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Michigan's Jim Harbaugh gets high marks for his run game, and defensive turnaround

Michigan's Jim Harbaugh gets high marks for his run game, and defensive turnaround

Its the halfway point of the 2021 college football season, at least for Michigan, and Jim Harbaugh s team is on a bye.

The 6-0 Wolverines are ranked eighth in the nation and on a roll. What better time to do some mid-season grading than now, with the team gaining momentum. The Bears will host Northwestern next Saturday, Oct. 23, in Ann Arbor, with a real chance to improve to 7-0.

There are plenty of things going well for Michigan, fresh from a disappointing 2020 campaign that prompted plenty more change, but there are still some questions-mark areas. Lets get into all of it, the good and the bad...

More: The statistics that led to Michigan footballs perfect start are clear.

Quarterbacks

Michigans passing offense has been one of the most productive units in the nation during six games. It is ranked 101st nationally with 194 yards per game, down from nine other Big Ten teams, including Iowa. But thats not necessarily because of Cade McNamara. While things have improved in recent weeks, the Wolverines are still relatively unranked in the FBS (115th) in pass attempts, a sign that Michigan isn't throwing the ball as often as Michigan claims. McNamara has been fairly efficient when asked to throw, completing 60.5 percent of his passes for 986 yards and five touchdowns. His attempts rank 10th among Big Ten QBs, his passing yards rank eighth, and his efficiency rating ranks seventh a sign that hes slightly underperforming his expectations.

Whether or not you agree or disagree with the approach, the fact remains that McNamara has been asked to play game manager, not playmaker, through six games. McNamara, who has struggled with on-target deep balls at times, has had a lot of short and intermediate throws tweaked by the coaching staff. Youd like to see him increase his accuracy a touch and hit receivers more effectively, but you cant really argue with the results so far. Michigans unbeaten with a first-year starter at quarterback.

J.J. McCarthy, a true freshman, is hot on McNamaras trail, though his workload is slowly rising. The former five-star recruit only saw playing time in blowouts during the first few games, but hes begun to make significant reps at various times of late. McCarthy is quicker and moreelusive than McNamara, presenting a challenge for opposing defenses who must now worry about protecting against the run (and McCarthys arm). Michigan seems to be finding its balance with the quarterbacks, making them both more effective. Grade: B Grade

More: J.J. McCarthy is Michigans newest weapon in the run game.

Running backs

Michigans rush defense is ranked in the top 10 during the bye week thanks to a strong first three games. After topping 335 in each of the first three games, the Wolverines are averaging.246.5 yards per game on the ground. As they entered the Big Ten, they only gained 112 yards each against Rutgers and Wisconsin. The two-pronged attack of Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum have been as effective as any tandem in the country this year, giving Michigans play-callers different options with both.

Haskins (492 yards, 8 TDs) has been superb between the tackles, running over opponents and picking up yards after contact, while Corum's flashy, play-making ability (610 yards and 8 touchdowns), which has forced opponents to commit their linebackers and extra defensive backs to guard against his speed on the perimeter. Both backs are averaging less than 4 yards per carry (Corums at 6.3) and have breakaway runs of 50 yards or more, requiring opponents to respect Michigan's run game. Of course, (and well get to this later), a strong, more experienced offensive line and streamlined run-game has helped. Grade: A-

Receivers/ tight ends

Michigan lost its leading deep-ball threat and primary Ronnie Bell in Week 1, a huge blow that wasnt felt (or realized) until several weeks later. Bell was excellent in every aspect, from ball control (hes vastly improved from a couple of years ago) to breaking big plays. We saw it in the opener against Western Michigan, when the redshirt junior caught a 76-yard touchdown catch before he was hurt returning punts. Michigan could rely on him as a true underdog success story.

The Wolverines offense has struggled to find a replacement for its current boss since that time. Cornelius Johnson (14 catches, 282 yards, 3 TDs) has had his moments, as have others Roman Wilson (9 carries, 145 yards) had a breakout game against Wisconsin, and Daylen Baldwin (12 catchings, 219 yardssst, 1 DT) is beginning to emerge as.1-of-one status, however, no one has established themselves as an accurate No. 1. Erick All (11 catches, 123 yards) and Blake Corum (14 carries, 101 yards), as well as tight end Eric K All and running back Blake Korum were involved. Theyve made it, but theyre missing key players such as junior Mike Sainristil (7 catches, 114 yards) and A.J. Henning (3 carries, 36 yards), who are no longer freshmen. B- Grade: B

More: Roman Wilson joins Michigans growing pass attack party.

Offensive line

I dont know how you could give this group anything other than an A for all of the reasons described above. Michigan's quarterbacks (albeit on a limited number of drop backs) have only been sacked twice during the season, despite the running game remaining one of the best in the country. McNamara's defense is strong, as the front five is doing its job in the run game. Last year was a disaster, with the unit banged up and constantly switching players in and out. Theres been very little of that since Saturday vs. Nebraska.

Well see if the group can stay strong the rest of the way, but the Wolverines offensive line, headed by Andrew Vastardis at center and Andrew Stueber at right tackle, has been outstanding. Sherrone Moores group deserves a lot of credit for the success on the ground. Now, the results havent been met by the Big Tens best but the groundwork has been laid for the second half. A Grade: A

Defense line

Because of everything weve seen so far this year, this is a difficult group to grade. Mike Macdonald is doing a lot of rotating (up front and in the back end), keeping his staff active and fresh. However, the varying looks this year, from two-down linemen to four and five- down line men, to using Aidan Hutchinson as a hybrid outside linebacker, have all been successful. The only negative aspect of Michigan's defensive line in the past has been its size (the lack thereof) and inability to stop the run. Chris Hinton, Mazi Smith, and fifth-year senior Donovan Jeter have all improved that this year, with bigger, more experienced tackles in them. The Wolverines rank fifth in the Big Ten and 39th nationally in rushing yards allowed (118.2 per game), but that's where this group is making the most noise.

Michigan is ranked fourth among Big Ten teams who have played six games this year (Maryland has played 8). Now, some of those have come from linebacker David Ojabo (who well mention in a moment), but end Aidan Hutchinson (5 1/2 sacks, three QB hurries) has made snark on the outside. Hutchinson is directly involved in every Michigan game this year, and youll find a play in which he plays. Hes proving his worth as a projected first-round NFL draft pick, and having better, more experienced plugs in the middle has aided that. Grade: B+

More: Aidan Hutchinson named All-American midseason after being named Aiden Hustonson is named to the All American team.

Linebackers

Michigan's youngness and inexperience raised concerns early in the year, but they've worked around it successfully. Josh Ross (saved for the second half against Rutgers) has remained healthy, while Nikhai Hill-Green and Junior Colson have played well in the reps theyve been given. Ojabo is the star here, however, in his outside linebacker role similar to the one Josh Uche played a couple years ago. His 4 1/2 sacks, two hurries, and two forced fumbles have given Michigan another game-changer at the second level, forcing opponents to pay attention to someone other than Aidan Hutchinson. There was some speculation that Michael Barrett might eventually become this guy, but Ojabo has filled the role nicely and been a welcome surprise for an Michigan defense that desperately needed more players to step up.

Ross has remained quiet and leads the team in tackles (40) and quarterback hurries (5), confirming his decision to return for another season. Hes been a vital part of the team, both from resourcing standpoint as well as guiding. A work in progress, but the group is doing well. Its evident that the coaching staff enjoys what they have in Colson. Grade: B Grade

More: Faster? Maybe. Michigan's LB Josh Ross is playing better, smarter and playing more effectively than ever before.

Defensive backs

This has been a tale of two groups, but the underlying argument is that the scheme change has paid off in Michigans defensive backfield. The unit that was one of the worst in the Big Ten last year, statistically speaking, is now in fourth place, allowing just 190.7 yards per game. Part of that, of course, is a result of the improved pass rush up front, but nickel alignments and more zone have proven beneficial for dozens of defensive backs who struggled in man-coverage ten seasons ago. Vincent Gray and Gemon Green are being left one-on-one less often, with safetyties Daxton Hill, Hawkins, and R.J. Moten taking more of the backfield.

Hill has been the standout so far, with Michigan choosing to use him in a number of ways, including blitzing at the line of scrimmage, dropping back into coverage, and serving as heiress in the back. His two interceptions lead the team, and his miraculous catch on his back against Nebraska was one for the highlight reel. Hawkins is beginning to show his maturity as well, with a big stop on fourth down and the strip fumble that helped Nebraska win the game. Maximizing their safeties has helped conceal some of Michigan's weaknesses on the outside, making the entire unit look significantly improved. Hill and Hawkins both have As and the corners a B/B-, so well average it out. Grade: B+

Special teams

The kicker and return units have been a major strength for Michigan, which ranks in the top half of the Big Ten in every major special teams statistical category. Jake Moody is 12 of 13 and has been near-automatic all season. He was a perfect 4 for 4 against Nebraska, kicked 59 yards against Rutgers and is 25 for 25 on point-after tries, proving hes not only accurate but has dribbling ability as well. Brad Robbins has been a consistent punter, gaining 45.1 yards per boot while putting 10 of his 19 kicks inside the 20-yard line. Twelve of the catch resulted in a decent catch.

meanwhile, Michigans kickoff return unit is averaging 20.9 yards per return (sixth) and the punt return group is attributing 13.1 yards each return (15.6). With one of the top place kickers in the country and no omissions, the final grade appears to be in good shape. Grade: A-

Coaching

Jim Harbaugh really knows what hes doing, huh? The Michigan head coach makes a number of staffing changes in the offseason, bringing in younger, fresher voices on the defensive side (Mike Macdonald, George Helow, Steve Clinkscale), promoting well-liked assistant Sherrone Moore to coach the offensive line, and introducing resurgent Michigan grads Mike Hart and Ron Bellamy to help revive stale, battered locker room. The results paid off from the beginning, with players raving about a new culture during the offseason thats carried over into the season.

Harbaugh appears to have found a new lease of life after undergoing dozens of schematic changes on both sides of the ball, fresh faces guiding things and seasoned Michigan leaders committed to getting the state back on track. Some of the in-game decisions and personnel choices can now be criticized, but its hard to do that with any merit for a 6-0 team. The plan, at least right now, is working. And Harbaugh deserves a lot of credit for recognizing what was broken last year and doing everything he could to fix it. The staff has done a great job of highlighting the weaknesses of their players, so much so that its hidden many of the negatives.

Regardless of what happens the rest of the way (except for a total implosion), this year should be used in preparing fc coaches for an elite training course. A well-deserved mark for Harbaugh and his staff, including offensive coordinator Josh Gattis, whos integrated his own thoughts and ideas with the old ground-and-pound, balanced offense that exemplified the Harburn era. Grade: A Grade

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