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Early Wisconsin football preview 2017: Week 12 vs. Michigan

Are the Wolverines rebuilding or reloading?

NCAA Football: Michigan Spring Game Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

This could be the biggest game of the 2017 season for the Wisconsin Badgers if they’re able to survive a regular season that includes road trips to BYU and Nebraska.

The Michigan Wolverines roll into town on Nov. 18 and are arguably Wisconsin’s strongest opponent (though Nebraska is going to be tough in Lincoln and is looking to avenge two seasons’ worth of close losses).

Head coach Jim Harbaugh and his crew will have to replace tons of NFL-bound talent this season, all while competing against the likes of Ohio State and Penn State in the Big Ten East.

But hey, they did get to go to Italy for spring ball.

Maize n Brew’s Drew Hallett took a look at the Wolverines and their 2017 outlook.

Its the third year for Jim Harbaugh at Michigan. Whats the general feeling heading into the 2017 season, and what major changes (if any) could help the Wolverines in their pursuit of a Big Ten East title?

The Michigan fan base is divided as to how U-M will perform next season. Last season, Michigan was one of the nation’s elite teams, finishing third in the final S&P+ rankings behind only the College Football Playoff finalists (Alabama and Clemson). As Jim Harbaugh put it, Michigan “was close to ... being [as] perfect as any team ... without being perfect,” which is accurate considering U-M surrendered a lead in the final 36 seconds of each of its three losses and lost them by a grand total of five points. Accordingly, one segment of the Michigan fan base believes that, despite needing to replace 17 starters, the Wolverines will reload, secure another 10-plus-win season, and contend for a Big Ten championship, whereas another segment believes they’re in for a one-year rebuild.

Although more fans may be joining the former segment after Michigan’s spring, the latter segment has better odds of being correct. The former segment points to 2016 Ohio State as an example of what 2017 Michigan could be. Those Buckeyes were 127th in returning production according to SB Nation’s Bill Connelly, yet propelled themselves to the playoff thanks to successive top-seven recruiting classes from 2014 through 2016 (and an incredibly fortuitous fourth-down spot in double overtime that U-M fans are totally over and no longer bitter about whatsoever). And these Wolverines? They are (of course) 127th in returning production, just reeled in top-six recruiting classes in 2016 and 2017, and get OSU at home.

However, there is a key difference. Urban Meyer has recruited at an elite level annually in Columbus, so 2016 Ohio State was able to rely heavily on elite juniors and sophomores to fill in its holes on the depth chart. Michigan is not in such a position. Due to decline of the Brady Hoke era and a coaching transition, Michigan’s recruiting suffered in 2014 (20th) and 2015 (37th), signing only 31 recruits total in those two cycles with only one top-100 prospect from that crop still on the roster (Drake Harris). Those recruits will be the seniors and juniors on this team, which means Michigan will need to rely heavily on its elite sophomores and freshmen to fill in the holes. That is a concerning proposition for the Wolverines because that extra year of strength and conditioning, development, and adjustment to college football is significant.

Accordingly, Michigan likely will have a tougher time filling in those holes than Ohio State did and will hit more road bumps this season, especially with an offensive line that could be very dicey. A very reasonable prediction would be that the Wolverines take a step back in 2017 and finish with a 9-3 or 8-4 record.

However, in 2018, when those elite sophomores and freshmen become elite juniors and sophomores, respectively, the Death Star in Ann Arbor will be fully operational. Then it will be Big Ten title or bust.

Who are the key contributors coming back for the Wolverines?

Michigan returns only five starters from last season, so there is a minuscule pool of candidates from which to choose. The key returning contributors on offense are quarterback Wilton Speight, fullback Khalid Hill, and offensive linemen Mason Cole and Ben Bredeson. Speight deserves more credit for the season he had than he gets. He finished in the top three in the Big Ten in completion rate (61.6), YPA (7.7), and passer rating(139.76), and was surging as U-M carried a 9-0 record into Iowa City. However, he injured his shoulder against the Hawkeyes and wasn’t the same for the rest of the season, which led to him receiving some unearned blame for U-’s late skid. As a result, some fans are calling for highly touted redshirt freshman Brandon Peters to take the reins, and their volume has only increased after Speight had a poor performance in the spring game. However, it would be a surprise if Speight wasn’t under center in Week 1.

Capitol One Orange Bowl - Florida State v Michigan Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images

Hill should be America’s favorite (fantasy) fullback, if he isn’t already. He scored 13 total touchdowns on 41 touches and nicknamed himself “The Hammering Panda,” which stuck. Why “The Hammering Panda?” Hill punched in 10 rushing touchdowns despite his longest rush of the season being four yards. He is as automatic as one can be in goal-line situations and the inspiration for many amazing Michigan GIFs.

Cole and Bredeson will need to be the rocks for this Michigan offensive line. Cole is U-M’s best offensive returner and a three-year starter. He has started at left tackle and center in his career, and that versatility will be important as Michigan determines its five best offensive linemen. One of those five best should be Bredeson, who was thrust into the starting lineup at left guard as a true freshman last season. He had his fair share of struggles (the Florida State film isn’t pretty), but he has a very bright future ahead of him.

The key returning contributors on defense are defensive tackle Maurice Hurst, Jr. and linebacker Mike McCray II. Hurst wasn’t a starter, but he certainly played like one. He tallied 11.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks in limited snaps because Michigan had the luxury of a deep defensive line, and Pro Football Focus constantly raves about his potential as a first-round selection in 2018. Next season, Hurst will be a starter and earn starter snaps, so expect him (and his explosive first step) to catch the nation’s eye. McCray also had an impressive 2016 campaign considering that many believed injury had ended his career prematurely. He was U-M’s second-leading tackler with 75 stops and recorded 13 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, six pass breakups, two interceptions, and a forced fumble. He spent last year at WILL, where he was a great blitzer but surrendered the edge too much, so Michigan may adapt and shift him in to MIKE.

Who will they have to replace from last year’s team?

This should be sufficient:

It’s not? Fine, here is the list:

  • RB De’Veon Smith (NFL Draft Proj. Round: 7th-FA)
  • WR Amara Darboh (NFL Draft Proj. Round: 3rd)
  • WR Jehu Chesson (NFL Draft Proj. Round: 7th-FA)
  • TE Jake Butt (NFL Draft Proj. Round: 2nd-3rd)
  • OT Erik Magnuson (NFL Draft Proj. Round: 5th)
  • OT/OG Ben Braden (NFL Draft Proj. Round: 6th-7th)
  • OG Kyle Kalis (NFL Draft Proj. Round: 7th-FA)DE Taco Charlton (NFL Draft Proj. Round: 1st)
  • DT Chris Wormley (NFL Draft Proj. Round: 2nd)
  • DT Ryan Glasgow (NFL Draft Proj. Round: 4th)
  • DT Matthew Godin (NFL Draft Proj. Round: 7th-FA)
  • LB Ben Gedeon (NFL Draft Proj. Round: 4th-5th)
  • LB/DB Jabrill Peppers (NFL Draft Proj. Round: 1st-2nd)
  • CB Jourdan Lewis (NFL Draft Proj. Round: 2nd-3rd)
  • CB Channing Stribling (NFL Draft Proj. Round: 6th)
  • CB Jeremy Clark (NFL Draft Proj. Round: 6th)
  • SS Dymonte Thomas (NFL Draft Proj. Round: 7th)
  • FS Delano Hill (NFL Draft Proj. Round: 3rd-4th)
  • K/P Kenny Allen (NFL Draft Proj. Round: 7th-FA)

That is 19 draftable departures with 13 likely to be selected by an NFL team.

Yes, the GIF should have been sufficient.

Which players could be breakout candidates?

Michigan needs to replace 17 starters, so there are many candidates that could be named here. On offense, running back Chris Evans is the safest bet. He was U-M’s second-leading rusher as a true freshman last season, earning 88 carries for 614 yards (6.98 YPC) and four touchdowns. He was a smooth and silky runner who demonstrated an explosive burst through the hole that Michigan running backs have not possessed in recent seasons. Evans will have some competition and may share the load with Ty Isaac, Karan Higdon, and Kareem Walker, but with De’Veon Smith moving onto the NFL, Evans is the leader in the clubhouse to be U-M’s starting back, which was evident when the staff pulled him from the spring game after a couple of snaps to prevent injury.

On defense, this is easy: defensive lineman Rashan Gary. Gary was the consensus No. 1 overall prospect in the 2016 class, and though recruiting is an inexact science, consensus No. 1 overall prospects transform into first-round draft picks without much, if any, exception. Gary did not start last season because Michigan was loaded on the defensive line, but he still tallied 24 tackles, five tackles for loss, and a sack in limited time, and collapsed numerous pockets. With three starters departing on the defensive line, Gary should be the new starter at strongside defensive end with the versatility to slide inside to the 3-tech if necessary. And, with the athleticism that he’s showcased in videos of spring workouts that have been released, he’s in store for a big, big season.

Hawaii v Michigan Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Which position battles are worth watching this spring?

Michigan’s spring is wrapping up in Rome, but there will be many position battles to watch in the summer and fall with U-M replacing ... how many starters was it again? ... oh that’s right ... 17. As aforementioned, there will be a battle at running back among Chris Evans, Ty Isaac, Karan Higdon, and Kareem Walker, with Evans currently as the heavy favorite. There will be a battle for both wide receiver spots among Kekoa Crawford, Drake Harris, Maurice Ways, and early enrollees Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black, the latter of whom opened eyes during the spring game. No one is too sure how this one will shake out. Tight end is up for grabs after Mackey Award winner Jake Butt graduated and promising freshman Devin Asiasi transferred, but, because Jim Harbaugh loves multi-tight end packages, expect Ian Bunting and Ty Wheatley, Jr. to get the most reps. There were questions regarding who would be Michigan’s starting VIPER/SAM and safeties, but the answers seemed to emerge during the spring. The one to keep an eye on will be between Josh Metellus and walk-on Jordan Glasgow at strong safety. Don't let the walk-on moniker fool you about Glasgow, however. His two older brothers also were walk-ons at Michigan, and both will be drafted by NFL teams.

However, the most important position battle will be on the offensive line. Michigan must replace three starters from an offensive line that was its Achilles heel last season. This could be considered a positive if U-M knew it had talented depth waiting in the wings. That is a dubious assumption though because U-M has had issues recruiting depth on the line in recent cycles, particularly at offensive tackle. What only compounds matters is that starting left tackle Grant Newsome, who suffered a broken leg against Wisconsin and nearly lost said leg as a result, most likely will be unavailable this season as he continues to recover. So Michigan has lots of uncertainty along the offensive line.

Here is what is certain: Mason Cole will start at left tackle or center (most likely the former given the U-M’s roster outlook and spring game), Ben Bredeson will start at left guard or right tackle, and Michael Onwenu will be the starting right guard. In a perfect situation, Michigan will discover that it has a Big Ten-caliber offensive tackle in Juwann Bushell-Beatty, Jon Runyan, Jr., or Nolan Ulizio, so U-M will not need to start a true freshman at or move Bredeson out to right tackle, allowing experienced senior Patrick Kugler to slot in at center. Otherwise, U-M will very likely be starting a true frosh somewhere, whether it be Chuck Filiaga at right tackle or Cesar Ruiz at center. This will be U-M’s most important development this summer, and it could make or break 2017.

2017 Wisconsin Football Schedule

Date Opponent Time (CT) Spring Q&A Preview
Date Opponent Time (CT) Spring Q&A Preview
Sept. 1 Utah State 8 p.m. Mountain West Connection
Sept. 9 Florida Atlantic 11 a.m. Underdog Dynasty
Sept. 16 at BYU 2:30 p.m. Vanquish the Foe
Sept. 30 Northwestern TBA Inside NU
Oct. 7 at Nebraska TBA Corn Nation
Oct. 14 Purdue TBA Hammer and Rails
Oct. 21 Maryland (Homecoming) 11 a.m. Testudo Times
Oct. 28 at Illinois 11 a.m. The Champaign Room
Nov. 4 at Indiana TBA Crimson Quarry
Nov. 11 Iowa TBA BHGP
Nov. 18 Michigan TBA Maize N Brew
Nov. 25 at Minnesota TBA The Daily Gopher