September 15, 2017
Lots of questions this week, some of you submitting multiple, on everything from the quarterback situation to Rashan Gary’s first two weeks starting at defensive end to … the future?
Anyway, we’ll start pressing the topics first.
Q: What do you want to see out of quarterback Wilton Speight this week? (@AndrewBuris)
A: For starters, Andrew, a clean game. That means no interceptions, no fumbles, no consequential mistakes. Speight was able to self-identify his footwork as problematic in the win over Cincinnati, perhaps the catalyst for overthrowing receivers in the first two weeks. At times he’s looked rushed in the pocket while facing pressure, something he may continue to face with a young and inexperienced right side of the offensive line.
But that doesn’t excuse some of his mistakes. He was responsible solely for at least one of his interceptions in the win over Florida, and both of the fumbles last week in the win over Cincinnati. Things like that can’t happen if you want to beat teams like Penn State and Wisconsin on the road. Luckily for Michigan, all of these things are fixable. Jim Harbaugh remains steadfast in Speight as his guy, defending the junior quarterback because he knows what he’s capable of. He can be better, and likely will be, but this game Saturday is key in getting him out of this rut heading into Big Ten play next week at Purdue.
Q: While the defense has been the backbone of the team this year, am I being overly pessimistic to think the defensive line should be better than it has so far? Is Rashan Gary living up to his tremendous hype? (@Kilo1899)
A: Scott isn’t the only one to ask about Rashan Gary this week, and I suspect some of this has to do Gary’s stat line through two games: six tackles, 1/2 sack, two quarterback hurries. In other woods, good but not great.
So why is that? Well, it’s important to keep in mind Gary’s role as a strong-side defensive end. He is the anchor of the defensive line and is often lined up against the opposing team’s best tackle and a tight end, forcing him to choose who to pick up at the line of scrimmage. That alone will limit his pass-rushing opportunities. Instead, take note of the some of the more subtle things he does that leads to plays for others. I can still recall the play late in the fourth quarter of the Cincinnati game, on third-and-8 when Gary chased Bearcats quarterback Hayden Moore to the sidelines, only for cornerback Ambry Thomas to make the tackle. No credit for Gary on the stat sheet there, but it was because of him the play broke down.
As for being pessimistic about the defensive line, there are two things I look at to gauge success: the opponents’ ability to run the ball and pressure on the quarterback. Even if the line isn’t getting credit for a sack or hurry, it’s their pressure that is creating gaps for the linebackers to make the play. Technique will come with time — but for now, I’d say there’s little to worry over.
Q: Two games in row, what’s the best and worst position group on the team? Different you expected preseason? (@UofMorris)
A: Touched on this earlier in the week on our football show, but I’ve been really impressed with two groups: the running backs, especially Ty Isaac, and the linebackers. Isaac gives Michigan an extra layer of depth in the running game that could end up being so valuable down the road, especially if Speight can’t get it together. I still think Chris Evans has a productive season, matching and/or exceeding his rushing total from a season ago, but Isaac adds an extra dimension to the offense some of us didn’t account for before camp started. As for the linebackers, Devin Bush, Mike McCray, Noah Furbush — you could even throw Khaleke Hudson in there, too — have all displayed that ball-swarming speed Don Brown had talked about. They’ve done a good job helping the defensive line when needed and aiding the secondary to prevent many big plays from developing.
As for the worst, and this is certainly contextualized within the merits of a 2-0 team, the offensive line still has the most growth ahead of them. Mason Cole and Patrick Kugler have been good, Ben Bredeson has had his moments, but there is still work to be done on the right side. And that’s no fault to big Michael Onwenu or Nolan Ulizio. Both players have been put into a snake pit and, to their credit, survived so far. Ulizio has some work to do on his snap-reads and footwork, but the Michigan coaching staff clearly likes his size and ability over there. Give it some time.
Q: Do you see Tyrone Wheatley, Jr. being the blocking tight end and Sean McKeon/Nick Eubanks being pass-catching tight ends? Or will one be the go-to guy? (@poliskennedy)
A: Ethan’s question came in after the Florida game, where Sean McKeon and Nick Eubanks combined to catch five passes. McKeon was a target again in the win over Cincinnati, but this time Zach Gentry (2 catches, 41 yards) entered into the fold. As this rate, it’s apparent Michigan’s offense intends to use the tight end and often. That means all three could be involved at any point this season, with the 6-foot-6, 265-pound Wheatley likely designated as the pass-blocking tight end. I think the eventual plan is for Gentry to become that guy, but I’m sure Harbaugh won’t pass up using a big guy with good hands and speed on occasion, either.
Q: Who are the up-and-coming linebackers? After Devin Bush left (vs. Cincinnati), it got a little scary at mike (@ToddSchipper)
A: Beyond Bush, Mike McCray and Khaleke Hudson, the group is a bit bare. Noah Furbush will continue seeing plenty of reps, but there are three names that have either gotten a taste of playing time or been brought up in recent weeks: Devin Gil, who you might remember started the game against Florida for a dehydrated McCray, sophomore Josh Uche and freshman Josh Ross. In fact, Ross received compliments from several of his teammates for his explosive hits in camp. That bodes well for the future, as long as he can show he’s able to pick up Don Brown’s scheme.
For now, though, I’d anticipate a four-man rotation at linebacker. It’s going to take some time for the younger guys to acclimate. And hope that all four stay healthy.
Every week, MLive Michigan football beat writer Aaron McMann will answer your burning questions related to the team. He’ll take one question on the weekly football show, which can be seen here. Then, he’ll compile some of the best for a Q&A format to run Fridays on mlive.com/wolverines.