2017 Michigan Football Season Preview: Breaking Down the Offense

The tail end of the season for Michigan fans was frustrating. It wasn’t just because we lost 3 games by 5 points, but it’s because it felt like the solution wasn’t all that difficult. So many times – get a first down in crunch time, and the game is over.

  • Against Wisconsin, Michigan had the ball and a touchdown lead with 3:24 to go on the opponent 45 – 3 plays, 4 yards, punt. Thanks to a beautiful Kenny Allen punt pinning the Badgers to their own goal line, the Michigan defense held the game in check (and set up one of the greatest interceptions you’ll ever see) and the team escaped with a 14-7 win.
  • Against Michigan State, Michigan was up by a comfortable two score lead with 1:45 to play after Peppers sacked Lewerke on 4th down to turn the ball over, all but mathematically sealing the victory over MSU. However, the offense could only muster 9 yards on 3 plays, resulting in a punt. MSU did score another touchdown (and Jabrill returned the dignified yet fumbled 2-point attempt), and even though the game felt out of reach, a first down with 1:21 to go would have erased any doubt – after 2015, that’s all anyone wanted.
  • Against Iowa, Michigan had a 13-11 lead with 1:54 remaining. After a 3 play, 2 yard drive, Michigan is forced to punt and Iowa drives the ball down the field to kick a game winning field goal.
  • Against Ohio State, Michigan had a 17-14 lead that was looking shakier by the play with 7:01 remaining. The offense had sputtered throughout most of the 2nd half, but it was no secret that it would fall on the defense’s shoulders to secure Michigan’s first win in Columbus in what feels like ages. After 3 plays, 6 yards, and only 1:25 off the clock, OSU got the ball back with more than 5 to play, drives the ball downfield and sends the game to overtime with a field goal with :01 remaining. We know the rest (JT was short).

Losing 3 games by 5 points is heartbreaking, but the way Michigan did it was just frustrating. Iowa and OSU were there for the taking, yet a few clutch drives that needed just a single first down were nowhere to be found and the opposing team picked apart a talented yet exhausted defense to win a heartbreaker (the bowl game was a different story, the offense looked wildly entertaining in the fourth quarter only to end on yet another defensive heartbreaker).

Before we continue, a few more (legitimate) gripes I noted from #MichiganTwitter about the offense last season:

  • Whenever Jabrill lined up on offense, he went from decoy to additional weapon to obvious ball handler. Down the stretch, it felt like whenever he was on the field, he got the ball. It became predictable.
  • Same for Eddie McDoom, only different. Because his jet sweeps and end-arounds were so successful (played in all 13 games, averaged 10 yards a carry on 16 carries, but only caught 5 passes), it became predictable and whenever he went in motion behind the line, the defense began to jump the snap.
  • Rutgers still doesn’t belong in the Big Ten.

Overall, I expect Michigan’s offense to be more explosive this season. Perhaps a bit flashier, but a lot more athletic, a lot quicker, and an enticing hybrid of 2016 Harbaugh’s Sleight-Of-Hand-And-A-Little-Bit-Of-Thunder-And-Lightning and Lloyd Carr’s Run-Behind-The-Really-Big-Linemen-And-Pass-To-Braylon-When-You-Need-To. Until further notice, this is Wilton Speight’s team, and I trust both Harbaugh’s judgment to pick a starter and skills as a coach to develop him into a star – or at least competent field general.


  • Projected Starter: Wilton Speight, RS Jr.
  • Back up: John O’Korn, 5th year
  • In the hunt: Brandon Peters, RS Fr.
  • Don’t forget about me: Alex Malzone, RS So., Dylan McCaffrey (likely to redshirt)
  • Losses: Shane Morris (transfer to CMU)

Photo: Getty Images

Like I said: until further notice, this is Speight’s team,

and (hot take) I am okay with that. He was either a world beater (vs. PSU, vs. Maryland), a hot mess (@ Iowa, part of FSU), or an injured in-between that seemed to force a lot of his throws (@ OSU). His leadership and knowledge of the system/ability to adapt to the defense in front of him will be tested this year since he loses the leading rusher and excellent pass blocker in De’Veon Smith and his top three receiving targets of Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson, and Jake Butt (more on them later). When Speight started against Hawai’i to kick off 2016, I was hoping for a season-long arc of improvement like Jake Rudock had in 2015, but what we got was…not that. I’m no football tactician and I don’t understand the X’s and O’s of the game as well as I’d like, but it doesn’t take a professional football coach to understand the regression we saw in his final 3 games. Forced throws, bad decisions, awkward mechanics…and 3 losses by 5 points.

Speight was the starter and to most coaching staffs, that would mean the starting job would be his by default. He has lost 23 pounds this offseason, poised to be more Rudock and less Navarre, but don’t forget that there is a new sheriff in town in Pep Hamilton, whom Harbaugh praised mightily a few weeks ago. He can take last year into account for playbook purposes, but he doesn’t have any preconceived notions on personnel. Hamilton will plug rigorous coaching into Drevno’s offense and if they decide Speight can win the most football games, then so be it. If they decide O’Korn can win the most football games, I’m good with that too. If they decide that it’s time for the Brandon Peters era to begin, then it’s time to get fitted for a #18 jersey. Despite all the hand-wringing about ‘which Speight’ we’ll get in 2017, it’s time to trust Harbaugh, Drevno, and Hamilton to make the best selection and develop that selection into a winner.

Running Backs

  • Projected starter: Chris Evans, So.
  • Back-ups: Karan Higdon, Jr., Ty Isaac, 5th
  • Contributor: Kareem Walker, RS Fr.
  • On the roster: Kurt Taylor, O’Maury Samuels (both possible to redshirt)
  • Losses: De’Veon Smith (UDFA, Miami Dolphins), Kingston Davis (transfer), Drake Johnson (focusing on track)

Chris Evans isn’t as much the starter as he is 1A and Higdon is 1B. Evans is a speedy ankle breaker

that will earn most of the carries, while Higdon is a stout, efficient runner more reminiscent of last year’s starter, De’Veon Smith. Ty Isaac, former 5-star who has always been adequate but never really great, has been “doing everything right” in practice, from losing weight to catching balls out of the backfield to pass protection. On the other hand, Evans has added muscle without losing speed

and will be able to bounce off of arm tackles that might have brought him down last year while still slithering through the offensive line. Under new RB coach Jay Harbaugh, Evans has dissected every aspect of his game in an effort to blend the best aspects of his game (speed, agility) with the best aspects of Smith, who was revered for yards after contact.

Photo: Leon Halip

Like the quarterbacks, the running backs are getting a new position coach after Tyrone Wheatley took the same job for Jacksonville in the NFL. Jay Harbaugh, last year’s tight ends coach, has slid into Wheatley’s old role with three game-ready backs and another extremely talented ball carrier coming off of a redshirt season in Kareem Walker. Walker has “had a tremendous fall” and “improved in every regard”, offering an exemplary justification of the redshirting system. Between Evans, who could get as many as 20 carries a game, Higdon and Isaac getting 10-15 a game, and Walker, who carries with him a lot of expectations, the running backs are going to be exciting and productive – if they have the blocking.


  • Projected Starter: Khalid Hill, 5th
  • Back-up: Henry Poggi, 5th
  • Don’t forget about me: Ben Mason, Fr.
  • Losses: Bobby Henderson (graduation)

    Photo: Isaiah Hole/Wolverine247

The Hammering Panda tied De’Veon Smith for the team lead in rushing touchdowns, yet he only carried the ball for an average of 1.5 YPC, a hilarious indication of their use within Harbaugh’s/Drevno’s system. As a converted tight end, Hill’s hands offer a valuable safety in the flat for broken plays but he also has some work to do in reading blitzes and quickly picking up stunts/pinches on the line. Poggi will lead the Big Ten in crushed skulls, and Harbaugh has not had a single bad thing to say about freshman Ben Mason. Hill and Poggi will see the vast majority of the snaps to start, and Mason, the only other fullback on the roster, will be worked into the mix largely with 2018 and beyond in mind for his development.

Tight Ends

  • Projected Starter(s): Ian Bunting, RS Jr., Tyrone Wheatley, Jr., RS So.
  • Back-ups: Sean McKeon, So
  • Contributors: Nick Eubanks, RS Fr., Zach Gentry, RS So.
  • Losses: Jake Butt (graduation, drafted by Broncos), Devin Asiasi (transfer), Michael Jocz (graduation)

Losing Butt, last year’s Mackey Award winner, and #3 national TE recruit Devin Asiasi is obviously a major story-line, but tight end won’t suffer a loss of production as many as other position groups. When Butt left the Orange Bowl far too early with a torn ACL, Ian Bunting stepped up nicely and made some athletic catches in space, leaving me thinking that the pass-catching portion of the tight ends won’t suffer ($). Harbaugh named Wheatley, Jr., who has lost 20 pounds, “the most physical tight end” through camp, an excellent sign of developing the blocking game on the edge. New position coach Greg Frey, the lineman whisperer from Indiana, has also praised McKeon’s route running and blocking development.

Photo: Kirthmon F. Dozier

It’s no secret Harbaugh loves to use his tight ends, and not just in the same vein of Greg Olsen or Jason Witten, who make 8-12 catches a game. They are constantly in motion, split out wide, lead the train formation, or double stack behind the line to create a mismatch nightmare for opposing defensive coordinators. Physically, Bunting (6′ 7″, 250) and Wheatley, Jr. (6′ 6″, 276 per last year’s roster) are even more imposing than the 6′ 6″ 250-pound Butt, and fringe contributors Zach Gentry and Nick Eubanks are finally filling into an NCAA tight end frame. Eubanks entered the program as a prime candidate for redshirting, stuck in the limbo of being a really big wide receiver and a really small tight end, and Gentry, who looked big and fluid in the Spring Game (albeit against the walk-ons), offers a massive target that is still learning the nuances of the position. Bunting and Wheatley, Jr.’s hands will be the perfect check-down safety for Speight that Rudock loved so dearly during his one season at Michigan. If this group can successfully block the run, we won’t be missing Jake Butt nearly as badly as we were expecting.

Wide Receivers

  • Projected Starters: Kekoa Crawford, So., Grant Perry, Jr., Tarik Black, Fr. OR Donovan Peoples-Jones, Fr.
  • Back-ups: Eddie McDoom, So, Oliver Martin, Fr., Nico Collins, Fr.
  • Don’t forget about me: Nate Johnson, So., Moe Ways, RS Jr., Nate Schoenle, Fr.
  • Losses: Amara Darboh (graduation/NFL), Jehu Chesson (graduation/NFL), Drake Harris (position switch)

This group is young, but they are talented. Grant Perry, space finder and route technician, should be thankful that his juvenile run-in with the law last season is behind him as he is the returner with the most receiving yards and will likely start in the slot, even though McDoom is thrilling if not predictable around the edge and Oliver Martin is destined to win a Super Bowl with the Patriots. DPJ was the best high school wide receiver last season but Black has made the impression that he is the more college ready receiver after a small body of work in the Spring Game and Rome practice. 6′ 4″ Nico Collins and his stupid 80″ wingspan might be a deep ball or one-on-one specialist for Speight if he doesn’t get lost in the shuffle of the others.

Photo: Andy Shippy

These guys are going to be fun. Translating their skills to the college game will undoubtedly take some time, so don’t expect 15 catches for 180 yards and a touchdown against Florida for DPJ or Tarik Black, but definitely as the season progresses their usage will increase. What is the most intriguing is how many types of usage this young and almost brand new class can offer. Throw it over the top to Black and Peoples-Jones; let Martin and Perry find seams in a zone; let the lanky and fluid Eubanks and Collins outrun linebackers or out-jump safeties; the tools are there for all of them. When all is said and done, any of these four freshmen wide receivers could be a program legend of the Braylon Edwards status and they are a large part of why many are saying not this year but 2018 is the championship season.

Offensive Line

  • Projected Starters: Mason Cole, LT, Sr.; Ben Bredeson, LG, So.; Patrick Kugler, C, 5th; Michael Onwenu, RG, So.; Nolan Ulizio, RT, RS So. OR Jon Runyan Jr., RS So.
  • Back-ups: Cesar Ruiz, C or G, F; Chuck Filiaga, OT, F; Juwann Bushell-Beatty, RS Jr.
  • Don’t forget about me: Andrew Stueber, Joel Honigford, JaRaymond Hall (all likely/possible to redshirt), Stephen Spanellis, Andrew Vastardis
  • Losses: Kyle Kalis (graduation/NFL), Erik Magnuson (graduation/NFL), Ben Braden (graduation/NFL), Grant Newsome (injury)

Far and away the thinnest position group and the scapegoat for many of Michigan’s struggles a season ago.  The line received a nearly full facelift, returning only two starters, one of whom is changing positions. Cole is back home at left tackle where he was wonderful in 2015 and will hand the reins to Grant Newsome, who is rehabbing like a champion and will be back to kick off the 2018 season.

Because of Cole’s return, the center spot is likely Kugler’s to lose; after all, he committed on Christmas Day of 2012 and has been waiting for his chance to play between injuries and other elder statesmen at the position. Both Speight and O’Korn have praised his physical improvements, his leadership of the young line around him, and his instincts to detect defensive tendencies. Freshman Cesar Ruiz started for two years at center at IMG Academy in Florida and was renowned as the best college-ready specific center in some years; should anything happen to Kugler or the guards, he will be the first name called. Mike Onwenu is slated to start aside Kugler, and has somehow both lost weight and seems more physically intimidating. Ben Bredeson was very much a freshman last season, thrown into the fire and forced to start and should eliminate a lot of freshman mistakes. The right tackle position is very much in the air, with a battle between Bushell-Beatty, who was benched vs. Rutgers, Nolan Ulizio, who saw the field only in garbage time in four games, true freshman Chuck Filiaga, and Jon Runyan, Jr. Though it looks like it may be either Runyan or Ulizio at this point.

Photo: Melanie Maxwell

Greg Frey was poached from Indiana to coach the tight ends and tackles, and offensive coordinator Tim Drevno can focus on the interior guards and centers. This more specific instruction should help correct any mistakes that may present themselves, whether it be from inexperience (Kugler), breaking bad habits (Bredeson), or simply youth (Onwenu). Nick Baumgardner’s preview of the linemen offers a more in-depth look at Frey’s philosophy and how it translates into Drevno’s system; Frey likes to use more zone blocking principles (go to an area of the field and defend it) than gap blocking (pick a specific running lane and block whoever is in it). I’m excited for him to teach the young line his ways.


I expect the offense to be faster and lay the groundwork for a potentially historic 2018 season. An early test against Florida’s defense will help everyone grow, not just the returners. From DPJ to Cesar Ruiz, the 2017 recruiting class on the offensive side of the ball was downright absurd, but a year to learn will benefit them all in the long run.

Photo Credit: Patrick Barron/MGoBlog

Bill Getschman