Has Michigan’s offense changed for the sake of change, or is this truly the start of something different?
Head coach Jim Harbaugh changed a lot within the unit this offseason. And any time massive change happens after disappointment, a natural reaction is to assume everything will be better — because it simply can’t be any worse.
Then, the rationalizations start. Some begin to convince themselves the offense was one piece away. A new quarterback arrives and everything’s fixed. A new offensive line coach shows up and all problems wash away. A new strength coach rolls into town and everything’s bigger, stronger and faster than it’s ever been before.
After watching Michigan’s offense struggle through fits and starts for the better part of a decade, some supporters are left with nowhere else to turn. It has to be better now, because it can’t be any worse. This latest round of change has to work, because another massive upheaval without stellar results just wouldn’t be bearable.
“What we’re striving for is great collaboration on the offensive side,” Harbaugh said this summer when talking about his offensive staff and overall scheme. “Some people talk about having too many chiefs (on the staff) as an analogy. We’re looking for warriors and I believe we have that.
“We’re working really well and understanding that the offense is a place of improvement for our football team.”
Michigan’s offense is the place for improvement from Harbaugh’s football team in 2018. And, for better or worse, the performance of this offense could go a long way toward determining the identity of Harbaugh’s program four years into a tenure that has not produced nearly the results some initially expected.
Fix it and compete for championships. Don’t fix it and find yourself trying to hang onto fourth place in the Big Ten East again. That’s the situation Michigan finds itself in right now.
Offensive offseason reset
Change began when Shea Patterson wanted to take a visit to Michigan this winter and U-M ultimately decided it’d like to pursue the talented quarterback from Ole Miss. Four months and one long NCAA eligibility battle later, a quarterback room that produced the fewest number of touchdown passes by a Michigan team since 1975 found a player with real experience and exciting upside.
A ton of experience? No.
Patterson came to Michigan with 10 career starts. He played in a completely different offense, and while Harbaugh and company will tweak things toward the strengths of their new 6-foot-2, 203-pound quarterback, he’ll have to adapt to playing in a pro-style scheme.
That scheme is also part of the reason Patterson wanted to come to Ann Arbor. He’d like to play in the NFL some day, and he knows Michigan’s offense can prepare him for that.
Still, Patterson has his own issues to work on. He has a career interception rate of 3.1. For context, John O’Korn’s career number at Michigan was also 3.1, Wilton Speight’s was 2.2, and Jake Rudock’s lone season was 2.3. Patterson was also sacked 19 times and lost five fumbles in the seven games he started last season. Some of those numbers fall on his offensive line, but Patterson has shown a tendency to run into problems.
However, Patterson also had sparkling touchdown rate of 6.5 in 2017, more than a full point higher than the 5.1 Rudock put together during Harbaugh’s first year at Michigan in 2015.
Ed Warinner’s first spring as Michigan’s offensive line coach brought plenty of conversation about how much simpler things have become in the post-Tim Drevno era up front. Simple or not, though, Michigan has to find five offensive linemen who can keep quarterbacks out of the hospital and on the football field.
Cesar Ruiz at center seems like a start. Ben Bredeson’s a solid college lineman at guard, Michael Onwenu and/or Stephen Spanellis can handle things at another guard. Both tackle spots are completely unproven.
The wide receivers, featuring a now-healthy Tarik Black, showed plenty of progress per the staff. Glass half full: That’s a sign of Michigan’s promising future at an important skill position. Glass half empty: Michigan receivers combined to catch three touchdown passes last season, so it’d be hard to not show progress from that.
Michigan didn’t allow a single live snap to be seen by the media or public this spring. ther than a steady stable of tight ends and trusted runners in Karan Higdon and Chris Evans, there’s little proof to go off here.
And the questions about the offense are the same as they’ve been for the past decade: Can you protect the quarterback, can you run the ball against better defenses and can your quarterback lead drives that end with kicks?
Eventually we will know the answers, and those responses will determine Michigan’s season.
There is one offensive staff member remaining from Harbaugh’s first group at Michigan in 2015: Running backs coach Jay Harbaugh, who moved from a role as tight ends coach last season.
In three years, Jim Harbaugh has had four offensive staffers leave. Five if you count Dan Enos, who never coached a game here. His original offensive coordinator/offensive line coach (Drevno), passing game coordinator (Jedd Fisch) and running backs coach (Tyrone Wheatley) are gone, along with eventual run game coordinator Greg Frey.
Warinner, Jim McElwain and tight ends coach Sherrone Moore are all new to the offensive staff this season.
That’s a lot of turnover in three years for a program that hasn’t had much stability in the past 10.
Again: More change for the sake of change, or truly the start of something different?