College Football
Michigan spring game takeaways: Donovan Edwards' year to shine
College Football

Michigan spring game takeaways: Donovan Edwards' year to shine

Updated Apr. 20, 2024 4:52 p.m. ET

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The pomp and circumstance that came with the reigning national champions returning to the public eye for an annual spring game was enhanced by the event that preceded it: a ring ceremony commemorating one of the most special seasons in the illustrious history of Michigan football.

Former head coach Jim Harbaugh, now in charge of the Los Angeles Chargers, was back in town. So, too, were droves of players from the team that beat Ohio State for a third straight year, won the Big Ten title for a third straight year and captured the Wolverines' first national championship since 1997. A photo of Harbaugh sporting the "15-0" tattoo he promised to get if Michigan ran the table began making the rounds on social media.

And then came the game: a traditional four-quarter affair in which Michigan's coaching staff drafted players onto two teams for an abbreviated game. New head coach Sherrone Moore wandered the field with FOX analyst Joel Klatt, while offensive coordinator Kirk Campbell coached the Maize team and defensive coordinator Don "Wink" Martindale coached the Blue team. The Maize prevailed with a 17-7 victory on a cold and windy afternoon at Michigan Stadium.

Here are three takeaways from the game:


A leading role

With All-American tailback Blake Corum meandering the sideline as a distinguished guest — his career having ended with the national title he promised to win — the workhorse role in Michigan's backfield shifted to Donovan Edwards, now a rising senior.

A former five-star recruit from nearby West Bloomfield, Michigan, Edwards waited his turn behind Corum the last two seasons and Hassan Haskins before that. He enjoyed breakout moments against Ohio State (216 yards, two TDs) and Purdue (185 yards, one TD) in 2022 and then eschewed the chance to enter the transfer portal for the sake of chasing a championship in Ann Arbor. He traded individual accolades for team success in what was a fairly modest season on a personal level — until, that is, he exploded for 104 yards and two touchdowns in the national title game against Washington.

But now, as the 2024 season approaches, there's little question about who owns the backfield. Edwards will be the featured tailback for the first time in his career with converted linebacker Kalel Mullings in a supporting role. Beyond that, the running back depth chart is unclear.

The opening drive in Saturday's spring game became a showcase for everything Edwards has to offer, from his burst across the line of scrimmage to his open-field speed whenever he rounds the corner. With H-back Max Bredeson as his lead blocker, Edwards slashed through holes for 34 yards on five carries. The only thing that kept him from a lengthy touchdown run was a shoestring tackle from cornerback Jyaire Hill.

"His added weight is going to be much better for him," Campbell said. "He’ll break some more tackles. I thought he ran extremely hard today. I know it was short, but I thought he ran probably one of the hardest [games] I’ve ever seen him run. I told him that at halftime. I was proud of him." 

Taking the reins

As Moore soaked in Saturday's game from a vantage point behind the line of scrimmage, it was easy to wonder about the thoughts running through his mind regarding Michigan's quarterbacks.

J.J. McCarthy's decision to forgo his final season of eligibility to enter the NFL Draft left Moore and Campbell with two significant choices to make between now and kickoff against Fresno State. Their first decision — the short-term decision — is whether the Wolverines have an adequate quarterback on their roster, or if they need to procure one from the transfer portal, which closes on April 30. And the second decision — which likely won't be made until August at the earliest — is who should lead the program in 2024 as Michigan chases a fourth consecutive berth in the College Football Playoff.

"I mean, all of them are great leaders," Campbell said of Michigan's current quarterbacks, "but who is the great guy, the best guy to go out there and lead this team? We were fortunate last year to have a guy that was outstanding with that, and we need to see a guy that can replace that. So there’s stuff on the field and off the field that we’re evaluating."

Anecdotally, interviews with players and coaches throughout the spring suggested Alex Orji, a junior, is the in-house leader. At 6-foot-3 and 236 pounds, Orji brings a different physical profile and playing style to McCarthy and Cade McNamara before him. Orji is considered the best overall athlete on Michigan's roster and a true dual-threat runner and passer. He ran for 1,187 yards and 24 touchdowns as a senior at Sachse High School in Sachse, Texas.

Playing for the Blue team, Orji led the first-string offense to a touchdown on the opening possession. He completed three of five passes for 24 yards and capped the drive with a 17-yard touchdown run that showcased his open-field ability, turning the corner and outrunning the Maize secondary.

"There’s gonna be times when it’s a pass play and there’s time to scramble," Orji said. "So I think that’s another thing this spring that Coach Campbell has talked to us about as a whole unit, a whole group, about just being smart. There’s no reason to hang on in the pocket for no reason and try to prove this and that when it’s time to go."

Alex Orji rushes for a 17-yard touchdown in the Michigan Wolverines spring game

Orji's second drive was an unsightly three-and-out in which he sailed a throw over an intended receiver on third down. His final drive ended when Orji was "sacked" on fourth down in the red zone, after which he appeared to be limping. (Orji later told reporters he felt fine.) 

The other quarterback most often mentioned near the top of Michigan's depth chart is former Indiana transfer Jack Tuttle, who was granted a seventh year of eligibility earlier this spring. Tuttle missed Saturday's game with an undisclosed injury.

Owning the middle

By this point, there's little question that the literal and metaphorical strength of Michigan's defense will be the defensive tackle tandem of Mason Graham and Kenneth Grant, both of whom were among the captains for their respective teams on Saturday afternoon. Both could be first- or second-round picks in the 2025 NFL Draft.

With 657 pounds and 15 career tackles for loss between them, Graham and Grant form arguably the most fearsome interior pairing in the country following breakout sophomore seasons. They, along with former defensive tackle Kris Jenkins, who happily addressed the crowd during the spring game, anchored a unit that ranked sixth in the country against the run in 2023 by surrendering just 90 yards per game. And the 52 combined quarterback pressures for Graham and Grant represented nearly 19% of Michigan's total last year.

Though they lined up on opposite sidelines for Saturday's game, the impact that disruptive defensive linemen can have on an offense became increasingly clear. Graham, who played for the Blue team, displaced at least one offensive lineman on nearly every snap he played. And Graham, who played for the Maize team, lingered over Edwards after leveling the tailback with a vicious tackle in the hole.

Not a bad duo for Martindale to lean on this fall.

"Fifteen practices going against that defense is not fun," Orji said. "But it's fun to get better, you know?"

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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