After watching the spring game on Saturday, here are some thoughts on each position group:
QUARTERBACKS: With Wilton Speight nursing a slight injury, this was a game between Alex Malzone and Shane Morris. Malzone had the superior completion percentage, but Morris looked like the better quarterback. Malzone still has an ugly, baseball-pitcher delivery that needs to be shortened up. He looks okay on quick throws (bubble screens, etc.), but any time he has to drop back and set up, the ball drops down to waist level and takes forever to come out. That is not something that gets fixed quickly. He made some good decisions but just doesn’t have the ability to get the ball there quick enough (from a mechanical standpoint and an arm strength standpoint). Morris, meanwhile, also made some good decisions, showed nice touch on some throws we haven’t seen him make before, and generally looked calmer in the pocket. His Blue team picked on “cornerback” Dennis Norfleet a bunch, which I thought was a bit unfair. Norfleet has been practicing mostly at wide receiver, but he was playing corner due to a lack of depth with the split squads. Morris and the Blue team sent Amara Darboh and Jaron Dukes deep on him several times, both of whom are significantly taller and veteran receivers. If the season were to start today, I think Morris is definitely the guy . . . but Jake Rudock is on his way from Iowa.
Hit the jump for some feedback on the rest of the position groups.
RUNNING BACKS: De’Veon Smith had a very nice run on the first play of the scrimmage, although it was a play set up to succeed by personnel. The Maize team had Mason Cole, Blake Bars, Patrick Kugler, Kyle Kalis, and A.J. Williams at the point of attack against a front seven that included Royce Jenkins-Stone at DE, Allen Gant at SAM, and walk-on Dan Liesman at weakside linebacker. Regardless, Smith broke a tackle and got into the secondary for a 34-yard gain before getting pushed out of bounds. Otherwise, the running game was pretty paltry. Derrick Green and Ty Isaac were both limited by injuries, and fullback-ish Wyatt Shallman got a bunch of carries. Even Ross Taylor-Douglas – who has been practicing at corner – got to carry the ball. (This somehow stumped announcer Marcus Ray, who started complimenting #18 Antonio Whitfield on the run, even though Ray is a defensive backs analyst for Michigan and Taylor-Douglas wears #29.) Anyway, Smith looked the best on this day, but I still think Isaac is the best option on the team. Unfortunately, he has been nursing various injuries this spring, including a hand injury and a hamstring problem, which he tweaked on Saturday.
FULLBACKS: Michigan doesn’t have a whole lot right now outside of senior Joe Kerridge. With Sione Houma injured, the other guys don’t look effective. Shallman whiffed badly on at least one blown pass protection.
WIDE RECEIVERS: The Maize team was trying hard to get the ball to Jehu Chesson early on in the scrimmage, and the new coaching staff seems to like his abilities. They also called for him to throw two passes on trick plays, one of which he completed. Amara Darboh was the leading receiver for the Blue team, but again, he was largely picking on Norfleet. Freshman Brian Cole looked the part of a freshman at times, and it does not appear that he was called on to block much in high school; on one screen play, Cole was knocked on his butt by Blake Countess, who then made the tackle. Redshirt freshman Maurice Ways also looks the part, but he has an issue with drops, which is consistent with his high school scouting reports. Aside from redshirt freshman Drake Harris, the receiving corps was mostly intact, so Michigan’s lack of noteworthy talents at receiver is a bit concerning. This is a team that is going to have to find success on the ground and take advantage of some play action through the air. As of right now, I don’t think any of these receivers will surpass 800 yards, but there will be a few in the 400-700 yard range.
TIGHT END: Jake Butt was hampered by the lack of a running threat, so he got hit on some short throws pretty quickly. We know what we have in him. I thought A.J. Williams did a better job as a blocker than we have seen him do in the past, which is a good thing. Ian Bunting and Chase Winovich are both thin right now, and Winovich had an ugly drop on a drag route. Bunting can be a receiving threat this year, though, and should be a pretty good weapon once he packs on a few more pounds. I think he can help out this year as a move tight end, but not with his hand in the dirt.
OFFENSIVE LINE: I have heard good things about Logan Tuley-Tillman this spring, but he seemed to be making lots of mental mistakes. Juwann Bushell-Beatty looked very slow off the line. This is a group that I think has a pretty solid core, but ability drops off rather quickly. Mason Cole, Ben Braden, Graham Glasgow, Kyle Kalis, and Erik Magnuson look like the best five. Kugler looked better than I expected, based on scouting reports, and I thought David Dawson and Blake Bars looked just okay.
DEFENSIVE LINE: We generally know what we have here, but the one guy I really liked was Lawrence Marshall. He’s still a little bit on the thin side, but he has the length and the explosiveness to be an asset on the edge for a team that is lacking pass rushers. Willie Henry did not seem to be giving 100%, which is one of his struggles. But when game time comes around, he’s bound to be a good one. Jenkins-Stone is pretty undersized and seems to be playing defensive end out of necessity. His presence on the line reminds me of the Rich Rodriguez years, when a guy like Adam Patterson was playing nose tackle. Things aren’t that bad, but Michigan needs defensive ends. Luckily, they’ll get a bit of help in the fall from freshmen Shelton Johnson and Reuben Jones, plus Taco Charlton should be healthy by the fall.
LINEBACKER: Michigan had several injuries at the linebacker positions, including James Ross and Mike McCray. That allowed players like Gant and Liesman to get more playing time. Generally, Michigan has four seniors and should be in good shape with five starter-quality guys. Desmond Morgan made an interception, and both he and Joe Bolden were giving the offensive line fits. Noah Furbush has also missed the spring with an injury. Mario Ojemudia is a defensive end/outside linebacker hybrid, depending on the front, but he missed the last couple weeks of spring practice with a leg injury.
CORNERBACK: Despite an overall lack of depth, I was very encouraged by the play of the cornerbacks. Blake Countess and Jourdan Lewis both look good, and Countess looks more physical at the line of scrimmage, which was an issue last year. Brandon Watson also made an outstanding interception on a Malzone-to-Ways pass in which Watson raked the ball out and possessed it before rolling out of bounds. Watson might not be the fastest guy around, but he is known for physicality and has long arms that can help him on plays exactly like what he showed.
SAFETY: The safeties weren’t tested much in the game, but they generally fared well. Jabrill Peppers batted a pass, Delano Hill made an interception, and Jeremy Clark looked physical as a defender in tight spaces. Michigan’s combination of quarterbacks and receivers was bound to put more pressure on short areas and the corners than the safeties.
It was fun to watch some actual competition going on in the spring game. It was difficult to gauge units, because both teams were split up between starters and backups. Also, Michigan had numerous injuries, but some of those guys probably would have been available if it were a game and not a spring scrimmage. Even so, it was a physical game and even the quarterbacks had to scramble for safety since they were live. Previously, Brady Hoke had the referees blow a quick whistle when a defender got within arm’s reach of the QB.
Michigan will not be an elite team this year, and I don’t think many people expect they will be. There aren’t enough playmakers, especially as pass rushers and wide receivers. I think the offensive line will be above average, and Michigan has a few quality running backs. Whoever the quarterback will be has to make sure to minimize mistakes. The defense is pretty good from top to bottom, and I would guess they’ll be a top-25 unit this coming season. If the Wolverines can stay healthy on the offensive line and at running back, a game manager at quarterback (probably Jake Rudock) can get this team to 8 or 9 wins.