Oakland is no longer in play. Jim Harbaugh is Michigan’s head coach. Few would doubt him turning Michigan around in the long-term. He will assemble a quality staff. He will recruit well. He will coach well. But, the pressing, murkier issue is how Michigan will fare in year one.
Recruiting has not been Michigan’s problem. Brady Hoke’s full classes ranked 6th (2012), 4th (2013), and 20th (2014) nationally in the 247 Composite rankings. The 2014 ranking was due to size rather than star ranking. Stars were supposed to align for Hoke in 2015, the year the 2012 and 2013 classes would be upperclassmen.
Maybe Michigan mis-evaluated everyone. It’s more probable Michigan struggled developing players, or placing them in coherent systems where they could have success. While Harbaugh faces a significant rebuild to catch up with rivals, there is raw material there. It’s not what he faced at Stanford. It’s much closer to what he faced with the 49ers.
The depth and intricacies of Michigan’s offensive ineptitude under Hoke could fill a Russian novel. Simplifying, Michigan failed in two areas. The Wolverines never developed a power run game. Hoke’s staff seldom put quarterbacks in position to succeed. Harbaugh may have unparalleled Michiganity and Schembechleritude. But, he’s perfect for Michigan because his strengths are those specific areas.
Hoke was recruiting to run a facsimile of Harbaugh’s offense. Thus, many of the pieces for a power game are present. Everyone except Devin Gardner and Devin Funchess returns. Michigan has two former five-star tailbacks in Derrick Green and Ty Isaac (and depth behind them). The Wolverines have early 1990s-style depth at tight end and fullback. Michigan also has good, young depth at receiver.
Michigan’s entire offensive line comes back in 2015. It was not a good unit in 2014. But, Michigan made substantial statistical progress, despite losing two NFL Draft-caliber tackles. The Wolverines improved from 107th to 69th in sacks allowed vs. FBS, from 122nd to 60th in tackles for loss allowed vs. FBS, and from 111th to 46th in yards/carry vs. FBS. One more year of development, under better coaching with Tim Drevno, could engender competence.
Quarterback is the question mark. Barring a graduate transfer, Michigan has three options. All will require a prodigious dash of Harbaugh wizardry. Junior Shane Morris was a top recruit. He has physical tools. He was terrible in limited action last season, completing 35 percent of his passes for 3.2 yards/attempt. Sophomore Wilton Speight is a three-star, pro-style QB who has not seen the field. Freshman Alex Malzone, a polished high school passer, just enrolled early.
If Michigan has a quarterback, things could get interesting. But, that’s a hefty “if.”
Hoke’s teams fared better on defense. Rich Rodriguez’ last crew ranked 109th in FEI. Greg Mattison improved the same personnel to 16th in year one. Michigan ranked 41st or higher each of Hoke’s four years. Sad trombone Big Ten offenses have inflated some stats last year. But, Michigan improved from scarily bad to serviceable on defense under Hoke and has better depth.
The challenge on this side of the ball will come up front. Michigan never developed a pass rush under Hoke. In four seasons under Hoke, the Wolverines did not have a player get six sacks. Ohio State, for comparison, has had at least three players eclipse seven sacks the past two seasons. Not having that pass rush exacerbated coverage issues, against any quarterback that could make throws.
That need will be acute in 2015. Michigan loses its top two defensive ends, Frank Clark (kicked off the team) and Brennan Beyer, and its most disruptive linebacker Jake Ryan. The three players combined for 34 tackles for loss last season.
Michigan also needs a playmaker in the defensive backfield. The Wolverines ranked 126th nationally, forcing just eight turnovers all season. The secondary had just two interceptions over 12 games. Michigan will hope a healthy Jabrill Peppers can be that guy.
For Michigan to compete in 2015, Harbaugh must convert an okay defense into a very good to great one and a dysfunctional offense into a functional one. That’s the same transition he made in year one at San Francisco, where he won 13 games and reached the NFC Championship Game. The same 49ers roster that was sad sack under Mike Singletary became so gifted it was used as a knock against his coaching prowess.
The “Great Man” theory is real in college football. We’ve seen Harbaugh work miracles before. Michigan fans have every reason to be excited. Even discounting the miraculous, Michigan returns a lot from last year. Stability, moderate development, a few tweaks, and better ball prudence could go along way.
Michigan’s B1G slate does set them up well for a run in conference. They play Ohio State and Michigan State in Ann Arbor. Their toughest road trip is Penn State or Minnesota. However, the non-conference schedule does not leave Michigan much margin for error with a slow start. They open with a night game at Utah. They also face Oregon State and BYU at home in September. Playoff may be pushing it. But an immediate bounce back to 8-10 wins is more than reasonable.
[Photo via USAT]