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College Football Preview 2022: 12. Michigan Wolverines


Cade McNamara, Michigan

12. Michigan Wolverines

With so many staff changes and personnel losses, a repeat Big Ten Title is unlikely, but never count out Jim Harbaugh

2021 Review
Michigan's 2021 season is evidence of just how rapidly things can change in the world of college football. The COVID-shortened 2020 campaign was a brutal one in Ann Arbor, as the Wolverines went just 2-4 and were dispatched handily by the only two ranked teams they played on the year, Indiana and Wisconsin. Head coach Jim Harbaugh went into 2021 on a flaming hot seat, needing a huge year to assure himself a job at his alma mater. With his back up against the wall, Harbaugh delivered; the Wolverines won their first seven games of the year and would have gone undefeated on the regular season if not for a furious, come-from-behind win by Michigan State. Even more important than finishing the regular season 11-1 was what Harbaugh and the Wolverines did at the end of the year. They secured their first win over Ohio State in a decade, with an impressive 42-27 victory, before routing Iowa in the Big Ten Championship Game. Their first trip to the College Football Playoff might not have gone as planned, as they were no match for the future National Champion Georgia Bulldogs. That loss certainly stung, but Michigan fans have to be thrilled with the overall results: a 12-2 record, win over their most hated rival, and a conference title. After a chaotic offseason, there are hoping Harbaugh can keep the momentum going, even as he replaces several key staff members and players from the '21 team.

2022 Outlook
Offense: After engineering an offense that was 16th nationally in scoring and 25th in total offense, Josh Gattis took the offensive coordinator job at Miami. Harbaugh opted to replace the reigning Broyles Award winner with two internal hires as co-coordinators, Matt Weiss and Sherrone Moore.

Fortunately for Weiss and Moore, there is loads of talent back at the skill positions and along the offensive line. However, their offensive success this year may depend on the quarterback competition, featuring Cade McNamara and talented youngster J.J. McCarthy.

McNamara has proven to be a capable Big Ten starter, throwing for 2,576 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2021. There's nothing flashy about his game, but he's a prototypical Harbaugh quarterback; a good leader, fierce competitor, and smart decision-maker. It will be hard to unseat a guy who led the Wolverines to their first ever Playoff appearance, but expect McCarthy to apply the pressure. The former five-star prospect played some as a true freshman, throwing for 516 yards on 59 attempts. He has a live arm and is the type of playmaker at the position Harbaugh and Michigan have lacked. I still think he will probably finish the year as a backup, but don't be surprised if we see his role expand.

Hassan Haskins was the top runner on a team that led the Big Ten in rushing last fall, but he's now off to the NFL. Fortunately, the Wolverines have a more-than-capable replacement ready to go in junior Blake Corum, who totaled 952 yards a season ago. Corum doesn't run as hard as Haskins, but is a shifty runner with more speed in the open-field. Michigan's rushing attack may look a bit different with him in charge, but it should be one of the best in the league. Add in sophomore Donovan Edwards, who flashed plenty as a true freshman, and UM will give teams headaches once again.

The receiver corps took a major hit early on in 2021, when star Ronnie Bell tore his ACL and was done for the year. His absence allowed others to show their stuff, namely veteran Cornelius Johnson and Roman Wilson. Bell is back and should be 100 percent for the season opener, providing the Wolverines a proven, reliable perimeter receiver. However, his health is the key; he's proven his worth time and time again on the gridiron, but injuries have kept him off it too long. 

The trio of Bell, Johnson, and Wilson has played a bunch of ball and are the unquestioned leaders in this position group. With that being said, there's some exciting younger talent hoping they can shine through in this new-look offense, namely A.J. Henning and Andrel Anthony. Henning isn't exactly "young" now that enters his third year in the program, but the dynamic weapon is still awaiting his breakthrough, while Anthony is a super impressive talent. Much like at quarterback, Michigan simply hasn't had these types of weapons regularly, which has resulted in some mediocre offenses. If the playmaking can open things up, it could be a fun watch.

Tight end has been a position Michigan has been able to develop regularly, and Erick All has a chance to be a key contributor once again. He finished second on the team in receptions and receiving yardage last year, but is hoping to become more of a presence in the red zone. Senior Luke Schoonmaker is also back, likely to be All's backup this year.

Even if the offense is able to open things up, the Wolverines are at their best when they have a strong O-Line. That was certainly the case last season, as Michigan won the Joe Moore Award, but they must replace two starters. Fortunately, newcomer Olusegan Oluwatimi was a massive addition, as he was a Rimington Trophy finalist while at Virginia. He'll anchor a group that also returns Ryan Hayes, Trevor Keegan, and Zak Zinter.

Michigan's offense seems to be in an awfully good spot considering they lose the top assistant in college football and a back who ran for over 1,300 yards. It will likely still be a ground-and-pound offense, but I am curious if the new coordinators try to be a bit more creative. Harbaugh has been notoriously slow to change and I doubt he will be eager to do so after winning a league title. But, with how difficult the division is poised to be, the Wolverines might need to change things up a bit to stay on top.

Defense: Defensive coordinator Mike MacDonald gave as a recommendation from John Harbaugh based on their work with the Baltimore Ravens and he oversaw a major turnaround defensively. Unfortunately, he's pretty clearly an NFL guy, and jumped at the opportunity return to the Ravens as their defensive coordinator.

In his place, Michigan will turn to Jesse Minter, who also has NFL experience. Minter will have his work cut out for him, rebuilding a defensive group that was hit hard by attrition at every level. 

The heart and soul of the defense last year was the 1-2 punch of defensive ends Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo. The pair combined for 25 sacks in 2021 and was so impressive that Hutchinson was invited to New York as a Heisman finalist. Now that they're both off to the NFL, there will be some fresh faces up front.

Senior defensive tackle Mazi Smith is going to be the anchor of the line, a proven run stopper who has played plenty of snaps in Ann Arbor. An underrated part of his game? His ability to get his hands in passing lanes over the middle, disrupting opposing crossing routes. It's an unproven cast of characters joining him, especially at the end spots. Seniors Taylor Upshaw and Mike Morris simply haven't got the opportunities necessary to make a significant impact. Junior Braiden McGregor could be a name to watch, as the former prized recruit is too talented to keep staying on the sidelines.

There's better news at linebacker, where the Wolverines have a rising superstar in Junior Colson. Colson wasn't projected to play a significant role as a true freshman, but he started seven games and finished fourth on the team in tackles. This year, Michigan is hoping he takes the next step and becomes one of their defensive centerpieces. Junior Nikhail Hill-Green is the projected starter alongside Colson at linebacker, while veteran Michael Barrett should also rotate in.

Losing do-it-all defensive back Daxton Hill is a huge hit to this secondary. He was all over the field for this defense a season ago, finishing with 69 tackles, two interceptions, and eight pass deflections. However, the Wolverine secondary still has a chance to be solid, with enough pieces back in the fold.

Senior corner D.J. Turner has elite playmaking ability, but he has to learn to be more consistent. He brought one of his two interceptions to the house in 2021 and teams should be scared to throw on him. Gemon Green is likely to man the other corner spot, but depth is the primary concern at this position. Behind those two, there's not much, which means highly touted true freshman Will Johnson has a fantastic shot to play from Day One.

Rounding out the unit, there are a few questions, but this is a position group the Wolverines tend to develop well. R.J. Moten and Rod Moore both saw playing time at the safety spots a year ago and project as the two starters there, while nickelback may fall to Mike Sainristil. Sainristil has been a receiver his entire Michigan career, but with the Wolverines so loaded there, he made the move to defense. 

Even at a school that recruits the way Michigan does, replacing program staples like Hutchinson, Ojabo, and Hill will be difficult, not to mention MacDonald. Even so, Harbaugh has shown time and time again he's able to reload on the defensive side of the ball, and the cupboard is far from bare. A step-back is likely, but this could still be one of the stronger groups in the Big Ten.

Special Teams: Kicker Jake Moody and punter Brad Robbins were both terrific in 2021 and will return to lead the special teams. Moody in particular was superb last fall, hitting on 23 of his 25 field goal attempts. A.J. Henning handled punt returns last year and is a good candidate to do so once more, but kickoffs could be a different story, as the Wolverines hope to avoid any further punishment for their lead back, Blake Corum. 

Bottom Line: 2021 was not the first time Jim Harbaugh had a strong season built going into the final weeks of the season but unlike 2016 and 2018, the Wolverines were able to finish the job by beating Ohio State and winning the Big Ten Title. That success has elevated expectations for Michigan, even after an offseason full of staff shakeups and personnel losses, but the fact of the matter is, the program has been very consistent under Harbaugh. They've lost more more than four games just once (although the COVID-shortened 2020 might have been made it two) over the past seven years, despite in one of the toughest divisions in college football. Those that still argue that's not enough at a school like Michigan seem quick to forget just how low the program was under the previous two head coaches; there's little denying the job Harbaugh has done in Ann Arbor. That level of consistency leads me to believe the Wolverines will again hover around 9-10 wins in 2022, but I'm not sure their ceiling is much higher with McNamara under center and so many losses defensively. That should be a solid encore following the breakthrough of 2021 and set the stage for another Playoff run in '23.

Program Profile
Coaching Staff
Jim Harbaugh enters his eighth season as head coach at his alma mater, taking prior to the 2015 campaign. He openly flirted with several NFL head coaching positions over the offseason, namely the Minnesota Vikings, but instead decided to remain in Ann Arbor. He will have new coordinators alongside him on both sides of the ball, beginning with co-offensive coordinators Sherrone Moore and Matt Weiss. Moore has been on the UM staff since 2018 as their TE coach, while Weiss also spent time with John Harbaugh in Baltimore before joining the Wolverines as QB coach. The defensive coordinator replacing Mike MacDonald will be Jesse Minter, yet another guy with previous experience with Jim's brother on the Ravens. Minter spent the 2021 season as defensive coordinator/safeties coach at Vanderbilt.

Recruiting Breakdown
Michigan's success on the field was reflected on the recruiting trail, with one of their best classes in years. The headliner comes from inside in the state of Michigan, as Harbaugh and the staff landed five-star cornerback Will Johnson. At 6'3", 190 pounds, Johnson already looks the part and comes in at a need position, with the Wolverines lacking much depth at corner. He'll be joined in the secondary by a pair of four-star prospects, Keon Sabb and Zeke Berry, both safeties. Sabb is the higher-rated of the two, a former Clemson commit who spent the 2021 season at IMG Academy. Offensively, the staff continues to do a great job adding talent at the receiver positions, bringing in four-stars Tyler Morris and Darrius Clemons. Clemons was quite the get from the staff, as they traveled all the way out to the West Coast and the Portland area.

2022 X-Factor: Mazi Smith, DT
With Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo now playing on Sundays, Mazi Smith will play an outsized role on the Michigan defensive line. Smith showed last year that he was ready to play a leadership role, as he started all 14 games, but the Wolverines are hopeful the reliable contributor can reach an even higher gear. If his play down the stretch was any indication, he could. Even as Michigan entered the meat of their Big Ten schedule, Smith seemed to play better and better, including impressive performances against Nebraska, Maryland, and Indiana. If he can continue his growth and emerge as one of the better interior defensive linemen in the league, Michigan's run defense should remain stout.

Five-Year Trend

2022 Projections
Projected Record: 9-3 (6-3 Big Ten)
Offensive MVP: RB Blake Corum
Defensive MVP: LB Junior Colson
Breakout Player of the Year: WR Andrel Anthony
Impact Freshman: CB Will Johnson

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