Michigan gets a late start Friday to what will be a busy and important spring season for coach Jim Harbaugh and his team. The Wolverines, coming off back-to-back 10-win seasons, will set about trying to take the next step toward bringing a championship to Ann Arbor.
The unusually late start date was designed to keep a steady schedule leading up to the team’s spring finale: a week of practice in Rome. After going to Florida in February 2016, Harbaugh decided to go international with this year's off-site practices. He has plans to take the team to South Africa, Japan and Israel in future years. This is another major wrinkle the third-year head coach has introduced at Michigan, many of which have baffled or angered other college football coaches and administrators.
Harbaugh's innovations have made a lot of noise, and his coaching has helped shove Michigan back into the conference and national conversation quickly. His third season, though, should provide a test to see how far the program has come and whether his unorthodox methods are worthy of the attention they receive. Is Michigan, which must replace about two-thirds of a starting lineup that was loaded with NFL talent in 2016, already in the "reload" category or will 2017 require more time for the next wave of players to develop?
Spring schedule: Michigan starts practice Friday on the same day it hosts NFL coaches, executives and scouts for its annual pro day. The Wolverines will practice 12 times in the next three-plus weeks, including a scrimmage open to the public at Michigan Stadium on April 15. They'll take a brief hiatus before finishing with three practices at the AC Roma soccer club facilities starting on April 27.
What's new? Two coaches joined the staff this offseason. Former NFL offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton replaced Jedd Fisch as the passing-game coordinator. Hamilton and some others on the Michigan staff worked together at Stanford, where Hamilton coached receivers and quarterbacks. The offensive line will also get an extra set of eyes with Greg Frey joining the staff as the tackles/tight ends coach and run-game coordinator. Frey, who was on Rich Rodriguez's staff at Michigan as offensive line coach, was a Broyles Award nominee for his work on Indiana's offensive line during the last six years. He'll help offensive coordinator Tim Drevno develop a group that needs to replace three starters in 2017.
Three things we want to see:
1. There isn't likely to be a depth chart released, but there will be plenty of tea-leaf interpreting of the many position battles this spring. There are at least two spots on the offensive line up for grabs, a lot of contenders to replace all four starters in the secondary and a couple interesting decisions to make at linebacker. There will likely be several running backs -- now coached by Jay Harbaugh -- who will get chances on the field this fall, but spring will be an important time for players such as Kareem Walker, Chris Evans and Ty Isaac to start defining roles.
2. Eleven freshmen enrolled in January, and several of them will factor in position battles. All eyes will be on five-star receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones from Detroit. He ran the team's fastest 40 time in winter conditioning and tested well in other combine-type measurements. Others who stand to gain from showing up early include offensive lineman Cesar Ruiz, who could play himself into the rotation; Ambry Thomas, who will battle for reps at two vacant cornerback spots; and Tarik Black, who could join Peoples-Jones as a rookie making an impact in the passing game next fall.
3. Who will be the new voices to step up and take control of the team? The outgoing seniors not only had NFL talent, but they also were a deep and experienced group that Harbaugh has credited with leading a culture change. Spring will be an important time for Michigan to identify and develop its next group of leaders with the right combination of on-field credibility and a willingness to speak up. Quarterback Wilton Speight is in a natural leadership position and has the confident disposition needed to keep a young, talented offense grounded. On defense, linebacker Mike McCray might have to stretch out of his comfort zone to lead along with upperclassmen on the defensive line, such as Chase Winovich and Mo Hurst.