With actual football games finally on the horizon, it’s only a matter of weeks until tangible narratives about the Michigan football team start to play out on the field.
Until then, the Wolverines are working behind closed doors, and the only glimpses into what’s going on at fall camp have come from sound bites — which to this point have either been overwhelmingly positive or completely circumspect.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh did not deviate from the script as he took to the podium Wednesday afternoon — offering his usual wry humor and cryptic musings about his team.
The Daily breaks down a few takeaways from Harbaugh’s latest presser.
No clarity on quarterback situation
There are non-answers, and then there’s the plethora of tactics Harbaugh used to avoid giving any insight into whether senior Cade McNamara or sophomore JJ McCarthy will be QB1 for the Wolverines in their Week 1 tilt against Colorado State.
“They both just continued to elevate their game on a daily basis in every little way,” Harbaugh said. “They’re both playing at a high starter caliber.”
Later on, Harbaugh continued to be ambiguous:
“This is a very good, unique situation. We have two quarterbacks that are playing at a high starter level. It’s possible that there’s a starter by the first game and (it’s) possible that it plays into the season and then we pick the one that’s going to help the team win.”
Harbaugh broke down the three somewhat obvious scenarios for how the quarterback battle will play out. It’s possible that either McNamara or McCarthy comes in as the clear starter with the other serving as a backup. The third scenario Harbaugh laid out, though, seems far more likely with the battle still undecided this close to the season:
“We’d have to see them play games to make that decision.”
Whether it’s for strategic purposes or because he genuinely doesn’t know, Harbaugh is hellbent on not telling anyone who the starter will be — and little will be said to placate the situation until it plays out on the field.
Receivers continuing to shine in fall camp
When asked to name a fall camp MVP, Harbaugh felt there were a bunch of guys who stood out, but there was only one player he explicitly referenced:
The fifth-year wide receiver’s recovery from a torn ACL has been well-documented, and he’s itching to get back on the field. He has returned to full health and could be even more explosive than before.
“Ronnie Bell has been tremendous,” Harbaugh said. “Ronnie does jump out. He’s faster, catching the ball extremely well and he’s stronger. He’s been there every day and is doing a tremendous job.”
Bell led Michigan in receiving yards in 2019 and 2020, and while the receiver room is deeper than in years past, he should slot right back in as the Wolverines’ top receiving option this season.
Another receiver expected to make major strides is sophomore Andrel Anthony. The East Lansing product burst onto the scene midway through last year and while he seems poised to establish a more concrete role as starter this season, his work ethic has continued to stand out to Michigan’s head honcho.
“When I see there’s things he wants to get a little bit better at, he works a little bit harder at them,” Harbaugh said. “He has always avoided getting a big head so he’s right on track to being a heck of a good player. Already is.”
Interior defense making progress
While much has been made of the departure of former defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald, there was less buzz about the loss of defensive line coach Shaun Nua, who left for the same position at USC. Nua helped develop the Wolverines d-line into one of the most ferocious groups in the trenches.
Nua’s replacement — Mike Elston — has been tasked with keeping that momentum going with a less-heralded talent pool at that position group.
Harbaugh, though, isn’t concerned.
“Defensively, we have made some real strides in the interior defensive line,” Harbaugh said. “Mike Elston is doing a tremendous job coaching.”
Elston played for the Wolverines from 1993-1996 and served on the coaching staff from 1997-2000. He’s returning to Ann Arbor after 12 seasons on Notre Dame’s staff, and he appears to have the unit moving in the right direction.
One player under Elston’s jurisdiction generating a lot of hype is senior defensive tackle Mazi Smith, who was recently named by The Athletic as the No. 1 “freak” in all of college football. Smith is attempting to fill the void left by last year’s departures — namely Aidan Hutchinson — and is taking agency on the field to fire up teammates on his side of the ball.
“Mazi Smith is doing a tremendous job coaching guys out there.” Harbaugh said. “It wasn’t but a couple of days ago where it was super noticeable. Our defensive line got the better of our offensive line, which was pretty well thought of, in terms of an offensive line. So we’ve made some real improvement in the defensive line.”
The defense was a driving force for the Wolverines in 2021, and how well that unit can replicate last year’s success, with new players and coaches at the helm, could determine Michigan’s ceiling this year.