Football is just around the corner.
Michigan is set to open fall camp today, the beginning of the end to the offseason for college football. Players spent the past few months in the weight room, aiming to get bigger and stronger under new strength and conditioning coordinator Ben Herbert.
And by all accounts, they have.
Now comes the real work.
NCAA rules allow the Wolverines to practice up to 29 days ahead of their Sept. 1 season opener at Notre Dame, but recent policy changes remain in place: players must get a day off every week, and two-a-day practices remain a thing of the past.
This fall, Michigan has position battles looming at several positions, including quarterback, and plenty of questions to figure out.
Will we get answers before the season opener? Stay tuned.
Naming a play caller
Jim Harbaugh still has not named an offensive coordinator, and it's unclear whether he actually will. The Michigan head coach in spring preached collaboration among the offensive coaching staff, a group that includes a brand new offensive line coach (Ed Warinner), new wide receivers coach (Jim McElwain) and new tight-ends coach (Sherrone Moore). With so many new faces, will Harbaugh divert to assistant head coach and passing-game coordinator Pep Hamilton to take the lead with the signal calling? Last season, it was Hamilton, former offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Tim Drevno calling plays, with Harbaugh having final say. Don't be surprised if Harbaugh decides to keep the play calling between he and Hamilton, but Warinner and McElwain both have plenty of offensive coordinating experience, too.
Shea the starter?
Most outside observers think University of Mississippi transfer Shea Patterson has already won the starting quarterback job, and maybe so. But Harbaugh isn't ready to hand the job over just yet -- he ended spring practice saying there was a four-man competition for the job, a statement he backed up a few weeks ago at Big Ten media days. If Patterson gets it (and it's a good bet he does), he's going to have to earn it in fall camp. Which is just how Harbaugh likes it ... uncomfortable for the player to the point it elevates their game. Quarterback play was a hinderance in 2017, so improved play at the position will be crucial for a successful season. This is a big decision for Harbaugh and the coaching staff, but the good news is that they have plenty of options to work with.
Who emerges as the backup?
While everyone wants to focus on Patterson, and rightfully so, it will be almost as important to keep tabs on who falls in line behind him. Brandon Peters enters fall camp with the most experience with the Michigan coaching staff, in the current system, than any other quarterback, having started four games in 2017. If Patterson wins the job, how close does Peters come to pushing him? The redshirt sophomore needs to make a leap this fall or risk losing his shot long-term at Michigan. Then there's Dylan McCaffrey, the young but talented redshirt freshman whose family has produced several NFL-caliber players. McCaffrey made the most strides among the quarterbacks in fall, Harbaugh says, and has positioned himself nicely for the future. How close can he come to passing Peters and challenging for the starting role? Meanwhile, the wild card in all of this remains true freshman Joe Milton, the four-star prospect from Orlando, Florida. We've heard plenty about his arm, but is he ready to take over a Big Ten offense out the gate? Probably not -- but that doesn't necessarily rule him out from seeing the field, either.
Michigan returns its top two rushers from 2017, Karan Higdon and Chris Evans, a duo that combined for 1,679 yards on the ground. But depth could be an issue at running back, a position that returns several players but virtually no one with real playing experience. After spring, Harbaugh identified walk ons Tru Wilson and Joe Hewlett as the No. 3 and No. 4 options, with a bevy of young guys trailing. Expect Higdon and Evans to carry a bulk of the load here, but the Wolverines will need someone to break free in case of injury. Keep an eye on O'Maury Samuels, who played some last season but was slowed in spring by a hamstring injury.
We've heard plenty about the simplified play calling and improvement along the offensive line, but actions speak louder than words. New offensive line coach Ed Warinner has brought a fresh perspective and new approach to the group, which returns one full-time starter in Ben Bredeson and several others who saw various amounts of playing time. Cesar Ruiz returns to his natural position at center, and Michael Onwenu figures to start at right guard, but question marks remain at tackle and whether the unit can hold it together in pass protection. The group ranked 110th nationally in sacks allowed (36) and 91st in tackles for loss allowed (83), rankings that need drastic improvement for this offense to become sufficient. The good news here is that nearly everyone projected to started at least one game last season and saw playing time. Now it's time for the group to show some improvement.
The most talked about player in spring, Michael Dwumfour appears poised to take over the defensive tackle position left vacant by Maurice Hurst. And by all accounts, the junior from Wayne, N.J., could be the next Hurst. Teammate Rashan Gary has raved about his explosiveness at the line of scrimmage, while defensive line coach Greg Mattsion praised Dwumfour for his athleticism and improved conditioning. Last season, defensive end Chase Winovich benefitted from having Hurst in the middle and Gary on the opposite end. With Gary and Winovich back, Dwumfour stands to benefit the most here. Now it's up to him to show that he can take that next step and become Michigan's next standout defensive tackle.
While Devin Gil is believed to be the front runner at weak-side linebacker, the Michigan coaching staff isn't worried. The Wolverines return plenty of depth at linebacker, including two potential NFL prospects next year in Devin Bush and Khaleke Hudson. Those two are locked in at their respective spots, while Gil will have competition from Josh Ross, Josh Uche and others for playing time. Don't be surprised if this competition plays out the longest -- Michigan has plenty of time to figure it out, and plenty of options it can plug and replace with.
Where does Casey Hughes fit in?
Perhaps the biggest conundrum of all: where does the Michigan coaching staff play a fifth-year senior who started 11 games at cornerback last season? Utah graduate transfer Casey Hughes gives the Wolverines depth in the secondary, but where he ends up might be the biggest storyline on the defensive side of the ball. Lavert Hill and David Long appear to have the corner spots locked down, while Tyree Kinnel and Josh Metellus both return after starting most of last season at safety. Could he fit in at nickel? Beat someone out at safety? The coaching staff has said Hughes will start fall camp at safety, perhaps signaling some early competition at a position that helped comprise the nation's No. 1 pass defense in 2017.