this week in unintentionally grim-sounding recruiting headlines
Previously: The story, the secondary, the linebackers, the defensive line, the quarterbacks, the running backs, the receivers, the offensive line, special teams, the conference, offensive questions answered(?), defensive questions answered(?).
The theory of turnover margin: it is nearly random. Teams that find themselves at one end or the other at the end of the year are highly likely to rebound towards the average. So teams towards the top will tend to be overrated and vice versa. Nonrandom factors to evaluate: quarterback experience, quarterback pressure applied and received, and odd running backs like Mike Hart who just don't fumble.
|Year||Margin||Int +||Fumb +||Sacks +||Int -||Fumb -||Sacks -|
|2007||0.15 (41st)||14||15||2.46(33rd)||14||13||2.17 (67th)|
|2008||-.83 (104th)||9||11||2.42(33rd)||12||18||1.83 (57th)|
|2009||-1.00 (115th)||11||5||1.83(68th)||15||13||2.33 (83rd)|
So. Last year I suggested this would head towards average; it totally did not. It somehow conspired to get worse. One major reason for this is the blindingly obvious one: freshman quarterbacks. They accounted for the uptick in interceptions and a large number of Michigan's fumbles. With another year of experience it's reasonable to suggest Michigan's turnovers lost will decline from the 28 given away last year, tied with a few other teams (including Georgia) for 99th nationally. This blog's theory about QB experience and pressure should work in Michigan's favor this year. Finally.
There should be good news on defense, too. Michigan's five fumbles recovered is a very low number, tied for fifth worst nationally with LSU and Tulane (your national "leader" in not getting fumbles: Georgia), and fumbles are so much more fluky than interceptions that Michigan can expect a +5/6 improvement in that metric just by virtue of not being on the death end of fate. Maybe. If they aren't this year, you know.
So… yeah, one more time: this should get way closer to even than it was last year. More fumbles recovered, marginally less awful defense, sophomore quarterbacks. Just ending the year at zero would be worth a couple wins, and while that's optimistic with still-young quarterbacks and that secondary they should see themselves pull way closer to the center. If they don't it's curtains for Rodriguez.
Position Switch Starters
Theory of position switches: if you are starting or considering starting a guy who was playing somewhere else a year ago, that position is in trouble. There are degrees of this. When Notre Dame moved Travis Thomas, a useful backup at tailback, to linebacker and then declared him a starter, there was no way that could end well. Wisconsin's flip of LB Travis Beckum to tight end was less ominous because Wisconsin had a solid linebacking corps and Beckum hadn't established himself on that side of the ball. Michigan flipping Prescott Burgess from SLB to WLB or PSU moving Dan Connor inside don't register here: we're talking major moves that indicate a serious lack somewhere.
- Mark Moundros moves from fullback to MLB and will start or is basically as good as the starter.
- Cam Gordon moves from WR to FS and will start.
- Martavious Odoms moves from slot to outside WR and will start.
- Ryan Van Bergen moves from DT to DE and will start. Mitigating factor: last year RVB moved from DE to DT.
- Mark Huyge moves from RG/RT to LT and will probably start unless Lewan eats him.
- Craig Roh is something or other that is not quite what he was before.
Offensive moves are basically eh, but the topmost defensive moves are major red flags.
An Embarrassing Prediction, No Doubt
If only they were playing last year's schedule again. If they were, I could say "is the offense going to be better? 100% yes! Is the defense going to be worse? 90% no!" At that point I cold throw out a 6-6 worst case and be confident. Unfortunately, Eastern Michigan is replaced by UConn and things are complicated. They won't go 0-fer on the teams outside the bottom of the schedule, but a crappy defense and a lot of shootouts that go the wrong way could see them hit 5-7 again, and then the bricks.
I don't see much upside in the D, but it is possible that teams without good quarterbacks won't be able to take advantage of it, leaving the offense to Leap its way past the middling bits of the schedule. It's fairly easy to see how they win against UConn, Penn State, maybe Notre Dame, and maybe Purdue on this basis; throw in a home split against MSU and Iowa and 9-3 is hypothetically in reach. Hypothetically.
The offense will undergo Leap II: This Time It's Obvious, becoming legitimately scary to opponents across the league. They will find at least two tailbacks to go with the Denard experience; the line will improve considerably; the turnovers should finally (finally) come down to reasonable levels. This is what Rodriguez has based his career on and if it doesn't happen that career will probably be continuing somewhere else.
Defense? Last year again with less confusion and very long stupid easy touchdowns, shredded by experienced, good quarterbacks (of which there are 4 or 5 on the schedule), considerably better against the run, slightly better overall, still prone to major breakdowns.
|9/4||UConn||Leans to win|
|9/11||@ Notre Dame||Tossup|
|9/25||Bowling Green||Must win|
|10/2||@ Indiana||Must win|
|10/9||Michigan State||Leans to loss|
|10/16||Iowa||Leans to loss|
|10/30||@ Penn State||Leans to loss|
|11/27||@ Ohio State||Longshot|
There are the two gimmes in the nonconference and two games against Big Ten teams that should be terrible, as Indiana and Illinois were wracked by graduation losses and weren't good to begin with. The opener against UConn is a game Michigan his maybe 60-70% to win; who knows about Notre Dame and Purdue. From there Michigan will probably get five or six wins. The seventh, or sixth will be picking off one of MSU, Iowa, or Penn State. 7-5 is still the call, but with the secondary attrition 6-6 is more likely than 8-4; before I thought the reverse.
|WHAT||Michigan vs Connecticut|
|WHERE||Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, MI|
|WHEN||3:30 Eastern, September 4th 2010|
|THE LINE||Michigan -3|
|TELEVISION||ABC/ESPN2 (Coverage Map)|
Run Offense vs. UConn
With a stable of backs six-deep, a strong interior line, and a quarterback who runs on dilithium, the run game should be one of Michigan's strengths this season. UConn's starting defensive linemen range from the tiny (225-lb Trevardo Williams) to the light (255-lb Jesse Joseph) to the good-sized (both defensive tackles are in the 290s). If Michigan's offensive line has made the improvements we think they have, they should be able to push this defensive line all over the field.
UConn's front four is built for speed, rather than power, which might make outside running a little tougher, but the Wolverines should be able to generate a good push up front. At the second level, the linebackers are all seniors, and all have pretty good size. However, the man in the middle, Greg Lloyd, is an enigma. He started the fall at defensive end, then was lost for the season with an ACL injury. A couple weeks later, and he's the starting middle linebacker. Might that make him more tentative? On the weakside, Lawrence Wilson is an athletic 226 pounds, which should give him the ability to chase Michigan's quarterbacks around.
Key Matchup: Rich Rodriguez and Calvin Magee v. The Husky Scheme.
From a physical standpoint, Michigan should be able to move the ball on the ground against UConn. Randy Edsall's coaching staff is aware of this, so they'll throw some things at Michigan's offense (such as the scrape exchange, maybe some run blitzing) to offset that advantage. The offensive braintrust must know when these tricks are coming, and how to counter them.
The Huskies were subpar against scrambly types last year, with West Virginia's Jarrett Brown, Cincinnati's Zach Collaros, and South Florida's BJ Daniels having particularly good days with their feet. UConn is going to come up with some new ideas to prevent Michigan from repeating this success.
Pass Offense vs. UConn
UConn's pass defense had a world of trouble last year, particularly once starting corner Jasper Howard was murdered in October. Part of that was the competition (Cincinnati and Notre Dame were very good passing teams last year), but part of the Huskies' #85 ranking in pass efficiency defense was simply not being very good at football.
So, losing a couple starters to the NFL is a good thing, right? No? Robert McClain (7th round, Panthers) and Robert Vaughn (undrafted, Packers) are both out the door, and this secondary was bad WITH two future NFLers roaming it. The returning starters are redshirt sophomores safety Jerome Junior (listed at second-string on UConn's depth chart) and corner Blidi Wreh-Wilson. Moving on up into starting roles are junior safeties Harris Agbor and Kijuan Dabney, along with redshirt sophomore corner Dwayne Gratz. Both second-string corners are true freshmen.
The one area of pass defense that the Huskies did well in last year was getting after the quarterback. They finished 28th nationally in sacks, and Michigan's projected starting tackles aren't known for their pass-blocking skills. However, leading sacker Lindsey Witten is off to the Pittsburgh Steelers (undrafted), and with him go 11 sacks. Expect a step back in that department from UConn.
Key Matchup: Michigan's Receivers v. Getting Open.
There have been enough reports throughout the offseason that Roy Roundtree and Darryl Stonum in particular, and the receiving corps at large, have improved in catching the ball. We know Roundtree has a knack for getting open, but the rest of the unit has had its share of struggles.
This UConn secondary might be Michigan-level bad (does "true freshmen in the two-deep" sound familiar?), but it's up to the receivers to take advantage of that. If they can get open against a weak UConn back four, there could be plenty of room to run after the catch. That will back up the defense and open running lanes, which is where Michigan is going to do most of its damage in this game.
Run Defense vs. UConn
Now things start getting sketchy. UConn's offense, like Michigan's, should move the ball on Saturday. Randy Edsall's team last year focused on the rush, and they'll probably do the same in 2010. Jordan Todman is a tiny speedy guy, and should see the majority of the carries. Robbie Frey and USC transfer DJ Shoemate (a wide receiver-turned-fullback for the Trojans) should do a bit more of the pounding.
The Husky offensive line is experienced (two redshirt seniors, two redshirt juniors, and a redshirt sophomore) and big (they average over 300 pounds, and the right side, which I assume will be a focus in rushing, features a 325-pounder and a 333-pounder), just as you'd expect from a grind-it-out offense. Michigan's defensive front is bigger than last year, but they still have their work cut out for them.
Without knowing as much as we'd like about Michigan's scheme, we do know that the linebackers, on the whole, have been disappointing so far in their time in Ann Arbor. Obi Ezeh is the heaviest one on the team, but the mental game has never been all there for him, which means he'll probably be replaced by Mark Moundros in the starting lineup. Craig Roh, who will be a blitzing specialist, has added enough size to make him effective against the maulers up front.
Key Matchup: Michigan's Linebackers v. Their Performance To Date.
Outside of Roh (who could be considered a defensive lineman), the linebackers had a seriously disappointing 2009. Jonas Mouton regressed from a strong 2008, and Obi Ezeh didn't show the improvement we've been waiting three years for. Michigan won't win this game if the linebackers can't get their pads on Todman and wrap him up, because he has the speed to do serious damage once he's past them.
Mark Moundros, former walkon and converted fullback though he may be, has been praised all offseason by the likes of Rich Rodriguez, Greg Robinson, and his teammates as someone who 1) plays with a physical edge and 2) understands the game, and is willing to work in the film room on schemes. If he supplants Ezeh, He's less physically talented, but also less likely to make Michigan fans groan with a poor play.
Pass Defense vs. UConn
Rich Rodriguez expects the Huskies to use play-action as a basis for their pass game, as they did last year. With a trio of inexperienced defensive backs patrolling (not including hybrids), that should scare the living daylights out of you, the Michigan fan. There are a couple reasons for optimism, I guess.
- Zach Frazer, the less impressive UConn quarterback last season, has been named the starter. Since then, Cody Endres has been suspended, so he won't be an option if Frazer struggles.
- UConn graduated its top two receivers in Marcus Easley (a fourth-round draft pick of the Buffalo Bills) and Brad Kanuch.
That's it though, and the deep threat of Easley has been replaced by fellow speedster Kashif Moore. Tight end Ryan Griffin is available to get open over the middle for 30-yard touchdowns on third and 26.
MIchigan's scheme will be to play soft and give up some of the underneath stuff in order to avoid the Huskies going deep. With the roster as thin as it is, that's probably a good idea. GERG will probably also dial up some different pressure packages to take a bit of heat of the defensive backs.
Key Matchup: The Back Seven v. Broken Tackles.
If you allow an opposing offense to complete short passes, you'd damn sure better keep the gains to a minimum. Yards After Ezeh And Williams were huge last year, and with reports of iffy tackling in the fall scrimmage, that can't happen if Michigan is to win this contest.
Sophomore Dave Teggart returns to kick the ball, though he was iffy last year. He'll probably continue improving, so don't expect field goals to give the Huskies any trouble.
Punter Desi Cullen is out the door, leaving an unknown. With him, UConn was 24th in net punting last year, which is bound to take a step back. Michigan's punt return teams, of course have been nothing to fear. Tony Gibson has been newly-appointed the Special Teams Coordinator in the offseason, and having a single coach focused on the special teams game (at least in part) might improve that.
On the other side of the ball, UConn's return game has been outstanding the past couple years. Three different Huskies returned kicks for touchdowns last year, and all of them are back this season. They'll look for a new punt returner with the departure of Robert McClain, but I suspect they'll have some decent options there. Kickoffs into the endzone and punts with a lot of hangtime will be key.
Key Matchup: HOLD ONTO THE DAMN BALL.
Come on, could it have been anything else?
The Wolverines re-open the Big House, Brock Mealer leads them out of the tunnel, and they're looking to (finally) break through under Rich Rodriguez. But those intangibles seem a little... tangible.
- UConn can generate more than one big play on the ground or through the air.
- The offensive tackles get Michigan's quarterbacks killed.
- Special teams seem... special.
Cackle with knowing glee if...
- Michigan ends up with a positive turnover margin.
- Patrick Omameh and Steve Schilling are blocking downfield for a ballcarrier with a lot of daylight.
- The young corners look anything better than competent.
Fear/Paranoia Level: 5 ([Ed: Baseline 5, +1 for Aigh Woolfolk, +1 for Aigh Everyone Else In The Secondary, +1 for Srsly, -1 for Leadership Doesn't Shred Secondaries, -1 for UConn Loves to Grind, -1 for And They Can't Defend Athletic Spread Quarterbacks And We Have A Cheetah Strapped To A Jet Engine And Dropped Of A Plane.)
Desperate need to win level: 11 (Baseline 5; +1 for Season Opener, +1 for Brock, +1 for Stadium Opener, +1 for Let's Keep The Wolves At Bay For Like 30 Seconds, +1 for Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want This Time, +1 for If The Stadium Sets An Attendance Record We'll Set The DNTW Record)
Loss will cause me to... Start worrying (for real this time) about Rodriguez's job security.
Win will cause me to... Immediately shift my terror complex from UConn to Notre Dame.
The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:
This game looks to have the makings of an offensive shootout unless GERG Robinson is a miracle worker. Both defenses are expected to be subpar,
WesternUConn's offense is probably good, and Michigan's offense is an unknown decent trending towards good. One team will probably put up decent numbers in order to win. (Yes, this is almost verbatim from last year's Western Preview).
The question then, is which offense can better take advantage of the opposition's defensive weaknesses. Both offenses should be solid all around, but better in the running game, and both secondaries are weaknesses. I'll take Michigan's front 6-7 over UConn's front 7 though, partially because the UConn D-Ends are nowhere near big enough to hold up at the point of attack, whereas Michigan's are 285 pounds a pop. The Wolverines should also be more confusing in their pressure schemes.
The turnover battle will be where this game turns. The Wolverines have been awful the past two years, finishing in the bottom 20 each season. If they can at least break even this game, It's hard for me to see something other than a win. If they come out in the positive (and don't give it back in special teams), it could be a very good day indeed in Ann Arbor.
Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:
- Michigan plays all three quarterbacks if the game isn't in doubt in the fourth quarter. Denard Robinson will lead the team in rushing...
- ...but two other Wolverines score rushing touchdowns.
- The defense successfully executes the "bend quite a bit" tactic, giving up more than 200 yards through the air.
- Michigan, 38-30.
Previously: The story, the secondary, the linebackers, the defensive line, the quarterbacks, the running backs, the receivers, the offensive line, special teams, the conference, offensive questions answered(?).
1. What is it?
I keep trying to reconcile quotes like this from Rich Rodriguez…
How have some of the guys responded to the new 3-3-5?
“It is not a true 3-3-5. Again, there is as much as we were doing last year as there is new stuff from the spring. We’ve tried to keep things a little simpler, added a few new things simply because of the youth on defense and we need to play a little faster. ”
…with views of the defense in spring and fall in which Craig Roh hardly ever plays with his hand down. A quick review of Devin Gardner's time in the spring game—which I picked since it was mostly against the first team defense shows 17 snaps on which there's a three man line (a couple of these do have Roh as a standup DE, FWIW) and just six on which he is in a three-point stance, two of those plays where the offense is backed up on their own goal line and the D is expecting a run. In more open play the ratio is a striking 17/21. It certainly looks like Craig Roh is a linebacker who moonlights at defensive end a la Shawn Crable. It looks like a 3-3-5.
Maybe that's an artifact of playing a spread offense and in games against beefy, power-heavy teams Michigan will go to more of a traditional look, but I don't think that'll happen either. Michigan deployed a formation USC calls "Double Eagle" more and more as the year wore on, debuting it against Iowa and deploying it extensively against Ohio State:
This was responsible for Michigan's excellent interior run defense when Ohio State did it's usual DAVE SMASH plays. It was also fundamentally unsound when OSU went unbalanced, but hopefully they fixed that. Either way, only Ohio State has the ability to run it down your throat and switch to a spread n shred—the other beef machine teams in the Big Ten feature pocket passing QBs.
With Ryan Van Bergen and the Sagesse/Banks platoon at defensive end, Michigan's line is four guys who would or could be 4-3 defensive tackles. It seems natural to tuck people inside and and run this thing you've clearly been installing for over a year.
The verdict: it's a 3-3-5 base with four-man lines a "multiple" look Michigan will run for a curveball. The coaches can say it's not a "true" 3-3-5, but to everyone but a football coach it will look like one. Craig Roh is a linebacker, mostly, and Jordan Kovacs is a tiny linebacker. I expect three-man lines to be present on 60-70% of Michigan's snaps this year.
2. Why is the personnel still so doomy?
This is not actually a surprise. The ugly bit about Misopogon's Decimated Defense series—other than all of it—was how little matters were scheduled to improve this year:
…last year was very thin – one or two guys recruited at each level. All told, 11 recruits, meaning if everybody played up to their hype (which never ever happens), we would have had an upperclassman team with some really good players and some really mediocre players. This year, there's a little more play but it's not all that different. Specifically, the tradeoff in upperclass talent is a likely Brandon Graham (6.1) and Renaldo Sagesse (5.6) for two likely Ryan Van Bergens (5.8) and an Obi Ezeh (5.5).
Straight-up, it's probably not a difference, meaning the performance level that Michigan's defense gets from its upperclassmen in 2010 will probably be about what it got from its upperclassmen in 2009. It is still well below that of Ohio State, and like last year, is drawing from a significantly smaller but significantly more talented pool than Michigan State.
Put another way by diarist Jokewood in November:
Comparing Michigan's defensive upperclassmen not only to Ohio State, Penn State, and Notre Dame, but to the rest of the conference as well...
Ohio State - 22
Northwestern - 21
Indiana - 19
Illinois - 19
Michigan State - 19
Penn State - 19
Iowa - 18
Wisconsin - 18
Minnesota - 17
Purdue - 15
Notre Dame - 15
Michigan - 12
The rest of the Big Ten averages 50% more upperclassmen on defense. We are dead last in the conference by a wide margin in terms of experienced defensive players.
Michigan's number in 2010 was scheduled to be a still really crappy 14 before Brandon Smith transferred (and subsequently washed out at Temple), Donovan Warren entered the draft, and Troy Woolfolk exploded. Michigan is down to 11 upperclass defenders, 12 if you count James Rogers, 13 if you count Steve Watson. They've gone nowhere.
The sudden fall attrition has hurt matters, especially since it's been concentrated at the position at which Michigan was most vulnerable, but this was always going to happen.
3. Is there any way the secondary is not a giant flaming disaster area?
The solitary hope is that Michigan was so bad at safety last year that even though they've lost two competent cornerbacks and replaced them with green players they will improve simply by playing bend-don't-break and forcing opponents to put together touchdown drives instead of touchdown plays. That could make the secondary a rickety cart balanced on the edge of a volcano, which sounds pretty good right about now.
How realistic is that? Somewhat, actually. After last season, Jon Chait had a post at the Wolverine with evidence the Woolfolk move backfired badly:
Michigan played six games with Woolfolk at safety -- Western Michigan, Notre Dame, Eastern Michigan, Indiana, Michigan State, and Ohio State. (I'm ignoring the Delaware State game because the competition level was so abnormal.) Michigan played five games with Woolfolk at cornerback, which forced Michael Williams into the starting lineup and Jordan Kovacs to move out of his more comfortable position. In those five games, Michigan played Iowa, Penn State, Purdue, Illinois and Wisconsin.
You can probably figure out where I'm going with this. In the six Woolfolk-at-safety games, Michigan's opponents gained 380 yards per game. Those six opponents averaged 374 yards on the season overall, which means that Michigan allowed its opponents to gain just a bit more than they did against the remainder of their schedule. This is a poor result, though not an absolutely horrendous one.
But in the five Woolfolk-at-corner games, Michigan gave up 445 yards per game, against opponents who gained 382 yards per game on the season overall. That is a horrendous result. That is a sieve of a defense.
The scoring numbers are even more stark: Michigan went from giving up 23 points a game to 37. Is it really possible that bringing in Mike Williams and moving Jordan Kovacs deep resulted in two extra touchdowns ceded per game?
Well… not quite. The Woolfolk-at-safety games include two MAC opponents, three approximately .500 teams, and Ohio State. The Woolfolk-elsewhere games are much tougher on average because the bulk of the MAC stats were racked up against other MAC teams. If you hack those out this is what it looks like:
|Opponent||Ydg||Scoring||M Ydg||M Score|
[Note: MSU's overtime period was removed to keep everything even.]
Against teams that didn't play a segregated, much easier schedule Michigan was about 20 yards worse than average in yardage and even on scoring. So moving Woolfolk only cost Michigan about 40 yards and nine points a game. That still overstates the effect since MSU did score a touchdown in their overtime period and Ohio State was Tresselballin' it like a mofo, only putting Pryor in the shotgun once Michigan became vaguely threatening. So let's knock our estimate down to 30 yards a game.
What's thirty yards a game in terms of national averages? Kind of a big deal. Michigan would have leapt from 82nd in total defense to 57th—basically average—if they'd just maintained their Woolfolk-at-safety pace.
Plugging the enormous hole at safety would be great, but even if you make the reasonable assumption that Gordon/Kovacs/Robinson is going to be way better than Williams/Kovacs, the massive downgrade at corner means you're probably just treading water. Treading horrible, polluted, razor-blade-filled, despair-laden water.
4. GERG: Brilliant? Terrible? What's Going On?
Punt. Punt punt punt. I have a tendency to get bitchy about coordinators doing things I see as strategically weird and slammed Scott Shafer over the course of the '08 UFRs for transparently nonsensical decisions like hardly ever playing senior nickelback Brandon Harrison (even against spread teams! In favor of Johnny Thompson!) and pulling one of his senior defensive tackles on downs like third and one. The end result:
The picture painted by the above is, in retrospect, one of huge incompetence. Last year Michigan regularly removed functional veteran players in favor of crappy ones that made no sense given the down and distance situations or the offense on the field, and those things only got fixed (-ish) once Shafer was removed from the decision-making process. It's not like the position guys covered themselves in glory with that 3-3-5 against Purdue but at least they pulled their heads out of their butts afterwards and put in the defense Michigan should have been running from day one against spread teams.
I didn't find that kind of complaining much when I went back over the UFRs for '09. The worst thing I found was after the Penn State game:
Why are you such a grump? Iowa put up 30 points and 367 yards of offense to Penn State's 35 and 396 , and Michigan managed to escape that game with way better numbers.
I think it was that all the stuff Penn State was doing came so easy. The Zug touchdowns, the Quarless touchdown, all the long handoffs: all of those plays required nothing more than Penn State not screwing up with wide open receivers. To Clark's credit, he hit all those guys. He then laughed about the primitive defense that Michigan was running, and on review I totally agree: Michigan telegraphed their now-predictable third and long redzone blitzes and got killed. They showed the long handoff was there and got killed. They put Obi Ezeh in man coverage on the edge against Evan Royster and got killed.
That's what the big minus in RPS is there for: I think Robinson got owned by Penn State's offensive brain trust (which is Galen Hall, not Jaypa). This game was slightly reminiscent of the Purdue game a year ago where Michigan switched to a new system and got their brains beaten in by it.
This was mitigated by the situation, obviously:
I don't know. I am sort of mad at Robinson for making it easy by not breaking tendencies with two weeks to prepare. But when you've got Kovacs as your deep safety, what can you do? Kid's smart and can be an effective player in the box but obviously lacks the athleticism to be a deep safety in the Big Ten.
Tactical complaining is absent in other UFRs, though if I'd actually manned up and done the Ohio State one I would have cited the Buckeye Football Analysis link above, in which the guy said he was surprised at how fundamentally unsound Michigan's scheme was, as another negative.
On the other hand, I've been pumping up GERG's work with Roh and Brown constantly and citing his move to linebackers coach as an indication the rest of the staff thinks he's the best option to undo the damage wrought over the past couple years. And, really, what can you do when you're handed the material he was given last year? This has been documented incessantly: given the personnel situation it is totally unsurprising Michigan's defense cratered last year.
So I punt. I'll be looking at the development of Roh and Mouton and seeing if the defense can get off the mat somewhat despite facing down a personnel situation that isn't much better, if it's better at all, than last year's. We'll have a much better idea about Greg Robinson in November.
There were many complaints when I started the preview series off with the secondary and linebackers. People were depressed. They found me depressing. Someone posted something on the message board wondering if I was okay. People of Earth: it is not my fault the back seven on defense is depressing. It just is.
Is there hope? Is there anything resembling it? Maybe. After the Iowa game this is how I diagnosed the D:
On the podcast this week I called the defense "competition-invariant": they have talent and do well when they use it but when they make an error it is so huge that even Indiana can exploit it ruthlessly, so the defense kind of plays the same against everyone.
Maybe GERG can reduce that tendency. Maybe Cam Gordon will 1-0-1 the season. Maybe the linebackers will get less frustrating, and maybe Michigan will give up an annoying number of long drives but not so many awful, really short ones. But here's the greater-thans and less-thans:
- Junior Mike Martin > Mike Martin
- Sophomore Craig Roh >> freshman Craig Roh
- Senior Jonas Mouton with competent coaching > Junior Jonas Mouton with headless chicken tendencies.
- Sophomore Kovacs >> freshman Kovacs/Williams/Smith
- Cam Gordon > Kovacs/Woolfolk/Williams
- Mark Moundros/Obi Ezeh == Obi Ezeh
- Ryan Van Bergen <<< Brandon Graham
- Sagesse/Banks < Ryan Van Bergen
- Carvin Johnson < Stevie Brown
- JT Floyd << Donovan Warren
- Whoever < Woolfolk/Cissoko/Floyd
It's going to be rough. Tony Gibson:
"If we get any more simple, I don't know what we're going to be able to do," Gibson said. "We can't just play one coverage and do that kind of thing.
"These other teams we're playing, they have scholarship kids. They're not going to say, 'OK, Michigan's young back there, we're not going to throw at them.'
I actually think the defense will improve simply by virtue of having some continuity and knowledge of the players, but not by much. Shootouts beckon.
Last Year's Stupid Predictions
- I didn't do any for some reason, and that was the best prediction of all.
This Year's Stupid Predictions
- Fumbles recovered double to ten.
- The secondary is actually better than last year's secondary because long touchdowns are less frequent. It will still be very bad.
- Mouton is much better, leads the team in TFLs and sacks, and is still incredibly frustrating.
- Mike Martin is great and should get first-team Big Ten recognition, though he probably won't.
- Mark Moundros holds on to the starting MLB job all season.
- Michigan manages a modest improvement in yards allowed, getting up to the 60-70 range nationally.
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.