Previously: The Story.
The existential crisis that was last year's secondary has been the subject of emo rehash and frequently-updated "Never Forget" banners in this space for going on a year now. In mid-August of 2010, Troy Woolfolk did something strange and painful to his ankle and I—and I assume a good chunk of the Michigan fanbase—decided ankle-exploding time was drankin' time. Twitter archived the results; read from the bottom.
The headache I had the next morning did not subside until Greg Mattison was hired.
Woolfolk wasn't going to cure last year's secondary issues by himself but he was going to be a decent returning starter in a secondary without any other than Jordan Kovacs. Without him this section of last year's preview started "What's the point of anything?" because everyone left was either a freshman, walk-on, or JT Floyd.
After a deceptively promising start courtesy of the vast incompetence of Zack Frazer and Notre Dame's backup quarterbacks, the doom took hold. Everyone who saw a snap last year contributed to it but if we have to pick a single moment that best represents Michigan's 2010 secondary it would have to be this:
JT Floyd picking up a –3 against Penn State
That is how Matt McGloin tears you up for 41 points on nine drives. Let's never speak of this again.
While this year's secondary won't bring back memories of Charles Woodson, improvement is almost a given. It could be vast, even. Every contributor returns save James Rogers. Woolfolk is back and healthy, and there's a small horde of freshmen.
If you believe the message board chatter about Tony Gibson's coaching acumen, Curt Mallory is a huge upgrade. My favorite apocryphal story is that when Scot Shafer resigned he told Rodriguez he would take all the blame publicly if Rodriguez admitted to Shafer that Gibson was "the worst secondary coach in the country." Shortly after his resignation, Shafer did pop up in the News stating it was all his fault. Poppycock? Probably, but you can't rule it out.
Things are looking up. They could be okay. Not okay for Michigan, but okay for a mediocre Big Ten defense. They've got a cap—like everywhere on this attrition-wracked team the depth is a little scary. The starters still include a walk-on and the talent level as measured by stars is strictly second-rate. They haven't disproved that on the field, so expectations should be kept in check.
That there are any except doom is pretty cool. Bohemian Crapsody begone.
|Corner #1||Yr.||Corner #2||Yr.|
|Troy Woolfolk||Sr.*||Courtney Avery||So.|
|JT Floyd||Jr.*||Tony Anderson||Sr.*#|
|Terrence Talbott||So.||Blake Countess||Fr.|
[* = player has taken redshirt. # = walk-on.]
Woolfolk in T-Woolf mode
Unless something very depressing happens in the near future I will not need any power tools this year. Troy Woolfolk is healthy, and while he's probably not going to be All Big Ten he's fast and steady enough to get good reviews a couple of years ago when he split time between safety and corner. There is empirical evidence for this, and how: Woolfolk's absence from the safety spot marked the point the 2009 defense went off a cliff. Michigan went from giving up 23 points per game with Woolfolk at safety to 37 without.
Those reviews have moved from potentially ignorant bloggers to the head coach. Woolfolk was one of three defensive Wolverines to be named a starter by Hoke weeks before the season (Kovacs and Martin were the others) and is conspicuously first when Hoke talks about his corners:
"(Woolfolk is) is a guy who I think, as a senior, has taken some ownership and he's done everything," Michigan coach Brady Hoke. "J.T. is fighting. Courtney Avery is fighting, Terrence Talbott, they're all fighting with each other to see who's going to be the guy."
Mattison joined in as well:
What are your impressions of Troy Woolfolk? "I'm really, really impressed with a senior -- with a new staff, with a new system -- with a guy that comes out every day and says 'I'm going to do what you tell me to do, I'm going to do it how you tell me to do it, and I'm going to try as hard as I can to do it.' ... I think his technique is improving."
That bit at the end about his improving technique is a little ominous. Woolfolk's injury and position switches may leave him vulnerable to Morgan Trent-like deficiencies. The two are similar players: very fast, rangy corners who are tough to beat on a fade but can struggle when opponents are changing direction rapidly. Woolfolk's main advantage over Trent is want-to. Trent spent his senior year raging against the new regime and saw his play suffer. Woolfolk should have no such issues.
Assuming he's healthy, another year to learn the position and get bigger should see him improve on his previous form. There is a nonzero chance his earlier performances were not representative of his ability, but the smart money is on Woolfolk being at least average. It wouldn't be a surprise to see him go at the tail end of next year's NFL draft.
|juuuuust evades the fingertips|
|jars the ball free|
|comes up too hard|
|pwns a UW guard!|
Opposite Woolfolk the battle is on between sophomore Courtney Avery and redshirt junior JT Floyd. The bet here is that Avery wins that battle. Avery drew into the starting lineup last year when Floyd exited with yet another injury and seemed to outplay the guy he was replacing.
What he brings to the table is still up in the air. He was seeing spot duty relieving Floyd and Rogers even before Floyd's injury; he also split time with Terry Talbott when Michigan went to nickel and dime packages. In that role he was erratic. He wasn't good, per se. But in the tire fire that was last year's secondary he showed a little spark. This spark allowed other portions of the tire fire to spew ever more pitch black tar smoke into the observers face, yes. The spark remained.
Here's an erratic UFR that might not mean that much because he's a corner and his playing time was highly variable:
Zone vacancy II.
|MSU||-||-||-||Didn't register. Yay?|
|Iowa||-||5.5||-5.5||The whiff, the zone vacation, etc.|
|PSU||-||-||-||DNP, I think.|
|Illinois||3.5||0.5||3||Two key tackles.|
|Purdue||3||6||-3||Gave up the big screen.|
|Wisconsin||2.5||3||-0.5||Could have been harsher on him.|
It's not great, though a big chunk of his Indiana negative might have been erroneously given. The blogosphere ferociously debated whether a particular frustrating Iowa touchdown was mostly on the head of Kenny Demens or Avery and eventually decided it was kind of both but maybe probably mostly Demens. The UFR still registers Avery as the victim.
Given the circumstances—tire fire—he did well to not get hammered on a consistent basis. Try to judge him as a freshman by comparing him to his classmates: the highly-touted Cullen Christian was a blinking "throw at me" sign whenever he was on the field. Terrance Talbott was clearly behind. His main issue was playing zone coverage too aggressively, vacating his zone as he chased receivers across the field.
His quickness and aggressiveness bodes well. This is just Bowling Green (see also: the brief blip of Ray Vinopal hope) but Michigan hasn't had a corner who's able to recover like this in a while:
Avery's two years younger than Floyd and was healthy through the entirety of last year and spring practice. He played quarterback in high school; nagging injuries scuppered plans to play him both ways as a senior. He was just learning the rudiments of playing corner when he was thrust onto the field last year. Even if Avery and Floyd were close a year ago—something that is generous to Floyd—Avery should improve much faster than his competition. Avery has never seemed to "transparently lack the speed to be a Big Ten cornerback."
With practice buzz generally talking up Avery, it would be a surprise if he was not the starter. If not now, then by the Big Ten season. He should make a big leap forward in year two.
The primary backup and presumed nickel/dimeback will be the loser of the Avery/Floyd battle. This preview presumes that will be JT Floyd. Our last glimpses of him were against Penn State, when he turned in the coverage-type substance at the top of this post and a few other howlers. Here's one:
The game before that, it was Floyd who gave up slant after slant on critical third downs against Iowa. Even before that this blog declared his coverage "only brushes up against adequate."
|Iowa||2.5||11||-8.5||Oh my god the slants.|
|PSU||3||12||-9||Awful, awful, awful.|
Floyd was so overmatched as a redshirt freshman that Rodriguez and Robinson pulled him off the field, moved Woolfolk from his duties as a fairly effective free safety, and inserted Mike Williams to disastrous effect. Yeah, that could be another symptom of the insanity that ruled decision-making on the D these last few years. But unlike Kenny Demens's debut, Floyd's return to the field didn't make anyone think his removal was a mistake.
As you can see at right, Floyd started off well enough against the incompetent quarterbacks of the nonconference schedule. A number of whiffed tackles and Mouton-like angles against UMass were cause for concern. That concern bloomed, then metastasized in the Big Ten schedule.
|Nate Montana gift|
|breaks on to break up|
|reads and attacks|
|boxed out by Rudolph|
|sucks up on drag|
|allows Willis to drag him 15 yards|
First he was amongst the many Wolverines who were too confused or too slow to keep those four-yard Indiana routes from becoming eight. While he wasn't a major factor in the Michigan State game, he imploded against Iowa and Penn State.
In context it seems like his relatively benign Michigan State game was because the Spartans had even easier prey elsewhere on the field. And maybe Michigan protected him in favor of that prey. Remember the sinfully easy 41-yard touchdown Cullen Christian yielded? Yeah:
Why the hell is Cullen Christian the guy in man coverage on a receiver running a fly route? Why isn't it Floyd? Christian(-3, cover –3, RPS -2) is smoked crispy as he bites on an out and up gives up the touchdown. Roh was about to hit Cousins but no matter.
After that it was the elevator straight down and the injury. If he gets a lot better this year it's time to take the Gibson chatter seriously.
If there are injuries, options past the top three are dicey. With Floyd and Woolfolk held out of spring practice the starting cornerbacks were Avery and Tony Anderson, who's one of many walk-ons threatening for playing time. Anderson played ahead of Cullen Christian and Terrance Talbott; Christian transferred soon after. Talbott remains.
The hope is that's motivational or Talbott can accelerate past Anderson's spot on the depth chart as his scholarship-having self surpasses Anderson's walk-on ceiling. Talbott got sporadic time last year and was okay for a freshman. He got lost on zone drops and was a weak tackler, etc. The book on him…
The book on Talbott: short, smart, agile, excellent in coverage but needs a year or two to bulk up for college.
…seemed pretty accurate. He can be a contributor down the road… if he sticks with football. There were widespread rumors Talbott was off the team, by choice, for a period this offseason.
Beyond Talbott it's true freshmen, but at least there's a horde of them. Maryland's Blake Countess arrives with the most hype and should be the biggest threat to play. (Caveat: last year Cullen Christian arrived with the most hype.) Greg Brown [recruiting profile] enrolled early and was decent in the spring game. Those two feature on the first depth chart. Talbott does not.
The rest of the n00bs: Raymon Taylor [recruiting profile] is speedy, might not have the greatest change of direction, and got a fourth star from Rivals. Delonte Hollowell [recruiting profile] is yet another smurfy Cass Tech corner who can't be put on outside receivers; he'll probably have to wait for time to open up at nickelback. He is rooting hard for Thomas Gordon to win the safety job opposite Kovacs. Finally, Tamani Carter [recruiting profile] is probably a safety; as a guy Michigan hijacked from Minnesota it will be a bad callback to Ray Vinopal if he doesn't redshirt.
That's five dudes instead of three; if it turns out some of the guys ahead of them on the depth chart can't play the one who emerges as a contributor will probably be better than Talbott and Avery were last year.
|Free Safety||Yr.||Strong Safety||Yr.|
|Jordan Kovacs||Jr.*#||Thomas Gordon||So.*|
|Marvin Robinson||So.||Carvin Johnson||So.|
[* = player has taken redshirt. # = walk-on, or former walk-on]
Is it possible that last year's Michigan defense actually one-upped the safety horror on display in 2009? Yes. It was actually worse than even the situation that gave rise to this in last year's preview:
Their [Kovacs and Mike Williams's] powers combined in episodes like "Iowa tight ends are open by 15 yards," "We don't have a guy in the deep middle on third and twenty four," and "What would Juice Williams be like if he was an unstoppable 500-foot-tall robot?"
While the situation two years ago was never good it didn't drop off a cliff until Michigan moved Troy Woolfolk to corner. First Mike Williams and then Jordan Kovacs leisurely escorted opponents into the endzone for the remainder of the year, sure. But last year Michigan started out with this…
…and then pulled a similar switch by moving Cam Gordon to spur and inserting true freshman two-star Ray Vinopal. Vinopal wasn't quite as likely to take a terrible angle. Instead he was a 160-pound object in the way of Wisconsin's various house-sized Katamaris.
Artist's impression of Vinopal tackling Montee Ball
He also took some terrible angles. Kovacs was better but still kind of eh—he has not yet found that Iowa zen where the slow small white guy is always in the right place—and Michigan never got competent play from the other spot. Survey says increase doom panic victory 2010. And there was much rejoicing.
It can't be that bad again, right? I'm seriously asking this. Please, someone tell me it can't be that bad again. If no one else is willing to stand in front of that howitzer I guess it's up to me: they can't be that bad again.
|blasted all over|
|fends off the RT|
|shoots the gap|
|instant tackle on WR|
|tackles in the backfield|
|leaking out into the flat|
|capable zone coverage|
|almost a 95-yard Rick Six|
|not so smrt|
|inexplicably slows up|
It was already a foregone conclusion, but Brady Hoke explicitly confirmed that Jordan Kovacs will start for a third year this fall. He did so almost before anyone asked. The man once mistaken for Matt Cavanaugh by Greg Robinson is on track to becoming the first four-year starter at safety since
Jamar Adams [Ed-M: Marcus Ray ('95-'98). Adams's RS Fr year was Shazor/Mundy]
Unfortunately, thanks to the defensive implosion of the last three years this does not necessarily mean he is any good. Whether he is or not is a subject of heated debate wherever Michigan's starting secondary is discussed. His freshman year he was solid as a box safety. His instincts and tackling made him an effective force player and blitzer. Then the whole Woolfolk-to-corner thing happened and he got switched into a deep half role. To say he struggled was an understatement. Some UFR comments from that portion of his freshman year:
Just can't play a deep half.
Again burned as a deep half safety.
Enormous bust #3.
So that didn't go so well.
Last year Michigan tried to move him back into the box by switching to a 3-3-5 in which he was the "bandit" (a strong safety that spends his time on or near the LOS), but then they spent a lot of time in a two deep shell that saw Kovacs's deep limitations tested again. He did not pass with flying colors but thanks to his awareness and solid tackling was not the flaming dump truck the rest of the secondary was. It's not a coincidence that the new coaching staff has been talking him up. Hoke:
"He's a guy that can get things lined up for you, and he's a tough guy, and he will go attack the football," Hoke said of the former walk-on. "He has a great deal of pride in his performance on a daily basis. He's one of those guys who has an urgency about getting to the football. I'm pleased with what he's done to this point. I would guess that he won't take a step backward."
Kovacs did improve last year, and significantly. Kovacs went from deep half dead meat to "the king of moderate-moderate-0". In three different games (ND, BGSU, and Indiana) he had plusses that exactly offset his minuses; in four more (UConn, UMass, Iowa, and Penn State) he was just above or below breaking even. He was excellent against MSU…
…may have had his best game at Michigan. He's so reliable; on a day when Michigan couldn't find a tackle it didn't want to miss, Kovacs twice dragged down TEs in space to boot MSU off the field. Only one counted, unfortunately.
…but he broke down late, picking up negative days against Illinois, Purdue, and Wisconsin.
Even so, his season was a step forward from obvious liability to "certainly not a liability." Even if he's a walk-on and even if he's obviously small and slow, he should continue improving. He'll be a little less small and slow with another year of conditioning. Being in a coherent defensive system should help put him in positions to make plays. His redshirt year was not spent on the team so he's not as close to his ceiling as your average redshirt junior.
He's not going to be Reggie Nelson. That won't keep him from becoming the first Michigan safety you only hate a little tiny bit since Jamar Adams.
Thomas Gordon: prison abs, manages to look badass on last year's D
|sends the house|
|makes a solid TFL in some space|
|get outside his blocker|
|moves up into the gap|
|not brandon harrison|
|search and destroy|
The spot next to Kovacs is second to only weakside linebacker when it comes to mystery on this year's team. One candidate is sophomore Carvin Johnson, who had a plentiful helping of hype early and started in the spring game. The other is redshirt sophomore Thomas Gordon.
These two are familiar with each other since they spent last year duking it out with each other. The twist: they were doing so at Spur; Cam Gordon had locked down free safety. This year they're swapped.
The smaller Gordon has the advantage. He played at nickelback in the spring, swapping with the WLB on passing downs and covering slot receivers. He seemed well-suited for that spot. Moving him to safety signals some discontent with the options there, and since the move practice scuttlebutt has talked him up a bit more than Johnson. When Countdown to Kickoff flagged down DBs coach Curt Mallory he described the situation at safety like this:
It starts with Jordan right now. … He's done a great job, had a good two-a-days. Then we've got some younger guys in there. Thomas Gordon, I've been really pleased with how he's improved. [pause] And then with the two other guys…
That sounds like Johnson had eleven days to displace Gordon for Western Michigan. As of publication there's been no indication that switch has happened. Gordon was just named a starter by the WMU depth chart.
Gordon's 2010 was abbreviated. He started the season thanks to an injury to Johnson and played pretty well. Particularly impressive was his ability to roar off the edge without pulling a Brandon Harrison by zooming right by the quarterback. Gordon showed a knack for coming in at the fastest possible speed that would allow him to rope the QB to the ground, which accounted for many of his plus plays last year. Here's a good one against Notre Dame:
Outside of that it was minus half points here and there for poor coverage or missed tackles. He and Johnson displayed a knack for finishing his day with around three positive points and two negative ones. The spur was not a high-impact position either way last year until Cam Gordon switched to it and promptly got himself lost on flat zones he'd never been asked to play before.
Like Avery above, Gordon's ability to not be the most spectacularly flaming tire is encouraging. He came in with bler recruiting rankings but—again like Avery—he was a high school quarterback who got a Michigan camp offer and then did not play in his high school's secondary because of injury. He's beaten out some actual scholarship players and drawn praise from the coaches for his play. When I clipped something he did last year it was usually something positive.
I have the same optimism about this Johnson/Gordon combo that I had last year. This, of course, terrifies me. It seems unnatural to think an unproven Michigan safety could be competent. I like Gordon's agility and tackling, though, and while there will be rough spots early by midseason he should settle into that midlevel safety range like Englemon or Barringer.
Carvin Johnson does not like losing.
Curt Mallory wants his safeties to be interchangeable, so this will probably be a situation like offensive line where there's a line behind the starters and whoever the top backup is will come off the bench no matter who exits. That is likely to be Carvin Johnson. Johnson shouldn't feel too down: what small tea leaves we've gotten from the defense suggest he will be the first defensive back off the bench when Michigan goes nickel—in the Saturday punting demo he was on the field plenty as Thomas Gordon played nickelback in Michigan's third down package.
His season was even more abbreviated than Gordon's due to injury. I clipped three events from him last year:
- A bad zone drop against UConn
- An Indiana touchdown on which he was playing some sort of weird ILB and got crushed.
- A nice open field tackle on Rob Henry.
#2 won't be an issue if he's playing a deep safety; #3 is an asset that was promised by his recruiting profile. One… maybe not so much. Though people talk him up Michigan felt it necessary to move Gordon back, whereupon he won the job. He's probably a little unreliable at the moment.
Past Johnson there are actual scholarship(!) players who weren't(!) in high school last year. One is Marvin Robinson [recruiting profile], he of the obligatory OMG shirtless pictures…
…and that thing he did in the spring game where he ran with a slant pattern while Mike Cox was waving at him en route to the endzone. Practice reports on Robinson alternate tales of massive here-comes-the-BOOM-type hits and equally massive touchdown-ceding errors. If you hit up that recruiting profile you'll see a lot of skepticism he can play safety; last year he spent a good chunk of his time at WLB. That may be his long term destination.
For now he's behind Kovacs. He seems to be the second guy in the pecking order; Michigan will try to avoid using him until he has that consistency thing every coach ever but especially Michigan's keep harping on.
The final scholarship guy is Josh Furman. Furman's a bit like Avery in that he was almost exclusively an offensive player in high school. (He put up some Rawls-like games in the Maryland state playoffs.) Michigan managed to redshirt him last year, so his recruiting profile is about all we know. He's reputed to be super athletic, like six FAKES out of five 40 athletic, and will have a role on special teams this year. When asked about the safeties for CTK, Mallory mentioned Kovacs, Gordon, Johnson, and Robinson but not Furman. He's still a year or two away from seeing the field on defense.
A guest post from Craig Ross, who took in the coaches' clinic this year, as he does most years. If you're not sure what "technique" means or the basics of cover X defenses the UFR FAQ should be of some assistance.
Greg is not impressed, GERG
On a personal level Mattison is charismatic and impressive. I can’t imagine that he won’t be a absolutely great recruiter. His enthusiasm is manifest. He isn’t a defensive personality (I don’t mean football defense) in the slightest. Media guys kept asking him about his salary (incredibly rude, I thought) and he just said he didn’t want to talk about. Not mean. Not tired. Not nasty. Just matter of fact. But after the second “no,” these reporters got it.
Unlike GERG he has patience with questions, especially football questions. GERG wanted little to do with the press and had no patience with anything resembling a football question. [I asked whether he would be playing “one or two gap” a couple of years ago. He looked at me like I was crazy (maybe I am/was, probably the question was idiotic) but he responded (and repeated himself) with “Let’s just say by the end of the season you’ll be happy with our defense.” Uh, well, not exactly.
I don’t want to beat on GR. The media can be pretty awful and he had a right to some disinclination to talk about anything other than superficial sound bites. But even in coaching clinics he seemed loathe to talk about defensive structure, which he perceived as overrated (maybe he is right). His obsession was technique, notably tackling technique—stunning given what our defense did the last two years. But Mattison is a whole different deal. He gives smart questions their due. He gives sloppy questions more thought than they probably deserve. And, yeah, he isn’t above the ordinary sound bite to the ordinary sorta-non-question.
The Ravens were a 3-4 team until Mattison took over the defense. In 2009 he changed the Raven to a 4-3 look and there is every reason to believe he will attempt to mimic the success he had in Baltimore. Mattison’s overall philosophies are
- stop the run,
- take away the offense’s best receiver (I assume this means the D may tend to roll a bit to the best WR’s side of the field), and
- keep the defensive formations stable but mix pressures and coverages.
Mattison will run a 4-3 with some nickel as a primary defense*. He was adamant about four things.
- Martin (or any NT) will never play right over the center, zero tech, that he will be shaded into the A gap, even if slightly**.
- He always wants four guys down. Always. He said “If I have to limp in there we are playing 4 guys on the line.” (A couple of times in the spring game it looked like we had three guys down. Reviewed this. On play one he had Big WC at NT and Mike Martin standing up on the edge. Denard breaks the play for 55 yards. Of course, we did have 4 DL in the game so he didn’t violate his abstract principle. Also, as noted, against spread looks he went with three DL. [Ed: my impression was that these sorts of games were reserved for passing downs, when run soundness goes out the window and you're just trying to hassle the QB.])
- GM prefers (strongly) that the defense generally have the same look. He stated that his defense will not “stem” into different looks. That said, he wants the defense to have variations out of the singular defensive formation.
- As every coach on the planet says and means, he wants the D to pressure the QB.
Mattison stresses that he has been left with attentive kids. He talks about their seriousness, that they have behaved and been supportive of each other. Unlike Borges, who spent a lot of time looking at last year’s offense, Mattison claims he did not watch “one minute” of last year’s tape. (I wish I hadn’t.) There are two reasons for this. First, he didn’t want to bias his impressions of the players. He preferred that he and his staff make their own valuations, as opposed to those that accrued in a different system. Second, he was going to run a different system anyway. Looking to last year’s model wasn’t going to provide any information likely to have value.
This is a treacherous judgment—my understanding of the lingo may hamstring my perceptions—but it looks to me like Mattison will to use a 4-3 under as his base defense. The NT will be shaded into the A gap toward the TE, the defensive end in 5 technique but slightly shaded to the outside, and the SAM lining up near the LOS outside of the tight end, assuming there is a TE on the field. On the weak side the tackle will be in 3-tech and the rush end will shaded slightly outside of the offensive tackle***. Basically this:
I think Michigan will look like this a lot but the black “elephant”—the rush end for UM [ed: around here we called it Deathbacker when Greg Robinson was trying to use that guy as in coverage more]—might be a bit closer to the tackle. Mattison’s drawing also had the Mike (Middle LB) and Will (Weakside LB) slightly more shaded to the TE. In the diagram above the Mike has the strongside B gap and Will the weakside A gap. The Will just has to make sure his gap isn’t threatened and then can flow to the ball.
Coverage: The field (wide side) corner and safety will often play “quarters,” while the other safety will be responsible for half the field. [ed: This is also known as quarter-quarter-halves. It's a cover three that splits the field unevenly. Hit up this Smart Football post for more detail—look for the first diagram with color in it.] If there is a receiver to the boundary (short side) that corner will squat, but if there is no WR he may have a “fire” read, rushing the passer or having weakside run support.
A couple variants: A primary variation of this will be the DL all slanting to the weak side of the formation, the Mike and Will dropping into hook and curl coverage, with the corners and weakside safety splitting the field into thirds and the strong side safety having responsibility in the flat. Note that this comes out of the same 4-3 under look. I assume, on this choice, the Sam (Strongside LB) has edge integrity and the Mike and strong safety have primary run support to the play side.
Mattison didn’t mention the 4-3 over but they definitely played a bit of that in the SG. In that the NT shifts to a shade into the weakside A gap and the linebackers are more balanced. I have to look back at the tape some---pretty sure they played a bit of it, at least late in the SG.
It also looks like they will play some “Bear” defense, bringing the Will down into the gap between the End and the SAM. In such instances he said they will always be in man defense, they won’t try to zone. Mattison also stressed that “setting an edge” to the defense is always important and on their base defense that’s up to the Sam on the field side. He said this was “a huge deal.”
In terms of personnel note that Troy Woolfolk and JT Floyd were out in the spring, as was Kenny Demens. In a surprise Marrell Evans started with the ones (I didn’t know he was on the team until 10 days ago) in the Spring Game. Herron was there, too. Herron was shucked by Cox on his long run. I thought Evans played pretty well.
Tony Anderson and Avery both played pretty well at corner (or was this just the weakness in our passing game?) so with Floyd and Woolfolk healthy in the fall, there should be a lot of competition there.
In a huge surprise to me, I saw some really good play from Greg Brown—at corner—in the last Saturday scrimmage [ed: ie, the Saturday before the spring game]. This was mentioned by the coaches, so it is not a secret or my insanity. Brown did give up the TD near the end of the spring game but he was in great position and just misplayed the ball. Right now Carvin and Kovacs are running with the ones at safety, but Marvin Robinson is going to be a monster if he can learn the D. Parents of a player mentioned this to me, that Marvin had the chance to be awesome, once he steps up his understanding of the playbook. Josh Furman made a couple of plays but I didn’t focus on him so I can’t evaluate his play yet. Marvin made numerous big plays in the last weekend scrimmage.
The DL looks set with Van Bergen at DE, Roh at rush end, Big Will at the three tech and Martin at NT. However, Martin was moved around a bit in the SG so I have to look at the tape of that. Depth is thin, but I saw some good play from Black (inconsistent, but flashes), Wilkins (big plays in the SG) and the other Will (Heininger) who has been moved inside to NT.
The LBs were Jones (Will) and Cam Gordon (Sam) and I thought they did OK. Jake Ryan just stood out on the last scrimmage (with the 2s)—he made play after play—and he did the same thing in the SG. He was a way under the radar recruit but he really looks like he will be a player.
This was the worst defense in the history of the galaxy (maybe not universe, there may be a planet where some team was worse) last year so I am surprised by what I saw this spring. It was a more ordinary spring--- the UM defense making the offense struggle to get any run game going (except for Denard), though maybe two big plays were broken by the RBs. I predicted before the SG (based on the prior week’s scrimmage) that this would be an average or above average defense. I still think that. Something in the back of my head thinks it might even be an “almost good” defense but I suspect this is delusional. Now the coaches seem nervous. Mattison was unhappy after the SG but they sure seem ahead of anything I have seen for a few years.
*[Editor's note: given how much we saw Thomas Gordon in the spring game I'm guessing the nickel will be the base defense against spread looks.]
**[During the spring game it seemed like were pretty close to a zero technique at times, something he seemed to disavow. From the endzone, where I sat, there always seemed some shade. But on the Tivo of the game (from the side) of course, it seemed like we had a NT in zero tech every now and then. I reviewed it. Seems like this was when the offense was in a spread, when GM went completely odd with a 3 man front—as George Halas suggested against the single wing.]
***[Mattison is concerned that too many rush ends tend to get too wide as they attempt to speed rush the tackle. He thinks this is too easy a mark for an offensive tackle unless the end is a blur. He wants him closer to the tackle. He especially wants Craig Roh to not get too wide, allowing him to probe in either direction.]
So… that happened. As per usual, many events from the spring game are in the eye of the beholder. Is Devin Gardner's inability to find anyone open an indictment of him, an indictment of the second-team wide receivers, or… uh… like… people being covered? I know that latter seems improbable but I have seen football games in which this has happened. Whether your reaction to Saturday was "woo defense" or "ugh offense" depends on your state of mind and may oscillate wildly.
Unfortunately, there was a lot that was unambiguously bad, most of it from the quarterbacks: interceptions whistled yards over the intended receiver's head or thrown directly at linebackers, a Mallett-like plague of dropped snaps, offsides calls, etc. The general impression was more 2008 than 2010. Denard completed 5 of 14 passes for 5 YPA—2008 numbers—and ran six times for 60 yards, averaging 1 YPC after his first attempt. Insert the usual spring caveats and add a bunch more besides for small sample size and an awkward transition, but that is a far cry from the last spring game, and very little of it can be attributed to awesome defense. The QBs sucked on their own.
Here are highlight-type substances (which also feature the Most Legendary Press Conference Ever):
The official site version:
Other vague impressions:
The worst part ever. That guy who sung the anthem. I don't know why events that aren't actual football games are accompanied by some never-was with vibrato Tourette's singing the national anthem. This happened at the Big Chill, too. This is the last drip of Michigan football for five months—give me the band.
Obviously not so good. Devin Gardner was also inaccurate in drills. They have this dig route where a slot receiver works to the seam then cuts his route off 15 yards downfield and Gardner was consistently missing it. Denard missed a couple times but was obviously better. Both performed poorly in the game itself, which fine. Denard doesn't need a more practice on running plays that were beaten into his head last year, sometimes literally. If you're installing new stuff now is the time to see if it works.
HOWEVA, man… it did not seem to work. They kept running the waggle and Denard could not get anything out of it. There was a guy in his face the whole time; the resulting throws were frequently incomplete due to inaccuracy. In the video above when Hoke references a couple of "drops" the best examples the BTN can dig up are Drew Dileo almost making a spectacular one-handed stab and Darryl Stonum almost making a spectacular sideline lay-out.
Maybe in a tackle football game he can escape that contain guy on the regular, but that seems like a high variance strategy with limited upside. Option 1: beats corner guy, is on corner, has shot at running some probably not immense distance or hitting a crossing route of some variety. Option 2: second and 20. There's a reason the waggle is strictly an occasional changeup—whenever you've got the ball and are spending time with your back to the defense there's a chance something awful is going to happen, like John Navarre getting blown up in that one MSU game.
Mike Cox was the most impressive, scoring the only legitimate touchdown of the day for the offense—the second was an uncalled offensive PI that outraged Charles Woodson even if he wasn't watching it—on a 68-yard rumble through the middle of the defense. A few runs later he powered through a couple diving arm tackles for a decent gain. Notably, no coach dropped his headset in disgust without even yelling at the guy, which totally happened at last year's fall scrimmage. That was a sign Cox was going to be buried on the bench all year. Light going on? Let's hope so.
Stephen Hopkins seemed like Stephen Hopkins. Everyone else was pretty eh. Hayes and Rawls will have a shot in the fall.
With all but five Michigan receptions leaders returning there wasn't much new here, especially since the quarterbacks had such an off day. Hard to show anything when you're chasing Carvin Johnson down instead of vice-versa. A few items:
- It seems like Drew Dileo has risen to second on the slot depth chart.
- Odoms is still outside.
- Moving Ricardo Miller to tight end is a very bad sign for him. Seeing him next to the other TEs is like seeing that tiny third-string FB in the game. He just doesn't have the frame for TE, especially in a manball offense, so… what does that say about his potential future as a WR?
- The much-touted involvement of the tight ends did not materialize. I don't remember a single catch [Ed-M: Koger got one] and I think they only targeted TEs once or twice. This has been an exceptionally overblown meme anyway. Last year Michigan TEs had 20 catches. In Carr's last year they had 24. When you've got talent you throw to it; Michigan's talent is in the slot.
Michigan needs a couple big receiver recruits this year because the cavalry does not appear to be coming. Jerald Robinson may develop into a decent option but Miller's not even at the spot anymore and DJ Williamson didn't look good in drills or exist in the game; Jeremy Jackson is probably the best of all the receivers brought in last year and his upside is strictly possession.
It's all but impossible to pick out anything specific live unless you're a savant, which I'm not, so… uh… yeah. Michigan's attempts to run power didn't go so well—a follower tweeted that Michigan's guards were the equivalent of Michigan's kickers when they tried to pull. Again, with a veteran line that's got zone blocking down it's okay to work on the stuff they don't know yet. It seems foolhardy to dump that entirely and we did see a couple examples of Rodriguez's QB stretch, so let's hope the playcalling is less slanted towards the unfamiliar in fall.
The second team OL was walk-on infested with injuries to Molk (played but sparingly) and Lewan (out). They could not block the second-team DL, which contributed to Gardner's issues. Late it seemed like Mattison called off the dogs specifically so Gardner could see what it was like to not have someone breathing down his neck two seconds after the snap.
One guy I did think looked pretty good was Schofield.
All eyes were on Will Campbell and Will Campbell was all right. He got single blocked the whole day, alternating his time between pushing into the backfield to force cutbacks on unsuccessful runs, getting blocked out of rushing lanes, and (on passing downs) sitting at the LOS being the guy who looks for screens and scrambles. Unsurprisingly, reports that Campbell was "unblockable" as a three-tech turned out to be fiction—Campbell didn't beat a block all day. His contributions were limited to getting a moderate amount of penetration when single blocked on running plays. It was far from dominant; it could have been worse. I'm still pretty worried about what happens on stretch plays.
As for the other guys, RVB was out, leaving Jibreel Black and walk-on Nate Brink alternating at SDE. We know what to expect out of Martin when his ankles exist, and now he's getting moved around on passing downs. Schofield seemed to win his battle with Craig Roh, but Roh made a couple of plays on runs and looks like an honest-to-God DE these days. Kenny Wilkins was the DE who got steamrolled on the Cox TD.
Everyone's talking about Jake Ryan after his pick six and constant pressure of Gardner, but his primary opponent was a redshirt freshman walk-on not very good at blocking people. Big difference between his setup and, say, Campbell taking on the starting guards on the regular. Cam Gordon's in front of him for a reason. Ryan does appear like he'll push for time.
On the whole this unit was surprisingly decent for one starting a guy who just transferred from Hampton after not getting any PT there. Often when I'd watch Campbell he'd get kicked out of the hole way too easily, but as I braced for a big run two linebackers would roar in from the backside and swallow the play. That's what a one-gap defense does as long as you get your "run fits" right, and it seemed like they were vastly improved over last year. I'm extremely leery of the depth when your best alternative to Demens is Marell Evans, but here it seemed like the transition was going smoothly. Caveats apply: could just be the OL not being any good at what they're being asked to do.
FWIW, it was Brandon Herron getting steamrolled on the Cox TD run.
With Floyd and Woolfolk out this was also a lot of walk-ons. It's not good for Terrance Talbott to be behind Tony Anderson; Cullen Christian was also behind Anderson but was apparently injured and did not play. This will be some combination of Avery/Floyd/Woolfolk this fall unless Blake Countess shows up extremely ready. Greg Brown showed better than most expected after he spent his senior year of high school at linebacker.
As for safety, Michigan certainly looks good there. Marvin Robinson, Josh Furman, and Carvin Johnson are physically reminiscent of NFL safeties. A dollar says that perception doesn't last into the Big Ten season, but in this game they only blew two plays—the Cox TD (overrun by a very confused Robinson) and Denard's game-opening 55-yarder (Johnson was understandably outrun). Oh, and there was that hopeless Gardner bomb that should have been intercepted but ended up a completion. I think that was also Robinson, but I don't remember exactly.
So… slightly encouraging here. While Johnson's interceptions were gifts he came up and put a lick on more than one tailback who had broken to the sideline. Robinson also bombed a couple tailbacks. Furman was in position to break up a couple of Gardner deep balls and could have had an interception or two if Gardner's passes had been a little more accurate. Unfortunately, I am constitutionally incapable of not panicking about safety play even if there is evidence I shouldn't.
Will Hagerup is sophomore Zoltan: still too inconsistent but if he gets hold of one look out. He's going to hit a 70-yard punt this year. He'll also hit some 35-yard dribblers, but he's getting there.
Kickers: aigh. [Ed-M: They say
Aslan Matt Wile is on the move.]
Other Video Type Objects
Important bit on Denard: “in the real world, he'll probably run more than you saw today.”
Photo galleries abound. AnnArbor.com:
If the spring game is any indication, Mattison is not afraid to bring the heat. One of the criticisms Ravens fans levied at Mattison was that he “didn’t blitz enough.” That is something that is said about just every defensive coordinator ever, so take it for what it’s worth. Still, the concern that Michigan is going to drop back into a cover-2 and rush four is something that I’ve been somewhat afraid of. I thought the 3-3-5 was going solve that, instead it proved to be the exact opposite of an aggressive, attacking defense.
As OHHW notes, rushing four would actually be an improvement on last year. Ace predicted and wanted ugly. Point Ace. The Big House Blog wonders where Roy Roundtree went. Hoke says Michigan has a "long way to go." Mattison says he "doesn't know if [Johnson] was responsible for" his big plays, which… yeah. Photos and bits from MVictors.
Yesterday we hit the offense; this is the other side of the ball.
Campbell Or Someone Else, Except There Isn't Anyone Else
All eyes not locked on Denard Robinson Saturday will be interpreting any signs of life from Will Campbell as prophecy of opposing offensive lines' impending doom. The facts are these: Michigan has three lock starters on the line, a big hole at three-technique, and a very big man who was a very big former recruit on his way to being a very big bust who is getting personal attention from no fewer than three Michigan coaches.
Michigan has put all their eggs in Campbell's basket. Quinton Washington is backing up Mike Martin—and doing so unevenly—and the only other options there are redshirt freshmen like Richard Ash (also probably an NT if he's anything) and Terry Talbott (probably another year away from being physically ready).
There's almost no way he's not going to start. This makes me nervous because it makes me think about Pat Massey. Massey was 6'8" and never should have been anywhere near DT, but he had a good amount of starting experience when he was inadvisably thrust inside after Michigan ended their one-year experiment with the 3-4. He still ended most plays in a crumpled mess several yards downfield. He was the three-tech next to Gabe Watson; hopefully Campbell doesn't go down as Martin's Massey.
Looking for: my skepticism about Campbell ever performing well is established. If the guy just holds his own and doesn't get blown up on the regular that will be major progress.
Fearing: The third string center getting under his pads and depositing him in Kovacs's lap.
Will only believe three games into the season: That Michigan's previous defensive coaches were even more incompetent than we already believe them to be.
Edge Terror: Yes, Please
Craig Roh is entering his junior year, and the clock has started ticking faster. As a freshman he was incredibly undersized; as a sophomore he was incredibly miscast. Now he's in an upperclassman in an under front as the weakside defensive end—this is his time and place. On a defense wholly devoid of established playmakers other than Martin he is the player most likely to blow up. Michigan needs him to or it's going to be another year in which opposing quarterbacks can finish their crumpets in the pocket before leisurely surveying to see which receiver is open by yards.
Here Michigan actually seems to have a decent second option: Jibreel Black was a complete disaster against the run as a true freshman but flashed disruptive ability when teams didn't run right at him. Like virtually everyone else on the team he should have redshirted; if he had everyone would be talking him up as the next coming because they hadn't seen his shortcomings. As it is a big post-frosh bump in performance can be expected.
Looking for: one-on-one pass rush from Roh against Schofield/Huyge/walk-on. He has to be able to beat those guys if he's going to take on the Big Ten this fall.
Fearing: Here I don't think we'll be too disappointed. There are two good options.
Will only believe three games into the season: That they can't get production out of this spot.
Michigan's veteran linebackers have shuffled off to their futures. Since Obi Ezeh was replaced at midseason by immediately obvious upgrade Kenny Demens, middle linebacker is set. Ready or not, Cam Gordon will be the strongside LB. That leaves Jonas Mouton's old spot as the only other in the front seven up for grabs. Despite collecting all manner of safety/LB tweeners answers are few. Candidates:
- Mike Jones. Jones was the primary backup to Mouton last spring and was getting hyped up as a playmaker; one season-ending injury later there are grumbles he is too small and does not fit the position in a 4-3 under.
- Brandin Hawthorne. Yeah… so… Brandin Hawthorne hasn't seen the field in any capacity other than special teams yet and seemed destined for a Darnell Hood sort of career and now he's kind of the only option other than Jones because all the rest of the guys are participating in a pitched battle elsewhere. Speaking of…
- Safety war losers. Carvin Johnson, Marvin Robinson, and Josh Furman all spent part of last year at linebacker and part at safety; this spring they're all trying to fill Michigan's perpetually gaping hole next to Jordan Kovacs. While they won't be playing WLB saturday, if someone establishes themselves as the guy they will probably throw one of these three back in the linebacker pool.
- Oh, and Thomas Gordon. Some reports put Gordon in the WLB battle while others think he's in a distinctly separate boat of guys playing a dedicated nickelback spot. Gordon was a pleasant surprise as the starting spur earlier in the year and if there are few other options at WLB he might inherit that spot by default, flexing out into the nickel when other teams go spread. That would have some obvious downsides—dude is not linebacker-sized—but Larry Foote is not walking through that door.
- Oh, and… um… Marell Evans? Apparently he's back on the team after not playing at Hampton, and while he's getting some practice buzz that's so far-fetched I'm not even going to list it under things I don't believe because obviously.
Hypothetically, the WLB is the best-protected linebacker in an under front and can be a little fast guy who pursues guys all over the field. More realistically you can shield him a bit but offenses will find ways to make your tiny guy go facemask to facemask with much larger folks, especially if the three-tech spot supposed to shield him is iffy.
Looking for: A weakside linebacker that does not blow outside contain constantly. If I had to guess right now I would say Gordon gets virtually all of the time against spread teams and eventually ends up dragged into the lineup against the coaches' better judgment simply because he can play.
Fearing: A major downgrade—Mouton also turned in his fair share of great individual plays.
Will only believe three games into the season: That having Hawthorne in the two-deep is not an ominous sign.
Squinting In The General Direction Of Safety
Well… at least they've got some athlete type substances. They're weakside linebackers mostly but they'd be really fast WLBs. As mentioned, Johnson, Robinson, and Furman are all fighting to be Michigan's scapegoat this fall; there is no clarity as to who will come out on top. Johnson has the initial edge since he's seen the field, but most of that was at linebacker and last year when he moved to safety he ended up behind the leetle tiny Vinopal despite his tendency to look like Jerry attempting to tackle Tom.
As per usual, brace yourselves.
Looking for: Johnson to be as reputed: a bit slow but reliable and an excellent tackler. Basically a scholarship version of Kovacs.
Fearing: Fear? There is no fear, only the cold hard certainty Michigan's safeties will suck.
Will only believe three games into the season: There are no hopes out there to deflate, so we can take a pass on this one.
Oh And Bonus
Looking for: Ball through uprights; more realistically, the matriculation of Matt Wile.
Fearing: Not through uprights.
Will only believe three games into the season: that I can watch a field goal attempt without throwing up.
On Will Campbell and Quinton Washington:
"We made a couple moves with some big guys, some backup linemen. Quinton Washington was a backup lineman; we moved him to nose guard. We kinda traded Will Campbell over to offense, where I think he's going to be a natural offensive guard. After a week and a half I think both of those moves will probably stick for now. I think Will's got a future at guard, I think Quinton Washington's got a future on the D-line."
On the secondary:
"We moved around Cam Gordon. We wanted him to learn—well, he played the deep safety, we wanted him to play the safety up tight. That was a process; he was able to do that. We got Ray Vinopal and Carvin Johnson some more work at the deep safety position to get some flexibility. We have Marvin Robinson, who's been a safety, playing a little bit of linebacker for us. He can help us in nickel packages."
On the D-line:
"We moved the D-line around a little bit as well."
Brandstatter asked "are these kids going to play?" and Rodriguez sayeth:
"Oh, yeah. You'll see Carvin Johnson and Vinopal playing. Ray is at the same position anyway, but it's a new position for Carvin. You'll see Cam Gordon playing more at both safety positions where as before he was just playing one. I don't know if Will is ready yet at offensive line or Quinton at defensive line but we tried to get them as prepared as we could for this ball game. We'll see what happens."
Obviously they saw the issues with Gordon had persisted too long and are trying to get some better play out of the FS position right now. Also, Cam's going to threaten Kovacs's job—could be a run/pass split there—and Robinson will probably displace Demens in nickel and dime packages.
Campbell's not going to play unless a bunch of people go down on the interior line, but Washington might. This would be alarming. It might not be much more alarming than seeing anyone other than Martin at NT.
Right: Marvin Robinson moves from safety to
No surprises, and no Denard:
University of Michigan Football Injury Report
Thursday, Oct. 28, vs. Penn State
OUT (0% PLAY)
Jones, Mike Leg
Odoms, Martavious Foot
Toussaint, Fitzgerald Shoulder
Van Slyke, Jared Clavicle
Williams, Mike Head
Woolfolk, Troy Ankle
More interestingly, Rodriguez dropped some science about position switches on his coaches show that is either earth-shaking or wildly misinterpreted by the internet. These are the supposed moves via the somewhat confused twitter feed of Angelique Chengelis:
- Marvin Robinson to linebacker. I have a source who tipped me off about this a few days ago, so that's for real. Robinson's likely to compete at WLB for the job Mouton vacates after the year.
- Will Campbell(OG) and Quinton Washington(DT) are sticking at their new positions. Since these moves had already been confirmed, that's legit, too. I'm not sure how I feel about that, but there's some insider hype about Washington being a "beast" on Rivals. So we've got that going for us. Not likely to impact anything until next year unless Washington is a miraculously fast learner.
- Cam Gordon to "both safety spots" and Ray Vinopal to "deep safety". Since Vinopal is already a free safety this position switch is more a depth chart thing. There have been rumors floating around about Vinopal playing with the ones and either starting (fanciful) or getting real playing time (apparently likely) on Saturday. These are confirmed now; the source also dropped that Vinopal was getting a serious look at deep safety. The Cam Gordon bit there presages a move closer to the LOS, whether it's spur or bandit, eventually. (ATTENTION BYRON MOORE: duuuude. Seriously.)
- They "moved defensive linemen." Vague but the only thing that makes sense here is putting Sagesse back inside at NT and moving Patterson to a backup DE position.
Also, Rodriguez promised more carries for ham fiend Stephen Hopkins and said Teric Jones(!) would see the field. I looked for podcasts on WTKA's site but couldn't find them; maybe MVictors will be able to dig out exactly what was said so we can parse that into molecules. He's clutch like that.