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Michigan Wolverines Football Preview: A look at the 2016 offense

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Defense may win championships, but a balanced football team is really the key to getting to said championship quality. Michigan won 10 games in 2015, but if it is going to make the next step up the ladder in the Big Ten and nationally, it is on offensive-minded head coach Jim Harbaugh to make this team more balanced.

A lot of that balance will hinge on a few key additions and subtractions being replaced by better players on offense in 2016. That includes a new quarterback, some changes along the offensive line and a recharged receiving game.

So, basically a step up from every aspect of the Wolverines offense (not that it was bad, but it could’ve been more helpful).

 

Quarterback

No question is bigger for the Michigan Wolverines heading in to fall camp than what is going to happen at quarterback. With one-year replacement Jake Rudock gone, Harbaugh must find a consistent starter and didn’t find a winner coming out of spring camp.

Instead, it appears to be a two-man race between Houston transfer John O’Korn and sophomore Wilton Speight. O’Korn certainly has the experience advantage, but Speight appeared to have the better spring on an individual level.

However, our guest on the talking10 podcast, Mlive.com Michigan beat reporter Nick Baumgardner believes that it will be the experience of O’Korn that eventually wins the day. If that is the case, Michigan coaches are going to need to see a quarterback who is better than a career that has seen him complete 56.4 percent of his passes for 4,068 yards and 34 touchdowns to 18 interceptions.

Unless something crazy happens, former highly touted recruit Shane Morris appears on the outside looking in for the third year in a row.

Chances are we aren’t going to get a real read on this battle given the closed-off nature of Michigan’s fall camp, so don’t believe anything you hear until we actually see someone go out and take the first snap of the opener.

Running Back

While the overall running game needs an upgrade (just 8th in B1G last year), it has little to do with the talent on the field at the running back position. Senior De’Veon Smith is the unquestioned starter, after leading the team with 753 yards and six touchdowns last season.

But, it won’t be Smith alone at RB again this year as the top three rushers from last season are all back. That includes Drake Johnson and Ty Isaac. The trio combined for 1,229 yards and 11 rushing touchdowns.

The wildcard may be the entrance of freshman Kareem Walker, who was the No. 4 running back in the 2016 recruiting class. He has been in the program since January and could be the dynamic back this program needs now and in the future.

The key to a more successful season in 2016 seems to simply be more consistency and less injury issues. It also will have a lot to do with the play of the offensive line in front of them, as the running game steadily declined throughout the year to the point of averaging just 3.5 yards per carry in the final month of the season.

Wide Receiver/Tight End

Look no further than the pass catchers of the Michigan Wolverines for the biggest strength of this offense heading in to 2016. With the likes of veteran wide receivers Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson and tight end Jake Butt all back for a final season in Ann Arbor, there are plenty of helpful options for whomever wins the starting quarterback battle.

However, Chesson enters fall camp with a bit of an injury scare and may need some time to work in to the mix during camp. That opens the door for what is the biggest issue for this group — quality depth.

Grant Perry had the third best reception total for any wide receiver in 2015, racking up 14 catches for 128 yards and one touchdown in his freshman season.

Some depth could come from the likes of 2016 recruits Amir Mitchell (who has been on campus since January) and Dylan Crawford depending on how far along they are in development and the playbook. Given the lack of depth overall, there is likely a lot of help on the way from young receivers.

Offensive Line

Change is afoot as long-time center Graham Glasgow graduated and former left tackle Mason Cole has been put in the critical position in the middle of the line for the 2016 season. This group also needs to put together a good season to match year after year of top recruiting talent coming on board along the offensive line.

The good news in Cole’s move is it has more to do with some impressive play from sophomore Grant Newsome at tackle and he will be the starting left tackle this season. Joining him on the left side of the line is senior Ben Braden.

Meanwhile, to Cole’s right will be a pair of seniors in Kyle Kalis and Erik Magnuson and this is the side of the line with the most to prove as they’ve been around and starting for most o the last three years with little to show for it.

Depth has become better, with the likes of Jon Runyan and Nolan Ulizio taking up spots in the two deep as just sophomores and Juwann Bushell-Beatty appearing like he is close to turning the corner after two years buried on the depth chart.

 

Our Projected Starting Lineup

WR: Amara Darboh, Sr.
WR: Jehu Chesson, Sr.
TE: Jake Butt, Sr.
LT: Grant Newson, So.
LG: Ben Braden, Sr.
C: Mason Cole, Jr.
RG: Kyle Kalis, Sr.
RT: Erik Magnuson, Sr.
RB: De’Veon Smith, Sr.
FB: Henry Poggi, Sr.
QB: Wilton Speight, Jr.

Andy Coppens is the Founder and Publisher of Talking10. He's a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and has been covering college sports in some capacity since 2008. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyOnFootball

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U-M Football

Michigan’s blow out loss by Florida proves ‘next man up’ doesn’t always work

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If there was any question the importance of NFL caliber players to the Michigan Wolverines, Saturday’s Peach Bowl provided your answer.

Some may also point to the ‘next man up’ philosophy and time to prepare for this game, but the Peach Bowl proved that sometimes the next man up really isn’t the answer you were looking for.

Michigan went in to the Peach Bowl without big-time names like defensive lineman Rashan Gary, linebacker Devin Bush and running back Karan Higdon and it showed in a 41-15 loss to Florida in the first of the New Year’s Six bowl games, the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.

The Wolverines defense started out hot against Florida’s redshirt sophomore quarterback Feleipe Franks, but a sputtering offense cause the defense to eventually fold under the weight of being on the field for way too long.

Franks would only complete 13 passes for 173 yards and one touchdown in the Gators win. But, it was the run game that Michigan couldn’t stop and where the missing pieces came in to play the most.

After coming in to the game giving up just 116.6 yards per game on the season, Florida gashed Michigan’s defense for 257 yards and three touchdowns on the ground.

It was the most yards given up in a single game this season, topping the 193 yards that were allowed to Rutgers in early November. Not having a player like Bush, who racked up 79 tackles, 9.0 tackles for loss and 5.0 sacks on the season certainly hurt.

So did the fact that two key pieces to the puzzle that were on the field went down to injury. Both defensive end Kwity Paye and linebacker Devin Gil ended up injured and never returned to the game.

Florida eventually went on to win the battle of time of possession as well, even if that isn’t how their offense is built. The Gators held the ball for 31:19 compared to 28:41 of the game for the Wolverines.

However, all of this could have been pointed to an offense that missed opportunity after opportunity to keep themselves in the game or even take a lead and dictate the game.

Following a 46-yard touchdown run by Chris Turner that was called back after replay showed he stepped out of bounds before dashing to the end zone, Michigan was stuffed on a 4th and 1 on it’s opening possession of the game.

The Gators responded with a field goal as Michigan’s defense stiffened up inside the red zone.

Michigan actually held a pair of leads in the game, as Donovan People-Jones grabbed a 9-yard touchdown pass from Shea Patterson for a 7-3 lead in response to Florida’s field goal.

The Wolverines tacked on a field goal after blocking a punt and starting at the Florida 30-yard line in a to 48-yard field goal following zero yards gained on the drive. The made field goal extended Michigan’s lead to 10-6 with 5:56 remaining in the half.

But, that was the end of the party for the Wolverines as Florida ripped off 21 unanswered points to take a 27-10 lead with 2:34 left in the third quarter.

Michigan would be outscored 38-3 in the second half overall, as they struggled to get anything going in the run game and became too one-dimensional without Higdon in the game.

His replacement, Chris Evans, managed just 20 yards on a seven carries and even Chris Turner couldn’t help much. He managed just 32 yards and the team was held to just 77 yards on the day.

Quarterback Shea Patterson was forced to attempt 36 passes, completing just 22 of them for 237 yards with just the one touchdown to two interceptions in the game.

Patterson didn’t get much help from his offensive line either, giving up five sacks on the day and having Patterson scrambling for his life far too often to sustain anything on offense.

We’ll never know if having Bush, Gary or Higdon would’ve been the ultimate difference, but not having them available from the start meant a depleted depth chart and that proved pivotal in this matchup.

It also proved that sometimes the next man up really is a step down and that matters when playing against fellow top teams.

Something needs to happen in college football if these types of games also begin to mean nothing to the players. Not playing on even footing is killing some of the tradition of college football and this game proved that in a big way.

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Michigan’s Karan Higdon guarantees a win over OSU

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Well, that escalated quickly. 

It took all of one media session ahead of “The Game” between Michigan and Ohio State for things to get really interesting. 

That’s because Michigan running back Karan Higdon decided to call the Wolverines shot…guaranteeing a win over the hated Buckeyes from Ohio State this Saturday. 

To be fair, this all started with Higdon’s head coach, Jim Harbaugh, who guaranteed a victory way back in 1986. 

Harbaugh was right that day, leading the Wolverines to a 26-24 win and the Rose Bowl just like he said they would. 

Ever since then, it’s been an annual tradition, but there hasn’t been this much on the line for “The Game” since the 2006 edition which pitted No. 1 against No. 2 in the nation. 

Ohio State won that game and went on to play Florida in the BCS national championship game. 

This year’s game has a lot of the feel of the 2006 and 1986 versions. All that is on the line is a Big Ten East division title and a berth in the College Football Playoff. You know, nothing big. 

For Michigan, there is also the six-game losing streak to Ohio State and the fact that they are 1-13 since 2004 in the most-heated and hated of rivalries within the Big Ten. 

Higdon may have been goaded in to the statement, but he also didn’t back down from it. 

We’ll see if the Wolverines can back up the talk of their running back. 

You can bet Ohio State will find some serious motivation that big of a statement. 

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U-M Football

Can Shea Patterson transfer finally be the answer at QB for Michigan?

Shea Patterson arrives at Michigan with pedigree and production, will it transform the QB position enough to matter for the Wolverines?

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There’s no way around it — 2017 was not the year everyone expected to see from the Michigan Wolverines. A one-time national title contender (no seriously) turned in to an 8-4 team that finished fourth in the Big Ten East division.

Many have pinpointed the issues at quarterback as a large reason for that struggle.

It would be an easy and correct assumption, as 2017 was an unmitigated disaster at QB for the Wolverines. Michigan’s quarterbacks combined to complete just 54.5 percent of their passes for just 2,023 yards and nine touchdowns to eight interceptions.

Yes, that was nine touchdowns in 12 games played by three different quarterbacks for Michigan in 2017.

Apparently the coaching staff believes that was a major issue as well, as they went hard after Ole Miss quarterback Shea Patterson once he announced his intention to transfer from the program.

On Monday, Patterson announced he would be enrolling at Michigan as a transfer.

We’ll have to wait and see if the NCAA allows him to immediately become eligible, but that shouldn’t be an issue given Ole Miss’ NCAA penalties. He doesn’t qualify as a soon-to-be senior, so he will have to apply for and be granted a waiver. That appears not to be a major hurdle, but one can never assume when it comes to the NCAA waiver decisions these days.

As for Michigan, Patterson is the second transfer quarterback Michigan has brought in during the Jim Harbaugh era. The first was John O’Korn from Houston.

O’Korn never took full control of the Wolverines offense, ending his career as the third option on the depth chart before being forced back on to the field thanks to multiple injuries at the QB position.

But, Patterson is not O’Korn — in so much as Patterson has actually proven to be a quality quarterback and isn’t transferring because he is being pushed out at his old school.

He threw for 2,259 yards and 17 touchdowns in seven games at Ole Miss in 2017, before suffering a season-ending tear to his right posterior cruciate ligament.

So, there is risk in bringing Patterson in to the fold. Will he be 100 percent back to normal in 2018 or will the injury keep him from progressing? That’s likely not an issue though, as the PCL tear isn’t the most significant of knee injuries. Additionally, Patterson comes with a great pedigree on the recruiting trail.

He was the No. 1 rated pro-style quarterback in the 2015 class, started and played in his freshman season in 2016 and did work in his sophomore year in 2017.

While this move may smack of desperation for Michigan, these are desperate times in Ann Arbor. The lack of championship football is starting to wear off the shine of Harbaugh’s hire four years ago.

It’s also a good move for depth alone, as Michigan will see both O’Korn and Wilton Speight out of the program. Speight has declared his intention to transfer already.

That would leave just Brandon Peters and Dylan McCaffrey on the depth chart.

Patterson has the experience and production advantage on both and the offense should be familiar to him as Ole Miss runs a pro-style offense.

Given the lack of production at QB since Harbaugh’s arrival, something has to change. Will Patterson’s addition be the change that is needed?

Clearly the quarterback position needs to get stronger. Adding Patterson does that, but it remains to be seen if it will be the transformational move that has been lacking since Harbaugh arrived.

If he can’t get the quarterback position right again in 2018, Harbaugh may not be long for the job everyone thought he’d have for a lifetime as long as he wanted it.

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Dantonio, Harbaugh jab at each other after bowl game selections

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Rivalries have no offseason, and that certainly is the case for Michigan State when it comes to in-state rival Michigan. That’s especially the case when bowl season rolled around in 2017.

That’s because Michigan is headed to Tampa Bay to play in the Outback Bowl, while Michigan State is off the…gasp…horrific site of San Diego for its bowl game.

No. 16 Michigan State is slated to play No. 18 Washington State in easily the best non-New Years Six bowl game the Big Ten has, while Michigan gets South Carolina. Despite the disparity in location and quality of opponent, some felt the Spartans were slighted.

Dantonio was asked if the program felt slighted by not playing on New Year’s Day, and this was his response:

It was a clear dig at the Wolverines, whom the Spartans have owned since Dantonio took over as head coach at Michigan State.

Harbaugh just couldn’t let that go, responding back on Twitter on Monday.

Backhanded compliment much?

It’s clear these two don’t get along much, because usually these things get settled behind closed doors. Instead, Harbaugh took a very public jab at Dantonio and all the off-field issues that took place over the last year and a half.

Who will get the ultimate last word? Well, this season that was certainly Michigan State. Not only did the Spartans beat Michigan, but they finished second in the East division, while Michigan faltered to an 8-4 finish in the regular season.

If anything, this should fuel an offseason of rivalry fun between these two programs.

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