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Michigan football is once again headed for a long off-season

All eyes will be on the offense as young players try to assert themselves in Jim Harbaugh’s system.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Penn State Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Early in the 2017 season, it became exceedingly obvious that we were not at the show. No, if there was going to be a show at all, it was going to be happening later - 2017 was the growing pains, the unenjoyable stuff, the hard work, the believing and failing and trying again. Most teams would be happy with 8-4 most of the time, but as always for Michigan, it felt like we were just out of reach from so much more. It wasn’t just the four losses; it was the feeling that, but for a quarterback and a competent right tackle, a bit of glory might have been around the bend.

Changes are looming in what could be the longest off-season Michigan has seen in a while, but it might not be the changes people expect. (With football, it rarely is.) Will Tim Drevno be fired? Almost certainly not. Will Michigan get a re-do at quarterback, thanks to Brandon Peters (who did indeed get those game reps in the second half of the season) or Dylan McCaffrey - or even a transfer from Ole Miss, Shea Patterson? Yes, things are looking up there.

Will the defense be able to replace Mo Hurst, who was a first-team All-American even if the All-America voters didn’t recognize it? Well, never count out the pair of Don Brown and Greg Mattison on that one, even though Hurst was the backbone of the entire team in 2017.

And will the 2018 recruiting class recover from such a middling start? That one is less clear, even though your optimism is probably tied to how you feel about Jim Harbaugh’s ability to find and develop three-star talent.

Underneath all the questions, though, that are surrounding the team, it feels like the fan base is trying to settle on a set of expectations going forward and find its bearing with the coaches and each other during what was undoubtedly a rough patch of a year. Is 2018 an ultimatum year? If it is, what are the terms? What’s the borderline - what should we even be expecting? And how do we get the Buckeyes and Spartans out of our head, when it seems like a couple more losses to those two could cause an uprising against Jim Harbaugh and his staff? (Full disclosure: I think that no matter what happens, getting rid of Harbaugh would be a bad idea. But some will disagree.)

Ohio State v Michigan
Kekoa Crawford caught 46.2% of his passes in 2017.
Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Fortunately, a long off-season could be just what the doctor ordered for Michigan’s offense, which held the team back as it ranked 101st in the nation in total yards behind Alabama, Clemson, UAB (they’re back!), New Mexico, Miami (of Ohio) and Middle Tennessee. A sterling season, it was not.

Most everyone who was involved has gotten a share of the blame, from Wilton Speight and John O’Korn to Tim Drevno and Pep Hamilton, to the offensive line and a young receiving corps and Jim (and Jay) Harbaugh. At the end of the day, I think the biggest problems that held this team back were youth, injuries, and bad pass protection - and those could be mostly solved by 2018, all except the pass protection.

Stat session: For all the obvious struggles of Michigan’s pass offense, the advanced stats put Michigan surprisingly near the middle of the pack in 2017. Its Passing S&P+ was 76th out of 130 teams, held down more by its inefficiency (107th) than its big-play ability (52nd). The 2016 team had a top-30 pass offense according to S&P+, and the 2015 team had a top-ten passing unit led by Jake Rudock.

It’s a safe bet, for example, that Michigan’s young wide receiving corps will be taking big steps forward in 2018. Tarik Black will hopefully be healthy, and he and Donovan Peoples-Jones will be stud prospects with a year of experience under their belt. The offense will probably be able to connect on a few more deep balls once their new crop of quarterbacks has an off-season to train with Black, DPJ and the dozen other unproven but athletic pass catchers on the roster.* It should be a very different and re-energized pass offense.

*Seriously, a dozen or more unproven pass catchers have very interesting upside and the ability to break out next year. Kekoa Crawford and Eddie McDoom didn’t progress as much as hoped, but they’re young and fast and can grow into better route-runners. At least they’re above average athletically in the Big Ten.

And Nico Collins and Oliver Martin haven’t shown what they can do, but both have a lot of skill. Sean McKeon and Zach Gentry have shown what they can do, combining for 561 yards and 12.8 yards a catch in their sophomore and redshirt sophomore seasons. They’ll be backed up by Tyrone Wheatley, Jr., Nick Eubanks, and Ian Bunting if he returns, plus a couple freshmen. Then there’s Nate Schoenle, Grant Perry, and potentially Van Jefferson as well. A lot of individual questions, but it will be a good group.

Photo credit: Paul Sherman, MGoBlog

Michigan could continue to be held back, though, by a pass-protecting offensive line that probably won’t live up to the 2016 squad any time soon.

And that’s a bit of a weird thing to say. For all the frustration I and others felt toward Kyle Kalis, Ben Braden, and Erik Magnuson, they were the core of an offensive line that held up some good pass offenses during Jim Harbaugh’s first two years. That was because they were highly-touted athletes coming into college and became hard-working veterans, and while they could never take their overall game into rarefied air they could at least hold their own in pass pro.

Michigan’s new offensive lines are going to look more like Stanford, though, than Oregon: bigger, pile-driving bodies who are able to establish the run game first and pass protect second. Heck, Michael Onwenu, Cesar Ruiz and Chuck Filiaga by themselves are half a ton, and the six-man sets will be a 50-pound dog and a deep-dish pizza away from a full ton of run blocking.

Michigan will probably be able to run the ball, led by Karan Higdon, Chris Evans, and Kareem Walker, who combined for 1,658 yards and 5.66 yards a tote. So if the route-runners can break free quickly enough to let whoever’s playing quarterback avoid too many hits, Michigan could actually be fine on that side of the ball - and stay healthy in the process. But it will be a team effort, and concerns about the tackles (and the positions’ depth) will persist.

Stat session: Michigan’s running backs were interesting weapons in the passing game in 2017, and that will probably continue in 2018. Chris Evans caught 14 of the 18 balls thrown his way (77.8% catch rate) for 146 yards and 1 TD. Ty Isaac caught all three balls thrown his way (for small gains, though), and Karan Higdon made up for a relatively poor catch rate (58.3%, unimpressive for a running back) with chunk plays - 17.1 yards a catch, 120 yards on 7 catches. They combined to get 282 yards on a 72.7% catch rate.

With another 18 targets for the fullbacks that were largely unsuccessful (38.9%), it seems like Michigan has room in its playbook for the backs to break out in the passing game. It won’t be as compartmentalized as the De’Veon Smith-Chris Evans running back room of 2016, but there’s some potential for Chris Evans to turn into the dual-threat running back of the group going forward.

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Michigan Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

And then there’s the defense, which almost no one is worried about. It really will be offense-or-bust in 2018, and we’ll see if Michigan’s coaching staff, and the players themselves, can turn it around. Luckily, the best way to turn an offense around is to spend an off-season working on it, and Michigan will have a long off-season after the upcoming bowl game to commiserate on the failures of yesteryear, and a surge of young talent to do something about it. 2018 could be fun - or it could be more of the same. The work ethic in the off-season will decide.