10 way-too-early Michigan football 2023 bold predictions

Michigan football saw its 2022 season meet an untimely end in a 51-45 loss to TCU, despite being favored. While a great deal of credit goes to the Horned Frogs, the biggest reasons the Wolverines didn’t advance were what Michigan did and didn’t do.

While the College Football Playoff is an inopportune place to learn some lessons, we think Michigan will have learned said lessons — as it had the year before in constructing this version of the team.

The offseason is two days in, but we’re already looking forward to 2023. Here are our 10 way-too-early bold predictions for a season that’s about as far away as it can be, given that it’s early January.

The offensive line is a Joe Moore Award finalist

Photo: Isaiah Hole

Whether the unit wins it or not is another story, but the pieces are there for the Wolverines to continue to have, at worst, a top-three offensive line in the country.

There is one player definitely leaving, center Olu Oluwatimi, the Rimington Trophy and Outland Trophy winner. Ryan Hayes, Trevor Keegan and Zak Zinter all have more eligibility, but one or two will likely depart. However, there are multiple players already on campus who have experience and could fill those roles: Jeffrey Persi, Giovanni El-Hadi, Reece Atteberry, Raheem Anderson and Greg Crippen. Michigan added three stellar linemen via the NCAA transfer portal: LaDarius Henderson (who will start somewhere on the line), Rimington Trophy watch list center Drake Nugent, and former five-star Myles Hinton.

There is a lot to like about the personnel. There are too many high-end players for the line to not pick up where it left off. It should still be the strength of the offensive side of the ball.

Blake Corum returns

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This isn’t inside information as much as it is a gut feeling, but it’s starting to feel like, perhaps, Blake Corum will return for his senior season with the Wolverines.

It’s not entirely unheard of. In 2016, both Jake Butt and Jourdan Lewis came back for their senior seasons, despite both being mocked as third-round or better NFL draft picks before they made their decisions.

The biggest games were taken away from him this season: Ohio State, the Big Ten Championship and the College Football Playoff. Also, Corum was limited in The Game in 2021. We think like he believes he has unfinished business at the college level.

Of course, he could always decide to go to the NFL anyway, but there’s a growing feeling that the Blake Corum-Donovan Edwards duo could return to the field in 2023.

TE AJ Barner is an All-American caliber player

Syndication: The Herald-Times

While Colston Loveland, who will enter his second year, should be poised to truly break out, AJ Barner already has ability, time on task and is in a system that should better utilize his talents.

Here is what Michigan tight ends coach Grant Newsome told WolverinesWire about Barner’s ability last week:

“First, just physically very imposing, extremely well-built, very tall and athletic, physical, can do all the kind of inline blocking that we ask our guys to do, which is not the case across the country,” Newsome said. “It’s tough to and he’s (done) it not just in college, but in this conference, which is tough. And then, obviously, you watch the Ohio State game they played last year and he goes up and catches a fade on one of their corners. So he really kind of fits all that we do, he can handle the inline stuff and the running game and also be able to go out and flex out and catch passes.”

At Indiana, Barner had 28 catches for 199 yards and three touchdowns in 2022, after having 13 catches for 160 yards and a touchdown in 2021. Though Loveland eclipsed those numbers in his first year, given that he’ll get added attention in 2023, it should open up the doors for Michigan to target Barner much more.

Really, we’re just hedging our bets here. Either Barner or Loveland could be a solid choice to have an enigmatic season. Given Barner has been a multi-year player at a college program already, we’re betting he takes off in 2023.

This time, the single-season passing record is broken

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2022 was J.J. McCarthy’s first year as a starter, and the Wolverines handled him with kid gloves for the bulk of the year. He still threw for nearly 2,800 yards.

The single-season Michigan football passing record is a low bar, 3,331 by John Navarre. Nearly every offseason, we predict it will be broken, but it never happens.

Now that McCarthy has shown he can make big downfield throws, despite having some mistakes, even with the run game, we think next year Michigan will, finally, air it out more. He outdueled TCU quarterback Max Duggan by passing for 349 yards in the Vrbo Fiesta Bowl (though his two pick sixes were beyond costly). But he should improve greatly this offseason, as he had throughout the regular season.

Being conservative and giving Michigan 13 games next year, McCarthy would have to average 257 yards per game in order to break the record set by Navarre. Once upon a time, even in the Jim Harbaugh era, getting about 250 passing yards was considered normal. If Michigan has 14 games, as it has the past two seasons, that number goes down to 238 yards per game. 15 games? 222.

It’s a low bar that’s been set, and we believe McCarthy is poised to jump over it.

Explosive plays look more like 2021 than 2022

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In 2021, Michigan football had the most explosive plays of any team in the country, particularly if you’re looking at plays of 50 yards or more. In 2022, the team took a big step back in that regard, but started to break out late in the season with four against Ohio State and a few more against Purdue and TCU.

On offense, the offensive line aside, the nucleus of this team is returning, and the Wolverines have all the requisite weapons to have an otherworldly offense. Though we’ve seen Michigan go into a shell running the ball often, after what happened in the College Football Playoff, we think the coaching staff will have learned to diversify the attack, and rely more on spreading the ball around to different playmakers. With defenses not having just a handful to hone in on, that should open up more big plays throughout the season.

Darrius Clemons emerges as WR1

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Ronnie Bell is departing the program, and Cornelius Johnson has a decision to make about his future. While we didn’t see a lot of Darrius Clemons this year, he has the skill and body-type to be a breakout receiver.

Not always does a receiver break out in their first year. Look at Nico Collins — he didn’t start to come up until his second — but more his third — year.

Receiver has been kind of a dicey area for the Wolverines. Roman Wilson felt a bit under-utilized this year, so he very much could play that role in 2023. But, in some ways, he feels like a breakout player as a complementary threat, whereas Clemons possesses the (still unseen) ability to be a guy who makes a play, even when the attention is paid to him.

Expect him to take a big step forward in 2023.

Michigan's defense becomes even better

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Again, there will be some personnel losses here; Mazi Smith and Mike Morris are likely moving on. But there’s a lot to like about those who are returning.

Likely to stay are edge rushers Jaylen Harrell, Eyabi Okie and Braiden McGregor. Michigan also brought in Josaiah Stewart via the NCAA transfer portal and also has Derrick Moore entering his second year. Second-year tackles Mason Graham and Kenneth Grant showed a great deal of promise in their first year. Kris Jenkins is likely returning, and incoming talent Enow Etta is coming in. The front has significant promise.

In the middle, Nikhai Hill-Green should return after missing the entire season with a hamstring injury. Michael Barrett could return, but his decision has not yet been made public. Junior Colson returns and the Wolverines added a big talent in Ernest Hausmann from the NCAA transfer portal. Jimmy Rolder has promise, and there’s hope he’ll further develop this offseason, entering his second year.

In the secondary, Will Johnson returns after a solid back end to his freshman season. DJ Turner and Gemon Green have decisions to make, but the safety unit should likely return with Rod Moore entering his third year and Makari Paige and RJ Moten entering year No. 4. And behind them, there are numerous talented young players, including Zeke Berry, Kody Jones, Myles Pollard and Damani Dent. With Jyaire Hill and Cameron Calhoun arriving on campus early, the secondary should still be at a high level.

All that without mentioning it will be Jesse Minter’s second year at the helm. While the TCU game didn’t go well in multiple facets defensively, the Ohio State game did, as did all the rest. If he returns to form at the defensive coordinator position, this defense could get even better.

Tommy Doman shows out on special teams

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Both Jake Moody and Brad Robbins are departing the program after being on campus since 2018 and 2017, respectively, and Michigan will need to figure out who will handle the kicker and punter duties. Jay Harbaugh may settle on having one man handling both.

Tommy Doman Jr. will enter his third year with the program, and he has a big, big leg. Ranked a five-star punter, he was also one of the best kickers in the country coming out of high school. He has the capability of handling both duties, but the question is will he?

There are few candidates to take over one or the other, with Adam Samaha, the incoming freshman, being one, but Doman already has time on task with two years under his belt. We were watching him during warmups on Saturday, and his punts were going for 60-70 yards, as well.

Michigan has predicated much of its success in the past two years on winning special teams, and if Doman does what we’ve seen and heard about him doing behind the scenes, the Wolverines should still be in good hands.

Michigan goes undefeated in the regular season again

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The nonconference schedule for Michigan is eerily similar to this past year. But there are some challenges.

Michigan State and Penn State will be road games, and those are never easy. And, of course, Ohio State will come to town at the end of the year. However, the Nittany Lions and Buckeyes will be starting new quarterbacks this next year, and Michigan has gotten the better of both of them in each of the past two years. With OSU in particular, though it had a good showing against Georgia, it appears the Wolverines have figured out how to handle the Buckeyes. And with that game being in Ann Arbor, there’s a good chance that U-M makes it three in a row.

Unless another team jumps up and surprises the maize and blue, those are the candidates to take them down. But after the past two years, the expectation is now for Michigan to run the table, especially in conference play. Anything less would be a disappointment — a surprising statement given that the Wolverines went 2-4 a few short years ago.

Michigan is, indeed, back in the College Football Playoff

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Well, with point No. 9, point No. 10 must follow.

We’re not saying what will happen when Michigan gets there, should it make it to the playoff for the third straight year. But given how much personnel is returning, should the coaching staff remain consistent, and the players show even marginal improvement, the maize and blue could be considered the team to beat in college football next season.

Most of the top powers will be breaking in new quarterbacks — from Georgia, to Ohio State, to (this year’s new hotness) TCU, to Penn State, to Alabama. Michigan should have the requisite talent and experience to get back to the dance before it expands to 12. The schedule, again, sets up nicely, and even if Michigan doesn’t go undefeated, so long as it keeps things respectable against the top Big Ten teams and loses only once, it should be in again.

And, again, should it not, it would be beyond a disappointment.

Story originally appeared on Wolverines Wire