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15 fears for Michigan Football in 2023

There is a lot of optimism surrounding Team 144, but there are always reasons for concern as well.

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Texas Christian at Michigan Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

God, I miss Michigan football.

It hasn’t even been 50 days since the end of Michigan’s season, but I am already daydreaming about the Ann Arbor game day anxiety, J.J. McCarthy deep play-action dropbacks and the potential design of the 2023 Turnover Buffs.

Several weeks into the offseason, fans have begun the usual coping mechanisms to deal with the absence of football: try other sports (Michigan hockey is fun, basketball is certainly not boring), binge The Last of Us, argue with rival fans on Twitter, fire up Tinder (“Go Green, Go White,” *swipe left*), or construct Jim Harbaugh era player rankings.

All good, mostly harmless fun. But these next several months are going to crawl by slower than usual because Michigan’s expectations are higher than usual. You have to go back to the 2007 preseason to find equitable anticipation for a season.

It is championship or bust, but if 2007 taught us anything, that bust can come as easily Week 1 as in the College Football Playoff. Any time I want to puff my chest out and shout, “I’m not afraid anymore!” an Appalachian State anniversary segment runs on ESPN, and I retreat like a startled Kevin McCallister to watch the 2021 Michigan/Ohio State game for the 1,000th time to rebuild confidence.

Despite returning the third-most production of Power Five teams and having a favorable schedule, Michigan still has a long way to go to accomplish the increasingly more elusive fourth goal from the 2022 season: win the National Championship.

With another season comes an entirely new — albeit familiar — set of obstacles. Can Michigan survive the inevitable injury bug? How will Team 144 handle adversity on the road? Will McCarthy take that next step?

As we all toil away in anguish until the start of the season, here are my 15 fears in no particular order for the Michigan Wolverines ahead of the 2023 football season.

Happy Valley

The 2022 Nittany Lions were perhaps the most underwhelming 11-2 team in recent memory. Despite winning the Rose Bowl and beating every team on their schedule that did not make the College Football Playoff, last year still feels closer to mediocrity than excellence for Penn State in large part due to the lopsidedness of those two losses.

The Wolverines ran over Penn State like an F-350 accelerating over a squirrel. Michigan rushed for 418 rushing yards, the third-most Penn State has allowed in a game since they started tracking stats in 1947.

Revenge will be on their mind. They return two of the best young running backs in the country in Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen, who combined for 2,201 scrimmage yards and 24 touchdowns in 2022. That will help ease the burden on first-year starter at quarterback, Drew Allar.

Talent aside, playing at Beaver Stadium is never easy. Since Jim Harbaugh took over in 2015, Michigan has posted a coin flip 2-2 record in Happy Valley, with the last two meetings being decided on the final play.

The good news for Michigan fans is James Franklin remains the Penn State head coach and while aesthetically pleasing, the Nittany Lions are a meager 10-8 in “white out” games.

Passive Pass Rush

Sentences I never thought I would type: Michigan needs a true No. 1 pass rusher.

Until this past season — barring Mike Morris skyrocketing up NFL draft boards — Michigan had started at least one first round pass rusher at edge since 2014. While Michigan’s pass rush was slightly more productive in 2022 than 2021, the absence of a premier pass rusher hurt Team 143 in the biggest moments, but the glaring deficiency was often covered up by an outstanding secondary.

Compare the Penn State and Ohio State games from the past two seasons:

2021: vs. Penn State (7 sacks, 12 TFL’s), Ohio State (4 sacks, 8 TFL’s)

2022: vs. Penn State: (2 sacks, 4 TFL’s), Ohio State (1 sack, 3 TFL’s)

The Wolverines consistently struggled to generate pressure with only four rushers this season and had to get creative when blitzing safeties, corners and linebackers. Look no further than the game against TCU when defensive coordinator Jesse Minter had to go deep in his blitz bag to generate any semblance of pressure, which left the team vulnerable to pick routes and crossers. Don Brown would be proud.

So, who will it be for the Wolverines? Jaylen Harrell is a well-rounded player, but can he become a game-wrecker on the edge? Rising sophomore Derrick Moore feels like the frontrunner, with the veteran Braiden McGregor and transfer Josaiah Stewart right on his heels.

Whoever it is, will the real pass rusher please stand up?

Marvin Harrison Jr.

Typing this is going to hurt my fingers.

Ohio State wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. might be the best player in college football next season. If he were eligible, he would be the first receiver selected and a top 10 NFL Draft pick this year. Harrison finished his sophomore campaign as a unanimous All-American with 77 receptions for 1,263 yards and 14 touchdowns.

He is mutant Mike Evans. Seriously, what the hell is this?

The last time we saw Harrison Jr, he was torturing soon-to-be NFL first round corner Kelee Ringo to the tune of five catches for 106 yards and two touchdowns before leaving the game after a controversial hit.

If Harrison Jr. remains in that game, Ohio State probably beats Georgia, smokes TCU, wins the natty and life feels as hopeful as the ending to Requiem For a Dream for Michigan fans. He is that level of a difference-maker.

While I have complete faith in Will Johnson and the entire Michigan secondary to contain Harrison Jr., the thought of facing a receiver of this caliber will never make me feel good.

Big Ten Home Opener

Maybe it’s the jump in competition after a less than strenuous non-conference slate, but Michigan has struggled the last two years in its conference opener. In 2021, Michigan had its worst offensive performance of the season against Rutgers (275 total yards) and required two fourth quarter stops to cling to victory.

Last year, running back Blake Corum carried the Wolverines against Maryland like an unarmed Keanu Reeves carrying the John Wick franchise; Corum accounted for every single yard of Michigan’s rushing attack on his way to the seventh-best outing by a Michigan rusher in program history (243 yards).

Hopefully Michigan can escape the Big Ten opener malaise this year against Rutgers without requiring critical fourth quarter stops or superhuman efforts.

Counters to Stacked Boxes

Every week, rival fans online surmise the key to beating the Wolverines is as simple as: “Stack the box and press your corners.” Safe to say after posting a 25-3 record the last two seasons, it is a little more difficult than that.

Michigan’s identity has long been rooted in the ethos of, “We are running the ball and there is nothing you can do about it.” While bully ball is appreciated, diversifying the run game’s personnel packages could introduce some unpredictability into Michigan’s smash mouth approach and prevent opponents from crowding the line of scrimmage.

One way of achieving this is running the ball out of 10 personnel (one running back, zero tight ends) or 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end) and flexing tight end Colston Loveland into a receiver’s alignment. This spaces the opponent out and gives Michigan a much lighter box to run into, especially when an opponent is running quarters coverage, which more teams are running against the Wolverines.

However, in order to command respect and be able to run out of different personnel, the Wolverines must find some answers at wide receiver. Which brings us to…

Wide Receiver Depth

Michigan’s wide receivers room is like Ocean’s 11, except every role is played by Casey Affleck — a quality actor who can raise his game to Oscar heights, but lacks the consistency and star power to be considered a true leading man.

Cornelius Johnson and Roman Wilson have both shown flashes of being elite players, but too often you forget they are on the field. Furthermore, with Ronnie Bell headed to the NFL, Andrel Anthony headed to Big 12 mediocrity and Amorion Walker potentially headed to defense, who is the third guy? More importantly, could the “third” guy actually be the No. 1 guy in waiting?

Tyler Morris showed glimpses last season against Rutgers, and Darrius Clemons has potential but struggled to see the field. Michigan will continue to be a running back/tight end driven offense, but the ability to stretch the field will be the key to opening up the entire offense.

Running Back Fragility

The 2023 running back duo of Corum and Donovan Edwards is the best in the country, and perhaps the best in the history of Michigan. However, neither has shown the ability to stay healthy for an entire season.

If Corum is healthy, does Michigan beat TCU? If Edwards has two hands against the Horned Frogs, does he handle the goal line carries? Keeping these two healthy is imperative to Michigan’s long-term success, so the Wolverines must find a third rusher to help shoulder the load.

CJ Stokes and Kalel Mullings have to clean up their fumbles, while it appears Isaiah Gash will never be much more than a poor man’s Tru Wilson.

The wild card is incoming, highly touted freshman Cole Cabana, who has elite game-breaking speed. But can he prove to be durable and hold onto the football?

Perhaps the biggest preserver of running back health in 2023 will be advancement of Michigan’s passing game. Run game body blows are a great strategy in football, but sometimes you need the long passing haymakers to prevent your stars from being casualties of a game plan.

Cade McNamara

Just kidding.

Run-Through Linebackers

For the last two years, Michigan has struggled in the run game with instinctive, athletic linebackers. Sometimes they struggle and overcome (2021 Wisconsin, 2022 Michigan State), or they struggle and their season ends (2021 Georgia, 2022 TCU).

In particular, run-through linebackers have caused Michigan’s guards problems. For those unaware, a run-through linebacker identifies a gap (usually when a guard is eager to pull or a zone scheme opens up a lane), shoots through the hole and blows up the play.

This is different from a blitz because a blitz — more often than not because delayed blitzes do exist — occurs at the snap, while a run-through occurs a beat after when the linebacker diagnoses the situation. Here is an explanation from former Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges and a few examples from the TCU game to help:

Michigan’s offensive line needs to be more disciplined with their eyes and locked in to their keys to prevent this from happening. While it only happens against select opponents, the offensive line has demonstrated a two-year trend of wilting in the CFP. Let’s expand on that.

Offensive, Offensive Line Play in the CFP

Michigan’s offensive line is the first unit to win consecutive Joe Moore Awards since the award’s inception in 2015 and has dominated the line of scrimmage in Big Ten play. However, with a month to prepare, Georgia and TCU both overwhelmed them.

Against Georgia, Michigan allowed seven tackles for loss and four sacks (both season-highs), but this was largely forgiven because of the massive talent advantage on the Bulldogs’ defense.

But allowing 13 tackles for loss and four sacks (both again season-highs) to a mediocre TCU defense who gave up 65 points in the National Championship is inexcusable. For two consecutive years, Michigan’s greatest strength has become a weakness with the season on the line.

Once is a mistake, twice is a trend, and it is impossible to feel confident in Michigan’s O-line in the CFP until they prove it.

Road Rivals

Harbaugh is 4-4 against the Spartans since taking over in 2015, and 2-1 at Spartan Stadium. Aside from Michigan’s blowout 44-10 victory in 2019, every game against the Wolverines’ secondary rival has been a collision of physicality and vitriol, and 2023 will be no different.

While the dynamic Jayden Reed is gone and the running back position is still trying to fill a Kenneth Walker-sized hole, big bodied wide receivers Tre Mosely and Keon Coleman return, as does quarterback Payton Thorne (or someone better if he loses the job).

Coleman is the headliner with his All-Big Ten accolades and All-American Twitter fingers. The young Will Johnson will draw the Coleman assignment, but expect a steady dose of double teams with safety Rod Moore.

On paper, Michigan is better than Michigan State, but these games against the green and white are always chaotic and impossible to predict. At least Spartan Stadium has two tunnels. Oh wait.

Back-to-back Road Games

The last two years, Michigan has struggled in the second game of consecutive road contests. In 2021, it was Nebraska, which holds the dubious honor of being the best 3-9 team of all-time — which is similar to being the best pro sports GM in Detroit — and pushed the Wolverines to the brink of a loss.

Last year, despite winning 31-10, the Wolverines were tied at the half and only up seven after three quarters against a bad Indiana team. Some of the struggle had to do with coach Mike Hart’s medical emergency, but the game was a struggle nonetheless.

Minnesota is expected to be down this season, but that does not guarantee the game will not be a nail-biter. Plus, Michigan’s last two visits to Minneapolis have been wonky.

Michigan’s goal line stand at Minnesota in 2015 a game after “Trouble with the snap” was galvanizing, but was also the beneficiary of clock management malpractice. And the 2020 blowout victory had Joe Milton receiving Heisman votes. Recent road history says this will be tough; recent geographic history says this will be weird.

Buckle up.

Michigan’s Second Corner

Who starts opposite Will Johnson? Who will be the Sundance Kid to his Butch Cassidy, the Vincent Vega to his Jules Winnfield, the Reed Rothchild to his Eddie Adams?

Michigan’s secondary was excellent in 2022 and will be better with four of their five CFP starters returning in 2023. But that one missing piece and no clear frontrunner could cause issues.

Jalen Perry and Ja’Den McBurrows appear to be the leaders in the clubhouse, but the streets are saying Amorion Walker has changed sides of the ball, and his 6-foot-4 height would give the Wolverines exceptional size at the position. Or perhaps one of the young safeties — Keon Sabb or Zeke Berry — takes on a new challenge.

Michigan’s scheme can help mitigate growing pains for the new corner, but by the second half of the season, this position needs to be solidified or otherwise risk being exploited by a clever offensive coach.

Mobility/Discipline vs zone schemes

The Wolverines faced several different zone running concepts (outside, inside, split, read) last season against Maryland, Iowa, Penn State, Illinois, Ohio State and TCU, to name a few.

Michigan did a great job establishing its run wall on the interior with Mazi Smith, but could be exposed when forced to move laterally with athletic offensive linemen or play disciplined at linebacker and on the edges.

Michigan clobbered Penn State but in one play, the Nittany Lions exposed an aggressive tendency that TCU would exploit over and over again.

Teaching an aggressive defense discipline is more welcomed than teaching a disciplined defense aggression, but it is a problem nonetheless.

Will another kicker be Money?

Kicker Jake “Money” Moody leaves Michigan as the greatest kicker and leading scorer in program history. Without the reliable Lou Groza Award winner, Michigan probably loses to Nebraska in 2021 and Illinois in 2022.

Moody was a luxury because throughout his tenure, Harbaugh has struggled to find a consistent and dependable option. Kenny Allen eventually rounded into form after starting the 2016 season 4-for-8, while Quinn Nordin terrorized the good fans in section 29 of Michigan Stadium for years with erratic stray missiles he hooked from 30 yards out.

In Moody’s absence, the Wolverines will likely turn to junior Tommy Doman. The only other scholarship option is true freshman Adam Samaha.

It’s not “if,” but “when” will Michigan need a kicker to prolong their season, and who will it be? Although Michigan is without Money, let’s hope it’s not broke.

Tide is Rising in the West

Since the Big Ten divided into East and West divisions in 2015, the West has never won a conference championship. Despite producing quality opponents in 2015 (Iowa) and 2017 (Wisconsin), the West has steadily declined the last few years.

But with the emergence of Illinois and Purdue as contenders, and the splash arrival of new head coaches — Luke Fickell at Wisconsin and Matt Rhule at Nebraska — the Big Ten West is trending up again.

For the last two years after Michigan beat Ohio State, the conference championship felt like a formality — a three-hour maize and blue coronation. But with quality and proven head coaches at signature programs, the West will soon be represented by a formidable opponent instead of a Playoff stepping stone.

Will this happen in 2023, or will it take longer? If history has taught us anything, it’s that as much as college football changes, Kirk Ferentz and Iowa remain the same and somehow always find themselves in contention for Indianapolis.

J.J. vs. Cade for the Big Ten title? Suddenly, I’m not afraid anymore.