The Michigan football team is halfway through its schedule, which means it’s time for a midterm review.
The Wolverines are heading into their biggest game of the year against Penn State and they currently hold an undefeated record with their aspirations intact. And while Michigan has flashed greatness at times throughout its first six games, it has also looked vulnerable, particularly at certain position groups.
So with midterm season upon us, it’s time to send out a report card. The Daily grades each part of the Michigan football team halfway through the season.
It feels like a lifetime since the Wolverines’ open quarterback competition to start the season, but the battle between senior Cade McNamara and sophomore J.J. McCarthy dominated preseason storylines. Once the competition finally made its way onto the field, though, it didn’t linger much longer. McCarthy excelled in his first start against Hawaii and has cemented his spot as the Wolverines’ QB1 ever since.
There have definitely been some growing pains: McCarthy has missed on some deep balls, fumbled a few times and hasn’t always had the soundest decision making. But McCarthy’s ceiling as a quarterback, especially with his mobility, gives Michigan a chance in any game — particularly in the matchup looming in Columbus.
And he can improve, too.
“I’m still adjusting to being able to use my legs,” McCarthy said. “It’s coming with time but like I said, that’s another part of my game and this offense that’s going to be really scary when it starts clicking.”
He hasn’t quite put everything together against a quality opponent yet, but his potential gives the Wolverines’ offense upside they didn’t have last season.
Running Backs: A+
The running game was the bread and butter for Michigan’s offense last season and despite the quarterback change, it hasn’t abandoned its identity as a run first offense. And that is all thanks to junior running back Blake Corum.
Corum has electrified the Wolverines’ offense week in and week out, rushing for 753 yards and 11 touchdowns. Last year, he shared duties with Hassan Haskins, but this season he has embraced his role as the lead back this season — proving he can handle a large workload and thrive in running opportunities.
“He’s a five-tool running back,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said on Oct. 6.
Michigan also has sophomore Donovan Edwards to turn to, whose pass-catching abilities make him a difficult matchup to gameplan against. Edwards has been injured for parts of the first half of the season, but his touchdown catch against Iowa proved why he can be so dangerous when he’s fully healthy.
Corum is the Wolverines’ bellcow; he’s their MVP; their Heisman contender. Having Edwards as a versatile threat out of the backfield makes the duo even more dangerous.
Wide Receivers: B+
The wide receivers have been overshadowed by the run game, but they have been solid for Michigan. Graduate receiver Ronnie Bell returned to form from his torn ACL, reeling in 30 catches for 390 yards, leading the team in both facets.
The Wolverines talked about the embarrassment of riches they had at the receiver group before the season, and that’s been apparent with junior Cornelius Johnson, junior Roman Wilson, sophomore Andrel Anthony and senior AJ Henning all making contributions in addition to Bell.
Wilson has been the biggest breakout player, arguably, of the entire Wolverines roster. He’s taken his raw speed and shaped himself into a bona fide deep threat, already accumulating 224 yards and three touchdown catches. He sustained an injury against Iowa, and the Wolverines didn’t attempt many deep shots against Indiana as a result.
The receiving group hasn’t consistently wowed, but they’ve rarely made mistakes. When Wilson gets back in the fold, the Wolverines will have confidence in their bevy of pass catchers to keep making plays for McCarthy.
Tight Ends: A-
It’s tough to fully assess the tight ends because they’ve spent the entirety of conference play without senior captain Erick All. All entered the season with legitimate NFL prospects, but an undisclosed injury has held him out the last three weeks and he doesn’t appear to be returning anytime soon.
The tight ends have powered through adversity, though. Senior Luke Schoonmaker has stepped up as the starting tight end and thrived, snagging 23 catches for 229 yards — already eclipsing his previous career highs in just half a season of work.
The tight end group was expecting to have All leading the way. Although his absence was a blow, the position group hasn’t seen a huge dropoff in success, which is a testament to Schoonmaker’s growth.
Offensive line: A (with the curve)
When the offensive line has been healthy, it’s been great. The problem is they’ve endured a number of injuries throughout the season, including to seniors Trente Jones and Trevor Keegan.
The line has still performed admirably, despite not being able to build chemistry with a consistent group. Graduate transfer Olusegun Oluwatimi hasn’t missed a beat taking over at center for Andrew Stueber. The unit has largely controlled the line of scrimmage — and Corum has been a serious benefactor.
“(We can) talk about how many yards I put up but the o-line killed it today,” Corum said after his 243-yard performance against Maryland. “They make my job easy. They allowed me to get to the second level defenders real quick.”
Michigan has confidence in its offensive line. The group should continue to perform well, but it’s hard to truly judge its strength without all five starters intact.
Defensive Line: A-
The Michigan defense preached that this season it was going to be a “no-star” defense and while it may still follow that mantra, some stars are burgeoning on the defensive line.
Senior Mike Morris has ascended his game, already racking up five sacks and seven tackles for loss. Senior Mazi Smith has lived up to his billing as one of the ‘freakiest’ players in college football, plugging up the middle and constantly attracting double teams which creates more opportunities for the edge rushers. Graduate transfer Eyabi Okie, who joined the program just two weeks before the start of the season, has already carved out a key role as well.
The unit has remained strong since the start of conference play began, recording at least three sacks in each game. Most recently, it compiled seven against the Hoosiers.
The defense has dealt with some struggles in pass coverage but getting pressure on the quarterback can soften the blow. So far, the line has been the most effective area of the defense and the depth the Wolverines have at the position means the production should keep up.
The linebackers have not impressed to this point. How the group would handle pass coverage was a major question mark coming into the season and they haven’t provided many answers since conference play began.
The middle of the field has been a weak point for the defense and opponents have taken advantage so far. They gave up 60 yards to Maryland tight end Corey Dyches and 84 yards to Iowa tight end Luke Lachey.
Junior Nikhai Hill-Green, who has not played this season, should be back in the near future which will boost the unit’s overall outlook. But they are still ripe to be exploited by more talented offenses like Penn State and Ohio State.
This year, Michigan faced an uphill battle in the secondary, effectively having to rebuild most of the core. So far, it’s been a mixed bag for the unit. It gave up 269 yards and two touchdowns against the Terrapins’ air raid attack. More concerningly, it surrendered 246 passing yards to the typically anemic Iowa offense.
“We’re pretty good as a defense,” sophomore safety Rod Moore said Monday. “All teams have somewhere that we need to improve on. I feel like we need to improve everywhere, just take care of the little things and be perfectionists.”
The group has had some bright spots, though, including Moore who has two interceptions. Senior Mike Sainristil has also stood out at nickelback after only switching this offseason.
The secondary has taken a bend-don’t-break approach and while they’ve struggled at times, they’ve steeled up when it’s mattered most. But much like the linebackers, concerns linger about whether the unit has room to improve — or if it is just going to have to live with their deficiencies.
Overall Grade: A-
It hasn’t always been pretty, but the Wolverines are 6-0, and have shown confidence with McCarthy at quarterback. They have also seen players such as Corum and Morris take major strides. There are some issues — particularly on defense — that they’ll have to sort through if they want a legitimate shot at getting back to the College Football Playoff. But they took care of business through the first six weeks.
While tougher tests are coming, they haven’t failed anything yet. And that deserves a passing grade.