"Rodrick Williams Jr.'s 10-month old, 2-foot-long savannah monitor named "Kill" gets the RB some strange looks when they go for walks together."
Four Plays – Michigan @ Rutgers 2015
This series examines the probable individual matchups Michigan expects to face against particular opponents on one of Michigan’s key running plays and one of its key passing plays, as well as defensively against a couple of the opponent’s key plays (assuming first-sting personnel in a base defensive alignment).
I did four of these in 2013, and was planning on doing more but was too demoralized by around week seven to keep going. I only made it about half that far last season. Now we have Harbaugh though, so I’m pretty confident I can make it through the whole season.
The first game, of course, is on the road against Utah—a team that has always seemed to get the most out of its talent and has played Michigan tough over the years. Those past games were all played in the friendly confines of Michigan Stadium, but this year the Wolverines go on the road to experience Rice-Eccles Stadium and its 4.657-foot elevation. Evidently the Ute fans, butthurt over Harbaugh’s decision to swap out Alex Smith for Colin Kaepernick in 49er days, plan on welcoming the Michigan head coach with a bunch of Alex Smith heads-on-sticks. There probably aren’t many things less intimidating than Alex Smith’s head on a stick, so that’s all I’m going to say about that. Let’s look at some matchups.
When Michigan has the ball…
1. Counter F
Power O is certainly a well-known part of Jim Harbaugh’s offense, as the White Team famously made clear by coming out on the first play of the spring game and running Power O for 34 yards. Indeed, this off-season you couldn’t click on a “Harbaugh Offense” search window without somebody diagramming Power O and linking clips of old Stanford teams kicking ass with it. So, it might behoove me to choose Power O for the first play here. Yet in an effort to not be redundant, I am instead going wit Counter F, a similar play to Power O that utilizes newly-minted Michigan captain Joe Kerridge as the lead blocker in place of the usual backside guard.
Power O, in case you are new to the schematics, is a classic running play on which the playside tackle and tight end double-team the opposing defensive end, a fullback or h-back “kicks out” (drives to the outside) the “EMLOS” (End Man on Line of Scrimmage), and a pulling guard leads the running back through the “6 hole” (i.e., the gap outside the tackle).
26 Power O:
Counter F works much like Power O; the offense still gets a double-team at the point-of-attack, and the tailback’s initial counter-step hopefully gets linebackers flowing away from the playside. But now, the responsibilities of the fullback and backside guard are exchanged: the guard executes a trap block on the EMLOS, while fullback leads the ballcarrier through the six hole.
26 Counter F:
LT Mason Cole: Down block WDE Jason Fanaika
LG Ben Braden: Execute long trap block to kick-out “Stud” LB Uaea Masina
C Graham Glasgow: Down block DT Filipo Mokofisi
RG Kyle Kalis: Down block NT Lowell Lotulelei
RT Erik Magnuson: Block SDE Hunter Dimmck (away from 6-hole)
TE Jake Butt: With RT Erick Magnuson, double-team SDE Hunter Dimick; move to second level and block WLB Jared Norris
FB Joe Kerridge: Lead tailback through 6-hole, block first red jersey (presumably MLB Jason Whittingham)
RB – Deveon Smith: Take counter-step toward backside (to influence linebackers), then take handoff on playside; run through 6-hole, read and cut off of FB Joe Kerridge’s block
We’re all excited to see what Tim Drevno can do with Michigan’s offensive line. He has a lot of experienced talent to work with, and most of Michigan’s projected OL starters are upper-classmen with several years of college S&C in the books. But as promising as that looks, Michigan’s OL is still potential while Utah’s defensive line has produced. Strongside end Hunter Dimick had 10 sacks and 14.5 TFLs last season, while NT Lowell Latoulelei is an early-entry candidate for the NFL draft. Add to that Utah’s deep collection of junior and senior LBs, and M has a lot to prove here.
Another main theme of the off-season has been that big things are expected of junior tight end Jake Butt. I’m a big believer in this myself, as Butt has both proven himself a gritty, tough player in the Bo/Harbaugh tradition and demonstrated superior receiving skills from day one. One way to get Butt the ball is the Y-Cross concept, an old Lavell Edwards play that has become a staple of Air Raid and passing spread offenses.
Though there are countless variations on the Y-Cross, the main concept is to have an outside receiver occupy the cornerback deep, while the crossing tight end or slot receiver heads for the vacated space. While crossing routes are naturally good against man coverage, Y-Cross is also a good call against 3-deep zones because the crosser and the Z-receiver end up flooding the same deep third. Other variations combine Y-Cross with option routes, or with play-action fakes designed to freeze the linebackers and shake the crosser wide open.
Most versions of Y-Cross also have a third playside receiver—usually a back or TE releasing into the flat, and the quarterback reads deep-to-short (fade, to cross, to flat). But in the Michigan spring game, the White Team ran a version of Y-Cross from a 2 TE shotgun look with only two playside receivers. On that play, White kept back in for protection and got TE Chase Winovich isolated against a safety. Winovich unfortunately dropped a strike from Malzone, but the play would have gone for big yardage if caught.
XWR Amara Darboh: Run fade route vs. BCB Reggie Porter
RB Ty Isaac: Pass protection
LT Mason Cole: Pass block SDE Hunter Dimick
LG Ben Braden: Pass block DT Filipo Mokofisi
C Graham Glasgow: Pass block NT Lowell Lotolelei
RG Kyle Kalis: Pass block NT Lowell Lotolelei
RT Erik Magnuson: Pass block WDE Jason Fanaika
Slot WR Grant Perry: Run dig route vs. NCB Justin Thomas
YTE Jake Butt: Run crossing route (inside release, aim for sideline at 20 yards) vs. MLB Jason Whittingham
ZWR Jehu Chesson: Run fade route vs. FCB Dominique Hatfield
QB Jake Rudock: 5-step drop; “alert” read is Z Receiver (read during drop and throw in case of coverage bust) #1 read is Y-cross; if covered, #2 read is slot receiver on dig route.
According to the position-group previews on Utah blog Block U, it just about every player on Utah is an unstoppable ANFO-breathing football ninja, so perhaps I really should be giving the edge to the Utes here. I think M can hold its own though; not only does the Utah pass rush look significantly less scary with Nate Orchard now a Cleveland Brown, but Jake Butt is an accomplished receiving TE and this type of play appears to be in Jake Rudock’s wheelhouse.
When Utah has the ball…
1. Pistol Inside Zone
Inside Zone, as you probably know by now, is the ubiquitous downhill running play on which covered linemen block the defenders lined up across from them, uncovered linemen head to the second level, and the running back then reads the blocking and cuts north into daylight.
Last season I diagrammed Utah’s Inside Zone Read, a version of the same play but involving an option read at the mesh point. Inside Zone Read gives the offense an extra blocker by enabling the QB run threat to effectively “block” the backside defensive end. But the Utah backfield pairs 1,500-yard, bowling-ball style rusher Devantae Booker with 6’7” Travis Wilson; though Wilson himself has over 300 yards rushing in each of the past two seasons, letting him keep the ball on option reads takes the ball out of the hands of Booker—a fierce back currently projected to be taken in the second or third round of the 2016 NFL Draft. That’s probably why, as Oregon blog FishDuck noticed while previewing the Utes last season, Utah started just using an H-back to actually block the backside pursuer, rather than option him off with Wilson.
WDE Mario Ojemudia: set edge two yards deep and two yards outside, defend C-gap vs. RT Hiva Lutui, constrict B-gap
NT Ryan Glasgow: hold up to double-team vs. LG Isaac Asiata and LT JJ Dielman, defend backside A-gap
DT Willie Henry: hold up to double-team vs. C Siaosi Aiono and RG Salesi Uhatafe, defend playside B-gap
SDE Chris Wormley: Defeat block of H-Back Siale Fakailoatonga, backside pursuit
WLB Desmond Morgan: Defeat block of C Siaosi Aiono, defend playside A-gap
MLB Joe Bolden: Defeat block of LT JJ Dielman, defend backside B-gap
Booker is an outstanding running back. But their offensive line is young and does not appear to have a replacement for graduated star tackle Jeremiah Poutasi. While pass rush remains a question mark for Michigan, the Wolverines remain a stout run defense unit and that should continue in 2015.
2. All Curls
I took an educated guess last year that all-curls might be Utah’s base passing play, mainly because Utah had hired passing spread guru Dave Christiansen as their offensive coordinator and he had shown a proclivity for the play. Though I prefer to make jokes about all the things I get wrong, in this case I actually got it right; here you can see Utah run all-curls repeatedly on a game winning drive against USC.
All-curls is a particularly effective against Cover 3, which leaves only four underneath defenders to cover five possible receivers. But even against other coverages, the play is a reliable chain-mover that provides two distinct advantages as a base play. For one, all-curls gives the quarterback four slow-moving or stationary targets, each facing the QB, and spread horizontally across the field, as well as a releasing back for a safety valve option. Second, numerous other route combinations can be built off the same route stem as all-curls (e.g., slant-wheel, smash-corner, four verticals, etc.)—thus giving the offense plenty of constraint alternatives against a defense that overplays the curls.
BCB Wayne Lyons: Press coverage vs. WR Kenneth Scott
NCB Jabrill Peppers: Press coverage vs. Slot WR Delshawn McClellan
WDE Mario Ojemudia: Pass rushg vs. LT JJ Dielman
3T Willie Henry: Pass Rush vs. LG Isaac Asiata
NT Ryan Glasgow: Pass rush vs. C Siaosi Aiono, RG Salesi Uhatafe
SDE Chris Wormley: Pass rush vs. RT Hiva Lutui
WLB Joe Bolden: Man coverage vs. RB Devontae Booker
MLB Desmond Morgan: Drop into middle zone; read and follow QB’s eyes to ball
FS Jerrod Wilson: Cover deep middle
SS Delano Hill: Press coverage vs. WR Kenric Young
FCB Jourdan Lewis: Press coverage vs. WR Tim Patrick
One piece of extremely good news for Michigan is that Utah’s outstanding 2014 wide receivers, Dres Anderson and Kaelin Clay, have graduated, and there doesn’t appear to have been much behind them. Senior Kenneth Scott caught 48 balls for 506 yards and 4 TDs last season, but nobody else has much in the way of statistics—or even hype on the ridiculously effusive Block U. As for Michigan, the secondary is one of the team’s strongest units, with Jourdan Lewis arguably the team’s best returning defensive player and Jabrill Peppers looking a possible DPOY candidate in the Big Ten. M’s pass rush remains a point of concern, however, and Utah does have a mobile senior QB, so no advantage overall. Hopefully Jourdan and Jabrill prove me wrong about that a few times.
Bonus: EGD’s 2015 Michigan Preview
Almost every year since probably the late 1990s I’ve written a Michigan football preview targeted at my friends and acquaintances—most of whom aren’t exactly mgousers. I posted it here the last two or three seasons and it was reasonably well-received, but on the whole I’d say if you haven’t read HTTV yet, read that; if you haven’t read the front-page UM preview material yet, read that. If you’ve plowed through all that and still have a UM Football jones, click on the link below.
Several Michigan teams kicked off their 2015 seasons this week. But before we get to those teams, let's recap the team that kicked of the 2015-16 Michigan Athletic calendar last week-
Michigan Women's Soccer
3-1-0 Overall, 0-0-0 B1G
8/28 - Michigan 2 San Diego 1
8/30 - Michigan 3 Detroit 0
After Michigan split its first two games last weekend, beating EMU 7-1 in the opener and losing to Marquette on Sunday 2-1, the Wolverines came into this weekend's pair of games knowing they let the Marquette game get away quick and had that loss fresh in their minds.
Marquette scored 2 goals in 34 seconds after Michigan led for most of the game, to snipe the lead and the game from Michigan's grasp.
On Friday night, Michigan hosted San Diego. A team that handed the Wolverines a 3-0 defeat a year ago this weekend out in San Diego.
Touted freshman Reilly Martin got her first career start, and she made good on it by scoring her first career goal after 53 minutes of scoreless soccer to give Michigan a 1-0 lead over the Toreros.
Just 4 minutes later, Nicky Waldeck would get her first goal of the young season to give Michigan a 2-0 lead.
San Diego scored six minutes later, but Michigan's tough defense shut down USD, preserving the 2-1 win. Michigan outshot USD 25-5, including outshooting them 13-0 in the first half. The USD keeper made 7 saves and is what kept this from being a blowout victory.
In a Sunday night game, Michigan took on Detroit and didn't waste much time like they did against San Diego in terms of getting on the scoreboard.
Taylor Timko, who had a hat trick in season opener, scored her 4th goal of the season at 21:04 to give Michigan a 1-0 lead. A little over a minute later, Lulu Haidar scored her 3rd of the year on a free kick to increase the lead to 2-0.
Remember how I said Michigan has a tough defense? Yeah, they only allowed 1 shot this entire game. ONE SHOT.
Abby Kastroll scored her first career goal at 83 minutes to cap the weekend off for Michigan with a 3-0 win over Detroit.
Michigan outshot its opponents 58-6 this weekend, and has allowed only 19 shots in 4 games which averaging out to 4.75 shots per game by the opposition.
Obviously, that number will go up as the competition gets better, but this is an encouraging start to the season thus far despite the setback against Marquette.
Michigan will head out to Seattle next weekend for a pair of games. They'll take on Portland in a neutral site game on Friday at 8pm and then they'll play a road game against Washington on Sunday at 6pm.
The game against Washington will be televised on the Pac-12 Networks.
3-0 Overall, 0-0 B1G
8/28 - Michigan 3 George Washington 1
8/29 - Michigan 3 Oakland 0, Michigan 3 West Virginia 0
Abby Cole (#17) had 16 blocks in 3 matches this weekend
After a 2014 season that was really hurt from the start due to injuries starting to pile up before the year even began, Michigan is looking to rebound big time in 2015.
In addition to having a young team last year, it didn't help matters that they were decimated by injuries. Having that happen and having to play in the toughest conference in the nation usually will not end well.
As a result, Michigan missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2005. They did pull off some impressive upset wins over powerhouse Nebraska and Ohio State, which only showed what they may have been capable of all year long at full strength.
At any rate, Michigan opened their 2015 season at Cliff Keen Arena, hosting the Michigan Invitational. A four team tournament featuring West Virginia, Oakland and George Washington.
Michigan faced George Washington on Friday night for the first time in program history. Baseball legend Jim Abbott was in attendance as his daughter Maddy is a freshman setter.
6'5 Abby Cole was quite the problem for George Washington. She had 10 total blocks.
Michigan seemed to be cruising to a straight set win, taking the first two by scores of 25-17 and 25-15. However, GWU bounced back and won a competitive third set, 25-23.
The fourth set was a tight one as well, but Michigan thankfully pulled it out and avoided the pressure of a deciding fifth, winning 25-22 and taking the match 4-1.
The next day, Michigan continued its way to the Invitational title by steamrolling Oakland in straight sets, each by scores of 25-18.
Oddly enough, GWU would be the team Michigan had even a remote problem with this weekend. They faced West Virginia in the final match of the tournament and disposed of them in straight sets to the tune of 25-20, 25-23 and 25-17.
Michigan already has four players that have over 20 kills: Caroline Knopp (28), Katherine Mahlke (26), Abby Cole (22) and freshman Carly Skjodt (22). Cole had 17 total blocks this weekend.
Michigan is now 1-0 against George Washington, 13-0-1 against Oakland and 1-1 against West Virginia. Michigan now holds a 9-1 record against the Atlantic 10 Conference, a 33-2 record against the Horizon League and an 8-9 record against the Big 12 all-time.
Next up for the Wolverine spikers is the Ohio Invitational at Ohio University in Athens, OH. They'll face Xavier and LSU at 10am and 5pm on Friday, respectively. Michigan will then take on the host Ohio University on Saturday at 1pm.
Michigan Men's Soccer
0-1-0 Overall, 0-0-0 B1G
8/28 - #6 Creighton 1 Michigan 0
After a very strange year where Michigan lost to the likes of Bowling Green, Columbia, Western Michigan and FIU but beat #6 Notre Dame and #12 Michigan State, Michigan opened the 2015 season on the road in Omaha at #6 Creighton.
Just two years ago, Michigan stunned #12 Creighton at U-M Soccer Stadium, upsetting the 'Jays 1-0.
In front of an impressive crowd of over 4400, Michigan could not get any offense going whatsoever in the first half.
Watching the game on Big East Digital Network, it felt like most of the first half was played on Michigan's end of the field. Creighton outshot Michigan 10-4 and scored at 30 minutes in the first half which would be the only goal of the game.
The goal was a breakaway where the Michigan defender just didn't have enough time to close, leaving sophomore goalie Evan Louro having to fend for himself.
The second half was more of the same until Michigan peppered Creighton's Connor Sparrow with shots in the final 10 minutes, which actually did feature some good scoring chances, but they just could not get one by him. Both goalkeepers in this game played excellent, with both having 7 saves each.
Not a discouraging loss, as Michigan played decent defensively in front of a packed house on the road against a top-10 team. I'm sure most are in much better spirits after this season opening loss compared to last year's when Michigan was shut out by FIU at home.
Next up for the Wolverines will be a two game homestand in the U-M/MSU Labor Day Tournament. Michigan hosts West Virginia on Friday at 4pm in the 2015 home opener and then will play Niagara on Sunday at 4pm.
Michigan Field Hockey
0-2 Overall, 0-0 B1G
8/29 - #2 North Carolina 2 #14 Michigan 1
8/30 - #11 Wake Forest 3 #14 Michigan 0
Last season for Michigan Field Hockey was one that went from being a potential B1G Championship season to not making the NCAA Tournament.
It's not that the bottom dropped out from underneath the Wolverines in terms of their play. They beat #6 Penn State, #10 Iowa and #7 Northwestern. What kept them out was a combo of the B1G being so good and the NCAA Tournament field only being 16 teams, meaning bid stealers (like Northwestern) crippled any chances of an at-large.
For a season opener, many teams schedule a tomato can from a conference most fans have never heard of or know the members of.
That's not how Michigan does things in field hockey. Every year since 2002 save one, they have opened the season against North Carolina, one of the top programs in all of college field hockey. And even in 2013 when Michigan didn't face UNC to open the season, UNC was still on Michigan's schedule.
Ocker Field, which was renovated and transformed last year into what is most likely the top field hockey venue in the world, played host to the ACC/B1G Challenge for the first time since 2011.
It's a great measuring stick and a great early test to see where your team stands. Every year, it's the same four powerhouse programs: Michigan, Iowa, North Carolina and Wake Forest. The event rotates sites between the four participants.
The first half of this 2015 meeting between Michigan and UNC was scoreless. However, UNC outplayed Michigan in the first, outshooting them 7-3.
In the second half, North Carolina took a 2-0 lead with goals 11 minute apart, one off a corner and one goal. Four minutes after the Tar Heels' second goal, freshman Leah Cardarelli scored her first career goal to cut the deficit in half.
Michigan sophomore goalkeeper Sam Swenson kept Michigan in the game with 8 saves, but Michigan couldn't score the equalizer and North Carolina held on for a 2-1 win.
Today's game was unfortunately a much different story. Wake Forest took a 3-0 lead in the first half with two goals of the goals off of penalty corners.
Michigan dominated the shot count in the second half, 14-2 but the Wake Forest goalie Dahmen recorded all 9 of her saves in the second half to preserve a shutout win for Wake Forest.
An 0-2 start is not good, but it's not uncommon for Michigan to drop these early games in the ACC/B1G Challenge. They've lost 13 straight season openers but are 162-97 with 5 B1G Championships and a Final Four in that span.
Next up for Michigan Field Hockey is a trip out East to Providence. Michigan will play Providence on Friday at 7pm which will be televised on College Sports Live.
Michigan will then head to Connecticut to take on Fairfield at Noon on Sunday.
Saturday, Michigan Man par excellence John U. Bacon kicked off the promotional whirlwind for his new book, Endzone: The Rise, Fall, and Return of Michigan Football at the Diag bar in Chicago at an event sponsored by the U of M Club of Greater Chicago.
To a standing-room-only crowd ranging from alumni to former Bacon students (like myself) to such luminaries as Will Hagerup and Carl Grapentine, the voice of the Michigan Marching Band and Michigan Stadium, Bacon explained the breakneck pace at which he completed his latest work on "this Michigan of ours." Though some (ahem, Buckeyes) are taking issue with the subtitle of the book (particularly, the part about Rise, Fall, and Return), Bacon's main thesis is that this book is not about wins and losses--it's about Michigan reclaiming itself from within.
This "Return," then, is one of values and traditions. While the losses the program has experienced since 2006 were certainly concerning, Bacon emphasizes that students, fans, and alumni were more concerned with the bigger picture around those losses: the rapid erosion of what made Michigan special, largely through the attitude and actions of former Athletic Director Dave Brandon. As a result, Bacon starts the story not with Dave Brandon, but Charles Baird, who pioneered the role of Athletic Director, building the foundation for Yost, Crisler, and Canham. As Bacon explained, this is a story of how Michigan built an unparalleled legacy and tradition for over a century, based on selling not a product or a game, but Michigan. By treating ticketholders, alumni, letterwiners, students, and fans with respect and a relatively remarkable degree of restraint and transparency, the Athletic Department built mountains of trust--and a waitlist for football tickets to show for it. When Dave Brandon eroded that trust, challenging the status quo at nearly every juncture for reasons that seemed petty or misguided, if not simply greedy, Michigan's core constituencies appealed to that same tradition and trust to unseat Brandon.
What makes this book so interesting, from portions I've torn through since I got my hands on it yesterday, is that this is clearly not a narrative about one big moment. While some may point to the Noodle, the Shane Morris incident, or the "quit drinking and go to bed" emails as points of rupture, these are just isolated examples that point to the fundamental reason Dave Brandon failed at Michigan: the slow accumulation of similarly small, seemingly innocuous changes and/or actions that in one way or another systematically ticked off yet another constituency within the Michigan family, from former M lettermen to Olympic sports coaches to alumni organizations to donors to the ordinary fan trying to bring their kid to a Michigan game. Ignoring many of the benchmarks of leadership Bacon highlighted in Bo's Lasting Lessons, Brandon found new and infinitely infuriating ways to turn every corner of the University against him, perhaps none more important than the Board of Regents, on which he had previously served with distinction. As a litany of miscues, it's truly breathtaking, and some in the crowd were only too eager to share yet more from their own experiences.
At the same time, Bacon was clear to point out that while we can all point to countless examples of Brandon's mismanagement and misdirected ego, he was also capable of going the extra mile for student-athletes and others within the department. Bacon emphasized Will Hagerup's story, with Hagerup in attendance, as a particularly poignant example to this end. It's clear Brandon cares deeply about Michigan, and often went out of his way to go the extra mile for those he considered his core constituencies.
Yet just as Lloyd Carr's true motivations were somewhat obscured in Three and Out, Bacon's book on Rich Rodriguez's tenure at Michigan, I think there's a similar complexity here about Dave Brandon. Just as Carr did with 3&O, Brandon declined Bacon's request for comment--even though, as Bacon explained yesterday, he was offered a nearly endless timeline to answer a series of questions (via email, which we know is a medium Brandon knows how to use) at the conclusion of the project. We're left, then, with a picture of a man whose actions usually didn't measure up to the better angels of his nature, inexplicably working to destroy a legacy Brandon was raised to uphold from the moment he committed to Michigan at the foot of Bo's hospital bed in January 1970. We're left with the frustration that Brandon knew better, yet seldom acted as if he did.
Which brings us to Jim Hackett and Harbaugh, which Bacon explained was a result of yet more small and seemingly innocuous events and coincidences that culminated in the perfect storm for Michigan to hire the right interim AD, and in turn to the right coach. And it was all made possible because Michigan's alumni, students, letterwinners, student-athletes, and coaches rallied around each other to reclaim what they knew to be Michigan, something which was far too important to let die away.
The event at the Diag was wonderful, as is the norm for the UMCGC, with lively discussion and questions (including one from Carl Grapentine himself, which, as Bacon commented, was "ear chocolate" for those of us who love Carl's dulcet tones), and a line out the door for signed books. For many of us who studied with Mr. Bacon at Michigan (as I did--a Baked Potato extended to my fellow Bacon alums!), it was just like being in that auditorium at Angell Hall.
For those in the Ann Arbor area, there will be a similar event on Tuesday, September 1st, at Rackham Auditorium at 7PM. There's room for a thousand people--tell your friends, bring the kids, and buy a book!
As we all know, November is the most packed of the month of the athletic calendar.
It is the only time where we are guaranteed all of the "big 3 sports" all playing at the same time in terms of their seasons.
Also included in this post, inevitable doubleheaders of Hockey and Basketball beyond the month of November.
Here are the important dates for you to know in regardst to this, now that the complete Football, Hockey and Men's Basketball schedules are out with times and TV TBA for the latter two.
Hockey- vs Robert Morris (3pm)
Football- at Minnesota (8pm)
M Basketball- vs Northern Michigan
Hockey- vs Niagara
M Basketball- vs Xavier
Hockey- at Boston University
Football- at Penn State
Hockey- at Boston University
M Basketball- Battle 4 Atlantis final
Hockey- vs Dartmouth
Football- vs Ohio State
Hockey- vs Dartmouth
M Basketball- vs Houston Baptist
Hockey- vs Wisconsin
Football- B1G Championship (if applies)
M Basketball- vs Delaware State
Hockey- vs Minnesota
Hockey- Michigan Tech/Michigan State (GLI)
M Basketball- at Illinois
M Basketball- at Iowa
Hockey- vs Ohio State
M Basketball- Penn State (B1G Hoops & Hockey at MSG)
Hockey- Penn State (B1G Hoops & Hockey at MSG)
M Basketball- vs Michigan State
Hockey- at Michigan State
M Basketball- vs Purdue
Hockey- at Wisconsin
M Basketball- B1G Tournament Quarterfinals (if applies)
Hockey- vs Penn State
M Basketball- B1G Tournament Semifinals (if applies)
Hockey- vs Penn State
[Ed-S: Moved to diaries so people will remember. We have 51 signups for a room that holds 50. Rather than do a checklist and a million RSVPs just to have a beer if you're coming from far out just get there early. We'll overflow upstairs]
Twas the Night Before Football
No fan could do nothing, but sit there and wait.
We re-read their previews, refreshed our home page.
Is it Smith, Green, or Isaac? Well no-one could say.
The players were nestled all snug in Salt Lake,
and we sent out prayers for the hams of poor Drake.
And Jabrill in his 'kerchief, and Jim in his cap,
awoke that old quiver from its long winter's nap.
But the minutes were hours, and hours were days;
and we'd talked ourselves into the hype for Moe Ways.
Our focus was shattered, our speech MGo-patois
They asked us "What is it?" We said only, "Harbaugh."
The phone told us nothing; the Twitter was mum.
No matter how many times we yanked the screen down with our thumb.
When what to our wondering eyes should appear
but a gentle reminder to come have a beer:
With a little explaining, and maybe a look,
We dashed out the door to catch Ace, Seth and Cook.
To the downstairs of Ashley's thanks to Demo we came
and we whistled and shouted and called them by name:
"Now Jourdan! Now Glasgows!
Now, Darboh and Taco!
On, Khalid! On, Kalis!
On, Mason and Butt!
Go Oji, go Bolden!
Come Ross and Mo Hurst!
And Lyons and Henry
and Morgan who hurts!
Homesure Lending is buying, so we can all raise a glass!
And shout THANK BO ALMIGHTY
IT'S HARBAUGH AT LAST!
We've rented out the basement of Ashley's on S. State Street in Ann Arbor, from 7:30 to 10:30 on the Wednesday night before the season starts to have a beer with other MGoBloggers, since we're pretty much in no state at that point to be around normal folks. The sponsor, Homesure Lending, is not collecting leads or anything; he offered to rent out the space and buy the first round in gratitude of all the people here (including Brian and myself) who closed out a loan with him this year. Link is here. We have have a 40ish people max so we threw up an informal registration form in there, mostly to get a head count.
So here we go again, the 2015 Michigan football season is nearly upon us, and I am trotting out the same column format in the hope that denizens of this blog will want to read 10,000 word recaps of games laced with references to 90’s cartoons, professional wrestling, and random animated gifs.
If you want to read last year’s pre-season column, and boy you should if you want to have one of those cry-laughs that are all the rage, check it out. Spoiler alert – I spend a LOT of time being semi-optimistic about Brady Hoke and actually defend Dave Brandon.
Best(?): New Beginnings
When Michigan takes the field against Utah on September 3rd, Jim Harbaugh will be the third different head coach to lead the charge for the Wolverines in the past 8 seasons. The previous three coaching changes at Michigan spanned a combined 39 largely drama-free seasons.*
But no, really, this time it feels right. With Rich Rodriguez, you had an outsider, an innovative offensive coach trying to change the culture of a program that had always been wary of these “gimmicky offenses” (it was like the town elders describing dancing in Footloose whenever Joe Tiller’s Purdue Boilermakers came to town), his tenure beginning on rocky footing and never recovering after a disastrous first season, as the losses mounted and the media-stoked torches and pitchforks came out. People forget, especially the younger fans, just how strange it was in 2008 to see Michigan be decidedly below-average, even awful. Sure, Michigan had suffered through some bumpy seasons, a 4- or 5-loss season here or there, but it hadn’t posted a losing season since 1967. For perspective, the people alive today who even faintly remember that season are nearing retirement age. But as soon as Carr walked off the field with his Capital One Bowl, I don’t know, commemorative Alec Baldwin coffee mug, whatever lingering braces to the gates holding back football’s Father Time gave way, and Michigan finally suffered through a perhaps long-overdue run of on-the-field disappointment and off-the-field tumultuousness. If you want the gory details, you can delve deep into the archives of this site or pick up a book.
When I say Michigan was “due” a downturn, it doesn’t mean I wanted that to be the case; obviously as a fan, I expect the teams I root for to win every game at all times, rationality be damned. But the signs had been there for some time that UM was falling behind the rest of college football even if the wins were still somewhat-consistent. It wasn’t just App St. and Oregon blitzing them in 2007; OSU had taken 6 of the last 7 meetings between the teams, they had lost 4 straight bowl games, and seemed unwilling to adopt more explosive offensive systems despite having top-notch NFL talent on that side of the ball for the bulk of Carr’s tenure. The defenses never handled mobile QBs particularly well, and as teams moved toward more wide-open, spread-infused offensive systems it never felt like UM learned to compensate.
As a testament to Carr and his recruiting, this reticence didn’t always matter; despite what is said about the utilization of mobile QBs to level out talent discrepancies by forcing defenders to account for all 11 players on the field, you can win a whole lotta games by being way more talented than those other offenses, scheme be damned. That’s why Indiana and Antwaan Randle El, who was a great college QB, never won more than 5 games while he was there and, save for barely-ranked Minnesota and MSU, never collected any prominent scalps. And so, Michigan could afford to stay largely pat as long as the talent keep flowing into Ann Arbor consistently, which is why those last couple of Carr years, with the (comparatively) mediocre classes coming to the head, probably shouldn’t have seemed so strange. They were top-heavy teams with shallow two-deeps that led to Johnny Sears being entrusted as a #1 cornerback for about 1/2 of a game before everyone looked at the scoreboard. Decided talent advantages and consistent coaching netted you 6-9 wins a year, then good fortune and fate decided the rest; it’s why UM seemed to ping-pong between 8 and 11 wins depending on the strength of its upperclassmen. Some years they looked like fringe national contenders; others they couldn’t get out of their own way.
But I digress; RR didn’t work out in large part because his defenses were historically terrible, he suffered through a miserable string of bad luck (TO margin, injuries, media), had some issues recruiting and retaining players, and just never connected with a large component of the UM fanbase. Plus, when Bill Martin was succeeded by noted pizza delivery man Dave Brandon and UM slogged through an uninspiring 3rd season and a shellacking at the hands of Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl, the writing was on the wall.
I’m REALLY not going to relive the coaching search following RR’s departure, but again, why did we think Dave Brandon was any good at his job? Because he acted like a smug asshole when responding to the Free Press and Stretchgate? By displaying the same temperament as a 12-year-old Vlogger , Vine-Star, Snap-chattress, or whatever Vanity Fair keeps telling me is the new wave in “cross-platform media stars”?
So in came Brady Hoke, a former UM defensive line coach who grew up under Lloyd Carr and represented the sole viable branch of his coaching tree. He had two semi-successful stints at other programs, winning 12 games in his last year at Ball St. and another 9 at San Diego St. two years later. He preached defense and “toughness” above everything else, seemed to embody the derisive term “manball” while still fielding semi-explosive pro-style offenses, and, well, said this at his first press conference.
That sound you heard was a decent number of middle-aged UM fans letting loose a sigh of relief that FINALLY UM had a coach who understood why winning was important and how special a program it was, feelings that were completely different than at any other program in the country. At Michigan you were expected to win with class and dignity, not like UM’s rivals who were, I guess, known to either win while pillaging college towns in the Midwest or losing while flinging their poop at the TV cameras?
I honestly don’t know anymore, but at the time it was super-important that Michigan be run by a “Michigan Man”, a phrase that I’m sure my 21-month-old daughter will start repeating ad nauseam once she realizes repeating the word “f*ck” is pretty played out.
Anyway, feel free to, again, read this blog’s archives or pick up another book if you want the gory details of the Hoke/Brandon era. It started off fantastic, with UM winning 11 games and the Sugar Bowl, besting ND and OSU in exciting contests, and generally looking like a competent program again. And yeah, it felt like a bit of an aberration even while it was happening, with a fantastic turnover margin, unsustainable 4th-down stoppage rate, and a healthy dose of luck sprinkled in.
Brady Hoke, though, recruited like a madman, and even when the wheels started to come off as remnants of RR’s offensive playmakers weren’t replaced and UM burned through offensive coordinators with little progress, it still felt like UM could just talent their way through the potholes of the “bare cupboards” left behind by the previous regime.
But if anything, every successive season under Hoke showed just how far behind Michigan had fallen compared to both its rivals (MSU, OSU, even ND) and college football in general. The team wasn’t showing progress, and that sense of malaise, of indifference by the fans, went from simmering to scalding, driving down attendance and further eroding an already-fragile relationships between those in the stands and the athletic department. It all came to a head against Minnesota, when Shane Morris was out on his feet and a bunch of grown-ass men were either too scared, too dumb, or too weak to protect him. And this is coming from a guy who initially defended Hoke and his handling of the situation. I still believe that Hoke honestly felt that Morris hadn’t suffered a concussion, and there appeared to be significant amount of confusion on the sidelines at the time, but regardless it was yet another example of the terrible leadership you saw under Hoke, wrapped up in lame explanations and an inability to adequately respond to complex issues. Brandon was out shortly thereafter, and Hoke followed after the season, but both of their fates were sealed long before.
So in came Jim Hackett, who has (thus far) turned out to be everything Brandon wasn’t as an AD – thoughtful, humble, proactive, and aware that the fans cared more about UM fielding a competent team they could be proud of than whether or not Beyonce recorded a 30-second video at halftime. He set his eyes on the biggest unicorn in Michigan maize and blue, Jim Harbaugh. The guy who delivered on a promise to beat OSU, who turned Stanford into a top-10 program, took the San Francisco 49ers from middling franchise to the cusp of hoisting the Lombardi trophy, and who was really UM’s last, best hope at unifying the fractured fanbase. And unlike in coaching searches past, Hackett never lost focus, never made an errant comment to the media, or forgot to bring his phone on a boating trip; he just snagged one of the best 10 football coaches in the world to come to his alma mater and win games, a man who tweets about attacking days with enthusiasm previously unknown to mankind and signs his letters “Sincerely yours in football”.
So yeah, UM is entering yet another season with a different man at the helm, but for once it feels like the stars are aligned. And, yeah, it might still not work out the way everyone hopes, but at least this feels like the right beginning with the right coach leading, and after the last decade of UM football, it feels like a damn miracle.
Worst: Wasting Time
I was skimming the old depth chart and realized, much to my dismay, how many guys were entering their third and fourth years in the program because they wasted a redshirt on a one-game “tryout” as a freshman or, worse, some meaningless special teams play. I mean, I loved Dymonte Thomas’s punt block in the moment, but I’d love it even more if it had come as a RS Freshman and Harbaugh would have another 3 years to mold him into a competent safety. Same with Shane Morris, who played spot duty as a freshman because Hoke failed to watch any game tape, ever, of his QBs behind Gardner. I know that not every coach is crazy about grad transfers, and perhaps the administration was more strict about it, but Shane Morris is now entering his true junior year with years of bad habits and technique to rehabilitate and little incentive by the coaching staff to do so, as he’s apparently behind Rudock this year and has a mountain of competition in 2016. This is all speculation, I’ll admit, but if Morris still had 3 years of eligibility instead of 2, I’m guessing the coaches and fans would be much more optimistic about him leading the team either this year or in the future.
Now, obviously there are going to be guys who will earn early playing time; Peppers didn’t come to UM to sit behind Blake Countess for a season. But there was more competent depth than I think Hoke wanted to admit those first couple of years, and so by wasting whole years on a couple of downs, the vicious cycle of playing younger players early could very well hamper Harbaugh in his first year or two at UM.
I trust that Harbaugh will be able to maximize the players he has on the roster regardless of years left, but it’s just annoying to see Ben Gedeon entering his third year of playing time with a total of 36 total tackles to his name.
Best: Coaching Competence
There’s a meme around here that refers to former UM kicker KC Lopata as the platonic ideal of “Kicking Competency”, a replacement-level college kicker who mostly hit the kicks he was supposed to and missed the others. Coming on the heels of Garrett Rivas, one of the best kickers in UM’s history, it was a letdown, but he at least provided fans a baseline expectation for special teams; get the ball inside the 30 and you were probably good.
Now, I’m not going to say anyone on the last coaching staff was outright incompetent at his job; you don’t get to coaching at a major college program, even one as semi-dysfunctional as UM was for large stretches of the 00’s and 10’s, without being very good at your job, at least abstractly. Brady Hoke didn’t seem to know how to run a team, but he did a solid job building up the defensive line and his recruiting was top-notch. I thought Al Borges didn’t know how to call a game or mold an offense with the pieces provided, but he absolutely knows a great deal about football and, in a vacuum, could devise a slew of offensive plays that would be successful. Doug Nussmeier played in the NFL for a couple of years, was an offensive coordinator at a number of prominent college programs (UW, Alabama, UM, now Florida), and will probably be a HC at some point in the near future. The oft-criticized Darrell Funk showed demonstrable improvements across the offensive line despite limited depth and injuries, Roy Manning tried his best to coach cornerbacks despite not having any experience at that job heading into 2014, and while I’m of the camp that guys like Fred Jackson and Dan Ferrigno (as a special-teams coach) shouldn’t have been holding those positions last year, it’s not like either is devoid of talent or knowledge of the game. It’s telling that most of them struggled to find comparable jobs after Hoke was let go, and a couple (Borges and Ferrigno jump out) were seemingly dragged along by Hoke at his various stops without much additional vetting.
Regardless, it was clear pretty early on last year (and really, the last couple of seasons) that the coaches weren’t “coaching up” to their level just as much as players seemed to underperform compared to ability. Older players seemed as lost as freshmen at times, the offense was consistently bogged down due to poor execution at every major group, the defense struggled to deploy press coverage despite preparing it during the offseason, largely abandoning it once Blake Countess got repeatedly burned against ND and Rutgers, and special teams found ever more impressive ways to not field the right number of players. Last year’s team didn’t have nearly enough talent or experience to overcome these coaching issues, and it showed in the season’s results.
Which is why fans should be as excited about the rest of the coaching staff changes as they are about Harbaugh taking the lead. Everyone knows Harbaugh is a great coach, but with additions of guys like Drevno, Durkin, and Baxter, while also retaining Mattison to help with the defensive line, the team will have a staff that can at least get the players to perform at their expected levels consistently and, you hope, provide the type of guidance and in-the-moment leadership that great teams are built on. Hell, having guys like Wheatley and Zordich at positions they have coached previously and capable of doing more than drown listeners in hyperbole will be a breath of fresh air. The talent is there for UM to be at least competent on offense and very good on defense; I expect the coaches will make sure they are given every opportunity to at least meet this level, if not exceed it.
Best: Actual QB Competition
This should come as no surprise to those who watched Russell Bellomy take snaps against Nebraska, or Shane Morris get trotted out against Minnesota, that Brady Hoke and his offensive coordinators never seemed able or willing to introduce real competition at the QB position except in extreme circumstances. He never recruited more than 1 QB in a class, completely skipping the position in 2012, and made it known to each recruit that he wasn’t going to bring in anyone else to compete for the position in a given year. There are assorted rumors that Messiah deWeaver decommitted from Michigan specifically because Harbaugh planned on bringing in other QB prospects in the class, an about-face to what he heard from Hoke. And I’m not going to slag the quality of the kids brought in each year, but no QB brought in by Hoke has looked capable of starting except for maybe Morris, and even that is tinged with the expectation for massive improvement under Harbaugh’s tutelage. That’s why soul-crushed Devin Gardner was the starter the past two years despite a clear degradation in performance.
Now, that’s all changed since Harbaugh showed up. With Gardner’s graduation, the QB position is one of the real question marks on the team, and Harbaugh addressed it early and often by snagging Iowa’s Jake Rudock’s graduate transfer, John O’Korn’s “regular” transfer from Houston, and recruiting two QBs in the 2014 class (Alex Malzone and Zach Gentry) and potentially 2015 (Brandon Peters and Victor Viramontes). In addition, he inherited Shane Morris as well as Russell Bellomy (EDIT: Bellomy packed up and transfered to UTSA) and Wilton Speight. If you are counting at home, that’s 6 (EDIT: 5) possible QBs this year and 8 (I believe) next year, assuming nobody leaves, decommits, etc. And there’s variety there, from more finesse throwers like Rudock and Malzone to rocket-armed bombers like Morris and Gentry, and a range of athleticism that would work well with Harbaugh’s penchant for dualish-threat QBs.
Now, having eight possible QBs next year when you only have about that many at for all three LBs isn’t optimal, but it is a marked (and necessary) departure from the last couple of years. It’s a bit cliche, but a good QB can spackle over a whole bunch of other issues, and I have to think that had there been better options these past couple years under center, or at least the program drive to promote healthy competition, the offensive sputtering might have been mitigated somewhat. I’m the biggest Gardner homer in the world, but there were games he clearly didn’t have it, and being able to trot out someone, anyone who could settle the team down would have been a godsend, similar to when Tate Forcier would step in for Denard due to injury or inconsistency for a series or two.
All signals point to Rudock and Morris being the only viable starters this year, with Rudock getting the nod right now due to ball security and experience. We’ve all heard the positive buzz around Morris, and I suspect we’ll see him play some this year especially if Rudock struggles (I know Brian has been quick to dismiss his benching at Iowa as just another indictment of Ferentz’s rapidly-loosening grip on his sanity, and his stats looked fine given the offense he was stuck in, but I’ll have to see him on the field before I’m completely comfortable), but when you can get a fifth-year senior with starting experience, you don’t put him on the bench unless Morris just absolutely outplays him. Besides, this year isn’t one where UM is competing for a conference title BUT they need to get back to winning football games they should – that means beating your Rutgers and Marylands of the world. Rudock gives them the best chance out of the gate.
Best: The Gang’s (Mostly) Back
In what feels like forever, Michigan won’t be breaking anyone new into the starting lineup this year, with the only major addition being OC/OL coach Tim Drevno, one of the better offensive line coaches in the country. It’s been said a million times before, but offensive lines do best when they have continuity and experience (talent helps, and UM has a good amount of that as well), and this year’s team should have 4 upperclassmen starters and a true sophomore (Cole) who ably filled in from “go” at left tackle last year. Depth behind the starters remains a bit scary (LTT, JBB, and Dawson still seem like projects to varying degrees, and Kugler isn’t really an option outside of center unless you like small guards), so the loss of Jack Miller and Glasgow assuming those snaps, isn’t optimal. My guess is that Kugler will get every chance to take over at center if either of the guards struggle, but right now it looks like one of the better units in the conference both as run-blockers as well as in pass protection.
Worst: Blocky-Catchy-Runny Guys?
To say that Michigan’s offense struggled over the past couple of years would be selling the tire-fire short a bit, but what was so unnerving wasn’t so much that the team failed to execute consistently as much as they never seemed to have a consistent plan or identity except in the broadest of strokes. The nadir of narrow-minded planning was UM trotting out tackle over to out cro-Magnon fellow Neanderthal Minnesota in 2013, but the offensive philosophy under Brady Hoke could best be described as
¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Passing plays often appeared to be 1-man routes, and Devin Gardner was often called on to “improvise” first downs, sacrificing ribs and sternum because the sidelines couldn’t think of something more productive. It led to a whole lotta this:
Now, there won’t be any such questions under Harbaugh, who has shown the ability to meld his general offensive philosophies (power running football, multiple tight ends with frequent pre-snap motion) with the talent available. He turned Toby Gerhart into a dominant college back and a 2nd-round draft pick, Tyler Gaffney into an All American, and a bunch of guys who should probably be working as associates at hedge funds into NFL TEs. And oh yeah, he might have had something to do with Andrew Luck being the #1 overall draft pick. As for the NFL, he fixed Urban Meyer protégé Alex Smith enough to nearly get to the Super Bowl, then nearly won it all with Colin Kaepernick. And he showed he could establish a great running game with players lacking elite speed, as Frank Gore enjoyed a bit of a resurgence under Harbaugh.
So the question isn’t whether Harbaugh is capable of producing efficient, sometimes spectacular offenses, but whether the team he inherited has the players to do so this season.
With the departure of the much-maligned Devin Funchess, the receiving core is basically two semi-known commodities (Darboh and Chesson) who probably both top out at competent #2/#3 receivers, a track guy in Chesson who might just be fast and a great special teams blocker, and a bunch of potential that is either freshmen (Cole and Perry), coming off injuries (Harris), or Moe Ways, who will probably get the reputation for being great catching contested balls because he can’t get away from anyone. I know there’s been some buzz about Darboh stepping up, but he collected nearly half of his yards and 40% of his receptions against IU and Miami (NTM), struggling to get separation against anyone else even when Devin Funchess was healthy and, theoretically, drawing more attention from the defense. I’m holding out hope that Canteen takes that next step, but he’s still a guy who looks great on tape but never had more than 1 catch or record more than 8 yards in a single game last year. It also sounds like he might be moving permanently to corner, so what the hell do I know. And while there are those who never thought Norfleet would work at UM as a receiver, I still think he’d be a solid slot option on a team that needs someone to step up. I mean, Perry might have burned his own redshirt given his play in fall camp, but trusting a freshman at that position is always dicey, and I’d rather have an extra year of a senior than a meh freshman season when UM isn’t competing for titles.
There’s definitely some talent here, but unless Harris shows he’s recovered from yet another hamstring injury and can stretch the defense vertically, nobody in the receiving core looks like they’ll put the fear of God in opposing secondaries. That’s a big reason I’m banking on Rudock getting the nod at least to the start the year; this team is going to rely on shorter passes with minimal mistakes to move the ball vertically, and Morris’s arm strength isn’t as helpful when nobody is farther than 20 yards downfield.
Now, if this team is going to have a true downfield threat, it will probably come from the TE position. Jake Butt is the obvious headliner at the position, and I expect him to put up great numbers both as a safety valve for the QBs as well as a key downfield threat. Since Harbaugh likes to roll out multiple TE sets, I also expect Khalid Hill to be involved heavily in the running game as a blocker as well as an extra set of hands. Ian Bunting could be a monster in the right offense if his catching radius is as advertised, but it’s all potential with him thus far and he still needs to show he can transition from WR to the flex TE position Devin Funchess occupied before everyone realized he couldn’t block. A Jim Harbaugh-led offense with Butt as the lead TE should terrify the rest of the conference, but he’s only going to be able to reach his potential if someone else, anyone else can stretch the field or at least keep the secondary from closing in on him on obvious passing downs.
As for the running backs, I don’t know man. I want to believe that someone out of the Smith/Green/Isaac/Johnson parallelogram of runners will emerge as a leader for the position, but right now it sure seems like the pack remains pretty jumbled. With the three guys who actually played last year, you kind of wish you could Voltron them into a single back because THAT guy would be downright unstoppable. Smith feels like the closest analog to what Harbaugh had in Frank Gore, a guy who can work his way through traffic for a couple more yards but isn’t going to run past anyone. Green has all the size and ability in the world but never seemed able to put it all together, and I’ve heard enough questions about his vision and finding holes that he might fall out of favor quickly with Harbaugh. Johnson is coming off another ACL injury, and while he isn’t going to make most guys miss, what we did see last year was a guy who could take what the line got him and bruise past a couple more defenders if he got a step on them. Of the lot, Johnson looked like the most average runner, which sadly probably also made him the best. But he’s still recovering from surgery and (I assume) will have an uphill battle to get playing time this year unless everyone in front of him falls apart.
Ty Isaac has both the pedigree and the look of a #1 back, but struggled at times in USC’s offense and seemed buried on the depth chart at the end of the year. He remains a tantalizing option as a runner and receiver but without the college-level production to quite quiet the nagging doubt you may have.
I suspect that Smith, Green, and Isaac will share playing time to start the year, but for Smith to get a plurality of carries if he can consistently find the hole and get positive yards. This is the prototypical Smith run, and it’s the type Harbaugh loves to see.
Smith will never wow you with his speed, but the guy at the top of UM’s record book wasn’t a burner either. Isaac has that rare mix of size and speed you dream of as a coach, but it sounds like he’s had limited practice reps and hasn’t played a down of “actual” football for over a year. I’ve never been super-high on Green because it did seem like he missed rushing routes more often than the other backs (not to say Smith and Johnson always followed the right path), and unless that’s been addressed in the offseason I don’t see him bringing enough other skills to the table to compensate.
Best: Hoke's Thick Blue Line
You can throw literally any type of rock and hit an issue with Brady Hoke's tenure at UM, but the one thing that he did very consistently was recruit defensive linemen. Of course, this should come as no shock because that was his favored position throughout his coaching career, basically serving in some capacity as a defensive line coach until he took over at Ball St. He inherited some nice linemen in Martin and RVB and turned them loose, creating one of the more dominant short-yardage units in the country during 2011. The next couple of years were less impressive, but the defense always held up reasonably well on the front line and consistently improved against the run. So it should come as no surprise that the defensive line looks to be perhaps the strongest unti on the team even with the loss of Bryan Mone. Maurice Hurst has been getting rave reviews this offseason, while both Willie Henry and Ryan Glasgow should build on solid seasons last year. I know other people have said as much, but if Henry figures out how to actually play the position effectively, he'll be a damn All-American candidate given his natural size and strength.
Now, the one knock against Hoke's defensive line production is that it never figured out how to generate an organic pass rush - every year you'd hear about the team wanting to "Earn the Right to Rush 4", then you'd see Frank Clark chasing a QB into open space and nothing much coming of it. Barring a huge jump by
Taco Charlton or Lawrence Marshall, though, I'm not sure this team will be much better at getting to the QB from the edges. I've been a big fan of Mario Ojemudia because he had a great motor in high school and always seemed faster than he probably was, but it's 2015 and in three years has 6 sacks and remains somewhat undersized. Mattison has always shown a penchant for bringing pressure via the LBs and safeties, so the hope is that him and Durkin will be able to generate pressure that way if it doesn't come from up front, but it's still a bit depressing that both OSU and MSU seem overloaded with rushers while UM is trying to get by with smoke and mirrors.
Best(?): About those Linebackers
You know how I mentioned earlier UM has about as many QBs on the roster as LBs for 2016? Yeah, let’s forget about that for a minute and remember that in 2015, UM should be fielding an all-senior LB core for what feels like eons. Ross, Morgan, and Bolden have all been starters in the past, fending off competent replacements and generally playing at an acceptable level whenever they’ve seen the field. After years of seeing underclassmen thrust into ill-fitting positions, it is refreshing to know that the LBs are deep and experienced, and with the improved defensive line should be a formidable front 7.
And yet, I can’t shake a lingering sense that something is missing. While all three players have been objectively “good” during their time at UM, they have also all been singled out as the weak links before. For all the talk about Morgan’s ability to stop a ball carrier dead in his tracks, he’s still not a great athlete and is coming off an injury that knocked him out all of last year. Bolden led the team in tackles last season but has struggled at times in coverage, and seemed to bust far more often than the other LBs last year when forced to play in space. He also enraged the walking hemorrhoid that is Mark Dantonio by plunging a tent spike into MSU’s field last year, so there’s that. Ross was always touted as a cerebral player but has struggled to keep his spot on the field, losing out to RJS last year (before reclaiming the spot) even though Stone didn’t necessarily drape himself in glory with playing time. Ross is also a bit undersized for the strong side LB, though his ability in coverage should help against spread teams.
I’m suspecting that Ben Gedeon sees a decent amount of playing time, especially given his reputed athleticism and the lack of playmakers along the defensive line; if there is someone who you’d bring on a delayed blitz, you could do worse than a 6-3, 241 lb bowling ball who a rocket strapped to his ass. Despite my reservations, this does feel like a position of strength for the team this year, and since I’m trying to stay optimistic I’ll leave concerns for the coming seasons for next year’s preview, wherein I’ll be too drunk off a Big 10 title to care!
Worst: Covering with 3
Off the bat, I am ecstatic with 3/4 of the defensive backfield. Jourdan Lewis was a revelation last year, and should be one of the best corners in the conference this year. He’s physically aggressive to a degree that belies his size, and his recovery speed led to some spectacular plays last year. He also had 2 INTs and 6 PD to go along with 39 tackles, which is more than a couple of LBs last year (ugh).
We all know about Jabrill Peppers and his exploits; beyond being the Hybrid Space Player on defense, he can move over to corner or safety in a pinch and probably be on the top 3-4 in the conference at those spots. A freak athlete that should have a nice, long NFL career, the only concern I have is that he missed parts of last year due to injury and might take a bit to get his feet under him. Retaining Mattison and not substantially altering the defensive schemes for the secondary should help, though. My only other concern is that there is a lot of pressure put on the kid to be the “next” Woodson by a portion of this fanbase, and so fans may be disappointed if he’s only really, really good this year. I know, a minor concern, and I fully expect him to be a highlight player each game.
As the mantra goes, boring safeties are great, and Jarrod Wilson is like watching freshly-painted walls dry while The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is projected on said wall in a loop. So Jarrod Wilson is going to be so much fun to not hear about this year, and Brad Pitt should probably stick to movies in which he ages chronologically.
The problem with the secondary is that you have to have a second cornerback, or a third safety, or some human being with enough speed to keep up with receivers flying down the field, trying to catch an oblong ball. And that’s where it gets a bit dicey for UM. Blake Countess leaving was a surprise, but at the time people figured he’d been passed by other players on the roster and that with Michigan’s focus on press coverage, Countess’s notorious troubles keeping up with receivers made him the odd man out. Then Wayne Lyons transferred from Stanford’s elite pass defense, and everyone though Michigan was set.
Yet, here we sit a couple of weeks before Utah and Michigan is apparently giving serious looks at converted safety Jeremy Clark and converted WR Canteen, to say nothing of Dennis Norfleet getting a shot at the position in the spring game. I know that Harbaugh loves to tinker with guys and see if any can make position switches for added depth, but I’m not loving the lack of clarity across from Lewis. Again, having Peppers means there’s no need to panic, and Delano Hill sounds like he could slide into a safety slot if necessary to free up Peppers and/or the team can play more nickel coverage with Lyons playing a bit more off the receiver. But these are all sub-optimal solutions, and the expectation seemed to always be that Lyons would take over for Countess. The fact that isn’t the case gives me pause even with the positive buzz you’ve been hearing about Clark and his athleticism.
I still think the secondary will be solid, but if that second corner spot remains in limbo, or Lewis goes down for any sustained period of time, it could derail much of the improvements expected by the front 7.
Best: Fielding 11
John Baxter believes in spread punting. He also believes in fielding 11 men virtually all the time on special teams. Those two factors make him a massive upgrade over the last regime, and that doesn’t get into the massive number of blocked kicks his teams have accrued over the years. It kind of sucks that Dennis Norfleet left right when he might actually have guys in front of him to block on returns, but whoever winds up returning kicks and punts should find it a marked improvement over the Hoke era.
I almost didn’t feel it needed to be said, but it wouldn’t be a Michigan season without the fans irrationally directing all their ire at a certain player for when the team struggles. In years past it was Stevie Brown, Obi Ezeh, Taylor Lewan, Devin Gardner, and Devin Funchess. Funchess, in particular, apparently kicked the puppies and stole the girlfriends/boyfriends of a large percentage of UM fans, as that guy couldn’t buy a break. It didn’t help that he clearly wasn’t 100% all season, but sometimes fans are carrying around flaming hammers and you best not look like a nail.
Part of me wants to believe that the Harbaugh enthusiasm will shield this team from that level of vitriol, but who the heck knows anymore. It isn’t worth speculating, but I am formally asking the readers of this column (and more generally this site) to remember that these are human beings playing a sport largely for your entertainment; they are also in their late teens/early 20’s. Cut them a bit of slack if they miss an assignment or drop a pass. They absolutely do give a shit about this team, and treating them like people with feelings would be fantastic!
Last year I predicted 8-4, 9-3 if MSU or OSU took a step back. Yeah…that didn’t really happen. MSU took a step “back” from the best defense in the country to just one of the best, and OSU won a bunch of games, I guess. I don’t know, I stopped watching after the Pizza Pizza Bowl.
MSU will obviously continue to be one of the better teams in the conference, but last year you saw the cracks in the armor, and though it is true that they were mostly abused by some of the best offenses in the country while shutting down the rest of the conference, that kind of papers over just how abused they were by OSU, Oregon, and Baylor. They gave up 49, 46, and 41 points in those three games, and this year they’ll have to deal with the loss of Ed Davis, a competent starter and maybe the first “major” player MSU has lost to injury during their run. Their offense is still quite good and so I don’t expect a huge dropoff in the win total, but it feels like a team that might be coming back to the pack a bit.
PSU survived their sanctions about as well as you could have expected, somehow discovering a dominating defense while fielding an offense that isn’t terrible. Hackenburg still doesn’t feel like the sure-fire NFL QB he’s touted as, and he does have a bit of Devin Gardner 2014 look behind that shaky line. Still, Franklin has been recruiting like mad, and it looks like they’ll be even more competitive in the near future.
OSU is the defending national champions, and 2014 was supposed to be the rebuilding year. They seem to have an all-conference player at every position, and Draftageddon was basically a Pokemon exercise of collecting as many OSU starters as you could. They’ll win a bunch of games and, barring losing all three QBs, should be in contention for a playoff spot.
The rest of the conference looks mediocre; there’s talent in pockets, but teams like Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Nebraska have to replace large parts of their offenses and have question marks at key spots.
As for Michigan, it’s going to be a bit rough this first year, even with MSU and OSU coming to town. On the road against a solid Utah team to start the year may not be that bad simply because of Harbaugh’s manic focus, and Oregon St. and UNLV shouldn’t be too tough. BYU seems like it’s reeling, but Taysom Hill looked like a Heisman contender last year before going down with injury, and like seemingly all BYU players is way older than you think (he’s 25). In 5 games last year he had almost 500 yards rushing and 8 TDs to go along with 975 yards passing and 7 TDs, completing almost 67% of his passes. He’s big, he’s fast, and until proven otherwise I’m not sure UM is built to stop that type of dual-threat option. Unless Harbaugh works some magic, UM is going to lose at least one of those games. Next up are Maryland and NW, which seem like winnable games against teams that are scuttling a bit. MSU follows that, and that feels like a competitive loss with the hope of Harbaugh trolling Dantonio into a catatonic state. Two weeks later it’s off to Minnesota for a rock contest, and you figure UM is due for a letdown against them, Rutgers, or IU. Going to Happy Valley, against that defense, is going to be a tough task, though by that point Hackenburg may be sitting on the sidelines in a full body cast. The showdown against OSU follows to end the season, and UM has played OSU about as tough as anyone these past couple of years. OSU will have come off playing MSU as well, so even if Meyer’s team is deep in the playoff hunt they might not be 100% going into that game.
So it’ll sound a bit of a downer, but this feels like an 7-5 team with the potential to go 6-6 and 10-2 with a 2011-type run of luck. If they look solid against Utah to open the season, I could absolutely see them winning 9 games this year, but I’ve been burned too often recently with optimism and there remain real questions at the skill positions and in the defensive backfield, to say nothing of the QB battle.
So thanks for reading this far. I hope to make these more specific and less of a general overview for specific games, and please feel free to leave comments below with suggestions. And yes, I forgot to put in a reference to professional wrestling. Oh wait…