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College Football Preview 2019: 4. Michigan Wolverines

4. Michigan Wolverines

With the Big Ten East rebuilding and a veteran-laden lineup, the time is now for Harbaugh at UM

Shea Patterson
Offense: The Wolverines' 2018 offense was among their best in the Jim Harbaugh era, coming in second in the Big Ten in scoring and sixth in total yardage. Yet, Harbaugh still decided it was time to modernize a scheme that had lagged behind the rest of college football. In order to do so, he brought in Josh Gattis as his offensive coordinator, away from Alabama. Gattis will introduce some spread concepts and an up-tempo look, which could really fit this personnel.

Leading the offense once again will be veteran signal-caller Shea Patterson, who was rock-solid in his first season in Ann Arbor. A former Ole Miss transfer, Patterson tossed for 2,600 and 22 touchdowns, but seemed to be an odd fit in Harbaugh's pro-style offense. In the look Gattis will break in, Patterson will have more freedom to move around and use his legs, when he is at his best. If the marriage is able to work out, Patterson could be in store for a monstrous senior campaign. He is backed up by a quality option in junior Dylan McCaffrey, the younger brother of Christian, who saw some limited action in 2018.

What is usually the strength of Harbaugh-coached teams, running back, could actually be a concern heading into 2019. Karan Higdon left for the NFL after managing 1,178 yards and ten scores a year ago and his backup, Chris Evans, was recently suspended for the entire season. That leaves the top returning rusher as senior Tru Wilson, a former walk-on who had 364 yards in '18. Redshirt freshman Christian Turner is a breakout candidate after showing flashes in very limited playing time. He had a huge run in the Peach Bowl loss that was later called back due to penalty. True freshman Zach Charbonnet could also factor into the backfield rotation as a four-star find from the West Coast.

Another reason to feel great about a likely strong senior season from Patterson is the plethora of receiving options he has. Michigan has a ton of playmakers that can hurt defenses in a variety of ways, starting with junior Donovan Peoples-Jones. The Detroit native had 612 yards and eight touchdowns last year and was always a threat to take one to the house. Peoples-Jones is also a potent kick returner, but more on that later. He'll be joined by junior Nico Collins and the oft-injured Tarik Black on the outside. Black has flashed serious star power during his tenure in Ann Arbor, but missed the entire first half of 2018 with a foot problem. If he can stay healthy, he has legitimate All-Conference talent. Gattis likely won't lean on tight ends quite the same way Harbaugh has in the past, but senior Sean McKeon is still a quality returnee at the position. McKeon caught 14 passes as a backup last fall.

After some early troubles Michigan's offensive line found their way during the 2018 campaign. Now, it could challenge as one of the best in the Big Ten, as four starters are back. The real anchor of the group appears to be junior center Cesar Ruiz right at the heart of it, but he may not even be the most talented. Senior left tackle Jon Runyan is the son of a former NFL All-Pro, while guards Ben Bredeson and Michael Onwenu are staples. The only spot that really appears to be a position battle is going to be at right tackle, which was left vacant by Juwann Bushell-Beatty.

The obvious hope in Ann Arbor is that Gattis opens up this offense in an interesting way and capitalizes on the talent at quarterback and at receiver. While running back is a concern entering the opener, its a position Harbaugh and staff recruit well and it should be fine going forward.

Defense: Despite coming in second in the entire country in total defense a season ago, Michigan allowed 62 points in their brutal rivalry loss to Ohio State, which has to have them motivated this year. DC Don Brown is once more back and will bring his usual stockpile of exotic blitzes and aggressive play calls.

It's no secret Michigan is going to miss top pass rusher Chase Winovich, who seemed to always be flying around opposing backfields. Winovich had 15.5 TFL and five sacks for the Wolverines last fall, but is now off to the NFL. So too is Rashan Gary, a former top-tier recruit who was good but never dominant at UM. Yet, this position group still seems like it could be a strength, with a healthy dose of experience throughout and some rising stars. Senior Carlo Kemp is a solid starting point, but the real excitement begins with junior Kwity Paye at one end spot. Paye had 5.5 tackles for loss as a reserve in 2018 and had a fine spring filling in for Winovich and Gary. Joining Kemp at D-Tackle is physical Michael Dwumfour, who has appeared in 23 career games and knows how to stop the run up front. Behind them, newcomer Mazi Smith is almost sure to see some snaps, as is fellow true frosh Chris Hinton. Smith is a Michigan native, while Hinton was a notable get for this staff out of SEC country (Johns Creek, GA).

An even greater loss than Winovich or Gary comes at linebacker, where do-it-all Devin Bush is also off to the pros. Bush led this team in tackles, with 79, while also displaying superb coverage skills and excellent leadership. However, this is another position group that has a number of former reserves that have seen healthy snaps and should be able to step up and produce. Senior Josh Uche is a key returnee at strong-side OLB, where he will cause absolute chaos. Uche was one of the tops in the conference with seven sacks in 2018, but is just scratching the surface of his potential. At the other outside 'backer slot, senior Devin Gill does not have the potential of Uche, but seems to be a little bit more well-rounded. Fellow senior Josh Ross is the slated starter at the ultra-important middle linebacker position. He is going to have to fill some of the leadership void that is sure to be left wide open without Bush.

The strength of the entire team may be the secondary, although that might depend how you classify "Viper" Khaleke Hudson. Hudson will fill the hybrid role that is sure to get after the QB early and often in Brown's defense, although he struggled to stay consistent in 2018. Fellow seniors Josh Metellus and Lavert Hill are huge returnees that are going to be real anchors for the entire defense. Lavert Hill is a proven commodity at cornerback that can shut down even the best the Big Ten has to offer. He is trying to become a better playmaker himself, after picking off one pass last year. Metellus is a lengthy, rangy defender that should be a real enforcer on the back-end. The other corner spot opposite of Hill appears up for grabs, with juniors Brad Hawkins and Ambry Thomas battling things out deep into fall camp.

While Bush, Winovich and Gary are all notable losses, Michigan has done a great job establishing continuity on the defensive side of the ball. They still have ample experience, while still boasting one of the top defensive minds in the game in Brown. A slight step back early on should be expected, but expect a Top 10 unit by the end of November.

Special Teams: The Wolverines have an interesting situation at kicker, where both Quinn Nordin and Jake Moody possess experience. Nordin was the kicker last season but was inconsistent, while Moody hit six field goals against Indiana and seems to have the leg up right now. The return game has the potential to be elite, as Donovan Peoples-Jones and Ambry Thomas are sure to make some big-time plays.

Bottom Line: Before their 62-39 loss to their arch-rival, which was followed up by a bad Peach Bowl loss to Florida, Michigan truly seemed like a Playoff team. Yet, their continued inability to beat Ohio State puts even more pressure on the program and Harbaugh, who doesn't seem to be on a hot seat right now, but certainly could be with another loss to the hated Buckeyes. The good news is that this Wolverines team looks possibly elite on paper. They have an offense that should take a step forward, even with some relative questions at running back, plus a defense that has proven it can reload year-in, year-out. The big reason why I place Michigan over Ohio State, while picking UM to win the Big Ten? The Wolverines will get OSU at the Big House in Ann Arbor and face a first-year head coach. It just feels like this is the Michigan team to finally breakthrough under Harbaugh, with the right personnel and the right timing. That is a lot to ask, but this team has Playoff potential, and it is about time they seize it.

Team Projections
Projected Record: 12-1 (8-1 Big Ten, Win Big Ten Championship Game)
Offensive MVP: QB Shea Patterson
Defensive MVP: LB Josh Uche
Breakout Player of the Year: RB Christian Turner
Impact Freshman: DT Mazi Smith

Five-Year Trend
2014: 5-7 (3-5 Big Ten)
2015: 10-3 (6-2 Big Ten)
2016: 10-3 (7-2 Big Ten)
2017: 8-5 (5-4 Big Ten)
2018: 10-3 (8-1 Big Ten)

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