Michigan football: Five story lines as Wolverines open preseason camp

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Michigan opens preseason camp Friday for a season the Wolverines don't even know for sure will happen, but head coach Jim Harbaugh wants the players to prepare as though everything is set and ready to go.

The Big Ten has announced its member teams will play a conference-only schedule this fall, but nothing definitive has been announced in terms of the schedule and when the season will start. The NCAA Division I Council last month approved a six-week preseason camp modified to make up for lost spring practice time.

Jim Harbaugh

Michigan stopped all on-campus activities in mid-March in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Wolverines were unable to hold any spring practices.

Under this new model, beginning Friday through Aug. 6, players can participate in up to 20 hours of football activities, including up to eight hours of weight training and conditioning, up to six hours of walk-throughs, and up to six hours of team meetings and film work. Players are required to have two days off each week. Last month, players from football and men’s and women’s basketball were allowed to return to campus for voluntary workouts under the athletic department’s COVID-19 testing protocols.

Harbaugh told reporters recently that he is readying the team regardless of the uncertainty.

“Hope and going to prepare,” he said. “Not going to give it one thought that it’s not going to happen, because it’s like being a backup quarterback. I’ve learned that it’s better to be prepared and not have the opportunity than to not prepare and your chance comes, and your opportunity comes and you’re not prepared to do it. Not one thought that it won’t happen.”

Things will revert to a more normal preseason camp beginning Aug. 7, with a five-day acclimation period followed by 25 practices.

Here are five story lines heading into camp:

Keeping players and staff healthy

Michigan is releasing COVID-19 testing data of student-athletes but not indicating specifically which athletes from which sport. Since returning last month for voluntary workouts, there have been 485 student-athlete tests with eight positives. Most recently, early last week, 121 tests were administered with four positives. There hasn’t been a positive result among the 150 staff-member tests. When camps opens Friday, the coaching staff for the first time gets to work with the players. Coaches used to go into camps knowing they had to keep their players healthy, as in no major injuries. This is a whole new ball game, but Harbaugh said the players have been on board from the start with social distancing measures and wearing masks.

Sorting out the offensive line

Even before the quarterback competition gets discussed, figuring out how to replace four offensive line starters is key. Right tackle Jalen Mayfield is the only returning starter. “I like watching him play football,” Harbaugh said of Mayfield. "The offseason indicates he’s going to be even better. Super excited for him and his opportunity this year.” But one man does not an offensive line make. Offensive coordinator Josh Gattis said earlier this summer 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. A huge concern is replacing center Cesar Ruiz, and it appears Andrew Vastardis and Zach Carpenter, named the team’s offensive scout player of the year last season as a freshman, will compete for the job. 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 offensive line coach Ed Warinner determines the best four to join Mayfield.

Dylan McCaffrey

Sorting out the quarterback situation

Spring practice would have gone a long way toward determining the direction of this quarterback competition, but the time is now for Dylan McCaffrey and Joe Milton to compete for that starting job replacing Shea Patterson, who started the last two seasons. Cade McNamara will be in the mix, as well, but this is a two-man race. Gattis said earlier this summer that there’s no front-runner and the quarterbacks are even heading into camp.  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 touchdown. Gattis said there’s no rush to make a decision and the competition will be allowed to play out.

Running away with it

There are plenty of knowns now in a position group that was for the most part an unknown last year. Zach Charbonnet, a freshman last season, and Hassan Haskins, a linebacker-turned running back, became the one-two punch during the 2019 season. 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 also returns, but the wild card is veteran Chris Evans, who was suspended for a year by the university. He was the heir apparent to Karan Higdon and eager to become the leader of the young running backs room before he was suspended. Then there’s much talked about speedy freshman Blake Corum, who will also get a look in the return game.

Securing the secondary

Cornerback Ambry Thomas had a little fun with reporters before the bowl game suggesting he was waffling about a return for his final year. He’s back and has taken on an increased leadership role in the offseason. Vincent Gray, the three-star from Rochester Adams, is expected to move into a starting role after he 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. Ruiz at the NFL Combine said everyone will be talking about safety Brad Hawkins this fall. 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, but he’s healthy and ready. He finished the season with 53 tackles and was named the team’s most improved defensive player. Then there’s Dax Hill, a freshman last year, who is projected to have a breakout season.


Twitter: @chengelis