"Northwestern fans can be both heartened and disheartened by the loss to Minnesota just like how nineteenth-century resurrectionists were heartened when they pried a heart from a freshly-buried corpse and then disheartened it when they sold it to a disreputable anatomist."
As we approach national signing day...
Two trends have been colliding over the last 20 years to create a scenario of increased parity across college football, and diminished value of the “star”-based recruiting rankings. A look at the “participation” statistics provided by the NCAA, as well as those provided by the NFHS and US Census Bureau reveals a trend of growth at both the NCAA division 1A/FBS level and the high school level. But, while the number of athletes participating at the FBS level of college football has increased by 11.0% over the 20 year span between 1988 and 2007, high school football participation has increased by approximately 31.6%. (Note: I say “approximately” because I was only able to obtain 9 high school data points and used the massively-brainy regression power of MS Excel to extrapolate the missing values… However, it was reported by the NFHS that participation in high-school sports has increased every year for the last 20 years; if anyone is a member of NFHS and would like to share the participation numbers in football from 1988-96, then we could have a more exact look at the growth on a year to year basis.) Also, a larger impact is the fairly stagnant number of scholarships available, rolling back and forth between 9 and 10 thousand over the last 20 years.
A selection of years (spanning the time-frame:)
NCAA Football High School Football %Schol/HS
Year 1A Teams 1A Ath 1A Schol. Year Athletes Yearly
1988 105 12,726 9,975 1988 841,900* 0.30%
1991 106 12,513 10,070 1991 882,685* 0.29%
1994 107 11,963 9,095 1994 923,470* 0.25%
1997 111 12,643 9,435 1997 971,335 0.24%
2000 114 13,190 9,690 2000 1 005,040* 0.24%
2003 117 13,711 9,945 2002 1 032,682 0.24%
2006 119 13,984 10,115 2006 1 104,548 0.23%
2007 119 14,131 10,115 2007 1 108,286 0.23%
What this suggests is that the portion of the bell-curve from which college coaches are recruiting talent is shrinking. In 1988, the players selected for scholarships across all of Division 1A football would have approximately represented the top 0.30% of all high-school football players (note: 11-player leagues; yes, I know that Nebraska and Iowa have both had some great success with 9-player league players, etc. I’m just trying to keep this somewhat simple.) In 2007, we’re talking the top 0.23% of high-school talent. Of course, keep in mind that the coaches are restricted to taking only graduating seniors. Would physical and mental maturation suggest that in any given year, 70-90% of the most-elite high school players are seniors? Tough argument to back up with numbers…
I suppose we would all agree that there probably exists the equivalent of prodigies within the realm of football talent… I don’t know what percentile you would want to attach to that status. I would assume that the 99.9th percentile would suffice as the level of being the cream of the crop. Among all players in 2008/9 this would correlate with the top 1113 high school players; I’m guessing (based on the aforementioned 70-90% conjecture) between 780 and 1002 of them were seniors and part of the 2009 recruiting class. That is enough players to fill somewhere between 31 and 40 FULL recruiting classes of 25 players. In other words, if the top 30-40 teams were the sole benefactors of the top 780-1000 players; then all of them would have teams made solely of players from the top 0.1% of high-school talent.
That's right... that "2 star" athlete that you are sometimes tempted to speak negatively of is most definitely from the 99.5th percentile of high-school football athletes. Among "academics" that correlates to a performance of 2320 or above on the 2007 SAT; 40 and above on the 2008 MCAT; 175 and above on the 2005-2008 LSAT exams; and somewhere around 780 and above on the GMAT. If you scored less than that on any of those exams, your performance would mean you are less than a 2-star among your academic peers... ouch. That's a pretty high-level of expectations.
I should also point out that the impact of this glance at the numbers is based on football talent adhering to a simple bell-curve. But, what I have not taken into account is the growth of high-school players’ exposure to better coaching: college summer camps, professional trainers, etc. If the overall access to such expertise has increased over the last 20 years (as a percentage of high-school players receiving such tutelage) then the bell curve could actually be expected to skew to the right over time (compared to its original shape;) meaning it would be even harder to differentiate between the talent in the “right tail.”
What does this all mean? Well I take a couple of points from it. First, if people can truly differentiate between the top couple of hundred players in the nation (let alone the top 40 at each position,) without seeing said players side by side and in the same context, then I greatly admire them and place them in the savant category of Gregory House M.D., one of U of M's greatest fictional graduates. However, I am a bit cynical as to such an amazing ability existing. Second, given that there are 119 schools divvying up the top 0.23% of talent each year, I am experiencing a renewed sense of importance regarding coaches and facilities. These players are all starting from nearly identical positions, where one year of intense studying, conditioning, and skill-building is more than enough to erase any gap between them and their peers (meaning today’s "number 1" can very easily become tomorrow’s bust, and vice versa.) This points to the third take-home message: chemistry and motivation. A “chip on the shoulder” of anyone from the top 0.1% of their profession can very quickly become a strong motivator of perfection… there are probably 900 of the top 1000 players who have this “chip.” Harness this source of motivation with the appropriate team-chemistry... anything is possible.
Coaching… check. Facilities… check. “Chip”… check. I like where our class stands.
Data taken from:
Despite the overwhelming evidence that this is a talent deficient team, especially on defense, people continue to gripe that the coaches must be doing something wrong because "we certainly have more talent than Illinois or Purdue" (which is of course completely untrue, as I document in the "current" board post linked above). Rodriguez has also takent heat (or it has just been assumed) that he is "not a defensive coach." So I decided to look player by player at what this team is working with on defense and just how well Rodriguez and his staff have developed players to give us some indication of what to expect when this staff is finally competing with a full deck. The results are encouraging and eye opening. I divided the players by Rivals star-rating to give some sense of what our realistic expectation levels for these players should be and I excluded any freshmen who haven't seen extensive game action to this point.
Brandon Graham: In two years playing under Rodriguez, Graham has tallied 18.5 sacks and 41 TFL to go with 4 forced fumbles, two blocked kicks, and a defensive TD. He will almost certainly be an early (if not first) round NFL Draft pick.
Donovan Warren: As a Junior playing in his 2nd season under Rodriguez, Warren leads the team with 4 INT's, as many as any Michigan DB since Todd Howard in 2000. He projects to be a mid-to-high round NFL Draft pick (in part depending on whether or not he decides to leave school early).
Summary: The two non-freshman blue-chip prospects on the defensive roster have played as well as can be expected of any prospect. Both are high level college football players who will play on Sundays.
Stevie Brown: Signed as a safety, where he played his first three years at Michigan to much fan groaning, Rodriguez and his staff moved Brown to a more comfortable outside linebacker position where he has developed into a competent starter and the team's leading tackler during his senior season.
Adam Patterson: Patterson, a RS Junior, has struggled much of his career at Michigan and has spent much of this season behind a walk-on on the d-line depth chart.
Jonas Mouton: Signed as a safety, RS Junior Jonas Mouton continues to struggle with the mental aspect of the game in his second season as a starting inside linebacker and was benched in favor of RS Sophomore JB Fitzgerald during the Purdue game.
Mike Martin: A true Sophomore signed by Rodriguez, Martin is in his second year as a starting DT, where he is one of the best young players at the position in the country, despite playing out of position and being forced to eat double-teams due to roster limitations. He will almost certainly be a four year starter on the defensive line.
Ryan Van Bergen: RVB has recorded 5 sacks and 4 PBU's in this his RS Sophomore season (both good for second on the team). He will almost certainly be a three year starter on the defensive line.
JB Fitzgerald: Fitzgerald has started in one game at linebacker in this his Sophomore season after getting the nod over the much more experienced Jonas Mouton. In that game he recorded 5 tackles including 2 TFL against Purdue.
Mike Williams: A RS Sophomore recruited as a nickle/fifth defensive back, Williams has struggled in his first year seeing extensive playing time as a starting safety. He was forced into action this year because he is the only safety on scholarship in the Sophomore, Junior, or Senior classes.
Craig Roh: Roh has started every game this season as a true Freshman on the defensive line, recording 2 sacks, 7.5 TFL, and an interception. He will almost certainly be a four year starter on the defensive line.
Summary: Out of eight players (one of whom is a true freshman), four are very solid contributors already (of whom three are underclassmen on the defensive line). Two are sophomores who have either seen limited action so far (Fitzgerald) or have struggled after being thrust prematurely into the starting lineup (Williams). If any one of Mouton, Fitzgerald, or Williams develop into solid contributors in their remaining years at UM, this staff will be batting well over 50% in turning 4-star recruits into high quality defensive players by the time they graduate.
Troy Woolfolk has been a competent starter at CB after a mid-season position switch from safety (where he had been playing out of position due to roster limitations at that position).
Sagesse, Banks, Watson and Herron provide solid if unspectacular depth along the defensive line. All are behind productive and more heavily recruited players on the depth chart so should not be expected to crack the starting lineup.
Obi Ezeh has struggled as a veteran starter at linebacker and was benched in favor of walk-on Kevin Leach during games against Purdue and Illinois.
Summary: Of the two guys in a position to be asked to start, one has played admirably and one has struggled despite extensive playing experience.
Jordan Kovacs, a RS Freshman coming off knee surgery, is third on the team with 66 tackles including 4.5 TFL. He has also forced two fumbles (tied for the team lead with Brandon Graham) and intercepted a pass (tied for 2nd on the team).
Kevin Leach, a RS Sophomore, has seen extensive action at linebacker in two games (essentially playing starter minutes) and recorded 36 tackles on the season to go along with a sack and an interception.
Simmons, Van Slyke and Heininger have occupied spots on the two-deep throughout much of the season.
Summary: When forced to throw non-scholarship players out there, this staff has gotten a lot out of their less talented players.
Click on the "future talent" board post I linked to earlier. Compare that defensive depth chart with the current one that has only 16 non-freshmen on scholarship. If current rates of development (which are still skewed against the current staff because of the youth of this team) hold true, Michigan should have a very good defense in just a couple of years.
For those who still want to criticize the coaching staff, I challenge you to find one example of a team with a more depleted depth chart that had success, or a coach with a better track record for developing the talent at his disposal.
There have been a lot of posts this season that have centered around Talent levels, Coach selection, Bare cupboards, New systems, The Freshman 15 and Adapting to players. Most of which came from one of two camps: “We like RR and are giving him time to hatch the Death Butterfly” or “That dumb Hillbilly is worthless and we’d be better off with Debord and gads and gads of ‘Zone Left’”.
I’ve personally been in the former camp especially when considering what the man had to work with. (And I’d like to also take this moment to give credit to all the guys on the team for really busting their asses this season. We have far too often criticized the talent level and without recognizing that every member of that team has more talent than any five of us put together.)
Well given that the season is over and I can’t find anything better to do with the time I dedicated to Michigan football I went searching from some information on teams in a similar position as our beloved Wolverines.
So looking at the schools that have shown up in the top 25 in the past 5 years (save SMU and So Miss) here are the schools that had new head coaches this season:
Georgia Tech 8-3 (8-4) (records in parenthesis are where I am projecting them to finish)
Texas A&M - 4-7 (4-8)
Nebraska - 7-4 (8-4)
Arkansas - 4-7 (4-8)
Mississippi - 7-4 (8-4)
Washington St - 2-10 (2-11)
UCLA - 4-6 (5-7)
West Virginia - 7-3 (8-4)
Southern Miss - 5-6 (6-6)
SMU - 1-10 (1-11)
Hawaii - 6-5 (7-6)
As you can see all but two teams should finish with a better record than our illustrious 3-9. That said take a look at the percentage of total offense, rushing, receiving and total all purpose rushing that was done by freshman:
Team /Total 0ff/Rushing yds/Rec yds/All Purpose Running yds
SMU /86% /1% /24% /17%
So Miss /63% /19% /40% /25%
Michigan /59% /54% /53% /62%
G-Tech /27% /26% /24% /33%
WSU /16% /23% /10% /16%
Arkansas /15% /14% /36% /40%
Miss /15% /32% /6% /15%
Tex AM /11% /39% /52% /59%
UCLA /11% /37% /33% /24%
Nebraska /3% /6% /1% /4%
WVU /2% /3% /7% /12%
Hawaii /0% /0% /3% /1%
As you can see only SMU and So Miss had larger percent of total offense produced by freshman than use. You will also see that no one is close to us in the amount of rushing production by a freshman. And only Texas A&M is close to us in receiving production and all purpose running yards. It’s worth noting that SMU started a freshman QB in a June Jones offense and S. Miss also started a freshman QB.
Let’s take a look at Offense ranks and strength of schedule (to date) for these teams now
Total offense/ Rank / SOS
SMU /86% /95 /63
So Miss /63% /19 /96
Michigan /59% /112 /10
G-Tech /27% /53 /42
WSU /16% /119 /35
Mississippi /15% /39 /22
Arkansas /15% /54 /7
UCLA /11% /109 /46
Tex AM /11% /69 /29
Nebraska /3% /9 /17
WVU /2% /61 /58
Hawaii /0% /75 /71
As you can see only WSU was worse offensively than we were. That said only Arkansas had a tougher schedule. And the two teams that have more freshman offensive output have a schedule rank of 63 and 96 and are at the bottom of this group in strength of schedule.
Looking at all of that information, I think it’s safe to say RR had the worse situation of all the first year head coaches. And if you look at the schools that really went through “extreme” offensive scheme changes like Michigan did
Team/ record/ Total / Rush yds/ Rec yds /All Purpose/ SOS
offense/ /Running yds /
G-Tech /8-3(8-4) /27% /26% /24% /33% /42
SMU /1-10(1-11) /86%/1% /24% /17% /63
Michigan /3-9 /59% /54% /53% /62% /10
Both schools had fairly easy schedules and aside from the SMU QB neither had nearly the freshman influence that Michigan had.
Bottom line is that experience is so very important in football, especially in cases where there is a coaching change. So before you go off half-cocked about how RR was a bad choice and should be fired, consider the information above. I think it’s safe to say that we should practice a little more patience.