Evan: What’s up Alex? For the first time in years, I think I’m more optimistic about the upcoming season than most. Most of my optimism stems from the nine returning starters on defense, but I’m excited about the young talent on offense as well. Let’s start with the headliner: give me your thoughts on transfer QB Shea Patterson.
Alex: I’m doing well, only 10 long days until football season. As for Patterson, the potential is quite frankly, immense. The most obvious comparison when you watch him is Johnny Manziel, though those are huge shoes to fill for those who remember Johnny Football’s 2012 Heisman campaign. Can Patterson fulfill that potential? The jury’s out on that, but the tape is promising. I recommend both of MGoBlog’s UFR’s on Patterson’s play at Ole Miss for those interested in getting insight on the new QB. How about you?
Evan: Talent-wise, Shea is the most talented quarterback Jim Harbaugh has coached since Andrew Luck at Stanford. I think his mobility solves a lot of the problems Michigan had on offense last year (pass protection, receivers not getting open) but there are questions about his interceptions and inconsistency. Most of his numbers came against weaker opponents. Still, if Michigan had Patterson last year, they probably would have gone 11-1. I think this Michigan team is better than last year’s on both sides of the ball, but the schedule is significantly more difficult.
Alex: You bring up some good points there, and I think the role of Jim Harbaugh can’t be understated. Prior to last season, the consensus on Harbaugh was that he was the QB Whisperer. It was his thing. He took Colin Kaepernick from being a backup to one of the better guys in the league at San Francisco. He transformed Jake Rudock into an acceptable NFL draft pick from a middling Iowa QB and Wilton Speight into a top tier B1G QB and not just a 3-star guy with the first name of an 80 year old man. Yet last year, he couldn’t work his magic on anybody. You have to hope that Harbaugh can coach Shea into making fewer mistakes and that limiting interceptions can be an internal fix. And if he succeeds with Patterson, look out.
Evan: You mentioned what I was kinda stepping around… The whole Harbaugh - QB whisperer thing. Which brings up the overarching storyline of this season: Harbaugh’s make-or-break season as Michigan’s head coach. It is year 4, he has a roster full of his recruits, he hasn’t beaten OSU, and he’s struggled in “big games.” Harbaugh will be judged by Patterson’s play, fair or not, and the team’s record this year (especially in their five games against preseason top 25 opponents). But enough about Patterson. What about his supporting cast? The depth chart features a plethora of talented young receivers and a couple proven running backs.
Alex: Those are two separate things but they both have the chance to be really good. Starting with RB, Michigan’s running game was actually pretty good last year, despite the national narrative. They had a stellar performance against OSU and amassed S&P+’s #14 rushing attack. They return everybody that made a big difference in that department (RIP Ty Isaac), notably Karan Higdon and Chris Evans. The lightning-and-thunder contrast in their running styles gives Michigan a bit of everything and there’s lots to be excited about with them, no question. The pass-catchers are different, because they were pretty bad last year.
Evan: Karan Higdon (along with pretty much everyone else on the team) looks JACKED. He should be one of the best running backs in the country, and as you mentioned, Evans' speed/receiving style compliments him well. As far as the pass catchers go, Tarik Black flashed superstar potential when he was healthy. He’s everyone's breakout player of the year candidate, but mine is Donovan Peoples-Jones. Yes, I know he couldn’t get open or run routes last year. Everytime he fielded a punt I came close to a heart attack. He looked more like a 2-star than a 5-star. But that was with a few quarterbacks who were… mediocre at best. Now he has a quarterback as talented as he is throwing him the ball. I think the Black-DPJ duo is going to cause nightmares for defensive coordinators in the B1G Ten.
Alex: The big thing about last year’s receiving corps was inexperience, with both the aforementioned Black and Peoples-Jones being freshmen in 2017. They were pressed into duty because Kekoa Crawford turned into a pumpkin (and has now left the program) and beyond him and Grant Perry, there was basically no one else in the 2017 receiving corps who had any kind of prior experience. In general, freshmen receivers suck, largely because they tend to be big time athletes who are used to just being better at sports than the DB’s they face in HS and can run by everybody and not having to learn how to run routes. That’s especially true for someone as freakishly athletic as Peoples-Jones. So with him and Black not being freshmen anymore, the potential is dynamite.
If we do a quick stats-dive, Black posted 149 yards and 1 TD in the three games before the season-ending injury. Multiply that by 4 and you get about a 600 yard, 4 TD season, which would’ve been phenomenal for a freshman. A stat-line like that, or better, should be the expectation for a fully-healthy sophomore campaign from Black. As for DPJ, he had 277 yards and 0 TD’s in 2017. Borrowing from a post on the MGoBoard I found today, a 400+ yard jump for DPJ is very reasonable when compared to Michigan receivers of years past. Braylon Edwards saw a 1000 yard jump between Fr. and So. year, and David Terrell saw a 700 yard jump. That might be far too lofty for an expectation, and those are legendary Michigan receivers being used as comparisons, but expecting big breakout campaigns from both is not unreasonable.
Evan: I want to get into the o-line, which is probably the biggest question mark for the offense this year, but I just want to briefly mention that young players like Oliver Martin, Nico Collins, and Mustapha Muhammad could be big contributors in the passing game. As for the offensive line, I have full confidence in the interior of Cesar Ruiz, Ben Bredeson, and Michael Onwenu making a big leap this year. The tackle spots on the other hand, well… there’s cause for concern.
Alex: I suppose we should cue readers in on the current state of the tackle position in case they haven’t been following fall camp closely. The variety of insider reports seem to conclude that Junior Jon Runyan Jr. is most likely to lock down a spot, previously thought to be right tackle, but now perhaps likely to be left tackle. At the other position, probably RT, Senior Juwann-Bushell Beatty and RS Fr. James Hudson are locked in an incredibly tight battle. MGoBlog’s Seth Fisher summarized the insider reports to be that JBB could start the season opener, but be passed on the depth chart by Hudson by October. Sam Webb’s most recent update suggests that Hudson has pulled ahead. Either way, it’s very tight. True Fr. Jalen Mayfield is having a good camp according to everybody, but seems unlikely to start. All that said, what’s your ideal scenario for the tackles?
Evan: Maybe I’m stuck on the negatives, but I want the young guys in. I’m encouraged to hear that they’ve both been pushing for playing time. What’s my ideal scenario? Two absolutely elite tackles competing for All-B1G Ten honors. What do I think will happen? Runyan and JBB start at LT and RT against Notre Dame but by that three game gauntlet in the middle of the season (vs Wisconsin, @MSU, vs PSU), at least one of Mayfield or Hudson is starting. Ed Warinner appears to have made the positive impact on this group that Tim Drevno never could, so regardless of who starts, for the first time in almost two years, I am confident that they will perform at an adequate level. What would you consider to be acceptable for the offensive line this season?
Alex: I suppose I should’ve clarified realistic for the ideal scenario, because (*activates Rick Pitino voice*) Jake Long and Taylor Lewan aren’t walking through that door. For me, an acceptable offensive line performance is most importantly one that is cohesive and makes it seem like the players know what is going on. For all the talk of the RT black hole last year, the vast majority of problems on the O-Line were communication related, unblocked DL’s coming right up the gut, the perpetual inability of the line to recognize any kind of stunt whatsoever. There’s been a lot of encouraging murmurs in camp that at least Warinner has made a concerted effort to solve that problem. I can tolerate shakiness and a few sacks from inexperienced dudes at the tackle spot, as long as the scheme and line calls are good. This unit won’t be great, but it can help itself immensely if the players aren’t the Keystone Cops and just know the fundamentals of football, who to block and when to block them, etc.. That’s what I want to see most out of this group. Fundamentals.
Evan: The biggest thing that the coaching staff has done has reduced the number of plays and formations. It sounds weird, but less is absolutely more in this case. The simplified offense will make things easier on the line, Patterson, the play-callers, and the young receivers. You mentioned fundamentals, that is all this offense needs. The offense just needs to score ~24 points per game and not screw the defense over field position-wise. I strongly believe that they are capable of that.
Let’s wrap this up with some superlatives. I think Patterson ends up being a Heisman contender and the offensive MVP. The performance of slot receivers Grant Perry and Oliver Martin will end up being the X-Factors. I already said DPJ is my breakout guy. And… Chris Evans is the guy who will disappoint. I can back this one up too. Evans in 2017 vs Florida, MSU, PSU, Wisconsin, OSU, South Carolina: 69 carries, 238 yards, 3.45 ypc, 0 touchdowns. Evans in 2017 vs all other opponents: 66 carries, 447 yards, 6.77 ypc, 7 touchdowns (6 rushing, 1 receiving). I wonder if he will find this article on Twitter and bookmark it. Give me your Offensive MVP, X-Factor, Breakout, and Potential Disappointment for the more glamorous side of the ball.
Alex: My picks:
Offensive MVP: I’m going with Karan Higdon. Patterson could absolutely end up winning this category, and quite frankly Michigan fans should hope that he does, but I think Higdon is the safer pick. He emerged as a steady, every-down back, and if Evans struggles against better opponents like you mentioned, Higdon may get even more weight on his shoulders. If nothing else, he should become Michigan’s first 1,000 yard rusher since Fitz Toussaint.
X-Factor: The offensive line at large. Can they get the needed push to grind out close games? Can they not get the QB murdered again? Can they give Patterson time to find the open guy? That’s the definition of the X-Factor to me.
Breakout Player: This is a total stab in the dark, but I’m driving the Nick Eubanks bandwagon. I keep coming back to that catch he had against Florida, and it’s tantalizing. He has the speed to stretch the field at TE and be a real weapon, and he gets mentioned in fall camp rumors in the same breath as McKeon and Gentry, which seems to me that he’ll be used a good deal.
Potential Disappointment: Sean McKeon. I like that he’s a very well-rounded TE, but he doesn’t have one signature trait that stands out, aside from the fact he’s the best at blocking. If he can’t separate himself as a weapon from Zach Gentry, who has the size, or Eubanks, who has the speed, McKeon could find himself sinking more into the Tyrone Wheatley Jr. role, where he’s used more as a blocker than an offensive weapon.
Image credit: https://www.michigandaily.com/sites/default/files/styles/large/public/170918/eaa.FBC_.SpringGame.126.96.36.1997.JPG
This concludes our Part 1 article on the offense. Come back on Friday to read Part 2, focusing on the defensive side of the ball, which is just us cackling maniacally about the legion of missiles that Don Brown is about to unleash on opposing defenses.