A note before we start: this preview relies heavily on the defensive UFRs of last year because there’s a convenient numerical system that does a decent job of summing up a defensive player’s contributions. One caveat: the system is generous to defensive linemen and harsh to defensive backs, especially cornerbacks. A +4 for a defensive end is just okay; for a cornerback it’s outstanding.
Well… they're gone. For better or worse the two linebacking stalwarts of the Rodriguez era are out the door, destined for San Diego or the real world. Though no one's going to memorialize Obi Ezeh and Jonas Mouton in song, they endured the transition from Ron English to Scot Shafer to Greg Robinson to Dr. Vorax, the stuffed wolverine Robinson insisted was the real coordinator of the insane 3-3-5 Rodriguez demanded. If anyone can feel hard done by the Rodriguez era it's them.
HOWEVA, Dr. Vorax and other assorted coaching indignities cannot explain away much of the horror Michigan suffered at their hands. Mouton was linebacker Janus, singlehandedly crushing fullbacks and even pulling guards en route to TFLs a few plays before losing contain yet a-goddamn-gain against opponents as meek as UMass.
Ezeh, for his part, was first amongst equals as this blog's whipping boy the last couple years until the Penn State game, when Greg Robinson became public enemy #1. His trademark move was sitting completely still until an offensive lineman screwed him into the ground.
Midyear, former Michigan linebackers were dropping the word "inexcusable." A fresh start is called for.
|Cam Gordon||So.*||Kenny Demens||Jr.*||Mike Jones||So.*|
|Jake Ryan||Fr.*||Marell Evans||Sr.*||Brandin Hawthorne||Jr.|
|Brennen Beyer||Fr.||JB Fitzgerald||Sr.||Desmond Morgan||Fr.|
Right: Demens hangin' with Doctor Vorax
MICHIGAN PROVIDES THAT with three relatively new starters. The most established new blood is redshirt junior Kenny Demens, the man who inexplicably languished behind not only Ezeh but walk-on and converted fullback Mark Moundros at the start of last year. That seemed like plenty of evidence to write the kid off, so this blog did:
The enigmatic Kenny Demens is third string in the middle; after a seemingly productive spring he dropped off the map and has generated zero fall mentions as Moundros climbs the depth chart. He played sparingly in the fall scrimmage; last year he was passed over for walk-on Kevin Leach when it came time to replace Ezeh temporarily. He's spinning his wheels, seemingly on track to watch this year. Next year both of the guys above him will be gone and he'll get one last chance to step forward; the tea leaves are not encouraging at the moment.
Demens then watched as Ezeh played at his usual level until the Iowa game. Desperate for anything after being gashed by Michigan State, Robinson finally put Demens on the field. We finally saw what was keeping him from playing time:
Only the machinations of the traitorous Vorax. That's not a play Ray Lewis is going to have on his hall of fame reel but it stood out to me after years of watching Ezeh try to clunk his way through traffic. Demens steps to the right as Iowa runs a counter but reads it, steps around traffic, and is there to tackle once Mouton forces it inside. Demens did that on a consistent basis against all opposition (except Purdue, oddly). The sumptuous conversation about him after the Iowa game was excited:
Yeah. Watching the game live I thought that he was an obvious upgrade over Ezeh but expected that when I went over the game in detail I'd find he was at fault for some of the longer Iowa runs or third down conversions, or had messed up in some way that had gone unexploited. I didn't. I found little things that I thought were good plays I hadn't seen live …
How many times did Iowa RBs find themselves facing a line with no penetration and no holes in it? Several. How many times did previous Michigan opponents face this? Essentially never. Good DL play with crappy linebacker play yields a lot of penetration and a lot of lanes where the DL aren't. Crappy DL play with good LB play is this, a bunch of bodies on the line with no windows to squeeze through.
At least, he did when he was not subject to further machinations. Vorax saw his nemesis had escaped confinement and immediately upped his insanity level further. Below are Michigan's alignments in the first and second halves of the Penn State game two weeks later:
left: first half. right: second half.
After getting annihilated by a terrible run offense in the first half Demens actually had to ask the coaches to move him more than a yard away from the nose tackle's rear. He struggled, but who wouldn't when the only thing between you and two guards is Adam Patterson and far too little space?
Demens recovered from that to register as one of the "heroes" of the Illinois game—he managed a +8, leading to cries of Anyone But Ezeh favoritism from readers—before registering his first clunker against Purdue. Demens got hooked pretty badly on a play that, in retrospect, I should have been harsher to the DL on since Dan Dierking roared through a truck-sized hole. Later he got lost and let Rob Henry rip off a big gain. He was one of few Michigan defenders to come out of the Wisconsin game with something approximating dignity.
|plays in space|
|quick but under control|
|make a leaping PBU|
|killshot shakes the ball loose|
|tackle on the catch|
|jars the ball free|
|picking through trash|
|goal line gap shoot|
|slants past the tackle|
|reads and fills|
|scraping, waiting, tackling|
|not quite harris|
|runs to the backside|
|pulls an Ezeh and sits|
When everything was over Demens had racked up 82 tackles despite playing sparingly in the first five games. If he'd gotten the whole season he would have had numbers like that random Northwestern linebacker who ends up with 130 tackles at the end of the season because he's the guy roping down tailbacks after they pick up six yards.
It's clear by the rating above that I'm a Demens believer. I liked what I saw last year and I've seen MLBs who are pretty good to compare him to. David Harris, for one. He's not Harris but I think Demens is closer to him than Ezeh already. He just has a knack for getting to where the play is going. Though his coverage still needs some work he was decently effective in short zones last year. As a bonus, one of the few things practice reports have been consistent in is their Demens praise.
Demens will benefit from the move to back to the 4-3 under more than anyone save Craig Roh. With RVB and Martin shielding him from linemen he won't be in nearly as many hopeless situations where he's one-on-one with a guard He should be the team's leading tackler by a healthy margin and see his TFLs skyrocket from the measly 1.5 he managed a year ago.
Michigan's defense will probably be too bad to warrant much All Big Ten consideration, but honorable mention seems reasonable.
I can't believe we had commemorative spring game jerseys
Also: Evans left, Fitzgerald right
Prodigal son Marell Evans returned from exile at I-AA Hampton to rejoin the team for his fifth and final year of eligibility. He probably wasn't expecting to see too much time after doing so, but there he was in the spring game, starting in Demens's stead. How well he did was in the eye of the beholder; around these parts I was "extremely leery" of the depth but offered up no reason as to why.
If forced into action Evans will be a wildcard. He hardly played at Hampton because of injury and hardly played at Michigan because of youth. He's probably not going to be that good. Over the course of the last month I received a couple of practice reports that slammed him pretty hard. Those aren't gospel, but that and his vagabond career to date are all we have to go on.
Fellow senior JB Fitzgerald is also hanging around this area of the depth chart, though no one knows exactly what linebacker spot he's backing up. It's never good when you've been around for four years and no one knows where you're supposed to play.
At least Fitzgerald is used to it by now. He's been kicked around since he arrived. On occasion he's even been drafted to play DE terribly when Greg Robinson runs out of ideas. When he pops up in UFRs doing something well, as he's done from time to time for years, I get all excited he might be finally breaking through. Then he never does. Fitzgerald's about out of time and there's no reason to think he's suddenly going to get it. He was passed by Evans as soon as he arrived; Jake Ryan emerged to back up Cam Gordon in spring; Michigan has a vicious melee for the WLB spot that Fitzgerald isn't even involved in. Without a plague of injuries he'll spend most of his final year providing leadership on special teams.
less deep half, more linebacker plz
Cam Gordon has finally found a home. He can buy a new couch and maybe a speaker system that attaches to the walls and everything. That it took this long is another symptom of the madness on defense last year. Gordon is linebacker sized and plays like a linebacker, except he was playing receiver as a freshman and thus tackled people in the same way a coke machine would: by running your bulk into a dude and hoping he falls over.
This was Michigan's last line of defense, and they paid for it many times over, starting against Michigan State:
His shoulder-block style of tackling was something he got away with before he faced Michigan State but against MSU he was bouncing off ballcarriers because they were big and strong enough to take the blow. Then he would try to drag them to the ground, which only worked sometimes and always gave up YAC.
Worse yet were Gordon's angles, which alternated between vastly too aggressive…
…and vastly too conservative…
…depending on which flaw he had just spent the week getting chewed out about in practice. And then there was that rainbow thing. I'm embarrassed to have pumped him up a bit after the Indiana game, though to be fair he did have an interception.
Gordon got shuffled to spur, a position roughly analogous to the strongside linebacker in a 4-3 under, for the Penn State game. Thrown into the fire at yet another position he had only the barest clue how to play, he struggled there as well. He was emblematic of that game's defensive implosion:
It's symbolic that this is the play where it all went to hell.
Demens has that dead to rights if he can just get some gang tackling help. Marvin Robinson whiffs, Cam Gordon vacates the only area Royster can go, and Royster makes a terrific play to spin outside for the first down. Great play, but you can't spin past three guys without something having gone horribly wrong. That's a true freshman and a redshirt freshman who was a wide receiver last year and a safety last week. FFFUUUUUUUU.
|whiffs but gets lucky|
|takes a horrible angle on the pass|
|lost in coverage|
|too far off|
|some good stuff|
|delivers a nice hit|
Cam Gordon had a rough freshman year. Worse for our purposes is how useless it is for projecting his future. With half of his season spent at a position he'll never play again and the other half spent in an incoherent defense at a spot he'd learned for literally two weeks, his UFR chart isn't even worth looking at.
If you insist, it's not pretty even after he moved to linebacker. He managed to stay on the positive side against Illinois by blitzing a ton. I did note that "Gordon brings a physical intimidation factor the other two spurs don't." He didn't do much other than scoop up a fumble and run a long way against Purdue. Against Wisconsin he failed to register even a positive half-point and picked up this note: "Not involved much and didn't do well when he was." After that the malaise took over. He did have some TFLs in the final two games.
That doesn't mean much, though. Bounced from position to position and ill-served by the coaching of Greg Robinson and Adam Braithwaite, Gordon was put in a position to fail. He did.
Now he's at a spot that makes sense being coached by people who make sense. Since he wasted a redshirt year playing offense and his freshman year trying to play safety he'll be farther behind the curve than an average third-year player. He's also pretty light for a strongside linebacker at 224. That will serve him well when he's asked to drop into coverage but will make fending off tight ends a struggle. A reasonable level of development gets him to a bit below average this year.
There is one. The spring game was a dreary, depressing thing mostly notable for the various ways in which the quarterbacks looked awful, but one of the certifiable bright spots was the rampaging play of redshirt freshman Jake Ryan. Ryan had a pick-six, sacked Devin Gardner at least a couple times—hard to tell exactly what would have happened if they were live—and generally gave second-string OT Kristian Mateus more than he could handle. Mateus is a walk-on and all spring impressions come with free grains of salt, but as of the moment Ryan Rob Lytle-ed his helmet in spring, the hype train has left the station and will build up steam until such time as there's another guy to get hyped about.
In high school, Ryan was an outside linebacker in an actual 3-3-5. As such, he spent a lot of time screaming at the quarterback from angles designed to make life hard for offensive linemen. That's not far off his job in the 4-3 under but it comes with a lot more run responsibility—the SLB has to take on blockers in just the right spot so that he neither lets the play escape contain nor gives him a lane inside too big to shut down. Expect to see him on passing downs but only passing downs this fall.
Third on the depth chart is true freshman Brennen Beyer, one of the most highly touted recruits in this year's class. His recruiting profile has the goods: excellent speed and lateral mobility on a frame that needs and can put on a lot of weight. He was expected to play WDE and flipped to SLB after Frank Clark showed very well in fall. He was 100% lineman in high school and will need some time to adjust to new responsibilities. Hopefully they can get a redshirt on him this year.
it's tough to find shots of Jones and Herron in the wild
This is the most uncertain thing about the defense. Mouton left no ready heir apparent thanks to an injury that forced Mike Jones out for the entirety of 2009. Top competition Brandon Herron also missed a big chunk of last year. When he returned he mostly sat.
Jones returns atop the depth chart out of little more than momentum. Michigan fans haven't seen much out of him other than a few redshirt-burning tackles on kickoff coverage, so his recruiting profile will have to stand in for actual knowledge.
For what it's worth he does seem well suited to be one of those blitzer guys Greg Mattison promises will exist this year:
Exceptional edge blitzer that has great timing and quickness; speed rushes by the offensive tackle before he can get set. Offensive backs can't or won't block him when blitzing off the edge; really creates havoc in the backfield. Does a great job of using his hands to shed blockers in order to get to the ball carrier.
As a bonus, he's beefed up from 208 to 224, which is reasonable WLB size. Folks were talking him up as a "playmaker" during spring practice last time around. Little's been heard since. That goes for all of his competitors as well.
That position and again I hate to ever say anything positive, I love how those guys are playing at times. At times, they are playing with such energy and such speed and such explosiveness. One day one of them, I’ll go wow that’s what we’re looking for and the next day he may have not as good a day and the other guy will step up. I think that one is a battle. That one is a battle right now and it is kind of a good battle to have.
Reality or Johnny Sears airy pump-up? We won't know that for a while. There are three experienced scholarship options. Whoever ends up winning the job might be bad; they probably won't be awful. There are three upperclass options before we dig up a freshman.
The second guy on the depth chart is fifth-year senior Brandon Herron, who's bounced all over the front seven in his time in Ann Arbor without managing to see the field much. He's got thirty-four tackles to his name, many of them in garbage time or on special teams.
Just when it looked like he might have a role in the 3-3-5 he came down with an injury and forced Roh to move back to LB. As a recruit he was middle-of-the-road, reputed to be a raw athlete. He'll probably see some time and not do anything spectacular with it.
Junior Brandin Hawthorne and true freshman Desmond Morgan also feature on the depth chart. Hawthorne is one of the Pahokee crew. He was a hilariously undersized high school player and has been bouncing between linebacker and safety the past couple years. He's happy to be back in the front seven:
"I was actually recruited as a linebacker so to be back feels really natural to me," said Hawthorne. "This is the position I played my whole life until I got to Michigan so it's nothing new, but I've had to learn the system, my responsibilities, and that takes time." …
"I'm not a real physical player - I'm more finesse - but I'm fast and smart," he said. "You need a brain on defense and I'm smart enough to recognize formations, and help move guys around. And I think I'm pretty good at making plays. I know I'm not going to overpower someone but I'm pretty good at slipping through the cracks."
Now up to 214 pounds, Hawthorne was getting some time with the first team during the select plays the media was allowed to watch. If his self-scouting is accurate he may be more of an option against spread teams. The weakside linebacker does get protected in the 4-3, so if he's got the speed and smarts Michigan might deal with the size.
The Big Ten Network was told to watch out for Morgan when their tour hit Ann Arbor, so they did. Viewers were treated to a shot of Morgan getting plowed over and over again as Gerry DiNardo tried to convince them he was the new hotness on the weakside.
Hoke has been talking him up. When asked about the linebacker situation outside of Demens Hoke went to Morgan first:
I think Desmond Morgan is a guy who we think is going to play some football for us. Mike Jones, we’ve played a little bit of MIKE and a little bit of WILL. Marrell Evans is playing some in there.
That was just a few days ago. Morgan was the MGoBlog Sleeper of the Year based on a wide array of scouting reports that praise his instincts, lateral mobility, and toughnosed hard gritty gritness. I thought he'd have to cool his heels behind Demens for a couple years, but he may get on the field quicker than anyone expected.
- Kevin Koger forgot to remove the tags from his pants.
David Molk (mini-Hoke?), from yesterday
What are your thoughts on being a captain? "It's a great honor. It's something that I didn't really understand when I got here, but once I became a Wolverine I knew it was something I wanted."
What makes this special? "When you walk in, you go through the building, and you see that big wall of all the old captains. Those guys are always well-respected. They've done great things in and out of football. It's a good group to be a part of, and it's something I knew I wanted to be a part of."
What are your specific responsibilities? "I guess you have more responsibility than being a normal player, but then again I'm not a coach. I don't make decisions. It's just being there for your team when you're on the run on the fly on the field in the game." (on the tail of the frog on the bump on the branch on the log in the hole in the bottom of the sea.)
What's the excitement like this week? "It's great. It's been a long time since I've played a game, and I love every single first game. It's an experience that's unmatched by anything else, and I can't wait to play again."
What will fans see for Brady Hoke's first game? "A new team? A new season? It's going to be a lot of fun."
Taylor Lewan said last week that you're a quiet leader. Do you ever become outspoken, and when would that be? (looks offended) "He says that I'm a quiet leader?" Yeah...? "Really? I think that might have been sarcasm. I'm usually a pretty outspoken leader. Whenever there's a point in time where someone needs to speak to the team as a whole, I'm always that guy."
How would you describe Brady Hoke as a coach? "He's just a great guy. Sometimes coaches are standoffish or kind of hard to approach, but Coach Hoke's not like that at all. He's just a great guy that you put your arm around and say, 'Hey, how ya doin?' "
Is Denard still dangerous in this offense? "A player that's that good can be dangerous in any offense. He still has the ability to kind of get out, run around ... he's going to do his thing this season."
Do you guys get as excited for Western as you would for, say, Ohio
State? "It could be anyone. It could be some D-III school and I'd still love it. It's just playing someone else. EVeryday you go into practice, I block Mike, and I go up to a linebacker I've seen a hundred times -- a thousand times -- it's just good to see someone else."
Talk a bit about Shaw and Toussaint. "They each have their attributes of who they are as a runner, and they run (with) different sytles. Shaw is more of a bounce-around-you kind of guy. Fitz will hit you a little bit. Both are great players."
Is it hard to alternate shotgun and under-center snaps so much? "It really doesn't make a difference. I could see a younger guy getting flustered, but it's nothing new."
Western has no idea what you're going to do. Is that an advantage? "I guess so. Me and some of the other guys were talking about it, thinking, 'Who are they going to look at for film?' You can't look at last year, because we're totally different. We're a different offense, we're a different defense. I guess it does give us an advantage, but at the same time what matters in the game is what you do on the field. That's what counts."
What's it like with Barnum starting on the O-line? "It's good. I've played with Ricky before. There was a couple times that Schill wasn't in there, and Ricky just kind of fit in. He listens if I turn and correct him on something. He'll just listen and go up ... and that's what makes him a great player."
Did you watch any film on the 2009 UM vs Western game? (looks incredulous) "The 2009 game from Western? No, we haven't watched that. It was a long time ago." [Ed-M: I do.]
Mike Martin, from yesterday.
Thoughts on being captain? "It's a huge honor. Our whole senior class does a great job with leading. Defensively Ryan Van Bergen does a great job ... Kovacs, a lot of guys ... Troy Woolfolk. But it's an honor to be selected by my peers to represent those guys and the guys that have come before me."
Do you feel any extra responsibility as the only captain on defense? "No, because we have tons of leaderhsip on defense. We do a great job collecitvely getting the defense ready to play. I have a lot of support from the rest of the seniors."
Remember when you were all over the place during the Spring Game? You still doing that these days? "Coach has me playing nose and some other positions on the defensive line, but he has me focusing on that. We've had guys that have stepped up at the other positions that coach has a lot of confidence in."
What differences will fans see from a Brady Hoke team? "Coach has us ready to play. Coach has us focused on what we need to be focused on, which is what we can control, and to get better every single day. This week is game week, it's huge for us. We're looking forward to September 3rd, and that's all we have on our minds, and we're ready to go."
Talk about Kevin Koger. "Kevin does a great job. He's great with reaching out to guys, and he's a really good speaker, and he's a guy that everyone looks up to. He comes to work every day. He's accountable, and guys can count on him to get the job done. That's what you need in a captain, and a guy that's going to lead the team."
What is game week like for you? "It's special. Tomorrow's practice is going to be critical for our team to get better. Coach has game week posted up everywhere in Schembechler [Hall], so when you're in that building, everywhere you go, you're thinking about game week, whether it's when you go home and you're getting your playbook, going over your plays, taking mental reps and when you're at Schembechler getting better on the field. You have to think about gameday every day and what you can do to make sur ethis team's successful."
What does Kovacs keep doing to surprise people? "The guy pays attention to details. He takes care of his job on the field, and he's a guy that you can always count on to be there. He's very smart, and he's always in the film room. He's a great leader just for the guys back there, and he's a vocal leader, as well."
What did Heininger and Brink do to get that SDE position? "Those guys, they did a great job of competing through all of camp. They knew that everyday everyone's getting evaluated across the board. Will Heininger and Brink, they worked their butts off the whole camp. I'm proud of those guys.
"Coach is going to put the best 11 guys on the field to win games. Whatever decision he makes is going to be the right one."
You have one last chance as a senior to fix what's gone wrong defensively. "Coach talks about accountability and the details -- all the things it takes to be successful. That's what we've been focused on this whole camp. Coach Mattison and the whole staff have done a great job of working for us, and we've come to work every single day to be better ...
"It's something that you can't hide. We still have a lot more improvement to go. Tomorrow's going to be critical with getting our scouts, getting our looks for Western coming up this Saturday."
How tough is it for Van Bergen to play DT? "Coach puts the guys in positions to make sure the team is successful. There's total seflessness, and Ryan is very intelligent and very versatile. You can put him anywhere on the defensive line across the board, and he'll do well. Technique-wise, he's done a great job at 5-technique, 3-technique, and wherever coach puts him. We're very confident he's going to do well."
Is there a leader in your time here that you model yourself after? "Brandon Graham -- I've talked about him before -- he's a guy that leads by example, and came to work every single day, and a guy that everyone woudl look up to. He produced on the field, and he was a grea tleader off the field, and that's something I've always looked up to."
Fluff about his webisodes: Youtube videos, wanted to document his senior year. Does it all on his macbook using film he gets from his iphone. "Put some music to it, add some flashy lights, and it looks pretty cool." More webisodes coming up soon. The Pop Evil band that does the Michigan hype song is from Whitehall, MI, where Ryan Van Bergn is from.
Koger charmed me into forgetting to take a picture.
Thoughts on being a captain? "We were actually in the team meeting room, and everybody voted, everybody got a ballot. You voted for one offensive and one defensive captain. I put my vote in, and I thought we were going to come back today and find out, but they actually went out of the room, came back in, and told us. So it was kind of surprising. I didn't expect to be captain."
Who did you vote for? (lunga pausa) "Not myself. Not myself, I can't tell you that."
How excited are you today for game one, and how excited will you be on Saturday? "I try to calm myself down because I tend to get too excited before the game. I don't want to play the game before the game actually happens so I'm not mentally drained when I get there. It's my last home opener in Michigan stadium, so I'm kind of excited for that, but I have to prepare for the game so I can make the best (of it)."
What's your advice for the freshmen who haven't experienced this before? "I just tell them to calm down. There's going to be 113,000 people, so you gotta be loud. But it's not going to be as loud for the offense as it will be for the defense, so communication will be a little bit harder for the defense."
What differences will fans see when you take the field? "You'll see the offense will be on the field a lot more. We want to control the ball. We want to take that burner off the defense a little bit so they're a lot more rested when they come out on the field."
How will Denard look different? "I think Denard will be the same Denard. He'll go out there, he'll make plays, (and) he'll be a great decision-maker on the field. You might see him not go for the big play as much. You might see him check down a little bit, which is perfectly fine. There's nothing wrong with a four- or five-yard gain as opposed to a 30-, 40-yard gain every try."
How will Kevin Koger look different? "Kevin Koger will be very excited. Kevin Koger will be very enthusiastic on the field. You can expect to see me more outspoken on the sidelines, so watch out for that."
How active will the tight ends be? "I think we'll play a big part." Been getting ready, Coach Ferrigno has done a good job coaching them. "I'll be excited to see what really happens on Saturday."
How's Steve Watson? "He's very selfless. Whatever coaches want him to play, he'll play. During camp, we had him switch to fullback, and he's done a great job there. You can see him play tight end, you can see him play fullback, so it really doesn't matter where he plays. He's going to do a great job where he's at."
Mike Martin videos? Had no idea Mike was making online webisodes until five minutes ago. "It shows the fans we really do have personalities. We're not just guys in helmets and shoulder pads. We actually can have a little bit of fun. I think I should get a little royalty from it. If he makes any money off of it, I'll let you know." (NO KEVIN DON'T YOU DARE TELL ANYONE)
Good news: I took pictures today. Bad news: I left my card reader at home.
- No one is seriously injured
- Mike Jones had pneumonia the other day, but was better today
- Fitz still has opportunity to earn start over Shaw this week
- Gibbons is solidly starting at placekicker, unless it's a long field goal, in which case Wile or (Kris) Pauloski might kick
- There will be an intense practice late Friday night
- There will be no Victors Walk
- Kick/punt returner situation is fluid (obviously)
Press Conference (this part was filmed)
"Finishing fall camp on Saturday morning, I think we were very productive in what we wanted to get done. You're never going to be satisfied, it's never going to be as good as you'd like it to be, and that's just part of being competitive. I think we developed as a team, I think we became closer as a team. I think when you look at us as a team, we're excited to get going and to have that first opportunity. We're guaranteed 12 opportunities, and we've made that known to our players. We want to play obviously 14, but the 12 opporutnities we have, we start with the first test this weekend."
"We voted on captains last night as a team. I think our players understand that our seniors will always be our leaders, and the three guys, with Mike on defense, Kevin Koger and David Molk on offense, have demonstrated an ability to lead. I think they all three bring a lot to our football team, when you look at the leadership roles that they'll play, and you look also at the roles from a production standpoint."
"Western Michigan is a well-coached, disciplined, tough football team. I've had a little bit of experience with Coach Cubit and how his teams play, offensively and defensively."
Offensively, QB Alex Carder is good. He's as impressive as anybody with 30 TDs, >63% completions. WR Jordan White caught 94-96 balls a year ago, challenge for Michigan secondary. LT Anthony Parker spearheads a big, physical O-line. They have some Juco transfers. Defensively, D-line has everyone coming back. Secondary is one of the better ones in MAC, very aggressive and like to attack the football.
"We're excited. We're not near ready to play, and I'll probably say that on Friday. We're not near ready to play, but we get to play, and that's a good thing. We get to see our first test, where we're at as a team and as a program, and to get out there and not beat up on each other, but you get to play with somebody else."
Looks like there are lots of "ORs" on the depth chart. What gives? "I just think there's great competition. At the running back, Fitz has done some good things, Mike [Shaw] has done some good things. Vince Smith's a guy we talked about being a third-down back for us for multiple reasons, but I think there's some great competition there. I think with JT and Troy, when you look at Courtney Avery ... Blake Countess is a young guy who's played pretty well ... Raymon Taylor ... all those guys are competing, and Greg Brown. I would expect JT and Troy would be the guys who would start the football game, but when we get into the nickel, then we get into the other situations."
Why is Will Heininger starting? "More than anything else, it's his experience. We like what Nathan has done. He's practiced very well, played well, been productive, but Will at the same time has done a great job -- Will Heininger -- but the other guy who has come on a little bit is Will Campbell. That will be fluid anyway because we want to play six guys during the course of the game so we can keep guys fresh and keep them healthy."
Any questionable players healthwise? "Healthwise we're in great shape. As good as you can be coming out of fall camp. We had a pretty physical fall camp, so I'm pretty pleased. Mike Jones had a little bit of a fever and pneumonia the other day, but I just saw him on the way here in fact, and feels pretty good."
Does it help that you've played against Western? "I don't think it helps, because you've got to go back to the tape you had from a year ago. First games are always a little bit different as far as when you start to study. Do you take the last four games, (or) do you take the first three from a year ago to see what they taught within their offense and defense? And then the last three games as far as when you start breaking an opponent down and looking at it.
"I really am impressed when you watch them play on the tape. Being a defensive guy, I'll always look at more offensive film of an opponent than I do defensively. I'm very impressed with Carder and how he handles this offense."
I'm writing some fluff about you coming out of the tunnel. Can you give me a some fluff about coming out of the tunnel? "It's a special place, being at Michigan. I'm sure that we'll be very humbled. But at the end of the day, we're playing a football game, and our consistency as coaches is important, so we'll move pretty quickly. I'm hoping we get to the sidelines the right way, and you're always as a new staff, you're doing things different. When we go to dinner on Friday night, we'll practice at 5 o'clock on Friday night, and all those things are different than what has been done in the past, so those things we'll all be worrying about until the game's kicked off."
Roundtable (this part was not filmed)
This is what Hoke sort of looked like when I took a picture of him.
Western has no idea what you're going to do. Is that an advantage? "They're a good football staff, and I'm sure that they got a hold of all the San Diego State film they could from an offensive perspective. I think defnesively it's always a little harder getting NFL film. I'm sure they've been able to see remnants of what we're trying to do."
RB's still have to prove themselves? "I think they all do, not just the running backs. We want to evalutate them every day, and if a guy doesn't meet the standard or expectation that we need to play with -- it could be any position -- if he doesn't meet that standard, then we gotta find someone else."
Do you evaluate players differently between practice and games? "I don't think so. I'm a big believer in that when you prepare and when you practice, you're going to play that way. So if we've got great intensity getting to the football (with the) eleven guys defensively, (or if) our wide receivers are sustaining blocks and harassing corners, we expect that to be done during practice. That's a demand that we have because I believe you have to play like you practice."
Will you give both kickers a shot in the game? "Right now, Gibbons is going to handle the field goals, and if we get into a long field goal situation, I think Wile or Pauloski would be next in line for that. Matt will kick off, and Matt's going to punt."
What's the range for Gibbons vs. Wile? "When you start getting over, I dunno, I would guess from my observation, 43-44 (yards), som'n ike that, Matt's just got a little ... I don't know if it's a bigger leg, a better leg ... he's got the opportunity to hit the ball more cleanly. Everybody attributes and compares it to golf -- and I can't tell you about golf, if you've seen me golf you would know why -- and it's kind of the sweet spot he hits it with."
How much has the offense changed from the spring re: Denard? "I think his knowledge of what we're trying to do as a whole package [has increased], and I think there's still some things Al hasn't added to the mix. I think his grasp of it is at a higher level than it was in the spring. I think when you put that together where he doesn't have to think as much, and now he can be settled in his fundamentals and techniques. I think that's where the growth has come, and then his growth being a leader, and that maturity level, is at a higher place."
Is the offense what you envisioned when you first came in? "That depends. I think the basic plays of a pro-style offense are a big part of it. The play-action game, all those things. There are some things out of the spread that we're obviously going to stay with, that kind of overlap a little bit with how you want to block at the point of attack and those things. We're still going to line up and run the power play a bunch."
Do you tell Denard the same things you tell a normal QB about getting out of bounds? "I think it's the same. You don't want him to take needless shots, and we wouldn't want Devin to either. We want to be aggressive and always know where the stakes are, but we don't want a guy to take needless shots if he can help it."
Most coaches play freshmen during a coaching transition because they recruited them. You're playing older guys. Is it because you value experience? "I think that's an important part of it, to some degree. Believe me, if we thought those younger guys were at a point where the older guys weren't better, the younger guys would be playing. I think we're growing with some youth, and probably more so on the defensive side of the ball. There are some guys who have a better chance to play than on the offensive side."
I'm going to ask a convoluted question about the guys who started last year. They worked to earn these spots collectively, maybe, you think. Hunger, winning, Michigan. ? "I hope they're hungry, first and foremost. I mean, this is a competitive game, this is the winningest program in college football, so I hope they understand those expectations that we have as a team and we have as a program. Um, you know, I think ... when you ... and I don't know if I understand the other part of your question."
Basically, I mean, the starting lineup, more or less, are guys that started last year, and yet, it wasn't handed to them, collectively, you know. "I think we had good competition, I guess that's what I would say. I think we had good competition, and it's easy to see. Our depth on both sides of the ball up front aren't exactly where you'd like it to be, and that's okay, because it's always an expectation for who's playing the position. It doesn't matter if they're a fifth year guy or a guy who's a true freshman, you've gotta play to a Michigan standard."
Were some of those decisions made during the scrimmages? "Everyday they're evaluated. And it doesn't matter if they're in the weight room ... I talk to Aaron everyday. Every night I talk to him and (ask), "How'd he do there?" Because you're looking for an attitude. You're looking for a team attitude first. And if a guy goes in there and doesn't do what he needs to do to help his teammates, then we're going to have a problem with it.
"It all starts there, and obviously when you're in those situational things that you do with the football aspect of it, you're expecting them to play at a fast level and a fast tempo with an enthusiasm for the game."
Is Van Bergen locked in at DT? "He's one of those guys who can play a lot. He can play in sub defense, he can be over the center, which [he] is at times. I'm talking about nickels and dimes and those kinds of things. He can do that, and he can swing back out to the 5 (-tech). Ryan brings a lot of intelligence to the game, and being an older guy who's been around football a lot, it really helps him out and helps our team out."
I'd like to ask another question that you will answer in a non-informative way. You haven't played a game yet, but you've been here seven months. Do you ... feel like the transition has been what you thought ... Has there been more you thought you would have to change? Or less? Or ... ? "Uh. It's about what you would think it would be. I mean, you know, it's, it really just ... trying to, you know, have a focus on what Michigan's all about, and starting there. You know, and, uh, I don't know if it's any different or not."
But History? And Tradition?? "Well, I think that's important, I mean, that's an important accountability that we have."
Thank you. That was a productive series of words.
You have four punt returners with "Or" next to their names. You gonna make up your mind or not? "It probably will be fluid. I wouldn't be surprised that we probably had two guys back there and switch them for punts to see who we think may be the best playmaker out of it."
You got any superstitions or rituals? "I would not share them with you if I did."
You doing the Victors Walk? "No."
But you said in Chicago you would do it. "Nope."
Could Fitz Toussaint still win the job this week? "Sure. Sure. No question."
Do you get nervous close to gametime? "My nervousness only comes that we're dottin' all the i's and crossin' all the t's. We talked as a staff -- number one, (we have to) have a great plan for (our players). And that's our responsibility, that we have a plan on both sides of the ball, in the kicking game, that's going to help these guys be successful. That's what you think about constantly. Did we cover this? Have we covered this enough? Taking a safety from a punt formation with 13 seconds left on the game, you know, what's the punter do? There's a lot of different ways you can do it.
"I don't know if it's a nervousness, because once we're here on Saturday, it's fun."
Do you meet with the captains? "I meet with the seniors every Sunday and every Thursday, so they'll be part of that group obviously. Captains, I'll meet with them periodically when I feel there's a need."
Countess and Clark made the two-deep. What'd they do to impress? "Frank is a guy we think can do something in those nickel and dime packages. Blake has got an opportunity to be a very good corner here. Very good feet, and he's got some make-up speed that corners need to have. He's tough. Both of them are tough. I think they both, from a defensive mentality ... we don't want to overload them so that they go out there and have paralysis by analysis. We want them to be able to go and play the game ...
"I like them, I'll put it that way."
Will it take some time to see the whole Brady Hoke system? "I think it always does. I've done this at two other schools. Every week's a learning experience. When I say that I'm going back to every week, how we travel. We're playing at home, but it's still, we're going to the Campus Inn, and how we meet, and all that stuff, it's a learning experience every week. The sooner that we feel ... I don't want to say comfortable, but that's basically what it is ... then the faster we'll start playing and then the more physical we'll play football."
You talked about corn chowder last week, are there other traditions -- "CLAM chowder."
Are there any other traditions that you've brought back, or that you're bringing, that are important to you this week? "We practice later on Fridays. There will be a little more intensity to it than maybe other programs have had, because I'm a big believer in that mental practice that we'll have. You have to have an intensity in how you do it, because then you're going to play fast. At the end of the day, you have to play fast in this game. I don't know what else."
(David Molk, Mike Martin, and Kevin Koger notes will be up later. [Ed: probably tomorrow morning.])
Previously: The Story.
The existential crisis that was last year's secondary has been the subject of emo rehash and frequently-updated "Never Forget" banners in this space for going on a year now. In mid-August of 2010, Troy Woolfolk did something strange and painful to his ankle and I—and I assume a good chunk of the Michigan fanbase—decided ankle-exploding time was drankin' time. Twitter archived the results; read from the bottom.
The headache I had the next morning did not subside until Greg Mattison was hired.
Woolfolk wasn't going to cure last year's secondary issues by himself but he was going to be a decent returning starter in a secondary without any other than Jordan Kovacs. Without him this section of last year's preview started "What's the point of anything?" because everyone left was either a freshman, walk-on, or JT Floyd.
After a deceptively promising start courtesy of the vast incompetence of Zack Frazer and Notre Dame's backup quarterbacks, the doom took hold. Everyone who saw a snap last year contributed to it but if we have to pick a single moment that best represents Michigan's 2010 secondary it would have to be this:
JT Floyd picking up a –3 against Penn State
That is how Matt McGloin tears you up for 41 points on nine drives. Let's never speak of this again.
While this year's secondary won't bring back memories of Charles Woodson, improvement is almost a given. It could be vast, even. Every contributor returns save James Rogers. Woolfolk is back and healthy, and there's a small horde of freshmen.
If you believe the message board chatter about Tony Gibson's coaching acumen, Curt Mallory is a huge upgrade. My favorite apocryphal story is that when Scot Shafer resigned he told Rodriguez he would take all the blame publicly if Rodriguez admitted to Shafer that Gibson was "the worst secondary coach in the country." Shortly after his resignation, Shafer did pop up in the News stating it was all his fault. Poppycock? Probably, but you can't rule it out.
Things are looking up. They could be okay. Not okay for Michigan, but okay for a mediocre Big Ten defense. They've got a cap—like everywhere on this attrition-wracked team the depth is a little scary. The starters still include a walk-on and the talent level as measured by stars is strictly second-rate. They haven't disproved that on the field, so expectations should be kept in check.
That there are any except doom is pretty cool. Bohemian Crapsody begone.
|Corner #1||Yr.||Corner #2||Yr.|
|Troy Woolfolk||Sr.*||Courtney Avery||So.|
|JT Floyd||Jr.*||Tony Anderson||Sr.*#|
|Terrence Talbott||So.||Blake Countess||Fr.|
[* = player has taken redshirt. # = walk-on.]
Woolfolk in T-Woolf mode
Unless something very depressing happens in the near future I will not need any power tools this year. Troy Woolfolk is healthy, and while he's probably not going to be All Big Ten he's fast and steady enough to get good reviews a couple of years ago when he split time between safety and corner. There is empirical evidence for this, and how: Woolfolk's absence from the safety spot marked the point the 2009 defense went off a cliff. Michigan went from giving up 23 points per game with Woolfolk at safety to 37 without.
Those reviews have moved from potentially ignorant bloggers to the head coach. Woolfolk was one of three defensive Wolverines to be named a starter by Hoke weeks before the season (Kovacs and Martin were the others) and is conspicuously first when Hoke talks about his corners:
"(Woolfolk is) is a guy who I think, as a senior, has taken some ownership and he's done everything," Michigan coach Brady Hoke. "J.T. is fighting. Courtney Avery is fighting, Terrence Talbott, they're all fighting with each other to see who's going to be the guy."
Mattison joined in as well:
What are your impressions of Troy Woolfolk? "I'm really, really impressed with a senior -- with a new staff, with a new system -- with a guy that comes out every day and says 'I'm going to do what you tell me to do, I'm going to do it how you tell me to do it, and I'm going to try as hard as I can to do it.' ... I think his technique is improving."
That bit at the end about his improving technique is a little ominous. Woolfolk's injury and position switches may leave him vulnerable to Morgan Trent-like deficiencies. The two are similar players: very fast, rangy corners who are tough to beat on a fade but can struggle when opponents are changing direction rapidly. Woolfolk's main advantage over Trent is want-to. Trent spent his senior year raging against the new regime and saw his play suffer. Woolfolk should have no such issues.
Assuming he's healthy, another year to learn the position and get bigger should see him improve on his previous form. There is a nonzero chance his earlier performances were not representative of his ability, but the smart money is on Woolfolk being at least average. It wouldn't be a surprise to see him go at the tail end of next year's NFL draft.
|juuuuust evades the fingertips|
|jars the ball free|
|comes up too hard|
|pwns a UW guard!|
Opposite Woolfolk the battle is on between sophomore Courtney Avery and redshirt junior JT Floyd. The bet here is that Avery wins that battle. Avery drew into the starting lineup last year when Floyd exited with yet another injury and seemed to outplay the guy he was replacing.
What he brings to the table is still up in the air. He was seeing spot duty relieving Floyd and Rogers even before Floyd's injury; he also split time with Terry Talbott when Michigan went to nickel and dime packages. In that role he was erratic. He wasn't good, per se. But in the tire fire that was last year's secondary he showed a little spark. This spark allowed other portions of the tire fire to spew ever more pitch black tar smoke into the observers face, yes. The spark remained.
Here's an erratic UFR that might not mean that much because he's a corner and his playing time was highly variable:
Zone vacancy II.
|MSU||-||-||-||Didn't register. Yay?|
|Iowa||-||5.5||-5.5||The whiff, the zone vacation, etc.|
|PSU||-||-||-||DNP, I think.|
|Illinois||3.5||0.5||3||Two key tackles.|
|Purdue||3||6||-3||Gave up the big screen.|
|Wisconsin||2.5||3||-0.5||Could have been harsher on him.|
It's not great, though a big chunk of his Indiana negative might have been erroneously given. The blogosphere ferociously debated whether a particular frustrating Iowa touchdown was mostly on the head of Kenny Demens or Avery and eventually decided it was kind of both but maybe probably mostly Demens. The UFR still registers Avery as the victim.
Given the circumstances—tire fire—he did well to not get hammered on a consistent basis. Try to judge him as a freshman by comparing him to his classmates: the highly-touted Cullen Christian was a blinking "throw at me" sign whenever he was on the field. Terrance Talbott was clearly behind. His main issue was playing zone coverage too aggressively, vacating his zone as he chased receivers across the field.
His quickness and aggressiveness bodes well. This is just Bowling Green (see also: the brief blip of Ray Vinopal hope) but Michigan hasn't had a corner who's able to recover like this in a while:
Avery's two years younger than Floyd and was healthy through the entirety of last year and spring practice. He played quarterback in high school; nagging injuries scuppered plans to play him both ways as a senior. He was just learning the rudiments of playing corner when he was thrust onto the field last year. Even if Avery and Floyd were close a year ago—something that is generous to Floyd—Avery should improve much faster than his competition. Avery has never seemed to "transparently lack the speed to be a Big Ten cornerback."
With practice buzz generally talking up Avery, it would be a surprise if he was not the starter. If not now, then by the Big Ten season. He should make a big leap forward in year two.
The primary backup and presumed nickel/dimeback will be the loser of the Avery/Floyd battle. This preview presumes that will be JT Floyd. Our last glimpses of him were against Penn State, when he turned in the coverage-type substance at the top of this post and a few other howlers. Here's one:
The game before that, it was Floyd who gave up slant after slant on critical third downs against Iowa. Even before that this blog declared his coverage "only brushes up against adequate."
|Iowa||2.5||11||-8.5||Oh my god the slants.|
|PSU||3||12||-9||Awful, awful, awful.|
Floyd was so overmatched as a redshirt freshman that Rodriguez and Robinson pulled him off the field, moved Woolfolk from his duties as a fairly effective free safety, and inserted Mike Williams to disastrous effect. Yeah, that could be another symptom of the insanity that ruled decision-making on the D these last few years. But unlike Kenny Demens's debut, Floyd's return to the field didn't make anyone think his removal was a mistake.
As you can see at right, Floyd started off well enough against the incompetent quarterbacks of the nonconference schedule. A number of whiffed tackles and Mouton-like angles against UMass were cause for concern. That concern bloomed, then metastasized in the Big Ten schedule.
|Nate Montana gift|
|breaks on to break up|
|reads and attacks|
|boxed out by Rudolph|
|sucks up on drag|
|allows Willis to drag him 15 yards|
First he was amongst the many Wolverines who were too confused or too slow to keep those four-yard Indiana routes from becoming eight. While he wasn't a major factor in the Michigan State game, he imploded against Iowa and Penn State.
In context it seems like his relatively benign Michigan State game was because the Spartans had even easier prey elsewhere on the field. And maybe Michigan protected him in favor of that prey. Remember the sinfully easy 41-yard touchdown Cullen Christian yielded? Yeah:
Why the hell is Cullen Christian the guy in man coverage on a receiver running a fly route? Why isn't it Floyd? Christian(-3, cover –3, RPS -2) is smoked crispy as he bites on an out and up gives up the touchdown. Roh was about to hit Cousins but no matter.
After that it was the elevator straight down and the injury. If he gets a lot better this year it's time to take the Gibson chatter seriously.
If there are injuries, options past the top three are dicey. With Floyd and Woolfolk held out of spring practice the starting cornerbacks were Avery and Tony Anderson, who's one of many walk-ons threatening for playing time. Anderson played ahead of Cullen Christian and Terrance Talbott; Christian transferred soon after. Talbott remains.
The hope is that's motivational or Talbott can accelerate past Anderson's spot on the depth chart as his scholarship-having self surpasses Anderson's walk-on ceiling. Talbott got sporadic time last year and was okay for a freshman. He got lost on zone drops and was a weak tackler, etc. The book on him…
The book on Talbott: short, smart, agile, excellent in coverage but needs a year or two to bulk up for college.
…seemed pretty accurate. He can be a contributor down the road… if he sticks with football. There were widespread rumors Talbott was off the team, by choice, for a period this offseason.
Beyond Talbott it's true freshmen, but at least there's a horde of them. Maryland's Blake Countess arrives with the most hype and should be the biggest threat to play. (Caveat: last year Cullen Christian arrived with the most hype.) Greg Brown [recruiting profile] enrolled early and was decent in the spring game. Those two feature on the first depth chart. Talbott does not.
The rest of the n00bs: Raymon Taylor [recruiting profile] is speedy, might not have the greatest change of direction, and got a fourth star from Rivals. Delonte Hollowell [recruiting profile] is yet another smurfy Cass Tech corner who can't be put on outside receivers; he'll probably have to wait for time to open up at nickelback. He is rooting hard for Thomas Gordon to win the safety job opposite Kovacs. Finally, Tamani Carter [recruiting profile] is probably a safety; as a guy Michigan hijacked from Minnesota it will be a bad callback to Ray Vinopal if he doesn't redshirt.
That's five dudes instead of three; if it turns out some of the guys ahead of them on the depth chart can't play the one who emerges as a contributor will probably be better than Talbott and Avery were last year.
|Free Safety||Yr.||Strong Safety||Yr.|
|Jordan Kovacs||Jr.*#||Thomas Gordon||So.*|
|Marvin Robinson||So.||Carvin Johnson||So.|
[* = player has taken redshirt. # = walk-on, or former walk-on]
Is it possible that last year's Michigan defense actually one-upped the safety horror on display in 2009? Yes. It was actually worse than even the situation that gave rise to this in last year's preview:
Their [Kovacs and Mike Williams's] powers combined in episodes like "Iowa tight ends are open by 15 yards," "We don't have a guy in the deep middle on third and twenty four," and "What would Juice Williams be like if he was an unstoppable 500-foot-tall robot?"
While the situation two years ago was never good it didn't drop off a cliff until Michigan moved Troy Woolfolk to corner. First Mike Williams and then Jordan Kovacs leisurely escorted opponents into the endzone for the remainder of the year, sure. But last year Michigan started out with this…
…and then pulled a similar switch by moving Cam Gordon to spur and inserting true freshman two-star Ray Vinopal. Vinopal wasn't quite as likely to take a terrible angle. Instead he was a 160-pound object in the way of Wisconsin's various house-sized Katamaris.
Artist's impression of Vinopal tackling Montee Ball
He also took some terrible angles. Kovacs was better but still kind of eh—he has not yet found that Iowa zen where the slow small white guy is always in the right place—and Michigan never got competent play from the other spot. Survey says increase doom panic victory 2010. And there was much rejoicing.
It can't be that bad again, right? I'm seriously asking this. Please, someone tell me it can't be that bad again. If no one else is willing to stand in front of that howitzer I guess it's up to me: they can't be that bad again.
|blasted all over|
|fends off the RT|
|shoots the gap|
|instant tackle on WR|
|tackles in the backfield|
|leaking out into the flat|
|capable zone coverage|
|almost a 95-yard Rick Six|
|not so smrt|
|inexplicably slows up|
It was already a foregone conclusion, but Brady Hoke explicitly confirmed that Jordan Kovacs will start for a third year this fall. He did so almost before anyone asked. The man once mistaken for Matt Cavanaugh by Greg Robinson is on track to becoming the first four-year starter at safety since
Jamar Adams [Ed-M: Marcus Ray ('95-'98). Adams's RS Fr year was Shazor/Mundy]
Unfortunately, thanks to the defensive implosion of the last three years this does not necessarily mean he is any good. Whether he is or not is a subject of heated debate wherever Michigan's starting secondary is discussed. His freshman year he was solid as a box safety. His instincts and tackling made him an effective force player and blitzer. Then the whole Woolfolk-to-corner thing happened and he got switched into a deep half role. To say he struggled was an understatement. Some UFR comments from that portion of his freshman year:
Just can't play a deep half.
Again burned as a deep half safety.
Enormous bust #3.
So that didn't go so well.
Last year Michigan tried to move him back into the box by switching to a 3-3-5 in which he was the "bandit" (a strong safety that spends his time on or near the LOS), but then they spent a lot of time in a two deep shell that saw Kovacs's deep limitations tested again. He did not pass with flying colors but thanks to his awareness and solid tackling was not the flaming dump truck the rest of the secondary was. It's not a coincidence that the new coaching staff has been talking him up. Hoke:
"He's a guy that can get things lined up for you, and he's a tough guy, and he will go attack the football," Hoke said of the former walk-on. "He has a great deal of pride in his performance on a daily basis. He's one of those guys who has an urgency about getting to the football. I'm pleased with what he's done to this point. I would guess that he won't take a step backward."
Kovacs did improve last year, and significantly. Kovacs went from deep half dead meat to "the king of moderate-moderate-0". In three different games (ND, BGSU, and Indiana) he had plusses that exactly offset his minuses; in four more (UConn, UMass, Iowa, and Penn State) he was just above or below breaking even. He was excellent against MSU…
…may have had his best game at Michigan. He's so reliable; on a day when Michigan couldn't find a tackle it didn't want to miss, Kovacs twice dragged down TEs in space to boot MSU off the field. Only one counted, unfortunately.
…but he broke down late, picking up negative days against Illinois, Purdue, and Wisconsin.
Even so, his season was a step forward from obvious liability to "certainly not a liability." Even if he's a walk-on and even if he's obviously small and slow, he should continue improving. He'll be a little less small and slow with another year of conditioning. Being in a coherent defensive system should help put him in positions to make plays. His redshirt year was not spent on the team so he's not as close to his ceiling as your average redshirt junior.
He's not going to be Reggie Nelson. That won't keep him from becoming the first Michigan safety you only hate a little tiny bit since Jamar Adams.
Thomas Gordon: prison abs, manages to look badass on last year's D
|sends the house|
|makes a solid TFL in some space|
|get outside his blocker|
|moves up into the gap|
|not brandon harrison|
|search and destroy|
The spot next to Kovacs is second to only weakside linebacker when it comes to mystery on this year's team. One candidate is sophomore Carvin Johnson, who had a plentiful helping of hype early and started in the spring game. The other is redshirt sophomore Thomas Gordon.
These two are familiar with each other since they spent last year duking it out with each other. The twist: they were doing so at Spur; Cam Gordon had locked down free safety. This year they're swapped.
The smaller Gordon has the advantage. He played at nickelback in the spring, swapping with the WLB on passing downs and covering slot receivers. He seemed well-suited for that spot. Moving him to safety signals some discontent with the options there, and since the move practice scuttlebutt has talked him up a bit more than Johnson. When Countdown to Kickoff flagged down DBs coach Curt Mallory he described the situation at safety like this:
It starts with Jordan right now. … He's done a great job, had a good two-a-days. Then we've got some younger guys in there. Thomas Gordon, I've been really pleased with how he's improved. [pause] And then with the two other guys…
That sounds like Johnson had eleven days to displace Gordon for Western Michigan. As of publication there's been no indication that switch has happened. Gordon was just named a starter by the WMU depth chart.
Gordon's 2010 was abbreviated. He started the season thanks to an injury to Johnson and played pretty well. Particularly impressive was his ability to roar off the edge without pulling a Brandon Harrison by zooming right by the quarterback. Gordon showed a knack for coming in at the fastest possible speed that would allow him to rope the QB to the ground, which accounted for many of his plus plays last year. Here's a good one against Notre Dame:
Outside of that it was minus half points here and there for poor coverage or missed tackles. He and Johnson displayed a knack for finishing his day with around three positive points and two negative ones. The spur was not a high-impact position either way last year until Cam Gordon switched to it and promptly got himself lost on flat zones he'd never been asked to play before.
Like Avery above, Gordon's ability to not be the most spectacularly flaming tire is encouraging. He came in with bler recruiting rankings but—again like Avery—he was a high school quarterback who got a Michigan camp offer and then did not play in his high school's secondary because of injury. He's beaten out some actual scholarship players and drawn praise from the coaches for his play. When I clipped something he did last year it was usually something positive.
I have the same optimism about this Johnson/Gordon combo that I had last year. This, of course, terrifies me. It seems unnatural to think an unproven Michigan safety could be competent. I like Gordon's agility and tackling, though, and while there will be rough spots early by midseason he should settle into that midlevel safety range like Englemon or Barringer.
Carvin Johnson does not like losing.
Curt Mallory wants his safeties to be interchangeable, so this will probably be a situation like offensive line where there's a line behind the starters and whoever the top backup is will come off the bench no matter who exits. That is likely to be Carvin Johnson. Johnson shouldn't feel too down: what small tea leaves we've gotten from the defense suggest he will be the first defensive back off the bench when Michigan goes nickel—in the Saturday punting demo he was on the field plenty as Thomas Gordon played nickelback in Michigan's third down package.
His season was even more abbreviated than Gordon's due to injury. I clipped three events from him last year:
- A bad zone drop against UConn
- An Indiana touchdown on which he was playing some sort of weird ILB and got crushed.
- A nice open field tackle on Rob Henry.
#2 won't be an issue if he's playing a deep safety; #3 is an asset that was promised by his recruiting profile. One… maybe not so much. Though people talk him up Michigan felt it necessary to move Gordon back, whereupon he won the job. He's probably a little unreliable at the moment.
Past Johnson there are actual scholarship(!) players who weren't(!) in high school last year. One is Marvin Robinson [recruiting profile], he of the obligatory OMG shirtless pictures…
…and that thing he did in the spring game where he ran with a slant pattern while Mike Cox was waving at him en route to the endzone. Practice reports on Robinson alternate tales of massive here-comes-the-BOOM-type hits and equally massive touchdown-ceding errors. If you hit up that recruiting profile you'll see a lot of skepticism he can play safety; last year he spent a good chunk of his time at WLB. That may be his long term destination.
For now he's behind Kovacs. He seems to be the second guy in the pecking order; Michigan will try to avoid using him until he has that consistency thing every coach ever but especially Michigan's keep harping on.
The final scholarship guy is Josh Furman. Furman's a bit like Avery in that he was almost exclusively an offensive player in high school. (He put up some Rawls-like games in the Maryland state playoffs.) Michigan managed to redshirt him last year, so his recruiting profile is about all we know. He's reputed to be super athletic, like six FAKES out of five 40 athletic, and will have a role on special teams this year. When asked about the safeties for CTK, Mallory mentioned Kovacs, Gordon, Johnson, and Robinson but not Furman. He's still a year or two away from seeing the field on defense.
Released in the depths of the WMU game notes:
|MICHIGAN OFFICIAL TWO DEEP 8/29/2011|
|QB||D. Robinson||D. Gardner|
M. Shaw OR
|V. Smith||S. Hopkins|
|FB||J. McColgan||S. Watson|
|WR 1||J. Hemingway||K. Grady||J. Jackson|
|WR 2||R. Roundtree||J. Gallon||M. Odoms|
|TE||K. Koger||B. Moore||S. Watson|
|LT||T. Lewan||M. Schofield|
|LG||R. Barnum||E. Mealer|
|C||D. Molk||R. Khoury|
|RG||P. Omameh||E. Mealer|
|RT||M. Huyge||M. Schofield|
|NT||M. Martin||W. Campbell|
|DT||R. Van Bergen||Q. Washington|
|WDE||C. Roh||J. Black||F. Clark|
|MLB||K. Demens||J.B. Fitzgerald||
|WLB||M. Jones||B. Herron||B. Hawthorne,
|SLB||C. Gordon||J. Ryan||B. Beyer|
|SS||T. Gordon||C. Johnson||J. Furman|
|FS||J. Kovacs||M. Robinson|
|CB1||T. Woolfolk||B. Countess||G. Brown|
C. Avery OR
|P||M. Wile OR
|K||B. Gibbons OR
|PR||J. Hemingway OR
D. Dileo OR
J. Gallon OR
|KR||J. Gallon||K. Grady||V. Smith|
- Heininger didn't get the memo that Brink was the walk-on who was supposed to start at SDE. Seriously, Hoke said point blank he would start.
- Will Campbell is back at one tech?
- Martavious Odoms is way down the depth chart.
- That horrible, horrible OR at K.
- Freshmen who made it on: Beyer, Clark, Morgan, Brown, and Countess
- Hopefully Barnum's presence means his injury isn't significant.
- Somewhat surprising that Mike Jones managed to hold on to the starting WLB job without so much as an OR. Seems like we've heard about everyone save him.
Yes, we're officially calling this feature, formerly part of Tim's 'Friday Night Lights' coverage, the weekly 'Creeper Van Original' installment. Embrace it, I guess. This week, there was really only one choice for the featured game, and that was the mega-showdown between Farmington Hills Harrison and Detroit Cass Tech, which featured four Michigan commits in the class of 2012 and a host of other D-1 prospects. The contest itself was a bit of a letdown, as Harrison ran away with the victory, 43-7, but there were plenty of highlights from the Wolverine commits and a couple other prospects of interest:
General Game Impressions: Obviously, FHH was dominant from start to finish, and a lot of that had to do with the coaching. The Hawks were a well-oiled machine, moving the ball on the ground and through the air at will while holding the Technicians to just 155 yards of total offense. Cass Tech, on the other hand, looked disorganized on the sideline and out-of-sorts on the field; there were even a few plays where their defensive players were still scrambling to get in position while the ball was being snapped. Another potential issue here is that Harrison had senior or junior starters at all but two positions, giving them a decided experience advantage that showed through on the field, especially as the game got out of hand.
The player who showed the most promise, in my opinion (and much to the chagrin of the partisans on this blog, I'm sure), was Harrison wide receiver and Michigan State commit Aaron Burbridge. He caught three passes for 54 yards despite the lopsided score – FHH barely threw the ball at all in the second half – and displayed great route-running, nice hands, and very good athleticism for a player his size (6'2", 180 pounds). Terry Richardson and 2013 athlete Jourdan Lewis couldn't match up with him physically, and Burbridge was able to get to any spot on the field if he so pleased. If Burbridge sticks with the Spartans, and I have no reason to believe he won't, he should be a force to be reckoned with in the Big Ten – the only thing he lacks is elite speed, and his size and route-running more than make up for it.
Mario Ojemudia: The good news for Michigan fans is that if there was one player who impressed as much as Burbridge, it was defensive end Mario Ojemudia. According to Mike Rothstein's count, which looks right to me, Ojemudia tallied four tackles, three for a loss, 1/2 sack, six QB hurries, and a fumble recovery on a blocked punt. This was in essentially three quarters of work, and Ojemudia played practically every snap in that span, lining up at offensive tackle as well as defensive end. Cass Tech simply couldn't stop him on the pass rush, and he brought it on every play, showing an excellent motor and a great nose for the football.
Ojemudia stood up well to double-teams, flashed a nice swim move a couple times, and made sure to finish every play, including chasing down Cass's running back from behind on one occasion. To me, Ojemudia looks like a perfect fit for rush end, and he appears to have the frame to add some pounds without losing athleticism. I was very impressed with him on Saturday.
Devin Funchess: Funchess didn't get too many opportunities on offense, thanks to the blowout score and Burbridge clearly being the focal point of the Harrison offense, but when he got the chance he showed he could turn into a very good tight end at the next level. Funchess displayed great hands and concentration, making his first reception on a tipped pass, and he finished with three receptions for 69 yards and a touchdown by my count (I'm pretty sure the Detroit News recap omits his first catch). Unfortunately for those who missed the game, I was tweeting when Funchess recorded his touchdown catch, so you'll have to believe me when I say he ran a great route up the seam, plucked the ball out of the air, and showed nice speed getting into the end zone on the 31-yard scoring play. His other catch also came when he found a hole in the middle of the defense – from limited viewing, I like what I see in his route-running, hands, and athleticism.
Funchess also recorded an interception on a play where Ojemudia pressured the quarterback into a poor throw, which was very nice to see as a Michigan fan. On a side note, for those of you who think that Michigan should try to convert Funchess into a wide receiver, I don't see that happening – he already weighs around 215 pounds, and looks like he could easily add another 20-30 before he gets to Ann Arbor. If Saturday was any indication, he could see the field immediately at tight end for Michigan, especially with the lack of depth at the position for the Wolverines.
Royce Jenkins-Stone: My initial impression from watching the game was that RJS had a relatively quiet night, but looking at the tape he had a better performance than I initially thought. Jenkins-Stone finished with four tackles, according to Rothstein again, and FHH clearly made it a point to run away from him – this seemed to frustrate him, especially since he wasn't getting much help at all from the rest of the defense. There were a few plays where RJS allowed himself to get taken out of the play too easily, getting a little passive, but for the most part he was very aggressive in pursuit and always seemed to end the play around the ballcarrier, even if he was 25 yards downfield.
Jenkins-Stone's best defensive play of the game actually came on offense when, lined up at fullback, he forced a fumble by a Harrison defender after Cass Tech's QB threw an interception on a screen pass, though FHH managed to recover the loose ball. I thought RJS showed good instincts, especially against the run, but unfortunately his team was up against a juggernaut and the front four couldn't get any pressure or stop holes from opening up. It certainly wasn't a great performance from RJS, but I still really like his combination of size, athleticism, and instincts – he should be good once he has a solid (and Mattison-coached) defense around him. He was also the clear leader of the defense, receiving all the play-calls from the sidelines and rallying his teammates, whether that meant being the first to congratulate one for a good play or giving one an earful if they'd blown an assignment – I liked what I saw there.
Terry Richardson: T-Rich had a relatively quiet night defensively, though he did have one great pass breakup on a slightly-underthrown jump ball to Burbridge in the end zone – he timed his jump perfectly and knocked the ball away from a much larger player, which is encouraging since Richardson will be giving up some size to pretty much anyone he's going to line up against in college. Burbridge got the better of him on at least one catch when he lined up in the slot and Richardson completely whiffed trying to play bump-and-run (on the film, that's the first play in Richardson's section).
Those were the only two plays where I got a clear view of Richardson playing corner – I had to focus on three different players when Harrison had the ball, and T-Rich was the toughest to keep track of – so I won't pass much judgment in terms of his abilities based on a pair of plays in one game. He also played offense and returned kicks, recording one first-down reception and returning three kickoffs for 70 yards, and he definitely showed promise as a returner – he's got very good speed and accelerates quickly once he gets the ball, and he proved quite elusive even with a full head of steam. Richardson is going to need to bulk up at the next level, but his athleticism is elite.
Jourdan Lewis (2013 athlete): Lewis, Cass Tech's other corner/wideout/returner, was their best player on the field on Saturday, in my opinion. The junior is listed by Rivals at 5'11", 170, and his size allows him to be much more physical – he had a couple big hits on both receivers and ballcarriers and was generally solid in his tackling, and he certainly wasn't afraid to step up and hit somebody. Lewis is not quite as fast or quick as Richardson, but he still has very good speed and agility and was able to show that off in all three phases of the game. Lewis had the best play of the night for Cass Tech's defense, coming up with a diving interception on their own goal line. He already has an offer from Toledo, and I expect he'll get offers from much more prominent programs – including Michigan – in the near future. He has the look of a BCS-level athlete and I like his potential as a bigger cornerback who can make plays against the pass or the run.
Jayru Campbell (2015 quarterback): Yes, that's 2015, as in this kid is a freshman. Cass Tech's senior starting quarterback was injured in the second half, forcing Campbell into duty, and he displayed a cannon arm, decent accuracy, and very good scrambling ability. He's already about 6'3", 170 pounds as a freshman, and on one scramble he shook off two tackles (including a huge hit from Funchess) and left three FHH defenders – including Ojemudia – down on the field, though luckily none were major injuries and Ojemudia later said on Twitter that all three guys cramped up (I believe him, since it was a warm night and several players had similar issues, though it was quite interesting timing). This caused the entire Cass Tech side of the field to go bananas, and was by far their biggest highlight of the game even though the play only went for a few yards.
Campbell showed great pocket presence for a freshman and led Cass Tech to their only touchdown of the night, slinging a 26-yard touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter. His mechanics need work, but again, we're talking about a high school freshman here. He's one to watch (far) down the road, but it appears he'll see a lot of action this year as the word is Cass Tech's starter will be out for the season with a knee injury – it certainly didn't look good at first glance.
Photo Gallery: A huge thanks to Eric (aka Chewer D on the MGoBoard) for making the drive up from Toledo and taking a whole bunch of pictures, as well as providing the video camera I used from the press box. Highlights include a montage of the Funchess touchdown and some great close-up shots of the commits, including RJS, who was sporting a Michigan skull cap under his helmet. Awesome.
Other MGoScouting: If you haven't yet, definitely check out NStank's report from the Glen Oak/Firestone game in Canton, which featured OSU commit Bri'onte Dunn. Dunn finished with 130 yards on 27 carries – more on that game in tomorrow's roundup, which is now called 'Weekday Warriors'. Kellen Winslow Jr. approves.
If you have any suggestions to help improve future Creeper Van Originals, please leave them in the comments or email me.
The van travels to Toledo Rogers to catch safety and U-M commit Allen Gant of Sylvania Southview HS. Change of plans, heading to see Gant in two weeks; next week I'll be at Toledo Whitmer to see Chris Wormley and the Panthers face off against A.B. Lucas Secondary School.