ANN ARBOR, Mich. — It’s the half-way point of the 2021 college football season, at least for Michigan, and Jim Harbaugh’s team happens to be on a bye.
So what better time to do some mid-season grading than now, with the 6-0 Wolverines ranked eighth in the country and riding a wave of momentum. They’ll host struggling Northwestern next Saturday, Oct. 23, in Ann Arbor with a real opportunity to move to 7-0.
There are plenty of things going right for Michigan, fresh off a disappointing 2020 season that prompted plenty of change, but there are still some question-mark areas. Let’s get into all of it, the good and not so good …
Through six games, Michigan’s passing offense remains one of the least productive units in the country. It ranks 101st nationally at 194 yards per game, below nine other Big Ten teams, including Iowa. But that’s not necessarily because of Cade McNamara. While things have picked up in recent weeks, the Wolverines still rank rather low in the FBS (115th) in pass attempts — a sign that, at least comparatively, Michigan is just not throwing the ball often. But when McNamara is asked to throw, he’s been rather efficient — completing 60.5 percent of his passes 986 yards and five touchdowns. His attempts rank 10th among Big Ten QBs, his passing yards rank eighth and his efficiency rating rankings seventh — a sign that he’s slightly outperforming his expectant numbers.
Whether you agree or disagree with the approach, the fact remains that McNamara’s been asked to play game manager, not playmaker, through six games. The coaching staff has dialed up a lot of short and intermediate throws for McNamara, who’s struggled at times with on-target deep balls. You’d like to see him improve his accuracy a touch and hit receivers in stride more, but you can’t really argue with the results so far. Michigan’s unbeaten with with a first-year starter at quarterback.
Hot on McNamara’s trail, however, is true-freshman J.J. McCarthy, who’s workload is slowly beginning to increase. The former five-star recruit only saw playing time in blowouts during the first few games, but he’s starting to take meaningful reps at various times of late. McCarthy quicker and more elusive than McNamara, presenting a challenge for opposing defenses who now have to worry about guarding against the run (and McCarthy’s arm). Together, Michigan appears to be finding its balance with the quarterbacks, making both more effective.
Running backs —
Thanks to a dominant first three games, Michigan’s rushing attack remains a top-10 unit during the bye week. The Wolverines are averaging a Big Ten-best 246.5 yards per game on the ground after topping 335 in each of the first three games. That cooled once they got into Big Ten play, recording just 112 yards each against Rutgers and Wisconsin. But the two-pronged attack of Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum have been as effective as any tandem in the country this year, giving Michigan’s play-callers different options with both.
Haskins (492 yards, 8 TDs) has been great between the tackles, running over opponents and picking up yards after contact, while the flashy, play-making ability of Corum (610 yards, 8 TDs) has forced opponents commit their linebackers and extra defensive backs to guard against his speed on the perimeter. Both backs are averaging better than 4 yards per carry (Corum’s at 6.3) and have break-away runs of 50 yards or more, forcing opponents to respect Michigan’s run game. Of course (and we’ll get to this later on), a healthy, more experienced offensive line and simplified run-game has helped.
Receivers/ tight ends —
Michigan lost its leader and primary deep-ball threat Ronnie Bell in Week 1, a major blow that truly wasn’t felt (or realized) until several weeks later. Bell was good in every which way, from ball security (he’s vastly improved from a couple of years ago) to breaking big plays. We saw that in the opener against Western Michigan, when the redshirt junior had a 76-yard touchdown catch before he was hurt returning punts. He was a true underdog success story Michigan could lean on.
But since then, it’s been a tough go of it for the Wolverines’ offense to find a suitable replacement. Cornelius Johnson (14 catches, 282 yards, 3 TDs) has had his moments, as have others — Roman Wilson (9 catches, 145 yards) had a breakout game against Wisconsin, and Daylen Baldwin (12 catches, 219 yards, 2 TD) has started to emerge as a big-play guy — but no one has solidified themselves as a reliable No. 1. McNamara’s had to spread the ball around, getting tight end Erick All (11 catches, 123 yards) and running back Blake Corum (14 catches, 102 yards) involved. They’ve made do, but more is needed — especially from junior Mike Sainristil (7 catches, 114 yards) and A.J. Henning (3 catches, 36 yards), guys who are no longer freshmen.
Offensive line —
I don’t know how you give this group anything but an ‘A,’ for all the reasons outlined above. The running game remains one of the best in the country, while Michigan’s quarterbacks (albeit on a limited number of drop backs) have only been sacked twice all season. The front five is doing its job in the run game and providing ample protection for McNamara. Last year was a disaster, with the unit banged up and constantly shuffling players in and out. Aside from Saturday against Nebraska, there’s been very little of that so far.
We’ll see if the group can stay healthy the rest of the way, but the Wolverines’ offensive line — a group led by Andrew Vastardis at center and Andrew Stueber at right tackle — has been superb. Sherrone Moore’s group deserves a lot of credit for the success on the ground. Now, the results haven’t come against the Big Ten’s best — but the groundwork has been set for the second half.
Defense line —
This is a difficult group to grade because of everything we’ve seen so far this year. First-year coordinator Mike Macdonald is doing a lot of rotating (up front and in the back end), making sure his guys are active and fresh. But the various looks this year, from two-down linemen to four and five-down linemen, to utilizing Aidan Hutchinson as a hybrid outside linebacker, have all been effective. The knock against Michigan’s defensive lines of the past has been size (the lack thereof) and inability to stop the run. That has improved some this year with some bigger, more experienced tackles in Chris Hinton, Mazi Smith and fifth-year senior Donovan Jeter. The Wolverines rank fifth in the Big Ten and 39th nationally in rushing yards allowed (118.2 per game), but where this group is making the most noise.
Among Big Ten teams who have played six games this year (Maryland’s played 8), Michigan ranks fourth with 14 sacks. Now, some of those have come from linebacker David Ojabo (who we’ll mention in a moment), but end Aidan Hutchinson (5 1/2 sacks, three QB hurries) has made a lot of noise on the outside. Pull up the highlights from every Michigan game this year and you’ll find a play that Hutchinson is directly involved in. He’s proving his worth as a projected first-round NFL draft pick, and having better, more experienced plugs in the middle has helped that.
There was concern coming into the year here, given Michigan’s youth and inexperience, but they’ve worked around it well. Linebacker Josh Ross (save for the second half against Rutgers) has remained healthy, while Nikhai Hill-Green and Junior Colson have contributed nicely in the reps they’ve been given. Ojabo is the standout here, however, in his outside linebacker role similar to the one Josh Uche played a couple of years back. His 4 1/2 sacks, two hurries and two forced fumbles has provided Michigan another game-changer at the second level, forcing opponents to pay attention to someone other than Aidan Hutchinson. There was some thought that Michael Barrett might eventually become this guy, but Ojabo has filled the role nicely and been a welcomed surprise for a Michigan defense that desperately needed others to step up.
Meanwhile, Ross has quietly gone about his business and leads the team in tackles (40) and quarterback hurries (5), confirming his decision to return for one more season. He’s been a beneficial part of the group, not only from a production standpoint but with his leadership. A work in progress, but the group is coming along nicely. It’s clear the coaching staff likes what they have in Colson, too.
Defensive backs —
This has been a tale of two groups, but the underlying point here is that the scheme change has played major dividends for Michigan’s defensive backfield. The unit that was one of the worst, statistically, in the Big Ten last year is now fourth, allowing just 190.7 yards per game. Part of that, obviously, is a result of the improved pass rush up front — but nickel alignments and more zone has proved highly beneficial for a pair of defensive backs who struggled mightily in man-coverage a season ago. Vincent Gray and Gemon Green are being left one-on-one less frequently, with safeties Daxton Hill, Hawkins and R.J. Moten roving more of the backfield.
Hill has been the standout so far, with Michigan opting to use him in a variety of different ways — blitzing at the line of scrimmage, dropping back into coverage and as a safety valve in the back. His two interceptions leads the team, and his miraculous catch on his back against Nebraska was one for the highlight reel. Hawkins is starting to show his maturity as well, coming up with a big stop on fourth down and the strip fumble that helped win the game against Nebraska. Maximizing their safeties has helped disguise some of Michigan’s weaknesses on the outside, making the entire unit look vastly improved. I give Hill and Hawkins both As and the corners a B/B-, so we’ll average it out.
Special teams —
The kicking game and return units have been a strength for Michigan, which ranks in the top half of the Big Ten in every major special teams statistical category. Let’s start with the kicking, where Jake Moody is 12 of 13 and been near-automatic all season long. He was a perfect 4 for 4 against Nebraska, booted a 52-yarder against Rutgers and is 25 for 25 on point-after tries, proving that he’s not only accurate but has a strong leg, too. Brad Robbins has been strong punting the ball, averaging 45.1 yards per boot while pinning 10 of his 19 kicks inside the 20-yard line. Twelve of resulted in a fair catch.
Meanwhile, Michigan’s kickoff return unit is averaging 20.9 yards per return (sixth) and the punt return group is averaging 13.1 yards per return (fifth). The final grade trends positive with one of the best place kickers in the country and few blunders.
It’s almost like Jim Harbaugh knows what he’s doing, huh? The Michigan head coach makes a series of staffing changes in the offseason, bringing in younger, fresher voices on the defensive side (Mike Macdonald, George Helow, Steve Clinkscale), promoting well-liked assistant Sherrone Moore to coach the offensive line, and brought in a pair of Michigan alums, Mike Hart and Ron Bellamy, to help reignite a stale, beaten down locker room. The results paid major dividends from the very beginning, with players gushing about a new culture during the offseason that’s carried over into the season.
Behind a combination of schematic changes on both sides of the ball, fresh faces guiding things and a group of senior leaders committed to getting Michigan back on track, Harbaugh appears to have found new life. Now, some of the in-game decision making and personnel decisions can be criticized, but it’s hard to do that with any merit for a 6-0 team. The plan, at least right now, is working. And Harbaugh deserves a ton of credit for realizing what was broken last year and doing everything he could to fix it. The staff has done an excellent job at accentuating the strengths of their players, so much so that it’s hid many of the negatives.
Regardless of what happens the rest of the way (save for a total implosion), this year should be used in a masterclass on football coaching. A well-deserved grade here for Harbaugh and his staff, including offensive coordinator Josh Gattis who’s merged his own thoughts and ideas with with the old ground-and-pound, balanced offense that exemplified the early days of the Harbaugh era.
Source : https://www.mlive.com/wolverines/2021/10/midseason-grades-jim-harbaugh-michigan-get-high-marks-for-run-game-defensive-turnaround.html3333