5 Things I Want To See From Michigan's Offense
Utilizing the pass on first down more often: Michigan has been fairly conservative on first down under Jim Harbaugh, choosing the run on 64.8% of its 1,996 first downs from 2015-19. Last year actually marked the fewest first-down runs of the Harbaugh era as Josh Gattis took over the play-calling but U-M still chose the ground game on 59.4% of their first down offensive plays.
While Ohio State, the nation's No. 4 offense, ran more consistently than the Maize and Blue, at 65.2%, the Buckeyes averaged 5.8 yards per carry on first down. Michigan, on the other hand, averaged 4.2 yards per carry on first down, less than half of what it averaged every time the Wolverines threw the ball on first down - 8.5 yards per attempt on 167 first-down passes.
If U-M was a better first-down running team, it might make sense to run the ball twice for every one pass, but other than 2018 (5.8 yards per run), Michigan has not averaged 5.0 yards or more per carry on first down under Harbaugh (by comparison, Ohio State has done so four times in the last five years).
On first down, everything is possible. The Wolverines posted their best pass efficiency rating of any down (148.01), had their best touchdown-to-interception ratio (11:1) and had their most big plays (41% of their first-down completions went for 20 yards or more) last season.
Michigan will want to set up its young quarterback, redshirt sophomore Joe Milton, with favorable down-and-distances, and might even run more often, but with his arm and potential to go down field, Milton would be best served throwing on first down when he can create big plays against defenses that, betting on U-M's history, will be expecting the run.
Turning Giles Jackson Loose: Brandon Brown wrote about this recently, but Jackson represents a unique athlete that we have rarely seen in Ann Arbor. The best comparison is Steve Breaston and even Breaston was underutilized for the talent he possessed. Jabrill Peppers was another freak athlete, but again, underutilized.
Breaston ran the ball 42 times compared to 156 receptions in his career, averaging 7.6 yards per rush and hitting a big play (20 yards or more) on six of his carries. He also returned kickoffs and punts, and is the only player in school history to score a touchdown five different ways (rushing, receiving, kickoffs, punt returns and as a passer).
Still, there was always a sense Breaston could have done more, especially with more offensive touches - he was limited to just 60 total catches in 2004-05, with four plays of 20 yards or more, as U-M tried to make Breaston a traditional outside receiver. The Wolverines wasted his unique skill set as an elusive yards-after-catcher runner that could have really benefited from a "speed in space" philosophy among Michigan's offensive coaches.
The sophomore was good for a big play on five of his 19 offensive touches in 2019 while averaging 11.1 yards per touch overall. He's capable of much more, something akin to Antonio Gibson from Memphis, who averaged 15.5 yards per touch on 71 offensive carries/receptions - 735 yards receiving and 369 yards rushing -- and scored 12 total touchdowns last year.
As a sophomore wide receiver for Virginia Tech in 2019, Tre Turner averaged 13.5 yards on 58 offensive touches, including 553 yards receiving and 231 on the ground. Gibson's numbers fall more in line with what Jackson could produce, if he is used as a dangerous weapon 6-8 times per game.
Making Nick Eubanks/tight ends a priority in the red zone: In 2019, Eubanks caught five of his 25 receptions inside the red zone, four of them went for touchdowns. A hit rate of 80%. Most of those catches were near the goal line too (an average of 4.8 yards per the five catches).
No Wolverine was more efficient with his red-zone touches than Eubanks, and he should be Milton's go-to guy near the goal line this season after the Maize and Blue lost a trio of wide receivers 6-2 or taller. In fact, the only receiver on the team 6-1 or better is sophomore Cornelius Johnson (6-3).
Eubanks is one of four tight ends on the team 6-4 or taller and they could all emerge as weapons in the red zone.
Michigan has not been a team that has thrown many end-zone corner fades and probably won't in 2020, but in Eubanks and his tight end cohorts, Milton has big targets to look to when bodies get crammed in tight.
Get more receiving touches for backs: In Harbaugh's first two seasons, Michigan running backs (fullbacks included), averaged 45 receptions for 391.5 yards per season (8.7 yards per catch). Those numbers have nosedived since 2017, to 30.3 receptions for 220.3 yards per season, including a five-year low of 20 catches and 97 yards in 2019 as U-M struggled to establish a pass catcher out of its offensive backfield in the absence of Chris Evans.
Evans is back and he immediately provides a proven target, hauling in 40 passes for 392 yards and two scores during his career with the Wolverines.
Gattis has a history of utilizing his runners as receivers, the Crimson Tide ball carriers catching 46 balls for 458 yards in 2018 while during Gattis' stint at Penn State from 2014-17, the Nittany Lions employed tailback Saquon Barkley as a de facto third receiver, Barkley making 102 receptions (54 in 2017 alone) for 1,195 yards and seven touchdowns.
While neither Zach Charbonnet (eight catches in 2019) nor Hassan Haskins (six) are as shifty, as fast, or as natural receivers as Evans, they both demonstrated an ability to catch the ball a year ago, and all of Michigan's backs should be better weaponized as receivers this fall.
Take the kid gloves off Joe Milton: Five of the top 10 passers nationally in 2020 (based on efficiency rating) are freshmen or sophomores. An additional QB is in his first year as a starter. In 2019, six of the top 10 passers were freshmen or sophomores. Yet, listen to Michigan folks talk and it's all about "managing the game" for Milton, seemingly putting a ceiling on what he is capable of by not "asking him to do too much."
Enough of that. College football in 2020 is not college football in 1997 when Brian Griese served as a game manager - he threw for 200 yards or more in just 5 of 12 games. Michigan has been playing 1990s football even under Harbaugh, U-M never having a quarterback that has averaged 30 pass attempts per game. There are 28 QBs doing so already in 2020.
The game is won today by high-powered offenses and dynamic quarterbacks, and Michigan continues to put the handcuffs on its signal-callers.
Milton may be a first-time starter, and I agree we cannot evaluate him solely on big numbers, but for the Wolverines to get over the Ohio State hump and compete for a playoff berth, they need to feature an elite quarterback and the best of the best are not game managers. They are game breakers, playmakers and game-deciders.