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Reviewing the 2018 Michigan Wolverines

Michigan’s defense is still good, even if the offense was slow to get started in their first game against Notre Dame.

SMU v Michigan Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Michigan enters Big Ten conference play with a 2-1 record. Victories over Western Michigan (49-3) and Southern Methodist (45-20) followed a season-opening 24-17 loss at Notre Dame. The Wolverines are led by quarterback Shea Patterson, who is completing over 70% of his passes for 589 yards and six touchdowns, though with two interceptions. Redshirt freshman Dylan McCaffrey has backed up Patterson, completing five of seven passes.

Running back Karan Higdon has rushed for 228 yards and two touchdowns this season, averaging 6.7 yards per carry. He missed last week’s game against SMU with an apparent lower body injury. Backup Chris Evans has rushed for 172 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 5.7 yards per carry. Although Evans left last week’s game due to injury as well, both have been practicing this week and are expected to play.

Sophomore Donovan Peoples-Jones has broken out as many expected this season, catching 14 passes for 159 yards and four touchdowns. Tight end Zach Gentry has caught seven passes for 116 yards while sophomore Nico Collins (6’4” 218 lbs.) has four catches for 113 yards, with a 52 yard catch against Notre Dame and a 44 yard touchdown against Western Michigan. Freshman Tarik Black continues to be out with foot problems, breaking his right foot in August after a broken left foot ended his 2017 season in September.

Michigan’s defense continues to be one of the best in the nation, ranking 12th in total defense, 24th in scoring defense, 16th in passing defense and 37th in rush defense. (OK, so Notre Dame found that the quarterback can run a little on the Wolverines...) Linebacker Devin Bush’s 22 tackles leads Michigan while defensive end Chase Winovich has 19, with seven of those being behind the line of scrimmage. Winovich has combined with fellow defensive end Rashan Gary for five quarterback hurries this season. Safety Tyree Kinnel has 15 tackles in the secondary, while cornerback Lavert Hill has broken up four passes.\

While Michigan has bounced back nicely from their opening week loss to Notre Dame, I suspect this matchup matters more on what Nebraska does to itself this week. A healthy Adrian Martinez combined with a Nebraska team that cleans up all the things they did wrong in the first two games could make this an exciting game. Failure to correct the many mistakes could lead to game highlights set to the extended dance mix of Yakety Sax.

Below is the original preseason preview of the Michigan Wolverines.

Jim Harbaugh has turned losing teams into big winners just about everywhere. Two eleven win seasons at San Diego, and another at Stanford Three NFC championship games in four seasons with the San Francisco 49ers.

Except at his alma mater, at least to this point. Sure, he bumped a five win Michigan squad to back-to-back ten win seasons in his first two seasons, but last season, the Wolverines stumbled to 8-5. And with Harbaugh’s reputation for wearing out his welcome after four seasons, college football fans wonder Kaptain Khaki Pants is finding himself over his head in Ann Arbor.

That remains to be seen, but it could also be that 2017 was just a bump on the road. Only having five returning starters going into last seasons should have reset the expectations to “rebuilding year” for Michigan. Only one problem. Harbaugh’s reputation doesn’t allow for “rebuilding” - neither does Michigan football. So when Michigan goes 8-5, people naturally wonder if Harbaugh has lost his magic.

2018 should answer that, if only because with 17 returning starters, this might be Michigan’s best opportunity to get to the Big Ten championship game. Wisconsin has made it five times, Ohio State and Michigan State three times. Nebraska and Penn State have each made it once. Even Iowa has shown up once. But the Big Ten’s Bluest Blood? Nowhere to be found.

Jim Harbaugh’s reputation as a coach has centered around being a “quarterback whisperer,” starting with Andrew Luck at Stanford. He resurrected Alex Smith’s career with the 49ers and then developed Colin Kaepernick into a Super Bowl quarterback. At Michigan, he turned Iowa retread Jake Rudock into a Citrus Bowl MVP and sixth round draft choice in 2015. And expectations were high last season that 2016 third team all-Big Ten quarterback Wilton Speight would do big things in his junior season.

Except that didn’t happen.

Speight struggled early in the season, then suffered a season-ending injury in the fourth game of the season. Backup John O’Korn and Brandon Peters didn’t play much better. Speight has since transfered to UCLA while O’Korn graduated, but thanks to Ole Miss’s NCAA issues, Michigan was able to find an alternative to turning back to Peters (6’5” 216 lbs.) for his sophomore season. Junior Shea Patterson (6’2” 203 lbs.) transferred to Michigan after Mississippi went on NCAA probation thanks to Hugh Freeze’s recruiting violations; he’s immediately eligible, much like the Huskers’ Breon Dixon. Patterson started three games for the Rebels in 2016 and stated the first seven games of 2017 before tearing his PCL. When he went down, Patterson’s 2,259 yards passing led the SEC. He completed nearly 64% of his passes for 17 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Patterson’s numbers look impressive, until you realize that Patterson’s replacement, juco transfer Jordan Ta’amu, put up even better numbers (67%, 11 touchdowns, 4 interceptions) last season. So while Patterson may be an upgrade for Michigan, he may not be the savior that Weasel fans are counting on. Backing up Patterson will be sophomore Peters (53% passing, four touchdowns and two interceptions as a redshirt freshman) and redshirt freshman Dylan McCaffery (6’5” 210 lb.). (If the McCaffery name doesn’t ring a bell, remember little brother Luke committed to the Huskers earlier this spring.)

Senior tailback Karan Higdon (5’10” 200 lbs.) took over as the starter after senior Ty Isaac suffered an injury. Higdon rode the opportunity to nearly become the second Michigan running back to rush for 1,000 in over ten years. His 994 yards and eleven touchdowns was good enough with just eight starts to earn third-team all-Big Ten honors. Junior Chris Evans (5’11” 214 lbs.) rushed for 685 yards and six touchdowns in splitting time initially after Isaac went down. Higdon’s 6.1 yards per carry average won out over Evan’s 5.1.

One huge reason why Michigan’s quarterback’s struggled last season was inexperience at wide receiver; three Michigan receivers were drafted in the 2017 NFL draft, leaving two true freshmen to start. One, Tarik Black (6’3” 206 lbs) broke his foot in the third game of the season and received a medical redshirt. His first catch last seasonwas a 46 yard touchdown against Florida, and when he left, his 11 catches for 148 yards led the team. Sophomore Donovan Peoples-Jones (6’2” 199 lbs.) had a sluggish freshman season, catching 22 passes for 277 yards last season; Peoples-Jones was considered the top receiver prospect in the 2017 signing class. This duo is so talented that many observers expect that last season’s leading receiver, senior Grant Perry (6’0” 191 lbs.) to be battling for a spot as a backup. Perry caught 25 passes for 307 yards last season. The Wolverines’ receiver struggles last season meant more opportunities for junior tight ends Zach Gentry (6’7” 244 lbs) and Sean McKeon (6’5” 248 lbs.), who combined for 48 catches, 604 yards and five of Michigan’s nine passing touchdowns.

Michigan shook up the offensive line this offseason by hiring former Ohio State offensive coordinator Ed Warriner to coach the line this season. (Isn’t there a state law against hiring former Buckeyes at Michigan?) With three returning starters, the cupboard isn’t exactly bare. Junior left guard Ben Bredeson (6’5” 310 lbs), a two year starter, earned second team all-Big Ten honors last season. Sophomore Cesar Ruiz (6’4” 316 lbs.) moves to center after starting the last five games last season at right guard. And there’s still hope that junior Grant Newsome (6’7” 318 lbs.) might finally be cleared to play again after a gruesome 2016 knee injury that nearly cost him his leg. Like every other unit on the Michigan offense, this looks like a group that should be better this season.

And then there is the Michigan defense with nine returning starters from a unit that was second or third in just about every defensive category. And it was a young group as well with six sophomores starting, which lead Phil Steele to suggest that Michigan could have the best defense in the country. Up front at defensive end, the pair of junior Rashan Gary (6’5” 281 lbs.) and senior Chase Winovich (6’3” 253 lbs.) were first team all-Big Ten honorees with 67 and 77 tackles respectively. Combined, the pair had 30 tackles for loss, 14 sacks and 13 quarterback hurries.

Now let’s look at the linebacker corps, where Michigan might have the best tandem in college football. Junior middle linebacker Devin Bush Jr. (5’11” 222 lbs.) was a second-team all-American with 100 tackles. Junior strongside linebacker Khaleke Hudson (6’0” 216 lbs.) was third on the team with 82 tackles last season, earning second team all-Big Ten honors. This duo combined for 28 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, 13 sacks, 17 pass breakups and three interceptions. All as sophomores last season.

Michigan led the nation in fewest passing yards allowed last season, and the ENTIRE secondary returns intact. Junior cornerback Lavert Hill (5’11” 177 lbs.) was a shutdown corner with seven pass breakups and two interceptions, earning him second team all-Big Ten honors. At the other corner, junior David Long (5’11” 187 lbs) broke up six passes with two more interceptions. Senior free safety Tyree Kinnel (5’11” 201 lbs.) was fifth on the Michigan defense last year with 77 tackles, and added seven pass breakups and two interceptions. No doubt this season that it will be even more difficult to throw on Michigan in 2018.

56 years ago, Bob Devaney took his new Cornhusker team to Michigan and returned with a shocking upset victory to start Nebraska’s rise in the modern era of college football. Many Husker fans looked at this matchup as Scott Frost’s opportunity to reassert Nebraska’s place as one of the premier programs in college football. However, expecting a victory in Ann Arbor this season is probably asking an awful lot of a first year head coach trying to clean up a program that lost eight games last season. Dismiss Jim Harbaugh at your own peril, because Michigan looks to have assembled just about everything they need to finally get to Indianapolis in December.