We continue our preview of the 2017 edition of the Michigan Wolverines, and it’s time to focus on five impact players for the upcoming season.
Jim Harbaugh will have to deal with molding a team that has the fewest returning starters (5) in all of FBS, so there will be no shortage of players looking to make a statement on the field — in many cases for the first time.
Surely there will be a player or two jump out of nowhere to elbow their way into a star in Ann Arbor, but for now, here are the five that we see as all-important to some positive tweets coming from the fingers of captain Khakis.
Wilton Speight, Jr., QB
Speight broke onto the scene last year and showed a tremendous amount of poise for a new starter. He has a big arm, and stood tall and confident in the pocket most of the year. But that was with a very seasoned team, and a dynamic defense helping pull the weight.
Things will be different this year. Speight has to be more than just a game manager. Michigan is replacing 10 starters on the defensive side of the ball, so gone is the security blanket of covering up any field-position mistakes on offense. Gone too are playmaking receivers like TE Jake Butt and wide-receivers Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson.
That means the 6-6, 243 lb. Junior will need to put the team on his shoulders from time to time and win some games of those tight games in a difficult division. He’ll need to be more of a leader on the field and move the chains with the vertical passing game against the better teams for the Wolverines to take the next step in the Big Ten East.
Mason Cole, Jr., OL
Did we mention that Michigan is replacing a lot of skill on both sides of the ball? Count the offensive line as a reclamation project as well. Because of that, Harbaugh is counting on the lone returning starter to help move along a line that will need to show improvement quickly.
Cole slid from tackle to center last year to help get the best five lineman on the field, and despite a bit of a learning curve, picked things up rather quickly. He may be asked to move back to a tackle position again this year for the same reason, but time will tell. It just depends on whether the coaching staff wants to upset the rhythm between Cole and Speight, and whether abled bodies are there to round out the other positions along the front.
Either way, Cole will be the main reason this line gels and becomes a force — if it gets there.
Chris Evans, So., RB
De’Veon Smith is also lost to graduation, so the need is there for someone to step up in the backfield as a featured option. If last year was any indication, that man should be sophomore running back Chris Evans. In limited action last year, Evans carried the ball just 88 times, but averaged 7.0 yards per carry.
With a rebuilt line, that type of production with a bigger sample size will be unlikely, but it’ll still be interesting to see what he can do as the main threat out of the backfield.
With so many weapons lost on the outside, Evans and his backfield mates need to be productive to take some of the pressure of of quarterback Wilton Speight and the passing game. Time will tell if Evans has what it takes.
Rashan Gary, So., DE
If you follow recruiting circles, you know that Rashan Gary was the most coveted recruit in the 2016 class. Michigan did well to land the talented 6-5, 290 lb. edge rusher, and he got immediate playing time on one of the best defenses in the country.
The stats weren’t overwhelming with 27 total tackles, including five for a loss (1 sack), but he showed flashes of the potential that so many pegged around his neck.
He’ll be a full-time starter in 2017 and should be a force on a defensive front looking to pick up where it left off last year with a bunch of new faces. Games in the Big Ten are often won up front on both lines, and the Wolverines need Gary to be a beast this year.
Mike McCray, Sr., LB
The lone returning starter on defense for Michigan is starting middle linebacker Mike McCray. Needless to say, he’ll be the quarterback of a defense that will be green and hungry to prove itself with so many departures.
The 6-4, 240 lb. senior gained time as a full-time starter last year and totaled 76 tackles, with 12.5 of those going for a loss — 4.5 of those as sacks. That’s decent production, but McCray will need to be in on even more plays in 2017 if Michigan has any hopes of being anything close to the defensive juggernaut it was last year.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh always puts a premium on tough and gritty defense, and no position most represents that culture more than middle linebacker. McCray needs to have wide shoulders to carry a lot of the burden of a retooled defense. I’m banking on him being up to the task.