[Eric Upchurch – MGoBlog]
Despite finishing behind Indiana in the regular season Big Ten standings, it feels inarguable that Michigan State had the conference’s best team a year ago (their NCAA Tournament seed – a two, and the next highest Big Ten programs were three five-seeds – certainly suggests that). They were led by Denzel Valentine, the best player in the Big Ten, a senior who dominated college basketball in his final season, as well as two other seniors: steady big man Matt Costello and three-point sniper Bryn Forbes. Throw in talented 5* one-and-done power forward Deyonta Davis, and it was considered by many to be a national title frontrunner.
It came as somewhat of a surprise that MSU didn’t receive a one-seed. Perhaps it was the scheduling: the Spartans had three sub-300 opponents in the non-conference portion of the season and a season series against Rutgers helped drag down their RPI. They had a week mid-January where they lost three straight – routed by Iowa at home, lost at Wisconsin and at home against Nebraska, each by a single point. They destroyed Indiana in the teams’ only meeting and won the Big Ten Tournament after close victories over Maryland and Purdue. So it came as a bit of a surprise when State found themselves on the two-line with a first round matchup against 15-seed Middle Tennessee St.
[More on the Spartans after the JUMP]
Jim Harbaugh's NFL connections add to his recruiting appeal. [Bryan Fuller]
Ed-Ace: Recruitnik extraordinaire, regular podcast guest, and noted darts enthusiast Steve Lorenz of Wolverine247, aka The Artist Formerly Known As Aquaman, is back with his weekly recruiting mailbag. If you aren't subscribed to 247 and want to read more from Steve and the gang, they're running a free trial through New Year's Day.
Caesar asks: What makes Michigan under Harbaugh good at recruiting and what does it do to distinguish itself from other programs?
There are a few noteworthy things Harbaugh has that other programs don't:
1. He has strapped on the helmet and played at a high level for the program he is coaching at. He's come as close to the top of the mountain as anyone for Michigan has, and with that comes a natural love and desire to bring the program to the top. That's not to say that other coaches aren't super effective in how they recruit and how they pitch their programs, but there's a natural aspect to how Harbaugh specifically can recruit kids because of a love for Michigan that most (if not all) coaches can't replicate for the programs they're currently at.
2. There isn't another coach in college football who can utilize success and connections in the NFL like Harbaugh can. Early on in Cesar Ruiz's recruitment, he mentioned that going to Michigan would give him a network to the NFL that he wouldn't find at any other program when you consider who Harbaugh knows in the league. I want to say he was on campus sometime around the time Michigan held their Pro Day, and mentioned tons of NFL teams being there despite the fact that they only had a handful of pro prospects last season. On top of that, Michigan utilizes NFL schemes both offensively and defensively so often that it helps acclimate their players to the pros while they're still in college. This stuff is truly valuable on the recruiting trail.
3. He wins. Obviously Michigan is far from the only program winning, and they haven't done it consistently for a long time, but he's already proven he can do some big things, and that stuff resonates with kids.
[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of the mailbag.]
Derrick Walton did most of his offensive damage from beyond the arc.
Michigan learned a difficult lesson about the importance of the point guard position in John Beilein's system two years ago. Unfortunately, they learned the same lesson again last year. From the 2015-16 season preview:
As Michigan learned the hard way in 2014-15, it all starts with the point guard in John Beilein's system. Derrick Walton is healthy again after a foot injury derailed and then prematurely ended his sophomore season; now he's poised for the patented LaVall Jordan second-year leap a year later than expected. Spike Albrecht is recovering from surgery on his hips but should be a full go early in the season, giving the Wolverines a starter-quality backup.
Despite returning to full health, Derrick Walton had many of the same issues that were initially blamed on his foot injury—most glaringly, he remained woefully inefficient as a scorer inside the arc. Walton's support vanished when Spike Albrecht, not fully recovered from his hip surgeries, was shut down after nine games. For the second straight year, John Beilein was compelled to pull a redshirt off Andrew Dakich to provide spot minutes.
Walton has one final go-round to break into that elite tier of point guards. While Spike is off to Purdue, there's still good reason to hope point guard depth (finally) won't be an issue this year, as Ohio's Mr. Basketball, Xavier Simpson, joins the squad.
[Hit THE JUMP for in-depth player previews.]
Previously: We drafted teams.
As is tradition, in lieu of a short hot-takey preseason all-conference list, this past offseason the MGoBlog staff drafted entire teams from the pool of Big Ten players. This provided interesting content to those who tend to watch the rest of the league, and generated ire from those who’ve convinced themselves these are fantasy teams.
We check in at the midpoint to see how our expectations have fared.
1. MGoBlog’s Mid-Season All-Big Ten team:
|RB||Barkley (PSU)||Barkley||Samuel (OSU)||Barkley|
|WR||Darboh (M)||Carr (NW)||Godwin (PSU)||Godwin|
|TE||Butt (M)||Butt||Kittle (IA)||Kittle|
|OT||Gates (NE)||Ramcyzk (WI)||Ramcyzk||Ramcyzk|
|OG||Price (OSU)||Price||Feeney (IN)||Price|
|OG||Kalis (M)||Roos (PU)||Price||Kalis|
|DT||Replogle (PU)||McDowell (MSU)||Replogle||GodinHurst (M)|
|RUSH||Watt (WI)||Watt||Watt||Charlton (M)|
|MLB||McMillan (OSU)||Gedeon (M)||McMillan||Gedeon|
|WLB||Cichy (WI)||Cichy||Cichy||McCray (M)|
|SAM||Scales (IN)||Peppers (M)||Peppers||Peppers|
|CB||Conley (OSU)||Lewis (M)||Lewis||Lewis|
|FS||Hooker (OSU)||Hooker||Hooker||Hill (M)|
|Honorably mentioned: Godwin Igwebuike (S-NWern), Josiah Price (TE-MSU), Jerome Baker (LB-OSU)|
Seth: It seems we mostly agree on things. In choosing between Godwin and Darboh I knocked Darboh for some badly timed drops, though his Wisconsin TD is Michigan's most important catch of the season. I wanted to include so many more TEs: Kittle added scary downfield threat to his great blocking, Josiah Price is playing like an All-American, and Troy Fumagalli is Wisconsin's best offensive weapon. McDowell or Replogle was a tough decision for everyone.
Ace I take it you put Peppers at safety to get out of splitting hairs between Igwebuike, Travis, and Delano Hill. But I'm surprised you put Scales above Jerome Baker, who's been a huge part of Ohio State's tough run D.
Ace: I put Peppers at safety more because there are a bunch of linebackers I’ve liked so far. I seriously considered Baker, Ben Gedeon, and Josey Jewell. What I’ve seen from Scales has been really impressive, though. He leads the conference in solo tackles to go with 7.5 TFLs, two sacks, a pick-six, a forced fumble, and a couple pass breakups. The Indiana defense has improved quite a bit, and he’s the player that leaps out to me from that unit.
Brian: I regret nothing.
BiSB: You hired Ace.
Seth: Godin over Hurst?
Ace: I’ll admit I tried not to come off as too homery and the defense made that exceptionally difficult.
Seth: I mean I'd argue but Mathlete just put this in our slack chat:
If you're standing on Michigan and use a telescope you might be able to make out an average Top 10 defense.
Ace: @brian just saying, you’ve got some honorable mention slots for D-linemen 6-9.
Brian: Seriously though
[Hit THE JUMP for more SERIOUS THINGS]
Previously: Offense Part I.
SEASON PREVIEW TAKE: Jehu Chesson was given top billing as the preview went with on-field production and Chesson's trajectory over Amara Darboh's offseason hype, but both guys were declared real real good. Chesson was expected to be a complete WR and off the board in the first couple of rounds of the draft; I was skeptical about Darboh's ability to get deep on folks.
Grant Perry was projected to be a solid third option, and nobody knew anything about who would emerge from the backups. Eddie McDoom was given a shout.
NUMBERS AT THE HALFWAY MARK: A pile of blowouts and profusion of tight ends has made for uninspiring numbers. Seventeen different Wolverines have caught passes, including three different fullbacks and five different TEs. Meanwhile the starters have been on the bench for most of the second half in each outing.
Darboh has indeed emerged as the top wideout with 25 catches for 400 yards; his 9.5 yards per target is an impressive number, and he's on the end of a quarter of Speight's passes. Chesson has 15 catches for 231 yards and has had some iffy plays on balls downfield, though he's been hurt by bad throws. Chesson's also got seven carries for 44 yards.
Here ends significant WR contributions. Perry has six catches, McDoom three, and Kekoa Crawford one. McDoom's been a frequent jet sweep runner.
FEELINGSBALL: This is what happens when you're hammering almost all your opposition and your quarterback is struggling mightily in the two games (Colorado and Wisconsin) in which second-half passing won't be interpreted as a slap in the face. The wide receivers have been hamstrung by the situation.
It has been a mild disappointment that both starters have failed to high-point a number of passes that weren't perfect but were good enough to force a PI or result in a spectacular catch. On the other hand, WR blocking has been excellent on Michigan's many crack sweeps.
UP OR DOWN OR EH: This unit gets an incomplete.
SEASON PREVIEW TAKE: Jake Butt is the best receiving tight end in the country, Ian Bunting is set for a breakout, and look out for the Kaiju brothers, Ty Wheatley Jr and Devin Asiasi... but probably next year. Since we also cover all blocky/catchy types in that post, fullbacks Henry Poggi and Khalid Hill were both mentioned as potential X factors since they obviously had a lot of potential as blockers but had targeting or technique issues.
NUMBERS AT THE HALFWAY MARK: Butt had two inexplicable drops early and has since been Jake Butt. He's since recovered to post a 71% catch rate per S&P+, which is excellent, and 8.3 yards per target, also excellent for a tight end. His blocking was alarming to start but has settled in at "decent," which is a minor upgrade on last year. Bunting was playing a bunch but had not been featured; he's missed the last couple games with an undisclosed injury.
Meanwhile Hill and Poggi have grabbed the rest of the targets here. Hill's caught all eight balls thrown his way and is averaging the same 8.3 yards per target that Butt is. While some of that is scheme, Hill has made a couple of difficult catches.
FEELINGSBALL: Meanwhile in things that don't pick up numbers: blocking. Butt is a bit better than last year, and the fullbacks have improved a great deal. Hill has had a few spectacular blocks where he blows through a linebacker without slowing and then gets to a third level player; these don't show up except in UFR and PFF, where Hill is clearly preferred by both metrics. I've been more enthused about Poggi than PFF; he's cut out most of the targeting issues that plagued him last year.
Meanwhile, Asiasi has emerged over the last few games. Against Rutgers most big runs featured Asiasi moving a DL and then popping out to blast a LB or DB. He's got a combination of power and agility that make him effective against just about anyone a defense fields, and at nearly 290 pounds his upside in this department is considerable.
UP OR DOWN OR EH: Asiasi's emergence over the last few games as a plus blocker—as a blocker who could be a difference-maker—is the main reason this spot feels like an upgrade over expectations. Khalid Hill whacking guys has also been an unexpected positive. Butt's been about what you expect.
SEASON PREVIEW TAKE: Meh. Mason Cole was projected to be a very good player. Grant Newsome was fretted over, largely because Ben Bredeson was pushing him for the job. Ben Braden and Erik Magnuson were declared acceptable offensive linemen with little upside. Kyle Kalis was an infinitely frustrating mauler who blew assignments all the time, but was declared an X factor because if he could just figure things out...
NUMBERS AT THE HALFWAY MARK: OL don't have numbers.
FEELINGSBALL: The line has been acceptable. Newsome, the projected weak link, was exactly that before the knee injury that ended his season. He had some pass protection issues but was not a revolving door; on the ground he was an able puller and decent enough at the point of attack. Magnuson has somewhat exceeded expectations as he's combined with Kalis to be a powerful right side of the line. Pass protection issues have lingered for him, though. He's somewhere between some preseason NFL scouting, which saw him as a potential high pick, and my "eh, undrafted FA" take from the preview.
The interior has been about as good as expected but the star has been Kalis, not Cole. Kalis did indeed cut out the vast majority of the mental errors and round into the mauling five-star guard everyone wanted him to be immediately out of high school. Cole, however, has struggled against zero-tech nose tackles. (Michigan has played an inordinate number of 3-4s early in the year.) While I think Colorado's Josh Tupou is just that good, Cole's impact has been muted at C.
Braden has clearly and vastly outperformed Bredeson at LG to the point where the only explanation for Bredeson's playing time is injury.
UP OR DOWN OR EH: The guys who started the season were actually a slight upgrade on expectations because Newsome was not a problem. However, Juwann Bushell-Beatty has been shaky in relief. He's been beat on edge rushes a ton; he's taken holding calls; he's been iffy on the ground. He looms as a potential issue down the road, so this is a sad injury downgrade.
Kyle Kalis and Mike McCray
Kyle, you guys went back to the knee braces after the Newsome thing. Was that a direct order from the coaches, and would you have done it anyway?
“Me personally, I’ve always worn knee braces but yeah, for everybody else it was kind of a mandatory thing. With Grant’s injury, it’s hard to tell if it would have made a difference, but it can’t hurt you so that’s kind of why we went back to wearing them is for precautionary reasons.”
Mike, you’ve had a pretty successful year kind of quietly. Do you feel like maybe you’re an unsung guy on the team?
“Not really. You know, it’s the whole defense. I feel like we’ve done a great job so far the first six games, and I don’t think about myself getting noticed and things like that because it’s a whole-team thing. So, I really don’t think about it at all.”
Jim had mentioned when he got here you weren’t completely healthy and that he’s seen you come through a lot. Can you walk me through that as far as this time last year and a backup role or maybe not playing to you’re at the forefront now.
“Last year, didn’t play at all. It’s just a lot different now than it was this time last year. I feel a lot better. My spirit, I’m not down about myself of anything like that, so it’s a great time right now.”
MGoQuestion: Kyle, were knee braces optional last year as well or was that something new this year?
“Yeah, they were optional last year as well. Yeah.”
[After THE JUMP: keeping an eye on OSU]