Spring football usually comes and goes quietly, with its 15 practice sessions wrapping up almost as soon as fans even knew they began. But for the Michigan football team, the offseason practices were anything but reticent. The Wolverines received scrutiny and praise for Spring Break travel plans while also garnering a captive nationwide audience left wondering what Jim Harbaugh would do (or tweet) in his second year at Michigan.
Friday night, its well-watched spring season will come to its close in a fitting way: under the lights and in front of hoards of curious fans in the Big House.
Here’s what to watch for when the Maize takes on the Blue in the Wolverines’ Spring Game.
1. Who’s under center?
Jake Rudock was a more-than-capable signal caller in 2015, but the fifth-year senior transfer from Iowa was only a temporary fix at quarterback.
Following his departure, three quarterbacks have separated themselves from the pack, but the coaching staff says it hasn’t gained enough confidence in any player to name a starter. Redshirt sophomore Wilton Speight and redshirt juniors Shane Morris and John O’Korn are still battling it out, but Friday night should provide insight to who has the best chance of playing on the gridiron on Sept. 3.
Both O’Korn and Morris sat out last season, but Speight did see some game action. Against Minnesota, the 6-foot-6 player came in for an injured Rudock and led a game-winning touchdown drive, proving he can play under pressure.
While the Spring Game provides a clear checkpoint and will show how the other two react to a large audience, things will still change over the summer months.
2. Returning O-line chemistry
Of the five offensive linemen who played regularly last season, four are returning. After playing two seasons at left tackle, sophomore lineman Mason Cole is expected to take over at center following Graham Glasgow’s graduation.
Cole’s move will leave a spot open at the left tackle position, which sophomore Grant Newsome will likely assume. Newsome, who made his college debut against Minnesota in 2015, contributed as a true freshman on the O-line. Now, with a season of experience under his belt, Newsome is expected to perform. Redshirt junior Patrick Kugler could also play into the mix, if he plays well enough at center. If so, Cole could be pushed back to the outside and Newsome would move to the bench.
A lot of team leaders will be returning on the line as well, including three fifth-year seniors: Kyle Kalis, Ben Braden and Erik Magnuson. With as much experience as it has, the O-line should be a good match Friday for a unit that ranked fourth nationally in total defense last season.
3. Receivers who aren’t named Amara Darboh or Jehu Chesson
Last season, Darboh and Chesson made names for themselves as starting wide receivers, but the Wolverines could have benefitted from more depth at the position.
Michigan passing game coordinator Jedd Fisch listed Moe Ways as a receiver who was making strides in the offseason, but the sophomore recently injured his foot and had surgery on Tuesday. He’s expected to be back in time for the start of the season, but he will miss critical practice time throughout the summer that will lead to more opportunities for others.
Michigan natives Grant Perry and Drake Harris could step up, but the sophomore and redshirt sophmore, respectively, will need to prove they can play under pressure. The Spring Game will be another good test for that.
Early-enrollee freshman Ahmir Mitchell has turned heads throughout spring practice and received more than a few reps at the spring practice held at Ford Field. Don’t be surprised if the young wide receiver grabs attention on Friday night, too.
4. Don Brown’s new defense (starring Jabrill Peppers)
Redshirt sophomore Jabrill Peppers could be found on both sides of the ball last season, but so far this spring, he’s spent all of his time on defense. Peppers is a big asset for first-year Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown, who’s using Peppers in multiple ways.
Brown likes Peppers at the SAM linebacker position, estimating that he spends about 70 percent of his time at the position. He likely allots the rest of his time at safety or nickelback. The Wolverines might put Peppers on offense for the first time during the Spring Game for the crowd’s enjoyment, but don’t expect too much from him there. No promises on defensive scores, though.
Brown left Boston College after leading the Eagles to the best total defense in the nation in 2015, and he’s taking over the remnants of the fourth-best total defense. With the combination of returning talent and coaching, it’s expected that Michigan’s defense will be of similar strength to last season’s.
Brown is known as “Dr. Blitz” for a reason, so keep watch on the defense if you can tear your eyes away from the quarterback competition.