Our Big Ten preview series is back. Over the next few weeks, we’ll make our way through the Big Ten East and West from the bottom to the top. The countdown continues with the Michigan Wolverines. Our Jason Dorow looks at how Jim Harbaugh might fare in his first year as head coach in Ann Arbor.
2014 Record: 5-7 overall, 3-5 B1G
2015 WNUR Projected Record: 8-4 overall, 4-4 B1G
Key Returners: De’Veon Smith (RB), Mario Ojemudia (DE), Joe Bolden (OLB), Jourdan Lewis (CB)
Key Departures: Devin Gardner (QB), Devin Funchess (WR), Frank Clark (DE), Jake Ryan (MLB)
The only thing taking the spotlight off new head coach Jim Harbaugh in Ann Arbor this summer is the quarterback battle. With Devin Gardner’s departure, there’s no clear cut option under center. At one point, Harbaugh had eight guys trying out in camp, including a third baseman from the Wolverine baseball team. In the end, this is a probably a two-way battle between junior Shane Morris, who threw 40 passes last season and got one start, and transfer Jake Rudock. A pocket passer with decent mobility, Rudock passed for over 2400 yards and 16 touchdowns at Iowa last season. Whoever is taking snaps this fall will have stellar playmakers at his disposal, but those guys won’t get many chances if the offensive line does not improve. Statistically, the Wolverine line was one of the worst in the country in 2013, and not much better in 2014. If that changes, it will pay huge dividends for Michigan’s shifty stable of backs. De’Veon Smith, Derrick Green and Drake Johnson all return after amassing a combined 1,351 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns last season. Top wideout Devin Funchess has moved on to the NFL, but essentially the rest of the wide receiving corps returns, including tight end Jake Butt. With a decent quarterback at the helm, the Wolverine offense should make significant strides in 2015.
Coming off a stellar 2014 campaign, in which they ranked 18th nationally in defensive S&P+, the Michigan defense returns most of their core but loses some key components. Defensive ends Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer, who combined for 21 tackles for loss and 10 sacks last year, and leading tackler, middle linebacker Jake Ryan, are all gone. But essentially the rest of the starting eleven is back. There are solid replacements on the line too for Clark and Beyer. Junior Taco Charlton – yes, his name really is Taco – and pass rusher Mario Ojemudia can fill those spots with the 13 TFL and seven sacks that they totaled last year. The linebacking corps will likely consist of three seniors and one junior, so experience will abound in the front seven. Throw in Harbaugh’s aggressive mentality up front, and you’re looking at one of the most menacing position groups in the conference. The secondary will not be as strong, but they have several solid pieces in safety Jarrod Wilson and cornerback Jourdan Lewis. After picking off just five passes in 2014, expect the Wolverines to force more turnovers behind a great pass rush.
Special Teams Preview:
Special teams will be basically be a toss-up for Michigan this year. The Wolverines will have a new punter and a new kicker. Kick and punt returner Dennis Norfleet is back, but his numbers were subpar last season. If there is an area that the Wolverines take a step back in, it is most likely special teams.
Following a 5-7 season, expectations could not be much higher in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines got their man in Jim Harbaugh, and despite all the attention he attracts off the field, we know the man in khakis is an incredible coach on both the college and professional levels. Our staff at WNUR believes in Harbaugh almost as much as the Wolverine faithful does, putting them at 8-4 and an even 4-4 in conference. Given Michigan’s schedule though, there is plenty of reason for concern. They have to travel to Utah (who went 9-4 last season through a tough Pac-12) to start the season, and they will get BYU, who is no slouch either, at home before the Big Ten season. Michigan does get Michigan State and Ohio State in The Big House, but they have to travel to Minnesota and Penn State, a pair of teams set to contend for national relevance.
Best case scenario? Shane Morris or Jake Rudock proves to be more than a game manager at quarterback, opening up running lanes for the Wolverines’ three-headed rushing attack. The key holes on the defensive side of the ball are filled by veterans, and Michigan notches double digit wins with a bowl victory.
Worst case scenario? The homecoming for Harbaugh falls on its face as it takes some time for him to transition back to the college game. The quarterback position never pans out, and the offensive line regresses to its 2013 level while the defense is held back by a porous secondary. The Wolverines come a win short of a bowl game for back-to-back seasons.