That’s the End of the First Quarter
The best way to analyze a college football team’s season is to break it into quarters. Michigan has come to the end of their first quarter of 2017, completing their out of conference schedule. Let’s take a look at where Michigan is after their first three games of the season, and what to expect the rest of the way.
First, let’s get it out of the way. Wilton Speight is the quarterback of the Michigan Wolverines. Wilton Speight will continue to be the quarterback, and Wilton Speight gives Michigan the best chance to win each week. Why do I know this? Jim Harbaugh said so. I’ve been labeled a slappy, and a cult follower of the Church of Harbaugh for this take. I apparently give the impression I believe he can do no wrong. I’ve been asked, “Do you think Harbaugh can make a wrong choice at QB?” Of course I think he can, I don’t think any man is perfect. However, I think the better question is, “when has he made the wrong choice at QB?”.
After working his way through a complete culture rebuild in his first two seasons at Stanford, Harbaugh made the decision in year 3 to start a redshirt freshman, Andrew Luck, over returning starter Tavita Pritchard. Sounds awfully familiar to the choice Harbaugh faced this season. When he arrived in San Francisco, he got enough out of Alex Smith to get to the NFC Championship game. After a Smith injury the following season, Colin Kaepernick stepped in. Once Smith was healthy, Harbaugh chose to stick with Kaepernick, and the 49ers made it to the Super Bowl.
In his first season at Michigan, Harbaugh started a grad transfer from Iowa who had lost his job the previous year. Jake Rudock ended up having one of the best passing seasons in Michigan history, and was drafted by the Detroit Lions. When everyone thought John O’Korn would be the starting quarterback, Harbaugh sent Wilton Speight out against Hawaii. When Speight threw an INT on his first pass, Harbaugh stuck with him. Speight went on to have a pretty solid season last year, keeping Michigan in playoff contention until the very last game. We’ve seen enough from O’Korn to know this was the right choice. In regards to Brandon Peters, Harbaugh faced the exact same situation at Stanford, and he went with the redshirt freshman that time. If Brandon Peters gave Michigan the best chance to win, he would be the starting quarterback.
So, why is it Michigan fans think that this year is the first year Harbaugh has been wrong? Because we have a love affair with hating our quarterback, we always have. Remember, Michigan fans didn’t love Tom Brady either, and of course now we claim him as our own. I’m not saying Speight is the next Brady, I’m saying maybe we should support our quarterback for once.
“We won, that’s his job” Jim Harbaugh said regarding Speight. You can call Harbaugh a lot of things, but maybe the one word everyone can agree on his competitive. He cares about winning, and every decision he makes is about winning.
“He’s our quarterback. We’re going to turn things around, including Wilton” Grant Perry said in defense of Speight. Everyone on this team is behind Wilton, and it’s time the fan base gets in line as well.
Harbaugh isn’t making the change, because he knows it’s not all on Wilton. This is a young team, with a lot of inexperience. They are making mistakes, and are messing up on some of the small details, but that was expected. These are great coaching opportunities for players to learn from. They are gaining that experience every week, and should start to improve, every week.
What matters right now is Michigan is 3-0. You always hear it’s good for a team to lose a game, because you learn so much that way. That doesn’t work in college football, every game matters, you can’t afford to lose. The best-case scenario for a young team is they make those expected mistakes, learn from them and improve, but still find a way to win. Michigan has done that. They’ve won every game, which is literally all they can do. The first quarter is finished, Michigan has a perfect record, and all of their goals are still in tact.
I need you all to take some advice for our own Michigan Man Ray, and “be patient”. This team is full of talent and potential, and they have a coaching staff that can develop them. This is what we’ve been desperate for the past decade. We know Michigan hasn’t come close to opening up the playbook, coaches and players have said as much. We know there have been missed blocks and poorly executed blitz pickups by the offensive line. We know there have been some poor routes, and receivers have failed to get open on multiple plays. We know there have been dropped balls, fumbles, and over thrown balls. We know all about the struggles in the red zone. The Michigan coaching staff and its players knows all of this, and they will fix it. There isn’t anything us fans see, that the coaching staff doesn’t. Harbaugh and company will get this team better every single day. We just have to be patient.
3-0 Michigan now moves into the second quarter of their season, which includes games at Purdue, home against the Spartans, and back on the road to face Indiana. Michigan should win all of these games, and I fully expect them to. They are going to grow a lot the next few weeks, before they move into the tough second half of the season. Which includes games at Penn State, at Wisconsin, and back home for The Game against Ohio State. The schedule sets up well for Michigan this year. They should be running on all cylinders by the time they face the toughest part of their schedule.
The offense is going to start to open up, and fix some of their mistakes. The loss of Tarik Black is a big one, but Donovan Peoples-Jones has started to show why he was #1 WR recruit in the country. We will likely get to see reps from the other freshman wideouts, Nico Collins and Oliver Martin. I think the tight ends are going to get far more involved in the coming weeks. Sean McKeon, Zach Gentry, Tyrone Wheatley Jr, and Nick Eubanks have all shown flashes, and don’t forget about Ian Bunting. The offensive line has performed very well, with future NFL player Mason Cole making the move to LT. Bredeson has continued to build on his solid freshman year, and Kugler has been fantastic starting at center. There have been hiccups on the right side of the line, but what do you expect from two starters three games into their career? There is depth on the OL, with Ruiz and Runyan seeing some action, so if a change needs to be made I have confidence in the current backups. The running game has looked great at times, and has shown some issues like the rest of the offense. I expect it all to improve as the season moves forward.
We wondered what the drop off would be from last year’s defense. Now we’re wondering if this group could end up being better. This is the fastest defense I’ve ever seen play at Michigan. The returning starters narrative was garbage, because Michigan fans knew what a great job this staff did last year getting these guys experience. Rashan Gary, Maurice Hurst, and Chase Winovich were all non-starters last season, but they all had plenty of experience and we’re seeing results. Players like Khaleke Hudson, Josh Metullus, Tyree Kinnel, and Devin Bush all saw time on special teams, and some reps on defense last season. The staff was prepared for the transition this year, and it shows. Lavert Hill, David Long, and Brandon Watson have played well in the secondary, and made some big plays. Uncle Mike McCray is the captain, and leader of this young group of players and is doing a great job. It’s hard to find negatives with the defense so far, and they are likely to keep getting better as well.
Michigan has not failed to meet expectations to start the season. They are not going to be perfect, but they are going to get better, because that’s what Jim Harbaugh coached teams do. Look, we all know Jim Harbaugh is the best coach for Michigan. There isn’t a better fit in the country. I firmly believe, what Michigan does in this era under Harbaugh will always be the best a Michigan team could do. No other coach could come to Michigan and recruit like he does, or coach like he does. We got our man, let’s love every moment of it. And one more time, please, let’s be patient.
Rome wasn’t built in a day.
FIRST QUARTER MVP’S
OFFENSE – TY ISAAC
We are finally getting to see the Ty Isaac we all hoped for when the former 5 star recruit transferred to Michigan from USC. Isaac had a career 6.0 AVG per carry heading into this season. After sitting out his transfer season, he carried the ball only 30 times in Jim Harbaugh’s first year at Michigan, but had a 6.8 AVG. In 2016, he saw a small uptick in carries, rushing 74 times for a 5.6 AVG. Isaac ran behind Deveon Smith, Chris Evans, and Karan Higdon most of the season. There were rumors last year that he had made his way into Harbaugh’s doghouse, and could potentially spend his 5th year somewhere else. Not only did Ty stick around, but he spent the offseason getting in the best shape of his life. A leaner, faster, stronger Ty Isaac showed up to camp presumptively behind Evans and Higdon once again. It was, and still is, a running back by committee, but Harbaugh has said he will ride the hot hand in the backfield. Through the first three games, Isaac has been that hot hand. He rushed for over 100 yards in the first two games, the first Michigan back to do that since Mike Hart. Isaac has rushed for 336 yards on just 47 carries in 2017, for an 18th best in the nation 7.1 AVG. As the offense improves, so will Isaac’s opportunities. I expect Ty to continue running well, and have a fantastic season for Michigan. He’s on pace for 1344 yards and there’s no reason to think he won’t get to, or exceed, that number.
DEFENSE – Devin Bush
This wasn’t as easy of a choice as you may think. Alright, maybe it was. The entire defense has played well in Don Brown’s second season at Michigan, but it’s hard to ignore Devin Bush’s stat sheet. Bush is an absolute missile on the field, which isn’t a shock to Michigan fans that paid attention last season. We got a taste of Devin’s ferocity last year when he made plays on special teams and saw some action on defense. He has brought speed and violence to this defense, and is a staple in Brown’s system. His ability to get outside on run plays, and pressure the quarterback in blitz packages, has been integral to Michigan’s success early in the season. He leads the team in tackles with 26, tackles for loss with 4.5, and sacks with 3.5. The scary part is he’s just getting started. It’s hard to imagine the ceiling for Devin, but with his effort, and Brown’s coaching, we’re going to find out.
SPECIAL TEAMS – Quinn Nordin
Wild thing is responsible for 42 points in Michigan’s early season. He doesn’t just have the best haircut of any kicker in America, he may be the best kicker in America. One thing that has helped ease some of Michigan’s struggles in the red zone, is the foot of Quinn Nordin. He made 4 field goals against Florida including one from 55 yards, which is the second longest in college football this season. He missed two in that game, but has since gone 7/7 bringing his total FG made up to 11, which is tied for first in the nation. Much like Bush, the question is, what is his ceiling? Nordin’s position coach, Chris Partridge, has said Quinn made a 67 yard kick in practice, and he believes he could make one from 70. Now, we all know kicks in practice don’t translate to the game, but what is the longest kick Nordin could make? It’s going to be fun to see how far Harbaugh will let Nordin line up from, but the point is Michigan has a reliable kicker, and a damn good one. Having potentially the best kicker in the nation is a weapon that could be the difference in some big games as Michigan heads into conference play.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
OFFENSE – Chris Evans
It may not be fair to say Captain America has disappointed so far this season, but he hasn’t been the breakout player many of us projected. I think that changes in Big Ten play. Evans has the second most carries behind Isaac, with 33, but he’s only rushed for a 3.7 AVG. Like a lot of players, Evans has made small mistakes early on in the season, but they are correctable. The offensive line will continue to improve, and open bigger lanes for the shifty running back. I also expect Evans to be more involved in the passing game moving forward. He’s dangerous when he gets in space, and I believe when the coaching staff opens up the playbook, that’s going to mean a lot more opportunities for Evans to show what he can do. This doesn’t mean a step back for Isaac, it means a solid 1-2 punch for Michigan, with Karan Higdon ready to do work with his carries as well.
DEFENSE – Rashan Gary
I don’t need to introduce you to Rashan Gary. You all know who he is, and what he brings to the field. Gary has gotten off to a solid start in his first season as a starter, but his reputation precedes him. Gary has faced multiple double and triple teams, and has clearly been the focus of opposing offenses. With all that extra attention, Gary has still made 14 tackles, including 2.5 for loss. He’s been credited with 1 sack, but Jim Harbaugh would tell you that number should be more. Michigan has had to run some interesting schemes to open the season, to adjust for the spread of Florida, and option game of Air Force. As Michigan moves into the Big Ten schedule, I expect to see Rashan Gary become one of the best edge players in the nation. Games against pro style offenses like Purdue and Michigan State will allow Don Brown to let Gary loose. For anyone who saw Rashan Gary after that bogus targeting call at the home opener versus Cincinnati, you know he has another edge. The energy that took over that stadium was incredible. It was like watching the Hulk transform in person. There have been crazy high expectations put on Gary this season, and he is capable of reaching them. Big Ten teams should know though, don’t get Rashan Gary angry. You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry.
SPECIAL TEAMS – Donovan Peoples-Jones
If you want to know how great of a coach Jim Harbaugh is, look no further than Donovan Peoples-Jones. After a shaky start in the return game against Cincinnati, DPJ was benched for Grant Perry. DPJ made some mistakes in the first half, and his miscues led to a turnover. What did DPJ do after a week of coaching and a second chance? Oh, he just took a punt back 79 yards for a touchdown. DPJ currently has a punt return average of 16.3 yards, good enough for 13th in the nation, 2nd for returners with 10 or more attempts. This is where Harbaugh’s brilliance as a coach really shows, and the reason why Michigan fans need to be patient. Michigan’s offense is going to improve, helping the field position battle. Michigan’s defense is going to continue to shut down opposing offenses, which means a lot of punt returns for Peoples-Jones. Don’t be surprised if DPJ takes another punt back in the next 3 games for Michigan.
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