With Joe Kerridge and Sione Houma having moved onto the NFL, Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh is in search of his next hard-headed, bruising fullback.
Though the competition for the starting quarterback role has garnered significantly more public attention since the spring, the Wolverines’ fullbacks have been embroiled in an equally close battle since fall camp began last Monday.
According to Harbaugh, at least four candidates have a chance to contribute: redshirt juniors and former tight ends Khalid Hill and Henry Poggi, fifth-year senior Bobby Henderson and walk-on graduate transfer Michael Hirsch (who has two years of eligibility remaining).
“Nobody’s really taken that job over yet,” Harbaugh said, “but there are guys that are really competing at it. … We’ll just keep watching.”
Hill and Poggi are likely the leading candidates to win the job, but Hirsch, who graduated from Harvard in 2014 but was granted two more years of eligibility after suffering from a rare autoimmune disease, has impressed Harbaugh with his improvement since returning to the field.
In one practice, Hirsch caught a pass in the flat only to be greeted with a rough hit near the sideline. Slowly standing up and bearing a fresh cut on his nose, Hirsch couldn’t help but break into a smile — a sign of toughness that didn’t go unnoticed by his head coach.
“I think he likes being back in football,” Harbaugh said. “So (the competition) rages on. We’re still early — nine practices in, still 20 to go. There’s been some things decided, but not everything.”
OLD AND YOUNG: While some starting spots remain undecided, Michigan’s offensive line is as close to etched in stone as position groups come.
Three fifth-year seniors — Ben Braden, Erik Magnuson and Kyle Kalis — return for one more season, while junior Mason Cole will slide from left tackle to center to fill the void left by the departed Graham Glasgow. The team’s new left tackle, sophomore Grant Newsome, is the only relative newcomer of the bunch, but some in-game experience last year and a solid camp performance so far have left the coaching staff with few concerns about his ability.
For a group that often struggled in 2013 and 2014 — infamously being responsible for the Wolverines posting negative-48 rushing yards against Michigan State in 2013 — their recent stability has been a welcome change and a tremendous sign of growth.
“It’s been improving,” Harbaugh said. “It’s a great group to work with because it’s a group that’s older and has played together for a long time, played together in a lot of games. And then there’s another group that’s real young and showed that they have what it takes.”
Some of those young players — such as freshman Michael Onwenu, who has been playing both sides of the ball, and freshman Ben Bredeson, who moved from guard to tackle — have already impressed Harbaugh with their versatility, making a future that once seemed bleak for the offensive line look bright again.
MITCHELL, JOHNSON SUSPENDED: A week after freshman wide receiver Ahmir Mitchell, freshman running back Kareem Walker and redshirt freshman defensive end Shelton Johnson were noticeably absent from Michigan’s team picture, Harbaugh shed some partial light on the situation.
After Harbaugh admitted that two of the three players were suspended, a Michigan spokesman confirmed that Mitchell and Johnson were the two in question. Harbaugh declined to disclose the reasons behind the suspensions or how much time either player would miss, and abruptly ended his press conference Monday when the subject was broached.
“We’ll handle that internally,” Harbaugh said.
No reason was given why Walker was absent from the photo, but there was no indication that he is facing any discipline from the team.