It’s been 280 days since Michigan football’s disastrous 2020 campaign ended in a 27-17 home loss against Penn State.
In those 280 days, a lot happened within the program. An inexplicably long negotiation process ended in an extension and pay cut for coach Jim Harbaugh, who then transformed his entire assistant coaching staff. Three of the Wolverines’ key skill players on offense — including last year’s starting quarterback — transferred out of the program. Somewhere along the way, the University was forced to confront the tainted legacy of one of its most beloved figures.
After all that, somehow, we’ve made it to kickoff.
When Harbaugh leads his team onto the field for Saturday’s season opener against Western Michigan, he’ll do so with more questions hanging over his head than ever before. Can he, after the worst season of his coaching career, achieve a respectable record in 2021? Can a coaching staff with an average age of 37 re-energize a program that’s seemingly lost its way? Most importantly, entering year seven without a Big Ten championship or a win against Ohio State, is there any chance that Harbaugh can eventually deliver his program to the Promised Land?
And if he can’t, can anyone?
Barring a catastrophic upset, a game against Western Michigan won’t answer any of those questions. To the joy of coaches and the consternation of everyone else, the Week 1 cupcake allows the staff to conceal the problems that could later become the team’s downfall and keep secret the weapons that could be its saving grace.
But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to learn. A game’s a game — here’s what to watch for in this one:
The Obvious: Quarterback
Unlike in years past, Harbaugh’s staff has shown no hesitation in sharing who the starting quarterback will be on Saturday. Junior Cade McNamara, who won the starting job at the end of last season before suffering an injury against Penn State, has earned praise from the coaching staff and his teammates recently for his confidence and consistency in fall camp.
Of course, it takes more than consistency to win football games, but that should be the number one thing to look for from McNamara on Saturday. He needs to go through his progressions on every down and avoid making poor reads. With speed like Michigan has at receiver, the offense should be able to find some openings downfield against the Broncos, and McNamara should be able to hit them consistently. If he misses a couple of throws or his receivers can’t hang on, will he get frustrated or can he put those plays behind him?
A second factor to watch will be how McNamara uses his legs on Saturday. Quarterbacks coach Matt Weiss said this week that the Wolverines won’t draw up designed QB runs, but still praised McNamara’s mobility in the pocket. While that’s a good asset to have, Michigan’s last two quarterbacks — Joe Milton and Shea Patterson — both showed a tendency to bail out of clean pockets and effectively neutralize any downfield threats. McNamara needs to be patient, while still maintaining the ability to extend plays.
The Most Concerning: Secondary
The struggles of Michigan’s cornerbacks last year are well documented: they were forced into one-on-one coverage too often and got beat. For the most part, Don Brown’s fealty to the Cover 1 is why he’s not in Ann Arbor anymore. Now, defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald is said to have brought more zone concepts to the Wolverines’ defense, which should prevent those situations.
“It’s night and day, for real,” senior cornerback Vincent Gray said. “I feel like this defense allows us to … create more plays on the ball, and that’s gonna be good for us going forward this year.
“… I’m very excited to just show that I can do more than just stand in front of a guy and press him and run around with a guy. We learned a lot this offseason just conceptually, and it’s gonna show on Saturdays.”
That’s easier said than done, though. In reality, every offensive coordinator in the country can draw up a play that ends with one-on-one matchups against any defense — that’s exactly what four verticals was designed to do. Zone defenses can reduce the chance of that happening and limit the quarterback’s options, but if the defensive backs aren’t up to snuff, a lot of plays will end the same way.
Issues in the secondary could be especially problematic on Saturday because Western Michigan had one of the strongest passing offenses in college football last season. The Broncos finished with 10.95 yards per pass attempt last season, good for second in the country, behind only national champion Alabama. Returning quarterback Kaleb Eleby — who finished third in the FBS in passer rating last season — lost his favorite target in D’Wayne Eskridge but still has 6-foot-4 receiver Jaylen Hall to throw jump balls to.
Put simply, if the holes in Michigan’s secondary are still there, Western Michigan will expose them. It’s unlikely the Wolverines will lose this game, but if they do, or even if it’s close, it’ll be death by a thousand deep balls.
The Most Important: Offensive Line
Based on personnel alone, Michigan’s offensive skill positions should be ready.
At receiver, the Wolverines have experienced, sure hands in senior Ronnie Bell, two legitimate deep threats in junior Cornelius Johnson and senior transfer Daylen Baldwin and a wealth of fast young slot receivers to choose from. At running back, they have a physical, consistent runner in senior Hassan Haskins, a dynamic runner in sophomore Blake Corum and the fourth-best freshman back in the country in Donovan Edwards.
With the strength at those positions, Michigan’s offense should come down to three things: play calling, quarterback play and, most crucially, the offensive line. The injuries and overall youth on last year’s line contributed to Milton’s discomfort in the pocket and limited the Wolverines’ options offensively.
The line is older this year — Saturday’s presumed starters, from left tackle to right tackle, are senior Ryan Hayes, junior Trevor Keegan, sixth-year Andrew Vastardis, fifth-year Chuck Filiaga, and fifth-year Andrew Stueber — but older doesn’t necessarily mean better. Western Michigan isn’t a particularly strong defensive team, but it does have a returning First-Team All-MAC defensive tackle in Ralph Holley. If there’s a weakness on Michigan’s offensive line, the Broncos will exploit it.
Still, former tight ends coach Sherrone Moore’s move to coaching the offensive line could bring new life to the unit. The abbreviated 2020 season and the flood of injuries make this unit one of the toughest to predict, even if it is the most crucial to the offense. For clues to how they’ll do this season, watch to see if they get a push on Holley (No. 8) and if they can consistently pick up stunts.
“We knew that (last year) wasn’t Michigan football,” Keegan said. “We knew that we needed to change that as the players and the coaches. We knew that the pressure’s on us, but we’re okay with it.”
It’s a season opener against a MAC opponent. Michigan should win fairly easily, but after last season, nothing is a given. If it’s close or if Western Michigan pulls off the upset, that doesn’t bode well for Harbaugh’s future in Ann Arbor. Regardless, Washington next week will be a better measuring stick for progress.
But in the meantime, it’s been a long offseason. Let’s be glad football is back.