2021 Michigan Football Season Preview

Going into this year I can honestly say that I am the most down on Michigan football that I have been during Harbaugh’s tenure. Sure they have quite a few new coaches on staff that can get you excited, but the Mike Macdonald hire is a major question mark…and he is arguably the most important hire of them all. He comes in without a defined scheme or playbook (at least when that’s what it sounded like when he was hired in the spring) and it is hard to know what to expect. This is now Harbaugh’s SECOND time hiring a coordinator that does not have any playcalling experience and I really do not understand the thought process. It is not as though Michigan is some start up college or small conference team and that is all you can get. I know he wanted to make the staff younger to help with recruiting and revitalize the program, but is play calling not important?? There is no doubt that it was time for change. I’m not sure the defense could truly get THAT much worse, but at the same time, my fear is that it absolutely could. Don Brown’s defense had clearly been solved and his inability to adapt or provide a successful solution for its flaws were not helping Michigan. Particularly when they had an offense that was anemic and struggling to put up points. Speaking of the offense, I’m still not a fan of Josh Gattis. I have not cared for his playcalling and he essentially handpicked Joe Milton to be his quarterback and we know how that worked out. Joe Milton was a hype beast that showed after about two games he had not actually improved as a quarterback. Whether it be the touch on his throws or the reads of the defenses…he struggled and flopped and then they turned to Cade McNamara. McNamara will be the starter and I like what he brought last year, but he is not going to take the top off of defenses. Maybe that’s fine. He can get the ball out quick to receivers and backs and they can have their “speed in space.” It’s taken quite a long time for it to show up but maybe it’ll get here eventually!

OFFENSE

Yeah I’m not super pumped about this team, but at least the offense should be less bad than last year? I already touched on McNamara earlier and our alleged lord and savior JJ McCarthy is on campus as well. I doubt he will see the field unless it’s mop up duty or McNamara goes down. Now, I know I’m down on the team, but I am willing to give some benefit of the doubt. Last year was really difficult. The protocols, the time away from home, the uncertainty leading up to the season, all of it wore on the players. I’m sure it also resulted in players underperforming. Maybe everyone had the spring of their lives and everything will be right as rain. I doubt it, but I think the team should at least be better than last year. If McNamara stays healthy and can play it safe and pass the ball around like it’s Texas Tech or Mississippi State and get it out quickly, it could potentially not suck. Alan Bowman gives them some added depth at the position, but if McNamara cannot get the job done after being QB1 for the last 9 months, this is going to be an even rougher year than anticipated. He does not have all the physical traits that you want, but he can be a solid game manager and get the ball out into players hands for them to make plays. If the offensive line struggles like they did last year, he’s going to need to have that quick release.

Running back took a major hit when Zach Charbonnet left. I do not care what anyone says, Harbaugh and Gattis completely dropped the ball with their usage of Charbonnet. Hassan Haskins is a good back, but he’s not so great that you give Charbonnet so little work that he leaves. Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards will undoubtedly get snaps and they have tons of talent. But, it’s hard to look anyone in the eye and say there is not a lack of depth at the running back position. There is plenty of talent, but the room is highly inexperienced. Corum and Edwards will provide plenty of juice, but if Haskins goes down, you’re looking at a true sophomore as your most experienced runner. Don’t get me wrong, there is talent in this room. But having a back like Charbonnet would have given this team a two-headed monster to lean on with some major talent behind them.

Oh look, another position group lacking experience. It’s wide receiver! (If you’re sensing a theme, it’s that this team is young and very inexperienced). Ronnie Bell is back and he’ll do Ronnie Bell things. He’ll make some great plays and he’ll make some that will make you scratch your head. I’m expecting Cornelius Johnson to finally take a jump forward and it would be great if Mike Sainristil did the same. Johnson was making a strong case to be the #2 receiver last year and flashed some big play potential before the season got shut down. AJ Henning should bring some juice to the room and I would expect him to take on a bigger role this year after dipping his toe in last year. Adding Daylen Baldwin as a grad transfer will help with the inexperience and I have high hopes for Roman Wilson after his flashes last year. With only 8 scholarship wide receivers on the roster, I cannot imagine anyone will be redshirting, but if someone does, my money is on Andrel Anthony. Cristian Dixon is too talented to have sit around and they clearly need guys to play. This is a group that could use Giles Jackson and Xavier Worthy but Giles decided to move on to Washington and an academic snafu sent Xavier on to Texas. The hope here is that Henning and Sainristil become game breakers to blow the top off the offense because it is a group that does not seem to be overly fast. Hell, if any of the young bucks at wide receiver want to emerge it would be a welcome sight.

Last year going into the season all we heard about was how great Erick All was. Unfortunately for Erick All, he had a major case of the drops last year. Hopefully he has that sorted out because the tight end position is not particularly deep in terms of pass catching talent. Luke Schoonmaker has two career catches and Matthew Hibner has yet to play a down for Michigan. Joel Honigford is a converted offensive lineman and I’m guessing that Louis Hansen will redshirt. Schoonmaker will get a lot of playing time, especially as a blocker, but there will be plenty of pressure on All to be the game breaking tight end he has been billed to be. If All is not going to get it done, you might see Michigan forego the tight end completely on quite a few passing downs.

The offensive line should be a deep group. Harbaugh and the beat writers keep talking about how deep it is and how great it is.

I mean in theory it is a deep group. But it’s also an awfully inexperienced group. Vastardis is supposed to be the man making all of the calls on the OL, but he’s never played more than 6 games in a season. Stueber has played 20 games and is the most experienced of the group. Hayes should be back to full health by now and would be a welcome sight. Keegan is a redshirt Sophomore with 5 career games and Zinter is a true sophomore with 6 career games. Again, it is a group that sounds like it is deep and experienced but it gives me a bit of pause. It’s truly unfortunate Chuck Filiaga never seemed to develop and I hoped Barnhart or Jones would grab hold of one of the starting jobs instead of starting two grad students. Two months ago it looked like Zinter would play center but he did not seem to grab hold of that job. Losing Zach Carpenter was a big time blow up front and it seems as though he wanted to leave as soon as he got to Ann Arbor and finally pulled the trigger after the year. The idea of having Hayes-Keegan-Carpenter-Zinter-Barnhart/Jones would have been awesome. Then you could have had the start of something great/young this year that would have carried into 2022. Instead, you have a bit of a patchwork group that has some young parts and some old parts. Some have played in a decent amount of games but have not played for a lot. The scariest part of all of this is that it is very similar to the offensive line from last year that showed up and got abused each week. I tried to talk myself into this being a positive group for Michigan and talked myself out of it as we got to the end of the paragraph. Michigan wants to run the ball more this year, right? Well last year the offensive line was 119th in power success rate (percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown) and 100th in stuff rate (percentage of carries by running backs that are stopped at or before the line of scrimmage.) WOOF. Of course, an entire offseason of practice and new coaches can help that. Absolutely the play calling and the abysmal passing game contributed to this. And yes, they have more experience going into this year than they had last year. I just fail to see how this is a group that can be counted on as a strength prior to seeing them actually perform.

Are we having fun yet? Because we have not even gotten to the defense.

DEFENSE

Hooray football is back, amiright? I cannot even begin to guess what the Michigan defense is going to look like. They’ve been very tight-lipped about everything and I do not blame them one iota.

From the Detroit Free Press…”So far, Macdonald has approached his new job as if he were the head of a start-up company. Every day, he and the other defensive staffers get together and “work from the ground floor” on designing their new defense. They collaborate on each detail, from the names of certain formations, positions, situational play-calls and the recruiting board. “It’s just a blank canvas for everyone,” Macdonald said. “… It should have a feel of all hands on deck and we’re in it together.”

He says they’re going to multiple and that the only things that will carry over will be principles and techniques. It’s going to be flexible and they’re going to adjust for the personnel that they have. Everything he says sounds good on paper. But it is also alarming that they basically just designed everything in the spring and he did not come in already with a working playbook in mind. When I was 12 I had my own football playbook. I had a notebook and I learned the proper verbiage and I wrote 150+ plays down in that. Were a bunch of them completely ridiculous? Yeah, of course. Am I completely out of my mind for doing all of that at age 12? Obviously. But if a 12-year-old hockey player is doing that, how does he not have anything prepped? Maybe I’m taking him FAR too literally when he says they built it from the ground up and he’s exaggerating. That seems far more likely than him walking in with a blank notebook, right??

(If you want to read some more on potential schemes they could run this year, check out these articles from The Athletic. Ravens Need An Edge, Macdonald Brings Startup Mentality)

Looking at the personnel, it will be interesting to see how this defense takes shape. It’s safe to assume that the base defense will be a 3-4 but it would not shock me to see a decent amount of nickel…whether they’re in a 3-3-5 or a 4-2-5 will basically just depend on verbiage. I would expect it to be more of a 4-2-5 with Hutchinson moving from a stand up EDGE spot to having his hand in the dirt.

The starting defensive line should have 2 of the 3 spots totally set. Chris Hinton will be at the defensive end/tackle spot and Mazi Smith will be at the nose tackle spot. I have to believe that Donovan Jeter will be starting at the defensive tackle spot but I would not bet my life on it. Julius Welschof has gotten some hype this offseason and even made it into Bruce Feldman’s annual Freaks column. Jordan Whittley transferred in from Oregon State and he will bring some size and will likely backup Mazi at the nose tackle spot. I’m sure the defense will have plenty of looks with Hutchinson and David Ojabo having their hands in the dirt, but right now you can expect them to be playing the outside linebacker/EDGE rusher role. This makes the defensive line look pretty damn thin and I would expect Rashaun Benny to play right away. I cannot imagine they want to rely on Jess Speight or Mike Morris to have to play a lot.

The change in scheme caused some transfers and has left the defense pretty thin in some spots talent-wise. Outside linebacker/EDGE is not one of them…at least from a two-deep standpoint. They may be a little lighter on experience when it comes to guys other than Hutchinson, but you can expect Taylor Upshaw, Braiden McGregor, and Jaylen Harrell to play. It will be interesting to see where Anthony Solomon, Tyler McLaurin and Kechaun Bennett end up, but I’m guessing that McLaurin and Bennett will be on the EDGE for sure. Solomon seems like a guy that could slide inside if there are any sort of injuries. Your starting inside linebackers will be Josh Ross and Nikhai Hill-Green. Hill-Green has gotten rave reviews in camp and has been named a starter. Michael Bennett is a guy that loses out from the scheme change now and he will be a backup inside with Junior Colson. Will they end up rotating this group a lot? I’m not sure. But I could see Bennett getting snaps in various ways and playing in sub-packages. Until we know what the defense is going to look like though this is all pure guess work. Many players on the defense do not quite fit the scheme and it will be interesting to see how they’re used. There is talent here (based on recruiting stars/rankings), but Michigan coaches have not been raving about the group like they have the offensive line. Maybe this is on purpose to build up the offensive line to be better than it is and be deceptive about how good the linebackers will be. Or maybe the coaching staff is being honest and linebacker is an issue. If you can guarantee the health for the whole year, I do not have any issues with the two-deep at linebacker…but mix in a couple injuries and whole lot of question marks may arise.

The secondary…where do we even go with this? The Ravens played a lot of press man coverage and that is NOT what this team needs. I’m going to assume that the new staff is smart enough to recognize this and it will be interesting to see what they ask guys to do. You can go ahead and write down in pen that Brad Hawkins and Daxton Hill will be starting at safety. As for corner?

Seems like a pretty good theory…my guess is that all three are going to play and they’ll go with Green for sure and then the hot hand between Turner and Gray…or Harbaugh is merely naming the three corners that will play when they’re in nickel. Frankly, other than the two starting safeties and Makari Paige/RJ Moten being their backups, I have no clue what to expect here. My guess is that George Johnson, Darion Green-Warren, Andre Seldon and Ja’Den McBurrows will be the backups behind these three starters, but that is all that it is…a guess. There is young talent there on the depth chart, it’s just a matter of those guys being ready to step up to the plate. I’m not a fan of Vincent Gray but maybe he has turned things around. It is a big time problem though if he is still the same player and none of the young kids have been able to beat him out.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Pretty much one of the only parts of the roster without question marks are the kicking game. Jake Moody will be your starting kicker and Brad Robbins will be your starting punter. I’m not sure who will return punts and kicks but they will have PLENTY of options. I think Blake Corum or Roman Wilson could return kicks and AJ Henning could return punts, but whatever they choose should be a really solid option. They have plenty of explosive athletes to choose from and they should be able to make plays with the ball in their hands. I know the offense will need all the help it can get.

DEPTH CHART

Your guess is as good as mine for the two-deep at some of these spots, but I’m pretty confident these will be the starters on Saturday. If there were injuries to the offensive line, they would shuffle guys around and have Filiaga, Barnhart and Jones be the three guys that fill in, so it would not truly be a two-deep up front. I would anticipate every receiver to get playing time this year and I think we can expect a healthy rotation at some defensive spots where they go with the hot hand.

SEASON PREDICTION

I’ve been saying for a while now that Michigan is going to go 6-7 with a Pinstripe Bowl loss to Wake Forest and looking at the depth chart and the schedule, it feels like the only thing wrong with that prediction is that Wake Forest might not be good enough to make a bowl game. But playing in the Pinstripe Bowl and losing to an ACC team? Yeah, that’s definitely on the table. If Michigan does not have any major injuries and they figure out the offense AND the defense is way better than anticipated, I think this team has a ceiling of 8-4. I just do not see how you beat Wisconsin and Penn State on the road or Ohio State at any location on this planet. Then mix in another loss to Indiana or Washington or Northwestern and you’re at 8-4 without breaking a sweat. Any Michigan fan expecting more than a 7-5 season is truly lying to themselves. This is a young, inexperienced team. Half the coaches are new. The entire defensive scheme is new. There are going to be a ton of growing pains and this is going to be a tough year. But if you go into it expecting 6-6 like I am, maybe you will be pleasantly surprised by what happens.

DATEOPPONENTTIMETVPrediction
Sat, Sep 4vs Western Michigan12:00 PMESPNW
Sat, Sep 11vs Washington8:00 PMABCL
Sat, Sep 18vs Northern Illinois12:00 PMBTNW
Sat, Sep 25vs Rutgers3:30 PMW
Sat, Oct 2@ WisconsinTBDL
Sat, Oct 9@ NebraskaTBDW
Sat, Oct 23vs NorthwesternTBDL
Sat, Oct 30@ Michigan StateTBDW
Sat, Nov 6vs IndianaTBDL
Sat, Nov 13@ Penn StateTBDL
Sat, Nov 20@ MarylandTBDW
Sat, Nov 27vs Ohio State12:00 PMFOXL

I give Harbaugh a lot of credit for turning over his staff again. He seems determined to make this work and figure this out, no matter the cost. But some of his hires have been interesting/questionable (I’m looking at the coordinator spots)…and they could make or break his tenure. Many people think he should have been fired by now and it’s hard to argue against that. I’ve got to believe that with another staff turnover, he’s bought himself another two years at the helm. Will that be enough time to get back to being a perennial 10-win team? I’m not sure. But I do know that it’s easy for Michigan to move on from him contractually and a 6-6 season is not going to cut it. Should be another turbulent year for Michigan football…at least the basketball team and hockey team are title contenders. Yost and Crisler should be rocking this winter after this roller coaster fall that is incoming.

[Image via: Wolverines Wire]
[Image via: The Athletic]
[Image via: Wolverines Wire]

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