On December 30, the Michigan Wolverines dejectedly waked off the field a Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, FL having lost the Orange Bowl to the Florida State Seminoles to culminate a successful, yet underwhelming season.
In the eight months that have passed since then, (which included a week-long trip to Rome for those on the team) much has changed as they now prepare for the 2017 season, their third under head coach Jim Harbaugh.
They’ve lost several key playmakers on both offense and defense to the NFL Draft including linebacker/safety Jabrill Peppers, running-back De’Veon Smith, defensive-end Taco Charlton and cornerback Jourdan Lewis. In addition, the quarterbacks competing for the starting job are in a dead heat with the season opener right around the corner.
However, the team brings in a recruiting class that ranked sixth best in the nation according to ESPN.com. They, along with some new and returning starters, will be tasked with reaching the standards set by previous Michigan teams under Jim Harbaugh. Here’s a few players and groups to keep an eye on as the season goes on.
Donovan Peoples-Jones, WR
Of the incoming freshmen, Peoples-Jones is most likely to have an immediate impact. With Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson both having been drafted to the NFL, the door is wide open for receivers like him, as well as Eddie McDoom, to make their presence known.
Having been a U of M student since enrolling early in January, he’s had time to adjust to college life and get ready for fall camp. He’s shown great skills there and looks to carry it over into the regular season.
Rashad Gary, DE
The No. 1 player in the 2016 recruiting class, Gary didn’t have as much an opportunity to showcase himself with Taco Charlton and Chris Wormley in his way a year ago. With the both of them gone, he’ll have the perfect platform to show Michigan fans, and the college football world, what makes him so special.
The Running Backs
No matter who it is, whether it be Chris Evans, Ty Isaac, Karon Higdon, Kareem Walker or even Khalid Hill, the Wolverines in the backfield will have to replicate, or perhaps even improve on, the production they had in 2016.
Although the unit averaged 213 yards per game last year, the maize and blue averaged just 93 yards in their three losses last year. So in order for the team to be good, the running game needs to be good. If not, it’s gonna be a long season.
Chris Evans is the fastest of the backs while Ty Issac and Karon Higdon bring more of the ground-and-pound element to the table. Kareem Walker, meanwhile, is more of a mystery. He was one of the most decorated running backs in the 2016 recruiting class but sat out the year to focus on academics. It will be interesting to see what he brings to the table.
Wilton Speight/Brandon Peters
As mentioned, the starting quarterback battle is pretty tight. Even though redshirt junior Wilton Speight exceeded the expectations of many a year ago, redshirt freshman Brandon Peters did a much better job in the spring game back in April. Either one will have to lead an inexperienced offense with more questions than answers.
Michigan opens up its season on Sep. 2 against the Florida Gators in AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX before heading home to face Cincinnati and Air Force the next two weeks. They will them travel to Purdue before a bye week followed by the annual matchup against Michigan State on Oct. 7, which will be held in Ann Arbor, MI this year.
The Wolverines will then play at Indiana before a huge matchup against the defending-Big-Ten-champion Penn State Nittany Lions on Oct. 21 in Happy Valley, PA. They’ll return home a week later to host Rutgers and then Minnesota in the Battle for the Little Brown Jug.
The next week, the maize and blue will play against Maryland on the road before heading northwest to face the Wisconsin Badgers in Madison before The Game against the Ohio State Buckeyes in The Big House on Nov. 25 at noon on FOX. If Michigan does well enough in the season, a date at the Big Ten Championship in Indianapolis awaits.
Jim Harbaugh has done well in his first two years with the Wolverines, but this year will probably be the most telling for both him and this young team. Many think the team will take a step back, others believe they might even be better than they were before. We’ll know for sure what the 2017 Michigan Wolverines are made of very soon.