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Roundtable: Handing Out Grades Under Jim Harbaugh

Photo credit: Dustin Johnson, Maize n Brew

Nick: Hey, guys. This will be a more quick-hitting roundtable, because I’m going to be asking a ton of questions. It’s simple: I want to get your guys’s assessment of each position under Harbaugh.

Alright, let’s get to it: how’d you grade the quarterback position under Harbaugh so far?

Jared: I have to give Harbaugh an ‘A-’ for the quarterbacks, given the state of the position upon his arrival. He took Iowa transfer Jake Rudock and turned him from a forgotten game manager, into a legitimate backup NFL quarterback. WIlton Speight was a 3-star recruit that wasn’t even one of Harbaugh’s guys, and he turned him into a serviceable starter. The only reason for the “minus” is because we haven’t seen a transcendent Michigan quarterback under Harbaugh just yet (Brandon Peters we await your arrival impatiently). As soon as Harbaugh gets one of his guys under center, I fully expect him to produce an absolute stud that sets the Big Ten on fire.

Will: A solid “A.” Cliche but true, Harbaugh is a quarterback whisperer. Neither Ruddock nor Speight are such high-performing quarterbacks outside his mentoring, and as Jared points out, things should get plain sick once Peters, Dylan McCaffrey or another elite recruit benefits from his tutelage.

Andrew: An ‘A.’ If Speight had never injured his shoulder/ collar bone/ confidence against Iowa this could have been an A++++++++.

Gary: A-.’ I love Jared’s point about making the most out of Rudock and Speight. However, yes, we still don’t have an elite quarterback Michigan fans of old expect to have. A lot of this grading relies on talent. How high a ceiling does Speight have? From his performance at the end of the season last year and the spring game, I have to worry about his potential. He is a great leader, but how much talent does have to turn that leadership into legend? Can’t wait to find out!

Photo credit: Dustin Johnson, Maize n Brew

Nick: How would you grade the running backs?

Jared: For the running backs, I will go with a ‘B-’ grade for now, but I expect that grade to rise dramatically this season. Once again I think you have to take a look at where the position stood before his arrival when grading him.

The 2014 Michigan team was about as inept a team as you will find at running the football, and the leading rusher (Smith) only finished with a shade over 500 yards. Harbaugh squeezed every bit of talent he could out of Hoke guys like De’Veon Smith, Drake Johnson, and Khalid Hill. Now he has some of his own guys coming up and they look to be leaps and bounds above their predecessors as far as ability. Any one of the trio of Chris Evans, Karan Higdon, or Kareem Walker would have been the best running back on any of Brady Hoke's squads (except the inexplicably bench ridden Thomas Rawls). No other position group is ready for a bigger leap in production than the running backs this season.

Will: I’ll give him a “B” because we haven’t run well against elite defenses. We run up the yards and big plays against second-tier and third-tier (and whatever tier Rutgers belongs to) defenses, but when will we shove the ball down the throat of a powerhouse defense? I’d argue (and will in a bit) that most of the blame falls on the offensive line, but the run game hasn’t proved itself to be that of a national contender. And I’m also waiting for an every-down, big play back to emerge. I’m hopeful that Evans and company prove me wrong in the fall.

Andrew: B-’ for now, but as Jared stated, this grade should sky-rocket in 2017. Each back in 2016 provided a different element and pass protection was a big reason Smith saw the most time. I place most of the rushing struggles on the offensive line so I cannot be too critical of the backs. Barry Sanders would have struggled for 1,000 yards last season.

Michigan has only had one running back go for 1,000 yards since Mike Hart in 2007, and that was Fitz Toussaint in 2011 with 1,041 yards. ONE back in a decade has rushed for 1,000 yards, but that should change in 2017 thanks to Captain America Chris Evans.

Gary:B-.’ But I agree, a lot of this grading has to do with the state of the offensive line. They could not move any talented defensive line with consistency. I do think our running backs just lacked the talent to challenge elite defensive fronts.

However, there has been significant improvement. Under Hoke, Michigan fans breathed a sigh of relief just to have a running play not lose yards. Last year, we could always get a yard and usually got three or four. That’s something. We could at least run the ball in short yardage situations. We still have no home run threat or, when we play good defenses, rarely a 10 yard threat from a running play.

Nick: How would you grade the wideouts?

Jared: I am going to go with a ‘B’ for the work that Harbaugh did with Chesson and Darboh, along with the obscene recruiting class he just brought in at the position. Darboh showed some flashes under Hoke, but never materialized as a go-to receiver at the college level until Harbaugh arrived. The same can be said of Chesson, but we saw even less of his potential under Hoke.

Both of those guys flourished in 2015 and ‘16 under the tutelage of the man in the khaki pants. Both Darboh and Chesson will likely hear their names called at some point in the NFL draft, and they can both thank Harbaugh for that. Now there are guys coming in that have a MUCH higher ceiling than Darboh or Chesson, and the potential for what they could become is limitless. This is another position group that is surging under Harbaugh’s direction.

NCAA Football: UNLV at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Will: I’ll throw Harbaugh a “B+” because I believe he helped transform Chesson and Darboh into big play receivers. Before his arrival, I was skeptical there was anyone capable of a SportsCenter highlight catch, but both grew into top conference receivers. All-Americans? No, but they were go-to guys, which is indispensable to any team hoping to compete on this level. Now that Harbaugh’s mined a motherlode of talent, expect the Wolverines to dominate the aforementioned highlight reels moving forward.

Andrew: I’m a little higher on the receivers and I will go ‘A-” because of Jehu Chesson’s progression from 2014-2015 and Amara Darboh’s progression from 2015 to 2016. Both receivers took tremendous strides and will be contributors in the NFL immediately. This newest group of receivers could also take this grade to an A+.

Gary: Again, very little talent, so I will go ahead and give a B-. I am not sure how much of this is just wishful thinking, but I really believe Michigan is capable of recruiting big time receivers who are big, fast, and get the jump ball. We haven’t had one of those since Braylon Edwards.

Junior Hemingway and Amara Darboh were close, but they still lacked speed and didn’t couldn’t take over games. I don’t think I have seen a Michigan receiver earn a double team in 10 years (maybe Devin Funchess, but he dropped a lot of passes and tended to disappear in big games). When Michigan receivers have put up decent numbers, it was at the end of their career and mostly due to experience and maturity, not necessarily to dominating talent. We will see if the prophecies concerning DPJ and Black are true!

Nick: Let me double up on this one - how would you grade the tight ends and fullbacks? You can give separate grades if you want.

Jared: I feel like the world’s biggest homer, but once again I am going with an ‘A’ for both. What Harbaugh has done with both positions is what Brady Hoke dreamed of doing, but couldn’t. Look at Jake Butt’s 2 year stats under Hoke;

‘13-’14 : 41 receptions, 446 yards, 4 touchdowns

Compared with what he did in 2 years under Harbaugh;

‘15-’16: 97 receptions, 1,200 yards, 7 touchdowns

Maryland v Michigan Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

It might not be fair to compare the production of a junior and a senior against that of a freshman and a sophomore, but that is astronomical development. The same can be said of the fullback position, where last year Khalid Hill was a goal line monster, tallying 13 total touchdowns. If I were a tight end or a fullback, there is no coach in the country I would want to play for more than Harbaugh.

Will: An “A+”. Harbaugh is the best in the business, here. We all rave about his use of his tight ends, and rightfully so, but the play of his fullbacks is unparalleled. Not only do they pose a threat in short yardage situations and as red zone receivers, but he’s been wise enough to spot middling tight ends who might excel in the backfield. As for the tight ends, I think we’ll learn that as good as Jake Butt was, much of his success was due to Harbaugh’s emphasis on his ends as a primary target as opposed to a release valve in the passing game.

Andrew: A+’ hands down. Jake Butt was a top 2 tight end in the country last season and Harbaugh made the fullback position relevant again at Michigan. Easiest question thus far.

Gary: I would say A+. I have never been concerned about this position. This is one of the few positions I look around the rest of the country and say, we have it at least as good as anyone.

Jake Butt was great, but I honestly think we can do even better. We consistently recruit massive guys who can catch and block. I think Wheatley, Bunting, Gentry, and Eubanks are great athletic specimens who will do a great job. Our full-backs catch, block, and even run with the best of them. A lot of that is due to coaching. No one gets full-backs jacked up about their job better than Harbaugh. It’s exciting to see the position has developed into a favorite among Michigan fans.

Photo credit: Dustin Johnson, Maize n Brew

Nick: Okay, this one’s a biggie. Michigan’s offensive line has still been something of a disappointment, at least for some. Then again, you could make a case that Harbaugh has done a lot with what he’s had. How would you grade him and the staff on this?

Jared: This is a tough one, because the play of the offensive line is probably the only reason we didn’t play for a National Championship last year. I will give him a ‘C-’, although I think he did a tremendous job with marginal talent. I still lay awake at night remembering how truly abysmal the offensive line was in 2013 and ‘14. Most of the guys on that line were the same dudes keeping Rudock and Speight (mostly) upright the last two years. They were all fairly highly recruited guys that just did not really work out, but were able to keep us afloat while Harbaugh rebuilds. This will be an interesting position to watch over the next few years as we start to really learn what a Harbaugh/Drevno offensive line looks like.

Will: As Jared infers, this unit more than any is what has separated the team from greatness. I’ll give Harbaugh a “C”, only because I think he did pretty well with what he had. Similar to the running backs, they did not perform well against top defenses. In fact, they outright got pushed around on occasion. Until Harbaugh and his assistants lock down the O-line play, Michigan will remain on the outside looking in regarding the national title hunt.

Andrew: D+’ .. I good offensive line in 2016 would have resulted in wins over Ohio State and Florida State; a mediocre line would have resulted in a win over Iowa. The unit has had no problem bullying weaker teams, but struggles mightily against the cream of the crop. Despite the rapid turnover, except for great improvement in 2017 with physicality and success.

Gary: I would say C+, because our pass protection was actually fairly improved. Have we forgotten the Devin Gardner era? Most games, Speight had time to throw. The exception was Wisconsin, Ohio St, and Iowa and those were nasty defensive lines. And even in the Ohio St game, the offensive line did fine for a lot of it. However, in at least half of our games, our offensive line could not move defenses, gave up negative plays, and gave RB’s no space. I thought the worst play of the year was the safety against Iowa, when the right guard just let the DT right by and we lose by one.

Nick: Defensive line? This should be pretty easy.

Jared: This one is easy, it is an ‘A+’ for sure. The success of the last 2 years has largely been due to the play of our defense, specifically the defensive line. We finished last year tied with Alabama as the top statistical defense in the nation, and averaged an astounding 9.3 tackles for loss per game.

We sent Willie Henry to the NFL in the 4th round in 2015, and will likely send Charlton, Wormley, and Glasgow in the top 4 rounds this year. It should be noted that having Greg Mattison as their position coach for their entire career has helped a lot of the departing defensive linemen, but under Harbaugh’s watch this position group has been stellar. Look for this to continue to be a position of strength for Harbaugh coached teams.

Will: To no one’s surprise, this is an “A+”. Until the fourth quarter, the defensive line had the Buckeyes offense rattled. They weren’t just holding their own, they were taking J.T. Barrett and company out of their game. This was the anchor of an elite defense, and I actually believe Rashan Gary and the rest when they say this year’s unit could be better. Hats off to Harbaugh and Mattison for what they’ve done with this crew.

Andrew: A+++++ .. Come on, you lobbed that one over the plate.

Gary: A+. The first year I thought we relied too heavily on Ryan Glasgow. Last year, Glasgow was more or less a backstage guy who did his job very well, but most of the big plays came from others. I felt sorry for pretty much every quarterback we played.

Nick: Linebackers? This has been an interesting group - you had Joe Bolden, James Ross, and Desmond Morgan back there in 2015, then Ben Gedeon, Mike McCray, and Peppers in 2016. Your thoughts?

Jared: Another tricky one because he has been getting it done with Hoke recruits up to this point. I will give this one a ‘B-’ overall, but once again I see it being an ascending position. Joe Bolden and James Ross were probably never going to be NFL draft picks, but they were serviceable linebackers in ‘15. Their lack of athleticism was easily exploited by Ohio State though, and really contributed to that years score getting out of hand. Linebacker play surged last year, and Peppers and Gedeon are both going to play on Sunday’s, with McCray likely to follow in ‘17. The linebacker recruiting has been just a shade behind the wide receivers for best position group, so expect to see (another) surge in production and athleticism.

Will: I say Harbaugh earned a “B”, but I think the unit benefitted from an incredible defensive line. Without that line, the lack of talent in the linebacking corps might have been exposed. It’s tough to gauge this unit, however, because Don Brown uses them so interestingly, Peppers and the viper position a striking example. I think the wave of talent flowing into Brown’s defense will only improve Harbaugh's grade moving forward.

Michigan v Michigan State Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Andrew: This is an interesting one, but I will go ‘C+.’ Bolden was the result of many broken objects in my house in 2015 and that group played inconsistent at best. The 2016 group was helped with Peppers’ versatility, Gedeon in pure run defense, and McCray playing with a high motor all over the field. However the downside was, Peppers’ size, Gedeon’s pass coverage, and McCray overplaying or helplessly trying to cover Dalvin Cook. 2016 was an improvement season and 2017 should be the next step.

Gary: Going to go with Will and give a B. Our linebackers were highly intelligent and strong, but lacked speed and quickness to get to the outside. They also had a tough time in coverage. In big games, teams really exploited them with running backs in the passing game.

Nick: How do you feel they’ve done with the defensive backs?

Jared: Although the secondary has been great the past two years, I will go with a ‘B’. Jourdan Lewis is one of those once in a lifetime type of corners that can just lock down his man, so he was always going to be solid no matter what. Channing Stribling was a liability if he had to tackle anyone last year, and Delano Hill and Dymonte Thomas were never game changers.

The 2015 team totaled 10 interceptions, which fell to 7 in ‘16. Those numbers could be improved upon as well. Once again, he did a great job with Hoke’s recruits and that cannot be diminished, but it would have been nice to see a few more of his recruits getting shuffled into the rotation last year to provide some depth for this season.

Photo credit: Bryan Fuller, MGoBlog

Will: I think Harbaugh gets an “A-” because he develops his talent, here. The NFL this year should have a lot of new faces in the secondary courtesy of the Wolverines, and I just don’t that’s the case if Harbaugh isn’t on the scene. I think it’s fair to say he brings a quarterback’s mind to his coaching the secondary, not just the quarterbacks.

Andrew: I will go ‘B+’ but side highly with Jared here. The secondary was spectacular statistically, but there were flaws. Channing Stribling, as I have said before, plays run defense like he is watching the plastic bag float in American Beauty and the lack of turnovers is disheartening. Will touched on the development of talent, but I think this process needs to become more accelerated if Michigan wants to reap some of the benefits before their departure.

Gary: B+’ because of the lack of interceptions. They could knock a ball down, but they couldn’t force turnovers. It seemed like every other team in the top 25 could, so I am not letting it slide. I really think this will change with these young, athletic corners coming in.


Nick: And overall, I think it’s safe to assume A’s or A+’s all around, yeah?

Jared: It is really hard to find an area where the flaws of a position group fall on Harbaugh. He took a bunch of good recruits that had potential but lacked proper coaching and turned them into Big Ten starters, or in some cases legitimate superstars. The deficiencies of the offensive line and the lack of athleticism in the linebacker corp are in no way his fault, and I can’t think of one position group that didn’t improve under his watch. Overall, I will give Harbaugh an ‘A’ for his all around grade. If he is unable to beat OSU this year, I imagine many of us will be reconsidering that grade.

Will: I do think he gets an “A” for his ability to develop talent. Hoke left some talent behind, but Harbaugh pushed them into national title conversations much sooner than expected on his arrival. Now that he’s bringing in elite recruiting classes that mirror his style of play, expect greatness. There might be a lull this year, with so many starters graduating, but there’s no replacement for attitude and athleticism, and Harbaugh’s teams are bringing plenty of both to the gridiron. Glad to have you, Coach.

Andrew: Every position group that didn’t garner an ‘A’ from me is trending in that direction. Harbaugh has done an excellent job of scouting, recruiting, and developing. The staff around him embrace his mantra of intensity, but are allowed room for innovation. The 2017 coaching staff is the best staff since Harbaugh’s arrival and I fully expect 2018 to be THE year. Go Blue!

Gary: The biggest thing for me since the beginning is the coaching. Right from the game vs Utah in 2015, I could tell things were different. We weren’t calling timeouts in the first quarter because no one knew the play or where they were lining up. Young and old players ran on and off the people with a purpose and a swag in their step because they all knew their job. This team means business because they are no longer worried about easy things like calling a play, snapping the ball, or getting to a bowl game. They are eying a championship.