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Five things to watch: Michigan spring game

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — After the spring game last year, Michigan players began to unabashedly speak their minds about the overall talent of the team and that the Wolverines should be national championship contenders.

Michigan lost three of its final four games by a total of five points, a fact Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has pointed out several times this year on radio shows saying he believes that will motivate this team, although there are many newcomers, this year.

It definitely has been on the minds of the returning players since a one-point loss to Florida State concluded the season in the Orange Bowl.

“We’ve been talking it about all workouts — ‘How can we close this gap? How can we become than we were last year?’’ defensive lineman Maurice Hurst, who opted to return to Michigan rather than pursue the NFL, said. “One of the things we looked at was turnovers. We know that’s something we have to improve on this year. That’s something we’re working hard on and something we want to get done as a defense. We saw so many things we did and we’re just trying to be better and just improve on those things.”

Michigan’s team will be on display publicly for the first time since the bowl game on Saturday in the spring game at Michigan Stadium. There will be an abundance of new players along with the returning veterans who are all competing for starting spots.

Here’s a look at five things to watch on Saturday:

1. The quarterbacks

Sure, watch Wilton Speight and see how different he looks since last year. Harbaugh said earlier in the week that he’s the top dog and even last December at the annual bust said Speight will be one of the nation’s top QBs entering the fall.

So perhaps more important is, who’s behind him? That’s going to be the thing to watch in the spring game, specifically Brandon Peters, quarterback of the Maize team — Speight and John O’Korn are on the Blue.

“We’ll get a good look at (the backups) in the spring game,” Harbaugh said this week. “It’s been good. Guys are playing good.”

O’Korn was Speight’s backup last season, but the 6-foot-5, 216-pound Peters, who redshirted last fall, was Mr. Football in Indiana in 2015 and a finalist for the Maxwell National High School Player of the Year.

2. The offensive line

It might be difficult to get a real feel for how the starting five will operate together considering the personnel is split in the spring game, but you can definitely get a feel for the talent and who will get plugged into that line that is missing three starters from last year.

It will be interesting to see where Mason Cole — the starting left tackle his first two seasons and the starting center last year — plays. Cole has moved around this spring. Could that mean early enrollee freshman Cesar Ruiz, rated the nation’s No. 1 center, can make a move into that position?

And what about fifth-year senior Patrick Kugler, a backup center who could also play guard? Ben Bredeson was a starting at guard last season as a freshman, so he should be penciled in as a starter, and Michael Onwenu, who played on both lines last year as a freshman, is targeted as a guard, as well.

3. The running backs

Michigan’s fullbacks are a known commodity — Khalid Hill, Mr. Touchdown last season with 13 total including 10 rushing, is back, as is Henry Poggi, sans the long hair but with every intention of being a big contributor.

New running backs coach Jay Harbaugh said this week the spring game is weighed heavily for the running backs because they see so little “live” action in practices. He wants to evaluate their performances in terms of yards after contact and how they deal with the pressure of knowing they can now be hit for real.

The running backs room is full, and Karan Higdon rattled each name off this week and said each has had “wow” performances.

Chris Evans played as a freshman last fall and has put on some pounds to help him in pass protection, a point of emphasis for the backs this spring. Ty Isaac, the elder statesman of the group, has a renewed focus, a seriousness understanding his role as a leader.

Everyone will want to get a look at Kareem Walker in the spring game.

Walker sat out last season, initially while he worked on academic issues, and turned heads in bowl practices.

4. The defense

Chris Wormley, the former defensive lineman who is awaiting the upcoming NFL draft, said recently he believes the defense Michigan will have on the field this fall will be more athletic.

Returning safety Jordan Glasgow this week said the defense is faster. There’s certainly a lot to replace, including the loss of Jabrill Peppers, but defensive coordinator Don Brown insists he has no fear when it comes to replacing the starters.

The defensive line will feature a group that was in the rotation last year — Bryan Mone, Chase Winovich, Hurst and Rashan Gary, who has been so impressive this spring was the No. 1 overall pick in the spring draft.

The secondary will be all new. Keep an eye on corners David Long and LaVert Hill during the spring game.

5. The youngsters

There will be plenty of youth to watch on Saturday. Most notable are receivers Donovan Peoples-Jones, the nation’s top-rated receiver out of Cass Tech, who has impressed coaches and teammates this spring, along with Tarik Black. Safeties J’Marick Woods and Jaylen Kelly-Powell and cornerback Ambry Thomas have been singled out this spring, and defensive lineman Donovan Jeter is another to watch.

Michigan spring game

When: Saturday, 1 p.m.

Where: Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor

TV / radio: Big Ten Network (delayed at 3 p.m.) / WWJ 950, WTKA 1050

Admission: Free