National Championship game takeaways: Michigan's offensive line dominates while Michael Penix Jr. struggles

The 2023 college football season is officially in the books. Congratulations to Michigan on claiming their first national title since 1997. As much fun as it is to sift through all of the great plays from the game, I am focused on what the game means for the NFL draft, in 2024 and beyond. Here are my biggest takeaways from Monday's game.

Michael Penix Jr. and JJ. McCarthy both had lackluster performances in the College Football Playoff championship game.
Michael Penix Jr. and JJ. McCarthy both had lackluster performances in the College Football Playoff championship game. / Stacy Revere/GettyImages
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This running back class is full of potential contributors

It was a good night for running the football, well for Michigan that is. Blake Corum grabbed the spotlight in the semifinal against Alabama. Donovan Edwards reminded everyone that he is an explosive playmaker worthy of NFL draft attention. On his two 40-plus-yard touchdown runs, Edwards showcased his speed and vision. Corum had a quality night, going over the century mark with ease and adding two touchdowns of his own. He is a compact, determined runner who churns for extra yardage with great leg drive.

On the opposite side, Dillon Johnson did not have a great night statistically, but he impressed with his toughness. He was incredibly banged up heading into the game and then suffered an injury early in the game that seemed like it might knock him out for the night. He returned to the field, grinding out tough yards despite all the nagging injuries. You could tell he was definitely hampered all night, but kept on lowering his shoulder into contact. Corum, Edwards and Johnson all project as late Day 2/Early Day 3 picks. This running back class lacks a clear star or even a first-round back, but there are going to be some solid contributors drafted in rounds three through five.

Michigan has the best offensive line in the country

It is no exaggeration to say Michigan could have seven offensive linemen drafted in 2024, if they all declare. The group is all veterans. LaDarius Henderson is a fifth-year who started for two seasons at Arizona State before transferring to Michigan and moving to tackle. Trevor Keegan, Karsen Barnhart and Trente Jones are all players that have come up through the Wolverines program, developing into starters, at least in some capacity. Jones has split time with Myles Hinton, the Stanford transfer, at right tackle. At center, Michigan has one of Hinton's former Cardinal teammates in Drake Nugent. All of them saw action on Monday night.

That does not even include Zak Zinter, who broke his leg against Ohio State. Zinter was a likely Day 2 pick prior to the injury. I doubt all of them declare for the draft, but I think we will see three or four of them make the move to the NFL. They dominated Washington all night long, particularly in the run game. Michigan racked up 305 yards on the ground, excluding kneel downs. The offensive line opened up massive holes all night long for Corum and Edwards to speed through and kept J.J. McCarthy clean almost the entire game. Hopefully, we see some of them suit up at the Senior Bowl in a few weeks.

There is a gap between the top 3 QBs and everyone else

Perhaps this was always the case, but I certainly felt like Michael Penix Jr. was in the same conversation as Drake Maye and Jayden Daniels. I had not watched too much of J.J. McCarthy, but there are plenty of folks who believe in his ability. After watching this game, I am pretty sure neither one of them will be challenging to crash the top 3.

Let's start with McCarthy. He once again was not asked to do too much in a winning performance. He completed just 10 of his 18 passes for 140 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions. He was not the reason they won, but he certainly made sure the Wolverines did not lose, never putting the ball in harm's way. This was an opportunity for him to put up some big numbers on a big stage against a defense that has struggled at points in pass coverage. Watching the film, McCarthy played really well. He delivered the ball on time and in stride. He looked great as a runner as well. He unquestionably looked more the part of an NFL quarterback than his Washington counterpart, but that says more about Penix's performance than it does McCarthy's.

Penix had a very un-Penix-like game. He missed routine throws, threw into coverage and did not move through his progressions in the way we have grown accustomed to. Make no mistake, the offensive line was a major issue, especially in the second half. Penix could not get into a rhythm and was clearly in excruciating pain down the stretch because of all the hits he took. At the same time, his play under pressure was the opposite of a week ago against Texas. In the semifinal, he relocated well and delivered the ball through contact. On Monday night, he rushed his mechanics and faded back in the pocket in the face of pressure. You could tell that the consistent pass rush had him rattled even on plays where Michigan did not get home. His supporting cast unquestionably let him down, but this was a rough final collegiate performance for Penix against the best defense he faced all season.

Will Johnson might open the 2025 draft cycle as CB1

One of the most heralded matchups of this national championship game was Washington's leading receiver Rome Odunze against Michigan's star cornerback. It was a fairly even fight, but Johnson definitely emerged the victor. He made a ridiculous, diving interception to open the second half and fared well when matched up with Odunze, who will likely be a top-15 selection in 2024. He has great size at 6'2", 202 pounds and came up with a few crucial open-field tackles. He wasn't perfect. He was called for a penalty on Michael Penix's touchdown pass at the end of the first half and got beat by Odunze on a sluggo route for a big gain, which was called back for a holding penalty.

Some of his status as CB1 also depends on how teams view two-way star Travis Hunter. Hunter is a quality corner with supreme athleticism and great ball skills. However, If the Colorado standout leans more into playing receiver, Johnson still has to contend with Benjamin Morrison. The Notre Dame corner had a great year and will be a fixture in early mock drafts heading into the 2024 college season. It is going to be a really fun race, but Johnson made quite the bid to be at the front of the queue.

Washington made mental mistakes all night long

This seems obvious given that the Huskies gave up 34 points and nearly 450 yards of total offense. Michigan was clearly the better team, but Washington helped them along the way with some really bad mishaps from draft prospects. Domonique Hampton made some great tackles in the run game, but took a terrible angle on Edwards' first touchdown of the game which gave the Michigan back a clear lane right down the sideline. He struck again with an inexcusable decision to leave his feet on a completion to Colston Loveland in the fourth quarter rather than attack the ball. That 41-yard gain kick-started Michigan's touchdown drive that made the game 27-13.

Hampton was not alone. On Edwards' second touchdown run, Edefuan Ulofoshio got overly aggressive and flowed inside, leaving Michigan back with a huge cutback lane. On the 4th and 13 that got called back for offsetting penalties, Roger Rosengarten missed the snap count and was so late getting out of his stance, that his only option was to grab hold of Jaylen Harrell as he flew past him to avoid getting Penix killed. On Washington's drive that rolled into the early fourth quarter, Will Nixon took his eyes off the ball and dropped a would-be first down pass on 3rd and 4. Washington could have been right in this game, but those mental mistakes cost them opportunity after opportunity. Those types of things will be held against players in a big way when teams are scouting them.

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