First, a little feelingsball
Spring games are notorious for being a little data amidst an ocean of noise, so as always take everything here with a grain of salt. And this section isn't even a concrete observation about a player, so doubly so here. But… my favorite thing that happened on Friday wasn't a play.
It was the aftermath of the two-point conversion, when the white team poured onto the field like they'd just won the Super Bowl and blue team coach Chris Partridge roared off the sideline to have a Harbaugh-level conniption fit at the ref.
A couple other coaches reacted similarly, if not as dramatically, as Partridge; the white team organized at midfield for a photo. Wyatt Shallman headbanged like there was no tomorrow. Drake Johnson collapsed in a heap.
Drake Johnson collapses on the field after his team gets stopped on a potential game-winning 2-pt. conversion. pic.twitter.com/Beyur1LaIW
— Dan Murphy (@DanMurphyESPN) April 4, 2016
I tweeted to Ace that he should title the recap "Controversial finish mars Spring Game ending,"* because that was funny. It's only funny because it's kind of true.
This is a different thing now. Last year's team was good but it was still caught between being a program that apologizes for a tent stake and a program whose DGAF levels are off the charts. Judging from the reactions of everyone involved on both sides, the all-competition-all-the-time ethos has sunk in. That more than anything else makes me anticipate the upcoming season.
This concludes your feelingsball portion of the program.
*[He did not, and I was all like ಠ_ಠ.]
[After THE JUMP: position by position breakdowns of what we learned on offense]
I am now convinced it's a real competition. Wilton Speight only had six attempts, but he completed five of them, confidently. I also had the benefit of observing the Ford Field practice, where nobody seemed clearly ahead of the pack at quarterback. Another piece of evidence in favor of a real competition: no quarterback got a quick you're-a-starter hook. John O'Korn is not a lock.
That said, I wouldn't read too much into the stats. O'Korn drew the short straw when it came to OL, WR, and opposing DBs. He took off after one or two reads a ton. At first I was pleased since the result of those plays was generally good; then I was annoyed since the sheer frequency of his scrambles was indicative of a guy who wasn't seeing the field; then I re-checked those wide receivers and the amount of pressure O'Korn was getting. Scrambling a lot was the move.
Given the situation he did relatively well with it, despite the 6/14 line. Many of those passes were at walk-ons, quarterbacks, and, in one memorable incident, an offensive lineman.
Speight does seem to have taken a meaningful step forward. When he entered the Minnesota game he felt a lot like Russell Bellomy, wobbling iffy passes that made it seem like Michigan would never move the ball. Speight started overturning that expectation with the last drive of that game and he continued that through the spring. He does not have a huge arm; his increased comfort with the offense has made that less obvious. I think his mechanics have improved as well, as the characteristic wobble from his passes in the Minnesota game was absent this spring.
It sounds like this is a classic choice between upside and low variance. Webb had this take from Michigan's Florida practices:
John O'Korn showed the most consistent deep ball touch all the quarterbacks over the four days in Florida. However, during the portion of practice that the media was present for he also appeared to have more interceptions. He tried to squeeze the ball in spots at times, threw late at others. To be clear, he didn’t perform poorly. He was just a little inconsistent in the short/intermediate game.
It does seem down to Speight and O'Korn. Shane Morris and Alex Malzone had a series or two each as the game progressed. That playing time was soundly in the realm of backups, and it's telling that when O'Korn's team was faced with a do-or-die drive in the fourth quarter he emerged from the bench to lead them to a not-quite-tying touchdown. Morris played wide receiver on that drive.
That final drive is a useful item to compare and contrast with: last year it was Malzone tapped to run the last-ditch two minute drill. Malzone threw four passes short of the sticks and that was it; O'Korn drove for a touchdown. While nobody looked great, this position group's overall performance was night and day from last year at this time. The Harbaugh effect is kicking in.
With Morris moonlighting at wide receiver and Malzone seemingly behind, if anyone's going to challenge the two leaders it'll probably be freshman Brandon Peters. Peters looks uncannily smooth for a gentleman just out of high school. He dropped a lovely touch pass to Zach Gentry in limited time; it's already hard to distinguish his play from anyone else on the roster. He's likely to cool his heels this year; I haven't seen anything that would derail the considerable hype train he's already got behind him. Lorenz:
- Michigan is excited about Brandon Peters. Jim Harbaugh could barely hold it in when talking to reporters, and the reviews so far have been raves. A lot of the talk about Peters in high school was that his release was a half second slow and that sometimes he was almost too calm when in the pocket. That's a beyond easy to correct thing, and the fact that poise and calm is the thing he already possesses has the staff pumped up about what Peters can do.
The QB battle in 2018 is going to be bonkers.
Ty Isaac is the main story amongst folks who actually touched the ball, but don't overlook De'Veon Smith getting treated like he's Butt or Lewis. Smith only got a few carries at Ford Field and zero in the spring game, and he was healthy. Harbaugh stated he was both the first guy in line for all drills and the "clear cut starter" at tailback; nevermind that fullback noise coming from me.
Back to Isaac: he's down ten or fifteen pounds and had an eye-opening spring game. The shot above was the tail end of a long run on which he added an extra ten at the end by bursting past Jabrill Peppers, which I didn't know was possible. His cuts were decisive; he finally looked like the kind of athlete you should be if you're going to be a five-star recruit.
Perhaps more importantly, he is getting right with Harbaugh. From Webb's interview:
"(I've noticed) a harder rougher guy. He just does. There's never an excuse. Just harder. You watch him just get rougher and get harder right before your eyes. I'm really pleased. Really pleased the way he is doing that now. Where some of the outside runs are something he is really good at, taking the responsibility of being a guy that run between the guards... run between the tackles... stick it up in there... lower his shoulder pads when he crosses the line of scrimmage and start embracing that and knowing, 'I've got to get a little better at that."
Every couple weeks last year there were rumors that Isaac and Harbaugh had a crappy relationship and Isaac might even end up transferring again. Those are in the rear view mirror, knock on wood.
Isaac's spring production was a little too bounce-heavy to expect all of it to translate to actual games, but his cuts were decisive and correct, his speed remarkable, and his ball security good. Along with Drake Johnson, who looks like Drake Johnson, Michigan looks to have a steady upperclass trio at tailback.
Given that I don't expect a huge role for other guys. Webb noted that there was a "noticeable gap" between the upperclassmen and the gents chasing them, especially in pass protection. Kareem Walker did truck poor damn Ken Sloss on one of his carries; other than that the young guys didn't have opportunities to do much. I'd guess there's a redshirt waiting for at least one of them.
just look at this monster [Upchurch]
Fullback is all but certain to be a combination of Henri Poggi and Khalid Hill. Bobby Henderson will probably get some time too; when Michigan wanted to run the fullback in this game he seemed like the best option. I'm guessing Hill gets the plurality of playing time since he's the right shape and size for the spot and he brings receiving chops that are unusual for the position. His one-handed stab of a Speight pass that was too far in front of him turned an incompletion into six yards.
Hill was used relatively sparsely last year with AJ Williams having a personal renaissance, but when he got the opportunity to block somebody he did a decent job at it. He's kind of an up and down player at this point—he misses a number of blocks by lunging, but when he gets it right he is forceful.
Tight end… hoo boy. Jake Butt returns. He needs as much further discussion as Jourdan Lewis; he's an NFL player who has decided that he wants to play for a team one last time. Past Butt there is Ian Bunting, who sources close to the program project will have a breakout year, and Tyrone Wheatley Jr., who sources close to MGoBlog authors project will replace Dennis Norfleet as the site's possibly-irrational fave-rave.
MGoBlog authors would protest the "possibly irrational" section characterization and point to Wheatley's various impressive plays this spring, including that one-handed catch that turned into a seventy yard touchdown you've already heard all about. In the spring game Wheatley made a couple catches underneath and further showed off his blocking skills. I have no doubt he has a ways to go to be elite, but early returns are encouraging. I focused on him on a few different plays; I caught him blowing Rueben Jones five yards off the ball and stalemating Chris Wormley in pass protection. Drevno on Wheatley:
"He's been a tight end and that's his position," Drevno said. "It's always nice to have a big body there, he's a big body guy. He can move people off the ball and I always think he can go out and run a pattern. He can work a guy, those little short routes by the tight end is kind of playing the boards in basketball. Big target, put the ball over here and you're running with it and go. It's hard, you want a blocking tight end and they're hard to find."
He had one drop-type substance on a short route, but that was understandable. The quarterback put it outside the frame of his body, which gave a linebacker in coverage an opportunity to rake the ball out. Wheatley almost pinned it to his thigh but couldn't quite manage it. All other throws he's seen have been catches. I think he fills the AJ Williams role capably this year and blows up in 2017.
Zach Gentry had another nice catch after impressing at Ford Field, and while nobody expects him to play much this year the potential there is obvious. Drevno:
"Zach Gentry is a big, tall guy. A big target, he reminds me of a tight end, Evan Moore, at Stanford who played there. He's that type of guy who you could split him out, put him down and he's a really good athlete. I really like Zach, he's really taken the bull by the horns and really liking the position change and really being a team guy that wants the best for the team."
He provides even more catching radius than Butt does. Blocking is likely to be iffy since dude is so tall, but all 6'8" guys have to do is get in the way most of the time.
Michigan's talked up freshman Sean McKeon as a guy who could see time early; I didn't see too much from him during the two practices. Given what's in front of McKeon I'd redshirt him.
With Chesson and Darboh out Michigan was down to Drake Harris, Grant Perry, Ahmir Mitchell, and walk-ons. Those guys were largely outclassed by starting DBs and largely outclassed the backups.
Harris did have a nice eight-yard comeback route he executed against Jeremy Clark; Clark would return the favor and then some by dominating a fade route late in the first half. Harris's 30-yard catch was on a converted WR walk-on occupying this year's Dennis Norfleet Memorial "WTF am I doing?" spot, but it was still a nice adjustment to a ball in the air.
Even so, Harris is still really skinny. O'Korn didn't seem to zero in on him like you might expect when the other options usually include a quarterback. Given chatter we'll cover later in this section it feels like Harris has fallen behind classmate Moe Ways, and there's a lot of competition arriving this fall. Don't write him off, of course. He retains the talent that made him a coveted recruit. Fisch:
"Drake Harris has had a really good last two days, had his best day (Tuesday), really making some plays as he's got amazing jumping ability and he's shown that."
That's good news. Better news is that other than a bout with norovirus, Harris has been present and correct for the duration of spring—hopefully the hamstring issues are in the past.
With Harris kind of iffy it was Grant Perry who made the best impression, making three catches on balls from Speight on which the precision of his routes got him separation. Perry had a breakout game in the bowl and looks set to build on that as a sophomore. He should be a chain-mover in the mold of Drew Dileo or Martavious Odoms.
Moe Ways was not at either practice I got to take in thanks to a foot injury, but down in Florida he impressed. Sam Webb:
Maurice Ways made his presence felt. Whether it was the jump ball he caught over Jourdan Lewis… or the backside nine route that he didn’t loaf on because the play was unlikely to come to him and resulted in a touchdown… he looked ready to seriously compete for a prime rotation spot.
As a recruit Ways was regarded a lot like Ahmir Mitchell is: big body, good athlete, questionable WR skills. Ways's hands were a particular bugaboo that prevented him from rising up the rankings. In that context this from Jedd Fisch is the best possible thing to hear about him:
"Mo Ways has improved a lot. I'm not sure I can remember a drop so far (from him) this spring. I think Mo Ways leads us with the least amount of drops."
Mo has been having a really good spring. Route running has improved, hands have been consistent, and his basketball ability (i.e. jump balls) has been showing up. More encouraging has been the ability he has shown as a downfield threat.
A version of Ways with excellent hands is a tantalizing prospect indeed; a reasonable goal this year is to establish himself as a clear heir apparent with a dozen or so catches, one of them an eye-popper.
Mitchell is more or less what his scouting reports indicated: an athlete in search of a position. I saw a couple of drops at Ford Field, and when he's popped up in practice reports it's usually to either mention another drop or some lack of technique. On the other hand, he looks like he could snap Harris in half, and moves very well. He is a quintessential boom-or-bust prospect.
It'll be a year or two before he can translate his physical skills into production. That hole at safety does beckon, meanwhile.
Those guys are all backups, give or take your opinion on whether a slot receiver is a starter in a Harbauffense. (Survey says: nah.) Chesson and Darboh are the guys to really focus on when we talk about Michigan's 2016 fortunes, and while Chesson was out Amara Darboh made as much hay as possible. Praise for him has been universal and effusive. Let's start with Harbaugh himself:
"Amara Darboh has really elevated his game. I'll say this to Jehu as well. I thought Jehu was a little better receiver than Amara Darboh was last season. They were close... really close. But now, Amara has surged a bit ahead of Jehu and he has done that by working this spring like he hasn't played a down of football at Michigan. He has been a fantastic worker the entire spring."
If you're cynical you could chalk that up to motivation or Harbaugh maniacal focus on guys who play every snap of every practice. Various insider takes have backed up Harbaugh, though. Lorenz relates that "literally every person we've asked" has said that Darboh was having an excellent spring. One of Webb's main takeaways from Michigan's Florida practices was that Darboh had been "simply stellar":
He got open against everyone including Jourdan Lewis at times. O'Korn found Darboh on a 70 post and would’ve connected the senior pass catcher on another bomb had he not hung a pass down the sideline after Darboh had beaten Stribling by two-steps on a stutter & go. Precision route running got him free on slants and digs all day.
Darboh beat Lewis for at touchdown at Ford Field as well. He also got dominated on a similar route; I'll take 50/50 against Jourdan Lewis any day of the week. Darboh's never seemed like much of a deep threat, which is fine, but like you know if he can add that I'm not complaining. At the very least he should be a great #2 WR.
Much hinges on Newsome [Fuller]
This section is going to be short and unsatisfying because it's hard to tell much of anything when the starting OL is spread across two teams and the backups aren't great. We do have a few items we can infer. One is that Grant Newsome is doing well enough to forestall shuffling. Mason Cole has played center the whole spring. Michigan seems more or less set on their starting five.
You can read that one of two ways. One: hooray consistency. Two: boo depth.
I think it's some of both. Cole drew the massively hyped Bryan Mone for much of the spring game, and Mone was quiet. He got bashed off the line on one of Isaac's big runs, in fact. Various projections, including this space's, that Cole would be an A+ center appear to be accurate. There was a lot of 1-vs-1s at the Ford Field practice and Michigan's OL looked functional and cohesive. Ben Braden has come in for praise various places as he develops into a very legit Big Ten guard. Anyone who watched Braden last year could see that process themselves—remember the aftermath of the Utah game? Braden got wrecked. By the end of the year he was fending off first-round picks on Florida's DL.
Webb actually asserted that at point this spring you could "legitimately say the offense won the day," which… when was the last time you heard that? Probably when Rich was around, and Michigan's defense was literally its worst ever. This defense will not be Michigan's worst ever. So that's not bad to hear. Michigan's offensive line is finally in a place where they've got a bunch of seniors and more than one player who should be quite good.
On the other hand, Newsome has struggled significantly in pass protection. While it's possible that Taco Charlton is going to blow up, the frequency with which he's getting past Newsome still alarms. Assertions that Chase Winovich is also causing Newsome trouble further that alarm. It's possible that if there was a sixth or seventh offensive lineman who was a real threat they would push through and send Cole back to left tackle, where he was pretty good as a true sophomore.
Lorenz did hear that Patrick Kugler was "pushing", but info on him has been mixed. David Dawson has been out with injury, and it doesn't seem like anyone else currently on the roster is anywhere near the starters. If there is an injury Michigan may cross their fingers and fling Ben Bredeson out there a la Cole two years ago.
The starting offensive line should be at least okay but there's very little capacity to absorb an injury.