Michigan has plenty of position battles filled with intrigue, not just at quarterback
There was no spring practice to sort through position competitions and allow coaches to start penciling in their starters for the upcoming season.
Michigan and college football programs across the country saw their spring sessions wiped out in mid-March because of the COVID-19 pandemic and now, although uncertainty about the upcoming season remains, teams will start working and preparing.
Although there hasn’t been an official announcement, Michigan players are expected to return to campus next week, along with a number of programs, including Michigan State.
The NCAA released a plan Thursday to the Division I Football Oversight Committee that will give teams six weeks to prepare for the season, which would start on time. There will be a vote on the guidelines Wednesday.
Players would start July 13 with a mandatory eight hours a week of weight training and conditioning along with film review. Programs would shift to 20 hours a week on July 24 and that would include eight hours of weights and conditioning, six hours for meetings and six hours for walk-throughs with a football. Then things would shake out more like a normal schedule with preseason camp beginning Aug. 7, kicked off by a five-day acclimation period, followed by 25 practices.
Here’s a look at key position battles waiting for the Wolverines:
What? Not starting off with the quarterback competition? Michigan has to replace four starters on the offensive line, and it seems a bit more important to figure out who will protect the quarterback than who the quarterback will be. Line coach Ed Warinner, entering his third season at Michigan, is tasked with identifying who will take over and join returning right tackle Jalen Mayfield. Still, the staff seems to have considerable optimism.
Offensive coordinator Josh Gattis said they feel like they have three starters returning, considering Andrew Stueber, who had been in a tight competition last preseason camp with Mayfield before suffering a season-ending knee injury, made two starts at the end of 2018. Then there’s tackle Ryan Hayes, a converted tight end, who made two starts at left tackle last season while Jon Runyan recovered from an injury. In that sense, Michigan won’t be starting from scratch.
One of the biggest concerns will be replacing center Cesar Ruiz, a first-round NFL selection. Andrew Vastardis and Zach Carpenter, named the team’s offensive scout player of the year last season as a freshman, are expected be the main candidates. Karsen Barnhart played at left tackle in two games during his freshman season last year, and redshirt juniors Joel Honigford and Chuck Filiaga will be in the mix as Warinner determines the best four to join Mayfield. Gattis believes the line could “be a little bit more athletic up front” than last season.
The most talked about position should have a spirited competition with Dylan McCaffrey, Joe Milton and Cade McNamara all vying to replace two-year starter Shea Patterson, now in the NFL. Gattis said this spring the Wolverines are “nowhere near to having a front-runner.” He said they’re all dead even and “no guy’s out front, no guy’s behind. There is no order. It’s not based on last year. It’s not based on the depth chart last year. Those things are not important.”
It doesn’t matter, Gattis said, that McCaffrey has the most game experience and was Patterson’s backup. Last year he was 10-of-20 for 116 yards and one touchdown, while Milton was 3-of-7 for 59 yards and a touchdowns. “We’re in no rush to make a decision,” Gattis said. “If it takes us however long it’s going to take us to make that decision, that’s how long it’s going to take us, and we’ll make the best decision to give our team the opportunity to win.”
Position coach Jay Harbaugh feels good about the experience in the room this year – a far cry from last year when there was little game experience among the backs. Zach Charbonnet, a freshman last season, and Hassan Haskins, a linebacker-turned-running back, got the bulk of work last fall. Charbonnet led the team with 726 yards on 149 carries and his 11 touchdowns set a freshman rushing record. Haskins was second with 626 yards on 121 carries and had four touchdowns.
Christian Turner returns, as does veteran Chris Evans, who was suspended for a year by the university, and could be the real wildcard in the group. Then there’s speedy freshman Blake Corum, who has drawn comparisons to Mike Hart, Michigan's all-time leading running back. Harbaugh is sure about one thing heading into this season -- he wants the backs to be more dominant and consistent and deliver more explosive plays.
This is defensive coordinator Don Brown’s signature position, one that Khaleke Hudson held down so well the last few seasons. Hudson led Michigan with 101 tackles last fall but has moved on to the NFL. His heir apparent is Michael Barrett, a former high school quarterback from Georgia who turned some heads last season executing two faked punts.
“I’ve seen enough out of Michael Barrett to be excited,” Brown said. “Runs 4.51, that’s fast, at 220 pounds. That’s a good place to start.”
Anthony Solomon also will work at the position along with freshman William Mohan. Barrett has a strong relationship, Brown said, with linebackers Cam McGrone and Josh Ross and said that chemistry will go far in games.
Lavert Hill has moved on and Ambry Thomas, who from all accounts has taken his leadership to a new level in the offseason, is back, but who will play the other corner? Vincent Gray, the three-star from Rochester Adams, is up next and expected to move into that position. Gray had 20 tackles and five pass breakups last fall as the Wolverines’ third corner. He also saw considerable time replacing Hill when he was injured at Illinois. Gray is listed at 6-foot-2, 185 pounds, so he has some serious upside, and Brown joked recently with reporters that he hopes he can keep him at Michigan and not lose him early to the NFL.
Brad Hawkins, who played 11 games at safety last season, has been talked up a lot in the offseason and expectations are high. The 6-1, 218-pound Hawkins missed the Indiana and Ohio State games at the end of the regular season because of a leg injury and played only a few snaps against Alabama in the bowl game. He finished the season with 53 tackles and was named the team’s most improved defensive player. Dax Hill, a freshman last year, will be the other starter, but Sammy Faustin will compete for playing time.
Quinn Nordin finished the season on a hot streak making his final 10 field goals, and while he presumably enters camp with the edge over Jake Moody, nothing has been decided. They were part of a unique kicking rotation last season that never seemed to quite work efficiently until Nordin emerged as the starter for good later in the season at Maryland and kicked the final five games. Among his final 10 kicks was a 57-yarder against Alabama in the bowl game. Jay Harbaugh, the special teams coordinator, said nothing is a given at any spot on special teams and credited that approach for the depth they have.