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How Michigan football turned dark winter into bright future. Will good times last?


Free Press sports writers Rainer Sabin and Michael Cohen break down Michigan football heading into its game at Nebraska (7:30 p.m., ABC):

Sabin: The Wolverines have defied expectations thus far as they have rolled to a 5-0 start. U-M has found a winning formula based on playing sound, fundamental football; the Wolverines have committed one turnover and allowed only two sacks while avoiding the scourge of penalties. Are you surprised at how well Michigan has executed considering the coaching changes Jim Harbaugh initiated in the offseason?

Cohen: A little surprised, yes. But what we are seeing around the college football landscape this season is last year’s pandemic-stricken campaign was far from an accurate representation of where programs stand. Michigan benefited from having a spring, summer and fall to implement defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald’s system and, on the other side of the ball, develop an offensive identity based on its personnel.

What has surprised me is how the offense continues to find ways to score points without No. 1 wide receiver Ronnie Bell. That’s not to suggest the players behind Bell aren’t capable, although none match his explosiveness, but there was reason to believe offensive coordinator Josh Gattis built sections of the playbook around his star receiver in hopes of accentuating his skill set. Seeing Michigan adjust is a credit to the coaching staff. Can Cornelius Johnson remain a viable threat on the perimeter?

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Michigan wide receiver Cornelius Johnson (6) scores a touchdown against Northern Illinois during the first half at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021.

Michigan wide receiver Cornelius Johnson (6) scores a touchdown against Northern Illinois during the first half at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021.

Sabin: He has shown flashes over the course of his career and has offered hints he can be a playmaker. But he has never been able to demonstrate consistency from one week to the next. Is that all on him though? I don’t think so. This year, Gattis and Harbaugh have designed an offense that minimizes risk. And Cade McNamara is the conductor with his steady hand. He isn’t going to take unnecessary gambles, evidenced by the fact he hasn’t thrown many passes between the numbers in the 10-to-20-yard intermediate range, where safeties and linebackers tend to hover. So, with certain patterns removed from a receiver’s route tree, there is only so much a player like Johnson can do. Generally, he has done his best work on the outside.

Cohen: I’m very curious to see how Macdonald’s defense fares against the option concepts utilized by Nebraska’s offense. My first job out of college was covering Syracuse football for the 2013 season, during which the Orange had a game against Georgia Tech, an exclusively option offense. Throughout the week, Syracuse’s coaches told the media they’d begun studying Georgia Tech in February, eight months before the game, to ready themselves for the peculiarity of the offense. The on-field preparations began on Sunday afternoons over the summer, exposing the players to what the Yellow Jackets would do long before kickoff in mid-October. The end result was a 56-0 loss made more embarrassing by the pregame comments from coaches. I’ve never forgotten that game when thinking about teams who play the option. Obviously Michigan has far more talent than Syracuse, but the point remains about how difficult it can be to prepare for a system players rarely see. How do you think U-M’s personnel stacks up against an option offense?

Sabin: The run defense has been better than I would have ever anticipated, considering the team lost its most athletic linebacker, Cam McGrone, to the NFL in the offseason. Even with McGrone, Michigan was vulnerable against quality opponents who could line up and win at the point of attack.

Michigan linebacker Josh Ross warms up before the Rutgers game at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021.

Michigan linebacker Josh Ross warms up before the Rutgers game at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021.

This year, the Wolverines have surrendered 115 rushing yards per game, which ranks 33rd in the nation. But they struggled to stop Rutgers quarterback Noah Vedral during a second half when Michigan almost blew a 17-point lead. In that half, Michigan conceded 152 yards on the ground as the linebackers struggled to diagnose the zone-read plays Rutgers foisted upon them.

That was one of the few times this season U-M has been tested by an offense that could consistently manufacture yards. The Wolverines have not faced a team that ranks higher than 65th in scoring. And the best of that bunch was Rutgers.

Cohen: That’s where the return of inside linebacker Josh Ross (stinger) is pivotal. He is the most reliable inside linebacker at Macdonald’s disposal and the defense’s best communicator. Without him on the field for the second half vs. Rutgers, inside linebackers Nikhai Hill-Green, Junior Colson and Kalel Mullings struggled. Having Ross on the field against Nebraska will be crucial. Where I have greater concern is in the secondary, where Michigan’s corners have gone largely untested thanks to a combination of poor quarterback play from its opponents and tremendous pass rush by the Wolverines that limits the length of time defensive backs must cover. Against a quarterback like Martinez, who is more than capable of extending plays by buying time with his legs, Michigan’s corners might be tested in a way they haven’t this season.

Sabin: Yes, but these are first-world problems. In the big picture, Michigan appears more capable of winning games it was prone to lose in the past. Much has been made of the improved culture inside Schembechler Hall. And certainly the winning has improved the mood within the locker room. But the team does appear to be more united than it was last year. With the exception of reserve lineman Nolan Rumler, no scholarship player has left the program in months. The veterans on the roster have repeatedly mentioned the six new assistants have brought a new energy that has galvanized the team in practices and games. The buy-in seems real. No one knew if Harbaugh would be able to right the ship in Year 7. And there is still a long way to go. But the early returns are impressive and U-M has to feel far better about its future than it did coming out of the dark winter.

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh watches warmups before a game against Northern Illinois at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021.

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh watches warmups before a game against Northern Illinois at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021.

Cohen: What interests me the most about oft-described culture changes is what happens when that new culture is strained for the first time. Yes, Michigan’s players and coaches undoubtedly have more confidence than they did a season ago. And yes, the mood around Schembechler Hall is generally quite cheerful because of how well the Wolverines are playing. But what happens if and when the offense turns the ball over? What happens if and when Michigan falls behind in a game? What happens if and when the Wolverines lose a game? Those are the moments when the veracity of a culture change gets tested. Time will tell how legitimate U-M’s overhaul really is.

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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: How Michigan football turned dark winter into bright future

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