Three Reasons to Be Excited for the Michigan Wolverines in 2018
Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan Wolverines only returned six starters in 2017. That was the lowest number of any FBS program on the year. One could say that there was an excuse or two for the disappointing 8-5 season with the learning curves expected for new starters. Add to that the fact that the quarterback play was nothing short of a disaster, as Harbaugh started three different quarterbacks throughout the season, ending with redshirt freshman Brandon Peters.
The 2018 season brings the exact opposite, as Michigan returns all but six starters, to go with a plethora of new freshman and transfer talent. Harbaugh will have much more experienced talent to work with, and the results should show the difference. With that being said, let's take a look at the three biggest reasons to be excited for the Wolverines' 2018 season.
Don Brown's Defense
Defensive Coordinator Don Brown is regarded by some as the best defensive mind in all of college football. Since taking over as defensive coordinator in 2015, Michigan has placed in the top five in yards allowed per game each season under Brown. In 2016, Brown took a talented Jabrill Peppers led defense into the number two ranked position in FBS on a yards per game basis. In 2017, Brown took a defense with only one returning starter and still managed the third best defensive numbers in the country. You heard that correctly, there was only one returning starter on defense in 2017.
In 2018, Brown get's to mess around with a defense returning all but two starters from 2017. And this defense is stacked with talent.
Starting on the defensive line, former number one recruit Rashan Gary may be the most dangerous defensive lineman in college football. Coming off of a 5.5 sack season, to go along with 11.5 tackles for a loss, Gary has the ability to play both the tackle and end positions on the defensive line. He has the potential to be a top five pick in the 2019 NFL draft and will be looking to prove his worth as the star of the defensive front.
Not to be overlooked, defensive end Chase Winovich will return for his fourth season with the Wolverines. Though not mentioned in the same world as Gary, and often times overshadowed by now NFL tackle Maurice Hurst Jr., Winovich put together an 8.5 sack season to go with 19 tackles for a loss in 2017. Not bad for the "third best" defensive lineman on the team.
At the linebacker position, it wouldn't be an overstatement to say the Wolverines possess the most dynamic, versatile, and athletic duo in the FBS. Devin Bush and Khaleke Hudson are absolutely electric. Combining for 172 tackles in 2017, with 26 of those being for a loss, while also recording 13 sacks, Bush and Hudson were simply everywhere. Let's not forget to include that they also combined for three interceptions and 16 pass deflections just to show off their diversity in pass defense as well.
The do-it-all linebackers are both returning for their third years at Michigan and second years as starters in Brown's dominant defensive system.
The back of the defensive is also headed by possibly the best cornerback duo in college football. This one has the statistics to back it up, too. Opposing quarterbacks had an 11.9 passer rating when targeting Michigan's cornerback David Long. That's good for lowest among all returning FBS cornerbacks. On the opposite side of the field, Lavert Hill had a 38.4 rating, which is 12th among returning FBS cornerbacks.
The dynamic duo combined for 44 tackles, four interceptions and 13 pass break ups. Just the same as Bush and Hudson, Hill and Long will be coming into 2018 with more confidence and experience as juniors in their second year starting for Brown's defense.
Good luck getting anything done against this defense.
Transfer Shea Patterson has been cleared by the NCAA to play football for the Wolverines this season. Let's just say the rest of the Big Ten should take serious notice. Patterson has been called Johnny Manziel 2.0. That may be a bit of a reach, as Manziel was the first ever freshman to win the Heisman Trophy. However, watch some Patterson highlights, and you'll see why the two have been compared.
Patterson was the leading passer in the SEC before a knee injury in week eight sidelined him for the remainder of the 2017 season. Until then, however, Patterson had completed 64 percent of his passes for 2,259 yards and 17 touchdowns. The blemish on his stat sheet was a high nine interceptions through just seven and a half games.
Although he showed a tendency to be turnover prone, Michigan fans should be very excited about the arrival and eligibility of the former Mississippi quarterback. Patterson is a special talent with the ability to create and keep plays alive with his athleticism. Though possessing the ability to create with his feet, Patterson is a pass first quarterback who is willing to stand in the pocket and take a hit when needed. His 64 percent completion percentage shows his capability with his arm.
Harbaugh has not yet named Patterson as the starting quarterback for week one. That should come as no surprise, given Harbaugh's track record with waiting as long as possible to name a starter. That being said, Patterson is expected to be the clear front runner for the position barring any surprises.
Given that Patterson is, in fact, the starter for the entirety of the 2018 season, Michigan will have a potential Heisman talent lining up under center each week. Anyone who has the slightest interest in college football understands the catastrophe that was the Wolverines' quarterback situation in 2017, as Harbaugh was forced to use three different starters in search of anyone to bring life to a dead offense. Michigan was never able to find much success at the position.
The addition of Patterson fills a hole at the most important position on the field for Michigan. With young wide receiver talent, a strong run game, and possibly the best defense in the country, a talented quarterback was seemingly the last piece of the puzzle. A mobile quarterback, that is, as Michigan may still have a couple offensive line deficiencies early on in the season. Harbaugh may have just found his guy in Patterson to make a run for the National Championship.
Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black
Speaking of that young wide receiver talent mentioned in the paragraph above, has anyone heard of Donovan Peoples-Jones or Tarik Black? It's OK if you were a little out of the loop and didn't, because they were both only freshmen last season. Add to that the fact that Black played in just three games before an injury ended his season early, while People-Jones experienced freshman growing pains that led to just 16 receptions for 219 yards and zero touchdowns to show for it.
So, why would anyone be excited about year two for the young wide receiver duo? Allow me to explain.
Black's injury stopped what was looking to be a promising 2017 season. Through three games, he had accumulated 11 receptions for 149 yards and one touchdown. The 6'3" wide receiver possessing a reported 4.48 40 yard dash has the size, athleticism, and speed to simply manhandle defensive backs. Hype surrounded Black coming into the season, and he didn't fail to disappoint, submitting an 83 yard performance and a touchdown in Week one. His speed showed on a 46 yard touchdown reception in which he was about ten yards behind the Florida defender at the time the ball was thrown. Black is back to full health now, and he should pick up right where he left off before his Week three injury in 2017.
Meanwhile, lining up on the other side of the field will be the athletic Peoples-Jones. Peoples-Jones disappointed in the passing game in 2017 with the statistics listed earlier. Many would have expected the five star recruit to have an immediate impact as a receiver. Though he spent the majority of the season adjusting as a wide receiver, he was far from a bust as an overall player. His 4.41 40 yard dash speed showed its potential with 307 total yards returning punts, including a 79 yard touchdown return. With a healthy 8.5 yards per return, Peoples-Jones spelled danger every time he touched the ball. Despite poor quarterback play, he also came on as a receiver at the end of the 2017 season with a combined ten receptions for 122 yards against Wisconsin and in the Outback Bowl against South Carolina.
Harbaugh has already stated that Black and Peoples-Jones have been the two wide receivers who have really stood out in the off-season, most likely solidifying their starting roles to start the season. A healthy Black and a more experienced Peoples-Jones will insert an intimidating one-two punch. Add to that a quarterback with a rocket arm in Patterson, and Michigan could create a lot of problems for opposing defenses. Patterson isn't afraid to take shots downfield, and with the athleticism Black and Peoples-Jones possess, it can be expected that the Wolverines will be going deep early and often.
Showdown in Notre Dame
It's 82 days until opening kickoff, and Patterson and company will have an opportunity to show just how serious of a competitor they will be right away. Michigan travel to Notre Dame on September first to take on a talented Fighting Irish team that may be ranked inside the top ten to start the season.
A road victory over a potential top ten opponent would be a massive statement to start the season for the Wolverines. They have the chance to erase any sour tastes left over from a poor 2017 season, while also stating their claim as a top tier team and potential National Championship contender.
Will returning talent and an upgrade in the quarterback position be enough to finally put Harbaugh's Wolverines in the Playoffs? We could have our answer as soon as September first.
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© 2018 Micah Reum