Jim Harbaugh is entering his fifth season as Michigan’s head coach and when camp begins Friday, the Wolverines will start working toward their goals, which don’t vary much year to year: Win a Big Ten championship, earn a spot in the four-team national playoff and win a national championship.
Michigan hasn’t won a Big Ten title since 2004, and everyone knows the Wolverines have struggled against archrival Ohio State, having lost 14 of the last 15, including the last four under Harbaugh.
Harbaugh’s teams have finished 10-3 three times at Michigan, and while that might be considered a strong record most places, it hasn’t been enough to push them into the upper tier of college football, and the Wolverines know that. Michigan has lost to Ohio State and in the bowl game the last three years, and last year those final two losses after a 10-game winning streak were like a thud.
There has been considerable talk in this offseason that if not now, when for Michigan. After all, the Wolverines have their three rivals — Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State — at Michigan Stadium, a new offense that plays to the strengths of the personnel, strong quarterbacks led by Shea Patterson, and a typically strong defense under coordinator Don Brown.
“For me it’s always been that finishing idea, finishing the season off,” senior left guard Ben Bredeson said at Big Ten media days. “That’s the biggest thing we need to focus on. That’s the hump Coach is referring to. We know it’s not an unknown stat that that’s happened to us the last three years. Everybody is very aware of it. Something we’re addressing and making sure it never happens again.”
Five story lines to watch
1. Spreading it out
New offensive coordinator Josh Gattis essentially introduced himself to Michigan fans with the very catchy hashtag, #speedinspace. From the fan response, it seems like that’s the best thing he could have ever shared, because Michigan’s offense needed some updating.
Gattis arrived in Ann Arbor after spending a year as co-offensive coordinator at Alabama, which had an explosive, to say the least, offense last fall. Harbaugh has said he handed over the keys to Gattis, and according to Gattis, he has kept his word and been hands off. There seems to be a new energy among the offensive players, even the linemen, because there’s a sense the Wolverines can score at will. He has strong skill players to work with, especially the receivers, including Donovan Peoples-Jones, Tarik Black and Nico Collins; and quarterback Shea Patterson, who started all last season, returns. Patterson and backup Dylan McCaffrey made it clear after the spring game they like the direction Gattis is taking the offense, because it makes use of all the playmakers.
2. Replacing big-name defensive players
How does Michigan replace some big holes on defense, particularly defensive ends Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich, linebacker Devin Bush and cornerback David Long?
It’s not like defensive coordinator Don Brown hasn’t had to do this kind of maneuvering before, and he feels good about the players he has to replace them. Kwity Paye and Aidan Hutchinson are the ends most likely to move into bigger roles, although Central Michigan transfer Mike Danna has earned high marks. Carlo Kemp moved from outside to the inside of the line last season, and he is expected to resume that role, along with, most likely, Michael Dwumfour. The line is where some of the freshmen might be able to get playing time.
Replacing Bush is the real issue. Josh Ross took over during the bowl game and is expected to fill that role, although Cameron McGrone has been mentioned. Ambry Thomas was thought to be Long’s replacement at corner, but it’s unclear when he will start practicing because of an injury.
3. Which freshman will get early play?
There seems to be a two-way battle for which freshman will get on the field first. Will it be running back Zach Charbonnet or safety Dax Hill?
Michigan has a need at running back, which is lacking in experience. Tru Wilson is the first-team back heading into camp, but Christian Turner, provided he’s healthy after suffering a few setbacks in the spring, including a broken hand, should be right in that mix as the top running back. Charbonnet missed spring practice after having knee surgery that had been planned, but from all accounts he has been a mainstay in the weight room and is ready to challenge.
There are high expectations for Dax Hill. Harbaugh wants him at safety, and while there is some competition there, he might move into a starting role by the start of Big Ten season. One thing to keep in mind with the freshmen, they do have to go through the academic bridge program which means they aren’t always there for all of preseason camp and that can delay their progress a smidge.
4. Offensive line hopes to be a strength
When Ed Warinner arrived in Ann Arbor early last year, his goal was to pump some sorely lacking confidence into his linemen and also simplify things for his players. They responded quickly, and definitely showed improvement through the course of last season.
Four of the five starters return, with the exception of Juwann Bushell-Beatty at right tackle. Jon Runyan, All-Big Ten last season at left tackle is back, along with Ben Bredeson, a captain last season, at left guard, Cesar Ruiz is locked in at center, and Michael Onwenu at right guard. With a group of running backs lacking in experience, it’s going to be vital for this line to give them some time to go through their growing pains.
5. New blood on staff
Much was made with the departures of Al Washington and Greg Mattison to Ohio State, particularly Mattison, who had two coaching stints at Michigan and it was thought he’d finish his career with the Wolverines. Also gone is pass-game coordinator Pep Hamilton. Gattis is the new offensive coordinator, and joining him as the newcomer on the offensive staff is Ben McDaniels, elevated from offensive analyst to quarterbacks coach. Filling in the gaps left by Washington and Mattison are Anthony Campanile, hired as a defensive assistant, and Shaun Nua, now coaching the defensive line. This is an infusion of youth on the staff, and time will tell how quickly the 30-somethings make a difference.
► Right tackle
This has been a heated competition since the spring. Will it be Andrew Stueber, who started the last two games last season at right tackle, or will it be Jalen Mayfield? It has been neck-and-neck, according to senior left guard Ben Bredeson, and no one is saying that to throw anyone off. It’s that close.
► Running back
While Chris Evans is serving a year-long suspension from the university, Michigan doesn’t have much experience here with the exception of Wilson, who had 364 yards on 62 carries last fall. The competition for the starting job will boil down to Turner and Charbonnet, the freshman. Charbonnet enrolled early, but had to undergo a planned knee surgery and didn’t get that valuable experience in the spring. Whoever starts the first game may not hold down the job the whole season. This will be ongoing.
Everyone loves the new guy, right? Especially when the new guy is so highly rated coming out of high school. That's Dax Hill, and there’s plenty expected of him. It won’t be a surprise to see him move into a starting role, but J’Marick Woods will have something to say about it. But how long will he have that say?
Quinn Nordin, he of the big leg and the big personality, struggled last season and toward the end of the regular season. Freshman Jake Moody took over and performed admirably. They were neck and neck — foot and foot? — during spring practice.
► Defensive tackle
The Dwumfour-Donovan Jeter competition could be a fun one to watch. The thing is, especially on the defensive line, it really is less important who gets the start because of the substituting that goes on. Still, everyone wants to be the starter, and it seems Dwumfour has the edge, but it’s a slim one.
Why Michigan wins the East
The Wolverines have a schedule that sets up well. That's not to say it doesn’t have challenges, but with the three rivalry games at home, that’s a significant boost. But the biggest factor is the defense, which has had its shares of blemishes, but should have an offense that matches its consistency.
Patterson now will run Gattis’ offense that is better suited to his skillset and will emphasize his ability to make plays with his legs and arm, as the offense keeps opposing defenses guessing. This has the potential for being an explosive offense and might be what Harbaugh has needed to get this team over the hump and into a Big Ten championship game.
Finally, they feel they’re due. Not that they expect anything to be handed to them, but the Wolverines feel like it’s their time to make something happen. And as people keep asking: If not now, when?
Why Michigan won’t win the East
A number of factors could block Michigan from winning the East, two teams in particular — Michigan State and Ohio State. Yes, they play at Michigan Stadium this season, what most would consider an advantage for the Wolverines. But, both of those teams have won in very recent memory at Michigan. The Spartans could be the trickier of the two if their offense improves enough to complement a potent defense.
The run game, while maybe not the emphasis of this offense, needs to come along quickly. Michigan is sorely lacking in experience and that could prove costly late in the season especially.
Speaking of late in the season, the second half of the schedule is loaded, with a game at Penn State and then three of the last five games are against the rivals (Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State), with road games at Maryland and Indiana sandwiched in there.
Projected Michigan starters
QB: Shea Patterson
RB: Christian Turner
SLOT: Mike Sainristil
LT: Jon Runyan
LG: Ben Bredeson
C: Cesar Ruiz
RG: Michael Onwenu
RT: Andrew Stueber
TE: Sean McKeon
WR: Donovan Peoples-Jones
WR: Nico Collins
DE: Kwity Paye
NT: Michael Dwumfour
DT: Carlo Kemp
DE: Aidan Hutchinson
SLB: Khaleke Hudson
MLB: Josh Ross
WLB: Devin Gil
SS: Josh Metellus
FS: J’Marick Woods
CB: Lavert Hill
CB: Ambry Thomas