3:30 pm Eastern
September 2nd, 2017
|THE LINE||M -5|
Michigan opens the season against Florida in the first of four games on the schedule that doesn't have the Wolverines projected as a multi-score favorite. There's a growing sentiment Michigan could turn this into just such a game, however, now that ten—ten!—Gator players are suspended for this weekend, most of them for getting caught up in a fraud scheme. Very on-brand, Florida.
While many of the suspended players are freshmen who weren't expected to see much of the field this early, Florida's two best offensive skill players won't play tomorrow. The Gators are breaking in a first-time starter at quarterback against a Don Brown defense boasting a hellacious defensive line. That's not an ideal combination for UF. We're also not sure if the suspensions are done yet; the investigation is ongoing.
Also their head coach totally humped a shark over the offseason. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.
Run Offense vs Florida
Former five-star CeCe Jefferson is a tough, versatile run defender.
Florida boasted a really impressive run defense for much of last year, holding seven of their first nine opponents below four yards per carry, including four games in which their foe couldn't crack two YPC. After injury hit the linebacker corps, however, their play dropped off; each of their last four opponents broke that four YPC barrier, with Florida State and Alabama—two admittedly great rushing offenses—going for over six yards a pop.
That dip is particularly relevant, as last year's injury replacements at linebacker are now the full-time starters. Former Michigan commit David Reese filled in admirably for new Detroit Lion Jarrad Davis at the MIKE; he gained valuable experience last year and should be solid, albeit probably not as good as the first-rounder he replaces. The starter at weakside linebacker, Vosean Joseph, is a fellow sophomore who started the bowl game when Alex Anzalone got hurt. Florida kept Iowa's run game in check in that one, so the guess here is Joseph will also be a passable starter. The sore spot may be strongside linebacker, where 6'6", 228-pound redshirt freshman Jeremiah Moon is expected to start with Kylan Johnson banged up. Depth will be a major concern for UF if any starter has to exit for an extended period.
The defensive line will test Michigan's reshuffled O-line. While tackles Caleb Brantley and Joey Ivey are gone, redshirt juniors Taven Bryan and Khairi Clark both impressed as rotation DTs last year; all three of Bryan's TFLs came during the final six games. At end, former five-star CeCe Jefferson is arguably Florida's best defender, and five of his 6.5 TFLs last season were against the run. While he's only 6'1", 261, he can hold up at tackle as well, though that's something more relevant to the next section.
Michigan's starters against Florida's starters should be a relatively even matchup. Where the Wolverines can exploit UF is when the backups rotate through. While they have plenty of depth at end, the listed DT backups on UF's depth chart are true freshman Kyree Campbell and 263-pound redshirt sophomore Luke Ancrum, who barely saw the field last year. We may even see true freshman Tedarrell Slaton, whom you may remember as the mammoth OG/DT prospect Michigan was hoping to land in the 2017 class. The Wolverines may want to utilize some tempo to lock the backups on the field when they get the chance.
KEY MATCHUP: MIKE ONWENU and PATRICK KUGLER versus KHAIRI CLARK. Clark projects to be Florida's best interior run defender at 6'1", 315, and he'll test Kugler's strength. Kugler should get plenty of help from his guards, and this will be the first time we get to see how Onwenu holds up over the course of an entire college football game. If the interior line battles the starting DTs to a draw, Michigan's RBs should be able to break a couple big plays against the inexperienced linebackers.
[Hit THE JUMP for an offense devoid of proven playmakers]
Pass Offense vs Florida
Jabari Zuniga emerged as an effective pass-rusher last year.
Florida's top-ten pass defense was already going to take a hit without corners Teez Tabor and Quincy Wilson and safety Marcus Maye, who all went in the second round of this spring's NFL draft. Then leading tackler and starting safety Marcell Harris tore his Achilles in July. Now UF finds themselves in a similar position as Michigan, turning over most of the secondary to bit players and fresh faces.
Duke Dawson is the #1 corner after a standout stint as the nickelback—he led UF with seven pass breakups and added a pick—and if he's nearly as effective as a full-timer as he was in limited snaps, he's a guy Michigan will want to avoid. That's especially the case since the other starting corner is true freshman Marco Wilson, Quincy's younger brother. The younger Wilson is listed at a mere 177 pounds; if he's lined up against a guy the size of, say, Tarik Black, Wilton Speight will probably want to go in that direction.
Depth at corner doesn't look good, either. Wilson is also listed as the starting slot corner, with senior Joseph Putu, a former JuCo transfer who played mostly special teams in 2016, stepping in on the outside when they go to a nickel package. The other backups at corner are true freshmen.
Sophomore Chauncey Gardner, who moved to corner in the spring after a promising debut season at safety, had to flip back to safety after the Harris injury. He's a playmaker; he pulled down three picks last year, two of them against Iowa to earn Outback Bowl MVP honors. Redshirt senior Nick Washington started six games last year before falling to injury and should be a steady presence next to Gardner on the back end. Again, however, depth is a problem; the most experienced backup is a true sophomore who played special teams, and the rest are freshmen.
The aspect of the passing game Michigan fans will be most worried about, of course, is protecting Speight. Unfortunately, getting to the passer may be this UF team's biggest strength. Jefferson is a very effective pocket-pusher when he slides inside on passing downs, and Bryan also generates a lot of heat from the interior. Sophomore DE Jabari Zuniga led the team with five sacks in his first year, and there's a pile of highly touted recruits providing depth, including Jordan Sherit (3.5 sacks last year), Jachai Polite (2.0), and former five-star Antonneus Clayton. Michigan could go to some quick-hitting passes to try to negate UF's edge on the line while testing the tackling of a green back seven.
KEY MATCHUP: NOLAN ULIZIO versus DISASTER. Please, please, please don't be a turnstile. Wilton Speight's ability to shake off charging linemen is probably going to be tested regardless. If Ulizio holds up, we can start feeling pretty damn good about the offense.
Run Defense vs Florida
Lamical Perine steps in for suspended starter Jordan Scarlett.
This is the first place where Florida's suspensions start to really hurt. I spent a decent chuck of my preparation time for this game watching running back Jordan Scarlett, who scraped out 5.0 YPC last year despite a bad run-blocking line and UF providing little threat through the air. I'd say more about how Scarlett impressed me, but he went and got himself suspended. Sometimes you light bits of your summer on fire.
In Scarlett's place steps sophomore Lamical Perine, the primary backup last year. Even though he's bigger, Perine isn't as powerful as Scarlett, which could be an issue given this O-line/D-line matchup. He's dangerous in the open field, however, and much more impactful as a receiver. Consistency is his issue. He had 28 carries for 211 yards combined against Kentucky and Mizzou (7.5 YPC); the rest of the year he had 210 yards on 68 carries (3.3 YPC). Kentucky and Mizzou were 93rd and 109th, respectively, in rush defense S&P+ last year. Michigan projects to be... a good deal better than that.
Scarlett's absence also hurts depth. Mark Thompson didn't do a whole lot with his 68 carries last year, and the rest of the rotation will be comprised of true freshmen—talented true freshmen, but true freshmen nonetheless. While the Gators may trust Malik Davis and Adarius Lemons to carry the rock, pass protection may be a different story, and that means substitutions could tip the defense off to what UF wants to run.
Meanwhile, the line is going to have its hands full with Michigan's vaunted front four. Left tackle Martez Ivey, who's sliding out from guard to replace early NFL Draft entry David Sharpe, is UF's best lineman. He's also not at full strength, per Florida Scout insider Bob Redman:
TMI VIP Question: What is the latest on LT Martez Ivey's status?
Bob Redman: Ivey missed about 10 days of the spring but I think he could have played last weekend even though he missed the few days leading up to the weekend as well. He’s been through a lot and the latest was a knee or ankle issue. Unless something else happens he will certainly start, but I would say he will be playing at about 80%.
Redman also noted that right tackle Jawaan Taylor has been "hobbled" by a knee issue. They do have one backup with experience, but junior Tyler Jordan hasn't been able to stick in the lineup when he's seen spot starts over the last two years. The three interior linemen have only 14 career starts between them, ten of which belong to right guard Fred Johnson. This is a really big group—everyone easily tops 300 pounds and three are over 330—but it's unclear if they can actually maul anyone yet.
We'll likely see a special package of plays in place for quarterback Malik Zaire, who's much more of a running threat than UF's other QBs. I'd be more worried about Zaire's mobility if he'd taken the starting job outright; instead his insertion is going to be a tell that UF wants to run more read-option. More on that in the next section.
KEY MATCHUP: BACKUP DTs versus BLOWING ASSIGNMENTS. I'm having a hard time seeing UF doing much on the ground against the starters, but at some point Michigan is going to have to rotate some guys who've never seen the field at the college level. I'm remarkably optimistic about Aubrey Solomon's potential, and Mike Dwumfour has gotten his share of camp hype; those two just have to make sure not to blow a slant call or something along those lines that allows Perine a rare chance to break into open space.
Pass Defense vs Florida
8-for-14, 114 yards, 1 TD in the spring game.
Florida hasn't been able to find a reliable quarterback since Tim Tebow. They're still searching, it seems. Last year they flipped between Purdue transfer Austin Appleby (now graduated) and Luke Del Rio; neither was effective. The Gators brought in Notre Dame grad transfer Malik Zaire in June so this year's competition wouldn't come down to Del Rio and freshmen. A three-way battle for the starting job between Del Rio, Zaire, and redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks resulted in... a three-way tie atop the depth chart. While Franks will hit the field first on Saturday, Jim McElwain has repeatedly said all three QBs could see snaps.
That can't be a good sign. Del Rio was brutal last year, throwing for 6.1 YPA with as many picks (eight) as touchdowns. Franks looked viable this spring but didn't exactly blow anyone away, and he hasn't been able to pull away from the pack. Zaire has the most intriguing skill-set—he's a dangerous runner—but he reportedly hasn't been able to digest the whole playbook since arriving in the summer. Everyone they put out there is going to have some limitations:
TMI VIP Question: What are the strength/weakness of the 3 QBs in contention to get the nod for the start? Who do you think will start? Does he really believe all 3 will play in the game ?
Bob Redman: Strengths: Feleipe Franks (FR) is the best overall passer. Luke Del Rio (R-JR) has the most knowledge of the system. Malik Zaire (SR) has the best mobility. Weaknesses: Franks doesn’t have quite as much knowledge as Del Rio and maybe a little too much finesse on passes. Del Rio doesn’t have the size or quite the arm as Franks. Zaire is way behind in knowing the offense after arriving in school in late June. And yes, I think we see all three quarterbacks versus Michigan.
These guys are going to have to deal with a Don Brown defense that loses a lot of starters but carries with them a year of system knowledge last year's defense lacked.
Oh, and they'll be operating without the offense's best playmaker after Antonio Callaway was busted as part of the fraud scheme. Callaway was the only pass-catcher among UF's top five last year to crack 6.5 yards per target; he was at 8.5 because of his ability to run after the catch.
Florida does have a few field-stretchers emerging. Sophomore Tyrie Cleveland, who's received a fair amount of fall camp hype, needed only 14 receptions to hit 298 yards last year; he had a 97-yard catch-and-run touchdown on a fly route against LSU in which he impressively shook off a tackle after tracking the ball well downfield. Fellow sophomores Josh Hammond and Freddie Swain both cracked 9 YPT last year but on limited opportunities. Senior Brandon Powell couldn't do much in the slot last year, but that position is bolstered by the return of Dre Massey, who was supposed to be a major piece of the offense last year before tearing his ACL against UMass. They do have a couple quality receiving tight ends in DeAndre Goolsby, who catches damn near everything, and C'yontai Lewis, and they're not afraid to use them.
The O-line was covered in detail in the run section. Florida has banged-up tackles, an inexperienced interior line, and at least to start out a freshman first-time starter at quarterback. They'd have a hard time handling this defensive line straight-up; add in Don Brown's myriad blitzes against RBs who haven't done much pass protecting and Michigan should spend a lot of time in the Gator backfield. I'm expecting the pressure to force at least one turnover.
KEY MATCHUP: LAVERT HILL versus TYRIE CLEVELAND. Hill is expected to be Michigan's top corner, and if the Wolverines are worried about that second corner spot and/or Cleveland's ability, they could task him with shadowing the swift sophomore wideout. Hill has all the requisite physical ability to hang with Cleveland. The key will be shedding his reputation as a physical marvel who occasionally takes plays off.
Florida was nearly as good as Michigan in the special teams fancystats last year, finishing tenth overall, and unlike the Wolverines they return both of their kicking specialists. Placekicker Eddy Piniero may be the best in the country; he went 21-for-25 last year with 13 makes from 40 yards and beyond, including a 3-for-3 mark from 50+. He's also an excellent kickoff specialist; he'll make M's returners take it out from the end zone. Punter Johnny Townsend was a Ray Guy semifinalist and made a couple All-American lists after leading the country with a 47.9-yard average and pinning 27 of his 64 punts inside the 20-yard line. They do lose an electric return man in Callaway, however, and their other options weren't nearly as effective last year.
Michigan, of course, is replacing Kenny Allen, who handled all the kicking duties last year, and also Jabrill Peppers on returns. Quinn Nordin and Brad Robbins seem to have stabilized the kicker and punter spots, respectively, so long as the #collegekickers effect doesn't make an unwanted appearance. Returns are a question mark; Nate Johnson, the favorite to return punts, muffed one in the spring game. Michigan should at least have several very athletic options in the return game if needed.
KEY MATCHUP: AHHHH YOU FIELDED THE PUNT.
- Right tackle is, in fact, a turnstile.
- The freshmen receivers look too much like freshmen to consistently move the ball.
- Cleveland gets over the top of the defense.
Cackle with knowing glee if...
Speight is back to RoboSpeight form.
The interior line is opening up holes for Chris Evans to dance into the second level.
Rashan Gary. Just... Rashan Gary.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 7 (Baseline 5; +1 for Right Tackle Heebie Jeebies, +1 for They Have The DEs To Make That An Especially Big Problem, -1 for Literally Over 10% Of Their Scholarship Players Are Suspended, +1 for Fast Wideouts Against Entirely New Secondary, +1 for General First Game Weirdness, -1 for Jim Harbaugh Vs. Coach Sharkf***er.)
Desperate need to win level: 9 (Baseline 5; +1 for Pete Finebaum Would Have A Field Day, +1 for Everything Is Still On The Table, +1 for Continued Dominance Of UF Must Continue, +1 for Jim McElwain Is Sensitive And Insufferable And Shouldn't Be Rewarded For Such, +1 for Redeem Neutral Site Openers, -1 for A Loss To A Good Team This Early Can Be Overcome).
Loss will cause me to... try to destroy JerryWorld.
Win will cause me to... WOOOOOOOO FOOTBALL BACK AND IT'S NOT MAKING ME SAD
The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:
In game one with so many new faces on both sides, I'm expecting some sloppiness in this one. That should mostly be on the Florida side given the respective quarterback situations. Wilton Speight and the coaching staff should provide Michigan with the edge they need, and even if the offense isn't clicking, the defensive line could easily overwhelm UF's offense.
Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
- Speight has to shake off a few sacks but still manages to crack 250 yards passing while playing with efficiency.
- Lavert Hill gives up a long touchdown, gets a pick largely generated by Rashan Gary, and settles in for an otherwise positive day.
- Michigan, 34-20