who’s going to be playing this year quite a bit. D.J. Turner has been good. He’ll play special teams and work in at that corner position. Erick All is going to play quite a bit. Receivers Cornelius Johnson, Giles Jackson, playing special teams and working way into receiver.
"David Ojabo coming on very strong. He keeps having his best practice, it seems, every time we go out there. Caden Kolesar contributing on special teams. He’s going to be very good and playing. Mike Sainristil, I know we talked about Mike a lot, but he’s gonna be playing at lot at receiver and doing some in the return battle right now. Could be a punt returner and kick returner. D.J. Turner has been really good, playing on special teams, kinda like Dax. He’ll play special teams and probably starting on a few right now and will work in on that corner position, but he looks ready to play as well.”