ANN ARBOR, Mich. – As the first Michigan football game looms this weekend, Jim Harbaugh spoke Monday about Nico Collins, the starting offensive line, the quarterback battle, a team health update and “championship expectations.”
Here are the 12 takeaways from Harbaugh’s news conference.
Harbaugh pointed out three specific traits he likes about his team heading into the season: talent, competitiveness and oneness.
“They have been through a lot,” Harbaugh said. “I think they’ve done a great job. I feel great about our team in terms of talent. I feel really good about them in terms of competitiveness, and oneness -- probably the most important thing. Nothing more important than the team, and oneness.”
He said the team is chasing perfection in terms of assignments and knowing where to be on the field.
Starting offensive line
Michigan lost four starters from last season’s offensive line, as left tackle Jon Runyan Jr., left guard Ben Bredeson, center Cesar Ruiz and right guard Michael Onwenu have all moved on to the NFL.
Harbaugh was asked how he feels about the new group, which is being molded by offensive line coach Ed Warinner.
He revealed Ryan Hayes will start at tackle, opposite the only returning starter of the group: tackle Jalen Mayfield.
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Chuck Filiaga and Andrew Stueber will be the starters at the guard positions, while former walk-on Andrew Vastardis is the starting center.
“(Vastardis) has been the leader on the offensive line for several months, since the season ended, since last year ended,” Harbaugh said.
Hayes, Mayfield and Stueber all have significant experience, so even though Michigan is replacing most of its starters, there’s still some continuity.
“I’m excited to watch all our guys compete,” Harbaugh said. “That’s probably the bottom line.”
Harbaugh also said he considers redshirt freshman Karsen Barnhart among the starters.
“It can happen to anybody,” Harbaugh said when asked about how the the coronavirus (COVID-19) could affect the season. “Anybody can get it.”
Michigan will continue to stay vigilant in taking precautions against the virus, Harbaugh said. Players and coaches are being tested every day and must test negative on game day to be eligible.
“That’s a daily thing that we go through now,” Harbaugh said. “Continue to stay positive and test negative.”
He said it’s probably true that the nature of the pandemic brought his team closer together.
“A lot of really good leaders, a lot of guys who are really invested and a lot of guys who really like each other,” Harbaugh said. “A lot of guys who really like football. Every step of the way, through uncertain times, I think they have relied on each other more.”
Harbaugh was asked about his contract situation, which is up in the air amid the pandemic. His current deal is set to expire after the 2021 season.
“No update,” Harbaugh said. “Just been other fish, bigger fish to fry.”
When asked if he had a message to recruits in response to anyone who might be using his contract situation as a negative recruiting tool, Harbaugh simply said, “Go blue.”
Last season, Michigan was picked by Big Ten writers to win the Big Ten. What are Harbaugh’s expectations this year?
“I really feel like this team is at a championship level, in terms of (talent, competitiveness and oneness)," Harbaugh said. “The thing we’re drilling down the most right now is assignments, and chasing perfection in that regard."
Harbaugh was specifically asked about presumed starting quarterback Joe Milton, but he also brought up redshirt freshman Cade McNamara and didn’t name a starter.
“Joe’s been running with the 1s and really, he’s made a lot of strides, getting a lot of reps, as well as Cade McNamara, who’s closed all gaps, as well,” Harbaugh said. “He’s playing extremely well.”
He said Milton has good command of the offense and is very talented.
“It’s fun watching them,” Harbaugh said. “They’re excited to play with each other.”
“Jim, just to clarify, are you saying Joe is going to start at quarterback on Saturday?” Harbaugh was asked.
“As I said, Joe’s been running with the 1s,” Harbaugh said. “As I said before, I mean, naming any starter at this point -- it’s a daily thing right up until the game time. Tough for me to say that definitely anybody’s going to be starting when they have to test on Friday before we leave to be able to make the trip, and then they have to test negative on game day to be able to play.”
Are there any players on Michigan’s roster who will be unavailable to play against Minnesota because of COVID-19?
“Not currently,” Harbaugh said.
Harbaugh did say the team had positive COVID-19 tests both in late July and between Sept. 10 and now, but he didn’t elaborate.
“In September, our last positive was July 30, the end of July, and then after that, Sept. 10, we did have some positives,” Harbaugh said. “In September, after that, we did have some positives between then and now, yes.”
No. 2 cornerback battle
Michigan will be forced to replace its top two cornerbacks this year without Lavert Hill and Ambry Thomas, and there’s still a battle ongoing behind Vincent Gray.
Gray will be the new No. 1 cornerback, but Harbaugh mentioned four names in terms of who is fighting for that second spot: redshirt sophomores Gemon Green and Sammy Faustin and redshirt freshmen Jalen Perry and D.J. Turner.
“Gemon Green’s doing a very good job,” Harbaugh said. “Sammy Faustin’s moved from safety to corner. He’s gotten up to speed really fast -- very smart player. Also, Jalen Perry and D.J. Turner are in competition for that spot, as well.”
Kickers and punters
Starting kicker Quinn Nordin and All-Big Ten punter Will Hart are back for one final season, but Harbaugh said there are two players at each position who will see time.
Nordin is in a battle with Jake Moody for the top placekicker position, while Hart squares off with Brad Robbins for the top punting duties.
“(Nordin)'s in a real competitive battle with (Jake) Moody, who’s also doing a really good job, so it’s still playing out,” Harbaugh said. “Both are really good.
“We also have two really good punters: Brad Robbins and William Hart. ... I feel the talent is really good, and I think they’ll all eventually see action, but those are really tight battles."
Michigan’s first game will kick off at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in Minneapolis. No. 18 Michigan vs. No. 21 Minnesota will be featured on ESPN’s College Gameday as the best matchup of the week.
Harbaugh said Minnesota is a really well-coached team on both sides of the ball, and pointed specifically to some of their offensive weapons as problems for the Wolverines.
“Rashod Bateman jumps out immediately,” Harbaugh said. “He’s so strong. He can make so many strong, contested catches. He averaged over 20 yards per catch in 2019. He’s terrific -- kind of a real alpha type of guy and football player. That’s a great challenge for us and the secondary.”
He also praised Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan and an “excellent” offensive line.
On defense, Harbaugh said Minnesota “really understands their scheme, really plays it well.”
“Every time you turn on the film, both sides of the ball, they’re really good at playing the concepts,” Harbaugh said.
“If we play good, I think we’ll be tough to beat, as well.”
Michigan lost Ambry Thomas to an opt out this year, but got good news when Mayfield decided to return for the shortened season.
Since he hasn’t been at practice, it’s been assumed Nico Collins was no longer with the team, and while there hasn’t been an official announcement, he was removed from the team roster Monday morning.
“Nico is not participating in football right now, and I don’t have a crystal ball as to if his mind would change or not, but he’s not currently on the team,” Harbaugh said.
Without Collins, Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black in the mix, Michigan has a slew of young receivers who could see significant playing time this year.
Harbaugh named eight players who could make an impact in 2020: Ronnie Bell, Mike Sainristil, Roman Wilson, Giles Jackson, Cornelius Johnson, Jake McCurry, AJ Henning and Nate Schoenle.
“A lot of good receivers,” Harbaugh said. “Their ability to get separation -- to gain separation, to increase separation and to catch -- to make contested catches.”
Bell is the only scholarship junior in the group, and he returns after leading the team in catches and receiving yards in 2019.
Sainristil, Jackson and Johnson all got their feet wet as true freshmen, while Wilson and Henning are highly ranked newcomers with elite speed.
McCurry and Schoenle are former walk-ons who have seen some playing time throughout their careers.