Michigan football: 5 most important players in opener against Florida
Jim Harbaugh needs contributions from several new starters
When the Michigan football team takes the field for the first time Saturday against Florida, it will do so with an entirely different uniform and at least 17 new starters.
The offseason narrative has been all about turnover for Michigan. With 10 starters on defense and seven starters on offense moving on to the NFL and graduation, the build-up to Jim Harbaugh's third year in Ann Arbor has been shrouded by uncertainty.
The training wheels will come off fast, as Michigan opens against one of the toughest teams on its schedule: No. 17 Florida. Jim McElwain's Gators are coming off back-to-back SEC East Division titles and have revenge on their minds after Michigan thumped them 41-7 in the 2016 Citrus Bowl.
Unlike last season, when Michigan returned almost all of its major contributors, fans really aren't sure what to expect. Harbaugh hasn't even released an official roster yet, let alone a depth chart.
It's difficult to guess exactly what Harbaugh's starting 22 will look like Saturday, but here are the five players who will be most important to Michigan's success.
LB Mike McCray
When 10 defensive starters move on in one offseason, who could be more important than the sole returner?
Mike McCray enjoyed a breakout year in 2016, finally getting healthy and helping to lead the linebacking core. He started all 13 games and was named an All-Big Ten honorable mention.
McCray specialized in bottling up the run, recording 76 tackles and 12.5 tackles for loss. He also picked up 4.5 sacks in Don Brown's aggressive defensive scheme.
McCray was surrounded by veterans last season, but this year the defense is his to lead. The fifth-year senior was named to the preseason Butkus Award Watch List for the best linebacker in the country, so expectations are high.
When the defense takes the field against Florida, most of the new starters will be dealing with the nerves of playing on a big stage. For a veteran who has played against Ohio State, Michigan State and Florida State in the last 12 months, McCray should be a steadying force in the middle.
RB Chris Evans
Florida has fielded one of the best defenses in the country since McElwain arrived in Gainesville, and there's no reason to believe that has changed heading into 2017.
One of Florida's specialties last season was forcing interceptions, ranking 14th in the nation with 16 picks. Four of those interceptions were returned for touchdowns, helping the Gators win in spite of their weak offensive numbers.
Chris Evans will likely receive the lion's share of carries in the backfield, and it's critical for him to establish the ground game early. If Wilton Speight earns the starting job at quarterback, the offense is in good hands in terms of taking care of the ball. Speight threw just seven interceptions in 12 games last year, though he did struggle with turnovers late in the season.
But Speight lost his three favorite targets this offseason, as Jake Butt, Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson moved on to the NFL.
Evans was probably Michigan's best running back last season, averaging 7 yards per carry as a true freshman. Harbaugh trusted De'Veon Smith with more carries because of his blocking ability and familiarity with the offense, but now it's Evans' job to take.
If Michigan can't move the ball on the ground, and Speight is forced to shoulder the offensive burden, the inexperience at wide receiver could come back to bite the Wolverines.
TE Tyrone Wheatley Jr.
Harbaugh hasn't named a starter at tight end, and there are a number of players who could earn the job. But none has more potential as an offensive mismatch than Tyrone Wheatley Jr.
Wheatley is an imposing target in the passing game, as Michigan fans saw when he lumbered for a touchdown in the spring game. He's listed at 6 feet 6 inches tall and 276 pounds, but he has good hands and can make plays across the middle.
Speight's go-to target on third downs last season was Butt, his trusty tight end. Now that Butt is gone, Speight needs another reliable target in key short-yardage situations, and Wheatley has a high ceiling in that regard.
He's not the most polished route runner, and Michigan has faster tight ends, but Wheatley is also a solid blocker, which will work in his favor as the offensive line searches for three new starters. Ian Bunting has more experience, but Wheatley could be a difference-maker for Michigan if he earns a major role in the offense.
There's no position next to Khaleke Hudson's name because he might just play all of them. Sound familiar? Yes, Hudson is the favorite to land in Jabrill Peppers' old stomping grounds at the viper position.
All the uncertainty surrounding Peppers throughout the NFL draft process painted the viper in a negative light, but make no mistake, his versatility was invaluable to Brown.
Hudson was recruited to Michigan for this very moment: To take over for Peppers and make plays all over the field on defense. He played special teams in all 13 games last season and proved he can pack a big hit. He's less proven in coverage, but he's got the skill set to be more effective than linebackers such as McCray and Devin Bush.
If he wins the starting job, Hudson will be asked to make plays at, or behind, the line of scrimmage. Peppers had an unprecedented 16 tackles for loss last season, and the Wolverines will have to replace that production by committee. Hudson is the type of athlete who can contribute in that regard.
DL Rashan Gary
The expectations surrounding Rashan Gary are probably a little unfair heading into the season, but it's easy to understand why so much is expected of the true sophomore.
Gary arrived in Ann Arbor with the highest ranking for a Michigan commit in the modern recruiting era. As the No. 1 overall player in the 2015 class, Gary was expected to make a huge contribution from the moment he stepped on campus.
To call his freshman season a disappointment would be a major overreaction. Gary played in all 13 games, made 27 tackles, five tackles for loss and one sack. It wasn't head-turning production, but he held his own for a true freshman playing in the toughest division in college football.
This year, the Wolverines need Gary to take a step toward the elite production they expected out of him during the recruiting process. He's being tabbed as the best player on the team by many national outlets, and while he doesn't necessarily need to be that, he does need to be a force on the defensive line.
Gary has the strength and quickness to be one of the top defensive linemen in the country, so there's no better place for Michigan to start as it looks to build another elite defense. The defensive backs and linebackers are young and unproven, so Michigan has to be great up front.
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