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Previewing the 2021 Michigan Wolverines

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Is this the year the native son brings greatness to his alma mater? In the case of Michigan, this is year seven.

Ohio State v Michigan Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: successful coach returns to his alma mater where he starred on the field in order to bring back the glory years. And a few years later, the glory years are nowhere in sight. Sounds a lot like Nebraska, but I’m talking about Jim Harbaugh and Michigan who has a three year head start on Scott Frost but seems to be slipping further and further behind the other teams in the Big Ten. Despite three ten-win seasons, Michigan still has not played in Indianapolis for a Big Ten championship. (And yes, before anybody points it out, those three ten-win seasons are three more than Nebraska has had since Harbaugh arrived at Michigan. Duly noted.)

Harbaugh’s reputation as a “quarterback whisperer” has taken a hit lately, capped by the departure of Joe Milton via the transfer portal. Cade McNamara (6’1” 205 lbs.) unseated Milton towards the end of last season, completing 61% of his passes with five touchdowns and, more importantly, no interceptions. McNamara exited spring practice as the #1 quarterback, but this summer could see competition from two newcomers. True freshman JJ McCarthy (6’3” 195 lbs.) is a five star quarterback, while Texas Tech transfer Alan Bowman (6’3” 218 lbs.) started 16 games, completing 67% of his passes for 5,260 yards and 33 touchdowns with 17 interceptions. Texas Tech’s offensive shift from the Air Raid scheme to more of a zone-read offense ill-suited Bowman’s skillset (career rushing totals: negative nine yards) which convinced Bowman to search for another school which could better use his talents.

At running back, it looks like a committee of Hassan Haskins (6’1” 220 lbs.) and Blake Corum (5’8” 200 lbs.) Haskins started the last six games of the 2019 season, rushing for 622 yards. Last season, Haskins didn’t get a heavy load until the final two games of the season, not coincidentally hitting the century mark in yards both times. With those 39 carries in those two games, Haskins rushed 61 times for 375 yards and six touchdowns on the season. Corum was limited to 77 yards on 26 carries. Presumably Michigan now knows their running back room and won’t wait until late in the season to unleash Haskins.

At receiver, three of Michigan’s top four from last season return. Ronnie Bell (6’0” 190 lbs.) caught 26 passes for 401 yards and a touchdown last season. Cornelius Johnson (6’3” 205 lbs.) caught 16 passes for 254 yards and three touchdowns, while slot receiver Roman Wilson (6’0” 180 lbs.) caught nine passes for 122 yards and a touchdown. Michigan prioritized speed over size last season with middling results; the hope is that this group will play bigger in 2021.

Last year’s offensive line was inexperienced (losing four starters in the NFL draft) which was compounded by injury. Left tackle Ryan Hayes (6’7” 302 lbs.) only started in two games due to a knee injury while center Andrew Vastardis (6’3” 296 lbs.) missed the last two. An excess of injuries frequently leads to improved depth once those injured players return, and that can only help in 2021...

Michigan’s defense went south last season, finishing 56th in yards allowed per play and 96th in scoring defense. Combined with the resulting 2-4 record in 2020, that resulted in the dismissal of defensive coordinator Don Brown. Baltimore Ravens linebackers coach Mike Macdonald and Dallas Cowboys secondary coach Maurice Linguist spent the spring as co-defensive coordinators until Linguist took the Buffalo head coaching job in May, replacing Lance Leipold.

Only seven starters return on defense in 2021, with two starters returning on what looks like a 3-4 defense. Defensive end Aidan Hutchinson (6’6” 269 lbs.) has started 16 games his first three years at Michigan; he had 83 tackles and 4.5 sacks his first two seasons, but just 15 tackles last season. Defensive tackle Chris Hinton (6’4” 305 lbs.) contributed just 13 tackles (two for loss) in four starts. This summer, the buzz is over Mazi Smith (6’3” 305 lbs.) as a potential contributor on the line despite just contributing three tackles in 2020. return in the middle.

Middle linebacker Josh Ross (6’2” 225 lbs.) and strongside linebacker Michael Barrett (6’0” 227 lbs.) return after totaling 53 and 46 tackles respectively last season. Reports out of Ann Arbor suggest that Ross has taken a real liking to new defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald’s scheme, suggesting a big season for Ross in 2021. We’ll see about that.

The entire secondary returns intact, led by safeties Daxton Hill (6’0” 192 lbs.) and Brad Hawkins (6’1” 218 lbs.). Hill was second on the team with 46 tackles while Hawkins was fourth with 39. At cornerback, Gemon Green (6’2” 181 lbs.) led the team with nine pass breakups, while Vincent Gray (6’2” 190 lbs.) was sixth in tackles with 25 and second in pass breakups with 3 last season.

So will the Wolverines break through in 2021? There’s a sense that the heat is starting to build under Jim Harbaugh’s chair, though I’m really not sure how warm it actually is. But at least one national pundit predicts that Michigan will upset an Ohio state university in the Big House on Thanksgiving weekend. (And to be bold, they also predict Oregon to also pick off the Buckeyes in September.) So who knows?

Maybe it’s Michigan’s year?

(Or maybe it’s Nebraska’s year. Just sayin’.)

Poll

What’s your prediction when Michigan comes to Nebraska in October?

This poll is closed

  • 26%
    Like in 2018, a lot of pain for the Huskers. Michigan rolls all over the Big Red.
    (37 votes)
  • 27%
    Whether or not either team has improved any, the game is close and Michigan gets the win.
    (38 votes)
  • 38%
    Home field is the difference as the Huskers win at home.
    (53 votes)
  • 7%
    It’s Weasel Stomping Time! Huskers roll.
    (10 votes)
138 votes total Vote Now