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.