Football Preview 2021: Five Wild Cards, Offense Edition
Apologies in advance for putting down an entire position group. Also that it's the most important position group.
Fall camp is under way, so it’s time to begin the football season preview in earnest. Today, the focus is five people who could greatly swing the fortunes of Michigan’s offense. I’ll do the same for the defense soon.
Before I dive in: the idea behind this newsletter is to touch on interesting topics in detail, and I am one person, so the season preview series won’t attempt to be a comprehensive look at every position, opponent, scheme change, and so on. (We are planning to go deep on the podcast. Subscribe!)
If you’re searching for something like that, preorder Hail to the Victors 2021. You get all that plus some fascinating historical pieces. I may be biased but the work they put in to put out the best team-specific preview magazine is unparalleled.
On to the offense’s wild cards.
1. The Entire Quarterbacks Room. Sorry. Redshirt sophomore Cade McNamara holds the starting job heading into the fall. He performed well in relief of Joe Milton to save Michigan from an embarrassing loss to Rutgers; he also floundered in his only start against Penn State. He threw for five touchdowns without tossing an interception; he also averaged a shade under six yards per attempt, which is very dink-and-dunk.
The other candidates to start bring no less uncertainty. JJ McCarthy is a five-star freshman, which brings all the upside and downside that description implies. Alan Bowman is a transfer from a good program who was in a position to lose his starting job at his old school because of a combination of injuries, inconsistency, and good competition within the team. That worked out for Jim Harbaugh with Jake Rudock; not so much with John O’Korn.
I’m not going to pretend to have any idea how this shakes out.
2. Offensive line coach Sherrone Moore. Harbaugh’s had a difficult time assembling a cohesive offensive staff and much of the problems have stemmed from the O-line, whether it was Tim Drevno’s playcalling, the too-many-cooks situation with Greg Frey, or seemingly not seeing eye-to-eye with Ed Warinner.
I like the idea of a fresh face coaching the OL, especially if it’s a coach who’s not trying to meddle with the scheme. I also like the idea of maintaining some continuity on the staff during an offseason of flux. Sherrone Moore is a great fit in these ways; he slides over from coaching tight ends in his fourth year on Harbaugh’s staff and should be more recruiting-focused than scheme-focused than past OL coaches.
Requisite job experience is the hangup, though. Moore played guard for Oklahoma in college. He knows the position as a player, which is a good start. His coaching resumé, however, has entirely focused on tight ends:
Moore takes over a line with a lot of emerging talent that hasn’t seen a great deal of playing time. While he could be in worse situations, he has to prove himself in a hurry.
3. Junior WR Cornelius Johnson. Nobody put up eye-catching stats in last year’s passing offense — Ronnie Bell led the team with 4.3 receptions and 66.8 yards per game. If you didn’t tune out, however, you noticed Cornelius Johnson make some eye-popping plays.
Johnson turned 14 catches into 254 yards and three touchdowns. On a team lacking prototype outside receivers, he’s listed at 6-foot-3, 211 pounds. He has a high school All-American pedigree despite coming from the oft-overlooked state of Connecticut.
Bell is going to be productive; in an ideal world, though, he’s the #2 receiver on a team with a more dynamic downfield threat. With more consistent quarterback play, Johnson can be that threat.1
4. Sophomore OL Zak Zinter. Zinter played in all six games and started four at right guard as a true freshman. True freshmen tossed into the deep end on bad offenses tend to drown; Zinter tread water, which is a great sign for his future.
He’s been arguably the star of the offseason so far. Josh Gattis has him penned into the starting lineup—the only question is where he lines up—and heaps the type of praise on him that’s hard to fake [emphasis mine]:
“Yeah, there’s a very realistic chance,” Zinter plays center, Gattis said. “Zak we absolutely love. In fact, I’ll tell you, Zak could potentially be our best offensive player. And it’s oftentimes people don’t talk about who’s your best offensive player as a lineman – everyone thinks it’s always gotta be a skill guy. But that’s how highly we think of Zak Zinter in this building. In fact, I think our players would think the same of him.
… But, physically, he gives us something we don’t have. He’s smart, he’s strong, he’s tough, he’s athletic. Zak’s a – he’s a special player. He’s a very, very special player.”
Zinter is going to be good. The wild card is where he plays. The upside for the unit is highest if Zinter overtakes senior Andrew Vastardis at center; Zinter possesses NFL size/upside while Vastardis is three inches shorter, 26 pounds lighter, and reliant on his awareness. Should Zinter be able to handle the mental demands of the center position, he could anchor a physically dominant group up front.
5. Junior TE Erick All. Instead of the anticipated breakout, All had a nightmare sophomore season, seemingly dropping half the passes that came his way. He finished the season with 12 catches for only 82 yards and didn’t find the end zone.
The drops were worrisome, there’s no way around that. They seemed to get into All’s head as the season progressed. As tough as that was to watch, it’s also a reason for hope; All had a reputation for catching everything coming out of high school, so if he’s past whatever mental block he had last season, that breakout season may have been only delayed a year.
Not many tight ends can move like this:
All can be a threat all over the field. It’s too early to give up on him.
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I went back and forth between Johnson and Roman Wilson for this spot. While not tall, Wilson has speed that takes the top off a defense, and he could very well break out this year.