Michigan mailbag: Will J.J. McCarthy start? Will any running backs transfer?

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

The Michigan fan base seemed close to DEFCON 1 during a three-game losing streak, but a triple-overtime, come-from-behind victory at Rutgers has put the lid on things a bit. A wee bit.

Still, the vibe is around DEFCON 4, which really means anything could happen or change during and after Michigan’s game against Penn State on Saturday. Michigan (2-3) is winless at home and wants to take another step with a win to reach .500, and the Wolverines will have to upend Penn State, which is 0-5.

Before any of that transpires, let’s dig into the mailbag this week:

►Question: Is Michigan improving? -- @davidsadanowic1

►Answer: That’s a pretty broad question, David. It’s fair to say they showed some fight last week in that triple-overtime win, and the offense looked better in the second half after Giles Jackson gave them a spark with the kickoff return and Cade McNamara continued moving the team. Hassan Haskins ran hard, especially getting those yards after contact. But improving, to me, comes when they start putting together full games on a consistent basis, which we’ve yet to see since the opener. They were pretty much rock-bottom during that three-game losing streak and appeared to be sinking even lower trailing 17-0 at Rutgers, but the fact they clawed back did show some grit. So in that sense, yes, Michigan is improving.

Hassan Haskins

►Q: Is there a plan/strategy re: usage of our running backs, e.g. Haskins, Corum, Charbonnet, Evans? (We know the plan, as does our opponent, for Mason.) -- @therealltommya

►A: Tom, if you are aware of the plan/strategy, let me know. I’ve been harping on this all season; last season, too. I’m not big on running back by committee, never have been, and call me old-school, but I don’t think that’s how things roll with the position. Always been a believer in going with a lead back and the option to bring in a changeup. Look what happened last week in the second half when Hassan Haskins had a chance to get a rhythm going. As for Ben Mason, I’m hearing he’s dealing with a bit of a lower leg injury, so don’t read too much into what’s going on with him.

►Q: How anticipated is J.J. McCarthy’s expected arrival around the team? -- @HPMike65

►A: I haven’t spoken to any of the current players about McCarthy’s arrival, but having chatted with him a few times, Mike, he’s really delightful and focused, and certainly revved up about coming to Ann Arbor and plans to enroll early.

J.J. McCarthy

►Q: Will J.J. get the starting job over Cade and Joe next season? That’s the only question I need answered. -- @fforevergoblue

►A: The only one you need answered, and yet, I’m not privy to what happens in the future. But can’t imagine a freshman with, presumably, a spring practice under his belt beating out either of those two, who will have game experience in their favor.

►Q: Time for Moody! And that should be final! Nordin, while he has made some long FGs in his time at Michigan, is just too inconsistent. Considering Michigan needs all the help they can get, about time saying Nordin is just not the kicker Michigan needs. -- @MichaelFMiami

►A: Mike, go back and look at that first missed field goal. There was a reason Jim Harbaugh, when he addressed the kicking issues in that game last Saturday, discussed the battery – snap, hold, kick. William Wagner’s snap on the first kick was high and that set things in motion the wrong way. Not that that issue was there the next two, but who knows how that plays into the mindset of a kicker. Harbaugh made it sound this week that Quinn Nordin remains the kicker and Jake Moody will handle kickoffs.

More: Michigan navigates challenges of injuries, youth on offensive line

►Q: Why such sporadic use of Ben Mason? By doing this it gives away the play when he is in the game. -- @jimmyfredal

►A: Jimmy, my understanding is he isn’t full-go right now, dealing with a nagging lower leg issue.

►Q: Real updates and timelines on Hayes and Mayfield. It’s like they vanished from the earth. -- @news_bcs

►A: Offensive line coach Ed Warinner said this week that Ryan Hayes and Jalen Mayfield, the starting tackles, have been practicing and one or both could return for the Penn State game. Both have been working through tough injuries, turf toe for Hayes and a high ankle sprain for Mayfield, and if they’re not ready, expect to see Karsen Barnhart back at left tackle and Andrew Stueber at right for Mayfield. Barnhart, by the way, was named the team’s top offensive lineman in the Rutgers game, according to Warinner.

Luke Fickell

►Q: Who are three coaches you would like UM to look at if there is indeed a coaching change? Here’s mine: Kelly, Smart, Chryst and Herm Edwards. -- @CHEN313

►A: Well if there is a change – let’s emphasize, if – Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell should be on the list, also Iowa State’s Matt Campbell, and I would absolutely add Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott.

►Q: Why hasn’t Jim Harbaugh coached and developed an elite quarterback at Michigan in six years? This is a recurring problem throughout Harbaugh’s tenure at Michigan contributing to his 0-5 record against Ohio State. -- @gkartz

►A: Gregory, that has definitely been an issue. Brandon Peters was supposed to be the guy and that didn’t work out, and Harbaugh has relied on transfers. But let’s see how this plays out with Joe Milton and Cade McNamara. You’re right, quarterback play has been a difference in the OSU game for the Buckeyes, but in 2016, Wilton Speight played well despite still dealing with a shoulder issue, so it hasn’t always been a complete wash. But, yeah, you’re right about OSU always having the answer at QB in The Game.

►Q: The third-string QB is now your starting QB. How does this happen? -- @rodney_harris2

►A: It happens, Rodney. It has happened at other programs. What I had been told during camp is that Joe Milton and Cade McNamara were in a tight competition and McNamara wasn’t far off. Some might have said they were 1A and 1B.

►Q: After watching the past two games, how on earth could Milton have beaten out McNamara AND McCaffrey? -- @MrCappelletti

►A: Several players told me while chit-chatting before the season that Milton had clearly won the competition. Everyone was heaping praise on him after his performance in the opener, and people seem to be forgetting that. Remember how he worked the ball around to different receivers and then had a run game to complement his passing? It would be incorrect to write off Milton at this point, but it also is correct to emphasize how poised McNamara has been, and how well he scans the field and delivers the ball with touch, and, most importantly, how the team responded to him.

►Q: Do you see any of the running backs looking to transfer? -- @OneDunneRadio

►A: Haven’t had any indication of that happening. Zach Charbonnet sure threw a major block that helped unleash that first touchdown at Rutgers. Not sure if a guy who’s currently thinking about transferring plays like that.

►Q: Why does it seem the Lions and the Wolverines are in a parallel universe? How sad is that? -- @johnprieu

►A: Don’t forget Michigan State. Lean times around here for all the teams. Can we just write it off as another 2020 “thing”?

►Q: Do you have any insight on how relations are between the coaches and players? In your opinion, are they unified? -- @bfenwick1970

►A: Becky, that’s an interesting question and harder to gauge since we don’t have access to the building these days. This is what I know – Harbaugh started doing frequent Zoom conferences with the parents early during quarantine, and they still occasionally happen. These are different times for everyone and for parents who used to be able to drop by the building or visit with coaches after a game to get a feel for how things are going with their sons. That hasn’t been possible, so he has been keeping the lines of communication open. The only thing I would suggest is a disconnect – and at first I didn’t believe so – but having seven captains probably wasn’t a good move. If you have that many, do you have one? Just like I don’t like running back by committee, captain by committee probably isn’t a good move either.

Jim Harbaugh

►Q: When will JH sign his contract extension? -- @RCMBrocks

►A: The million-dollar question. Harbaugh and athletic direction Warde Manuel were in conversation about it earlier this year, then it was put on the back burner because of the pandemic. Now, it seems they will revisit after this season with a couple options – sign an extension, move on, or coach his final year without it, which, of course, wouldn’t be ideal for a lot of reasons, recruiting being among the most important.

►Q: Is Lloyd Carr in 2001 the last time Michigan extended a coach? -- @nezzy21

►A: Correct. He signed a two-year extension that kept him through 2008. It’s an interesting point you’re making and really pretty crazy to think that was the last time things seemed stable.

►Q: Given the reluctance to part ways with Harbaugh, what might an extension look like? -- @hawk48025

►A: My hunch is he would have to agree to a serious salary reduction, but the contract could be laden with incentives. That seems to me the only way this could work, and maybe should have been structured that way at the beginning. 

More: It didn't take long for Michigan QB Cade McNamara to settle in against Rutgers

►Q: If JH stays, will Don B still be here next season? -- @charlton_ar

►A: Don Brown’s contract expires in 2022. There will have to be conversations after this season, but will Michigan want to eat a substantial penalty for parting ways early? That’s a consideration. But everything will have to be on the table after this season.

►Q: Kwity Paye update or is Harbaugh still checking? -- @jwallace45

►A: Jeff, my understanding is Paye has been working hard to get back. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him play Saturday.

►Q: Why doesn’t Michigan make Charbonnet the featured back? He averages over 4.5 yards per carry, runs hard, is a good blocker and can catch out of the backfield. It just feels they are wasting his talent and I would not be surprised to see him transfer. -- @Pag662

►A: Hassan Haskins, in my opinion, should be the featured back. But there are one-two punches, and a Haskins-Charbonnet combo would absolutely work.