With the Michigan Wolverines headed to TCF Bank Stadium for the huge season opening matchup Saturday night, we decided that we needed to learn a bit more about the Wolverines from someone with a lot more knowledge. Eric Rutter writes for Wolverine Digest—Sports Illustrated’s Michigan Community. He answered some of our questions we had about the Wolverines. For the opposite side of the coin—where Blake and I answered his questions on the Minnesota Golden Gophers you can check that article out HERE.
TDG: The Wolverines are replacing four of their five starting offensive linemen from a season ago. How much experience do the four new starters have, and is offensive line a concern for the offense at the start of the season?
ER: With four new starters up front, Michigan is going to have its youngest offensive line of the Jim Harbaugh era. Jalen Mayfield is the most seasoned and talented blocker with 13 starts to his name, and the five starters will combine for a paltry 17 starts between them. From left to right, U-M’s offensive line is expected to look like Ryan Hayes - Chuck Filiaga - Andrew Vastardis - Andrew Stueber - Jalen Mayfield. Outside of Mayfield, both Stueber and Hayes have two starts apiece, so it’s a really green group any way you look at it. But even though the starts aren’t there, each player has been in offensive line coach Ed Warinner’s system for their entire career which means there is a lot of continuity in terms of scheme and technique being taught.
TDG: With three of their top four receivers from last year gone, who will Michigan lean on as targets in the passing game?
ER: Though he was largely overshadowed by Nico Collins and Donovan Peoples-Jones in 2019, Ronnie Bell sneakily led Michigan in catches (48) and receiving yards (758). Bell actually stayed in Ann Arbor when many other players went home amid the COVID pandemic, and he used that time to run routes and build a rapport with quarterback Joe Milton during the offseason. After Bell, the Wolverines feature quite a few young and speedy receiving options like Giles Jackson, Mike Sainristil, Roman Wilson and A.J. Henning, but they are fairly untested at the Big Ten level too. One of those dynamic pass catchers will need to step up this year to help ease Milton’s transition into the starting role
TDG: Don Brown is one of the top defensive coordinators in college football, but he has struggled at times in big games, especially against Ohio State. What is the key to exploiting his aggressive style of defense?
ER: Ohio State seems to have the blueprint on how to beat Don Brown’s defense plastered all over their facility in Columbus because they’ve certainly done just that over the past couple seasons. Brown likes to blitz a lot and pressure the quarterback, so that puts most defensive backs in man-on-man situations. Sometimes Brown has one of the safeties move towards the line of scrimmage and cover a slot receiver or a tight end, and that has given speedy offenses like OSU a mismatch. The Buckeyes would throw crossing patterns, drags, slants and routes stressing lateral separation to put their quest guys in a position to outrun Michigan’s safeties or even Viper linebackers. Brown needs to call more zone coverages or at least sprinkle varying looks or spy concepts into his playbook to avoid defensive letdowns going forward.
TDG: How much of a concern is the Wolverines’ three new starting linebackers, especially opening the season against an experienced offense that will try to force them into making mistakes using the RPO?
ER: Although Josh Ross wasn’t a regular starter last year, he’s a returning senior who does have a lot of football under his belt. Ross has four starters and 30 games played during his Michigan career, and he’s really being treated as more of a returning starter by his teammates. Don Brown talked up the speed and intuitiveness that Ross has displayed in fall camp, so he and Cam McGrone will anchor U-M’s linebacking corps. Michael Barrett will be the Viper, and his quickness will be called upon often. When Michigan has four down linemen, which will be most often, the LB group will be McGrone - Ross - Barrett, and when the Wolverines go with three down linemen, Ben VanSumeren will be the extra linebacker if not in a nickel formation. VanSumeren is a big, stocky thumper who would be more effective in stopping the run than in coverage
TDG: How would you grade Josh Gattis’ first season as offensive coordinator, and does he have the personnel in place to evolve the offense in his second year at Michigan?
ER: Not only did Josh Gattis acquit himself well as OC last year, the Michigan assistant improved the offense each game throughout the season, especially when he made the transition from the booth to the field. Though he won’t have the size on the outside or the experience on the OL, Gattis still has a lot of the pieces he needs to implement a speedy, high octane offense this season— if all goes as planned. Since the offensive line is pretty young, expect more short throws and quick action to the flats or in the middle of the field. U-M’s running backs will have a big role in the offense, and the quicker Joe Milton can get ready of the ball, the less chance the defense can read his eyes and break on the ball. The weapons will be shorter, but the will be much faster and that might translate to a more productive U-M offense this year.
TDG: Is Jim Harbaugh on a bit of a hot seat? is the job his as long as he wants it, or if the Wolverines continue to fail to get past Ohio State will Michigan decide its time to try and different direction
ER: Though the national media has hooked onto the fact that Jim Harbaugh’s contract will be expiring soon, there is not any real traction to the idea that Michigan is going to move on at head coach. Athletic Director Warde Manuel’s contract is expiring too, and it’s likely that they’ll both be renewed at the same time, possibly with Harbaugh for more years than Manuel. Harbaugh needs to improve on his results against Ohio State and his road record, but his job is not in any danger right now, and it’s hard to speculate on how that could change after this season given all the challenges (COVID, opt outs, extra obstacles) he’s had to endure so far.
Thanks to Eric on his knowledge on the Wolverines. Minnesota and Michigan kick off at 6:30 PM on Saturday night live on ABC.