Michigan mailbag: Too soon to buy into improvements?

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Michigan tight end Zach Gentry

How refreshing the mailbox wasn’t stuffed with emails asking about the offensive line. That was sooooooo last week. And the week before. And the week before that. And the season before. You get the picture.

And while the offensive line will continue to be discussed until and after it is tested by a tough defensive line, there’s so much more to get to as Michigan prepares for its first road game since the season opener at Notre Dame.

Michigan plays at Northwestern in its second Big Ten game of the season, which seemed like a critical early Big Ten road matchup heading into this year. So let’s get to the mail.

■ Question: Do you think all the “improvements” are anything more than just playing other schools that aren’t any good? I buy in every year, then UM lays eggs like the Easter Bunny against every ranked team. #harbaughistheeasterbunny — @michmike69

■ Answer: Of course some of the improvements are because the Wolverines are playing lesser opponents. Of course. But it IS important for a team to pound a weaker opponent when it has the opportunity, and that’s what Michigan has done.

Yes, 150 points in the last three games is inflated because of the lousy defenses, but it’s also because of Shea Patterson. It’s also because Donovan Peoples-Jones is coming around. It’s also because tight end Zach Gentry, who I thought would have a breakout season, finally understands the position and is playing like it. And it’s also because Karan Higdon runs hard. And it’s also because the offensive line, that coach Ed Warinner clearly believes is the best starting five, is coming along.

Again, time will tell in terms of evaluating the line, but I do think the pieces are in place for a decent run. I’m not telling you that they won’t disappoint you. You may get that egg but right now, I think the improvements have been legit.

More: Freshman DL Aidan Hutchinson living up to family name at UM

More: Niyo: History tells us beasts of Big Ten aren’t out of playoff mix yet

Q: Who is staying and who is going to the NFL next year? Early yes! But I have to know and prepare! — @mgoblueba

A: You need to prepare from NOW?! I think Rashan Gary and Devin Bush will move on, and I’m still of the opinion that if he has a strong season, Patterson will move on.

Q: Do you see the offensive line continuing the success they have made post Notre Dame? Do you feel the chemistry and play of the OL will grow stronger or do you see some regression against the heart of the BIG? — @VauntedJT

A: I lied — there was an offensive line question. There’s a reason coach Jim Harbaugh and Warinner are sticking with the line that started and played the Notre Dame game. There’s a reason everyone’s favorite backup tackles, Jalen Mayfield and James Hudson, haven’t moved into the starting lineup yet (hint: they’re not ready). The chemistry is there. That’s what Ben Bredeson, a starter since his freshman year, has said. Bredeson also said there were communication issues in that season opener that have been fixed.

The line controlled the Nebraska game, everyone saw that, but everyone also saw that the Cornhuskers simply weren’t very good. That shouldn’t tarnish the offensive line's performance, but you’re right to wonder if it will be revealed against tougher opponents. And it will be. This is not a great offensive line. Do I think it’s better? Yes.

Tarik Black broke his right foot a week before the season opener at Notre Dame. He was in a boot for several weeks and met with his doctors the weekend of Oct. 6.

Q: What is the timeline for Tarik Black return? — @Devilwg91

A: Don’t know. Harbaugh was asked about Black this week and he seemed to suggest things were going well for the receiver in his rehab. He will have a follow-up appointment with his doctor in early October. Black is wearing a boot on his right foot. My expert medical opinion, I still think he could get on the field in November. Why not make it the Rutgers game?

Q: IS IT TIME TO GET EXCITED?!! (intentional all caps) — @Moodini

A: Excited about apple cider and cinnamon donuts time? Excited about the new pumpkin spice candles? Ohhhh, excited about this team? We have seen this before, and we’ve also seen Michigan take a dive late. Let’s revisit this after the Wisconsin game. You have reason to feel like there are a lot of positives. The defense certainly cleaned things up penalty-wise against Nebraska while also suffocating the Cornhuskers. Another positive is the touchdowns scored on kickoff and punt returns. There’s plenty to clean up, and I can’t tell you how to feel — I don’t have that power (wait, maybe I do!) — so have it!

More: Kwity Paye is '100 percent;' Aubrey Solomon still rehabbing

Q: Where is Aubrey Solomon? Thx — @JJblue87

Q: When is Aubrey Solomon expected back in the lineup? — @DonBloomfield5

Q: Are there injuries updates on Kwity Paye and Chuck Filiaga? — @cmastrangelom

Q: How is Chris Evans’ injury progression? Is he a go for the weekend? — @JeffMcDonald78

A: Lots of injury questions so I will tackle them all at once. Defensive line coach Greg Mattison said Solomon is going through rehab and is awaiting clearance from the medical staff. Got the feeling it will be sooner than later. Paye is “100 percent,” Mattison said, and has practiced well this week. Didn’t ask for a follow-up on Filiaga, but as far as Evans, I didn’t think he was going to play last Saturday, which he didn’t, and I’m not sure about this week. Harbaugh hasn’t been specific about the injury, but I got the sense watching Evans when he got hurt that he is dealing with a hamstring. Harbaugh has said he doesn’t want to risk further injury, which also suggests to me he’s dealing with a hamstring issue. Better to have Evans rest now and available later in the season.

Q: Going to be at Ryan Field Saturday and I feel like despite Larkin having to retire, Fitzgerald is going to find a way to give Michigan fits. Does this change Michigan’s defense prep at all? — @bastards2018

A: I asked that a few times this week and no one really said it would change the defense’s approach. I guess we knew that already, though. Don Brown is never going to scale back on his defense, so Michigan will go all-out against the Wildcats, but what an enormous — and sad — loss. Glad Jeremy Larkin is going to live a healthy life, but just from a football standpoint, he was an enormous part of the Northwestern offense. And while I agree with you, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald is going to get his team ready, but without Larkin, the Wildcats offense is much, much weaker.

Q: Is Hutchinson the real deal or a 1 game wonder? — @BoulderMBlue

A: From all accounts, Aidan Hutchinson is the real deal, and consider that he’s not done growing or filling out. Gary has been mentoring him, and Lawrence Marshall is already predicting Hutchinson will be an All-American. So one-game wonder? I don’t think so.

Q: Trying to get a handle on Quinn Nordin. He’s inconsistent during pre-game warmups, and last weekend he missed an extra point then made a 50-yard FG. Is it lack of focus, an issue with timing/mechanics, or is that just normal for a college kicker? — @GailVanBrimer

A: Great question. Nordin has a great leg and has shown he can boot long field goals. But, it’s hard to dismiss a missed extra point. I think with him, at times, it is lack of focus. It’s a tough job. It’s solitary in many ways, which is why kickers are often compared to golfers. If he gets everything in balance, he will be consistently dangerous.

Q: “Why is harbaugh awful. Why can’t Michigan win a national championship. Why can’t Ohio state fall into a volcano”

Part II: “It’s just tough loving Michigan and having your heart broken every year.” — @TheRealTomKeen

A: I feel like Lucy in a Peanuts comic strip. Let me get my sign: "The doctor is in." Real Tom, we need to work through so many of your Michigan-related issues, and this will take time. Did you sign a prenup with Michigan? Maybe it’s time for you to move on. If you love somebody, set them free. OK, OK. You’re not going to do that, and if your standard is a national championship every year, yeah, your heart is going to be broken. Repeatedly. Once you accept this, the love will grow again. Open your heart. P.S. fall into a volcano? Who thinks like this? 

Q: Did Michigan check to make sure Nebraska was ok after the game? — @misterAndyReid

A: You know that didn’t happen. Harbaugh was too busy working on his how-do-I-fool-everyone-and-tell-them-I-never-mentioned-the-outhit-comments-during-the-week face to care about the Cornhuskers.


Twitter: @chengelis