One-third of the way through its 2017 season, the No. 8 Michigan football team has defied expectations.
Despite losing 18 of their 22 starters from a year ago, the Wolverines (1-0 Big Ten, 4-0 overall) have found reliable options at most, if not all, positions on the field. Even significant question marks before the season, such as the receiving corps and the secondary, have proven to be surprising standouts so far.
While there have certainly been a fair share of early struggles — notably, turnovers on the offensive side of the ball and an adjustment process at punt returner — Michigan is entering its bye week undefeated. For a team as young as the Wolverines, with opponents as strong as then-No. 17 Florida and Purdue, that’s no small feat.
Still, only one game into its Big Ten season, much is yet to be determined for Michigan this year. The Daily evaluates the Wolverines’ performance so far in 2017:
There is no doubt which phase of the game has caused the most concern for Michigan.
It may not seem to be the case at first glance, as the Wolverines have scored 126 points in just four games. But that total is quite deceptive. Michigan has scored nine offensive touchdowns on the year, dropping that number down to 91. The Wolverines have their defense and special teams unit to thank for the rest.
Redshirt junior quarterback Wilton Speight has had a tumultuous start to his second season under center. Against Florida in the opener, he threw back-to-back pick-sixes. Against Cincinnati in the home opener, he fumbled the ball not once, but twice. And against Air Force, he led Michigan into the red zone four times, but couldn’t manage to score a single touchdown.
Yet, none of that compared to what happened to him against Purdue in the conference opener. Halfway through the first quarter, Speight was tackled twice in rapid succession. The first hit amounted to a sack, while the second knocked him out of the game with a soft-tissue injury. Fifth-year senior quarterback John O’Korn took over and put together an impressive showing, throwing for 270 yards and a touchdown.
After losing all three of its top targets from last year, the receiving corps has managed to maintain a reasonable level of production. Junior Grant Perry, sophomore Kekoa Crawford and freshman Tarik Black — before his likely season-ending injury — have provided solid targets for Speight. Each of the three has one touchdown on the season, and only one — Crawford — has fallen shy of 100 yards receiving, sitting at 99. Redshirt sophomore tight end Zach Gentry and sophomore tight end Sean McKeon have also grown into reliable outlets for the quarterbacks, particularly for O’Korn against Purdue.
While the passing game has been sorting itself out, the running game has provided necessary stability. The trio of fifth-year senior Ty Isaac, junior Karan Higdon and sophomore Chris Evans has each taken a turn atop the pecking order. Isaac has gained the most yards with 356, while Higdon and Evans have both scored two touchdowns.
There is also no doubt which phase of the game has brought the Wolverines the most success.
By every measure, Michigan owes its early success to the players on the defensive side of the ball. After losing all but one starter from a season ago, that has certainly come as a pleasant surprise.
The Wolverine defense has demonstrated not only that it is the best unit on the team, but that it is the best unit in the country. Michigan ranks first in the NCAA in total defense, allowing an average of just 203.3 yards per game and six opposing touchdowns. Meanwhile, the Wolverines are tied for second in the country with three defensive touchdowns — one via fumble return and two via interception return.
The defensive line, last year’s backup unit, has shined in their new starting roles. Redshirt junior end Chase Winovich has been the class of his position group, accumulating 24 tackles, including 7.5 for loss, and a team-high 5.5 sacks — not to mention a forced fumble in the end zone against Florida that led to a touchdown. He was named the Walter Camp National Player of the Week on defense for his performance at Purdue — Michigan’s first since Jabrill Peppers last season.
Despite his individual dominance, there is another Wolverine who has already seemed to stake his claim for breakout player of the year. Sophomore linebacker Devin Bush Jr. has proven himself to be the best all-around defender, tallying 33 total tackles, 5.5 tackles-for-loss and 4.5 sacks.
The secondary, another potential area of concern coming into the season, has shown that it is anything but. Junior safety Tyree Kinnel and sophomore cornerback Lavert Hill have led the charge in that regard, totaling 19 and eight tackles and two and three pass breakups, respectively. Both also have their names attached to the Michigan’s two pick-sixes.
Special teams: A-
Redshirt freshman kicker Quinn Nordin seems to be more machine than man.
In just four games, Nordin has been responsible for 44 of the Wolverines’ total points, hitting 11 of his 13 field goal attempts. He can be forgiven for missing the other two, as they came on a day he had already nailed four kicks — including two from farther than 50 yards to set a Michigan record for a freshman.
Fellow freshman Donovan Peoples-Jones has also made noise on the special teams unit. First, for a series of mistakes against Cincinnati that got him benched for the second half, and more importantly, for a 79-yard punt return touchdown against Air Force that came when the Wolverines were clinging tightly to a three-point lead.