Harbaugh return looms large over Michigan-Utah season opener
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) After eight months of living in the spotlight as college football's latest rock star, Jim Harbaugh is ready to move past the hype and get gritty on the football field.
Michigan travels to Utah on Thursday night for their season opener, a game that has to some degree, been overshadowed by the hype surrounding Harbaugh's return to the college ranks. Not that all the interesting stuff will be on the sideline.
Both teams opened fall camp with questions about their quarterbacks and only one has given fans a definitive answer.
Harbaugh refused to publicly name a starter, but says the players know who it is. Junior Shane Morris is the lone QB to return to Michigan's roster with starting experience - two games. Senior Jake Rudock transferred from Iowa with 25 starts under his belt. He threw for 2,436 yards with 16 touchdowns and five interceptions in 2014.
''I want both of them going into this game with the mindset that they're one play away or they're starting,'' Harbaugh said. ''It's the mindset I always want our quarterback and backup quarterback going into the game with.
''If (keeping Utah in the dark) is a byproduct of it, we'll take that as well.''
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham had a different issue. Senior Travis Wilson is a four-year starter who has struggled with consistency throughout his career. He lost the job twice in 2014, but still had an edge on senior Kendal Thompson, who replaced Wilson last season before suffering a season-ending knee injury.
Whittingham said the job was Wilson's to lose at the beginning of camp and there was never an indication that he was losing it. The Utes made it official Monday.
''He just continued to play well,'' Whittingham said. ''He played extremely well at the end of the season, was the MVP of our bowl game, played well throughout spring. Just continued to play with that poise and confidence all through fall camp.''
Both teams are expected to roll out run-heavy offenses that don't require the quarterback to win the game.
Harbaugh was weaned on physical, run-first offenses at Michigan in the 80's and had a similar philosophy as coach at San Diego, Stanford and with the San Francisco 49ers. Utah running back Devontae Booker was first-team All-Pac-12 in 2014 and Whittingham has said they'll run Booker as much as he can handle.
Other things to watch when Utah hosts Michigan:
DOING HOMEWORK: Michigan may have a slight edge from a preparation standpoint due to the fact Whittingham has coached Utah since 2005 and was previously the defensive coordinator. There's plenty of tape on how his Utes play. Utah, on the other hand, has been scraping tape together from various sources. Florida video to study defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin's scheme. Stanford and 49ers tape to study Harbaugh. Old Southern California clips to get a feel for offensive coordinator Tim Drevno and special teams coach John Baxter. ''It's just a hodgepodge of five, six, seven places,'' Whittingham said. ''Then we formed a best-guess scenario.''
PICK A PEPPERS: Michigan sophomore Jabrill Peppers has played three career games, but is expected to compete for Big Ten defensive player of the year. He missed most of his freshman year with a leg injury after signing as a five-star athlete from New Jersey. Peppers moved from cornerback to safety this year and could see snaps in all three phases of the game. ''Definitely someone I need to be aware of,'' Wilson said. ''There's definitely not a lot of film, but I know he's a good player and I know what he's capable of.''
DOMINATING DEFENSE: The Utes return eight starters on the defense, including three on the defensive line and all three linebackers. The defense led the nation with 55 sacks in 2014 and should remain one of the better defenses in the Pac-12. The team has focused on taking the ball away and had a goal of four turnovers per practice, including one returned for a score. The hope is that transfers to game day.
RUNNING BACK TRIO: Michigan has junior De'Veon Smith listed as the starter, but juniors Derrick Green and Ty Isaac should compete for carries throughout the year. Green has disappointed since signing as the No. 1-rated running back in the country. Isaac is playing for the first time in maize and blue after he sat in 2014 following a transfer from USC. Smith led the team in rushing last season with 519 yards, but Green had a team-high 5.74 yards per rush average.