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2015 Fierce 40 Previews: #32 Michigan

by DJ Boyer on Jul. 27, 2015

#32 Michigan Wolverines

2014 Recap:
The last few seasons have been a slow, downward spiral for Michigan, and it culminated last season with a 5-7 finish. Michigan needed a win against arch rival Ohio State in their Big Ten finale to makes themselves bowl eligible but came out on the short end of a 42-28 decision.

Coaching:
You don’t have to be a Michigan fan or a diehard sports fan to know that Jim Harbaugh is back at his Alma Mater after a very successful run in the NFL as the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. Michigan is in a state of flux as, they look to return to greatness, especially in the wake of rivals like Ohio State (National Champions) and Michigan State (24 wins, a Big ten title and consecutive Overall Top 10 finishes) enjoying immense success. Tim Drevno will serve as the offensive line coordinator. Drevno operated under Steve Sarkisian at USC working with the offense and served with Harbaugh as the 49ers offensive line coach previous to those duties. D.J. Durkin moves over from Florida where he spent a couple of season leading a very talented Gator defense and is now in charge of the Wolverine defense.

Offense Analysis

Quarterbacks/Running Backs:

The quarterback competition at Michigan may be the most intense we will see at any of the major schools heading into the 2015 season. Shane Morris looked like the slam dunk heir apparent, even though the first touchdown pass Morris throws as a Wolverine will be his first. Now that Devin Gardiner has moved on, the job looked like it would be ready to hand over to the once hot-prospect out of Michigan. It’s no secret Morris has struggled and with new coach Jim Harbaugh at the helm.

Everyone got word that Jake Rudock would be transferring to Michigan as a graduate student, meaning he has immediate eligibility. Rudock should be a name Michigan fans are familiar with, as he had been the starting quarterback for Iowa. Rudock started the last two seasons for Iowa and has thrown 34 touchdowns, and he completed 62% of his passes a season ago. Just when you thought Rudock would be the starter for one year as Michigan made the transition to Harbaugh, Morris came out and had a monster spring and has been lighting things up in practice. The jury is still out as far as who the starter will be and the competition hasn’t exactly been friendly. There has been no official word regarding a starter at the time of this publication.

There is also no clear cut starting running back, but again we have a number of able bodied candidates. Derrick Green looks to be the favorite, and like Morris, he is a blue chip recruit that has yet to live up to the hype. Green had 488 yards and three touchdowns a season ago, but leading rusher DeVeon Smith is also back. Smith posted 519 yards and six touchdowns, but Green is the better prospect and runner. Other backs include a newcomer in freshman Brian Cole who was another five star recruit that played multiple positions in high school. Michigan needs to rely on running the football more for 2015 while utilizing the backs more in the short passing game.

Best Draft Prospect: Derrick Green RB 6th Round 2017.

 

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends:

Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson are the top wideouts back at Michigan, and they combined for 50-627-2 a season ago. Michigan is without their top target from 2014, as tight end turned wide receiver Devin Funchess left school and was taken in the 2nd round by the Carolina Panthers. While Funchess was viewed by many as more of a tight end playing receiver, it helped him prepare for the NFL. This move got Michigan tight end Jake Butt more and more playing time as he slid into the starting tight end position.

Butt looks like another in a long line of Michigan tight ends that will be ready to make the jump to the ranks of the NFL. Butt is a junior, and at 6’6” he has the size and build to double the 21 catches he registered a season ago. Butt is our best bet to become the most consistent weapon Michigan has to offer in the passing game. Look for fullback Joe Kerridge to be a factor for Michigan, and it may come more as a receiver than as a pure runner. Harbaugh likes his fullbacks to be utilized in short yardage situations, and adding another threat in the red zone is part of the Harbaugh MO. Harbaugh has enjoyed success at every coaching stop thus far, and the basic principles of his offense have been consistent.

Best Draft Prospect: Jake Butt TE 3rd Round 2017.

 

Offensive Line:

This group has the ability to be one of the better units in the Big Ten, and four of the five starters are seniors with three being returning starters. Guard Kyle Kalis looks like the top player that will be available in the upcoming draft, as we have seen him improve as a run blocker steadily during his tenure at Michigan. Fellow guard Ben Braden is a big bruiser that needs to use his 335 pound frame to his advantage, an area where again strides and improvement were made a season ago. As a team Michigan only ranked 112th in total offense during 2014, and it was the struggles of the passing game and inability to keep the chains moving that did this team in. Factor in an embarrassing -16 in turnover ratio and you have a recipe for disaster. With a strong commitment to the running game and the breeding of what looks to be a future star in sophomore left tackle Mason Cole, suddenly Michigan can be back near the top of a conference in running the football.

It’s no secret that the Big ten seems to turn out more 1,500 yard rushers than any other college at the NCAA level. Last season you had a pair of 2,000 yard rushers in Melvin Gordon and Tevin Coleman. Cole seems to be a star in waiting and we could see him leave college early after his junior season if he develops in the fashion that many feel he will. One other note of interest, the Michigan offensive line was among the least penalized units during 2014. Michigan only averaged 32 yards per game in penalties as a team, an amazing number that could benefit the Wolverines in some close contests this season if they can keep their level of discipline.

Best Draft Prospect: Mason Cole OT 3rd Round 2018 (candidate for 2017 early declaration).

 

Defense Analysis

Defensive Line:

While Michigan struggled to a 5-7 losing record a season ago, holding the defense accountable is something that no one should do. Michigan finished #7 in the nation in total defense with a well balanced unit that placed in the top 20 overall against the pass (19th) and the run (15th). The Wolverines will miss Frank Clark up front along the line, but Michigan has tremendous size with three of the four starters tipping the scale at over 300 pounds. Michigan will also mix up their defense going between 3-4 and 4-3 sets quite regularly. Look for defensive end Mario Ojemudia to be the key here, moving between end and linebacker along with some of the personnel changes Michigan would make. Star power may not be apparent up front, but depth is not an issue. Willie Henry may step out of the shadows and emerge as the star the Wolverines are looking for up front. The 315 pound defensive tackle has teased us with glimpses of raw talent in the past, this could be the season he pouts it all together.

Best Draft Prospect: Willie Henry DT 4th Round 2016.

 

Linebackers:

Depth is more of a issue at linebacker, but the three primary starters for Michigan all look like they will be playing beyond their college careers. These linebackers are not only talented but virtually interchangeable. If you saw Joe Bolden, James Ross and Desmond Morgan on the field without names and numbers, telling them apart would be difficult. All stand between 6’1″ and 6’2″ and go between 235-240 pounds. Most importantly these linebackers are more than just run stoppers, the ability to cover tight ends and running backs out of the backfield is an area where all of these defenders excel. Ross looks to be the moist pro ready of the bunch, although Bolden posted over 100 tackles in 2014. Morgan is back after going down in the opener to injury last season, and he posted 160 tackles total when you total his efforts from 2012 and 2013.

Best Draft Prospect: James Ross LB 4th Round 2016.

 

Secondary:

The secondary will be an interesting area to watch, as the Wolverines underwent a trade of sorts losing one prominent player to transfer while picking up another. Waynes Lyons is a graduate transfer much like quarterback Jake Rudock and is immediately eligible to see the field in 2015. Lyons comes over from Stanford where he posted 80 tackles in a conference that seems to feature the top quarterback talent around from top to bottom. It’s not all good news for Michigan, as Blake Countess decided to transfer away from Michigan and take his talents to Auburn. Lyons should slip into a starting role opposite Jourdan Lewis although Michigan may choose to bring him along a little slower. Jarrod Wilson is back for his senior season at free safety but Jabrill Peppers is where all the fanfare lies. Peppers was unanimously ranked as a top five recruit overall at any position coming out of high school and he started immediately for Michigan last season. Injuries limited Peppers to three games, but it didn’t take long to see the type of impact Peppers can have on a game and a defensive unit. If Peppers stays healthy this season we could be looking at the next first round draft pick for Michigan.

Best Draft Prospect: Jabrill Peppers S 1st Round 2018 (possible early entrant for 2017).

 

Special Teams

The mere mention of the word special teams may cause Michigan fans to groan an sigh, as this area of the team was anything but special in 2014. Punt coverage was the top offender, as opponents averaged a whopping 22 yards per return against Michigan. Some of that was due to the kicking game “outkicking” their coverage. That may change with another transfer in the form of punter Blake O’ Neill who comes courtesy of Weber State. The Australian born punter is on the short list for a number of teams entering this season and he will attract draft attention. Andrew David looks like he will be the new kicker, and the freshman is the question mark of the unit.

Best Draft Prospect: Blake O’Neill P 7th Round 2016.

 

2015 Schedule

Opening at Utah will prove to be a test, especially after the Utes pasted the Wolverines at home 28-10 a season ago. The good news for Wolverine faithful is that their chief rivals Michigan State and Ohio State both have to make trips to Ann Arbor this season. Nebraska and Wisconsin are not on the schedule, so this looks like one of the more manageable conference schedules within the Big Ten.

 

Draft Prospects & Outlook

As with many Michigan teams, despite the overall record and standing within the conference the individual talent is in Ann Arbor. Jabrill Peppers adds a dynamic of excitement to the secondary, as we all watch to see if this youngster is as good as advertised. On offense Jake Butts and Mason Cole are developing prospects and underclassmen that will have scouts and fans talking alike.

 

DJ Boyer