The Michigan football team’s offense is already showing signs of improvement from a season ago.
Between three starting quarterbacks and an offensive line that couldn’t keep them upright, the Wolverines ranked among the Big Ten’s worst in yards-per-play, points and third-down conversion rate in 2017. Three games aren’t enough to start making statistical comparisons. But they’re plenty to see an elevated level of play.
Just take Michigan’s second touchdown Saturday in its win over SMU. From the Mustangs seven yard-line, junior quarterback Shea Patterson lobbed a back-shoulder fade to sophomore receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones, who adjusted in mid-air to corral the pass. A completion of that difficultly simply wouldn’t have been made last season.
Instead, more simplistic throws were the concern. Even when Michigan’s young receivers got separation, passing opportunities were frequently either errant or not seen entirely because the quarterback was on his back. But Patterson has been mostly on the money in three starts so far, completing roughly 70 percent of his passes for 589 yards and six touchdowns.
“He’s getting out of trouble and creating plays when sometimes there isn’t one to be there,” said coach Jim Harbaugh following Saturday’s game. “He’s playing the position really well and making the throws when they present themselves. He’s hitting the short ones, he’s hitting the intermediate ones, he’s hitting the deep ones. Good quarterback play.”
Improved quarterback play hasn’t changed the Wolverines’ play-calling too much, though. Despite the departure of offensive coordinator Tim Drevno, Michigan has maintained a run-first approach to try to open passing opportunities. Per teamrankings.com, the Wolverines threw on 42 percent of their plays last year — their exact distribution so far in 2018.
Junior offensive guard Michael Onwenu does think Patterson has become more ingrained in the offense since fall camp, but he doesn’t expect Michigan to run an air-raid system anytime soon.
“Since we have a new quarterback, I think we’re incorporating him more,” Onwenu said. “I’m not saying we’re building the offense around him, but it’s meshing at a good time.”
Establishing an offensive identity takes time. What the Wolverines are calling now is different from what they’ll be able to run in November. After all, Harbaugh’s West Coast offense is known for its complexities, filled with variations that could fill an NFL playbook.
At times, it looked like too much for Michigan last season, especially given its quarterback turnover. That’s why, this fall, the Wolverines learned the playbook at a tempered pace.
“I wouldn’t say slower, but it’s definitely less,” Onwenu said. “Last year, we were installing about 10 plays every few days. Fast-forward to this year’s camp, and we’re installing basic plays that we already knew but are taking time to master.”
Re-learning plays makes sense considering the addition of Patterson. Coming from a spread offensive system at Mississippi, he wasn’t forced to learn a playbook as expansive as Harbaugh’s.
Michigan hasn’t either — yet. Onwenu said the Wolverines haven’t shown “half” its playbook through three games and are installing plays “week to week.”
“We definitely have a lot of weapons that we haven’t used yet,” Onwenu said. “We have so much more we can improve on.”
Time will tell what those weapons are. Michigan would certainly benefit from more explosiveness and plays down field. Still, with Patterson under center, the Wolverines are confident in their offense’s development.
“They got a high ceiling,” said junior linebacker Devin Bush. “They got a lot of playmakers over there that can do something with the ball in their hands. I think they’re getting better at what they do.”