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.
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Braylon Edwards has a weekly radio show on 97.1 FM the Ticket in Detroit during college football season. Last week, he took the entire hour to air his personal beefs with Jim Harbaugh.
Edwards offered his analysis of Michigan’s destruction of Florida, which ran contrary to the opinion of every national analyst.
Edwards thought Wolverines quarterback Wilton Speight played poorly against the Gators and took a shot at Harbaugh, sarcastically calling him the “quarterback whisperer.” He lamented the lack of improvement he’s seen in Speight and backup John O’Korn, going out of his way on multiple occasions to take shots and blame their lack of development on Harbaugh.
I cannot disagree that Speight and O’Korn aren’t the future of Michigan football, but at this point you have to believe Harbaugh knows what he’s doing with his quarterbacks more so than an arm-chair former wide receiver.
“I think he (Harbaugh) is trying to trick Speight into thinking he’s a better QB than he is,” Edwards said.
Huh? Can anyone explain that analysis to me?
Edwards went on to criticize Michigan’s Rashan Gary, calling him “out of shape” and claiming Gary “took plays off” in the opener. This assertion is ridiculous to anybody who watched the game and ironic coming from a guy who was notorious for taking games off as a player at Michigan and later in the NFL. Edwards’ friends and family have confided in me over the years that he never reached his potential because he is a “lazy knucklehead.”
Sophomore wide receiver Kekoa Crawford’s No. 1 jersey was another point of contention for Edwards. He isn’t thrilled that Harbaugh lets a defensive player wear that number and he certainly doesn’t want Crawford wearing it. Edwards may still be upset that he didn’t get to wear No. 1 until he was a junior, but he should understand that the number is a recruiting tool and can often be instrumental in bringing elite players to Ann Arbor.
Braylon Edwards has long been a malcontent.
I have heard from sources familiar with Edwards in Ann Arbor that he wanted a coaching position with the Wolverines, but wasn’t offered one by Harbaugh. I’m also told Edwards is upset that Michigan didn’t offer his kid brother Berkley Edwards a scholarship. Berkley Edwards eventually signed with Minnesota before transferring to Central Michigan.
As you can see, Edwards lives in a constant state of discontent; he thinks he should be a legend in Ann Arbor and it just has not happened. He’s one of the great players in Michigan football history, but when you add up the good and the bad, it seems that the bad wins out.
Despite his success, there remains a group of ex-Wolverines, most notably Edwards and former safety Marcus Ray, who have nothing positive to say about Harbaugh. They usually stop short of criticizing him, but there is clearly an undercurrent among a few Lloyd Carr era players that maybe Harbaugh wasn’t their first choice to lead the program.
A division exists among the ranks of former Michigan football players. Bo Schembechler’s players support Harbaugh, while Lloyd’s players don’t. That was obvious when Lloyd tried to keep Schembechler disciple Les Miles out of the picture following his retirement.
This negativity and backbiting was one of the reasons Rich Rodriguez was dead on arrival in Ann Arbor – the Lloyd Carr era players were not on board with Rich Rod. Lloyd’s players loved Brady Hoke, but he simply couldn’t coach.
It was at that point that the descendants of Bo retook the program, helping to install Harbaugh.
Like Schembechler, Harbaugh is strong and successful enough to keep the warring factions at bay. His force of personality can prevent Carr’s players from doing any damage to the program as they did behind Rich Rod’s back and just like with Bo should Harbaugh ever leave, the inmates would once again be running the asylum.
(You can follow Gregg Henson on Twitter @gregghenson)