1. Can you answer the same quarterback question everyone's been answering since the spring game?
Sweet hot pickle John The Baptist, the fictional questioners are just as persistent as the real ones. One last time: I expect Denard Robinson to get the start against UConn. Rumor has it the team has already been informed.
The premium sites are engaged in a war of information about the #2. Scout is claiming Gardner has haxored the offense and will plug into the matrix sooner rather than later; Rivals says Forcier's come on like gangbusters of late and is hinting he'll end up starting sooner rather than later. Both of their mumbles are of the "I'm just saying" variety where blame can't be assigned retroactively but credit sure can; both are seriously hedging on Denard Robinson.
I don't buy either much, but I buy the latter way more than the former. My personal obsevations are in line with UMGoBlog's assessment of the spring performances of each. Gardner:
@ the :24 mark: here you can see the game moving really fast around him. His feet slow down because his brain is working overtime to process all the info available. Finally, he leans back away from the contact on his delivery, which will normally cause the ball to sail, or fall well short.
@ the :38 mark: this may be his "can't teach that" moment. With Tate and DR, we have to roll the QB one way or the other to attack the middle. They cannot see over the line. Here, DG confidently steps into the pocket and throws a nice, although low, pass in a deep in route. As he continues to develop, he physical stature may end up being a large advantage for him in the QB race.
@ the 1:15 mark: we see some of the TF-like play making ability. He escapes the rush, but works back INTO the pocket to keep all his options alive down the field. Very good poise for the young guy in his first spring.
@ the 1:55 mark: this is not the first example on this film, but the ball HAS to come out quicker here. Giving the LB/DB time to read this play is a huge mistake and really hung the RB out to dry. Again, no doubt understandable with DG's inexperience, but this is a HUGE thing that must improve before I will call him "Game Ready".
@ the 2:23 mark: SHEESH! Protect the ball above all else, especially at your own goal line. As soon as he felt the hands around him, that ball should have been thrown to the Off. Coord. on the sideline. Live to fight another play.
It keeps going like that, promise alternating with the freshman mistakes we've gotten all too accustomed to the past couple years. Reports from the fall scrimmage, which was all of two weeks ago, are similar. Downplaying the one horrible interception is "a mistake but…" neglects Gardner's tendency to just chuck things when he got pressure. It didn't happen often, but when it did he responded—all together now—like a freshman. I'm done with this true freshman stuff. We've seen the chart, right? Michigan ran out a drilled-from-birth prodigy last year, got significantly above average performance from him, and still had a creaky offense. Devin Gardner is not that good yet. I have every confidence he will be that good in time, but not yet.
Forcier remains Forcier, hopefully minus many of the crippling turnovers. Denard, well;
@ the :59 mark: he is rolling left and fires a strike over the middle. I cannot overstate the difficulty of this throw. Very Impressive.
@ the 1:30 mark: he cannot find a target and tucks and runs. It will be beneficial at some point for him to learn to 1)identify targets earlier 2)throw it away 3)get out of bounds and avoid unnecessary hits.
@ the 1:40 mark: he makes a perfect read on the option. Watch the DE on the O's left side completely bite down on the run. Other Big Ten teams will not bite this hard. They know DR is the bigger threat. He will have to hand off more this year.
@ the 2:20 mark: he hits Roundtree for the 98 yarder. Beautiful touch on this pass! However, his throws out to the slots and RB's on the bubble screens and hitches need to be this accurate. They aren't yet.
Denard is ridiculous. He will be given the first shot because of this, and it will be up to him to keep it. No one can take it away from him; he'll have to give it away. If I had to put numbers on it, there's a 65% chance Denard is the primary quarterback, a 30% chance Tate is, and a 5% chance Devin is.
2. Why should I be excited at all when the "Rodriguez leap" amounted to finishing ninth in total and scoring offense in conference play?
Last year around about the Notre Dame game some very excitable people were proclaiming things about the Rodriguez Leap, something Doctor Saturday identified as a strong trend in Rodriguez-coached offenses to blow up in year two. Michigan's was coming from so far back and running in place when it came to quarterback experience, so that initial prowess ended up being a mirage. Michigan was way, way better, but still pretty meh. So the above conference stats exist.
While those may be literally true, they don't exactly feel right, do they? Michigan's offense did fall off considerably after a scorching start, but whenever that stat gets brought up it seems wrong. Michigan had the misfortune of missing two below-average defensive teams in Northwestern and Minnesota, after all.
That is more intuitively correct than raw things like points or yards per game and, since it is conference-only, sidesteps the Baby Seal U issue. Michigan's offense was seventh, a hair away from fifth. That's not good but it is a major step forward after they were last by a mile in '08.
Besides, it's possible they actually made the RR leap. Seriously. The problem is how far back they were coming from. As last year's preview noted:
…even if Rodriguez makes a leap similar to that turned in by his 2002 West Virginia team—probably the most comparable since they were coming from so far back—Michigan will only improve to 68th in total offense.
Sans BSU, Michigan would have finished 78th. With BSU they finished 59th, and since all the other teams that played super tomato cans didn't have them stripped out by when I say they would have finished 78th, splitting the difference seems reasonable. We're back to 68th in total offense again.
The best RR leaps to date were virtually identical improvements at Tulane and West Virginia where year two saw yardage output increase by 21%. If you discount BSU, Michigan went from 290 yards of total offense to 353. That's a 22% increase. While it's a lot easier to go from godawful to bad than go from bad to average or average to great, at previous stops Rodriguez had the luxury of installing an experienced quarterback in year two. With Michigan's chaos there (and Rodriguez's inability to get a viable quarterback in his first recruiting class), they did not have that luxury.
And here's the thing: with the quarterbacks going from freshmen to sophomores and some number of starters back ranging between seven and ten—depending on how you assess players like Roy Roundtree, Martavious Odoms, Patrick Omameh, Mark Huyge, Perry Dorrestein, and a couple others—isn't it plausible to expect another leap in year three? Tacking on 17%—the average yardage increase in previous RR leaps, discounting last year at Michigan—to Michigan's BSU-free yardage yields 414 yards per game for Michigan, which would be good for 32nd nationally.
- There was a leap,
- It was hard to find because they were coming from so far back, and
- There should be another leap this year.
This could be worth a small "woo," or something.
3. Can the running game take a… well… can it improve a… aw, hell, can it make a leap? The leap?
Last year Michigan obliterated their best YPC mark since the turn of the century, posting a 4.52 well clear of 2006's previous high water mark of 4.27. All right, yes, Michigan's demolition of Baby Seal U (54 carries, 461 yards) is heavily distorting, and if you pull it out Michigan's season YPC drops a half-yard. That drops it to third, as you can see at right. Since most of the seasons there had a nonconference cupcake that wasn't good but also wasn't quite as distorting (in 2006, for example, Michigan put up 246 yards on 51 carries against Vanderbilt in addition to their two MAC snacks), that sells '09 a short.
So. Despite missing their best and most critical lineman for most of the year, suffering a number of bad snaps that ended up looking like –20 yard carries as a result of that, and spending most of the year down at least one of their senior tailbacks, and running out freshman quarterbacks. Michigan posted one of the better YPC numbers of the last decade of Michigan football. They were solidly third. I'm throwing this on the pile of evidence that Rodriguez's approach to the ground game is just plain better than Carr's.
Meanwhile, I'm not too concerned about the lost personnel on the line. Omameh should be better than the Moosman/Huyge/frosh Omameh combo over the course of the year. Molk was clearly better than Moosman as a center, something that was addressed in the Illinois game:
Moosman is not as good as Molk on tough reach blocks. Lot of cutbacks against Illinois because the playside DT did not get sealed. Cutbacks are tougher sledding, usually.
Here's a successful run from Brown on which Moosman does not seal his guy and Brown has to hit it up behind Moosman in front of Schilling:
From what I've seen, Molk is more likely to actually get that block on the frontside. He won't do it all the time and the cutback can be effective but then you're relying on the backside block, which is often a tough one.
Ortmann to Huyge/Lewan probably won't matter much; tackles aren't that important in the spread 'n' shred run game. The only other losses are at tailback, where Minor managed just 96 carries a year ago. His average YPC was 5.2, only slightly better than the team average in I-A games. Brown, meanwhile, finished the above run like this:
It's not like either of the lost guys was 1) that great, 2) ever healthy, or 3) irreplaceable. Here's a preview of a stupid prediction: Michigan 2010 tops that YPC table.
4. What about the tackles?
Yeah… that's the thing. Michigan has depth and talent at the skill positions and the interior line. The quarterbacks have been discussed ad nauseum—while they won't be great the best of the three options available will be at least average and possibly (probably?) good. Michigan can take some hits and still expect good things to happen… except at tackle.
There Michigan has two guys who did not play well last year and two redshirt freshmen. Though Taylor Lewan has a boatload of hype he's just one guy, and a freshman at that. Meanwhile, Mark Huyge and Perry Dorrestein took turns playing Slight Hindrance To Guy Forcing Forcier Out Of The Pocket; both were benched for the other at some point. It's clearly the weak spot.
There are reasons to hope:
- Experience helps out offensive linemen more than other position groups.
- Huyge was undersized but is no longer.
- Dorrestein was struggling with a back injury most of this year.
- Frey's coaching saw Ortmann improve substantially in his final season.
- Lewan does have a boatload of hype and provides a viable third option if one of the starters struggle.
A step forward is likely. Even so, at the end of the year the thing that will have held the offense back from great heights will probably be an inability to keep defensive ends away from the quarterback.
This rocket has two stages, the second of which should kick in this year. There's more experience everywhere, plenty of talent to go around, multiple options at quarterback, some of whom are scholarship non-freshmen: Michigan's offense will be much better in 2010. Now for the greater-than-less-thans!
- Sophomore Tate/Denard >>> Freshman Tate/Denard
- David Molk >> David Moosman
- Senior Schilling > Junior Schilling
- Patrick Omameh >> Moosman/Huyge/Omameh chaos
- Stonum in HD > Stonum in black and white
- Roundtree/Grady > Odoms/Roundtree/Grady
- Tight ends > younger versions of themselves
- Five-headed running back monster == constantly injured seniors with younger versions of running back monster.
- Martavious Odoms == Greg Mathews
- Perry Dorrestein == The better of Dorrestein/Huyge
- Mark Huyge < Mark Ortmann
As stated above, RR Leap 2 would hop Michigan up to 32nd nationally in yardage even without the benefit of a tomato can I-AA game. Put that back in and Michigan should find itself in the bottom third of the nation's top 25 offenses.
Things that can make this not happen: tackles are bad and or injured. Quarterbacks do not progress like they should. The tailback situation is a muddled heap of mediocrity. Things that can make this pessimistic: Stonum blows up. Toussaint or Cox blows up. Denard really is that good.
Last Year's Stupid Predictions
- ESSENTIALLY CORRECT IF SLIGHTLY OPTIMISITIC: Minor misses two games with injury [note: chalk!]. [Minor missed Western and Ohio State; he also sat out against DSU, if that matters, and was seriously limited for much of the rest of the season.]
- RIGHT DESPITE INJURY: People expect Vincent Smith to be the 2010 starter.
- WRONG BECAUSE OF INJURY: Junior Hemingway is your leading downfield receiver (ie: Odoms is in the running but we aren't counting screens). [Roundtree blew up late; Hemingway finished well behind Mathews amongst outside WRs.]
- PRETTY CLOSE: Denard runs for 450 yards and throws about ten times. [350 yards and 31 attempts.]
- NOT PARTICULARLY ACCURATE: Michigan uses a huge multiplicity of formations on offense, debuting new stuff frequently and ending the year with a huge (hur) package. [Michigan never busted out
- WRONG: A two-back three-WR set is most common, though sometimes that third WR will be a tight end in the slot. [Michigan went 3 WR, 1 TE, 1 RB most often.]
- OPTIMISTIC EVEN COUNTING BABY SEAL U: As noted, Michigan finishes somewhere between 40th and 50th in total yardage. [59th.]
This Year's Stupid Predictions
- Michigan 2010 finishes atop the rush YPC chart above without considering the UMass game and by a considerable margin.
- Gardner ends up burning his redshirt in very, very frustrating fashion, because…
- …Denard is pretty much your starting quarterback all year, but…
- …Forcier plays in every game, bailing Michigan out in one critical fourth quarter.
- Vincent Smith gets the most touches amongst the running backs. Second: Shaw. Third: Toussaint. Fourth: Hopkins.
- Robinson is Michigan's leading rusher.
- Darryl Stonum does not exactly go Chris Henry on the planet but does greatly increase production via a series of big plays: 30 catches, 650 yards, 6 touchdowns.
- Michigan breaks out the triple option with regularity, using Hopkins as the dive back and Shaw/Smith the pitch guy. They also dig out those WVU formations where the slot motions into the backfield, with Grady the man beneficiary.
You are feeling a sudden sense of well-being relative to two years ago.
If I had to summarize the thousands of words poured out into this space previewing the 2009 Michigan quarterbacks in a single sentence, it would be "they are going to be much better but probably still suck":
The upshot: freshman quarterbacks suck, but on average they suck far less than Michigan's two-headed monster of yesteryear. An average-for-a-freshman performance from Forcier will be a huge step forward for the offense.
And lo: Michigan's quarterbacks combined to throw 14 interceptions against just 15 touchdowns, fumbled probably a dozen more times, averaged a meh 7.2 yards per attempt, and singlehandedly sabotaged a surprisingly winnable 2009 edition of The Game. This was vast, vast improvement—the 2008 QBs combined to average 5.1(!!!) yards per attempt—and also pretty much sucked.
|Quarterback||Team||Year||Comp. %||Yards/Pass||TD %||INT %||Efficiency||Record*|
|Terrelle Pryor||Ohio State||2008||60.2||7.9||7.2||2.4||145.6||10-3|
|Tyrod Taylor||Virginia Tech||2007||53.7||6.9||3.7||2.2||119.7||11-3|
|Jimmy Clausen||Notre Dame||2007||56.3||5.1||2.9||2.5||103.9||3-9|
|Josh Freeman||Kansas State||2006||51.9||6.6||2.2||5.6||103.5||7-6|
|Reggie Ball||Georgia Tech||2003||51.7||5.7||2.9||3.1||102.8||7-6|
|Brady Quinn||Notre Dame||2003||47.2||5.5||2.7||4.5||93.5||5-7|
A tick behind Chad Henne isn't bad. And since Henne's receivers were current NFLers Braylon Edwards, Jason Avant, and Steve Breaston while Forcier's top target was a redshirt freshman who only started playing extensively at the tail end of the year—the senior "star" went undrafted—you could plausibly argue that the main difference between the freshman years of NFL starter Chad Henne and current sophomore Tate Forcier was the quality on the other end of the pass, especially since Forcier's YPA was superior. (Save your Baby Seal U protests: Forcier threw two passes in that game.)
To put the suck of '08 in perspective: '09 sucked but only because of the turnovers. The YPA average in I-A last year was 7.2, exactly what Michigan managed. A standard deviation was a yard. Michigan improved two standard deviations with a true freshman under center.
So of course everyone expects the guy who threw four interceptions in 31 attempts last year to start. This is Michigan, where things don't seem weird until the melting clocks drip PCP-tripping Gary Busey homunculi into swimming pools full of ham. We've seen stranger. Have you heard the one about the field goal that one of Michigan's players unblocked?
The Starter Right This Instant
Yeah: Denard Robinson. This is the part of the preview where I ignore the the guy with 281 attempts and 118 rushes in favor of the guy with the 31 attempts and 69 rushes because of an impressive spring performance, a bunch of practice reports, and some inflammatory comments from Troy Woolfolk. For the record, here they are again:
"Denard has been out there through the thick and thin and been out there all the time regardless if he's hurting," Woolfolk said. "And Tate, he tries to come out, but he's not as consistent as Denard is. And that's allowed Denard to jump a little bit ahead of Tate and I think that Tate's going to have to do a lot of work to catch back up to Denard in camp this year."
With Rodriguez and Steve Schilling essentially backing those up a couple days later and the general tenor coming out of spring practice, it seems clear that Forcier did not think his job was under threat, slacked off a bit, and has paid for it with his starting job. (Forcier: "I felt like I was working with the team, just not as much as I should have. Part of that is maturity." Rod Smith: "He didn’t come back in shape, and he’s competed as hard as any of the other guys.")
By now (and for now) this is assured. When Bruce Feldman was attempting to justify($) his out-there pick of Michigan as #25 on his preseason ballot, he deployed this conversation he'd had with Rodriguez:
Rodriguez is so fired up by the development of QB Denard Robinson, who is so dynamic he evokes memories of WVU great Pat White. Rodriguez says Robinson's presence and personality are similar to White's, and that Robinson is actually bigger than White was at the same stage. He doesn't quite play as fast as White did, but he will.
"Pat was so decisive," Rodriguez said. "He knew what he was doing. Pat was a fast player who played fast. Denard is a fast player who didn't play fast all the time, but I know he will play faster this year. He'll play faster and faster. He'll become more relaxed and calm executing the offense. There is a lot to learn, but at the same time, he is eager to learn it. And as he plays faster and his teammates play faster, we'll get a lot better."
Rodriguez added that the other two QBs Tate Forcier and Devin Gardner are very gifted too and will push Robinson, and if they overtake him, well, then the Wolverines offense should be in good shape.
We were at the point where the other two quarterbacks are "pushing" Robinson even before the fall scrimmage reports ("clear starter," "will absolutely start," "will be the starter") started rolling in. Perhaps more telling even than those rapturous reports was the substitution pattern: like David Molk, Mike Martin, and select other players too important to risk, Robinson saw his snaps limited. His time wasn't nearly as limited as that of the aforementioned duo—he had time to establish himself obviously the man before Forcier and Gardner mopped up during the last bit of the scrimmage—but the sign was clear. The competition is chasing.
I guess this is plausible. I mean, there's this:
Since that was done against the 1972 Pittsburgh Steelers it's pretty impressive. Yes, they had a 5'7" defensive tackle too.
So what does Michigan have in this guy? Anyone who attempts to tell you is having a moment of foolish arrogance. The guy who did this…
…also did this…
|has a lane|
|darts through this gap|
|easy QB draw|
|another one for TD|
|squeezes in for Iowa TD|
|a precious thing forever.|
|shoots into the secondary|
|six exciting yards|
|Iowa doom INT|
|underthrown DSU TD #1|
|fired it hard and high|
|okay Koger seam|
|zings one on the money|
…and was such an incredible neophyte that he never once ran the zone read despite its status as Rich Rodriguez's calling card and Robinson's ability to do that first thing above. Any program not digging out from a 100-year flood would have taken one look at the kid in fall practice and put so many redshirts on him that he'd be peeling the last one off right now. Michigan couldn't because its other quarterbacks were walk-ons or injury-prone freshmen.
The results were occasionally brilliant, sometimes promising, and frequently facepalm-worthy. In lieu of a full UFR passing chart here are all of Robinson's infrequent attempts rolled into one pretend game with around 30 attempts:
|Season||1||7||6 (2)||3 (1)||4||4||-||-|
That's three inaccurate screens and an 8/18 downfield success rate, which rivals Mallett's insane freshman performances, without even considering that four of those passes were terrible interceptions. This will not be news to anyone who saw Robinson play last year: he was in vastly over his head.
A guy that raw with that much speed has the ability to make a stunning improvement in a single offseason. And the above-linked spring highlights at least suggest that Robinson's improvement has indeed been stunning, especially since he followed that up with a similarly impressive performance in fall. He's added a non-insubstantial eight pounds to reach 193, and the offseason has come with a heavy focus on ending all the fumbling. Rodriguez:
“He looks to me physically bigger, and maturing physically,” said Rodriguez. “Mentally, he understands some of the concepts a lot better, which he should. I see his confidence continuing to grow. And he’s so eager to please and do well that he’s taking steps every day."
“There were a couple times today with ball security … even though they didn’t fumble, it wasn’t as good as we’d like,” Rodriguez said. “But you could see they were making a conscious effort to take care of the ball. Decision making, the same thing… they’re not just trying to force something in there."
This is the bit where I evaluate the player's strengths and weaknesses and offer up a projection for season stats and the like, but here the former is obvious and the latter a mystery. Robinson's radical improvement has come against Michigan's second and third strings, which are so thin as to hardly exist. How will he react when those seams are covered? How will he react when he gets pressure? Can he hold onto the ball when he's not playing two-hand touch? Run around, run around, don't know.
Let's take a wild-ass guess and ballpark it as Pat White, freshman edition. White was a redshirt freshman who split time with a pocket passer—Robinson is essentially the same thing. In 2005, White rushed for 952 yards at 7.3 a pop and completed 57% of his passes for 7.3 YPA, 8 TD, and 5 INT. Downgrade those YPA numbers 10-20% to take into account Michigan's presence in the Big Ten and that's your random guess.
Extremely Nominal Backup
Until about a week ago, virtually every scrap of talk about Tate Forcier this offseason had been negative. A quick scan of any Michigan message board will turn up a thread or four that someone in the Forcier family will screenshot and throw into the section of their personal site once embarrassingly named the "Hall of Shame" and subsequently nerfed to something less ambiguously bitchy and more clearly intended as motivation. The charges: Forcier is a douchebag. He's going to transfer. He's not going to get any better. He hasn't been going to workouts. He will pout when and if he doesn't play, destroying team chemistry. Etc. I've unpublished a couple around here.
How we got here from "Weapon of Choice" and Moxie Death Star is a matter of:
- lots of losses,
- Forcier's waning effectiveness as teams figured out they had to keep him in the pocket,
- Forcier's waning effectiveness after his shoulder was bruised/dislocated/LABRUM'D,
- five turnovers, many of them blithering, against Ohio State, and
- Let's Get Denarded in spring.
Still, the numbers on the above chart are just off future star status, especially when you knock Pryor and Griffin out for being athletic freakshows whose stats were inflated by the rarity of their throws.
Forcier didn't get a ton of help from his offensive line or receivers, either, which made a couple of his performances better than they looked. Michigan State provides a typical example:
You wouldn't know it because of all the pressure and the drops killing his stats, but Forcier had a spectacular day. His downfield success rate* was 71%, which is up there with Chad Henne's best game. Chad Henne's best games didn't come with game-killing overtime interceptions, sure. He made three and a half terrible decisions throwing the ball (with the half being the bomb to Koger) and some additional ones in the ground game.
But does anyone remember the "Sheridan Might Start!" meme? Will anyone own up to actually advancing that point of view? No? No.
After the great start (post ND: "two games in it looks like Tate Forcier has 99th percentile skill in accuracy on the run, pocket awareness, and (yep) moxie"), Forcier had a mid-season swoon with an implosion against Iowa in which his DSR fell to a bleah 50% that didn't take into account how "disastrous" some of the bad reads; the following week Forcier duplicated the 50% DSR performance against Penn State. He picked it up afterwards with a "decent" Illinois game and had "one of his best games" against Purdue before turning in a "good day" against a very good Wisconsin defense; though Ohio State didn't get charted I can tell you that his performance in that game was plain great except for the four awful interceptions, which is a weird thing to say but there it is.
So. By the numbers, both official and blogger-generated, his freshman season was promising. Unfortunately, the numbers aren't everything. Forcier made a ton of bad reads on the zone read and Michigan's rare option plays, one of which Burgeoning Wolverine Star documented in detail. Part of the reason he looked so ineffective on the zone last year was because he pulled the ball out too much.
Worse, the numbers capture Forcier's interceptions but not his massive fumble issues. Everyone remembers Tate gifting Ohio State the first touchdown of last year's game with a basically unforced fumble, and that was a problem all year. Illinois:
The fumbling issue remains a problem, though: Forcier was irresponsible with the ball and coughed it up twice, once on a QB draw he made a poor read on. Michigan lost one, causing everyone to turn the TV off. Hopefully this is a major point of emphasis in the offseason; Forcier can't be as careless with the ball going forward or the offense is never going to get off the ground.
The big downer was the fumble, which was a huge error on Forcier's part but also an understandable one since Purdue blitzed right into the option and Forcier was not prepared to deal with the corner there. He should have eaten the ball and taken the loss.
Robinson chipped in his share of mind-bending fumbles but Forcier, more than anyone else, was responsible for Michigan's crippling 13 fumbles lost.
But as training camp progressed, the Forcier vibe got better. Rodriguez:
“I’ve had quite a few talks with Tate and some of the other guys and said if you’re a true competitor, you’ll respond to it,” Rodriguez said. “So far he has. He’s responded … he’s not sulking and laying back. He’s working his way back and trying to prove himself.”
"Obviously he went through some adversity there with Troy's comments and the wings and all that stuff you guys know about." He's worked hard to prove himself, and show that he wants to be the team's quarterback. "I'm definitely gaining a lot of respect back for Tate," as are a lot of others.
With transfer and ineligibility rumors quashed and fitness levels approaching something the coaches consider reasonable, Forcier has bounced back and finds himself in position to play. Rivals has taken to using its insiders to talk him up like whoah, and while I don't share the point of view on offer there*, especially the lack of confidence in Robinson, it seems like his time with the third team is at an end. As I've asserted a thousand times before, the two sophomores are so different that Michigan has reason to play both, and can reasonably hope the platoon is greater than the sum of its parts.
What can we expect from Forcier's sophomore year? Beware linear projections. Way back in December, Ace took a look at a subset of those true freshman starters in the chart above and compared their sophomore performance to their freshman years. He found that sophomores improved their average yards per attempt by a full yard, completion percentage 5.5 points, and touchdowns by five. If you take those improvements and apply them to Forcier's freshman year you get ridiculous results: 65% completions, 8.5 yards per attempt, 20 touchdowns, 10 interceptions, and the #12 passer efficiency rating in the country.
That's totally not going to happen. Ace took a bunch of really terrible QBs who became decent to good and applied that transition to a decent quarterback, resulting in a projection that says Forcier will be the greatest sophomore QB of the past ten years, and by some margin: only Chris Leak's sophomore year rating of 145 is anywhere close to Forcier's projected 151. More realistically, the hope is for Forcier to cut down on the crippling turnovers by a third, add some more touchdowns, merely maintain his YPA—only Chris Leak significantly exceeded Forcier's freshman YPA as a sophomore—and add a point or two to completion percentage. Forcier doesn't have a long way to go to be a good quarterback, but that means his improvement in all things other than holding on to the damn ball will be incremental.
*(Chances there's some serious fuddy-duddy-ism going on there: high.)
And then after all that there's Devin Gardner. Gardner just came in for an extensive recruiting profile last week, so I won't rehash that when virtually nothing has changed in the interim. The executive summary: massive upside, raw, needs serious work on his throwing motion. I've also made my opinion on the redshirt issue clear:
Should have the luxury of redshirting with Denard's emergence into a viable option. Given Rodriguez's statements on the matter…
There is also freshman Devin Gardner, but Rodriguez said he wouldn't burn Gardner's redshirt if it was for a couple of plays a game.
…you'll probably see him on the bench unless both sophomores struggle. After that it's kind of hard to see him unseating an established junior, but they'll mix him in when given the opportunity; a lot of people have claimed he's going to be the starter as early as 2011, but I think he'll have to wait until he's a redshirt junior, at which point he should be Awesome Devin through and through.
Rich Rodriguez is not of a similar mind. He told the media Monday that Gardner was on the depth chart and would play. I'm still hoping that the two sophomores play well enough to keep him on the bench, if not immediately then by the time the Big Ten season rolls around, at which point Gardner can come down with a strained whatever and get that year of eligibility back.
Surprise! Guess who's on the UConn injury report:
Out: Fitzgerald Toussaint (knee), Jared Van Slyke (clavicle), Troy Woolfolk (ankle)
Questionable: Junior Hemingway (hamstring)
Never doubt Junior Hemingway's ability to get injured.
Former Michigan great Desmond Howard is promoting the AllState Mayhem Football Challenge, which you can find here. I got the opportunity to ask him about that and Michigan football earlier today.
You were recruited by Bo, but you also played for Gary Moeller. What helped that transition be so smooth, and why isn't it the same now?
Well, it's the obvious, I'm not gonna tell you anything that you don't know. It's pretty much that it was within the coaching ranks. I think that when you hire within, then the degree of change isn't that great. When you hire outside the coaching tree, so to speak, then the degree of change may vary, because a person's going to bring in their own philosophies, their own style, their own way of doing things. To me, that's just obvious. When you look at the coaches who followed Coach Schembechler, they weren't outside the family tree, so they were kind of keeping things consistent. That's what any program knows across the country. Once you hire within, then there isn't the huge degree of change that can happen when you hire outside of the family tree.
We hear all this discussion of how many wins Rich Rodriguez needs to keep his job, but how many wins do you see Michigan getting this year?
It's tough to say because you don't know about the product yet, so everybody just throws out numbers. I'm not in the business of just throwing out numbers just to give people numbers [despite working for ESPN. ZING!]. I mean, you need to see the product first. I thought coming out of the spring that they have an opportunity to have a pretty productive offense. I thought they had some real good talent at the skill positions. I felt as though their Achilles heel could possibly be their defense. Not saying that they wouldn't be a good defense, but I wasn't sure and I'm still not sure that they're going to be the type of defense that's going to be able to come up with big stops in big games to win those games for them. My opinion is that they'll be able to score some points, there's no doubt about that. They're going to put some points on the scoreboard, but will they be able to come up with those big stops in some crucial games to give them the victories? That's what I think I would want to see at this point.
You're one of just three Heisman winners from Michigan. Do you see anyone on the current roster who has the potential to contend for the stiffarm trophy in future years?
That's a good question. I think that they have some talent there, but that's such a prestigious trophy, I don't just put a player up for that just because I saw him do some things in practice. I have a little more respect for that trophy than to sit here and tell you something like that. I think they do have guys who have great potential, but until that potential manifests itself on an actual football field in a real game, then I can't put those sorts of lofty expectations on the potential. Do they have potentially good skill position players? Of course they do, I said that earlier, I think they have some fantastic talent at the skill positions. But, they've gotta go out there and show it.
You heard about the "#1 jersey controversy" between Braylon and Coach Rodriguez when he first came in. You never wore the #1 jersey despite being a great receiver at Michigan. What do you make of it all?
I guess Braylon Edwards had endowed the jersey or something like that. From my understanding, when Braylon did what he did, he was under the impression that he would have some sort of say in who wears that jersey. That's the part that gets dicey. I heard it was agreed that he would be able to tell who would wear the jersey or at least it would go to a wide receiver. I think at the end of the day, when I spoke with Braylon, he had a conversation with Rich Rod, Rich Rod was new and he wasn't aware of that whole situation, and then like two men they talked about it, they squashed it out, and I didn't think anything else came of it after that. I didn't think it really blew up.
You've probably seen the Big Ten division split by now. What do you think of Michigan and Ohio State being in opposite division but still playing on the last week?
I thought that different divisions made sense if you want to be able to give the fans an opportunity to see two of the most storied programs in the history of college football play each other for the conference championship, which is what most fans were used to anyway. That game wasn't the last game of the year just because it was convenient for both teams. That game was the last game of the year for those two teams because usually, that game came down to who would represent the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl. Now, not always, but usually. I think that now they're splitting them up so now you can till have a similar scenario.
After your days in the NFL ended, how did you start getting into broadcasting?
I graduated from Michigan with a degree in mass medium communications from the communications department. I guess that can help you understand how I was going that direction after I retired.
What can you tell us about the AllState Mayhem Football Challenge?
It's a great game, I think that they came up with an excellent concept. It seems like it could be win-win. Each week, there's going to be a prize given away, but the grand prize at the end is tickets to two huge games, They get tickets to the 2011 AllState Sugar Bowl and the BCS National Championship game. So I think it's a win-win for anybody who wants to play. It's in the spirit of college football; it just gives a lot of [armchair] college quarterbacks an opportunity to show how good they are at predicting the unpredictable. How good they are at trying to foresee mayhem, things that people normally don't think are going to happen, but end up happening, and can change the game. I think it's huge, it's a great opportunity for a lot of college football fans to get involved.
I want to make sure you understand the grand prize for this. They get tickets to both events - I wish I could play it. If I wasn't working, doing what I do for a living, I would play it, just for the opportunity to get tickets to the AllState Sugar Bowl AND the BCS National Championship Game. I mean, what college football fan wouldn't want to be a part of that.
Thank you, and thanks for the opportunity to hear about the AllState Challenge.
I'm telling you, it's a fantastic game. Have you seen the 3D TVs? I was at Best Buy a month ago, and I wasn't even in the market for a TV, I was just getting some other stuff. But wow, I stopped over there by the stereo and TV section, and they this 3D TV set up. What they were playing was this volleyball game. I'm not really a volleyball fan, and I mean, I must have sat there and watched that thing for 12 minutes. They're giving away 46-inch LCD screen 3D TVs, that alone would make me play either week.
|Darryl Stonum||Jr.||Martavious Odoms||Jr.||Roy Roundtree||So.*||Kevin Koger||Jr.|
|Junior Hemingway||Jr.*||Je'Ron Stokes||So.||Kelvin Grady||Jr.*||Martell Webb||Sr.|
|Jeremy Jackson||Fr.||Jerald Robinson||Fr.||Terrance Robinson||So.*||Brandon Moore||So.*|
The situation here is similar to tailback, where Michigan doesn't exactly have a proven star but they do have a ton of options. Outside, Darryl Stonum could blow up, Junior Hemingway could stay healthy, and Martavious Odoms could be a quick blockin' bugger that springs other guys to big gains. In the slot, Roy Roundtree will act as team safety blanket and any of the three guys behind him could provide the woop-gone YAC Darius Reynaud gave West Virginia. At tight end, if Kevin Koger can catch the easy ones he'll be a lethal complement to the zone read.
The bottom here isn't bad, as it consists of a ton of throws to Roundtree and decent contributions all around. The top is enticing, with silly yards per catch possible on the outside and chain-moving consistency on the inside.
Greg Mathews has graduated, a couple kids left the program over the past couple years, and Junior Hemingway is destined to be hit by a meteor in week three, so Michigan's getting creative at outside receiver by moving slot-sized slot Martavious Odoms outside. Despite Odoms' diminutive stature, this makes sense given the situation. Below you can see Odoms doing some catching and all that, but you can also see him chop much bigger guys to the ground time and again. When my Florida recruiting source said Odoms was a "tough SOB" he was not kidding:
|WILL HEADBUTT YOU|
|a precious thing forever|
|fantastic block on the nickelback|
|NOT BREASTON BUT WHO IS|
|squeezes up the sideline|
|avoids the tackle|
|digs this out w/ guy on his back|
|lays it in there|
|lays it in beautifully|
|Odoms reels it in|
Last year everyone was down on Odoms despite his productive freshman year (he was Michigan's leading receiver) because of a series of fumbles late, when it was cold and he was wondering how many limbs he had because he certainly couldn't feel more than two. There was a pretty terrible diary around these parts that met with a strong response. People got strained. Futures were question. It was tense.
For my part, I was "skeptical any slot would beat him out" and "bet on a lot of hurried backtracking" after the year; one half out of two ain't bad. Odoms didn't exactly get beat out but no one's wresting Roy Roundtree's job from him after he blew up in the last third of the year, and while people claiming Odoms sucks are thin on the ground these days any backtracking was steady, possibly even languorous. Fumbles were reduced but not erased as Odoms lost his punt return job to Junior Hemingway. He faded into Bolivian at the end of the year.
So he's at a crossroads. The question is how effective will Odoms be on the outside. No one really knows since all we have to go on are some vanilla scrimmages from spring and fall during which deep passes were anomalies. Things we do know:
- Odoms was 16/17 on easy catches last year (presumably these were a lot of bubble screens), 4/6 on moderately tough ones, and 1/3 on very tough ones.
- He was a receiver for five(!) years at Pahokee after signing up in eighth grade and has played inside and out since.
- He is really short.
We don't have a lot of information about his routes, but he did smoke Indiana safety Nick Polk on that game-winning touchdown. Limited touches after were probably not his fault. He certainly had decent enough hands, though a double-clutch here and there led to frustrating incompletions on the wheel routes he ran frequently.
By moving outside, Odoms has ceded most of the screens to Kelvin Grady and Roy Roundtree and will see his per-game production drop. He'll still be involved, though how much depends more on Roundtree, Stonum, the tight ends, and the tailbacks, all of whom seem to offer either more big-play ability or reliability than a 5'8" outside receiver. Odoms is likely to finish in the middle of the Michigan receiver pack with between 20 and 30 catches.
|in between levels in the zone|
|bursts open 20 yards downfield|
|Mike Floyd catches this, right?|
Darryl Stonum has been something of a disappointment his first couple years. Last year the conversation in re: Stonum was largely about pages and the benefits of getting on the same one with the coaches. When it wasn't, it was about dropped balls. When the season rolled around Stonum started every game but came up with such a paucity of highlights that I've got more on Patrick Omameh, an offensive lineman who played in three games, than him. HIs stats boggle the mind: 13 catches for 199 yards, one fewer catch than he managed as a freshman. End of stats.
As a result, Stonum came up for repeated psychoanalysis in UFR, most of it focusing on his inability to adjust to balls thrown downfield. Against Eastern this happened:
This occasioned a long section about how Forcier left this short but this was the week after ND, when 1) Stonum turned a very makeable deep catch into something almost impossible by turning inside when he had five yards of room to the sideline and 2) Mike Floyd turned Michigan cornerbacks into roadkill. The resulting consternation:
I'm grabbing this just so people can maybe talk about Stonum's adjustment to this. I think it's poor. He misjudges the ball and doesn't slow up enough and turn, which would probably have led to the DB running him over and a PI call. Mike Floyd [or Braylon Edwards] catches this, right?
This persisted; after the Wisconsin game I launched the "same old complaint" when Stonum failed to adjust to a poorly-thrown deep ball and allowed it to get intercepted when he really should have been able to at least bat it down.
Receivers often take time to break out, but the really amazing ones often get there their sophomore years (Braylon, Manningham, and Howard all blew up in year two), so expectations were busily being scaled back when… my gawd, that's Rick Vaughn's music!
Yes, for the second consecutive year Michigan has discovered one of their wideout needs glasses. You'd think that after the coaches discovered one of their wideouts was secretly blind as a bat they would have declared mandatory eye exams for all, but they didn't, so the above clips happened and everyone was very sad. Now? Well, Stonum's reportedly had an outstanding fall camp:
"This is the most consistent we've had Darryl on a day-to-day basis. He's going to be a big factor for us. He's a very talented guy that has a renewed sense of hunger."
As his recruiting profile suggested and kick returns showed, he has electric speed. The coaches seem to be on the same page with him. The quarterbacks are not going to be freshmen. He can now see the damn ball. He could totally blow up, or he could rack up 20 catches and have a version of that year Steve Breaston had after Edwards graduated where it became clear to all that he just didn't have it downfield. I have no idea what it will be, which makes Stonum the offense's #1 X factor going into the season. He can swing games by himself if he lives up to the chatter. A real live deep threat in an offense helmed by Denard Robinson can be preposterous: Chris Henry averaged 25 yards a catch(!!!) his freshman year at West Virginia.
That's Stonum's best case: not that many catches, but a lot of long ones and some game-swinging touchdowns. The worst case is more of the same.
|other end of Forcier improv|
|one little shimmy and is then by|
|caught from behind on bomb|
|big punt return.|
|leaping catch in traffic|
Odoms's move outside pushes Angry Michigan BLANK Hating God's favorite target to the bench, at least nominally. After Junior Hemingway missed spring ball to go along with missing most of 2008 and spending 2009 at half-speed with an array of Minor-like injuries that were just tolerable enough for him to play, it seems like the Michigan coaches finally decided they couldn't rely on him to be around long term and placed him on the bench. Since receiver's a spot at which rotation is incessant he'll get his share of time, leaving the move mostly symbolic, but it is a symbol.
Surprisingly for a guy who barely outpaced Stonum last year with 16 catches, he's got a substantial highlight reel you can see at right. He was also named "first among equals" after the Western game. It's mostly deep stuff: burning Western Michigan, exploiting Illinois over-reacting to a play, burning Illinois and then getting caught from behind, etc. As recruit his rep was an explosive leaper who lacked top-end speed—I compared him to Marquise Walker—and that has been borne out. It's tough to tell if his meh career to date is underperformance or just three years of terrible luck. If he can stay on the field he should be a solid, useful addition to the receiving corps. He's 225 pounds, which makes him a slant threat not duplicated elsewhere on the roster, and last year he was 10/10 on easy catches and 2/3 on moderate ones. His hands are good.
He should have a role and improve on his 16 catches of a year ago, although possibly not by much.
The single other outside wide receiver with any experience is sophomore Je'Ron Stokes, a six-foot guy with excellent athleticism who could have played in the slot if that wasn't already being fought over by four or five guys. Stokes was just outside of top 100 lists as a recruit. Michigan snatched him away from Tennessee after their coach implosion. The takeaway from the recruiting profile:
An electrifying game breaker with excellent speed, Stokes could use more size on his current 6’1” and 180 pound frame. He has great hands, knows how to get open, makes a lot of acrobatic catches and is terrific after the catch.
He's got a bit more size now, checking in at 193 at last report. He was another guy who blew his redshirt last year; his single highlight last year was digging out a low ball dubbed CONESTRAVAGANZA I in the late stages of the Baby Seal U game. He was injured in the spring and only came on late, but he was also pretty much absent from the fall scrimmage; another year mostly on the bench seems likely.
The third string is all freshmen. The only one to appear on the official fall depth chart was Jeremy Jackson (profile), the "lumbering" son of running backs coach Fred Jackson. Lumbering he may be but he's also the son of a coach and has the route running skills and hands you'd expect from such a gritty gritterson of a player. He'll play, likely sparingly. That should mean that classmates Ricardo Miller (profile) and Jerald Robinson (profile) are headed for redshirts.
Roy Roundtree's second catch as a Michigan Wolverine was a game-tying touchdown in the pouring rain against Michigan State. This was a good omen. Over the next few games his playing time increased, though his catches remained infrequent because he was seemingly targeted only when it was a terrible idea to do so. Then Odoms got injured. Roundtree announced his presence with that 77-yard catch-and-run against Illinois about which we will speak no more, then showed Purdue the true power of snake oil:
A good day from the receivers, and by "receivers" we mean "Roy Roundtree." The one drop didn't hurt much since it was on a screen that was going to get blown up anyway. Minor could have helped out by pulling in a low throw by Forcier, too. Other than that: Roundtree, Roundtree, Roundtree. The 1 he pulled in prevented an interception on Michigan's first drive of the day, converted a first down, and lead to a touchdown.
Plus he did this:
Martavious Odoms just saw his job come under howitzer fire. Odoms has been valuable, too, so he won't just go away, but Kelvin Grady's time just got eaten up and I think Roundtree is the starter even when Odoms is healthy. This might also presage some dual-slot formations that have been absent so far in Rodriguez's tenure at Michigan. Kid's pretty good, and quicker than you'd think given the Hawthorne incident last week.
|catching in the rain|
|trucks a safety|
|great, great block|
|inverting an interception|
|20-yard dart downfield|
|pitch and catch|
|dig it out, dig it out|
Did I mention that Roundtree was last year's Rick Vaughn? All hail occasionally checking your receivers' vision. Someone check Denard Robinson right freakin' now.
Roundtree continued his rampage over the last two weeks of the season against Wisconsin and Ohio State, yielding this season breakdown:
- First eight games: two catches, 44 yards.
- Last four games: 30 catches, 390 yards.
Project the last four games over the course of a season and you get 90 catches, 1200 yards, and a season second only to Braylon Edwards's 2004 campaign in the annals of Michigan lore. So… yeah. That's probably not going to happen. But it would be pretty cool i it did, huh? More realistically, Roundtree should double his output from last year, ending up Michigan's leading receiver with 700-800 yards.
For the record, last year Roundtree was 16/16 on easy catches, 4/8 on moderately difficult ones, and brought in his only super-tough attempt of the year by wresting away a sure interception from a Purdue linebacker. He's not that big. He's pretty fast but not that fast. He's not that shifty after the catch. But he's open and he's where he's supposed to be, which is right in front of the quarterback, and he'll catch the ball. So they throw it, and he catches it, and yeah he's basically the apotheosis of the Purdue receiver.
EXCESSIVELY DRAMATIC KELVIN GRADY WALLPAPER FTW
Basketball refugee Kelvin Grady's found himself in an impressive position on the depth chart by warranting an OR with Roundtree. This represents progress; Grady's 2009 was cut short by frequent dropped balls. By Iowa one was enough to yank him or the game. Late in the year UFR noted that nine of the twelve flat drops on the year had been turned in by the tight ends and Grady. After the Illinois game, Roundtree was contrasted with Grady because when Roundtree "is thrown a ball that hits him in the hands it does not fall to the ground." You get the idea: hands not so good.
That's perhaps understandable after Grady thought he'd left football behind for good when he signed up to play point guard for Tommy Amaker. After two years on the basketball team he found himself behind walk-on, read the writing on the wall, and picked up the cleats again. The rust was evident.
But Grady just keeps making plays in practice. That was the reason he was given the opportunity to drop those balls early in the year even with Odoms in front of him and Roundtree nipping at his heels, and the reason he's listed as a co-starter on the depth chart despite Roundtree's stunning end of year breakout. He featured in more "Countdown to Kickoff" highlights than any other non-quarterback; in the fall scrimmage he certainly looked like a top-level option, once taking a reverse from Robinson to score on a one-play, 30-yard drive. A review of his high school highlights reveals the sort of explosive agility that Michigan's other slots seem to lack:
As a bonus, since he was a high school running back he'll be better suited to those spread 'n' shred plays where a slot receiver motions into the backfield to become a second running back. It's hard to imagine Roy Roundtree doing that, so adding Grady to the rotation adds pages to the playbook. He'll see time, and could even supplant Roundtree as the preferred destination for quick screens… if the hands come around.
The backup story remains the same, except older. Terrence Robinson's first two seasons at Michigan have resulted in an injury redshirt and one catch for 13 yards against Baby Seal U. He was fairly prominent in spring and fall, though not nearly as much as Grady was, and is in competition for the punt return job. His problem has always been hands—he was mostly a QB/RB in high school—and that's prevented him from seeing the field. With two guys in front of him it seems like it will be another season spent watching. He'll probably get some real playing time when Grady is tired and Michigan is looking for their slot to be one of those RB/WR flex guys in the mold of Dorrell Jalloh.
Freshman Jeremy Gallon (profile) took a redshirt last year after arriving late because of some academic issues. He should find the field some this year but reports from practice suggest that Gallon did not put in the same sort work some of the other wideouts did and that this will hamper his playing time. Also an issue is a foot issue that isn't severe enough to keep him out of practice but does warrant walking around campus in a boot.
Gallon was a (figuratively) big recruit from a couple years ago, a one-time member of the Rivals 100 and solid performer at the Army Bowl who is by far the most guru-approved of any Michigan slot receiver. With two older and more established options in front of him, his best chance for playing time will be taking return duties away from Odoms.
Also, here is your annual reminder that he is a dead ringer for Snoop from The Wire:
Finally, freshman Drew Dileo (profile) looked pretty smooth this fall but is a very tiny true freshman. If he finds a role this fall it will be on punt returns.
Kevin Koger started the year off in Braylon Edwards fashion by reeling in 3/4 passes rated 2 (difficult but makeable) and 3/4 rated 1 (great googly moogly). He then finished the year off in Braylon Edwards fashion by dropping every routine ball that came his way. The result was schizophrenic: by the end of the year Koger was 7/10 on tough catches… and 7/11 on easy ones. Matters came to a head against Penn State:
Koger's great start came to a clunky halt with an 0/3 day, and no one really helped out except for the running backs. Forcier's day wasn't good, but it wasn't as bad as the numbers suggest.
He added another "bad drop" against Illinois. That and backup Martell Webb's similarly frustrating hands is part of the reason Roy Roundtree blew up in the last three games.
Koger did not exactly bounce back from this over the offseason, dropping a couple passes in the fall scrimmage and being conspicuously absent from offseason chatter both above- and underground. With depth at slot looking healthy, the entire tight end position could see itself minimized if they don't perform.
There's a good chance they will, though, with all three players returning. Koger himself is entering his true junior season; as a highly sought recruit with a year and a half of starting experience under his belt he should improve considerably. The downers from last season do consist of four dropped passes, after all. Two fewer and everyone's talking about how it will be pick your poison underneath. Small sample size disclaimers apply. When you look at the stuff at right it's hard to envision a guy with that much talent finding himself minimized, especially when Denard-related freakouts see him hand-wavingly wide open frequently.
|Webb's great block|
|picks the playside DT up|
|crushing downfield block|
|Kicks out LB|
|in a sea of green wondering where everyone else is.|
Senior Martell Webb has seen the most playing time to date. He was an infrequent target a year ago. The quarterbacks threw him six passes, one of which was uncatchable and the rest routine. He was only 3/5 on those routine balls, possibly explaining why he wasn't targeted on them more often. He put on 12 pounds from last fall to spring, then took a couple off during the summer and is now a solid 255.
Koger's blocking has been iffy, and while Webb didn't stick out in my memory as a crusher all but one of the clips at left are positive run blocks: he's likely to be the choice when Michigan goes to its I package. Unless he has an epiphany about having the ball in his hands (and Koger doesn't) his receiving stats are going to look a lot like they did last year. Throwing it to him is plan G when you've got three receivers, guys like Vincent Smith coming out of the backfield, and a considerably more dynamic starter at tight end. Webb's a fullback, basically.
The third and final scholarship tight end on the roster is redshirt sophomore Brandon Moore. He was a highly touted recruit with loads of offers when he committed to Michigan early in the hybrid Carr/Rodriguez class, but then dropped off with an indifferent senior year. Since his arrival he's been locked behind Koger and Webb—the only clip I have of him is a catch against Baby Seal U. Without any buzz otherwise, that will likely continue this year.
Rating: 4 of 5.
|Vincent Smith||So.||John McColgan||So.*|
|Mike Shaw||Jr.||Anonymous Walk-on||----|
…is probably Vincent Smith, who seems completely healthy despite tearing his ACL in the Ohio State game in November. During the fall scrimmage he was the guy who started out with the #1 offensive line and Denard Robinson, and in a derby this confused that's as good of an indication as any that he's the man with a slight edge.
We also have the tail end of last year as corroboration. When Carlos Brown and Brandon Minor came down with their entirely predictable injury extravaganzas, it was Smith, not Shaw or Cox, who got the bulk of the work. By the end of the year I was pretty enthused about the little guy. Baby Seal U impressions:
Vincent Smith showed top-end shiftiness and looks like he'll be a solid back. I compared him to Mike Hart on Monday, and think that remains a pretty good comparison. He's also got a little Noel Devine in him; the way he darts through crevices and effortlessly shifts around traffic is reminiscent of the WVU star. He appears to lack Devine's fifth—or eighth—gear, but he's delivered more pop to defenders in one game than Devine has in three years. He'll be something less than a star but he can be very productive.
What can I say? You listen to Fred Jackson long enough and that stuff starts rubbing off. As long as we're on the topic, Jackson on Smith after last year's spring game:
“Small guy, but a big back. He plays big. The way he blocks you and the way he’ll run over you. I’m going to bet that he’s 170 pounds, I don’t know exactly. But I’m going to say he’s 170 pounds and he runs like he’s 200 pounds.”
He was 168, actually, and now he's 180 after a productive summer. And while Jackson's hype above was based on air and mine essentially air, when forced into the lineup against Wisconsin he was productive out of the backfield. What went down on the ground was not his fault:
Yeah, pretty much. The last time I broke out the Vincent Smith praise a commenter said he's not Mike Hart, but he might kind of be Mike Hart:
How many times did Hart do exactly that against Wisconsin to turn a three yard loss into a moderate gain? It seems like a thousand times. He will not grind piles forward like Hart did but I don't recall Hart having this sort of instant acceleration:
I will not be dissuaded on this: Smith performed pretty well in his first two quasi-starts against Wisconsin and Ohio State, scoring receiving touchdowns in each game and grinding out respectable YPC numbers against two of the country's best rushing defenses. He is probably going to start next year and he is going to be good.
Tangent: I think the threat of Smith on these screens and wheels may have had some impact on the line's ability to pass block. When there's a guy out there who can punish you for getting too far upfield, you adjust so that you are not useless when they screen it out.
|should get crushed by the DE|
|smoothly cutting past it|
|juke on the LB.|
|linemen head straight upfield|
|great, Hart-like run|
|like every Hart run against UW|
|manages to fall forward|
|into the endzone|
|extra flare screens|
|too much of a jackrabbit|
Smith's ability out of he backfield was one of the team's major weapons against the Badgers, as he was targeted eight(!) times, six of them as something other than a safety valve. Despite playing sparingly, by the end of the year he'd been targeted more than any other Michigan running back, finishing with 10 catches for 82 yards in the final two games alone, and he left the Ohio State game in the first half with the ACL tear. With Michigan focused on the short passing game, he could get 30, 40, maybe 50 catches this year.
The ACL does remain a worry. Rodriguez proclaimed him 100% as early as the opening of fall camp and he seemed fine in the scrimmage, but the conventional wisdom on knee surgery is that while you can be "back" within 6-9 months, it takes twice as long to be truly comfortable doing all the things you used to do. That and Smith's general lack of size will probably put a cap on his touches this season even if he is a crazy hybrid of Mike Hart and Noel Devine, which seems somewhat optimistic.
If you're going to slot Smith into a role, it's third down back for his ability out of the backfield and his blocking—Smith's first playing time last year came when the starters were too banged up to spend their snaps on obvious pass blocking situations, so he drew into the lineup. Pahokee, man.
Extremely Nominal Backups
Judging on the same standard we judged Smith—prominence in the spring and fall plus random quotes that may not mean much—junior Michael Shaw is going to be the first guy off the bench. He looked lethal when Michigan emptied the bench against Eastern Michigan:
Farther down the road, Michigan looks in excellent shape next year at tailback, where all three backups performed well. Shaw was especially impressive; you could tell that all the stuff about being slowed by a sports hernia was no BS. Guy looked Brown fast. Maybe even faster.
Like Denard Robinson, Shaw has track cred to back that up. As a senior in high school he won the 200 at the Penn Relays and anchored the winning 4x100 and 4x200 relays. He's fast; memories of Shaw getting tracked down from behind by a Minnesota defender as a freshman should come with a reminder that he was suffering through a sports hernia—ew—and saw his own mortality afterwards:
"I broke a long run and got dragged from behind. It was then that I was like, 'I'm really hurting. I've never not been able to run, not been able to explode.' "
|a good, but not explosive, gain.|
|jet for the endzone|
|Shaw into the endzone|
|gashing people on this|
|trying to go inside of Grady|
|forcing a cutback.|
|makes him look stupid|
So he's fast. This is established. His problem has been with everything else so far. Shaw's been fumble- and mistake-prone for the duration of his Michigan career, which allowed Smith to pass him late. He and Smith were the only backs to cough up fumbles in the fall scrimmage. If he hadn't narrowly escaped academic ineligibility it would have kind of been typical.
On the other hand, he was just as effective as Brandon Minor in 2008 and considerably better than Sam McGuffie and Carlos Brown. Whereas Brown tended to fall over if whispered upon, Shaw's balance has caused me to say he "falls over weird" three or four times. During these weird falls he picks up some extra yards. Beyond the obvious, Huyge thinks he's got some plowhorse in him…
“Very quick guy. He’ll run hard. I don’t know how much he weighs, but it doesn’t matter. He’ll still put his head down and try to run through people, too. He’s real shifty. But that’s how our running backs are. He’s shifty and at the same time, he can turn it up and try to run someone over.”
…but that's not something I've seen. If Michigan's going to run inside it seems they've got several better options. Shaw's role: guy who you put in the game in case he runs 80 yards, a la Carlos Brown. He's a first down kind of guy.
Redshirt sophomore Michael Cox is a much heftier runner than Shaw but has most of his speed…and probably even more frustration to him. His physical prowess has been noted far and wide. Here's Fitzgerald Toussaint on Cox:
“He got the ability over everybody. You never know what he is going to hit you with.”
Over everyone at the position?
“Over everyone at the position, Mike Cox.”
Steve Schilling is also positive about his physical attributes:
“He’s fun to watch. He’s a big guy, so he’s powerful, but he’s also one of the quickest we have. So some of these jump cuts he’s able to make and the balance he has is pretty crazy. It’s pretty exciting to see him run. One play that could get stuck in the backfield turns into a 40-yard run for him.”
|damp wet smearin'|
Cox flashed impressive balance in his limited attempts last year, and while they were against the dregs of the schedule Cox's impressive combination of size and speed to go with that balance invites questions about why he hardly saw the field last year and is seemingly third string this year. A hint was on offer during the fall scrimmage:
Mike Cox continued to show that he might be the best athlete amongst the running backs, but on two separate instances he caused Rodriguez to "lose it" by cutting way back against the grain, turning a modest gain into nothing by dancing at the line of scrimmage. On one "there was a gap on the frontside but he cut all the way behind the backside tackle," losing yardage and causing RR to chew him out; on the second "RR just dropped his headset in disgust."
The story was much the same in spring, when Cox alternated impressive days that lent themselves to a thirteen-year-old's idea of the perfect headline with more of that stuff. Cox is the opposite of Mike Hart right now, a guy who has a ton of physical gifts but little idea how to use them. Michigan will have to put him on the field to see if he can use that upside. Whether or not he takes advantage is a mystery. His career could go like Chris Perry—a frustrating waste of obvious physical gifts until the light goes on and then BAM. Or it could just never go on. Cox is the Darryl Stonum of the running back corps; the difference here is that Michigan has a bevy of options instead of just the one potential deep threat. His role is crazy frustrating guy.
We've been hedging on roles so far, but Stephen Hopkins has an obvious one: angry mooseback. He was one of the stories of the spring after enrolling early and breaking out the truck stick on anyone with the temerity to get in front of him. His late-breaking recruiting profile encompasses the spring hype. Blockquote ahoy:
The guy is just a freaking monster and he breaks tackles. Now, I can’t say he can block, or knows the offense or can catch the ball. Plus, he fumbled twice (once he was hit at the handoff, on the other instance it might have been the QB’s issue). But man is he a tough tackle on the belly if he can get (even) a yard of momentum.
Hopkins continued to gather hype to himself in fall after losing 10 pounds and that distinct aura of cheese curds:
Hopkins was the name on everyone's tongue after a day spent running through arm tackles and showing surprising shiftiness. He "hit the holes and was a load to take down." Trusted Observer said he had a hard time picking out Hopkins before the scrimmage, as he looked like PJ Hill in the spring but after losing ten pounds and reshaping maybe a dozen others into muscle "now looks like a tailback" instead of a moonlighting fullback.
Rodriguez hardly needed to say that when Michigan needs two yards that Hopkins will be placed in front of a fullback and directed to run over anyone in his way, but he has, repeatedly. At a minimum Hopkins will be the short yardage back; once he learns the offense sufficiently he'll be great to pair with Smith or Shaw so Michigan can run the option with a dangerous downhill threat.
And finally there's redshirt freshman Fitzgerald Toussaint. Toussaint came in with a ton of yards, a reasonable amount of recruiting hype, and an 0.8 McGuffie highlight reel, then promptly broke his shoulder (how does that even happen?) in fall camp last year and sat out the season. This year he's been ruled out of the UConn game with an ankle injury and established local insider FormerWolve says his return for Notre Dame is a "MAYBE," which sounds like a "probably not" to these ears. For his part Toussaint says it's "feeling good" and "working out real well," so hopefully this isn't a Minor type situation where it lingers on and on.
FormerWolve also says he is the "clear #1" here, and while I doubt anything's particularly clear in this five-way shootout, Fred Jackson did call him Mike Hart… but fast! No, seriously:
"Michael Hart ability with speed. The kind of guy that can do Michael's cuts, he can sit down, sink his hips and explode by making steps. He's faster than Mike and a very, very tough guy, like Mike was. He's very similar to Mike. He's not the type of inside runner Mike was -- but he's going to get there."
Even Toussaint laughs at that:
“I ain’t ready for that statement (laughter). Mike Hart is something else. I’m just not ready for that. I’ve still got a ways too go.”
But that's not all. He's like Chris Perry… but fast!
"He's got great feet, acceleration, strength, power," Jackson said. "I can compare him to somebody -- he's like a fast Chris Perry. He's going to be very good."
Fred Jackson has puffed up a lot of guys in his twenty years at Michigan, but I think Fitzgerald Toussaint is the new king of the hill. It's interesting that Schilling's quote on Toussaint is pretty Hart-like:
“He’s a tough runner. He’s a guy that hits it up in there. He’s not afraid to go up the middle and get the extra yards, make a 4-yard run into a 6- or-7-yard run and makes some easier down-and-distance for us.”
If that's true, FormerWolve's assertion that he's the #1 guy becomes almost certain, because he was a high school track star (his 60 meter dash is about a tenth slower than Denard's)—the "fast" bit of Fred Jackson's fever dreams has been established by stopwatches. If either of the first parts are accurate… hello, nurse.
But wait! There's more! Teric Jones came in as a slot receiver/running back and was immediately thrown to the wolves at corner. His only playing time in '09 came against Delaware State, where he was repeatedly victimized on out routes late. In the aftermath he came in for a mention:
Teric Jones got torn up by DSU, which isn't a surprise since he's a true freshman who was a tailback in high school and never saw a snap on defense. I'm shocked he's not redshirting.
He moved to safety, and then back to corner, and is now on offense. That and the state of Michigan' secondary should tell you all you need to know about his potential on defense. On offense his claim to fame is simple: speed. As a junior he turned in a 4.37 40 at the Army All-American combine, and while that's pretty FAKE it was the best time turned in by anyone in attendance at the most star-laden combine in the country. He showed a glimpse of that during the spring game when he didn't quite catch Roy Roundtree despite his ten-yard head start but came awfully close (and dusted Vlad Emilien in the process).
With the positional confusion and five viable options in front of him, Jones will probably take a redshirt year, but he's down here, waiting.
With Moundros's switch to defense, John McColgan should find himself inheriting the job here. A couple years ago I suggested Moundros could see his role in the offense grow to Owen Schmitt levels, but that never happened. He was targeted on some passes out of the backfield, never got a carry, and saw opportunity elsewhere. McColgan won't be much more of a factor, especially with Stephen Hopkins claiming the RAGE as an alternative to Mike-Hart-but-fast carries.
But: that same arrival makes I-form short yardage pounding a highly viable strategy and Michigan will deploy McColgan when the downs get late and the field compressed. He's currently 230, up five pounds from last year.