Welcome to WCBN Sports’ 2019-20 Michigan football preview series. Alex and Evan will preview the offense, defense, special teams, and the rest of CFB over the next week before finally getting to the Middle Tennessee State preview.
Evan: A lot has changed since the last time you heard from us. Several former Michigan players are now playing pre-season games for NFL squads and they’re being replaced by some pretty talented young players. A pretty important new coordinator has joined Jim Harbaugh’s staff. Ohio State is no longer being coached by an all-time great.
Much has also stayed the same. Michigan fans are desperate for a win against the Buckeyes and a conference championship. The team is receiving a tremendous amount of national hype, being ranked as high as #3 in some pre-season polls. Michigan State’s entire offensive staff from last year that led the team to being the #128 offense in the country per S&P+ is still employed by Michigan State to coach offense.
We are less than 2 weeks from kickoff so let’s get rolling with a preview off the offense. Here’s what I have to say: SPEED. IN. SPACE.
Alex: Good morning in Ann Arbor, because it’s finally 2005 when it comes to the Michigan offense, as they are moving out of the dark ages and trying to catch up with the rest of college football. While Michigan fans may have some apprehension with spread offenses because of what happened last time the Wolverines tried a switch from pro style to the spread (Rich Rod), it’s important to remember a few things: 1.) the personnel at play actually suits the preferred style of offense (Ryan Mallet is not the QB of the future), 2.) after a… rough transition, Rich Rod’s scheme did produce one of the most dynamic offenses in college football with Denard at the helm (it was the defense that did him in), and 3.) while this is going to be a spread offense, it won’t be the run-run-run Rich Rod QB option. Instead, expect this to be more like Penn St. with Saquon, Godwin, and McSorley, or (most optimistically) Alabama last year. It will be a pass-first spread.
Evan: It will be pass-first for sure. I’ll use that as a segue into this offense’s biggest strength: wide receivers. As if the trio of junior NFL prospects Donovan Peoples-Jones, Tarik Black, and Nico Collins wasn’t enough, Michigan went and got themselves some elite speed in the slot with true freshmen Giles Jackson and Mike Sarinsitil. Ronnie Bell returns as a sophomore who produced some solid catches in garbage time last year, and the hype around another freshman, Cornelius Johnson, grows by the day. This group has everything you could ever want from your receivers - size on the outside, speed on the inside, experience, and a heck of a lot of talent. The biggest problem will be getting them all enough reps.
Alex: In a review of game film from the Ohio State game from last season (I hate myself), I was dismayed to realize how many targets Michigan was giving to TE’s in big moments, most notably Zach Gentry. It was nearly a 50-50 split between TE’s and WR’s in the first half, and look, while I liked Zach Gentry and all (he got drafted!), he was basically just tall. That creates size mismatches with LB’s and CB’s, but he lacked the dynamic aspect that Michigan possesses in the WR’s, and to finally see the most talented players on the offense, the WR’s, be the focal point will be huge. Donovan Peoples-Jones has the athleticism to dust literally every corner in America, even the hyper athletic ones you find at Ohio State, Clemson, and Alabama. Nico Collins’s size and hands (80% contested catch rate, 0 drops) make him impossible to cover. It was incredible to rewatch The Game and see Collins dunking on Buckeye corners all game long. And then there’s Tarik Black, who has been suffering from Bill Walton Feet his first two years at Michigan, but in both 2017 and 2018, he entered the #1 dude on the depth chart at wide receiver, ahead of the two guys we just mentioned as being unstoppable. If he can just stay healthy.
Evan: I’m confident Black will be able to stay healthy because the second foot injury was allegedly not related to football. Regardless, there is so much depth that Shea Patterson will have his choice of targets all season long.
Right? Shea is gonna be the starter… right?
Alex: As long as he’s healthy yes. There is a scenario where he gets Wally Pipp’d by Dylan McCaffrey if he goes down at some point but Shea is the #1 guy. He left some things to be desired when he fell behind in games, and he did have issues panicking, but he threw 22 TD’s to just 7 INT’s, completing at nearly 65%. He won in East Lansing and would represent a Michigan QB with starting experience against Ohio St. getting a second hack at the Buckeyes for the first time since Devin Gardner’s corpse was dragged into the ‘Shoe in 2014. That’s significant. With another year to get better and make changes, he should be improved and also there’s the reality that this offense probably suits him better than the one they were running last season. Shea’s legs were deadly when used, and that was evidenced against Michigan St. and Wisconsin. Now he’ll be in an offense where he’s being asked to play the role of a Tua or a Trace McSorley, rather than a Jake Rudock or Wilton Speight game manager.
Evan: People forget that Shea was the #4 overall recruit/#1 QB in the 2016 class. He doesn’t have an arm like Josh Allen, but he does just about everything else well. I’ll say briefly that McCaffrey is an incredible talent, and will be excellent in 2020 - as you mentioned, the one way we see him this year is a Jacob Eason-Jake Fromm situation where Shea goes down early and loses the job to injury. But I have full confidence in Patterson. His biggest critics point to his big game performance: an awful first half and game ending fumble in South Bend against Notre Dame week 1 and a rough game in general against Ohio State in Columbus to end the season. The Notre Dame game felt mostly like the Tim Drevno effect at play: an O-Line that gave him 0 time to throw for 90% of the game. The OSU game was flat out embarrassing for every part of the team so I can’t hold that against Shea individually. Given the weapons he has to throw to, his playmaking ability (scrambling/throw-on-the-run, ball-fakes on options, etc.), and the new offense, I anticipate him being a Heisman contender if he can stay healthy in the new offense.
Alex: The only real question mark on offense is the RB position, where feature back Karan Higdon departs and #2 Chris Evans is no longer with the team for academic reasons, leaving a pretty big hole and an open debate among the fan base over who will win the starting gig. Where do you stand on this matter?
Evan: Tru Wilson is being publicly proclaimed as the starter. Honestly, that isn’t as bad as people make it seem. He’s a former walk-on, sure, and that alone will scare people, but Tru is an excellent pass blocker and averaged 5.9 ypc last season. “But it was in garbage time!” Not all of it, and even so, if you take a deeper dive into the film, he’s excellent at finding the hole every time. He runs North and South. That’s invaluable in a running back. However, I think true freshman Zach Charbonnet will overtake him by midseason. Charbonnet was a consensus top 150 recruit and top 5 running back. He has good size, speed, and some solid moves. I don’t put too much stock in high school film, but his is among the best I’ve seen from a running back Michigan has been in the mix for besides Najee Harris. He is the real deal. Obviously as a freshman, he’s got a learning curve. But once he hits that curve, which I anticipate happening midway through the season (probably around the Penn State game), he will be the #1 back. There’s also Christian Turner, who impressed with a touchdown run that got called back in the bowl game (one of the few bright spots for Michigan). He should provide a good change of pace from Charbonnet and provide depth, but I think a majority of the snaps will go to Charbonnet and Wilson. One last note: Gattis really values pass blocking. Like really, really values it. This makes sense given the scheme. As I mentioned, Tru is an excellent pass blocker. This will keep him on the field quite a bit.
Alex: I consider myself a Tru-ther so to speak, when it comes to Michigan’s #1 back. What Wilson lacks in true athleticism he makes up in vision and smarts, and yes, pass blocking. In all likelihood though, I see this as some type of a Roman Triumvirate between Tru, Turner, and Charbonnet. Charbonnet obviously has the most upside and there is a scenario where he has a JK Dobbins-like rookie campaign given that he finished as the #46 overall player in the 247 composite and the #4 RB nationally, on the edge of 5* territory. His scouting report reads something to the effect of “shifty like Chris Evans, but tough like De’Veon Smith”. He’s going to be really, really good. Turner obviously has upside too, and I think it will depend on the situation. Charbonnet and Turner will probably be better for stretching the field, with the ability to hit holes hard, while Wilson will probably be more of a short yardage back and pass-blocker. As you mentioned, the depth chart may change as the season goes on, but Tru is fine, and that’s perfectly okay.
It should also be noted that Mike Sainristil and Giles Jackson, the aforementioned freakishly athletic freshmen slot dudes, will get some carries as well, and will line up as an H-Back on some occasions. They may well be used similarly to Ohio State H-Backs of yesteryear such as Curtis Samuel and Parris Campbell, to create mismatches with linebackers that you may remember in such horrifying moments as Saquon on Mike McCray. I suppose we never mentioned tight ends, before diving into the offensive line.
Evan: I don’t have a ton to say. I’m not all that high on Mckeon. He’s had minimal production despite a lot of time on the field. I think it’s a joke that people have him as a top 10 tight end on draft boards. “This scheme has a lot of passing and he was previously on the field a lot in a different scheme so he should get reps” doesn’t do it for me. Nick Eubanks has more speed and is a better route runner, albeit a worse blocker. Mustapha Muhammad was a solid recruit, but redshirted with an injury last year. I can’t imagine the tight ends poaching a ton of targets from a deep receiver group anyways.
Alex: As the Nick Eubanks Fan Club President, I think there is a very real role for him given that he averaged 19.6 yards per reception last season. Both he and McKeon have speed and can be used as weapons down the seam. There’s also true freshman Erick All, who is an intriguing option and has gotten a lot of summer camp hype due to his huge size and great hands. Since there are only so many targets to go around, I can’t see him being used for much more than as a red zone weapon, but it is another example of the litany of weapons at Josh Gattis’s disposal.
Onto the best offensive line in the Big Ten?
Evan: I know most Michigan fans are still recovering from 2017 offensive line PTSD… but holy cow is this line going to be good. They should be a top 5 line in the whole country.
At left tackle, Jon Runyan Jr. was first team All-B1G and should be an All-American candidate.
At left guard, Ben Bredeson was second team All-B1G and should be an All-American candidate (he’s also a captain).
At center, Cesar Ruiz was third team All-B1G and should be an All-American candidate.
At right guard, Michael Onwenu was third team All-B1G and… you get the point.
The one question mark has been RT, where Andrew Steuber and Jalen Mayfield have been battling out. With a recent knee injury to Steuber, the job is Mayfield’s. He’s the one new starter and doesn’t have much experience, but he’s an excellent athlete and should provide good versatility in a zone-blocking scheme. I am very, very, very, very excited for the line to be one of the biggest strengths of the entire team rather than a crippling weakness.
Alex: With regards to Mayfield, there are a few things to mention in order:
1.) Andrew Steuber started The Game and the Peach Bowl and was fine in both, roughly equivalent to Juwann Bushell-Beatty, who was the starter before injury
2.) It is reasonable to expect that Steuber improved in the offseason pre-injury
3.) The insider whispers before Steuber’s injury was that Mayfield had pulled ahead at RT.
So, if Mayfield was already a tiny bit better than Steuber 2019, who was better than Steuber 2018, which was about the same as JBB 2018, then I don’t feel outrageous in saying that right tackle is probably improved, even with a first time starter. Regardless, it’s good that Mayfield has asserted himself so quickly because he’s now on the track to stardom and in line to start this year at RT and then slide over to LT in 2020 and be a 2-3 year starter there before having a chance at a high NFL draft pick. His combination of athleticism and length mean that he has a real shot at following in the footsteps of Taylor Lewan, Jake Long, and Jeff Backus as a superstar LT, and that ride begins right now.
But besides, Mayfield, all of those other guys you mentioned are really good, and will be an asset in pass protection and run blocking, which is huge because Michigan will face the 4th, 8th, 9th, and 11th best defensive lines in the country according to Phil Steele (MSU, OSU, PSU, ND, respectively). They will face Steele’s 1st, 2nd, 4th, 5th, 7th, and 9th best draft eligible DE’s (Young, Epenesa, Willekes, K. Kareem, Y. Gross-Matos, Okwara).
Evan: I wish I could unread that.
Alex: Should we get into overall thoughts on the offense?
Evan: Yes, I’ll try to forget what I just read. Overall, I’m very optimistic about the passing game. The receivers and O-Line are the best position groups on the team and I’m a big Shea believer. Michigan should be top 5 nationally in passing offense. I’m a bit more concerned about the run game, but it should be fine. The numbers won’t be huge, but they’ll need a competent rushing attack to close out close games (Michigan plays the preseason #5, 9, 15, 18, 19, and 20 with two of those on the road - OSU, ND, @PSU, @Wisco, MSU, Iowa - so they will have close games regardless of how explosive the offense is). There should be several players in contention for national awards as well. Patterson should be in the Heisman mix as well as all the major QB awards, DPJ or potentially Collins/Black should be a Biletnikoff Award candidate, and everyone on the offensive line should take home B1G Ten honors and be in the mix for All American awards.
Alex: Last year it felt like the pieces were being slightly misused and that the results (25th nationally in offense via S&P+) did not match the talent. The goal of the Gattis system is to modernize the offense and to bring it more into line with the talent level. My baseline goal is improvement into the top 10 in S&P+ offensively with 9.5 returning starters (Higdon gone, RT situation I’ll count as a half starter). For what that looks like on the field, the average top 7 S&P+ offense over the past two seasons produced 519 yards per game and 42 points per game, which would be a 100 yard uptick in yardage and a full touchdown per game uptick in scoring. Most importantly, it will be important to have an offense in which the run game and the pass game feed off each other and an offense that doesn’t move at a glacial pace even when down multiple scores late in a game. Variation and cohesion is key.
Evan: It should be interesting to see the offense be the strength for the first time under Jim Harbaugh. Not that the defense will be bad, but the offense should take its place as the elite unit of the team. More on the defense in the coming days though.