I think you will get your wish.
Despite the reassurances of everyone from sea to shining sea, (we're not even in Lunardi's last four in--hell, we're still a #9 seed) I'm still jumpy about Michigan's NCAA tournament fate. Beating Minnesota seems wise. Lesters Abraham will-could-might-should return from the sprained ankle that's kept him out the past two and a half months, according to the News, but we've been reading that article for about two months now--who knows? Abram was supposed to be medically cleared for the IU game but did not play. The article also claims Hunter is "questionable," but I would be very surprised to see him play.
Of course, the overall voracity of any article is severely damaged when the lede is like so:
NCAA Tournament hopeful Michigan is facing another in a long list of must-win games when it plays Minnesota at 2:30 p.m. Thursday in its Big Ten tournament opener at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
Um... okay. It's just that of the past, say, eight "must-wins," Michigan has won two. And they're still in. I believe this is stretching the definition of "must." And, for that matter, "win."
Anyway, lest the Michigan blogosphere be accused of ignoring the basketball team further, I point you to Maize 'n' Brew's latest. Horton compared to Sisyphus! Yow! Also: Sisyphus is on the All Big-Ten team. The media said first team; the coaches said second.
I'm fairly amazed this came from the Daily, but URL don't lie: the most extensive, thoughtful consideration of the Michigan athletic department's academic support structure yet published. No offense intended to any Daily staffers out there (unless you write for the editorial page, in which case: OFFENSE OFFENSE OFFENSE) -- I'd be surprised to see an article of that quality in the News or Free Press. A fascinating look into the academic support-thingy that is all of a sudden very relevant for major athletics departments nationwide.
Etc: Orson interviews professional riot-starter Paul Finebaum; Michigan is scientifically proven to have average-looking coeds... we'll take it! Coach K "knows" ESPN has "orchestrated" the nationwide Duke hatred... no, seriously. He said that. Look, I know you don't believe me. Just click the link.
PS: I don't consider myself a blogger. I consider myself a leader. Just so you know.
John Paul Campos in today's Rocky Mountain News comes a revolutionary method for making difficult hiring selections:
The FBGR [Fat Bald Guy Rule] posits that, when considering otherwise roughly equivalent candidates for any job whose formal requirements don't include being good-looking, hire the fat bald guy. The reason is simple: Society gives all sorts of unearned preferences to good-looking people, so when a fat bald guy manages to assemble a rÃ©sumÃ© that at first glance resembles that possessed by his good-looking competition, the FBGR assumes that the former record is actually far more impressive than the latter, all things considered.
Of course, two questions spring immediately to mind: does the fat bald guy rule apply to college football and if so, how have we done over the past few years adhering to it?
Campos's theory holds for most areas of society, but it may not apply to the highly selective world of college football coaching, where there seems to be a fan preference for coaches who could stun a horse. Hell, Notre Dame fans were downright giddy about the picture you see at right, in which Weis looks like he's thinking "is Charlie Weis going to have to use the Force to choke a bitch? Charlie Weis is going to have to use the Force to choke a bitch!" No doubt most of the Irish optimism came from the resume, the Belicheck pedigree, etc., but the fact that Weis is so out of touch with modernity that he's rocking an R. Lee Ermey flattop probably helped. We kind of like the idea of the head coach sleeping in his office and wondering what the big deal is with all these kids and their hula hoops.
So, a caveat: insofar as football coaches are supposed to look like giant, angry mounds of biologically-processed bacon drippings instead of Keira Knightley, the FBGR may not correlate as strongly with qualifications as it might in other fields. However, a brief survey of the Meatnormous category of EDSBS's Coaches' Death Match shows an extremely high number of FBGs with disproportionate amounts of success--Fulmer, Mangino, Freidgen, Weis, etc. One is led to believe that the FBGR applies, but perhaps with a higher threshold: it takes some doing to get an observer to exclaim "holy crap, that is one ugly football coach."
In any case, let's evaluate the recent Michigan coaching changes in light of the FBGR:
Defensive Line coach Steve Stripling
A veritable home run. Stripling is not only both fat and bald but is faintly reminscent of both Sargeant Slaughter and Captain Lou Albano playing Mario. The chances of someone who looks like Stripling doing something other than plumbing or lounging around auto factories, destroying the Big Three one three-hour lunchbreak at a time, are astronomical. Bonus points for the Captain Picard-style 'do, which--unlike the shave-everything technique--emphasizes the lack of hair atop Stripling's grizzled pate. The overall impression: this man is probably killing polar bears with his bare hands right now.
Linebackers coach Steve Szabo
Szabo isn't fat or bald, but neither does he threaten to steal Angelina Jolie away from anyone... although you never know with the kind of girl who carries around Billy Bob Thornton's blood in vial. At least that's what I keep telling myself. Still, for a college football coach Szabo's mug is downright palatable. He's no Urban Meyer-esque pretty boy, but for a 60-something guy who's been around linebackers his entire life he isn't bad.
Overall: fairly disappointing. No one would be taken aback by Szabo's sudden appearance outside one's door, even if he was handling a knife. Looks more like a friendly grandfather than a menace 2 polar bear society.
Cornerbacks coach Ron Lee
I couldn't find a picture, but I saw one at some point: Lee is bald and somewhat pudgy, although not to the extent that Stripling is.
Defensive Coordinator Ron English
Bald, but not fat and actually fairly attractive (as Joey might say, no Brokeback). Vaguely reminscent of Denzel Washington -- pissed-off, going to kill your ass Denzel, not respectable lawyerman Denzel. Sadly, appears to be prettier than departed defensive coordinator Jim Herrmann.
This is obviously unacceptable for the well-being of Michigan fans everywhere, so allow me to propose the Silly Mustache Corollary: if your unattractiveness is due in large part to poor decision-making instead of God being generally spiteful when your genetic makeup was determined, the FBGR shall be deemed inapplicable.
An obvious application of the Corollary is the silly mustache of Jim Herrmann. Therefore, the Herrmann-to-English switch is a step up, because though Herrmann was bald he loses points from the SMC. English is both bald and has the good sense to shave: progress.
God... is it really seven months until the season starts?
Reader Interaction Day did not fall into the "let us never speak of this again" category. Thus this: a wrap. First, the Debord discussion, as it was more thoroughly... er... discussed.
The lasting memory I have of Mike Debord's previous tenure as Michigan's offensive coordinator is screaming "throw it to Terrell" approximately 25 times per minute during the first half of the Orange Bowl. I am not alone. Commenter Matt went right to the well:
the first 22 minutes, David Terrell was getting about a 15 yard cushion on every play, yet we never threw a quick pass to him. Meanwhile, I was about 40 rows up from Debord/Carr, etc... yelling "Throw the quick hitch to Terrell" over and over again. Either he finally heard me, or he finally made the adjustment, because we started throwing that pass for big gains over and over again.
At that point we had plowed our way to a fourteen point deficit. Michigan's bullheaded stupidity was breathtaking.
Earlier in the year this memory was thrust unbidden into my mind when I read Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer, Warren St. John's opus about that particular year's Alabama team. It's more a book about fandom than football, but St. John repeatedly mentions that the 'Bama secondary was by far the weak point of the team. This was common knowledge anywhere south of the Mason-Dixon line. Also obvious to anyone who watched Alabama: running was futile business. Despite the obvious invitation to fling the ball willy-nilly about the pitch, we did not do so until we absolutely had to. I find that disturbing.
There's some disagreement on exactly what DeBord's offense entailed. Witness the divergent accounts from commenter Dave...
I recall his tenure as OC with fondness, and am excited that we might (gasp! shock!) utilize the middle of the field again in the passing game. And maybe run a little more effectively. And maybe run the bootleg to the TE play that used to be such a staple and that we never use anymore. (I really liked that play.)
... and heismann007...
I am amazed at how people have forgotten the DeBord era on offense. I think 1999 is the greatest example of what DeBord offense was all about. That year Michigan featured the following talent:
QBs Tom Brady and Drew Henson
RBs Future NFL Rookie of the Year Anthony Thomas and Aaron Shea
WRs Terrell, Knight and Walker
OLs Hutchingson [sic], Brandt, Backus
Despite this extremely high level of talent, Michigan finished 8th in the conference in total offense. More importantly, as we are all concerned about the running game, U of M averaged 128 yards a game rushing, our lowest total since 1962. Our running game under DeBord was a disaster.
The offense that year struggled the whole season, they could not score touchdowns against ND, scored only 18 points (2 were a safety) against Syracuse, struggled terribly the whole game against the worst Ohio State team in the last 15 years, and fell nearly hopelessly behing against Penn State and Alabama before finally playing desperate catch-up.
Chris echoed those sentiments in a follow-up and brought up a good point:
The previous post covered most everything I could point to as evidence that DeBord did exactly the opposite of utilizing the offensive talent effectively. To be fair, Carr's influence probably added greatly to the conservatism of DeBord's OC tenure here, though his disastrous stint at Central featured some really poor offenses in a conference not exactly known for lights out defense.
Several commenters mentioned that DeBord's three years featured only five losses between them ...
The 5 losses from 97-99 were, in order: @ND, Syracuse, @OSU, @MSU, and Illinois. In the 5 losses, Michigan averaged 24.8 ppg, and only scored less than 20 once. Meanwhile, the defense allowed a whopping 174 points in those 5 games (34.8 avg.), and never fewer than 31. My point? You can pin all 5 of those losses on Herrmann's defense.
... but Chris's post has an awfully good NSFMF in response:
I'm envious of those who apparently have erased from their memory the worst stretch of Michigan football I've ever witnessed, against some truly awful teams:
10-03-1998: Michigan 12 Iowa 9
10-17-1998: Michigan 12 Northwestern 6
10-24-1998: Michigan 21 Indiana 10
10-31-1998: Michigan 15 Minnesota 10
The game against the Gophers featured something like -40 yards rushing.
Aye, that it did. QED, MFers. DeBord's offenses were also cited as being clutch, but grngoblue blew that up:
I don't think DeBord had a knack for getting the team out of trouble, I think his weak running game and ... unenthusiastic ... play-calling had a knack for getting us into trouble. The only reason the era was even moderately successful is because we happened to have outstanding quarterbacks (especially, of course, Brady).
What would've happened if DeBord didn't have calm and precise Griese, Brady and Henson dealing with lead, Clint Eastwood-style, at the end of all those games when the plan failed and it was time to scrap everything, go four wide, and ask him to sling it?
The team can't expect to always have a QB to be able to pull out those wild finishes. It's not practical. I'd like to see the team execute a strategy in the first three quarters and not just trust, over and over again, that the QB has balls of steel and will make it happen in the end.
The general tenor of the conversation was skeptical, to be kind. I'm with the skeptics. There are three unresolved questions in my mind:
- How much of the crap offense was DeBord's fault? It's not like he was trying to rein in Lloyd Carr's tendency to call a flea-flicker on every other play. Carr has been inching away from Bo and Woody ball--is Debord going to accelerate that process or hinder it?
- How much was actually a good idea? A great defense can justify extraordinary conservatism on offense. Michigan had one of college football's all-time Ds in '97; they won a national championship and all those legendarily ugly games. Debord walks into a vastly different situation. Michigan has an erratic defense that is liable to give up thirty on any particular day. College football is slanting more towards offense these days. DeBord is no doubt aware of this and may not repeat the same mistakes again.
- He can't seriously call games like that now, right? Seriously.
In sum: On the surface, DeBord is a ridiculous choice for offensive coordinator. He was unimpressive during his first three years; he failed at CMU; he is not particularly exciting. But there are extenuating circumstances that provide hope that the second time will be better. Loeffler is more heavily involved with the game planning ever year. Lloyd Carr is adapting to college football's offensive renaissance -- with painful slowness at times, granted. The defense is not a rock to fall back upon. DeBord's made some noises in interviews the echo these sentiments, but we won't have a clear idea how meaningful those noises are until the Notre Dame game.
Aaaargh. Right. If anyone has any computers they'd like to give boot-sector smallpox, I am charging a reasonable fee.
Anyway... The APR debate continues at the official NCAA blog The Double A Zone. To their credit, they left the rah-rah at home. Money graf:
The fact that some of the 99 penalized teams were significantly below the 925 cut score, which only correlates to a 60 percent graduation rate, makes me worry about what is happening on some of our college campuses.
Emphasis mine, because huh what hello? Knowing full well that the attention paid to the intricacies of the APR will be cursory at best by the vast majority of the public, the NCAA concocted a score with a maximum of 1000 and a stiff-sounding 925 pass/fail line... that happens to correspond to a 60% graduation rate? Fishy.
However, Pat Forde goes too far in his hatchet job:
The NCAA's new Academic Progress Rates benefit the big-time schools and hurt the small timers.
That's the primary conclusion that can be drawn from the report released Wednesday. (There is no truth to the rumor that the letterhead on the report read, "NCAA: Of the rich, by the rich, for the rich.")
Ouch... Forde just bludgeoned both the NCAA and his own credibility on this matter with said ill-considered cheapshot. Forde's argument boils down to this:
- Schools with money can spend it on keeping their athletes eligible.
- Schools without can't.
- This is cosmically unfair.
- Why does the Sun Belt exist, anyway?
Here at MGoBlog we're bang on with that last bullet, but in effect Forde is complaining that the NCAA is forcing its member schools to spend money educating its athletes. Um... okay. Good luck with that. In between complaining about the NCAA's "caste system"--Mr. Shirky would like to explain the power law on line two--he inserts small disclaimers that absolve him of responsibility for his words:
I'm all for rigorous academic standards for college athletic departments
No, you aren't. If you were, you would not have written this article.
How exactly is the NCAA supposed to deal with this other than setting standards for progress towards a degree for schools? You have two choices: this or nothing. It's telling that Forde's most damning accusations lay out like so:
Tennessee's athletic Web site lists 17 individuals who work at or with the Thornton Center -- not including tutors -- all dedicated to the academic advancement of Big Orange athletes. There are five academic counselors devoted to individual sports -- including one whose sole focus is the Volunteers football team.
I suppose it's reasonable to be angry at the NCAA for forcing Tennessee to care about the education of its athletes and thus undoubtedly accelerating the impending Apocalypse, but unless that's your plan of attack you'd probably be better off not attempting to portray tutors as a bad thing. Louisiana-Monroe can't afford them? Well, then ULM has two reasonable options:
- Don't recruit people who need tutors.
- Drop their ridiculous football program.
Elsewise: The AP now has a selection of podcasts for your perusal, including one about the weekly basketball poll. No doubt they fear the mighty BlogPoll.
...but seriously, folks, if you have any feedback I can pass it along to the nice man who pointed out the podcast's existence. They're just getting started and would like to hear what works and what doesn't.
Deadspin had a chat with Will Blythe, the author of the outstandingly-named "To Hate Like This Is To Be Happy Forever," that briefly discusses how unfulfilling most professional sportswriting is. Succinct and less rambling than my occasional manifestos.
Sorry that this is late, but Blogger was weird all day yesterday, and I have one to three colds running through my system. If only I had ChickenSoupPal set up...
(BTW: The Reader Interaction Day stuff has been delayed to Monday.)
If the defensive ends formed a post-punk band with an ironically retro name they'd be called Woodley and The Question Marks.
Woodley, obviously, is the frontman and was described as such:
Metaphorical band frontman Lamarr Woodley should be on the verge of a monstrous season. He flipped from defensive end to outside linebacker for last year's switch to the 3-4 defense and was a terror against the run--16 TFLs last year and a series of huge plays that had mgoblog constructing a Jobu-like shrine to Woodley in secret--but strangely disappointing rushing the passer. Woodley had only four sacks, a number that I double check every week or so just to make sure that it isn't wrong. Maligned DT Pat Massey somehow exceeded his total.
... The practice buzz on Woodley coming into this year is unprecedented for a Michigan defensive lineman. If allowed to put his hand down and tear into the backfield at will, Woodley has serious All-American potential.
Well, not quite. Despite racking up seven sacks in about three quarters of a season, Woodley's pass rush was somewhat disappointing. He ended up an intermittent terror instead of a constant one. He was one of the consistent bright spots on the run defense and rumors of an early entry into the NFL draft made me go blind for five minutes earlier this year. Woodley was very good, but not great.
I threw two names out for the spot opposite Woodley, Jeremy Van Alstyne and Tim Jamison. Both struggled through injuries, opening the door for Rondell Biggs until he got injured. Alan Branch was eventually forced to move outside, where he performed admirably.
Jamison's continued absence is a mystery to me, since during my pantingly obsessive game reviews it seemed like more often than not when he was in the game he was teleporting past (or through in a couple of impressive cases) confused linemen and laying waste to the well-laid plans of opposing offenses. His production was not limited to pass rush, either: I distinctly remember instances where Jamison disrupted running plays against Iowa and Michigan State. He's not a beefy strongside end who will hold the corner against lumbering tackles, but he makes the proverbial things proverbially happen. Jamison is the official Ron English canary in a coalmine: if he starts over steady, lumbering Biggs and Van Alstyne, the defense is shedding the bellbottoms and buying itself an iPod.
The defensive tackles, projected to be "deep and talented," were among the biggest disappointments on the team. Gabe Watson was accurately projected, if somewhat overrated:
The headliner is senior Gabe Watson, a mountain range in a helmet who demands a double team on every play. Watson isn't much of a pass rusher but he was the key component of Michigan's fabulous interior run defense. Even when he takes plays off he holds his ground against a blocker or two. ... However, Watson does have intensity issues. He's not a motor-running wildman and he has an easygoing personality that Neanderthal-type fans find uncomfortable. It's probably true that a motivated, fiery Watson would be the nation's most dominant defensive tackle by a country mile, but that's not going to happen this year: Watson will probably underachieve relative to his talent. He'll still be one of the best DTs in the country.
Yes, I went with the old spelling of "Neandertal"--sue me. Watson was indeed one of the best DTs in the country... for about 20% of each game. Stunningly, Watson ate bench for awhile at the beginning of the year as Carr attempted to turn him into something other than a giant, talented nice guy. Still, Watson's probably going to be a first rounder in the NFL draft and made his share of plays during the year. It's just that he's top 30 instead of top 5.
Unfortunately, my defensive tackle accuracy stops there. Pat Massey was not labeled "vastly out of position":
Massey has been unfairly maligned by Michigan fans largely because he let Texas quarterback Vince Young escape from what looked to be a sure sack in the Rose Bowl. Young popped out of Massey's grasp and turned what would have been a fourth down field goal attempt into yet another frustrating touchdown run. Had he brought Young to the ground, Michigan probably wins the Rose Bowl, he finishes with six sacks from what's essentially an interior line position (DE in the 3-4), and he becomes something of a folk hero. He did not. Despite that, he does not deserve the dogging many Michigan fans have given him. Massey isn't a superhero but he was and is a useful player alongside Watson, honorable mention All-Big Ten a year ago.
Turns out that the dogging was totally justified and then some. Moving from defensive end in the 3-4 to a 4-3 defensive tackle was a disaster for Massey, who may as well have been named "Crumpled" by the end of the year. We should have seen it coming--when was the last time you saw a 6'8", 285-pound defensive tackle? When is the next time? I'm guessing "never" and "never again." Massey was a total nonfactor. He had one sack that came off of pursuit after Lamarr Woodley blew through two and a half blockers against Michigan State, but no other TFLs. I can't recall even one play where Massey forced his man into the backfield. He was a liability.
Not a liability: Alan Branch. Branch, plugged considerably...
The most likely [new face] to achieve stardom is sophomore Alan Branch. Branch saw meaningful time as a true freshman last year and showed great power and athleticism. He's extraordinarily agile for his 330 pounds and registered two sacks in his limited time, as many a Watson had all year. He will probably see almost as many snaps as the two starters.
... in the preview, went from promising to critical in about four games. Despite bouncing from tackle to end when Van Alstyne and Biggs went down, he was effective every game. He was excellent against the run, though many of the plays he strung out beautifully went for major gains when linebackers and defensive backs arrived late or not at all. He finished second on the team with five sacks. He was a true sophomore. Cue Mr. Burns' steepled fingers and diabolical "exxxxcelent."
What we learned: Pat Massey should have played OT. Gabe Watson is going to piss off whoever drafts him. Woodley and Branch are OMG freak studs. Whoever was determining the playing time alottments on the defensive line either was or should be stoned.
Next year? Michigan starts with two excellent players and and a bunch of potential. Lamarr Woodley teetered on the edge of stardom despite missing about a quarter of 2005 (Indiana, Iowa, and large swathes of the OSU game). If he had been healthy he would likely have been Michigan's first double-digit sacker since ... David Bowens? He's very good... but Alan Branch was named the team's best defensive lineman at the football bust, and he deserved it.
Past the two locks, you have Jamison, Biggs, and Van Alstyne competing at DE. My position was made clear above: it's Jamison time. The two backup defensive tackles from a year ago, Terrance Taylor and Will Johnson, will split time and rotate with Branch extensively. A three-man rotation is fine, but past that there's not much--unheralded, transfer-berumored rising junior Marques Walton, may-not-qualify freshman Marques Slocum, and then guys who are not likely to be ready. Michigan will be vulnerable to injury on the interior.
I said: This unit featured three new starters, only one of whom had seen appreciable action. Thus this section was buckets of hand-waving. I tagged them a 2, which turned out to be about right. David Harris showed himself to be a player, but the run defense's disintegration had much to do with the chronic inability of Chris Graham and Prescott Burgess to prevent running backs from breaking containment.
Graham was regarded warily:
Sophomore WLB Chris Graham has been generating hype since he stepped onto a Michigan practice field. It's always dangerous to buy into such hype, as about half the time the player in question fizzles away into nothing,
All right! Perspicacity at last! Comma? What is this comma you talk about?
but mgoblog is buying this particular variety.
Dammit. The hype was unwarranted. After a strong start during the panic-inducing Northern Illinois game, Graham became a ghost. He couldn't shed or avoid blocks and never found himself in position to make a tackle that wasn't of the damage-control variety. When redshirt freshman Johnny Thompson came off the bench during the second half of the Iowa game the run defense improved noticeably (why Thompson returned to the bench for the rest of the year remains a mystery). The stats are fairly damning: Graham was out-tackled by four members of the secondary. Harris and Burgess each broke 80; Graham had 42. At least I said this:
As a first year starter with wild speed, though, he is probably going to overpursue on a regular basis. Misdirection and play action, have long befuddled Michigan linebackers and there's no reason to think that Graham won't fall prey to the same disease. His first year starting will be a mix of good and bad.
Ding ding ding, save for the "good" bit. It was more "unnoticed and bad."
Burgess was the focus of whatever hope I held out for this unit:
Burgess is a superior athlete and is the best hope for a breakout star on the defense (discounting Woodley, who is already well known). If he can maintain his level of play from the Rose Bowl this unit immediately looks much more solid.
He remains an object of hope only. He alternated plays that demonstrated said superior athleticism with boneheadery reminiscent of Ernest Shazor. We'll go into next year saying the same things we said this year--"if Burgess can only put it together"--and hope that some NFL team doesn't say the same thing around this time next year.
The good bit: David Harris was a revelation at middle linebacker. He was one of the few players to receive less credit than he deserved:
Harris pushing him [McClintock] to the bench means that the coaching staff is willing to give a player who has little experience the nod over a senior who would normally have an unholy death grip on the position, which is not a vote of confidence in McClintock. The fact that neither player has asserted himself has to be a concern, especially since Harris is dinged up again. Average production from this spot would be great.
The instant Harris shook off that minor injury, he stapled McClintock to the bench and started thumping people far and wide. Though he faded somewhat late, Harris was a solid tackler who had surprising range for such a big dude. He was consistent and intelligent. He made plays in zone coverage. He was the best player on the defense not named "Branch" or "Woodley." Not bad for an in-state sleeper recruit.
What we learned: Linebackers aren't built in a day unless you're David Harris. Jim Herrmann is too smart for his own good; he confuses the hell out of his position group. And me. John Thompson is going to press for time sooner rather than later.
Next year? Everyone's back. Is that good or bad? The card says "nominally good." Harris will be on my preseason All Big Ten team. Burgess... well... if he can put it together. Graham should improve. They should be better, especially with Thompson and four true freshmen pressing them for time. The wildcard will be new linebackers coach Steve Szabo, who brings a wealth of experience. For the first time since Herrmann became defensive coordinators this position group has someone focused exclusively on their behavior.
I said they weren't going to be very good.
Michigan has one proven quantity in the secondary, junior Leon Hall.
I rated them a two after the Shazor/"Yards After" Mundy debacle in 2004, fretted openly about the second corner...
Michigan's problem is that Hall may end up irrelevant as teams pepper the other side of the field, going after the other starter or the nickelback, whoever they might be.
...and read fear into the tea-leaves of Brandon Harrison's position switch...
True freshman Brandon Harrison was moved from cornerback after a few fall practices, which is been regarded ominously in this space. Harrison is small (5'9") but a good hitter and frickin' fast. Moving him away from cornerback, an area of obvious need, in favor of safety implies that the coaching staff has some severe reservations about the quality of the players at the position.
... I expected something just short of a disaster. That did not come to pass, though it seemed like the reason it didn't was that the coaches were just as petrified as I was and responded by unveiling the revolutionary "eleven deep zone."
If anyone got a picture of a presnap alignment with any member of the secondary within ten yards of the line of scrimmage, slap it on one of those "I WANT TO BELIEVE" posters and open up an e-store--you'll hit high double digits by the end of the year.
Michigan went with all soft zone a year ago, which seemed to work well enough if you just look at the stats but undoubtedly had something to do with their near perfect record of late-game collapses. When the going got tough and Michigan was facing a cornered, desperate opponent, they folded every time. In a way, it was much like the offense's problems down the stretch: opponent's figured out Michigan's one trick, and after they had adapted to it they had nothing else to try.
Anyway, player-by-player. Leon Hall was nailed:
Hall, a lock to be Michigan's number one corner, is following Michigan's designated path to stardom at the position: emerge from nowhere as a freshman and act as a nickleback, wrest the starting job away from its holder as a sophomore, get everyone's hopes up, gather major media attention, and then mildly disappoint. Hall's not going to be an All-American but should press for All Big Ten Honors--he's probably on a level with Jeremy LeSeuer's senior year.
Essentially accurate. Hall was by no means a lockdown corner--and it's difficult to tell how well someone is playing in a zone--but he was above average. He turned in big plays on occasion--an interception that should have sealed the Penn State game, a pass breakup in overtime against Michigan State--didn't get burned, and tackled well enough when he found himself in position. That he did not find himself in said position often was more on the shoulders of the men who kept him at bay all year, not Hall.
Opposite Hall we were left with a big "who knows." I threw out some names and left it at that. I pegged Charles Stewart as the up-and-comer instead of Morgan Trent; I did not express major concerns about Grant Mason and the concept of tackling.
I obliterated Ryan Mundy in the safety preview:
Junior Ryan Mundy looked like a future star in his first couple games at free safety but as the year wore on it became clear that his angles and tackling were terrible. Many of the yards Michigan
State racked up in the first half of the first, ominous defensive debacle last year were "yards after Mundy"--a term coined by an inventive Rivals poster and a stat mgoblog will be tracking this year.
That turned out to be beside the point, as Mundy's year (and possibly his career) were cut short by a shoulder injury, but not before he managed to rack up 76 YAM on one carry against Northern Illinois. I'm just sayin'.
I feel fairly good about the other safeties, described as such:
Sophomores Brandent Engelmon and Jamar Adams are battling to replace Shazor. Adams is a physically imposing safety who looks like he hits like a ton of bricks. Unfortunately, last year he was just a little off and whiffed like a ton of bricks. Sleeper Engelmon was snatched from Kentucky at the last minute two years ago and appears to have the inside track on the job. Small but smart is Englemon, and the Michigan coaches have seen out of position. They don't like out of position.
Adams remained an imposing physical presence that just didn't seem to click for whatever reason--personally I'd like to see him try WLB in Graham's stead--while Englemon won the hearts and minds of Michigan fans everywhere just by not screwing up.
What we learned: Almost nothing except how to pick apart a soft zone.
Next year? Only Mason is gone, but that leaves Michigan shorthanded at corner. As Charles Stewart saw no time a year ago when Michigan featured three corners, one of whom was wide receiver mere months before, I personally doubt he ever contributes. That leaves Hall and Trent backed up by the two undercover brothers from California, Johnny Sears and Chris Richards. Then there's... um. Zilch. Michigan is counting one of those two coming through, preferably both.
There is a sudden profusion of safeties. Willis Barringer, Brandent Englemon, Brandon Harrison, and Jamar Adams all started at various points last year; all return. Worry is low here, though the generally solid performance from a year ago could be a mirage based on passive play. We'll see.
Should actually be a net strength, a gasp-worthy assertion given the disasters of 2003.
And it was. Michigan averaged 11.8 yards a punt return; their opponents averaged 5. Michigan returned over 50% of their opponents punts; their opponents only returned 30%. Steve Breaston had a kickoff return touchdown and a series of long punt returns.
Garrett Rivas, who "[established] himself as a reliable kicker with slightly less than desirable range" as a sophomore, was a bit less reliable in his junior year... but not much. Yes, he missed critical attempts against Minnesota and Michigan State that were not particularly difficult. But the final line reads 19 for 26, which is north of 75%. You people remember Brabbs/Neinberg/Finley, don't you? Don't you?
Punter Ross Ryan was the very definition of quietly effective, meriting only passing mention in the preview. He won the job from Romanian superhero Zoltan "The Inconceivable" Mesko and proceeded to launch a series of ugly, short punts that had the important side benefit of being totally unreturnable. He also used some sort of Jedi mind trick to make Ted Ginn forget how to field said punts, which was extremely helpful for a time during the Ohio State game. Ryan also sent most of his kickoffs well into the endzone. As a result, Michigan's gross punting average declined but its net increased, opposing returners were neutralized wholesale, and that ulcerous feeling you got whenever the punt team staggered on to the field disappeared (and a good thing, too, because it got heavy use what with the offensive implosion).
A salute to you, Ross Ryan! Steady, unimpressive, and boring but reassuring nonetheless, you are Lloyd Carr incarnated as a punter.
What we learned: Short punts are okay; Garrett Rivas will never win the hearts and minds of the faithful; Breaston is oooookay; GUNNERS SHOULD BE BLOCKED. BLOCKED, I SAY.
Next year? MOTS, most likely, and that's a good thing. Everyone relevant returns. Hopefully our punt return strategy will prioritize something other than preventing fakes that never come.
Mike Leach would call it the AP-HYYYYAAAAARRRRRR, but to us non-pirates it's just the APR and--much like a class taught by Jim Harrick--everyone passes, at least for now. EDSBS pointed out a MiamiHawkTalk thread that spawned a HawkTalk article slamming the NCAA for "chickening out" by not dropping the hammer on the 53 I-A and I-AA programs that failed to make the 925 Mendoza line. The somewhat esoteric reason for sparing the rod is the "Squad Size Adjustment"--essentially the NCAA is claiming not enough data so not make big. Clearly this is more of an issue for basketball teams than 85-scholarship football teams. Thus the stink:
Moreover, this selective use of data allows the NCAA to dumb down its own standards, paper over its problems, and present a rosy picture to the press, even though without the "adjustments," over 40% of Division I-A and I-AA football programs would have flunked.
I think that goes a little far. The above backgrounder on the SSA indicates that teams should look upon this edition of the APR as a serious matter should they fail to clear the bar and that once they have a full four-year set of data--next year--the hammer will drop.
Is this an excercise for the press only, a paper tiger? Deduction says no.
As someone who wanders over to places where "scUM" is considered clever by the natives to scope recruiting information, I think that NCAA schools are taking the APR seriously enough. Witness the case of towering Ohio wide receiver Josh Chichester, who was committed to Ohio State until just before signing day. The Buckeyes cut him free, citing academics. Chichester ended up signing with Louisville; Ohio State ended up short a wide receiver they wanted. Why?
OSU wasn't concerned about Chichester not qualifying--the Big Ten does allow oversigning and the Buckeyes have taken advantage of that in the past. They didn't make up the academic issues as a cover for preferring another player--OSU ended up signing zero wideouts in the '05 class*. The answer can be found here (PDF):
Football (235) 925 40th-50th
925 is the drop-dead APR cutoff; OSU teeters on the edge of sanctions. Their sudden reluctance to take chances on the Josh Chichesters of the world is a direct reaction to the situation. OSU was reportedly slow to offer Florida WR Greg Mathews and Ohio LB Thaddeus Gibson due to academic concerns. The Buckeyes ended up offering both, but lost Mathews to Michigan and almost had the same happen with Gibson. Clearly OSU is taking 925 seriously.
Why can Michigan take these chances? Well, you can find Michigan's scores here--they're uniformly excellent. They can take some academic risks the Buckeyes can't because they've built a buffer between themselves and APR doom. (Cue be-tinfoiled Irish fans muttering about kinesiology and failure to graduate black players... now.)
While it's disappointing from a fan's standpoint not to see Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Minnesota's academic riskapaloozas take a lead pipe to the back of the head, this is the way the NCAA planned it from the start. If Michigan State can get their 907 up in two years, then more power to them (and good luck with that all 5'3"-Asian secondary). I suggest you reserve judgement.
(*Unless you consider 5'10" Ray Small a WR like Rivals does, but I think he's a cornerback to most. And Small was widely considered a Buckeye lock from birth, so there was no sudden swing in his attitude that made Chichester expendable.)