1. Does Michigan have a decided schematic advantage and should I sue you for making me ask that question?
Last year's edition of this post had a question about how Harbaugh's ultra-manball ways fit in an increasingly spread world. Despite my long history of spread zealotry I was pretty sanguine. Harbaugh had a fantastic track record and when I went over some of his Stanford-era games and a couple things stood out. One was yes, this:
The other was that in certain ways the Harbaughffense and spread stuff ended up at the same place despite taking diametrically opposite paths to get there:
Harbaugh's offenses put mental pressure on the opposition in a way that previous manball offenses at Michigan did not. This came up constantly during the Al Borges's tenure; I said that having to dodge a safety near the line of scrimmage sucked while Borges's defenders said they'd take it all day and twice on Saturday. It's clear that Harbaugh is in the former category. Like spread offenses, Harbaugh loves to screw with opposition safeties.
Rich Rodriguez did that by playing 11-on-11 on the ground with Denard Robinson. Harbaugh does it by whiplashing the opposition between jumbo sets and four-wide, by flooding the field with big guys safeties have to get around, by constantly screwing with their keys, and by adding new stuff on the regular.
Last year's UFRs were a ton of fun to do because every week Michigan would come out with a new package of plays I hadn't seen before. The sheer diversity of Michigan's ground game fairly boggled the mind, and I say this as a person who has broken down six or seven seasons of pro style offense. Hell, Harbaugh changed offenses across the league. Michigan started facing down trap blocking at a far higher rate than they ever had before.
UFRs pretty quickly picked up a section about the "Stanfordization" of the offense that detailed the tweaks and new packages I picked up on weekly. After Maryland:
The most obvious new wrinkle was the T set, which Michigan used a couple different ways. A counter iso play was successful when Isaac was not fumbling:
The two ILBs went to entirely the wrong hole, buying Michigan a free blocker, and if the Kalis block had gone a little better Isaac is one on one with the last guy for six points. Harbaugh's ability to buy back the extra defender you have to deal with when you aren't running the spread is a consistent theme so far this year; this is yet another example.
Northwestern had been super successful with aggressive linebackers when they rolled into Ann Arbor, and Michigan had a number of plays that made them pay for it:
I did appreciate the Kerridge fullback dive. Here is the play just before it. Watch the linebackers.
Here is the dive. Linebackers again.
That play exploited the blitz-ball mentality to spring a big gain. It also gave us a brilliant still shot demonstrating how weird this offense is to players born and raised on the spread:
"Wait… he's got the ball? Can they even DO that?"
And I loved Harbaugh's ability to see what his team lacked and game plan around it. This was especially validating against Penn State. A few years ago the infamous 27 for 27 game featured snap after snap on which Michigan ignored the fact that Penn State was playing ten yards off Jeremy Gallon; in Harbaugh's first year he felt his OL was a bad matchup:
So this game was… okay.
It was. The default thing that happened seemed to be this:
And, like, I'll take it.
There weren't actually as many of those as it felt like there were. Michigan threw 8. Those picked up 48 yards, a solid 6 per attempt. One was called back on a ridiculous block below the waist call. One could easily have drawn a block in the back call on Perry.
Those eight screens had a minimum gain of three, that on second and four, and picked up four first downs. They also opened up a couple of actual runs when PSU had to get serious about putting their linebackers over slot receivers. They were successful and easy. PSU's defense wanted to give those yards up, and Michigan took them.
I love that Harbaugh is clear eyed enough to work around the limitations of his team—also a major theme against OSU. He doesn't think "the expectation is for the position," he thinks "we're going to get overrun, let's do something about it."
Michigan's offense was a rock paper scissors winner under Harbaugh. I had the UFR RPS metric positive in 11 games with slight negatives against Northwestern and Indiana, and that hasn't happened in a while. They've been pounded over and over in that metric (and everywhere else) by MSU; that was a slight win. And this is just the first, most screwup-prone version of the Harbauffense.
There's a reason he built Stanford into rushing powerhouse with a bunch of three star guys. Not only is Harbaugh a smart and creative football mind, but he surrounds himself with other guys like that. How many offensive coordinators does Michigan have? Three, maybe four. Harbaugh is one. Drevno is one. Jedd Fisch is one. Nick Baumgardner had an excellent article last year describing the way this works in practice:
"It's unique (compared) to what I've done before," Fisch said Wednesday. "But it's something I would always do from now on."
Instead of designating one person to serve as the team's chief offensive play caller, or limit the discussion to himself and one other coach, Harbaugh keeps an open dialogue going with his entire offensive staff from snap-to-snap on the sidelines during game days.
That is terrific.
So yes, Michigan can expect to win coaching battles now. Not every last one, but most of them. Lloyd Carr didn't even try to do this—congratulations to Mike Debord on narrowly escaping his nemesis last night by scoring 13 regulation points—and Brady Hoke was incapable of it. (RichRod was pretty good at it but let's not open that can of worms again.) They have a decided schematic advantage.
[After THE JUMP: QB theme fight, Smith sustainability, OL panic]
Things discussed this week:
- Rolovich tells a joke media doesn't get.
- Cal-Hawaii: War of the meatball defenses.
- Taco Charlton has been Michigan's best DL via Sam. Nobody mentions this might have something to do with who's blocking.
- Speightmas: Playing within the offense is more important.
- Safety report: Khaleke Hudson is more memorable than your roommate
- Linebackers will be iffy to start; how much do they come along?
You can catch the entire episode on Michigan Insider's podcast stream on Audioboom.
THE USUAL LINKS
Guess what? I published a book this offseason. It's about baseball. The Cubs. The White Sox. And that one time they played each other in the World Series. Check it out. It's only available via Amazon Kindle right now, but a print on demand option is coming soon)
Hello Everybody! We made it to the new
Gambling Season Football Season! Send Lawyers, Guns, and Money! Previews are flying out everywhere and all of us are diving head first into the first weekend of the season. There is no time for chit chat. Except to say buy my book. We'll catch up throughout the season. Let's get right to my Over/Under picks for the Big Ten.
[hit THE JUMP for the lines and the angles]
|Kicker||Yr||Punter||Yr||Kickoffs||Yr||Punt return||Yr||Kick return||Yr|
|Kenny Allen||Sr*||Kenny Allen||Sr*||Kenny Allen||Sr*||Jabrill Peppers||So*||Chris Evans||Fr.|
|Quinn Nordin||Fr||Quinn Nordin||Fr||Quinn Nordin||Fr||Jourdan Lewis||Sr.||Jehu Chesson||Sr.*|
John Baxter fled back to California after one Michigan winter and will get what's coming to him in the next ice age. Baxter is a uniquely good special teams coach and there wasn't an obvious replacement available; also Rashan Gary existed. So Michigan promoted Chris Partridge to a full-fledged assistant spot and split special teams duties between him and Jay Harbaugh.
There's probably going to be a dropoff in effort applied. Last year Michigan took timeout in a squib situation so they could insert Dymonte Thomas; they lined him up at the spot a squib should go and lo, he returned it to midfield. If that creativity persists it's evidence Harbaugh is pushing every available angle. I don't expect it to. John Baxter appeared to be a rare commodity: a difference-making special teams coach.
Even so, this should be a strength.
The dread was palpable last year when scholarship freshman Andrew David wasn't even in the conversation. A couple of walk-ons vied for the job and were by all accounts somewhere between vexing and terrible. So of course when KENNY ALLEN locked the spot down he hit 18/22, with one miss a bad snap and a second due in large part to a downright supernatural gust of wind that pushed a probable make wide. Allen was also 46/46 on PATs.
The catch, such as it is, is that Allen rarely attempted a field goal from outside 40 yards. Just six of his attempts were in the zone of mild difficulty; he went 3/6. He did hit a 47 yarder and he's a booming punter so the leg strength is likely there.
Even if Allen is unproven at longer distances, I will take a #collegekicker who is near-automatic from 40 and in every day of the week and twice on Saturday. Some additional range is the only improvement required.
If that range is not forthcoming, QUINN NORDIN [recruiting profile] also lurks. Harbaugh is uncomfortable with having Allen take every last kicking duty so it's possible Nordin gets some longer kicks. If Michigan does decide to spread the load out, kickoffs are a more likely deployment for Nordin.
KENNY ALLEN, yes that Kenny Allen, figures to win this job too. Allen in fact came to Michigan a punter, and a booming one at that. He's had two punts in games, both of which went 50+ yards, and since Brady Hoke's reaction to "you have to have an open practice" was to turn it into a special teams exhibition your author has seen Allen punt a ton. He's really good. He could challenge Will Hagerup and Monte Robbins for the all-time gross average, which currently sits at 45 yards even.
One department that figures to have a decline is pooch punting. Blake O'Neil's feathery touch on punts inside the ten was remarkable and unlikely to be repeated by any non-Aussie. When I caught Michgian's open practice at Ford Field, Andrew David was tasked with that nose-down pooch punting stuff that's all the rage. David's left the team since; that might signify Allen's not great at pinning the opposition deep.
QUINN NORDIN is also an option here.
Don't Buckle Up Yet, But...
check the 2:57 mark to see a defender get spot-shadowed before getting juked to the ground.
...stay vigilant? 247's Steve Wiltfong just put in a Crystal Ball pick for four-star CT WR Tarik Black to Michigan:
I was hearing rumblings coming out of the Barbecue at the Big House that the Wolverines moved into pole position for the Cheshire (Conn.) Academy standout.
I'm also told Stanford and Alabama are the biggest threats to Michigan. Notre Dame was once considered the top contender but the Irish have faded some. The Cardinal staff is expected out to see Black next week.
Black wants to announce at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl but I would not be surprised if he did something sooner.
Notre Dame was considered the leader for a long time; if they're not the main contender, that's great news for Michigan.
[Hit THE JUMP for a quick McCaffrey eval and more.]
This post is also sponsored by XFINITY, which does not have any rockets or landers or even probes because, as it has been carefully explained to me, they are cable company. If you're on on-campus student they'll let you stream live sports and other shows for free on your phone, tablet, or moon lander
you can rent from XFINITY I guess you have to get from NASA.
Off campus students can get both TV and internet for $79.99 a month. Adults and adult-type persons (you know who you are) can get the X1 system and its voice-activated remote which is just like Hal 9000 AND THEREFORE XFINITY IS A SPACE COMPANY AFTER ALL.
Bolded alter-ego, sometimes I just…
Can we get on with the preview?
|Free Safety||Yr.||Strong Safety||Yr.||Nickelback||Yr.|
|Dymonte Thomas||Sr.||Delano Hill||Sr.||Jabrill Peppers||So.*|
|Tyree Kinnel||So.||Khaleke Hudson||Fr.||Jourdan Lewis||Sr.|
|Josh Metellus||Fr.||Jabrill Peppers||So.*||Brandon Watson||So.*|
The Pax Wilsonica is over and Michigan moves into a less boring era, for better or worse. While the depth here gets scary quickly, Michigan returns two guys who were prominent contributors to a very good secondary. Both are touted recruits and seniors; both played better than they might be getting credit for. I was actually surprised at how many good things I had clipped and how few bad things there were other than the ones that stand out in memory.
Both starters are going to have a tougher job than they did a year ago as Michigan moves away from one super deep safety most of the time. They'll have to cover guys man to man, make checks, that sort of thing. So far, so good? When Delano Hill isn't trying to punch the ball out from behind, yes.
We're splitting the safety designation into defined "free" and "strong" halves instead of a single unified section. This would have been mandatory if DJ Durkin was still around since Jarrod Wilson and Not Jarrod Wilson were deployed very differently a year ago; since Don Brown will mix in one-high coverages with a designated FS, it's still appropriate.
So. For years this space called Jarrod Wilson a boring safety. We barely ever saw him on the screen because he was doing his job. When he did see him it was generally fine. He made tackles. He did not separate receivers from the ball or intercept passes or force fumbles. He was there to put out fires, not start them. Now he's gone, and more interesting times may beckon.
That's because DYMONTE THOMAS is still a bit of a wild card after a career that's been frustrating in more ways than one so far. Thomas was a high school linebacker and running back who Michigan first played at nickel, then at one safety spot, then another, then back to nickel, etc. Webb discussed the situation before last season:
The issue for him has been the fact that he's been moved around so consistently and hasn't been focused or told to focus on only one position.
Despite having no business on a football field as a freshman he set his redshirt on fire blocking a punt against Central Michigan; meanwhile the positional switching and Thomas's rawness made his brief cameos depressing. Last year's preview slotted him as a backup and mostly focused on various goofs, bemoaned the redshirt, and clucked about player development:
This kind of errant run fill isn't something we've seen from Wilson or Hill.
For big portions of last year it looked like he didn't quite know what he was seeing. He'd run a zone, see nobody anywhere near him, and just kind of stand around instead of trying to adapt his coverage to the situation. … He's far behind the other guys when it comes to understanding what the defense is trying to accomplish.
That take held for half the year. Against Oregon State, Thomas had a huge bust on a tunnel screen that could have resulted in a touchdown against a team better than the Beavers. Then he disappeared for three games. When he re-emerged it was in garbage time against Maryland and Northwestern; he played well enough for a couple of Delano Hill issues to open the door for live-fire snaps.
He did unreasonably well with them. One of my primary memories of Thomas's 2015 was that time he got shook big time against Minnesota in his first extended playing time:
I was prepared to talk about how his coverage was a mixed bag as a result. It wasn't. After this play, which I issued an excessively harsh –3 (it's –2, easy completion but he does tackle immediately) I didn't have a coverage minus for him the rest of the year.
And he was tested with some frequency. He's in press man to the top of the field on this play:
To try to chuck one receiver, have to bail to the other guy, and then have the speed to catch up is impressive. A better throw is probably a completion there, but to even be in a position to contest a reasonably good one is something not a lot of safeties can manage. Thomas drove on outs and shoved fades into the sideline and impressively mirrored wheels (while picking up ridiculous PI flags) and raked out near completions and on this play I misclassified him as Jourdan Lewis until I saw it for the third time:
Strange but true: Dymonte Thomas was good in coverage last year.
In addition to burgeoning man-to-man skills, Thomas has capital-R Range. He's always been fast as hell. See that punt block that burned his redshirt:
Not only does that hit his foot, it hits his foot before the punter can even strike it.
Late last year his newfound knowledge of what direction to go finally saw that speed start paying off. If you hesitate slightly even go routes down the sidelines become dangerous:
Thomas was lined up on the near hash on that one. In the spring game he intercepted a reasonably well thrown ball in the corner of the endzone despite being in the dead center of the field:
Jarrod Wilson does not make either of those plays. Thomas could have five or so interceptions if he carries that kind of thing over to 2016.
Even some of Thomas's bad plays were kind of good. There was that interception against Minnesota that not only clanged off his hands but went directly to a Gopher WR, and he managed to jet through a bunch of traffic against Rutgers only to turn a TFL into… not that:
I liked that ability to pick through traffic but not the missed tackle, and there were a couple other instances of bad play against the run. Shannon Brooks spun through another tackle attempt in the Minnesota game, and I thought Thomas overran the one long run Rutgers had. On the other hand, Thomas had a couple of extremely impressive open-field tackles against Ohio State:
His overall aura caused me to say he was "almost there" after Rutgers:
Dymonte Thomas could be putting it together. I don't think he's ever going to be a guy who's particularly good at preventing 20 yard plays from going 50, but with his athleticism he provides a suite of capabilities that can make up for that deficiency. He is a guy who you can put in man coverage relatively confidently, that Minnesota play nonwithstanding. He's come a long way this year; he has a moderate way to go. Cross your fingers.
With a season's worth of data, it maybe kind of sort of feels like he has arrived.
Thomas was "productive" per PFF, and my charting agrees. With increased playing time and considerable upside left to plumb, Thomas could blow up. He's not a physical guy and won't suddenly become one this year; you can chalk up a few missed tackles that add chunks of yards to plays that have already broken somewhat big. Everything else looks like a strength. He's good in coverage, he's fast as the dickens, and he's still got a solid bit of upside left.
Thomas should be good. It's hard for me to judge safeties since they're so rarely on the screen, but whatever extra deep stuff Michigan gets hit with because Thomas isn't Jarrod Wilson should be offset by the plays Thomas makes because he isn't Jarrod Wilson.
[After THE JUMP: Jabrill Peppers is briefly mentioned!]