Michigan Football wrapped up Year 3 of the Jim Harbaugh era with a thud, losing in the Outback Bowl and falling to 8-5 on the season. The Wolverines featured a championship-level defense, but had far too many issues on offense and special teams to be a threat in the Big Ten race. Heading into Year 4 of the Harbaugh era there are some issues that need to be resolved.
Michigan’s quarterbacks combined to throw nine touchdown passes in 2017, the lowest number since 1975 – when the Wolverines were running the triple option. In fact, Michigan’s quarterbacks threw more interceptions (10) than they did touchdown passes.
As much as the offense struggled in big games, they had a chance in their biggest game of the season to drive for a winning touchdown with two minutes remaining in the Ohio State game. In a moment that captured the frustrations of an entire season, on the first play of that drive, John O’Korn heaved an errant pass deep down the middle of the field and it was easily intercepted, crushing the Wolverines comeback hopes and their season with it.
The answer to this question lies with the eligibility of Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson. In the wake of the scandal at his former school, he is seeking a waiver from the NCAA for immediate eligibility. If that waiver is granted, Michigan will suddenly be in great shape at quarterback. Patterson would be the favorite to win the job, but don’t count out Dylan McCaffrey, who redshirted last year. Brandon Peters also returns and Joe Milton enrolled at Michigan in January. If Patterson is not eligible things get a bit murky and there’s a good chance McCaffrey will be the starter, which isn’t a bad thing. He just doesn’t have any experience yet and Michigan plays an absolutely brutal schedule in 2018, beginning with the opener at Notre Dame.
Michigan finished the 2017 season ranked 110th nationally in sacks allowed and 91st in tackles for loss allowed. The Wolverines did rank 49th nationally in rushing offense, but it’s important to note their rushing totals in the five losses; 102 yards against Michigan State, 103 yards against Penn State, 58 yards against Wisconsin, 100 yards against Ohio State and 74 yards against South Carolina. That’s good for an average of 87.4 yards per game which won’t win you many big games.
Entering 2018, Michigan has no clear answer at either tackle position, which is a problem. The interior of the line should be in good shape with the return of guards Ben Bredeson, Cesar Ruiz and Michael Onwenu. Stephen Spanellis, who stepped in at center during the Outback Bowl, after Patrick Kugler was injured, also returns. A lack of options at tackle could force Bredeson outside.
Help could be on the way in the form of redshirt freshmen to be, James Hudson, Andrew Stueber and Chuck Filigia. However, Michigan only has two offensive linemen inbound from their 2018 recruiting class; Jalen Mayfield, who may be a future star at tackle, and Ryan Hayes. Additionally, Rice left tackle and grad transfer Calvin Anderson is strongly considering Michigan for his fifth season.
Michigan’s wide receivers provided very little production in 2017, combining for just three touchdown receptions and 1,132 receiving yards. Much of that can be attributed to the two issues discussed above; quarterback and offensive line play. It also didn’t help when Michigan’s best receiver, Tarik Black suffered a season-ending injury in the third game of the season.
Among wide receivers, Grant Perry was Michigan’s most productive player with the very pedestrian stat line of 25 receptions for 307 yards and one touchdown. Donovan Peoples-Jones is full of potential, but managed to rack up just 22 receptions for 277 yards.
There are several variables that should lead this to being a much more productive group in 2018. Improved quarterback play, the return of Tarik Black, the continued development of Peoples-Jones and improved depth.
Michigan ranked 113th nationally in net punting last year. Brad Robbins and Will Hart shared the punting duties which resulted in a lot of shanked punts and lost field position battles. Booming punts with great hang time weren’t something that the Wolverines had access to.
In the long and storied history of Michigan Football there have been exactly seven kickers to convert two or more 50+ yard field goals. One of them is Quinn Nordin, who drilled 19 field goals in his redshirt freshman season. That places him in a second place tie in Michigan’s single season record book. He can absolutely crush the ball and he can do it with accuracy. The issue last year was with his consistency. He went through a rough patch in the middle of the season, missing three consecutive field goal attempts. Nordin ending up converting 19 of 24 field goal attempts.
Entering the Penn State game, Michigan had converted on 301 consecutive point after attempts, which was the longest active streak in college football. That streak ended after Michigan’s first touchdown against the Nittany Lions, when Nordin trotted onto the field to a chorus of boos from the PSU fan base, because he had once been a Penn State commit, and shanked the point after attempt. Later in the season, Nordin missed two other point after attempts.
Michigan will need consistency from its kickers and punters in 2018.
The Wolverines will once again have a very good defense in 2018. The quarterback woes should be over, which will help the wide receivers be more productive. The biggest and ongoing question is the offensive line. Who is going to play at the tackle positions? Michigan doesn’t have any surefire answers to that question. If the line continues to struggle, it could be what holds this team back from being a contender in the Big Ten.
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