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Big Ten Football 2023: Michigan Offense Preview

Michigan’s gonna throw it around this year. Haha. Just kidding.

Penn State v Michigan
Michigan doing what they do
Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images


You know those articles you read the last couple days? You know, the well-written, polished pieces for the cocktail party and coaching preview? Yeah. This one won’t be like those.

Those were written by Brian, a talented and credentialled sports journalist. These are written by me. The nicest thing anyone’s ever said about my writing is “well at least he stopped.”

You’re gonna get a bunch of info (I am an engineer with a keyboard), and a bunch of opinions (I am a Michigan grad with a keyboard). What you’re not going to get is prose, wit, insight, stylistic consistency, or (probably) correct spelling. Accept this now.

What Happened Last Year

It went pretty well, frankly. To no one’s surprise, Michigan was heavily run-biased. To have been otherwise with the Joe Moore award-winning offensive line blocking for Blake Corum and Donavan Edwards would have been criminal-level coaching malpractice. That wouldn’t have stopped RichRod or Brady Hoke, but they’re not here anymore.

Michigan finished 11th in F+ offensive efficiency (just beating out Wake Forest??). Hardly the ‘85 Hawkeyes, or basically any Ryan Day OSU team, but pretty good. Even better, considering they how much stronger they were in the second halves of games. Their second-half run dominance allowed them to close games out like a boss. It was fun!*

*for us. Less so for PSU/MSU/OSU fans.


COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 26 Michigan at Ohio State
You’re the man now, dog
Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Last Year:

The season started with a QB competition, with McNamara starting game 1 and McCarthy starting game 2 in open competition. McCarthy was clearly winning it when an epic display of pass protection incompetence knocked McNamara out with a season-ending knee injury in game 3, making the whole “competition” thing moot.

McCarthy wound up completing 64% of his passes for a solid 8.4 yds/attempt, with 22 touchdowns against 5 interceptions. At only 194 yds/game, he wasn’t dominant, but still had the 2nd best efficiency rating in the Big10. People will remember the pair of pick-6s he threw in the Fiesta Bowl, but we Michigan fans remember the Ohio State game a lot more. To Michigan fans, “bowl game” is a thing with ten frames.

As a passer he’s pretty good, not amazing. Add his legs, though, and he’s a difference maker. Michigan keeps this part of his game mostly under wraps to try to keep him alive, but when they need it he can put all kinds of pressure on a defense.

Other than McNamara in the non-con, no other Michigan QB played meaningful minutes.


  • Cade McNamara (portal to Iowa). One of the players most responsible for turning the program around in 2022. Hawkeye fans are going to love his leadership and tenacity.

Returning Depth:

  • JJ McCarthy (Tr Jr). A high four-star recruit in 2021, he was the full-time starter for the 2022 Big10 season. He’s got a big arm that usually hits his targets unless he’s throwing a long pass too flat. He can throw on the run and he’s a threat to run the ball. He’s a natural leader and the most important player to Michigan’s success this year.
  • David Warren (RS So). The former walk-on was the backup for most of last year. Saw almost no action. Has passed a number of scholarship players, and looked good in spring games for what little that’s worth.
  • Alex Orji (RS Fr). 235lb tank of a QB who’s more runner than thrower. Robert Griffin III’s favorite player because of the plays on words his last name allows that only RGIII is willing to make on the air.

New/Expected to Step Up

  • Jack Tuttle (RS Sr, portal from Indiana). Looked to be neck-and-neck with Warren for the backup job in the spring game. Frankly he looked better than I expected him to.


In a rarity of the Harbaugh tenure at Michigan, the Wolverines have an actual bonafide returning starter at QB. Unfortunately, the first two regressed in their second starting years (Wilton Speight in 2017, Shea Patterson in 2019).

I’m confident he’ll be better. I am not confident he will survive the season. He’s a wiry 6-3, 193, and he plays the game with joy and abandon. It makes him fun to watch, but is not good for Michigan fans with heart conditions.

If he’s the same guy, with just 15% better understanding of the offense, combined with putting some damned air under the ball on deep throws he’ll be pretty good. More OSU game, less other games, please. There’s still a cap. No matter how good he is, Michigan’s system is never going to let people confuse him for an OSU quarterback. All the third-hand “reports” and rumors are glowing this offseason. But then they always are, right?

Pass Catchers (WRs, flex TEs)

Michigan v Ohio State
Faster than he looks
Photo by Ben Jackson/Getty Images

Last Year:

Well mostly they blocked. Michigan has a firm identity on offense and “run and shoot” ain’t it. Through 11 games if you noticed a Michigan WR he was probably one of three things:

  • Blocking
  • Getting just overthrown on a go route that was open for a touchdown
  • Ronnie Bell

Michigan also loved throwing to the TEs. Usually the flex guys, and almost always short passes over the middle. But mostly, these guys blocked, too.


  • Slot WR Ronnie Bell. (San Francisco, 7th round) Good-not-spectacular WR who probably got more pass attempts than all the other WRs combined. Is a fantastic leader. His leadership after suffering a season-ending knee injury in the first game in 2021 is largely credited as a key element of Michigan’s turn-around. . His endzone drop at Penn State in 2019 showed the world how shitty sports fans can be, and that kids remain better people than adults.
  • TE Eric Schoonmaker. (Dallas, 2nd round) Originally a pure flex TE who grew his body and game into all TE roles, Schoonie stepped up in 2022 when Erick All was lost to an injury early in the season. If I had to estimate what percentage of McCarthy’s 3rd down conversion passes went to Bell and Schoonmaker, I’d say “damned near all of ‘em”.
  • WR AJ Henning (portal to Northwestern). Saw a few dedicated plays on end-arounds, but wasn’t really a receiving threat due to combination of hands and route-running. Mentioned here because he’s an electric return man Michigan will miss.
  • WR Andrel Anthony (portal to Oklahoma). Had one spectacular game against MSU in Michigan’s only regular season loss of the last two years. Has spent the last season and a half almost-but-not-quite making spectacular plays in relatively sparse opportunities.

Returning Regulars:

  • WR Cornelius Johnson (RS Sr). Will be starting outside receiver for the 4th consecutive season. Won’t win many jump balls (Trace McSorely would have no use for him). Fast enough and a good enough route runner to toast Ohio State for 69 and 75yd touchdowns this year. He’s a better player than people think because Michigan doesn’t throw to the outside receivers a lot.
  • Roman Wilson (RS Jr). Will be a 3rd year starting receiver. At 6’, he’s a little smaller than Johnson, but an absolute burner. Was the leading victim for McCarthy’s overthrows last year. If he moves into the slot this year you’ll see a lot more of him.

New/Expected to Step Up

  • Flex TE Colston Loveland (Tr So) Moved ahead of everyone except Schoonmaker as a true freshman over the course of 2022. Scored a long TD against Ohio State (but then, who didn’t?) With Schoonmaker gone, he’s absolutely the guy at flex. Not the blocker Schoonie was, but maybe an even better receiver and WR-fast.
  • Tyler Morris (Tr So) Leading candidate to replace Bell in the lineup, though I expect he’ll start his career outside, with Wilson moving into the slot.


They gonna block. A lot. Again.

Maybe in year two, Harbs will let McCarthy throw to the fast, catchy guys more, but I wouldn’t count on it. Jimmy LOVES him some manball.

Loveland will be a fixture. He’ll be hard for safeties to cover and a nightmare to most LBs. Assuming Wilson moves inside, his targets will probably increase three-fold. He’s shifty and fast AF. He’s probably not as tough as Ronnie Bell (not many rail-thin guys are), but he’ll make some noise this year. Johnson will remain the same player: a route merchant with more speed than people think who just doesn’t get thrown the ball enough.

Runner type people:

Ohio State University vs University of Michigan
Not pictured: Michigan’s best running back
Set Number: X164248 TK1

Last Year:

Blake Corum. Donovan Edwards. That’s the sort of unfair only OSU usually gets to experience.

Michigan led the big10 in rushing last year playing primarily these two guys. Having either of them would make a fan excited. Having both feels like cheating.


No one who played meaningful downs. 4th string walk-on Sam Gash medically retired.

Returning Regulars:

  • Blake Corum (RS Jr) Over the years, Corum has bulked up from 180 to 213. He came into the program as a scatback who could juke you in a phonebooth and then run away with blazing top-end speed. He’s not really a pure burner anymore, but he’s added tons of power to go with great vision. He’s pretty good.
  • Donovan Edwards (Tr Jr) Not a #2 back so much as a #1b. A great all-around back who’s so good receiving out of the backfield, OSU recruited him as a WR. Speaking of OSU, you can ask them if he’s fast.

New/Expected to Step Up

  • CJ Stokes (Tr So) Last year’s (distant) #3 is expected to have the same role again. It’ll be hard to get him a lot of carries with Corum and Edwards in front of him. On the plus side, it’s almost scary how much his running style is reminiscent of Karan Higdon. But his lack of vision set some yards on fire last year so there’s work to do here.


Strongest position on a strong team. It’s ridiculous to lose a player like Blake Corum to injury and think “we should be fine”, but that’s where Michigan was late last year. There will be a lot of yards. There will be a lot of touchdowns.

In The Trenches (linemen, in-line TEs, HB TEs)

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 31 Semifinal Game Fiesta Bowl
Two Joe Moores. Make it three?
Photo by Adam Bow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Last Year:

Michigan’s pass protection in 2022 was average, but the run blocking… oh buddy. When I was a mouthy little teenaged jackass, I remember watching Schembechler teams wear opponents down, pounding the ball in the first three quarters, and then own the fourth*. Last year I was a mouthy, fat, 50-something jackass, and watched Michigan do that same thing to teams like Penn State. Who does that in the modern game? I don’t know if we’ll be able to repeat the formula this year, but I’m dead certain we’re going to try.

*Not so much the bowl game, but we covered that.


  • C Olu Oluwatimi (Rimington Award, 5th round pick to Seattle, maybe the best C I’ve ever seen in a Michigan uniform)
  • (mostly inline) TE Luke Schoonmaker (2nd round pick to Dallas). Great two-way TE really came into his own, picking up for the injured Erick All.
  • LT Ryan Hayes (3yr starter, 7th round pick to Miami) Fourth best lineman on the 2022 line, but probably the best pass blocker.

Returning Regulars:

  • Guards Zach Zinter (RS Jr) Trevor Keegan (RS Jr) Both guys were starters on back-to-back Moore-winning lines. These guys are the anchors of this year’s line.
  • Tackles Karson Barnhart (RS Jr) and Trente Jones (RS Jr) Jones is a road grader who missed a lot of ‘22 after getting McNamara murderfied with an ole block worthy 2009 PSU. Barnhart stepped in and didn’t give the job back, but his value is more that he’s solid and plays all five positions rather than “he’s the next Jake Long”.

New/Expected to Step Up

  • C Drake Nugent (RS Jr, transfer from Stanford). Undersized center whose nickname is nonetheless “Diesel”. Super heady player who’s considered much better run blocking that in pass pro. He’ll fit right in.
  • G LaDarious Henderson (RS Jr, transfer from Arizona State). Athletic 4-year starter at ASU with the gumby arms and foot quickness to play tackle. I think he’s a clear upgrade over either returning “starting” tackle.
  • TEs Mathew Hibner (RS Jr), AJ Barner (RS Jr). Hibner RS junior moving up. Barner is a RS junior transfer from Indiana looking to win a job. Expect to see them to mostly share the in-line TE and H-Back snaps.


Generally, you don’t lose a player like Olu and a 3-year starting tackle without taking a step back. Returning both guards will keep us from having two newbies side-by-side, and there’s plenty of talent and depth to fill those spots. We probably would have been fine without any of the transfers (also got tackle Myles Hinton from Stanford, a former 5-star recruit). With them, Michigan probably has the best running game in the conference again.

So that all sounds pretty good. What could possibly go wrong?

Pass protection. Every one of Michigan’s returning linemen is a better run blocker than pass blocker, and the same is reportedly true of Nugent. McNamara’s season ended last year on a textbook “look out” block before the big10 season even started. Michigan fans all over the nation were geeked about the pass rush they saw in the spring game. I mean, maybe Michigan’s rush-ends are going to be beasts this year. I submit there was a different possible conclusion.

This offense looks pretty good, but the outlook changes sharply if we see JJ McCarthy in street clothes.


How will Michigan’s Offense fare in 2023?

This poll is closed

  • 24%
    Amazing. A running game like last year, with twice the passing game!
    (19 votes)
  • 52%
    The same. They’ll run all day, pass only as much as they need to, and that’ll be enough for almost every team on the schedule
    (41 votes)
  • 6%
    Toast. The Big10 has all the film and will know how to stop them now. JJ McCarthy is an imposter and everyone is gonna know it.
    (5 votes)
  • 8%
    Great. And then JJ gets hurt. And THEN toast.
    (7 votes)
  • 7%
    I neither know nor care, but I wish my team had their OL.
    (6 votes)
78 votes total Vote Now