The State Of The Michigan Football Program

Six years into the Harbaugh era, the Michigan Football program is now at a crossroads.
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If you’re anything like me, the other sports available to you between now and September 4th, 2021, will merely serve as fillers to help pass the time until college football kicks off again next fall. With that, we'll reflect on the 2020 season and look ahead to 2021.

The Good: Young players, valuable experience

2020 provided valuable experience to some of the youngest talent on the roster, setting the stage for what should hopefully be a very productive 2021 campaign for many of them.

  • Blake Corum, Running Back: The true freshman showed flashes of what made him such a coveted running back recruit out of high school. Though his carries were significantly limited by a four-back rotation, expect that to change in 2021. Corum routinely showed the type of physicality and ability to get to the edge that will likely make him one of the most productive backs next season.
  • Roman Wilson, Wide Receiver: Wilson finished as the Wolverines fourth leading receiver and was one of the more productive freshmen throughout the 2020 season. He finished the year with nine receptions for 122 yards and one touchdown. In addition to his blazing 4.3 speed, Wilson showed tremendous ball skills and established himself as one of the most reliable targets throughout the year.
  • AJ Henning, Wide Receiver: Henning is another true freshman who showed flashes of what he is capable of during the 2020 season. In extremely limited reps, the young wide receiver hauled in six receptions for 59 yards and was utlized in a similar fashion as Giles Jackson was during his freshman year. Henning was also responsible for what was likely Michigan's top offensive play of the year, as he climbed the ladder to make a spectaular catch over Penn State cornerback Deaquan Hardy. Michigan fans should expect to see Henning's role within the offense increase significantly in 2021.
  • The Offensive Line: Perhaps the most notable offseason discussion outside of the quarterback battle was the fact that Michigan had to replace four starting lineman. When Jalen Mayfield - the only returning starter - went down with an injury early in the year, the Wolverines were fielding an entirely new offensive line group for the 2020 season. Young guys like Ryan Hayes, Karsen Barnhart and Zach Zinter gained valuable reps throughout the year. With Jalen Mayfield being the only 2020 starter to have declared for the NFL Draft so far, I expect the remaining group of Wolverine lineman to return for the 2021 season.

The Concerns: The quarterback, the defense, and the playcalling

There’s no question that the 2020 season provided some unique challenges to say the least. Michigan was unable to finish its final three games of the season due to COVID issues, finished with a losing record, and failed to get an invite to a bowl game. With all that being said, there are still come concerns that remain with this Michigan Football team as we head into the 2021 season.

  • The Quarterback: Michigan will once again enter another season with a quarterback controversy one way or the other. Both Joe Milton and Cade McNamara showed flashes of being "the guy", but neither were able to fully establish themselves as the unquestionable QB1 during the 2020 year - meaning the battle will likely continue during the upcoming offseason. To make matters even more complicated, a guy by the name of JJ McCarthy will soon be on campus looking to fight for that top spot as well.
  • The Defense: The Michigan defense struggled mightily throughout the 2020 season. Michigan finished the year ranked No. 87 in total defense, No. 79 in rushing yards allowed per game, and No. 96 in passing yards allowed per game. As a result, Don Brown recently became the first coaching casualty for the Wolverines shortly after the season had come to an end. Michigan will lose defensive end Kwity Paye to the NFL Draft, but it remains to be seen how many additional losses the Wolverine defense will suffer prior to the 2021 season. With a whole host of Wolverine defenders contemplating their futures, the most notable remaining decisions are currently with Aidan Hutchinson (defensive end), Brad Hawkins (safety), Cameron McGrone (linebacker), Josh Ross (linebacker) and Carlo Kemp (defensive line).
  • The Defense Pt. II: Amid all of the uncertainties that remain for the Michigan defense heading into 2021, one thing is certain: Michigan is going to have a new defensive coordinator. The new coordinator will need to work with a Wolverine defense that is extremely thin up front and a young secondary that surrendered over 250 passing yards per game - good for No. 96 in the country. While Michigan has generally come up short during the Harbaugh era, the Wolverine defense has routinely been one of the best in the country since his arrival (thanks in part to Don Brown). The new defensive coordinator will arrive in Ann Arbor with the task - and expectation - of once again producing a defensive unit that is one of the best in the nation. No pressure.
  • The Playcalling: The departure of Don Brown left many asking if Josh Gattis would be next. For all of the struggles the defense faced in 2020, the offense didn’t fare much better. Many fans expected to see an explosive and dynamic offensive scheme once Gattis took over as offensive coordinator, but the promise of “speed in space” has been slow to develop over the last two seasons under his leadership. In fact, Michigan has regressed every year since his arrival in total offense - falling 18 spots to No. 68 nationally in his first year and another 10 spots to No. 78 nationally in his second year. 

Michigan fans have routinely witnessed odd decisions coming from the sideline - whether it's removing a running back who seems to have found a rhythm, a wildcat formation at the goal line that sidelines a 6-5, 250 pound mobile quarterback, or a predictable jet sweep that often puts Michigan behind the chains. If Gattis does indeed return to Michigan in 2021, it will likely be his final year in Ann Arbor if the offense doesn’t turn the corner significantly. That starts with player utilization and play calling - both of which are on the shoulders of Gattis.

Final Thoughts

Oftentimes throughout the 2020 season, Michigan looked confused, uninspired, and in desperate need of leadership - whether on the field or from the sidelines. The lack of any significant on-field success has raised serious questions about the culture within the football program and whether or not Jim Harbaugh has the ability - or the desire - to fix it.

Defensive Coordinator Don Brown has been fired, more departures are expected from the coaching staff, and it remains to be seen whether or not Harbaugh will be roaming the Michigan sideline in 2021. With January fast approaching, the lack of any resolution to Harbaugh’s future at Michigan has led many to speculate that he may be exploring other opportunities for a return to the NFL.

The Michigan Football program is now at a crossroads, having failed to beat Ohio State, win its division, compete in the conference championship game or return a conference title back to Ann Arbor. What’s even more concerning is the fact that Michigan doesn’t appear any closer to accomplishing those goals at the end of 2020 than it did at the end of 2015. With so much uncertainty currently facing the football program, the outlook for the 2021 season is anybody's guess - not exactly where Michigan fans expected to be heading into a potential seventh year under Jim Harbaugh.