Jim Harbaugh’s second spring camp at Michigan was, as is seemingly everything else he does, eventful.
It started over the University’s Spring Break in Florida, where Harbaugh drew criticism from other coaches and administrators around the country. It continued on Twitter, where Harbaugh countered that criticism in the form of jabs at Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Smith and others. And it wrapped up Friday under the lights with the Spring Game, where the Wolverines gave fans their final taste of action until the fall.
Overall, Michigan seems to be improved from last year’s 10-3 team at most positions. It still has a few holes to fill, but some could be helped by the rest of the top-ranked recruiting class coming in this summer. And it still has a few positions to settle — most notably at quarterback — but, for right now, the talent appears to be there one way or another.
The experience is there as well. The Wolverines could start as many as 10 fifth-year seniors, depending on how the last few spots shake out, with many more fourth-year players in the mix, too. So, Michigan has finished up the spring where it hoped to be at the end of last season — with a legitimate chance to be in position for a Big Ten title if it keeps on its current trajectory throughout the rest of the year.
Here are five things we learned from the team’s spring camp:
1. The quarterback competition is just that.
Anyone who expected transfer John O’Korn to win the starting job going away is mistaken. O’Korn is by far the most experienced after starting for a year and a half at Houston in 2013 and 2014. He earned rave reviews from coaches for his performance on the scout team last season and, in the minds of many, headed into 2016 as the presumptive frontrunner for the starting spot.
But redshirt sophomore Wilton Speight had something to say about that. Speight, whose shining moment at present is last season’s game-winning touchdown pass in spot duty at Minnesota, was the first player under center during open practice March 26 at Ford Field. Then, he came out on top in the Spring Game on Friday — albeit by one point.
Speight (5-for-6, 46 yards, two total touchdowns in the Spring Game) and O’Korn (6-for-14, 93 yards, one total touchdown) have both had mixed results this spring. O’Korn is the more prolific runner, but Speight is likely the more consistent passer.
Redshirt junior Shane Morris is third on the depth chart for now, and freshman Brandon Peters is talented but inexperienced and unproven. But all of the quarterbacks have five months to make a move. Harbaugh and his staff have not named a clear leader at the position, or even said when they would like to do so. The starter could very well not be apparent until he takes the field Sept. 3. Until then, buckle up for another fierce competition.
2. Expectations are as high as ever, and Michigan isn’t shying away from them.
The defensive line thinks it can be the best in the country. The secondary thinks it can be the best in the country. The team thinks it can be the best in the country.
Three months after the Wolverines shocked most people with a 10-3 season, no one is short on optimism in Ann Arbor. Multiple players have already referenced the Sept. 3 season opener against Hawaii at Michigan Stadium. While Michigan ended up being successful last season, this spring has generated more excitement than most others in recent years.
Most of that comes from the defense, which dominated for most of last season. It returns six starters this year and has a capable replacement ready to step in at every open position. Redshirt sophomore Jabrill Peppers has proven his versatility, even stepping in at strong-side linebacker for most of the spring. If he stays at linebacker, the secondary will consist entirely of fourth- or fifth-year players, and the defensive line is deeper than ever.
3. The offense could use some help on the outside.
All of Michigan’s quarterbacks had their moments in the Spring Game, but they need some more receivers to throw to. Most of the Wolverines’ injuries have been out wide. Fifth-year senior Jehu Chesson remains out, redshirt sophomore Freddy Canteen is no longer on the roster and redshirt sophomore Maurice Ways — who impressed for most of the spring — underwent foot surgery last week.
That doesn’t leave much help on the flanks: Redshirt junior Jack Wangler, redshirt sophomore Drake Harris and sophomore Grant Perry were the only wide receivers to catch a pass in the Spring Game. Fifth-year senior Amara Darboh was held out for most of the game to give the others a chance, but the Wolverines will need more than just him to be healthy and ready to contribute in the fall.
4. The offensive line has continued to improve.
For the third straight year, Michigan returns more than it loses on the offensive line. In 2013 and 2014, the Wolverines took their lumps up front in preparation for a season like this — when they will start three fifth-year seniors in left guard Erik Magnuson, right guard Kyle Kalis and right tackle Ben Braden.
Graham Glasgow, a possible NFL Draft pick, left a hole at center when he exhausted his eligibility last season. He was the Wolverines’ best offensive lineman last season, but former left tackle Mason Cole appears to have shifted over to fill his spot permanently. Sophomore Grant Newsome will step into Cole’s old spot, and Michigan expects to keep its rhythm.
If the experience in the trenches finally pays off, the Wolverines’ offense could look smoother than it has in recent years.
5. Bold Prediction: Ty Isaac will take the first snap of the 2016 season at running back.
Early in spring camp, Isaac felt positive about his improvement since a difficult 2015 season. He dropped weight, added speed and prepared to shoulder some of the workload in Michigan’s backfield. Then, others such as Harbaugh and Kalis echoed Isaac’s thoughts, praising him for being hungrier this spring. Finally, Isaac put his improvement on display, carrying 10 times for 78 yards in the Spring Game.
Meanwhile, senior running back De’Veon Smith, the leader of the group coming into camp after a productive 2015, has been hurt on and off and did not touch the ball in the Spring Game. He said after the game that he’s merely resting to return to full strength for the season and, if he’s healthy, should still enter fall camp as the lead back.
But if there was any doubt last season, Isaac proved this spring that he’s not going away quietly. His emergence gives Michigan another option in the backfield if Smith is injured or if it just wants a change of pace.