It is time to move ahead from last year’s disappointing season. With all its high points on and off the field, the season ended with a painful thud. Three critical losses late in the season again provided no run at the B1G playoff or title. This and no national final four or title, together with no bowl victory, put to rest optimistic M fan expectations as they evaporated at seasons end.
LAST SEASON’S WOES, FINAL CALL: No matter that the Wolverine three late season losses were close. The Ohio State University victory drought continued at the hands of the Wolverines yet again, in what appeared a very winnable chance. The fact that this one occurred in double overtime did not alter the fact that it produced another very big ouch. That there was a controversial spot favoring the OSU offense didn’t matter either. The Wolverines did not score or defend well enough to win with everything on the line in crunch time in their most important outing of the season.
Then there was the final game in the Orange Bowl that ended with a controversial FSU off-side non call, perhaps preventing one more M offensive stab at victory. The real bugaboo was the Wolverine gift of the winning TD with 40 seconds on the clock. At clock zero, it was 33-32 for the wrong side. Another big ouch.
The season’s early promise became a miasma as those earlier promising season expectations evaporated. The harmful loss to Iowa that started the skid was simply inexplicable.
It is now time to drop kick our attention forward and attempt to estimate and evaluate what might lie ahead in this, Coach Harbaugh’s critical third year at the Michigan helm. It is the most critical of his Michigan tenure.
GOALS: Any attempted probe into the state of the football program early pre-season is always of questionable value, because the basis for much of its prognosis is what happened the prior season. Any prediction of a team’s future football fortunes is even more “iffy” for those programs attempting a spring to the top of the heap.
It is still true the Wolverines have made many significant steps forward under Harbaugh, with very few compensating steps backward, as their trajectory has mainly been forward and upward and all signs point to a continuance and improvement of rising fortune through achievement of goals.
It is easy to state goals pro-season. The difficult part is for the team to achieve them. The fun for fans is in watching them being achieved.
A LITTLE DEEPER INTO THE HARBAUGH ERA: It does not require too big a leap of one’s imagination to expect program progress to continue at an accelerating rate. High among those expectations are the things still unachieved, such as shots at a BIG Championship, and the pot of golden rewards that lie at the end of a successful National Championship Playoff rainbow. You know what they are. The team knows what they are. Harbaugh has established a culture and motivation that is superior. But first things come first. A critical first goal this year is participating in the Big Ten Championship Game. No Wolverine team heretofore has won the privilege.
Competing for these goals is boilerplate every year, but in Harbaugh’s third year expectations will rise.
These are his players, his coaches. They are not as experienced as last year’s edition, but it there are a number of sophomores with athletic talent, and college ready bodies, expected to contribute immediately. Foremost among that group is DE Rashan Gary who leads the group. He will be a prime time player this year. There are at least nine others in his class that played enough last season to be considered experienced this year. WR Eddie McDoom is an example. They will be bolstered by another fine recruiting class this year.
This year’s class had eleven early entries, with WR Donovan Peoples-Jones projected as perhaps the best athlete in the 2017 class, and perhaps even on the team. He will probably receive significant playing time this year if he can best the considerable competition in the position group. Cesar Ruiz is an able bodied, versatile OL that may be able to contribute, even fight for a starting spot. Many of this class will contribute to the two deep. We will get clues as to their identity as spring practice unfolds.
The perceived success of Wolverines this 2017 season to a large extent also depends on success in chasing the rainbows listed above, but this year it is overwhelmingly important that they whip OSU. It has to be done. There will again be a vapor of Scarlet and Gray smugness in the air this fall that can’t be tolerated in M Stadium. That has to be overcome this year. Hmm….maybe that aroma is more pungent than a sniff of smugness!
They must beat all three “States”: MSU and PSU and especially OSU in addition to competing for championships this season.
This is an important season for both this team and its coach. It is important that they surpass last season, which trended so well but finally failed in achievement of their prime goals, and it will be a difficult one. The schedule is tough, but MSU and OSU are at home.
All the aura of success that Harbaugh is managing off field must be equaled on the field to maintain. They must win against the best, home or away to compete for championships. There is work still to be done, and it won’t be easy. But we should expect additional success in year three.
THE QUARTERBACK POSITION: The QB positon has to continue to evolve, especially pass accuracy, and a total mastery of the long ball. This will have to happen with a brand new set of receivers. The fact that Wilton Speight threw for 2,538-yards last season, with 18 TDs, and only 7 interceptions, can’t be ignored.
Still he has to win the job again, and depth must be developed. Obviously, Speight is the experienced frontrunner, but Wilton Speight, Redshirt Brandon Peters, Jon O’Korn, and others will battle for the starting slot, and give no quarter. The QBs that do not achieve starter status may be asked to step in at a critical time during the season, after any offensive snap. It is very important every year that they are well schooled and ready.
This is Harbaugh’s forte. No doubt they will be ready. More Pep has been added to the mix
COACHING CHANGES AND COACHING RESPONSIBILITY CHANGES: I like the coaching additions and responsibility alterations they have made. Pep Hamilton has been added to the staff as Jed Fisch left. The additions and alteration are:
Pep Hamilton: Pep brings a wealth of QB coaching experience from the pro level as well as college as he replaces Jedd Fisch. I expect he will be solid there. He is M’s new Assistant Head Coach /Passing Game Coordinator.
Greg Frey: He was last at Michigan as Rich Rodriguez’s OL coach. He has been named Tackles and Tight Ends Coach. Does his presence mean some change in the blocking style of the OL, and maybe a little more spread? I like the split in the coaching of the OL. It may give the overburdened Drevno a little respite.
Jay Harbaugh: is now the Run Game Coordinator and Co-Special Teams Co-ordinator. Former RB coach Tyrone Wheatley has returned to the pros. There are some slings and arrows directed at Jay because he has no playing experience as a running back. My physician does not share my illnesses, but I expect help to effectively address the situation effectively through training. Jay will do the job.
Tim Drevno: He remains Offensive Coordinator/OL coach. He will coach the center and the two guards.
To accomplish their goals any year, the Wolverines have obstacles to surmount, and rebuilding an effective offensive line is one of them. It appears this task is at the top of the heap this season. Improved pass protection and a consistent running game are both necessary to success.
THE OFFENSIVE LINE: This year the offensive and defensive lines are depleted. Experienced and versatile starters Sophomore Left Guard Ben Bredeson returns, as does Mason Cole. Right Guard may be manned by hefty and athletic Freshman Michael Onwenu (350 plus). It is possible that Freshman Cesar Ruiz vies for a spot on the in the two deep. Maybe can compete for a starting position. He has the physical tools. I doubt he will be at center because Mason Cole is experienced there. There is speculation Cole might vacate center. There will be a constant battle pre-season and maybe into the season as the search for the best five for the best five intensifies.
RUNNING BACKS: The style of the RBs will change with the graduation of the hammer that was DeVeon Smith at the position. It looks like the frontrunner at TB at this time is Sophomore Chris Evans. He gained 7-yards an attempt last season, and sometimes he is lightening in a bottle. Ty Isaac is back for his 5th year. He progressed last year and has size and talent. Junior Karan Higdon had six TDs last year and should be improved this year. Kingston Davis has transferred.
Kareem Walker will challenge for time. His light went on in the December Bowl practices. A healed Drake Johnson would be most interesting, but has not yet been cleared yet for a sixth year to the best of my knowledge.
Freshmen O’Maury Samuels is especially quick and Kurt Taylor. He had an outstanding junior year in HS (1,631-yards). At FB, Kahlid Hill will be back for his 5th year. He had 16 TDs last season. He can catch passes.
WIDE RECEIVERS: This is probably the most interesting position group on the team at this time. The oft injured and now recovered Drake Harris, and Maurice Ways have to find gold at the Last Chance Mine, or they will be passed by. They will be pressed by sophomore’s Eddie McDoom and Kekoa Crawford. McDoom is fast and Crawford is faster. They are both now fairly experienced. Eddy McDoom had considerable experience last season, producing effective end arounds etc. Truth to tell he was more effective on the ground than receiving as that was the way he was utilized. But he can shine as a receiver, too.
The 2017 recruits are an outstanding group, with Freshman Donovan Peoples-Jones considered by most to be hyper talented.
Tarik Black has star potential in this own right.
Brad Hawkins spent a year maturing in prep academy, where he put up outstanding receiving numbers. He is 6’2″ and 205 lbs. H
Martin and Collins also are gifted receivers.
If it turns out that the offensive line can effectively pass protect, I think that by the end of the season this wide receiver position group will be the strength of the offense.
Junior Grant Perry is missing a golden opportunity for football advancement by being in the doghouse for alleged transgressions after last season’s win in East Lansing. His football future remains in limbo. Hope he can work through it. The future looms exceedingly bright for this hyper talented group. Experience is coming their way to blend with their talent.
TIGHT ENDS: Redshirt Junior Ian Bunting will obviously get more opportunities for catches with the progression of Jake Butt to the pros. At 6’7″ and 250 lbs. Bunting is a talented load, along with stable mate Tyrone Wheatley. At 6’6″ and 276 lbs., Wheatley packs a punch, and owns good hands. I expect both these guys to explode this year.
And there is more. Sophomore Nick Eubanks, 6’5″ and 236, but will fight this spring for playing time.
The Wolverines did not land a TE recruit in 2017, but collared a talented 6′ 8″; 236 lb. walk on who has room to grow, Carter Selzer. After a pair of Glasgow walk on successes, and another one in progress, one not cannot help appreciating walk-ons. Besides Selzer, the Wolverines have a number of them this year. If one or more rises it will be noted.
Devin Asiasi, who saw extensive playing time last year as a freshman, has transferred to UCLA for personal reasons. He needs to be closer to home. There are no hard feelings on either side of this transfer.
Part 2 will present defensive comments later in the week.