For Michigan fans, the 2018 Outback Bowl was a game that could have added a little spark before the upcoming season with many starters returning and a potential recipe to win big games. The blunder of a second half, leading to a 26-19 loss against South Carolina, included five turnovers after being up 19-3, and questionable play calling throughout. All of that left fans in an angry state of mind for what’s to come in the offseason.
There are many question marks after an 8-5 season and three years under Jim Harbaugh. We’re likely to see staff changes primarily on the offensive side to hopefully be part of the recipe for improvement, especially if Patterson is given immediate eligibility for the 2018 season.
Most position units had their moments of highs and lows, but there’s room for improvement on both sides of the ball.
I’m going to end the position unit grades segment in two installments with the first being the offense and special teams.
All three had a small glimpse of an identify on offense that played a factor in this low grade. Fans had their hope of Speight performing well based on a decent 2016 season. However, their season ending stats contributed to only nine passing touchdowns for the season, the lowest from a U-M team since 1975. They averaged 171.23 passing yards per game compared to 150.08 for their opponents. The Wolverines also ended the season as the No. 105 total offense in the country.
Nobody cracked a spark of success in the red zone, instead they threw interceptions and didn’t step up in big games against ranked opponents, which was a huge issue the entire season. Their pass attempt completion percentage between the three quarterbacks is shockingly similar.
57-for-108 passes (52.7 percent), 672 total yards, four touchdowns, and two interceptions
84-for-157 passes (53.5 percent), 973 yards total yards, two touchdowns and six interceptions
44-for-81 passes (54.3 percent), 581 total yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions
Bringing in two new quarterbacks (Patterson and Milton) will create some great competition, but one position that needs a breakthrough year in 2018 is quarterback. If Patterson gets immediate eligibility, he may be the missing link to an upgrade on the offense. Dylan McCaffrey, Brandon Peters and Joe Milton will all be competing for the job, so adding Patterson, in there if he gets cleared to compete in 2018 will be huge.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: C
Everyone knew this group was loaded with young talent, and is one position unit that never produced a solid and consistent game overall. The guys that contributed the most in this unit all had similar stats, with Zach Gentry on top with highest average per catch. The injury for Tarik Black was a huge blow given how well he played against Florida.
WR Donovan Peoples-Jones
Receiving- 227 total yards, 12.6 average per catch
Rushing- 57 total yards, 14.3 average per catch
WR Kekoa Crawford
243 total yards, 14.3 average per catch, one touchdown
WR Tarik Black
149 total yards, 13.5 average per catch, one touchdown
TE Sean McKeon
301 total yards, 9.7 average per catch, three touchdowns
TE Zach Gentry
303 total yards, 17.8 average per catch, two touchdowns
The trio of freshman (Black, Collins, Peoples-Jones) will enter the 2018 season with one year under their belt, with all three of them hopefully healthy and ready.
In the five losses this year, the offense struggled in the air with the following yards per game.
Michigan State: 198
Penn State: 166
Ohio State: 195
South Carolina: 203
A big contributor to a better season in 2018 is how simply finding a wide receiver to step up and take charge of the unit.
Running backs/Fullbacks: B-
This group had some solid talent returning, and the question at the beginning of the 2017 season was “will someone rise and be the leading rusher?” Some thought it would be more of a running back by committee, and that’s just what happened. They had a few big games on the ground with 334 yards rushing against Rutgers and 371 yards against Minnesota.
Senior fullback Khalid Hill was expected to do a lot of work in 2017 after a huge 2016 campaign, but he was only able to find the end zone three times and rush for 34 yards on 17 carries. Freshman Ben Mason took the torch from Hill late in the season, and will surely be the starting fullback next year.
994 total yards, 6.1 average per carry, and 11 touchdowns
685 total yards, 5.1 average per carry, and six touchdowns
548 total yards, 6.2 average per carry, and two touchdowns
Karan Higdon and Chris Evans will be back for the 2018 season, so the two will be heavy favorites to see the most playing time. O’Maury Samuels and Kurt Taylor will be two sophomores competing for some time in the rotation. They seemed to also struggle against better defenses. Incoming freshmen Christian Turner and Hassan Haskins will also try and see the field. Below are the rushing yard totals in the five losses:
Michigan State: 102
Penn State: 103
Ohio State: 100
South Carolina: 74
This will be a huge piece to winning the close games against tough opponents in 2018. They had huge rushing numbers against other opponents in 2017, but it matters the most against a tough defense.
Offensive line: D+
This is the biggest concern going into the offseason and the position group that has been an issue for several years, even before this coaching staff arrived. While this certainly was a year with a few new faces rotating on the right side, it never improved by the end of the year in the bigger Big Ten matchups. In the losses, whoever was playing quarterback would be in scrambling mode to make a play that either forced a punt or turnover.
Knowing 2018 will be somewhat of a new group, I am excited to see Cesar Ruiz in a full-time role. I’d also love to see what Chuck Filiaga can do at either tackle spot. Mason Cole is moving on to the NFL, so Ben Bredeson’s return is huge for this offensive line. Other guys like Stephen Spanellis and Nolan Ulizio will compete for starting jobs, as well.
Pass protection was a struggle all year, and an improved offensive line may be the biggest factor in seeing an improved team in 2018.
Special teams: B-
With the loss of Kenny Allen, the special teams was going to ask the young guys to step up and execute in 2017.
Redshirt freshman Quinn Nordin went 19-for-24 as the full-time placekicker and 35-for-38 on extra point attempts. He also ended the year with kicking four field goals against South Carolina in the Outback Bowl.
Freshman punter Brad Robbins played in 10 games, which included 64 punts for 2,583 yards/40.4 average per punt.
These two will play a huge role next year. Nordin came in with big shoes to fill and overall did well. The missed extra points, starting in the Penn State game, were concerning, but he got it together as the year went on. He started the season with kicking two field goals over 50 yards against Florida, which was something everyone knew he was capable of based on his talent level.
For punt/kickoff returns, two other freshmen had some great highlights, including a punt return touchdown by Donovan Peoples-Jones. He ended the season with 320 total yards, eight yards per return on average, and one touchdown. One of the memories that will remain in the minds of many will be the return he dropped against South Carolina. He also had some struggles on making decisions based on when to call a fair catch or let it go to the end zone. At times, he would also catch the ball and seem to run backward toward the middle of the field instead of outside to avoid negative yards.
The other freshman, defensive back Ambry Thomas, saw the field for some of the kickoffs and ended with 20 returns for 396 total yards and 19.8 average. I see both Peoples-Jones and Thomas remaining in their respective roles unless someone proves to the staff they should get a crack against Notre Dame on Sept. 1.
Let’s hear from you! Take the poll and sound off in the comments.
What position will improve the most in 2018?
This poll is closed
Wide receiver/tight end