4 questions that could shape the 2019 Michigan football season

Michigan opens season at home against Middle Tennessee State

Michigan football Coach Jim Harbaugh (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images).
Michigan football Coach Jim Harbaugh (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images).

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Excitement about college football season is at an all-time high this week after a two-game teaser over the weekend and the first full slate of games just days away.

Ann Arbor is no exception. Jim Harbaugh's team has high expectations heading into 2019, ranked No. 7 in the preseason polls and picked as the favorite in the Big Ten.

It's been a strong offseason for the Wolverines, but there are still some pressing questions. The answers to those questions could end up being the difference between a breakthrough season in Ann Arbor and another underwhelming finish.

Are the linebackers elite? Good? Mediocre?

Michigan's defense has never finished outside the top three in the country under Don Brown, so fans are assuming that will be the case once again in 2019.

The Wolverines lost Jabrill Peppers, Taco Charlton, Chris Wormley, Jourdan Lewis, Delano Hill, Ben Gedeon, Ryan Glasgow and Jeremy Clark to the NFL draft after the 2016 season and fielded an elite defense in 2017.

After losing Chase Winovich, Rashan Gary, Devin Bush and David Long this season, Michigan is hoping for similar results.

Bush was a big reason Michigan was able to shoulder the blow of attrition in 2017. Is there a player who can do so for the 2019 team?

Josh Ross tackles Avery Davis of Notre Dame at Notre Dame Stadium on Sept. 1, 2018, in South Bend, Indiana. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Josh Ross and Devin Gil have had plenty of playing time throughout their careers, but neither is as balanced as Bush. Could Cam McGrone work his way into a start spot? Is Jordan Anthony in the mix?

The linebackers in Brown's defense need to be able to disrupt the quarterback and be solid in stopping the run and defending the pass. Khaleke Hudson has proven he can do all three.

If Michigan wants to win the Big Ten, it will need to find two others who can do the same. Right now, the position is a question mark.

Will the defensive line get enough pressure?

Michigan's defense had a strong pass rush last season with Winovich and Gary starting on the ends and Kwity Paye, Josh Uche and Aidan Hutchinson also in the rotation.

But the Wolverines struggled to get pressure in some of their biggest games, most notably against an Ohio State offensive line that was considered a weakness for the Buckeyes heading into the matchup.

So now, without Winovich and Gary, will Michigan's pass rush be enough to disrupt the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten?

Kwity Paye #19 of the Michigan Wolverines tries to sack Peyton Ramsey #12 of the Indiana Hoosiers at Michigan Stadium on November 17, 2018 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Michigan won the game 31-20. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Hutchinson, Paye and Uche will have to lead the charge -- Hutchinson and Paye starting and Uche playing a specialized role.

There's solid depth with the likes of Mike Danna, Luiji Vilain, Mazi Smith, David Ojabo, Chris Hinton and Ben Mason expected to contribute. But will multiple players emerge as elite pass rushers?

A common denominator of national championship teams is an unstoppable defensive line. Clemson and Alabama have built their dynasties around elite pass rushing.

Michigan has been a step below the best of the best in that regard. Can it lose Winovich and Gary and still take a step forward?

Will a running back emerge as a difference maker?

It's been a long time since Michigan had a true difference maker in the backfield. I might argue it's been more than a decade.

Karan Higdon was a very solid player for Michigan. He was reliable. He was durable. He was a work horse. But he didn't often take over games despite Michigan's run-heavy offense.

Michigan is hitting the reset button at the running back position, with Tru Wilson as the only returning player who's earned significant carries. Even though Michigan is expected to move toward a more balanced offensive attack, the running game will be prominent.

Tru Wilson celebrates a touchdown against SMU on Sept. 15, 2018, at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Wilson will still be in the mix, as will redshirt freshman Christian Turner, who had a nice showing in the Peach Bowl against Florida. Hassan Haskins and Ben VanSumeren are also expected to have roles.

But if Michigan's going to have a star at running back, it feels like it has to be true freshman Zach Charbonnet.

It's unclear if Charbonnet will win the starting job out of camp, but he has the highest ceiling of any running back on the team and was one of the top players in last season's recruiting class.

The Wolverines have had decent running backs under Harbaugh, but none as good as Najee Harris, Travis Etienne or J.K. Dobbins. To compete with the nation's top offenses, Michigan needs a playmaker in the backfield.

Can Josh Gattis call plays?

Yes, Michigan needed to make major changes in the offense. The receivers needed to be more involved. Harbaugh needed to hand over the reins.

Michigan needed to address each of these issues, and it did so with the home run hire of Josh Gattis. He's one of the top young offensive minds in college football and has succeeded at every stop in his career.

But this is his first time with full control of an offense, and it comes as the offensive coordinator at a football blue blood with immediate expectations.

Michigan offensive coordinator Josh Gattis (Michigan Football/@UMichFootball)

Gattis needs to be good, and it needs to be immediate.

He's saying all the right things and getting fans excited about the team's "speed in space." But Michigan has been saying all the right things in the offseason for a decade without great results on the field.

There's little doubt Gattis has what it takes to lead an excellent offseason, and it should certainly be an upgrade for Michigan.

But he still has to prove it.

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