Defense ruled the day in Michigan’s first spring game under coach Jim Harbaugh.
The Wolverines’ divided roster slugged its way to a 7-0 finish in a 40-minute scrimmage that was as close to the real deal as you’ll find in a spring game atmosphere. The spurts of offense that did surface came mostly from the left arm of junior quarterback Shane Morris. Michigan’s new leader at quarterback threw the game’s only touchdown, a 14-yard toss to Jaron Dukes, and connected with senior Amara Darboh for a couple of long passes. Morris finished with 135 yards on 11-of-24 passing with an interception.
Michigan’s defense intercepted three passes Saturday. Last year’s group needed seven games to reach that mark and finished the season with only five picks for one of the lowest totals in the nation. They also held the two offenses to a combined 73 rushing yards Saturday, nearly half of which came when De’Veon Smith got loose for 35 yards on the game’s first play.
The split rosters made it difficult to suss out an accurate depth chart or fairly evaluate the divided offensive line. There was still much to learn, though, about where the Wolverines have improved since a 5-7 finish in 2014 and where they are struggling. Here are some general observations as they became the first Big Ten group to move to its offseason calendar.
1. Shane Morris is the top quarterback on campus.
Harbaugh declared Morris the front-runner in the team’s most compelling position battle, but that was clearly evident after watching him go head-to-head with early enrollee Alex Malzone for 40 minutes.
Morris looked comfortable standing in a pocket that wasn’t always secure. He delivered a few strong throws with a defensive lineman barreling toward him (quarterbacks were fair game to be tackled), which is more impressive when considering the last time he was on the field at Michigan Stadium he left bruised and concussed in a loss to Minnesota. He also showed a degree of touch that had been absent in past appearances. He completed one fourth-down attempt by dumping the ball over a defender to his fullback in the flat. That effort earned him a running high-five from Harbaugh.
“I see improvement in that way, just understanding completions and throwing the ball that’s going to be caught,” Harbaugh said.
Arm strength is in good supply for the Wolverines. Morris and Malzone (15-of-27, 95 yards, two interceptions) each had zip on their passes. Malzone, who enrolled as a freshman this January, looked like he was still getting used to the speed of the game at the college level. Morris has room for improvement on certain throws as well. Both will face more competition for the starting job when Iowa transfer Jake Rudock arrives this summer, but right now Morris heads into the offseason as the man to beat.
2. Receivers have work to do
Several of the 12 incompletions Morris threw could have been caught. Both teams had problems hanging on to passes, and a couple of times directly aided in creating an interception. Sophomore Maurice Ways had one pass ripped out of his hands by cornerback Brandon Watson and Darboh tipped another ball into the waiting arms of safety Delano Hill.
Darboh and Morris connected a few times down the sideline and he finished with four catches for 75 yards, but the team’s top returning receiver dropped a few passes that could have helped his offense move down the field more efficiently. Michigan is in need of a couple of new pass-catchers to emerge in 2015 and Saturday’s game wasn’t a good showing for that group.
“I think our receivers need to improve in that area and make the tougher catches, make the catches when they’re contested,” Harbaugh said.
3. Plenty of options on the defensive line
One group that did shine Saturday was the defensive line. The two defenses combined for five sacks and 15 tackles for loss, albeit against piecemeal offensive lines. For a team that lost both of its starting defensive ends to graduation, depth in the trenches doesn’t appear to be a major problem.
Junior Maurice Hurst and sophomore Lawrence Marshall created constant pressure for the Maize team. On the other sideline, nose guard Ryan Glasgow and defensive end Chris Wormley shined as well. Harbaugh called Wormley one of the team’s best players Saturday. He made five tackles, recovered a fumble and made the linebackers behind him happy.
“Those guys did a stud job up front,” linebacker Desmond Morgan said. “Taking out blockers and wreaking havoc, they’ve done that all spring. As linebackers it makes it easy on us when those guys do their job like that.”
4. Little separation among running backs
Junior De'Veon Smith was easily the spring game’s leading rusher with seven carries for 50 yards, but most of those came on a 35-yard gain on the first play of the game. None of the three backs expected to compete for the starting job separated himself from the others during Saturday’s brief look.
Junior Derrick Green, who was on the Maize team with Smith, gained only 8 yards on his seven carries. The Blue team managed only 20 total rushing yards, 20 of which came from Wyatt Shallman. Ty Isaac, who sat out last fall after transferring from USC, was rarely used during the game. He carried only once and gained a yard before leaving the game with a limp.
5. Michigan is having a good time under Harbaugh
Harbaugh is a demanding head coach, but knows how to keep his players excited about showing up to practice on a regular basis. The Wolverines mixed in some fun during Saturday’s spring game. Each team worked some trick plays into their offense during the first quarter. Wide receiver Jehu Chesson threw two passes -- one after receiving a screen pass and another after taking a pitch from Malzone -- and connected on one of them for a 30-yard gain to Smith. Senior receiver Bo Dever connected with Morris on a throwback pass that didn’t net any yardage for the Blue team. Sophomore safety Jabrill Peppers (who played as well as advertised with four tackles and one pass breakup) said he had a surprise planned on the offensive side of the ball, but didn’t get a chance to use it.
The Big House was more than half full on a sunny but chilly day in Ann Arbor. The school estimated that 60,000 spectators came out for the game, but it looked like Harbaugh and his players were having as much fun as anyone in the stadium.