One of the nice things about Michigan dragging reporters a long distance is that Harbaugh has pity on them and opens practice. Last year the IMG trip saw three or four practices open to the public, and the just-concluded Rome trip finished with three as well. The first day in Rome was just shells and a walk-through since the team had downshifted from full-on padded practices after the spring game, but there's a fair amount of useful intel coming out of the latter two.
It would be hard for a trip to Rome to not look pretty cool for the croots; Michigan really hammered it home with all-access media coverage and an itinerary that ranged from seeing the sites to drinking out of public fountains...
...to paintball (in khakis, naturally)...
...to hanging with the Pope...
...to coach-versus-coach gladiatorial contests:
It looked better than any vacation I've ever taken by an order of magnitude.
All of this was documented by Michigan's own social media team and a legion of reporters, with an embedded ESPN guy.
Quite a turnaround in public relations skills from the last regime, and all of it pushed by a guy who is also the football coach.
This no doubt had various SEC coaches seething in rage and there will be a proposal to ban or limit such things as soon as possible. Michigan chose wisely by going to the center of Western Civilization(tm) and meeting the freakin' Pope, but no educational argument is going to withstand the white-hot fury of a bunch of dudes who can't imagine why you'd ever go anywhere but Waffle House.
That would be sad, since this seemed like a life-enhancing experience in a way a week in central Florida is not.
Most of the players had never been overseas.
Senior fullback Khalid Hill, a Detroit native who attended East English Village, said his biggest takeaway from the trip was the learning experience.
“Coming over here, learning different things, seeing different things, it’s amazing,” Hill said. “It’s something you don’t usually get a chance to do. I can go back home and say, ‘Man, I’m a kid from Detroit that got a chance to come over here and play and practice.’
“Not too many kids from Detroit can say that, even kids from Michigan. To do that is amazing. I love the experience of my last spring ball.”
We'll see what happens, but when the NCAA's official site is promoting your trip...
...you might have a shot. This is supposedly part of the NCAA's core mission.
Harbaugh’s motivation for the trip was to, as he has said on multiple occasions, put the student back in student-athlete. He has seen college football become a 12-month a year sport, and wanted the players to have some breathing room in May.
Many of the players are venturing off on backpacking trips for a few days before returning home, while others are leaving for three-week study-abroad programs.
Michigan plans to go to South Africa next year; let's hope they get to go.
Not enough data to go position by position but some additional practice buzz from folks who were in Rome mixed in with some standard insidery takes follow. There wasn't much on either line because of the nature of the practices, in which a lot of 7-on-7 was played while the linemen did drills. 7-on-7 is a lot more immediately comprehensible than line drills and thus understandably drew the bulk of attention from observers.
Nick Baumgardner's headliner was WR Tarik Black, who showed he can run a lot more than fade routes:
He caught a crossing route over the middle that was thrown high and behind him, with a defender on his hip, where it was simply all hands. The ball looked like a sure incompletion -- and in a live setting, maybe worse. But he was able to time his leap right, reach back and just glide through the catch. He has a unique ability to make difficult receptions look relatively easy.
For a first-year receiver, this seems rare. I've seen so many freshman receivers get into a camp -- whether it be in the spring or the fall -- and just look lost with their fundamentals. Black is not one of those guys.
Baumgardner threw in another Black mention in a subsequent article to emphasize his take, and Black also led Sam Webb's practice take roundup. Good news with a "right, still a freshman" twist:
Tarik Black looked impressive once again. At this point the coaches are really working him hard on route precision. Rounding off routes... standing up at the top of routes... things that he will improve upon in time. He's trying to learn the playbook while working on those things, so it's going to take some time. But he's too good right now to not see the field. He'll play. A lot.
Players ranked in Black's range are even less likely to be year one contributors than five-stars that hit at only a 33% rate (in year one), but enrolling early and impressing are big steps. One insider report has Black, not Donovan Peoples-Jones, starting next to Crawford if the season started today. It does not, and DPJ was limited for much of the spring with a series of minor injuries so he is a candidate to surge back into the lead. Black's prominence is worse news for Drake Harris and Moe Ways, neither of whom generated any spring buzz.
Quarterback is in a bit of a weird spot where... well, here's Sam describing the situation in an extensive board Q&A:
If you're asking me if what I've seen is further confirmation that Brandon is the most talented quarterback on the roster, my answer would be yes. No one is disputing that. I don't think the quarterbacks themselves would dispute that.
Despite that everyone has Wilton Speight the clear leader for the job, as rising juniors who finished in a dead heat for second in the Big Ten in passer rating tend to be. A couple of turnovers he coughed up while playing with a busted collarbone and a big-time spring game from Brandon Peters have everyone and their mother clamoring for the backup. The many upward pointing arrows on various parts of Peters's profile don't mean he's a favorite, or even particularly likely, to wrest the job away this fall. If Speight struggles or get hurt, I don't expect last year's Indiana game.
As far as the projected starter goes, he was locked in on Friday for the second practice:
On Friday, though, he was dealing.
Once Michigan cranked up the intensity of practice and got a little bit more live, Speight seemed to settle right into a groove and made some really, really impressive throws.
He hit a 25-yard corner route to a receiver in stride -- inside an air-tight window -- on an absolutely beautiful throw.
Pep Hamilton thought so, too.
"That's what we gotta do," Hamilton belted, pumping his fist into the air and slapping Speight on the back after the throw.
From there, he was on the money the rest of the day.
This is both a reminder that the spring game is a weak indicator and a throwback to last year, when Speight had spurts where he looked like the best QB in the country... and spurts where he looked like Michigan's biggest problem. I may be thinking of several deep balls that landed about four yards too long one night in Iowa City.
My operative theory last year was that the Harbaugh-ized version of Speight is a very, very good QB but he reverted to previous bad habits too often. If that is the case and the guy who is spooky accurate goes from 40 of snaps to 70% this year Michigan will have a hell of a passing game. Don't write off Speight yet.
Finally in passing game notes: Ian Bunting is still the expected starter as an inline TE, with Tyrone Wheatley's blocking still inconsistent.
Interestingly, Zach Gentry was mentioned as the starting FLEX, which is probably good news. Nick Eubanks has looked impressive this spring, so Gentry potentially forcing his way onto the field says good things about his ability to deliver matchup problems to opposing defenses. He's not far off Mike Gesicki, the Penn State tight end. Gesicki is the only football player in history worse at TE blocking than Devin Funchess, but 48 catches for 679 is outstanding receiving output.
Offensive line is status quo: Cole/Bredeson/Kugler/Onwenu/Runyan, with JBB held out of contact in Rome. Per Baumgardner, Bredeson did take some tackle snaps but his impression was that Michigan was relatively set with that line, give or take a freshman at right tackle. Per Webb there's good news and bad news here, with Cole "going toe to toe with Rashan Gary" and Ben Bredeson improving a great deal. On the downside, Mike Onwenu's weight is still an issue and Michigan is insisting he get down to 360.
I have a dollar on Andrew Stueber as the opening day RT, FWIW.