After last year's setback, things are looking up for U-M football.
by Craig Ross
From the September, 2018 issue
Last year the Wolverines entered the season with the least experienced team in major college football. This, and a difficult schedule, led me to predict that the 2017 campaign would be Jim Harbaugh's "toughest yet at Michigan." Many others in the media saw it the same way. Even so, Michigan's 8-5 finish was an icy bath for Wolverine fans.
In Harbaugh's first two years, he went 20-6-Bo Schembechler and Lloyd Carr numbers. But last year, the landscape was littered with close defeats (MSU, OSU, Wisconsin, and South Carolina) and one waxing, by Penn State. Harbaugh now stands at a combined 1-5 against OSU and MSU, and his Wolverines have lost two of their three bowl games.
No one is clamoring for the coach's hide. But it is fair to say there is an undercurrent of uncertainty among fans. This wasn't how it was supposed to go, especially since last year it was the offense--Harbaugh's specialty--that faltered.
In 2017 Don Brown again pieced together a remarkable defense. Despite losing most of his starters and being hamstrung by an offense that turned over the ball and often couldn't generate field position, Michigan was thirteenth in points allowed per game by the 130 FBS teams. Brown's team defended the run, defended the pass, and pressured the QB (they were number one in sack rate). They weren't perfect, but the defense gave the Wolverines a chance to win all but one of their games.
But the offense couldn't score points. U-M was a paltry ninety-first in putting numbers up on the board. They were ranked 105 in yards gained and 103 in yards per pass attempt. This would be mitigated to some degree if U-M had been good at protecting their quarterbacks, but they weren't. All three QBs--Wilton Speight, John O'Korn, and Brandon Peters--were injured when protections broke down.
Harbaugh knew coming into the season, that his offense was likely to be a snail. So he made a bold play, hiring Indiana offensive
line coach Greg Frey, even though his longtime friend and assistant coach, Tim Drevno, already coached the offensive line. Frey is a zone blocking specialist, and Harbaugh planned to follow OSU in running both zone and gap plays.
Since Harbaugh's history is with gap schemes--"isolation" and "power"--this was a pretty radical idea, particularly for a team with a pro-style passing game, as opposed to OSU's read options and spread pass concepts. Harbaugh was putting a lot on the plate for his inexperienced offense to learn.
It also had a lot of cooks. Pep Hamilton was the pass game coordinator. Drevno still coached the OL but became the run-game coordinator. And Harbaugh oversaw it all and was part of the decision-making equation on game days.
He must have hoped all that coaching talent could keep defenses off-balance by throwing more plays at them than they could prepare for. But often it was Michigan that looked overwhelmed. On MGoBlog.com, Brian Cook wrote that the early season consisted of "beautiful on-paper plays that [were] executed with the balletic grace of a drunken donkey crashing his ex-wife's wedding."
To Harbaugh's credit, as the year went along he jettisoned what didn't work; the inside zone went into the rubbish heap. By the close of the year Michigan had a pretty decent power run game and backs Karan Higdon and Chris Evans flourished. But the pass offense couldn't provide any balance. Speight was injured in the Purdue game, after being (surprisingly to me) ineffective much of the year. O'Korn played very well to finish up that contest and fans (always clamoring for #2) felt justified. But then O'Korn struggled and he, too, was injured. He was replaced by redshirt frosh Brandon Peters (more exaltation by the fans for the back-up) and while Peters looked pretty good early, he also faltered, and would later be knocked out. O'Korn was well enough by then to return, but Speight had fractured three vertebrae and was out for the season. Football is an incredibly dangerous game, especially for quarterbacks hammered from the blind side.
It couldn't have been easy, but at the close of the season Harbaugh replaced Drevno with former OSU offensive coordinator Ed Warinner. Offensive lineman Stephen Spanellis said that even the new OC was "confused by the amount of terminology and the different plays we had in the playbook."
Making some elements of the offense simpler this year might help (my guess is the running game will consist of a lot of isolation and power plays). Bigger help came with the arrival of former Mississippi QB Shea Patterson.
Patterson was one of the most coveted high school quarterbacks in his senior year and was successful in the SEC in his first two seasons. But last December the NCAA slapped Ole Miss with a raft of sanctions for serious recruiting violations and allowed seniors to transfer without having to sit out a season.
Patterson completed 64 percent of his passes last year, with an average gain of 8.4 yards. His passer rating was better than any returning Big Ten QB except for Alex Hornibrook of Wisconsin. Every mock NFL draft for 2019 has Patterson going in the first round, something that hasn't happened for a Big Ten QB in more than twenty years.
Offensive blocking was weak last year, but Patterson will make it easier. A mobile quarterback (like Harbaugh in his playing days or Fran Tarkenton), he doesn't need to sit in the pocket to be effective. Because he can throw moving right or left, the Michigan offense will be able to keep defenses from teeing off. There's even been noise--some of it coming from Harbaugh--about Michigan using run-pass options, a tool used effectively by the Eagles in their Super Bowl win over the Patriots.
O'Korn and Speight have graduated (Speight, now healed, could start as a grad school transfer at UCLA), leaving only Peters, Dylan McCaffrey, and true frosh Joe Milton as competition. It looks like Michigan will have one hell of a QB. In August, Harbaugh anointed Patterson as his starter.
Last year the Wolverines' rotating cast threw to completely untested wide receivers. Because the learning curve is long, frosh wide receivers rarely make a mark, and Michigan's receivers were no exception. But this year, new wide receivers coach and co-offensive coordinator, Jim McElwain, has more talent and depth at the receiver positions than Michigan has had in many years.
Yes, it's the same Jim McElwain who was Florida's head coach last year, when Michigan beat them 33-17. It was just one of a string of defeats--including a crushing 42-7 loss to rival Georgia--that cost him his head coaching job. But he has a history of success coaching wide receivers.
WRs Tarik Black (injured early last year), Nico Collins, and Donovan Peoples-Jones all have All Big Ten (or better) potential. Add experienced slot receivers Grant Perry and Nate Schoenle and up-and-comer Oliver Martin, and the pass catching positions couldn't be deeper.
With experienced tight ends (Sean McKeon, Zach Gentry, Nick Eubanks), all the pieces are in place for a major upswing in the offense. Assuming, of course, the offensive line can give Patterson a chance.
There was no spring game; weather terminated the event. There was no coaching clinic, limiting leaks. Rumors exist, they always do, but the quality of information coming out of Schembechler Hall has been more limited than in any year I can remember.
I trust very little of what I haven't seen with my own eyes, but the one rumor I do trust comes from players and the coaches on the team--that last year the Michigan defense dominated 90 percent of the snaps in the spring. This year, it has been more like six out of ten. This makes me believe that the simplification and an offensive line of (my guess) Juwann Bushell-Beatty (LT), Ben Bredeson (LG), Cesar Ruiz (center), Mike Onwenu or Jon Runyan Jr. (RG), and James Hudson (RT) is doing enough to allow the "skill" positions to compete against a really good defense.
Don Brown's defense is mostly intact. Captain Mike McCray has graduated from his linebacker spot, but Brown has a basketful of elite athletes vying for the position. My best guess is that Josh Ross might edge out Devin Gil, but I don't expect linebacker to be resolved until late August.
Interior defensive lineman Mo Hurst, now in the NFL, isn't easily replaced-Pro Football Focus, an evaluation service manned by NFL scouts and football experts, gave him the highest score it's ever given a defensive lineman. Sophomores Aubrey Solomon and Michael Dwumfour are the most likely candidates for the position. Solomon was highly recruited and played extremely well for a frosh last year. The defensive coaches compare Dwumfour to Hurst ("only bigger"), but except for the bigger part that feels impossible. Bryan Mone and Lawrence Marshall provide quality depth and experience, and both should see a lot of snaps. Anthony Jeter is a redshirt frosh who will move inside and get some opportunity to play.
The interior of the line doesn't need to emulate Hurst's spectacular play. Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich will be the best set of defensive ends in the country, and the rest of the defense is intact. More than intact, since there is more depth this year--even an established player like Lavert Hill at corner is being pushed by soph Ambry Thomas. The secondary is intact, again with younger players pushing established stars.
Punting was erratic to poor in 2017, but I predict Brad Robbins will improve to, at worst, an average Big Ten punter. Placekicking should be better than fine. Quinn Nordin made twenty of twenty-five field goals last year and has range.
Predictions are tough, especially when there are more rumors than data. But it seems patent that a defense returning most of its talent, and one growing in depth and experience, isn't going to retrench. Special teams should improve. There is no question that quarterback, wide receiver, and tight end play will improve. But then, things could hardly get worse in the passing game.
Fans aren't the only ones uncertain. Experts, too, diverge in evaluating the coming season. One generally optimistic recruiting expert with profound connections to coaches says he has turned pessimistic about the direction of the program based upon "things I don't want to talk about." This expert quotes one coach as saying "Michigan is in very bad shape ... there are major problems." And that, he says, is one of the more tepid commentaries he has heard.
Another line of thought (count me in) is that Michigan's game planning was brilliant last year and would have worked with decent quarterbacking. In the OSU game, Seth Fisher wrote at MGoBlog, "Harbaugh pulled plays from every offensive tree, whipsawing the OSU defense between dramatically different concepts." Fisher and Cook believed the complications worked "perfectly"--except for the inability of the U-M QBs to execute.
Will making it simpler allow a greater ability to execute? Or will keeping it complex allow better QB play to whipsaw defenses into oblivion? In the end, it will come down to offensive line play.
Can Michigan put together a plausible run game? I think so. Can that be backed up, unlike last year, with some ability to move the ball in the air? I am playing the pass line. And I think, despite the extremely difficult schedule (at ND, OSU, and MSU; Wisconsin and Penn State in Ann Arbor), that Michigan will have a good year and be playing for a Big Ten championship when they roll into Columbus. Let's call it 10-2 and a bowl win for Harbaugh's best season.
[Originally published in September, 2018.]
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