The beginning of Year 3 under Jim Harbaugh will begin for Michigan football on March 24, when the Wolverines open spring practice.
Harbaugh changed the program’s culture in his first year, then competed for a Big Ten title in his second.
There’s mystery entering this season, with high expectations after two 10-win seasons and a roster that lost 18 starters.
Losing its three games by a combined five points will be this off-season’s motivation, Harbaugh has said. And with few established starters – center Mason Cole may be the most secure player at his position – the spring will be as competitive as Michigan has seen in years.
The Free Press offers five things to watch during spring practice, which includes a spring game on April 15 and three practices in Rome, Italy, finishing on April 29:
• Watching Wilton: The Wolverines’ best rollover from last season should be quarterback Wilton Speight. He emerged as a redshirt sophomore, winning the job in the preseason and playing at a high level until injuring his shoulder in November at Iowa. He missed the next game and never looked the same, especially on deep throws. Harbaugh said Speight could be one of the nation’s best this year. But leading as the QB with new receivers, a tight end, a pass-protecting running back and without a stable offensive will demand something special.
• Replacing Peppers: Jabrill Peppers was supposed to change the way U-M was viewed when he arrived on campus, and he accomplished that by finishing as a Heisman Trophy finalist and garnering national awards and acclaim. But without his versatility – including the 15 positions and 933 snaps he played – there are holes to plug all over the field. It may take two people to fill in for him at the viper position/strong-side linebacker. It may take two in the return game. The list goes on. Figuring out how to fill the gaps is defensive coordinator Don Brown’s No. 1 task.
• Lining up: The dominant defensive line crushed opponents last year with 46 sacks, the key element of the nation’s top-ranked defense. But everyone knew the end was coming with four seniors, including three who likely will play in the NFL this year. There is experience in the middle (Mo Hurst and Bryan Mone) and extraordinary talent on the outside (Rashan Gary), but with newcomers behind them, there will be far less rotation of players. How they can handle the load will be crucial to another high-level defense.
• Protecting the pocket: Speight thrived for two-thirds of the season because he was able to stay clean. U-M quarterbacks were sacked 18 times in the regular season. Some of that was Speight’s ability to escape trouble, but much was due to a veteran offensive line with four and five years of strength and pass-protecting experience. Mason Cole returns at center, but the other four positions are uncertain, even though Ben Bredeson started the second half of last season. Though it’s incongruous, that may make Michigan more of a passing team with Speight needing to get the ball out fast to his bevy of young but extremely talented receivers. Harbaugh hinted at more spread concepts during recruiting, so we’ll see what role new passing game coordinator Pep Hamilton plays.
• Specializing: Finding someone to replace Kenny Allen will be difficult. Save for a small blip in the middle of the season, Allen was as solid as a Michigan kicker can be, finishing second in program history by hitting 82.2% of his field goals. He had the second- and third-most made field goals the past two years. As a punter, his 43.3-yard average ranked top-10 in U-M history last year. It likely will take multiple players to replace him. Michigan used a scholarship on kicker Quinn Nordin last year and punter Brad Robbins this year. That demands that they fill those roles quickly. It’s tough to assess those in the spring with weather restrictions and usually no full rush. But Harbaugh may push those limits just to see what he has.