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College Football Preview 2017-2018: 12. Michigan Wolverines

12. Michigan Wolverines

What's in store for Harbaugh in Year 3 at Ann Arbor?

  • Location: Ann Arbor, MI.
  • Conference: Big Ten (East)
  • Schedule
  • Roster
  • Coach: Jim Harbaugh (third year)
  • Last Years Record: 10-3 (7-2 Big Ten)
  • Bowl Result: Loss in Orange Bowl


After a debut season where he doubled Michigan's win total and made plenty of enemies, many people were curious about what Jim Harbaugh would do for an encore in 2016. The Wolverines certainly proved they were a legitimate threat, winning their first nine games of the year and rising as high as No. 2 in the country for a couple weeks. However, close losses to Iowa and Ohio State killed their Playoff chances, and the team played relatively uninspired in their bowl, dropping to Florida State in the Orange Bowl. The second consecutive 10-3 season did show Michigan's ceiling, but it also left this program wanting more after their first taste of success since 2011, when they won the Sugar Bowl. Harbaugh loses a ton of talent from this lineup, but he has proven he can reload as well as anyone and while this team will undergo some growing pains in '17, a Big Ten title is still not out of the question.

Chris Evans
Offense: Prior to 2016, Wilton Speight surprised some when he beat out Shane Morris and John O'Korn to win the Wolverines' quarterback job. Speight did not disappoint, showing excellent poise and command of the offense as he threw for 2,538 yards and 17 touchdowns. Speight's importance to this team was on full display late in the year, when a broken collarbone took him out of the Iowa game and left him hurt against archrival Ohio State, both which turned out to be losses. Standing at 6'6", 220 pounds the junior signal-caller is huge, but he'll have to stay more durable in 2017. Before that however, he has to lock down the starting job. Redshirt freshman Brandon Peters has long had a ton of hype surrounding him, and some believe he has a decent chance at stealing the job. No matter what happens, Michigan should have plenty of talent a the position, and Harbaugh is terrific at grooming quarterbacks. At running back, Michigan loses their reliable top rusher in De'Veon Smith but the ground attack should still be dangerous. Smith did rush for 846 yards and 10 touchdowns, but a committee including sophomore Chris Evans, USC transfer Ty Isaac and Karan Higdon should have no troubles replacing his production. Evans was an instant success as a true freshman, rushing for over 100 yards in his first game with the Wolverines. He continued that production throughout much of 2016, finishing with 614 yards, averaging an astounding 7.0 yards per carry. Meanwhile, Isaac (417 yards, five touchdowns) and Higdon (425 yards, six) give this offense a nice change of pace as power backs. The biggest question offensively will be at receiver, where Michigan loses it's top three receivers, and has an impact player whose future is up in the air. Jehu Chesson, Amara Darboh and tight end Jake Butt are all gone after they combined for 1,908 yards and gave defenses significant problems. That would leave junior Grant Perry as UM's top returning wide out, but Perry was suspended following an investigation of sexual assault. Perry accepted a plea deal, but will likely face further suspension once the year begins. If he does get on the field, the veteran receiver does offer reliable hands and a proven route runner. Michigan will turn to a large group of unproven weapons to help out at receiver, including sophomore Tyron Wheatley, sophomore Eddie McDoom and a group of true freshmen. Wheatley had three receptions last year but the tight end has tremendous size (6'6", 275 pounds) and is tough to tackle. McDoom had five catches and is a very explosive athlete. Newcomers like Donovan Peoples-Jones (a five-star recruit) and Tarik Black will also be expected to step up early on. Peoples-Jones is considered the best receiver UM has had in years, and will hope to showcase his tremendous talent right away. Junior tight end Ian Bunting will also see an increased role and will be expected to replace Butt, one of the top tight ends in Wolverine history. The offensive line loses a decent amount of experience, but the group should still be tough. The leader of the unit is no doubt veteran Mason Cole, who was All-Big Ten a year ago. Cole made 13 starts at center last season but the team's lack of depth at tackle could move him to the left tackle spot, which will be an interesting transition. Even though it will be different, Cole is a terrific pass blocker and should adjust quick. Sophomore Ben Bredeson is the other returning starter to the group, and should help out Cole on the left side, at LG. The rest of the line doesn't have a whole lot of experience, but much like many other units on the roster, has tons of talent and should see breakout campaigns. Sophomore Jon Runyan is the slated starter at right tackle and is the son of a long-time NFL standout offensive linemen. He could have a big year taking over at the position, after flashing plenty of brilliance in the spring.

Mike McCray
Defense: Michigan led the nation in players drafted in this spring's NFL Draft, with 11 going off the board. Much of that included defensive stars, including do-it-all linebacker Jabrill Peppers, All-American cornerback Jourdan Lewis, imposing defensive end Taco Charlton and the team's leading tackler, linebacker Ben Gedeon. That certainly leaves Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Don Brown rebuilding, but the unit still has enough talent and playmakers available that the group should still be very stingy. The D-Line is still stocked with terrific players, including sophomore end Rashan Gary and nose tackle Maurice Hurst. Gary was the nation's top recruit in 2016, and despite not seeing a ton of snaps in his true freshman year he managed 4 tackles for loss and seven quarterback hurries. At 6'5", 295 pounds with an explosive first step, Gary has all the tools to be a dominant pass rusher for the Wolverines, and a future top draft pick. Hurst is significantly more experienced and proved his worth to Michigan's rush defense last year, with 4.5 sacks and seven tackles for loss in '16. He doesn't get a lot of attention played at an under appreciated position, but Hurst will play a huge role for this team. The other two starters on the line are going to likely be junior Chase Winovich at end, and junior Bryan Mone at tackle. Winovich had 9.5 tackles for loss last year and knows how to cause chaos in the opposing backfield, while Mone is still recovering off a medical redshirt year he took in 2015 for ankle problems. When he's healthy, he can certainly be a force up the middle with Hurst. In the linebacker corps, Michigan will miss Gedeon, and the ultra-versatile Peppers, but there is actually a decent amount of experience in the unit. It is headlined by senior Mike McCray, who will undoubtedly be a leader. McCray was second on the team with 76 tackles a season ago, can really stuff the stat sheet (12.5 TFL, two interceptions in 2016). Sophomore Devin Bush showed flashes of promise as a freshman last season, and will now be expected to take over the middle linebacker role. When paired with sophomore Khaleke Hudson, the likely starter at the other outside linebacker slot, UM has plenty of youth but clearly plenty of potential. Hudson will get pressure from junior Noah Furbush as well (11 tackles). The secondary will almost certainly have some issues moving on from veteran leaders Lewis and safety Delano Hill. Lewis will be especially tough to replace as he was their shutdown cornerback the past two years who always took on the toughest assignments. Without him, the Wolverines are likely to turn to a committee of players at cornerback; such as sophomores Lavert Hill and David Long, as well as junior Brandon Watson and newcomer Ambry Thomas. None of those have very much experience but the good news is that UM doesn't face a dangerous passing offense until Purdue a month into the season, so the group will have time to mesh. Junior Jordan Glasgow and junior Tyre Kinnel are likely to start at the safety spots. Players will also likely have to step up at those positions as well, as the inexperience there is as severe as anywhere on this regrouping roster.

Special Teams: After starting the year 4-8 on field goals kicker Kenny Allen hit 15 straight to end 2016. Now that he departs, Michigan will likely turn to redshirt freshman Quinn Nordin, who has potential. It's unclear to know who will replace Allen's punting abilities, and the return game is also a mystery as Peppers departs.

In just two years in Ann Arbor, Jim Harbaugh has elevated the talent-level considerably. He'll need some of that impressive young talent to step up in a big way in 2017, as his team must recover from severe losses on both sides of the ball. The good news is that Harbaugh does bring back a QB with experience (Speight) and a backfield that should guide the ground-orientated offense, and there are still some key veterans returning defensively. The key for the Wolverines will be who steps up at receiver and how the pass defense improves, as well as how the team performs against Florida in a neutral site battle to begin the year. This team is still ultra-talented and it never pays to bet against Harbaugh, but with their losses and so much inexperience, a Big Ten title or Playoff berth is way too much to ask for. However, another double-digit win season and New Year's Six Bowl are a realistic goal for the Wolverines as they reload. 

Player to Watch
Donovan Peoples-Jones, WR
Michigan is so thin at receiver, that true frosh Peoples-Jones may enter 2017 No. 2 or 3 on their depth chart despite not playing a single snap for the Wolverines. While that may not be very reassuring, the receiver is a five-star recruit who is ranked as the No. 12 player in the 2017 Class by 24/7 Sports, and set various records at Cass-Technical High in Detroit.

Five-Year Trend
2012: 8-5 (6-2 Big Ten)*
2013: 7-6 (3-5 Big Ten)*
2014: 5-7 (3-5 Big Ten)
2015: 10-3 (6-2 Big Ten)*
2016: 10-3 (7-2 Big Ten)*

*= Bowl appearance

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