Michigan football's offensive mission is simple: Don't self-destruct


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There’s plenty of post-spring talk surrounding Jim Harbaugh’s offense, but Don Brown’s Michigan defense remains main attraction

It’s so simple it just might work.

On a fundamental level, one of Jim Harbaugh’s favorite lines echoes everything facing Michigan’s football team entering the fourth year of Harbaugh’s tenure atop the program.

Peel back the onion (another Harbaugh favorite), though, and it might look a bit more complex. 

Michigan spent a lot of time and money figuring out a way to fix its broken offense throughout the first half of an offseason following a frustrating 2017 season that featured schemes too complicated for a young talent base, pass protection troubles and a quarterback meltdown.

Assistant coaches were replaced. The strength staff was overhauled. Even the nutritionist is new.

More Michigan football:

Shea Patterson is one guy; Michigan needs more than that

Ask Nick: Is Michigan’s offensive line capable of a leap?

Michigan recruited, attracted quarterback Shea Patterson, and successfully fought for his eligibility. A lot has happened.

But plenty of the same remains.

“We’ve got a chance,” Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown said.

Listen to The Michigan Rant podcast, with Nick Baumgardner

Your post-spring Michigan diagnosis?

If this offense can get out of the way and not waste what could be an all-time defense filled with players who may be earning contracts in the NFL next year, then things are going to be fine in Ann Arbor this fall.

Finish drives with kicks. Take care of the football. Let your defense do what it does best, brutal schedule or not.

You’ve heard plenty about offensive simplification and how it could repair the offensive line. Patterson’s presence as a possible game-changer. The wideouts receiving fundamental tutelage

That’s fine, but the main event on this football team still lives on the other side of the ball. 

Brown came to Michigan in 2016, inherited the country’s No. 4-ranked defense and elevated it to No. 1. A year later, replacing nearly every starter he had, Brown had Michigan at No. 3. The last time one of Brown’s defenses finished outside the top-15 nationally was 2013, when Harbaugh was coaching in the NFC Championship game, Brady Hoke still had time on his maize and blue watch and Rashan Gary was a sophomore in high school.

Michigan wrapped up spring practice in Ann Arbor last month with a simple truth. None of it was complicated. This offense doesn’t need to set records. It doesn’t need flash or anything overly exciting.

As it looks now, Michigan’s 2018 schedule is the toughest Harbaugh has faced during his run with the program. The Wolverines will visit Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State, all rivals expected to be formidable this year. Michigan will also visit Northwestern, and host Wisconsin and Penn State, teams that both hung losses on the Wolverines a year ago.

With this schedule, Michigan could finish the regular season a very good football team that happens to be saddled with four losses because it was forced to play a bunch of other very good football teams in uncomfortable environments.

Still, there’s hope here for Harbaugh’s crew. And it only partially rests on the shoulders of an offense that may be breaking in another new quarterback without any system experience (Patterson) this season.

More: Shea Patterson’s job to lose? Michigan QBs won’t back down

Michigan’s defense had to replace nine starters in 2017 and figured it out. They replaced those players with an equally aggressive unit that leaned on a group of sophomores who saw heavy snaps for the first time. Nine starters were gone last year. Nine of them are back now, as are the backups.

Gary and Chase Winovich combined for 14 sacks. Devin Bush and Khaleke Hudson totaled 28 tackles for loss. Lavert Hill and David Long might be the best cover-corner duo in America, and every player on that side of the football has a backup pushing him day in and day out.

“Rashan Gary’s an awesome young man. … He’s the hardest worker on our team,” Harbaugh said last week. “He’s the best player on our team.” 

This defense has a chance to be an all-timer.

Typically, if teams can’t move the football, they can’t win. The game’s easy that way. Though Michigan spent most of 2017 testing that theory with a young offense that was asked to do things it wasn’t ready for, and, as a result, nothing worked.

Read more:

Michigan’s defense is deepest it has been under Don Brown

Michigan’s Quinn Nordin working way back from the wild side

The recipe entering a critical 2018 is simple: Let this defense do its job without self-sabotage and they may be surprised with the results.

How’s that work, though? Michigan hurt itself with shoddy quarterback play and 21 turnovers last season. There were 36 sacks allowed, 83 tackles for loss given up. Michigan was one of the worst offenses in America last season in those categories. The good news? Harbaugh’s revamped group doesn’t have to completely flip the script and be the best to survive. 

Find a quarterback who can keep the offense on schedule, scheme around your deficiencies, let athletes be athletes and everything else falls into place. No rocket science necessary here. 

Harbaugh, Pep Hamilton, Ed Warinner, Jim McElwain and Sherrone Moore don’t need to reinvent the wheel over the next three months. They must find a recipe for functionality with a group that’s not as young as it was a year ago. 

So simple it just might work. And logical enough to possibly get Michigan off the mat in 2018. 

More: Michigan has four critical questions yet to be answered

Contact Nick Baumgardner: nbaumgardn@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter nickbaumgardner. 

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A look at the Wolverines’ 2018 regular-season schedule, which opens at Notre Dame on Sept. 1, and finishes at Ohio State on Nov. 24. Video by Ryan Ford, Detroit Free Press
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