Hickey: Top 5 takeaways from Michigan's spring football game
Michigan decided to sneak its spring football game into the mix on one of the busiest weekends of the sports calendar — men’s and women’s Final Fours and Major League Baseball’s opening weekend.
But with neither Michigan basketball team making a run and the baseball option being the Tigers, perhaps Jim Harbaugh knew what he was doing with that bit of scheduling. After all, it doesn’t conflict with the Michigan hockey team’s upcoming Frozen Four appearance.
As with any spring game, much of what was witnessed should be taken with a heavy dosage of salt. Especially when stars like Blake Corum, Donovan Edwards and Roman Wilson were among those not even participating. But there are still things we can glean about the 2023 Wolverines.
1. Peyton O’Leary: Spring star, or budding star?
Wide receiver Peyton O’Leary was the unquestioned man of the hour.
The sophomore former walk-on had 6 catches for 126 yards, including the game-clinching 2-point conversion.
Peyton O'Leary is having a day. 👏
Here's his late go-ahead 2-point conversion.@peytonoleary6 x @UMichFootball pic.twitter.com/QRJm6MwvkO
— Michigan On BTN (@MichiganOnBTN) April 1, 2023
O’Leary caught 1 pass for 4 yards as a freshman last season.
Part of O’Leary’s haul had to do with opportunity. Wilson didn’t play. Neither did AJ Henning. Cornelius Johnson had an understandably short day along with most offensive starters. O’Leary isn’t going to push any of those guys on the depth chart.
But he may provide a trustworthy option on the second wave of the depth chart. Or maybe this is simply a preview of what he might be ready to offer a year from now, and he’s showing the athleticism that will make him a special teams contributor in 2023.
If the Wolverines are again going to be a College Football Playoff team, depth matters.
2. New Kid in the Hall?
Depth was an issue in last year’s CFP semifinal loss to TCU — specifically at running back.
Edwards gave Michigan plenty of explosiveness, but without Corum the Wolverines were without a suitable option to power the ball in near the goal line. Hence, running a ridiculous end-around pass for tight end Colston Loveland on 4th-and-goal at the 2. And converted linebacker Kalel Mullings getting the call for his 14th carry of the season, which he fumbled at the goal line.
Freshman running back Benjamin Hall provided some hope that maybe that problem will not repeat itself. Listed at 5-11 and 235 pounds, Hall was easily the best of the reserve backs on the field. He finished with 13 carries for 96 yards and a touchdown.
Like O’Leary, he won’t be starting. But maybe Michigan has a viable No. 3 running back built for bruising scenarios.
3. Defensive front looks solid*
It’s generally a given that the defensive line will have the edge in a spring game. Offensive lines are usually spread pretty thin in a split-squad scrimmage. This is when starters get surgery for nagging injuries.
It’s even more applicable in the transfer portal era. Most of the new help Michigan is counting on will be here in the summer. (All of this helps the case that Hall might be a pretty good player, by the way.)
That said, it was hard not to be pleased with Michigan’s defensive front, particularly a couple newcomers on the edges.
Outside linebacker Ernest Hausmann, a Nebraska transfer, was credited for 8 tackles (1 TFL) and a forced fumble. Defensive end Josaiah Stewart, a star at Coastal Carolina who is leveling up, had credit for 5 tackles (2 TFL) and a sack.
Elsewhere up front, sophomores Derrick Moore (7 tackles, 2 TFL) and Rayshaun Benny (6 tackles, 2 TFL) were impressive. Both project as second-teamers. But again, depth matters.
4. Backup QB remains undetermined
The best-case scenario for Michigan is that it only needs a backup quarterback for the same reason it did in 2022 — to mop up during blowouts.
The spring game did not offer much clarity into who will be holding the mop, though.
Former Indiana backup Jack Tuttle showed why he’s a former Indiana backup, completing 50% of his passes for 57 yards and an interception. Davis Warren finished 8-for-13 for 162 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
In a perfect world, sophomore Alex Orji will continue developing to the point where he can be QB2. His running ability gives him the most similar skill set to JJ McCarthy. And he looked good throwing the ball, albeit against a backup defense.
Orji will be a player to keep an eye on in training camp.
Alex Orji doesn't care if it's the spring game.@devingardnerXCI absolutely loved the QB delivering the boom here.@AlexORJ1 x @UMichFootball pic.twitter.com/cFbwekjCKP
— Michigan On BTN (@MichiganOnBTN) April 1, 2023
5. AJ Barner is as advertised
Nobody should be surprised by tight end AJ Barner. For anyone who watched Indiana play last season, he distinguished himself as “the guy who can catch a touchdown pass.”
He’ll be able to do the same at Michigan, where he and Loveland will form the Big Ten’s best tight end tandem. Barner had 3 receptions for 30 yards and a touchdown in the spring game. There will be more of where that came from — and that’s the safest takeaway from Michigan’s spring game.