Open Practice Impressions

Submitted by Brian on March 28th, 2016 at 12:21 PM

Before we start, folks who aren't going to be mentioned because they were on the sideline: Jehu Chesson, David Dawson, Ryan Glasgow, Mo Ways, Kingston Davis, Karan Higdon, Shelton Johnson.

Established guys we didn't see much of

I've seen a number of open practices by now and there's always a subclass of guys who aren't hurt but don't play much. Those guys are gentlemen who have established who they are and are too important to the team to expose them to extensive contact. They've made it, more or less. (These are never OL or DL.)

Most of the gentlemen who fell into this category are obvious: Jake Butt, Jabrill Peppers, Amara Darboh, Jourdan Lewis. There was one that indicates a supposedly contested position battle that might not be all that contested: De'Veon Smith saw very few live contact carries.

Tyrone Wheatley Jr Is A Tight End, And A Mutant

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[Bryan Fuller]

Some guys leap off the field the first time you see them in action, because… whoah. Devin Funchess did so at the first open practice these eyes ever laid eyes on, and that proved itself more or less correct over the course of his career. It was immediately apparent that Funchess was a rare combination of size and mobility.

Tyrone Wheatley Jr. is that plus 70 pounds. He's not Funchess. He's in fact the opposite of Funchess as far as blocky/catchy types go. But he has that same combination of size and mobility that makes you go "whoah" the first time you see him in action. I was typing out tweets about how his ability to relocate himself at his size was uncanny even before he did this:

That's not a great angle; I had one. Devin Bush Jr had outstanding coverage underneath Wheatley, grabbing an arm and forcing the one-handed stab. Which Wheatley made, escaped/stiffarmed an understandably stumbling Bush, and then outran a bunch of LBs and safeties to the endzone. Even though large chunks of the crowd had left by that point it drew the largest cheer of the day, and deservedly.

That was not a one-off play. Wheatley had four or five other catches where he looked both unexpectedly mobile and a natural receiver. He also had an outstanding block in space against Chase Winovich that allowed John O'Korn to uncork a long post throw to Grant Perry for a touchdown.

There have been persistent rumors that Wheatley was destined for OL because of his size and some assertions to that effect in Rivals's Inside The Fort posts. This practice will definitively dispel those rumors. Wheatley isn't just a tight end, he is a potential gamebreaker. At 280.

[After THE JUMP: future mutants, QB battle, an extant run game, and some dude from Malaysia.]

Zach Gentry may be a future mutant

The other tight end that showed out was Zach Gentry. Gentry caught everything his way, some of them difficult grabs, and ran routes with a fluidity that belied his brief tenure at TE. He looks nothing like a tight end. He looks like Ian Bunting as a high school senior—a hilariously oversized wide receiver—and there's little chance he makes an impact this year. 

Even so it was apparent why Michigan made that move. Gentry can definitely hack the position, and after a year or (probably) two getting BEEFCAKE his upside at tight end is vast. One note of caution: we may have seen him good. Baumgardner:

He looked lost, to be frank, in Florida. On Saturday, he looked like a different player. And he looked like a guy who might be able to really have an impact for Michigan this season.

His blocking isn't there yet, which is to be expected. But his routes were so much better, and he didn't drop anything. When spring ball started, you could tell it took every ounce of concentration he had to just run a route and catch the ball. Now, with that becoming second nature, Gentry's able to use his natural athleticism -- which is rather impressive -- to make something happen after the catch. When he gets into some clean space and is able to stretch his legs, he can really, really move.

You never want to overrate one piece of data. A cautionary note, because spring practice stuff is spring practice stuff.

Wide receiver depth is… eh

Down Canteen, Dukes, Chesson, and Ways there was a major opportunity for any ambulatory gentleman to establish themselves as legit options; nobody really did. In part this is because five receivers arrive in September and with the departure of Dukes an entire Hoke WR class has bombed out with no more than a half-dozen catches to its name.

Grant Perry did catch a long post touchdown from O'Korn on the previously mentioned play; he more or less looked like the dude who caught a number of balls against Florida. This is good. Drake Harris didn't do much, which is less good. Ahmir Mitchell looked exactly like his recruiting rep would have it: big-time athlete, very unpolished.

Aside from Amara Darboh—who went 1 for 2 on long bombs against Jourdan Lewis—that's every scholarship WR on the roster until the cavalry arrives this fall.  WR is a spot where Michigan should be very good but there's a big dropoff after the starters.

But who cares really

So the two headliners from this practice were both tight ends; Jake Butt exists; Ian Bunting has been getting major breakout player praise for weeks. Meanwhile Michigan expects Sean McKeon to play this year and walk-on Michael Jocz certainly looks the part. Devin Asiasi also arrives in fall. Khalid Hill is still more or less a tight end. They're going to be loaded at the position. Absolutely loaded.

Mike McCray gets off the cart

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coming attractions [Bryan Fuller]

Mike McCray's career was under threat after successive surgeries, the first unsuccessful. He sat out all of last year, and most projections about next year mentioned him as an afterthought at best. That was a mistake, happily. McCray is clearly the guy leading the race to start next to Ben Gedeon, and he looks the part.

I saw him catch a couple blocks from OL, but I also saw him absolutely truck a couple guys. He's thick, he will hit people, and he's pretty athletic for his size. He needs to get more consistent when taking on OL—needs to get that Desmond Morgan ability to get under them and rock 'em back—but he is very viable. Steve Lorenz posted some spring notes on five players; one of them was McCray:

"The kid is unreal."

If that pans out Michigan's main weakness on D looks pretty tenable all of a sudden. Grady Brooks/Kevin Grady/Lawrence Marshall disclaimers apply, of course. The difference with McCray is we've had a couple of opportunities to get eyes on him and he's impressed. There's some circumstantial evidence in his favor, too: Rueben Jones and Carlo Kemp moved back to defensive end after trials at linebacker; Chase Winovich is being played exclusively as a DL as well. That reads like "throw everyone at linebacker in case there's a solution" followed by "we have a solution, ollie ollie oxen free."

Gedeon meanwhile:

I agree with that take. Short stuff over the middle was generally well-covered and there wasn't much uncontested up the seams. Even the big play to Wheatley saw Devin Bush Jr with excellent coverage.

Quarterback battle might be legit

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no defending this [Bryan Fuller]

First, Shane Morris has a beard. This instantly gives him a better shot. He also threw a terrific 15-yard out in 7 on 7 that had the placement, velocity, and timing to be complete against anyone. He will always have that one throw that makes you think "maybe…"; this is why there's always some anonymous insider swearing up and down he's going to be the man.

Despite that one throw, Morris seemed to be third in the pecking order behind Wilton Speight and John O'Korn. Speight is your nominal leader, taking first snaps almost all the time. (The practice alternated between scrimmage-type activity and drills, so there were multiple opportunities to take first snaps.) Neither guy clearly separated himself from the other guy on Saturday, but I'd have to give the edge to O'Korn, who hit two deep touchdowns and broke the pocket to scramble effectively. He also threw a pick-six to Tyree Kinnel and had erratic short accuracy, so it wasn't all sunshine and roses for him.

Speight showed off a bit more velocity than he did in the Minnesota game but had similar issues with accuracy short. He struggled against Michigan's pass rush. Most quarterbacks would have since guys were getting through with regularity, but Speight didn't have the backup plan O'Korn did. Despite the bits of evidence in Speight's favor, I'm still betting O'Korn gets the nod this fall.

Brandon Peters did get a couple drives to show what he can do, and he dropped in a couple really nice deep balls. The Wheatley completion was one of them; he also hit Mitchell on a 40-yard fly route. He seems to have already eased past Alex Malzone.

Run game items

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holes were palpable [Eric Upchurch]

It's difficult to parse offensive line performance live so all I can give you are vague feelings. The vague feeling I got from this practice was encouraging. There were a number of stuffs but the offense also busted a number of big runs. (They played a run-oriented front-seven version of 7 v 7 for part of the practice on which guys bounced out a lot—I'm not counting those since the defensive backs who fill those lanes weren't on the field.)

I haven't seen a Michigan offense crack the opposite unit in spring practice since Denard was around. This practice saw creases develop and RBs delivered into the secondary.

As far as backs go, Ty Isaac was the most impressive. (Remember that Smith was cooling his heels.) He dropped a little weight and showed a wiggle through the line that wasn't present for much of last year. One run saw him lower the boom on a safety trying to tackle him. And Michigan used his ability out of the backfield—perhaps not by choice given the coverage, but they used him.

Walk-on Joe Hewlett got a lot of time as well. While that may be an effect of having three tailbacks more or less on the shelf, it felt like Hewlett was getting an extended audition because he's got a shot at time. As per usual with walk-ons, he's not an amazing package of size and speed but they really seemed to like him out of the backfield. He had one quality run on which he managed to bounce the ball outside after being momentarily trapped in the backfield.

Drake Johnson looked full-go and remains Michigan's quickest tailback. He had a couple of bursts through narrow zone creases. Poor damn Kareem Walker got stuffed every time he touched the ball, probably because he was getting carries behind Michigan's second OL and the second team DL >>>> second team OL.

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Walker will get a crease one day [Eric Upchurch]

Michigan doesn't have the kind of runners they had at fullback last year. Wyatt Shallman got some run there. He looked pretty uncomfortable. Expect Hill and Poggi to get most of the work.

Hello Kittel

Michigan's depth chart at safety is pretty scary after this year, leaving Tyree Kinnel one of, if not the, most important player to see progress as far as the 2017 team goes. Happily, Kinnel looked pretty damn good here. He played a lot, often next to Dymonte Thomas, and pick-sixed John O'Korn on a play where he flashed in front of the intended receiver in a way surprising not just to O'Korn but neutral observers. I can only hope he survived the ensuing celebration intact.

Kinnel is going to be huge for this team in 2017. Don Brown's system relies on excellent man to man coverage skills from his safeties and Kinnel was reputed to bring that. He indicated he might deliver on that promise on Saturday.

In Other Secondary Items

Jourdan Lewis remains Jourdan Lewis. Many commentators have given up talking about him because there's no point: he is a returning All-American, and plays like it.

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[Bryan Fuller]

Channing Stribling had a firm grip on the starting spot opposite him. This is a surprise to me since I thought Jeremy Clark had a fine junior season and the potential to be a star as a senior, but Stribling brings almost as much size as Clark and was part of a secondary that Michigan receivers found it very difficult to get open against.

Stribling won a couple of battles against Darboh, and in this setting that's the most impressive thing you can do. He jumped one route for a would-be pick but had a finger or two phase out at the last second. On the other hand, we've got two shots of Stribling chasing down long completions and not being particularly close.

Rashan Gary is a what

Yes, I can work a Rashan Gary reference into a practice that Rashan Gary did not participate in because Rashan Gary brings all the Rashan Gary clicks to the yard.

Anyway: Michigan played Matt Godin and Chris Wormley more or less exclusively at three tech in this practice, with Chase Winovich and Rueben Jones getting a bunch of WDE snaps. Taco Charlton was your main strongside end, or "anchor." To me this signals that Gary will play as an SDE as a freshman and that Michigan is trying to find answers on the interior.

Or they'll scrap it and move Wormley out to SDE, where he excelled a year ago. The configuration we saw Saturday has one clear advantage: you've got two guys at each spot. Wormley at SDE means that your three-tech starter (probably Mo Hurst) is backed up by Godin. Godin was good as an SDE and not so hot at a three-tech last year.

Elsewhere

Further takes abound. In the comments here, user "Yossarian's Tree":

Other notes: Pretty sure a half-deaf boundary corner could hear Doc Brown in a washing machine factory on a Wednesday. You could send our OL and DL on a death-trip to sea for three months and both would survive but the world would die.

More from Baumgardner:

If forced to make a guess at a starter right now, I'd still pick O'Korn. But, as I wrote earlier this month, he still has to win the job. I wonder if Michigan's driving that point home right now by pushing Speight in front of him during practice. Simply sending a message that, "if you can't get it together consistently every day, we will start someone else."

Touch The Banner:

The weak spot here is clearly Newsome, in my opinion. That makes sense because he’s the only new starter, but it’s significant at left tackle, nonetheless. He’s decent as a run blocker, but he gets overextended when he pass sets, does not move his feet well enough, and whiffs too often. He’s plenty athletic and physically looks the part of a Big Ten starter, but his technique still needs a lot of work.

Comments

JeepinBen

March 28th, 2016 at 12:38 PM ^

Everyone goes to Gronk when they think of monster TEs, but know who's second to Gronk in terms of TE TDs, etc in the last few years? Martellus Bennet (recently of my Bears) who's 6'6" and 280 ish. Blocks like an OT, runs like a WR. If Wheatley is a mutant, this is what he'll be like.

 

markp

March 28th, 2016 at 2:00 PM ^

I would not be at all surprised if Harbaugh did this... Some defensive backfields are pretty small and I don't think there are many defenses that could contend with 4 or 5 legit catching threats that average about 6-5 and 270lbs.

Frankly, teams often had enough trouble just covering Butt.

MGoStrength

March 28th, 2016 at 2:43 PM ^

Chesson & Glasgow are both recovering from injuries and are expected to be full go in the fall.  There was some discussion of Ways...basically that he didn't seperate himself from the mob of guys behind Chesson & Darboh.  My hunch is he gets burried on the depth chart behind Mitchell & McDoom.  Dawson is probably our 7th o-lineman (2nd off the bench behind Kugler) so I agree he is one to be concerned about.  The others are young/inexperienced enough not to worry about and shouldn't be a concern this year anyways.

stephenrjking

March 28th, 2016 at 1:04 PM ^

Yay spring practice overreaction thread! Here's my chance to look stupid in the fall.

So TE looks like a monster position. Wheatley emerging through positive performance is a great sign. We already have maybe the best TE in the nation; now, it seems like we have an established pipeline of them ready to dominate. And a coach who knows how to use them. This could presage a dominant aspect of our offense.

Nice talk about McCray is just talk at this point, but it is definitely encouraging to hear that he looks good, and that he seems to be the next starter. I still have high hopes for Bush, but relying on any single freshman to anchor an important starting position is extremely chancy. If we can get even meh performance out of McCray, that's a great result.

On the negative side, I was hoping that O'Korn would seize the QB job with authority. That hasn't happened yet. It's a worry.

Go Blue in MN

March 28th, 2016 at 1:35 PM ^

I was about to post something like this also concerning the apparent lack of separation of O'Korn from the pack.  I know it's early, and the comments and pecking order are probably motivational-related at least in part, but it's not good to read that a guy we need to play consistently well to have a shot at the playoffs is #2 on the nominal depth chart and making "a big mistake" every practice.  Hey, we wouldn't be Michigan fans if we couldn't find some bad in a sea of good news, right?

MGoStrength

March 28th, 2016 at 2:49 PM ^

McCray/Gedeon/Peppers make me feel a lot better about the LBs.  Bush & Furbush are good enough to provide depth.

 

I agree with O'Korn.  I said this a while back but I'd be surprised if we don't have some growing pains this year with whomever is our QB.  Our first big game is PSU at home and they have a new QB too, then Wiscy after that in game #5 at home.  Our defense should be good enough to make it a non-issue for most of the games on our schedule.

gwkrlghl

March 28th, 2016 at 1:21 PM ^

 

Poor damn Kareem Walker got stuffed every time he touched the ball, probably because he was getting carries behind Michigan's second OL and the second team DL >>>> second team OL.

 

Because if we know the 1st and 2nd team DL are great, and we saw the 1st team OL have some success while the 2nd team OL was getting caved, it would seem reasonable to think that the 1st team OL is pretty darn good.

Kevin Holtsberry

March 28th, 2016 at 1:31 PM ^

Can I just say how much fun this practice was for me?  Living in Columbus I usually have to live vicariously through this blog, twitter, etc.  But I took my family to the practice on Saturday as the wrap up to spring break and had a great time.  It was kind of cool to read Brian's reactions to things I had seen in person.  Deep behind enemy lines, it is good to get the chance to hang out with Michigan fans for a few hours and see the team coming together.  I also realized what a challenge it is to makes sense of what is going on in a practice lke this and come away with useful intelligence.  Not as easy as it looks. I just soaked it all in without thinking too much.
 
Only problem now is that I want it to be football season immediately.
 

markusr2007

March 28th, 2016 at 1:38 PM ^

Michigan had an empty backfield, 4 OL (T-G-C-G-T) and 6 tight ends out there?

I mean, you show up at Talledega with a bunch of Mack Trucks instead of NASCARs and people are gonna laugh their asses off.  But then goddammit if those big Mack Trucks are "East Bound and Ground"-ing the competition to the wall and winning the checkered flag anyway.