Questions still loom for Michigan and Florida as the “Advocare Classic” Approaches
The 2017 season will start off with a bang as fans of the Florida Gators and Michigan Wolverines flock to AT&T Stadium aka “Jerry World” in Arlington, TX for the Advocare Classic on September 2nd. But even with the game being less than one month away, both teams are dealing with uncertainty that they hope will be answered before kickoff.
Did Michigan reload or will they have to rebuild?
Losing 17 starters is never easy but this is a perfect opportunity for Coach Harbaugh and his talent staff to show the nation that the Wolverines have reached the upper echelon of college football by reloading and not rebuilding. Teams like Alabama, Florida St. and Ohio St. lose talent every year but because of great recruiting those teams consistently remain in the conversation for conference and national championships – after assembling back-to-back Top 10 recruiting classes, Michigan is hoping for the same results.
Despite the roster turnover teams continue to be successful because they have returning players at key positions. For Michigan those positions are quarterback and linebacker.
After passing for 2,538 yards and 18 touchdowns redshirt junior quarterback Wilton Speight looks to build on a good first season as Michigan’s signal caller. His detractors will look at how the season ended for him and the Wolverines against better competition – losing three out of four games – but they forget that he was injured in the loss to Iowa and wasn’t full-strength in the close losses to Ohio St. and Florida St. Another year in Harbaugh’s offense should have Speight ready to go against a Florida defense that has its share of losses as well.
Two injury-riddled seasons in Ann Arbor had many wondering if senior linebacker Mike McCray Jr. was ever going to get “it” but in 2016 he did, and became one of the leaders of the uber-talented Michigan defense. This year, not only will there be an expectation to perform at a high level but McCray will be asked to be a more vocal leader of a defense that is talented but untested at many positions.
If guys like Maurice Hurst Jr., Rashan Gary, and Brian Mone can embrace their role as starters and leaders, it should be easier for the likes of Aubrey Solomon, Khaleke Hudson, and Lavert Hill to become those “dudes” that defensive coordinator Don Brown needs them to be to remain a top defense… if not it could be a long season for Wolverines fans who still are trying to overcome the unfulfilled expectations of Brady Hoke and Rich Rodriguez.
Will coaching changes spark a resurgence in Ann Arbor?
Last season Michigan reaped the benefits of Coach Harbaugh bringing in Don Brown to lead the defense and this year he turned his focus to improving the offensive staff; Greg Frey was brought in to help coach the offensive line and Pep Hamilton was snagged from the NFL to be the passing game coordinator. Ask any fan of the Wolverines what were the two weakest spots for the offense last year and they will say offensive line play and consistent quarterback play. Frey comes back to Michigan (he served under Rich Rodriguez from 2008-11) with a reputation of getting the most out of his linemen and much like Brown, the program is excited to see what he can do with top-level talent. While at Indiana University, Frey played a part in turning offensive linemen Jason Spriggs and Dan Feeney from lightly recruited recruits into NFL draft picks. Even with the departure of three starters, some believe the Wolverines offensive line can once again become one of the best units in college football and that’s because of Frey.
Like the offensive line, quarterback play at Michigan over the past few years has been underwhelming – and that’s putting it nicely. Knowing that the success, or failure, of any high-level team depends on the play of its quarterback, Harbaugh saw Hamilton as the guy that could take the position from average to very good. Whether they want to admit or not every college football player has a dream of being able to play in the NFL and who better to get to closer to that dream than someone who has coached on the next level.
As pressing as those questions are for the Wolverines, Jim McElwain and his staff has its own share of unknown knowns that hopefully will be answered before kickoff on September 2nd.
Who stops the Gators quarterback carousel?
For head coach Jim McElwain and the Florida Gators the biggest cause for angst heading into the matchup against the No. 9 ranked Michigan Wolverines is finding a clear-cut starter at the quarterback position. Unfortunately for the Gators, this is something it has been dealing with since “Touchdown Jesus” aka Tim Tebow graduated in 2009. Since 2010, 10 quarterbacks have lined up under center for the Gators and outside of Jeff Driskel, no Florida quarterback has come close to living up to the expectations left by Tebow. With that many bodies shuffling through the position, it was difficult to find offensive continuity and unfortunately, the 2017 season could start the same as Coach McElwain will name the 11th quarterback under center. Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire and redshirt freshman Felipe Franks are expected to push Luke Del Rio for the starting role. As of the spring game it looked like Franks had the advantage but that was before Zaire was cleared to take his talents to Gainesville.
In the past, the Gators could take the safe approach and start the guy who may not carry the most risk and let the defense carry the team, but this year’s squad may not afford the coaching staff that luxury because the defense looks to replace eight starters and will be trying to avoid its own share of growing pains.
Will Florida’s defense have any bite?
Speaking of the defense, Florida fans may have to pull out the roster sheet to recognize the eight new starters on that side of the ball as only defensive backs Duke Dawson, Marcell Harris, and Nick Washington return from a unit that was ranked fifth nationally in total defense and second in passing defense. One thing the Gators defense has going for itself is many of the new starters have some experience as they were forced into action last season due to injuries. Linebackers David Reese and Kylan Johnson were thrust into action and showed potential but now it’s time for it to be realized and they will be called on to be the leaders of a new front seven. If the roster turnover wasn’t enough, the defense will also be adjusting to a new defensive coordinator and scheme as Randy Shannon and his 4-3 defense was brought in during the off-season.
Some of these questions won’t be answered in time for kickoff but luckily for both teams, they play in competitive conferences where an opening day loss won’t hurt its national championship hopes. But don’t tell players and coaches that, no one wants to open the season with a defeat you better believe that both programs will do everything within its power to leave “Jerry World” with a victory.
Story by Qunnie Lowe