Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh’s fourth season at the helm of his alma mater kicks off on Sept. 1 at Notre Dame, and there are always questions — lots of questions — heading into the fall.
Can the Wolverines improve on last year's 8-5 record and return to the double-digit win totals of the two previous seasons? Can transfer quarterback Shea Patterson be a difference-maker? Will Michigan’s defense maintain its lofty status as one of the best overall position groups? Is this offensive line going to be all tough talk, or will it deliver? Will Quinn Nordin return as “Wild Thing” and how will the kicking game be? Will there be an official offensive coordinator? Can the Wolverines beat their rivals, all three on the road, at Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State?
Those are just for starters and the answers await as the season unfolds.
For now, as the Wolverines continue offseason conditioning in advance of preseason camp when coaches and players get down to the nitty-gritty, it’s time to speculate about what could transpire and what could make for a successful season.
Here’s a look at five keys to Michigan’s 2018 season:
At this point, it seems counterproductive to illuminate how unproductive the play was at quarterback last season. Nine passing touchdowns pretty much says it all, along with the fact two starters were sent to the hospital, including season-opening starter Wilton Speight, who suffered three fractured vertebrae in the Big Ten opener and missed the rest of the games.
New season, new quarterback situation. Shea Patterson transferred from Ole Miss in December and then after a drawn-out eligibility waiver process was cleared by the NCAA to play this fall. Of the quarterbacks, including Brandon Peters, who started at the end of last season, Dylan McCaffrey and freshman Joe Milton, Patterson has the most starting experience and already has been lauded as a player who could be in Heisman consideration.
Patterson made 10 starts at Ole Miss, including three as a freshman in 2016. A knee injury cut short his season last year. He had completed 63.8 percent of his passes for 2,259 yards, 17 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Peters was 57-for-108 passing last year for 672 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions. But Harbaugh will head into camp saying what he always says about rolling out the balls and letting the quarterbacks compete.
They all took snaps with the first team this spring, and each said he improved. Patterson said he learned as much as he could in the 15 practices, picking up the verbiage and absorbing the playbook, while adjusting to his new team and teammates. Michigan has to have what it was missing last fall — consistently high, productive play out of this position.
Say what you want about quarterback play, but how the offensive line goes, so goes the offense. It seems like every year the last decade, this position group has been taken to task, ripped apart and rarely praised. Most of the time for good reason. The line has lacked consistency and year to year that has been telling.
Last season, the group ranked poorly nationally in a couple key categories. The Wolverines were 91st in tackles for loss allowed and 110th in sacks allowed. Mason Cole has moved on to the NFL and starting center Patrick Kugler is now on staff as a graduate assistant. Michigan has its interior set with Ben Bredeson starting his third season at left guard, and Cesar Ruiz moving in at center with Michael Onwenu back to start a second straight year at right guard. Right now, it appears Jon Runyan Jr. and Juwann Bushell-Beatty are the tackles. Perhaps the biggest piece of the offensive line puzzle is new position coach Ed Warinner. The players were quickly drawn to him and his simplified approach.
“It’s really amazing,” lineman Stephen Spanellis said after spring practice. “Coach Warinner’s philosophy, he tells us that he doesn’t start calculus before everybody can pass Algebra 1. I felt like before we would go straight to rocket science and try to cover everything possible in every meeting. And some guys can’t keep up and it doesn’t have value for a guy to sit in a meeting and they have no idea what’s going on fundamentally with normal plays like inside zone or power. So why not slow it down and learn all the basics before you progress?”
Certainly, time will tell how quickly Warinner can get the offensive line to produce, but the early steps seem to have yielded plenty of positives in terms of the line’s attitude. Attitude isn’t everything, but it’s a start.
Defense wins championships
Michigan’s defense has been its strength the last few years, everyone knows that. But it could only take the Wolverines so far with a limping offense last year and an inability to finish late in the season two years ago.
From the looks of it, defensive coordinator Don Brown has a solid bunch to work with again heading into the fall. With Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich back at the defensive ends, it looks like Michael Dwumfour and Aubrey Solomon will be at the other spots. Defensive line coach Greg Mattison spoke a great deal about Lawrence Marshall this spring and Bryan Mone. The linebackers will be led by Devin Bush Jr. and Khaleke Hudson at viper, and Josh Uche seemed to get a lot of praise after spring practice. Michigan’s secondary last season was young and also surprising. The Wolverines led the country in pass defense, yielding an average 150.1 yards a game. Cornerbacks Lavert Hill and David Long return as do safeties Josh Metellus and Tyree Kinnel, who could be in the running for defensive captain.
There are those who contend the defense gave up too many big plays late in some key games, and that is true on paper. But consider that when an offense is unable to stay on the field and eat clock, a defense can’t be asked to do everything late in the game. With a more balanced offense, that would give this defense a chance to close out games this fall.
The skill game
Michigan has skill-position players, but again, with a lack of consistency from the offensive line and quarterback, it was difficult for them to shine last season. Assuming the line and quarterback click this fall, Michigan’s running game will have a chance to control games.
Karan Higdon and Chris Evans are a one-two punch that combined for 1,679 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2017 and they again will be the showcased running backs. Meanwhile, the receivers — and add the tight ends to that mix — offer considerable talent. Tarik Black, who was the team’s leading receiver early last season as a freshman, is fully recovered from the foot injury that sidelined him most of the 2017 season. He and Donovan Peoples-Jones, who are roommates and close friends, could be dominating. Throw Nico Collins in there along with veteran Grant Perry.
The receivers are working with a new position coach in Jim McElwain, who was Florida’s head coach last season when the teams met in the season opener, and former Wolverine receiver Roy Roundtree is also assisting with the receivers. But do not overlook the tight ends. Zach Gentry is a huge target and Sean McKeon has developed into a well-rounded tight end who has good hands. Both are poised for a breakout year.
Getting off to a strong start
That’s a no-brainer in any season, but opening at Notre Dame in a night game could very well set the tone for Michigan’s season. Michigan coaches have often considered facing Notre Dame a “measuring stick” game, and this will be no different.
Defense is typically ahead of offense at the start of the season, and this will be Brown’s first chance to show off a group that has consistently performed under his watch the previous two years. But the defense is expected to be the strength of this team. What this opener will also showcase is Michigan’s starting quarterback, presumably either Patterson or Peters. Still, how the offensive line goes, so will go the offense, no matter who is at quarterback.
If Michigan beats Notre Dame, that gives the Wolverines an enormous confidence boost heading into the rest of the schedule that is heavy on challenging matchups with Nebraska, Maryland, Wisconsin and Penn State at home, and rivals Michigan State and Ohio State on the road.