Big Ten: Michigan Wolverines
Michigan assistant Michael Zordich has a well-earned side trip planned for when the Wolverines wrap up practice in Rome next week. He’ll be visiting his son, Alex, who is finishing a master’s degree in winemaking in northern Italy.
The younger Zordich, following in his maternal grandfather’s footsteps, has been an aspiring vintner for several years. The Michigan-based Zordich said he’s got a batch of his son’s work at home, but he’s waiting patiently before trying it to make sure it ages properly. He doesn’t have the same luxury with the Wolverines secondary this coming fall.
Michigan’s cornerbacks are the peak of the oozing-with-potential, lacking-in-experience make-up of the team’s defense heading into 2017. Zordich said he can’t remember working with a less experienced group in his coaching career, but he won’t be letting the players ferment any longer by changing up the way the Wolverines play defense.
“We’re going to do everything we did with [last year’s veterans],” he said earlier this week. “We have to. We play man [coverage]. We need to make all the same calls with the young guys as with the old guys. That’s what we do. We’re not going to stray from what we do. We’re going to find the guys that are going to be able to handle it.”
A year ago, seniors Jourdan Lewis and Channing Stribling were two of the top cover corners in the Big Ten, if not the nation, and played a big role in creating the stingiest pass defense in the FBS. Their ability to lock down receivers in press man coverage also gave defensive coordinator Don Brown and his staff more opportunities to dip into his deep well of blitz packages and control the line of scrimmage. Both players rarely left the field, which means the pool of mostly underclassmen vying to replace them is virtually untested.
Sophomores Lavert Hill and David Long have been considered the most talented candidates to win those jobs throughout the spring. Hill has suffered through some minor injuries, which Zordich said is part of the process of learning to play at a higher level. He added that the competition for those jobs is “absolutely 100 percent wide open” as spring practices draw toward a close.
Freshman Benjamin St-Juste, who enrolled in January, played more snaps than anyone else in the group during Michigan’s spring game last Saturday. He intercepted a pass and made three tackles, but Zordich said he and fellow early enrollee Ambry Thomas both started to drift away from the techniques they’ve been taught as the game went on.
“Maybe when you get a little bit tired you start losing concentration and his technique started to wane and he gave up some plays,” Zordich said. “It’s good for him, too, because he felt bad after the game. He felt bad, but it was his first time here. It was a good experience for him.”
On the more experienced end of the spectrum, redshirt junior Brandon Watson has been the most consistent player in coverage for the Wolverines this spring, according to his coaches. Redshirt sophomore Keith Washington has also made good strides this spring after the former high school quarterback spent the last two seasons putting on weight and getting comfortable in a collegiate defensive backfield.
Zordich said that despite some growing pains, the entire group benefited from Michigan’s four-hour practice sessions during the first month of spring ball. Long days add up to a lot of extra reps, which is what his group needs more than anything at this point.
“We’re young and talented, but there is still a ways to go,” Zordich said. “Those guys being here and getting all those reps in practice right now, they’re going to walk in here in August and say, ‘OK this is pretty good, pretty easy.’ This time will be the hardest on them.”
Lani Fettig decided last summer that she wanted to find a sports-related name that started with “H” for her fourth son. As lifelong Michigan fans from the state’s Upper Peninsula, Harbaugh was the obvious choice for the newest addition to the Fettig family.
Harbaugh Fettig was born on Sept. 1, 2016, and not long after was snuggled up next to a Wolverines football. The Fettig family sent a birth announcement to Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh earlier this month, and the coach gave his social media seal of approval for the new fan’s first name earlier this week.
Something about this kid, A Winner & Champ all the way! Enthusiasm! M Fan! Harbaugh Lee Fettig, keep an eye on him. pic.twitter.com/aq7fpA0LjE
— Coach Harbaugh (@CoachJim4UM) April 18, 2017
Gregg Fettig, Harbaugh’s father, said he remembers watching Jim Harbaugh as a quarterback at Michigan in the 1980s and liked the idea of a good, tough football name for his son. It fits with the theme he and his wife established with their three other boys. His oldest, Hogan, is named after former pro wrestler Hulk Hogan. Colt and Case got their names from the quarterbacking McCoy brothers who both started at Texas.
“We didn’t want to go with really eccentric names, but I’m a football guy and a college football guy,” he said. “… I asked my wife, ‘What about Harbaugh?’ and she loved it.”
Lani’s father worked for the state police in Ypsilanti, Michigan, (next door to Ann Arbor) and covered a few Wolverines games. Both have been Michigan fans for as long as they can remember.
Fettig is a high school principal in St. Ignace, Michigan, and said several of his students have stopped him in the hallways this week to make sure he knew that Harbaugh was tweeting about his new son. A lot of the employees at LaSalle High School are Michigan State alumni or Spartan fans. The new name hasn’t been so popular with some of them. Fettig said some of them have refused to let that name slip from their lips.
“Well, that’s OK,” he told them. “You can call him by his nickname.”
“What’s his nickname, then?” they asked.
Bo, of course.
The Big Ten had a banner year in 2016, with four teams jockeying for spots in the College Football Playoff until the final days of the regular season.
The postseason didn’t go so well for the league, as only one of its four New Year’s Six bowl participants (Wisconsin) brought home a victory. That brought out the usual Big Ten skeptics who wondered if the conference had been overrated all along and whether 2016 was just a fluke.
There’s no guarantee of a repeat of last year’s success in 2017. But there is one simple yet large reason to be very excited about the league’s fortunes this fall and beyond: the Big Ten has the best roster of head coaches of any conference in America.
A grand statement like that naturally requires lots of evidence to back it up. So here goes.
Start with Ohio State's Urban Meyer. He’s no worse than one of the two best coaches in college football, with only Alabama’s Nick Saban as serious competition. Meyer has three national titles, the highest winning percentage among active coaches (.851 -- third-highest all time among those who coached at least 10 years) -- and an absurd 61-6 record with the Buckeyes. Enough said.
Michigan's Jim Harbaugh also belongs on the short list of best coaches in the land. Though he has never won a national title, he’s the master of the program turnaround. He’s gone 32-7 in his last three seasons in college, including Stanford, and was the NFL coach of the year during his time in San Francisco. Whether you like his online shtick or find it annoying, dude can coach 'em up as well as anyone.
Penn State's James Franklin joined the ranks of the elite coaches last year by leading the Nittany Lions to a surprise Big Ten title. Franklin had already worked wonders at Vanderbilt, of all places, and he silenced his doubters en route to winning Sporting News national coach of the year honors in 2016.
Though Michigan State is going through some turbulent times right now after a 3-9 debacle, Mark Dantonio has firmly established himself as one of the top coaches. His Spartans won at least 11 games five times in the six years prior to last season and made the playoff in 2015.
That’s four cream-of-the-crop coaches right there. What other league can claim that?
The ACC might come the closest, with Clemson’s Dabo Swinney and Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher owning national titles and Louisville’s Bobby Petrino being one of the top offensive minds around. But unless you’re buying into North Carolina’s Larry Fedora or Virginia Tech’s Justin Fuente as elite, the list pretty much stops at three.
The Big 12 has Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops, TCU’s Gary Patterson and legendary Kansas State boss Bill Snyder. Maybe first-year Texas coach Tom Herman lives up to the hype. Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy has done good work but hasn’t quite reached the level of the Big Ten’s top four.
In the Pac-12, Washington’s Chris Petersen belongs on any short list of top coaches. Stanford’s David Shaw is highly accomplished, and Colorado’s Mike McIntyre won several national coach of the year honors last year. The jury is still out on USC’s Clay Helton, though he did beat Penn State in the Rose Bowl.
What about the SEC, you ask? Saban rules, obviously. But who’s the second-best coach in that league? It might be Florida’s Jim McElwain. Or Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen. Would either school’s fan base trade them for Harbaugh? You betcha.
It’s not just the top tier that makes the Big Ten coaching roster so special, either. Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst is quickly rising up the ladder toward elite, having gone 21-6 in two years at his alma mater. His middling 19-19 record at Pitt before returning to Madison must be considered in relation to the mess he inherited there.
Chryst is also a perfect fit for the Badgers, just as Pat Fitzgerald is at Northwestern and Kirk Ferentz is for Iowa. Fitzgerald’s 11-year run in Evanston seems unusually long except when compared to Ferentz, who’s going into Year 19 with the Hawkeyes while showing signs of slowing down.
Nebraska's Mike Riley is one of the most respected coaches around, and while it’s fair to question whether he was the right fit for the Cornhuskers, he has won 10 of his last 14 games in Lincoln. Illinois' Lovie Smith has plenty to prove as a college coach but had a strong track record in the NFL.
The Big Ten also added two of the hottest young coaches in the country this offseason in Minnesota's P.J. Fleck, who led Western Michigan to a 13-0 record and Cotton Bowl appearance last year, and Purdue's Jeff Brohm, who went 30-10 at Western Kentucky with one of the nation’s most dynamic offenses.The story is still being written for Indiana's Tom Allen, Maryland's D.J. Durkin and Rutgers' Chris Ash, though all three were outstanding defensive coordinators.
Add it all up, and you’ve got the best lineup of coaches in any conference.
“I think it’s outstanding,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve gotten a huge commitment from all of our teams to do whatever it takes to be successful. It’s a special time to be a part of the Big Ten.”
Michigan sophomore running back Chris Evans has noticed the difference in practice this spring. After spending his first year of college football running into one of the nation’s best defenses, Evans says this spring hasn’t been much different. In fact, he thinks the new group of Wolverines might have a step or two on last year’s team.
“They’re just faster to the ball,” he said Saturday after the team’s spring game. “They’re all together. As soon as you bounce something, the DBs are darting. I feel like they’re faster.”
Ten starters from last year’s defense are gone. All of them landed some version of an all-conference honor at the end of a 2016 season in which Michigan held its opponents to 14.1 points (second in the FBS) and 261.8 yards (tied for first) per game. Experience and depth will both take a hit as Michigan tries to gear for a run at a championship in Jim Harbaugh’s third season in Ann Arbor. Defensive coordinator Don Brown & Co. are hoping they can make up for the difference with speed.
Brown came to Michigan a year ago and inherited a group of seasoned veterans, many of whom will be NFL draft picks a couple of weeks from now. His “solve your problems with aggression” approach to attacking an opponent’s backfield netted immediate results but took time for players to fully understand. Senior linebacker Mike McCray, the lone returning starter, thinks that an extra year of familiarity with the playbook has been a big part of the acceleration this spring.
“We’re going after it, we’re not afraid to make mistakes,” he said. “I don’t think we were afraid to make mistakes last year, but now you can see that because we know the system, we’re just out there playing. We don’t have to think as much.”
Beyond the handful of midyear enrollees, who are still “swimming” in new information according to Brown, many of the players who are stepping into new starting spots were at least able to get their feet wet in games during 2016. The expected starters at defensive line all played as regular rotation players last fall. Newcomers in the back end of the defense such as Khaleke Hudson and Tyree Kinnel, who combined for 10 tackles and a sack during Saturday’s spring game, were special teams mainstays a year ago.
While the list of ready-to-go players may not be as deep this time around, Michigan’s upperclassmen say the jump from being part of the rotation to being the main guy at a position hasn’t been very significant.
“For me, it feels the same,” defensive lineman Mo Hurst said. “I was in for big situations in games [last year]. It feels basically the same.”
Hurst and others said they’ve noticed a steady increase in athleticism on the recruiting trail since the new staff arrived at Michigan more than two years ago. Those top-10 recruiting hauls will have to start paying major dividends this fall, especially in the secondary. The unit that finished last season with the best passing defense in the nation didn’t rotate nearly as much as the defensive line. Brown said he was impressed with how the new wave performed on a bigger stage during the spring game.
McCray saw the same thing. He said that a lack of experience wasn’t going to be an acceptable excuse for the defense this season and so far it hasn’t been slowing them down.
“If you can play, you can play,” he said. “You can see, you can just tell at practice. I don’t know how to explain it, but you can tell we’re playing faster.”
Not long after Michigan’s spring game wrapped up Saturday afternoon, quarterback Wilton Speight leaned back in his chair at center stage on top of a raised platform inside Michigan Stadium and fielded questions about his day. Speight’s backup, redshirt freshman Brandon Peters, stood several feet below him in the corner of the same room with another group of reporters.
Their spots were a good representation of the Wolverines’ pecking order at quarterback as spring practice begins to wind down. Speight remains comfortable in his growing role as the team’s leader despite Peters pushing him with a better statistical day in his first Big House performance.
“He made quite a few throws today that were elite throws,” Speight said when asked about his understudy. “That’s really the Brandon we’ve been seeing since he got here last year. He has an arm that’s capable of making any throw, and [he’s] poised to stand in the pocket and do what he needs to do.”
Peters finished 9-of-17 with 160 passing yards and a 12-yard rushing touchdown in his first “start” as college player. His first throw of the day was a strike that resulted in a 55-yard touchdown pass to Zach Gentry, a former quarterback who switched to receiver in search of some playing time. That’s looking like a smart move for Gentry. The crew of quarterbacks Jim Harbaugh has assembled in Ann Arbor is deep and getting deeper.
In a small sample size, Peters looked the part as much as Speight and redshirt senior John O’Korn -- both of whom have a full season of starting experience at the college level. Meanwhile, incoming freshman Dylan McCaffrey, one of the country’s top quarterback prospects in the most recent recruiting cycle, watched from the sideline. He’ll join the team this summer.
Speight said he’s sees the growing list of competitors nipping at his heels as a positive rather than a threat. He’s hung on to a quote from former Wolverine Tom Brady during the past couple of months to drive home that point.
“I saw a quote from Tom Brady very recently after the Super Bowl that was like, ‘I’ve gotta be in there every day because I don’t know who’s going to come in and take my job,’” Speight said. “Obviously I’m not comparing the two of us, but you have to have that mindset.”
Speight completed nine of his 26 attempts Saturday. He had a chance to display some increased quickness (he says he’s down to roughly 235 pounds after dropping nearly 20 pounds during the winter) while under constant pressure early in the afternoon. He also threw two interceptions -- mistakes he blamed on trying to force balls into windows that were too small.
Those are decisions that Speight said he has been eliminating for most of spring practice thus far. A couple of missteps didn’t do anything to shake the confidence that helped Speight lead the Wolverines’ offense to a 10-win season during his first year as a starter in 2016.
Peters said the command and control that have helped Speight excel are the areas of his own game that need the most work. Harbaugh and company have been pushing him to speak up since he got to campus last year.
“That’s probably my biggest thing I need to work on as far as getting things executed,” he said. “Making sure everyone hears me, they line up right, and we get the play going as fast as possible.”
The Indiana native said he "of course" would like to take over the No. 1 job, but his focus remains on competing on a daily basis. He was happy with how well he read the defense -- save for one interception -- on Saturday and thinks he has made big strides in seeing the field and his footwork in his first year at college. Throwing the deep ball has been one of his biggest strengths since high school, and that showed again this weekend.
Nonetheless, it remains a safe bet that Speight will be the face of Michigan’s offense and its steady rudder when the team starts next fall against the Florida Gators in Texas. Saturday’s spring game didn’t change much there. It’s more clear now, though, that the growing stable of arms waiting in line has what it takes to push him.
On Wednesday's spring teleconference between reporters and Big Ten coaches, Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald leaned into a familiar football saw.
"There's an old saying out there that when you have a quarterback, you have a chance," Fitzgerald said.
If there's truth in that cliché, then it stands to reason that the Big Ten has a chance of being very good in 2017.
The vast majority of league teams already know who their quarterback will be this fall and feel good about it. Most remaining quarterback competitions are coming into focus. If having a proven signal-caller is a good indication of success, then the conference's best teams from last season should be primed to contend again.
The four Big Ten clubs that were in the playoff mix last December -- Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin -- all return their starters from a year ago.
J.T. Barrett didn't finish strong for the Buckeyes and drew some criticism for his downfield throws. But he's still a two-time Big Ten quarterback of the year with a top-five Heisman Trophy finish on his résumé. Penn State's Trace McSorley should have won the league's quarterback of the year award last year and will enter 2017 as a Heisman candidate. Michigan's Wilton Speight showed promise his first year as a starter last season and, according to Jim Harbaugh, has taken a step forward with his understanding of the game and the Wolverines' system. Wisconsin's Alex Hornibrook is the least accomplished of the quartet, as a redshirt sophomore, but the Badgers are confident in his ability.
Other returnees include Indiana's Richard Lagow, a strong-armed pocket passer capable of putting up some big numbers in his second year as a starter; Purdue's David Blough, who led the league in passing yards and touchdowns last year and who should improve his decision-making under new head coach Jeff Brohm; and Northwestern's Clayton Thorson, who somewhat quietly threw for more than 3,000 yards as a sophomore and continues to get better.
"He's shown absolutely amazing growth as a leader," Fitzgerald said. "His confidence is at an all-time high."
Some teams that went into spring with ostensible competitions have all but settled on their guy.
Michigan State's Mark Dantonio said in the winter that sophomore Brian Lewerke was the leading candidate to start. Lewerke solidified that by playing well this spring, bulking up to 215 pounds and not getting much competition from redshirt freshman Messiah deWeaver, who rarely practiced because of back issues.
"He's bigger and stronger and throws the ball in great rhythm," Dantonio said of Lewerke. "He's clearly the starter, and I think that's warranted."
Lovie Smith called Chayce Crouch his starting quarterback at Illinois before spring ball began. Even though Crouch was held out of contact drills while recovering from offseason surgery, he still has Smith's full backing.
"He's the undisputed leader of our football team," Smith said of the junior, who threw 32 passes in 2016.
Rutgers began the offseason with an open audition under center, but Giovanni Rescigno -- who started the final five games last year -- has fended off challengers. Scarlet Knights coach Chris Ash called Rescigno's improvement this spring "a pleasant surprise" and called him the team's "clear No. 1."
That leaves just four teams currently undecided, at least officially, on a starter. An alphabetical rundown:
Iowa: Quarterbacks coach Ken O'Keefe called the race between Nathan Stanley and Tyler Wiegers "neck and neck" on Wednesday. But Stanley was the backup to C.J. Beathard as a true freshman, and most believe he'll win the job.
Maryland: D.J. Durkin says there's still a three-way competition raging, but North Carolina transfer Caleb Henderson seems like the safe bet to take the snaps in the opener at Texas.
Minnesota: This might be the one truly wide-open battle in the league, as there's very little experience on hand for first-year coach P.J. Fleck. Senior Conor Rhoda and sophomore Demry Croft appear to be the leading candidates, with early enrollee Tanner Morgan a dark horse. Fleck said he likely won't name a starter until training camp.
Nebraska: For the first time since they entered the Big Ten, the Cornhuskers don't have an obvious starting quarterback lined up. Mike Riley said he has split the reps evenly between Tulane transfer Tanner Lee and redshirt freshman Patrick O'Brien; both will get a chance to shine at Saturday's spring game.
"We've been through it a few times in our life," Riley said. "One thing it does is, it kind of keeps an edge there."
Experience isn't everything. McSorley had never started a college game before leading Penn State to the Big Ten title last year. But coaches would usually prefer certainty at the game's most important position. The veteran returning talent and coaches' confidence in their options this spring would seem to bode well for the league's chances.
Michigan’s defensive line is not shy about setting a high bar for itself.
A year ago assistant coach Greg Mattison and his players declared during spring ball that they had the potential to be the best line in the country in 2016. They weren’t that far off. The Wolverines’ defense statistically finished fifth in sacks, third in tackles for loss and second in points allowed.
This year, despite having to replace all four starters along the line, it was defensive coordinator Don Brown who started the spring with some bold claims about his big guys up front. Brown said he couldn’t think of a tandem that will line up next to each other anywhere in the nation that will be better than sophomore Rashan Gary and redshirt senior Maurice Hurst.
“That’s the goal,” he said. “I believe in it.”
After collecting 27 tackles (five for loss) and learning behind two soon-to-be NFL players in Chris Wormley and Taco Charlton, Gary has approached his first spring as a college football player with a professional attitude that has most of the Michigan coaching staff gushing about what he could become in the fall.
The 287-pound end ran the 40-yard dash, Michigan says, in 4.57 seconds. For comparison's sake, had he been running alongside every quarterback heading into the NFL draft at the end of this month only one of them would have finished with a faster time. That’s a positive sign for his pass-rush ability, but what has his coaches more excited is how quickly Gary has matured and started to carry himself as a veteran.
“Rashan comes out every day like he’s a senior,” Mattison said. “He’s done that throughout the winter conditioning. ... I really think it had a lot to do with Taco and Chris Wormley [and] the way they mentored him. They set a great example for what you have to do to be successful.”
Gary has consistently credited his two former teammates with showing him how to be a college player. He said he’s now trying to pass on the same lessons to the incoming freshmen and develop as one of the group’s leaders. He’ll have some help from Hurst and fellow defensive end Chase Winovich, who along with Bryan Mone make up the likely first-string defensive line.
Hurst, with 33 career games under his belt, is easily the most experienced of the group. He has developed a quick burst that allowed him to pick up 11.5 tackles for loss from his spot on the interior of the defensive line while splitting time with Matt Godin a year ago. His decision to return for a fifth season is a major boost for what will be a very young Michigan defense and creates a major headache for opposing offensive lines that will have to block both Hurst and Gary on the same side of the ball.
“Both of them have played a lot of football and are very, very explosive,” Mattison said. “It’s time for [Hurst] to really reap the benefits of all he’s done and take it the next step further. He’s showed that also this spring, so I’m excited about Mo.”
The depth that made the Wolverines’ defensive line dangerous last season will be hard to replicate in 2017. Mattison said youngsters Carlo Kemp and Donovan Jeter have shown impressive flashes this spring, but the group isn’t yet ready for an eight-man rotation with little drop-off like it was a year ago. At the top end, though, it might be hard to find a better side-by-side duo than Hurst and Gary in the Big Ten.
“I know his ability and he knows mine,” Gary said. “We both have goals. I know his. He knows mine. And we go after it every practice.”
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Pep Hamilton's reason for turning back to college after his most recent four-year stint in professional football is simple.
"I want to win a national championship," Hamilton said Thursday night as Michigan approached the halfway point of its spring practice schedule.
The Wolverines' new passing game coordinator said he developed a larger appreciation for developing young players and watching them grow as he bounced between the NFL and college football. He said winning a championship at the college level would be "different, without a doubt" than chasing a Super Bowl.
To get into that conversation in the near future, Hamilton will need to lean heavily on Wilton Speight, Michigan's second-year starter at quarterback. Hamilton works closely with head coach Jim Harbaugh in developing quarterbacks. Hamilton and Speight both said they're jelling smoothly in a relationship that has been strictly business thus far.
"The first time we met, he shook my hand and then we went straight to the board," Speight said. "He said, 'OK, what are you going to do against this look and this look?' We just jumped right into football. And his big thing is, we'll get to know each other as time goes on."
Hamilton first saw Speight at a high school lacrosse game in Virginia while the coach was recruiting one of Speight's teammates to play defensive line at Stanford. Hamilton remembers thinking the 6-foot-5, scrawny high school junior was far more athletic than first look would lead you to believe. Hamilton said his quarterback easily passed the eye test when he first watched film of him after taking the Michigan job.
"I thought that he had above-average physical stature for the position," Hamilton said. "He can function from the pocket. He has great field vision and he can deliver the ball under duress. I thought that was an extreme positive, and there are some things we have to work on."
Hamilton's experience with Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Tim Drevno -- all three worked together for one season at Stanford -- has made for a smooth blending of playbooks. Hamilton said the offense will look similar to an updated version of what the Cardinal did when they all coached together.
The concepts in the Michigan passing game have remained largely the same. The one difference, players say, is that Hamilton has given a lot of the calls new names that are "catchier" and easier to remember than in the past. That could prove to be an important adjustment for an offense that will be as young as any of the other Big Ten title contenders -- especially at wide receiver.
Michigan's top three pass-catchers from the 2016 season have graduated. That leaves a majority underclassmen group of receivers to battle for playing time. Speight said rising sophomores such as Kekoa Crawford and Eddie McDoom have done a good job of following in the footsteps left by outgoing seniors Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh. Early enrollees Tarik Black and five-star recruit Donovan Peoples-Jones are oozing with "raw talent," Hamilton said, but still have a lot of work to do before they are ready to consistently win battles in man coverage.
For Speight, the turnover is the price of doing business at Michigan.
"I think when you're at Michigan, that's kind of the standard," he said. "When Coach Harbaugh is going to bring in an assistant, it's not going to be some guy off the street really quickly. It's the best of the best, the top option. That's what we got with Coach Pep when [former passing game coordinator Jedd] Fisch left for UCLA. That's the good and bad thing about being at Michigan. You're going to have a carousel of assistant coaches climbing the ladder, but Coach Harbaugh is going to keep reloading."
Like his new coach, Speight's goals for 2017 are simple and lofty. He said he plans to continue to solidify his status as a team leader, but he also has his sights set on establishing himself as the best quarterback in the Big Ten by season's end.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh ran out of fingers at a news conference last fall when he was trying to count all the places Jabrill Peppers had played during the first couple months of the 2016 season. Harbaugh and the Wolverines will need all hands on deck to try to replace Peppers’ impact on the field next season.
Peppers declared for the NFL in January after two healthy years in Ann Arbor. During that time, he racked up 125 total tackles at various positions on defense and six touchdowns on special teams and offense. He was a Heisman Trophy finalist in 2016 thanks to his versatility, his impact on defense and his nation-leading 25.8 punt return yards per game. Harbaugh lauded Peppers several times as one of the best players he’s coached or seen during his long career in football.
Michigan assistant Chris Partridge, who also was Peppers’ head coach in high school, said last week that while Peppers is a rare talent, replacing his varied skills is his responsibility as a linebackers coach and special-teams coordinator.
“You’re not going to have another Jabrill Peppers,” Partridge said. “In terms of replacing him, you’re not going to replace him. Is his position and his skill replaceable? Of course. That’s what we’re here for.”
On defense, rising sophomores Josh Metellus and Khaleke Hudson appear to be the top options to step in at the Viper position that Peppers played under coordinator Don Brown. The outside linebacker spot has usually been the most dynamic and disruptive player in Brown’s scheme during the last several years at Michigan and Boston College.
The ability to learn quickly helped Peppers to perform the wide variety of jobs required at the position while he adjusted to playing linebacker for the first time. Partridge said the job description will change to fit new players in 2017 (“I think it has to”), but football savvy remains at the top of the list of what the coaches are looking for there. He said Metellus and Hudson have been fierce competitors through the first few spring practices.
“Metellus is a very savvy football player. He steps on the field, he understands angles and how to get things done.” Partridge said. “He doesn’t have to be as taught as some other football players. He gets it. He understands schemes.”
Metellus made his first career start against Florida State in the Orange Bowl, which Peppers missed due to a hamstring injury. The rookie made six tackles after finding his bearings on the field.
A good portion of Peppers’ highlight moments at Michigan came while returning punts. The Wolverines have a healthy stockpile of speedy skill players who could take over that role. Partridge said he’s had 15 different players working as returners this year, but it’s far too early for him to say if any have separated themselves from the bunch.
Running back Chris Evans is the only player on Michigan’s current roster who returned a punt last season (he had one return for 15 yards). Wide receivers Eddie McDoom and Grant Perry, if he’s reinstated to the team after being suspended this winter, could get a shot there among several others on campus this spring and incoming freshmen who will arrive in June.
Partridge hopes whoever wins that job will have a little more space to operate than Peppers did last year. Michigan was aggressive on punts last season and blocked four of them. Moving forward, the plan is to focus more on setting up long returns.
“One of my goals for this team is to be a very dynamic return team,” he said. “I want to lead the country in punt returns.”
To get there, Partridge has assigned graduate assistant Drew Terrell this spring to work specifically with all the candidates for the return job. Terrell played his college career at Stanford, partially under Harbaugh’s staff, and was a three-time all-conference returner. He’s one more name to add to the crew of coaches and players working this spring to plug all the holes Peppers once filled.
Michigan has plenty of work to do to replace three veteran starters on the offensive line this fall. But with the majority of an offseason still in front of them, the Wolverines aren’t in a hurry to find any definitive answers.
New assistant coach Greg Frey said spring practice and summer workouts give the staff plenty of time to diagnose the offensive line’s strengths and weaknesses. Frey, who previously coached in Ann Arbor under Rich Rodriguez before spending six years building Indiana’s offensive line, returned to Michigan this winter to coach tackles and tight ends. He and offensive coordinator Tim Drevno will be working in tandem to piece together a new starting five during the next five months.
“Really we’re just playing hard,” Frey said after the team’s third spring practice Wednesday night. “When we get through the summer, we’ll figure out on the first play of the Florida game who the starters are and where they are.”
Frey is taking over a crew that needs to replace both starting tackles (Erik Magnuson and Ben Braden), top tight end Jake Butt and veteran guard Kyle Kalis. The trio of Magnuson, Braden and Kalis combined to start more than 100 games during their Michigan careers. Center Mason Cole is the only Wolverine offensive lineman who returns with a full season of starting in the trenches on his résumé.
Frey said the next several months will be spent figuring out where the players on the current roster excel and how to make the most out of those skills.
“Any time you’re replacing players, you’re going to get better at certain things and you’ll be a little worse at other things,” he said. “Really what the spring and the summer are about is figuring out what that is. What are we going to be better at?”
What they lack in age, the Wolverines make up for in options. Sophomores Ben Bredeson and Michael Onwenu figure to be strong candidates to start at the guard positions. Bredeson started eight games at guard last fall and says he feels more comfortable and stronger heading into spring practice. Onwenu played on both sides of the ball during his first college season, but the 350-plus-pounder found a more permanent home as a reserve on offense later in the season.
Redshirt sophomores Jon Runyan and Nolan Ulizio could push for playing time at tackle along with Juwann Bushell-Beatty, who started one game at left tackle in 2016. Incoming freshmen like Cesar Ruiz and Ja'Raymond Hall could also eventually convince coaches to shuffle players around to make room for them on the field. Frey said he’s less concerned with age or position than with making sure the best players play.
Ruiz and Hall, both early enrollees, have impressed their teammates and coaches so far in spring practice. Hall -- a 6-foot-5, 275-pound tackle -- was rated as the second-best prospect in the state of Michigan last fall. Ruiz was considered the top high school center in the country by ESPN's recruiting experts. If he's ready to play this fall, Cole or Bredeson could shift out to tackle to make room for him on the interior.
“They’ve matured a lot since they came in here in January; you can tell already,” Bredeson said of the freshmen. “Cesar is picking things up very, very quickly. Ja'Raymond has got some outstanding feet, very athletic on the edge for us.”
The offensive line is usually considered one of the most difficult positions for a true freshman to break into the starting lineup, but both Cole and Bredeson have seen the field in their rookie seasons during the past few years. Bredeson said he hasn’t shared any secrets to early success with the new guys yet.
“We’re taking it slow,” he said. “We’re teaching them the calls, what they need to do. Once they get down and get comfortable with everything thing then we’ll start prepping them for Saturdays, but they’re doing a great job so far.”
The rookies, like the rest of the offensive line, are pacing themselves for now.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has built an impressive stable of quarterbacks heading into his third season in Ann Arbor. Underclassmen Brandon Peters and Dylan McCaffrey -- a top-rated incoming freshman with an NFL and Heisman-finalist pedigree -- are both promising prospects. Redshirt junior Wilton Speight has a few things the underclassmen don’t, though, most importantly: college experience.
Speight won the starting job last season in a battle with John O'Korn, the former Houston starter and AAC rookie of the year, because of his ability to run Michigan’s pro style offense and his consistency. O'Korn, by the way, remains in Ann Arbor as part of that deep and talented quarterback room. Speight gives the Wolverines their first chance to play with a returning starter at quarterback in several years, but he has plenty on his to-do list this spring to keep improving.
As part of our ongoing series examining the ways in which some of the Big Ten’s most recognizable returning players can make themselves better, let’s take a look at the top priorities for Speight in the coming month of spring practice.
Quicker feet: A leaner version of the Michigan quarterback spoke to reporters last week after the team’s first spring practice. He said he had more energy after dropping roughly 20 pounds during the winter. Speight and his passing tutors have long fancied him as a young Ben Roethlisberger because of the way he used a 6-foot-5, 250-pound frame to his advantage. This season, Speight and Harbaugh decided it was worth slimming down to the 235-pound range to work on his stamina and his ability to move in the pocket.
Speight had a knack for avoiding pressure in his first year under center and had some chances to show off some underappreciated athleticism while rushing for a few touchdowns. It’s still fair to say he’s one of the slower quarterbacks on the roster. He’s working to narrow that gap during the spring. Speight’s stats faded toward the end of 2016 in large part because of a shoulder-area injury, but he said he was also running out of steam by November. He’s hoping the lighter weight will help his speed and stamina.
"I feel like I just did a four-hour practice and I could do another four-hour practice right now," he said after the first lengthy workout of spring practice. "And that was not the case towards the end of the season."
Take control of the team: Veteran leaders on offense like tight end Jake Butt, receivers Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson or a trio of graduated offensive linemen have left a leadership void in the Wolverine huddle. The defense has even more upperclassmen to replace. Speight was not in a spot where he needed to lead last fall. He will be in 2017.
Michigan’s offense has a ton of young talent at the skill positions, but it won’t be able to operate smoothly without a quarterback who can keep them all working in sync. Speight’s calm under pressure has been an asset in pressure situations before. He’ll need to become even more of a steady leader, and he can start building up that trust with his younger teammates in March and April.
Fend off competition: Speight might have one of the more secure spots on the depth chart this spring, but that doesn’t mean a whole lot in a locker room run by Harbaugh. Michigan’s coaches have been excited about redshirt freshman Peters, especially. O’Korn also has starting experience and he passed up the chance to be a graduate transfer somewhere else in hopes of finding some playing time with the Wolverines. With new quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator Pep Hamilton having arrived this winter, those guys have more of a chance to make a good first impression on the field. Speight’s teammates will be working to unseat him this spring, and there is no guarantee that they can’t succeed, especially if he doesn’t continue to progress in some key areas.
Last week on the blog, we took a look at the reasons why several contenders would win the Big Ten title in 2017, including Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin. We also examined some sleeper teams.
It was all very optimistic, as things tend to be this time of year. Now it's time to play the role of pessimist. We're here to tell you why your team won't win the Big Ten title in 2017.
The country-pop band Big & Rich will perform before the Scarlet Knights' spring game next month. Sorry, Piscataway. After a dismal 2-10 season, it's going to be a long time before any championships are comin' ... to your city.
Jeff Brohm will make things interesting and exciting in West Lafayette again. Eventually. Bear Bryant couldn't lead this team, which has won two Big Ten games in the past three years, to a title this season.
Hey, this is a program that's won two of the past four league championships, so it wouldn't be a total shock to see the Spartans rebound from 3-9. Except that the program currently is mired in turmoil. There's going to be a very strange vibe around the spring game, which might be the first time we find out officially who's still on the roster while a sexual assault and Title IX investigation swirls. The trend line here is not good.
The Illini have some young talent coming in, but they may be hard pressed to surpass last year's 3-9 mark in Lovie Smith's second year. The two-deep was razor thin this spring, and basically the entire defensive line must be replaced. Things may get worse before they get better in Champaign.
You've got to like the direction of D.J. Durkin's program after he brought in a very solid recruiting class. Again, though, we're talking about 2017, and this team is going to be very young and without a proven quarterback. Plus, there should be a five-year mandatory championship probation for wearing these uniforms.
The Hoosiers have thrown a scare into several of the league's best teams the past couple of years. But it has almost always just been a scare, which is why Tom Allen is using the slogan "Breakthrough" this year. Even if Indiana finds a way to win some more of those close games thanks to an improved defense, it just doesn't have enough talent to get to the top of a loaded East Division.
Crazier things have happened for the boys in purple. Like 1995, for instance. Or actually making -- and winning -- a game in this year's NCAA tournament. The Wildcats will have one of the league's best backfield duos in Clayton Thorson and Justin Jackson. Yet they've been just a bit too inconsistent to believe they can make a championship run.
Every day is elite in P.J. Fleck's universe. But with a very young team, no experience at quarterback and a brand new coaching staff, this year could prove mediocre at best. And to win a title, the Golden Gophers need to beat Wisconsin again before we all die.
Maybe this is the year. (Note: I copied and pasted that sentence from every preseason article written about the Cornhuskers since 2002). It's hard to win a championship with four losses , and that's exactly how many games Nebraska has dropped in seven of the eight past years. Where's the top-shelf, All-America-type talent? Will the team show up in the big games away from home?
There's a new starting quarterback and hardly any receivers anybody's heard of. Penn State and Ohio State are among the crossover games (though both are at Kinnick). The Hawkeyes have to go to Wisconsin. There's enough here for Iowa to win eight games and trigger a $500,000 bonus for Kirk Ferentz, but hide your eyes at bowl time.
Eighteen starters are gone -- 18! If anyone besides Urban Meyer can get that much youth up to speed, it's Jim Harbaugh, and his four-hour practices will age anyone quickly. Still, that's an uphill battle. And last time we checked, Ohio State is still on the schedule.
Speaking of the Buckeyes, it's always dumb to bet against them winning the Big Ten. Except that Ohio State has somehow won only won one Big Ten championship in the past six years. Meyer has lost only three league games while in Columbus, but they have come at the most inopportune times. The offense also has to prove it can throw the ball more than a few yards downfield.
The Badgers are like a metronome. You can set your watch to their consistency. They're the West favorites until someone proves otherwise. But can they beat whomever comes out of the East? They lost to Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State last year. The offense always seems to come up a bit short in those huge games. Alex Hornibrook is promising, but he's not Russell Wilson.
The returning experience is outstanding and the Trace McSorley-Saquon Barkley combo is as good as it gets anywhere. Yet the Nittany Lions also caught some breaks last year with their schedule, with how that Ohio State game turned out and the East tiebreaker situation. This year, they have to go to the Horseshoe, not to mention the viper pit known as Kinnick Stadium. Michigan at home will be no picnic. Defending a title is much tougher than coming out of nowhere to win one.
Michigan gets a late start Friday to what will be a busy and important spring season for coach Jim Harbaugh and his team. The Wolverines, coming off back-to-back 10-win seasons, will set about trying to take the next step toward bringing a championship to Ann Arbor.
The unusually late start date was designed to keep a steady schedule leading up to the team’s spring finale: a week of practice in Rome. After going to Florida in February 2016, Harbaugh decided to go international with this year's off-site practices. He has plans to take the team to South Africa, Japan and Israel in future years. This is another major wrinkle the third-year head coach has introduced at Michigan, many of which have baffled or angered other college football coaches and administrators.
Harbaugh's innovations have made a lot of noise, and his coaching has helped shove Michigan back into the conference and national conversation quickly. His third season, though, should provide a test to see how far the program has come and whether his unorthodox methods are worthy of the attention they receive. Is Michigan, which must replace about two-thirds of a starting lineup that was loaded with NFL talent in 2016, already in the "reload" category or will 2017 require more time for the next wave of players to develop?
Spring schedule: Michigan starts practice Friday on the same day it hosts NFL coaches, executives and scouts for its annual pro day. The Wolverines will practice 12 times in the next three-plus weeks, including a scrimmage open to the public at Michigan Stadium on April 15. They'll take a brief hiatus before finishing with three practices at the AC Roma soccer club facilities starting on April 27.
What's new? Two coaches joined the staff this offseason. Former NFL offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton replaced Jedd Fisch as the passing-game coordinator. Hamilton and some others on the Michigan staff worked together at Stanford, where Hamilton coached receivers and quarterbacks. The offensive line will also get an extra set of eyes with Greg Frey joining the staff as the tackles/tight ends coach and run-game coordinator. Frey, who was on Rich Rodriguez's staff at Michigan as offensive line coach, was a Broyles Award nominee for his work on Indiana's offensive line during the last six years. He'll help offensive coordinator Tim Drevno develop a group that needs to replace three starters in 2017.
Three things we want to see:
1. There isn't likely to be a depth chart released, but there will be plenty of tea-leaf interpreting of the many position battles this spring. There are at least two spots on the offensive line up for grabs, a lot of contenders to replace all four starters in the secondary and a couple interesting decisions to make at linebacker. There will likely be several running backs -- now coached by Jay Harbaugh -- who will get chances on the field this fall, but spring will be an important time for players such as Kareem Walker, Chris Evans and Ty Isaac to start defining roles.
2. Eleven freshmen enrolled in January, and several of them will factor in position battles. All eyes will be on five-star receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones from Detroit. He ran the team's fastest 40 time in winter conditioning and tested well in other combine-type measurements. Others who stand to gain from showing up early include offensive lineman Cesar Ruiz, who could play himself into the rotation; Ambry Thomas, who will battle for reps at two vacant cornerback spots; and Tarik Black, who could join Peoples-Jones as a rookie making an impact in the passing game next fall.
3. Who will be the new voices to step up and take control of the team? The outgoing seniors not only had NFL talent, but they also were a deep and experienced group that Harbaugh has credited with leading a culture change. Spring will be an important time for Michigan to identify and develop its next group of leaders with the right combination of on-field credibility and a willingness to speak up. Quarterback Wilton Speight is in a natural leadership position and has the confident disposition needed to keep a young, talented offense grounded. On defense, linebacker Mike McCray might have to stretch out of his comfort zone to lead along with upperclassmen on the defensive line, such as Chase Winovich and Mo Hurst.