Better or worse? Previewing Michigan’s offense in 2020
The debut of “speed in space” didn’t go over quite as smoothly as Jim Harbaugh hoped. Josh Gattis experienced growing pains in his first season as Michigan’s offensive coordinator, and he didn’t have the same impact as, say, Joe Brady at LSU.
Is that a fair comparison? Of course not. Does that mean Michigan’s offense is doomed to finish 68th in total offense and 69th in yards per play, as it did in 2019? Of course not.
Michigan’s offense was a work in progress in 2019, and the hope is that progress continues in 2020. The Wolverines dipped to 31.7 points per game. It surely didn’t resemble the offensive units at Gattis’ previous stops, Penn State and Alabama (nor does Gattis have the offensive firepower he had at those 2 stops), but it’s not fair to judge Michigan’s venture into modern offense after just 1 season.
Michigan showed promise late in the season, like when Shea Patterson combined for 9 touchdown passes against Michigan State and Indiana. In a microcosm of his college career, though, Patterson followed it up by completing just 43.7 percent of his passes in the final 2 games against Ohio State and Alabama. Patterson was a flawed player. Just turn on the tape against Alabama and see the bevy of overthrows. But he did throw 23 of the Wolverines 25 TD passes last season, their most since 2003.
The big question for Michigan now is, who starts at quarterback? Redshirt junior Dylan McCaffrey, the younger brother of NFL star Christian McCaffrey, is probably the favorite, considering Harbaugh’s insistence on working McCaffrey into games early last season and his status as Patterson’s backup. He is a capable runner who hasn’t really shown off what he can do through the air, yet. Redshirt sophomore Joe Milton is a promising prospect, too, and he is known for a big arm.
Michigan, as much as any team in the Big Ten and maybe in the country, was hurt by the pandemic wiping out spring practice. It would have been an entertaining quarterback battle, with McCaffrey and Milton likely splitting reps and really sorting out who the superior player is. The Michigan offense also would have gotten valuable time with Gattis.
Every team in the country is dealing with the pandemic, though, so Michigan will have to get up to speed quickly this fall. Where does that leave Michigan’s offense in 2020?
Passing offense: Better
As mentioned, Patterson was inconsistent in 2019. He finished with 23 TD passes but completed just 56.2% of his passes. That ranked just 95th among the 100 qualified passers. And that’s despite having a talented group of wideouts. If Donovan Peoples-Jones thrives as a pro, it’s going to drive Michigan fans crazy because the former No. 1 wideout in the 2017 class never really had that outstanding season in Ann Arbor. That’s as much on Michigan as it is Peoples-Jones.
The last time the Wolverines finished better than 50th nationally in passing offense was 2010. It isn’t an offense that caters to big-play wide receivers. Gattis is trying to change that.
In other words, there’s a lot of room for growth after Harbaugh decided to hand over the reins of the offense. Nico Collins and Ronnie Bell will be one of the top wide receiver duos in the Big Ten and help offset Tarik Black’s transfer to Texas. Will Michigan’s passing numbers reflect that?
Well, that depends on whether McCaffrey or Milton can elevate the offense in a way that the 5 quarterbacks who have started under Harbaugh – Patterson, John O’Korn, Jake Rudock, Brandon Peters and Wilson Speight – did not.
Running game: Better
The Michigan running game wasn’t flashy or effective in 2019, finishing 77th nationally in yards per game (150.7) and 89th in yards per rush attempt (3.9). The Wolverines had a startling lack of big plays, with just 62 rushes of 10 or more yards (Ohio State, for comparison sake, tallied 109 such runs). The duo of Zach Charbonnet and Hassan Haskins was fine but not elite. Charbonnet took on a ton of responsibility as a true freshman, and that experience should pay off.
Of even bigger concern in 2020 is the loss of 4 starters on the offensive line. Jalen Mayfield is back at tackle, but Michigan will be relying on guys like Andrew Stueber and Ryan Hayes to take the next step and for others to emerge.
Special teams: Better
The Wolverines used Jake Moody and Quinn Nordin at kicker in 2019. Neither missed an extra point, while Nordin made 10-of-13 field goal attempts. Whether Michigan elects to use both again or just go with 1, the kicking game should be fine.
Without Peoples-Jones returning kicks, punt returner Giles Jackson – an exciting young player – could take over that role.
Gattis gets to mold the offense more to his liking in 2020, as he has a full year with McCaffrey and Milton. Patterson was in a tough spot as the Ole Miss transfer played for 4 offensive coordinators in college. McCaffrey and Milton should have a grasp on the things Gattis wants to do.
Michigan has a ton of trust in offensive line coach Ed Warinner, and he has work cut out for him with such an inexperienced group. As long as the line can protect whichever quarterback wins the starting job, the Wolverines should be a more fun offense to watch in 2020.