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An Optimist’s Guide to Michigan Football in 2018

There are a lot of naysayers out there, but there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic.

NCAA Football: Air Force at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

For a football program as storied as Michigan’s, last year was not a banner year by any means.

After finishing 10-3 in each of Jim Harbaugh’s first two seasons as head coach, many pundits and fans expected the Wolverines to continue their string of success, but from the offset, it was clear that wouldn’t be the case.

Michigan’s season was marred by an offense that was below average at best, and unable to consistently move the ball at worst. Although the defense was stellar throughout most of the year, the offense’s inability to stay on the field caused the defense, in turn, to stay on the field too much and tire out over the course of games. This showed its ugly side when the Wolverines’ defense was able to stifle both Ohio State and Wisconsin, the two top teams in the Big Ten, for extended periods of time, but blew a lead in the second half of each game.

Fortunately for the Wolverines, there are many signs that point to Harbaugh’s team being able to get back to where it was the previous two years and perhaps even surpass that. For all of its faults, Michigan was the youngest team in college football and the defense was still strong despite losing 10 of its 11 starters to the NFL Draft or graduation.

This year is a new year, and with a new year comes comes a chance to start anew and develop. The combination of continuity on both sides of the ball and an influx of new quarterback talent for the Wolverines should result in Michigan returning to its historical status as a threat to every team they play, and a national title contender.

Beyond simply getting better on the field or position by position, the long offseason and wealth of returning players should allow Michigan to develop a bit more team chemistry, which is also important to win. The Wolverines have already accumulated a lot more efficacy and stronger bonds as a result of going through such a tiresome season as the last one, and don’t have to start from scratch like last year when many inexperienced players were forced to start. Last year, when Michigan had to play three QBs and start numerous underclassmen, the players had no time to develop those roles, and through the lens of a disappointing season, probably felt like they weren’t doing their job.

While each player has to do his or her own specific task in football, there is a large amount of communication involved. On offense, all one has to do to see the importance of team chemistry is look at one passing play. If the quarterback doesn’t properly communicate to his receivers what routes to run, that could easily lead to an interception. Likewise, if a running back or offensive lineman doesn’t know who to block, that’s an easy tackle for loss by the other team.

The main beneficiary of that continuity should be the defense. In complete contrast to the year before, the Wolverines will return every starter but defensive tackle Maurice Hurst and linebacker Mike McCray. Michigan allowed 18.8 points per game last year and owned the third-ranked defense in terms of yards allowed per game last year. While that is certainly a high bar to replicate, the Wolverines have standout players at every positional group, and the continuity among the players should allow them to develop more chemistry with each other and continue to get better.

That talent starts up front with defensive end Rashan Gary, defensive end Chase Winovich linebacker Devin Bush Jr. and linebacker Khaleke Hudson, who, with another year of experience, should provide Michigan with a versatile group of defenders that are strong as both pass-rushers and coverage linebackers. Gary is 6’5’ and weighs 280 pounds, yet has a measured sprinting speed akin to that of a wide receiver or track athlete.

At the moment, Gary is projected to be a top-five pick in next year’s NFL Draft and the leader of the defense. While Gary did not receive much playing time in his first year, he burst onto the scene last year, leading the team in total quarterback pressures and was constantly in the face of opposing quarterbacks.

In a home game against Minnesota last year, Hudson recorded a Big Ten-record eight tackles for loss, and had the highest graded game for a single player in 2017.

Although both Bush and Hudson are capable coverage linebackers, both players occasionally missed tackles. With another year of practices and film, both players should be able to improve on that weakness of their game, making the Michigan defense even better. In particular, Hudson’s ability to play and improve at the versatile VIPER position should allow Michigan to fill in gaps in the event of injuries.

Offensively, Michigan’s returning players shouldn’t necessarily be expected to take the step from good to elite, but a step from where they were last year to anything good will make the Wolverines significantly better, given the strength of the defense. Again, the name of the game is continuity and growth.

At the wide receiver position, sophomores Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black need to be difference makers for the Wolverines to gain any consistency in the passing game. Even though Black wasn’t a top-rated recruit coming out of high school, coaches noticed his advanced knowledge of route-running and ability to catch jump balls, and put him at the top of Michigan’s depth chart to start the season. Harbaugh’s faith in Black initially paid off — he led the team with 11 catches for 149 yards and a touchdown after three weeks, but a broken foot cut his season short at that point.

Black’s production over that three-game stretch would have put him at 50 catches if he played the whole season. For comparison, Grant Perry ended up leading the team that season with half of that total. Michigan went 5-5 after the freshman’s injury halted a 3-0 start. His continued improvement and simple presence on the field again should give whatever quarterback is under center for the Wolverines a reliable target to throw to.

While Black is the safe and reliable receiver for the Wolverine passing attack, Peoples-Jones has the potential to be the explosive, big-play receiver Michigan hasn’t had since Amara Darboh’s pass-catching dominance two years ago. Although Peoples-Jones’ freshman year was filled with ill-timed routes and drops, there is no denying that the former top-20 recruit is a freak athlete.

In his third career game, Peoples-Jones shed three tackles and used an array of spin moves, cuts, and speed to notch a 79-yard punt return touchdown. He followed that up by catching a toe-dragging one-handed touchdown on the road against Wisconsin (one that was incorrectly waived off). People-Jones, though, needs to provide plays like those on a consistent basis rather than twice a season for Michigan to reach its true ceiling, but it is evident that he has the speed, strength and raw ability to do so, given more time on the field to grow and correct those inconsistencies.

If the wide receivers are the untapped resource with an almost limitless ceiling, the tight end group in the locker room is the steady and most consistent group from Michigan last year. Junior Sean McKeon and sophomore Zach Gentry aren’t the most flashy players, and spend a lot of time blocking for running backs and receivers instead of catching passes on their own, but the two players were quietly Michigan’s third and second leading receivers, respectively. Even though the duo won’t often be running deep routes, their ability to provide toughness and consistency in the trenches will make it that much easier for Michigan’s star players to be productive.

Furthermore, the two tight ends should run a lot of short crossing routes — this means that if receivers are not open deep down field, McKeon and Gentry will be a security blanket for the quarterback. With a largely inexperienced offensive line that might not block well, it’ll be paramount for Michigan to get the ball out quickly. It surely helps that the team has a set of tight ends that will be there with sure hands to reel in those dump-off passes.

Without good quarterback play, however, whatever improvements Black and Peoples-Jones make over the course of the offseason will be rendered pointless. Michigan cycled through three quarterbacks last season, and none of them were able to provide a consistent threat to opposing defenses. Wilton Speight, John O’Korn and Brandon Peters combined to pass for 2,226 yards and nine touchdowns in 13 games, all figures that ranked towards the bottom of the Big Ten and in the bottom half nationally. Much of the Wolverines’ hope for a rebound season next year hinges on whether or not transfer quarterback Shea Patterson can come in and be a difference maker right away.

The former No. 1 high school recruit eclipsed Michigan’s total passing yardage in just nine games with Mississippi, and almost doubled the Wolverines touchdown output with 17 passing touchdowns of his own. Whereas each of the signal-callers on Michigan’s roster last year were immobile and often succumbed to the pressure caused by the Wolverines’ sub-par offensive line, Patterson’s ability to scramble and throw on the run is his hallmark. By being able to buy extra time with his feet, Patterson would give receiver like Black and Peoples-Jones more time and more opportunities to get open.

That’s not to say that Michigan is totally screwed over if Patterson is a bust, though. Peters showed flashes of having a strong arm and good pocket presence in six starts for the Wolverines, and redshirt freshman Dylan McCaffrey possesses many of the same intangibles and physical skills that Patterson does in the case that one of them has to start.

On paper, Michigan’s scheduling seems notably daunting, but there is a silver lining to that. ESPN ranks the Wolverines’ schedule as the hardest in the country, and it’s easy to see why. Michigan has to play road games against Notre Dame, Ohio State, Northwestern, and Michigan State, who all finished the season ranked inside the top 20 of the AP poll. Home games against Wisconsin and Penn State, both of whom Michigan got blown out by last year, won’t be walks in the park by any means.

So what makes Michigan ready to leap into this inferno of a schedule? For starters, the fact that it is a challenging schedule in of itself should be extra motivation. When the College Football Playoff Committee selects four teams to make the playoff, they will value the resume of a team with one or two losses against quality opponents over that of a team with no losses with a cupcake schedule. If Michigan can plow through that gauntlet with one or two losses, they should, at the worst, be in position for a top-level bowl game.

While it was hard for the Wolverines to build cohesion last year, many of the teams that Michigan faces will have that same problem to deal with this upcoming season. Those squads will lose significant talent, whereas Michigan won’t. Notre Dame loses star running back Josh Adams and wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown. Ohio State losex quarterback J.T. Barrett and a large portion of its defensive standouts. Wisconsin loses defenders Nick Nelson and Jack Cichy, and Penn State will take the biggest losses of any team by losing Heisman Trophy candidate Saquon Barkley and receiver DaeSean Hamilton.

With the exception of Adams, St. Brown and Cichy, all of those players were vital parts of those teams’ wins over Michigan last year. Michigan State and Northwestern don’t lose too much either, but both teams finished close to Michigan in the standings last year and don’t have the top-end talent Michigan has. When the Wolverines play either of those teams, they would arguably have the best player on the field for all 60 minutes of the game in Patterson, Gary or Peoples-Jones.

If Michigan can take advantage of the talent it has, there won’t be very many teams in college football that will have the offensive talent and defensive firepower to stop the Wolverines. While there are many potential roadblocks — Michigan has to play four road games against other teams that finished last year with winning records, and there’s always the chance of a freak injury like Black’s happening again — the Wolverines have a much better chance to draw out every ounce of production from the team. They won’t be that new kid on the block anymore, trying to piece together an offense as players get hurt or benched. The defense should be able to play with leads, instead of having to shoulder most of the load to win a game.

Now, like every offseason, it’s a waiting game.