College Football
Michigan spring football game: 3 storylines to watch
College Football

Michigan spring football game: 3 storylines to watch

Updated Apr. 19, 2024 3:39 p.m. ET

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The last glimpses that Michigan fans had of their beloved Wolverines were quickly immortalized as some of the most cherished memories in program history. First came the national championship game in Houston, a 34-13 walloping of Washington in which head coach Jim Harbaugh led his alma mater back to the pinnacle of college football. Then came the celebratory parade in Ann Arbor, a raucous affair at which thousands of maize and blue devotees showered their team with affection.

This weekend marks the program's on-field return to the public eye after an offseason filled with change: to the coaching staff, the roster and the staffers behind the scenes. The reigning national champions will hold their spring game on Saturday at Michigan Stadium before a nationally televised audience — and with new head coach Sherrone Moore leading the way.

"They want more," Moore said of his players' mentality during a news conference last March. "They always got that chip on their shoulder. You win the natty, you would think people would be so satisfied that we won the natty and that's it. That's not it. We want more."

Here are three storylines to watch during Michigan's spring game, which you can watch on Saturday at noon ET on FOX:


A new era

For the first time since 2015, shortly after former coach Brady Hoke was fired, Jim Harbaugh won't be leading his alma mater into Michigan Stadium for the program's annual spring game. Three consecutive trips to the College Football Playoff bolstered Harbaugh's coaching résumé enough for the Los Angeles Chargers to welcome him back to the NFL, a place he inhabited from 2011-14 as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. And with that move, which was finalized in late January, roughly two weeks after Michigan won the national championship, Harbaugh's pursuit of a Super Bowl resumed.

The search for Harbaugh's replacement ended exactly how he'd hoped: with athletic director Warde Manuel promoting Moore, the offensive coordinator, to the full-time role. It was Moore who stewarded Michigan through four of the six games Harbaugh missed while serving multiple suspensions. And it was Moore whose leadership and astute playcalling ensured the Wolverines' unblemished record was still intact when Harbaugh returned for the postseason. To Manuel, it was an easy choice.

Still, there was nothing easy about Moore's first few weeks on the job. Harbaugh brought defensive coordinator Jesse Minter, defensive line coach Mike Elston, defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale and defensive assistant Dylan Roney with him to Los Angeles. He took director of strength and conditioning Ben Herbert, too. Moore was left to scurry and scramble in his search for suitable replacements as the start of spring practice loomed. But even one of the coaches he hired — defensive line coach Greg Scruggs — only lasted two weeks after getting arrested for OWI, at which point Scruggs resigned.

Throughout the process, Moore has maintained a far lower profile than his former boss ever did. He'll step back into the spotlight this weekend.

"I don't want any attention on me," Moore said. "I want it on our players. Everything that has to do with the players, that's what it's all about. I'm going to stay low and hidden as much as I can and let the players get the credit and the limelight. Allow them to flourish and work as hard as I can to make sure they're in a place to be successful."

Life after McCarthy

One of the biggest decisions Moore and offensive coordinator Kirk Campbell must make between now and the season opener against Fresno State is who will replace J.J. McCarthy at quarterback. McCarthy arrived in Ann Arbor as the most hyped quarterback prospect of the Harbaugh era, and he left for the NFL Draft having beaten Ohio State three times, won three Big Ten titles and brought the Wolverines their first national championship since 1997. It's an unquestionably hard act to follow.

That there doesn't seem to be an obvious heir remains arguably the biggest storyline surrounding Michigan as it prepares for the upcoming season. As it currently stands, the quarterback room includes seventh-year graduate student Jack Tuttle, senior Davis Warren, juniors Alex Orji and Jayden Denegal, and true freshman Jadyn Davis. The only player with any starting experience is Tuttle, who transferred from Indiana ahead of the 2023 campaign.

"Super excited about the room," Campbell said in mid-March. "We have five guys right now in that room that are gonna have opportunity to vie for that starting job. Just excited to see how it goes. We're taking one day at a time. Everything's an evaluation: from meetings to practice, how they carry themselves in the weight room, how they get along with the team, to completion percentage to decision-making. Constantly evaluating that. We've got a lot of talent in there. It's my job to get the best out of them."

How J.J. McCarthy's draft stock increased

Orji is reportedly the leading in-house candidate after seeing the field in certain run-heavy packages last season. The former three-star prospect has only attempted one pass in college: a 5-yard completion in 2022. It remains to be seen whether he's improved enough as a thrower to be a viable starter for a team eager to reach the CFP for a fourth straight year.

Moore offered thoughts on each quarterback during his February news conference:

On Tuttle: "A guy that's played a lot of football," Moore said. "He's got a great arm, great ability to run, can be a dual-threat guy but also very cerebral in the pocket. So a guy that can do that for you, he's been very impressive, everything he's done in the past and just excited for him."

On Orji: "Obviously a freak athlete," Moore said. "Really, the ability for him to be a game-changer with the ball in his hand, running the football is what he really has a different element from the other guys. We've seen it in the past. But it's not like he can't throw. He can, and he's throwing pretty well as he's gone through the springtime."

On Denegal: "Taller, more of a pocket guy," Moore said. "As we go through, probably more of a pocket passer."

On Warren: "Probably kind of has a little bit of a mix of all of them," Moore said. "A little bit smaller in stature, but very cerebral with a good arm." 

On Davis: "Very excited about him," Moore said. "He's picked up stuff super-fast. But you never know with a freshman, so we'll see. But he has all the abilities. So excited for him." 

The NCAA punishes Michigan for more recruiting violations

Wink and a nod

If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

That was Harbaugh's mindset when his defensive wunderkind, Mike Macdonald, returned to the Baltimore Ravens after one revolutionary season in Ann Arbor: the 2021 campaign that saw Michigan beat Ohio State for the first time in a decade and reach the CFP for the first time in school history. Macdonald's defense ranked eighth nationally in scoring by allowing just 17.4 points per game.

To replace him, Harbaugh turned to another ex-Raven who'd interviewed at the same time as Macdonald. In walked Jesse Minter, the former defensive backs coach in Baltimore, after one season coordinating the defense at Vanderbilt. And the Wolverines got even better: seventh in scoring in 2022 (16.1 points per game) and first in 2023 (10.4 points per game). Minter took the foundation Macdonald had laid and built the most fearsome defense in the country atop it.

Which is why it made perfect sense for Moore to revisit the Ravens' coaching tree yet again when selecting Minter's replacement. He made a splash hire by doling out more than $2 million per year for Don "Wink" Martindale, the defensive coordinator in Baltimore from 2018-21 when both Macdonald and Minter were on staff. Martindale, 60, spent the last two years as defensive coordinator for the New York Giants.

"Wink's awesome, man," Moore said. "I love Wink. Just a great, vibrant person. Great human being, but obviously an extremely intelligent coach. Super excited. The boys love him. He brings such a great vibe to the team."

Martindale referred to himself as the "OG" — original gangster — of the system Macdonald and Minter installed in Ann Arbor. He broke into coaching with collegiate stints at Notre Dame (1994-95), Cincinnati (1996-98), Western Illinois (1999) and Western Kentucky (2000-03) while working under Minter's father, Rick Minter, and Harbaugh's father, Jack Harbaugh, along the way. He's worked exclusively in the NFL since 2004.

The group Martindale inherited at Michigan is among the most talented in the country after bringing back a number of key contributors from the national title-winning squad. Cornerback Will Johnson and defensive tackles Mason Graham and Kenneth Grant could all be first-round picks in the 2025 NFL Draft. Fellow returners Makari Paige (safety), Derrick Moore (edge), Josaiah Stewart (edge), Ernest Hausmann (inside linebacker) and Quinten Johnson (safety) all logged at least 300 snaps last season. 

"The thing that I love about it is the system works," Martindale said in mid-March. "It's proven that it works. I think both Mike and Jesse did a tremendous job here at Michigan, and it's fun for me to watch the tape because you do become the proud parent, if you will, of seeing other guy's success and everything else."

Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Cohen13.


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