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Where to start, really? [Bryan Fuller/MGoBlog]
In Brady Hoke's fourth year at the helm, Michigan heads into fall camp with far fewer questions about the starting lineup than we're used to hearing this time of year; even the offensive line looks pretty much set, though of course concerns about their ability will follow this team well into the season. Today I'm taking a look at the five players—some penciled in as starters, some not—whose emergence is critical to Michigan's success in 2014, either due to the depth at their position, their potential to become a real difference-maker, or both.
You'll be shocked to see that the list begins with an offensive lineman.
RT Ben Braden
Braden is #1 with a bullet for me. He replaces an NFL draft pick at a critical spot on a line in need of a whole lot of improvement, and the options behind him are very limited. Braden has great potential due to his Lewan-wowing combination of size (6'6", 322 lbs.) and athleticism, but there are also significant concerns—that same Lewan article, from last August, stated the starting left guard spot was Braden's to lose, but even in a season when the guards rotated with alarming frequency he played just two games, both as a reserve.
While it's far too early to say a lineman heading into his redshirt sophomore season has panned out or not, the fact that a true freshman and a 6'1" walk-on—Kyle Bosch and Joey Burzynski, respectively—saw the field over Braden last year is certainly worrisome. Adding to that concern is the depth at tackle this season. If Braden can't lock down his spot at right tackle, the first tackle off the bench looks likely to be another true freshman, Mason Cole, if the spring is any indication. A trio of redshirt freshmen provide depth, but none are close to sure things: Logan Tuley-Tillman likely needs at least another year of development, Chris Fox mostly spent last year rehabbing an ACL tear, and David Dawson seems more suited to guard.
It's true that any of Michigan's O-linemen could be on this list—in fact, there's another later—but Braden's spot in the lineup appears the least certain, and he just happens to be in a spot that could cause a complete reshuffling of the line if he can't hold the job.
NT Ondre Pipkins
There are really four interior defensive linemen that could go here; Willie Henry, Chris Wormley, and Maurice Hurst were under serious consideration, but Henry seems like he'll be at least a passable starter, and the three-tech spot—where Wormley and Hurst are slated to play—doesn't have the same importance as the nose (while boasting more depth on this roster). Also, only one of these guys was a five-star All-American out of high school, and it's Pee Wee Pipkins.
Pipkins is, rather shockingly, already a true junior, and his time to make that five-star impact is quickly running out after he blew out an ACL against Minnesota last year, just as he was showing signs of reaching his potential. He's reportedly fully recovered from that injury, though there's no telling how it'll affect him until he's back playing in actual games. If he's healthy, he could develop into some unholy combination of Gabe Watson and Alan Branch; he could also be the next Will Campbell, and that's without accounting for the potential that he's not fully comfortable on that knee.
While Michigan doesn't necessarily need Pipkins in the starting lineup—Henry can start at the nose next to a three-tech platoon of Wormley/Hurst/others—they need him to be healthy and productive enough to rotate in a good deal, unless Bryan Mone is remarkably ahead of the curve for a true freshman nose tackle. It'd also, of course, be really nice to see the affable Pipkins return to the how-the-hell-is-that-blob-chasing-down-Stefon Diggs form he showed in his standout Army AA Game performance a couple years ago.
WR Amara Darboh
|"Today in practice I witnessed the single greatest catch I've ever seen in person." — Devin Gardner|
We got a couple tantalizing looks at Darboh before he missed the 2013 season with a foot injury: the amazing catch from a 2012 Outback Bowl practice (right) and a nice deep sideline grab in the 2013 Spring Game. While Jehu Chesson did a solid job as the #3 receiver last year, Darboh was considered the clear leader for that role—really the #2 receiver role at the time, before everyone figured out Devin Funchess was a tight end in name only—and he also garnered more hype as a recruit.
This admittedly isn't an area of significant need for Michigan; Freddy Canteen, Moe Ways, Jaron Dukes, and DaMario Jones provide plenty of depth and talent at receiver.* None of those guys possess the combination of talent, physical development, and knowledge of the offense that Darboh has right now, however, and the capable-of-catching-anything aspect to Darboh's game is something I'd like to see on the field.
Having a sure-handed possession receiver across from Devin Funchess could make Michigan's passing game downright scary, and early in the season it could also help cover for the absence of a receiving threat at tight end while Jake Butt recovers from his ACL injury. Darboh, who's now listed at 6'2", 211 pounds, potentially fits that bill better than anyone on the roster.
*I'd include Drake Harris, too, but he's coming off a lost senior season of high school due to a hamstring injury and he needs to gain weight, so a redshirt hopefully beckons.
RG Kyle Kalis
This should probably be Jake Butt's spot, but I'm going with Kalis here, since he's a five-star talent on a line in need of that, and after one rough year it appears he's been written off by many. I mean, this was in Brian's post-spring 27 Tickets, when he (ever so jinxfully) assumed now-Buckeye Chad Lindsay would transfer from Alabama to Michigan and take over the center spot:
27. G Kyle Bosch, So. [Last time: 25]
Under assumption that Lindsay comes in, Glasgow displaces one of Braden/Bosch/Kalis. Random guess here is that it's Kalis because Bosch should improve more as younger guy but your guess is as good as mine. So is Hoke's.
Kalis was left out of the top 27.
While I realize Kalis underperformed last year, and not all of that can be chalked up to coaching ... well, you all saw the mess on the line, and assigning individual blame for that tire fire is a difficult, if not impossible, endeavor. Kalis was thrust into a starting job as a redshirt freshman, then moved in and out of the lineup as the coaches tried (and failed) to find something that would work—not exactly a recipe for success for a first-year starter regardless of talent.
And boy, does Kalis have talent. Offensive linemen are the toughest prospects to project with much accuracy, but he looked like the surest of sure things out of high school. Many of his issues last year appeared to stem from uncertainty about his assignment; given his freshmandom and the sheer number of schemes Michigan tried to run last year, that's understandable. The simplified, inside zone-centric offense under Doug Nussmeier should suit him well; if he's confident enough in his knowledge of the playbook to stop thinking and starting clobbering, we could see a huge step forward from him this fall.
NICKEL/S/CB Jabrill Peppers
Braden is the #1 X-factor, in my opinion, because of his importance to the team's success this year; if you think of X-factors as players who can make an impact in a number of ways, however, the obvious choice is Peppers. Obviously.
The coaches maintain that they'll start him out at nickel, and he could make a huge difference there as a prototype hybrid space player who's equally adept in coverage and run support. He could very well start from day one at strong safety, the only spot in the secondary with any real uncertainty, and the way Greg Mattison utilized that spot in the Spring Game—aggressively rolling the SS into the box often—is ideally suited for a player like Peppers. He could even challenge Raymon Taylor at boundary corner, though with the rise of Jourdan Lewis the need for Peppers at corner appears less than the two other defensive positions he could play this year.
Personally, I'm hoping that sooner or later he starts at strong safety, where he could bring a level of playmaking Michigan hasn't had back there since... uh... let's go with "a while ago." I don't believe the coaches will ask Peppers to make an impact on offense this year, but special teams is another story—his potential as a return man is massive, and I have a hard time believing the coaches won't try to get the ball in his hands one way or another.
Josh Langford will someday win a national title by sliding the ball between an opponent's legs
Basketball recruiting stuff. Michigan's packing in a number of visits before their upcoming Italy trip. D-III transfer Duncan Robinson is of course expected on campus this week. Joining him will be 2016 AL SG Josh Langford, who arrives Friday.
Langford is kind of a big deal, a 6'6" athlete who's in the top 20 of the 247 composite. He should get his offer while on campus, and while Michigan hasn't fared particularly well while recruiting against the Dukes and Kansases of the world—both have offered—Langford has been paying attention to what's going on in Ann Arbor($):
"It's an honor to be recruited by Michigan because I've watched Michigan on TV a lot and it was very shocking for me to be able to talk to Coach Beilein on the phone because he is one of the greatest coaches all time and one of the best skill developers in college basketball right now," Langford said. "To have them tell me that they want me to be their next wolf just makes me want to work even harder."
The last "wolf" was Nik Stauskas; like Stauskas, Langford is a 6'6" guy who can function as a quasi-point guard.
2015 MI C Seth Dugan is also scheduled to be on campus in the near future. Dugan is a late-rising seven-footer who's caught the eye of a number of Big Ten teams and just fielded a bunch of quality mid-major offers (Xavier, Davidson, Rhode Island).
Pelini level. I am now thinking of an Adidas commercial in which Kanye raps about getting on Pelini level with all the great awkward photo headshot gentlemen being really awkward. I am now sad the World Cup is over. I am now over that.
Meanwhile they just hosted 2016 OH C Jon Teske, who has become a serious priority for that class. He seemed to name Michigan his leader in a group of two:
"Michigan is recruiting me the hardest, probably, and that's why they're on top," he said. "The top two right now are Michigan and Ohio State, and I think it will come down to those two.
FWIW, OSU has center prospects in their 2014 and 2015 classes, neither of whom seems like an early-entry candidate at the moment.
In less immediate news, 2015 SC SG PJ Dozier announced a top five that includes Michigan and will be taking an official visit. Probably, anyway. Michigan may shut down 2015 recruiting after picking up a shooting guard at any time. The other schools on Dozier's list: Louisville, North Carolina, Georgetown, and South Carolina.
Dozier hasn't been on campus yet and thus doesn't have an offer. He's #31 on the composite, and his dad denies reports($) that North Carolina is a "dream school" and likely destination. This makes me believe that is in fact the case, but Michigan's got their shot. Probably, anyway.
Finally, Rivals projects they will move 2016 NJ SG Tyus Battle to five star status.
Miss you, Brimley
Anonymous, you are so boring. You hear "anonymous quotes" and you get your interest all piqued but Joe Tiller ain't around no more, so the results are as tepid as if they came from a press conference. Athlon has the dirt-type substance:
“What are they going to do new offensively? They just hired Doug Nussmeier. Where they’ve struggled, they haven’t been what they thought they’d be on the offensive line. They lost both their tackles now.”
How about anonymously describing Michigan's CFBStats page?
“I think they were very meager running the football. They struggled protecting the quarterback. The statistical things you evaluate – offensive line, rushing yards, yards per carry, they were pretty poor in those areas.”
There is an interesting bit about Michigan's current defense…
“Defensively, I don’t think they were near what they want to be. They have a great defensive coordinator, he’s a very good coach, but as the defense is designed to stop the run it’s become more of a passing league in some ways. Great, you held them to 100 yards rushing but they threw for 350 and you got beat.”
…or at least it would have been interesting if that even vaguely resembled reality. The Big Ten was a passing league in no way whatsoever. Michigan was the top team in YPA by some distance last year and finished in a tie for 23rd nationally. The top teams in passes per game are Indiana, Illinois, and Purdue. Those teams were bad. (Indiana was fun! But not, like, a contender.)
Devin Gardner’s back, so it will be interesting to see, are they building an off for Gardner for one more year or building for the future for Shane Morris or whomever they recruited?
…oh for pants' sake. What about the rest of the teams?
“They [MSU] aren’t going to miss Max Bullough as much as everybody thought. The kid who replaced him in the Rose Bowl was pretty good.”
That kid was a senior who signed a CFL contract. They let these people vote! You probably think that's a shot at the Coaches Poll; it's not. It's a shot at democracy.
Most of the rest of the comments are "this unit was good" and "they have this player" and "they no longer have this player." Whoever did this interview is no Mike Spath.
Hooray for reception. For whatever reason, cell reception took a severe turn for the worse last year. It was middling but generally acceptable for a couple years before that; last year it was impossible to get anything in or out until they installed the wifi, which was pretty iffy but at least vaguely functional.
I know it is possible for things to actually work, since my trip to Penn State featured horrific football but lovely crystal-clear LTE despite the fact that Beaver Stadium on gameday is significantly bigger than the rest of the town.
So Michigan's going to try to fix it:
U-M announced Friday that "upgraded cellular coverage at Michigan Stadium for Verizon Wireless and AT&T Mobility" is coming to Michigan Stadium. The new system will be tested Saturday during the International Champions Cup soccer match between Manchester United and Real Madrid in Ann Arbor.
A press release from the U-M athletic department states that "a major upgrade to the distributed antenna system (DAS)" has been made at Michigan Stadium," but adds, "It has been very difficult to build adequate capacity into the stadium due to its significant size as well as the open bowl which has limited locations for antennas."
I know that when the NHL came into town to scout for the Winter Classic they were flabbergasted at the lack of reception. Hopefully this gets Michigan up to par.
Problem: what will Brandon blame soft student ticket sales on once they fix it?
But they just gave you free food. Mmm boilerplate.
Michigan reports to fall camp with level of hunger that wasn't there a year ago, players say
I'm in a show-me state. Not Missouri. Just, like, personally.
I'm impressed you didn't shrivel into a ball and die. Brennen Beyer was 14 when The Horror happened, and he witnessed it in person like many of us:
"The field goal at the end … just shaking my head, knowing we lost that game. It was a bad feeling," said Beyer, who watched with dismay as Jason Gingell's 37-yard field goal was blocked as time expired.
I bet he's planning to do whatever he can not to relive that experience.
Might be a bit light for the GLI this year. All five Michigan-affiliated players at the WJC camp made the final cut from 42 to 27. While that's not quite the final team right there, the final roster usually doesn't deviate much. The cuts are usually the young guys they think will be key components of the next couple years. One of those guys is commit Kyle Connor, so that's a good sign for his future.
The rest: Compher, Motte, Larkin, and Downing. Compher is a holy lock after making the team last year only to break a bone in his foot, and I expect the other guys to go as well. This year's roster is deep, at least.
Also in hockey, TheScout.ca did rank Michigan commit Michael Pastujov their top available player for the upcoming OHL draft. Here's why:
1. Michael Pastjov - Poised and creative playmaker with soft hands. Strong and balanced, wide track skater. Adept at creating.
— Sean Lafortune (@SeanLafortune) August 5, 2014
With his brother already committed to the NTDP and a spot waiting for him when he reaches the right age, he should fall in the draft. Hopefully it's a long way and to some place like Barrie.
Wait, what? The last place I expected to hear anything about poor student ticket sales:
With less than a month until the season opener, Nebraska still has 1,000 of its 8,500 student football season tickets for sale.
However, athletic department spokeswoman Chris Anderson said Friday the school still expects to sell out all 8,500 student tickets. All remaining tickets are for the south end zone.
That's nuts. Nebraska is the second-smallest school in the league, but they've still got 25k students and nothing else to do in Lincoln. And their head coach may bite the head off one of their players while stroking a cat, Bond villain style. Entertainment, you have.
Etc.: Reviewing Bo's final year. The company that puts on the soccer friendlies is called "Relevent Sports," which just goes to show you that even people who intentionally name their thing something that looks like a typo every time you see it can have success. What a country.
By the end of this article you should be able to make an educated guess
as to what Braden is saying to A.J. Williams [Fuller]
You may have heard Michigan has a new offensive identity, by which of course we mean Michigan now has an offensive identity. We think. We're told. Evidence for this is Michigan hired a new OC who runs inside zone, and he has even Brady Hoke talking about it being our base thing. This thing is totally happening. I mean if they hadn't sworn up and down for three years that Power was going to be their thi...
Let's just not go into that and focus on inside zone and how to watch inside zone, and how to be correctly disappointed with the correct person when inside zone isn't run very well. Since this is a new thing, and the offensive line are all relatively new things themselves, and the recent history of Michigan football has given you no reason to believe otherwise, and there are some really good defensive linemen Michigan has to go against this year, let's concede right now that Michigan isn't going to be running inside zone very well this season, especially early. Let's pretend like the coaches are going to stick it out anyway and let it play out.
IZ Resources: As well as the above-linked articles, I drew from Chris Brown at Smart Football, and this article that quotes Chris Brown on a Philly Eagles website. And Space Coyote wrote an entire article on IZ and some plays that stem from it in this year's HTTV; I'm sure he'll pipe in as soon as I mess something up here.
|Every blocker is responsible for whatever defender appears in the "zone" he's responsible for blocking.|
A Temperate Zone
What's inside zone? Maybe it's best to start with what it's not: man. In MANBALL, most linemen have an assigned guy to block; a lead blocker (sometimes a puller) is the only dude who has to make a tough, mid-play decision, and the running back just has to follow that guy.
Inside zone is a base running play where all the blockers are reacting to the defense, not just a lead guy, and the running back has to choose from among various holes that could open up. It takes a different set of skills, mastery of a different set of blocks, and most of all: reps reps and more reps so that everybody can make split-second decisions and those decisions will be correct.
That's not to say all decisions are made after the snap. In fact most blocking assignments are determined by how the defense is lined up. In many cases it won't be all that discernible from man-blocking.
yellow is uncovered. click bigginates.
The read OL have to make is whether they're "covered" or not. Covered means there's a DL lined up across from you. If there isn't, you are "uncovered" and most likely you'll get to go hunting linebackers. But first you look next to you and see if there's a defender shaded to the playside of your buddy; he may need help with that lineman before you release downfield. If that defender is a beast your buddy may need all the help he can get. You deal with the first level defenders before you worry about stopping linebackers.
Almost always, more than one defender will arrive in a blocker's zone. So zone blocking means lots of shared blocking. Ultimately the blocking ends up being 2-on-2 instead of 1-on-1. For example in captioned illustration above-right, the center and right guard are together responsible for blocking the nose tackle and the middle linebacker.
Offensive linemen in high school seldom get the right footwork down. Zone-blocking footwork isn't the same as pile-driving some dude, for one; and two it's not something many high school coaches know how to teach; and three if you're a 6'6"/300 future Big Ten OL and your job is to block a 6'0"/180 future Big Ten economics major, your greatest motivation to pay attention to your feet is probably the preservation of your prom date's.
In this moment it matters greatly. You need to get off the snap, get playside of your defender, get downfield, and get your feet set beneath you, your hands inside, and your pads beneath his so you can ride him out of the play, stonewall him, or shove him downfield; you let him dictate his fate.
On inside zone, an uncovered guy's first step is always to the play-side, not directly toward the guy you're going to block (the OL taking this step is a good indicator it's a zone-blocked rather than man-blocked play). This is because the DL don't always come straight upfield; you don't want them running by you.
Your job is to block the guy trying to cross you. If someone lined up inside you and ran further inside you, he's not yours. Your head stays downfield until you lock on a target, and any object that attempts to cross your field of vision must be stopped.
That Rabbit's Dynamite
Interesting example of a 1) a cutback and 2) the U starting on the strongside of the formation then executing his backside block almost like a lead blocker
Mastering the combo blocks and footwork to respond to all the things defenses throw at you takes a bazillion reps. The upside: inside zone, like option offenses, is a multi-attack threat that can go where the defense doesn't. A called IZ play could end up going outside, or inside, or cut to the backside depending on how your opponent defends it. A well-run IZ offense doesn't let defensive fronts play aggressively; if they want to stop you they'll have to activate the safeties in the run game, opening up the pass. It's not wimpy; it's smashmouth football that—as you'll see—relies mostly on crushing blocks to break things big.
[After the jump I'll show some sample executions versus various defensive alignments so you can get a sense of how it attacks and what factors lead to its success.]
Why Oakland? Three defenses have multiple Michigan guys: Oakland (Woodson & Woodley),
Arizona (Foote & Demens) and NYFG (Stevie B and T.Gordon).
I want you to get yourself in a certain frame of mind. July is over. Barbecuing has lost its novelty and is back to being a way to fix dinner. The sun rises and sets at reasonable hours. Quarterbacks take snaps from centers and hand off to running backs, or fake that and throw to receivers and those people get tackled. But sometimes they don't get tackled. I want you to think about that guy, the guy with the football secured by three pressure points, yards melting behind him, and how long it will be until these points are applied to your score.
My name is Seth Fisher and I play fantasy football. You probably know this already from the obsessive attention I gave to draftageddon, which I'll state again the purpose is not fantasy football but to serve as this site's Around the Big Ten preview, i.e. a place where a blocking TE like Martell Webb would be a great asset.
THIS POST however IS TOTALLY about fantasy football. Not my team; your team. And not in a "let's learn why Martell Webb was good" kind of way; in fact you can't even draft Webb. This post is to let you know our fantasy partner's 2014 NFL fantasy league just went online. Get ye to Draft Kings; it is time to choose.
- $100,000 prize pool.
- $2 entry fee. Entry is free with your first deposit.
- $10,000 1st Place prize.
- Top 11,500 are paid.
- Starts on Sunday, September, 7th at 1:00 EST.
- Salary Cap Style Drafting. $50,000 to select 9 spots. 8 players and 1 defense.
- Roster Format: 1 QB, 2 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE, 1 Flex, 1 Defense.
- First time depositors at DraftKings receive a 100% bonus up to $600
Sidebar: Michigan guys!
Huh, not a one of them is saying 'Put in Henson!' anymore.
I just got really depressed when I couldn't make a team out of former Michigan players. Used to be you could build a kick-ass Madden out of Wolverines. I mean, I'd struggle with RBs but there was usually some recently drafted A-Train or Perry to pair with Wheatley and Biakabutuka. And I'd have to fudge things at safety, like making Cato or Marlin or Woodson one. Suddenly options are limited everywhere except, weirdly, that.
QB: Touchdown Tom forever. Henne for depth. Weird not to see Collins on an NFL roster; anyone else feel like that guy would be someone's 3rd QB forever?
RB: Only Toussaint now that Denard's on a WR depth chart.
WR/TE: Denard woo! Manningham, Hemingway, Gallon and Avant make for a diverse and solid receiving corps, although with no superstars. Breaston was on the Saints' practice squad last year; I don't know where he'll land this season if anywhere but aside from being the prototype of The Pattern™ his ability to impersonate Razor Ramon warrants a look from any team.
Martell Webb is the only TE on an NFL roster now.
OL: Long, Lewan, Molk, Goodwin, Schilling, Schofield, Omameh, Will Campbell. You can build a decent line out of that (Long and Lewan at tackle, Schilling/Molk/Goodwin inside?). Baas may yet get picked up, but it's depressing to make this list without Hutchinson.
DL: Martin, Branch, Woodley, B.Graham, Roh, Jamison.
LB: Harris, Mouton, Demens, Foote, C.Gordon
S: Woodson is classified as a "FS" for Oakland, so you've got him plus Kovacs, Stevie Brown, and Ryan Mundy if you're allowed to classify him a Michigan guy.
CB: Only Leon Hall now.
ST: Feely, and wherever Zoltan lands.
Are you really still reading this? Go draft.
Previously: Last year's profiles, CB Brandon Watson, CB Jabrill Peppers, LB Jared Wangler, LB Chase Winovich, LB Noah Furbush, LB Michael Ferns, DL Brady Pallante, DL Bryan Mone, DL Lawrence Marshall, OL Mason Cole, OL Juwann Bushell-Beatty.
|Beverly Hills, MI – 6'4", 195|
|Scout||3*, NR overall
|Rivals||3*, NR overall
#61 WR. #6 MI
|ESPN||4*, NR overall
#59 WR, #5 MI
|24/7||3*, NR overall
#91 WR, #10 MI
|Other Suitors||Iowa, Kansas, Pitt, Rutgers|
|Previously On MGoBlog||Hello post from me(!).|
|Notes||Detroit Country Day (Kenny Demens).|
Also junior highlights.
If you listened to our recruiting podcast way back in February, you know that I'm super enthused about this class's wide receiving corps. Freddy Canteen's quick emergence into a guy to be excited about has already put the class ahead of the curve, and he is only #2 on my list of wide receivers I expect to exceed expectations.
Er. Other's expectations. I'm not trying to pull the he's-underrated-says-recruiting-ranker thing.
Anyway. #1 is Mo Ways, who only got three stars on most sites despite being 6'4", fast enough to take the top off a defense, and extremely productive. With future Iowa QB Tyler Wiegers throwing to him, Ways had 51 catches for almost 1,000 yards as a junior and upped his numbers to 55 and 1300 as a senior, with 25 touchdowns in there.
Let's get the bad bit out of the way first.
The primary issue with with Ways as a prospect is his hands. As a junior he had a tendency to make facepalm-worthy drops. This one was from his opener:
3. Maurice Ways, WR, Detroit Country Day (2014): Ways would have been in strong consideration for the top overall spot on this list except for a key drop on 4th and 15 with his team down a point. The pattern was a post and Ways had separated from the defensive back. His quarterback put it on his number, but he simply dropped it and U-D Jesuit went on for the win.
This was a pattern. Only the guys who were around consistently knew about it and they had to be diplomatic about it because they were around consistently. They gently suggested that Ways should catch the damn ball. Most of these assertions were on message boards, because message boards are ephemeral and that's the reasonable way to approach things.
But like this is some Real Talk from Tim Sullivan here:
"He's basically a high school version of Braylon Edwards, where he drops easy passes but then makes the astounding play. He's just inexperienced. But it'll come, and when it does, he'll be really, really good."
You can see an echo of that in this later Sullivan eval:
There has been a major question about Ways' hands in the past. There should not be anymore.
Inherent in that is the good news. Ways's senior season saw him leave the drops behind; that's why you can say "major questions" without getting exiled to the land of people who don't get interviews. Ways started making the easy plays while continuing his tendency to make crazy stabs on impossible balls. Sullivan again:
…he was catching balls high over the middle - including several behind him - without any bobbles or "fighting the ball." The accuracy of his quarterback Tyler Wiegers was only OK on this night, but Ways made him look excellent. Whether it's mastering the over-the-shoulder deep ball, a screen pass in traffic, or even a sideline route, Ways made every catch asked of him.
I'm generally skeptical of hands evaluations; once you get a reputation you're always considered iffy in that department because the frequency of drops is so low. See Steve Breaston, who got a rep as a guy who drops passes because he did drop a bunch over his shoulder but was otherwise excellent in his career. (Braylon absolutely deserved his rep, sadly.)
That skepticism tends towards favoring the player, but it's balanced out by the tendency of recruiting analysts to do the same. So let's go to the evaluations that are just looking at the guy as a senior. 247:
Ways has excellent hands. He catches the ball away from his body and really plucks it out of the air.
Very, very good. Has strong, big hands. Excels in a crowd or on the jump ball. Can elevate and shows body control and sideline awareness. Shows toughness in a crowd. Makes difficult grabs look easy. Consistently catches the ball in stride and away from his frame. Hands are soft and extremely reliable.
That's great. I love that pattern: guy gets a lot better, ratings hang on to some preconceived notions, people who pay close attention or who just look at him as a senior are like "wow." The reason this series exists is because I think assembling all the data on a guy with an eye towards the flaws in the rankings is a useful exercise; a guy like Ways is right in the heart of that.
Ways's inexperience helps us understand his trajectory. Ways arrived at Country Day a basketball player and only took up football because you're required to play two sports there. He didn't break through until he was a junior:
"This was actually my third year playing football and my first year playing varsity," Ways said.
He's been steadily improving since. The summer before his senior year he hit a bunch of the camps in an effort to up his game. The resulting articles were a bunch of "this guy is a lot better than he was when I saw him before":
- "really improved since his junior season and has made big strides in the areas he needed to"
- "noticeably improved in his overall grasp of the position"
- "much more sure-handed at the Chicago RCS than when we saw him in the fall"
- "I barely recognized him this summer at the Sound Mind Sound Body camp after seeing him in his junior season."
Michigan coaches are pleased, as Ways himself relates:
"Coach Hoke talked about how impressed they are with me and my development on the field and off the field physically. When talking with Coach Hecklinski, he alluded to the fact that my film this season really showed him that I improved on the things I got to work with him on at the camp this off-season and that it's really encouraging to know that I'm putting in the necessary work off the field in my free time."
+2 points for using "alluded"
-1 point for being unnecessarily fancy when Heck probably just said it instead of vaguely gestured in its direction
Ways may or may not be able to rip downfield a la Braylon. There is much conflict on this point. Well, part of it. Everyone thinks he's got the frame and basketball rebounding skills to sky over defensive backs productively. Kyle Bogenschutz reported from Ways's standout performance at Michigan's camp:
…he ran a straight-line deep streak down the sideline. The ball was very underthrown - and looked as though it would be intercepted. But Ways adjusted to the ball, twisting his body as he leapt toward the ball. He snagged it over the cornerback's head, falling to the five-yard line for a 35-yard gain.
Ways is a big, strong, outside receiver that can stretch the field and go up and get the deep ball. Athletic-looking frame with prototypical length and thickness. … Locates the ball in the air well and adjusts his body to position for the catch while shielding off the defender. Displays strong hands to secure high-velocity throws off his frame.
He is one of those guys who isn't particularly covered even when he's covered. "Huge target"; "wide catching radius"; that ESPN stuff I bolded above about playing in a crowd. On this there is no disagreement.
There is disagreement about how threatening Ways will be downfield. ESPN's evaluation says he's going to be more of an underneath guy…
Speed is above average, but he looks to be quicker than top end fast. …More of a possession type that will catch everything and has red zone upside. His size gives him big play ability when the ball is in the air in contested match-ups. May never be a guy that wins consistent foot races, but he is a smooth athlete who can extend plays.
…as does 247's eval immediately after his commit:
Ways isn’t the fastest kid on the field and some are concerned about his overall speed. He doesn’t have great moves to get past defenders after the catch but shows he can break tackles with good strength.
On the other side of the ledger is another section in that same ESPN scouting report:
Is a cut above this level of competition in this area. Is a smooth glider that can eat cushion quickly given his size. Can cut and shows burst into and out of the break. Will sink hips, but must be careful of pad level. Fluid stride makes speed tough to gauge for DBs.
Tim Sullivan was impressed after an in-person evaluation against Notre Dame prep:
Ways' initial burst off the line also looked improved. He has always had good speed, but it has taken him a few steps to build up a head of steam and really get moving. …was beating defensive backs in press or off-coverage with his speed, something he'd had trouble with in the past. Of course, that hasn't stopped him from being speedy after that burst, either. He was routinely burning the opposing defensive back downfield.
Some of this is probably an artifact of when you saw him. 247's evaluation notes that Ways "really improved his straight-line speed" since his junior year and pegs him as a 4.6 guy in a laser-timed 40—equivalent to 4.4 by the standards of FAKE that are generally applied to HS 40s.
As we've learned with Devin Funchess, when you're huge and leapy you don't have to have elite burst and quickness to be open enough downfield. Manningham works; Edwards works; Funchess works.
As a bonus, Ways is an excellent blocker on the edge. WR evaluations rarely mention anything about what happens when the kid doesn't have the ball, but Ways was impressive enough to get repeated mentions from the evaluators. Sullivan:
He was not just a capable blocker, but went the extra mile to take pride in his blocking in the run game. He has developed physically and should be a devastating player on the edge at the college level.
Brewster says he's got "great work effort" and is a "relentless" blocker. Add that to your list of reasons Ways isn't getting the hype he probably should.
Etc.: Really wanted to be at M:
"I think playing in front of 115,000 people on Saturdays," Ways said. "But not just that, the tradition. What it wins to wear the winged helmet and put that jersey on. Just being a Michigan Man. I'm looking forward to it all."
Okay one more description of a circus catch:
…had a few highlight plays throughout the day, reeling in a one handed grab in the morning session, corralling the football with one of his big mitts and bringing it into his body as he hit the turf, and catching a go route over both a corner and safety in the 7-on-7 skeleton.
Touch The Banner was a fan. Is a fan, I imagine.
Why Braylon Edwards? Yes, that is a big name to put on Ways. But he's an instate kid with a modest recruiting profile who has the size, speed, and leaping ability to be a top flight downfield threat. Ways also has the hands questions, though he seems to have put them to bed. Edwards ran a probably-FAKE 4.48 HS 40, FWIW.
Junior Hemingway is another comparable as a guy who absolutely excels in a crowd but didn't get consistent separation on deep routes. His hands were better; his speed was worse; he is three or four inches shorter than Ways.
Guru Reliability: Moderate. I think their rankings did not keep pace with Ways's improvement. Everyone was like "this is a different player" and no one made the adjustments. Ton of scouting, though—this post was 5k words before I cut a lot of stuff out—and he was at camp and healthy.
Variance: Moderate. Speed and hands questions may limit him to being a solid contributor; if he hits the high end of the upside he's a star.
Ceiling: High. Junior Hemingway plus four inches! Braylon Edwards with hands! Both of them put together so that he's got four hands to catch the ball with!
General Excitement Level: Due to Hoke's level of recruiting success it's been difficult to find anyone even qualified to be "Sleeper Of The Year" based on our previous criteria of no four-star rankings, so this year we're allowing guys with one four-star in. So, surprise! Mo Ways is our Sleeper Of The Year.
I love the guy's frame, I think his year-to-year improvement bodes very well, and watching him on film it seems like he does have the athleticism to give defensive backs a hard choice. He should be at least a solid #2 over the course of his career and I wouldn't put his ceiling there. This is an entirely different kind of three-star than the ones they brought in in the previous class.
Projection: Normally I'd think the guy plays, but Michigan does have a lot of depth on the outside this year: Funchess, Darboh, Chesson, Canteen, Dukes, and maybe Jones unless he's a slot. That's a lot of guys, and Ways may top out as the kind of receiver who the NFL likes but not enough to induce an early entry. 50/50 on a redshirt; getting one is no slight.