It must be August already, because fall camp is just starting to ramp up under the distinct whiff of optimism. The possibilities for the Michigan football team are endless and the hope, as it always does about this time, springs eternal.
This summer, that enthusiasm is catalyzed by the promise of a revamped, modernized offense from new offensive coordinator Josh Gattis. The Michigan offense returns at least seven starters from last year’s squad, led by senior quarterback Shea Patterson — and all-Big Ten caliber receivers, Nico Collins and Donovan Peoples-Jones. If Gattis is the engine behind the hype train, that trio is the wheels.
The defensive alignment comes with a few extra question marks this year. The Wolverines lost several key contributors from last year’s defense, including first-round picks Devin Bush and Rashan Gary, along with Chase Winovich and David Long, among others. The unit is once again backstopped by Don Brown, though, who has coached his defense to no worse than third in the nation in total defense during his time at Michigan.
For now, that all amounts to a consensus, if not unilateral, anointment as the preseason Big Ten favorite. But there is still plenty to be sorted out before the ball kicks at the Big House in 25 days. Here are four position battles — two on offense, two on defense — to monitor throughout the coming weeks.
Stueber vs. Mayfield at right tackle:
The battle for the fifth and final starting offensive line spot appears to be the most high-profile, mano-a-mano battle on the team. Junior Andrew Stueber played in 11 games last year, including starts against Ohio State and Florida when Juwann Bushell-Beatty was injured at the end of the year. Perhaps there’s something to glean from those starts, as Stueber largely held his own in both games. That hardly influenced the outcome of either game, of course — two losses by a combined 49 points.
Jalen Mayfield comes in with less experience, but might have the higher upside of the two. After coming to Michigan a highly-touted recruit, Mayfield secured his redshirt last season while still appearing in three games. He’s a guy who, long-term, has the athletic build to be a starter at either tackle spot.
For now, this one seems to be roughly a coin flip. The two split reps in the spring game and spring public practices. Mayfield brings the upside and athleticism of a potential future NFL pick, Stueber carries the experience and reliability the coaches covet. Both will likely get their shot early in the season to be the entrenched starter, with the high likelihood — either via injury or rotation — that both see major time this year.
Who’s going to step up at running back?
Karan Higdon is gone, and so goes his 1,178 yards and 224 carries from a year ago. The remaining running backs/fullbacks on the roster — Tru Wilson, Zach Charbonnet, Christian Turner, Ben Van Sumeran and Ben Mason — bring a combined 119 career carries and 544 yards into fall camp. That’s not to say the cupboard is entirely barren, but for now, there are more questions than answers.
Much is made of Wilson’s tenacity and shiftiness, but what really endears him most to the coaching staff, and thus what makes him the safest option at the moment, is his sound pass-blocking. He is the de facto starter until someone takes it from him. With uncertainty abound, that’s no inevitability.
Charbonnet has been handicapped by a knee injury that held him out of spring practice, making the uphill battle of freshman fall camp an even more lofty burden. He is, however, the most highly-touted running back recruit Michigan has had in quite some time — and the staff has done nothing but sing his praises in the interim.
Turner flashed glimpses of his vision and quickness in the Peach Bowl loss to Florida, including a 41-yard touchdown run that was eventually called back. He also tallied 55 yards in a win against Nebraska earlier in the year. If anyone is to snatch Higdon’s workhorse mantle, it seems likeliest to come from Turner, a running back of similar ilk.
Smart money is on a by-committee approach, with Turner ending up with the highest snap count of the group, and Van Sumeran and Mason grabbing a few carries here and there. Charbonnet, ultimately, is the wild card. If he makes the most of an opportunity early, he could ascend earlier than expected.
What will Daxton Hill’s role look like?
Is this a cop-out? Sure. But where — and if — Daxton Hill sees regular time from the get-go might be the most intriguing defensive storyline still to sort out. He comes to Michigan one of the most coveted recruits in program history, with experience at safety but talent to play elsewhere. Safety is an option. He could slot at VIPER. He could play nickel.
There is a more obvious immediate need at nickel, with scant cornerback depth potentially looming. If you view Hill as a plug-and-play, three-year starter at safety, though, there is a real question as to why you’d then risk hindering his development simply to Band-Aid over a short-term need. This is a guy who could be a top-10 pick one day. You want to mess with that?
That all assumes Hill — who did not enroll early — is ready to go from day one. Even for the elite of the elite, that’s not an assumption you can bank on.
What happens to the second cornerback spot?
The cornerback room was already thin. Now, it appears, an injury to Ambry Thomas is adding to that strain.
"Ambry Thomas… he's working through a little something right now," Harbaugh told reporters at Big Ten Media Days. "We're hopeful he'll get back with us."
That ambiguity cannot be a welcome sign, weeks before a season that portended Thomas’ breakout. He was the natural heir to David Long’s spot on the other end of Lavert Hill. If Thomas is in fact healthy and ready to go, he could still occupy that spot, all of that could still come to fruition.
If not, the Wolverines will have a competition of guys without much experience. The 2018 recruiting class featured four cornerbacks, of which Vincent Gray appears the closest to breaking through. Gemon Green and D.J. Turner could figure into that mix, too. This spring will be about identifying which, if any, of those guys could be ready to play meaningful time — and if Thomas will be ready to go.
If the answer to those questions is no, the defense could find itself in some real trouble before too long.