In some alternate universe, an email would have hit the inboxes of reporters sometime last week. It would have announced the start of Michigan football’s spring practice, and contained a schedule for press conferences with players and coaches. More likely than not, it would’ve led off with coach Jim Harbaugh.
Of course, none of that happened. Instead, the Wolverines are at home along with everyone else. There’s no spring practice because of the COVID-19 crisis, and no chance for the media to ask questions of Harbaugh for the first time since January’s Citrus Bowl loss to Alabama.
Still, they remain pertinent. The Daily decided to break down three of the biggest questions surrounding the Michigan football team’s offense. Here they are:
Who’s winning the quarterback battle?
The need to find a replacement for Shea Patterson will dominate most of the conversation surrounding Michigan football until either Dylan McCaffrey or Joe Milton steps onto the field against Washington on Sept. 5.
Despite a number of faults, Patterson was a proven commodity who averaged eight yards per attempt in two years as Michigan’s starting quarterback. McCaffrey and Milton both figure to have higher ceilings, if only because of the allure of the unknown, but both are just that — largely unknown. When he saw game action over the last two years, McCaffrey, a redshirt junior in 2020, mostly impressed with his legs, rushing for a 44-yard touchdown against Wisconsin in 2018. As for Milton, he completed three of four passes on a late-game touchdown drive against Rutgers in 2019, after the contest became out of hand.
Of the two, McCaffrey seems the safer pick. He’s a year older, with more practice and game reps, while Milton’s accuracy and touch are both at question. Still, outsized arm talent makes Milton’s ceiling convincing. Going with the younger, potentially more erratic quarterback would represent a huge vote of confidence on Harbaugh’s part — as well as a notable risk.
How does Chris Evans work into the running back rotation?
The run game is a notable strength for Michigan going into 2020. Zach Charbonnet enters his sophomore year after a 726-yard, 11-touchdown freshman campaign as the probable starter, but Hassan Haskins could challenge him for the job. At minimum, the two will likely split carries as they did last season.
Things get complicated fast after that, though. Harbaugh announced in November that Evans, a senior who served an academic suspension for all of last season, would be reinstated for 2020. On top of that, Michigan also brings in four-star recruit Blake Corum from St. Frances Academy in Maryland.
Evans was never the full-time starter from 2016-18, but always found himself well in the mix for carries. It’s unlikely that will change — it stands to reason that Michigan wouldn’t have asked Evans back had there not been a role envisioned for him. On top of that, he’s a talented running back who averaged 5.2 yards per carry in 2018.
Exactly what that translates to in terms of his role, though, isn’t clear. Based on the way Harbaugh’s done things in the past, it’d be surprising if we didn’t see a somewhat-even rotation between Charbonnet, Haskins and Evans in terms of carries. But it still would have been nice to get 15 practices to see if any separation occurred.
The offensive line lost four starters — what does it look like right now?
Michigan’s offensive line is in a great long-term position. Last season, it was one of the biggest sources of consistency in the offense, with three seniors and Cesar Ruiz, a center who left early for the NFL. Just as important, it seemed then — and still seems now — that the Wolverines have the depth to withstand that kind of turnover, a credit to offensive line coach Ed Warinner, whose arrival two years ago helped flip the position into one of strength.
But redshirt sophomore right tackle Jalen Mayfield is the only returning starter, and the other four spots are somewhat up in the air. Redshirt sophomore Ryan Hayes seems the likely option to start at left tackle, as he played against Middle Tennessee State and Army when Jon Runyan Jr. was injured last season and acquitted himself well during that stretch.
Things get complicated on the interior, though. The Wolverines brought in a six-man offensive line class in 2019 — four-stars Karsen Barnhart, Nolan Rumler, Trente Jones and Trevor Keegan, along with three-stars Jack Stewart and Zach Carpenter. Senior Andrew Stueber was in the thick of competition with Mayfield for the right tackle spot when he went down for the season with an ACL tear. Senior Chuck Filiaga has long been the subject of praise from coaches, but has yet to earn a starting spot.
It’s also important to note that without spring ball, there are 15 less times these players will practice, be evaluated and compete with each other. That leaves us doing a lot of guesswork.
As the two most experienced players of the group, it stands to reason that Stueber and Filiaga would have a leg up at left and right guard, respectively. As for the rest, Barnhart may be the most game-ready, and got snaps in two games last year. Carpenter played center his senior year at Archbishop Moeller, which could make him the best-equipped to replace Ruiz.