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Position unit grades: Running backs, secondary shine in Michigan’s opener

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Despite some struggles, most position groups graded out fairly well.

Dustin Johnston / Maize n Brew

Michigan Football walked out of its season opener against Middle Tennessee State with a 40-21 win on Saturday night in Ann Arbor. Now that the dust has cleared on the game, let’s grade the position groups.

Quarterbacks: B

I want to start out by saying here that the quarterbacks will not be negatively graded for the coaching staff’s decision to put them on the field at the same time. We’ll discuss that a little bit later.

Overall, it was a nice night for Shea Patterson after he fumbled to start the game. The ball security has to be better, but after the team put aside the two-QB tomfoolery, things started to open up for the passing game and Patterson finished the first half 16-for-25 with three touchdowns and 197 yards passing. He cooled off later in the game after some sort of ailment at the end of the first half that required halftime treatment, but his reads were for the most part pretty good on the RPOs and he did well checking plays at the line of scrimmage and getting the ball to his playmakers.

Dylan McCaffrey received some run at QB as well outside of the snaps he got on the field with Patterson at quarterback and was much more of the running threat that we know him to be. He only had two pass attempts, which is nowhere near enough to warrant claims from people saying he is the better of the two signal-callers. If he is going to be in the game, Michigan is going to have to let him throw the ball to provide more of a dual threat. Patterson is the superior player in terms of arm talent.

What McCaffrey brings right now is sort of a sideshow. Unless Patterson bottoms out, which he never even has remotely come close to doing, this is his football team and his offense.

Running Backs: A-

This position group, along with the secondary, is the one I come away most impressed with from Saturday’s game. We knew that this is a young and inexperienced backfield, but the offseason hype came to a head when true freshman Zach Charbonnet took the first snap as the starter at running back. And for the most part, he absolutely looked the part.

Not only just physically, but he checks off all of the boxes, too. He’s patient. He’s big. He can catch the ball out of the backfield and also pass protect. In his Michigan debut, he finished with 90 yards on eight carries, the highlight of which came on a 41-yard rush. Christian Turner did not get the start, but the numbers showed he was the lead back on Saturday with 11 carries for 49 yards. Tru Wilson only had two touches on the night, but did have a terrific pass block that set up Michigan’s touchdown to Tarik Black.

We saw a little bit of Hassan Haskins and Ben VanSumeren, the latter of which scored Michigan’s final touchdown of the game. VanSumeren actually was the next non-quarterback behind Charbonnet and Turner in terms of carries with four.

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: B-

The playmaking ability of the available weapons was on display on Saturday night with wide receivers Tarik Black and Nico Collins and tight end Sean McKeon all catching long touchdown passes from Patterson. That they have as many guys as they do that can get down the field and make plays is an encouraging sign and warrants the offensive shift in philosophy we are seeing, even without Donovan Peoples-Jones on Saturday night.

Black had a really nice night with four catches for 80 yards and the touchdown, while Collins’ touchdown may have been the highlight of the evening with a nice adjustment to bring down his scoring pass. All things considered, he might be Michigan’s best all-around offensive non-quarterback when it is all said and done.

After that, it was sort of an underwhelming night. Ronnie Bell had a rough go of it and had a touchdown pass slip right off of his fingers. He would finish the night with two catches for 18 yards on seven targets. We did not see as much of Mike Sanristil as we thought we would, but Cornelius Johnson had a solid showing with two catches for 19 yards on his only two targets of the game.

Like the rest of the team, there were some miscues and mental mistakes that will need to be cleaned up. On its big plays through the air, the guys just had to get open and they were able to do that. We will see how they fare against better competition.

Offensive line: B-

The offense line was down two of their projected starters at both tackle spots entering this game. We knew that would be the case with Jalen Mayfield taking over for Andrew Stueber at right tackle, but we were not sure if Jon Runyan Jr. would play a ton after rumors of an injury popped up this week. He didn’t and Ryan Hayes got the start on the blind side for Michigan, which gave the Wolverines two redshirt freshman starting at tackle.

Those two play alright for most of the night. It seemed early on Hayes was a little bit tentative and getting his feet wet, but he settled in nicely as the game went on. Mayfield and the right side of the offensive line with Michael Onwenu had problems picking up a stunt that led to a sack.

Overall, they got the job done and gave Patterson some nice pockets to throw from. They’re still getting used to blocking for a new offense, as well, which also involves them getting out in space a bit, too. We did not see anything that either confirmed them as one of the best offensive lines in the country or showed that they were not as good as advertised, so the arrow for them stays neutral.

Defensive Line: B

As a defense in general, Michigan’s 21 points allowed are somewhat misleading, as two touchdowns came off of turnovers and short fields, while the other was in garbage time.

The defensive line talent is as advertised despite missing Donovan Jeter for the game and Michael Dwumfour being banged up early on, leaving the Wolverines thin at defensive tackle. This meant a longer look on the interior from converted fullback Ben Mason starting next to team captain Carlo Kemp. That position group was thin on Saturday and did not blow anyone away, but it was still a solid showing and Mason’s burst off the snap was impressive. We thought we would see more of freshmen Mazi Smith and Chris Hinton, but never got an extended look.

The defensive end and pass rush talent might not be as elite as it was, but there is no doubt the talent is still there. Aidan Hutchinson and Kwity Paye got the starts at the defensive end spots with grad transfer Mike Danna also rotating in. Michigan threw the front onto the field of Hutchinson, Paye, Danna and Joshua Uche in pass rushing situations and it was fun to watch. It should be interesting to see how that develops throughout the year.

Overall, this group played well and did its job. The sack and tackles for loss numbers were not there, and they may not be as deep as we thought they might be early on, but like the offensive line, it was a workmanlike effort.

Linebackers: B+

One of the biggest questions about this team was how they replace the speed and playmaking ability of Devin Bush at linebacker. For at least one night, it seems they have a guy in Josh Ross who can help out there in a big way. Athletically and instinctually, he brings what you’d like to see at the position and his role will continue to expand and develop moving forward.

One of the pleasant surprises of Saturday night’s game was not only that Jordan Glasgow got the start at weak-side linebacker, but that he played as well as he did. He had both of Michigan’s sacks on the night and looked right at home there. The third of the Glasgow clan looks like he could be another one of those contributors that comes out of nowhere to be an important piece on a football team, much like his brothers Graham and Ryan.

Secondary: A-

Speaking of surprises, this was not only this team’s biggest question mark on defense coming into the season, but it was also the breakout position group of the first game of the year. At cornerback, Lavert Hill is who he is and is an All-American type of talent, but we were not sure who would start on the other side of him with Ambry Thomas returning to the field from a bout of colitis.

It turns out, the answer was Ambry Thomas.

Thomas played his best career game to this point as a Wolverine and had an interception and a fumble recovery while getting the start opposite Hill. We were not even sure if he would play this week, let alone start. And then start and play well and be one of the best players on the field on Saturday night.

Vincent Gray also received a decent amount of snaps on the field and had a few plays where he did not get his head turned around, but still found himself in position to make plays and was another one of the breakout performers from the contest. It was only one game and there is a lot of work to still be done, but it’s possible that the corners are once again a strength.

The safety play was pretty good with Josh Metellus and Brad Hawkins getting the starts back there. Hawkins was impressive on Saturday night and backed up why the coaching staff feels his best football is still ahead of him. Some fans were discouraged that freshman Dax Hill could not pull away a starting job, but his learning curve mixed with how well Hawkins has acquitted himself gives him time to learn and develop as opposed to being forced into action.

Special Teams: B+

It was a pretty good night for the special teams units outside of Lavert Hill’s struggles at punt returner in relief of Peoples-Jones. He would be replaced there by Ronnie Bell. True freshman Giles Jackson was the primary kick returner on Saturday night with Mike Barrett also lining up to receive next to him.

Kicking-wise, it was a clean night for both Jake Moody and Quinn Nordin, who continue to duke it out for the starting job. It still appears that Moody is ahead, but both guys took care of their business. Not much more needs to be said either about Will Hart, who simply is one of the best punters in America.

Coaching: C

I will be up front and say this ranking is not totally fair because we are not in meeting rooms and are not sure what Harbaugh and his staff set out to accomplish this week, especially with the offensive game plan. Truth be told, it is probably more of an “incomplete” because they had a lot of things they wanted to do offensively. Some of it worked, some of it did not (looking at you, QB roulette). It will be on them now to watch the film and correct it. However, offensive coordinator Josh Gattis’ new system has more of it that looks like it may work than doesn’t and now we will see how the Wolverines build off of that.

Where this grade might be warranted is in another slow start, despite the fact that it came against a far inferior opponent. Michigan was sloppy early and did not always seem prepared to play until the offense started to hit its stride later in the first half. Perhaps it was nerves, but it was at least a little disappointing that the game-planning and execution left a lot to be desired. For the most part, it feels like they accomplished what they set out to do, but it certainly was not their intent to put ugly football on film. Everyone needs to come out sharper this week and stronger in the game against Army.