Michigan returns plenty in 2019 to chase elusive Big Ten title
Michigan finished the season on a decidedly low note with blowout losses, first to Ohio State to end the regular season and then Florida in the Peach Bowl, but it never takes long for a team to begin looking toward next season.
The Wolverines finished 10-3 in Jim Harbaugh’s fourth season and certainly saw improvement from the 8-5 record a year earlier, but still, they have no championships to show for their efforts. In fact, next season will mark 15 years since the program’s last Big Ten title.
Not long after Michigan’s 41-15 loss to Florida last Saturday, co-captain Ben Bredeson, returning next fall for his senior season at left guard, said the Wolverines would turn the page quickly and immediately begin work on the next chapter.
“You could let this linger and suck the life out of your offseason and your winter workouts for a while, but we don’t plan on letting that happen,” Bredeson said. “You can let it hang over you, or you can learn from it and grow from it. That’s what we’re going to be doing.”
So what will Michigan look like next season? Hard to say for sure because the freshmen have not yet arrived, but there’s a pretty good sense the offense will be experienced and deep while the defense will sufficiently reload now that junior linebacker Devin Bush and junior defensive end Rashan Gary have moved on, as well as several seniors like Bryan Mone and Tyree Kinnel.
Reloading on 'D'
Replacing Bush, the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Year and the Wolverines’ leading tackler the last two seasons, will be difficult, but defensive coordinator Don Brown said he’s pleased with Josh Ross’ progress. He started the bowl game.
“I’ve got a lot of confidence in the young man moving forward,” Brown said last week. “The good thing is, I knew pretty early in the process because obviously Devin was hurt (late in the Ohio State game), so at least I’ve been able to prepare him for the challenges ahead.”
Defensive tackle Carlo Kemp said Ross will be an impact player next season.
“You’re going to hear his name a lot,” Kemp said. “He just wants contact. He lives for contact. If you want to be in a Don Brown defense, you live for contact, and he fits in perfectly.”
Brown also mentioned some of the younger linebackers who will help fill the void.
“Cam McGrone is doing a good job, Jordan Anthony is certainly viable,” Brown said. “He’s really put himself in a good situation.”
Cornerback Lavert Hill and safety Josh Metellus on Sunday announced via social media they are returning for next season, while cornerback David Long revealed Wednesday he will enter the NFL Draft. Kinnel is out of eligibility, but as one leaves, another arrives in highly regarded freshman safety Daxton Hill.
But players who already have worked in Brown’s system are coming along well.
“On the back end, this Vincent Gray is really impressing me,” Brown said. “Obviously, Ambry Thomas gets left out, out there. I think he’s playing really well. I have no fear about what his ceiling is or how good a player he is. I think he’s going to be a really good player. Sammy Faustin has gotten a little run, but J’Marick Woods, this bowl period been really good for him. Brad Hawkins really good for him. Metellus, J’Marick, Brad Hawkins, with our incoming recruits, feel really good about the back end.
“Feel really good about what we were able to do at linebacker and really got everyone back with the exception of (Noah) Furbush. So that’s positive. We’ve got a couple holes we’ve got to plug in the defensive line, which is an ongoing process. We feel good about what we were able to do in the early signing period. I think this (Donovan) Jeter is going to be really good. He’s another guy, this bowl practice period has been a benefit for him. He now knows the defense. He has a good handle on what we’re trying to get done. He’s strong as an ox. Moving him is an issue.”
Kemp said Jeter is representative of the younger, potent group of defensive players making a case for more playing time.
“Very good player,” Kemp said of Jeter. “So strong. Like Josh Ross, he’s so aggressive. I don’t know what’s with these young guys, but they’ve got so much anger with them. They love to attack. They’re violent. They’re violent players.”
Kwity Paye likely will take over where Gary left off — he filled in during the regular season when Gary was out with a shoulder injury and started the bowl game before leaving with a hamstring injury.
The defensive line has been consistently a strength of Brown’s defense the last few years under position coach Greg Mattison’s guidance, and Paye believes that will be the case next fall.
“It will be great because we have Coach Mattison,” Paye said. “He’s a perfectionist. There’s nothing that flies by him. If he sees something that’s not right or if you don’t do the smallest thing, he’ll yell at you about it. Having a guy like that with us, he just pushes us to be better. He makes sure where everyone is supposed to be.”
Plenty of weapons
The offense does not lose much from this season. Quarterback Shea Patterson has decided to return for his final year, but 1,000-yard rusher Karan Higdon has graduated along with right tackle Juwann Bushell-Beatty and receiver Grant Perry. Tight end Zach Gentry has not yet decided whether he will return.
Michigan’s line will return four of five starters, the receivers are a talented group featuring Donovan Peoples-Jones, Tarik Black, and Nico Collins, Oliver Martin and Ronnie Bell. With Patterson along with backup Dylan McCaffrey, coming off a broken collarbone, Joe Milton and, perhaps, Brandon Peters, all with game experience, the quarterback-receiver connection should be solid.
“I don't know that I can necessarily anticipate anything other than there will be familiarity with the system and there will be some stability in the passing game,” pass-game coordinator Pep Hamilton said last week. “And that's between the quarterbacks, tight ends, and receivers.
“The previous two spring balls has been, hit the reset button and you're starting from scratch. I think back two springs ago when there was (quarterbacks) Wilton (Speight) and John (O’Korn) and Brandon competing for the starting job. When you have quarterback competitions, it takes from the guy that wins the job. Those reps, you can't get those reps back, you know. And time on task is really important in the passing game.”
Patterson, who transferred from Ole Miss last December, started and completed his first full season of college football this fall — he had 10 starts over two years at Ole Miss. His decision to return gives the offense stability and strong leadership heading into spring practice.
“It was huge just being able to have him back there and he can be in the system again,” running back Chris Evans said. “And we can be able to help him out and adjust to his needs and he can help us the way he can get around and make plays on his own. That’s huge.”
Sean McKeon and Nick Eubanks, along with Gentry, provide experience at tight end, but freshmen Mustapha Muhammad and Luke Schoonmaker have made big jumps in improvement.
“They’re both doing a really good job,” Gentry said. “They’re way ahead of the curve where a coach or teammate would expect a freshman to be.”
Evans will be the leader in the running backs room next season and will be joined by Christian Turner, who gained experience in the bowl game, Tru Wilson and incoming freshman Zach Charbonnet, who could make an immediate impact this fall.
Bredeson said the team will get over the hump of these late-season losses next year.
“I think we’re going to do it,” Bredeson said. “We’ve got a lot of weapons back. We’ve got a lot of work to put in this offseason and I think the guys are fired up. Everybody is feeling pretty (terrible) right now, but once we get back to workouts and get back together, I think this is going to fuel everybody for next year.”
Patterson said he is optimistic about next season and mentioned opening things “up a little bit,” which seems like a no-brainer considering the talent the Wolverines will have back at receiver.
“Ah, man, you start open it up a little bit, you see guys like (receivers) Nico Collins flourishing, Tarik Black finally coming on the scene, and Donovan Peoples-Jones has been out there making plays. It’s all about getting guys involved in open space. That’s what the best teams do — they find a way to win one-on-one matchups and find a way to isolate their best players. And we’ve got a hell of a running back in Christian Turner and Chris Evans coming back and Tru Wilson. We’ve got a lot to look forward to.”
2019 Michigan schedule
Aug. 31, Middle Tennessee
Sept. 7, Army
Sept. 14, bye
Sept. 21, at Wisconsin
Sept. 28, Rutgers
Oct. 5, Iowa
Oct. 12, at Illinois
Oct. 19, at Penn State
Oct. 26, Notre Dame
Nov. 2, at Maryland
Nov. 9, bye
Nov. 16, Michigan State
Nov. 23, at Indiana
Nov. 30, Ohio State