How The Michigan Offense Could Fail
It's down to coaching and quarterback. Again.
Previously: Five Wild Cards (Offense), Five Wild Cards (Defense), How The Mike Macdonald Defense Can Work, How The Michigan Defense Could Fail, Defense Preview Podcast (Apple, Spotify), Offense Preview Podcast (Apple, Spotify), 2021 Predictions Podcast (Apple, Spotify)
The optimistic case for the offense focused on the talent Michigan has on hand. There’s a lot of it, and unlike on defense, it’s evenly spread throughout the position groups.
Meanwhile, the offensive coaching staff was merely tweaked over the offseason instead of overhauled like the defense. While continuity is generally good, and the idea of starting over with a new offensive staff wasn’t an enticing one, this coaching braintrust has a lot to prove—particularly regarding how they utilize available talent.
So, yes, for the umpteenth year in a row, the success of the offense comes down to coaching, especially if you file “develop a damn quarterback” into that category.
They Still Can’t Develop a Quarterback.
Jim Harbaugh came to Michigan with the reputation of a quarterback guru. That reputation has taken a severe hit in the intervening years. It’s bleak when written out:
2015: Jake Rudock, a grad transfer from Iowa, overcame some early inconsistency to throw for 20 TDs against 9 INTs on 7.8 yards per attempt, earning honorable mention All-Big Ten. This is arguably the peak of Michigan QB play under Jim Harbaugh.
The two QBs in the 2015 class are Zach Gentry, who moved to tight end, and Alex Malzone, who never came close to cracking the two-deep.
2016: Wilton Speight, a former Al Borges recruit, wins the job over Houston transfer John O’Korn. Speight replicated Rudock’s success for most of the team’s excellent season until injuring his shoulder against Iowa, missing the next week, and attempting to play through what was (much) later revealed to be a broken collarbone against Ohio State. That, as you’d expect, went poorly.
The recruiting ticks up with the addition of top-100 freshman Brandon Peters, whom your author believed at the time would be the next great Michigan quarterback. Your author is still recovering.
2017: Welcome to Hell.
Speight played middling ball before his back was broken at Purdue. (That’s not a metaphor.) O’Korn looked stunningly unprepared for Big Ten football given he’d had some success as a starter at Houston. Peters played like a young QB put out there a little too soon before suffering a concussion that forced Harbaugh to start O’Korn in The Game. O’Korn went 17-for-32 and never had a real chance to knock off the Buckeyes despite hanging around on the scoreboard.
The new face in the room was Dylan McCaffrey, a top-150 overall prospect, Ed’s son, Christian’s brother, and so on. Peters transferred to Illinois after the season.
2018: Harbaugh added former five-star recruit and Ole Miss starter Shea Patterson, who put a stranglehold on the starting job with a 22-touchdown, 7-interception season while adding some new wrinkles to the running game. Michigan has a locked-in, productive starter who returns the next season. Sure, he had a couple duds down the stretch, but the added familiarity with the coaching staff surely means he’ll improve!
This year’s freshman was rocket-armed four-star Joe Milton, who figured to need at least a couple years before being ready to play.
2019: Patterson put in one of the most frustrating seasons that looked decent if you only scanned the season-long numbers. His best games came against the worst teams on the schedule; his duds contributed to the Wisconsin, Penn State, and Ohio State losses; most inexplicably, he had less command of the offense than the previous year, and cost the team a lot of yards because he was seemingly incapable of making reads in the run game.
McCaffrey and Milton both got a handful of situational snaps that tended to feature their running ability. The new addition was Cade McNamara, a four-star who didn’t profile as a high-level NFL prospect but had a record-setting high school career in Nevada. Patterson went undrafted and didn’t even make it to the preseason before getting cut.
2020: The COVID season began with McCaffrey opting out before transferring. Milton won the starting job, looked excellent in the opening win over Minnesota, and then floundered while dealing with a nagging shoulder injury. McNamara stepped in with Michigan trailing 17-0 against Rutgers, looked sharp while leading a comeback win, and then suffered his own shoulder injury the next week. Pandemic-related cancelations prevented us from seeing anything further.
The new guy was unheralded three-star Dan Villari, who’s taken as a stopgap because Harbaugh locked up a commitment from 2021 five-star JJ McCarthy. Milton transferred to Tennessee, where he’s been named the new starter, during the offseason. To add depth, Michigan brought in oft-injured former Texas Tech starter Alan Bowman, who’s third in the pecking order behind McNamara and McCarthy.
That brings us to now. McNamara will start against Western Michigan. He has the tools to succeed. We’ve felt optimism about returning quarterbacks before, however, only to watch Harbaugh’s charges regress at the worst possible times. The last good performance by a Michigan QB against Ohio State in a remotely competitive game came from Devin Gardner in 2013.
Harbaugh has more than enough talent at his disposal to produce strong quarterback play. Skepticism that he can do so at this point is, unfortunately, quite warranted.
It’s Still Not Clear If This Is Josh Gattis’ Offense
OR It’s Clear Gattis Isn’t Good At This.
Along with inconsistent quarterbacks, there’s been a second constant during Harbaugh’s tenure: too many coaches trying to influence the offensive scheme, whether it be Harbaugh meddling with his offensive coordinator or co-coordinators not having their passing and running approaches lined up or position coaches disagreeing with the way the team is operating.
Even accounting for the context of the 2020 season, it’s remarkable to be entering Year Three of Josh Gattis as offensive coordinator with so little idea of what a Gattis offense is supposed to be or how it will look with this particular personnel.
We’ll get clarity one way or another this season. If the offense remains piecemeal, we’ll know Harbaugh is incapable of turning over the keys. If the offense is simply ineffective despite a more cohesive approach, we’ll know that Gattis isn’t up to the task at Michigan.
The Offense Remains Stuck Between Eras.
Remember how Gattis was supposed to modernize the offense? Michigan finished 112th in offensive plays per game in 2020. They’re 107th in that stat over the last three seasons.
This is down in Military Academy Intentionally Playing The Shortest Game Possible territory. Yes, it’s hard to run a lot of plays with a bad offense, but this was also a team that continued to operate at a painfully slow tempo. While other offenses showed the ability to switch speeds at a moment’s notice, the Wolverines often had trouble getting the snap off in time to beat the play clock.
Michigan has a talent advantage against most teams they play. The fewer plays they run, the more they open themselves up to flukey outcomes—like, say, going to overtime against Army. By no means does this offense have to look like a Kevin Wilson Indiana outfit, but they need to at least be able to change tempos, avoid delay-of-game penalties, and run a proper two-minute drill.
Sherrone Moore Isn’t Ready
I don’t feel like rewording this passage from the last post:
They got rid of legendary OL coach Ed Warinner, apparently because they didn’t see eye-to-eye and couldn’t run a cohesive offense together. They’d better be right on that one. Warinner’s replacement, Sherrone Moore, had been Harbaugh’s tight ends coach and hasn’t coached the line at any previous stop, though he did play guard at Oklahoma.
That’s a big gamble. Maybe Warinner couldn’t mesh with the rest of the coaching staff, but there’s no question he had a positive impact on the line’s ability to block, which is a rather important part of the job. From Air Force to Kansas(!) to Notre Dame to Ohio State to Minnesota, Warinner has proven he’s an excellent OL coach.
Moore is a complete unknown coaching this position group. The line is expected to be a strength given all the four-star talent in the room; we’ve seen talented lines squandered because of below-average coaching in the past.
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