For the next two weeks, we’ll be taking a look at where each B1G team needs to improve and answering pressing questions this offseason. For some it’s establishing depth, and for others, it’s learning a new system. Whatever it is, each team has at least five things to take care off before 2016 kicks off.
1. Settle on a quarterback
The obvious offseason question is who will start at quarterback. After one-year wonder Jake Rudock left, it was natural to assume that fellow transfer (and fellow St. Thomas Aquinas grad) John O’Korn would take the reigns of the starting job.
As Lee Corso would say, not so fast.
The spring game proved what coaches have been saying all offseason: Wilton Speight has a legitimate chance to win the starting job. The lanky quarterback moved himself into the unofficial lead to win the job with his accuracy and mobility. He looked more prepared to steer the Wolverines than O’Korn did.
But it’s early. This competition will likely last well into fall camp. It’ll be interesting to see how Jim Harbaugh handles this year’s battle compared to last year’s. Publicly, Harbaugh didn’t name a starter until minutes before the season opener at Utah. He had his media shutdown for basically all of August, which allowed Rudock to develop in his new role without dealing with all of the attention of being named the starter.
Will Harbaugh follow the same plan? It would be surprising considering O’Korn and Speight aren’t getting the late start that Rudock got. Harbaugh could privately name his starter in the middle of fall camp. Whoever it is, they’ll be expected to operate like a seasoned vet.
2. Replace Graham Glasgow
A lot of media folks — myself included — were guilty of overlooking the impact Glasgow had on Michigan’s turnaround. The Wolverine center was the leader of that offensive line, and the main reason that Michigan nearly cut its tackles for loss allowed in half (113 to 65) in 2015.
Now that Glasgow and Rudock are down the road in Detroit, Michigan has a major hole to fill. The good news is that the Wolverines return their other four starters up front. One of them, Mason Cole, is expected to fill that role at center. Cole played there when Glasgow was suspended last spring, and has taken well to his new role.
He’ll have some sizable shoes to fill, as will his replacement at left tackle. Second-year player Grant Newsome will likely step into that role after impressing as a true freshman. That’s a major assignment for an underclassman to take on.
While Michigan’s was significantly improved up front — thanks in large part to Glasgow — it was still a group that struggled against elite defensive lines. Michigan failed to rush for three yards per carry against Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State and Utah.
For the Wolverines to get to where they want go in 2016, that improvement needs to happen this summer.
3. Develop linebackers
All of this talk about Jabrill Peppers at linebacker made it easy to forget that the Wolverines are still extremely inexperienced at the position. Michigan’s returning linebackers combined for one start at the position in 2015. Replacing sure-tacklers like Joe Bolden and Desmond Morgan won’t be easy.
Their experience and leadership will have to have to come from somewhere else. Ben Gedeon made significant strides this spring and could be ready to take on that role. Couple that with Peppers, who figures to be everywhere, and Michigan has two reliable options.
The question is beyond those two.
Mike “Big Play” McCray hasn’t had much of a chance to live up to his nickname yet because he’s been hurt throughout his career. He was out all of 2015 with a shoulder injury, and his only experience was limited in 2014. McCray did look plenty healthy — and fast for a guy at 6-4, 240 pounds — in the spring game.
Even if McCray stays healthy, there are still question marks. Noah Furbush hasn’t had any non-special teams action and walk-on Mike Wroblewski is a converted defensive end. Michigan will need true freshman Devin Bush Jr. to develop quickly because he could likely see snaps in 2016.
But Don Brown did turn Boston College into the nation’s top defense. Still, his job would be a little easier if the inexperienced group grew up this offseason.
4. Find a spot for Rashan Gary
Brown has to be fired up to work with the consensus No. 1 recruit in the country. He has the skill and versatility that defensive coordinators dream about. But where will Gary line up when fall camp rolls around?
Despite the fact that Michigan has talented defensive ends Taco Charlton and Chris Wormley, Brown hasn’t ruled out the idea of Gary starting at one of those two spots. But the 6-5, 293 pound true freshman could easily find himself at defensive tackle. Unlike most true freshman, Gary already has the size to do just that.
Besides his next-level frame, Michigan coaches raved about his ability to understand any position on the defensive line. They aren’t worried about trying him out at multiple spots. That could prevent him from waiting too long to play behind some experienced upperclassmen.
Barring injury, it doesn’t appear that Gary’s summer enrollment status will hold him back from playing somewhere in 2016.
5. Don’t get caught up in the hype
Michigan will have more preseason hype this summer than its had in arguably the last decade, and rightfully so. Everybody will be talking about the Wolverines as the favorites to win the B1G and earn their first College Football Playoff berth.
Michigan could easily have four preseason first-team All-Americans. They could dominate the first part of their schedule and still be the talk of college football in mid-October.
Expectations are exciting, but the only thing that changes the narrative is winning. The narrative is that Michigan, despite all of its offseason attention, is still the team that’s 2-14 against Michigan State and Ohio State since it was last ranked in the top three at the end of 2006. That’s the number Harbaugh has to turn around if he wants to sustain this unprecedented pace.
It’s incredible how quickly the Wolverines went from a non-bowl team to a preseason national title contender. Harbaugh already did all he could do to rebuild the brand of Michigan football.
Getting over the real hump starts this offseason.