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It’s December, which means Michigan is in the business of shooting down Jim Harbaugh to the NFL speculation.
It also means questions for what’s next as the program heads toward a bowl game and the offseason.
Welcome back to the Ask Nick mailbag. Let’s get started.
You’ve mentioned that the passing game needs to be modernized. From a play-calling/route-running standpoint, what might that look like compared to what we saw this year? — @ncholasmartn
Some people are going to yell about this because they’re angry, but Harbaugh’s offense does run some good concepts from a passing standpoint. In 2017, it was too much — his players weren’t ready for it. In 2018, I’d argue it wasn’t enough.
The balance between what you want to be and what your strengths can allow you to become is what needs to be examined.
Michigan had run-pass options in its offense before Shea Patterson joined. Harbaugh and assistant Pep Hamilton ran some this year. They could’ve run more. The Wolverines never really had the trio of Donovan Peoples-Jones, Nico Collins and Tarik Black at full-strength this season. But moving forward, if Michigan is not forcing opponents to cover every inch of the field against these three, then the staff is not doing its job.
Michigan took steps toward this in 2018, but maybe I’m in the minority. This offense, regardless of who the quarterback is, can do a lot more to get the ball into the hands of those three wideouts next season by doing more of some things it has shown. Mesh concepts (crossing routes) are great against all defenses when you have talented players. Michigan has that and must do more to showcase them.
RPO’s work well when you have athletic tight ends who can uncover against linebackers and safeties. Michigan has those players. It can do more of it. They can put Peoples-Jones, Collins and Black (if he’s healthy) in a bunch set and run levels concepts, attacking defense short, intermediate and deep. They can run more double slants. They can do more to make this offense athlete-based rather than timing-based.
I would argue the trend of automatically throwing any possible two-way player with speed and lateral quickness to the defensive side of the ball should stop. Defense is important, of course. But the game is set up for offenses now. Michigan has to react to that.
Now that the hard stretch of basketball games has ended (for now), what underused bench player do you see getting more minutes in the next month? Does it depend more on grasping the offensive or the defense? — @bplibby07
This is coach John Beilein’s biggest task for the rest of the December and into January. He knows, it, too.
Michigan, for the first time this year, found out what life was like when Jon Teske and one other front-court player (in this case Charles Matthews) had foul trouble on the road. Michigan’s depth beyond its top seven isn’t there. And that’s a problem.
Brandon Johns might be the most important developmental player on Michigan’s roster right now, because he has enough athletic versatility to be another version of Isaiah Livers — meaning he’s relatively position-less. Michigan can use Livers at the four or the five, he can probably even guard the three. Johns is a freshman, so he’s not quite there yet. But Michigan has to get him up to speed.
Beilein pointed out Johns and freshman point guard David DeJulius as the two low-end rotation players they’re working the most right now. But with backup point guard Eli Brooks’ steady play, Johns seems infinitely more important.
Michigan loves his potential and his future. The staff believes he’ll be outstanding. But they don’t need it all right now. They need the version of Johns who can give 10-15 solid minutes off the bench if he’s needed, regardless of opponent. That would alleviate many possible issues for U-M.
Nick, does UM hurt itself by scheduling (Notre Dame)? It now has 3 major rivalry games a year to “get up” for. Ohio State has only 1. I think that only helps the Buckeyes. — @kever3
I’m not a traditionalist.
I don’t see the value in scheduling up in college football right now. Maybe you try to work one challenging game a year into the fold, but nothing more. Even then, with the Southeastern Conference’s refusal to drop FCS opponents and budge off an eight-game schedule, the Big Ten continues to hamper itself by banning lower-level teams with a nine-game conference slate.
Strength of schedule is the most overrated stat in the game right now. Clemson played at Texas A&M and in a rivalry game with South Carolina this year. That’s it. Alabama’s biggest challenge out of conference was a bad Louisville team. No one cared.
Notre Dame’s not on the same rivalry plane as Michigan State and Ohio State for U-M. Though there’s a point to be made that the Wolverines have to put an awful lot into two rivalry games per year, while OSU has one. Notre Dame’s just another challenging matchup. I wouldn’t put that on the schedule every year.
But, hey, that’s life in the big city.
What is more logical: (Ryan) Day replicates what (Urban) Meyer did or drops down an inch? And is an inch all U-M needs? — @briandlr
I don’t know how anyone could presume Day will be able to replicate what Meyer accomplished, because Meyer is one of the greatest coaches in modern college football history. Day’s top experience has been an interim coach for three games earlier this season.
I don’t think the bottom’s going to fall out either, though, because Day is taking over a machine as a terrific offensive mind with a system that should continue to attract great athletes. Ohio State is literally the only major program to make it through the past 30 years without going through one of those five-year meltdowns. It’s as bulletproof as any place in the country.
That “inch” will be about recruiting. Ohio State was nationally elite under Meyer because he recruited better than any other Big Ten coach in modern history. No one did it at Meyer’s level during that seven-year stretch. No one ever has. Every time Michigan had a great class, Meyer’s was better. Every time.
You win this game with athletes and opportunity. Meyer was elite at making the most of both. If Day is able to keep that recruiting pace up, Ohio State is going to be a monster. If he slips a bit, OSU will still be a monster — but the door might crack open.
And that’s where Harbaugh has to make up his ground. By collecting more top-end athletes than Ohio State, something that hasn’t happened in a long time.
Contact Nick Baumgardner: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nickbaumgardner.