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Notre Dame Football

Way-Too-Early Michigan Preview

February 13, 2018
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Signing Day was less than a week ago and there are 200 days until Notre Dame gets on the field for their next game, but there’s no harm in looking ahead to when the Irish play real games again. So why not jump ahead with a way-too-early look at each opponent in the 2018 season?

Of course, we have to start with the season opener versus Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan Wolverines.

There will be additions and subtractions to the roster before the game. Michigan is actually still in the process of adding a receivers coach as well. But with their 2018 recruiting class now signed, we now have somewhat of a picture of what the Wolverines will look like when they travel to Notre Dame on September 1st.

It was a transition year last in Ann Arbor with Harbaugh having to replace so many experienced starters and NFL Draft picks. They felt all of those personnel losses on the field when they finished 8-5 and came up short against South Carolina in the Outback Bowl.

This year they have 78% of their combined production returning on offense and defense (13th in the nation) and are in a better position to win more games in 2018.

The Good News for Notre Dame

There isn’t any way to say it other than the Michigan offense was bad last season. The biggest issues were at the quarterback position where injuries and ineffective play led them to struggle throwing the football. They finished 109th in yards per attempt and the decision making at the position was a big factor in Michigan giving up 36 sacks on the season (114th).

If it was 3rd and long, the offense was pretty much in jail. They converted a dreadful 32.63% on 3rd downs (116th) on the season. All in all, pretty ugly.

When you consider that they are losing their starting center and a quality left tackle in Mason Cole, things don’t sound too rosey for the offensive line next year either. They are still in the running to add graduate transfer Calvin Anderson from Rice to play tackle for them, but there are no guarantees he will choose Michigan as his next destination.

That can’t be comforting for quarterback Brandon Peters. He’s returning at the position and struggled down the stretch in his late-season opportunities. Maybe he takes a big step in the right direction as a redshirt sophomore, but there is no doubt Michigan fans are hoping Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson will be ruled eligible this season. Right now his status is up in the air.

He would be a significant upgrade on Peters or redshirt freshman Dylan McCaffrey. Harbaugh and his staff have recruited some very talented players at receiver in Donovan Peoples-Jones, Tarik Black, and Nico Collins. DPJ and Black especially showed exciting potential last season. Whether they are serious threats in this game or not largely depends on the quarterback delivering them the football.

They have 4 star Joe Milton coming in as an early enrollee at quarterback, but I doubt he’ll be the guy for them to open the season. While they added some other quality pieces in their 2018 recruiting class, there aren’t many players I see from that group that will be day one contributors.

The Bad News for Notre Dame

Michigan is loaded on defense. They have recruited at an elite level on that side of the ball on all three levels of the defense and have had elite production from the group as a whole.

Defensive coordinator Don Brown is going to have another nasty defense that the Irish will have to deal with. Despite new faces at almost every position in 2017, they still finished in the top six in yards per play after finishing second the year before. For the second straight year, they led the nation in Havoc Rate as well (23.7%). On almost ¼ of the plays against them they were either making a tackle for loss, forcing a fumble, breaking up a pass, or intercepting the football. And the majority of the players who were made those plays are coming back.

Defensive ends Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich combined for 30.5 TFLs and 14 sacks last season. Linebacker Devin Bush and Viper Khaleke Hudson are chess pieces Brown loves to move all over the board in coverage or as blitzers. They are both terrific players.

They have a deep stable of corners that can play man coverage including David Long and Lavert Hill. Safety Tyree Kinnel covers a ton of ground and makes plays as well.

Despite losing consensus All-American Maurice Hurst at defensive tackle, this is likely going to be the most talented defense the Irish face all season. That’s not exactly a great thing to open the year with that kind of match-up.

On the other side of the ball, it’s no surprise that Harbaugh is going to want to run the football. That is the one thing they did pretty well last season on offense and they have backs Karan Higdon and Chris Evans returning (combined 1,679 yards rushing and 17 touchdowns). If they can figure out the offensive line in August, then a grind it out game with Michigan running the ball and trying to create turnovers on defense seems likely.

Spring Ball Questions

The defense should be rolling, but all eyes will be on the quarterback position and the passing game. Can Peters or McCaffrey take a big step forward? Will Patterson light it up in the spring? Will that even matter if he does? Who knows when the NCAA will get back to them with their decision on his eligibility.

If they decide he isn’t eligible, it certainly changes things. Michigan has recruited some good players on the offensive line like guard Ben Bredeson and potential starting center Cesar Ruiz, but three years into Harbaugh’s tenure and the line has looked nowhere close to what it looked like when he was with Stanford or the San Francisco 49ers.

If they find the right mix on the line for Notre Dame, it will make them much more difficult to defend. If the offense looks like it will be above average this spring, then it will make that opening game that much tougher for the Irish.

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