Michigan mailbag: Manuel's philosophy; why Rutgers game is must-win for tepid Wolverines

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Anything to talk about these days regarding Michigan football? Nah, didn’t think so.

Unless you’re living in an alternate universe.

There’s plenty to discuss, but where to begin? It seems these days that every aspect of the program is being dissected, and rightfully so, from the quarterbacks, to the running backs, to the cornerbacks, to the lack of a pass rush, to an inability to seal the edge, to dropped passes, to questionable play calls, and to the coaching staff.

Oh, and how could we forget that under the biggest microscope of all is head coach Jim Harbaugh.

The Wolverines take a 1-3 record to Rutgers this weekend.

Let’s dive into the Michigan football mailbag this week:

Question: Does anyone know what Warde Manuel’s process is/will be for evaluating the head coaching position? – @CraigHoffy

Answer: Manuel doesn’t share much publicly, Craig, not since he took the job as athletic director. He has said on the record he wants Jim Harbaugh to retire at Michigan. Before the 2019 season, I had a chance to sit down with Manuel for a Detroit News podcast. At the time, he said people are “ultimately critical of one thing and one thing only – his record against (Ohio State).”

Now, fans are critical of much more than that during this 1-3 season with a – dare we call it what it is? a must-win game – at Rutgers on Saturday, and this is long before the OSU game in Columbus on Dec. 12 and the train wreck that has become. 

Manuel also said this last year: “I want him to win, but if the question is, from my perspective, am I telling him if he doesn’t win he’s not going to have a job? The answer is no. I don’t threaten any of my coaches that way. I don’t lead that way.”

Manuel said his coaches at Michigan put enough pressure on themselves that he would never pile on “because if I have to say it, they need to go.” So that’s a bit of Manuel’s mindset, albeit from just before last season, but doubtful he has much changed. This is not to say Manuel isn’t communicating with Harbaugh on a regular basis, because he is. That’s what athletic directors do. But he will wait until after the season to discuss with Harbaugh the next step.

More: Michigan cornerbacks are 'not folding' as heat gets turned up on pass defense

Q: Do you think Harbs is turning his keys in at the end of the season? I am sure he won’t be fired, but does he quit? – @MeechiganMike

A: Mike, I offer this disclaimer that my opinion may change as the weeks go on, but right now, I just don’t think Harbaugh wants to move on. And we are in agreement he won’t be fired. We can parse everything the man says and study his every move on the sideline or during a press conference, but I’ve never considered the guy a quitter. Quite the opposite.

Q: Would Harbaugh consider taking significantly less money for an extension to 1) Help out his financially ailing alma mater; 2) Help take pressure off his program; and 3)      Help hire new and better coordinators? – @nickjg2

A: Nick, if Harbaugh wants to return to Michigan, that extension he signs will have to be significantly smaller in light of a lot of things, partly the significant COVID-19 budget issues and partly because he has to know that $8 million annually is not paying for the on-field product he expected to produce, as did everyone else. Contract lawyers can be crafty, though, and pile on the performance-based incentives, and that would be a fair resolution. But it seems unlikely a bloated contract like the one he has would be cleared by the president and university Regents.

Zach Charbonnet

Q: On behalf of some (not all, of course) former RBs, I’d be interested to know Jay Harbaugh’s thoughts on how the position is performing in the various facets of the game. What he might be noticing during film study. –  @Marty3535

A: Marty, you and I speak the same language in terms of how the running backs have been utilized this year (and the year before and the year before). We haven’t spoken to Jay Harbaugh since he was talking before the season about generating more explosive runs, and then, in that first game Zach Charbonnet went 70 yards for a touchdown. Bam! It works! But it doesn't. Not consistently. I have been beating this drum for a long, long time – running back by committee and with some unclear pattern of how backs are used, does not work. I repeat: IT DOES NOT WORK. Identify one or two backs who should carry the bulk of the work. Let them develop a rhythm. How many times have we heard a back say he gets better as the game goes on? This is not saying never run a change-of-pace back, but what we have seen this year clearly makes very little sense.

Q: Why is Michigan rotating four running backs? Haskins and Charb were fine last year. – @sonic8us

A: Dave, I could have answered your question and not Marty’s (see just above), but since you’re always on Bob Wojnowski’s side in our Twitter feud, this is your answer: See above.

Subscription: Wojo: If Jim Harbaugh wants to stay at Michigan, plenty must change

Q: Am I crazy to think that we are losing Charbonnet and every RB we have other than Corum? Why are the better RBs not getting the ball? Is our O-line that bad? It seems like they are the JV squad to everyone's first team? Can we call Dylan and put him back on scholarship? Milton needs touch. – @Alpha_Dawgs

A: I haven’t heard any concrete evidence that Zach Charbonnet or any of the backs are opening that transfer portal door. As for why the running backs aren’t getting the ball, that’s partly because Michigan has been playing from behind and getting in big holes early. Can’t abandon the run, of course, but it sure seems like they could make better decisions about when they choose to run.

McCaffrey opted out so that means he still has a scholarship. And yes, Joe Milton needs to work on touch, especially on those short passes. Nick Eubanks can take all the blame he wants for not making that catch that resulted in a pick last Saturday, but I contend it's a real challenge to catch a ball at that velocity and distance.

Q: Did anyone ask why we lined up in shotgun from the half-yard line? – @dshman9

A: Don, had it scribbled on my list as something I wanted to ask after the game and wound up asking Harbaugh whether he has concerns about not losing the team. Sadly, I think that incredibly valid question got lost in the shuffle of such a behind-kicking loss. Guessing there will be a chance to ask something similar considering they made head-scratching back-to-back wildcat plays against MSU and then this, along with a couple strange runs on third-and-long, so odds are there probably are a few more coming and the questions will be asked.

Daxton Hill

Q: Do we suspect that last week was the white flag moment from UM or is there fight left? It is troubling to see how far they have fallen and I think the majority of fans feel the end of the Harbaugh era is very close … unless we are measuring his success completely incorrectly. – @ToddSass1

A: It sure looked like there wasn’t a lot of resistance left on a few of those late Wisconsin touchdowns. That might be the sign of a younger team folding or something more. Players like Dax Hill acknowledged this week the team has come out flat, but no one seems to have an answer for why. They did say the “right” things this week and said they’re not throwing in the towel. Time will tell, of course, but the Rutgers game could provide an opportunity to get that confidence back a bit and coaches will say that snowballs and builds momentum. A loss at Rutgers, though, and let’s revisit this question.

Q: Where’s the fire? – @ItsMustSeeGG

A: Are you referring to Harbaugh’s fire? I think he still has it, but it’s not manifested in the way we were used to seeing early on, ripping off his jacket, throwing his notes, all that stuff, and I have no idea why that changed.

Do the coaches have fire? Cornerbacks Mike Zordich is a hard-edge guy and he hasn’t lost it, and defensive line coach Shaun Nua was on the radio this week talking about pride and playing for that. Do the players have fire? That’s the biggest question. They reflect their head coach, so maybe there is the issue.

Q: Did the coaches anticipate a slide this season and hide it from fans, or were they overrating things too? – @petesaunders3

A: Pete, it always amuses me that people think the media drive the hype train (which I know is not what you were pointing out), when it’s the coaches who are providing the hype. The question might be as simple as, how good is Joe Milton, and suddenly, he can leap tall buildings while throwing 70 yards. It’s hard to know what the coaches could have really known without a spring practice, and by doing so much via Zoom before the players reported for voluntary workouts. The coaches probably over-seasoned their takes on the players, because it’s better to boost things than to say, welp, they’re not just there yet. And there is talent there. It’s just not nearly as polished as the coaches might have wanted people – and themselves – to believe, so yes, they over-hyped.

Q: What’s it gonna take to turn things around, and do we have whatever that is? – @jmadincea

A: The players and coaches have to take a long, hard look at themselves, John, and find out if they’re doing everything they can to flip the switch. But at this point, it seems like keeping things simple might be the right call. It looks like there’s a lot of overthinking out there, and that’s a trigger for things to collapse. Simplifying things was the approach that worked for Ed Warinner when he took over Michigan’s offensive line. He uncluttered their football brains and let them focus on a few things and getting those right. It just seems weird that this game at Rutgers is the proverbial “must win” but, boy, it sure is.