ANN ARBOR, Mich. – I’m making a very un-Jim-Harbaugh-like request for the Michigan football team this weekend, and I think it makes a lot of sense: Focus on the passing attack this weekend against Connecticut.
If you’ve watched the Wolverines during the Harbaugh era, you know this is a run-first offense. That might not lead to the flashy offensive numbers people have grown accustomed to across the country, but it worked just fine as Michigan marched to the College Football Playoff a year ago.
This season, Michigan’s running game is once again in great shape, with Blake Corum, Donovan Edwards, and emerging freshman C.J. Stokes leading the way.
But I think the Wolverines should move away from the running game -- just for one week.
For starters, it sounds like Michigan might be without Edwards, who is “working through something” after leaving the Hawaii game with an injury, according to Harbaugh. Instead of splitting those Edwards carries between Corum, Stokes, Tavierre Dunlap, and Isaiah Gash, I think Sherrone Moore and Matt Weiss should let new starting quarterback J.J. McCarthy throw the ball around.
McCarthy only has one college start under his belt, and after this week, he’ll be thrust into Big Ten play. Sure, Maryland isn’t exactly the most daunting matchup, but the Terrapins won seven games last year and are off to an undefeated start. They won’t be a pushover.
Then, McCarthy faces one of the best defenses in the country at Iowa. The Hawkeyes’ secondary thrives off of forcing turnovers -- that’s the only reason they made the Big Ten Championship Game a year ago. McCarthy has to take care of the ball in Kinnick Stadium, so getting him more reps in the last tune-up game of the season should be a priority.
Most starting quarterbacks have already played multiple full games to get into the swing of the season, but since McCarthy was splitting time with Cade McNamara both in practice and through the first two games, he could use the extra work with his wide receivers this weekend.
Speaking of receivers, there’s an elephant in that room, and I think many Michigan fans have concerns in the back of their minds.
The wide receiver room is very, very crowded, especially when the tight ends are factored into the equation. Already this season, 16 different players have caught a pass for the Wolverines, but only two have more than three receptions.
Anyone who follows college football these days knows that a lack of use can often lead to transfers, and that has to be a consideration for Michigan’s staff.
Take Andrel Anthony, for example. One of the budding stars of last year’s team has just one catch for five yards this season. We’re talking about someone who caught a 99-yard touchdown at Spartan Stadium and scored in the College Football Playoff as a true freshman, and so far, he’s got as many tackles as receptions.
Anthony hasn’t done anything to suggest he would transfer, but if Michigan plans to stick primarily with Ronnie Bell, Cornelius Johnson, and Roman Wilson during conference play, where will the catches come from for the true sophomore?
For a run-heavy team like Michigan, the number of available receptions is already limited, so there’s a chance players such as Anthony, A.J. Henning, and the true freshmen will finish the season with single-digit catches.
Michigan can obviously still win that way, but with Bell and Johnson likely moving onto the NFL this offseason, losing others on the depth chart could really weaken the offense in 2023.
Maybe the prospect of increased playing time next season will be enough to keep everyone on board, but even so, it wouldn’t hurt to throw the ball Anthony’s way four or five times during a game in which Michigan should be able to get whatever it wants.
Make sure Darrius Clemons gets his first career catch. Throw a screen to Amorion Walker and let him use his speed. Run a couple of sweeps for Henning.
Corum and Stokes are going to get their carries all year, especially if Edwards misses time. There doesn’t seem to be much need to force feed them 15 times apiece against the Huskies. Get the ball to players who might not be as involved over the following 10 weeks.
I know Harbaugh loves to run the ball, and he wants to reward the tight ends who do such an excellent job blocking. But he needs to keep his most talented playmakers happy, too, and Saturday is a risk-free opportunity to do that before the schedule ramps up.