It’s pretty wild that another summer is already in the books and Week 1 is already upon us. Sure, Week 0 happened last weekend but that slate was only for the real perverts (yes, I did watch as many games as possible). It seems like just yesterday Jim Harbaugh was interviewing with the Minnesota Vikings and torpedoing any positive momentum the football program had. I swear, Michigan is the only program in the country that could win their conference for the first time in 18 years and make the College Football Playoff and be in a worse spot than they were before. At least when it comes to recruiting and future outlook. This year they should be able to pick up right where they left off.
No, it does not matter to me that Josh Gattis left. He was a questionable hire from the start and had a pretty mixed bag of results. We may never know who was the most responsible for the offenses’ successes and failures but I’m inclined to blame him for a solid chunk of it. What I do know is he was trying to move into Harbaugh’s office when Harbaugh was interviewing and threw a fit when he realized he was not going to be given the reins. Gattis helped with recruiting so that is a bit of a loss…but the real loss was Mike Macdonald. Sure, Jesse Minter worked for the Ravens and knows the system…that is important. But there is a reason Minter got hired by Vanderbilt and was not interviewed for the job Macdonald got. I would love to be optimistic about Minter but it is a pretty clear downgrade. Mix in some major personnel losses and the defense could turn into quite the adventure. Then again, last year I thought the team had a ceiling of 8-4 so what do I know.
I’ll give Gattis this…last year the offense was an impressive group. A lot has been discussed about Matthew Weiss’ role and Sherrone Moore but you have to give Gattis some credit as well. The offense absolutely hummed last year and I see zero reason it should not do the same thing again. Losing Haskins is a problem and sure there were some key OL losses…but adding in Olu Oluwatimi to play center and give yourself a healthy Blake Corum and Ronnie Bell, as well as an older Donovan Edwards, and the offense should be in a great spot. The biggest concern will be how long with Jim Harbaugh let Cade McNamara have the starting job. Cade is a plenty capable quarterback who led this team to great things last year and for that I am grateful. But the offense hit a different gear with JJ McCarthy at quarterback and it is highly telling that JJ took over for Cade during the Playoff when the Georgia defense was eating Michigan alive. His athleticism gives the offense a different level that it can reach. Now Cade says he has hit another level and his game is the best it has ever been…but what else would you expect him to say? My hope is that by Big Ten play that JJ has taken the job from him and he is the starter. Now, since I started writing this, Harbaugh decided to change his entire personality and announced that Cade would start Week 1, JJ would start Week 2 and then proceeded to name the entire two-deep depth chart. This was pretty unprecedented and I wonder if the transfer portal played a role. This way everyone knows where they stand before the season starts/with coming out of camp. I do not believe he’s starting Cade and JJ because of the transfer portal, I’m merely thinking that announcing the entire depth chart for the first time ever was a move to combat other players from potentially entering. Harbaugh was pretty adamant with the media that starting Cade and JJ each once had nothing to do with the portal and I’m inclined to believe him.
The QB situation has been discussed ad nauseam. In the end, I’ve made it pretty clear that I think JJ is the better of the two quarterbacks and will help this team reach another level. It’s an odd situation to replace a quarterback that helped you win a Big Ten Championship and is by all accounts a great person and a leader…but sometimes you have to make the hard calls. Cade is a game manager that has shown on occasion that he does not manage the game that well. It’s time to take the Ferrari out of the driveway and see what happens.
I thought that Michigan would miss Zach Charbonnet last year and they sure proved me wrong. Hassan Haskins, Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards proved that they had all of the juice that was needed to move this team forward. Now replacing over 1,300 yards and 20 TDs on the ground is not going to be an easy task. Haskins had a gritty, dirty, physical running style that cannot be replicated by anyone on the roster. Corum almost hit 1,000 last year and I would expect him to produce at a similar level. Edwards is going to be the interesting one to see what kind of step forward he takes. Edwards actually led all running backs in receiving yards last year and I don’t see any reason why he could not have close to 1,500 all purpose yards. He will be more physical than Corum and will likely have to take over the short yardage roles…they experimented with Kalel Mullings at RB in the spring but I do not think that is going to stick. Assuming the offensive line can open holes similarly to last year and with Edwards being another year older, I think he will be able to take the next step toward being a complete downhill runner. he’s already shown he can be special in the passing game. There is no reason that Corum-Edwards cannot be just as good or even better than the Haskins-Corum combo.
Interestingly enough this could be the deepest Michigan has been at wide receiver since Jim Harbaugh has been here. Which is a funny thought considering Nico Collins, Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black all came in at the same time. The crew is so deep here that Harbaugh named 10 contributors for Week 1 and this is after Mike Sainristil has moved to cornerback. Getting Ronnie Bell back was a huge positive. I thought he might enter the NFL Draft coming off of the knee injury but obviously he still had something he wanted to prove. He should allow the passing game to be more viable…he’s by far and away the most polished WR of the group. Cornelius Johnson and Roman Wilson should be the other starters but it will be a plenty heavily rotating group with the amount of talent available. Johnson paced all pass catchers last year with 40 receptions and 627 yards receiving…while they did a good job of spreading the ball around, they’re going to need to have a better threat of the pass game to ensure they run the ball just as well as last year. Andrel Anthony burst on the scene last year as a freshman and I expect to see more big things out of him this coming season. His usage was a bit odd and I’m expecting him to get on the field more consistently. AJ Henning is probably the last guy in the starting 5 rotation and it seems as though he will get more manufactured touches like last year. He should get some carries out of the backfield to get the ball in his hands. When you have a playmaker like Henning you’ve got to use him. Harbaugh mentioned Payton O’Leary as the backup at the X receiver spot and I could not tell you a thing about him other than he is a walk on. Harbaugh then went on to mention the three freshmen WRs (Tyler Morris, Darrius Clemons and Amorion Walker) as well as Cristian Dixon. Personally, I think they have a rock solid starting 5 and then I expect Clemons to be the next contributor on the list. Clemons popped in the spring game and talent like that is impossible to keep off the field.
I know Jim Harbaugh is going to want to pound the rock like last year…but it would really behoove the team to use all of these playmakers. They have speed to burn at WR and could really put teams in major mismatch situations. Anything they can do to keep the big plays coming like they did last year has to be done. This team will need to have game killing drives (you know the 20-play, 8+ minute type) to grind out wins with the defense potentially causing problems. If you open up the passing early it will make this much more viable.
At tight end you have a solid group of returning players and guys that can block. Harbaugh went on to name 8(!?!) guys on the two-deep and I think I’m going to just skip that. Realistically, all of those guys will play, but Erick All and Luke Schoonmaker will be the two that contribute regularly in the pass game. Selzer and Honigford are mostly blockers so it will be interesting to see which guys from the group step up to be more than just a blocking TE. If All can continue to develop and reel in the drops that he is prone to having he can be a major threat. He came up in the clutch quite a few times last year and showed good resilience bouncing back from drops. Now it’s time for him to take the next step and eliminate those entirely and become one of the biggest mismatches in the conference.
The offensive line has the potential to be even better than last year. Hell, it should be better than last year. Yes, they lost Vastardis and Stueber but Olu Oluwatimi is a better center than Vastardis and Trente Jones is primed for a big year. The offensive line is 100% set. Ryan Hayes will start at LT with Trevor Keegan at RG, Olu will be at C, Zak Zinter at RG and Trente Jones at RT. Karsen Barnhart is the “6th man” and primary backup to every spot on the offensive line except for C. That job belongs to Greg Crippen. Frankly Barnhart is the kind of guy that could go on to have a better pro career than college career because that position versatility will have teams salivating. To return three of your starters from a dominant group and then add a Rimington Award Finalist to replace your starting center…you’re essentially only replacing one starter. Each one of your returning players should be better than they were last year and your center is better than the guy that just left, not a slight to Vastardis at all. Trente Jones is the only question mark on the line and he was essentially the 6th lineman last year. There is no reason this cannot be a road grading, dominant group that sets the tone again.
Michigan has a lot to be excited for on offense. You have an outstanding offensive line that should be better than last year when it was the best offensive line in the country. You have perhaps the deepest group of pass catchers since Harbaugh has been here. Two dynamic running backs. And then you have two starting caliber quarterbacks…one who just led you to the Big Ten Championship and a five-star stud that showed major flashes last year. Last year Michigan averaged 443.1 yards per game and 35.8 points per game. I see no reason they cannot replicate that again this year.
Now the big selling piece from the coaching staff and the players this year has been the idea that a no-star defense could be better than last year’s defense full of stars…but with Harbaugh saying they were still looking for tone setters a couple weeks ago he’s essentially telling on himself admitting that it won’t be as good. And that’s fine…the defense should not be as good as last year. The big issue is the defense cannot be a total liability giving up 35+ points every week. The offense should be good for 35-40 points against most opponents…and my fear is that the defense could be good for the same. Now it is not all doom and gloom. There is talent on this defense…the starters should actually be pretty damn good…the issue for me is the lack of depth at some key positions.
The defense will have a couple different looks. They’ll have a base 5-2 look and then they’ll have two nickel looks. One that is a 4-2-5 with 3 corners and then one that will have 3 safeties at the back end. Obviously that will all be situationally dependent and I’m sure health will play a role in that just as much as down and distance. With their depth at corner compared to the depth at safety, it’ll be ideal to put 3 safeties out there.
The defensive line is going to be interesting this year. Mazi Smith was declared the #1 freak in college football by Bruce Feldman and the team calls Kris Jenkins “the mutant.” Then you mix in the fact that a true freshman in Mason Graham is going to start at one of the tackle spots and you have some very intriguing talent there. Rashaun Benny should work his way into the rotation here as well. I personally have questions about the depth here and think an injury or two could expose the entire defense. Cam Goode may be a grad transfer with some experience by the other primary backups along the line are two redshirt freshmen and another true freshman. The talent amongst the starters may be there…it remains to be seen…I certainly do not dislike any of these players, but there are a lot more questions than answers and if the injury bug bites, watch out. This could be a major issue for the Wolverines.
EDGE rusher is obviously going to get a lot of the hype and looks of concern with the loss of Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo…and rightly so. Any time you lose two first round talents and that amount of production, it will cause problems for you. There are some major shoes to fill here and frankly, I’m not sure they are fillable and that is quite alright. From the sounds of it, it appears that Taylor Upshaw and Mike Morris should be the two starters with a healthy dose of Jaylen Harrell forming a solid trio. Braiden McGregor is in now or never time with all of the injuries he has had in the past. If he can realize his potential, that would go a long ways with replacing production. Eyabi Anoma was a late addition and he has an interesting talent/pedigree but the fact he flamed out at Alabama and Houston does not give me too much hope. They could use the bodies though so anyone will help depth wise. After Anoma they’re looking at TJ Guy, Derrick Moore and Julius Welschof. Welschof is physically gifted but has never put it together so I do not expect too much and Derrick Moore is another true freshman. Moore will get some run early on but I hope that they do not have to lean on him. If McGregor and Anoma step up to the plate they should have plenty of talent to replace by committee at the very least. Again, they do not have to be perfect. They do not need to set the school record for sacks…they just have to be good. If they cannot get pressure, the secondary will get shredded.
Interior linebacker is a position I feel pretty good about but still have some concerns about the depth. Nikhai Hill-Green is banged up already (one of the few injuries they have) and so they’ll be looking at Junior Colson and Michael Barrett to start. Kalel Mullings made enough of a move at linebacker that they stopped with the short yardage back experiment (for now) but after those four it is thin and it is young. I expected redshirt freshman Jaydon Hood to get some run in the non-conference play but he appears to have been passed by all three true freshmen…Jimmy Rolder, Micah Pollard and Deuce Spurlock. Starters-wise this unit is solid but you’ll notice a lot of my concerns come when freshmen have to play early on. If they were rolling in #1 ranked classes every year I would be less concerned but having depth charts cluttered with youth (particularly at non-skill positions) always makes me leery.
The secondary went through a bit of an overhaul this year with Vincent Gray, Daxton Hill and Brad Hawkins leaving. I may be alone in this but I really only consider Daxton Hill to be the only loss. Michigan has three safeties with experience that can play and should be plenty good enough. Makari Paige, Rod Moore and RJ Moten have all had extensive playing time in past seasons and they have looked good. All three will absolutely play this year, especially in the heavier nickel package. Caden Kolesar will the fourth safety and then you’ll have true freshmen Zeke Barry and Keon Sabb. There is plenty of talent here and my guess is they will try to redshirt Barry and Sabb. It would help them stagger eligibility and they have three starting caliber safeties as it is. On the other hand, cornerback makes me a bit concerned. DJ Turner emerged last year and is apparently another one of the freaks on the team according to Bruce Feldman. I expect a big year out of DJ Turner but I’m not sure what we will get from Gemon Green. I thought he was largely average last year and then he got hurt. Time has passed since then and these guys work hard and can get better…but he does not make me feel all warm and fuzzy. Mike Sainristil made the move from WR to CB in the spring and what was originally discussed as a potential three way player seems like he will stick at cornerback and be on special teams. Sainristil was voted captain so you know what kind of work ethic he has to make the switch work. Sainristil played corner in high school so I’m not super concerned about him playing the nickel, but it will be interesting to see how he adjusts. Fortunately for him, the talent he is covering in practice will be better than most guys he is covering on Saturday’s. Will Johnson is obviously the other name of note and he was listed as the fourth cornerback by Harbaugh. I fully expect Will Johnson to play quite a bit and it would not shock me if he takes Green’s job by the time they get to Big Ten play. After Johnson though it becomes a bit of a hot mess and you can see why Sainristil was asked to move/was moved. Jalen Perry, Ja’Den McBurrows, Myles Pollard and Koby Jones will be the next four guys up…but Pollard and Jones are true freshmen and McBurrows will not likely be back from injury until late September. McBurrows is the one after the first four that gives me the most hope and it will be good for Michigan to get up big in non-conference play to keep the starters healthy and get the backups some playing time.
There’s really not much to say here…Jake Moody is the reigning Lou Groza Award winner and Brad Robbins is a rock solid punter. It sounds as though AJ Henning will return punts this year. Ronnie Bell was certainly in the mix and I’m guessing he will return some now and then but after what happened last year, it’s likely best to have Henning continue with it. Henning had some growing pains last year but he makes plays with the ball in his hand. Returning kicks will be Roman Wilson or Andrel Anthony and both of them have speed to burn. Again…zero concerns here at any of these spots.
This guessing lost a bit of its luster this year with Jim Harbaugh rattling off the entire two-deep. Fortunately this makes things much easier…obviously the depth chart is fluid but it gives you a good idea how the preseason should play out.
I’m pretty conflicted here…mainly having trouble deciding between 10 or 11 wins. I would bet almost anything that their first trip to Columbus in a few years will not be a fruitful one. I’m anticipating Ohio State will have some pent up anger from last year and I do not foresee things working out for Michigan. I’m going to pretend to be optimistic here and hope that Michigan will be undefeated heading to the The Horseshoe. On the road against Iowa as well as Penn State and Michigan State at home will be the three potential slip ups. Kinnick on the road…especially in the evening always causes problems and Penn State/Michigan State will pose intriguing questions. Mel Tucker has Jim Harbaugh’s number and if the game is at night…who knows what will happen. There is no question that Michigan has more talent than all of the teams they are facing prior to Ohio State. If their offense can produce like last year (and it should be better) they will be able to carry the defense deep into November. On the other hand, some key injuries on defense could result in a few more losses than they would like. I think the absolute floor of this team is 8-4 during the regular season which would basically require a catastrophe. 10-2 seems the most likely outcome here but I’m going to go ahead and rubber stamp a prediction of 11-1 with a visit to the Rose Bowl against perhaps Utah.
Last year I gave Harbaugh a lot of credit for turning over his staff and trying to get younger and get better at recruiting…well recruiting took a hit this year with more staff turnover and Harbaugh attempting to leave…but we will see how the staff turnover impacts the group this year. I think offensively there will be enough carry over with Weiss and Moore that there won’t be many issues. But the defense will be intriguing. Jesse Minter at least comes from the same tree/will run the same scheme so there will be continuity and the defense will be able to grow and develop without having to worry about taking a step back or having to learn another new scheme. I’m sure there will be some changes/some differences and it won’t be 100% the same, but at least it will not be a full blown overhaul all over again. I’m optimistic for this season and think that winning 10-11 games can fix their recruiting class no problem. If they can manage injuries and the offense keeps humming, there will be few teams than can stand in Michigan’s way.