Michigan still in wait-and-see mode as spring practice opens

The best of Jim Harbaugh at Michigan (1:40)

Take a listen to the best wit and wisdom from Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh since joining the Wolverines. (1:40)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Shea Patterson gets to put his phone away for a few hours Friday afternoon.

The SEC import has spent his first few months in a Michigan winter waiting on an important call from the NCAA. A good chunk of the quarterback's new neighbors in Ann Arbor have been waiting, too. Patterson announced his plans to play for the Wolverines in early December; the school formally asked the NCAA to clear him for immediate competition in February. They had not yet received a response as Patterson suited up with his new teammates for the first time Friday when the Wolverines open spring practice.

It is a wait-and-see kind of year for everyone at Michigan. Waiting can be a dull affair.

The offseason victories, noisy recruiting tactics and convention-be-damned attitude that ushered in the promise of a bright future during Jim Harbaugh’s first few years at his alma mater are no longer viewed by just about anyone as definite harbingers of success. The skeptics who want those things to translate to championships in the fall before buying into Michigan’s return to prominence are no longer just outsiders and enemies.

And so those things have largely gone away. Gone are the Twitter spats, the sleepovers, the videos of fully clothed cannonballs. Michigan and Harbaugh haven’t made much of a splash of any kind since the 2017 season came to a close at 8-5. A quiet stretch off the field now makes way for a month of actual practice. While questions about the program’s trajectory will have to wait for the fall for a meaningful response, Michigan can at least now begin to chip away at figuring out some answers for itself.

The offense needs to improve if the Wolverines are going to close the gap with the Big Ten's other elite outfits.

“We need to do better as a football team,” Harbaugh said back in December. "We’ve got to win all our games. That’s what we’re striving for.”

He’s made plenty of changes to that end. Patterson’s arrival could help. The former five-star prospect who made a strong first impression at Ole Miss before a leg injury sidelined him for the last half of 2017 will be stiff competition for the other quarterbacks already on the roster. If he’s cleared to play in 2018, though, there is no guarantee that he’ll even win the starting job. Is Patterson the magic salve to fix a group that finished 91st in the nation last season in scoring offense? Wait and see.

Last season's offensive line -- a group that allowed 2.77 sacks per game and had trouble moving the ball against tougher rush defenses -- was often a source of frustration. Michigan’s coaching staff struggled to solve the five-piece puzzle to get the Wolverines moving consistently forward.

The two men in charge of coaching that line, Greg Frey and longtime Harbaugh staff member Tim Drevno, are no longer around. Taking their place is Ed Warinner, who has a history of producing NFL-caliber linemen during past stops at Notre Dame and Ohio State. Proven line gurus have come and gone without fixing one of the fundamental problems that has vexed Michigan’s coaches since the tail end of the Rich Rodriguez era. What will Warinner’s impact be? Wait and see.

Drevno also served as Michigan’s offensive coordinator, and his departure to coach running backs at Southern California means that Harbaugh has reason to revisit how the staff is organized on that side of the ball. Former Florida head coach Jim McElwain and former Central Michigan assistant Sherrone Moore are the other newcomers on the offense. Spring ball might provide some clarity on how that part of the staff will be structured.

Harbaugh has always been and will be involved in calling plays and laying out an identity for his team’s offenses, but he now has an experienced playcaller and coordinator at his disposal with McElwain. Michigan fans will remember the work he did in helping Nick Saban win a national title at Alabama and molding top-notch wide receivers at several stops in his career. They might also remember the Gators team that Michigan beat last September that struggled for three years to find consistent success on offense. Which is a better representation of how McElwain will affect the Wolverines? Wait and see.

Michigan added an elite transfer quarterback and hired five new coaches since December. And yet, relatively, it has been a quiet offseason in Ann Arbor.

There haven’t been any feather-ruffling controversies stirred up and dissected by talk radio and other football opiners. Few, if any, saw the staff overhaul as a move of panic or reason to declare that Harbaugh’s job is in any jeopardy. Not even the three-week cameo by Dan Enos -- who left town shortly after unpacking his bags for the quarterback-coaching job at Alabama -- was seen as cause to roll out the frequent criticism that Harbaugh is an unsustainably demanding boss who wears his colleagues thin.

There isn’t much use in bold proclamations around Michigan this season; most of them have already been made at one point or another. Spring ball might provide some clue as to how the Wolverines will try to do better, but for the actual results, they’ll have to wait and see.