Peppers at 10, which seems low.
With baseball season officially starting Friday, I'm going to make several sporadic posts over this week in order to preview the team. For starters, I may suggest going back to my previous podcast with Rich Maloney or my initial reaction to our schedule, which I will probably update my outlook after completing my previews.
Last year's record came in at a less than sterling 30-25, the lowest win total since Rich Maloney stepped on campus. The 9-15 BigTen record is tied for the 6th worst conference record in Michigan history (102 seasons), and the worst since 2000 when the team went 10-18. Obviously last year was a disappointment. So much like football, hockey, basketball, or most other sports that get coverage around these parts, baseball was just as involved in the recent so called "curse of 09-10" as Brian put it in mgo.licio.us.
Michigan came into the season with the usual high expectations, but something was different than years past. After losing 4 players to the draft early, Michigan wasn't able to reload with talent it usually would have (how can you when they get drafted 4 months after signing day and less than 3 months before school starts?). Michigan was starting a true freshman at third base, a key middle reliever's career was cut short by surgery, our right field spot was wide open, our designated hitter came out of nowhere in the form of unknown little brother of MLB player Nate McLouth, and our off the field narrative in the media was "walk-ons lead the team." I think the Ann Arbor News really hit the spot last year in their preseason article:
Many of the would-be run producers are tenured but inexperienced, including corner outfielders Kenny Fellows (fifth-year senior) and Nick Urban (fourth-year junior).
"We have a lot of guys with some potential, but they don't have bios yet," Maloney said. "It's kind of a wild card."
Oh, and what a wild card it was. Consistency was never something Michigan could grasp. Eric Katzman earned the alternate persona of Evil Katzman at least once every two weeks. McLouth fluctuated wildly in terms of plate production. Third base was a carousel between John Lorenz and Tim Kalczynski. Right field was Urban, Oaks, Urban again. Burgoon was injured and the bullpen went by committee. We lost Kevin Cislo and Chris Berset for stretches of the season. Nothing seemed to go right.
Well, almost nothing. Chris Fetter, our senior ace was the one consistent bright spot. Fetter carried the team for most of the season, eating up innings and mowing down line ups. He is responsible for our BigTen best team ERA of 4.80. But there was a lack of depth behind him. Before the season ever started, we lost Ben Jenzen, one of our top relievers from the season before. Left handed freshman Bobby Brosnahan, the pitching gem of the incoming class, was lost for the season with Tommy John surgery. For a period of 6 weeks, we lost our closer, Tyler Burgoon with a shoulder bruise suffered trying to make a play on a bunt.
So while Fetter could carry us through a Friday game, Saturday and Sunday became an adventure in the bullpen. Like clockwork, you could set an implosion coming every three weeks. The weeks of Evil Katzman meant the bullpen was routinely called in during the third or fourth inning, sometimes earlier. Our Sunday starting position during the first half of the season was just as inconsistent. Travis Smith struggled, as did Kolby Wood and Brandon Sinnery.
Not until Alan Oaks re-entered the rotation did we gain any extra consistency. By then, Fetter was already showing signs of fatigue from his highest inning total ever.
Dear Ryan, please don't leave us after this season, attrition hurts.
(Photo by Jeremy Cho, Michigan Daily)
On offense and defense, preseason depth hurt here, too. Adam Abraham left for the majors after his junior year leaving a HUGE void at third base. John Lorenz would have had time to red shirt and prepare for the college game. Instead, he and walk on senior Tim Kalczynski ended up playing third base by committee. Timmy Kal had been a catcher previous to this move. That's how bad we were hurting at depth. Neither player was that great offensively, especially not compared to the great player that Abraham was.
Joining these two on the left side of the infield was a first year starter in Anthony Toth. While his size would lead most people to think of Toth as a second baseman, he was given the keys to short stop with no real back up available. Toth did alright at the plate, eventually giving a decent hitter in the 9-hole. On the field, he was about average. He committed quite a few errors, always at the worst time, but he wasn't horrible.
In right field, Alan Oaks began the season sick, missing the first two weeks of the season. This opened the door for a previous back up middle infielder Nick Urban to get the starting nod. This actually worked out well for Michigan. Urban was the better defensive outfielder with great speed. Upon Oaks' return to the lineup, he hadn't regained his swing yet either.
In all, we were missing at least four veteran players from the draft, and another 2-3 players at any particular point of the season depending who were injured.
To complicate things, Michigan's hitters really loved the strikeout this year. Mike Dufek struck out once in every 3.8 at bats, Most players average about 4 at-bats per game for a reference. That's killer for an offense when the clean-up hitter strikes out that much. He wasn't alone, however, as Toth and Oaks were nearly as bad with a strikeout every 5 at bats. Michigan finished second in the conference in team strikeouts, one behind Minnesota. The problem was that Michigan only bat .294 while the Gophers hit .314. That was the difference between a 7th place finish and a 2nd place finish.
On the whole, an outsider looking at our team would have seen one great pitcher, and depending on the weekend, either a couple of average pitchers or several really bad pitchers. On offense, they'd seen a bunch of walk on players, some better than others, and a rotating cast of fill ins.
In the next installment of the previews, I'll examine how our depth has adjusted in the last year after getting a full recruiting class, some players healthy, and some more experience.
Roh is certain. Everything else is chaos.
This is going to be extensive. It would be much, much quicker to rattle off a list of positions we know are set this fall:
- Craig Roh at quick defensive end.
That is literally all. We do know that a few other guys are guaranteed starters, but Ryan Van Bergen, Mike Martin, and Troy Woolfolk could all switch positions. I should have thought of that before I did the offense. Now I'm stuck with this format.
Anyway. On with show:
Not Brandon Graham
Three defensive line starters return, but the best defensive lineman in the country does not. Normally you'd be looking at Brandon Graham's platoon of ready-to-go backups for an inadequate but functional replacement. Since this is the 2009 Michigan defense we're talking about that platoon is walk-on Will Heininger. The other options at his spot are freshmen.
So it's time to get creative, maybe…
Count me amongst the chorus suggesting that Ryan Van Bergen might move outside. Dubbing this position "Not Brandon Graham" is a clever way to not write "Ryan Van Bergen might move" at three different spots.
Michigan has three veteran backups at defensive tackle in sophomore Will Campbell and seniors Renaldo Sagesse and Greg Banks. All played last year, the latter two decently. Campbell was raw as hell but was one of them OMG SHIRTLESS recruits and can be expected to make a major jump his sophomore year. Putting one of those guys in the starting lineup seems less likely to result in disaster than dropping an underweight freshman into the starting lineup. Craig Roh did okay last year, but Michigan isn't bringing in anyone as touted as Roh was this time around. Also, Mike Martin is more of a penetrating three-technique tackle than a leviathan space-eater and moving him to RVB's old spot figures to get more production out of him.
If RVB doesn't move, then you're going to choose from Heininger, redshirt junior Brandon Herron,—Roh's backup at quick last year—redshirt freshman Anthony LaLota, or true freshmen. Herron was a linebacker a year ago and is likely to still be undersized and LaLota showed up two inches and thirty pounds lighter than people expected him to. He probably needs another year.
The thing to watch for this spring is the RVB move. Past that, the developmental paths of Campbell, Roh, and LaLota are the main points of interest.
Hoping for… as the guy that is not Brandon Graham? Will Campbell. This assumes RVB ends up at DE and Martin moves over to RVBs spot. Moving RVB gets a bunch of veterans and a five-star sophomore more playing time. It puts Mike Martin in a position to be seriously disruptive. And it doesn't force a freshman into the starting lineup. So this is a hope for the move and a hope for Campbell to explode.
Expecting… RVB moves, Sagesse and Campbell platoon. I was puzzled by Michigan's periodic attempts to give Campbell playing time over Sagesse last year. Campbell got sealed on a number of successful runs against Iowa; Sagesse wasn't Alan Branch but usually ended up with a +1 in UFR. I assume Campbell will show considerable progress but I'm also betting that Sagesse is basically a co-starter.
Over the course of a year, Stevie Brown went from whipping boy to reliable outpost on a defense of chaos. Was it a position move? Greg Robinson's Just For Men magic?
They're young but they're not totally green. Michigan got both Brandin Hawthorne and Mike Jones in early last year and put them through their paces; by the UConn game next year they'll have been on campus for almost two years. Both saw special teams action only. Hawthorne will apply for a medical redshirt. Jones played too much for one. That's him burning his redshirt on the right.
Those two will be the main competitors in spring since I believe Isaiah Bell, who redshirted, is moving inside to ROL. This fall brings crazy athletic Josh Furman into the mix. He of the 4.3 electronic 40 is probably even faster than Brown and could press for playing time later in the season if Hawthorne and Jones aren't working out. He's unlikely to win the job outright immediately.
Hoping for… Hawthorne or Jones doesn't seem like it makes a difference since they have near-identical recruiting profiles and experience. I guess I'm pulling for Hawthorne since he's got a redshirt on him and I like the Pahokee kids.
Expecting… Again, Hawthorne and Jones have almost nothing separating them. One of those guys.
Regular Ol' Linebacker
These two positions are here despite featuring two fifth-year seniors returning for their third years of starting because both Obi Ezeh and Jonas Mouton were yanked for performance reasons late last season. Indecision ruled the day:
Mouton was pulled for JB Fitzgerald, a touted recruit entering his third year in the program. Ezeh was pulled for Kevin Leach, another walk-on. Both eventually won their jobs back when the replacements weren't much better.
Jay Hopson left to become the defensive coordinator at Memphis, and whether it was voluntary or not it's welcome. Ezeh went nowhere in two years under Hopson's tutelage and Mouton went backwards. If Greg Robinson can pull the same career revival magic he did with Stevie Brown on the two inside guys, he'll put to rest a large chunk of the skepticism at his hire and go a long way towards making the defense respectable again.
If he can't, then Fitzgerald and Leach will figure into the plans again, with potential assists from Kenny Demens and various freshmen. Demens hasn't gotten off special teams in his time at Michigan and got passed by a walk-on. That seems like a kiss of death there.
Ezeh and Mouton will be the main focus here.
Hoping for… I'd like Fitzgerald to emerge as a starter but in the place of Ezeh; last year the guy replacing Ezeh was Leach. Really I'd just like whoever plays at linebacker to look like he's got a clue. Obi-Wan Greg Robinson, you're our only hope.
Expecting… Ezeh and Mouton. They'll be better. Linebackers are the guys most screwed by Michigan's revolving door of defensive coordinators because they are almost always reading a play and executing a complicated assignment based on that. Also they've got a new coach who happens to be the defensive coordinator and thus knows exactly what he wants the guys to be doing.
Donovan Warren took his budding skills and five-star hype to the middle rounds of the NFL draft. Boubacar Cissoko couldn't keep it together off the field and is no longer on the team.
I'm assuming both spots are open because of the possibility Troy Woolfolk moves back to deep safety in spring. The defense started imploding for serious once he was moved to corner and Michigan's safety tandem became Kovacs and Williams
Outside of Woolfolk, the one guy with any experience is JT Floyd. Floyd was the guy the coaching staff turned to to replace Cissoko when he proved dreadful early in the year. He wasn't much better and Woolfolk eventually had to move despite the other options at safety being a freshman student-body walk-on and Mike Williams. In his brief time as a starter, Floyd played ten yards off wide receivers and looked totally overmatched. Maybe that's a mental thing, but he seemed just too slow for the Big Ten.
So… yeah. It's more freshmen, then. Super-hyped recruit Justin Turner got in late because of some difficulties with the Ohio Graduation Test and ended up out of shape and unprepared to play. He redshirted. Even if he came in looking like Will Campbell, if Turner couldn't play in that secondary by the end of the year people are right to be at least slightly concerned he may not pan out.
And then there's the flood of true freshmen. With Demar Dorsey starting out at corner, Michigan has four in the 2010 class: Dorsey, Courtney Avery, Cullen Christian, and Terry Talbott. None enrolled early—unfortunately, all of Michigan's early enrollees were on the offensive side of the ball—and they will be just rumors this spring.
We won't get a read on this position at all unless walk-on Floyd Simmons is ahead of someone on the depth chart. We will get a first look at Turner, the team's most important redshirt freshman.
Hoping for… Justin Turner and either Dorsey or Christian. No Woolfolk == considerably reduced panic at safety. One freshman is as good as any other at the other spot, I guess, but I'd rather have the higher-rated guys off to fast starts. No offense to Floyd, but he obviously wasn't ready last year and I'd be surprised if he was this year. Maybe 2011.
Expecting… Turner and Woolfolk.
Brandon Smith transferred to Temple.
It's clear that this is going to be another hybrid safety/LB type player. Early in the year, it was Mike Williams. A little later it was Jordan Kovacs. When Woolfolk moved to corner it was Williams again, and when Williams played poorly Michigan moved Brandon Smith and threw him in the starting lineup; Smith liked it so much he immediately transferred.
Of the two returners, Kovacs was by far the superior option despite being a walk-on. He's got the proverbial nose for the ball and was the only guy at the spot last year to turn in enough good plays to offset his poor ones. And he did this as a freshman walk-on. (He was technically a redshirt freshman but since he was not on the team last year he is much closer to a true freshman.) He showed himself way too slow to play deep safety, but the grit fantastic he is possession of should keep him in the mix despite a couple of athletes pushing him hard.
Athlete the first is incoming freshman Marvin Robinson, who everyone thinks is destined for linebacker except Robinson. At Michigan he may be a linebacker in spirit if not in name. This is a spot he's a superior fit for athletically but it may require some adjustment.
Athlete the second is hypothetical, but Rodriguez mentioned in a Signing Day press conference: they're looking at moving wide receiver Cam Gordon to defense, but to safety. [Update: YEAH THAT HAPPENED.] That's another indicator that Michigan's base set is going to be an eight-man front, as Gordon is a strapping 6'2" fellow who everyone expected would end up at… wait for it… linebacker. If Gordon makes the move it will give Kovacs and Williams some competition from an NFL-sized guy right away.
This is also where Carvin Johnson goes, but I'm guessing he'll redshirt.
Hoping for… I don't really know, actually. I guess I'd like Robinson to win the starting job, but a true freshman over Kovacs and Gordon could bode unwell for immediate production. Maybe Kovacs to start and eventually giving way to Robinson.
Expecting… I have no idea. Truly.
As discussed above, if this is Kovacs Michigan is at least kind of screwed. I mean no offense to the guy, but…
…he is not a deep safety*. In an ideal world, two of the young corners would establish themselves quickly enough for Michigan to boot Troy Woolfolk back here. That world is much easier to envision if any of those guys had enrolled early.
If Woolfolk doesn't make the move back, Michigan has a couple options not fresh off the turnip truck. Vlad Emilien and Thomas Gordon are redshirt freshmen who will be given a shot at the job. Emilien was more highly touted and actually held the starting free safety job in spring until late, when Woolfolk took over and he was relegated to backup duty. He saw some special teams time in fall but will apply for an injury redshirt. Gordon was primarily a high school quarterback at Cass Tech—he only started playing DB as a senior-year audition for a Michigan scholarship—and never threatened to see the field last year.
Freshman Ray Vinopal will reinforce in fall, but as the lowest-rated player in the class he will probably redshirt.
Hoping for… Woolfolk. I'd rather have the freshmen playing at corner, where Woolfolk can tackle their mistakes.
Expecting… Emilien. I'm a little hesitant about him since he enrolled early last year and still wasn't good enough to crack last year's secondary, but maybe he had a lingering injury issue.
*(RVB owned up to a botched line check on that touchdown but it was a lack of footspeed from Kovacs and, more disturbingly, Floyd, that turned that play from 20 yards into 90.)
What others? Apparently Teric Jones might stick on defense, apparently at box safety. I think I've mentioned every other scholarship defensive player on campus except Steve Watson and James Rogers.
This year Tim and Paul went on journeys across the state in search of anyone willing to sign a letter of intent for a program that went 3-9 the year before but still had wings on their helmets. They even went into Ohio to find asylum-seeking young men. Sometimes their quarry was injured or irrelevant or playing a game at the same time as another player of interest, but they persisted.
When they returned it was with stunning high definition video invariably set to Explosions in the Sky, which makes some sense because they tend to write ten minute songs. In other ways, it makes no sense. But it makes sense for the site.
Paul put together a recap:
I realize it's just high school football highlights but I was strangely moved by it. Most highlight reels are just highlights. They give you the impression that if a player gets tackled, it's at least twenty yards downfield and after he kicked a guy's head off. Then they show up and usually they are just people. Here they're just people.
BONUS of a literal variety. Paul and Tim and Tom did a lot of work on original content this year and I told them that I'd set aside some time on the beveled guilt button to your right for them. This is a good time. All donations this week go directly to them.
Michigan 71 Minnesota 63, Michigan 12-12 (5-7 Big Ten)
With Michigan mired in the depths of a tailspin that included five straight losses to teams other than Iowa, the majority of them noncompetitive, it was easy to forget that this team is actually capable of playing basketball. Beating a Minnesota team playing for its tournament life on its home court was enough to remind us of what could have been. With the next two games coming up against Iowa and Penn State, these Wolverines may be capable of putting together the mythical "win streak." If they can defend the home court the rest of the way (while taking care of Iowa on the road), it's NIT all the way, baby.
[Editor's note: you're advised not to think about Michigan's record in close games at this point.]
There were a few interesting storylines in the game, with the most encouraging for Michigan fans being the continued maturation of Darius Morris at point guard . He played 33 minutes, made two of his three shots, collected one rebounds, and grabbed one steal while dishing out five assists to only two turnovers against Minnesota's pressure defense. As I've been saying over the second half of the season, if he improves his shooting (1/3 from the free throw line, 0/1 from behind the arc), he will be a very dangerous player in the Big Ten.
Another great story from the game, oddly, was Zack Gibson. DeShawn Sims was benched early in the game, and Gibby took advantage of the opportunity, nailing all three shots that he took—two from behind the arc—and snagging a couple rebounds. He did all this in just nine minutes.
Despite what it may seem like, I seriously don't like to whine about officiating. However, when even Bobby Knight (who pulls no punches in his commentary, thankfully) expressed his shock that Michigan was getting called for ticky-tack fouls on one end of the court (at least 2 or 3 times with literally no physical contact between players), while Minnesota was getting away with seemingly everything on the other end, something ain't right. Games must be officiated fairly, end of story. The Wolverines did end up getting the benefit of a couple bad calls that could probably fall under the "make up" category, everyone on both sides would probably be a lot happier if all the call were good, instead of an even impact of bad calls going both ways.
- [Editor's note: while I agree with Knight/Tim about the calls, man was that the worst charge ever when Anthony Wright set up almost literally underneath the basket and got a call. They just put in a rule change that makes that a clear block. When the Minnesota player got up hopping mad, I had to agree with him. The Minnesota crowd wanted blood, and the refs then spent the rest of the game calling BS on Michigan, further confirming that every conspiracy theory you've ever had about basketball referees is true.]
- Michigan... shot... well? The more I think about this game, the less it makes sense for the 2009-10 Wolverines.
- Despite his early benching, DeShawn Sims, continued to show why it is he, not Manny Harris, who is the lifeblood of this team. It's going to be hard to replace him next season.
- Argh free throw shooting. This team was #13 in the nation last year, shooting over 75%. They shot 12/19 (63%) in this game, and are under 72% on the year. This year they barely crack the top 100 in FT%.
- Turnovers were the name of the game. Michigan committed just 8 against Minnesota's defense (which excels in creating turnovers), and forced 15.
- This is more like the defense we had come to expect out of Michigan than the last two games. They're playing almost all man (while occasionally mixing in 1-3-1 or 2-3 zones), with a lot of switching on screens. I think this performance is more indicative of their ability than the Northwestern or Wisconsin games.
- I saw Anthony Wright pass up an open look from three. It was weird.
- I questioned whether the long rest between games would help Michigan enough in my preview. I guess I shouldn't underestimate John Beilein's ability to gameplan - nor should the rest factor be ignored with Michigan's small rotation.
- Club Trillion watch - Minnesota's Bryant Allen joined the club last night.
Michigan has the weekend off before traveling to Iowa City for the chance to sweep the Hawkeyes. Though the Wolverines could have played me at center the entire second half and still beaten Iowa last game, Iowa has been able to win a couple games against low-end Big Ten competition. The team will have to be on their game to ensure that they don't become the latest victims. The game is a late tip (9PM/8 local) on Tuesday night.
|WHAT||Michigan @ UNO|
January 22/23rd, 2010
|THE LINE||College hockey lines, junkie?|
|TELEVISION||CBS College Sports both nights(!)|
Record. 14-12-6, 10-11-3-2 CCHA. Not a team under consideration right this second. They're #26 in RPI. Currently fifth place with 35 points. Michigan is fourth with two points and two games in hand on the Mavs.
UNO has their usual team of pluggers mixed in with one or two really talented guys and they're in their usual spot in the middle of the CCHA and the cusp of the top 25 in RPI. They've been on a roll of late, going 4-1-1 in their last six. (They swept Northern, split with ND, and got an old-fashioned three-point weekend from Ohio State.)
UNO's always fancied Michigan as its main rival in the CCHA and this is the last time UNO will host Michigan as a conference foe. The Mavs are off to the WCHA next year. As a result, you get articles like so…
Big Blue. Evil Empire. Michigan. Michigoon. Say it any way you want, but say it for the last time this weekend.
…that can't deny the truth behind the "rivalry"…
UNO is 4-24-3 all-time against Michigan and 2-9-3 at home.
…is that there really isn't one. I've seen most of those games and even I'm shocked at how ugly UNO's record is.
Their schedule down the stretch here is brutal: Michigan, Miami, and national shocker Bemidji State, currently in the CHA but 18-6-2 and pushing for a #1 seed.
Dangermen. This is the polar opposite of top-heavy Ferris State: UNO's top scorer, defenseman Eddie Del Grosso, has a meh 22 points but the Mav's #9 scorer has seventeen, with two more guys cracking double digits. UNO has seven players with at least seven goals. They get scoring from all over.
If there's a guy to watch out for it's Jeric Agosta, who has 14-7-21 and just one power play goal. Linemate John Kemp has 4-17-21 and will be his setup guy. Kemp missed five games earlier this season, so his boxcar numbers are more impressive than they appear.
During UNO's recent hot streak they've found their offense, pouring in over 4.5 goals per game. This has gotten them to 2.84 per game for the year, 34th nationally. Before the hot streak, then, it was dire. Michigan is currently 24th in scoring.
Defense and goalie and whatnot. This number will look familiar: UNO is allowing 2.84 goals per game (32nd nationally). They are dead even on goal differential this year. (Michigan is currently fifth nationally at 2.23 per.)
Here Michigan finally meets a decent opponent with goalie issues equal to or worse than their own. Hogan's up to 48th in save percentage while the Mav platoon sits 52nd and 72nd (of 74!). Sophomore John Faulkner—#52—has gotten most of the work and will probably see both starts against Michigan.
Special teams. Your power plays per game stat:
|PP For / G||4.9||5.8|
|PP Ag / G||5.0||5.5|
UNO takes and draws considerably fewer power plays than Michigan and is a bit short on PP opportunities this year; Michigan can expect maybe one extra power play over the weekend.
UNO sits in the middle of the pack here, too: 18.5% on the power play is 28th nationally and a bit worse than that when you account for the five shorties. Michigan is slightly better at 19.4. On the penalty kill, UNO is 21st at 83.2; Michigan is still in the top five despite the disaster in the dying minutes against Wisconsin.
Michigan Vs Those Guys
Maybe Caporusso? Caporusso scored a softie against Bowling Green and then added a close-in roof job when left totally unmolested in the slot. When left wide open he has soft hands, and when he's going up against weak defensemen his less than dirty dangles work fairly well. Against a mediocre defensive team with an iffy goalie, he could continue his return to the scoresheet.
Get it out. Michigan really struggled with a simple Bowling Green forecheck on Tuesday and they'll get hammered by a deep forward corps if they don't do better.
See what happens. Goalie is bad, throw rubber at him and watch it sail by or for fat rebounds to pop out. Reduced fancy stuff for most.
The Big Picture
The blown opportunities against Ferris State, Wisconsin, and Michigan State—though that last was not their fault—mean Michigan is on its eighth life. Michigan's 0.5253 RPI is 19th nationally and has to climb into the high .53s if they're going to get a shot. If they win five of six left they'll be at .5360 and probably on the right side of the bubble. If they win four, they might have a shot if they make the CCHA final and lose. Any worse than that and it's conference tourney or bust.
There is some good news. A quick glance at Michigan's PWR comparisons shows that Yale, Union, North Dakota, New Hampshire, UMD, Ferris State, Cornell, Bemidji State, Colorado College, Denver, and even Michigan State(!) can all be caught if Michigan passes them in RPI. There is zero chance that happens with some of them but if Michigan finishes on a tear the COP and TUC categories aren't going to submarine them.
Still: a sweep is imperative. The margin for error is gone, and splitting with UNO could put them and Michigan's hypothetically meh record against them into consideration.
I bolded this in the announcement about Adam Braithwaite's hire but failed to grasp its oddness and potential significance:
University of Michigan football coach Rich Rodriguez announced Thursday (Feb. 11) the hiring of Adam Braithwaite as the program’s safeties/outside linebackers coach. … Assistant head coach Tony Gibson will coach the cornerbacks and free safety position.
Your response in the form of a cat—which they should totally do on Jeopardy, BTW:
Braithwaite now coaches the safeties and the outside linebackers. Greg Robinson now coaches the inside linebackers, emphasis on the plural. Tony Gibson now coaches the cornerback and… uh… one safety position. What sense does it make? It makes none. It makes less sense if you believe the premium moderator folk who have been asserting that Michigan is in the odd habit of calling its deep safety "strong" and the guy who rolls up to the line of scrimmage on occasion "free."
So what the hell is going on here? First: however deeply screwed up Michigan's internal lingo about safeties is, my assumption is that the free safety is your deep-zone ballhawk and the strong safety is the guy who rolls up to the line as a semi-linebacker. It would be totally insane to give Gibson the guy at the line and some cornerbacks and Braithwaite one guy at the line and one guy in a deep zone. (Wags may joke here about Rodriguez's previous defensive hires. Take my defensive coordinator… please!)
So that means Gibson is the secondary coach and he is a man in charge of three people. Meanwhile, the outside linebackers coach has a safety or two. Hmm…
Now, I know what you're thinking: ack Donovan Warren is about to get an eight-yard screen in his grill. Or ack Andrew Quarless is about to run straight downfield untouched for a 60-yard touchdown. Or ack… well, we were all around last year. The walls have dents to prove it. The only thing you're not ack-ing is the defensive line. This is a digression.
The particulars of Braithwaite's hire indicate the eight-man front Michigan ran much the second half of last year was not an immensely unsuccessful attempt at emergency triage on a walk-on-laden matador defense but rather the intended base defense going forward. With so many bodies ticketed for Craig Roh's "quick" position, I don't think this presages a move to a straight 3-3-5 like West Virginia ran. The 4-4-ish set above is likely to be Michigan's most frequent alignment, with quick-as-linebacker sprinkled in as a changeup.
It's half 3-3-5, though. Aside from the disposition of the line and the middle linebackers, that's what it is. The secondary aligns like it's a 3-3-5. The "spinner," while technically a linebacker, was safety Stevie Brown last year and will be either Josh Furman, Mike Jones, Isaiah Bell—though he may have moved inside—or Brandin Hawthorne this year. All of the candidates were high school safeties tagged as tweeners except Hawthorne, who was a safety-sized defensive end. Last year the strong safety was Jordan Kovacs (tweener safety), Mike Williams (just a safety), or Brandon Smith (tweener safety), but this year it's likely to be Marvin Robinson, Carvin Johnson or Vlad Emilien: more high school safeties tagged as tweeners. The distinction between the OLB and safety is also in keeping with 3-3-5 principles: most teams have wacky names for the strongside (spur, spinner, ferret) and weakside safety types (hero, bandit, saber-toothed dragon) because they have different roles. As Jeff Casteel explained so elegantly on the incredibly expensive and totally useless (at the time) 3-3-5 DVD I bought, the weakside guy "gets his meat cooked"—does not have to deal with lead blockers—and the strongside guy "gets his meat raw"—oh God, that's Owen Schmitt and I weigh 210 pounds.
If I'm right, this is one hell of a bold experiment for Rodriguez. His ass is in the wind right now and last year's attempt to implement this was a flaming wreck unprecedented in the modern history of Michigan football. I'm not a coach but I do watch unhealthy amounts of college football and I don't think I've ever seen anyone try this 4-2-2-3 style of D—please correct me if this is not the case. It's a gamble.
[Update: Corrected. Virginia Tech does this plenty. Tyler Sellhorn:
Please don't freak out about the defensive changes. Mostly it seems like a move to VaTech's defense. The high school where I coach plays a very similar scheme to VaTech (visited Blacksburg twice to commune with Bud Foster and his staff) and has a similar scheme to what you are suggesting M is declaring.
I think the best terminology for the setup is the 4-2-5 is "multiple" meaning that most of the defensive calls are intended to trick the opposing QB/coaches at the snap. The OLBs are really more like SSs and rotate up and back based on d-call and opposition formation/personnel, and the "FS" is nearly an identical player who can roll down to play the OLB spot as well based on motion/personnel. Up front, lots of stunting (lining up in one gap, crossing into another), lots of gap exchanges, lots of rolling coverages where the OLB/SSs will drop into deep coverage. The scheme is sound. Maybe you should do your HTTV tape study this summer on 4-2-5/VaTech stuff?
The biggest reason teams use the scheme? OLB/SS away from two-reciever side/strong side plays tight behind backside ILB so that he can flow hard to action away, OLB/SS has what you have called the scrape exchange.
Two notes: "flowing hard to action ", whether it was away or not, is definitely what Michigan was doing with Jordan Kovacs when he was the box safety and Woolfolk was deep, and who was the other team hard after Josh Furman? Virginia Tech.]
On the other hand, going from year one in a system to year two will be a rare privilege for these Michigan defenders—it will be the first time in anyone's career other than fifth-year seniors this is the case—and I'm heartened that amongst the flaming wreck at the end of last year there was a semblance of a long-term plan. By God, they were terrible, but they were terrible with purpose. This passes as optimism for the 2010 Michigan fan.
Anyway, we'll find out in spring if my speculation here is correct. I think they've tipped their hand. I have no idea how it's going to work out but at least they're sticking to one thing for the first time ever-ever.
Side note on Gibson-related special teams bitchin'. I've seen or heard a lot of this over the past couple weeks, and have to provide a "dude wait what" to that, too. Michigan's coming off a year in which they finished third in net punting, 23rd in kickoff returns, 62nd in punt returns, and was 11 of 15 on field goals. Taken together, the metrics indicate one of the best units in the conference, if not the country. Critics are likely thinking of Michigan's persistent inability to field a punt in the Rodriguez era, Zoltan Mesko going blue screen of death on his rollout option punt against Michigan State, and a couple roughing the kicker penalties.
Those things do detract, but they're offset by the kickoff coverage—I can't remember a big opposition kick return—and a few punt blocks. Special teams were the least of Michigan's problems last year. They have to replace both specialists this year so there might be a hiccup. Even so, I'm baffled by special teams criticism outside of HOLD ON TO THE DAMN BALL issues that I think are a little fluky. (Yes, even now.)