Post-Spring Preview of Michigan
After a very disappointing 5-7 (3-5 Big Ten Conference) record in 2014, the Michigan football program fired head coach Brady Hoke, who had led the Wolverines for the past four seasons. The firing did not come as much of a surprise, as Hoke struggled to get the team back to the national prominence that they usually enjoy. His best years came at the beginning of his tenure in Ann Arbor, with the success of the team dwindling each year after that. After Rich Rodriguez ran his famous spread-option offense for 3 years with the Wolverines, Hoke struggled to run his favored pro-style attack with spread-type players. His defenses were usually solid under defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, but his efforts were ultimately not enough to keep his job at Michigan, opening the door for a new and very high-profile man to take his place.
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Every discussion of Michigan football in 2015 has to begin and end with one name: Jim Harbaugh. The eccentric former head coach of the San Francisco 49ers was hired as the head man in Ann Arbor in late December of 2014. He has strong ties to Michigan, starting as the team’s quarterback from 1984-1986. He has obvious NFL coaching and playing experience, but also served as the head coach at both San Diego and Stanford and an unpaid assistant coach under his father Jack at Western Kentucky for 8 years while he was still playing in the NFL.
Since being hired as Michigan’s head coach, Harbaugh has electrified what had become a fairly stagnant fan-base. There are now very high hopes and expectations for the Wolverines, and many people expect this hire to make an immediate impact on the field in the 2015 season. The beginning of the season will not serve as an easy transition period for Harbaugh, as his team has to play Utah on the road and Oregon State at home in their first two games.
Offensively, Harbaugh will bring his famous “Power Coast” offense to Michigan. It is what he has run at both Stanford and San Francisco, and features a blend of a power-based running game and a West-Coast passing game. He is known for using extra offensive and defensive linemen as tight ends to increase the strength of his offense, but also likes to have dynamic playmakers at the skill positions. His offenses are very multiple, and are just as likely to line up with no wideouts and 3 tight ends as they are to line up with 5 wide receivers.
The number one task on Harbaugh’s list for the summer and fall is finding a starting quarterback. After Devin Gardner struggled to do much of anything in his senior year last season, the Wolverines will need to find a new man to run the show. The competition will be between left-handed junior Shane Morris and former Iowa quarterback Jake Rudock. Both are very talented players who will undoubtedly run a pro-style offense better than Denard Robinson or Gardner tried to under Hoke.
The starting running back duties are expected to be split between junior Derrick Green and USC transfer Ty Isaac. Both players would give Harbaugh that powerful running game that he desires, with Green listed at 5-foot-11, 234 pounds, and Isaac listed at a massive 6-foot-3, 240 pounds. The wide receiver unit is still fairly unproven after a bad 2014 season that saw them lose matchup nightmare Devin Funchess to the NFL. The 2015 unit will be led by Jehu Chesson at the split-end position, with Amara Darboh taking the flanker spot. Jake Butt will be a very good player for the Wolverines at tight end. Quality depth will be the problem for this unit, as most of the second-stringers are very raw and unproven.
The offensive line will be a very tall unit for Harbaugh in 2015, with all of the projected starters listed as being 6-foot-5 or taller. Harbaugh likes to use his linemen in a lot of different ways, including lining them up in the backfield as fullbacks in short-yardage and goal-line situations. For this reason, his offense needs a deep offensive line unit, something that Michigan does not yet have. Therefore, one of the biggest tasks for Harbaugh in his first few years with the Wolverines will be building the offensive line’s depth.
For the past four years, Michigan’s defense had been led by Mattison, who is now the team’s defensive line coach. D.J. Durkin is the new Michigan defensive coordinator, after spending the last four years working under Will Muschamp at Florida. For all of the struggles that the Gators have had in recent years, the defense was always dominant. Harbaugh has stated that he wants to run both a 3-4 and a 4-3 defensive scheme, with the fronts changing depending on the opponent. Against spread teams, the Wolverines will likely be primarily a 3-4 defense, moving to the 4-3 against more pro-style attacks.
There are a number of talented players for Michigan defensively, but none more so than former 5-star recruit Jabrill Peppers. He will start at free safety for the Wolverines this season, and will also see time as the team’s nickel-back. He was the top-ranked athlete in the 2014 recruiting class, but suffered an ankle injury early last season before he could show his talents to the world.
Michigan will likely be a much-improved team in 2015, but probably still has a ways to go before they’re back to the powerhouse that they once were. Harbaugh can certainly bring them back to that prominence, but it may take him a few years. The Wolverines’ success offensively this season will hinge on the play of their offensive line and their quarterback, whoever that might be. Defensively, it will depend on the ability of the defensive backs to hold off opposing wide receivers.
This week, I was able to speak with Angelique Chengelis, a Michigan football beat writer for The Detroit News. I’d like to thank her for her insightful responses.
BSL: Obviously, the biggest news surrounding the Michigan football program this off-season was the hiring of former San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh to replace Brady Hoke. How has the team responded to the coaching change, and what sort of immediate impact has Harbaugh had both on the field and on the recruiting trail?
Chengelis: Based on conversations with players and people around the program, I think they have responded positively to Harbaugh and his staff. The first day they were handed the itinerary for spring practices indicating they would be having four-hour practices, most of them were a little shocked — they hadn’t done anything like that before. Harbaugh called it “class on grass” and it was good for the players to quickly get into the Harbaugh mode, and good for Harbaugh and his staff to generate information on what kind of players they have and what they need. I think the players feel like they got tougher — if that’s possible — going through that spring.
As far as recruiting, Harbaugh has gone on the attack with his summer “Swarm Tour” to the satellite camps and hosting “Exposure U” (although Michigan has always hosted a summer camp). As everyone knows, the Swarm Tour ruffled a lot of feathers around the country. I’m not sure Harbaugh thinks he’s going to find dozens and dozens of recruits, but he wanted to get the Michigan “brand” out there and get exposure in football hotbeds like Texas, Florida and California. He also made a point to meet with high school coaches in Detroit, taking his staff there to spend time meeting and talking and networking. He emphasized that Michigan State has been the “biggest” on the block, and he wants that title. To achieve that, Harbaugh said, it’s got to start at home recruiting the best in Detroit and in the state.
BSL: Harbaugh is often credited as the inventor of the “Power Coast” offense, the perfect blend of a power running game and a West Coast passing game. Brady Hoke struggled to implement his pro-style offense with the Wolverines, so how has Harbaugh fared at installing his favored offensive system, and who are the players to watch for offensively?
Chengelis: To be fair, when Hoke arrived with offensive coordinator Al Borges, a pro-style guy, he inherited Denard Robinson, immensely talented but certainly not a pro-style QB, so he had to work the offense around him. Beyond that, Hoke and his staff struggled because the offensive line play has been mediocre, the running backs and have been so-so, and there were too many miscues and turnovers from the quarterback position.
Harbaugh has immediately addressed quarterback where Michigan wasn’t exactly thin but lacked experience. He has brought in grad-transfer Jake Rudock from Iowa where he was a two-year starter, and likely will be the primary competition for junior Shane Morris, the only returning Michigan quarterback who has had some experience. Where will Michigan go in the running game? Ty Isaac is a transfer from USC, so people are eager to see what he can contribute, and returning juniors Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith will be competing. At receiver, there are a lot of bodies, but no one who emerged from the spring as a major threat. Amara Darboh likely will be one of the keys, but overall, that group has had a lot of dropped passes they need to clean up. Finally, no offense can be great without a great offensive line. The jury is out. There’s talent there, but it still doesn’t seem like an old, standby Michigan offensive line that’s dominant.
BSL: While Devin Gardner started most of Michigan’s games at quarterback over the past two seasons, the Wolverines need to find a new man to run the show in 2015. Shane Morris looked to be the starter at the position until the team gained Iowa transfer Jake Rudock in mid-April. Who do you believe will be the starting quarterback when Michigan opens their season against Utah in early September?
Chengelis: There’s no way Rudock transferred to Michigan thinking he’s going to sit on the bench, but I’d also find it hard to believe Harbaugh offered any guarantees — that’s not his style. Harbaugh preaches constant competition, as do most coaches, but I don’t think he has gifted the job to Rudock. Morris, a leftie, emerged from the spring as the leader in that group. Early enrollee freshman Alex Malzone also played the spring game, while redshirt freshman Wilton Speight sat with a groin injury. Don’t count out Speight yet.
But I do think it will be a Rudock-Morris battle. Morris has one of the strongest arms I’ve ever seen. He throws bullets, but no one cares about that if they’re not on target, and he has struggled with accuracy, not to mention touch. Morris’ attitude in the spring was good, a bring-it-on approach I haven’t heard from him before. This will be a spirited competition. Right now, I’d GUESS Rudock, mainly because he’s had two years of starting experience, which Michigan will need opening on the road against Utah.
BSL: Greg Mattison had been Michigan’s defensive coordinator for the past few seasons, but has been replaced by former Florida defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin this season (with Mattison becoming the defensive line coach). Harbaugh and Durkin have expressed a desire to play both a 3-4 and a 4-3 defense depending on the opponent. How do you believe that will play out, and who are the main players to watch for in those schemes?
Chengelis: Jabrill Peppers. Oh, you asked for main players, plural, but he is THE guy everyone will be watching. He’s the gem of the defense, a defensive back who can be utilized in a lot of ways. He’s also frustrated that injuries held him out of almost the entire season last year as a freshman. Generally speaking, the front seven is pretty solid, and the Wolverines are deep at linebacker with returning veterans James Ross, Desmond Morgan and Joe Bolden. On the defensive line, look for Lawrence Marshall, a sophomore who had a big spring, Willie Henry, Bryan Mone and Chris Wormley.
BSL: Last season’s 5-7 (3-5 Big Ten) record is all but forgotten in Ann Arbor with the endless optimism that Harbaugh has brought to the football program. How immediate of an impact do you believe that the Harbaugh effect will have at Michigan, and how do you see this season playing out for the Wolverines?
Chengelis: I think the impact began the moment he was announced as head coach. T-shirt sales, khaki sales and, most important, ticket sales, have been robust. A malaise had set in for Michigan football, and that has been lifted since Harbaugh has taken over and taken to Twitter and been in the spotlight since Day One. But when the season begins, no one will care about khakis and Tweets. I think it’s reasonable to expect a seven-win, maybe eight-win season. What people will see, I think, is a tougher Michigan team that will play hard through the fourth quarter and stay in a few games that many might not think they have a chance. The Wolverines have both rivals, Michigan State and Ohio State at home, and they’ve got three road games in prime-time, including the opener at Utah, so this isn’t a cushy schedule.