Last summer was filled with some hesitation for the Michigan Wolverines after a terrible 2020, despite good talent on paper. Fears soon dissipated as an unforgettable 2021 season culminated with a massive win over Ohio State and a long-awaited Big Ten championship and College Football Playoff berth.
However, despite last season’s successes, it was not going to be a straightforward offseason. Jim Harbaugh nearly departed for the NFL like his three best defenders, and both coordinators did in fact leave Ann Arbor. With the start of the 2022 season upon us, the dust is finally starting to settle and the new squad can set out to defend the conference crown.
Like any good Harbaugh offseason, there are still some unanswered questions heading into September, but here are the three biggest takeaways leading up to the season opener.
There is a plan for the quarterbacks
Last year, I thought J.J. McCarthy was destined to take over the starting job once the season got going, but in the end it was more or less Cade McNamara’s show for the entire year. McCarthy still got plenty of snaps, but he never fully unseated the incumbent. This year, it sounds like he will get a chance at taking it over.
Harbaugh uncharacteristically laid out his plans for the start of the season, with McNamara and McCarthy each getting one of the first two games. Despite McNamara representing the team at Big Ten Media Days and recently being named a captain, this race is apparently wide open.
It is my personal belief that Harbaugh is doing this to give himself an out. While he loves McNamara and wants to give him the opportunity to come into the season as the “starter” after a successful 2021, the coaching staff recognizes that McCarthy is the team’s future and the quarterback that absolutely gives them the best chance to win. This setup allows him to say to Cade, “we gave both of you a shot, but J.J. just came out ahead.”
Truthfully, though, this is the outcome I hope to see, so maybe this is just wishful thinking. I would not at all be surprised for McNamara to keep the job all season as he did last year with McCarthy again playing non-negligible snaps every game. Either way, at least there is transparency for the first two weeks which was certainly not guaranteed to happen.
The coaching staff is very high on the defense
No one should take Harbaugh’s claim too seriously that the 2022 defense could be better than last season’s iteration featuring Aidan Hutchinson, David Ojabo, Daxton Hill, and other future NFL players, but the sentiment should not be fully ignored either. Despite all of these exits, there is still plenty of talent to go around and the expectations are set accordingly.
For the defense to get near that of last year, the Wolverines will be looking for many returning players to go from new starter or solid contributor to closer to All-Big Ten levels of play. That starts up front with Mazi Smith who is finally ready to put it all together, but also Mike Morris and Jaylen Harrell, who are not quite Hutchinson and Ojabo, but are quality players in their own right.
Throw in the returning linebacker duo of Junior Coloson and Nikhai Hill-Green and talented defensive backs DJ Turner, Rod Moore, and RJ Moten, and it at least seems plausible that this could be a pretty strong unit. One factor that definitely helps is that new coordinator Jesse Minter can pick up the scheme right where Mike Macdonald left off, building on the experience these players all gained last season. Still, it would be quite the feat for Harbaugh and company if the defense actually gets close to the level of play from 2021.
Look out for some new faces
The 2022 recruiting class landed in the top 10 once again, and that means some true freshmen will get a chance to play right away. The conversation has to start with five-star corner Will Johnson, who likely takes over the CB2 job at some point this fall. Johnson is an extreme athlete, and while young corners face an uphill battle, he has the ability to jump right into the action.
Two of his classmates could also see some playing time along the defense. Zeke Berry is built to dominate as a nickel or safety and is looking like “the real deal,” which is no surprise given his high school tape. Defensive tackle Mason Graham is a little more raw, but he plays at a position of need and already looks like one of the best options at the spot, per Johnson.
One more to watch is Darrius Clemons, who has been turning heads since the Spring Game. Michigan is already stacked at wide receiver with no fewer than five legit options already at the position, but Harbaugh has stated that Clemons and classmates Amorion Walker and Tyler Morris are on track to get some action this fall.
And while not a freshman, the Wolverines got a big pickup in the transfer portal in Olu Oluwatimi. One of the best centers in the nation joined the team this offseason and is already fitting right in with last year’s Joe Moore Award winning line. Oluwatimi will be tasked with a lot of responsibility as the center, and reports have been nothing but positive about his acclimation into the new system. All of these newcomers have been earning praises this summer and should be on the field either Week 1 or soon after.