ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Jim Harbaugh and his staff talked a lot about players and position battles during the preseason, but we didn’t actually know much about this Michigan football team until it took the field against Minnesota.
What we learned: Michigan might be pretty good. There were plenty of reasons to be encouraged, and a handful of concerns, which is to be expected after such a long layoff.
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Most of the country came away impressed, including AP poll voters, who bumped the Wolverines up five spots to No. 13 in the country.
Here are some of the most positive takeaways from the performance, as well as a few concerns.
1. Joe Milton can handle the moment.
I didn’t come away from Michigan’s win thinking Joe Milton is a surefire superstar, but he certainly inspires confidence with the way he handles himself on the field.
Everything we’ve heard about Milton in his two-plus years on campus suggested he would be a flashy, potentially mistake-prone player. His most touted tool is arm strength. One of the knocks on him was his ability to put touch on passes. In limited college snaps he was a bit of a panic scrambler.
But none of that was the case Saturday. There wasn’t a single moment when Milton looked rattled or lost control of the offense, which is impressive for a first-time starter on the road in a top-25 rivalry game.
Milton didn’t feel like he needed to validate the offseason hype by forcing deep throws or giving up on plays to scramble. It looked like he’d been running Josh Gattis' offense his entire life.
Mobility was a pleasant surprise, as Milton had a couple of designed runs and some read option keeps that he turned into very solid gains. Most importantly, he didn’t take any big hits on the end of those runs, either diving down to avoid direct blows or getting out of bounds.
In the passing game, he let a couple deep balls fly, but they were low-risk throws that had no chance of being picked off. More often, Milton was making the smart plays in the passing game. On Ben Mason’s touchdown, Milton tossed a little dump-down pass that looked simple enough but gave Mason the corner to get to the pylon. After Erick All dropped a sure touchdown pass on a perfectly placed ball down the seam, Milton found him the very next play in the flat so he could turn upfield and get inside the 5-yard line.
He was also accurate over the middle, hitting receivers in stride so they could utilize their speed after the catch. That’s going to be a crucial component of this offense, and Milton passed the first test.
Milton’s stats won’t jump out to anyone who checks the box score, but he was everything Michigan could have asked for in leading the offense on six touchdown drives.
2. Michael Barrett is a difference-maker.
Michigan has had a few players throughout the Harbaugh era who could impact a game in many different facets, and Michael Barrett has proved to be of that makeup.
Most people probably don’t remember Barrett contributing at all his first two years on campus because he wasn’t a defensive starter, but in 2019, he made two of the biggest special teams plays of Michigan’s season.
First, when Michigan was losing to Army late in the first quarter, Barrett took a fake punt snap and fired a perfect throw to Daxton Hill to convert on fourth down and keep the drive alive. Michigan went on to score a touchdown and eventually won the game in overtime.
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Later in the season, against Maryland, Barrett took a fake punt snap and rushed 14 yards for a first down, setting up a touchdown drive that put an early nail in the Terrapins' coffin.
Barrett’s ability to contribute in multiple areas was on clear display his first game as a starter.
He had some obvious highlights, such as the strip sack that led to a defensive touchdown, a tackle for loss and seven total tackles. But he also returned a kickoff 66 yards to set up a Michigan touchdown. When Blake Corum fumbled a kick return that could have helped Minnesota pull within four points, Barrett fell on the ball and gave it back to the offense, which scored to go up 18.
It’s way too early to compare Barrett to someone like Jabrill Peppers or Khaleke Hudson, but in his first game at viper, he showed flashes of their ability to impact games beyond just dropping into coverage and swarming the backfield.
3. Mike Zordich did it again.
Why do we ever question Mike Zordich?
The Michigan secondary coach appears to have done it again with two new starting cornerbacks, as Vincent Gray and Gemon Green held their own against one of the Big Ten’s most high-powered offenses from a year ago.
It’s fair to point out Minnesota lost two star playmakers in Tyler Johnson and Rodney Smith, and it certainly didn’t help that the Gophers were without two starting O-linemen.
But the combination of Tanner Morgan and Rashod Bateman is still potent, and while they connected nine times for 101 yards, Michigan’s cornerbacks did a pretty good job eliminating the big plays that fueled the 2019 Gophers.
There will be additional tests for Michigan’s cornerbacks when Wisconsin and Penn State come to town, and especially when the Wolverines travel to Columbus. After one game, though, the secondary doesn’t appear to be the glaring weakness many of us feared.
4. Four running backs really will play.
Michigan coaches love to tout their depth before every season, listing off every name on the roster as someone who looks great in camp and could contribute. But when it comes to the running back room, it looks like they were actually telling the truth.
Zach Charbonnet, Hassan Haskins, Chris Evans and Blake Corum are all going to play. The first three were obvious, but the true freshmen cemented himself in the rotation by gaining 48 yards on five carries and one reception.
Haskins, as was the case so many times last season, turned out to be the best of the bunch, gaining 82 yards on six carries and scoring two touchdowns.
Charbonnet ripped off a 70-yard touchdown run, and Evans got into the end zone for the first time since 2018.
Michigan coaches weren’t kidding when they said they have four very good running backs. Based on the first game, all four will continue to play.
5. Roman Wilson isn’t lost in the wide receiver mix.
Michigan didn’t necessarily get better at wide receiver by losing Nico Collins and Donovan Peoples-Jones, but this year’s group has a different look, and it might end up being a net positive.
Behind Ronnie Bell, there are five receivers who don’t have a defined order on the depth chart: Giles Jackson, Mike Sainristil, Cornelius Johnson, A.J. Henning and Roman Wilson.
It was clear coming into the season that all three sophomores -- Jackson, Sainristil and Johnson -- would have major roles, considering they didn’t redshirt last season, even with three others ahead of them on the depth chart.
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But how much would Henning and Wilson play? That was the key question, especially since their greatest attribute is speed, and the aforementioned sophomores aren’t lacking in that department, either.
As the top-ranked recruit in Michigan’s 2020 class, it seemed likely Henning would get a chance to contribute right away, but Wilson’s role was more up in the air. He was ranked just outside the top 350 players in the class despite his blazing speed, and only Michigan and Wisconsin offered him Power Five scholarships outside the Pac-12.
But that doesn’t matter anymore, and Wilson is clearly a key weapon for this offense. He was targeted multiple times in the opener, making two catches for 34 yards. His ability to run after the catch makes him a home run threat, and if Milton continues to hit receivers in stride, Wilson is going to break a couple of long touchdown runs.
6. Donovan Jeter’s late hype was real.
Chris Hinton was the presumed starter next to Carlo Kemp at defensive tackle, and while he also played plenty of snaps, Donovan Jeter was by far the most impactful interior D-lineman.
Late in fall camp, Jeter’s name was tossed around as someone making a surge for a starting spot. The official starter label doesn’t matter as much as who’s actually on the field for the most meaningful snaps, and after Saturday, the leader in that clubhouse has to be Jeter.
He only got credit for one tackle, but Jeter was in the backfield multiple times, batted down a pass and also took a Morgan fumble back for a touchdown.
During Monday’s media availability, Gray said Michigan’s defense is putting an emphasis on turnovers and big plays, and Jeter cashed in on one against Minnesota.
1. Michigan’s interior got gashed on the ground.
Coaches love when their teams play well enough to win and still come away with some areas for improvement, and that’s certainly the case for Michigan. But Harbaugh probably would have preferred not to give up 140 yards on 26 carries to Mohamed Ibrahim.
Ibrahim is a good player, but he had some massive running lanes on the interior of Michigan’s defensive line, and that’s a major concern since Don Brown struggled to fix that problem in 2019.
Aidan Hutchinson said Monday that some of those rushing yards were a result of Minnesota continuing to attack on the ground late in the game when Michigan was expecting the pass, but it’s not like this is a one-time issue.
After Kemp, the defensive tackle spot has been a concern for Michigan since the start of 2019, so we can’t just ignore what the Gophers were able to do on the ground.
2. Field goal kicking.
There’s no sugarcoating Jake Moody’s performance. He had a game to forget.
Moody missed all three field goal attempts, including two from inside 40 yards. One even came with a 25-point lead, so there was virtually no pressure outside the prospect of going 0-3.
He converted all seven of his extra point attempts, so the day wasn’t a complete disaster, but Michigan needs to be able to rely on its field goal kickers in close games.
Harbaugh believes Quinn Nordin will return to practice this week, so the fifth-year senior could take over and solve the problem just like that. He made 10 of 13 kicks last season, including a 57-yarder in the Citrus Bowl.
If Nordin can’t return, or if he isn’t at 100%, Moody will need to find the rhythm that helped him take over the starting job in 2018.
3. Is Daxton Hill healthy?
Like Nordin, Hill is expected to return to practice this week after he was removed from the Minnesota game with an undisclosed injury.
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Harbaugh didn’t seem overly concerned, but with the unusual build up to the season and lack of bye weeks to recuperate, any starter who goes down poses an even greater concern.
Hill might be the most talented player on the roster, so Michigan needs him back to full strength before a tough road test at Indiana. Even though Harbaugh is making it sound like Michigan dodged a bullet, Hill’s health will be a concern until he physically retakes the field.