While the quarterback controversies of years’ past will get a break this go around, Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh and his staff are tasked with the job of refilling nearly the entire offense and defense. Over the last few weeks, a handful of names have begun to separate themselves from the pack.
Those standout players will be revealed this Saturday, as the Michigan football team takes the field for its annual spring football game.
Harbaugh’s third spring game means his recruits are finally taking over the majority of the roster, and underclassmen will be called upon to fill many of the available voids this upcoming season. Players like sophomore defensive end Rashan Gary and freshman wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones are the spotlight names for a team that lost its “face of the program” player Jabrill Peppers.
The Maize and Blue teams go head to head on Saturday afternoon. Here’s what to watch for during the spring football game.
1. Try and keep up with Chris Evans
The days when former running back De’Veon Smith beasted, clawed and powered his ways through opponents’ front lines are long gone. Smith’s bruising style — and his superior pass blocking — will be sorely missed, but a new slate of tailbacks have emerged.
Leading the group is sophomore Chris Evans, who recently discussed his offseason progress after a strong freshman campaign. His speed became evident in the opening game of 2016 when he scored on two long touchdown runs against Hawaii. Evans has also mentioned his growth physically as he aims to boost his blocking abilities and also overpower opponents like his predecessor, Smith.
Evans shapes up to be Michigan’s go-to running back, after leading his position group in all but one category of testing at the team’s spring combine.
Other running back candidates to keep an eye on are redshirt freshman Kareem Walker, fifth year senior Ty Isaac and junior Karan Higdon.
2. Early enrollees getting in the mix
Another handful of open spots on Michigan’s offense are out wide. With the departure of Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh —Michigan’s core wide receiving pair for the last two years — more starting spots have opened up. According to redshirt junior quarterback Wilton Speight, a pair of early-enrollees — Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black — have been making remarkable catches in practice and are in a position to earn serious playing time this fall.
People-Jones and Black will dress up in the maize and blue for the first time Saturday, and expect to see Speight and possible backup quarterback freshman Brandon Peters (more on that below) sending the ball in their direction.
Other receivers to note are sophomore Kekoa Crawford, senior Maurice Ways, senior Drake Harris and sophomore Eddie McDoom.
3. Meet and greet the new defense
Defensive coordinator Don Brown is a mean, angry dude. No wonder 10 of the 11 starters decided to leave.
Only fifth-year senior linebacker Mike McCray returns, and right in front of him will be four new starters on the defensive line. Expect to see sophomore Rashan Gary and senior Chase Winovich earn lots of playing time as defensive ends. In the middle at the defensive tackle positions, look for fifth-year senior Maurice Hurst and senior Bryan Mone.
Gary played in all 13 games as a freshman but did not start. With one sack and five tackles for loss last year, Gary is expected to pick up where former defensive ends Chris Wormley and Ryan Glasgow left off.
The back of the defense will feature a lot of new names, as well. The Wolverines have to replace their entire secondary. Thus far, sophomore cornerbacks Lavert Hill and David Long have gotten praise, while junior Tyree Kinnel and sophomore Josh Metellus appear to have locked up the safety spots. Meanwhile, at the hybrid VIPER spot, Khaleke Hudson and Jordan Glasgow will have the unenviable job of filling in for the now-departed Peppers.
4. Speight’s backup is…
Freshman quarterback Brandon Peters? Fifth-year senior John O’Korn? While former Wolverine Shane Morris announced his transfer earlier this year, O’Korn made his intentions clear — he was staying. Regardless, the starting quarterback spot is locked up. Speight led the Wolverines’ offensive unit last year, and plays an even more important role in 2017 as one of the few returning starters.
Unlike in the previous two years, there is no debate about who will start. The Morris-or-Rudock and Speight-or-O’Korn battles won’t repeat for a third time, but if Speight suffers another injury, as he did late in the regular season last year, someone may have to take over. Peters seems the likely candidate. The redshirt freshman will start for the Maize team this year — Speight is starting for the Blue team — and has clearly impressed the coaching staff in recent practices.
And just for fun, keep an eye out for Michigan’s potentially most versatile player since Jabrill Peppers.
Fifth-year senior holder Garrett Moores announced via Twitter that he will be playing for both the Maize and Blue teams at the spring game this year. Moores was the recipient of the Mortell Holder of the Year Award in 2016, and even ran for a two-point conversion against Rutgers last season.
The 2017 Michigan football spring game will feature new faces on all sides of the ball, but perhaps no position is more secure. Moores has his spot locked up better than anyone else does.