Spring football is underway in Ann Arbor and as Michigan begins camp, there are many more questions than answers for Jim Harbaugh and staff.
Following 2017’s disappointing 8-5 finish – including not a single win against a team with a winning record – Harbaugh has learned more about himself and his football team.
Last season was wrought with peril, everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. The Wolverines lost to rivals Michigan State and Ohio State – AGAIN. They also got punished by Penn State and Wisconsin before finishing out the season with an embarrassing, mistake-filled bowl loss to South Carolina.
Harbaugh learned that he didn’t have a high-level starting quarterback on the roster following a week four season-ending injury to starter Wilton Speight. Speight wasn’t setting the world on fire prior to his injury, but he certainly was an adequate Big Ten starter when healthy.
After his departure, the Michigan QB picture became fuzzy and frankly cost the Wolverines three wins. That revelation led Harbaugh to pursue Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson, a five-star passer out of high school who chose Mississippi in 2016 over the Wolverines.
Harbaugh is still waiting on Patterson’s eligibility status to be determined by the NCAA as he attempts to become immediately eligible, arguing he was misled by Hugh Freeze during his recruitment about the severity of the NCAA investigation into Ole Miss and the likelihood the team would be placed on probation. Michigan took Patterson even though Harbaugh’s own hand-picked signal callers were ready to take over the program.
Sometimes-starter in 2017, Brandon Peters, redshirt freshman Dylan McCaffrey, and early-enrollee Joe Milton are all on campus and ready to compete, but it appears Patterson is the most ready and will win the job if declared eligible. Patterson, a junior, has what amounts to a year of starting experience under his belt, having thrown for over 3000 yards with 23 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in that time.
Harbaugh also learned that his offensive coaching staff was a mess. Gone is longtime Harbaugh assistant coach and offensive coordinator Tim Drevno, who presided over an awful Michigan offense last season that ranked 105th nationally in total offense. Last year featured a disconnect between Drevno and passing game coordinator Pep Hamilton; the offense never clicked and there was disagreement over what to do with the QB position.
The offensive line was also a major problem as Drevno refused to relinquish his role with the OL to new offensive line coach Greg Frey who eventually bolted the program for Florida State after one season. Frey, a renowned offensive tackle guru, was hired last year to work his magic on Michigan’s tight ends and tackles. But when fall camp started, Drevno, who was working with the interior lineman, told Frey, in so many words, “I’ll handle the offensive line.”
Drevno was removed as OC, but his successor hasn’t been named. It appears the new faces on the offensive staff – Jim McElwain, the former Florida head coach, Ed Warinner, a former Ohio State OL coach and Sherrone Moore who comes in from Central Michigan to coach tight ends – along with Harbaugh, will run the offense as a collaborative.
It’s a new approach, but will it work?
According to Michigan defensive star Devin Bush, Harbaugh as made changes to the way he coaches on and off the field as well.
I’m told and it’s fairly obvious that the defense wasn’t thrilled with the performance of the offense last season; multiple players have expressed this in private. They now believe the coaching staff is more receptive to feedback and flexibility. The players are not running the show in Ann Arbor, but now at least Harbaugh is willing to give them an ear when they have issues.
Senior defensive end Chase Winovich echoed Bush’s comments when he told the Detroit Free Press, “Basically, we lost last winter” when referring to the team’s off-season work in 2017. The most alarming revelation from Winovich was his belief that the focus on competition last off-season left many players not working hard on days that weren’t recorded or when they weren’t matched up against a teammate while the whole team watched.
“I think this is Coach Harbaugh’s way of trying to combat the idea that he’s a boss,” Winovich said. “Rather, he’s trying to paint this picture … that he’s with us. He wants to win just like we do. He wants us to succeed just as we do. … He’s in there with us. He takes criticism just like we do, if not more.”
Michigan fans will find out very quickly if anything has really changed with the program and if Jim Harbaugh has found answers to question that have plagued the program over the last nine months. The Wolverines open the 2018 season September 1st renewing one of the greatest rivalries in the sport, at Notre Dame.
There are a lot of message board rumors swirling that Michigan football is in disarray!
Here is a tweet I received today about the subject.
@gregghenson some supposedly “connected” poster on Rivals apparently put some long post up that there is a negative atmosphere in the program, lack of leadership and the like. I tend to think this is a guy looking for followers. Have you heard anything?
— Adam DiBartolomeo (@adamdibart) January 10, 2018
There is no truth to the rumors that Jim Harbaugh is “burned out” or that the program is lacking leadership. Look, Harbaugh didn’t all of a sudden forget how to run a football program, he didn’t all of a sudden forget how to put together a coaching staff and he certainly didn’t suddenly run out of stream.
This is simply what happens when you don’t win enough games, people talk and opponents look for opportunities to take shots at your program.
I’ll admit, these rumors didn’t seem far fetched to me given the fact that Harbaugh has been running a sprint since he set foot in Ann Arbor trying to revitalize a slumbering brand, so I made calls to my sources within the football program to check it out and I came up with zero evidence that the Michigan program has major issues.
Three separate sources inside and close to the program laughed at me when I asked them if the program is in disarray or if Harbaugh is “burnt out.” “The words Jim Harbaugh and “burn out” should never be used in the same sentence,” according to one well places source.
While “disarray” and ” burn out” aren’t evident, frustration is very apparent. “There is no doubt that the coach is not happy with the results and will take whatever measures are necessary to fix it,” was the answer when I asked if the program was lacking leadership. This reply is a direct quote from one of my sources who has been most realistic about the program since Harbaugh took over three years ago. He isn’t the type to blow smoke or predict sunshine.
Some insiders have opined that Harbaugh looked “disconnected” and “disinterested” on the sideline this year as oppose to the first two years as coach; that may be true, but it also doesn’t indicate there is anything wrong in the program. Some close to the program think it’s a two fold evolution, one, Harbaugh is learning from his mistakes (think throwing papers in the air at Ohio State) and two, he understood his team was young and inexperienced and wasn’t going to put more pressure on them by raising the teams profile in 2018. I tend to agree with this assessment and think you’ll see a different Harbaugh in 2018, but not one that will take dumb 15 yard penalties.
I cannot stress this enough, these are the types of rumors and stories that people create when a program hasn’t win enough football games and not reached or exceeded expectation. Look at Mark Dantonio last off-season when there were rumors of NCAA sanction and of a coaching change, NONE of it was true and MSU rebounded to have a fine season in 2017. If Michigan wants these rumors to stop they must start winning, they must beat their rivals and the best teams on their schedule, it’s that simple.
In the message board era there will always be “anonymous” insiders and “sources,” I would caution anybody who is interested in the program to only pay attention to what somebody who is willing to put their name on their work is reporting.
In the end, I think Michigan is building something to last, on a strong foundation. There won’t be any shortcuts and the process won’t always be pleasant, but in the end the program will benefit and be stronger for it.
What is wrong with Michigan’s football recruiting? That is the familiar refrain from Wolverine fans following two “under the radar” commitments to Michigan in the last week. I’m not sure why Michigan fans are losing their minds over the commitments of MI/ATH Ben Vansumeren and MO/WR Ronnie Bell, but clearly some are not thrilled.
Vansumeren is a three star athlete who was off the radar except for his commitment to Iowa, his offer list included a bunch of MAC type schools and the Hawkeyes until he recently flipped from Iowa to Michigan. Vansumeren is a typical Harbaugh recruit, he’s versatile and loves to hit people which is why he could project as a TE, FB or LB. The guy has the athleticism to be very good, flexible player for the Wolverines, but some nutty Michigan fans are not having any of it. The star gazers are not thrilled that this guy is a three star recruit who literally “nobody” wanted and was on the way to Western Michigan before verbally committing to Iowa and finally flipping to Michigan. My guess is none of them have ever seen the kid play are are simply upset that he didn’t have enough “start” next to his name.
If Vansumeren sent Michigan recruiting stargazers over the edge, imagine the meltdown when former Missouri State basketball (yes, I said Missouri State) commitment Ronnie Bell decided he didn’t want to play basketball for the Bears and instead announced he was heading to Michigan to play football. Bell has zero….zero football offers as most schools expected him to play basketball. Bell is a rangy but thin receiver who was one of the best players in Missouri, even though the in-state schools didn’t recruit him or offer a scholarship to play football. Further freaking out some Michigan fans is the fact that Bell is Michigan’s only third two star recruit (outside of kickers) to commit to the Wolverines under Harbaugh. The other two stars are offensive lineman Nolan Ulizio in Harbaugh’s first class in 2015 and RB Kurt Taylor in 2017. I’m not counting kickers as they are considered top prospects as two star prospects.
Critics say Harbaugh can’t keep the momentum up because the Wolverines lost four games this season and that Harbaugh has lost his touch, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. There are many reasons we could be seeing some lower level recruits and none of them are a reflection of where the Wolverines recruiting efforts are trending. A quick glance at the 2018 recruiting cycle will show you there is zero loss of momentum with three players in the top 100 already verbally committed to the Wolverines.
The recruitment of Vansumeren and Bell could be as simple as Harbaugh taking flyers on very athletic players, it isn’t unprecedented. If you look at his previous classes, Harbaugh has tried to uncover guys nobody else is recruiting, every teams needs organizational depth and unless you are Alabama you can’t expect every four or five star player to commit to your program. That comes after you win and win big.
The trouble with recruiting at a high level and not yet getting into the playoffs is that recruits aren’t flocking to your school but you can get enough great players to fill out your two deep. The downside is Michigan can’t sell playing time anymore, so they will take a certain number of developmental guys who will hopefully be contributors when they are upperclassmen. If these guys don’t pan out, you will see them leave as seniors or before to free up scholarships for higher prospects. They are akin to placeholders and if they develop, all the better. Most people don’t understand that scholarships are a series of one year contracts and turning over the roster is the new way of doing business in college football.
Rest easy Michigan recruiting geeks, the recruiting effort under Harbaugh has lost no momentum under Harbaugh, the 2018 class is a smallish, filler class that affords the Wolverines to take a flyer or two on a couple guys with tremendous upside. Harbaugh clearly knows talent when he sees it and at this point, after watching the player development under this staff, I think we know where this is heading. In the end, this class will still likely end up in the top 10 nationally.