And In That Corner … The No. 14 Michigan Wolverines and Jim Harbaugh

16 Comments

For the first time since 2002, Notre Dame faces Michigan without first-hand knowledge of the Wolverines provided by a previous year’s matchup. Even 16 years ago, the Irish seniors had seen the Wolverines as freshmen in 1999. Now, only fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill remains from Notre Dame’s active roster in 2014’s 31-0 victory. Who will the No. 12 Irish be facing this weekend? Let’s ask Cody Stavenhagen of The Athletic …

DF: Thanks for taking the time to educate the Notre Dame side of this season opener. You picked quite a year to join the Michigan beat. By no means is a nationally-prominent program new for you — how many years did you spend covering Oklahoma for the Tulsa World? — but this should be a bit more unstable situation than the Sooners provided. In retrospect, Bob Stoops really made life easy by handing off a title contender to Lincoln Riley.

Now you have Jim Harbaugh on a warm seat, a new quarterback who some seem to think will make-or-break the Wolverines season and, of course, a return to Notre Dame Stadium.

What have been your first impressions of covering Michigan football?

CS: Thanks Douglas. I spent two years covering Oklahoma, and what a two years it was. Everything from controversy involving Joe Mixon and Dede Westbrook to the Stoops-Riley transition to Baker Mayfield’s Heisman run and plenty more.

But yes, the dynamic here with Michigan is certainly different. The program isn’t on the same rock-solid footing. There’s a ton of pressure to deliver. Oklahoma’s athletic department was full of proven professionals, but the biggest difference I’ve noticed is the fact Michigan still has a more button-down feel (despite Harbaugh’s antics). Press conferences are more orderly. The sense of history oozes and influences everything Michigan does. You can feel it when you walk into the building, in a way you didn’t even at Oklahoma. I’m sure Notre Dame is much the same. That’s a big part of what creates this make-or-break feel. Jim Harbaugh is obviously interesting no matter what, so in terms of interest and intrigue, I think this might be the perfect year to be covering Michigan.

Is Harbaugh’s seat as uncomfortable as it seems to be from a distance? By now, even I can recite his win-loss record against Ohio State and Michigan State (1-5), and I really couldn’t care less.

I don’t think so. There is a real pressure to win. If he doesn’t beat the rivals, if Michigan falls short of expectations this season, then the seat gets a lot warmer. But I think Harbaugh will be here as long as he wants to be here. He still had success in his first two years, and there were a lot of odd circumstances that created last year’s 8-5 record. The thought is that this could be the year that makes or breaks Harbaugh’s tenure, but I think it’s a little premature to say he’s on the hot seat.

If that is the case, then Ole Miss transfer and now starting quarterback Shea Patterson’s success is even more vital to the Wolverines season. In remembering Patterson as a recruit last week, Irish head coach Brian Kelly said, “What appealed to me early on was he played fast. Certainly the way he threw the football, very strong arm. I got a chance to see him and he just impressed me with his ability to make plays.” That was three years ago now. How has Patterson developed? / What did Kelly miss?

We have not gotten to see much (OK, any) of Patterson in person this fall, but there’s one piece of empirical evidence that says a lot about his ability: Jim Harbaugh named him the starter two weeks before the opener. Before this, he had not named a starter at Michigan prior to gameday. The last time he did this with a college quarterback, he was coaching Andrew Luck. So we’ve heard a ton about Patterson’s mobility and his innate skill to make plays. He has an above-average arm. On tape at Ole Miss, he was often dynamic, but he still played like a young quarterback. There is still developing for him to do, so making good decisions, not holding on to the ball too long, moving from the pocket selectively, will all be things he still has to hone this season. Kelly seems to have a pretty good idea of what he’s dealing with.

Receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones caught 22 passes for 277 yards as a freshman, never reaching the end zone. Those numbers made him Michigan’s fourth-most productive pass-catcher. For the Wolverines offense to hum this season, he will need to offer much more and possibly lead the way. (Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images)

Patterson’s task this weekend got more difficult with the left foot injury suffered by sophomore receiver Tarik Black, expected to be Michigan’s leader on the outside. How will the Wolverines adapt?

I think this could be a massive loss. Black missed most of last season with a right foot injury, but was Michigan’s most explosive receiver as a true freshman in his first few college games. The Wolverines have little depth at WR. They had a couple of guys transfer at the start of camp. This was a worst-case scenario for their position group, which will now have to lean on senior slot guy Grant Perry and sophomore Donovan Peoples-Jones. Peoples-Jones has a lot of talent but wasn’t a great route runner and made his share of mistakes last season as a freshman. Michigan will likely look to second-year receiver Nico Collins to fill Black’s void on the outside. Collins got a lot of hype throughout camp, and at 6-4, he is the most physically imposing of Michigan’s receivers. We’ll see if it’s for real.

Speaking of weekend injuries, there was a moment Sunday when it seemed junior defensive end Rashan Gary may have injured his shoulder, but all indications since (at least from here) are he is healthy. Combining him with senior end Chase Winovich creates a pass-rush just about every defense in the country would be envious of. Obviously, that is just the start of defensive coordinator Don Brown’s unit. Are there any holes for Notre Dame to try to exploit?

Yep, sounds like Gary should be good to go this weekend. The Michigan defense returns nine starters and probably has five NFL-caliber players starting this season. The front seven in particular is about as good as it gets. In addition to Gary and Winovich, linebackers Devin Bush and Khaleke Hudson are ferocious.

The lone hole in Michigan’s defense last season was a vulnerability to big passes over the middle to tight ends and slot receivers. When Michigan is in a traditional alignment, it doesn’t have a Will linebacker thought to be great in coverage. That’s one of the two positions Michigan is replacing, so it’ll likely be sophomore Josh Ross looking to prove himself at that spot. The safeties in Tyree Kinnel and Josh Metellus can cover ground, but they struggled at times helping out over the middle or assisting in man coverage. We’ll see if they’ve improved.

Setting aside those pieces of recent news, the Wolverines’ offensive line has been a known question mark all offseason. Ed Warriner — yes, Irish fans, one and the same as the former Notre Dame assistant who served as Kelly’s offensive line coach in 2010 and 2011 — needs to find two new starting tackles. Has he?

Heck of a question. We haven’t gotten much insight on who will start at tackle, but Jon Runyan Jr. (LT) and Juan Bushell-Beatty (RT) are the favorites. Both guys have some experience, but they haven’t shown they can be top-notch tackles. Michigan players have raved about the difference Warinner’s guidance has made in the line, but there’s a thought the talent level might still not be as high as it needs to be. Freshman Jalen Mayfield and sophomore James Hudson are the most talented tackles, but they’re both younger and still learning. Wouldn’t be surprised if at least one of them is starting by year’s end, but it’s likely the older guys will start Saturday.

Lastly, you can’t escape here without offering a prediction for Saturday night. If you aren’t willing to part with a final score just yet, what do you generally expect?

Really hard to know what to expect. There are a lot of unknowns with a new Michigan offense. There are some similar questions for Notre Dame. That said, I think Michigan has a little more talent across the board. Could go either way, but I’ll pick Michigan 24-21.