Football’s back? Football’s back.
There are just 18 days until No. 14 Michigan kicks off its 2018 season in South Bend, Ind., against No. 11 Notre Dame. As fall camp continues, there are plenty of questions to be answered between now and then, largely on the offensive side of the ball. Today, The Daily begins its season preview content, by asking — and answering — five of those pressing questions:
1) Who will start at the tackle spots and how effective can they be?
The former can be answered any day now, the latter will only be revealed in time. But this is question number one — and question number one for a reason — because it is, ostensibly, all that matters between now and September 1. Last year, the Wolverines had the fourth-worst passing offense in the conference, ahead of only Maryland, Minnesota and Rutgers. Only Illinois and the Scarlet Knights had fewer than the nine touchdowns Michigan’s triad of quarterbacks threw. Improved quarterback play will help in those categories, but it (Shea Patterson) can only do so much without trustworthy pass-blocking.
More rationally, the two need to work in tandem. And with the options at play, skepticism seems warranted. The Wolverines’ best all-around offensive lineman, Mason Cole, has departed to the NFL. He — compounded with some past recruiting misses — leave a thinned-out group of options. Entering camp, fifth-year senior Juwann Bushell-Beatty and junior Jon Runyan appeared to be the favorites to start against the Fighting Irish. They still might be, but redshirt freshman James Hudson seems to have nudged his way into that conversation. That he’s earned praise should be a cause for tepid optimism, especially with Ed Warriner at the helm of the offensive line now. Hudson, recruited as a 4-star defensive lineman, always had the frame and potential to be a starting offensive lineman in the Big Ten. Whether that happens this early might just be the single biggest variable in Michigan’s season.
Best guess? Bushell-Beaty and Hudson get the nod.
2) It’s Shea, right?
It’s going to be Shea. Certainly. Probably. Ever since he showed up to the Michigan/UCLA basketball game last winter, and declared his commitment shortly after, the presumption has been in place. Granted immediate eligibility months later, that presumption became an inevitability. The buzz has only ramped up since. Defensive end Chase Winovich told tales of Patterson throwing a picture-perfect deep ball at a particularly windy practice. Dom Brown told reporters Patterson had earned his respect already.
But Harbaugh still hasn’t named a starting quarterback publicly, and until he does so, anything is possible. It’s worth a reminder that Brandon Peters was a redshirt freshman who looked like one last year. He showed flashes of ability, and moments of frustration. It can be easy to forget that he was never supposed to be the starter last year, and, for all we know, could be making a leap in camp. With Harbaugh, you might not know for certain until someone strides out around 7:30pm on September 1.
(It’s probably going to be Shea.)
3) How has the offense changed?
This is not an “if.” The offense will look different. All parties have offered that it will be more spread out, a welcome change for fans clamoring for the Wolverines to enter the 21st century of college football offenses. There will be more run-pass options (RPOs) — plays in which the offensive line blocks for a run but offers the quarterback an option to throw dependent on the defensive look. Expect more shotgun looks. It will be less traditional.
These changes were coming with or without Patterson. With his propensity to get outside the pocket and make plays with his legs, it only expedited — and probably increased — them. The marriage between Harbaugh’s traditional west coast, NFL-style offense and Patterson’s preferred spread configurations could dictate the comfort and effectiveness of the offense. Expect speed bumps early on. But if the two can come together in an offense that will still be run-centric anyway, there’s reason to expact vast improvement across the board.
4) What will the wide receiver depth chart look like?
There’s an argument to be made that this is the most talented Michigan receiving corps, on paper, since… 2014? Earlier? On paper. Of course, as you’re acutely aware, the games aren’t played on paper, and there’s quite a bit unanswered about this group. It was difficult to judge those who played last season — namely, sophomores Donovan Peoples-Jones, Tarik Black and Nico Collins — for a variety of reasons, which have been previously outlined. If Black, in particular, can return to the form he had prior to his season-ending injury three games into the season, this group has the potential to elevate the rest of the offense. He grabbed 11 catches for 149 yards and a memorable 49-yard touchdown in the season-opener before breaking his foot week 3 against Air Force.
But how will it all shake out? The picture remains murky right now. Black and Peoples-Jones will almost certainly open the season as the starters out wide. With Eddie McDoom leaving the program, the battle for the starting slot receiver job likely boils down to redshirt freshman Oliver Martin and senior Grant Perry. Beyond that, expect Collins and junior Nate Schoenle to also figure into the picture.
Best guess? Black, Peoples-Jones and Perry start the season. The other three get heavy reps. Martin assumes a heavy role — if not a starting role — after strong performances early in the year.
5) Will a third running back emerge?
By now you know about Karan Higdon and Chris Evans. The duo combined for 1,679 yards last season, averaging 5.6 yards per carry. They will shoulder much of the load for the exepectedly run-heavy offense.
But, between injuries and natural rotation, someone else will likely figure into the equation, in some form. Who that may be is anyone’s guess at this point. Harbaugh has singled out walk-on junior Tru Wilson multiple times. Wilson had offers from Navy, Army, Air Force and Robert Morris out of high school, but elected for a preferred walk-on spot with the Wolverines. He has only one carry in his career.
Sophomore O’Maury Samuels is the most likely to knock Wilson out of that spot. Samuels was a four-star, top-300 recruit out of New Mexico in 2017, but has yet to put much on tape (eight carries for 13 yards offer little hint). He was limited in spring practice with a hamstring injury, which helps explain why Wilson might have nudged ahead.
Somebody will get snaps early on behind Evans and Higdon. Best guess? Bet on Samuels.