Ann Arbor — Nearly two weeks into another training camp, more than three years into Jim Harbaugh’s tenure at Michigan, the personnel narrative hasn’t varied much. The defense looks loaded and the offense looks, well, uh, did we mention the defense is loaded?
Michigan has tended to be defense-heavy, offense-light and quarterback-questionable, a formula that has to change for its fortunes to change. And Harbaugh sounds like a coach with a strong feeling it’s happening, or will happen.
He wasn’t making guarantees or lobbing superlatives about the offense when he spoke Monday for the first time during camp. He said the quarterback position might be the most competitive on the roster, and again declined to classify Shea Patterson as the No. 1 guy. He called him a “competitor” and a “good quarterback,” an obvious downplay to keep competitors engaged.
OK, we get it. The 6-2 transfer from Mississippi already brings enormous hype, and there’s no sense heaping more before the opener at Notre Dame. But the unspoken point is, the Wolverines don’t need a quarterback to single-handedly fulfill wild expectations. With their stacked defense, they just need a quarterback to be competent, to make the occasional improvisational play, and to not get clobbered every other time he tries to pass.
No backing down
Of course, Patterson is expected to be more than competent, as the former No. 1 quarterback recruit in the country. But of all the things Harbaugh said, the most telling might have been when he talked about the offensive line, which returns three starters but is still uncertain at both tackle positions. Guards Ben Bredeson and Michael Onwenu and center Cesar Ruiz fill the middle.
“I think the offensive line is ascending very nicely, coaching the heck out of it,” Harbaugh said. “The first days, some of our offensive linemen were looking down at their shoes and their toes, nervous probably was the best way to describe it. By Day 6 or 7, they weren’t looking at their shoes anymore. They’re facing up to the challenge, and winning some of them. Not all of them, because that defensive front and linebacker corps is really good. The thing that stands out the most right now is, nobody’s backing down, nobody’s giving in.”
There was some backing down during last season’s 8-5 stumble, which is why touted assistant Ed Warinner was brought in to revamp the line. And indications are, the revamping of the line — and the offense in general — is more than mere tweaking.
It has to be, to take advantage of Patterson’s unique skills. He’s not a traditional pro-style quarterback, so you can bet he’ll be in a lot of shotgun formations, running some RPO (run-pass option) and maybe a little spread. Patterson threw a few interceptions in his short time at Mississippi, but he also created positive plays out of nothing.
Michigan got very little of that last season as it went through three quarterbacks — Wilton Speight, John O’Korn, Brandon Peters — who ranged from injured to ineffective behind a weak line. At least the Wolverines were numbingly consistent — they ranked 105th in the country in total offense, 110th in passing offense and 110th in sacks allowed (36).
A change of flavor
Patterson is supposed to change that, even if Harbaugh isn’t ready to officially declare him the starter over Peters, although that might come soon. Warinner and a shuffled offensive staff also are supposed to change that.
Harbaugh might have toned down publicly this offseason, but plenty has been churning behind the walls, and the Patterson anticipation hasn’t slowed. Peters, Dylan McCaffrey and freshman Joe Milton reportedly have impressed at times, but Michigan is altering its scheme to prepare for Patterson.
“He’s really getting the grasp of the offense, that’s the biggest thing,” Harbaugh said. “Time on task, learning the nuances of the offense, he has greatly improved since the spring.”
Michigan returns eight starters on offense and 17 from its two-deep, and quarterback actually might evolve into one of the deepest positions. The Wolverines have two good backs (Karan Higdon and Chris Evans), two good receivers (Tarik Black and Donovan Peoples-Jones) and a batch of good tight ends.
The key is to utilize them. Michigan’s wide receivers caught only three touchdown passes last season, and the quarterbacks threw only nine overall. It was staggering and stagnating, and players have seen significant changes, from scheme to coaches’ demeanors.
“This is honestly the best the offensive line — and the offense — has been in camp in the four years I’ve been here,” said Jon Runyan Jr., expected to nail down one of the tackle spots. “We have more mobile quarterbacks. Obviously, we put in an entirely new offense, a lot more read stuff. We have a different kind of style to it. But for the most part, we’re still going to line up with the fullback and running back and run power right at you. We have a little flavor on it, too.”
A taste of something different definitely was needed. Oh, there should be plenty of familiar flavor on defense, where the Wolverines finished third in the country and return almost everybody, from Rashan Gary to Devin Bush Jr. to Chase Winovich to Lavert Hill. Under coordinator Don Brown, it doesn’t vary much.
But nothing will fully change unless the offense changes, and while it’s expected to start with Patterson, it can’t end there.