ANN ARBOR, Mich.–Considering the circumstances, Jim Harbaugh deserves high praise for the job he’s done with the Michigan Wolverines.
Prior to the start of the 2015 season, they were among the most-talked-about teams in the nation, despite being one of the most inconsistent since 2008. And that was because of Harbaugh’s hype, which has been all but smashed to pieces during media availability. He’s at Michigan to win games and develop players.
However, right now, he has the most-talked-about 3-1 team in the country–and that’s because of a No. 2-ranked total defense that’s shut-out opponents in 10 of the past 12 quarters, and that’s because of a game-managing quarterback who won’t cause the Wolverines to lose.
That’s also because of a star-studded lineup of assistants and coordinators.
And yeah, the 31-0 slamming of then-No. 22-ranked BYU this past Saturday helped flipped perception, too.
On this upcoming Saturday, Michigan will really find out what it’s capable of doing for the rest of the season. Yeah, blasting the Cougars was a good sign, but Harbaugh would probably be the first to second the following statement: Great teams win on the road, because winning at home is a given. Title contenders take care of business in non-friendly environments.
The Wolverines have made the grade through four games. Their only blemish came by way of a 24-17 road loss to Utah, which just hammered Oregon, 62-20, this past weekend. At one time, BYU was discussed as a potential national threat.
That’s reason to cast a favorable forecast as the Wolverines head into conference play.
But before that, their start must be analyzed.
And then it’ll be time to grade it.
Today’s report card focuses on the offense. Defense and special teams will be analyzed and graded prior to Saturday’s game.
Passing the Ball–B
Jake Rudock has cemented himself as the starting quarterback–no question about that.
On Saturday, Michigan’s O-line was in full gear, creating enough space for Rudock to pick apart the Cougars. Rudock, a 6’3,” 208-pound senior transfer from Iowa, ran for a 17-yard touchdown and a three-yard touchdown. He completed a couple 20-some-yarders and a 41-yarder–and he looked great doing it.
Read why Rudock is the man for Michigan
Rudock isn’t flashy.
But he’s exactly the type of level-headed leader necessary to reform Michigan’s offense. In a way, he’s serving as Harbaugh’s building block–at least in terms of Harbaugh QBs at Michigan–and winning over critics with efficient 70- and 80-yard scoring drives.
Rudock, indvidually, gets a B+. He’s been pretty good. Not exceptional. But pretty good.
There is a downside, though: Michigan has the No. 11-ranked scoring offense in the Big Ten (27.8 PPG). So the overall grade for passing game takes a slight hit.
With that being said, Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Tim Drevno–plus passing coordinator Jedd Fisch–have barely cracked open their playbook. They’ll show more as the conference season progresses, and that’ll likely result in more scoring.
Play-fakes worked well Saturday vs. BYU. The long-ball is developing, too.
Catching the Ball (TE)–B+
Michigan tight ends already have 25 catches this season, with Jake Butt, a junior, leading the way with 15 receptions for 173 yards and a touchdown. The 6’6,” 249-pounder’s 41-yard connection with Rudock gave a glimpse into the Wolverines’ weaponry at tight tend.
And with Ian Bunting, a 6’7,” 245-pound redshirt freshman, the possibilities get interesting. He only has four catches for 55 yards–and nearly half of that total came by way of a 21-yard catch. But he’s another jump-ball touchdown waiting to happen. He’s also embracing the dirty jobs.
The re-emergence of the position will play a key role as Harbaugh develops the run and pass–and it’ll heavily influence the difference between a 7-5, 8-4 or even a 9-3 finish.
Read how Bunting feels about Harbaugh’s use of tight ends
Blocking, route-running and overall comprehension seems to be at an-at-least-recent high in Ann Arbor, and for that, the tight ends–and TE coach Jay Harbaugh–deserve a B+ for what they’ve done through four games.
“I mean, Coach (Jim) Harbaugh’s got a great track record, especially with tight ends,” Bunting said during a recent availability. “I’m really excited, and I know all the other tight ends are really excited about it. You know, not even just with the tight ends.
If the tight ends get a little bit of love, you know, then it opens up everyone else. If the running backs are getting a little bit of love, then it might open us up, and open up the wide receivers outside. Only good things can happen if we keep it rolling.”
Catching the Ball (WR)–B
The receivers get a B- for the moment. Missed opportunities have cost points. Miscues have caused at least three of Rudock’s five interceptions.
Sure, redshirt junior Amara Darboh has been good. His OBJ catch versus BYU was nice. He’s hauled in 20-yarders and has scored two of the team’s four receiving touchdowns. In terms of a centerpiece, the 6’2,” 216-pounder is the clear leader for Harbaugh.
Jehu Chesson, a redshirt junior, has dazzled with blocking. He only has seven catches for 65 yards, but he’s plowing guys over in order to give his team an edge.
Maurice Ways, a redshirt freshman, is also a great blocker. According to Harbaugh, Ways is right there with Darboh, the best on the team, and Chesson, in that regard.
However, Ways has just one catch, a 21-yarder, on the year. His value doesn’t necessarily show up on the stat sheet, but the 6’3,” 205-pounder is capable of contributing a decent amount to the yards and catch columns.
Michigan has just four receiving touchdowns, one-third of Nebraska’s league-leading 12 touchdowns. The Wolverines average 6.5 yards per reception, a stat that could use a lot of work. The receivers are capable of doing more, so they’ll get a B- for the time being.
Michigan is running the ball and using tight ends, so that takes a little from the receiver’s opportunities.
Running the Ball–C+
Michigan’s running game is being heralded for some reason. But it’s not yet anywhere close to being refined. Sure, De’Veon Smith, a junior, has a 60-yard touchdown run that’s still being talked about. And yeah, he rushed for a career-high 126 yards and three touchdowns during a 35-7 win over Oregon State.
He crushed the Cougars with 125 yards, but he rushed for 47 and 33 during two other games. There is a little cause for concern. Smith may or may not play Saturday versus Maryland–and a Big Ten road game would be a great test for him. According to ESPN splits, he only averages 2.8 yards per carry while away from Ann Arbor. The more Smith gets going, the better for Michigan.
But wait… Redshirt junior Ty Isaac has a 76-yard touchdown run on record.
Read how Harbaugh loves the big-play capacity
And yes, with 202 yards per outing, the Wolverines have the No. 5-ranked rushing offense in the Big Ten–which is a good sign considering that they hovered in the bottom-third for the past few years.
But pump the brakes on the running backs.
The stable won’t be totally complete until redshirt junior Drake Johnson, the team’s fastest RB, makes a full, healthy return. Two ACL surgeries later, the speedster is still trying to find his way. And it won’t be full until junior Derrick Green can contribute something more than rare bursts.
The running game gets a C+.
For right now, the fullbacks get an incomplete. Sione Houma has been noteworthy, but Joe Kerridge, a senior captain, and Wyatt Shallman aren’t in the mix due to injury. The fullbacks could be so much more when at full health.
Of course, none of the above would have been possible without left tackle Mason Cole, left guard Ben Braden, center Graham Glasgow, right guard Kyle Kalis and right tackle Erik Magnuson.
The offensive line has shown continuous progress, which is the reason why Rudock has been sacked just thrice; it’s the reason why Smith and the backs are gaining yards; and it’s the reason why the Wolverines are sustaining drives. Protection has been elevated across the board.
Those guys get an “A.”
Read how Michigan is “smashing some skulls” while blocking for Rudock and Co.
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