Is This the Year?
Last football season ended in humiliation. Now things could be looking up.
by Craig Ross
From the September, 2019 issue
Michigan football is at a juncture of perception. No, Jim Harbaugh's job is not at risk. His 38-14 record (73 percent) is within reasonable expectation coming off the seven-year Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke debacles. But Harbaugh is 3-10 in bowl games and big rivalries--OSU, MSU, and Notre Dame.
While Harbaugh has pulled the program from losing to competitive, most fans expected more. The drought in Big Ten championships stretches to fourteen years and U-M stands at 1-13 against OSU during this period. When last year's favored Michigan team lost to the Buckeyes by twenty-three points, attitudes morphed into a melange of anger, depression, and the dread that even under Michigan's dream coach, the Wolverines may no longer be champions.
In 2018 I predicted that Michigan would have a "good year and be playing for a Big Ten championship when they roll into Columbus." That much was on the money. After losing a close opener to Notre Dame, the Wolverines ran off ten wins, relying on defensive coordinator Don Brown's bone-crushing defense and a dull, plodding offense. But as the season wore on, the defense wore down. The offense, playing at a snail's pace, scored points at a snail's rate. Still, Michigan was undefeated in the Big Ten as they faced the Buckeyes.
OSU had been demolished by Purdue in their one Big Ten loss and had played unimpressively in numerous other games, while Michigan hammered good teams like Michigan State, Penn State, and Wisconsin. Optimism abounded, and if Michigan beat OSU, they would have a legitimate chance to play for a national championship.
The Wolverines were favored by a couple of points in Columbus and the game was well in reach, with Michigan trailing by eight (27-19) but driving down the field in the middle of the third quarter. But a third-down pass that would have kept Michigan's hopes alive was dropped at the OSU thirty-five-yard line. Michigan's punt was blocked and returned for a TD,
and OSU was up 34-19. Michigan deflated, and the Buckeyes kept scoring, putting up an absurd 62-39 win, the most points ever surrendered to the Buckeyes.
On review, the game was not quite as lopsided as the score indicated--but sixty-two points? Really? Think Munch's Scream.
There was no redemption in the bowl game against Florida, with defensive stars Rashan Gary and Devin Bush (and running back Karan Higdon) sitting out to preserve their draft prospects. In a weird fluke, the backups for Gary and Bush (Kwity Paye and Devin Gil) were injured on the same play late in the first half, forcing Michigan into impossible adjustments with inexperienced players. A nominal 13-10 halftime deficit turned into a 41-15 rout, and in the end the Wolverines seemed just to be going through the motions.
The OSU and Florida games left fans uncertain (if not flinching) about the fate of the 2019 Wolverines. Early polls have Michigan sitting at No. 14, a shade above PSU but far below OSU's No. 3. Just about every early analysis has Michigan fighting with PSU for second in the Big Ten East, with OSU winning the conference again.
In 2018, Harbaugh was obsessed with staying out of "third and longs"--plays where the defense could concentrate on defending the pass. So Michigan ran a lot on first downs. This, and slowing the pace of games, was logical when he could rely on the defense to get the offense back onto the field.
It worked fine until the end of the year. Michigan, looking like a team from 1965, was playing against the grain of the current football palette, an advantage. But once the Wolverines fell behind, that snail-like offense made it hard to catch up.
Many fans and analysts found Michigan's choice mystifying in the current environment of spread and speed offenses. But there was a lot of creativity in the way the coaches tweaked their combination of zone and power constructs week by week. As Seth Fisher wrote on MGoBlog, "one of the hallmarks of a Harbaugh rushing attack is he finds ways to surprise defenders with blocks that they weren't expecting."
This year Harbaugh's brought in a new offensive coordinator, Josh Gattis, from Alabama. A mere thirty-five years old, he's said he plans to spread the field more. He'll run the offense with the aid of Ben McDaniels, who takes over from Harbaugh as a quarterback coach. But while Harbaugh, McDaniels, and offensive line coach Ed Warriner will all have a role determining strategy, Gattis will make the tactical decisions.
The delegation of authority is real. Fullbacks--the head coach's historic preference--have evaporated from Michigan's equations this year. Ben Mason, terrific at the position, has been moved to the defensive line. Ben VanSumeren is practicing with the running backs. In their place are smurfy (small and quick) slot receivers (Mike Sainristil, Giles Jackson) more reminiscent of the Rich Rod era. And Warriner has announced that Michigan won't huddle this year; the offense will take shape at the line of scrimmage.
The coaches are counting on returning quarterback Shea Patterson making adjustments based on what he sees from the defense and signals relayed from the sidelines. With the faster tempo, "we may run seventy-five plays a game instead of fifty-five," Warriner told a March press conference.
In the open spring scrimmage Michigan nearly always showed pro-style spread (sometimes with a tight end, sometimes not). Inside zone running plays will remain a staple, but the passing game will be more prominent. Throwing to the running backs and the slot receivers (often just "long handoffs") will be a bigger part of the offense. Tight ends will still be part of the equation, but fullbacks have disappeared from the depth chart. If I were going to label the offense, it would be a mix of late Lloyd Carr, Rich Rod, Bud Grant, Bill Belichick, and Urban Meyer.
QB is in good hands. Patterson had a solid year, and he is backed up by two guys who had more than positive cameos in 2018, Dylan McCaffrey (soph eligibility) and Joe Milton (frosh eligibility). McCaffrey, in particular, is an adept runner. It seems likely he will get some snaps in 2019, and, going out on a limb, I expect a small revival of what Denard Robinson called "Two"--a few plays with more than one QB on the field. The position is deeper and more talented than at any time since the late 1990s.
And, for the first time in a decade, I won't whine about the offensive line. The interior starters, Ben Bredeson, Mike Onwenu, and Caesar Ruiz, should be as good as any in the Big Ten. Jon Runyan Jr., returning at left tackle, was more than respectable last year. Right tackle will be a fight between redshirt frosh Jalen Mayfield and Andrew Stueber, who both looked solid in the spring game. Plus, there is depth, another thing that could not be said over the past decade.
Tight end is experienced with Sean McKeon and Nick Eubanks, with good young TEs behind them. Wide receiver is stocked with NFL types; Nico Collins and Donovan Peoples-Jones have already proven their abilities, and Tarik Black (mostly injured the past two years), is ready to prove he belongs. Ronnie Bell and Mike Sainristil provide legitimate threats from the slot or in a shotgun. With the QB flanked by a running back and a slot receiver, Gattis will be able to mimic a run game with quick throws, forcing opponents to cover all of the field.
The only uncertainty on the offense is running back. Karan Higdon graduated, and Chris Evans was suspended for academic reasons. That leaves the position in the hands of Tru Wilson (a former walk-on and the best pass blocker at the position since Mike Hart), redshirt frosh Christian Turner, and frosh Zach Charbonnet (a potential superstar coming off meniscus surgery). My guess is it will be RB by committee, but Michigan will have no problems.
Gattis has inherited players that can score points. He will put his playmakers in space and give them a chance to make plays. My guess is that they will make a lot of them.
The defense is the question this year. Defensive line coach (and former DC) Greg Mattison defected for Ohio State. Al Washington, a coaching star on the rise, also left for the Buckeyes. The defection of Washington, a Columbus native whose father played for OSU and whose extended family lives in Columbus, was understandable. But the sixty-nine-year-old Mattison? It seemed a money decision; the buzz is that OSU doubled his salary.
Harbaugh replaced them with two enthusiastic thirty-seven-year-olds. Shaun Nua, a former NFL DL with the Steelers, has experience at Navy and Arizona State and a reputation as a "player's coach." Anthony Campanile was brought in from Boston College to coach linebackers. One current head coach who has worked with Campanile calls him "as high a quality person as you can find. Michigan did well to hire him."
But after losing two starters to graduation, three to early NFL entry, and another to transfer, defensive coordinator Don Brown returns only four defenders who can truly be pointed to as established in their positions: safety Josh Metellus, corner Lavert Hill, viper (defensive back/linebacker) Khaleke Hudson, and "Wills" (weak inside linebackers) Josh Ross/Devin Gil--though Ross is likely ticketed for Devin Bush's middle linebacker position. And, at least right now, none of these seem destined to be high NFL choices.
Since Brown tends to rotate players, particularly in the defensive line, most prospective starters at least have some experience. A defensive line of Kwity Paye (rush end), Aidan Hutchinson (anchor) on the outside and Michael Dwumfour, Donovan Jeter, and Carlo Kemp (on the inside) should be pretty good. And the depth is solid.
The secondary will be fine with stars Metellus (safety) and Hill (corner) and sophs Ambry Thomas (corner) and experienced safeties J'Marick Woods and Brad Hawkins (though Thomas has been ill and is likely to miss some early games). Depth at safety should be solid. Corner is another matter, where redshirt frosh Vincent Gray seems the only plausible backup right now. The wild card is true freshman Daxton Hill, one of the top dozen recruits in the country. Hill can play safety or nickel or maybe even a corner. Assuming he can learn Brown's defense, he will play right away, particularly if Thomas is slow to recover.
Viper Hudson returns for his senior year as does backup Jordan Glasgow, who is also competing at "Will." No problem. When U-M goes with a "Sam" (strong inside linebacker), Josh Uche will be excellent. But the inside positions are precarious. Ross moves to "Mike" (middle inside linebacker) and Gil--who has played extensively--is likely to man "Will."
But no one on the roster can replace Devin Bush Jr. Probably the best inside linebacker Michigan has fielded in twenty or more years, Bush was drafted in the first round by the Pittsburgh Steelers. And depth is an issue here as well.
Special teams will be excellent. Michigan has quality kick and punt returners, two good field goal specialists, an exceptional kickoff man, and a solid punter. No school in the country has a better group returning.
There was a rumor in the off-season that Brown may move to a three-man front and two vipers, two safeties, and four corners. The idea is that such a defense would force spread teams "back into the trenches." I am skeptical, since you can get shredded in the trenches, too. But, I suspect, Brown is keeping all ideas on the table.
The reality is that offensive football at the NCAA level is running well ahead of the abilities of defenses to adjust. But if anyone can catch up with the changes the spread has brought, it's Brown.
How good will Michigan be in 2019? Anyone answering the question confidently doesn't really know, because the Michigan offense, while new and shiny and containing plausible parts, is also untested. Meanwhile, the defense has lost almost all of its star power and lacks depth.
Here's my no-confidence guess. The Michigan offense will be dynamic and will put up its best showing post-Lloyd Carr. Special teams may be a difference maker. And though the schedule is considered the most difficult in the Big Ten, Michigan will have the home-field advantage against OSU, Notre Dame, and MSU.
This should be a good team, one that competes for the league title. I say, at last, Michigan beats its rivals--and wins a Big Ten Championship--in 2019.
[Originally published in September, 2019.]
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