Michigan Football: Midseason Takeaways From Every Position Group
The Michigan Wolverines have reached the halfway point of the 2021 season with an unblemished record of 6-0. The bye week is a perfect time to reset what we have seen so far and evaluate how it might look moving forward.
Here, we will go through every position group and name the biggest takeaway from each so far. Michigan has answered a lot of questions about itself so far, but there are still questions in the final six weeks of the year.
Quarterbacks: Jim Harbaugh's Healthiest Room To Date
We will have a column going more in-depth on Michigan's quarterback situation this week. The abridged version is that head coach Jim Harbaugh should feel great about what he has there right now. Junior starter Cade McNamara's steady play has raised the floor of the offense and he continues to lead drives that end in points. Michigan found itself in a game with Nebraska last weekend where it had to keep scoring. McNamara was at the forefront of helping accomplish that goal.
The elephant in the room is true freshman J.J. McCarthy, who is already too talented to keep off the field. Michigan knows that and has found a role for him that continues to expand. He seems like the total package and the best-case scenario for the Wolverines to this point has been the ability to ease him in while still winning football games.
Running Backs: Mike Hart Was A Home Run Hire
Aside from being a "Michigan Man," Hart's return to Ann Arbor was met with unanimous praise given that he is one of the best young assistant coaches in the country. He has proved that and then some since arriving this offseason. Senior Hassan Haskins and sophomore Blake Corum are playing the best football of their careers and might be the best 1-2 punch at running back in the country. True freshman Donovan Edwards figures to have his role increase as the year goes on, as well. The collective vision, balance, patience and pass-blocking ability from the group have taken a massive leap forward. The test down the stretch will be how these guys perform when the opponent knows they are coming.
Wide Receivers: Depth Tested So Far
Losing senior wideout Ronnie Bell set Michigan back to start the year in a critical time to build chemistry and get reps. Bell looked every bit like Michigan's No. 1 option in the season opener and then was gone as quickly as the season started. Sophomore Roman Wilson had a breakout game against Wisconsin, then missed the Nebraska game. It seems like every time someone has stepped forward, another has a setback. This has created more opportunities for Cornelius Johnson, Daylen Baldwin and Mike Sainristil to step up with A.J Henning and Andrel Anthony seemingly next in line. Michigan has a lot of untapped talent here that much will be asked of as we get deeper into the season. Of this group, Baldwin seems to be the one that takes a step forward every week. It will be interesting to see who emerges as this team's top three wideouts by the end of the regular season.
Tight Ends: Steady With Room To Improve
The tight end was a staple of the offense in the earlier stages of the Harbaugh era, but their usage in the passing game has dropped off. Junior Erick All has been more sure-handed this year. Seniors Luke Schoonmaker and Joel Honigford have had their share of moments. However, they rank No. 108, 242 and 257 on Pro Football Focus, respectively. Run blocking has been about average, while pass protection has been a net positive. All in all, this group has been fine without much reason to see them as a concern.
Offensive Line: The Group Has Set The Tone
It was surprising when Michigan made the decision not to retain Ed Warinner as its offensive line coach, but Sherrone Moore is everything they hoped he would be so far. The Wolverines got off to what feels like their fastest start as an offensive line since the 2016 season and mashed through the non-conference schedule. The punches have started to get heavier each week in the Big Ten, but this group has responded well and has been the straw that stirs the drink for this football team.
Graduate center Andrew Vastardis and senior Andrew Stueber have been the two standouts so far and are playing career-best football. Michigan is still figuring out its guard situation, which has been hampered by injuries throughout the year. If they can keep getting better, Michigan will stay in the Big Ten title conversation.
Defensive Line: Stouter At The Point Of Attack
Michigan's defensive line improvement might be the biggest on a team that had no shortage of questions coming into this season. The scheme change has done wonders for juniors Mazi Smith and Chris Hinton, who are both playing career-best football. Seniors Donovan Jeter and Julius Welschof and sophomore Kris Jenkins have been giving the Wolverines some good rotational reps from the interior, as well. Shaun Nua has been a lightning rod for criticism in recent years, but he has these guys playing good football through six weeks.
Linebackers: Steady Veteran Play Mixed With Promising Youngsters
Senior Aidan Hutchinson currently grades out as the best edge defender in all of college football. He has always had the talent, but the difference this year is that he is doing it in a variety of ways from both a rush linebacker and down lineman position. His play has elevated the guys around him on the edge, such as junior David Ojabo. Ojabo is PFF's 27th-ranked edge defender, while juniors Mike Morris and Taylor Upshaw have carved out roles. Michigan has also started to work in sophomores Jaylen Harrell and Braiden McGregor.
On the inside, defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald has fifth-year senior Josh Ross playing well and utilizing him more as a pass rusher. He has been steady there and in run support. Sophomore Nikhai Hill-Green and freshman Junior Colson burst onto the scene this year and are getting on-the-job training. There have been some growing pains there, but the talent is apparent. Inside linebacker was a position group people had questions about coming into the season. They have held up for the most part so far, but there is still plenty of work to do.
Cornerbacks: Steady Improvement, But Tests Await
Cornerback was another position group that people were concerned about coming into the year. So far, they have done fine and taken a step forward, even if it has been incremental. This was one of the only units that actually improved as 2020 went on, so it is not surprising to see things getting better there a bit at a time. Both starters Vincent Gray and Gemon Green (291 snaps each) have grades of 72.7 on PFF, which ties them for 88th in the country out of 600 eligible players. Junior DJ Turner is the next closest to them in total snaps (113) but comes in graded at 59.3.
Depth is a huge question moving forward and if one of the top three goes down, somebody inexperienced is getting thrown into the fire. Michigan plays explosive passing offenses in the second half of the year in Michigan State, Penn State, Maryland and Ohio State, so we are about to find out who is for real and up for the challenge.
Safeties: Brad Hawkins Is Saving His Best For Last
Junior defensive back Daxton Hill continues to impress and his move closer to the line of scrimmage has done wonders for his game. Fifth-year senior Brad Hawkins has quietly been one of Michigan's best defenders and is ranked sixth among safeties in the country, per PFF. Sophomore R.J. Moten has been playing a ton next to Hawkins and has been an asset in run support. This will be another unit that is going to be tested by the offensive firepower that comes next.
Special Teams: Close To Perfect So Far
Outside of the punt returner fiasco, Michigan has been extremely stout on special teams all year. Senior Jake Moody has hit on all but one of his field-goal attempts this year and his leg saved the Nebraska game. Graduate punter Brad Robbins continues to impress when he has been asked to flip the field position. The coverage units have been strong across the board. A tip of the cap is deserved for Jay Harbaugh, who oversees this phase of the game.
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