Michigan defensive tackle Maurice Hurst sacks Illinois quarterback Jeff George, Jr., during a 2016 game. Hurst looks to slide in as one of the Wolverines’ starters next season. ASSOCIATED PRESS
ANN ARBOR — Spring games often are among the most boring affairs in all of sports.
But what takes place today at Michigan Stadium might actually be of interest.
In years past, the starters play a couple series and retire to the bench, cheering on backups and walk-ons. But Michigan’s 2017 production features new starters at the playmaking positions and an overhaul of the defense.
So, here’s to the fans who might view something of substance.
“It’s a meritocracy around here,” running backs coach Jay Harbaugh said.
When the team reconvenes in the fall, 17 positions battles will commence. The victors will be first-year starters.
During the spring, word trickling out of camp has all been positive.
Everyone looks good, there’s tremendous depth, and with each day comes improvement. The comments are the same for every position group. A game-type atmosphere likely will reveal some deficiencies, however, and a bulk of the eyes will shift to the defensive line.
A fearsome foursome of Rashan Gary, Maurice Hurst, Bryan Mone, and Chase Winovich has taken form and could mold into one of the best bunches in the Big Ten.
A drop off is imminent after UM fielded arguably the best front four in program history a year ago, but this season’s unit shouldn’t be diminished. There is ample potential for a game-changing element.
Health is the biggest concern because the second unit is as green as Augusta’s rolling fairways. Defensive coordinator Don Brown described the defensive line as an “interesting blend.”
“There’s enough guys that have been around that will demand execution and will demand effort and energy that I feel like we’ll be in great shape,” he said.
The offensive line is of equal importance and could have a bigger impact on wins and losses. Keeping Wilton Speight upright, giving him time to survey the landscape, and opening running lanes for a bevy of tailbacks will be paramount for 12 Saturdays in the fall.
There’s Mason Cole (left tackle) and Ben Bredeson (guard), then three mysteries. Michael Onwenu’s name is uttered weekly in discussing polished offensive linemen, and Juwann Bushell-Beatty offers a coveted combination of experience and competence.
Center is one of the biggest wild cards on the team. Fifth-year senior Patrick Kugler and true freshman Cesar Ruiz — at far different ends of the spectrum — are in a virtual tie, according to practice attendees.
“It’s my last opportunity, my last go-around,” Kugler said. “I battled it out last year and didn’t end up getting the starting job. That happens, but I’m trying to make the most out of this opportunity and seizing every opportunity that I get.”
Oh, and don’t forget the receivers. Speight is in the frightful position of developing cohesion with a new batch of pass-catchers.
Donovan Peoples-Jones, Eddie McDoom, Kekoa Crawford, Tarik Black, Drake Harris, and Maurice Ways are presented with an opportunity to shine in the Big House.
Much to the delight of fans who frequently are lulled into an afternoon siesta at the spring game.
“I can make the big plays that they’re asking for,” McDoom said, “and I’m trying to show it.”