Michigan Football: Previewing 6 Biggest Position Battles Heading into Fall Camp
Brady Hoke enters his fourth season with a roster finally stocked with his own recruits. Looking to erase last season’s 7-6 finish, Hoke can eagerly expect a defense that is deep, talented and about to get better with the addition of top recruit Jabrill Peppers.
The offense is another story: Graduation has taken a heavy toll, and key players need to be replaced as Doug Nussmeier looks to install his new system.
Here are the top position battles as Michigan looks to rebound and compete for the Big Ten title.
All season statistics from MGoBlue.com, the official University of Michigan athletic department web site.
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.
The entire offensive line is being overhauled after the graduation of tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield. The position group struggled last season despite the presence of the two NFL draft picks and played a major role in Michigan’s late-season collapse.
The most interesting position battle might be at right tackle between redshirt sophomore Ben Braden and freshman early enrollee Mason Cole. Cole played with the first team during the team's public spring scrimmage and drew praise from Hoke during spring practices.
Erik Magnuson, who missed spring practice recovering from shoulder surgery, is expected to start at left tackle, leaving Braden and Cole to battle for the other tackle position.
With two full seasons in the program, Braden has the inside track. In a perfect world, Hoke would prefer to let Cole spend this season on the practice squad, but he can’t allow his offensive line to torpedo another season.
If Braden can’t do the job, Cole will play. If the true freshman beats out other players with more experience, it might be that he’s either a true once-in-a-generation talent or an indictment of how poor his competition is.
Last season Ondre Pipkins saw spot duty until he was knocked out with an ACL injury. Pipkens had impressed Hoke with hard work and has shown flashes of dominance, but he risks being eclipsed if he doesn’t seize the position this season.
Both senior Ryan Glasgow and freshman early enrollee Bryan Mone will compete with Pipkins for reps. Mone joins offensive lineman Cole as player who has made a big impression on Hoke despite his youth.
Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison likes to cycle many players throughout the line positions—expect all three to see time at nose tackle. As with Cole, the coaching staff won’t hesitate to burn his redshirt season if Mone can compete. It will be up to Pipkins and Glasgow to keep him off the field.
The graduations of Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo leave Michigan without two of its top receivers from last season.
Devin Funchess has one receiver position locked up, and freshman Freddy Canteen (another early enrollee) made a strong case to be the top option at the slot. That leaves redshirt sophomores Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson as the likely candidates for the other wide receiver position.
Darboh was expected to be a contributor last year before being hurt during fall camp and missing the season. Chesson had minor success (15 receptions, 221 yards, one touchdown) backing up Gallon and Dileo.
With talented recruits beginning to arrive in Ann Arbor, both Darboh and Chesson might find themselves relegated to special teams if they can’t prove themselves this year.
Sophomore Jourdan Lewis had a great spring game with two interceptions and is expected to play a prominent role in the defensive backfield.
But Jabrill Peppers, one of the top recruits in the nation, joins the team for fall practice, and Hoke has said that he expects him to break into the lineup at nickelback.
The competition during fall camp will determine how soon that will happen. Peppers' arrival comes with great expectations: Hoke has said that he might see time on both offense and special teams.
Jourdan might prevent Peppers from breaking into the starting lineup on defense and make him available for the other roles Hoke mentioned.
Competition isn’t always a bad thing. For Michigan, a logjam at running back is a welcome departure from past seasons in which the team suffered from a lack of depth.
Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith were both outstanding during spring practices, and under Nussmeier’s offense both are expected to see significant reps. With Justice Hayes expected to be the third-down back, the team seems ready to restore Michigan’s running attack to its past glory.
Transfer Ty Isaac might also be joining the mix. No word on his eligibility status, but whether he plays this season or next Michigan should have a strong a running game no matter who sits at the top of the depth chart.
Devin Gardner’s experience and grit has earned him the opportunity to lead Nussmeier’s new offense—at least heading into camp. But doubts remain whether he’s best the fit on the roster for the new offense.
It’s Gardner’s job to lose, but if he struggles with the new playbook Nussmeier might be tempted to go with current backup Shane Morris. Morris might be a better fit for the new system if he can be more accurate than Gardner, and his limited experience might be not be a problem since everyone is starting fresh.
With Michigan breaking in a batch of new receivers, the quarterback race might be determined by who can find a rhythm with these new targets during camp.