Michigan spring preview


Spring and its usual wingman, hope, have arrived at Michigan. The Wolverines hold their first official practice under the direction of Jim Harbaugh Tuesday afternoon.

There are more than enough projects and plans to keep Harbaugh busy in his first month of practices at his alma mater. Michigan, coming off a 5-7 season, must replace its starting quarterback, leading tackler and biggest threat in the passing game.

 The first order of business for the new staff will be establishing the attitude and culture that helped its head coach lead successful turnarounds at each of his previous stops. That work began in January with winter conditioning, but will likely continue to be a large focus during the month of March. Harbaugh’s track record leaves plenty of room for optimism among Michigan fans despite all of the uncertainty at the start of a new year.

Schedule: The team met Monday and camp will officially open Tuesday, making Michigan the first group in the Big Ten to get started. The Wolverines plan to take a week off during spring break next month and wrap up with the spring game on April 4.

What’s new: If you’re just tuning in for the first time in the past couple months, you may want to sit down. Nine of Michigan’s 10 coaches are new (former defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is the lone holdover). Jim Hackett, the athletic director who took over in November, is also still getting comfortable in his new role. The change in leadership has altered the attitude around campus, which was needed if the program is eventually going to pull itself out of its nearly decade-long funk.

On the field, Michigan has to replace its starting middle linebacker and a pair of effective pass rushers on a defense that served as the team’s bright spot last fall. Young and talented players have a chance to emerge this spring on the defensive line and in the secondary.

The offense struggled in 2014 (115th nationally in total yardage), but at least won’t have to go through a major personnel overhaul to fit the style of offense Harbaugh and his staff have used in the past. An experienced offensive line is new for Michigan. All five starters from a slowly improving group return this spring, which should provide a bit of stability amid wide-open battles for reps at almost every skill position.

Biggest question: Will a starting quarterback emerge from the pack?

Michigan’s top three options heading into Tuesday’s practice are junior Shane Morris, redshirt freshman Wilton Speight and early enrollee Alex Malzone. Morris is the only signal-caller on the roster with game experience. Harbaugh promised the competition would be a “meritocracy” with everyone starting on an equal plane. Spring won’t likely end with a starter in place. The pecking order, though, should be more clear by the beginning of April. Any one of that trio can do himself (and Michigan’s entire offense) a big favor by separating from the others in the coming few weeks.

Three things we want to see:

1. How will the secondary shake out? More than 80 percent of Michigan’s defensive backfield was listed as a “DB” on the team’s spring roster rather than given a more specific role at cornerback or safety. That list includes redshirt freshman Jabrill Peppers, who was expected to be an instant impact player before injuries ended his debut season in September. Peppers intimated he would be moving to safety, and more experiments with position shifting may occur this spring while the staff attempts to put together what could become a very athletic secondary.

2. Progress in the running game. Stanford’s turnaround under Harbaugh was in large part thanks to an offense that closely resembled a battering ram. Michigan has the potential to take strides in that direction this season with big backs like Derrick Green (234 pounds) and Ty Isaac (240 pounds) leading the way. Offensive coordinator Tim Drevno played a big role in upgrading the Cardinal’s offensive line. The speed with which he can push Michigan’s line in the right direction will be a deciding factor in the outlook for the Wolverines’ final record in 2015.

3. The Durkin/Mattison collaboration. Mattison remains on staff but hands the keys to his defense to 35-year-old D.J. Durkin, who most recently served as interim head coach at Florida. Durkin is a rising star in the coaching profession and is known for his aggressive mentality in play-calling. The potentially awkward situation of a former and current coordinator working together isn’t expected to be a big issue. Mattison was the consummate team player under Brady Hoke, and there’s no reason to think he won’t be under Harbaugh. It will be more interesting to see how the veteran and well-respected defensive mind meshes with the up-and-coming Durkin and what results they produce together on the field.