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College Football Preview 2016-2017: 3. Michigan Wolverines

De'Veon Smith
3. Michigan Wolverines

Conference: Big Ten (East)
Location: Ann Arbor, Michigan
2015-2016 Record: 10-3 (6-2 Big Ten)
Bowl Result: Victory in Citrus Bowl
Breakout Player: LB Taco Charlton
Heisman Hopeful: LB/DB Jabrill Peppers
X-Factor: QB John O'Korn
Recruiting Rundown (via Rivals)

Entering 2015, new head coach Jim Harbaugh had enormous expectations surrounding his first year at Michigan. The fanbase had grown restless after watching Brady Hoke's teams get worse every single year, including a 5-7 2014. Harbaugh had completely turned around Stanford football and had worked wonders with San Francisco. But, could he take the Wolverines back to the top in a crowded Big Ten East? Needless to say, Harbaugh met most of the crazy expectations placed upon him. Michigan opened with a loss to Utah but then was among the best teams in college football over a couple month span. In the end, Michigan would end up 10-3, capping the successful year off with a dominant showing in a Citrus Bowl victory over Florida. While the season was a success, UM still lost to archrival Ohio State, and still have room to grow. Can they transition from a pleasant surprise to a legit National Title contender? That is a loaded question, but one thing is for sure: the Wolverines have the talent and flash to do it.

Backfield: The first big question for Harbaugh when he took over last year was at quarterback. Inconsistent and often-injured Devin Gardner was gone, leaving backup Shane Morris as the most likely starter. However, Iowa grad transfer Jake Rudock arrived and quickly won the job over Morris and other competition. Rudock was wonderful in his lone year in Ann Arbor, as he threw for 3,017 yards and 20 touchdowns, and even carried UM offensively at times, something he had never done with the Hawkeyes. Rudock graduated, leaving the Wolverines with the same question, just a year later. Morris, now a senior, has struggled mightily in the short spurts we've seen him, but knows the offense. Junior Wilton Speight is a solid talent that appeared in seven games last season and could fight for the starting gig. But, most people around Michigan feel their likely starter entering 2016 will be Houston transfer John O'Korn. O'Korn impressed early while at Houston but slowly fell out of favor when the team's current starter, Greg Ward Jr., starting showing out. O'Korn has a big arm and a good feel for the game, but adjusting to the Big Ten will be interesting. O'Korn will have to adjust to playing the Ohio State secondary instead of say, the UConn secondary, as his last action was in the American Athletic Conference. O'Korn's success will be interesting to watch, but no matter what happens, Michigan should run the ball quite a bit in '16. Senior De'Veon Smith is back as the feature back, and he should engineer a successful season. Smith rushed for 753 yards and six touchdowns last year, showing an excellent mix of speed and bruising running. Michigan has not had a 1,000 yard rusher since Lloyd Carr retired in 2007, but Smith could break that streak, as he will be used as a workhorse. USC transfer Ty Isaac is huge (6'3", 230 pounds) and can run anybody over, but is rather one-dimensional. Even so, he could be a valuable option in short yardage situations. True freshman Kareem Walker could also see some action in his first season with the Wolverines. Walker is a four-star prospect, and established himself as one of the best athletes on the entire East Coast his senior season at DePaul Catholic in Orange, New Jersey.

Jake Butt
Receivers: While Michigan has lacked a true running back for years, they have also lacked some dangerous receiving threats. They could have a dangerous pair this year in seniors Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh. Chesson improved rapidly after a quiet '14, as he hauled in 50 passes and led Michigan in receiving yards, with 764 yards. He proved to be a great route runner, and reliable weapon all around the field. Darboh is more flashy and athletic, making a fabulous one-handed snag last year (look it up on YouTube). Darboh had 58 catches for 727 yards and got into the end zone five times. Both Chesson and Darboh can extend the defense in a variety of ways, and open things up for Smith and the running game, which Harbaugh will use extensively this season. That should make that pair very critical to UM's success in 2016. Michigan is not very deep at receiver, and some young guys may have to step up. The most likely breakout candidate is a newcomer, Ahmir Mitchell, a four-star pickup out of New Jersey. Mitchell is a freakish athlete, but brings NFL size at 6'3", 210 pounds. Talented Dylan Crawford, a productive receiver coming in from California, should also come in and give the receiver corps some help. Tight end is going to be a strength for Michigan, as they have the best in the entire nation in senior Jake Butt. Butt may have an interesting name, but he has serious game, earning All-American honors in '15. After injuries hurt him earlier in his career, Butt responded with 51 receptions, 654 yards and three touchdowns and was Michigan's most reliable weapon. His great frame (6'6", 250 pounds) make him a matchup nightmare and he always finds ways to get open. Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Tim Drevno will likely run a two tight-end offense often in 2016, meaning somebody else will have to produce. Sophomore Ian Bunting had just five catches last year, but bring fabulous athleticism. However, neither Bunting nor Butt are known for their blocking skills, which could hurt Michigan this year. People are excited about redshirt freshman Tyrone Wheatley, a beast at tight end. Wheatley is a big, physical target in the passing game, but he lacks refinement. He could prove to be a nice change of pace in the aerial attack for O'Korn to work with. Newcomer Nick Eubanks could also see snaps at tight end, as he dominated in the high school ranks in Florida.

Offensive Line: Michigan's offensive line had some ups-and-downs throughout 2014 and 2015, which was to be expected. Both years they very young, and had to utilize a true freshman at the line's most pivotal position; left tackle in '14. That was the first time a true freshman had ever started at LT to open the season in school history. That true freshman was Mason Cole, who should have a productive junior campaign after playing decent last season. Cole has moved inside to center, where he is the most comfortable. Cole is a versatile blocker that can make some great plays. Interior defensive linemen are too slow for Cole's quickness. The Wolverines are expecting big things from other big-time recruit Kyle Kalis. Kalis has been very good throughout much of his time in UM career and is an established run blocker. With Smith beyond him, Kalis should open up huge gaps in defenses with his powerful frame. Kalis will most likely start at right guard, where he made 13 starts last year. The other guard spot should be in good hands as well, as senior Ben Braden returns. Braden is solid, and a good anchor to the unit. Braden is very large and also can clear lanes with his strength. He will be a valuable asset to Michigan this season. The left tackle position is still a concern for Michigan, who has no proven player there. Sophomore Grant Newsome and Jon Runyan Jr. are the favorites. Runyan is the son of former Philadelphia Eagle Jon Runyan, who was a wonderful offensive tackle for years. After taking a redshirt last season, Runyan Jr. is excited to show what he can do. Newcomer Ben Bredeson is a highly touted offensive linemen arriving to Ann Arbor. Bredeson is a fabulous blocker, winning the Wisconsin Gatorade Player of the Year last year. He should bring that impact ability to UM, but may be forced to a backup role at either tackle slot for now.

Defensive Line: One of the most underrated units on Michigan's team this year could be the defensive line, where a couple proven pass rushers return and the nation's top overall recruit comes in. Senior Chris Wormley was wonderful last year at defensive end, where he had 6.5 sacks and eight tackles for loss. Wormley earned All-Big Ten honors while disrupting plenty of offenses during the 2015 campaign. He should be joined by a healthy Ryan Glasgow, who is also returning for his senior season. Glasgow helped Michigan became a dominant rush defense team for the season's first half, but his injury pushed them downhill. He had 25 tackles last year, and proved to be a wrecking ball in the heart of the D-Line. The return of Glasgow and Wormley will be key, but UM fans are most excited about the big newcomer to the group. The nation's top overall recruit, Rashan Gary, will enter his first season in Ann Arbor with some heavy expectations. Gary is 6'5", 295 pounds and can play inside or out. He already has NFL size, but will still bulk up more, as the Wolverines could definitely use his athletic, playmaking services in the middle in 2016. Gary could also push for playing time at nose tackle, where Michigan is very thin at. Junior Maurice Hurst and senior Garrett Miller are the top two competitors for the nose tackle spot, which will provide more pressure in the in the interior with Glasgow. Hurst is a good athlete that could provide a better pass rush than Glasgow, who won't get after the quarterback too often. Ron Johnson is a less-heralded defensive linemen recruit but outside of Gary, he has the best chance to make an impact. Johnson is a versatile defensive end out of Camden, New Jersey that gives Wormley more help on the perimeter.

Linebackers: The hype surrounding Jabrill Peppers has been something else for years now. Peppers was a magical high-schooler that could do it all and was the second best player in his class, only behind Leonard Fournette. Peppers was originally recruited as a defensive back, but played running back in high school, and could be making a move to a hybrid outside linebacker role in '16. He has shown plenty of flashes of his special talent, and had 45 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss last season. However, Michigan fans are expecting more this year, especially in new defensive coordinator Don Brown's aggressive scheme. Brown lots plenty of different attacks, and runs very exotic blitzes that utilize outside linebackers in the "Sam" position (where Peppers will spend most of his time this year). Over the years at UConn and Boston College, every player at the "Sam" position has generally been the star of the defense. Even if Peppers doesn't live up to the hype, the linebacker corps should be very good. Senior Taco Charlton is a breakout candidate after showing plenty of promise as a reserve over the years. Charlton is a natural defensive end, but backed up Wormley last year and likely wouldn't get much playing time this season. That is, until he switched to a "Buck" position, a varying outside linebacker/end role. Charlton had 5.5 sacks a year ago as a reserve, so he could do some severe damage in a starting role that will get after the quarterback often. Inside linebacker could be a weakness for UM this year, as Joe Bolden and Desmond Morgan depart. Morgan and Bolden were the top two Wolverines in tackles last year, and anchored the defense. Senior Ben Gedeon knows the system and could fit in nicely in Brown's defense. He had 34 tackles and three sacks a season ago and can really do it all. The other inside 'backer position could get interesting. Michigan has junior Mike McCray returning along with a wide variety of vets, but many believe true freshman Devin Bush could win a starting job. Bush (4-star from Florida) has impressed coaches with his excellent closing speed and fabulous range. While Michigan will lean heavily on a recruiting class dotted with future stars, Bush could play the biggest role out of any of the newcomers this year at a pivotal ILB slot.

Secondary: Jim Harbaugh and staff always do a great job picking up high-quality defensive backs that are physical and lengthy and his secondaries produce. Michigan's defensive backfield in 2016 may not have the flash or natural talent as other places on this team but it is very experienced and could the most consistent group on the whole team. The star of the unit is senior Jourdan Lewis, who could be competing for All-American honors this year. Lewis had 52 tackles and two interceptions but showed just how shutdown and dominant he was with 20 pass deflections last year. Lewis isn't the biggest defender or most athletic, but he is a smart defensive back that is great at making plays in the air. Senior Delano Hill should also be a major piece to the secondary, as the experienced vet had 46 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss last year. Hill is a well-taught, solid defensive back that should lock down a strong safety role. The player starting next to Hill in the secondary is a question, as free safety is pretty wide open. Senior Dymonte Thomas has an experience advantage, and he had 24 tackles and even pass deflections last year. Sophomore Tyree Kinnel may be able to get some action or help out in other ways. Cornerback next to Lewis should also be a strength, as UM will turn to Jeremy Clark, returning for his senior campaign. Contrary to a relatively undersized Lewis, Clark isn't going to be pushed around by any receiver, as he is 6'4", 215 pounds and loves to play physical. With Lewis and Clark, Michigan has two experienced corners that have different strengths, which should give teams fits moving the ball against them. Senior Channing Stribling is also returning to the secondary after recording four starts last year and 17 tackles. He, along with a solid crop of reurnees, should give the unit plenty of depth and versatility.

Special Teams: Special teams was always a strength with Harbaugh at Stanford, and he has seemingly brought it to Ann Arbor. Kicker Kenny Allen was very consistent last year, hitting 18-22 field goals in '15. Punter Blake O'Neill was also very good, but may unfortunately be remembered for his bobbled snap that gave away the game to rival Michigan State. The return game should utilize Peppers in multiple ways.

Even in just Jim Harbaugh's second year Michigan certainly has the talent to compete with the elite powers of the college football world. They should ground-and-pound opponents all year and back it up with their defense, as Harbaugh did so well at Stanford. The key will be the passing game, which certainly could be great. Michigan ran the ball well last season, but their offense would have still struggled mightily if Rudock hadn't played as well as he did. Can O'Korn play the Rudock role this year as a final-year transfer trying to prove himself? Michigan will be super talented and deep throughout every group of their offense regardless, and the non-conference slate is pretty soft with their toughest game likely being Colorado at the Big House. If their offense can continue to improve, and the defense takes even greater leaps under Brown, UM certainly can win the Big Ten, especially with MSU and Ohio State liking enduring down years (by their usual standards) as they rebuild from severe losses. If they do, anything is possible for a team that is growing better day by day.

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