How The Michigan Offense Could Be Good (Really)
Michigan has the talent. The coaches just need to utilize it. This is quite the good news/bad news situation.
Welcome to game week. I apologize for not sending out a second newsletter last week; I received my booster dose of the vaccine1 and had to rest instead of write. As penance, there will be three going out this week, plus the final episode of our three-part football preview podcast.
I’ve made the floor and ceiling cases for the defense. It’s time to do the same for the offense, starting with the optimistic side.
Upper-Tier Big Ten Quarterback Play, At Long Last.
While Michigan may not have a quarterback with much Big Ten experience, they have more than enough talent in the room to unearth a signal-caller worthy of pushing for all-conference honors. While that standard should be the floor in Ann Arbor, it’s been the ceiling under Jim Harbaugh.
Cade McNamara led the competition heading into the fall and seems to be holding that edge so far. He’s coming off a 2020 season in which he led a comeback charge against Rutgers (look, it was a bad year) and was off to a solid start against Penn State before injuring his shoulder—most of his ugly numbers from that game were put up after he was reinserted because Joe Milton was also hurt (it was a very bad year).
I’ve been guilty of this myself: the conversation surrounding McNamara often makes him sound like a try-hard three-star with a pellet gun of an arm. While he may not be the NFL prototype, that’s far from the case.
McNamara was a four-star ranked in the top 300 overall prospects and #7 among pro-style QBs in the 2019 class. He rewrote the Nevada state record book in high school. Michigan landed him in a head-to-head battle with Notre Dame. He may not be able to throw a 20-yard out on a frozen rope; there have been plenty of excellent college QBs with the same limitations.
There are other options, too, and they profile as viable. Five-star freshman JJ McCarthy needs little introduction; he can make all the throws and create plays both inside and outside the structure of the offense. He enrolled early, so he should be ahead of the curve in picking up the scheme. While there’d be the usual freshman growing pains with McCarthy, he’d also give the offense the most upside.
Texas Tech transfer Alan Bowman seems to be third in the pecking order, which would make him one of the more accomplished third-stringers in anyone’s QB room. He’s made 16 starts at the Power Five level with career marks of 7.4 yards per attempt, 33 touchdowns, and 17 interceptions, and those numbers could’ve been better if he hadn’t battled injuries in each of the last three seasons.
There are a lot of programs that’d find a way to get good quarterback play out of this room. There’s no excuse for Michigan not to be one of them.
The Skill Positions Can Show Their Talent.
I don’t need to remind you that Michigan has underutilized a huge amount of talent at the skill positions under Jim Harbaugh, especially at wide receiver. Only Penn State is in the same league as Michigan in terms of potential among their backs and receivers for Big Ten teams—aside from Ohio State, of course.
The lowest-ranked projected contributor as a recruit is also the team’s most proven offensive player. Hassan Haskins averaged over six yards per carry in last year’s horrible offensive environment. He so thoroughly outplayed and out-snapped five-star back Zach Charbonnet over two seasons that the latter transferred to UCLA—where he won the starting job and had a smashing debut on Saturday.
Behind Haskins are sophomore Blake Corum and freshman Donovan Edwards, both former blue-chip prospects with electric athletic ability and scheme-bending versatility. They can be standalone backs, line up alongside another RB, or even make plays as slot receivers. Good coaching gets a lot out of this backfield.
The same goes for the pass-catchers. Senior Ronnie Bell, the unheralded recruit, was the team’s leading receiver in each of the last two seasons. Junior Cornelius Johnson, a high school All-American, displayed NFL potential when passes reached his vicinity in 2020.
Jackson State transfer Daylen Baldwin may force his way onto the field ahead of four-star sophomore burners Roman Wilson and AJ Henning, returning starter Mike Sainristil, and promising freshmen Cristian Dixon and Andrel Anthony. It’s going to be difficult to get every worthy player a sizable number of snaps.
Even at tight end, a position group that flopped last year, there’s plenty of potential. While Erick All dropped too many passes in 2020, he’s yet another former four-star, and he was reputed to have great hands coming out of high school. He’s been a steady blocker, he has great size, he gets open, and he can run after the catch. He’d be far from the first player to overcome an early-career case of butterfingers.
Luke Schoonmaker, Matthew Hibner, and Lewis Hansen are increasingly well-regarded and larger versions of each other, like Don Brown Country nesting dolls ordered from youngest to oldest. Plus, with all the other skill position talent, Michigan doesn’t need major contributions from the TEs—they can put another back or receiver on the field instead.
The Line Protects and Attacks.
On the offensive line, yet again, there’s more than enough talent to assemble a strong front. Senior Ryan Hayes is an established starter at left tackle and a former four-star. Fifth-year Andrew Stueber has proven solid at both guard and tackle. Here are the four remaining offensive line recruits from the 2018 class:
It’s entirely possible only one of them starts (most likely Keegan or Barnhart) because sophomore Zak Zinter has reportedly grown into the team’s top interior lineman and sixth-year senior Andrew Vastardis is the best man to run the line at center.
Michigan should be able to move the ball behind the right side of the line with Zinter (6’6/320) and Stueber (6’7/338) getting push, even more so if Zinter eventually takes over for Vastardis at center and Keegan (6’6/324) plays right guard.
I don’t see a reason beyond poor coaching why the line wouldn’t be good at pass-blocking. Hayes could be elite in that regard on the blind side, while Trente Jones could come in and kick Stueber down to guard if pass protection is an issue at right tackle.
An Aligned Coaching Staff
You may have sensed a theme throughout this post. Jim Harbaugh and Josh Gattis have the talent at their disposal, they just need to deploy it the right way. They’re also out of excuses.
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.
Michigan’s offense could improve significantly just by having a passing game that actually fits with the running game and vice versa. It could make a full 180-degree turnaround if that sensible scheme is paired with a reliable quarterback.
Of course, we’ve said and heard this all before. That’ll be the focus of the follow-up post on how this could fall apart.
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If you’re immunocompromised and have access to Michigan Medicine’s patient portal, there are a lot of appointments available for a booster dose of the vaccine last I checked. While I felt tired for the next couple days after the shot, I didn’t experience nearly the same level of side effects I experienced after my second dose (Moderna, for what it’s worth).