Ann Arbor – Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh is confident his team is vastly improved from this time a year ago, when he and his staff had only been on the job a few months.
Then again, his objective each day is to have the team improve from the day before.
His team will be on display to the public for the second time in a week when Michigan concludes spring practice with the spring game Friday night at Michigan Stadium beginning at 6 p.m.
“We’re a more competitive team,” Harbaugh said after last Saturday’s practice at Ford Field.
Certainly, there is a familiarity now. The players who have been here since Harbaugh took over last season understand the demands of the staff. The offensive players have been in the system for a year, and have a much better grasp of the playbook, and new defensive coordinator Don Brown said the defensive players have very quickly adjusted to his style.
“I just really think people understand the concepts,” Michigan offensive coordinator Tim Drevno said. “Making corrections, people understand what you’re trying to correct and they’re fixing it the next day you come out.”
Here are five things to watch during the spring game:
1. Offensive line: Just when you thought the starting line was intact with Mason Cole moving to center from left tackle and Grant Newsome taking over at left tackle, offensive coordinator Tim Drevno said the door is open during preseason camp. Regardless, the line will have significant continuity this fall with four starters back, and right guard Kyle Kalis said the group is building off the line’s top performance last season in the bowl game.
2. Tight ends: Jake Butt returns after being named Big Ten Tight End of the Year in 2015, but keep an eye on mammoth Tyrone Wheatley Jr. Drevno calls him a “big weapon” for obvious reasons. He’s huge, he’s nimble, he can block, has good hands and can be a difference-maker.
3. Defensive approach: The defensive players say they love Don Brown and not just because of his distinctive mustache, although many have pointed that out. Brown has made it pretty clear he’s not going to show much of his hand in the spring game. Will the defense look more aggressive, attacking and blitzing-crazed? That’s Brown’s style.
4. Jabrill Peppers: There are other players on defense who should be observed, including Bryan Mone, who is healthy after breaking his leg / ankle in preseason camp last fall, and linebacker Ben Gedeon, who has been described by Harbaugh several times as being a “stud” during spring practice. But Peppers is the team’s most dynamic player, and it will be interesting to see how he is deployed at linebacker.
5. Quarterbacks: The contenders for the No. 1 job are John O’Korn, Wilton Speight and Shane Morris. How they handle game speed situations will show Harbaugh plenty. Perhaps there will be a clear QB hierarchy after the game, but more than likely this competition will go into the fall.