Offensive coordinator Josh Gattis hopes to see improvement in Michigan's run game in 2021. Alec Cohen/Daily.  Buy this photo.

For the Michigan football program, the start of fall camp in 2021 carries a different tone than it has in years past. 

The general mood, of course, remains the same: optimistic. With the blank slate of a new season comes new visions and new possibilities. The shortcomings of the previous campaign are distant enough in the past — and the threat of Ohio State distant enough in the future — to believe they’ve been potentially fixed enough for the Wolverines to take a step forward in the new year. 

But for 2021, that step forward comes from unfamiliar territory. Whereas in Harbaugh’s previous campaigns, Michigan hoped to finally bridge the gap with the nation’s elite (and, to an extent, some level of success felt certain), the vast disappointment of 2020 means this season’s fall camp carries more tempered expectations. Whether or not the coaches want to admit it, the Wolverines aren’t destined for a conference title in 2021. Mostly, they’ll just be looking to compete. 

A lot of that improvement will have to start in the run game. Last season, Michigan mustered just 131.5 rushing yards per game, good for 95th in the country and 11th in the Big Ten. Even worse, the Wolverines put up those numbers with a running-back room that was, by all accounts, fairly deep. From there, the run game becomes a question of coaching and offensive line play. 

“I think we were productive at times,” offensive coordinator Josh Gattis said. “The issue is, we didn’t run the ball enough. … We just had two or three games where we had under 20 carries a game, and so your numbers, comparatively, when you look at them at the end of the season, they’re gonna be low.”

Gattis is correct that there were two games in 2020 — against Indiana and Wisconsin — where Michigan ran the ball fewer than 20 times. But looking at the numbers, choosing to throw the ball more at the time made sense, as the Wolverines averaged 0.7 and 2.5 yards per carry against the Hoosiers and Badgers, respectively. They finished both of those games with under 50 yards on the ground, but even if they had run it more, that wouldn’t have made any difference in the offense’s success. 

Realistically, growth will have to come on the offensive line, and although there’s a decent amount of depth in that position group, the most talented players remain young and unproven. Some, like current sophomore Zak Zinter, whom Gattis has anointed as potentially being Michigan’s best offensive player, were thrown into the fire last season after injuries derailed the starting lineup, while others, like junior Trente Jones, have yet to see significant playing time. Their development will be crucial to any growth in the run game in 2021. 

“Our depth at the offensive line position, I think that’s a strength,” Gattis said. “… We feel like we’ve got almost eight guys that can compete for a starting job, and obviously we’ve got some high-level players there.”

There’s also, of course, Sherrone Moore’s move to coaching the offensive line. His predecessor — Ed Warinner, now the run-game coordinator at Florida Atlantic — was generally well-respected in college football as a skilled tactician, so Moore does have some pretty big shoes to fill. Still, at just 35 years old and as a former offensive lineman himself, he brings a different perspective to his unit that could help with player development. 

“I think the younger guys really appreciate it,” fifth-year senior offensive lineman Andrew Stueber said in March. “It’s become a more open-room environment, you can ask a lot more questions, and he knows from experience, too. I think also the older guys are liking the new kind of energy and vibe he’s bringing to the room, the practice field, and just his overall energy.”

Whether that translates into success, though, is yet to be seen. Even if the Wolverines aren’t expected to compete for a national championship in 2021, the run game cannot remain stagnant. That could be complicated by injuries and youth on the offensive line, but sooner or later, that unit will need to find something that works.  

“The 2020 offense is gonna look different than the 2021 offense,” Gattis said. “Because you have to shape that to the identity of your team.”

One way or another, that identity will be forged in the trenches.