Around Michigan football, this year’s mid-offseason lull carries a different feel than the past two. For one, 2018 and 2019 both had a spring season, giving the Wolverines 15 practices to answer questions slightly less pressing than “Will we play the season?” But there was also an entrenched starter at quarterback, even if Jim Harbaugh wouldn’t admit it.
Now, with Shea Patterson graduated, there’s a gaping hole in the middle of a Michigan offense that returns many of its surrounding playmakers. At the center of the competition to fill that void are redshirt junior Dylan McCaffrey and redshirt sophomore Joe Milton.
While McCaffrey possesses an extra year of experience and three times as many pass attempts in relief of Patterson — despite missing time in both the past two seasons due to injury — Milton’s generational arm talent gives him a tantalizing ceiling that Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Josh Gattis will attempt to harness in 2020.
But without a spring season to separate the two, all we have is the tape, consisting of 35 pass attempts and 23 rush attempts for McCaffrey, and 11 pass attempts and 12 rush attempts for Milton.
The Daily went back and analyzed each player’s play in 2019, focusing on McCaffrey in this piece. The breakdown on Milton can be found here.
McCaffrey operates excellently in Gattis’s read-heavy offense
This was evident from the first snap of McCaffrey’s season — a 10-yard carry against Middle Tennessee State. (He was in as a receiver a few drives earlier, but one can only assume Gattis has burned that page of his playbook.)
McCaffrey’s speed has been widely recited as his biggest advantage over Patterson, but Patterson was plenty mobile when he got the ball in space. His biggest problem was an inability to make the correct reads on the zone reads that make up the bulk of Gattis’s run game — especially during the first half of the season, when he was hampered by an oblique injury.
In 2019, that wasn’t a problem for McCaffrey. He repeatedly made the correct reads in the run game, whether on speed options or zone reads, helping himself to 67 yards on 13 carries on the season while also opening up lanes for Michigan’s running backs by keeping defenses honest.
Here, McCaffrey keeps his eyes on the defense as Ben VanSumeren comes to take the handoff. He sees the weak-side linebacker collapsing in to defend the handoff and moves his eyes toward the weak-side defensive end. When McCaffrey is at his mesh point, he sees the defensive end take a shuffle step inside. That’s all McCaffrey needs to see to realize that he has a walk-in touchdown if he pulls the ball and takes it himself.
McCaffrey’s ability to make the most of the options provided by Gattis’s offense isn’t limited to the running game.
On this run-pass option later in the same game, he sees the middle linebacker and strong-side linebacker both pinching in before the mesh point, leaving Ronnie Bell in one-on-one coverage on a slant route over the middle. McCaffrey overthrows Bell, but forces the defensive back into a tough position by making the right read. This gives Bell the chance to draw a defensive holding penalty and get the first down.
He’s susceptible to zeroing in and missing open receivers
While McCaffrey had excellent decision-making on zone reads and RPOs, he occasionally struggled to find open receivers, instead zeroing in on covered ones. On more than a few occasions, this led to him failing to convert on opportunities for significant yardage.
McCaffrey, though, has escaped the worst implications of questionable decision-making. In his two years at Michigan, he has yet to throw an interception on 35 pass attempts. But with significantly more — and higher-leverage — opportunities in store in 2020, he’ll have to work on going through his reads to outdo Patterson’s stellar 2.12 interception percentage over the past two seasons.
Here, McCaffrey is lucky to avoid a red-zone interception. The primary read on the play is tight end Sean McKeon on a crossing route off play-action. Against one-deep man coverage, this route would normally be difficult to defend, especially after both outside linebackers initially pinch in off the play action. But McCaffrey zeroes in on McKeon early, allowing the weak-side outside linebacker to drop into the path of McKeon’s route and nearly come away with the interception.
While that play did come in the fifth and final game McCaffrey threw a pass in, this is an area in which he improved throughout the season. Earlier in the same drive against Maryland, McCaffrey helped the Wolverines get into field-goal range with this excellent play to convert on third down.
Facing a third-and-10 from the Maryland 43, McCaffrey knows he needs a first down here to keep the drive alive. With Mike Sainristil, Bell and Erick All running deep routes beyond the first-down marker, McCaffrey goes through his progressions. But rather than forcing a dangerous throw into one of them, he instead finds Tarik Black open on the crossing route, after locking his eyes in on McKeon for a split-second — long enough to freeze the middle linebacker, giving Black the separation he needs to pick up the first down.
This is the type of play McCaffrey didn’t make as often as he would have liked early in the 2019 season, but it’s an area that will be critical to his success in 2020 as he aims to make the most of Michigan’s returning weapons.
His ability to throw receivers into openings in the defense stood out
Among those returning weapons is Bell, who finished 2019 with a team-leading 758 receiving yards, despite entering fall camp as the Wolverines’ presumed fourth receiver. Bell excelled thanks to his rapport with Patterson, as the two exploited opposing defenses by repeatedly finding holes in coverage.
McCaffrey didn’t have the same opportunity to develop that chemistry in 2019, instead often coming into games late in blowouts with the rest of the second-stringers. Still, in his limited action, he showcased that same ability to lead his receivers into open pockets within the defense, such as on this pass to McKeon.
McCaffrey showed this impressive touch on multiple occasions throughout the season, helping him find receivers in tight spaces.
This play, from earlier in the same game, shows that same spatial awareness on a different type of pass, as he leads McKeon into the gap in Wisconsin’s zone coverage despite facing heavy pressure.
Unfortunately for McCaffrey, McKeon didn’t come up with the catch, but it’s the exact type of throw McCaffrey needs to make in 2020 to maximize Michigan’s weapons — and cement himself above Milton on the depth chart.