50 days until Michigan football: Here's what the starting offense, defense will look like

Wolverines host Middle Tennessee State on Aug. 31

Shea Patterson #2 and head coach Jim Harbaugh of the Michigan Wolverines celebrate the first quarter touchdown against the Florida Gators during the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on December 29, 2018 in Atlanta, Georgia.…

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - The countdown to Michigan football is heating up, as Friday marks 50 days until the Wolverines take the field against Middle Tennessee State at the Big House.

Michigan is expected to open the season as a top 10 team after finishing 10-3 in 2018. Jim Harbaugh is entering his fifth season at the helm, and Michigan has been a legitimate Big Ten championship contender in three of his four years.

Michigan lost starters at running back, tight end, right tackle, cornerback, safety, linebacker and both defensive ends this offseason, so there will be plenty of new faces on both sides of the ball.

Here's a look at what Michigan's starting offense and defense should look like on Aug. 31.

Quarterback: Shea Patterson

Other possible starters: None

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)

For the first time in the Harbaugh era, Michigan has a reliable returning starter at the quarterback position.

Jake Rudock and Wilton Speight had some good moments as Michigan quarterbacks, but neither had as good a season as Patterson's 2018 campaign.

In his first year wearing the Maize and Blue, Patterson completed 65% of his pass attempts for 2,600 yards, 22 touchdowns and seven interceptions.

He also made a difference with his legs, scoring two touchdowns and picking up critical first downs against ranked teams in Michigan State and Wisconsin. He only finished the year with 273 rushing yards, but Patterson picked his spots and made the most of them.

While I wouldn't quite classify Patterson's 2018 season as "great," he took care of the football and showed flashes of what once made him a five-star recruit and the No. 1 quarterback in the 2016 class.

Patterson will get one season in an offense that would appear to better fit his playing style. New offensive coordinator Josh Gattis has promised a more prevalent passing game and will utilize Patterson's athleticism in getting the ball to playmakers in space.

Michigan has four-star quarterbacks Dylan McCaffrey, Joe Milton and Cade McNamara lined up behind Patterson, but it would likely take an injury to knock him out of the starting spot.

Running back: Christian Turner

Other possible starters: Tru Wilson, Zach Charbonnet

Christian Turner #41 of the Michigan Wolverines runs the ball against the Florida Gators during the first quarter of the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on December 29, 2018 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

This feels like a true three-horse race at this point in the offseason.

Harbaugh could go with Wilson, a reliable veteran who slotted into the rotation nicely and took care of the ball, but might not have as high of a ceiling. He could also go with Charbonnet, the electric freshman who's still learning the offense after undergoing a knee procedure but has tremendous upside.

My prediction is that Harbaugh will split the difference and go with Turner.

As a true freshman, Turner only got 20 carries, gaining 99 yards. He was ranked much lower than Charbonnet in terms of recruiting rankings, but flashed some big-play potential in the Peach Bowl loss to Florida.

He's not a veteran, but he's been in the offense for a full year. He's not a likely superstar, but he has the speed and running ability to succeed in Gattis' offense.

By the end of the season, it wouldn't be a shock to see Charbonnet take over the reins. In Week 1, though, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Harbaugh turn to his redshirt freshman.

Wide receivers: Nico Collins, Donovan Peoples-Jones, Mike Sainristil

Other possible starters: Tarik Black, Ronnie Bell

Donovan Peoples-Jones celebrates a touchdown catch with Nico Collins while playing Maryland on Oct. 6, 2018, at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Michigan's depth at wide receiver is the greatest reason for optimism heading into the season. Fans hope Gattis will better utilize the elite skills of Peoples-Jones, Collins and Blake while incorporating the speed of the freshmen.

As a former five-star recruit and the No. 1 player in the state, Peoples-Jones deservedly gets a lot of attention surrounding Michigan's receiving corps. But last year, Collins was as good as or better than his 2017 classmate.

Collins was a first-year starter in 2018 and caught 38 passes for a team-leading 632 yards. He led all wide receivers with 16.63 yards per catch.

Michigan suddenly has plenty of speed at wide receiver, making Collins even more valuable as a big target who can win a jump ball and get open in the red zone.

At 6 feet, 4 inches tall, Collins uses his entire frame to create a massive catch radius. It wouldn't be a surprise to see him lead Michigan in receiving yards once again.

Peoples-Jones could be the greatest benefactor of the offensive coordinator change. Gattis won't ask the junior to run long, slow developing routes all season. He'll get Peoples-Jones the ball and let him turn short passes into big gains in space.

Peoples-Jones was the No. 1 receiver in the 2017 recruiting class because he's got breakaway speed and can make defenders miss. That should be on display this year.

Sainristil is the first true freshman on this list, and he'll likely be the starting slot receiver. Since enrolling as a three-star cornerback, Sainristil has flipped to the offensive side of the ball and run away with the job, according to coaches.

While he might not technically be a starter, Black should play almost as many snaps as the others. He has a valuable combination of size and speed and figures to be a dangerous weapon if healthy.

Tight end: Sean McKeon

Other possible starters: Nick Eubanks

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)

When Michigan held its 2018 football bust at the Crisler Center, McKeon was a surprise finalist for the team's Offensive Player of the Year Award.

Patterson won the honor, but McKeon was included in a group that also included Peoples-Jones, Karan Higdon and Zach Gentry. That shows what the coaching staff thinks of McKeon.

Last year was a step back for McKeon in terms of receiving, as he only caught 14 passes for 122 yards, as opposed to 31 catches for 301 yards the previous season.

McKeon has developed into a very good blocker, though, and was an unsung hero in Michigan's offensive line improvement. That's the best way for a tight end to earn a coaching staff's trust, so McKeon definitely has a leg up on the other tight ends to begin the season.

Eubanks is more of a big play threat in the receiving game, but Gattis might not use tight ends as much in the passing game.

Mustapha Muhammad and Erick All could also see playing time as pass-catching tight ends.

Left tackle: Jon Runyan

Other possible starters: None

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

Ed Warinner deserves as much credit as any position coach in the Big Ten for the job he did turning around Michigan's offensive line in 2018. No player embodied that improvement more than Runyan.

A former three-star recruit who struggled as a part-timer in 2017, Runyan morphed into a First-Team All Big Ten left tackle as a full-time starter.

He decided to return to Michigan for a fifth year and will be the starting left tackle as long as he's healthy.

Left guard: Ben Bredeson

Other possible starters: None

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

Bredeson is another player who could have declared for the NFL last season but decided to return for one more year in Ann Arbor.

He was forced onto the field as a true freshman in 2016 and started eight games at left guard. By his sophomore year, he was the full-time starter. Last year, he was named Second Team All-Big Ten by the coaches and the media for the second year in a row.

Bredeson has appeared in 38 games at Michigan and returns as a team captain.

Center: Cesar Ruiz

Other possible starters: None

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

It only took a year for Ruiz to become Michigan's starting center, no surprise considering he was the No. 1 center coming out of high school.

Ruiz started all 13 games last season and was named Third Team All-Big Ten by the coaches. He looked comfortable back at center after filling in at right guard as a true freshman.

Though he's only a true junior, Ruiz could be one of the top NFL draft prospects at center if he repeats last year's performance.

Right guard: Michael Onwenu

Other possible starters: None

Michigan Wolverines offensive lineman Juwann Bushell-Beatty (76) and Michigan Wolverines offensive lineman Michael Onwenu (50) block during a game between the Maryland Terrapins and the Michigan Wolverines (15) on October 6, 2018 at Michigan…

The third member of Michigan's interior offensive line has also been contributing since the moment he stepped on campus.

Onwenu appeared in nine games as a true freshman in 2016 before making nine starts as a sophomore. He was a full-time starter last year, earning Third Team All-Big Ten honors at right guard.

Right tackle: Jalen Mayfield

Other possible starters: Andrew Stueber

Michigan only has to replace one starter on the offensive line, and luckily for Warinner, he has two very good options from which to choose.

Stueber earned the opportunity to fill in for Juwann Bushell-Beatty late last season, but Mayfield revealed he and Warinner had agreed he would redshirt and save a year of eligibility. Obviously, that played a part in the decision to go with Stueber behind Bushell-Beatty.

Both players were coveted recruits out of high school. Stueber was a high three-star and the No. 35 offensive tackle in the 2017 class. Mayfield was a four-star and the No. 16 offensive tackle in the 2018 class.

Michigan coaches were talking about Mayfield competing for a starting spot as a true freshman last season before he decided to redshirt and better adjust to the college game. Now, he has a few factors working in his favor.

First, Mayfield played in a no-huddle offense at Grand Rapids Catholic Central. That should help him adapt quickly to Gattis' system, as he was in an up-tempo system just two years ago.

Secondly, Mayfield's ceiling is probably as high as that of any other offensive lineman on the team. He was one of the top offensive linemen coming out of high school, and his willingness to redshirt and improve for a year should have only increased his potential.

Michigan has an incredible amount of experience along the offensive line. Runyan, Bredeson, Ruiz and Onwenu have combined for 111 games and 87 starts on the offensive line. That gives Warinner an opportunity to chase upside at right tackle.

The battle between Stueber and Mayfield is tight, by all accounts. If it remains that way, Mayfield might have the upper hand because of his ceiling.

Defensive ends: Kwity Paye, Aidan Hutchinson

Other possible starters: Mike Danna, Josh Uche

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)

How will Michigan replace a pair of elite pass rushers in Chase Winovich and Rashan Gary? That might be one of the most important questions facing the 2019 team.

Don Brown's defense is completely reliant on pressuring the quarterback, as fans saw when the line struggled against Ohio State last November.

Paye was a breakout rotational player for the Wolverines last season, making 29 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and two sacks.

He made some big plays in big moments and earned the trust of the coaching staff, but now he'll be perhaps the No. 1 defensive end on the depth chart.

Aidan Hutchinson rushes Adrian Martinez during Michigan's game against Nebraska on Sept. 22, 2018, at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. (Steven King/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Hutchinson was an impact freshman early in the season, making 15 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss. His most memorable play came against Nebraska, when he burst through the middle of the line, batted a pass attempt back to the quarterback and forced a throw away that was ultimately ruled a safety.

He slowed down a bit as the season wore on, but with a full year under his belt and more opportunity available, Hutchinson could be Brown's next great pass rusher.

Mike Danna was brought in from Central Michigan to give the Wolverines another disruptor in the rotation. Uche is a unique player who could be used on the line or on the second level on passing downs.

Defensive tackles: Carlo Kemp, Michael Dwumfour

Other possible starters: None

Carlo Kemp celebrates a win over Michigan State at Spartan Stadium on Oct. 20, 2018 in East Lansing. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

The interior of Michigan's defensive line is a little thin, but the starters should be solid as long as Kemp and Dwumfour can stay healthy.

Kemp is a solid player who specializes against the run. He was a backup in every game as a sophomore before assuming a starting role last year.

He doesn't make a ton of plays in the backfield, but Kemp is a good leader on the defensive side of the ball.

Defensive linemen Chase Winovich and Michael Dwumfour during a win over Maryland. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Dwumfour made four tackles for loss and three sacks last season as part of the rotation at defensive tackle. This will be his first time as a starter.

VIPER: Khaleke Hudson

Other possible starters: None

Michigan football viper Khaleke Hudson (Michael Reaves/Stringer).

Hudson's drop in production was well documented last year. He made 18.5 tackles for loss and 83 total tackles in 2017, but those numbers fell to 3.5 tackles for loss and 44 tackles last season.

Michigan's coaching staff attributed Hudson's down year to him playing tentative because of back-to-back targeting calls got him ejected from games early in the season. They believe he'll be back to his old self as a third-year starter.

Hudson can be a menace in the backfield, as evidenced by his 22.5 career tackles for loss and 10 career sacks. Now that Michigan is breaking in a new crop of starting defensive linemen, his ability to make plays behind the line of scrimmage will be critical.

He'll also be asked to be effective in coverage as Michigan replaces an elite cover cornerback and a three-year starter at safety. Brown asks a lot of his VIPER, which is partly what makes it such a unique position.

Linebackers: Josh Ross, Devin Gil

Other possible starters: Cam McGrone, Jordan Anthony

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

Linebacker is another big question mark for the Wolverines this season, though Ross returns as a regular contributor.

He was solid in 2018, making 61 tackles and five tackles for loss. Now Ross will anchor the unit without Devin Bush, which obviously gives him big shoes to fill.

Ross doesn't have Bush's speed, but he's a versatile player who can get into the backfield or line up against a tight end in coverage.

Devin Gil in Michigan's 2017 opener against Florida. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

The other linebacker spot is perhaps a greater concern. Gil has long been a top special teams contributor for the Wolverines, but now he'll likely be asked to assume a starting position.

Gil made 33 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss last season.

McGrone and Anthony were both highly rated four-star linebackers and could find themselves in starting spots at some point in the season.

Cornerbacks: Lavert Hill, Ambry Thomas

Other possible starters: None

Michigan CB Lavert Hill (James Black/Getty Images).

After two seasons as perhaps the most impressive cornerback duo in the country, the David Long-Lavert Hill tandem was broken up this offseason when Long moved on to the NFL.

Fortunately for Michigan, Hill decided to return as the No. 1 cornerback, giving Brown at least one player he doesn't have to worry about in coverage.

Hill is as good as it gets in college football in terms of denying his man the ball. He only had six pass break-ups and one interception last season, but that was more a product of quarterbacks not throwing in his direction.

Fellow Detroit King product Thomas will step into a starting role after two years as a kick returner and rotational player in the secondary.

Ambry Thomas runs onto the field before the game against Indiana on Oct. 14, 2017, at Memorial Stadium in Bloomington. (James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Thomas has great speed and athleticism, but he hasn't always been successful in coverage. To be fair, many of those opportunities came in blowouts and Michigan wasn't exactly pressing receivers.

This will be Thomas' first taste of regular snaps in the secondary. He was a top 100 recruit in 2017, so the potential is there for him to be another shutdown corner.

Safeties: Josh Metellus, Daxton Hill

Other possible starters: Brad Hawkins, Jaylen Kelly-Powell

Josh Metellus celebrates a tackle while playing Nebraska on Sept. 22, 2018, at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor,. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

It was critical for Michigan to keep Metellus with so many other moving parts in the secondary. He returns after racking up 48 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and six interceptions as a junior.

Metellus made massive improvements a year ago and put himself in position to potentially be an NFL draft pick. He made plays in the backfield and also led Michigan in both interceptions and pass break-ups.

His counterpart should be five-star freshman Daxton Hill, who was perhaps the fastest player in the 2019 recruiting class.

Daxton Hill hasn't been on campus for long, but he's the type of playmaker Michigan is trying to replace on defense, so it will be hard for Harbaugh and Brown not to name him a starter.

If coaches don't want to use the true freshman right away, veterans Hawkins and Kelly-Powell appear to be the next-best options.

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