SEASON PREVIEW TAKE: Some concern generally overridden by Harbaugh's flawless track record as a QB coach and developer:
On one level, "who is the starting quarterback?" is the single most critical question about the 2016 Michigan Wolverines. On another level, eh, it'll be fine.
By the time the preview was published Speight was expected to start, and he has indeed started. The "expectations" section pointed out that Speight had just as much experience in Harbaugh's system as Rudock did even then, so a repeat of Early Rudock was probably not on the cards. On the other hand:
It's probably irrational to believe that the starter will be late-season Rudock. Despite Rudock's early struggles this is a guy who was a solid two-year starter at Iowa prior to his arrival. Speight has about two quarters of on-field experience, and O'Korn's season and a half ended in disaster.
...The end result should be somewhere near last year's outcome: 60% completions, 8 YPA, 2:1 TD-INT. The ride there should be far less turbulent.
I offered some clarification as I projected a new starter would be one of the most efficient QBs in the league: the Big Ten has no quarterbacks.
NUMBERS AT THE HALFWAY MARK: Close to preseason projections. He's at 62%, 7.5 YPA, and an 11-2 TD-INT ratio. The YPA is a bit off the target mark, but Speight's done a good job avoiding interceptions. He's also been fortunate that a number of throws against Wisconsin didn't get picked off. S&P+ has an "expected turnover margin" metric; Michigan is +6 on the season but expected to be +3; I'd imagine most of this is a gap between the number of PBUs the other team has gotten without picking the ball off.
Otherwise, fancystats are oddly enthusiastic, with S&P+ declaring Michigan the #26 passing offense thus far despite peripheral numbers that are mediocre. They do capture Speight's tendency to start slow:
Michigan has a spate of average-or-worse P5 passing defenses coming up (Illinois, MSU, Indiana, and Iowa are all in a band between 46th and 68th in S&P+, with Indiana(!!!) leading the way at 46) along with a good Maryland outfit (that is terrible at run defense, surprise) and the looming monstrosity that is Ohio State. The schedule doesn't uptick until the Game and whatever postseason Michigan arrives at; Speight should reach the end of the regular season with numbers at least equal to his current production.
FEELINGSBALL: It's hard to tell if we're genuinely disappointed in Speight's performance as a redshirt sophomore first-year starter or if we just don't have anything else to complain about. UFRs and PFF suggest the former, however. Speight's shown a couple of nice attributes—he's got excellent pocket presence and will find second and third reads—that are offset by spates of iffy accuracy, especially early.
This certainly doesn't feel like a passing offense on the verge of the top 25 nationally, and Speight stands out as the single biggest fixable problem Michigan has.
UP OR DOWN OR EH: I'd say this is a slight downgrade, because Speight's actually gone slightly backward from a strong start. The trajectory has been flat over the past few games, and he's increasingly unlikely to take off a la Rudock.
SEASON PREVIEW TAKE: De'Veon Smith was projected as the main man, flanked by Ty Isaac and Drake Johnson, the two veteran options. Smith was "a good bet to be Michigan's first 1,000 yard back since Fitz Toussaint" after a second half surge in 2015, but I did use "plurality" instead of "majority" when describing his workload.
Ty Isaac was expected to emerge after a rough 2015 largely based on practice hype and Harbaugh press conference pronouncements; I expected him to be the clear #2 and heir apparent. Chris Evans actually got quite a lot of airtime for someone listed as a backup to Jabrill Peppers at the "spread H" position I made up so I could shoehorn Peppers into the RB post, because the practice chatter about him had been nonstop.
Karan Higdon, on the other hand, was shoved in with the freshmen and mostly forgotten about.
NUMBERS AT THE HALFWAY MARK: Drake Johnson's recovery from the forklift thing was apparently exaggerated; he has not played. Smith has gotten the plurality of carries and might have a slight majority of snaps but it's a lot more even than we thought it would be preseason. This is partially because Michigan's been on the friendly end of a lot of blowouts; it is partially because the top four backs are all producing. The four milkmen:
- Smith: 61 carries, 5.5 YPC
- Ty Isaac: 53 carries, 5.5 YPC
- Evans: 48 carries, 8.3(!) YPC
- Higdon: 35 carries, 7.4 YPC
This is, how you say, unsustainable. Higdon in particular has been handed multiple offset draw touchdowns so easy that most readers of this blog could have picked up a first down on them. The fancystats that ignore garbage time have Michigan 21st as a rush offense.
FEELINGSBALL: Along with the linebackers this unit is the most pleasant surprise of the season. Smith has mostly picked up where he left off in the bowl game. There have been a few iffy cuts but those are the exceptions rather than the rule; he seems to have learned to press the hole and put himself in another gap. His pass protection may have fallen off a bit and he fumbled against Rutgers; otherwise he's been close to the best version of himself.
Meanwhile the other three guys are revelations. And yes, three. Since Isaac did little last year and nothing after his fumbles against Maryland this is actually three players bursting onto the scene, not two. And burst they have. Each guy brings a slightly different package of skills to the table. Isaac is huge and can weave from one hole to the next, stiffarming the first DB he meets into a pile of sludge. Evans is lightning quick and will turn five yards into 50 more consistently than other options—he's averaging 10.3(!) yards a play after he gets those first five, which is a bonkers number. Higdon is the best guy for a power play, a shifty guy who runs low to the ground and bounces off tackles.
All of them have looked like capable feature backs. Ty Wheatley's found some traction with his charges this year.
UP OR DOWN OR EH: Major upgrade. Michigan entered the season still a little suspicious of Smith and uncertain if there was anything high-quality behind him. Six games into this season Michigan appears to have four good to very good backs.