Michigan football: What the starting offense will look like next year if all eligible players return

Multiple Michigan players could still declare for NFL draft

Shea Patterson throws a pass against Maryland on Oct. 6, 2018, at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - The first half of December brings a major lull to college football season, with conference championship games in the rearview mirror and bowl games yet to begin.

For Michigan fans, the wait between the Ohio State game and the Peach Bowl is more than a month long, and there are only recruiting rumors and NFL draft decisions to break the silence.

Only two offensive starters will surely need to be replaced next season, as Karan Higdon and Juwann Bushell-Beatty are out of eligibility. Several others could return for another season or declare for the 2019 draft.

Michigan's offense took huge strides this season, ranking 35th in yards per play and 19th in points per game. If all the players with eligibility return, here's how the starting offense would look.

NOTE: There are 13 players listed to cover the different possible personnel packages Michigan regularly uses.

QB Shea Patterson

Other possible starters: Dylan McCaffrey

Shea Patterson reacts to a a Karan Higdon touchdown while playing Wisconsin on Oct. 13, 2018, at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

The biggest decision yet to be made for Michigan's offense is that of starting quarterback Shea Patterson, who flourished in his first season in the Maize and Blue.

As the former No. 1 overall quarterback recruit in the 2016 class, Patterson has the talent to play at the next level. Will he make that move now or wait another year? That remains to be seen.

Following a season in which Michigan quarterbacks threw for a combined 2,226 yards, nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions, Patterson has thrown for 2,364 yards, 21 touchdowns and five interceptions.

He posted one of the best completion percentages, 65.1 percent, in school history and also made a huge difference with his legs. While he finished the season with only 268 rushing yards, that number was lessened by sacks and doesn't demonstrate the critical plays Patterson made on the run.

If Patterson foregoes his final year of college, Michigan is still in good shape with Dylan McCaffrey, who also has a strong arm and the ability to run.

RB Zach Charbonnet

Other possible starters: Chris Evans, Tru Wilson

It's difficult to hand the starting running back job to a true freshman before he even signs his letter of intent, but this seems to be the most likely scenario for Michigan.

Higdon is moving on to the NFL and two depth players -- Kurt Taylor and O'Maury Samuels -- are no longer with the program. Even though Chris Evans and Tru Wilson were the primary backups to Higdon in 2018, that doesn't mean they'll move into his starting spot.

Evans is a valuable change-of-pace running back, but he's not the type of runner who would ideally start in Jim Harbaugh's offense. Wilson is a very good backup, but doesn't have the upside of Zach Charbonnet.

The four-star Michigan commit is ranked as the No. 3 running back and the No. 42 player in the 2019 class, according to 247 Sports. He's a powerful runner with good speed who can handle the workload of a starting running back with home run potential.

Michigan needs a running back who can pick up tough yards between the tackles and also beat linebackers to the edge. That's what's expected of Charbonnet.

FB Ben Mason

Other possible starters: None

Ben Mason scores a touchdown against Wisconsin on Nov. 18, 2017. (Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

Michigan is building quite a pipeline of fullbacks as fan favorites.

In Harbaugh's first year, Sione Houma rushed for 184 yards and five touchdowns. The following two years saw Khalid Hill rack up 16 total touchdowns.

Ben Mason is more athletic than Houma and Hill. He averaged 2.6 yards per carry and scored seven touchdowns this season while being an elite blocker and special teams tackler.

Mason was a three-star linebacker in high school, and that adds to his athleticism and toughness as Michigan's fullback. He'll be a significant contributor the next two seasons.

WR Donovan Peoples-Jones

Other possible starters: None

Donovan Peoples-Jones catches a touchdown against SMU on Sept. 15, 2018, at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. Michigan won the game 45-20. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Michigan's talented 2017 wide receiver class burst onto the scene this year, led by former No. 1 wideout Donovan Peoples-Jones.

The Detroit native caught a team-leading 39 passes for 541 yards and seven touchdowns. He also ran the ball three times for 37 yards and returned a kickoff for a touchdown against Nebraska.

Peoples-Jones is a versatile wide receiver who was primarily targeted on shorter routes but turned them into big plays with yards after the catch. He also led the team in receiving touchdowns.

The biggest play of the season for Michigan was a 79-yard touchdown pass from Patterson to Peoples-Jones to give the Wolverines a lead at Michigan State. It ended up being the winning touchdown in a game that appeared to be slipping away from Michigan.

Peoples-Jones has the size, speed and elusiveness to be one of the top receivers in the country. He took a step in that direction this season and should be the No. 1 option again in 2019.

WR Nico Collins

Other possible starters: None

Nico Collins #4 of the Michigan Wolverines makes a catch for a touchdown in the second quarter against the Western Michigan Broncos at Michigan Stadium on September 8, 2018 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)

Unlike Peoples-Jones, Collins didn't see much action as a true freshman. He certainly was a breakout player in 2018, though.

Collins finished just behind Peoples-Jones with 33 catches and six touchdowns but led the team with 552 receiving yards. Collins was Michigan's top big-play threat and by the end of the season was the team's best receiver.

He made big plays in big games, catching a critical touchdown pass on third down against Michigan State and setting career highs with 91 yards and two touchdowns at Ohio State.

Michigan needs a big receiver who can win a jump ball and a guy who can open up the offense downfield. That just happens to be the same person, in this case.

WR Tarik Black

Other possible starters: Oliver Martin, Giles Jackson

Michigan football wide receiver Tarik Black makes a catch against Cincinnati (Joe Robbins/Getty Images).

Michigan's top wide receiver heading into 2017 only made two catches during the 2018 regular season, but it wasn't entirely his fault.

Black missed the first half of the season due to injury, and when he returned, he wasn't fully healthy or a part of the offensive flow.

Don't forget about Black just because of his early injury issues. He still has three years of eligibility remaining and will have a full offseason to get back into the regular mix of the offense. If Patterson returns, it shouldn't take long for Black to re-familiarize himself with the second-year starter.

Oliver Martin is the fourth member of the 2017 wide receiver class, but he also made an impact this season, catching 11 passes for 125 yards and his first career touchdown against Rutgers.

Giles Jackson is a versatile offensive weapon committed to the 2019 class who could be a valuable change of pace if Michigan wants to use him right away.

TE Zach Gentry

Other possible starters: Nick Eubanks

Zach Gentry battles for extra yards after a catch against Maryland on Oct. 6, 2018, at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

It's amazing that Zach Gentry is in a position to decide between the NFL and returning as one of Michigan's top targets in the passing game.

Harbaugh converted Gentry from four-star quarterback to matchup nightmare tight end amid heavy criticism. Those critics have been quieted after Gentry caught 30 passes for 475 yards and two touchdowns this season.

At 6-foot-8, Gentry is a unique offensive weapon who wouldn't be replaced. Michigan has several other tight ends on the roster, though, and Nick Eubanks has proven to be a similar downfield threat in limited opportunities.

Gentry and the three receivers listed above would be an attractive arsenal of weapons for whoever starts at quarterback next season.

TE Sean McKeon

Other possible starters: Mustapha Muhammad

Sean McKeon #84 of the Michigan Wolverines makes a 23-yard reception for a first down to set up a fourth quarter touchdown in a game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Ross-Ade Stadium on September 23, 2017. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Sean McKeon isn't flashy, but the coaching staff and fellow players consider him such an elite blocker that he was one of five players nominated for Michgan's top offensive player of the year.

McKeon was more of a receiving threat in 2017 when he caught 31 passes for 301 yards and three touchdowns. He only caught 14 passes for 122 yards and one touchdown this season, but he was on the field often because the coaches trust him to block and make the right plays in short yardage situations.

Mustapha Muhammad will be pushing for playing time next season after committing to Michigan as the No. 6 tight end and No. 168 player overall in the 2018 recruiting class. He's more of a big-play threat, but McKeon does so many of the little things that go unnoticed.

LT Jon Runyan Jr.

Other possible starters: Jalen Mayfield, Chuck Filiaga

Michigan left tackle Jon Runyan Jr. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Left tackle was a major question mark heading into the 2018 season, but Jon Runyan Jr. ran away with the job midway through the season.

After a rough showing against Notre Dame, Michigan's offensive line was the most improved group on the team. New offensive line coach Ed Warinner was one of the best coaching hires of the offseason.

Runyan was named Michigan's offensive lineman of the year after being named to the All-Big Ten First Team by the coaches and the second team by the media.

If he returns for his final year of eligibility, Michigan will have its four best starters back to protect the quarterback.

LG Ben Bredeson

Other possible starters: None

Michigan left guard Ben Bredeson (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Michigan's most likely offensive lineman to move on to the NFL already announced he will return to school for one more season.

Ben Bredeson will be a four-year starter at Michigan after starting as a true freshman, moving to right guard as a sophomore and moving back to left guard this season.

He was named to the All-Big Ten Second Team by both the coaches and media.

Bredeson was a team captain this season and the anchor of the offensive line. Having him back in the mix will be a major plus for Michigan in terms of talent and continuity.

C Cesar Ruiz

Other possible starters: None

Michigan center Cesar Ruiz (Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The youngest player on Michigan's offensive line was sophomore Cesar Ruiz, who started all 12 games at center and helped pave the way for Higdon's 1,200-yard rushing season.

Ruiz was the No. 1 center in the 2017 recruiting class and that showed this year, as he was a solid anchor in the middle of the line.

Michigan will have at least one more season of Ruiz, who was named to the All-Big Ten Third Team by the coaches and given an honorable mention by the media.

RG Michael Onwenu

Other possible starters: None

Michigan right guard Michael Onwenu (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Another player who has made a significant contribution since his true freshman season is Michael Onwenu.

The Detroit native played on both sides of the ball in 2016, appearing in nine games along both lines. He moved permanently to the offensive line last season, starting eight times at right guard and once at left guard.

Onwenu was the full-time starter at right guard this season, playing all 12 games at the position and improving dramatically throughout the season. He's got one more year in college before he moves on to the next level.

Onwenu was named to the All-Big Ten Third Team by the coaches and given an honorable mention by the media.

RT Jalen Mayfield

Other possible starters: Andrew Stueber, Chuck Filiaga

Right tackle is the only position Michigan will need to replace next season, assuming Runyan doesn't surprisingly declare for the draft.

Juwann Bushell-Beatty was one of the most improved players on the team this season, winning the starting right tackle job and locking it down for the whole year.

Michigan hasn't landed many offensive tackle recruits in the last couple of recruiting classes, but Jalen Mayfield was one of the best. The former four-star from Grand Rapids was the No. 16 offensive tackle in the country and the No. 4 player in Michigan.

He appeared in three games at left tackle this season, preserving his redshirt while also getting experience against Western Michigan, Nebraska and Maryland.

Mayfield was one of the few freshmen whom coaches were talking about possibly winning playing time this season. Michigan's offensive line was consistent and mostly injury-free throughout the season, so the true freshman wasn't needed.

Andrew Stueber filled in for Bushell-Beatty late in the year when he got injured against Indiana, so he could also be in the mix. He was a three-star commit in the loaded 2017 class.

Chuck Filiaga was a more highly ranked recruit than Mayfield or Stueber, so don't count him out of the running.

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