With one of the busiest rosters in college football and an influx of early-experienced transfers, there aren’t many questions when it comes to who starts for the 2023 Michigan Wolverines. As always with a Jim Harbaugh-coached team, there will be competition. With spring training coming up, these are the three positional battles I’ll be keeping an eye out for from the start of camp.
Towards the end of the 2022 season, I was speculating that Michigan could see competition at every point of the offensive line going into 2023. I expected a situation where Michigan would focus first on finding its top five offensive linemen, then order of positions. Now, with the return of Zak Zinter and Trevor Keegan and the addition of LaDarius Henderson and Drake Nugent, it seems the only battle in the game will be the same as last season, right tackle.
Michigan will see the return of both Trente Jones and Karsen Barnhart in the early spring. Jones led Barnhart through the 2022 offseason and started the season at right tackle. Barnhart saw action in other positions and eventually took over starting at right tackle when Jones was injured.
However, those two will face more competition than each other in 2023. With Henderson the favorite to start at left, Jeffrey Persi will be pushing to start at right. Persi was the backup LT and made his first career start in 2022. Former starter Ryan Hayes has consistently said that Persi has a player who was getting better every day in practice. When it comes to experience, Michigan has added former Stanford right tackle Myles Hinton in the transfer portal. With 16 career starts, Hinton could be a favorite to win the job this fall.
Other names to consider include Tristan Bounds, Andrew Gentry and Connor Jones.
This is an interesting conversation. I think the first question is, how will Michigan use its top two wide receivers in Cornelius Johnson and Roman Wilson? In 2021 with Ronnie Bell injured, Johnson has played a more Bell-like role in the offense. With the return of Bell it was used almost exclusively as an X receiver with Bell ringing the other door station and some slots. Wilson was moved almost exclusively to the slot with the return of Bell, seeing 90% of his shots come from the slot. Who is Michigan’s first WR3 depends on how primarily Johnson and Wilson will be used in 2023?
I say mostly because the obvious part that can’t be ignored is that Michigan rotates wide receivers in different groups and positions. What we’ve seen in the last two seasons is that there is a top 6 and a top 3. Johnson and Wilson are clearly the top 2 heading into the spring. My first favorite for WR3 is Darrius Clemons.
Clemons has been praised by coaches and players alike since arriving in Ann Arbor. If he can prove he can be a top 3 target for JJ McCarthy, that means Michigan can keep Wilson in the slot and move Johnson back to receiver Z, which is where each has thrived the most.
Michigan coaches may be inclined to move Wilson back to point Z and use him similar to how they used Bell in 2022. Bell played 40% of his snaps in the slot last year. Wilson could take on that role as two other leading slot receivers compete for Wilson’s old role. AJ Henning and Tyler Morris each played nearly 90% of their snaps in the slot when they were on the court last year. Henning is entering his senior season and will push for more reps after a “Deebo Samuel” roster never really materialized in 2022. Morris is seeing more snaps in late 2022 and could find himself ahead of Clemons in the battle of the receivers of the second year.
Amorion Walker will play both ends in the spring but could push as an outside receiver. He will join Cristian Dixon, Peyton O’Leary and another group of talented freshman wide receivers looking to make the top 6 and possibly the top 3.
The single point Michigan has lost the most since its 2022 starting lineup is at cornerback, with starters DJ Turner and Gemon Green heading to the NFL. Green lost reps late in the year to Will Johnson who will enter spring camp with the CB1 clear.
Last year’s spring trial proved to be a definite success, Mike Sainristil will be back. He should keep his slot role but could slip out. Michigan has Rod Moore, a free safety who can play in much Dax Hill-like coverage in 2022. Michigan may find the best-case scenario to fit Moore’s role as he moves Sainristil to the fielder. Zeke Berry is also a player to watch who could take over for the nickel, allowing Sainristil to move to CB2.
For now, the day one battle will likely be for that outside role. Much like the wide receiver, Michigan will rotate players to the secondary, as the versatility these players possess is a huge strength of the defense, but you still expect there to be a CB2 primary. The perceived leader currently may be Ja’Den McBurrows. After a late injury ended his 2021 season and he was sidelined for most of 2022, McBurrows will hope to win the job in 2023. He’s a physical angle and would be a perfect match opposite Johnson.
McBurrow’s lost time means he has no real edge over sophomores like Kody Jones and Myles Pollard. McBurrows is under 6 feet but over 200 pounds. Pollard is over 6′ but closer to 190lbs. Jones is somewhere in the middle of each. What Michigan favors from the point in terms of pattern can help determine the eventual starter as much as anything else. The aforementioned Walker will receive corner reps this spring as will Gemon’s brother German Green. Michigan added two freshmen late in the cycle this year in Cam Calhoun and Jyaire Hill. Neither was ranked as a rookie as Will Johnson, but each will lobby to make a similar impact.
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