ANN ARBOR, Mich. – After a long, strange offseason that felt like it would never end, Michigan football is just 10 days away.
Obviously, this year comes with built-in reasons to be excited about the season. Most fans are glad to even have football after the Big Ten originally postponed it until the spring.
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But what about this specific Michigan team should fans be most excited about? There are a lot of changes in place for 2020, and that means uncertainty.
It also means opportunity.
With 10 days left until the start of the season, here are 10 reasons for Michigan fans to be excited about their team.
Year 2 of Josh Gattis
One of the problems with college football fans is the way they overhype someone new and make it impossible for that person to live up to expectations. That’s what happened last offseason with Gattis.
Fans were so starved for offensive creativity that they latched onto Gattis' “speed in space” mantra and expected a finished product right out of the gate. What they realized is that new systems take time to put in place, and that transition wasn’t as smooth as everyone hoped.
But there were signs at the end of the season that Gattis, a first time offensive coordinator, was starting to find his groove. Something clicked during the second half against Penn State, and from there, Michigan dropped 45, 38, 44 and 39 points in the four games leading up to Ohio State.
Another year into the new scheme, with players who better fit Gattis' game plan, Michigan should take a step forward.
Joe Milton era
Nobody knows if Milton will be successful as Michigan’s starting quarterback, but he sure has all the tools.
It’s been awhile since Michigan had a starter with his arm strength. Milton was a highly ranked recruit who’s shown flashes of brilliance his first two years on campus, and now coaches and teammates are raving about his abilities.
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Jim Harbaugh hasn’t had great luck with quarterbacks at Michigan. Maybe Milton can buck that trend.
Unleashing Daxton Hill
After all the hype that surrounded his recruitment, Hill didn’t open his true freshman season as a starter. This year, fans won’t have to wait.
Earlier this week, Harbaugh called Hill one of the most talented players on the roster, and that’s no surprise considering he was a five-star recruit and the No. 1 safety in the 2019 class.
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Hill is one of the fastest players in the country and should be an elite playmaker for a new-look Michigan secondary. He likes to deliver big hits, but he can also help out in coverage and force turnovers.
Last year, Hill’s role was somewhat limited. As a sophomore, he should be fully unleashed.
Stacked running back room
Two years ago, when Michigan traveled to Atlanta for the Peach Bowl, Christian Turner was the starting running back. He’s done nothing wrong in the 20 months since, but now finds himself at No. 5 on that same depth chart.
Zach Charbonnet is back to 100% health after scoring 11 touchdowns as a true freshman with nagging injuries. The sky is the limit for the former top 50 overall recruit.
Don’t forget about Hassan Haskins, either. He was arguably Michigan’s best runner a year ago -- breaking tackles and always finishing his runs.
Chris Evans returns after being suspended for 2019, and his ability to make tacklers miss in space and catch the ball out of the backfield appears to be a perfect fit for Gattis' offense.
Then there’s Blake Corum, a true freshman with elite speed and the strength to run through tackles. He won’t be glued to the bench no matter how many upperclassmen are ahead of him.
Four players with four very different running styles -- Michigan’s backfield should be fun to watch.
‘Salt and Pepper’
When they took over as Michigan’s starting defensive ends last season, Aidan Hutchinson and Kwity Paye dubbed themselves “Salt and Pepper.” Together they amassed 22.5 tackles for loss and 11 sacks.
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According to Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Don Brown, the pair has only gotten better this offseason. Hutchinson, especially, is being lauded for his improvement.
Every great college football team can rush the passer, and that’s what Hutchinson and Paye do best. If Michigan fields another dominant defense, “Salt and Pepper” will be the ones leading the charge.
Kick and punt returns
Michigan fans love to point back to the Steve Breaston era when talking about kick and punt returns, but over the last few years, Donovan Peoples-Jones, Giles Jackson and others have been pretty dynamic, too.
This year has a chance to be special.
Not only is Jackson still in the mix, but Michigan has some absolute burners in Mike Sainristil, Roman Wilson, Eamonn Dennis and Hill. The speed on this roster is head and shoulders above where it was two years ago.
On offense, speed only matters if a player knows how to get the ball. On defense, speed has to be paired with tackling or coverage skills.
But in the return game, speed alone is a home run threat. Michigan has some players who can motor -- and that’s a reason to be excited.
Ronnie Bell’s next chapter
When Michigan offered a scholarship to an unranked prospect committed to play basketball at Missouri State, everyone wondered if the coaching staff had lost its collective mind.
Then, Ronnie Bell caught a few passes as a true freshman. Last year, he was the team’s leading receiver.
With Peoples-Jones and Nico Collins gone, suddenly Bell has been thrust to the top of the depth chart. He’s the only proven receiver on the roster.
Can Bell continue to improve? Does he have All-Big Ten potential? Is the NFL in his future? This is already a great underdog story, but we’re about to find out what the next chapter holds.
How many times have players switched positions under Harbaugh and advanced their careers?
Zach Gentry, Khalid Hill and Chase Winovich all come to mind. They switched positions and ended up on NFL teams.
On the current roster, Haskins and Brad Hawkins have cemented themselves as major contributors at new positions.
This year, some of the most high-profile positions changes include Ben VanSumeren moving to SAM linebacker and Sammy Faustin moving to cornerback. The coaches said VanSumeren has climbed to the top of the depth chart and Faustin is in a battle to do the same.
Normally, position swaps might be warning signs for lack of depth, but it’s worked out for Michigan in the past, so let’s wait and see.
New offensive line
Ed Warinner has worked wonders with Michigan’s offensive line the last two years, and with four starters moving on to the NFL, it’s time to see what he can do with the talented young players waiting in the wings.
Jalen Mayfield is the only returning starter on the line, but Michigan isn’t completely unproven at the other spots. Ryan Hayes appeared in 12 games last season, and Andrew Stueber was in line for a possible starting role before an injury.
That leaves two spots to fill, and luckily Warinner has done a nice job building depth through recruiting.
Former walk-on Andrew Vastardis appears to have the inside track at center. Chuck Filiaga, a one-time four-star tackle prospect, will likely join Stueber as the starting guards.
Behind them, Warinner has no shortage of options from the last two recruiting classes. It’ll be fun to watch those battles play out and see how the younger players fare.
In a normal season, Michigan would have at least two warmup games before Big Ten play. This year, we’re jumping right into the meat of the schedule.
The Wolverines could be underdogs in as many as half of their games -- at Minnesota. vs. Wisconsin, vs. Penn State and at Ohio State. All four of those teams are ranked in the AP top 25.
Michigan State is always a high-profile game, and fans only have to wait one week for the in-state rivalry, which will be played on Halloween.
Road trips to Indiana are never easy, especially in between the Michigan State and Wisconsin games. That’s another tough test.
Fans have waited a long time for Michigan football to return, and as soon as it does, it’ll be pedal to the metal. Other than Rutgers -- and perhaps Maryland -- every week will be a challenge.