Better or worse? Previewing Michigan's offense in 2021
Honestly, how hard can it be to be better than a 2-win season?
Well, let’s see.
Much of the attention in Ann Arbor this summer will be on the Michigan defense, with the departure of longtime coordinator Don Brown and first-year DC Mike Macdonald implementing his system. But on the other side of the ball, after a season that could be considered, at best, just bad football, the offense will be looking to find that groove that just didn’t seem to show up during their 6-game 2020 season.
Having Jim Harbaugh in charge, one would think the quarterback position would be a strong suit. But that hasn’t been the case. Last season’s passing offense, while not terrible — averaging 250 yards per game – couldn’t consistently produce. The offense as a whole averaged just 382 yards and 28 points per game, but again, consistency was a problem.
Some new talent could bring some pressure to assumed starter Cade McNamara, and the rushing game returns its top runner from 2020, so let’s take a look if things are really better or worse.
Passing offense? Better
Could this be the year Harbaugh finds an answer at quarterback? Cade McNamara gave glimpses last season, and now with Joe Milton at Tennessee and Dylan McCaffrey in the Northern Colorado backfield, McNamara appears to be the logical top choice to start.
But this is Ann Arbor, and, of course, the situation isn’t that clear.
The arrivals of Alan Bowman from Texas Tech and five-star recruit JJ McCarthy will add some pressure on McNamara to produce. Bowman, when healthy, can be explosive, having completed 67% of his passes over his 3 seasons in Lubbock covering over 5,000 yards and finding the end zone 33 times. The freshman McCarthy was an early enrollee and was able to work during the spring to get a feel for Josh Gattis’ scheme and get familiar with new QB coach Matt Weiss.
Whoever is taking the snaps will benefit from having 3 of the top 4 wideouts from last season returning, only having lost Giles Jackson and his 15 catches to the Washington Huskies. Ronnie Bell and Cornelius Johnson each averaged over 15 yards per reception.
Johnson, who is 6-4, had 16 catches for 254 yards, including a team-best 3 TDs. Cristian Dixon, an early enrollee and 4-star recruit out of Santa Ana, Calif., is a candidate to make an immediate impact.
Rushing offense? Better
The good news is Hassan Haskins is back.
Haskins led the Wolverines with over 6 yards per carry and 6 touchdowns. Zach Charbonnet transferred, but Harbaugh should have a solid rotation with Blake Corum coming off a solid season and the arrival of freshman Donovan Edwards.
During his 2019 freshman campaign, Charbonnet ran for a team-high 726 yards and set a Wolverines freshman record with 11 rushing touchdowns. After Haskins emerged as Michigan’s top ball carrier in 2020, Charbonnet’s production dropped, running for just 124 yards in 19 carries last season. The departure of Charbonnet to the west coast, coupled with Chris Evans having moved on to the NFL, should give Corum more reps to showcase his ability.
Adding more talent to the mix, Edwards, an early enrollee freshman, could conceivably contribute right away. Edwards was the top recruit out of Michigan, according to 247Sports, and was a major recruiting win. As Edwards gets more comfortable with the scheme, and as the season goes on, watch for his workload to increase.
Regardless of how the running back rotation plays out, the expectation is that the run game should thrive this fall.
Special teams? Same
Giles Jackson’s departure to Washington has more of an impact than just on the passing game, as they will definitely miss his return game. Jackson returned 2 kickoffs for touchdowns and averaged 26.4 yards on 37 returns in his 2 seasons. Look for the Wolverines to use a combination of Mike Sainristil, Ronnie Bell, A.J. Henning, Corum and possibly others while trying to find the right fit.
Quinn Nordin and Jake Moody shared kicking duties last season, and with Nordin leaving for the NFL, Moody will be the likely starter. Moody has a big leg — that’s why he handles kickoffs — but he has battled accuracy. He made just 1-of-4 field goal attempts last season after going 6-for-9 in 2019. He is 3-for-4 from 40-48 yards in his career.
After last season’s dismal showing, the bar for improvement isn’t terribly high to clear. That said, even with an expected “bounce-back” from last season and still having more questions than answers, it’s not unreasonable for Wolverines fans to be skeptical.
McCarthy just might be the next big thing but he’s obviously untested at this level. If McNamara or Bowman are taking snaps, the Wolverines will benefit from having a quarterback who has started games. Coupled with a new defense and the amount of experience on the field, expect Michigan to get back to having a winning record again. Vegas projected the Wolverines’ over/under win total at 7.5. The question is how much more above that can they climb?