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Michigan football hosts Western Michigan to kick off critical chapter of Harbaugh era

Wolverines begin 7th season under Jim Harbaugh

ANN ARBOR, Mich.Michigan football is about to kick off the most important chapter of the Jim Harbaugh era, hosting Western Michigan on Saturday at the Big House.

This is Harbaugh’s seventh year at the helm, and while there have been plenty of highs, the program is licking its wounds after a painful 2-4 season in 2020. As if embracing this year’s do-or-die theme, Harbaugh pushed all his chips to the center of the table and overhauled his coaching staff.

Michigan has a new defensive coordinator and new position coaches for quarterbacks, running backs, safeties, linebackers and defensive backs. The offensive hierarchy got a reset with Sherrone Moore joining Josh Gattis as co-offensive coordinators.

The bottom line: Harbaugh realized the program needed change, and he made plenty of it. Saturday will be our first chance to see if it’s paid off.

Offensive questions

In an eye-rolling game of cat-and-mouse, both teams neglected to release depth charts ahead of kickoff, leaving us to speculate about which players we’ll see on the field.

We can guess most of Michigan’s offensive starters pretty easily, though.

Cade McNamara has officially been named QB1, and he’ll have some combination of Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum in the backfield the majority of the game. Ronnie Bell and Cornelius Johnson will be the top two wide receivers, with Mike Sainristil, Roman Wilson, A.J. Henning and Daylen Baldwin cycling through, as well.

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It remains to be seen how much Michigan uses its tight ends this year, but Erick All will be the No. 1 option.

The offensive line might be without star sophomore Zak Zinter, so expect a starting five of Ryan Hayes, Andrew Stueber, Trevor Keegan, Andrew Vastardis and either Karsen Barnhart or Chuck Filiaga.

There’s no shortage of talent on this side of the ball, but that doesn’t automatically translate to success for the Wolverines. McNamara is looking to snap a streak of underwhelming quarterback play that dates back a decade for the program.

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Running back and wide receiver look like strengths, but everything starts up front. Can the line open up holes for the running backs and protect McNamara long enough to support the passing game?

Don Brown’s porous defense drew most of the negative attention last season -- and rightfully so -- but don’t forget that the offense was a major issue in all four losses.

Plenty to prove on defense

The defensive staff has a whole new look, but most of the personnel issues that haunted the Wolverines on the field remain.

First and foremost, this isn’t a vintage University of Michigan defensive line. Aidan Hutchinson should be a solid pass rusher off the edge, but otherwise, nobody has proven to be a difference-maker.

Donovan Jeter has shown flashes of his potential, but as a fifth-year senior, it feels like we know what to expect from him. Conversely, Christopher Hinton and Mazi Smith came to Michigan with a wealth of potential, but haven’t tapped into it their first two seasons.

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To compete with the best teams in the Big Ten, Michigan has to be able to stop the run and pressure the quarterback. Last season, this defense couldn’t do either.

Perhaps a schematic move to a 3-4 will better fit Michigan’s personnel. With Hutchinson and someone like David Ojabo -- always considered an excellent raw athlete -- coming off the edge, Michigan should have a very different look.

Josh Ross and Nikhai Hill-Green will start at the other two linebacker spots. Michigan badly needs a bounce-back season from its linebackers.

Michigan’s secondary actually feels pretty stable. Daxton Hill and Brad Hawkins return as starting safeties, and Gemon Green, Vincent Gray and D.J. Turner are a reliable cornerback trio. At the very least, the Wolverines have experience in an area where that’s very important.

There’s little doubt Michigan will be better defensively than last year. Will it be enough to get back to competing near the top of the Big Ten? It feels like that would be a big leap, considering the two-deep is more or less the same.

Meet Western Michigan

Saturday’s opener will be a celebration of fans returning to Michigan Stadium and putting 2020 behind them. But Michigan had better not let the Broncos ruin the party.

Western Michigan isn’t the typical MAC punching bag to open up a season, and that’s because it has a future NFL player at the most important position in the sport.

Senior quarterback Kaleb Eleby is coming off his first season as the full-time starter for Western Michigan, and he was excellent. Eleby completed 64.7% of his passes and averaged 11.2 yards per attempt -- 99-of-153 for 1,715 yards, 18 touchdowns and two interceptions in total.

After playing well as a true freshman when starter Jon Wassink went down for the final five games of 2018, Eleby didn’t see the field in 2019. Last year, his performance landed him on the radar of NFL scouts, and he’ll be looking to validate that with a strong senior season.

His favorite target, wide receiver Dee Eskridge, was selected in the second-round of the NFL draft by the Seattle Seahawks, but Skyy Moore and Jaylen Hall are two of the top returning playmakers in the MAC, combining for 711 yards and 10 touchdowns on 37 catches a year ago.

Any semblance of a passing game signaled doom for last year’s Wolverine defense, so Eleby and his receivers have to be eager to take some shots Saturday. We’ll find out very early how much Michigan has improved.

Final thoughts

This is the least I’ve known about a Michigan football team to start a season, and the lasting images from 2020 were jarring. It’s certainly possible that last year eventually goes down as an outlier, but Harbaugh has to prove that’s the case. We’re beyond the point of giving the benefit of the doubt.

Michigan is looking for its first win at the Big House since 2019 after nightmare performances against Michigan State, Wisconsin and Penn State at home last year.

The Wolverines should win, but Eleby is good enough to make Saturday a bit uncomfortable.

About the Author:

Derick is a Senior Web Producer for ClickOnDetroit and has been with Local 4 News since April 2013. Derick specializes in breaking news, crime and local sports.