BlockU caught up with our colleague Maize n Brew editor Drew Hallett (@DrewCHallett) to ask him a few questions about the Michigan Wolverines football team before the game on Sept. 3 at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
How do Michigan fans feel about the media fanfare around Harbaugh? Do they feel like it could be a distraction for the team?
The Wolverine faithful love it. People are talking about Michigan again, and, unlike last season, it's for all the right reasons. Michigan fans love that Jim Harbaugh speaks his mind. They love that he has one of the wackiest -- yet interesting -- Twitter accounts. They love that he subtweeted Urban Meyer after it was apparent that Ohio State deceived a heralded running back recruit when the Buckeyes' running backs coach took an NFL job the day after the recruit signed with Ohio State rather than Michigan. They love that he ruffled the SEC's feathers by orchestrating a nationwide satellite camp tour when SEC coaches and officials moaned about how unfair satellite camps are. And they love that the media covers every single act he does. Each time it happens, it's a reminder that, somehow, Harbaugh is Michigan's football coach.
And here's the brilliant part: it's not a distraction for the team. Though Harbaugh may appear robotic or uncomfortable in front of the media, he's intelligent with his media approach. He understands that he is a magnet for media attention, and he knows how to use that to his advantage. Almost every headline in which Harbaugh has been was related to something that had nothing to do with his football team. It's always about some quirky story that occurred off the field. For example, Michigan had been submerged in a "submarine" for all of fall training camp. Not one Michigan coach or player spoke with the local media for almost three weeks. There were no distractions. It was all football, all of the time. It wasn't until this past Thursday, on August 27th, when Harbaugh emerged from the depths to speak with the local media. The local media badgered him about the team's progress, position battles, and injuries, and Harbaugh revealed very little. Yet, once he was asked about Michigan football's association with Michael Jordan's Jumpman brand, which will begin in 2016, he broke out into a big smile and told a hilarious anecdote about how he thought someone was pranking him when Jordan called. Boom! Media has their headline.
However, I must say: it's time to put the headlines aside and play some football.
Does Michigan have a quarterback controversy? Do you expect Iowa-transfer Jake Ruddock to start and play the whole game, or will Utah see Shane Morris play or even start? What does each quarterback bring to the table?
I will discuss what only one quarterback brings to the table because, though Harbaugh has not officially announced his starting quarterback yet, we all know it will be Jake Rudock. Rudock is a graduate transfer from Iowa, where he started 25 games the past two seasons, and he appears to fit the prototype of a game manager. In 2014, Rudock completed 213-of-345 passes (61.7 pct.) for 2,436 yards (7.1 YPA), 16 touchdowns, and only five interceptions. The low number of interceptions indicates that he knows how to take care of the football, which is something that Michigan desperately needs from its quarterback, and the meh YPA indicates that he doesn't take many chances down field. However, what we will learn on Thursday is whether Rudock refused to attack defenses over the top because of his own inclination or because he was trapped in Kirk Ferentz's check-down offense. Film review suggests that Rudock has the arm to make throws deep and to the far sideline, even if he doesn't have a rocket, so, with Harbaugh's guidance, Rudock could be more than just a typical game manager.
However, even if Rudock is a guy that just moves the chains, Michigan will take it in a heartbeat.
And, unless Rudock is injured or plays horribly on Thursday, Shane Morris will wear only his headset.
Who are the players Utah fans need to know for Michigan on offense and defense? What position group is the strongest for Michigan and which is the weakest?
So here's the thing: there are so many question marks about Michigan's offense that even Michigan fans are not sure which players they need to know. But I will provide a quick rundown. At quarterback, there's Rudock, whom I just discussed. At running back, there are four Wolverines fighting for the starting job. Yes, four. The one Utah likely will see the most is De'Veon Smith. He had the best performance in the spring game, and reports out of fall camp are that he has been the most consistent. Smith's patience in setting up his blocks has improved, and he knows to hit the backside gap when it's available. Smith also is very good about churning out extra yards because he has powerful legs, but he is not a speedster. Don't expect any explosive runs unless Michigan's offensive line pummels Utah's front seven. And, speaking of the offensive line, look out for left tackle Mason Cole. He was a Freshman All-American at left tackle last season, and many expect that he will make a big leap now that Michigan has a competent offensive line coach. Thursday will be quite the litmus test for him against Utah's kamikaze pass rush. At wideout, Michigan fans hope that Drake Harris can be the playmaker that stretches defenses vertically. He was highly coveted in high school, particularly for his leaping ability and proficiency for high-pointing the football, but hamstring issues have kept him off the football field for two seasons. Now, after Michigan fans prayed to every deity they knew, asking that his sweet, sweet hamstrings could remain functional, Harris has drawn rave reviews in practice. We'll see if that translates to real games. Whether or not that does, the one offensive star that Michigan does have on its roster is tight end Jake Butt. Given how much Harbaugh loved to use his tight ends at Stanford and in San Francisco and that Rudock likes to check down, Butt will be the most productive tight end in the Big Ten.
On the other side of the ball, there are three names that Utah fans need to know. The first is linebacker Joe Bolden. In his first full season as a starter last year, Bolden tallied 102 tackles, four tackles for loss, and two sacks. However, tackles are not always the best indicator of success. In fact, Bolden had a very up-and-down season, often hesitating or misreading cues, which caused him to catch runners rather than stuff them. That's a two- or three-yard difference. But Bolden put on a show in the spring game, and reports are that the light finally has come on for him. Expect him, along with two fellow senior starters in Desmond Morgan and James Ross III, to lead a very strong linebacker unit. The second is cornerback Jourdan Lewis. Lewis had a breakout sophomore season in 2014, thriving in Michigan's press man scheme. He excelled at jamming receivers at the line of scrimmage and disrupting the timing of their routes. The one drawback, though, is that Lewis sometimes was too grabby with his hands, which led to referees calling pass interference. If Lewis can cut down on the penalties, he is a dark-horse candidate to be selected to the All-Big Ten first team. And the third is strong safety and nickelback Jabrill Peppers. Michigan fans have been drooling over Peppers since the day he committed to the Wolverines. Why? Well, Peppers is the highest ranked recruit that Michigan has landed in the online recruiting services era (No. 3 overall), and many scouts claimed that he was one of the most physically impressive prospects they have ever seen. And Peppers will use that world-class athleticism as a hybrid-space player, which is one of the most challenging positions to play because of the vast space he must cover against the run and pass. However, the Michigan staff feels confident that Peppers can manage the responsibility and become a weapon off the edge, which will free up gaps for his fellow defenders.
Oh, strongest position group is defensive tackle or safety. Weakest is wide receiver.
Michigan lost talented players wide receiver Devin Funchess, defensive end Frank Clark, and linebacker Jake Ryan to the 2015 NFL Draft. Are there players who can step in and fill their shoes? Who will be the hardest to replace?
It's hard to believe, but the easiest one to replace will be Jake Ryan. In 2012 and 2013, playing as a SAM in Michigan's 4-3 Under, Ryan was a dynamic, unorthodox pass-rusher. However, though Ryan still had an excellent 2014, he played the season as Michigan's MIKE in a 4-3 Over, which neutralized his pass-rushing ability. Therefore, to replace Ryan, Michigan needs a run-stuffing MIKE, and Michigan has that in linebackers Bolden and Desmond Morgan. I discussed Bolden, who will play more WILL than MIKE above, and Morgan is as solid of a linebacker as they come. He's not flashy, but he's a leader and a thumper on the field. Between he and Bolden, Michigan will be set there.
The hardest to replace will be Devin Funchess. It's not every season that a team has a 6-foot-5 wide receiver that has the burst to separate from defensive backs, but Michigan had it in Funchess. His numbers last season (62 rec., 733 yards, 4 TD) may not reflect that he dominated, and, well, those numbers would be right. Funchess was hobbled by an ankle injury he suffered late in Michigan's second-week loss to Notre Dame, and it's hard to dominate as a receiver when your quarterbacks disintegrate in front of your eyes. But there's a reason why Funchess was selected in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft by the Carolina Panthers. And, now that Funchess is playing on Sundays, Michigan no longer has a wideout that will command double teams. As I mentioned above, Michigan's best -- and only -- hope is Harris, but that is investing lots of faith in a very uncertain prospect. Further, Amara Darboh is Michigan's top returning receiver (36 rec., 473 yards, 2 TD), but he is a possession receiver that uses his big body to shield defensive backs on slants. He does not have the burst or top-end speed to be an explosive No. 1 threat. Jehu Chesson (14 rec., 154 yards) does have the top-end speed, but he has trouble beating jams at the line of scrimmage and does not run the most precise routes. There is a reason why wide receiver is Michigan's weakest position group.
And replacing Frank Clark may be just as difficult as replacing Funchess. Clark's 2014 stats don't scream elite pass-rusher (42 tackles, 13.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks), but his sack total was low because offenses used quick, three-step-drop passes. There were many times when Clark was a split-second away from taking down the quarterback -- if only Michigan's other corner, Blake Countess, could jam receivers -- and many others when he harassed the quarterback into a bad throw. He was a dangerous threat off the edge for which opponents needed to account. Michigan does not have that this season, and it's the one area that could sink what should be a very good Michigan defense. There will be lots of rotation at defensive end with the hope that someone will emerge, and Michigan fans hope that Wolverine is Taco Charlton. Simply, Charlton is a physical specimen. He's 6-foot-6 and could hurdle six-foot-tall tackling dummies with ease. In high school. He oozes raw athleticism and potential. But there's that devious word: potential. Charlton was a raw prospect that Michigan fans knew would need some time to develop and refine his technique. Well, Charlton now is a junior, and, with Clark gone, it's time for him to put all the pieces together.
What are the expectations for Michigan in year one under Harbaugh? Do Michigan fans expect a pretty immediate turnaround after missing a bowl last season?
Michigan fans may view Harbaugh as the messiah, but most know that he will need three years before this Michigan team is competing for Big Ten -- and, hopefully, national -- championships on a consistent basis. This season, Michigan should have a great defense. I'm skeptical that it will be elite because Michigan doesn't have that bonafide pass-rushing threat that can pressure the quarterback and force turnovers, but, with a strong defensive front seven against the run and an improved secondary, Michigan will have one of the best Big Ten defenses. However, there are just too many questions about the offense to expect Harbaugh and the Wolverines to find all of the answers. If they do, though, the schedule is soft enough in spots that could lead Michigan to a 9-3 or even 10-2 season. But I think it will take some time for the offense to find its rhythm, and it doesn't help that Michigan is playing a team of Utah's caliber -- on the road, no less -- rather than a "cupcake" -- wink wink -- in the opener. I predicted that Michigan would be 7-5 in 2015, and I think that or an 8-4 record is the expectation.
It is fair to say most Utah fans expect Utah to beat Michigan. What do Michigan fans think about the Utes? Are they as confident about Michigan's chances as Utah fans are? What is you prediction for the game? Who wins and what is the final score?
Michigan fans definitely are not as confident as Utah fans. Every Utah fan I've come across on social media believes the Utes will win, and most think that they will win big. I agree with the first part but not the second. After studying these two teams, I can't help but think that this will be a low-scoring affair. Michigan's offensive issues have been noted. I do think Michigan can find success running the ball against Utah -- for as excellent as Utah's pass rush was last season, its run defense was mediocre -- but, because Michigan lacks big-play explosiveness, I'm not sure Michigan can string together enough first downs to punch the ball in the end zone often. On the other side of the ball, I know some Utah fans consider Devontae Booker to be a dark-horse Heisman candidate, but I think that tune will change after Thursday. Michigan's run defense was one of the best in the nation last season (8th in S&P+) and should be excellent again this season. Yes, Booker was the Pac-12's second-leading rusher last season, but that's because he had the most carries in the conference. He's a bell cow, but he is not the most efficient runner -- his YPC was 15th among qualified runners in the Pac-12. I predict Michigan will be able to contain Booker enough that Utah will need to resort to the air to pick up yards, but, given that the Utes have much to replace at receiver, that could be a struggle, too.
The difference in this game, as it was in last season's matchup, will be special teams. Michigan should be improved in that department with the addition of Aussie punter Blake O'Neill and the application of this new strategy where Michigan puts 11 players on the punt coverage team -- weird, right?! -- but there are concerns about placekicking. No kicker has won the starting job yet, and, according to reports, it's not because the candidates can't miss. Conversely, Utah may have the best kicking-punting tandem in the nation in Andy Phillips and Tom Hackett. In a game where offenses will struggle and points will be at a premium, Phillips' ability to make long-distance field goals and Hackett's ability to flip field position will be the difference-makers. Phillips drills three field goals, and Utah holds off Michigan at the end.
Utah 16, Michigan 14.