Michigan football: Jim Harbaugh's Wolverines must find a way to recapture 2016 aura
Remember the 2016 season? It was the second, and best, season of Jim Harbaugh’s 6-year tenure at Michigan.
He had it all in Ann Arbor.
Despite some flaws, quarterback Wilton Speight was the right man to lead the charge. De’Veon Smith and Karan Higdon carried the load in the backfield, while Amarah Darboh and Jehu Chesson stretched the field for Speight.
The defense was loaded, too. Taco Charlton at DE, Ben Gedeon at LB , Jabrill Peppers as the “viper” and a true-freshman Rashan Gary at DT.
That team was a thing of beauty. It had all the makings of a legitimate Big Ten contender capable of making a College Football Playoff run. If not for a bad call against Ohio State — Buckeyes QB JT Barrett was indeed short — the Wolverines would have likely ended the season in the football version of the Final Four.
Recently dismissed, Don Brown coordinated a defense that ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in 7 major statistical categories that season.
Only there for the 2015 and 2016 seasons, offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch orchestrated an attack that has yet to be duplicated in Ann Arbor. Fisch recently accepted the head coach job at Arizona, so dreams of a reunion between he and Harbaugh will remain just that — dreams.
The days of scoring 40 points per game were certainly a pinnacle of the Harbaugh era.
So were the days of the defense allowing fewer than 2 touchdowns per game — a streak that has all but reversed itself during the past two seasons. In 2020, Michigan gave up 34.5 points per game during the shortened 6-contest season — one of the worst averages by any Wolverines squad in history and the worst of the Harbaugh era.
While the Wolverines should always focus on the future, it wouldn’t hurt them to focus on the past — at least when it comes to replicating success. The 2016 team should serve as Harbaugh’s blueprint as Michigan searches for ways to get back into the competitive mix. A 2-4 record and piles of injuries won’t exactly inspire a team, but a look back at what was going on 4 years ago in Ann Arbor might do the trick.
Offense – That Fisch was a keeper
Fisch didn’t need a gimmicky tagline to accompany his playbook. No “Speed in Space” label. It was just an effective offense that utilized downfield targets to their maximum abilities. Although Speight averaged 7.7 yards per completion in 2016, the Wolverines were always a threat to let it fly to Chesson or Darboh.
When viewing the number of offensive plays per game, the volume pretty much aligns between Fisch’s time at UM and the two seasons so far under current OC Josh Gattis. However, Fisch’s offenses were far superior — despite not having a fancy nickname for the scheme — and yielded more production. In 2016, Fisch’s offense scored 41 touchdowns through 13 games. In 2019, Gattis’ approach came up with only 26 touchdowns.
At the core, offense is offense. Coordinators can only do so much with different formations. But Fisch just had a way with play-calls. He was heavily involved in the play-calling, despite Harbaugh always saying that he had the final say on what was to be run.
Harbaugh has a mind geared toward offense, specifically quarterbacks. But he needs someone like Fisch, a coordinator who had an ultra-tight bond with his QB (Speight) and a great understanding of his personnel at every position.
During media events, Fisch — who was an OC/passing guru — would routinely provide details beyond details about progress and practices. It was evident that he really knew his players and understood how to best position them for success. Based on encounters with Fisch, it was clear why players really bought in to his ways. The guy could flat-out coach the hell out of an offense.
Michigan hasn’t had an offensive coach with that type of personality, fire or knowledge since Fisch left for UCLA for 2 years. He then returned to the NFL (LA Rams/NE Patriots) — a league in which he’s earned a solid reputation for his development of quarterbacks.
Defense – Days of old need to be restored
The Brown dismissal has been hot news of late, so there is no need to really rehash all of the numbers. His failures in bowls, against rivals and against ranked opponents — those are Harbaugh’s failures as well — said everything that need to be said. Against top talent, Brown’s aggressive defense was routinely exposed by the type of speed that many thought Gattis would inject into Michigan’s offense.
But in 2016, Brown had something going. That defense, despite a hiccup every now and then, was stifling and relentless. Michigan’s D-line was something to fear and appeared to be improving by the year. When D-line coach Greg Mattison departed in 2018, it was the beginning of the end of the Wolverines’ defense.
Michigan hasn’t recruited interior D-linemen at the same level since Mattison bolted for Ohio State. The last of UM’s big haul up front consists of Kwity Paye and Carlo Kemp. Aidan Hutchinson, a sophomore, is an exception, but you get the idea.
Assuming he’s there in 2021, D-line coach Shaun Nua will be tasked with rebuilding what Mattison had built up front.
Mentality – This isn’t the same UM
There was an air of confidence in Schembechler Hall — the site connected to Glick Fieldhouse — during media interviews four years ago. Whether it was a weekday post-practice, or a postgame on Saturday, or Harbaugh’s Monday morning presser, there was just a mood and tone that couldn’t be denied.
Michigan was on a steady ascent, or so everyone was led to believe. The Wolverines don’t have the same attitude and composure as they did four years ago — or even two or three years ago. During post-game Zoom calls and weekday interviews this year, players and coaches seemed all but deflated.
A 2-4 season will do that to a guy, evidently. They tried to hold their emotions in check but their tone and body language told the true story. Back in 2016, there was no such thing as what was witnessed in 2020. This is a totally different program than it was during the beginning of the Harbaugh era.
Michigan might want to rewind and watch the tape, hoping to find out where it lost the spark it once possessed.