Friday, April 3, 2015

Five Things to Watch for the 2015 Spring Game

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1. How does the offensive line look?
Michigan was thought to be in pretty decent shape going into 2015 because all five starters were returning, plus a very experienced, versatile Erik Magnuson (who has played tackle, guard, and tight end). Then some funky things happened this spring. Fifth year senior Jack Miller quit football for personal reasons, and classmate Graham Glasgow violated his probation, which earned him some sort of undisclosed suspension. It's unclear whether Glasgow will play in the spring game, not to mention a possible game suspension for the upcoming season. Now a team with two fifth-year seniors on the line could potentially have zero seniors. The team's success hinges on the offensive line. Assuming Glasgow is available on Saturday and avoids further trouble, he should be Michigan's starting center going forward. From left to right, the line should be Mason Cole, Magnuson, Glasgow, Kyle Kalis, and Ben Braden. However, the coaches have been experimenting a bit with Braden at left guard, Cole snapping, and Magnuson at right tackle, so other combinations could appear. Regardless, Michigan is thin on the edge but has several good defensive tackle types (Bryan Mone, Ryan Glasgow, Willie Henry, Chris Wormley) who should put stress on those linemen. This will be a stiff test to see if the offense can run the ball and/or protect the quarterback.

Hit the jump for discussion of quarterbacks, Jabrill Peppers, and more.

2. Who takes command of the offense?
Random message board chatter aside, I have heard very little positive about redshirt freshman Wilton Speight at the quarterback position. The current battle at quarterback seems to be between freshman Alex Malzone and junior Shane Morris. Malzone was the first quarterback taken in the coaches' spring game draft, and Morris was taken a little while later. (As I mentioned in my spring game mock draft, a drop for the #2 guy isn't extremely alarming since it would be somewhat pointless for one team to take two high draft picks at the same position.) Regardless, Malzone has earned a lot of praise for his competitiveness, which is a trait you know Jim Harbaugh loves. Neither quarterback has lit the world on fire this spring, so we shouldn't expect either one to come out with guns blazing. This will likely be a battle of making the fewest mistakes, because this will have to be a ball control offense. Fumbles and interceptions will not be tolerated.

3. Why is there so much hype about Jabrill Peppers?
We've all seen the high school highlights, and maybe we've seen clips of him doing backflips in practice. So yes, he's one of the best high school athletes we've seen come to Michigan. In fact, he's the highest rated Michigan recruit in the Rivals/Scout era. Unfortunately, he tweaked a couple things in his leg early on in 2014 and ended up taking a medical redshirt. Last year Michigan had some players who had displayed their potential and could reasonably claim the mantle of "best player on the team" going into the season, with guys like Jake Ryan, Devin Funchess, and Devin Gardner. This year there are no such front-runners. The team is largely made up of fairly highly touted recruits who haven't been outstanding in college. Cornerback Blake Countess was All-Big Ten in 2013. That's about where the accolades stop. In steps Peppers once again, who is playing free safety and moves down into the slot for nickel packages. Reports abound that Peppers is intense and loud on the field, calling out defenses, getting people aligned properly, etc. It's very possible that the redshirt freshman cornerback-turned-safety with three games of experience might be Michigan's most outstanding player. I don't expect that the quarterbacks will test the secondary much, but if they do, watch for Peppers to make some plays on the ball.

4. Who is playing where?
One of the really interesting things about every spring practice - especially when there's a coaching change - is what position switches have been made. This spring numerous guys have either switched sides or are playing on both sides of the ball. Some of them are small changes, but changes nonetheless. Here's a list of those guys:
  • Mason Cole, OT to C/OT
  • Royce Jenkins-Stone, LB to DE/LB
  • Erik Magnuson, TE to OG
  • Dennis Norfleet, WR to WR/CB
  • Brady Pallante, DT to FB
  • Jabrill Peppers, CB to S
  • Henry Poggi, DE to TE/DE
  • Ross Taylor-Douglas, RB to CB
  • Chase Winovich, LB to FB/LB
5. Who emerges as an offensive playmaker?
The Michigan offense lacks an identity. Last year it had a couple players with dynamic capabilities (Gardner, Funchess, Green), but nobody put a great season together, for various reasons. Now Funchess and Gardner are gone, the offensive line is in flux, late-season breakout Drake Johnson is still injured, speedy wide receiver Drake Harris hurt his hamstring again, and the running backs have been banged up. Realistically, the guy who might be the best with the ball in his hands is Peppers. We have seen big plays in the spring game in recent years (Michael Cox, Denard Robinson, Roy Roundtree), but will we see any this year? So far the defense has been ahead of the offense this spring, which is always expected. After all, defense is mostly about reading and reacting, while offense is about choreographed timing, technique, etc. The best bets for offensive playmaking are running back Derrick Green, running back Ty Isaac, slot receiver Dennis Norfleet, and wide receiver Brian Cole.


  1. I really hope that JH puts Jabrill on offense. He's too quick and too fast not to be on the field all the time. I'll be there Saturday and I have no doubt he will look impressive as ever. If I remember right Vegas had us at 8.5 wins for this season...I'd def take the over on that! In my mind Team 136 is going to surprise the B1G. JH doesn't fail and neither will Michigan as long as he is at the helm. Hell our coaching staff is better than half of the NFL! lol My friends think I'm delusional...I just tell em you have no idea the love I have for Michigan. Go Blue!

    1. Yes, you are delusional. Love the team all you want but acknowledge that this is 8 win talent on paper. Harbaugh has won nothing and proved nothing here yet.

    2. No...but he has proved things everywhere else he has been, including in a pretty competitive Pac-10 conference and then in the NFL.

      He hasn't proved anything at Michigan yet, but you could say that about any coach going to a new program. Nick Saban hadn't proved anything at Alabama before becoming Alabama's coach, but people still knew it would be a great hire. The same thing happened when Urban Meyer came to Ohio State. If Bill Belichick were to become the Detroit Lions head coach, the same thing could technically be said.

    3. There are at least nine potential wins available this season. Maybe there will be a couple upsets and we'll only get 6, or maybe we'll pull off a couple upsets and win 10. But I wouldn't look sideways at anybody who predicted between 6 and 9 wins. Those are realistic numbers, I think.

    4. What does that it even mean to say that there are "9 potential wins this year"? There are 12 "potential wins", but that doesn't mean anything as far as how many we'll actually win.

      And sorry, but predicting 9 wins just isn't justified. Look at any past Michigan team that's won as many as 9 games. How many, going into the season, had no proven players coming back at any offensive position? We only just now have a potentially decent starter at QB as a transfer, and we have no one who had a quality season at OL, RB or WR in 2014. We also have no impact players back on defense, just some guys who were "solid" or "decent".

      Is it POSSIBLE that a lot of players will improve and that the team will coalesce faster than can reasonably be expected? Sure. But on paper, looking at them right now, this is not a 9 win talent level. People can indulge in whatever level of wishful thinking makes them happy, but It just isn't.

  2. Magnuson was a TE? Typo?

    1. That's not a typo. He wore #81 last season and played tight end during the second half of the season.

    2. He was really playing as a 6th lineman. They did this a couple of times the year before too. They occasionally realized that AJ Williams couldn't block and wasn't a receiving threat, so you might as well just put an OL in there instead.

  3. At this point, I'm not convinced that anything we see in the spring game will mean a damn come September. It will be analyzed and dissected to death, of course, but to little end.

    Bottom line is that Harbaugh is going to have to remake this team basically from scratch. He has essentially no proven talent to build on, and nothing is going to be settled this early. The players he has now, even the highly touted ones, have been so poorly coached and developed that it will be 2016 at least before the units are good enough to make us really competitive in the Big Ten, let alone nationally. That's a shame for guys who are in their third or fourth year of eligibility in 2015, but it's what it is.

  4. Given how ineffective the offense was last year, the points about the OL, QB and offensive playmaker make sense.

    But simmering in the back of my mind is whether or not we're going to see the DL take a step up. They were okay last year, but I don't think anyone would say 'great'.

    I wonder about this because I've seen a few articles that speak of Meyer at OSU and others in the SEC have concluded that championship teams *must* have a dominant DL. That helps minimize the opposing offensive opportunities, and allows a team's offense -- good, but perhaps not great -- to get more shots at the endzone.

    My sense is the 2015 DL will be good, but hardly dominant. I keep waiting for someone to really become the line stud. Pipkens is an enigma. Clark was the hype last year, but we know how that ended. Willie Henry? Don't know ... but I can hope someone steps up.

    1. I trust Mattison more with the defensive line than I did Mark Smith. Also, they have Will Carr helping out, who I think helped Ryan Glasgow develop as a NT last year, along with making Bryan Mone a serviceable true freshman. I don't necessarily think the line will be dominant because we don't have the same talent at DE that Ohio State has, but I think they'll still be pretty good.

  5. What's the story with Chris fox? I never hear his name mentioned.

    1. He's injured still/again. Word on the street is that he's been on crutches this spring. I would not be surprised to see him be put on medical scholarship in the near future.