Michigan football's 4 storylines to watch during crucial spring practices

Orion Sang
Detroit Free Press

Free Press sports writer Orion Sang picks out four things to watch as Michigan football begins spring practice Monday. 

Defense install

For the first time since 2016, the Wolverines will be learning a new defense. Defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald takes over for Don Brown, and he'll have up to 15 practices to begin installing his scheme before the program breaks for the summer. Macdonald has spent time working under coaches Wink Martindale and Todd Grantham; still, he is a first-time play-caller. This is a big spot for him — he must turn around Michigan's defense fast, which means these spring practices will be critical for him and the defensive staff.

Baltimore Ravens linebackers coach Mike MacDonald with Patrick Onwuasor (48) and Matthew Judon (99) in 2019.

Just as important as teaching the new defense will be the task of establishing relationships with his new players. This has not been a conventional offseason for Macdonald or the Wolverines, as the athletic department recently shut down for two weeks just as Michigan's reshuffled staff was settling in.

So — what exactly will the new defense look like? The answer will start to formulate this upcoming week. 

“We’re going to be multiple and we’re going to get after people and we’re going to be aggressive,” Macdonald said on the "In the Trenches" podcast with Jon Jansen last week. “We’re going to blitz and we’re going to look like we’re blitzing and we’re not going to blitz. We’re going to play man. We’re going to play zone. We’re going to be complementary.”

ANALYSIS:How Michigan hiring Macdonald compares to Ohio State's recent gambles

Quarterback competition

Bradenton (Florida) IMG Academy quarterback J.J. McCarthy

For a second consecutive offseason, Michigan will be searching for a new starting quarterback. After winning the job last summer and starting five of six games in 2020, Joe Milton entered the transfer portal, leaving the Wolverines with three quarterbacks on the roster — two of whom have never taken a snap in college. Redshirt sophomore Cade McNamara is likely the favorite, given his edge in experience; still, the door should be open for redshirt freshman Dan Villari or true freshman J.J. McCarthy, a five-star recruit and the highest-ranked quarterback prospect coach Jim Harbaugh has signed at Michigan. True freshmen don't normally start under center in Ann Arbor, but McCarthy has the pedigree to play early and also enrolled in January. These spring practices will be his first opportunity to show what he can do.

There's the possibility none of Michigan's quarterbacks take a significant lead in the competition during the spring. In that scenario, would the Wolverines look to the transfer portal and perhaps add a more experienced quarterback to the room? Or would they sit pat and hope the three incumbent quarterbacks improve more over the summer? 

ORION:Milton's transfer from Michigan stings worse than others under Harbaugh

How much attrition?

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh watches warm up before the Penn State game at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020.

Michigan has already seen five significant contributors or backups enter the transfer portal since the end of the season, and constant attrition is part of college football these days. The Wolverines have seen plenty of players come and go over the past few years, this spring could be a particularly ripe time for more transfers, as players on defense learn where they stand with the new coordinator. Some could find they don't fit the new defense as much as they fit the old one, leading to more departures. Either way, there will be more attrition before the summer begins, based on the past few seasons. 

RECRUITING MAILBAG:Keep an eye on these in-state underclassmen

Early enrollees 

Michigan had 10 recruits from the 2021 recruiting class enroll early. Like with McCarthy, there will be ample opportunity for these players to begin pushing for playing time and up the depth chart. Linebacker Junior Colson is one of the most athletic prospects in the class and could find himself immediately in the two-deep given Michigan's attrition at the linebacker position over the past year. Former starting center Zach Carpenter transferred to Indiana; that leaves the door ajar for Raheem Anderson and Greg Crippen. Meanwhile, the Wolverines have four scholarship running backs on the roster after the transfers of Zach Charbonnet (UCLA) and Christian Turner (Wake Forest), which means Donovan Edwards (West Bloomfield) and Tavierre Dunlap could see playing time this fall given the rotation at the position. It isn't a guarantee early enrollees will play early — but being on campus for spring ball does provide a head start over the other incoming freshmen. 

ORION:Michigan's new recruiting mentality can help close gap with Ohio State

Contact Orion Sang at osang@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @orion_sang. Read more on the Michigan Wolverines and sign up for our Wolverines newsletter