14 most important things Jim Harbaugh said in final week before Michigan football season

Harbaugh answers questions ahead of opener against Middle Tennessee State

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - Jim Harbaugh answered questions Monday as Michigan football prepares for this weekend's season opener against Middle Tennessee State.

Harbaugh was asked about injuries, position battles and camp standouts. Here are the 14 most important things he said.

You can watch the full 16-minute press conference in the video above.

Click here to view a full breakdown of Michigan football's roster by class and position, as well as a chart showing the current scholarship situation.

Ambry Thomas back at practice

Harbaugh was asked about cornerback Ambry Thomas, who was the presumptive No. 2 behind Lavert Hill this season before an offseason battle with colitis.

The timeline for Thomas was unclear for most of fall camp, but the junior recently tweeted that he was back on the practice field.

"Ambry has been back in meetings -- position meetings," Harbaugh said. "He is participating in portions of practice, and this week, in terms of whether he plays or not, will be decided by the doctors."

Ambry Thomas #1 of the Michigan Wolverines returns a kickoff for a touchdown in the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 1, 2018 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

READ4 questions that could shape the 2019 Michigan football season

It's a relief for Michigan that Thomas is even being considered for the opener against Middle Tennessee State. Even if he doesn't see the field Saturday, his health is clearly back on track.

Army, Michigan's second opponent, isn't much of a passing threat, so the Wisconsin game could be the first true test for the secondary. It now seems more likely that Thomas could return for that game, especially since Michigan has a bye week after Army.

Andrew Stueber officially out for season

Ed Warinner confirmed weeks ago that Andrew Stueber suffered a serious leg injury. Harbaugh confirmed Monday the redshirt sophomore will miss the whole season.

"Andrew will not be back this year," Harbaugh said. "He has an ACL tear."

Stueber was in a heated two-man battle to start at right tackle, and the job will now go to redshirt freshman Jalen Mayfield.

The Wolverines have four returning starters, so the offensive line should be OK barring further injury.

Two quarterbacks could play

Shea Patterson is obviously the starting quarterback, but Harbaugh reiterated once again that he would like to play Dylan McCaffrey.

"All options are open that way, in terms of that," Harbaugh said. "Would definitely like to play both."

Dylan McCaffrey throws a pass against Nebraska Sept. 22, 2018, at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Patterson is expected to be one of the top quarterbacks in the Big Ten this season, but McCaffrey also showed some promise in limited snaps last season.

He was more of a running threat as a redshirt freshman because he often entered the game in blowouts, but he broke his collarbone on a scramble and could get more chances to pass if he sees the field early in games.

Will Hart is starting punter

It shouldn't come as a surprise after he was named the top punter in the Big Ten and averaged 47 yards per boot, but Will Hart is still the starting punter.

"Will Hart will be doing the punting," Harbaugh said. "Will was great last year and he's had a great offseason and he's continued to be really good in camp and just keeps getting better and better."

Hart won the job over Brad Robbins, who was the starter in 2017 and averaged 40.4 yards per punt with 19 inside the 20-yard line and four kicks of at least 50 yards.

Robbins missed last season with an injury, and Hart ran away with the starting job.

Competition continues at field goal kicker

As of five days before the season opener, Michigan still doesn't have a starting place kicker.

"Still a competition going on there," Harbaugh said. "Quinn Nordin and (Jake) Moody both are kicking very well, and that hasn't been determined yet."

Nordin started for a year and a half before giving way to true freshman Moody midway through 2018. Moody converted 10 of 11 kicks, including both of his attempts in front of a hostile Ohio State crowd.

If Moody can kick in the Horseshoe, he's proven he can handle the mental side of kicking, which has always been a battle for Nordin.

Michigan Wolverines place kicker Jake Moody (2) kicks an extra point during a game between the Indiana Hoosiers and the Michigan Wolverines (4) on November 17, 2018 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon…

Moody also went a perfect 6-for-6 against Indiana.

Nordin went 11 for 16 last season after a solid 19-for-24 campaign in 2017.

Harbaugh also said the battles for the starting kick and punt returning jobs are ongoing.

No decision on starting running back

Harbaugh didn't offer any insight on the starting running back competition other than confirming he hasn't made a decision.

"I haven't decided yet," Harbaugh said.

The competition is thought to be a three-way battle between returning third-string contributor Tru Wilson, redshirt freshman Christian Turner and true freshman Zach Charbonnet.

Wilson, a former walk-on as a high school cornerback recruit, carved out a role for himself in the offense last season and rushed for 364 yards on 62 carries -- an average of 5.9 yards per rush.

Turner showed flashes of brilliance in three games, most notably with Karan Higdon absent in the Peach Bowl.

Charbonnet was one of the top running back recruits in the 2019 class and has the highest ceiling of the three.

Tarik Black an offseason standout

Donovan Peoples-Jones and Nico Collins were the clear top two options at wide receiver for Michigan last season, and coaches have raved about the true freshmen receivers.

But Tarik Black shouldn't be forgotten. After injuries derailed his first two college seasons, Harbaugh says Black is ready to break out.

"Tarik Black is really doing well," Harbaugh said. "He's had a very good camp. He had a good spring. He's been very, very good."

Black was Michigan's best receiver for three games in 2017 before a foot injury sidelined him for the rest of the year. An injury at fall camp delayed the start of his 2018 season, and he never got back in the flow of the offense.

"Especially over the last five practices, he's been really standing out at a high level," Harbaugh said.

Ronnie Bell is most improved offensive contributor

Of all the players who contributed on offense last season, Harbaugh believes Ronnie Bell has improved the most heading into 2019.

"Probably if you said, 'Who's our most improved player on offense who played last year?' I would say Ronnie Bell," Harbaugh said. "He has been great. His body's changing from a basketball kind of physique to the football physique. He's really made ascending strides. Very positive."

Getty Images

ANN ARBOR, MI - OCTOBER 6: Ronnie Bell #8 of the Michigan Wolverines dives for a first half touchdown while playing the Maryland Terrapins on October 6, 2018 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Bell made eight catches for 145 yards and two touchdowns last season after joining the Wolverines in favor of a basketball scholarship to Missouri State.

He was one of only three true freshmen -- along with Moody and defensive end Aidan Hutchinson -- to play enough to burn a redshirt last year.

5 players named as most improved defenders

One of the most important questions for Michigan this year: How will it replace star defensive players such as Devin Bush, Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich?

Harbaugh was asked who has stepped up and improved the most on defense this offseason. He named defensive linemen Carlo Kemp and Kwity Paye as well as linebackers Josh Ross, Cam McGrone and Josh Uche.

"I was having that conversation (about most improved defensive player) with (defensive coordinator) Don Brown yesterday," Harbaugh said. "We really couldn't pinpoint one guy. I think Carlo Kemp has stood out to me, would be in that category. Kwity Paye, Josh Uche, also the linebackers Ross and Cam McGrone -- coming on, really ascending."

With the pass rush and linebacking corps as two of the team's biggest question marks heading into the season, those are the names fans should hope to hear.

5 linebackers are possible contributors

Khaleke Hudson will be Michigan's starting viper for the third year in a row. Ross and Devin Gil figure to be the other two starters Saturday, with Ross at middle linebacker and Gil on the weak side.

But Harbaugh mentioned three other players along with Ross and Gil as possible contributors at linebacker.

"Devin Gil is there. Jordan Glasgow is right there. Jordan Anthony continues to be there," Harbaugh said. "Those are the major players at the MIKE/WILL. Josh, Cam, Jordan -- both Jordans. Jordan Anthony and Glasgow -- Devil Gil, of course."

McGrone was a highly ranked linebacker recruit in the 2018 class. Anthony was a four-star in 2017.

Glasgow wasn't highly ranked out of high school, but neither were his brothers -- Ryan Glasgow and Graham Glasgow. Both turned into starters at Michigan and went on to the NFL.

No. 2 cornerback if Thomas doesn't play?

If Thomas doesn't play in the opener, Harbaugh named two players who could start as the No. 2 cornerback across from Hill.

"Vince Gray has had a good camp," Harbaugh said. "He's had a good spring and a good camp and a good summer and he's ready to play ball. I'm excited for him. Jaylen Kelly-Powell, also. We've got good options there.

"We'll see about Ambry as well, because he's a heck of a good football player."

Gray was a three-star cornerback out of Rochester Adams High School in the 2018 class. Kelly-Powell has appeared in 17 games since committing as a four-star in the 2017 class.

Ryan Hayes appears to be backup at tackle

Harbaugh was asked about the backup offensive tackle position after Stueber's injury, and he appeared to confirm Ryan Hayes is the backup at both left and right tackle.

Here was the exact wording of the question: "What kind of camp has Jon Runyan Jr. had, and would Ryan Hayes be the backup at both tackle spots right now?"

"Yeah, yeah," Harbaugh said.

He spoke about Runyan after a pause, but it appeared he was saying, "Yeah," in terms of Hayes being the backup tackle.

Hayes was a four-star offensive tackle out of Traverse City in the 2018 recruiting class.

Daxton Hill to contribute early

As the No. 1 safety in the 2019 recruiting class, Daxton Hill was expected to make an immediate impact at Michigan. It sounds like that will be the case.

"Dax Hill is everything that was advertised," Harbaugh said. "He's doing a great job. He's going to play a lot on special teams. He's going to play and work into that safety position, but he's really done extremely well."

Hill was the top player in Michigan's 2019 recruiting class, which ranked atop the Big Ten rankings and No. 8 in the nation.

Hill was perhaps the fastest player in his class and will give Michigan much-needed speed to keep up with the likes of Ohio State and Notre Dame in the secondary.

11 true freshmen mentioned as candidates for early playing time

Hill was one of 11 names Harbaugh mentioned when asked about true freshmen who could contribute early in their college careers.

In addition to Hill, Harbaugh named Mazi Smith, Chris Hinton, D.J. Turner, Charbonnet, Erick All, Cornelius Johnson, Giles Jackson, David Ojabo, Caden Kolesar and Mike Sainristil.

"Mazi Smith came in as a mid-year," Harbaugh said. "He's been here quite awhile now -- a full nine months. He's been really good. Also, Chris Hinton -- you look at him and say, 'That's somebody who's going to be playing this year quite a bit.'"

Harbaugh perked up when he mentioned Turner.

"D.J. Turner has been really good playing in special teams," Harbaugh said. "Kind of like Dax, he'll play special teams, probably starting on a few right now, and work in at that corner position, but he looks ready to play, as well.

"Offensively, Zach Charbonnet has stood out and done extremely well. There's been others -- Erick All is going to play quite a big. Receivers -- Cornelius Johnson, Giles Jackson will be playing -- both special teams and then working their way into the receiver position."

Michigan brought in six offensive linemen in the 2019 class -- Trente Jones, Trevor Keegan, Nolan Rumler, Karsen Barnhart, Zach Carpenter and Jack Stewart. Harbaugh said he's been impressed with their offseasons, but he doesn't know if they'll play this year as true freshmen.

That's a positive for Michigan's offensive line depth, as the freshmen will have a much-needed year to develop.

"David Ojabo is coming on very, very strong and keeps having his best practice, it seems, every time we go out there," Harbaugh said. "Caden Kolesar contributes on special teams. I think we can see that. He's going to be very good and playing.

"Mike Sainristil -- I know we talked about Mike a lot, but he's going to be playing a lot at the receiver position and is in a return battle right now to be a punt returner and a kickoff returner."

Harbaugh said fans can expected to see about six true freshmen contributors and offense and six on defense.

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