By JERAMY STOVER, Sports Editor
Defense might lead the way, but you still need to score points to win football games. And the offensive side of the ball hasn’t been the biggest strength of the University of Michigan football team.
In Jim Harbaugh’s first season as head coach we saw the offense look much like the one of successful Michigan teams of the past. It relied on a strong offensive line, running backs leading the way and a quarterback who can bring it all together.
Heading into the 2016 campaign there is little turnover on the offense – but it comes in critical places. The glue that holds the pieces together will be different as the Wolverines will showcase a new quarterback with Jake Rudock graduating. The man who snaps the ball to the quarterback will be new as well with the departure of Graham Glasgow at center.
Last season the Wolverines averaged 31.4 points per game, good for fiftieth best in the country. They were even farther down the list in yards per game as they averaged just 396 and ranked at No. 69. Michigan did its most damage against inferior teams and had its struggles during conference play. The Wolverines managed just three offensive touchdowns against its two rivals, Michigan State and Ohio State.
With little turnover comes a lot of returning experience. The Wolverines will return their leading rusher, their top three receivers and most of their offensive line. All of these tools will help whoever is chosen to start at quarterback for the maize and blue.
Let’s breakdown each position group as the spring game is this Friday.
There’s a lot to choose from, but when the lights turn on, only one gets to hit the field. Right now the leading favorite to be that guy is junior John O’Korn. He transferred to Michigan from Houston after the 2014 season – due to transfer rules O’Korn couldn’t play last season and spent the entire year on the scout team.
In 2013 as a freshman, O’Korn threw for 3,117 yards, 28 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He was awarded with the American Athletic Conference freshman of the year award. While patrolling the scout team last year, O’Korn roomed with Jake Rudock as they both learned the system Harbaugh likes to run. He is the only quarterback on the roster with experience of playing a full season.
Shane Morris and Wilton Speight are also in the mix for starting quarterback. Morris redshirted last season making him a junior again this season. He played sparingly two years ago but has yet to impress in his limited time on the field. Even with Harbaugh bringing in transfers to heat up the competition, quarterback Morris has vowed that he will stay with the Wolverines throughout his career and will fight to get the starting quarterback job.
Speight played in five games last year but most notably on the road against Minnesota. As Rudock suffered an injury during the tightly-contested battle with the Gophers, Speight stepped in and led Michigan to a pivotal win.
Incoming freshman Brandon Peters will also throw his name in the hat of potential starting quarterbacks. Peters was the sixth-ranked pro-style quarterback according to Rivals.com and has the physical tools to be a successful quarterback. He will have to raise many eyebrows in the offseason to earn the starting job, but will more than likely redshirt in 2016.
The only name missing from the list of running backs this season will be Derrick Green – who decided to transfer during the offseason. Sione Houma has also left due to graduation but he was more of a running-back/fullback hybrid.
De’Veon Smith will be back to lead the Wolverines ground game. He accounted for 753 yards last season and scored six touchdowns. Smith is a bruising back with some flashes of speed.
Drake Johnson – a smaller, shiftier runner – also returns and will look to hold on to the back-up role behind Smith.
With Houma and Green gone there is an open role for the third-string running back.
Ty Isaac will look to fulfill his five-star rated potential this season and emerge as a productive part of the offense. Freshman Kareem Walker will have something to say about that. The sixth-rated running back, according to Rivals.com, arrived on campus in January looking to get a head start on impressing his new coaches.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends:
Arguably the most talented position group on offense, the receiving corps is loaded with experience and quality. Jake Butt returns to earn a second consecutive All-American nod. He, along with Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh, accounted for nearly 70 percent of the team’s receiving yards and 81 percent of the touchdowns.
Grant Perry, Maurice Ways and Drake Harris will look to compliment Chesson and Darboh efficiently. All three receivers got playing time last season and will look to fend off the few incoming freshmen looking to earn their own time on the field. One of those freshmen is Ahmir Mitchell, who has looked impressive in spring camp. Mitchell is listed as 6-foot-3 and weighs just over 200 pounds, giving him a physical edge going into the season.
Behind Butt at tight end is Ian Bunting, Zach Gentry and T.J. Wheatley. Bunting has the most experience among the three, recording five catches for 72 yards last season. Gentry might be the most athletic out of the bunch, as he was recruited by Michigan as a quarterback. The 6-foot-7 redshirt freshman has been reportedly fitting into his new role nicely and may see the field sooner than people think this season. Wheatley will be more of a blocking tight end this season. Like Gentry, he converted positions as he was originally recruited as a defensive lineman.
The offensive line will look to beat out the receivers to be known as catalyst of the offense. With Harbaugh’s power run scheme, the brutes up front are critically important.
A lot of familiar faces will hold the line of scrimmage for the Wolverines this upcoming season, but some will be in new positions. Mason Cole is making the switch from left tackle to center, replacing Glasgow. Grant Newsome, who was known as the sixth offensive linemen last season, will most likely be the starting left tackle.
Ben Braden, Erik Magnuson and Kyle Kalis should round out the starting line, all of whom have plenty of experience and now a year’s worth of it in Harbaugh’s system. The experience the offensive line brings should allow the new starting quarterback to fill into his role comfortably when the season begins.
Michael Onwenu and Ben Bredeson are highly touted freshmen that won’t arrive on campus until the summer. While both have bright futures in Ann Arbor, it is unlikely neither will see much playing time this season and could very possibly redshirt.