The introduction of Shea Patterson at this time last year had a rippling effect on the Michigan football team that took nearly a year to take hold.
The dazzling junior quarterback from the University of Mississippi walked in with all the right tangibles. He had started and played in big games, shown an ability to throw the football a lot, and possessed a playmaker-like ability the Wolverines had seen in years.
Michigan’s coaching staff was careful to not give him too much praise early on; after all, there was still a fight with the NCAA to win, then Patterson had to go out in practice and win a quarterback competition.
Patterson won both of those, of course, just in time for fall camp to ramp up in August. That gave him a month to take a full starter’s load of reps, necessary in this day’s version of college football, where the playbook is massive and multiple.
“It goes without saying that all players have to earn field credibility with the coaches and their teammates,” assistant head coach and passing-game coordinator Pep Hamilton said last week, before Michigan’s 46-15 loss to Florida in the Peach Bowl.
“He has it. From our first game until now, just the identity of our offense has defined itself. I think we know who we are and we know what our strengths are.”
Michigan presented balance, a hallmark of a Jim Harbaugh-led offense, for most of 2018. The Wolverines threw the football on 40.33 percent of their plays over the course of 13 games. That number increased slightly over the final three games of the season, to more than 48 percent, when they struggled to run the football.
And when they did throw the football, they were incredibly efficient. Michigan ended the season ranked 79th nationally in passing offense (215.7 yards per game), but was 21st when it came to quarterback ratings — a stat that measures efficiency and production.
Could Michigan have thrown the football more with Patterson, who completed more than 64 percent of his passes for 2,600 yards and 22 touchdowns? Yes. Should it have? The stats seem to indicate so.
“He’s done a great job spreading the ball around and getting the ball to our playmakers,” Hamilton said. “I think Shea and Donovan Peoples-Jones have a special connection. Shea and Nico Collins, they have a thing going as well. And Shea and Zach Gentry, and Nick Eubanks and Sean McKeon — those guys know that if they get open, he’ll find a way to get them the football.”
The passing game made strides from 2017, when Michigan finished 111th in yards per game (171.2) and 116th when it came to efficiency. Some of that falls on Patterson, who Hamilton says has an innate ability to improvise when a play is not there, but the Wolverines’ receiving corps took a big leap as a unit in 2018.
Donovan Peoples-Jones caught a team-high 47 passes for 612 yards and eight touchdowns. Nico Collins caught 42 for a team-high 632 and six scores. Gentry, the junior tight end mulling the NFL, was next with 32 catches for 514 yards.
Michigan is set to return Peoples-Jones and Collins, and expects to have a healthy Tarik Black available, giving Harbaugh, Hamilton and the Michigan coaching staff plenty of weapons to work with next season. But Patterson’s job doesn’t start and stop with the passing game.
“It starts with his ability to manage the offense,” Hamilton said. “And when I say that, it’s not that we’re trying to contain him or minimize his ability to be a playmaker. But for our quarterbacks, we ask that they manage the run game. That we have plays, an advantage-based offensive system where we only want to run certain run plays versus certain looks. That’s part of his job description, to be able to get us into the right call.”
Hamilton has said this before: that Michigan, under Harbaugh, is going to continue to feature an offense that features an array of run and pass plays. That is multiple in everything that it does. The run sets up the pass and the pass sets up the run.
But for perhaps the first time since Harbaugh and Hamilton arrived, most of Michigan’s offensive weapons are set to return in 2019. Barring some unforeseen circumstance, they know who the starting quarterback will be. Options will be there at receiver. An improved offensive line returns four of its five starters.
“There’s definitely always more you can do,” Patterson said. “I think we all kind of adjusted to each other and got the chemistry down this season. And I think we’re all just learning how to play with each other. I think now, it’s really time to exploit those things.”
Question marks at running back — a position that will assuredly feature Chris Evans, but lacks sure-fire depth beyond that — could make it so Michigan relies on its passing game more than ever under Harbaugh.
And if it does, the Wolverines are in their best position yet, Hamilton says.
“I think back to two springs ago, when it was Wilton (Speight) and John (O’Korn) and Brandon (Peters) competing for the starting job,” Hamilton said. “When you have quarterback competitions, it takes away from the guy that wins the job. Those reps, you can’t get those reps back. Time on task is really important in the passing game.
“The more time they play together and the more trust and better timing that we have in the passing game, you’ll see us get the ball to Donovan Peoples-Jones as soon as he makes his break. Give him more time in space to create more yards after the catch. Those are the things that the novice might not see, but when you really study the film, that’s an area where I think we can improve.”