2016 season preview: Michigan Wolverines
With Jim Harbaugh entering his second season in Ann Arbor as the head man, and a defense loaded with NFL-caliber talent at all three levels, the Wolverines are generating a considerably amount of excitement nationally. Here is a preview of what to expect from Michigan in 2016:
The line remains largely intact from last year, as the only major departure is center Graham Glascow, who was drafted in the third round by the Lions. Mason Cole, who started at left tackle in 2014 and 2015, will be moving inside to center, while sophomore Grant Newsome will take over for Cole outside.
All major skill players from last year’s squad return, led by WR Jehu Chesson and TE Jake Butt. Chesson had the third-highest WR rating last year among 2016 returnees at the position, and Butt had the highest receiving grade of any returning TE in FBS last year. De’Veon Smith is a solid starting RB who broke 44 tackles on 180 carries in 2016, and Drake Johnson survived getting run over by a forklift this spring, and should also be a significant contributor.
QB is the biggest question on the entire roster, as 2015 starter Jake Rudock is also now with the Lions. John O’Korn (who transferred from Houston after being benched in 2014 by the new regime looking for a more athletic option) and Wilton Speight (64 snaps last season) will compete for the starting position throughout this month and while the winner will be afforded some margin of error with what appears to be a relatively easy schedule early, if the Wolverines expect to win big road games at Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State, they will need quality play from the new signal caller.
The defensive side of the ball is absolutely loaded, and could be the best in the country. The defensive line is particularly stocked with talent, as Maurice Hurst, Chris Wormley and Ryan Glasgow ranked second, third and 16th respectively last year among returning defensive interior players in FBS. Bryan Mone missed 2015 with a broken ankle, but is now healthy and is also expected to make a significant contribution inside along with Rashan Gary, the consensus number one overall prospect from the 2016 class.
While the LB corps was turned over completely due to graduation, none of last year’s crew graded overwhelmingly positively and this year’s version of course has the benefit of playing behind likely the best defensive line in the country. It will also be boosted by the official addition of master-of-all-trades Jabrill Peppers, who was listed at safety last year but lined up all over the back seven. He is a dark-horse Heisman candidate, as he should not only be a productive player on defense but will again handle punt returns and contribute on offense.
The secondary is also one of the top units in the country, headlined by CB Jourdan Lewis. Lewis was our top-overall graded CB last season, after yielding just 33 receptions on 90 targets and a NFL QB rating against of just 46.3.
While many schools may have just one true superstar, Michigan has at least six on the defensive side alone, making the task of highlighting just one quite difficult. This being said, it’s hard to argue with the importance of Lewis. Having a legitimate shut-down CB allows Michigan to open up the rest of the defense and be more aggressive, and allow the rest of playmakers to attack going forward.
Breakout player to watch
DE Taco Charlton played only 389 snaps last year, but finished with the country’s highest pass rush productivity, and is clearly Michigan’s most explosive player on the edge. He should see a significant uptick in playing time this year, and will benefit greatly from the considerable amount of talent around him throughout the defensive line.
On paper, Michigan looks like one of the best teams in the country. With so much top-end talent on defense, the offense won’t be required to be as explosive as many others around the country. Also, with its first major road test not until October 29th in Spartan Stadium, the new QB will have considerable time to gel with the rest of the offense. If the Wolverines can merely get efficient play from the QB position with limited turnovers, the clearly have the roster required to compete not just for a Big Ten title, but a national championship as well.