Summer is a time when college football fans across the country look optimistically toward the coming fall. The phrase “hope springs eternal” may have been penned nearly three centuries ago, but it describes 21st century college football and college football fans quite well. Be it a change in coach, coordinator or quarterback, there’s always, it seems, reason for optimism.
Michigan fans have certainly been no exception to this phenomenon. Regardless of circumstances, regardless of the previous season’s outcome, the Wolverine faithful have always found reason to believe that this year would be the year. This particular year, however, that optimism is largely subdued, if not all together absent, in Ann Arbor.
Such tempered expectations are not without merit. Coming off such a difficult season in 2020 and with such a high degree of turnover on both its roster and coaching staff, uncertainty abounds for the Wolverines.
That uncertainty begins at quarterback, where once again Michigan enters a season with questions surrounding the game’s most important position. The Wolverines have their latest quarterback of the future, this time in the form of true freshman J.J. McCarthy, but McCarthy is exactly that, a true freshman. Early reports are more or less what you’d expect. McCarthy’s arm talent is evident, but he’s a long way from being ready.
While McCarthy acclimates himself to the college game, Michigan will more than likely hand the reins of its offense to sophomore Cade McNamara. McNamara showed promise in relief of Joe Milton last season, but was only on the field for parts of four games. With so few snaps under his belt, it’s not clear of what the young signal-caller is capable. Something that’s undoubtedly concerning for Michigan fans, because with so much turnover and with so many questions, strong quarterback play is critical for Michigan this season.
One thing in McNamara’s favor is that he should have a strong group of running backs at his disposal. If there’s one position group at which Michigan feels comfortable, it’s running back, where Hassan Haskins leads a group that also includes underclassmen Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards. It’s a talented triumvirate, but there’s no mistaking the group’s leader. Through two seasons, the hard-running Haskins has rushed for just under 1,000 yards while averaging 5.5 yards per carry, in what’s been a mostly disjointed offense. One of the few proven entities on this year’s team, Haskins looks to take on a bigger role and improve upon those numbers this season. And with a young signal-caller and an inexperienced receiving corps, Michigan would be wise to lean on Haskins and the running game this season.
For that to happen, however, Michigan’s offensive line will have to come together. While the starting line-up isn’t yet set, the Wolverines have a talented, if inexperienced, group of players from which to choose. Headlining this group are presumptive starting tackles Ryan Hayes and Andrew Stueber and sophomore interior lineman Zak Zinter, who’s been one of Michigan’s most talked about players this offseason. Michigan welcomes new offensive line coach Sherrone Moore this season (Moore was previously Michigan’s tight end coach). And not to put pressure on Moore, but his ability to develop a cohesive unit up front will go a long way toward determining Michigan’s success this season.
The offensive line’s ability to generate a dependable running game is especially important this season, given that Michigan’s receiving corps is so young. Outside of senior Ronnie Bell, the Wolverines will rely heavily on younger, unproven pass catchers. The more the Wolverines can run the ball and take pressure off the passing game, the better.
It’s more than just Michigan’s players that are unproven, however. Offensive coordinator Josh Gattis has been calling plays for Harbaugh and the Wolverines for two years, and while there have been moments in which Michigan’s play calling and offensive strategy has impressed, more often than not, there hasn’t been much rhyme or reason to Michigan’s game plan. Ditto for Michigan’s ball distribution, which at times has been downright baffling. Case in point: Haskins had a talented running mate at tailback last year in Zach Charbonnet. Charbonnet rushed for 726 yards and 11 touchdowns as a true freshman in 2019, yet somehow got only 19 carries his sophomore season (while rushing for 6.5 yards a carry). His usage - or lack thereof - was vexing. His decision to transfer to UCLA, not so much.
Gattis is only in his third season, and it’s tough to take too much away from last season’s COVID-reduced schedule, but it’s time for Gattis to show that he can take Michigan’s offense to the next level. If this truly is a transition season, Michigan has to show that its offense is on the right track. Something that’s of additional importance this season with Michigan’s defense even younger and more inexperienced than its offense. What will that defense look like? Check back tomorrow for a closer look.