Michigan football: Harbaugh may have his best team so far
ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Jim Harbaugh is in his fourth year at Michigan, where he has had time to assemble perhaps his best team.
Former Mississippi star Shea Patterson gives Harbaugh the quarterback he's been looking for since coming back to his alma mater. Patterson will have experienced running backs behind him, talent at receiver and potentially a solid offensive line. On defense, the Wolverines seem to be stacked from front to back with playmakers such as Rashan Gary and Devin Bush among the unit's nine returning starters.
"We want to be the No. 1 defense in the nation and lead all categories," Gary said.
The Wolverines, though, may be hard pressed to match or surpass the 10-win seasons Harbaugh had in his first two years because of a difficult schedule. They took a step back last season, going 8-5, with losses to rivals Ohio State and Michigan State that dropped Harbaugh to 1-5 in those games.
Harbaugh seems to have toned down his off-field talk a little, too — perhaps because it's time for him and his players to win.
"There's been a lot more of that, collectively as a team just kind of keeping low and keeping our heads down," tight end Zach Gentry said. "We all know we have a good amount of potential we have to fill."
It won't take long to find out what he has to work with this season because Michigan kicks off the season in dramatic fashion under the lights Sept. 1 at Notre Dame.
Harbaugh insists Patterson is simply one of four quarterbacks competing to take the first snap along with Brandon Peters, Dylan McCaffrey and Joe Milton.
No one is buying that.
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Patterson is expected to start against the Fighting Irish after successfully appealing to the NCAA after throwing for 3,000-plus yards with 23 touchdowns and 12 interceptions over 10 starts at Ole Miss. Peters started four games last season with uneven results while McCaffrey, a redshirt freshman, and Milton, a true freshman, haven't taken a snap in college.
"That position has been very competitive, probably our most competitive position battle," Harbaugh insisted. "None of them have dropped off so the rage is on."
Is planning to play more than one quarterback in a game possible?
"I don't like to tell what our plans would be," Harbaugh said. "There's no real reason to do that. So, we avoid it."
Even though the players won't acknowledge Patterson is the team's No. 1 quarterback, they all rave about his ability to throw, run and lead.
"He has a lot of ability so he carries himself confidently," Gentry said.
Michigan will have a pair of experienced running backs to lean on: Karan Higdon and Chris Evans. They had a combined 1,679 yards and 17 touchdowns on the ground and 24 catches for another score, combining to average more than 10 yards per reception. The Wolverines will likely have more run-pass option plays, taking advantage of Patterson's mobility and ability to look down field to throw even when on the move.
Michigan has not won a Big Ten title since 2004, its longest stretch since the school's conference championships in 1950 and 1964. Players are reminded of the drought every time they walk into the indoor football facility, where Big Ten, national championship and bowl banners are displayed.
"We talk about it a lot," Gentry said. "Whether you go 5-7 or 11-1 it doesn't matter at a place like Michigan, there's always a high expectation. This team is very hungry and motivated and ready to go prove something."
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The Wolverines lost some on depth on offense because some players transferred, including quarterback Wilton Speight, running back Kareem Walker, tight end Tyrone Wheatley Jr. along with receivers Eddie McDoom, Kekoa Crawford and Drake Harris.
Michigan will find out how it stacks up in the opener against the Fighting Irish, and will have plenty of more tests this year. In the middle of the season, the Wolverines will have three tough games in a row against Wisconsin, at Michigan State and then Penn State at home. They will close the regular season at Ohio State, which has won six straight and 13 of the last 14 games in the series.