I thought that myself when I read that article that talked about a Data Scientist(tm)
Note: video from last year is lightboxed; previous years will take you off the page.
A note before we start: this preview relies heavily on the defensive UFRs of last year, even more so than the offense did, because 1) there are actual returning players and 2) there’s a convenient numerical system that does a decent job of summing up a defensive player’s contributions. One caveat: the system is generous to defensive linemen and harsh to defensive backs, especially cornerbacks. A +4 for a defensive end is just okay; for a cornerback it’s outstanding.
|Brandon Herron||So.*||Mike Martin||So.||Ryan Van Bergen||So.*||Brandon Graham||Sr.|
|Craig Roh||Fr.||Renaldo Sagesse||Jr.||Greg Banks||Jr.*||Adam Patterson||Jr.*|
|Steve Watson||Fr.*||Will Campbell||Fr.||--||--||Anthony LaLota||Fr.|
Three starters depart but the big guy is back: Brandon Graham returns as Michigan's best player and a serious candidate for post-season honors. Joining him is a wildly unbalanced collection of players. At nose tackle there are two hugely promising underclassmen. At defensive tackle there's a potentially solid starter and then Some Guy. And at a new position no one knows what to call, what it does, or who plays there there's virtually nothing.
With the changes, this preview is going to treat the defensive ends as separate entities. Defensive tackles remain bunched.
|Sam-owns against UW|
|Saves UW game|
|"Big time from frosh"|
Last year, Mike Martin had the luxury of playing behind two productive veterans. In his limited time, he impressed. Everyone expects he will be the breakout star on defense this year; expectations are higher for him than they are for even Mouton. But… well. Here's a bunch of praise and some trepidation wrapped into one package. It's from the Wisconsin game:
Man, Mike Martin is kind of sweet.
Yeah, man, he's kind of great as an interior pass-rusher already. I'm a little leery that he's going to be a true sophomore starter on the line next year just because he came in so in-shape that he's probably not going to improve drastically, and therefore his sophomore year will seem disappointing, but the kid should be gangbusters (yea, see?) as an upperclassman. Now about the other guys at DT…
Martin might slightly disappoint people who expect him to be 100% awesome right now, but people pegging him at 80% are probably going to see their expectations met.
As a recruit, Mike Martin was a slightly smaller version of immovable fireplug Terrance Taylor. Both were state champions in wrestling and powerlifting. Both were in-state. Both were defensive tackles at or near the tail end of top 100 lists. HOWEVA, on the field the two played very differently. Taylor is a bull of a defensive tackle who will get under your pads and shove you backwards; Martin is more of a penetrator. His high school highlights often saw him slice through the line and tackle like a linebacker, and last year much of his deployment was as part of Michigan's three-man line pass rush Okie package. You can see the penetration in the highlights at right, and that sort of activity was the reason Martin picked up a steady stream of 3-0-3 lines in UFR.
This is why I'm a mite concerned, though:
|Penn State||1.5||4||-2.5||A lot of negatives late when he was in as a 4-3 DT; unsurprising he took a beating from Shipley & Co; he's just a freshman.|
That was Martin's longest exposure as a true 4-3 DT and he suffered at the hands of Penn State's excellent, veteran line. This could be a blip that has no impact going forward. Martin was, after all, a freshman going up against fifth-year seniors, and good ones. And there could be considerable difference between the role he was asked to play in that game—absorb two blocks—and the one he'll be asked to play in the light, quick, slashing defense Greg Robinson has apparently installed.
This year, Martin will be the only true defensive tackle in the lineup and is backed up by a to-date anonymous Canadian and a true freshman. Even if that true freshman may be enormous and highly touted, Martin's responsibility takes a more severe uptick than anyone else's this year. He might struggle a bit early; by the end of the year he should be very good.
At the other spot, redshirt sophomore Ryan Van Bergen enters the starting lineup. Van Bergen was a moderately shirtless recruit—he was ranked at about the same level Will Johnson was—who spent his first couple years backing up Brandon Graham at strongside defensive end. Michigan's moved him to their three-technique defensive tackle, a position that's traditionally been occupied by the nimble penetrating sort of defensive tackle instead of lumbering goo-beasts.
So he might to be too out of position at his new spot; he was something of a DE/DT tweener as a recruit. He still is at 6'5", 275. And he'll be one on the field: multiple people from the coaches who pop up from time to time on this site to the Michigan coaches to Van Bergen himself have noted that RVB will flare out from time to time and act as a five-tech defensive end, either on passing downs or when Michigan flips the deathbacker to Brandon Graham's side of the field.
There's not a whole lot of data on RVB to be had, unfortunately, and he seems a little tall and light for the spot he's at. With few reasonable backups, chances are production here isn't much better than okay.
Backups and Whatnot
Unlike… uh… everywhere else on the defensive line, there are a couple reasonable backups here. True freshman Will Campbell is the one with the recruiting hype, and lord almighty:
Dude put in work after enrolling early. His rep is enormous, agile, and strong—he's not a five star for nothing—but deficient in technique in all the ways that 350-pound men who can hurl high school offensive linemen into low Earth orbit usually are. In short: he needs to learn how to play low. He'll get that opportunity, as he should rotate in for Martin frequently with an eye on maybe starting when Michigan goes bulky for games against ground-pounders like Michigan State and Wisconsin. (The assumption in this case is that Martin slides over to DT and Michigan goes with a more conventional 4-3 look.) His recruiting profile also exists if you want to hear an awful lot about a large man.
Campbell will probably have a freshman year much like Mike Martin's, where he rotates in frequently and mostly does well with the occasional "yep, that's a freshman" play mixed in.
Meanwhile, junior Renaldo Sagesse remains a mysterious entity locked on the bench his first few years after coming to Michigan out of Quebec. Yes, that Quebec. In Canada. He probably doesn't have much upside but there's no shame in behind behind Taylor, Johnson, and Martin and should provide functional depth.
Redshirt junior Greg Banks backs up Van Bergen; Banks has seen the occasional snap as part of the rotation but hasn't done much with them. If he can give RVB breathers without drawing attention to himself, that's a win.
Strongside Defensive End
|Snuffing a draw|
|Sack wsgs Mouton, Brown|
|Beats double to sack|
|Sack wsg Mouton|
|frowns: not infallible|
|Sack +3 Pressure +2|
The most striking thing from my tour of last year's defensive UFR was how preposterous Brandon Graham was. Here's his Big Ten season minus Ohio State (which did not get UFRed for obvious reasons):
|Wisconsin||10.5||1||9.5||+6 of this comes from two sacks late when he got to the QB on three-man rushes, killing one drive and damaging another.|
|Illinois||7||4||3||More effective in the run game than others, but was exploited a couple times.|
|Penn State||9||4.5||4.5||Best player on defense without question.|
|Michigan State||12||1||11||He backed up his prediction as much as he could.|
|Purdue||9.5||2||7.5||Would have had some sacks if anyone was ever covered.|
The note above points out that defensive linemen tend to do better than the back seven in UFR ratings but once you start getting into the 7.5, 8, 9.5, 10.5, 11(!) range that is elite, elite production. Graham's impressive statistics—10 sacks, 20 TFLs—back that up. Graham is an unquestioned star, a lock for All Big Ten, a probable first round NFL draft pick, and the team's best player.
What's more, Graham's production took a major step forward last year. As a sophomore, Graham was impressive but mostly as a pass rusher. He had 8.5 sacks but just one other tackle for loss and 15 tackles outside of that. Last year a newly slimmed Graham added 36 tackles on people other than the quarterback, fully ten of them behind the line of scrimmage.
The best way to see Graham's transformation into a complete terror is to compare Michigan State games. In '07 Michigan State turned its run game around by attacking a tired Graham in the second half, and he came in for some clucking:
He's got a -2 up there, by far his worst total of his career, and it was largely because he got booted out of the line by double teams frequently.
In '08 Graham unwisely guaranteed victory and then went about attempting to make that happen singlehandedly. An abridged run-game-only Michigan State UFR:
Graham crashes inside in an attempt to jam the play up and force it to bounce outside but ends up shoved past the play, opening up a small hole Ringer can squeeze through. … Graham(-1) needs to shoot inside on this to take out the pulling guard and the fullback, which would delay Ringer and force him to bounce it into unblocked players; instead he stays outside and the resulting carry goes for six yards.
That's it in a game where Javon Ringer ran 37 times. The rest of the UFR that isn't "oh look it's another mass of bodies play for 2-4 yards" is Michigan State running at Tim Jamison over and over and over and over. Michigan State had seen the film, and they didn't even bother with that side of the line.
As far as the passing game, just look at the numbers and the highlights to your right. Brandon Graham is a bad man.
Backups and Whatnot
There are none. The opening depth chart has walk-on Will Heininger actually ahead of redshirt junior Adam Patterson, which… wow. Patterson was a top 100 recruit in this day and is currently behind a walk-on who's younger than him. Michigan acquired an injury redshirt for Patterson after he missed most of last year, but will they actually offer a fifth year to him?
When that's the relevant question instead of "can he reasonably replace the best player on the team?" it's time to light a candle for Graham's various ligaments, tendons, bones, and so forth and so on.
|Ryan Van Bergen|
|Easy PSU sack|
AKA "quick" or "elephant" or any number of other things, the deathbacker and what he is has been discussed ad nauseum throughout the offseason. One final recap: the deathbacker is half man, half machine, half defensive end, half linebacker, and 200% awesome. Robinson's defense has the flexibility to flip him from weakside—where he operates as an out-wide dispenser of havoc with a practiced sack dance—to the strong, where he becomes a human shield for an undersized strong-side linebacker and general threat to penetrate into a running play. In spring practice, Michigan mostly used him as the latter in order to better single up terror defensive end Brandon Graham.
Your one and only option at this spot is redshirt sophomore Brandon Herron, who has not been heard nor seen from except on special teams so far. Herron was only a middling recruit—Nebraska was his best other offer—and wandered around a man without a position his first couple years. He, along with linebacker Marell Evans and tight end Steve Watson, were thrown in at the position during spring practice. Evans transferred and Watson's initial buzz gave way to the sort of radio silence that sees you drop behind a true freshman, about whom more later, leaving Herron the starter by default.
As you can tell by the decidedly non-action photo above, Herron hasn't seen much time on the field. The only pictures in Mike DeSimone's insanely comprehensive Michigan picture database that feature Herron on the field are fuzzy shots of the field goal block team. So… yeah. I've never seen the player in question play. I've never seen Michigan deploy the position in question. There's considerable debate as to what, exactly, this position is even going to entail when it hits the field. Any projection here is the purest guesswork.
Here's my guesswork: Herron hasn't seen action despite Michigan's paper-thin depth chart at linebacker the last couple years and has the position by virtual default. He wasn't a big recruit. He's getting talked up, but that talk has the distinct whiff of Johnny Sears. Remember that brief window before The Horror when Only Reasonable Corner Option Johnny Sears was getting talked up left and right? Yeah… about that.
Herron does have one thing going for him: his teammates were throwing around ridiculous numbers about weights lifted and pounds (235) and 40 times (4.4). You take FAKE physical attributes at your peril, though.
Backups and Whatnot
Good thing this positional preview is the last one to drop: this site's message board has an unconfirmed report that true freshman Craig Roh is actually going to get the start tomorrow. This would be bad, as it would thrust a true freshman who's been called "wiry" so many times that he bristled at it when someone dropped it at Media Day into the starting lineup, but it might not be that bad. Roh was a big-time recruit who picked Michigan over USC and many others, and I was ape about him when it came time to hit up his recruiting profile:
He should get immediate use as a situational pass rusher and could move into the starting line up by midseason. It might take longer but I don't think Evans, Watson, or Herron is going to keep him off the field for much more than a year.
Craig Roh DE (Michigan)
Straight baller that showed a Dwight Freeney spin on Kelley for a sack and sacked/tackled Russel Shepard in space. Had a handful of QB pressures over the course of the game. Rich Rod got himself a good one.
When Rodriguez started talking about how Roh will play immediately upon his arrival, the general tone of it was "…as a situational pass rusher." That's definitely in the cards, but I've been advocating the idea Roh will end up something more, and soon… I wouldn't be surprised if the unconfirmed report was true.
There is also redshirt freshman Steve Watson, who moved from tight end after it became clear his lack of athleticism would see him permanently buried behind Koger, Webb, and Moore on offense at a position that's strictly optional in the spread 'n' shred. As mentioned, there were some positive notes coming out of spring practice about him, but Roh quickly passed him. Watson's career arc looks like Coner on defense.
This is simultaneously not even worth posting and a huge relief:
-- University of Michigan football coach Rich Rodriguez announced tonight (Thursday, Sept. 3) during the Inside Michigan Football Radio Show that true freshman Tate Forcier (San Diego, Calif./Scripps Ranch HS) would take the first snap at quarterback against Western Michigan on Saturday (Sept. 5) at Michigan Stadium.
Brown will start at tailback, Olesnavage at kicker. Minor is "expected to play."
We're back with another attempt at casting pods into the nether reaches of space. This week we talk with Alan Rucker of Over The Pylon, a national college football blog with a Ball State bent, about Western Michigan and Stan Parrish's conversion from fusty grinder to spread acolyte. (Western Michigan blogs do not appear to exist.) Alan, happily, thinks the Broncos will get pounded.
This is the part where I might write some more stuff here, but I'm still attempting to finish the old season preview and the season starts in like two seconds. So I won't. One note: we had some audio issues so this one checks in at 16 minutes.
Note: video from last year is lightboxed; previous years will take you off the page.
A note before we start: this preview relies heavily on the defensive UFRs of last year, even more so than the offense did, because there’s a convenient numerical system that does a decent job of summing up a defensive player’s contributions. One caveat: the system is generous to defensive linemen and harsh to defensive backs, especially cornerbacks. A +4 for a defensive end is just okay; for a cornerback it’s outstanding.
|Jonas Mouton||Jr.*||Obi Ezeh||Jr.*||Stevie Brown||Sr.|
|Kenny Demens||Fr.*||JB Fitzgerald||So.*||Mike Jones||Fr.|
|Kevin Leach||So.*||Brandon Smith||Fr.*||Brandin Hawthorne||Fr.|
Here's where we have to start talking about the changes Greg Robinson hath wrought. In this defense there's a large distinction between the outside linebackers—"spinner" and deathbacker—and the inside linebackers. In this way it's more of a 3-4. Jay Hopson doesn't even coach the guys on the outside, he only gets the WLBs and MLBs. These guys will be operating off the line of scrimmage at all times and acting like conventional linebackers.
The outside guys are the hybrids, with the deathbacker somewhere between a defensive end and a linebacker and the "spinner"—a term that Greg Robinson claims does not exist—somewhere between a linebacker and a safety. On any particular play they could be tight to the line of scrimmage or dropped off. This helpful screenshot from diarist remdies should help clarify:
There's been a lot of debate on the blog about whether the base D is a 4-3 under or not; this alignment, for one, is pure 4-3 under. In any case, you can see the spinner and deathbacker at or near the line of scrimmage; Brown, if called to do so, can drop off onto the slot receiver. That's why he's on the strongside: to cover. I assume this will be the base formation against spreads, with adjustments for pounders.
Going into last year, Obi Ezeh was the Steve Schilling of the defense. Oh, hell, let me quote myself:
Sophomore middle linebacker Obi Ezeh was the Steve Schilling of the defense in 2007: a redshirt freshman pressed into the starting lineup before his time, he was unprepared and often bad. Now he’s the “veteran” anchor of a shaky unit, counted upon to improve massively.
Going into this year, Obi Ezeh is still the Steve Schilling of the defense: a two-year starter entering his redshirt junior year without having done much to distinguish himself and rapidly running out of upside. Schilling's got a fresh start and bonus round of practice hype based on his position switch, but Ezeh's not been so lucky. Though he's been showing up on some preseason All Big Ten lists, that's strictly a Matt Lentz phenomenon. Lentz entered his third year as a Michigan starting guard in 2005 with a ton of accolades; he left without even getting drafted. Winged helmet momentum sometimes carries meh players to lofty preseaon heights; Ezeh appears to be one of these folk.
There's a theme in the videos at right: the good ones usually involve Ezeh shooting towards the line of scrimmage on a blitz. The bad ones see him getting lost: see "hesitant, booted" or "suckered by PA" or "WHERE ARE YOU GOING"; the theme is clear here.
A lot of Ezeh's issues at right came in the Illinois game so let's check that game's UFR:
The first of Williams's crazy ninja ballfakes. This one suckers an unblocked Ezeh(-2) despite the fact Mouton is racing up into the same hole, beating a blocker to tackle the guy. … Ezeh(-1) fails to read this, hesitating long enough for the C to get out on him on the second level. … Ezeh(-2) took an upfield angle around a blocker [on a 57-yard screen touchdown]. … Problem: Ezeh(-2) overruns the WR as he cuts back since Mouton has forced him back upfield. He whiffs a tackle, allowing Illinois to convert. … Ezeh(-1.5) completely overruns the play, turning two yards into first and goal.
Now, Ezeh did have +8.5 scattered across that game but it was outweighed by a –12.5, which whoah. Most of the plusses came when Ezeh was permitted to attack the line of scrimmage immediately on a blitz or Illinois decided not to go with misdirection; you have to set people up sometimes, right? When they weren't doing that, they confused Ezeh. A lot.
Part of that was uncertainty about just what the hell he was doing. After I slammed Johnny Thompson for his performance in the Notre Dame game, high school coach and excellent diarist Steve Sharik came to his defense by way of blamin' Obi:
The mistake was by Obi Ezeh. By design, Ezeh is supposed to fast flow over the top and be outside of Thompson. If the back sees this and cuts back, he does so into the waiting arms of Terrance Taylor. Ezeh's used to the old way--which was played as you suggested. If you re-examine "bad iso 3," Ezeh is flat-footed instead of screaming over the top, which is what the scheme calls for. And that's why Thompson spilled the block again on the next play. The bad part is that Ezeh messed it up again.
It's not like Ezeh was the only one who had no idea what he was doing last year, but as the middle linebacker it's just way more apparent when you get lost because you're reading and reacting on every play.
Will it be better? Michigan, after all, has just switched schemes again. That will depend on Ezeh's increased experience giving him added flexibility and how much better Greg Robinson is compared to Scott Shafer at, you know, teaching people things. Everyone knows he's not David Harris but Harris didn't start until he was a redshirt junior; Ezeh will be one this fall. If he can just get his head on straight he should be average or slightly better.
will pop your lid
|Play action fail|
|Chasing down end around|
|Frowns: poor zone cover|
|Stands up FB, tackles|
|Stands up G, tackles|
|Improved coverage late|
|Destroys triple option|
The other starting spot is technically an outside linebacker position but the two spots are far more similar than WLB is to spinner/SLB so I'll slot Jonas Mouton here. Mouton's star was fading rapidly after he arrived out of California a top-50 recruit. Despite Chris Graham's persistent mediocrity, Mouton never threatened to start after moving from safety. And when Michigan opened last season, Mouton was behind two-star recruit Marell Evans.
Evans fell by the wayside when Michigan revamped its linebacker corps after the Utah un derneath coverage fiasco, paving the way for Mouton to chip in a +7 in his first extended game action against Miami Of Ohio (Not That Miami Of Ohio). Ah, but not so fast my friend:
Mouton was overrated by the numbers, IMO. I gave him credit for blitzing up into the heart of Miami plays over and over again; that credit should probably fall to Shafer and not Mouton. Overall, though, I did think he played well and was a major upgrade over Evans.
That he was. Evans fell into the background and hardly saw a defensive snap the rest of the season; Mouton dropped off from his dynamite debut into a series of performances that were only okay but promised better once Mouton found his feet. That he did. Amongst the debris of the Purdue disaster his "continued good play" was about the only positive I could find
The praise Mouton started picking up late last year in UFR is echoed by Hopson. No, scratch that. It is amplified considerably (further quotes in this piece from Hopson are all from this link):
I’ve been really pleased with Jonas. Jonas is a kid that has worked extremely hard. He’s a kid that’s an explosive player. He’s a kid…he’s my kind of guy. Jonas is a tough guy. He’s physical and we expect Jonas to make some plays for us. … I think he’s ready to have a big year. … I think he’s an NFL player all the way. I’ll sell him to anybody. I just love him.
This dedicated amateur concurs. Mouton's uptake last year was swift and by the end of the season he was easily Michigan's best linebacker. Chart? Chart.
|Wisconsin||6||4.5||1.5||Had a tough time against Wisconsin's mondo players and is still learning; potential is there.|
|Illinois||5||2.5||2.5||Was better suited to defend this offense than the more lumbering guys. BONUS: “solid day”|
|Penn State||7||6||1||Still terrible in coverage; turning into a good blitzer.|
|Michigan State||5.5||3||2.5||Stood up MSU's fullback time and again, clearly surprising MSU. ... pleasantly surprised by both OLBs in this game.|
|Purdue||5.5||3.5||2||The closest thing M has to a player in the back seven right now.|
|Minnesota||2||5.5||-3.5||Off day from him; was culpable on one of the GDCDs.|
|Northwestern||9.5||1.5||8||Monster day, best of his career. Really got freed up to attack and constantly shot past guys trying to block him.|
I could go through more of it but it's all the same in the comments: Mouton's an excellent, explosive blitzer and surprisingly stout when it comes to taking on fullbacks and even guards at the point of attack. He's still vulnerable to misdirection some and has coverage issues—though they weren't as severe as Ezeh's. He's got the athleticism to be a pass-rush threat and should get more capable in coverage this year. He'll be drawing easier assignments, for one, as Stevie Brown replaces Johnny Thompson in the lineup.
Mouton is poised for a breakout.
Backups and Whatnot
This is about the only spot on defense where there is reasonable depth. Two second-year players back up Ezeh and Mouton. Ezeh's primary backup is JB Fitzgerald, a sophomore who got special teams time a year ago. As a recruit, Fitzgerald was just outside the top 100 on the recruiting sites and has gotten the sporadic positive mention in practice reports and coach recaps. Hopson recently said that Fitzgerald is "really in a battle" for a starting job, and though that may be optimistic about his chances it says something about him that he's not just shoved into the background.
More from Hopson:
JB … knows both positions. JB is smart. He’s also very much like Obi. He is mentally sharp. He’s physical and JB is a competitor. He’s not going to give in. JB wants a job too. He’s going to work hard and I’m fortunate to have guys like that. … He might be a little bit further ahead at MIKE right now, but I probably practice him a lot more at MIKE right now.
He should be reasonably prepared should he be called upon, and his talent level seems high. He's probably the player outside the starting eleven you should be least terrified to see on the field.
Kenny Demens is a classmate of Fitzgerald's but got an injury redshirt last year after appearing on special teams in the first couple games. He wasn't a huge recruit or anything, but the practice buzz has been positive. He'll be Mouton's primary backup.
There is also converted safety Brandon Smith. Smith was a big recruit—about on par with Mouton, actually—who stayed at safety his first year mostly because Michigan had few other options. When it became clear he didn't have the speed to stay there in spring, he was moved to linebacker.
Hopson is very positive about him:
They have to have an awareness. … That’s the one thing that has impressed me about Brandon Smith, moving from defensive back. When you’re far away from the ball sometimes you have time and distant on your side, you have a little bit more time to decipher. Brandon came in and in two days, okay this kid has that ability. He can see right now. A lot of players are big, physical and fast, but they can't see all the stuff that a linebacker has to see. It is truly that natural instinct.
Question: Is Brandon Smith catching up?
Jay Hopson: “Yes, he really is. He is a kid that’s worked extremely hard. I see him making one more step every day."
Even so, it will take at least a year for Smith to get comfortable enough to be a viable option. If we see him this year the linebacking corps will look like a MASH unit. Look for Smith to idle away on the bench until Mouton and Ezeh graduate, then battle for a starting job as a redshirt junior. He should be a special teams mainstay.
|The Horror Begins|
|Frowns: Utah overrrun|
|PBU leads to int|
|Blanket in man|
|FROWNS: Blown post|
|FROWNS: Slant = TD|
|FROWNS: tackle whiff|
|FROWNS: flat fail|
|Actually appears to be a safety here|
I don't remember where I read this but it sounds like the sort of quote that must have been on a message board somewhere, penned by one of those insider-type folks. Wherever it was, it lodged in my head and won't leave. Here's a possibly apocryphal quote about Stevie Brown from Greg Robinson: "he's a hell of a lot better player where he is now."
For the love of God, let that be true. A brief tour of Stevie Brown's 2008 can be found at right, or you can just read this in-depth scouting report: ack.
Brown … seems hopeless. He was quiet for a few games, then returned with a vengeance in this one. Some guys just can't figure out how to play, and at this point it would be shocking if the light ever went on.
Oh and the Northwestern one:
that's quintessential Brown: poor angles and poor awareness of the situation on the field.
And some others but you get the point. Brown was a horror show at safety.
But he's no longer a safety and if you look at the few highlights at right that don't start with the word "frowns" you'll find the athleticism that made Brown a big recruit out of high school and some good examples of man coverage. If he's not the last line of defense and he's in a lot of man against tight ends or tailbacks coming out of the back and maybe a slot receiver or three, maybe this could be okay? It certainly addresses one of the dumbest traits of Scott Shafer's tenure as defensive coordinator: leaving dinosaur MLB Johnny Thompson on the field against spread teams and asking him to cover… well, anyone. At the very least, Brown is more suited for modern football than a guy with a neck roll. Who covered slot receivers. Argh! That's another post, though, and one for tomorrow.
Brown, for one, thinks his move is a good one:
“It’s been going well. It was a little different for me at camp having to actually hit the O-lineman and tight ends all day, every day. Thus far, it’s been fine. I’ve been able to adjust to it very well. Coach Robinson does a good job teaching it and I think it’s going to work out very well for me.”
I do too, but man that incident in the spring game where the Coner juked him out of his jock, combined with, you know, everything else in his history, makes me leery. I do think he'll be in position to make a lot of plays, and I love the flexibility and common sense of putting a virtual safety in a spot where he can blitz, play zone, or man up. I like putting him behind deathbeast Brandon Graham, which should make it harder for defenses to exploit his lack of size. And people get better as they age. Michigan's put Brown in a spot to maximize his assets and minimize his downside, and I kind of sort of think it will work out.
Backups and Whatnot
None with experience. Michigan brought in three safety/linebacker hybrid freshmen, though. No one's heard much about Isaiah Bell (recruiting profile) so far because IIRC he's been injured. Mike Jones (recruiting profile)is second on the depth chart after enrolling early; Brandin Hawthorne (recruiting profile) also enrolled early but is, for now, behind a walk-on. Jones will play in an effort to get someone ready for the spot once Brown graduates; Hawthorne and Bell are likely to redshirt.
Note: video from last year is lightboxed; previous years will take you off the page.
|Boubacar Cissoko||So.||Troy Woolfolk||Jr.||Michael Williams||So.*||Donovan Warren||Jr.|
|JT Floyd||Fr.*||Jared Van Slyke||So*.||Vlad Emilien||Fr.||Justin Turner||Fr.|
Christ, just look at this. Seniors: zero. Freshman starter: check. Converted corner starting at safety: check. One player with more than returning starts: check. Two, maybe three viable backups, only one of whom has ever stepped on a collegiate field before: check.
I don't want to talk about it. Brightside: no Stevie Brown?
This is two guys who should be nasty in-your-face press corners, one 6'2" corner recruit hyped to the moon, and a deep pit of terror and dismay after it. Verifying the press nasty business first:
"Boubacar and Donovan are outstanding cover guys," Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez said. "Some corners don’t like to play press and get in your face. You want ones that want and relish that and want to get in and play some press one-on-one man coverage, be aggressive on the edge. And both those guys have that kind of mentality."
|Defending the edge|
|Snuffs a screen|
|UW buffalo stampede|
|BONUS: Incredulous Bielema|
|Tough press cover|
Second, the men who press nasty. Man the first is Donovan Warren, a true junior out of California whose hyped stardom track (be an awesome recruit, start as a freshman, blow up as a sophomore) fell prey to the injuries and schizophrenic coaching that befell virtually everyone on the defense last year. By the Penn State game I was actively hoping/speculating that Warren was laid up:
Donovan Warren. I really, really hope he's had one of those injuries that's just not quite bad enough to knock you out of the game, and I hope he's had that most of the year. Because he hasn't made a single play, and a lot of Penn State's success was going right at him.
This was the case. Warren had offseason surgery to remove bone chips and enters the fall healthier than he was at any point last year:
"Talking with trainers and Donovan, he's as good as he's ever felt," Gibson said this summer. "Nobody really knows it except (us what he endured). He wasn't healthy at all. There wasn't one game he was healthy. We had to sit him out of drills to get him healthy. We'd never get him right."
So Warren's plateau has a reason behind it and fans can again hope that the promise that got him rated five stars and saw him leap directly into the starting lineup will pay off. Even with the bone chips, Warren turned in most of the good plays the secondary deigned to provide Michigan last year, including a certain jumped slant that turned into a Johnny Thompson buffalo stampede and, eventually, one of Michigan's precious wins.
|Running a guy's route|
|Doing it again|
|FROWNS: losing leverage|
Sophomore Boubacar Cissoko is the other starter at corner. A highly rated recruit out of Cass Tech, Cissoko was reputed to be one of those feisty dwarf corners who just sits in your pocket all day and dares you to make a break. Gibson's impression of Cissoko heaven is 80 press man calls. And indeed, a couple of the highlights at right demonstrate his ability to run your route for you, thanks very much.
My go-to (and now rapidly aging) comparison was Arkansas corner Chris Houston, who I once saw battle the South Carolina star receiver before Kenny McKinley (his name escapes me) in a pitched Thursday night battle. Houston lined up two inches from his cover's grill and rode him into fades all night, some of which the opponent brought in spectacularly. That's life with feisty dwarves.
Cissoko got a start against Purdue because of Michigan's (insane!) shift to the 3-3-5 and struggled with it. Boubacar Cissoko, this is your abridged Purdue UFR:
This is just sickeningly open, with Cissoko(-1) offering an eight yard cushion and moving backward on the snap. He's nowhere near this, but is it bad play or is that just the coverage? (Cover -2) … Cissoko(-1) overruns the play and guys recover to tackle at the two. … Mouton(-1) gets too far inside and gives up the outside bounce, which Sheets takes. Good job by Cissoko(+1) to mitigate the damage. … Just to switch it up, this time it's Cissoko(-1) a couple yards off the wide receiver. Same technique as the earlier Trent thing. Purdue can run this route every damn down. … This guy is covered by Cissoko(+1) and he's got his head around looking for the ball … it looks like Orton is streaking for a touchdown until Cissoko(+1) makes it back to the ball, knocking it away. (Cover +1) Orton was open because he pulled Cissoko's facemask, FWIW. They call it; Michigan declines. … Cissoko(-1) is set up to tackle after two yards or whatever; Cissoko misses the tackle and Michigan ends up yielding six. … They're in man on this one but Cissoko gets lost, turning outside and leaving the initial hitch wide, wide open (-1, cover -2); the lateral isn't covered.
How much of this was actually his fault? Not much. Morgan Trent was doing the exact same "sickeningly" open bit on the other side, as noted above. It was clear the corners were doing what they were told, even when it made no goddamn sense.
Gibson, for his part says, Cissoko "has got to have a great year"—encouraging!—and that he loves his aggressiveness but "you kind of have to have him back up from that a little bit." It does sound as if the light has gone on a bit, if I can extrapolate:
We grade every rep that these kids take every day. The thing about him is that he is all over the field. We use him in the run game. He’s supporting the run, he’s playing man coverage. He’s playing zone coverage. You know just all those things and he’s getting them. That’s a relief for me. He’s figuring it all out and he’s feeling comfortable as he goes.”
That inexperience and aggression was the culprit on two of Michigan State's big gainers last year. In Cissoko Michigan is likely to find a source of big plays for and against; the balance will go a long way towards determining how good the team is. The prediction here: a rough start and strong finish.
Backups and Whatnot
This position was so thin in the spring that walk-on Floyd Simmons was on the two-deep, and there was nearly disastrous attrition from the reinforcements before they even arrived on campus. Both Adrian Witty and Justin Turner had clearinghouse issues; as of this writing, Witty is still in limbo after a test retake. Even if he makes it in at this point he's a guaranteed redshirt.
Turner, though, is in. And thank God for that. He was the #1 player in Ohio last year and a near five-star who showed up at the Army All-America game seeking to prove he could operate on the corner despite checking in at 6'2". Skeptics were converted and by the time he left Turner was ranked amongst the top corners in the nation. Turner's recruiting profile has his full dossier. Here's one of a half-dozen panting quotes in the aftermath of the Army Game:
“He played his way up the charts. We knew he was good. Everyone knew what a tremendous player he was before his senior year in high school, but he separated himself in the U.S. Army game. He was arguably the best player on the field, not just in the game, but in practices as well. ... It’s exciting to see how big he’s gonna be for the Wolverines."
The Clearinghouse troubles cost him a week of practice and he may start the year behind redshirt freshman JT Floyd, about whom more in a bit, but moon-hyped Michigan cornerbacks traditionally see the field after their first few games. Turner will be no exception given the crying lack of depth in the secondary. He's already started working in with the ones a bit. Tony Gibson:
He’s having a really good camp. He ran with the ones yesterday for a couple of series at the end and made some plays. I think he got 30 total plays in the scrimmage yesterday. … That’s the first time we’ve put him in there just to see what he would do. He did really well with them. We played him a lot of man coverage yesterday and that’s kind of his thing. He’s so long, he can get his arms on people and hands on people. I like the way he’s progressing.
Unlike OMG shirtless Michigan cornerbacks past, Turner has to contend with two players who have more experience and essentially equal recruiting hype. He is not likely to start, and with Stevie Brown's presence at linebacker dedicated nickel packages might be less frequent, but he's the best bet to come off the bench on passing downs.
JT Floyd, meanwhile, arrived at Michigan with little hype and redshirted. He was originally a Tennessee commit but it didn't seem like Fulmer & Co pursued him that hard when he started to look around. With Tennessee's recruiting class that year ranking amongst the country's most disappointing, that says something. What it says is that Floyd is physically deficient. Ask Gibson:
From a mental standpoint he is really good. Physically, he is a little behind, but he is faster now going through Coach Barwis’ strength and conditioning stuff. Mentally, he has it from day one but physically is where he has had to catch up and I think he is doing that.
If that sounds like a future safety to you, it does to me, too, but they moved Woolfolk instead so I don't know. Floyd's recruiting rankings and that Gibson quote peg him squarely in the realm of low-upside overachiever; with the hyped corners all around he'll probably be a career nickel/dime guy. Think maybe Grant Mason?
The last scholarship player before we get to the aforementioned Simmons—who this preview will not discuss due to a lack of information and desire to avoid contemplating a walk-on cornerback—is converted tailback/slot receiver Teric Jones, a true freshman from Cass Tech. His recruiting profile isn't particularly useful since it assumes Jones will play offense but it does point out that Jones ran the fastest 40 at the Army Junior Combine last year; if he can learn the position he's got the speed and agility to play it. Gibson says he's been one of the pleasant surprises of camp:
We got him the day before camp started. We had a staff meeting and talked about some guys that we could move over and he was the first guy we had mentioned. He’s been in the two deep the last couple of practices. He had a good day yesterday, had an interception. He’s playing well and learning the system. He still has a lot to learn obviously, but he’s getting better.
That's encouraging, but Jones didn't play a snap of defense in high school and if this isn't a redshirt year for him we'll be cursing Angry Michigan Cornerback-Hating God, because at least two corners will be laid up.
Stevie Brown and his reel of lowlights interspersed with good man coverage are off to the linebackers section, leaving Michigan's safety situation at the exact spot you would expect given that Brown was an unchallenged starter all last year despite stuff like this being a regular occurrence. But that's another show.
The remaining folk at this position are:
- a junior who was a cornerback halfway through fall practice
- a redshirt sophomore who did not challenge Brown or equally poor Charles Stewart for (much) playing time last year
- a true freshman who missed his senior year of high school with a knee injury
- a true freshman who was a quarterback until Michigan told him they'd offer if they saw him at safety as a senior
At least it can't get worse, right? I just checked all the defensive UFRs from last year and I can assure you that it cannot. Except that's what I said two years ago when Brown replaced Ryan Mundy, a guy with his own unflattering stat named after him and "the worst safety I have ever seen in a Michigan uniform." Brown was directly responsible for 14 points during The Horror and Mundy got drafted. By an NFL team.
Of course it can get worse. Do not doubt the power of Angry Michigan Safety-Hating God. Of all the gods that are randomly angered by various college football position groups only Angry Iowa Tailback-Hating God is as wroth.
Michigan was going with Mike Williams and Brandon Smith early in spring until their performance was clearly substandard. They moved Smith to linebacker, Troy Woolfolk to safety, and Vlad Emilien into the starting lineup.
Of the above options, one stands above the rest and it's the cornerback. Junior Troy Woolfolk, yes still the son of Butch Woolfolk and a man who will probably retain that status next year, has locked down a starting spot since he moved from corner just before the spring game.
Longtime readers of the blog will know this trips one of MGoBlog's heuristics for season prediction: any guy you swap from one position to another and then expect to start will be bad, and given that this guy moved and is your best option that probably goes for the whole unit as well. Now, this is considerably stronger when the player in question is flipping from one side of the ball to another or going from a position that's usually considered easier to play to one that's tougher. Last year's John Ferrara move from DT to guard was an obvious reason to groan at the state of the offensive line; a corner moving to safety is more likely to be a non-disaster. But it's still not good.
Maybe Woolfolk's history at the position—he played it his senior year of high school in an attempt to take advantage of his speed—will help out. Maybe the aforementioned speed, which is considerable, will. It won't take much to make Michigan fans, or Obi Ezeh, happy:
"Less so than last year is the play culminating in a 50-yard bomb, you know," linebacker Obi Ezeh said. "That's always a good thing when you don't have to worry about that."
What a remarkable quote. It says so many things. Some are about Stevie Brown. Some are about the recent history of Michigan safeties not named Jamar Adams. Some are about Troy Woolfolk. And some are abut life. There's never been a more appropriate spot to say this: so, yeah, we've got that going for us.
And for a throwaway quote with odd syntax it's pretty encouraging. Less so than last year is the 50 yard touchdown culmination. If we close our eyes and say it over and over again everything will be black and white and someone nice and matronly will be pressing a cold compress to our forehead as we detail the strange dream wherein our favorite football team went 3-9.
For his part, Woolfolk:
"You can be the fastest person in the world, but if you're not making the right keys, it can happen," Woolfolk said. "Like on playaction and not picking up the tight end, it's not only speed but also being smart and I'm working on the intelligence aspect of the game.
"But I think the speed will help as well."
I dunno. He could be okay. He's an upperclassman who put a death grip on the job as soon as he got it and safety is less physically demanding than cornerback. And though he's got the weight of history and heuristics against him, when I sat in for Sam Webb on WTKA both Craig Ross and AnnArbor.com's Michael Rothstein brought up their strange, unjustified confidence in Woolfolk based on their readings of practice tea leaves and the confidence both Woolfolk and his teammates had in him.
On Media Day, Tony Gibson called Woolfolk "his eraser"; if that's all he does this year he'll vastly improve Michigan's defense. It is too much to hope, and yet…
…there it is. Hope.
The player opposite Woolfolk is yet to be determined. True freshman Vlad Emilien, an early enroller who promises to have an MGoShirt (THE IMPALER!) sooner rather than later if he pans out, was the tentative leader at the spring game. He played opposite Woolfolk and didn't do anything particularly embarrassing. The other candidate is Mike Williams, the erstwhile leader before the spring switch and is the designated starter for Western; he's not big but has a reputation as a ferocious hitter. A ferocious, irresponsible hitter.
Emilien's been the presumed starter here and elsewhere but no one's really had much to go on since the spring position switch and there's at least one guy who's been taking in what practice he can who expects the (relatively) veteran player to get the nod. He's AnnArbor.com's Dave Birkett:
"I know I'm going to have a little jitters playing in front of 110,000," Emilien said. "But I’m looking forward to just showing my aggression, just getting out there and playing to my full potential." …
A January enrollee, Emilien is healthy now and has shown enough in spring practice and fall camp to crack the playing group at the thin safety position. Converted cornerback Troy Woolfolk and sophomore Mike Williams are the projected starters, with Emilien and Jared Van Slyke pushing for time as backups.
Here's something to shiver your spine: Van Slyke's one of them walk-on folk. Beatwriter depth-chart guessing is just above blogger deduction in terms of accuracy—not much to be found in either—but it's something at a murky, touchdown-scoring-shark infested position.
Back to people with scholarships: Emilien is a wild card after his senior year of high school was wiped out by a knee injury (recruiting profile for you). Before that he was on the verge of committing to Ohio State; after it Ohio State backed off and Emilien lost interest. When the Buckeyes came back in late, they were told to talk to the hand. This was the main factor in his decision:
"It meant a lot to me that U-M stayed loyal to me after I hurt my knee ... others stopped recruiting me at that time and that hurt. Michigan stayed with me; they showed me they will still be with me in tough times as well as good."
So Emilien's a risk because of injury and resultant inexperience but he's got four stars despite the senior-year injury and offers from Ohio State, which has a frustrating excellent safety factory right next to their frustrating excellent kicker factory, and a number of other high-profile schools. He arrived in spring and his knee is healthy. As a natural safety it's a matter of time before he sees the field in some capacity. There's reason for significant optimism for his career… but he remains a freshman. And never again shall I say "Player X couldn't possibly be worse than impossibly bad Safety Y."
Backups And Whatnot
What backups? It appears that Jared Van Slyke is on the two-deep for serious. Now, you can get away with the occasional walk-on safety—Jon Chait had the best zinger of a three-hour block on WTKA when he said Wisconsin had an "endowed chair" for walk-on safeties—but raise your hand if you're enthusiastic about that prospect given Michigan's safety play of late. Right: no one.
He's important enough to video but even Van Slyke admits he's "surprised" to be in a position to play before doing a 180 and declaring he's always expected it. I've got nothing on him other than what the coaches say, so Tony Gibson:
Jared has done a nice job. The deal with Jared, he was a quarterback at Southeast Missouri, transferred in here, was a wide receiver until right before spring ball and we moved Jared in right now. He’s battling obviously Troy for some playing time back there…. I kind of like my depth at safety. They’re young kids, but I like coaching them and they’re aggressive to learn and all that. I like what their doing.
That makes one of us, Tony Gibson.
He sat out last year in his redshirt year, but he’s been very active at safety for us. He’s a smart football player. He’s involved in a lot of the special teams. He’s going to get a chance to play next weekend.
I assume that's just on special teams. Also hope. BONUS biographical note: Van Slyke is the son of longtime baseball pro and Tigers assistant Andy Van Slyke.
The guy behind Slyke is true freshman Thomas Gordon, also from Cass Tech. (If Dior Mathis and 2011 CB Delonte Hollowell sign on, Michigan will be able to field an entire nickel package from one high school.) He was a high school quarterback who showed at summer camp, was told to play safety in the fall to get an offer, got one, and committed. So he's raw. He was also nicknamed "prison abs" by Rodriguez—causing several Free Press writers to faint—and therefore can be expected to have a good work ethic.
Like Jones, an appearance by Gordon this year means several players have been struck by lightning and bodes very unwell. A redshirt is best here, plz k thx. Here is Gordon's recruiting profile, by the way.
And that's it.
You've got two options today: I'll be on WTKA from 9-10 AM and on WRIF sometime in the 9 o-clock hour as well. The latter is pre-taped, so I'm not violating any laws of physics.