Michigan dealing with nagging injuries on offense
Ann Arbor — Michigan’s offense has to contend with turnover issues — the Wolverines have had nine in the first three games, including fumbles that killed their first series each game — and a number of nagging injuries.
Receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones and left tackle Jon Runyan missed the first two games and returned for last Saturday’s Big Ten opener at Wisconsin, but backup quarterback Dylan McCaffrey was knocked out of that game with a concussion and is doubtful for Saturday’s game against Rutgers.
Starting quarterback Shea Patterson has been challenged by an oblique injury since the first play of the season opener and was also banged up against the Badgers.
Tight end Sean McKeon was injured on a touchdown reception late in the game and will not be available for Rutgers, running back Tru Wilson has missed two games, and freshman back Zach Charbonnet has been “limited," while receiver Tarik Black last week didn’t practice.
“We had a number of different injuries we were battling throughout the week,” Michigan offensive coordinator Josh Gattis said, referring to last week heading into the Wolverines’ 35-14 debacle at Wisconsin. “The biggest thing for us offensively is get healthy and get the guys into practice so we can get into a rhythm and flow that can carry out throughout the game. That’s been a little bit of a challenge for us because you look at every practice we haven’t had all 11 starters on offense. Ever.
“We just got to continue to get healthy, we gotta manage the players that we have and make sure that we keep them healthy and they’re getting the right amount of reps to being able to take those practice reps and turn them into game reps.”
Gattis said Peoples-Jones had not practiced, but went through pregame warm-ups and felt confident he could play. Charbonnet also played but was, as Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said after the game, “limited."
“Donovan was a game-time decision,” Gattis said. “Obviously, he’s been limited and hurt a little bit. He jogged a little bit. We didn’t know if he was gonna be able to go on Saturday. When you go into a game and you have some energy and juice about you, he felt good and ready to go. That was a big positive as far as his rehab and development. Hopefully we’ll continue to get healthier as an offensive unit. We lost some guys in the game this past week that kinda hurt us, but we’ve got to rally the troops and get as healthy as possible as fast as possible so we can be the unit we want to be.”
Charbonnet has been practicing this week.
“We’re managing Zach’s situation,” Gattis said. “Zach’s practicing for us. We’re managing him just like we’re managing any of our other players. At this point we’ve got a lot of guys who have some small nicks and bruises that we just gotta manage. It’s nothing severe, nothing that can become dangerous to their health, just things we have to manage to make sure we get the guys to Saturday, but they also have the right amount of reps throughout the week to be able to play Saturday at a high level.”
With McCaffrey not expected to play, third-string quarterback Joe Milton is now Patterson’s backup.
“He’s getting a chance to go out there and take some live reps under fire against our defense,” Gattis said of Milton.
Mason’s been getting reps
When Ben Mason carried the ball in the first series of the Wisconsin game, it was the first time he had run the ball since the end of last season.
Mason was converted from fullback to defensive tackle in the spring and added about 20 pounds. Michigan was on the verge of answering the Badgers’ touchdown on the first series of the game, when the handoff went to Mason. He gained 3 yards and fumbled at the 4-yard line, marking the third time in three games the Wolverines have fumbled on their opening drive.
“Said in the spring, there will be opportunities that Ben presents himself as a running back in our offense,” Gattis said Wednesday. “Obviously, we get into short-yardage situations, it’s something we didn’t use the first two games but we had been repping in practice and kinda preparing for the right opportunity for us to call those situations. Ben’s run the ball extremely well in the past. It was a very similar type play that he had success on last year. The same exact play.
“Ben’s a tough kid. We love him. I don’t fault him for any situation. He’s been getting those reps. He’s been running the ball. Probably hadn’t been in as many live situations, but he has a number of accounted reps as a runner carrying the football. It’s our job to help support him, it’s our job to make sure that he gets through that hole clean and no one touches him. Collectively everybody’s got to do their job. Part of my job is putting them in on plays that he’s comfortable with. That’s a play that he’s comfortable with. I can be on Ben that won’t happen again.”
Still looking for receivers
Michigan’s receivers were thought to be the centerpieces of Gattis’ speed-in-space offense. But the group, which he coaches, hasn’t posted gaudy numbers.
Ronnie Bell leads the team with nine catches for 99 yards, Tarik Black has 104 yards on seven catches, and Nico Collins has 81 on five catches.
“We’re not where we need to be in that room,” Gattis said. “That falls on me. I don’t think right now you could say there’s one group that’s standing out above the rest within our offense. Every group, we’ve got to challenge ourselves to be the difference. In order for us to be the difference, we’ve got to do something different every week, how we prepare, how well we execute the details in order to make a difference.”
There are plenty of reasons the receiving game hasn’t clicked. Pass protection hasn’t been ideal, making it tougher on starting quarterback Shea Patterson, who has missed some open receivers, and there have been drops, as well.
“When you do the right things, the ball finds you,” Gattis said. “We’re missing 10 drives on the year when you count the fumbles and the (missed) opportunities. That’s 10 drives taken away from your offense. I don’t think we’re in a position right now to look at statistics and count numbers. We’re in a position right now where we look at offensively how can we improve those negative situations and how can we move forward and get better.”