Michigan Wolverines football 2017 season preview, schedule, players to watch

By The Sports Xchange  |  Aug. 16, 2017 at 8:17 PM
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Michigan finds itself in rebuilding mode in Year 3 of the Jim Harbaugh era.

The Wolverines won 10 games in each of Harbaugh's first two seasons as coach and the players mainly responsible for those records are off to the NFL or out of eligibility.

The defensive line was hit hard, the secondary was wiped out, the receivers and tight end were gutted and the offensive line was decimated.

Yet Harbaugh doesn't show a single sign of despair.

"It feels more exciting," Harbaugh said at the Big Ten media day festivities. "To see them hungry and excited about the opportunity, that's fun to coach.

"And they're talented, too. I don't want to deviate from that. Young and untalented: bad. Young and talented: good."

Michigan opens the season with a neutral-site game against Florida on Sept. 2 and that is when Harbaugh can start gauging exactly who is both young and talented.

Even with the abundance of talent over the past two years, the Wolverines were unable to win a Big Ten title and end a championship drought dating back to 2004.

Rising sophomore defensive end Rashan Gary hears that fact and can only shake his head.

"In the defense room, we got a chain and every team that wins a Big Ten title signs off on the chain," Gary said. "It's been a long time. Every time you walk into the meeting room, you look to your left and that's something you look at. That's something that always makes us hungry."

Michigan has a returning starting quarterback in junior Wilton Speight and even he's not guaranteed to keep his job despite passing for 2,538 yards, 18 touchdowns and seven interceptions last season.

Senior John O'Korn is pushing Speight for the starting role in competition that should unearth a winner by the end of next week.

O'Korn was Speight's backup last season but was a starter at Houston earlier in his career.

"John O'Korn really played consistently good," Harbaugh said of the quarterback's camp performance. "And Wilton really had some impressive moments as well."

Michigan is auditioning young receivers and running backs and the one player who appears assured of a starting gig is sophomore back Chris Evans, who averaged 7 yards per carry while rushing for 614 yards as a freshman.

Defensively, big things are expected of Gary as a thin line goes under a revamping needed for Michigan to compete for the Big Ten crown.

Senior outside linebacker Mike McCray is back after a solid season in which he had 76 tackles and two interceptions.

MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: DT Maurice Hurst -- The fifth-year senior didn't start a single game last season but he is now being counted on to solidify and lead a young defensive line. Hurst posted 34 tackles and 4.5 sacks last season in his backup role and is motivated to take care of what he terms unfinished business. "For me the biggest thing was just wanting to be a starter," Hurst said at Big Ten Media Day festivities. "I wanted to be a leader on our team and improve my draft stock. It's been a long time, waiting for this. I'm really looking forward to this year and appreciate the opportunity to be a leader."

BREAKOUT STAR: DE Rashan Gary -- The sophomore was a ballyhooed recruit who had 27 tackles and one sack last season while being brought along slowly on a deep defensive line. Now he is being counted on to be one of the stalwarts of the defense and coach Jim Harbaugh feels he's ready. "He's had a lot of hype, he's had a lot of adulation, and there's some people that that's what they live for," Harbaugh said. "They live for approval of others and to be recognized as a hyped-up player. There's some people that are just aspiring for greater things than just the adulation of somebody. And I think Rashan is that type of guy. He just works, and I really think competing is his favorite thing to do."

NEWCOMER TO WATCH: WR Donovan Peoples-Jones -- The 6-foot-2 freshman could open the campaign as a starter with Michigan reloading at receiver. Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson have departed, and the Wolverines lack a go-to threat, which leaves opportunity for Peoples-Jones to emerge. He was ranked as the nation's top receiver recruit and figures to pay immediate dividends.

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WR Grant Perry, a junior, was reinstated to the team despite being sentenced to 12 months probation for assault. The sentence was a plea deal in which Perry had two counts of fourth-degree felony sexual misconduct dropped in exchange for misdemeanor assault and battery and felony resisting arrest.

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