10 Michigan football thoughts we have post-spring 2023
Spring ball for Michigan football has been over for more than a month, and now that we’re in the dead month of May, it’s time to reflect on what we saw and what we think may be.
Every offseason, we do a series of 10 bold predictions, usually starting right at the culmination of the previous season, another in spring, possibly another in summer when the dust has fully settled, and certainly another during fall camp when we’re getting a better idea of what to expect in the coming season.
This isn’t that. This is the nebula that forms before the star coalesces. With that in mind, here are 10 Michigan football thoughts I have about the state of the Wolverines in the wait before summer conditioning starts in June.
This could be the year the single-season passing record is actually broken
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I’ve predicted it maybe every year except last year — the single-season passing record set by Jon Navarre in 2003 of 3,331 yards will be broken. Yet, we have never really seen anyone come close.
Now, if Shea Patterson wasn’t injured on the first play from scrimmage in 2019, I think it would have had a strong possibility of going down. But, alas, things happen.
With J.J. McCarthy entering his second year as a starter, there’s an expectation he will be asked to do more. However, there’s still be big caveat that Michigan is a run-first team and that it may not open the offense up. However, when you have a Howitzer, I expect that you will use it. And that’s what J.J. McCarthy is.
Should Michigan get to play in 15 games, which isn’t entirely out of the realm of possibility, it would take a mere 223 yards per game through the air to achieve this. That number goes up to 256 yards per game if Michigan plays in only 13 games. Still, either is relatively attainable should the Wolverines decide to air it out a little bit.
Those are all big ifs, but if you want to keep attracting top quarterback talent and if you want to win a national championship, generally, you have to be decisively great in the pass game. Georgia is thought as a run-first team, yet had nearly 4,500 yards passing last year. It had 3,778 in 2021, as well, though with three quarterbacks getting those opportunities. Alabama had 4,656 yards passing in 2020. LSU had 6,024 in 2019. Alabama appears to be the only general outlier pre-2020 when it’s come to winning national championships and having an aerial attack, because outside of the Crimson Tide, every championship-winning team since 2011 has eclipsed the 3,331 mark through the air.
We’ll see if the Wolverines follow suit or simply stay on the ground.
It feels like this could be the best Michigan defense under Jim Harbaugh
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That feels crazy to say, especially considering the 2016 team. That defense felt like it stopped everybody — except Ohio State late and Florida State in a game the Wolverines just didn’t want to be there.
While I have a few concerns, the front seven should be incredible. I do question if the pass rush will be there because there’s no obvious tandem, but I really love the interior and think they’ll stop the run just fine. And Michigan won’t need to be particularly proficient against the pass until the back-end of the schedule when it faces Penn State, Maryland and Ohio State in the final three weeks of the regular season. So there will be time to get the rush as well as the back-end going.
But Kris Jenkins appears to be poised to be the next great Michigan defensive tackle, and I love the pieces surrounding him at the position. Braiden McGregor, Jaylen Harrell, Derrick Moore and Josaiah Stewart have a great deal of promise. The linebacking corps may be the best of the Jim Harbaugh era, collectively. The safety position is set. And Will Johnson is being called the best cornerback in college football entering his second year.
Regardless if a pass rush gets home or not, this defense has the ability to shut teams down at every level. And given that not a lot of teams on the schedule are offensive powerhouses, I expect we’ll be seeing eye-opening numbers throughout the year.
If Roman Wilson stays healthy, this should be his breakout year
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I’ve often called Roman Wilson “Diet DeVonta Smith” because he has the body type and speed to make similar types of plays as the former Alabama star. In fact, we’ve seen it in bursts — the long touchdown against Hawaii, or the flip into the end zone against TCU. Wilson’s problem hasn’t been ability, it’s been availability.
For two straight years, Wilson has been injured in the Week 5 road game: a wrist injury at Wisconsin in 2021 and a concussion against Iowa in 2022. That’s precluded him from really stepping up each year throughout the bulk of the schedule. Even before Week 5, he disappeared at times. But, if my point No. 1 is to hold true, Wilson will have to be a big part of that.
At times, it feels like Michigan gets away from utilizing certain playmakers, and I wonder if with J.J. McCarthy at the helm, it will work to get Wilson the ball more. Ronnie Bell is gone and even though Tyler Morris is poised to step up, I think it’s time to give the senior his due.
Not worried about the attrition (except for one)
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Only one of Michigan’s outgoing transfers was a shock to the system: former five-star Eyabi Okie. It makes sense Okie would follow his former high school coach, Biff Poggi, to Charlotte, but given how much he was acclimating to the team environment in Ann Arbor and coming on, it was the one departure I didn’t want to see.
But, as I said earlier, things happen.
While I didn’t like the losses of Nikhai Hill-Green and RJ Moten from a leadership perspective, they weren’t poised to be stars at their position as much as some others are. Taylor Upshaw showed flashes last year in particular, but he’s had his chances to shine the past two years and got outshined by others on the edge. I feel like A.J. Henning has star-making ability, but it never seemed to come to fruition outside of special teams. Jim Harbaugh loved Andrel Anthony perhaps more than any other, but Michigan kept trying to make Andrel Anthony happen, and he just wouldn’t acquiesce.
For every departure, there has been a suitable replacement, but I think there is less of one for Okie. Josaiah Stewart may prove me wrong, but he’s a much different kind of edge rusher, and if Okie was coming back, I would have had a lot more faith that Michigan was going to dominate the pass rush. Still, there are a lot of capable pass rushers, I just wish he was one of them.
The only two position groups I’m concerned about
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I really have no concern that every position group will be lackluster this year, but I had to pick, there are two that I’m somewhat skeptical about: cornerback and wide receiver.
Yes, I just waxed poetic about Roman Wilson, and Cornelius Johnson has shown he can step up, but last year’s group looked amazing on paper and ended up being, mostly, just OK. If Darrius Clemons, Tyler Morris, Peyton O’Leary and any of the three freshmen — Karmello English, Semaj Morgan, or Fredrick Moore — can provide a boost, that would be more than ideal. But, for the moment, there are only two wideouts I fully trust: Wilson and Johnson. Even that trust isn’t at the same level as other position groups.
For cornerback, we know Will Johnson and nickel Mike Sainristil are good to go. But we’ve seen what can happen when there’s an outlier. Michigan has a lot of hope that Amorion Walker can be that guy, and he has a whole summer conditioning period, fall camp, and even nonconference schedule to fall in line. But if he doesn’t? Well, then we’re looking at other heralded, yet unproven players such as Ja’Den McBurrows and Myles Pollard, or even Keshaun Harris. I think someone will get there, but I’d feel a lot better if there was at least one cornerback who has had time on task who appears to be emerging rather than entering the season completely unsure.
The only teams on the schedule I’m concerned about
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Listen, I hate the yearly Penn State hype probably more than anyone. The Nittany Lions get this weird benefit of the doubt despite not doing anything of note since 2016. That was a long time ago, and even though PSU won the conference that year, it still got shellacked by Michigan in Ann Arbor.
This year, I think it could be different. Drew Allar is their version of J.J. McCarthy, and while Penn State finally has a few running back, Kaytron Allen and Nick Singleton, I’m not convinced it will have the offensive line to do much against a team like Michigan. But, playing in Happy Valley is a different animal. I would say that Penn State is my top concern, oddly, in 2023.
Of course, Ohio State is on the list. Be wary of taking OSU for granted given the two recent wins. It will still be the most talented team Michigan will face, possibly all season, even in the College Football Playoff, should it make it that far. But I’m less concerned about the Buckeyes than usual because I’m not convinced Kyle McCord or the field is nearly as good at quarterback than any of their recent predecessors. I don’t know whether Jim Knowles will have figured out how to stop Michigan’s offense and The Game is at The Big House. But it wouldn’t be a surprise me if Ohio State managed to win, because it is still Ohio State.
Maryland also concerns me, because I think that Taulia Tagovailoa is very talented, and with it being a road game sandwiched in between Penn State and Ohio State, it could be a difficult proposition to emerge unscathed. Josh Gattis is the offensive coordinator there now, and he has familiarity with almost all of Michigan’s personnel and will have a chip on his shoulder that game.
What about the rest? Well, I don’t think Nebraska is going to be ready to face a team of Michigan’s caliber. Minnesota could have last year, but loses too much this year. MSU will be tough in theory, but practically, probably not. Same deal with Purdue.
So, yes, I fully expect Michigan to go 9-0, and then we’ll find out what it’s really made of.
Why I’m not concerned about the offensive line
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This headline may be something of a paper tiger, because I don’t know that anyone is actually concerned about the Michigan offensive line, unless they’re simply trolling. But what I’m saying is don’t write it off that this won’t be a third straight Joe Moore Award-winner.
Now, Sherrone Moore has more on his plate, which could be a cause for concern, because he can’t really give the line all his focus as he did two years ago. Losing Olu Oluwatimi is big, but I’m confident that one of the three centers — Drake Nugent, Raheem Anderson, or Greg Crippen — will play at a level somewhere between Oluwatimi and 2021 center Andrew Vastardis. I think LaDarius Henderson (or Jeff Persi) could fill in nicely for Ryan Hayes, and even perhaps be an upgrade.
The other three positions (filled by four bodies) are incumbents and should play at the same level, if not better in 2023. In fact, Michigan has six guys returning who have started at three positions on the O-line (Jeff Persi at left tackle, Trevor Keegan and Giovanni El-Hadi at left guard, Zak Zinter at right guard, and Karsen Barnhart and Trente Jones at right tackle). Then you also have Myles Hinton, who was a starter at Stanford.
This is what we call a quality problem — having too many able bodies. As long as Michigan is smart about it, the line could be the strength of the team this year and for many years to come.
The past still haunts me, but it shouldn’t
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I have picked a lot of games where I expected Michigan to win only to see them get blown out. I’ve done the same where I’ve seen close losses. I’ve entered seasons expecting the Big Ten and beyond only to find myself traveling to a lesser bowl game. And, as a student and fan, I also witnessed incredibly disappointing seasons when Michigan was expected to be great.
To me, it’s still difficult to wrap my head around the fact that Michigan has won the Big Ten for two straight years and has gone to the College Football Playoff those same seasons. The loss to TCU wasn’t a surprise to me, however, because, of course — when Michigan was expected to win and go to the national championship game, it squandered the opportunity.
This year, the Wolverines have a prime opportunity, once again. Many of the top teams have lost a lot and most don’t have a returning quarterback. That counts for something. But I would be lying if I didn’t say that in the back of my mind, despite me predicting a 13-0 regular season, that I can’t shake the feeling of something going awry. But I felt the same way last year (I predicted 12-1) and look what happened.
Who I think are strong candidates for team captain
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Had Nikhai Hill-Green not left, he would have been an easy choice here. But, again, alas — things happen.
Mike Sainristil returns and will likely reprise his role as a team captain, but who else? Everyone else has departed. On defense, I could see Kris Jenkins and Junior Colson (or Mike Barrett) fill that role.
On offense, I feel like it’s going to be Blake Corum and perhaps J.J. McCarthy, but I also wish it could be an offensive lineman. Of course, Trevor Keegan and Zak Zinter could take on that role, and I hope they do.
I tend to not care too much about team captains, but the past two years have proven to me it’s more vital than the credence I give to it. The culture was in need of fixing, now it’s in need of continuing. Whoever is chosen in the fall, I hope they choose wisely.
After all, two of the team captains from last year lost their roles while injured and departed for another team. However, Michigan also brought in four transfers who were team captains elsewhere, so that’s more of a sign of the changing times than anything.
Why this really could be the year Michigan wins it all
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If it was any year (outside of 2016) this is the shot.
The nonconference should be a breeze. Most of the Big Ten teams on the schedule will be breaking in new quarterbacks, and now you can add Michigan State to that list with Payton Thorne transferring to Auburn. Penn State is theoretically better, but it’s taking mostly the same squad with some real key losses defensively and asking to contend with a Michigan team that destroyed it a year ago. Ohio State has to be having confidence problems in the rivalry given the past two years. And Michigan doesn’t have those issues, returning the fifth-most production in the country from a year ago.
That’s just what’s on the schedule, but even Georgia, Alabama, and the rest of the field have personnel or coordinator turnover that could hurt them come playoff time.
Michigan needs to figure out the pass rush and wide receiver positions. It needs to have smart game plans, especially in the back-end of the schedule. If it makes it to the College Football Playoff, it needs to do better than it has the past two years. But everything is on the table for this team, and given how the SEC has had a strong talent advantage over the years, this could be the one year where Michigan has just enough to get to the national championship game and win it all.
I’m not saying they will. What I am saying is that this is Michigan’s best shot since, probably, 2006. We’ll see if it takes advantage.