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2016 non-conference opponent preview: Colorado

August 23rd, 2016 by Justin Potts


2016 Opponent Preview - Colorado

Sefo Liufau(Stephen Dunn, Getty Images)

Over the past couple of weeks we have previewed Michigan’s first two opponents, Hawaii and UCF. Today we close out our non-conference opponent preview with Michigan’s third opponent, the Colorado Buffaloes.

Schedule
Date Opponent
Sept. 2 at Colorado State
Sept. 10 Idaho State
Sept. 17 at Michigan
Sept. 24 at Oregon
Oct. 1 Oregon State
Oct. 8 at USC
Oct. 15 Arizona State
Oct. 22 at Stanford
Nov. 3 UCLA
Nov. 12 at Arizona
Nov. 19 Washington State
Nov. 26 Utah

While Hawaii and UCF play in lesser conferences — the Mountain West and American Athletic Conference, respectively — Colorado is a member of the Power 5 conference the Pac-12. And the Buffaloes had the best 2015 record of the three, but that’s not saying much since it was just 4-9 overall and 1-8 in the conference.

Head coach Mike MacIntyre faces an important season if he wants to remain in Boulder beyond 2016. He inherited a team that went just 1-11 in 2012 and turned out four wins in his first season. But he regressed to 2-10 in 2014, and turned in the program’s the first winless conference record since 1915. Last season, Colorado doubled its 2014 win total with a 4-9 record, but that still means that he has only treaded water in his first three seasons at the helm. And that also means that Colorado has as many wins in the past four years combined — including Jim Embree’s final season — as Jim Harbaugh had in his first season at Michigan.

MacIntyre faced adversity last season, losing several key players to injuries, but with 76 percent of last year’s offensive production and 81 percent of last year’s defensive production returning this fall, the Buffaloes are one of the most experienced teams on Michigan’s schedule.

The once proud Colorado program has suffered 10 straight losing seasons since the successful Gary Barnett era concluded in 2005. Barnett guided the Buffaloes to a 10-3 season in 2001 and won the Pac-12 North in four of his five seasons. But since Dan Hawkins took over in 2006, they have finished no better than third in the North and have amassed a record of 35-88 overall and 17-68 in the Pac-12.

MacIntyre achieved a turnaround at his previous stop at San Jose State, where he inherited a 2-10 team, went 1-11 in his first season, improved to 5-7 in Year 2, and broke out with a 10-2 season in 2012, finishing the season ranked 24th in the BCS standings, AP Poll, and USA Today Coaches Poll. He hasn’t been able to work the same magic in Boulder and it will very likely end with his dismissal later this fall if he can’t turn it around in a hurry.

Offense
2015 National Rankings
Total Offense Scoring Offense Rushing Offense Passing Offense
67 97 86 49
Offensive FEI S&P+ Rushing S&P+ Passing S&P+
103 99 89 100
Projected Starters
Position Name, Yr. Ht, Wt 2015 Stats
QB Sefo Liufau (Sr.) 6’4″, 230 214-344 (62.2%) for 2,418 yds, 9 TD, 6 INT
RB Phillip Lindsay (Jr.) 5’8″, 190 140 rush for 653 yds (4.7 avg), 6 TD
WR Kabion Ento (Jr.) 6’3″, 180 38 rec for 607 yds (16.0 avg), 8 TD*
WR Shay Fields (Jr.) 5’11”, 180 42 rec for 598 yds (14.2 avg), 4 TD
WR Devin Ross (Jr.) 5’9″, 180 25 rec for 324 yds (13.0 avg), 2 TD
TE Sean Irwin (Sr.) 6’3″, 250 15 rec for 248 yds (19.1 avg), 0 TD
LT Jeromy Irwin (Jr.) 6’5″, 295 2 starts (13 career starts)
LG Gerrad Kough (Jr.) 6’4″, 295 10 starts (12 career starts)
C Alex Kelley (Sr.) 6’2″, 310 13 starts (25 career starts)
RG Tim Lynott (RS Fr.) 6’3″, 300 Redshirted
RT Sam Kronshage (Jr.) 6’6″, 295 6 starts (6 career starts)
*at East Central Community College

While Michigan’s first two opponents feature offenses that ranked near the bottom nationally last season, Colorado’s 2015 offense was slightly more respectable. The Buffaloes ranked 67th in total offense (396.8 yards per game), 97th in scoring (24.6 points per game), 86th in rushing (156.2 yards per game), and 49th in passing (240.6 yards per game). But advanced stats show that Colorado’s offense was worse than it looked on paper. It ranked just 103rd in FEI, which measures an offense per possession based on the strength of opposing defenses faced. And that 49th ranked passing offense ranked 100th in S&P+, which measures a number of factors on a play-by-play basis. With a national average passing S&P+ rating at 100.0, Colorado’s was 88.3, while Michigan’s was 124.5 last season.

Co-offensive coordinators Darrin Chiaverini and Brian Lindgren have just four full-time starters returning, but they welcome a productive junior college transfer and get back a starting offensive lineman who missed all of 2015 due to injury.

Senior quarterback Sefo Liufau has 29 games of starting experience and 32 games of playing experience under his belt, which is far more than Michigan’s starting candidates. However, he missed the final two games of 2015 and all of spring practice with a Lisfranc (foot) injury, so there’s always the risk of either reinjury 0r not healing completely. Liufau nearly had stiff competition for the job when Texas Tech grad transfer Davis Webb originally chose the Buffaloes before ultimately landing at Cal, where he it didn’t take long to be named the starter. But with the job firmly his, Liufau will look to build upon the 75 school records he currently holds.

Leading rusher Phillip Lindsay is back after rushing for 653 yards and six touchdowns a year ago. He shared the backfield with Christian Powell, who graduated, so that opens the door for others to step up. Junior Donovan Lee and Patrick Carr got more reps as the season went on — Carr rushed for 100 yards against UCLA — but Carr transferred following the season. Lee was actually the most productive back in limited carries, averaging 5.8 yards per carry. Junior Michael Adkins (5.0 yards per carry), junior H-back George Frazier (6-foot-2, 260), and freshman Beau Bisharat (a 247 Composite four-star who held offers from Oregon, Michigan State, Stanford, Nebraska, and others) will compete for carries.

The receiving corps suffered the biggest loss from last season in the form of graduating senior Nelson Spruce, who ranked second in the Pac-12 with 6.8 receptions per game and fifth with 81 yards per game, though he only found the end zone four times. The leading returning receiver is junior Shay Fields, who caught 42 passes for 598 yards and four scores. MacIntyre did add productive junior college receiver Kabion Ento from East Central (Miss.) Community College. Ento was a National Junior College Athletic Association first-team All-Region member after catching 38 passes for 607 yards and eight touchdowns. Four other pass catchers who caught at least one touchdown last season return, including junior Devin Ross, who ranked second on the team with two scores last season.

The offensive line returns three of last season’s opening day starters, though left tackle Jeromy Irwin suffered a season-ending ACL injury in the second quarter of the second game. He’s back to anchor the line after starting 11 games in 2014. The most experienced is senior center Alex Kelley, who has started 25 career games including all 13 a year ago. Left guard Gerrad Kough started 10 games last season while missing three with various injuries. The right side of the line is where the newcomers step in. While it’s not completely set in stone just yet, redshirt freshman Tim Lynott and junior Sam Kronshage started with the ones in an open scrimmage two weeks ago. Kronshage started six games last season, three at left tackle and three at right tackle.

Defense
2015 National Rankings
Total Defense Scoring Defense Rushing Defense Pass Efficiency D.
85 70 99 56
Defensive FEI S&P Rushing S&P Passing S&P
68 93 95 72
Projected Starters
Position Name, Yr. Ht, Wt 2015 Stats
DE Leo Jackson III (Jr.) 6’3″, 275 33 tackles, 2 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 FF
DT Jordan Carrell (Sr.) 6’3″, 300 52 tackles, 8 TFL, 1 sack, 3 FF, 1 FR
DT Josh Tupou (Sr.) 6’3″, 325 Redshirted
OLB Derek McCartney (Jr.) 6’3″, 250 70 tackles, 10 TFL, 5 sacks, 1 FF
MLB Addison Gillam (Jr.) 6’3″, 230 6 tackles
WLB Rick Gamboa (RS So.) 6’0″, 230 96 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 sack, 3 PBU
OLB Jimmie Gilbert (Sr.) 6’5″, 230 47 tackle, 8 TFL, 6 sacks, 1 FF
CB Chidobe Awuzie (Sr.) 6’0″, 205 90 tackles, 13 TFL, 4 INT, 10 PBU
CB Isaiah Oliver (So.) 6’1″, 190 19 tackles, 6 PBU
FS Ryan Moeller (Jr.) 6’1″, 215 47 tackles, 1 TFL, 2 PBU, 1 FF
SS Tedric Thompson (Sr.) 6’1″, 205 80 tackles, 5 TFL, 9 PBU

Colorado’s defense was pretty comparable to its offense last season, ranking slightly below average nationally, but not quite in the 100s. It ranked 85th in total defense (416.9 yards per game), 70th in scoring defense (27.5 points per game), 99th against the run (198.7 yards per game), 59th against the pass (218.2 yards per game), 56th in pass efficiency defense (123.79), and 68th in defensive FEI (-.09), which measures defensive efficiency on a per possession basis, based on strength of opponent.

When Michigan defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin left for the Maryland head coaching position after just one season, one of the names that came up as his replacement was former USF head coach Jim Leavitt. Harbaugh, of course, hired Boston College’s Don Brown instead, and Leavitt ended up in the same position at Colorado. In Boulder, he inherits a veteran defense that looks to take a step forward in his second season.

The defensive line has been a weakness the past few seasons, but has plenty of experience returning. Senior nose tackle Josh Tupou, who has started 31 career games, returns after redshirting in 2015 due to a violation of team rules. He was an honorable mention Freshman All-American in 2012 and honorable mention All-Pac-12 in 2014, so his return will be a welcome addition for Leavitt. He’ll be joined on the line by senior tackle Jordan Carrell and junior end Leo Jackson III, who combined for 85 tackles, 10 for loss, and three sacks a year ago.

Like the defensive line and offensive line, the linebacking corps gets back a key piece that missed most of last season. Junior inside linebacker Addison Gillam started 10 games in 2014 and was a first-team Freshman All-American in 2013, but tore his meniscus in Week 2 last season. Weakside linebacker Rick Gamboa was the team’s leading tackler as a redshirt freshman a year ago, while senior outside linebacker Jimmie Gilbert led the team with six sacks despite starting just three games. The other outside linebacker is junior Derek McCartney, who racked up 70 tackles, 10 for loss, and five sacks.

The secondary returns three starters including preseason Jim Thorpe Award candidate Chidobe Awuzie, who tallied 90 tackles and a team-high 10 pass breakups in 2015. He was a second-team All-Pac-12 performer and has 22 career pass breakups. The other corner is the lone new starter, sophomore Isaiah Oliver, who performed well as a true freshman last season. Both safeties return. Junior free safety Ryan Moeller and senior strong safety Tedric Thompson combined for 127 tackles, 6 for loss, and 11 pass breakups a year ago.

Special Teams
2015 National Rankings
Kick Returns Punt Returns Net Punting ST Eff.
44 94 81 90
Kick Return D. Punt Return D. FG Efficiency Opp Field Pos.
82 39 105 57
Projected Starters
Position Name, Yr. Ht, Wt 2015 Stats
K Diego Gonzalez (Sr.) 6’0″, 215 18-of-29 (62.1%), Long 52
P Alex Kinney (So.) 6’1″, 205 66 punts, 40.1 avg, 1 TB, 23 in-20
KR Donovan Lee (Jr.) 5’9″, 180 22 ret, 24.5 avg
PR Jay MacIntyre (So.) 5’10”, 190 4 ret, 9.3 avg

Special teams was a bit lackluster for the Buffaloes last season, so MacIntyre brought in a pair of new coaches to oversee the unit. Former special teams coordinator Toby Neinas was dismissed and landed at Rutgers, and in his place step Daniel Da Prato and Matt Thompson. Da Prato was the special teams coordinator at Montana State the past three seasons, while Thompson was a private kicking instructor.

Senior kicker Diego Gonzalez made just 62.1 percent of his field goal attempts in his first season as the primary kicker last season, but he did show off a big leg with a long of 52. In fact, he went 2-of-3 from 50-plus yards. He struggled mightily from the left hash, making just 5-of-12, but made 13-of-17 everywhere else. Sophomore punter Alex Kinney ranked ninth in the Pac-12 with an average of 40.1 yards per punt as a true freshman.

Outlook

It’s a safe bet to assume Colorado will be better than last season’s 4-9 record. But will that turn into wins against a tough schedule? And will it be enough for MacIntyre to keep his job? Colorado should win its first two games against Colorado State and Idaho State, but then it faces a grueling slate of at Michigan and Oregon in back to back weeks, home against Oregon State, at USC, home against Arizona State, at Stanford, and home against UCLA. Then they get a “breather” against Arizona and Washington State before finishing with Utah. It’s hard to see more than four wins there, but if they can pull off five, MacIntyre deserves another year.

What it means for Michigan

Colorado will be the strongest of the three non-conference opponents Michigan faces and both teams should be 2-0 when the meet in Ann Arbor on Sept. 17. If Michigan hasn’t shored up its quarterback situation by then, an experienced secondary could be a problem. But don’t expect Colorado’s offense to be able to put up enough points to legitimately give Michigan a scare. Michigan heads into Big Ten play at 3-0.

Predicting Michigan 2016: The offensive line

August 17th, 2016 by Derick Hutchinson


Predicting Michgian 2016-OffensiveLine
Mason Cole(Melanie Maxwell, MLive.com)

Previous: Quarterbacks, Running Backs, Wide Receivers, Tight Ends

It’s not the most glamorous position on the football field, but no group will play a more important role than the offensive line for Michigan this season, especially with a new quarterback taking over and a heightened emphasis on running the ball.

Luckily for Michigan, it returns one of the most important qualities in an offensive line: experience. Four of the team’s five regular starters return for 2016 after Graham Glasgow was selected in the third round of the NFL Draft by the Detroit Lions.

The two unknowns heading into the offseason were who would take that fifth starting spot, and which reserves can step into a bigger rotational role.

Starting five

Four of Michigan’s five offensive linemen return after starting at least 12 games last season. The most solid, reliable player is fifth-year senior Kyle Kalis, who started all 13 games at right guard and elevated his play to near all-conference levels. Kalis has been a mainstay on the offensive line since his redshirt freshman season in 2013. Since settling in at right guard, Kalis has become a solid pass protector, but like much of the line, needs to take the next step to create the running game Jim Harbaugh envisions.

Grant Newsome played his way out of a redshirt as a true freshman in 2015 and now moves into the starting lineup (Melanie Maxwell, MLive.com)

Grant Newsome played his way out of a redshirt as a true freshman in 2015 and now moves into the starting lineup (Melanie Maxwell, MLive.com)

Fellow fifth-year senior Ben Braden takes up the other guard slot, coming off a breakout season in which he started 13 games and quietly put up some of the best performances on the line. Recruited as a tackle, Braden was hailed as a strong run blocker coming into Ann Arbor, but he’s done a nice job to date stopping the inside pass rush.

Both starting tackles return for the 2016 season, but with a bit of a twist. Fifth-year senior Erik Magnuson will lock down his familiar right tackle spot and be a major contributor on the line for a fourth straight season. He’s slowly turned himself into a strong edge blocker and enjoyed his best season under Harbaugh a year go.

But former starting left tackle Mason Cole will step into a new role for his junior year, though he’ll be just as crucial to this veteran line. After becoming Michigan’s first true freshman to start a season opener on the offensive line in 2014, Cole played left tackle in each of his first 25 games at Michigan. Now, he’ll step into Glasgow’s empty shoes as the starting center, a role he’s embraced this summer.

Michigan went through a disastrous period at center under Brady Hoke, struggling with the center-quarterback exchange, and at times, allowing defenders to get huge jumps off the snap. Cole will be critical in picking up the running game this season and shoring up the inside of the line. He’s a smart player and has the physical tools for a smooth transition, but Cole will be a player to watch when the Wolverines take the field Sept. 3.

Four starters down, and one question mark to go. The new kid at the starters’ table will be sophomore Grant Newsome, who takes over the vitally important left tackle position. Newsome is one of the best natural two-way blockers on the roster, coming into college as an excellent pass blocker and an able run blocker. He’s strong and explosive, but the key will be consistency and moving his feet off the edge on a play-by-play basis. Newsome will have his gaffs, like any young player, but as the season goes on, he’ll benefit from playing next to such an experienced group.

Projected Starters
Left Tackle Left Guard Center Right Guard Right Tackle
Grant Newsome Ben Braden Mason Cole Kyle Kalis Erik Magnuson
2015 Starts 1 13 13 13 12
Career Starts 1 25 25 29 24
Likely contributors

The starting five played a ton of snaps for Michigan last season, but there are a few returning players who contributed in the rotation. Perhaps the most seasoned backup, and a candidate for a starting role as a redshirt senior next year, is David Dawson. Dawson shared some time with Braden at left guard last season and held his own, especially in pass blocking. He’ll be an important depth guy in 2016.

Senior Patrick Kugler is in a similar situation, though his ceiling was much higher coming into Ann Arbor. The former five-star recruit played a backup role in 2015 and could provide some insurance if Cole struggles at center, which seems unlikely. Either way, the senior will play a role.

An interesting player to watch will be junior Juwann Bushell-Beatty, who played in only four games as a reserve lineman last season. The Paramus, N.J. native was just getting his feet wet last season, and passed his first college test. He might not take on a huge role this season, but look for Bushell-Beatty to make moves up the depth chart for 2017.

Ben Pliska played in two games last season, so his role could grow as a fifth-year senior in 2016. He can fill in at multiple positions on the line and gives Harbaugh another option if one of these contributors struggles or goes down with an injury.

Two linemen who didn’t play last season but should figure into the mix as redshirt freshmen are Nolan Ulizio and Jon Runyan. Both members of Harbaugh’s first recruiting class at Michigan, Ulizio and Runyan committed as three-star prospects. Ulizio fits the fits the typical Harbaugh bill — a smart, physical player who plays the position with a chip on his shoulder. Runyan is a little different, as he’s more of a quick, explosive lineman who may be a little undersized, but compensates with great technique. Expect both players to find a home in the rotation off the bench.

New faces

Michigan pulled in three new offensive line recruits in its elite 2016 class, led by Wisconsin’s finest, Ben Bredeson. That’s right, Harbaugh managed to pull a Wisconsin lineman away from the Badgers, and Bredeson is exactly what you’d expect from that ilk. One of the top offensive linemen in his class, Bredeson projects as a guard or tackle and could probably step into a bigger role if Michigan wasn’t so stacked with veteran lineman. Bredeson has decent size, but his value comes from his athleticism, which makes him an excellent run blocker. If he can bring his pass protection up to par, he’ll be a familiar face on the line over the next several years.

Harbaugh pulled another gem from the offensive line crop, snagging Michael Onwenu out of Cass Tech in Detroit. Onwenu is an absolutely enormous human who will play guard at over 350 pounds. He can pass block well for a big guy, but his specialty should be run blocking as he matures. It’s all power and strength with Onwenu, so his ability to learn the intricacies of the position will dictate his success at Michigan.

The third – and sometimes forgotten – man from this group is Stephen Spanellis, who committed to Michigan out of nowhere in January. Spanellis is just another big, strong lineman to add to the mix, joining the team at 6-feet-6 inches tall and around 300 pounds. He probably won’t play much of a role as a freshman, but the Baltimore native could factor in down the line.

Michigan also welcomed preferred walk-ons Anthony Kay, Carl Myers and Andrew Vastardis to the offensive line group.

Meet the rest

Greg Froelich: Senior, 6-2, 257, from Maplewood, N.J. (Deerfield Academy)
Greg Robinson: Freshman, 6-6, 290, from Hudson, Ohio (Hudson)

2016 non-conference opponent preview: UCF

August 16th, 2016 by Justin Potts


2016 Opponent Preview - UCF

Scott Frost(D. Bradley Helton, UCF Athletics)

We kicked off our non-conference opponent preview series last week with Michigan’s first opponent, Hawaii. Today we continue with Michigan’s second opponent, the Central Florida Knights.

Schedule
Date Opponent
Sept. 3 South Carolina State
Sept. 10 at Michigan
Sept. 17 Maryland
Sept. 24 FIU
Oct. 1 at East Carolina
Oct. 7 Tulane
Oct. 15 Temple
Oct. 22 at UConn
Oct. 29 at Houston
Nov. 12 Cincinnati
Nov. 19 Tulsa
Nov. 26 at USF

Oh how far they’ve fallen so quickly. Two years ago, UCF knocked off sixth-ranked Baylor to win the Fiesta Bowl and cap a 12-1 season. They finished the season ranked 10th in the AP Poll, the highest in school history. But head coach George O’Leary was unable to adequately replace quarterback Blake Bortles, who was drafted third overall by the Jacksonville Jaguars. After going 9-4 in 2014, the Knights sunk to 0-12 last season.

O’Leary resigned eight games into the season after posting a 81-68 record over 12 seasons in Orlando and quarterbacks coach Danny Barrett took over for the remainder of the season.

Enter Scott Frost. The former prolific Nebraska quarterback spent the past seven seasons on the coaching staff at Oregon, learning and then running one of the nation’s best offenses. From 2009-12, Frost served as wide receivers coach for the Ducks, and when head coach Chip Kelly left for the Philadelphia Eagles and offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich was promoted, Frost was named offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.

In the past three seasons under Frost’s guidance, Oregon’s offense has ranked second, third, and fifth nationally in total offense and fourth, fourth, and fifth in scoring. He’ll bring a winning mentality to a program that desperately needs it. Oregon went 79-15 during Frost’s tenure in Eugene, finishing in the top four nationally four times and no worse than 19th.

Offense
2015 National Rankings
Total Offense Scoring Offense Rushing Offense Passing Offense
127 125 126 102
Offensive FEI S&P Rushing S&P Passing S&P
128 126 128 122
Projected Starters
Position Name, Yr. Ht, Wt 2015 Stats
QB Justin Holman (Sr.) 6’4″, 225 127-250 (50.8%) for 1,379 yds, 7 TD, 14 INT
RB Taj McGowan (So.) 6’1″, 202 85 rush for 262 yds (3.1 avg), 1 TD
WR Tristan Payton (So.) 6’0″, 186 21 rec for 264 yds (12.6 avg), 1 TD
WR Tre’Quan Smith (RS So.) 6’1″, 200 52 rec for 724 yds (13.9 avg), 4 TD
WR Dontravious Wilson (So.) 6’3″, 200 44 rush for 147 yds (3.3 avg), 0 TD
TE Jordan Akins (RS So.) 6’5″, 240 14 rec for 152 yds (10.9 avg), 2 TD
LT Aaron Evans (RS Jr.) 6’5″, 290 12 starts (13 career starts)
LG Tyler Hudanick (So.) 6’5″, 300 9 starts (9 career starts)
C Jason Rae (Sr.) 5’11”, 288 10 starts (17 career starts)
RG Chavis Dickey (Jr.) 6’4″, 330 3 starts (15 career starts)
RT Wyatt Miller (RS So.) 6’4″, 290 8 starts (8 career starts)

To say that Frost will have his work cut out for him is putting it lightly. While his Ducks ranked fifth nationally in total offense last season (538.2 yards per game) , UCF ranked dead last (268.4). While Oregon ranked fifth in scoring (43 points per game), UCF ranked 125th (13.9). While Oregon ranked fifth in rushing (279.9 yards per game) and 36th in passing (258.3), UCF ranked 126th (81.3) and 102nd (187.2).

It helps to have an athletic quarterback returning, even if he didn’t put up enviable numbers in 2015. Senior Justin Holman completed 50.8 percent of his passes for 1,379 yards, seven touchdowns, and 14 interceptions. He’ll be pushed by senior Nick Patti, who converted from wide receiver, and freshman McKenzie Milton, a Hawaii native who originally committed to his home-state Rainbow Warriors before switching to UCF.

If there’s a sliver of hope for UCF’s offense it is that nearly every pass catcher is back, though Patti takes his 104 yards and one touchdowns over to the quarterback position. But he ranked ranked eighth on the team in receiving in 2015. Redshirt sophomore Tre’Quan Smith is clearly the leader at the receiver position after a debut season in which he caught 52 passes for 724 yard and four touchdowns. His 4.3 receptions per game were good enough to rank 10th in the American Athletic Conference despite UCF’s offense being the worst.

Sophomore Tristan Payton was the team’s second-leading receiver, although there was a big drop-off after Smith. Payton caught 21 passes for 264 yards and one touchdown. But he was a true freshman and a four-star recruit, so he could be due for a breakout season this fall.

The running game ranked third-to-last nationally in 2015, but last year’s leading rusher, C.J. Jones, has set his sights high for 2016.

“We want our whole backfield to lead the nation in rushing,” he said. “When you look at UCF and you look at rushing yards, we want to be at the top.”

When you look at the type of running game Frost guided at Oregon you can see that it’s not a completely unreasonable goal. But it’s certainly too much to ask for in Year 1. Jones led the Knights with 339 yards on 3.6 yards per carry last season with one touchdown. His backfield mate, sophomore Taj McGowan, rushed for 262 yards on 3.1 yards per carry and one score while battling injuries.

The offensive line returns 42 starts from last season. Senior center Jason Rae is the most experienced of the bunch with 17 career starts, while junior right guard Chavis Dickey — who started just three games in 2015 — is the second most experienced with 15 career starts. Dickey has the best size of any of them at 6-foot-4, 330. Redshirt junior left tackle started all 12 games a year ago.

Defense
2015 National Rankings
Total Defense Scoring Defense Rushing Defense Pass Efficiency D.
113 117 100 126
Defensive FEI S&P Rushing S&P Passing S&P
127 112 107 106
Projected Starters
Position Name, Yr. Ht, Wt 2015 Stats
DE Josh Odigie (Jr.) 6’3″, 236 51 tackles, 12 TFL, 4 sacks*
DT Jamiyus Pittman (Jr.) 6’0″, 295 45 tackles, 7 TFL, 4.5 sacks
DT Tony Guerad (RS Jr.) 6’3″, 275 28 tackles, 5 TFL, 2 sacks
LB Shaquem Griffin (RS Jr.) 6’1″, 213 9 tackles, 1 FR, 1 PBU
LB Chequan Burkett (RS Jr.) 6’2″, 230 56 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 3 sacks
LB Mark Rucker (RS Sr.) 5’9″, 217 15 tackles, 1 TFL
LB Errol Clarke (RS Sr.) 6’3″, 230 9 tackles
CB Shaquill Griffin (Sr.) 6’1″, 200 50 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 2 INT, 13 PBU
CB D.J. Killings (Sr.) 6’0″, 185 32 tackles, 4 TFL, 1 PBU, 1 FF
FS Drico Johnson (RS Sr.) 6’1″, 215 64 tackles, 4 TFL, 1 PBU, 1 FR
SS T.J. Mutcherson (RS Sr.) 5’11”, 195 31 tackles, 4 TFL, 1 sack, 2 PBU
*at Orange Coast College

While the offense has hope for improvement thanks to Frost’s offensive background, the defense returns just five starters from a unit that was one of the country’s worst last season. Frost brought Oregon outside linebackers coach Erik Chinander to Orlando with him. Chinander was a graduate assistant for the Ducks from 2010-12 and went to the Philadelphia Eagles with Chip Kelly, but came back to Oregon after the 2013 season. He promises to bring an “aggressive, high-energy, high-effort” defense to UCF.

The Knights ranked 113th nationally in total defense (464.1 yards per game), 117th in scoring defense (37.7 points per game), 100th against the run (199.2 yards per game), 109th against the pass (264.9 yards per game), and 126th in pass efficiency defense (166.95).

Frost added three junior college transfers to bolster the defensive line. However, two of them — projected starting end Chris Mulumbo as well as tackle Joe Sanders — are not on the fall camp roster. To add to the problems along the line, former three-star end Monte Taylor was dismissed from the team. Junior Josh Odigie, a transfer from Orange Coast College, where he recorded 51 tackles, 12 for loss, and four sacks, should lock down the starting end spot.

Junior tackle Jamiyus Pittman is the most experienced returning member of the line. The Moultrie, Ga. native started 11 games last season and ranked sixth on the team in tackles with 45. His seven tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks are the most of any returning Knight. The other tackle is likely to be redshirt junior Tony Guerad, who recorded 28 tackles, five for loss, and two sacks in seven games a year ago.

Like the defensive line, only one full-time starter returns at the linebacker position after the loss of leading tackler Domenic Spencer. Redshirt junior inside linebacker Chequan Burkett started all 12 games in 2015 and ranked third on the team with 56 tackles. He also led all players with five quarterback hurries. Joining him in the middle will be fifth-year senior Mark Rucker, who has recorded just 24 total tackles in his career — nine of which came in last year’s season opener against Florida International. The outside linebackers are likely to be redshirt junior Shaquim Griffin and fifth-year senior Errol Clarke. Both recorded just nine tackles last season in limited action.

The secondary is where the experience lies with four senior starters. Free safety Drico Johnson broke out last year as the team’s second-leading tackler with 64. He had eight or more tackles in five of the Knights’ 12 games. Seniors Shaquill Griffin and D.J. Killings are the starting corners. Griffin — the brother of linebacker Shaquim — recorded 50 tackles and led the team with 13 pass breakups, which ranked in the top 25 nationally. Killings started seven games last season while battling injuries and totaled 32 tackles.

Special Teams
2015 National Rankings
Kick Returns Punt Returns Net Punting ST Eff.
33 98 10 22
Kick Return D. Punt Return D. FG Efficiency Opp FG Eff.
50 57 43 114
Projected Starters
Position Name, Yr. Ht, Wt 2015 Stats
K Matthew Wright (RS So.) 6’0″, 185 13-of-17 (76.5%), Long 48
P Caleb Houston (RS Sr.) 6’1″, 225 65 punts, 44.2 avg, 2 TB, 28 in-20
KR Tristan Payton (So.) 6’0″, 186 30 ret, 24.2 avg
PR Tristan Payton (So.) 6’0″, 186 N/A

Like Michigan’s first opponent, Hawaii, UCF wasn’t bad on special teams last season, ranking in the top half nationally in most categories. They also have both their kicker and punter back. Redshirt sophomore kicker Matthew Wright connected on 13-of-17 field goal attempts in 2015 with a long of 48, while fifth-year senior punter Caleb Houston averaged 44.2 yards per punt with just two touchbacks and 28 downed inside the 20.

Sophomore receiver Tristan Payton is expected to handle both return duties. Last season he was the main kick returner, averaging 24.2 yards per return with a long of 35. He didn’t return a punt, however.

Outlook

With all the talent available in the state of Florida, it’s a certainty that Frost will be able to win some games at UCF before he moves up to a bigger and better gig. But don’t expect it to happen right away. He will certainly improve on last season’s record, and probably before he even reaches Ann Arbor. The Knights face South Carolina State, which went 7-4 last season in the Football Championship Subdivision, in the season opener. There are other wins available on the schedule, but the school-record 23,147 UCF fans who showed up to the team’s spring game should be patient this fall.

What it means for Michigan

Frost made news back in February with a tweak of Jim Harbaugh following Michigan’s Signing of the Stars event on National Signing Day.

“As long as I’m running this program, we’re not going to make a zoo out of National Signing Day,” he said during his post-signing day press conference.

That’s just fine with Harbaugh, who will always do things his own way. And that includes a big Week 2 win. Frost’s Oregon-style offense will give Michigan’s top-notch defense a good early-season look. UCF has even coined the moniker “UCFast” to describe the offense. It won’t be enough to scare Michigan, but will present a tougher test than Hawaii and it will be good to see how a Don Brown defense reacts to an uptempo, no-huddle offense.

Offensively, Michigan should have no problem moving the ball and scoring at will against a defense that allowed nearly 38 points per game in 2015. Look for offensive coordinator Tim Drevno to put on a clinic on the ground, taking advantage of an inexperienced and undersized front seven. Michigan wins big and moves on to Colorado.

Predicting Michigan: The tight ends

August 10th, 2016 by Derick Hutchinson


Predicting Michgian 2016-TightEnds

Jake Butt(Patrick Semansky, AP)

Previous: Quarterbacks, Running Backs, Wide Receivers

No position group saw its stock rise more than the tight ends when Jim Harbaugh took over in Ann Arbor. In Year 1, a handful of Michigan tight ends took on bigger roles in the offense, led by an All-American.

But the most obvious difference in Ann Arbor is the urgency with which Harbaugh is seeking out the best tight ends in the country. The 2016 recruiting class alone included three tight end commits and two preferred walk-ons.

Will the tight ends’ role in the offense continue to grow? All signs point to yes.

Returning Starters

One of Michigan’s best players and one of the best offensive weapons in the country decided to return to school for his senior year. When Jake Butt announced his intention to stay in Ann Arbor, Michigan’s offense gained one of the toughest offensive matchups in college football.

Butt exploded during his junior year, more than doubling his career receiving yards and receptions. His 51 catches were good for second on the team and he trailed only Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh with 654 receiving yards.

Though he finished with only three touchdowns on the season, Butt regularly demonstrated his knack for making the spectacular play. In the season opener, Butt’s fingertip catch over two Utah defenders was one of the best plays of the season. When Michigan needed every bit of offense it could get in Indiana, Butt came through with seven catches, 82 yards and a touchdown.

The 6-foot-6, 250-pound senior will look to improve his play in big games this season after catching only six passes for 58 yards combined against Michigan State and Ohio State. Butt has the size, athleticism, and now, experience to be one of the best targets in the country.

Projected Stats – Butt
Receptions Yards YPC Long TD YPG
60 700 11.7 6 53.8
Career Stats
2015 51 654 12.8 56 3 50.3
2014 21 211 10.0 29 2 21.1
2013 20 235 11.8 37 2 18.1
Totals 92 1,100 12.0 56 7 30.6
Returning contributors

Besides Butt, Michigan doesn’t have much on-field experience returning at the tight end position. A.J. Williams caught 12 passes for 129 yards as a senior, but no other Wolverine tight end caught more than five passes.

Ian Bunting

Ian Bunting could be poised for a breakout season (Tony Ding, AP)

One player who showed signs of breaking out early last season was Ian Bunting, who enters his junior season at 6-foot-7 inches tall and over 250 pounds.

Bunting began the 2015 season as Jake Rudock’s second favorite tight end target, catching four passes for 53 yards during the non-conference season. But once the Big Ten schedule arrived, Bunting disappeared for eight games, not catching a single pass, though he did have one 17-yard grab in the Citrus Bowl.

He doesn’t have as much natural receiving ability as some of the other tight ends on the roster, but Bunting is the most likely returning player to make some noise behind Butt this season. He has solid hands and has shown an ability to pick up yards after the catch. His enormous frame doesn’t hurt, either.

Speaking of huge frames, Michigan also has two big tight ends who didn’t catch a single pass last season, but figure to be in the offensive mix very soon. Tyrone Wheatley caused a stir at the spring game when he caught a pass over the middle and lumbered for a solid gain. The former four-star recruit is a strong, gifted athlete who has good hands for a 280-pound target.

Also a defensive lineman in high school, Wheatley has no issue doing the dirty work Harbaugh expects from tight ends in the trenches. His biggest hurdle is becoming a more comfortable offensive player who runs tight routes and gaining the awareness to make adjustments on the fly.

Another familiar name to watch is Zach Gentry, who was one of Harbaugh’s first commits at Michigan and transitioned from quarterback to tight end last season.

Gentry showed up in a few big plays during the spring game, but like Wheatley and Bunting, it’s his size that really stands out. If he grows more comfortable at the position, he will become a nice mismatch for Michigan in the short passing game.

Projected Stats – Bunting
Receptions Yards YPC Long TD YPG
20 180 9.0 1 13.8
Career Stats
2015 5 72 14.4 21 0 7.2
2014 0 0 0 0 0 0
Totals 5 72 14.4 21 0 7.2
Projected Stats – Wheatley
Receptions Yards YPC Long TD YPG
8 75 9.4 0 5.8
Career Stats
2015 N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
Totals N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
Projected Stats – Gentry
Receptions Yards YPC Long TD YPG
10 100 10.0 1 7.7
Career Stats
2015 N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
Totals N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
New Faces

As I mentioned above, Michigan stacked its roster with young tight ends this offseason, highlighted by a trio of commits who have a chance to crack the rotation right away.

Devin Asiasi arrives in Ann Arbor as the most highly-ranked tight end commit. Asiasi brings Harbaugh the complete package as he can catch and run with the ball in the passing game and also block in the trenches. It’s well documented that offensive players from De La Salle High School in California spend time perfecting their blocking ability, and at nearly 300 pounds, Asiasi is a beast in that regard.

Michigan’s other two tight end commits, Sean McKeon and Nick Eubanks, both check in at 6-feet-5 inches tall and specialize as receivers. McKeon has been committed to the Wolverines since the summer of 2015 and is the purest downfield receiver of this group. He’s fast for a tight end and has wide receiver-type hands. Eubanks, on the other hand, should be more of a short game weapon. When Butt graduates, Eubanks will be a candidate for more red zone targets if he proves he can hang onto the ball.

Michigan also welcomes two preferred walk-ons to the roster in Dan Jokisch and Dane Drobocky.

Projected Stats – Asiasi
Receptions Yards YPC Long TDs YPG
20 230 11.5 1 17.7
Projected Stats – McKeon
Receptions Yards YPC Long TDs YPG
5 80 16.0 0 6.2
Projected Stats – Eubanks
Receptions Yards YPC Long TDs YPG
Redshirt
Meet the Rest

Michael Jocz: Senior, 6-4, 239, from Novi, Mich. (Novi)
No career stats
Joseph Files: Sophomore, 6-4, 252, from Lake Orion, Mich. (Cranbrook Kingwood)
No career stats
Kenneth Ferris: Sophomore, 6-5, 237, from Fowlerville, Mich. (Fowlerville)
No career stats

Michigan quarterback competition highlights fall camp

August 9th, 2016 by Justin Potts


John O'Korn - media day(Justin Potts, M&GB)

Michigan opened fall camp on Monday which means the coaches and players went into a figurative submarine as head coach Jim Harbaugh described it last fall.

“Just to let you know, we’re going into a submarine,” Harbaugh said on the eve of last season’s fall camp. “You won’t hear from us. You won’t see us. We’ll be working. We’ll be in a bunker…until we decide we’re not.”

But there was plenty of talk at media day on Sunday and much of it centered around the most intriguing position battle that will take place over the next three-plus weeks.

Most expect redshirt junior John O’Korn and junior Wilton Speight to duel it out for the right to start behind center when Michigan hosts Hawaii on Sept. 3. And with an experienced team that doesn’t have many more questions entering the season all eyes will be on that quarterback battle.

Speight appeared in seven games last season, completing 9-of-25 passes for 73 yards, a touchdown, and an interception. His most notable outing came in relief of Jake Rudock when Rudock was injured in the third quarter of a tight game at Minnesota last October. Speight engineered the game-winning drive, connecting with Jehu Chesson for a go-ahead, 12-yard touchdown with five minutes remaining.

Speight hopes to build on his game-winning drive against Minnesota last season (Justin Potts, M&GB)

O’Korn has more playing experience, but has yet to take the field in the Maize and Blue. He began his career at Houston where he earned American Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year honors in 2013. He started 11 games that season, completing 58.1 percent of his passes for 3,117 yards, 28 touchdowns, and just 10 interceptions. But he hit a sophomore slump in 2014, completing just 52 percent of his passes for 951 yards, six touchdowns, and eight interceptions in five starts. Following that season he transferred to Michigan and sat out 2015 per NCAA transfer rules.

Now, he will look to harness his starting experience under the man who helped Rudock blossom into an NFL draft pick in just a few short months.

“There’s no substitute for experience, not having to run out there and look at the crowd or worry about what a defense is doing,” O’Korn said on Sunday. “I’ve pretty much seen every defense that we’re going to face during my time at Houston on field in a game situation.”

O’Korn had the advantage of living with Rudock last season, learning from the starting quarterback on a daily basis. Despite a slow start as he struggled to get in sync with his receivers, Rudock compiled one of the best seasons for a quarterback in Michigan history. He ranked second all-time in completions (249), second in yards (3,017), and set the single-game touchdown record with six against Indiana. O’Korn gained a valuable perspective watching him in 2015.

“Jake’s a guy that’s not going to say a lot, but just watching him and how he operates. I lived with him so I saw what he was like every single day, in preparation for a game, that kind of stuff. He was a guy that just came in every day, kept his mouth shut, and worked his butt off, and that’s something that I want to try to do too.

“The thing about Jake is that all of us knew that he was going to be that good. It just took a few weeks to get everything in sync. Whoever plays (this season) is going to have the same success this year if not more.”

Like O’Korn, Speight is ready to call on his experience as he looks to win the job.

“That was huge,” Speight said of his performance in the Minnesota game last season. “To be able to go into a hostile environment on the road like that in a rivalry game. I built on that a lot. Coach Harbaugh kept reiterating that I was able to do that and why not again and why not this season. I felt good about that performance, but I know I can do more and hopefully this season I can kind of show that.”

Quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator Jedd Fisch also sees a difference in Speight from a year ago and is challenging the Richmond, Va. native to continue to grow.

“Wilton is somebody who has really matured over a year,” Fisch said at media day. “I think that going into last year’s camp he was a much different person than he is going into this year’s camp. He’s mature, he’s taken on a lot of responsibility. The obvious game against Minnesota gave him a ton of confidence and he’s just excited about it. He’s excited about the fact that that’s not going to be the only touchdown he ever throws for Michigan. I think that’s his mindset — that that’s not going to be my last touchdown.”

But with all the talk of Speight and O’Korn, Fisch is quick to point out that there are other quarterbacks on the roster and they’ll all get a chance to earn the job.

Jedd Fish

Jedd Fisch was quick to point out that the QB battle isn’t limited to just Speight and O’Korn (Justin Potts, M&GB)

“I think we have two guys that are doing really well and another two guys that are right there continuing to compete for it. I don’t think it’s a slam dunk that it’s in between just two guys. We’re not going in thinking that way. There’s an opportunity to go out there and take this job. Nothing’s given to anyone. They’ve had April 1 or 2 — whenever our spring game was — they had from that day to tomorrow on their own to figure out a way to go become the starting quarterback at Michigan. And that’s pretty cool.”

Senior Shane Morris is still vying for a chance and true freshman Brandon Peters — who enrolled early and participated in spring ball — has as much upside as any of them.

As of Sunday, Fisch was unsure of how the fall practice reps would be split, but he was sure about what he will be looking for out of the eventual starting quarterback.

“There’s a lot of things you have to look at, but the number one thing is can you lead the team to score? Can you lead the team in practice? Can you move the football? Can you not just have flashes but can you have consistent good days — one after another after another? Can you have a move the ball period that’s unscripted? Can you go from the 20 to the 20 or from the 50 to the goal line, wherever we start can you just make first downs?

“The guy that does the most of that will really give us a great chance. And then how they lead the team, how they command the huddle, how they act in meeting rooms, do they have a moxie about them? And what’s the end result?”

Yesterday, four guys began their quest to become Michigan’s starting quarterback. And while Fisch wouldn’t completely rule out the competition lasting into the season, he said he would be surprised if that happened. Speight, meanwhile, is ready for the healthy competition.

“Obviously it’s not all going to be daffodils and dandelions. It’s going to get competitive. It’s going to get heated. But at the end of the day we all respect each other.”

O’Korn agreed that the competition will be strong.

“The nature of our quarterback competition is that there are three of us that could probably be starters at 125 different schools across the country and for some reason it wound up that all three of us are here. So somebody’s got to play.”

And although the quarterback position is a question mark at this point, whoever wins the job will succeed, says O’Korn, for one key reason.

“We have the best coaches in the country with Coach Fisch with us every day, Coach Harbaugh — who played 14, 15 years in the NFL — and Coach Drevno with the running game and play calling,” O’Korn said. “The combination of those three is kind of a three-headed monster. We’re going to be prepared every week. We’re going to be ready to play.”

 

New in Blue: 2017 DT James Hudson

August 8th, 2016 by Justin Potts


James Hudson (Scout.com)

James Hudson – DT/SDE | 6-5, 280 | Toledo, Ohio (Central Catholic)
ESPN4-star, #30 DE Rivals: 4-star, #8 SDE 247: 4-star, #7 SDE Scout: 3-star, #28 DT
247 Composite: 3-star #13 SDE
Other top offers: Michigan State, Alabama, Tennessee, Nebraska, Iowa, Miami, WVU

On the heels of Michigan’s biggest recruiting event of the summer and on the day the current squad opened fall camp, the Wolverines picked up a commitment from 2017 defensive lineman James Hudson. He announced his decision on Twitter on Monday.

Three of the four major recruiting services rate Hudson a four star, while Scout is the outsider that gives him just three. 247 Sports ranks him the highest as the seventh-best strongside defensive end in the 2017 class, while Rivals ranks him eighth. ESPN has him lower as the 30th-best defensive end and Scout ranks him as the 28th-best defensive tackle. 247 and Rivals both rank Hudson nationally at 220th and 229th, respectively. The 247 Composite has Hudson as a three-star, the 13th-best SDE, and 340th nationally.

Scout likes Hudson’s ability to play anywhere on the defensive line.

“Big kid who offers some flexibility because he can play on the edge or move down inside depending on situation and package. Light on his feet for a big guy and naturally powerful. Can bend well enough to get the leverage needed to use that strength. As he’s gotten bigger, in our view, he’s transitioned from more of a pure edge guy to a five-tech or potentially even a true tackle depending on the scheme.”

The Toledo Central Catholic star recorded 82 tackles, 25 tackles for loss, and 8.5 sacks as a junior last season.

Hudson chose Michigan over in-state rival Michigan State. He also held offers from Alabama, Tennessee, Nebraska, Iowa, Miami, Pitt, and West Virginia, to name a few. He’s the 19th commitment in Michigan’s 2017 class and the third defensive lineman, joining Phillip Paea and Aubrey Solomon.

Past struggles serve as motivation for upperclassmen as Michigan enters fall camp

August 8th, 2016 by Justin Potts


Peppers - media day(Justin Potts, M&GB)

There’s a noticeably different air surrounding the Michigan football team this year compared to last year.

Questions and uncertainty abounded a year ago, as Michigan was coming off of a 5-7 season with no postseason and a third head coach in seven years. Sure there was hope, solely because of the man hired, but nobody new what to expect in Jim Harbaugh’s first season.

This year, however, expectations are soaring after an 11-2 season, a Citrus Bowl blowout of SEC East champion Florida, and with most of the team returning. But don’t count on Harbaugh’s team to be overcome by the hype.

“We were just 5-7 so it’s not like we’re out there walking on red carpets and things like that,” said junior linebacker Jabrill Peppers. “We remember how bad it was, but that’s just motivation. We’ve seen what we were capable of last year. We let a few slip through our fingers that I don’t think we should have, but that’s all growing pains and that all comes with the territory.”

Chris Wormley - media day

Chris Wormley leads a deep and talented defensive line (Justin Potts, M&GB)

That refrain was echoed by players throughout Michigan football media day on Sunday, the day before fall camp gets underway.

“I always keep it in the back of my head to stay hungry, stay motivated,” Peppers said of the 2014 season. “Remember where you’ve come from. Days may seem good now, but you remember how it was when they were bad. That’s just a little mental reminder that I always give myself.”

Senior defensive tackle Chris Wormley was another upperclassman who echoed that sentiment.

“I’ve been through the highs and I’ve been through the lows. Hopefully this season I’ll be able to end on a high note,” Wormley said. “Keeping that in the back of your mind, knowing we weren’t good two years ago. That’s not a long time ago, so keeping that in the back of your mind, staying humble, staying ready to go through the highs and lows of a season is what it’s all about.

“A lot of the older guys, sometimes we sit around and talk about it. We’re obviously very thankful and very happy to be in the position that we’re in today when it comes to records and coaches and coaching styles and things like that. But I give a lot of the credit to the players too. A lot of us stuck through it, a lot of us stayed. We could have transferred or went somewhere else, but at the end of the day it’s about the players and how we change the situation.”

When fall camp kicks off today, Michigan has far fewer questions to answer than it did a year ago. One of the reasons the Wolverines are ranked in the top 10 in every preseason publication is the number of upperclassmen who returned. Harbaugh’s predecessor, Brady Hoke, didn’t exactly leave the cupboard bare — if there was one thing he did well it was recruiting.

While quarterback is a question mark, whoever wins the battle over the next four weeks will have a lot of talent to give the ball to. Senior receivers Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh return, as does senior running back De’Veon Smith. And senior tight end Jake Butt turned down a likely first round draft pick last April to give it one more go.

“I have an insurance policy that’s obviously a safety blanket, but you don’t really think about it once you get out there,” Butt said about the risk he took returning for his senior season. “You’re just playing football. Injuries do happen, that’s part of the game, but I didn’t come back just to mess around and worry about getting hurt. I came back to win some games, lead this team, and hopefully win some championships.”

Chesson, on the other hand, never seriously considered entering the draft, but did miss all of spring practice with an injury. He disclosed on Sunday afternoon that he partially tore his posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) in the third quarter of the Citrus Bowl win over Florida in which he caught five passes for 118 yards and a touchdown against one of the nation’s best secondaries. But he put to rest any question about his health entering camp.

“Yes,” he answered when asked if he was back to 100 percent.

“Yes sir,” he replied to the follow-up question asking if he will be full-go on Monday.

The time for talk is over. They’re healthy, humble, and motivated  — a great place to be as fall camp beckons.

 

Predicting Michigan 2016: The wide receivers

August 3rd, 2016 by Derick Hutchinson


Predicting Michgian 2016-WideReceivers

Nov 7, 2015; Ann Arbor, MI, USA; Michigan Wolverines wide receiver Jehu Chesson (86) celebrates his touchdown in the first quarter against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at Michigan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports(Rick Osentoski, USA Today Sports)

Previous: Quarterbacks, Running Backs

When Jim Harbaugh arrived in Ann Arbor over a year ago, he inherited a Michigan team with an uncharacteristic lack of star power at wide receiver. Devin Funchess had already announced his intentions to enter the NFL Draft and no other player on the roster had recorded 500 yards or 40 catches.

But in just one year, Harbaugh took two redshirt juniors and turned them into dangerous playmakers in a new offense. Now, as fifth-year seniors, they’ll be asked to carry the load in a receiver corps dominated by young, unproven players.

Returning Starters

Breakout seasons from Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh couldn’t have come at a better time last year. With Jake Rudock taking over the offense and Funchess off to the NFL, Harbaugh managed to squeeze more than 100 catches, over 1,400 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns out of the duo.

Chesson’s game really transformed in 2015 as he turned into a more well-rounded offensive weapon. Along with catching 50 passes, Chesson also carried the ball eight times for 155 yards and two touchdowns. He was Jabrill Peppers’ best return game partner and one of his biggest plays of the season was a kick return touchdown to shock Northwester on the opening play.

Chesson was voted the team’s MVP at the postseason banquet, but Harbaugh has promoted Darboh as the team’s best wideout heading into 2016.

Darboh was Rudock’s favorite target early in the season and really played a consistent wide receiver for Michigan throughout the year. He has the most reliable hands on the team at wide receiver and can win a jump ball if the quarterback throws it up. His 58 catches led the team and he has a great chance to repeat that as a senior.

Chesson and Darboh have turned into one of the best wide receiver duos in the country and whoever wins the starting quarterback job will be in good hands come Sept. 3.

Projected Stats – Chesson
Receptions Yards YPC Long TD YPG
45 680 15.1 7 52.3
Career Stats
2015 50 764 15.3 64 9 58.8
2014 14 154 11.0 28 0 14.0
2013 15 221 14.7 58 1 17.0
2012 N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
Totals 79 1,139 14.4 64 10 30.8
Projected Stats – Darboh
Receptions Yards YPC Long TD YPG
60 750 12.5 6 57.7
Career Stats
2015 58 727 12.5 39 5 55.9
2014 36 473 13.1 34 2 39.4
2013 N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
2012 0 0 0 0 0 0
Totals 94 1,200 12.8 39 7 33.3
Returning contributors

The top two spots on the depth chart are obviously clear cut, but the third wide receiver slot is seemingly up for grabs.

After the spring game, it certainly seems like Grant Perry is a top candidate to win the job. Perry caught only 14 passes for 128 yards last season, but he was Wilton Speight’s favorite target in April’s spring game.

Sep 3, 2015; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Michigan Wolverines wide receiver Grant Perry (9) lines up for a play during the second half against the Utah Utes at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Utah won 24-17. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

(Russ Isabella, USA Today Sports)

Perry was targeted more than any other receiver on April 1, catching three passes for 30 yards. He looked like the No. 1 receiver with both Chesson and Darboh on the sidelines.

Perry — the No. 2 receiver from Michigan in the 2014 recruiting class — isn’t a huge playmaker, but a reliable target who runs his routes well and catches the balls that get to him. He might not be as explosive as other options, but Harbaugh knows Perry could be the best option for an unproven quarterback.

Then there’s Drake Harris.

Harris came to Ann Arbor as one of the most anticipated recruits of the Brady Hoke era. The state’s top receiver out of Grand Rapids, Harris looked like a player who would step in and help the team right away.

But injury and inconsistency have pushed Harris out of the spotlight. He caught only six passes for 39 yards last season and didn’t touch the ball the second half of the year.

Harris has good hands and excellent athleticism, so there’s still a chance he could stay healthy and put everything together to be a solid weapon for Michigan. But at this point, he’s on the outside of the starting lineup and looking like more of a rotation guy.

The only other returning wide receiver who saw the field last season is Maurice Ways, a junior out of Beverly Hills, Michigan.

Ways picked up three catches for 40 yards last season, so he wasn’t much of a factor in the offense. When Harbaugh announced the junior would have foot surgery in March, it looked like a severe uphill battle for Ways to get into the wide receiver rotation.

But Ways is back on the field and participating in drills, which means he could be ready to contribute when September rolls around. The former 3-star recruit has good hands and checks in at 6 foot 4, so don’t count him out of the competition for the No. 3 spot just yet.

Projected Stats – Perry
Receptions Yards YPC Long TD YPG
30 280 9.3 3 21.5
Career Stats
2015 14 128 9.1 25 1 9.8
Totals 14 128 9.1 25 1 9.8
Projected Stats – Harris
Receptions Yards YPC Long TD YPG
15 200 13.3 1 15.4
Career Stats
2015 6 39 6.5 13 0 4.3
Totals 6 39 6.5 13 0 4.3
Projected Stats – Ways
Receptions Yards YPC Long TD YPG
10 120 12.0 0 9.2
Career Stats
2015 3 40 13.3 21 0 3.6
2014 N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
Totals 3 40 13.3 21 0 3.6
New Faces

One of the highlights of Michigan’s elite 2016 recruiting class is the group of wide receivers Harbaugh pulled from all around the country.

Five new receivers joined the roster in 2016, including early enrollee Ahmir Mitchell. Mitchell was one of the top freshmen featured in the spring game, and his size really stood out.

As the No. 1 receiver out of New Jersey, Mitchell figures to have a chance to play this season. He’s a home run threat that Michigan needs behind Chesson and he’s also big enough to win matchups over the middle.

Dylan Crawford, a 6-foot wide receiver with great hands out of Santa Margarita, could also play a role this season. Crawford is touted as a fundamentally sound receiver who can run routes and has good speed. His ceiling might not be as high as the New Jersey duo’s, but he could be closer to contributing early in his career.

The other two freshmen — Eddie McDoom and Nate Johnson — are explosive playmakers and could find themselves playing in the slot. They don’t have the size of some of Michigan’s other wide receivers, but fill a major hole in the playmaking category. Harbaugh might consider redshirting one or both of the freshmen due to the depth at wide receiver.

New Jersey star Brad Hawkins was also supposed to be a member of this class, but had NCAA Clearinghouse issues and will put off his enrollment until next year. Instead, he will spend this fall at Suffield Academy (Conn.) prep school.

Projected Stats – Mitchell
Receptions Yards YPC Long TDs YPG
20 150 7.5 2 11.5
Projected Stats – Hawkins
Receptions Yards YPC Long TDs YPG
5 30 6.0 0 2.3
Projected Stats – Crawford
Receptions Yards YPC Long TDs YPG
5 50 10.0 0 3.8

2016 non-conference opponent preview: Hawaii

August 2nd, 2016 by Justin Potts


2016 Opponent Preview - Hawaii

Hawaii dance(Adam Cairns, Columbus Dispatch)

For most of the nation, college football season kicks off on Labor Day weekend. But for the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors, the month of kickoff has already dawned. Like Michigan last season, Hawaii kicks off the college football season, only instead of a 1,600 mile flight to Salt Lake City, Hawaii has a 5,100 mile flight to Sydney, Australia to face California on Aug. 26.

Schedule
Date Opponent
Aug. 26 Cal (in Australia)
Sept. 3 at Michigan
Sept. 10 Tennessee-Martin
Sept. 17 at Arizona
Oct. 1 Nevada
Oct. 8 at San Jose State
Oct. 15 UNLV
Oct. 22 at Air Force
Oct. 29 New Mexico
Nov. 5 at San Diego State
Nov. 12 Boise State
Nov. 19 at Fresno State
Nov. 26 Massachusetts

While Hawaii gets the advantage of a game under their belt before visiting Ann Arbor, the travel schedule may not be worth it. They follow up the trip to Sydney with a nearly 4,400-mile flight to Ann Arbor, making their two-week travel total of nearly 15,000 miles before Michigan even plays a game six times more than Michigan’s entire season-long travel total.

Hawaii went just 3-10 last season and 0-8 in the Mountain West Conference. They beat only Colorado (28-20), UC-Davis (47-27), and Louisiana-Monroe (28-26) and lost to UNLV — who Michigan beat 28-7 — by a score of 41-21. They also traveled to Michigan’s chief rival — Ohio State — and lost 38-0.

After going just 10-36 since 2012, head coach Norm Chow was fired after Week 10 and replaced with interim coach Chris Naeole. Following the season, former Hawaii quarterback Nick Rolovich was hired to try to turn the program around.

Rolovich was one of the most prolific quarterbacks in Rainbow Warrior history, where he broke 19 school passing records, and despite being drafted by the Denver Broncos, spent his pro career bouncing around NFL Europe and the Arena Football League until 2007. He got his first significant coaching position in 2008 as Hawaii’s quarterbacks coach and took on the role of offensive coordinator in 2010. From 2012-15 he served in the same position at Nevada, where his offenses plummeted from 8th to 45th to 68th to 86th. But he’ll try to turn around a Rainbow Warriors offense that ranked 120th out of 127 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

Offense
2015 National Rankings
Total Offense Scoring Offense Rushing Offense Passing Offense
120 118 115 98
Offensive FEI S&P Rushing S&P Passing S&P
123 119 110 113
Projected Starters
Position Name, Yr. Ht, Wt 2015 Stats
QB Ikaika Woolsey (Sr.) 6’1″, 215 73-149 for 908 yds, 5 TD, 6 INT
RB Paul Harris (Sr.) 5’11”, 190 197 rush for 1,132 yds (5.7 avg), 6 TD
WR Marcus Kemp (Sr.) 6’4″, 200 36 rec for 563 yds (15.6 avg), 2 TD
WR Devan Stubblefield (RS So.) 6’0″, 190 30 rec for 351 yds (11.7 avg), 4 TD
WR Dylan Collie (RS So.) 5’10”, 175 29 rec for 342 yds (11.8 avg), 1 TD
TE Metuisela ‘Unga (Jr.) 6’5″, 240 11 rec for 170 yds (15.5 avg), 0 TD
LT Dejon Allen (RS Jr.) 6’3″, 290 13 starts (24 career starts)
LG Elijah Tupai (RS Jr.) 6’4″, 315 11 starts (14 career starts)
C John Wa’a (RS Jr.) 6’4″, 315 1 starts (3 career starts)
RG Asotui Eli (RS So.) 6’4″, 315 12 starts (12 career starts)
RT R.J. Hollis (RS Sr.) 6’4″, 295 13 starts (13 career starts)

The good news for Rolovich and co-offensive coordinators Brian Smith and Craig Stutzmann is that nine there is a lot of starting experience returning on offense this fall. The bad news is that they’ll have to improve quite significantly for much progress to be made. The Hawaii offense ranked 120th nationally last season in total offense (316.3 yards per game), 118th in scoring (17.6 points per game), 115th in rushing (123.9 yards per game), 98th in passing (192.4 yards per game), and 118th in team passing efficiency (97.08).

It starts with senior quarterback Ikaika Woolsey, who has 19 career starts under his belt but split time with USC transfer Max Wittek last season. While Wittek started the first eight games and completed just 47.2 percent of his passes for seven touchdowns and 15 interceptions, Woolsey took over for the last five and fared slightly better with a 49 percent completion percentage for five touchdowns and six picks. Woolsey has the experience which should earn him the job from the start, but he’ll have to fend off redshirt freshman Aaron Zwahlen, who was a three-star in the 2013 class.

The backfield returns its top five rushers, including Woolsey, most notably fifth-year senior Paul Harris, who became the first Hawaii back to eclipse 1,000 yards in a season since 2010. His 1,132 yards and 5.7 average was the highlight of Hawaii’s offense that still ranked 115th nationally on the ground. That’s because there wasn’t much behind him. Senior Melvin Davis tied Harris for the team lead with six touchdowns, but rushed for just 218 yards — 13 more than Ty Isaac. Fellow senior Steven Lakalaka was the only other back to top 100 yards with 187, but he never found the end zone.

If Woolsey or Zwahlen can prove to be efficient passers the Rainbow Warriors should be able to improve on their 98th-ranked passing offense with nine of their top 10 receivers returning. Senior Marcus Kemp and redshirt sophomores Devan Stubblefield and Dylan Collie weren’t quite the three-headed monster Michigan had with Jehu Chesson, Amara Darboh, and Jake Butt, but they caught a combined 95 passes for 1,256 yards and seven touchdowns. Seniors Isaiah Bernard and Makoa Camanse-Stevens also tallied more than 400 yards between them.

The offensive line has to replaced left tackle Ben Clarke, who started 50 career games, but returns four starters with a combined 66 career starts between them. Redshirt junior Dejon Allen will likely slide over to left tackle after starting 12 games at right guard and one at left guard a year ago. If Asotui Eli, who started 11 games at center last season, moves to right guard as expected, the big question mark will likely be at center where redshirt junior John Wa’a is the favorite to land. Wa’a has just three starts under his belt over the past two seasons.

Defense
2015 National Rankings
Total Defense Scoring Defense Rushing Defense Pass Efficiency D.
104 105 118 104
Defensive FEI S&P Rushing S&P Passing S&P
111 99 81 107
Projected Starters
Position Name, Yr. Ht, Wt 2014 Stats
DE Mekani Kema-Kaleiwahea (RS Sr.) 6’3″, 240 23 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks
DT Kory Rasmussen (RS Sr.) 6’2″, 295 43 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 FR
DT Samiuela Akoteu (RS Fr.) 6’2″, 320 Redshirted
DE David Manoa (RS Jr.) 6’3″, 240 16 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks
LB Dany Mulanga (RS So.) 6’3″, 200 40 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 1 INT, 2 FF
LB Jahlani Tavai (RS So.) 6’4″, 235 56 tackles, 5 TFL,  3 sacks
LB Jerrol Garcia-Williams (RS Sr.) 6’2″, 230 89 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks
CB Jamal Mayo (RS Sr.) 5’11”, 185 15 tackles, 2 PBU, 1 FR
CB Jalen Rogers (RS Sr.) 6’1″, 200 40 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 sack, 5 PBU
FS Daniel Lewis Jr. (Jr.) 5’11”, 180 47 tackles, 3 TFL, 1 sack, 3 PBU
SS Trayvon Henderson (RS Jr.) 6’0″, 200 3 tackles, 0.5 TFL

While the Hawaii offense was bad in 2015, the defense was not much better. It ranked 104th nationally in total defense (448.8 yards per game), 105th in scoring defense (35.6 points per game), 118th in rush defense (239.8 yards per game), 42nd in passing yards allowed (208.9 yards per game), and 104th in pass defense efficiency (143.42).

The only real connection between Michigan and Hawaii comes in the form of the new defensive coordinator Rolovich brought in. Kevin Lempa was the defensive backs coach at Boston College the past three seasons under new Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown. He’ll know Brown’s philosophies and aim to bring some of them to Hawaii. Their Boston College defense led the nation in 2015 and the pass defense ranked sixth.

The best player on Hawaii’s defense last season, defensive end Kennedy Tulimasealli, was arrested twice over the offseason and subsequently dismissed from the team in June. Tulimasealli ranked second in the MWC with 18.5 tackles for loss. Nobody else returning had more than 4.5.

Fifth-year senior Mekani Kema-Kaleiwaher, redshirt junior David Manoa, and redshirt freshman Manly Williams will man the end rotation. The former two each had 2.5 sacks in 2015. Fifth-year senior Kory Rasmussen is the lone returning starter on the front line and his 4.5 tackles for loss are the second-most of any returning player. The other tackle spot figures to go to redshirt freshman Samiuela Akoteu.

Redshirt sophomore Jahlani Tavai moves from end to middle linebacker this season. His five tackles for loss and three sacks lead all returning players. Fifth-year senior outside linebacker Jerrol Garcia-Williams is the leading returning tackler with 89, while redshirt sophomore Dany Mulanga had a solid freshman season in 2015 with 40 tackles, an interception, and two forced fumbles.

The secondary is thin but does return some talent and be the relative strength of the defense. A pair of fifth-year seniors should hold down the corner spots. Jalen Rogers started seven games and ranked third on the team with five pass breakups, while Jamal Mayo played in all 13 games as a reserve and broke up two passes. Junior strong safety Daniel Lewis Jr. returns with 13 career starts. He recorded 47 tackles, three for loss, and three pass breakups a year ago. Free safety Trayvon Henderson returns from an injury that limited him to just two games last season. He ranked second on the team with 63 tackles in 2014 and also picked off a pair of passes.

Special Teams
2015 National Rankings
Kick Returns Punt Returns Net Punting ST Eff.
60 71 6 31
Kick Return D. Punt Return D. FG Efficiency Opp FG Eff.
111 99 35 120
Projected Starters
Position Name, Yr. Ht, Wt 2014 Stats
K Rigoberto Sanchez (Sr.) 6’1″, 190 8-of-11, Long 50
P Rigoberto Sanchez (Sr.) 6’1″, 190 74 punts, 45.1 avg, 2 TB, 28 in-20
KR Keelan Ewaliko (RS Jr.) 5’11”, 200 22 ret, 26.3 avg, 1 TD
PR John Ursua (RS Fr.) 5’10”, 165 Redshirted

If there’s one unit that was somewhat respectable in 2015 it was the special teams unit, which ranked 60th nationally in kick returns (21.32 yards per return), 71st in punt returns (7.73 yards per return), sixth in net punting (41.51 yards per punt), and 31st in special teams efficiency. Hawaii didn’t cover kicks very well (111th in kick return defense and 99th in punt return defense) but at least they were fairly good at something.

Senior Rigoberto Sanchez handled everything kick related, going 8-of-11 on field goals with a long of 50, 23-of-24 on PATs, punting 74 times for an average of 45.1 yards, and handling kickoff duties. Redshirt junior receiver Keelan Ewaliko is back to return kicks after averaging 26.3 yards per return last season, while redshirt freshman receiver John Ursua will get a chance to show what he can do on punt returns.

Outlook

The question is not whether Hawaii can become bowl eligible this season; it’s whether or not they can improve on last season’s three wins. The talent is likely there to do so, if ever so slightly, but the schedule is absolutely brutal. With trips to Sydney, Australia, Ann Arbor, and Tucson, Ariz. in three of the first four weeks and matchups with Air Force, San Diego State, Boise State, and Fresno State, there’s no chance at a winning record. SB Nation’s Bill Connelly gives Hawaii a greater than 50 percent chance to win three games — Tennessee-Martin (71%), UNLV (56%), and Massachusetts (66%). That sounds about right. If they can upset New Mexico or Nevada at home, Rolovich can at least carry improvement into 2017.

What it means for Michigan

Perhaps the biggest non-talent related factor in this game will be the time. A noon Eastern kickoff means the Hawaii players will be playing at 6 a.m. body time just a week after traveling half way around the world to play in Australia. It’s hard to imagine fatigue playing a factor at the beginning of the season, but in this case it’s hard to imagine it not. There’s no question that Michigan will win this one. The only question is by how much. Look for Jim Harbaugh to get the running game going, break in John O’Korn or Wilton Speight — likely both — and make an early season statement that the preseason hype is more than just hyperbole.

Comparing the Big Ten’s returning production from 2015: Defense

July 29th, 2016 by Justin Potts


Don Brown Michigan

Yesterday we outlined how each team’s returning offensive production compares throughout the Big Ten. Today, it’s time to take a look at the defensive side of the ball and tie it all together.

A year ago, Ohio State returned the most defensive production with 74 percent of its 2014 tackles, tackles for loss, sacks, and takeaways back. It paid off as the Buckeyes finished third in the Big Ten in total defense and second in scoring defense. However, the team right behind them with 71 percent returning — Illinois– finished just ninth in total defense and eighth in scoring defense. The top two defenses in the conference, Wisconsin and Michigan, began the year with just 61 percent (seventh-most) and 63 percent (fifth-most) of their 2014 production returning.

Aside from Illinois, the teams with the most returning defensive production fared better than those with the least. The seven worst defenses in the conference were the same seven that returned the least from 2014.

Interestingly, the opposite was true the previous season. Maryland, Indiana, and Rutgers returned the most production from 2013, but produced three of the four worst defenses in the conference. Conversely, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Ohio State returned the lease production and turned out four of the top six defenses. So what does that tell us? (Shrug).

Let’s take a look at what this season looks like.

Defense

Returning defense
Team Percent Returning 2015 Total Defense Rating
Purdue 79% 110
Indiana 77% 120
Nebraska 69% 64
Michigan State 65% 26
Wisconsin 64% 2
Northwestern 63% 13
Iowa 63% 22
Minnesota 60% 24
Penn State 59% 14
Rutgers 59% 111
Michigan 54% 4
Maryland 52% 90
Ohio State 46% 9
Illinois 40% 30

Entering this season, two of the three worst defenses in the Big Ten a year ago return the most production by far. Purdue, which ranked 110th nationally in total defense and 111th in scoring defense, returns 79 percent including a whopping 88 percent of its tackles for loss and 83 percent of its sacks. Indiana, which ranked 120th in total defense and 116th in scoring defense, returns 77 percent including 80 percent of its total tackles and 19 of 22 takeaways. However, the Hoosiers do have to replace defensive end Nick Mangieri, who led the team in tackles for loss and sacks.

Nobody expects Purdue or Indiana to factor into the Big Ten race for obvious reasons, but the next few teams with the most returning defensive production certainly will. Nebraska returns 69 percent of its defense which ranked 64th nationally last season. Five of the top six tacklers return as do all but three takeaways. But the Cornhuskers ranked ahead of only Michigan in takeaways.

Michigan State (65 percent), Wisconsin (64 percent), Iowa (63 percent), and Northwestern (63 percent) were all ranked among the top 26 defenses in the country and return two-thirds of that production. Wisconsin has to replace linebacker Joe Schobert, who ranked second in the Big Ten with 19.5 tackles for loss and fourth with 9.5 sacks, and safety Tanner McEvoy, who ranked second in the conference with five interceptions and also added two fumble recoveries. Michigan State has to replace defensive end Shilique Calhoun’s 10.5 sacks and 15 TFLs but returns four of its top five tacklers. Iowa lost tackles for loss leader, defensive end Nate Meier, and three of its top four tacklers but returns all but three of its 27 takeaways — a number that ranked second only to MSU’s 28 a year ago. Northwestern returns leading tackler, linebacker Anthony Walker, who led the Big Ten in tackles for loss, but will have to make up for the loss of defensive end Deonte Gibson, its sack leader, and the next three leaders in TFLs.

Minnesota, Penn State, and Rutgers all return the same amount of production at 60, 59, and 59 percent, respectively, but one of these is not like the others. While Penn State’s defense ranked 14th nationally and Minnesota’s 24th, Rutgers’ was near the bottom at 111th. Minnesota brings back 70 percent of its tackles for loss, but lost two of the top three tacklers. Penn State has work cut out in replacing end Carl Nassib and tackle Austin Johnson, who combined for 34.5 tackles for loss and 22 sacks. Rutgers, meanwhile, returns all but three of its sacks, though the Scarlet Knights ranked dead last in that category last season.

Michigan brings back 54 percent of its fourth-ranked defense but has to replace its top three tacklers, linebackers Joe Bolden and Desmond Morgan and safety Jarrod Wilson. But replacing tackles is much easier than replacing impact plays, and the Wolverines bring back three of their top four tackles for loss leaders and two of their top three sack leaders from 2015.

Maryland returns just over half of its 90th-ranked defense but lost linebacker Yannick Ngakoue and tackle Quinton Jefferson who were the Terps’ top two leaders in tackles for loss and sacks.

Ohio State, which returns the least offensive production, returns the second least on the defensive side thanks to six NFL Draft picks from that side alone. But like on offense, the cupboard is far from bare. Defensive end Tyquan Lewis led the team with eight sacks and was second only to Joey Bosa in tackles for loss. Linebacker Raekwon McMillan is a tackling machine who ranked fourth in the Big Ten last season. And while end Sam Hubbard only recorded 28 total tackles, 8 of them were behind the line of scrimmage, including 6.5 sacks.

Finally, Illinois returns just 40 percent of its 2015 defensive production, the least of any team in the Big Ten since at least 2014 when we started tracking. The Illini were a very respectable 30th a year ago, but lost the conference’s leading tackler, safety Clayton Fejedelem, as well as their next two leading tacklers. If there’s a silver lining it’s that 71 percent of their sacks are back, most notably linebacker Dawuane Smoot.

So what does it all mean? The following chart plots each team by both offensive and defensive production.

2015to2016 Returning Production Chart

If the trend of the past two seasons continues there are two teams in ideal position to win the Big Ten, plotting very similarly to Ohio State in 2014 and Michigan State in 2015. One is Penn State and the other is Michigan. And while both have room for optimism heading into the season Michigan is better positioned for two reasons: the two biggest weaknesses — quarterback and linebacker — have been addressed.

First, Jim Harbaugh did wonders for Jake Rudock in a short time a year ago and now he gets the luxury of having a quarterback — whether it be John O’Korn or Wilton Speight — who already has more than a year of his tutelage to build on. Looking at Harbaugh’s track record coaching quarterbacks, from Rich Gannon to Josh Johnson to Andrew Luck to Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick and most recently Rudock, it’s clear that he could essentially take a tackling dummy and turn it into a serviceable quarterback.

The second issue has been addressed by bringing in Don Brown, a.k.a. Dr. Blitz, to run the defense. He promptly moved the dynamic Jabrill Peppers to a hybrid linebacker position that perfectly complements Brown’s scheme and Michigan’s defensive strengths — the line and the secondary.

The biggest roadblock to Michigan’s title hopes is its schedule that takes the Wolverines to East Lansing, Iowa City, and Columbus in a span of five weeks. The good news is that those all fall in the latter half of the season, after Michigan works out any kinks it may have at the start of the season.

Does this mean Michigan will win the Big Ten? Absolutely not. Since we just started tracking returning production in 2014, it’s a very small sample size to draw any definitive conclusions from. And just because Michigan falls right within the returning production sweet spot that produced Big Ten champions each of the last two seasons it doesn’t guarantee anything. After all, Rutgers and Minnesota were within that sweet spot last season as well. But it should at least provide a little extra dose of optimism for a Michigan team that already enters the season with plenty of it.