UM offense believes it’s closed gap on top-notch ‘D’

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
“We’ve competed very well with our defense. We surprised them with the transition that we’ve made,” Michigan running back Karan Higdon says.

Ann Arbor — There isn’t any debate that Michigan’s defense that last few years has set the bar high, while the Wolverines’ offense, particularly last season, hasn’t been anywhere close to holding up its end.

An 8-5 season was evidence of that last year, and the final season statistics are hard to ignore, as well.

While the defense was ranked No. 3 nationally, the offense ranked 105th, generating an average 348.9 yards, was 110th in passing (171.2) and 91st in scoring (25.2 points per game), not to mention the offense ranked among the worst teams in the country in tackles for loss and sacks allowed. Michigan had nine passing touchdowns last season, including only three by receivers.

But the offseason brought considerable change to the offense staff with the addition of Ed Warinner as line coach, Jim McElwain coaching receivers and Sherrone Moore the tight ends. And an important personnel pieces was added when Shea Patterson transferred last December from Ole Miss and is now the Wolverines’ starting quarterback. Players on both sides of the ball say the offense has improved and is closing the gap with the defense as the season opener at Notre Dame on Saturday nears.

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“I don’t have that many concerns,” defensive end Chase Winovich said of the offense. “There’s a lot of this until you actually see it in person in flesh this Saturday against Notre Dame, but a lot of those concerns have been kind of squished out in terms of personnel and just like play calling and everything. It’s looking pretty solid. So, I’m excited for that opportunity.”

The offensive linemen have praised Warinner, the architect of some outstanding Ohio State lines, for simplifying the scheme in his first season with the Wolverines, and players across the team, not to mention coach Jim Harbaugh, have praised the overall improvement of the line. The interior seems to be set with Cesar Ruiz at center, and Ben Bredeson starting for a third straight season at left guard and Mike Onwenu at right guard. Jon Runyan and Juwann Bushell-Beatty likely will be the tackles.

“I think this Saturday a lot of people are going to be shocked and surprised to see the transition of those guys and the hard work they put in the game,” running back Karan Higdon said of the offensive line.

Tight end Zach Gentry said the offense has been more than aware the defense has carried much of the load.

“We’re working on it,” Gentry said. “It’s definitely more competitive than I’ve seen it. But you know the defense is phenomenal. They set the bar high obviously and that’s a standard we’re trying to get to.”

Just where have the strides been made?

“I would say upfront maybe a little bit more,” Gentry said. “There’s a lot more movement going on up front. I think just our offense as a whole has been more cohesive in knowing the responsibilities and knowing what to do and different adjustments. I would say, overall, everything has looked better.”

The offensive players said they don’t think about how the defense has had to, for the most part, carry the team, especially last season.

“We try not to pay attention to that,” Higdon said. “We’ve done our job this offseason. We’ve competed very well with our defense. We surprised them with the transition that we’ve made. There will be a significant change this year.”

Higdon said the difference is players are a year older and understand concepts better. The offensive players also decided to arrive early and stay late at the football building to absorb as much as possible.

“Really just to get on the same page and know their stuff,” he said. “We collectively get together this offseason and make sure we’re on top of our stuff, the calls, know the plays, know our assignments so we can adjust at the same rate. It was a player thing. The players decided this year we want to take it in our own hands to become better. In order to be better, the players have got to want to do it. We play and the coaches coach.”

It hasn’t been easy for the offensive players knowing the offensive production lagged behind.

“It’s tough when the defense is really, really good, trying to measure us,” receiver Grant Perry said. “We’re doing our best. We’re playing good ball. We’re making some plays we haven’t made in the past year, whether we’re competing in drills – we’ve really given them a run for their money. It’s always good to see Don Brown get a little frustrated.”

He said the receivers took it upon themselves to work harder.

“We only had three touchdowns last season and that’s unacceptable,” Perry said. “If a ball comes our way, we really made an emphasis, go and get it, whether it’s a good pass or a bad pass. We have to help the team by any means, and we can’t afford to miss these plays that come to us.”

Michigan tight end Zach Gentry

Certainly, the addition of Patterson, who brings the experience of starting 10 games during his career at Ole Miss, has been a boost.

“People sometimes make fun of me because I see him at practice and it’s just amazing some of the stuff he does,” Winovich said of Patterson. “He has this sense of quiet confidence. He’s not the type of guy who’s going to run around, he does that, too, but in my opinion, that’s not really him. But he does have this sense of, he knows he can play football, and he knows he’s the man in charge of this offense and I’m excited for the opportunity he’s going to get on Saturday.”

While the offense seems to have absorbed some of Patterson’s confidence, Winovich believes the offense made across-the-board improvements outside of the quarterback position.

“If he wasn’t here, our offense would still be better just from an offensive line perspective, the way our running back setup is, our wide receivers are better this year, play-calling I think will be better this year,” Winovich said. “Overall, our offense is better. But you add Shea or whoever and their elevated performance, everyone goes up. Rising tide, raises all ships.”

Linebacker Devin Bush won’t concede the offense has caught up with the level of the Michigan defense, but said there has been a noticeable improvement.

“They’ve grown a lot as a unit, sticking together and being on that same page,” Bush said. “Ben Bredeson was a huge asset to that. Shea coming in, being the person he is, he also created that bond. The offense this year is a lot closer and lot more on the same page than they were last year.”

Defensive coordinator Don Brown has reloaded the defense each of the last three years. He has said this is the fastest defense he’s been around. That’s high praise and a high bar to reach, but the offensive players insist they are giving the defense some fits.

“We’ll see Sept. 1,” running back Chris Evans said, referring to the Notre Dame opener when asked if the offense has narrowed the gap. “Last spring, last camp, the defense, we couldn’t even really do anything because it’s a circus and we don’t even have all the offensive pieces. People are still competing for spots on the line, but now we’re starting to compete with them, and they’re starting to compete with us.”