The Michigan Wolverines were so close to snatching victory from the jaws of defeat against TCU in the Fiesta Bowl. Team 143 was the best Michigan team since the 1997 squad and arguably one of the top three teams in program history. But in the end, the 2022 season endured the same recent fate as the 2006, 2016 and 2021 teams.
Aside from the obvious improvements of cleaning up the self-inflicted wounds, how does this team continue to evolve and finally reach the next level? For now, let’s focus on the offensive side of the football, otherwise this could turn into a 5,000-word essay where I slowly delve into madness arguing the nuances of defensive line technique.
Michigan’s rushing attack was lethal. The two-headed monster of running backs Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards combined for 2,454 yards and 25 rushing touchdowns. The Wolverines have a clear identity of smash-mouth football and that is never going away as long as Jim Harbaugh is the head coach of this team (please stay).
However, in order to optimize this offensive unit, the Wolverines must become a more fluent, consistent and efficient passing offense. Quarterback J.J. McCarthy improved every week during his first year as the starter and in order to expedite his development in 2023, Michigan should bring in a passing game coordinator (PGC).
Offensive coordinators Sherrone Moore and Matt Weiss coexisted exceptionally well this season as dual play-callers and produced a top-five rushing offense and a top-six scoring offense. But the passing offense lagged behind at No. 83 in the country.
Aside from statistical rankings, Michigan’s passing attack often felt forced and nothing came as easy as it should have — just compare Michigan and Georgia’s final offensive possessions in the College Football Playoff.
Given that Moore and Weiss both come from a run-first, ask questions later coaching style, the influx of a PGC could inject the necessary creativity and play design to help balance and elevate this offense into a more complete unit. The most obvious success example of this is when LSU hired Joe Brady as their passing game coordinator and co-receivers coach in 2019. Brady helped orchestrate the most dynamic passing attack in the history of college football and took quarterback Joe Burrow from middling transfer to the Heisman Trophy.
Harbaugh doesn’t need someone to do that, but he needs to hire someone who understands complementary football and his team’s identity. And it just so happens that exact person is looking for a job.
David Shaw resigned as the head coach of Stanford at the end of November following back-to-back 3-9 campaigns. Shaw succeeded Harbaugh at Stanford in 2011 and became the winningest all-time coach at his alma mater, posting a career record of 96-54 during his tenure.
In 2006, Harbaugh hired Shaw as his PGC and receivers coach at the University of San Diego. The Toreros went 11-1 and Harbaugh left the following year to take the job at a dormant 1-11 Stanford program. Harbaugh was so impressed with Shaw’s coaching he brought him along to Stanford and elevated him to offensive coordinator.
The Cardinal improved each year under Harbaugh: 4-8, 5-7, 8-5, and 12-1 in his final season in 2010. The biggest leap in improvement came when Stanford’s defense finally reached respectability and when the offense evolved into a more balanced attack.
In 2009, Stanford’s rushing offense was ranked No. 11 nationally (218 yards per game), while the passing attack lagged behind at No. 70 (209 yards per game). The next year, the rushing offense slightly regressed to No. 17 (214 yards per game), but the passing offense rocketed up to No. 29 (258 yards per game).
Shaw had developed and cultivated an identity founded upon physicality, but could be equally dominant through the air.
The Harbaugh-Shaw connection is still alive and well all these years later. In his resignation press conference, Shaw referenced what he and Harbaugh started at Stanford back in 2007: “I have an appreciation of Jim Harbaugh and the original staff. We started something that really, really lasted.”
Harbaugh has found his guy to lead the defense in Jesse Minter, and now he needs to balance his offense. Shaw will not be expected to come to Michigan and call plays or usurp responsibilities from Weiss or Moore; he just needs to design a passing offense to put the coordinators and players in the best place to succeed.
There are already a few familiar faces on the Michigan roster to make Shaw feel at home. Obviously there is Harbaugh, but also 2022 Stanford team captain and center Drake Nugent, along with left tackle Myles Hinton, have both already transferred to Ann Arbor for the 2023 season.
Shaw and Harbaugh started something special at Stanford — it’s only right they finish it together at Michigan.