After a season marred by mistakes and bad football, Michigan has endured significant turnover from a player and coaching standpoint. While questions remain on the offensive side of the ball, the focus now shifts to the defense with the departure of longtime coordinator Don Brown. First-year defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald has arrived from the Baltimore Ravens and will be implementing a new scheme with a young and inexperienced group that saw its fair share of struggles. Not void of talent by any means, the defensive side of the ball is looking to be vastly different from 2020.
Previewing Michigan's Offense for 2021
Another year, another quarterback controversy boiling through spring football in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines went through something of a quarterback roulette last season between Joe Milton and Cade McNamara. While both suffered unfortunate injuries that hindered their progress, the ball is squarely in McNamara's court heading out of spring football with Milton entering the transfer portal. However, McNamara will not be a shoe-in starter by any stretch. Hot on his heels is five-star recruit J.J. McCarthy, who will immediately come in and inject some talent into the QB room. An early enrollee, McCarthy got some invaluable experience during spring football to get an early grasp on Josh Gattis' offensive system and to work with new quarterbacks coach Matt Weiss. Also, Texas Tech transfer Alan Bowman will compete for the starting job in the fall.
Running back appears to be one of the strongest units on this side of the ball. Despite losing contributor Zach Charbonnet to the transfer portal, there's still plenty of talent on the depth chart, beginning with returning starter Hassan Haskins. While Haskins is a known commodity, the players behind him could be just as productive. With sophomore Blake Corum having a season under his belt, he is poised to see an uptick in production both as a running back and receiver after showing flashes last year. Corum has an excellent opportunity to showcase his talents moving forward. Elsewhere at running back, early enrollee freshman Donovan Edwards provides another injection of explosive talent. The top recruit out of Michigan and the Wolverines' second-ranked recruit after McCarthy according to 247Sports, Edwards represented a major recruiting victory for the Wolverines. He could contribute right away.
Elsewhere, the Wolverines return many familiar faces on the offensive line, at tight end and at wide receiver. A young receiver group will be led by senior Ronnie Bell, but the corps will get even younger with the infusion of true freshmen such as Andrel Anthony and Cristian Dixon. Cornelius Johnson, Roman Wilson, A.J. Henning and Mike Sainristil all return with experience. Guard Chuck Filiaga and tackle Andrew Stueber are returning starters.
Previewing Michigan's Defense for 2021
The question that many are asking is just what Michigan's defense under Macdonald is going to look like. While the answer is under lock-and-key in Ann Arbor, Macdonald has stated many times that it will include a combination of looks from his previous coaching stops with the Ravens and Georgia. While Macdonald has pieces to work with, now it's about making them all fit.
The biggest piece is defensive end Aidan Hutchinson. A likely high pick in the 2021 NFL Draft had he entered his name, Hutchinson decided to return for his senior season and will give the defensive side of the ball a much-needed leadership presence as the defense pivots to a new scheme. Hutchinson anchors a unit that also includes Taylor Upshaw, Mike Morris and Gabe Newburg. The tackle position features Donovan Jeter and Chris Hinton as returning starters, with Mazi Smith looking to take the next step now that an increased opportunity for playing time has presented itself. Oregon State transfer Jordan Whittley was added to the team after spring practice to push for snaps at tackle.
The linebacker unit returns intact with one major exception — Cameron McGrone, who left Ann Arbor for the draft with 4.5 career sacks. Elsewhere, familiar faces return. The defensive backs all return, including former five-star recruit Dax Hill.
Previewing Michigan's Specialists for 2021
The Wolverines have seen a slight shakeup on special teams during the offseason, but there is still talent among the specialists. Last year, the kicker role was split between Quinn Nordin and Jake Moody. With Nordin departing the program, Moody is the key returner and the likely starting kicker. There is a similar situation at punter with Will Hart and Brad Robbins splitting time last season. With Hart's departure, Robbins is poised to take those duties this season, although incoming freshman Tommy Doman, who was considered one of the top punting recruits in the 2021 class, could challenge. Michigan suffered a loss in the return game with Giles Jackson's transfer to Washington. In his stead, the Wolverines could use a combination of Sainristil, Bell, Henning, Corum and others.
The Wolverines are entering a season with more questions than answers. While the talent is certainly there, it's up to Harbaugh and his re-tooled coaching staff to put that talent the best position to win in 2021 in what is shaping up to be a critical season for Harbaugh's tenure in Ann Arbor. His future may ride on how successfully Macdonald can implement his new defensive scheme.
National Ranking: 32
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(Aidan Hutchinson photo by Michigan Photography)