The Wolverine

January 2021

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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20 THE WOLVERINE JANUARY 2021 BY CHRIS BALAS A s of Dec. 28, Jim Harbaugh still hadn't signed an exten- sion to remain U-M's head coach beyond next season despite rumblings of a three-year deal on the table. He and director of ath- letics Warde Manuel had reportedly met Dec. 18 before students left for holiday break, but the results of that meeting had not been made public. Many still believe Harbaugh will re- turn for a seventh year at the helm fol- lowing a disappointing 2-4 finish this season. Here are five issues he'll need to address going forward if he returns: 1. REESTABLISH THE CULTURE Rarely have we seen such a di- chotomy in performance like we did between games one and two this year. The 2020 Wolverines looked like a team that couldn't wait to hit the field in the opener at Minnesota, play- ing with passion and enthusiasm in thumping the Golden Gophers, 49-24. Two weeks later, they were on the ropes after a loss to Michigan State, a n i n e x p l i c a b l e 27-24 setback in which they didn't show up, and a 38-21 thumping at Indiana, the program's first loss to the Hoosiers since 1987. The knockout punch came in a 49-11 home loss to Wisconsin Nov. 14, one of the more embarrassing show- ings in recent memory. Many Wol- verines played as though they would rather have been anywhere else. "We're not in a good place as a football team right now, and that falls on me," Harbaugh said after the loss. "We've got to get after really going back to basics in everything that we do and look at everything that we're doing. Everybody's got to do better. I'm at the front of the line in the ac- countability." It could only be three things, he continued — "what you're doing, how you're doing it and who's doing it" — and the coach vowed to evalu- ate all of it. "We've got to look at all those things right now," he concluded. "Right now, I'd say all three need to be addressed." Harbaugh rarely, if ever, throws his players under the bus publicly, nor should he. That's the fastest way to lose a team, and he's well aware. But it was clear there were some play- ers (again) who had not completely bought in and played for the program, failing their teammates. From pointing fingers to loafing, threatening trans- fers, etc., there were too many dis- tractions to form the team chemistry needed to play at a high level. As a result of that (and, yes, also injuries and opt-outs — U-M was without several of its top players by the end of the year, including red- shirt sophomore linebacker Cameron McGrone, redshirt sophomore right tackle Jalen Mayfield, junior defen- sive end Aidan Hutchinson and many others), U-M finished 2-4 and looked bereft of passion by the time the sea- son was shut down with three straight COVID-related cancellations. Harbaugh still directed most of the blame toward himself and his staff. "The thing that stands out the most is the coaching … making sure that [the players] have an understanding of what to do and, therefore, they can go for it," he said. "Because there seems to be hesitation; there seems to be some confusion, some lack of communication on both sides of the ball, offensively and defensively. "Getting things adjusted to getting things fixed, just identifying how to improve in those areas are some of the first things that we're going to address." But weeding out those without the 'want-to' needs to be his first step. 2. FIND THE QUARTERBACK Not a quarterback. Everyone has one of those. We're talking about the quarterback that can win games 'by himself,' dominate games with his arm and savvy, and make almost in- conceivable plays to keep drives alive. Elite quarterback play is often the difference between a contender and an also-ran, something that's been ob- vious over the last several years on the national stage. LSU was a step or two behind until Joe Burrow emerged as the eventual Heisman Trophy win- ner in 2019. The Tigers had racked up seven straight years with three or more losses before going 15-0 on the way to the national title. Harbaugh got the best quarterback play in his tenure year one, when Iowa transfer Jake Rudock stepped in and led U-M to a 10-3 record by throwing for 3,000-plus yards. Wilton Speight and Shea Patter- son were solid, but the position took a step back this year with Joe Mil- ton as the starter. After an incredible opener in which he completed 68.2 percent of his passes and threw for 225 yards, the redshirt sophomore's percentage got progressively worse in each game, dropping to 62.7 per- cent against MSU in week two then all the way down to 41.7 percent at Rutgers in week five before being pulled in the second quarter. Enter redshirt freshman Cade Mc- Namara, who went 27-of-36 passing (75.0 percent) for 260 yards and four touchdowns while leading the Wol- verines back from a d o u b l e - d i g i t deficit in the third quarter to victory. " M y l e v e l o f c o n f i d e n c e a n d my belief in my- self, I think I push that to my team- mates as best as I can," McNamara said. "Just that swagger, that trust level, too … just having confidence in ourselves and level of execution." Is he 'the guy?' It's too early to tell. He was hurt a week later in a loss to Penn State and struggled to play through a banged-up shoulder. He'll likely battle with true freshman early enrollee J.J. McCarthy of Bradenton (Fla.) IMG Academy, U-M's next prep sensation, for the right to start next season. "He's got that 'it' factor," Harbaugh said after McCarthy signed Dec. 16. "You know when you step into a hud- dle how important that is for the QB to have that confidence, the energy. He is also a guy who makes a lot of really good decisions and plays really well and competes, gives it everything he has. All are necessary qualities for a quarterback." PRESSING ON Jim Harbaugh Has Plenty To Fix Heading Into Year Seven After this season's 2-4 showing, Harbaugh has posted an overall record of 49-22 in six seasons leading the Wolverines. PHOTO BY PER KJELDSEN

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