Previously: Podcast 8.0. The Story. Quarterback. Running Back. Wide Receiver. Tight End And Friends. Offensive Line. Defensive End. Defensive Tackle. Linebacker. Cornerback. Safety. Special Teams. 5Q5A: Offense.
1. Is The Don Brown thing really a big deal?
— Don Brown (@FBCoachDBrown) June 1, 2015
Yes. When he was hired a wide selection of ACC folk whooped with joy and Boston College fans put on their NIN, and the proof is in the pudding. At three different stops over the last seven years, Don Brown has turned middling or worse Power 5 defenses into top 20-ish units, with the most recent one at BC a straight up Murder Castle:
[metrics are yards per play, FEI, and S&P+; national ranks are presented. final column is the average of the three. Bolded years are Brown years.]
That is a hell of a track record. Not only does he improve units way beyond previous expectations, his departure also immediately deleterious to the school he's left. That is highly suggestive of a guy who is a cut above as a tactician and playcaller.
And not to dump on DJ Durkin excessively, but he had close to no track record before his hire at Michigan. Being defensive coordinator under Will Muschamp is an assistant (to the) regional manager job. I think Durkin's going to be a good head coach—he's recruiting like gangbusters already—but there is simply no comparison between Durkin and Brown if you're talking about putting a defense together.
This goes double for the Big Bad at the end of the schedule. Michigan's gotten gashed for years by Ohio State, and last year was no different. A lot of this went directly back to Durkin's simplistic and static approach: man free, man free, man free. Steve Sharik pointed this out after the Indiana gashing:
Why Michigan has been really successful on D this year is b/c it can lock up on receivers, put an excellent, smart safety deep, then play with a man advantage in the box b/c the QB was not a run threat. In some sense, it was throwing rock every single time, believing (like Mickey from Seinfeld) that nothing beats rock. They're not alone.
It is widely known among coaching circles that gurus Bill Belichick and Nick Saban believe that (all else being equal) man-free defense is the best in the game: you're strong up the middle, you're protected deep, and you have an extra defender in the box vs. run.
When you're facing option football (which the NFL never sees), this is a fallacy, and Michigan fell victim on defense last Saturday.
Long story short there was zero adaptation against Ohio State and after halftime it was all over but the grinding.
This will not happen to Don Brown, who has been fighting spread offenses with defenses made out of a sock, a paperclip, and some mint gum for years. Never in Don Brown's career has he been able to sit back with minus one in the box and watch his guys whip it up one-on-one. He's got a ton of different ways to deal with the perimeter issues that Michigan endured a year ago, and spent his entire presentation at Michigan's coaching clinic talking about how to defend the inverted veer and its brethren.
I was straight up terrified about all the rumors about NFL guys under consideration. Every single one of those guy would walk into the OSU game as unprepared as Durkin. Don Brown is the best possible hire for Michigan, not just because he is Don Brown, but because he is the best choice for the Game. Even Brown's average defenses over the past five years have been that because of the pass; five straight years Brown has had a top five rush defense. At UConn and BC.
Don Brown is a huge hire. Huge.
[After THE JUMP: additional strategically located Peppers talk.]
|WHAT||Hawaii at Michigan|
Ann Arbor, MI
September 3rd, 2016
|THE LINE||Michigan -41|
PBP: Mike Patrick
Analyst: Ed Cunningham
|WEATHER||sunny, low to mid 70s, 0% chance of rain|
Hi, it's Ace, continuing the annual tradition of writing the first game preview because Brian's worn down his fingers into bloody nubs. As is tradition, you'll call me "Brian" in the comments. Then I will dip my arms into the butterscotch pudding, as is tradition. What a glorious day for our country, and indeed the world.
For Michigan, this is the season opener. Hawaii, on the other hand, already took a 51-31 loss to Cal last Friday. Have I mentioned that game was in Sydney, Australia? Their coach, Nick Rolovich, has taken to tweeting about having a #MagellanMindset because of the brutal travel schedule. The time change alone—kickoff is at 6 AM Hawaii time—is enough to have Michigan players literally praying for their opponent:
"I couldn't go from Pacific Time to Eastern Time like that, not in a week and then expect to play to my best ability," Lewis said. "I mean, we went to Utah (last year) and it was pretty hard. I'm praying for those guys, honestly."
Oh, and Hawaii finished 118th in S&P+ last year. The spread is 41 points for good reason.
Run Offense vs Hawaii
Cal didn't have much of a need to run the ball against Hawaii because they were averaging 8.2 yards per attempt through the air. When they did run, however, they were quite successful. Hawaii lost their best run defender in the offseason when they booted Kennedy Tulimasealii, one of the best DTs in the group of five, and they only finished 82nd in S&P+ against the run last year with that guy. Without that guy...
watch the linebackers
...they did not fare well. In a very exciting development this year, we're partnering with Pro Football Focus, which is providing us with their full grades on Michigan's upcoming opponents to use for FFFF and the previews. Of the 13 players in the front seven who played against Cal, two—two!—finished with a positive grade against the run, and both were barely above zero. There are some grades in there I feel bad even mentioning: DE David Manoa (-3.1 vs. run) and ILB Jahlani Tavai (-2.5) had really rough outings. NT Korey Rasmussen looked passable, but he's a 295-pound nose tackle who'll face off against Mason Cole.
The defensive backs didn't fare much better; the nickel completely biffs his run fit here, then the safety takes a bad angle to tack on extra yardage:
Cal averaged 6.4 yards per non-sack carry. They were a good, not great, rushing team last year. If Jim Harbaugh so desired, Michigan could probably get away with not throwing the ball at all in this game. As you'll see in the next section, they'll probably be inclined to do so anyway.
KEY MATCHUP: STARTING LEFT TACKLE vs. VERY MOVABLE OBJECTS. If Bredeson or Newsome struggles to get movement on the edge against this team, it'll be a major red flag. I don't expect this to be an issue.
[Hit THE JUMP]
1. Does Michigan have a decided schematic advantage and should I sue you for making me ask that question?
Last year's edition of this post had a question about how Harbaugh's ultra-manball ways fit in an increasingly spread world. Despite my long history of spread zealotry I was pretty sanguine. Harbaugh had a fantastic track record and when I went over some of his Stanford-era games and a couple things stood out. One was yes, this:
The other was that in certain ways the Harbaughffense and spread stuff ended up at the same place despite taking diametrically opposite paths to get there:
Harbaugh's offenses put mental pressure on the opposition in a way that previous manball offenses at Michigan did not. This came up constantly during the Al Borges's tenure; I said that having to dodge a safety near the line of scrimmage sucked while Borges's defenders said they'd take it all day and twice on Saturday. It's clear that Harbaugh is in the former category. Like spread offenses, Harbaugh loves to screw with opposition safeties.
Rich Rodriguez did that by playing 11-on-11 on the ground with Denard Robinson. Harbaugh does it by whiplashing the opposition between jumbo sets and four-wide, by flooding the field with big guys safeties have to get around, by constantly screwing with their keys, and by adding new stuff on the regular.
Last year's UFRs were a ton of fun to do because every week Michigan would come out with a new package of plays I hadn't seen before. The sheer diversity of Michigan's ground game fairly boggled the mind, and I say this as a person who has broken down six or seven seasons of pro style offense. Hell, Harbaugh changed offenses across the league. Michigan started facing down trap blocking at a far higher rate than they ever had before.
UFRs pretty quickly picked up a section about the "Stanfordization" of the offense that detailed the tweaks and new packages I picked up on weekly. After Maryland:
The most obvious new wrinkle was the T set, which Michigan used a couple different ways. A counter iso play was successful when Isaac was not fumbling:
The two ILBs went to entirely the wrong hole, buying Michigan a free blocker, and if the Kalis block had gone a little better Isaac is one on one with the last guy for six points. Harbaugh's ability to buy back the extra defender you have to deal with when you aren't running the spread is a consistent theme so far this year; this is yet another example.
Northwestern had been super successful with aggressive linebackers when they rolled into Ann Arbor, and Michigan had a number of plays that made them pay for it:
I did appreciate the Kerridge fullback dive. Here is the play just before it. Watch the linebackers.
Here is the dive. Linebackers again.
That play exploited the blitz-ball mentality to spring a big gain. It also gave us a brilliant still shot demonstrating how weird this offense is to players born and raised on the spread:
"Wait… he's got the ball? Can they even DO that?"
And I loved Harbaugh's ability to see what his team lacked and game plan around it. This was especially validating against Penn State. A few years ago the infamous 27 for 27 game featured snap after snap on which Michigan ignored the fact that Penn State was playing ten yards off Jeremy Gallon; in Harbaugh's first year he felt his OL was a bad matchup:
So this game was… okay.
It was. The default thing that happened seemed to be this:
And, like, I'll take it.
There weren't actually as many of those as it felt like there were. Michigan threw 8. Those picked up 48 yards, a solid 6 per attempt. One was called back on a ridiculous block below the waist call. One could easily have drawn a block in the back call on Perry.
Those eight screens had a minimum gain of three, that on second and four, and picked up four first downs. They also opened up a couple of actual runs when PSU had to get serious about putting their linebackers over slot receivers. They were successful and easy. PSU's defense wanted to give those yards up, and Michigan took them.
I love that Harbaugh is clear eyed enough to work around the limitations of his team—also a major theme against OSU. He doesn't think "the expectation is for the position," he thinks "we're going to get overrun, let's do something about it."
Michigan's offense was a rock paper scissors winner under Harbaugh. I had the UFR RPS metric positive in 11 games with slight negatives against Northwestern and Indiana, and that hasn't happened in a while. They've been pounded over and over in that metric (and everywhere else) by MSU; that was a slight win. And this is just the first, most screwup-prone version of the Harbauffense.
There's a reason he built Stanford into rushing powerhouse with a bunch of three star guys. Not only is Harbaugh a smart and creative football mind, but he surrounds himself with other guys like that. How many offensive coordinators does Michigan have? Three, maybe four. Harbaugh is one. Drevno is one. Jedd Fisch is one. Nick Baumgardner had an excellent article last year describing the way this works in practice:
"It's unique (compared) to what I've done before," Fisch said Wednesday. "But it's something I would always do from now on."
Instead of designating one person to serve as the team's chief offensive play caller, or limit the discussion to himself and one other coach, Harbaugh keeps an open dialogue going with his entire offensive staff from snap-to-snap on the sidelines during game days.
That is terrific.
So yes, Michigan can expect to win coaching battles now. Not every last one, but most of them. Lloyd Carr didn't even try to do this—congratulations to Mike Debord on narrowly escaping his nemesis last night by scoring 13 regulation points—and Brady Hoke was incapable of it. (RichRod was pretty good at it but let's not open that can of worms again.) They have a decided schematic advantage.
[After THE JUMP: QB theme fight, Smith sustainability, OL panic]
Things discussed this week:
- Rolovich tells a joke media doesn't get.
- Cal-Hawaii: War of the meatball defenses.
- Taco Charlton has been Michigan's best DL via Sam. Nobody mentions this might have something to do with who's blocking.
- Speightmas: Playing within the offense is more important.
- Safety report: Khaleke Hudson is more memorable than your roommate
- Linebackers will be iffy to start; how much do they come along?
You can catch the entire episode on Michigan Insider's podcast stream on Audioboom.
THE USUAL LINKS
Guess what? I published a book this offseason. It's about baseball. The Cubs. The White Sox. And that one time they played each other in the World Series. Check it out. It's only available via Amazon Kindle right now, but a print on demand option is coming soon)
Hello Everybody! We made it to the new
Gambling Season Football Season! Send Lawyers, Guns, and Money! Previews are flying out everywhere and all of us are diving head first into the first weekend of the season. There is no time for chit chat. Except to say buy my book. We'll catch up throughout the season. Let's get right to my Over/Under picks for the Big Ten.
[hit THE JUMP for the lines and the angles]
|Kicker||Yr||Punter||Yr||Kickoffs||Yr||Punt return||Yr||Kick return||Yr|
|Kenny Allen||Sr*||Kenny Allen||Sr*||Kenny Allen||Sr*||Jabrill Peppers||So*||Chris Evans||Fr.|
|Quinn Nordin||Fr||Quinn Nordin||Fr||Quinn Nordin||Fr||Jourdan Lewis||Sr.||Jehu Chesson||Sr.*|
John Baxter fled back to California after one Michigan winter and will get what's coming to him in the next ice age. Baxter is a uniquely good special teams coach and there wasn't an obvious replacement available; also Rashan Gary existed. So Michigan promoted Chris Partridge to a full-fledged assistant spot and split special teams duties between him and Jay Harbaugh.
There's probably going to be a dropoff in effort applied. Last year Michigan took timeout in a squib situation so they could insert Dymonte Thomas; they lined him up at the spot a squib should go and lo, he returned it to midfield. If that creativity persists it's evidence Harbaugh is pushing every available angle. I don't expect it to. John Baxter appeared to be a rare commodity: a difference-making special teams coach.
Even so, this should be a strength.
The dread was palpable last year when scholarship freshman Andrew David wasn't even in the conversation. A couple of walk-ons vied for the job and were by all accounts somewhere between vexing and terrible. So of course when KENNY ALLEN locked the spot down he hit 18/22, with one miss a bad snap and a second due in large part to a downright supernatural gust of wind that pushed a probable make wide. Allen was also 46/46 on PATs.
The catch, such as it is, is that Allen rarely attempted a field goal from outside 40 yards. Just six of his attempts were in the zone of mild difficulty; he went 3/6. He did hit a 47 yarder and he's a booming punter so the leg strength is likely there.
Even if Allen is unproven at longer distances, I will take a #collegekicker who is near-automatic from 40 and in every day of the week and twice on Saturday. Some additional range is the only improvement required.
If that range is not forthcoming, QUINN NORDIN [recruiting profile] also lurks. Harbaugh is uncomfortable with having Allen take every last kicking duty so it's possible Nordin gets some longer kicks. If Michigan does decide to spread the load out, kickoffs are a more likely deployment for Nordin.
KENNY ALLEN, yes that Kenny Allen, figures to win this job too. Allen in fact came to Michigan a punter, and a booming one at that. He's had two punts in games, both of which went 50+ yards, and since Brady Hoke's reaction to "you have to have an open practice" was to turn it into a special teams exhibition your author has seen Allen punt a ton. He's really good. He could challenge Will Hagerup and Monte Robbins for the all-time gross average, which currently sits at 45 yards even.
One department that figures to have a decline is pooch punting. Blake O'Neil's feathery touch on punts inside the ten was remarkable and unlikely to be repeated by any non-Aussie. When I caught Michgian's open practice at Ford Field, Andrew David was tasked with that nose-down pooch punting stuff that's all the rage. David's left the team since; that might signify Allen's not great at pinning the opposition deep.
QUINN NORDIN is also an option here.