With the fewest returning starters in the country on both sides of the ball for Harbaugh in 2017, the task of replacing All-America and All-B1G talent will be no easy task for he and his coaching staff. While the team is bringing in back-to-back top ten recruiting classes, molding those talents specifically to fit a program is always a difficult challenge to some degree for championship teams.
With the 2017 spring game approaching on Saturday April 15, Michigan fans and most of the country is waiting to watch the Wolverines in the new season, beginning with the annual Maize vs. Blue game. With such a thin line of returning starting talent, many projectable players are on breakout watch, mainly at very skilled positions offensively and defensively.
QB Wilton Speight
After a year as a starter in the Michigan offensive system, most of the offensive responsibility relies on Speight’s arm in 2017, and he will likely be the backbone of the very young Wolverine offense. Is this really a surprise?
RB Chris Evans
As a sophomore, Evans will be looked on to do a bulk of the ball carrying behind an inexperienced offensive line. Evans returns as Michigan’s second-leading rusher with 614 yards and four touchdowns in 2016, and with the loss of De’Veon Smith, Evans is the next man up in the Michigan backfield. But he will not hog the spotlight.
RB Kareem Walker
As a freshman, Walker saw no action on the field, but is looking to have a breakout year as a sophomore. Being a former #2 overall running back recruit, Walker’s prep career calls for him to be a campus legend before his departure from Michigan. As a two time state champion and Under Armour All-American Game participant in high school, Walker knows what winning feels like. Will he emerge as the powerhouse running back that he appears to be?
WR Drake Harris
Harris was a four star recruit out of high school, and now is his time to emerge as Michigan’s number one receiver, if he can outwork the incredible freshman class of receivers that Harbaugh has gathered. In 2016, Harris recorded playing time in ten contests, and made one start against Michigan State. With losses of Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh, Harris is next in line to begin filling the shoes left by the seniors.
WR Donovan Peoples-Jones
Perhaps the most coveted receiver in the nation has landed in Harbaugh’s hands. A raw talent, Peoples-Jones has the athleticism and playmaking ability to start as a true freshman. The 6-foot-2 Jones will likely be the number two option at receiver, or could even jump Harris into the lead-receiving role. DPJ will be his usual freak-athlete self again, even as an 18 year old college player.
DE Rashan Gary
No surprise here at all. The #1 high school player in the ’16 class made his impact already in the past fall, even though he played behind a stout defensive line featuring Chris Wormley and Taco Charlton as the go-to options at defensive end. Gary played all thirteen games for the Maize and Blue, recording 27 tackles and and one sack. Teaming with Maurice Hurst to continue Michigan’s defensive line success, Gary will be a key in both pass rush and run defense.
LB Devin Bush
As a special-teams player and backup linebacker in 2016, Bush walks into the opportunity of a lifetime in 2017, and will get his chance to play alongside senior Mike McCray. Bush gave a teaser of his tackling ability this past year with 12 total tackles. Playing just seven games at linebacker, Bush will need to get ready to play all 12 regular season games. Bush and McCray will be joined by Chase Winovich, who will play linebacker if his services are not needed at defensive end.
CB LaVert Hill
Hill will be one of the top candidates to replace All-American Jourdan Lewis and fellow senior Channing Stribling, both of whom are going on to the NFL Draft. While decently undersized for a cornerback in today’s version of college football, Hill’s play style will have to mimic Lewis’s in order to be successful. This play style calls for Hill to play pass-coverage to swat the ball away, rather than playing the body or highflying for interceptions. It worked for Jourdan Lewis, and it can be effective for Hill as well.
CB David Long
Long played in just four contests as a freshman, which could result in the defensive backs being thin potentially on one side of the field at the cornerback position. Long will likely be a starter across from Hill, and will need a few games to hone in and truly adjust to the speed of college football. Once he gets comfortable, Long should be quite the talent.
CB/PR/KR Ambry Thomas
Thomas comes as an exceptional athletic talent. His tall, lanky frame make him athletic enough to play on both sides of the ball, as he has proved his ability to do so in his high school years. Thomas makes a perfect choice for punt and kick returning, and may possibly be converted to a sneaky offensive threat, especially with Harbaugh’s play calling.
Honorable Mentions: RB Karan Higdon, WR Tarik Black, WR Nico Collins, OL Michael Onwenu, DT Michael Dwumfour, LB Elysse Mbem-Bosse.