Michigan Spring Game Preview: Top Two Storylines

There is no shortage of question marks heading into today's spring game in Ann Arbor, but there's two storylines in particular we'll be keeping a close eye on.
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The Michigan Wolverines will take the field in the Big House this afternoon to compete for the annual Spring Game. Of course, the game itself is closed off to both the media and the public - leaving the vast majority of us to wait for leaks and soundbites that will inevitably come following the games conclusion.

With that being said, here are the top three storylines that most will be looking to gain some insight on.

The Defense

The biggest off-season change for Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan Wolverines came on the defensive side of the ball. After spending five years in Ann Arbor, defensive coordinator Don Brown was fired after the 2020 season and replaced with Mike Macdonald - who arrives at Michigan after spending the last seven years as an assistant coach with the Baltimore Ravens under John Harbaugh.

Though Michigan’s defense was known as aggressive and disruptive during Brown’s tenure, it was also known for failing to make meaningful in-game adjustments and for folding against top-tier opponents - particularly against Ohio State. The Wolverines surrendered a combined (and historic) 118 points in back to back games against the Buckeyes in 2018 and 2019, along with a total of 698 passing yards and 10 touchdowns through the air. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the Michigan defense also surrendered 442 combined rushing yards against Ohio State in 2018 and 2019, including a 211 yard rushing performance by J.K. Dobbins in the Big House. All in all, Michigan gave up a combined 1,140 total yards and 15 touchdowns to Ohio State in their last two meetings.

Mike Macdonald was brought to Michigan to change that.

Technically speaking Baltimore's base defensive was a 3-4, but as Macdonald has said on a couple of occasions now, his defensive won't be any one thing in particular. Instead, it's going to be a variation of things all tailored to put his guys in a position to succeed.

"We’re going to be multiple," he said. "The best way I can describe our scheme is it’s going to look a lot like the places I’ve been previously. But, when you watch our Baltimore defense, tell me the times we looked like a 3-4. There’s going to be a certain percentage there. But there’s going to be a lot of times we look like a 4-3, there’s going to be sometimes where we’re 6-1, sometimes we’re going to look like a 6-2. Sometimes you’re not going to know what the heck it looks like. It’s hard for me to say that we’re gonna be a 3-4, per se."

The Quarterbacks

At this point, there doesn't appear to be any quarterback controversy in Ann Arbor - yet.  By all accounts, junior Cade McNamara has been firmly in control throughout spring ball, while sophomore Dan Villari and freshman JJ McCarthy are splitting reps with the two's.  

After spending much of the 2020 off-season as an afterthought, McNamara burst onto the scene in week five against Rutgers.  Down 17-0 on the road in Piscataway, McNamara led the Wolverines to a triple-overtime victory and earned the starting job soon after.  Unfortunately, McNamara would suffer a season-ending injury the very next week against Penn State.

Though we don't expect to learn anything groundbreaking from the quarterback group today, we'll certainly be looking for progression and growth.  How does Cade McNamara handle the pressure of being the presumed QB1 in Ann Arbor?  How has JJ McCarthy adjusted to playing at the next level - and is he a legitimate threat to steal the starting spot in year one?  And then there's Dan Villari, the dark horse candidate with an east coast swagger.  Villari is currently sitting in the same exact spot that McNamara was at this time last year - an afterthought, a guy who's not being talked about all that much, but also a guy who could very easily find himself in the starting position at some point during the 2021 season.

Either way, the quarterback group is always one to keep your eye on in Ann Arbor.