Preseason Special: Offense

Football

In January, Jim Harbaugh lured Josh Gattis away from Alabama with the promise that he’d call the shots in Ann Arbor. By the end of spring practices, the Michigan football team’s first-year offensive coordinator had successfully installed his Pro Spread style — a far cry from the West Coast system the Wolverines previously used under Harbaugh in his first four years.

Gattis didn’t just tweak Michigan’s offense, he revolutionized it with a modern approach built no-huddle tempos, run-pass options and sideline signals. And with it, an attempt to vault the program into the upper echelon of college football.

With only one week until kickoff, The Wolverine Lounge breaks down everything you need to know about Michigan’s offense, Gattis himself and the state of each ongoing position battle:

Quarterbacks: Senior signal-caller Shea Patterson looks poised for a monstrous season in Gattis’ system. Patterson’s RPO abilities looked promising for most of last season, and this year will offer a heavy dosage of such plays — not to mention the fact that the no-huddle tempo will keep him in rhythm and let him showcase his mobility. In fact, Patterson is listed at 25-to-1 odds to win the Heisman Trophy, the nation’s 10th-best mark, according to Odds Shark.

At Big Ten Media Days last month, Harbaugh mentioned the possibility of a two-quarterback system featuring Patterson and Dylan McCaffrey, one of the country’s most talented primary backups. McCaffrey continues to push Patterson in practice but remains the clear second fiddle on the depth chart. At 6-foot-5, 245 pounds, sophomore Joe Milton’s towering size and cannon of an arm make for solid upside as the third-stringer.

Running backs: Perhaps the offense’s thinnest group, the running backs could be in for an uphill climb in 2019. The loss of Karan Higdon and his 1,178 rushing yards will sting — there’s no way around that. But with a receiving corps like Michigan’s, the Wolverines may not need nearly as much production on the ground to take a leap forward under Gattis.

A source told The Wolverine Lounge that senior Tru Wilson currently holds a slight upper-hand for the top spot, but newcomer Zach Charbonnet is “the real deal.” Harbaugh recently noted that Charbonnet has been coming on “like a freight train” in fall camp — an indicator that the true freshman will likely see the field immediately in some capacity, though it’s unlikely he’ll have the job to himself. With Wilson and Christian Turner still in the fold, Michigan could very well feature multiple players at the position.

Offensive line: Since arriving in Ann Arbor, offensive line coach Ed Warinner has transformed his position group from the team’s Achilles to its anchor. The unit is expected to continue such a trajectory this season, largely thanks to its four returning starters — left tackle Jon Runyan Jr., left guard Ben Bredeson, center Cesar Ruiz and right guard Michael Onwenu, who has lost weight and improved his footwork this offseason. Jalen Mayfield has earned the de facto starting nod at right tackle in the wake of Andrew Stuber’s leg injury, which will keep him sidelined indefinitely. The two were previously deadlocked in a multi-month battle for the job.

While Stueber’s injury might not have made an impact on the starting five, it sure puts a dent in the Wolverines’ depth. Stephen Spaniellis now appears to be the next man up, with Chuck Filiaga being another reserve in the mix. A source told The Wolverine Lounge that true freshman Nolan Rumler, a four-star recruit, is “as good as advertised” and fellow frosh Zach Carpenter could be used in four games — the maximum number of appearances allowed without burning a player’s redshirt. As for converted tight end Ryan Hayes, he’s “still a year away” despite being in the conversation for a two-deep spot. All things considered, this year’s offensive line is shaping up to be the best in the Harbaugh era.

Wide receivers: Simply put, this group of wide receivers could be among the nation’s finest. The trio of Donovan Peoples-Jones, Nico Collins and Tarik Black has the potential to be lethal in Gattis’ Pro Spread offense, but health remains a concern. Peoples-Jones, who was shelved for most of the offseason with a soft tissue groin injury, is still trying to shake off the rust, while Black has a brutal track record of foot fractures. A source described Peoples-Jones as “timid and rusty” at the beginning of fall camp.

Outside of those three names, speedy freshman Mike Sainristil projects to start in the slot. The lightning bolt out of Massachusetts has used his wheels to turn heads since joining the program as an early enrollee in the spring and could be a key factor in Gattis’ “speed in space” game plan. Ronnie Bell, the team’s reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year, has made a strong impression on both offense and special teams.

Tight ends: At this point, Sean McKeon has a firm grasp on the starting job following Zach Gentry’s departure. A source told The Wolverine Lounge he is “the best blocking tight end on the team,” and McKeon spoke highly of Gattis’ system during spring media availability. Nick Eubanks, Erick All and Mustapha Muhammad all offer untapped potential in the passing game, but McKeon’s well-rounded play as a blocker and pass-catcher make him the candidate with the highest floor. Not to mention he has the brains to succeed, as his mother tweeted that he received offers from all seven Ivies. Ben Mason has seen practice reps with the tight ends, too.

Kickers: Sophomore Jake Moody is the frontrunner to earn full-time kicking duties and is “even trusted to hit the long ball now,” a source told The Wolverine Lounge. After upending Quinn Nordin as a true freshman last season, Moody converted on 10 of 11 field goal attempts — including a season-long 48-yarder against Florida in the Peach Bowl — and averaged 58.1 yards across 89 kickoffs, including 43 touchbacks.

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