The murmurs of discontent that began during Brady Hoke’s second campaign turned into cries of frustration as Michigan slid to a 7-6 finish last season. Hoke shook things up in the offseason—jettisoning offensive coordinator Al Borges for Doug Nussmeier and shuffling his defensive coaches.
Michigan is now gearing up for a critical fall camp where it needs to work out the kinks in its new offense. Compounding the challenge, the team faces all of it key rivals—Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State—on the road, where Hoke’s squads have struggled.
It’s a long season, and Michigan will need solid performances from key backups to bounce back from last season’s disappointment.
Running Back Justice Hayes
Doug Nussmeier has signaled that Michigan will re-emphasize the running game. With Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith dueling at the top of the depth chart (while Ty Isaac waits in the wings), carries will be few and far between for other backs.
Justice Hayes can carve out playing time by working on his pass-blocking skills. He showed good potential during spring camp and ran the ball hard during the public spring game.
Hayes can work his way into the rotation by doing the grunt work of picking up stray defenders attempting to crash the backfield and leaking out for the occasional dump pass.
Defensive Tackle Bryan Mone
Last season, the defensive line ran out of steam during Michigan’s 1-4 November. This season, the defense looks to be the strength of the team, but coordinator Greg Mattison will need to prevent a repeat of last year’s stall.
Freshman Bryan Mone will have an opportunity to work his way into the mix at defensive tackle and be an immediate impact player. Hoke raved about his performance in spring camp, and being an early enrollee, he’ll have significant time in the strength and conditioning program prior to fall camp.
Offensive Lineman Mason Cole
The problems of the Michigan offensive line are well documented. Hoke will need to replace his two best players from last season—tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield— who both have moved on to the NFL.
Cole, another freshman early enrollee, played with the first team in the public spring scrimmage but will likely start the season as a backup with Erik Magnuson returning to the lineup after missing spring camp.
One thing last season showed is that no returning player on the offensive line has a firm grip on a starting position.
Hoke might prefer to redshirt Cole, but expect his talent to propel him into prominent playing time before the end of the season.
Quarterback Shane Morris
When Devin Gardner went down last season, Morris stepped in and played admirably under difficult circumstances. He now finds himself back behind Gardner—at least for now.
Doug Nussmeier has not tipped his hand about which quarterback best fits his system.
Gardner is the starter and will have an opportunity to prove he can manage the new offense. But Morris will be ready if Gardner needs to be replaced. Michigan has needed its backup quarterback each of the last two seasons, and with its offensive line manned by several new starters, Morris might find himself on the field sooner instead of later.
X-Factor Jabrill Peppers
Barring injury, the Michigan defensive backfield looks to be solid heading into the season. But 5-star recruits like Jabrill Peppers have a way of working themselves into the lineup.
Hoke has already said it’s likely that Peppers will return the ball on special teams and that Nussmeier has designs on him at running back.
Expect Peppers to be in the rotation at defensive back, especially in nickel situations. But his biggest impact could come as a weapon of shock and awe on offense.
Peppers has drawn comparisons to another highly touted defensive star, Charles Woodson, who also played multiple positions. When Woodson entered the lineup on offense, opposing defenses would scramble to cover him, sometimes blowing coverages and opening up opportunities for others.
With Michigan’s dire shortage at wide receiver, Peppers could be a lethal weapon out of the backfield or at slot receiver. He won’t start the season at either position, but it could be where he makes his greatest impact.
Phil Callihan is a featured writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations in this article were obtained via Press Conferences or in person.