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Utah Football Week 1 Opponent Preview: Breaking down Michigan's Offense

"Manball" is coming to town, are the Utes ready?

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The Michigan offense has taken on a couple different looks in the past decade. From the traditional pro style offense under Lloyd Carr, to the installation of the spread offense under Rich Rodriguez, and back to the power run offense under Brady Hoke, Michigan has seemed to be in constant transition in recent years, with no clear identity. Jim Harbaugh’s arrival in Ann Arbor should firmly establish an offensive identity at Michigan, and that is smashmouth, power football.

Harbaugh is a "Michigan Man" if there ever was one. When the term "Michigan Man" is uttered, what is really meant, is "Bo Schembechler" man. Harbaugh might be one of the most loyal Schembechler disciples, having played quarterback for him 1983 through 1986, earning four letters and leading Michigan to the 1987 Rose Bowl. Schembechler’s brand of offensive football was often referred to as "Manball". The premise of Manball is to line up as many big uglies on the line as possible and let them maul the opponent into submission. It used tight formations utilizing fullbacks , H-backs and often two tight end sets. It was a run heavy strategy predicated on a big, dominant offensive line paving the way for the running back.

The game has changed dramatically since the 1980’s, and Harbaugh's version of manball is not as straight forward as Schembechler's once was. There was a time when an offense could line up showing exactly what they were going to run and have success, simply because they were the bigger, badder team. The advent of the spread offense and an emphasis of speed over size, has revolutionized the game during the last fifteen years. That being said, Harbaugh stays true to the principles of Manball, but adds in elements of the spread, realizing that utilizing space is key to creating running lanes.

When evaluating his offense, we can look at his time at Stanford. Harbaugh looked for size, strength and toughness in his players at Stanford. Almost always there was a tightend in the offensive formation and a lead blocker. At times, Harbaugh would spread the field, but his receivers are usually big bodied guys that know how to block. Using his version of manball, he turned a dismal 1-11 team into and 12-1 Orange Bowl winning team in just four years.

The clip below illustrates a lot of the concepts Harbaugh has used in the past. In the very first play, the offense lines up in a heavy set before flexing out into a spread formation. Despite the spread formation, all the receivers are tight ends or H-backs. Some of the formations include a fullback as a lead blocker, however many of the plays involve a receiver motioning in to become a blocker. While the run is used heavily, passing is a big part of Harbaugh's offense, using the size advantage of his receivers and a lot of play action.

At Michigan, Harbaugh has better talent than he inherited at Stanford, and his turn around should be even quicker. Here is a look at the players Harbuagh has to run his pro style offense in year one.


The Wolverines quarterback situation is a two man competition between junior Shane Morris and 5th year senior Jake Rudock. Morris is a strong armed lefty who was a highly coveted 5 star recruit out of high school. Morris has played intermittently during the last two seasons showing some promise, but Utah fans probably remember him best for throwing a late game pick to Tevin Carter, all but sealing victory for the Utes last season.

Rudock is a 5th year senior transfer from Iowa. Rudock was the starter for the past two seasons at Iowa, but after Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz announced CJ Beathard would be the starter heading into this season, Rudock transferred to Michigan. On the depth chart Michigan released yesterday, the first team quarterback was listed as "Shane Morris OR Jake Rudock" but the feeling among most people, including coach Kyle Whittingham, is Rudock will be the starter on Thursday. Rudock tallied 34 touchdowns against 18 interceptions in two years at Iowa, while Morris has yet to throw a touchdown in a college game but has 5 career interceptions.

Running Backs

Michigan has three running backs that will likely see time in this game. Those backs are De'Veon Smith, Derrick Green and Ty Issac. After an open competition through the spring and fall for the starting running back position, Smith is listed as the starter over Green and Issac. All three weigh over 220 pounds fitting the power back mold Harbaugh likes to run. Smith has experience having carried the ball 134 times in his two seasons at Michigan. Green came into camp as a known commodity after averaging 5.7 yards per carry last season before breaking his clavicle in the sixth game of the year. Issac is a former top 100 recruit and is large for a tailback standing 6-3 and weighing 228.


At receiver Harbaugh has seniors Jehu Chesson and Amarah Darboh listed as co-starters. Standing 6-3 and 6-2 and both weighing over 200 lbs. they both fit the mold of a big blocking Harbaugh receiver. Jake Butt, the 6-6 250 lb. tight end will be a player to watch. He has a good blend of size and speed and has earned praise from the coaching staff this summer. Harbaugh loves to use tight ends and Butt figures to be featured prominently in the Michigan offense. Behind him at tight end, Michigan has 6-2 263 lb. Khalid Hill and 6-6 275 lb. AJ Williams. Both are big bodies for the tight end position, who figure to see the field on multiple tight end sets.

Offensive Line

The line for Michigan's offense is a veteran group, boasting four seniors including fifth year senior Graham Glasgow at center. The only underclassman is Mason Cole at left tackle. Cole may be young, but he started every game for the Wolverines last year as a true freshman and played well. The benefit of the Michigan offensive line is many of the players are versatile and can slide into different positions along the line, which may come into good use with injuries during the course of the season. Every starter stands at least 6-5 and weighs at least 305 lbs, providing Harbaugh with prototypical size on the line for executing manball.

Overall Outlook

Nobody knows exactly what to expect when Michigan takes the field on Thursday evening. Harbaugh hasn't coached in college since 2011, and his time spent with Colin Kaepernick running the read option in the NFL may carry into his new Michigan offense. Based on Harbaugh's history at however, it is safe to expect Michigan to come out disciplined, physical and unintimidated. Though the Utah defense shut down many of the same players that will be on the field just a year ago, I expect this Michigan team to look very different with new leadership. All the hype the Utah defensive line has received will be put to the test in the very first game against a big and experienced offensive line. Look for lots of multiple tight end sets, runs up the gut and plenty of play action.