Wojo: Michigan brimming with talent in the wings

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Defensive end Rashan Gary, right, returns for the Wolverines next season.

Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. — Michigan’s season ended late Friday night, and the next time you see the Wolverines, they’ll look a whole lot different. Younger? Oh yes. Quicker? Maybe. Better? Ah, the big mystery, and it begins unfolding now.

Michigan wrapped up an eventful season in the Orange Bowl against Florida State, and by the time you read this, its huge senior class will be thinking about the NFL or making other plans, with at least 16 starters departing. What’s left is a raw, talented group that was helped greatly by the seniors’ mentorship, but slowed by the seniors’ durability. There wasn’t much playing time for the youngsters, and that’s about to change in a huge way.

Jim Harbaugh and his staff showed how well they can develop and utilize seasoned talent, falling four points short of an undefeated regular season. Next season, the program will be challenged in an entirely different manner, integrating promising players who simply couldn’t get on the field much this season.

One thing won’t change. With the way Harbaugh has recruited, and with the talent he inherited, the Wolverines will be expected to contend for the Big Ten title again, especially with rivals Ohio State and Michigan State coming to Ann Arbor. They shouldn’t be in the preseason top five after losing so many starters, but in this era of Michigan football, there are no transition years, no easing in.

That was apparent at quarterback this season, a major question mark quickly answered by Wilton Speight. After one full season, Speight has shown the size and savvy to be one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten. Michigan loses its top runner, De’Veon Smith, and its top three pass-catchers — Jake Butt, Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson. It loses three starters on the offensive line but returns two of its best, Mason Cole and Ben Bredeson.

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But the biggest reality check will come on defense, where the Wolverines started 10 seniors, and surely will lose the other, Jabrill Peppers, to the NFL. Peppers didn’t play in Friday’s game because of a hamstring injury. It’s virtually unprecedented — by contrast, Florida State started five seniors total, on both side of the ball.

Glimpse of the future

During early bowl practices, the coaching staff spent time looking at the younger players. By late in the week, attention turned to the game plan for Florida State. But every time an older Michigan player was asked about a possible successor, the praise gushed.

On offense, there was positive buzz about top running back recruit Kareem Walker, who redshirted while working through academic issues. But defense is where the Wolverines will have to grow up quickly.

“There’s a lot of young talent on this team, they just haven’t really got a chance to show it because of all of our veteran guys,” defensive end Taco Charlton said. “But through practice, I’ve been seeing this team has a bright future, a lot of talent that’s ready to step up and show what they can do next year.”

Notably, there’s Rashan Gary, the No. 1 recruit in the nation a year ago who showed flashes but couldn’t bust into Michigan’s deep defensive line and finished with 27 tackles and one sack. Once the Big Ten season began, Michigan fielded the same 11 defensive starters every game.

It’s too much to expect the line to dominate as it did this season, but three experienced guys are back — Brian Mone, Maurice Hurst, Chase Winovich. With the entire secondary graduating, including standout cornerbacks Jourdan Lewis and Channing Stribling, and only Mike McCray returning at linebacker, defensive coordinator Don Brown has a lot of work to do. He actually sounds excited about it, and professes no major concerns.

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“I have no fear,” Brown said. “(The young players) are something we feel really good about. The way these guys have been role models for the younger guys, and way they go about doing their business — there’s no fear in our younger guys. It’s like, OK, it’s my turn, gotta be ready to do my job.”

Next in line

Brown and many of the older players cited several young guys ready to move in. In the secondary: LaVert Hill, David Long, Tyree Kinnel, Khaleke Hudson and Josh Metellus. At linebacker: Devin Bush, Carlo Kemp and Jordan Glasgow (yes, another member of the productive Glasgow family).

“It’s really exciting to see those guys mature and go out there and practice the way they are at a high level,” Lewis said. “I’m just excited to see those guys play, especially in the secondary. If you look at Ohio State, they didn’t have too many returning starters, but if you think about it, they had just as much talent back there.”

Alarm bells were for rung for Ohio State after it sent a batch of players to the NFL, but the Buckeyes bounced right back and are in the playoff. Has Michigan stockpiled that much depth? Probably not, but with another touted recruiting class, Harbaugh might be getting closer.

Lewis said guys like Hill and Long were advanced way beyond what he was as a freshman, and athletically, that’s likely true. Realistically, there will be an early learning curve, and Harbaugh isn’t inclined to prematurely pump expectations.

“There’s been some real encouraging things, and also there’s obvious improvements that need to be made,” Harbaugh said. “That’s a process, and it gives you a better idea for when spring practice starts — here’s the areas we need to address. But you feel like you’ve got a jump on it, like you’ve cheated the system, that the young players are getting the opportunity to have spring practice before spring practice even starts.”

It’s a big jump for the young guys, and a big jump the Wolverines desperately will need to take.