Utah Quarterback and Wide Receivers vs Michigan Secondary
With two new offensive coordinator's and a seemingly more confident Travis Wilson at quarterback, what will the passing offense of Utah look like? We know co-offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick likes to throw the ball down field more than former offensive coordinator Dave Christensen, but will the execution be better in 2015 than it was in 2014? We know that Travis Wilson can be a good QB, but can he finally put together a consistent season? Also, who is he going to throw the ball to? Kenneth Scott is the leading returning receiver from last year, but the drop off from him to the next group of receivers is substantial, especially when you account for the health concerns with Tim Patrick. Projected starter at slot receiver Bubba Poole moves over from running back, where he showed he can be a threat in the open field, and true freshman Britain Covey also displayed that same ability in Fall Camp. If Patrick is a no go, expect a heavy rotation between Caleb Repp, Delshawn McClellon, Tyrone Smith and Kenric Young. The status of redshirt freshman Raelon Singleton is also unknown due to health concerns, but if he can play, expect him to start opposite of Scott in Patrick's absence.
The Michigan secondary has a good blend of talent and experience, with more emphasis on talent than experience. Former 5 star and do it all recruit Jabrill Peppers is back and healthy for the 2015 season, as he missed 9 games during his true freshman campaign. He'll get the start at safety, but will also play nickel back in certain packages, as well as return kicks and punts. Don't be surprised if he gets a couple touches on offense too. He's a stud. Stanford graduate transfer Wayne Lyons was thought to be one of the contenders at corner back, but has been playing more safety during his tenure in Ann Arbor. Jourdan Lewis is the best and most experienced corner back returning for the Wolverines, and Jarrod Wilson is a hard hitting safety that will play next to Peppers. All four projected starters in the secondary have game experience, and with a potential superstar in Jabrill Peppers, they get the edge in this category.
Utah Running Backs and Tight Ends vs Michigan Linebackers
After finishing just 7 yards shy of the single season rushing record, Devontae Booker returns for his senior season, and hopes are high for the potential Heisman candidate. We all know what it is that makes Booker such a great running back, but what's scary is that he seemed improved during fall camp. How can that be? Booker looked lighter on his feet during camp, but that didn't stop him from occasionally running over a defensive back. Everybody knows the offense will run through Booker this season, but that doesn't make it any easier to stop him. Barring injury, there isn't any reason why he shouldn't break that single season rushing record this season. Joseph Williams, the JUCO transfer from ASA College, is Booker's back up, and his speed is what has been most impressive thus far during his time at Utah. He's got good enough size to handle the beating that a running back can take, and should be a nice compliment to Booker this season, to the tune of 5-10 carries a game. After graduating starting tight end Westlee Tonga, expect to see a committee of tight ends line up for the Utes in 2015. Siale Fakailoatonga has been the most consistent of the bunch, and should see the most playing time. Evan Moeai and Harrison Handley are both great receiving tight ends, and Wallace Gonzalez is just a massive human being. The production likely won't match that of Tonga in 2014, but this group is talented enough to get the job done.
Although they lost middle linebacker and team captain Jake Ryan to graduation, don't expect there to be much drop off for the Wolverines at linebacker. Joe Bolden is the leading returning tackler (101 tackles in 2014), and is as solid a linebacker as you'll find across the country. He's joined by Desmond Morgan (who missed 11 games due to injury in 2014) and James Ross this year, both of which are very experienced and have very good career numbers, despite not much production in 2014 (Ross-153 career tackles, Morgan-229 tackles). This group won't wow you with their athleticism or size, but there are not many better linebacker groups in the entire country. Don't expect them to give up yards on the ground very easily.
Utah Offensive Line vs Michigan Defensive Line
After some shuffling around, and experimenting with different players in different positions, the Ute offensive line is locked in. Originally thought to be taking over at left tackle, returning starter J.J. Dielman will stay at right tackle, and is joined by returning starters Siaosi Aiono, Isaac Asiata and Salesi Uhatafe, at center, left guard and right guard respectively. Sam Tevi will be tasked with replacing NFL draftee Jeremiah Poutasi at left tackle in 2015, as he beat out redshirt freshman Jackson Barton for the job. Tevi is agile and quick, but there are questions about his strength when it comes to run blocking. With 4 of 5 returning starters on an offensive line helped pave the way for 190 rushing yards a game in 2014, the Ute O Line should take another step forward in 2015.
The Wolverine defensive line also has some replacing to do on their end, as their two starting defensive ends in 2014 graduated, and a knee injury has sidelined Bryan Mone, who was a projected starter at defensive tackle. Look for a steady rotation of players on the defensive line, but the main guys to watch will be Matt Godin, Ryan Glasgow, Taco Charlton, Willie Henry, Chris Wormley and Mario Ojemudia. None of the aforementioned players were standouts in 2014, but between the six of them, they return 17 sacks and 30 TFL's. This group won't 'wow' you with their pass rush, but they are stout against the run and do a good job of playing assignment football.
Michigan Quarterback and Wide Receivers vs Utah Secondary
Although a starter hasn't been officially name, all signs and expectations point towards Iowa transfer Jake Rudock being the starting QB. Rudock completed 61% of his passes with 16 TD's and 5 INT's last year at Iowa, but transferred as a graduate student to join Michigan. Rudock has average athleticism, but does a good job of taking care of the football. It's a safe bet that the coaching staff will create an easy game plan for him, that will revolve around taking care of the football. Another big question mark for Michigan heading in to the season is who Rudock will be throwing the ball to. Jehu Chesson and Amarah Darboh are the leading returning receivers, though neither were a huge threat in 2014. The one guy to keep an eye on will be sophomore Harris, who has big play capabilities at 6'4-180lbs. Harris has struggled with injuries, but has received rave reviews from the coaching staff during fall camp. In addition to those three, Michigan looks to starting true freshman Grant Perry in the slot. The Michigan offense will also rely heavily on tight ends in their passing game. While there isn't any standout players in this group, the talent is there to hurt a defense through the air.
On paper, the Ute secondary appears to be replacing a lot of lost talent and experience. While true, they're also replacing that with talent and experience. Strong safety Tevin Carter is the headliner of the group, and started 4 games for Utah at free safety in 2015. Carter was injured during the UCLA game, and his replacement was true freshman Marcus Williams. Williams started 6 games at free safety, and really finished the season strong. Now bulked up, Williams will retain his starting spot at free safety, while Carter moves over to strong safety to replace Brian Blechen. If Carter can stay healthy for a full season, he has the talent to be mid-round draft pick in the spring. Utah is also replacing both starting corners, as Eric Rowe graduated and Dominique Hatfield is working his way back on the team after multiple run ins with law enforcement, but replacing them are some very talented players. Reggie Porter was seen by most as the Utes' best corner heading in to 2014, but tore his ACL during fall camp. Now back and healthy, Porter once again is the best corner on the team. Replacing Hatfield will be JUCO recruit Cory Butler-Byrd. A 4 star recruit, Butler started Fall Camp at slot receiver, where he was named starter after just 3 days, but quickly switched over to his more natural, and preferred position of cornerback. Butler-Byrd is fast, strong and has great instincts, and there should be very little drop off with him in the starting lineup. Also look for Brian Allen to play a big role, as he appears ready to contribute at both corner spots, after a very strong spring and fall camp. Rounding out the group is two time returning starter Justin Thomas at nickel back. With Utah playing more 4-2-5 than ever, Thomas is relied upon to shut down slot receivers and also bring speed off the edge in pass rush situations. Thomas is one of, if not the best, nickel backs in the PAC 12. The talent is there for Utah, but with Butler-Byrd playing his first game and Porter playing his first game since a major knee injury, there are still some question marks in the Ute secondary.
Edge: Slightly Utah
Michigan Running Backs and Tight Ends vs Utah Linebackers
It'll likely be a "by committee" approach for the Wolverines at running back, as Michigan feels pretty good with their top 3 options at the position. De'Veon Smith is listed as the starter, and is the leading returning rusher from a year ago, as he had 519 yards on 108 carries, with 6 TD's. Smith is 5'11-225lbs, and is definitely a bruiser, along with the other 3. Derrick Green also returns from last year, as he finished 2014 with 471 yards on 82 carries, with 3 TD's. Green is listed at 5'11-235lbs. Perhaps the most intriguing running back on the roster is former USC Trojan Ty Isaac. Isaac transferred to Michigan last season, where he was forced to sit out for a season, but is now eligible to play. Isaac is a particularly large human being, 6'3-240lbs, and rushed for 236 yards on 40 carries, with 2 TD's, in 2013 at USC. None of these guys have game breaking speed, but they are capable of breaking off long runs. They will have to be gang tackled as they all pack a punch while running. At tight end, expect a heavy dose of senior Jake Butt, 6'6-250lbs, as he's widely regarded as the Wolverines' best pass catcher, especially considering the lack luster group of WR's they have. Butt is a reliable pass catcher, but isn't a superstar by an stretch. He finished 2014 with 21 catches for 211 yards and 2 TD's. Butt is a very balanced tight end that also does a lot of damage while run blocking.
Arguably the best position group for the Utes is the group that will be facing off with Michigan's RB's and TE's on every play, as the Utes have 3 very good linebackers returning for their senior seasons. Jared Norris is the headliner of the group after a breakout season in 2014, in which he totaled 116 tackles, 13 TFL's and 4 sacks. There are no weaknesses in his game, and he's the co-leader of the defense on the field. The other co-leader is the man next to Norris, Gionni Paul. Paul made his 2014 debut against Michigan last season and finished with 13 tackles and an INT. He went on to play only 8 more games, but still finished 3rd on the team in tackles with 61, and lead the team in interceptions with 4. Paul is the emotional leader of probably the entire team, and is arguably more talented than Norris. The biggest question mark will be whether or not his surgically repaired foot can stay healthy a whole season. Also returning for his senior year is Jason Whittingham. Whittingham only played 5 games in 2014 due to a broken wrist, but had a very strong sophomore campaign. Whittingham is deadly when rushing the quarterback, and is your more traditional downhill linebacker. Look for JUCO transfer Sunia Tauteoli and redshirt sophomore Uaea Masina to back up those 3, and fill in in case of injury.
Michigan Offensive Line vs Utah Defensive Line
There's a lot of experience returning for Michigan on the offensive line, as the projected starters have 70+ combined starts in their careers. Now, just because they have experience does not mean they're great. The O Line was about average last year, as they gave up 26 sacks and helped pave the way for an average of 4.6 yard per carry, but they most likely will be improved in 2015. Mason Cole, a true sophomore, started all 12 games last season and returns as the left tackle, with Ben Braden slated to start next to him at right guard. Graham Glasgow moves to the inside at center, after returning starter Jack Miller left the program unexpectedly, and Kyle Kalis and Erik Magnusson fill out the line at right guard and right tackle respectively. This offensive line is huge, as the average size is 6'6-305lbs, but they can be susceptible to speed rushers off the edge. This is a very solid group for Michigan.
When you think Utah Football, you think defensive line prestige, and of course, "Sack Lake City." Utah returns 2 of 4 full time starters from last year’s group that lead the nation in sacks, and return another two players that were part time starters on the defensive line. Once again, the following proves to be true. Utah's defensive line doesn't rebuild, it reloads. Hunter Dimick headlines the Ute defensive line after 10 sack season in 2014. Dimick is quick off the line, strong as an ox, and packs a mean punch with his hands. He at times looked like the Utes' best defensive end last season, playing opposite of Nate Orchard, who finished with 18.5 sacks on the season. Replacing the All-American defense end Orchard will be Jason Fanaika. Fanaika started 8 games last season, 2 at defensive end and 6 at linebacker, but returns to his defensive end spot where he will stay in 2015. Fanaika is the strongest player on the Ute team, but also has the versatility to play in coverage. Also helping fill the void that Orchard left is Kylie Fitts and Pita Taumoepenu. Fitts spent 2014 on the scout team while sitting out the year after transferring from UCLA, and is widely viewed as a faster, more athletic version of Jason Fanaika. Pita T is the athletic freak of the group, as the 6'1-240lb ball of muscle is unbelievably quick off the edge, and finished the 2014 season with 5.5 sacks. On the inside, Lowell Lotulelei and Filipo Mokofisi start at both defensive tackle positions, and both bring their own unique traits. Lotulelei is the gap stuffing defensive tackle, much like his brother, and routinely demands double teams. Mokofisi on the other hand is quick and violent with his hands, and is excellent at shedding blocks, although he's only 270lbs. Viliseni Fauonuku and Stevie Tuikolovatu are the backups at defensive tackle, and each are similar to the starter ahead of him. Tuikolovatu is a gap stuffer in his own right and Fauonuku is tough to block due to his low center of gravity and strength, as he's only 5'11-285lbs. Both are experienced backups, and will see lots of time for the Utes in 2015.
No arguments can be made for any other team's special teams unit to be better than Utah's, as kicker Andy Phillips and punter Tom Hackett are the best kicker-punter duo in the nation. We all know how good they are, as Hackett won the Ray Guy Award last season, so very little needs to be said about those two. The biggest question mark for Utah will be who replaces All American returner Kaelin Clay. Based off the depth chart, we have our answer. True freshman Britain Covey will return punts, while JUCO transfer Cory Butler-Byrd will hold the kick return duties. Both are fast and quick, and while they may not match the production from last season, they will be more than serviceable.
For Michigan, kicking duties will be between freshman scholarship kicker Andrew David, walk on senior Kenny Allen and walk on sophomore Kyle Seychel. All 3 have drawn mixed reviews during spring and fall camp. Michigan will be replacing last year’s punter due to graduation, though it's unclear at this time who exactly that will be. As for return duties, look for potential super star Jabrill Peppers to handle most of the kick and punt returns.