Much has been written about Michigan’s 2021 season – including here at Off Tackle Empire. Michigan had a breakthrough season in 2021. But for the Wolverines to have the season they had, a lot had to fall into place – both offensively and defensively. So what conclusions can be drawn from last season? Was it a one-off? An outlier? Or was it a sign of things to come? Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh called last season, “Just the beginning.” But is it? Will Harbaugh and his charges build on last season’s success? The answer to that question, as it is with most teams, will largely depend on this season’s roster. And for Harbaugh and the Wolverines, the answer to that question is quite different depending on which side of the ball you’re discussing.
On offense, things shouldn’t look much different from last season, in terms of personnel or playing style.
The driving force behind Michigan’s offense last season – its offensive line – should once again be a strength. Michigan loses the leader of that unit, center Andrew Vastardis, but replaces him with grad transfer Olu Oluwatimi. Oluwatimi was a Remington Award finalist last season at Virginia and has been the talk of the offseason among Michigan players. “A beast,” is how quarterback Cade McNamara described Oluwatimi. “That’s my guy,” senior defensive tackle Mazi Smith said. “So strong. Pushes me on every rep.” With Oluwatimi joining returning starters Ryan Hayes, Trevor Keegan and Zak Zinter, Michigan’s offensive line looks to be a force again this season.
If the offensive line was the engine to last season’s offense, running backs Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum made that engine run. Haskins is gone, currently competing to be Derrick Henry’s back-up with the NFL’s Tennessee Titans, but Corum returns. Corum rushed for over 950 yards at a gaudy 6.6 yards-per-carry clip in an injury-shortened 2021, and looks to improve on those numbers this season. But like last year, Michigan will feature a pair of elite runners. Donovan Edwards played sparingly as a true freshman, but when he did see the field, he impressed. He’ll see more if it this season. “He’s special,” Harbaugh said of Edwards, adding, “He’s one of those (players) that comes along every so often, every generation. A joy to coach.” Michigan will miss the hard running of Haskins, but with Corum and Edwards, the running game is in good hands.
At receiver, Michigan has its deepest position group, as its three leading receivers from last season - Cornelius Johnson, Roman Wilson and tight end Erick All - all return. Look for sophomore Andrel Anthony to become a larger part of the passing game, as well. Michigan also welcomes back senior Ronnie Bell, who missed most of last season with a knee injury. A favorite among coaches and teammates, Bell’s presence on the field – and in the locker room – will be welcomed.
Michigan also returns quarterbacks Cade McNamara and JJ McCarthy. Having two capable quarterbacks puts Harbaugh and the Wolverines in an enviable position, but is having two capable quarterbacks, each wanting playing time, too much of a good thing? Can Harbaugh placate both of his signal callers? The expectation is that McNamara will start with McCarthy seeing the field often. Playing two quarterbacks can be tricky, however. A similar arrangement worked last season, but will it work again? With an offense loaded with returning talent, Harbaugh’s ability to manage his quarterback situation could prove to be one of the keys to Michigan’s offense – and its season.
The bottom Line? Michigan is loaded on offense. Which is a good thing for Michigan and its fans, because as we’ll discuss tomorrow, there is much less certainty on the defensive side of the ball.