Analyst: Harbaugh lacking quarterback, playmakers

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

There will be plenty on the plate for Jim Harbaugh to address in his first few days in Ann Arbor, like hiring a staff, meeting his new players and focusing on recruiting with signing day in early February.

Harbaugh, Michigan's new head coach hired after spending the last four seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, replaces Brady Hoke, fired earlier this month after four seasons, including a 5-7 record this fall.

He is expected to hold his first team meeting Jan. 6, but before and after that, recruiting will be of the utmost concern in addition to evaluating the Wolverines' returning players.

What kind of team is Harbaugh inheriting? One that has promise on defense and some question marks on offense, which was ranked No. 112th nationally in total offense, averaging 333 yards, and 109th in scoring offense (20.9 points per game).

The Wolverines have gone 46-42 since Lloyd Carr retired after the 2007 season. They have endured three losing seasons, missing out on bowls those seasons. Michigan hasn't won a Big Ten title since 2004 and has lost 10 of the last 11 meetings with arch-rival Ohio State and six of the last seven to Michigan State.

Getting those results turned around is exactly why he was hired. But will he have the players to do that immediately?

"I don't see a lot of explosive skill players — that's one thing that kind of jumped out," ESPN college football analyst Todd McShay said recently. "But the biggest thing is, who's going to be the quarterback? I haven't seen a quarterback that's there who can be that guy. Priority No. 1 is quarterback. To me, it starts there."

Absolutely, it starts there, and with Harbaugh comes decades of experience at the position he played at Michigan and in the NFL. Shane Morris, who will be a junior, is returning with limited playing experience, including starts in the 2013 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl and the Big Ten opener against Minnesota last season. Redshirt freshman Wilton Speight, an early enrollee last January, also returns, as does Russell Bellomy, a senior.

Incoming freshman Alex Malzone from Birmingham Brother Rice could be in the mix.

As far as receivers, McShay pointed out there are few explosive players returning. Devin Funchess, expected to be a major contributor last season, had only four touchdown receptions and left early for the NFL.

Amara Darboh proved effective, but more receivers must be developed. Freddy Canteen, an early enrollee freshman last year, was expected to be a major contributor during the fall but didn't live up to that hype. Jehu Chesson should also get more playing time, and Dennis Norfleet and Jack Wangler will be in the mix.

Tight end Jake Butt, who came back last season after suffering a torn ACL last February, was the team's third-leading receiver behind Funchess and Darboh, and likely will have an expanded role.

There will be options at running back with returning juniors Derrick Green, who missed the second half of the season after breaking his collarbone against Rutgers, and De'Veon Smith. Drake Johnson, who became a major contributor late in the season, is recovering from his second torn knee ligament. Justice Hayes, used mostly in third-down situations, will be a senior.

And there's great anticipation for Ty Isaac, a transfer from USC, who will be eligible this season.

"Their running backs were solid, not great," McShay said. "They've always had that one guy who emerges and they've always had one or two really good running backs."

Michigan's offensive line, a major issue during the 2013 season, improved as the season wore on.

"The offensive line is getting better," McShay said. "But priority No. 2 is beefing up the offensive line. I grew up going to a lot of Michigan games, and these aren't Michigan-type offensive linemen. That has to be the foundation at Michigan."

The Wolverines started a true freshman, Mason Cole, at left tackle last season, and at the end of the season the right side was anchored by Kyle Kalis and Ben Braden, who will be juniors. Jack Miller, a senior-to-be, was the starting center and was named the team's top offensive lineman. Graham Glasgow, who will be a senior, has played at left guard, but can also play center.

Defensively, the Wolverines should be sound. Michigan was ranked 10th nationally in total defense, 14th in rushing defense and 28th in scoring defense.

Gone are linebacker Jack Ryan, defensive lineman Brennen Beyer and cornerback Ray Taylor.

But much-lauded defensive back Jabrill Peppers, who played only briefly during his freshman season last fall because of injuries, will be back this fall to try to fulfill expectations. There is depth at linebacker, and Desmond Morgan, who missed last season after an unspecified injury following the first game, will return for a final season, joining James Ross III, Ben Gedeon and Joe Bolden, among others.

And on the defensive line, Mario Ojemudia, Chris Wormley, Willie Henry and Taco Charlton all got considerable playing time last season.

"Even though they lose a couple good players, players are in place on defense," McShay said.

Michigan lost commitments for the 2015 recruiting class with Hoke's firing, but news of Harbaugh's arrival has piqued the interest of many recruits. Chris Spielman, the former Ohio State and Lions linebacker now with ESPN, said Harbaugh will have an edge in recruiting.

"I guarantee you, everyone knows who Jim Harbaugh is," Spielman said. "The other thing he carries — and don't underestimate this, I wouldn't — he could go in to any kid's house and say, 'I'm an NFL coach, and I know what it takes to get you there.' I would think that would be his selling point."