Under the direction of new head coach Jim Harbaugh, Michigan got spring practice started this week. The Wolverines are the first Big Ten East team to return to the practice field in the new year, and they have a lot of work to do after finishing 5-7 last season.
Harbaugh should find a roster teeming with highly rated recruits who haven’t done much in their careers but are transitioning into upperclassmen.
Here are some of the key areas that will need to be addressed between now and the Wolverines’ spring game Apr. 4.
1. Who will throw the passes?
Devin Gardner’s star-crossed career is over, leaving behind another five-star in-state prospect — Shane Morris — to try to revive the Michigan quarterback tradition. The junior is joined this spring by Wilton Speight, a three-star prospect from Virginia who redshirted last season, and Alex Malzone, a 2014 four-star early-enrollee from Bloomfield Hills’ (Mich.) Brother Rice.
In an interview with the school’s official website, Harbaugh did not give away much about how the quarterback competition might go.
"It will be what we said it will be, a meritocracy," the coach said in an interview published Tuesday. "We’ll roll the balls out there and let the fellas compete. And the hope is that it will be clear-cut. It will be that the cream will rise to the top. By their play, by their talent, by their execution, somebody will state their case and make their argument.
2. Who will catch the passes?
Devin Funchess may have disappointed last year in his move to receiver, but he was still by far the biggest threat the Wolverines had in the passing game and he went pro early. Amara Darboh returns after looking like a solid No. 2 receiver last season, but Michigan is in dire need of playmaking ability at the position. Sophomore Freddy Canteen could be a candidate after exciting some program observers last spring but failing to make much of an impact in the fall.
3. Who will break up the other team’s passes?
The Wolverines had one of the better defenses in the Big Ten last season, but that was thanks mostly to the front seven.
Michigan was vulnerable at cornerback, where veteran Raymon Taylor is out of eligibility, but Blake Countess and Jordan Lewis return. Lewis had the only two interceptions by Michigan defensive backs last season and could be in line for a breakout season. At safety, all eyes will be on Jabrill Peppers, a five-star recruit who saw most of his freshman season wiped out by injury but is expected to be a major difference-maker.
A transfer from USC who sat out last season, the running back joins a position group that has been long on potential but short on production for the last couple of years. There should be no lack of competition with Isaac battling juniors Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith, both of whom have shown flashes but have been inconsistent since arriving in Ann Arbor.
All three are cut from the mold of power running back that Harbaugh figures to want to build a ground attack around, but will any of them emerge as a difference-maker?
Isaac ran for 236 yards and two touchdowns for the Trojans in 2013.
5. What will Jim Harbaugh say next?
This might not have much to do with actual football, but the new head coach of the Wolverines has a certain way with words that has already given his program a different look and feel since he was hired to replace Brady Hoke.
"It’s like Thanksgiving," he responded when asked about the first day of coaching his alma mater. "It’s like New Year’s Day. It’s like a family reunion. And having it all rolled into one. Most people think of January 1st as the start of a new year. To people who espouse to Catholicism and Christianity, they might correlate that with the birth of Christ. Us in football, the start of spring practice and the first day of summer training camp are what you look at as the New Year with fireworks going off, it’s your birthday. It’s being born back into football, it’s a happening."
After the days of Hoke saying as little possible to the media, Harbaugh’s lack of filter figures to be a breath of fresh air for reporters. And that should make fans more informed — or at least more entertained — while they wait to see what Harbaugh can do to improve the product on the field.