[Bryan Fuller – MGoBlog]
John Beilein’s entering his tenth season at Michigan – making him the fourth-longest tenured coach in the Big Ten. At this point, his methods, basketball ideology, recruiting habits, and distinct offensive style have become very familiar in Ann Arbor; even though there legitimate questions about his recruiting and his typically poor defenses, he’s one of the best offensive minds in college hoops. After having two teams that were legit national title contenders, things have trended downwards for Michigan: they missed the NCAA Tournament in 2014-15 and barely snuck in last year.
Of course, the injury to Caris LeVert was a devastating blow – as were many of the other injuries that have plagued Michigan since their Final Four trip a few years ago. Even though Michigan didn’t particularly play well in non-conference play last season, that wasn’t the fault of LeVert: the senior had developed into an All-American caliber player, was putting in the best defensive effort of his career, and seemed much more comfortable in an alpha dog role than he did as a junior. Unfortunately, he was lost to a season-ending injury for the second consecutive season – and was still a first-round draft pick.
Even without LeVert for almost the entirety of conference play (as well as Spike Albrecht, who was also sidelined by injury), Michigan scraped together an NCAA Tournament resume that was good enough to barely get the Wolverines in as one of the last four teams – forced to play in the “First Four” in Dayton. The best thing about their resume was the lack of truly bad losses, and Ohio State was the only team that wasn’t tournament-quality to beat Michigan. A handful of marquee wins – against Maryland, Purdue, and Indiana – were enough. Michigan’s mediocre conference efficiency margin (+0.4) suggests that they were lucky to get in.
Each of the starters from last year’s team will be back. Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin are the veterans; both were highly-regarded as recruits but have seemingly hit their ceilings – Walton shot 36% from two and Irvin had a sub-100 offensive rating last season. Joining them are Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, a slashing junior guard who’s old for his class, Duncan Robinson – mostly Just A Shooter – and Mark Donnal, a redshirt junior center who’s being pushed by tantalizing German big man Moritz Wagner.
While that starting five has a decided lack of star power – and most of the bench transferred, leaving incoming freshmen likely to play – continuity and experience are things that Michigan hasn’t been able to enjoy for several years. Even without a star, those factors (as well as Beilein’s expertise) should mean that the offense will be among the Big Ten’s best. Ultimately, this seems like a high-floor, low-ceiling type team: unless there’s significant defensive improvement, it’s hard to envision a leap back into the conference’s top tier.
[More on the Wolverines after the JUMP]
SEASON PREVIEW TAKE: Some concern generally overridden by Harbaugh's flawless track record as a QB coach and developer:
On one level, "who is the starting quarterback?" is the single most critical question about the 2016 Michigan Wolverines. On another level, eh, it'll be fine.
By the time the preview was published Speight was expected to start, and he has indeed started. The "expectations" section pointed out that Speight had just as much experience in Harbaugh's system as Rudock did even then, so a repeat of Early Rudock was probably not on the cards. On the other hand:
It's probably irrational to believe that the starter will be late-season Rudock. Despite Rudock's early struggles this is a guy who was a solid two-year starter at Iowa prior to his arrival. Speight has about two quarters of on-field experience, and O'Korn's season and a half ended in disaster.
...The end result should be somewhere near last year's outcome: 60% completions, 8 YPA, 2:1 TD-INT. The ride there should be far less turbulent.
I offered some clarification as I projected a new starter would be one of the most efficient QBs in the league: the Big Ten has no quarterbacks.
NUMBERS AT THE HALFWAY MARK: Close to preseason projections. He's at 62%, 7.5 YPA, and an 11-2 TD-INT ratio. The YPA is a bit off the target mark, but Speight's done a good job avoiding interceptions. He's also been fortunate that a number of throws against Wisconsin didn't get picked off. S&P+ has an "expected turnover margin" metric; Michigan is +6 on the season but expected to be +3; I'd imagine most of this is a gap between the number of PBUs the other team has gotten without picking the ball off.
Otherwise, fancystats are oddly enthusiastic, with S&P+ declaring Michigan the #26 passing offense thus far despite peripheral numbers that are mediocre. They do capture Speight's tendency to start slow:
Michigan has a spate of average-or-worse P5 passing defenses coming up (Illinois, MSU, Indiana, and Iowa are all in a band between 46th and 68th in S&P+, with Indiana(!!!) leading the way at 46) along with a good Maryland outfit (that is terrible at run defense, surprise) and the looming monstrosity that is Ohio State. The schedule doesn't uptick until the Game and whatever postseason Michigan arrives at; Speight should reach the end of the regular season with numbers at least equal to his current production.
FEELINGSBALL: It's hard to tell if we're genuinely disappointed in Speight's performance as a redshirt sophomore first-year starter or if we just don't have anything else to complain about. UFRs and PFF suggest the former, however. Speight's shown a couple of nice attributes—he's got excellent pocket presence and will find second and third reads—that are offset by spates of iffy accuracy, especially early.
This certainly doesn't feel like a passing offense on the verge of the top 25 nationally, and Speight stands out as the single biggest fixable problem Michigan has.
UP OR DOWN OR EH: I'd say this is a slight downgrade, because Speight's actually gone slightly backward from a strong start. The trajectory has been flat over the past few games, and he's increasingly unlikely to take off a la Rudock.
SEASON PREVIEW TAKE: De'Veon Smith was projected as the main man, flanked by Ty Isaac and Drake Johnson, the two veteran options. Smith was "a good bet to be Michigan's first 1,000 yard back since Fitz Toussaint" after a second half surge in 2015, but I did use "plurality" instead of "majority" when describing his workload.
Ty Isaac was expected to emerge after a rough 2015 largely based on practice hype and Harbaugh press conference pronouncements; I expected him to be the clear #2 and heir apparent. Chris Evans actually got quite a lot of airtime for someone listed as a backup to Jabrill Peppers at the "spread H" position I made up so I could shoehorn Peppers into the RB post, because the practice chatter about him had been nonstop.
Karan Higdon, on the other hand, was shoved in with the freshmen and mostly forgotten about.
NUMBERS AT THE HALFWAY MARK: Drake Johnson's recovery from the forklift thing was apparently exaggerated; he has not played. Smith has gotten the plurality of carries and might have a slight majority of snaps but it's a lot more even than we thought it would be preseason. This is partially because Michigan's been on the friendly end of a lot of blowouts; it is partially because the top four backs are all producing. The four milkmen:
- Smith: 61 carries, 5.5 YPC
- Ty Isaac: 53 carries, 5.5 YPC
- Evans: 48 carries, 8.3(!) YPC
- Higdon: 35 carries, 7.4 YPC
This is, how you say, unsustainable. Higdon in particular has been handed multiple offset draw touchdowns so easy that most readers of this blog could have picked up a first down on them. The fancystats that ignore garbage time have Michigan 21st as a rush offense.
FEELINGSBALL: Along with the linebackers this unit is the most pleasant surprise of the season. Smith has mostly picked up where he left off in the bowl game. There have been a few iffy cuts but those are the exceptions rather than the rule; he seems to have learned to press the hole and put himself in another gap. His pass protection may have fallen off a bit and he fumbled against Rutgers; otherwise he's been close to the best version of himself.
Meanwhile the other three guys are revelations. And yes, three. Since Isaac did little last year and nothing after his fumbles against Maryland this is actually three players bursting onto the scene, not two. And burst they have. Each guy brings a slightly different package of skills to the table. Isaac is huge and can weave from one hole to the next, stiffarming the first DB he meets into a pile of sludge. Evans is lightning quick and will turn five yards into 50 more consistently than other options—he's averaging 10.3(!) yards a play after he gets those first five, which is a bonkers number. Higdon is the best guy for a power play, a shifty guy who runs low to the ground and bounces off tackles.
All of them have looked like capable feature backs. Ty Wheatley's found some traction with his charges this year.
UP OR DOWN OR EH: Major upgrade. Michigan entered the season still a little suspicious of Smith and uncertain if there was anything high-quality behind him. Six games into this season Michigan appears to have four good to very good backs.
Bill Connelly used a photo from the Michigan-Rutgers game to head his Week Six Five Factors box scores, and it’s not hard to see why. Scrolling across the stats will lead to either your jaw dropping or some guttural chuckle, or maybe both: Rutgers averaged 0.28 yards per play, had one scoring opportunity (read: had the ball inside Michigan’s 40), got zero points off that opportunity, and had a Success Rate of 11%. Michigan’s offense averaged 8.11 yards per play, had 11 scoring opportunities, averaged 7.00 points per opportunity, and had a Success Rate of 55%. Rutgers had 17 drives to Michigan’s 18. Sometimes things really are as lopsided as the final score indicates.
ESPN’s Football Power Index took note, as Michigan now holds the top overall spot in FPI. ESPN says that FPI “represents how many points above or below average a team is.” Michigan’s 1.8 points better than the next nearest team (Alabama), and they’re 2.5 points better than Ohio State. One dominant game over Rutgers really boosted Michigan’s stock in the eyes of ESPN, as their chance at winning out rocketed from 16.6% to 34.2%, and their chance of winning the conference jumped from 30.8% to 49.5%. ESPN also predicts Michigan will win 11.8 games.
The season outlook wouldn’t be nearly as shiny if the offense wasn’t above average, but it’s no secret that the defense is performing at a level we haven’t seen in quite a while and driving the numbers up. There is literally no section of Connelly’s advanced stats profile where Michigan’s defense isn’t ranked first nationally in some category. The defense is even ranked first in two of Connely’s Five Factors. I decided to take a closer look at passing downs defense this week because it has been exceptional, but at this point the defense is so good that I don’t have to dig through specific categories for something to discuss so much as rotate through them. This week, the visual representation of the defense’s dominance is as sharp as it’s been in the last two seasons; before you read anything below, you can scroll through the graphs and see exactly what I mean.
[After THE JUMP: Connelly’s Five Factors and a closer look at passing downs defense]
- Brown played a lot of the game in a dime-ish package with three down linemen—looked like Michigan practicing against Ohio State. Odd fronts, Taco at LB depth.
- Josh Metellus might be a find; Devin Bush Sr. is angry he wasn’t more recruited. Devin Asiasi almost certainly is.
- DL salivation: Taco is into the backfield before you can say Ta. Finally seeing Mone too. Mo Hurst is basically back; for Godin to start over him is wow-ish. Both holding up to double teams well.
- What’s up with State? Last year they were more like a lucky 8-4 team that now lost Burbridge and Cook. MSU/Northwestern has M00N potential. Ohio State vs Wisconsin looks like flipside of Michigan vs. Wisconsin.
- Peppers Heisman diagnosis: excellent arc block plus Rutgers is bad plus Denard vibe. If he can singlehandedly beat Ohio State and build 1200 houses there’s a chance.
THE USUAL LINKS
Apologies for skipping FBO last week, but there’s only so much time in a week and the hockey preview wasn’t going to write itself. (Someone on North Campus just read that sentence and scoffed; email me if you have robots that will help us divvy up our workload and dump some of it on automatons, Michigan Engineering students/professors.)
The night before the Wisconsin game was a miserably rainy one in southeastern Michigan, but that didn’t stop David and I from climbing on top of the Oak Park press box (with their permission, of course) to film 2017 commit Ja’Raymond Hall, 2018 target Marquan McCall, and 2019 QB D’wan Mathis. We ended up primarily scouting Hall, however, as McCall was injured and didn’t play and Mathis didn’t start (though he did rotate in fairly often, he fumbled early, got pulled, got put back in, and then got fewer and fewer snaps as the game went on).
Hall’s an interesting prospect. He was offered early in the process and his enthusiasm for Michigan was palpable; the first time I watched him was at the 2015 Sound Mind Sound Body camp, and he was decked out in Michigan gear. Take a look at his visit history and you can see that he’s long held a serious interest in the program, and has continued to stay connected after committing last December.
At one time he was a Top100 prospect on 247, but he tumbled more than 200 spots when 247 updated their rankings in July. He’s currently the #31 offensive tackle and ranked #312 nationally per the 247 composite; Hall is a four-star in the composite, but just a three-star to 247. Did we see what they must have seen? You’ll have to…
[Hit THE JUMP for Ja’Raymond Hall film and scouting report]
Mailbag: Coachin' Poachin', Injury Redshirts, Shelton Johnson And Shelton Johnson, The Only Good Sports Movie
Will someone raid the braintrust this offseason? [Bryan Fuller]
In your last UV you talked about how there's basically air behind Tom Herman as far as possibly available decent head coaches go. What are the odds that Don Brown gets poached by someone? Is that something he would be looking for?
What are the chances that one of our coordinators gets a look a high level job? Jedd Fisch or Tim Drevno probably are most at risk? Wheatley probably stays to fill in one of their roles if they go so he can be with his son for a few more year so that’s probably not a huge deal. Is this something that is concerning to you? I didn’t see it specifically flagged in your post today, nor did it really matter with Durkin moving on and the staff staying put.
Similarly, any shot at OSU getting some of their staff poached (and maybe less loyalty to Urban for a chance to move up the ranks)?
-Jim Dudnick BBA ‘01
Don Brown is a minimal threat to leave. He's 61 and is a DC lifer in the same way that Bud Foster is. Nobody gets a first-time head coaching gig in their 60s unless they've been promoted from within. FWIW, when Michigan hired him Jim Harbaugh said he went into that hire trying to find someone who could provide some stability and Brown provides that. This is another reason grabbing Brown was such a good move.
Things are more uncertain on the offensive side of the ball, where both Fisch and Drevno could pop up on smaller schools' radars. Fisch has already been mentioned as a potential option at FIU by Bruce Feldman. Drevno hasn't come up yet. Meanwhile they're coordinator types under Jim Harbaugh, who runs the show on O. Usually guys like that have to put in at least five years before they start getting mentioned.
Meanwhile, these days the pay bump when you get a head job at a smaller school is small or even nonexistent. Ron Turner was making 550k at FIU; Drevno is at 800k. There aren't many non-Power 5 schools who could make a compelling offer to high-paid Michigan assistants.
Fisch is 40; Drevno is 47. Both have some time to find the right opportunity before their window of opportunity shuts. They're likely to be patient, passing up jobs like FIU as they wait for a Power 5 opening like DJ Durkin got. Even then, do you want to sign up for a meat grinder like Purdue? Probably not.
I can't say with certainty that both guys will be back but I wouldn't worry about losing them to an AAC team, and it doesn't look like there will be any plausible openings in the Big Ten this year. (Purdue: nope.) I'd bet Michigan gets everybody back.
[After THE JUMP: redshirts, Shelton Johnsons, omnipotence paradoxes]