“On the offense last year, they had great spacing. That’s what I remember. Great spacing, great shooters, like Nik Stauskas, who’s not there right now. But they always have someone to fill the roles. They have a cutting offense, kind of hard to guard.”
Assorted items of possibly dubious validity that have darkened my inbox about spring practice. Are these accurate? Useful? Worth reading? Possibly not. Will at least one player who these reports suggest will be a ninja spend his career doing nothing? Yes. Will you absorb the reports voraciously anyway? Absolutely!
I'm on the record as skeptical that Denard Robinson presents a serious threat to Tate Forcier, but multiple sources here and elsewhere keep saying it looks even, or even advantage Robinson, thus far. Robinson's got a zippy arm that bests Forcier when it comes to short-range oomph and has vastly improved his accuracy. This makes him a plausible quarterback. He remains ridiculously fast, and is actually running the read option now.
Areas for improvement: throwing on the run, reading defenses—when the D deviates from its vanilla schemes Robinson has a nasty tendency to throw it directly at defenders—and pocket awareness. On long throws he still has a tendency to throw ropes that give receivers little opportunity to adjust to inaccurate balls.
There has been little chatter about Forcier, with some observers theorizing he's still dealing with the after-effects of his shoulder injury and others claiming he's totally healthy and just not progressing as fast as Robinson. That latter makes some sense, as Forcier has been exposed to high-level coaching for years. He's a lot closer to his ceiling than Robinson.
Despite all the Robinson talk, most people are hesitant to suggest he would actually start. Michigan is installing the 3-3-5 and running vanilla coverages. There's a long way to go from seeming competent in spring to being the starting quarterback. More realistic is a continued timeshare with Robinson moonlighting at other skill positions when Tate is at the helm.
Devin Gardner, meanwhile, looks like a freshman. He needs work on his mechanics, doesn't know the offense that well, and is clearly behind the two sophomores. He's running a lot of those Incredibly Surprising Quarterback Zone Stretch plays that Robinson was relegated to last year. If Denard can establish himself a viable option Gardner seems headed for a redshirt. His long term potential remains totally sweet.
It sounds like Mike Cox is the tentative leader at this point. He alternates punishing Minor RAGE runs with mental mistakes that undoubtedly have Rodriguez throwing his hat and saying he's dang-diddly-anged disappointed in the young man. Cox has the best combination of size and speed, and that uncanny balance he flashed during some of his garbage-time runs is no fluke. Caveat: Vincent Smith is sometimes suggested as the probable starter. Cox is entering his third year in the program so the mental mistakes may be a long term issue, unfortunately.
Michael Shaw is next in the pecking order, less likely to break a tackle than Cox but more likely to take something a long way. He's also been mentioned as a player who needs to work on the mental side of the game some.
Stephen Hopkins is getting the sort of reviews you expect him to: he is a horse, a load, a freight train, a moose, etc. He will run straight ahead until he falls over or he burrows into the wall in the endzone. If Cox doesn't establish himself as a short yardage back, the duties will likely fall to Hopkins.
Toussaint comes in for cursory "looked good" praise but it seems like he's trailing the relative veterans. White is probably redshirting.
Wideouts and Tight Ends
Hard to tell anything with Hemingway and Stokes out; in their absence Roy Roundtree is practicing outside and drawing mixed reviews. Drops are supposed to be an issue with everyone, but Roundtree gets more stick for it than others.
Mixed reviews on Darryl Stonum, with a couple reports citing his obvious physical superiority to the rest of the WRs and projecting a strong season. Again, hard to tell absent his most serious competition.
Roundtree may stick outside even after the injured return because Odoms, Gallon, and Robinson are all having strong springs. Robinson and Grady are taking a number of snaps in the backfield—think Darius Reynaud—and doing well with it. Both were high school tailbacks. Robinson and Gallon seem to have the inside track on punt returns.
Tight ends are the same as they were last year. It sounds like they're focusing more on the slots this year.
The interior line remains as expected: Schilling, Molk Placeholder, Omameh, with both guards coming in for regular praise and the Placeholder (Khoury, mostly) having issues snapping the ball. That's supposedly getting better.
On the outside there's been some shuffling with Dorrestein and Huyge flopping left to right at times. This may be due to Taylor Lewan's (right) quick emergence. He's been called an "obvious future star" and "reminiscent of Jake Long." Reports are still conflicting on his readiness but all agree that his upside is as rapturous as the recruiting gurus promised; it seems like it's matter of time before he claims the left tackle spot. That timeframe may be September or it may be next year. The most recent move suggests the move may come sooner rather than later. Flipping Huyge to the right seems to be an effort to get Michigan's best five on the field. If I had to bet, I'd go with Lewan as the starting LT against UConn.
Washington (when healthy) and Schofield have also gotten good reviews; that whole class seems to be panning out so far. Huyge and Dorrestein haven't been the subject of much chatter good or bad. With the quarterbacks focusing on shorter routes the opportunities for serious pass protection have been intermittent.
Renaldo Sagesse continues to play well. Will Campbell is huge and still working on technique issues but much better both physically and mentally; it sounds like those two will be the NT platoon. I'm pretty confident they'll be a good one. That leaves Van Bergen and Martin outside with Banks and Patterson backing up. It's hard to tell how much of the praise for each of the senior backups is real, but given how Sagesse played last year I think he can hang. Patterson and Banks I don't know about.
Specific mentions of RVB have been few and far between. Banks and Patterson are getting talked up publicly but aren't drawing a ton of hype on background.
This comes with a "just spring" warning since he was buried all of last year, but Kenny Demens is getting a significant amount of buzz and is taking some of Ezeh's snaps with the first team. The scheme change may suit him: the Casteel-style 3-3-5 doesn't need a huge MLB, just a tough guy willing to plug his face on a guard and make the nose tackle right all the time. His speed and blitzing is a good fit for the new system. He's been laying his share of thumping hits.
Other than that, it's MOTS in the linebacking corps, with Mouton and Ezeh seeming like Mouton and Ezeh. If there have been any adjustment pains for Craig Roh they haven't made it into the wide world. He seems to be doing very well. Adding 20 pounds turns him from overmatched but promising into beast, apparently. From the inbox's lips to God's ears.
The Cam Gordon hype train continues unabated, with words like "excellent," "natural," and "seems vaguely like an actual safety" getting thrown around. (Latter praise invented by me to tamp own expectations down.) ESPN's Adam Rittenberg gets in on the act:
Safety Cameron Gordon, a converted wide receiver, drew praise from Rodriguez and several players I spoke with.
Most positive reports about receivers read "hauled in pass and was disemboweled by Gordon, but held on." Caveat: all the quarterback reports indicate that Michigan is working on short stuff incessantly, so opportunities to get dragged way out of position and give up, oh, I don't know, a third and thirty-seven conversion have been limited.
With Emilien out with another injury, Brandin Hawthorne is second-team at deep safety. Rodriguez has been wary about the lack of depth there.
Troy Woolfolk is about on par where he was last year: pretty good Big Ten corner, may have a bit more upside than that as a senior. Then there's JT Floyd. He is "vastly improved." I know. I'm skeptical, too. According to Rittenberg, Woolfolk had praise for Floyd as well.
The bad news: Justin Turner gets a universal "meh," with a couple of reports indicating that a 6'2", 210-pound corner is not likely to work out and a position move is in the cards once the quartet of freshman corners hits campus in fall. One talks up James Rogers, his teammate on the second team, in favor of him. Bleah. As of now the third string corners are walk-ons so Turner continues to labor at a position it seems he doesn't have the quicks for. With Gordon developing a death grip on deep safety, Turner's best shot at playing time in the near future may be as a spur or bandit.
As far as the hybrid SSs go: Jordan Kovacs has the weakside spot (bandit) locked down. This is no surprise for anyone who saw him play there as a freshman walk-on. That box safety thing is tailor made for him. The other side is a total mess, with Mike Williams giving way to a combination of redshirt freshman Thomas Gordon and walk-on Floyd Simmons. It's unclear whether the Williams demotion is a temporary thing due to injury (Williams is in green) or a long term move to other players, but it seems like it's closer to the latter. The Hawthorne move leaves a couple of marginal players duking it out at a spot that requires dealing with a lot of blocks. Reports have neither been positive or negative. They mostly confine themselves to who's playing where. Gordon has laid a couple pops, apparently.
I wouldn't be surprised to see someone move to the spur for fall; Carvin Johnson and Marvin Robinson will have opportunities to earn immediate starting jobs.
With Will Hagerup not enrolled yet, there's not much you can tell about the punters. On the Huge Show yesterday Rodriguez said he was the most likely freshman to start (surprise!), so it sounds like there isn't anyone in camp threatening to make an Olesnavage-like move.
Placekicking, on the other hand, has everyone it's going to have and the initial reviews are seriously negative. Brendan Gibbons is reputed to have a big leg but questionable accuracy. Field goals have been something of a fire drill so far. Here's a terror-inducing Rodriguez quote:
"The kicking game is a concern simply because we've been inconsistent in practice. I couldn't tell you who our starting kicker is. It changes in 15 minutes. I don't know if that's going to be resolved until the fall. Brendan Gibbons has a strong leg, but he's been back and forth. Other special teams, we've got athletes, but the kicking and punting is not at the point where we feel comfortable."
- DE Will Heininger (right) has torn his ACL and will have surgery to repair it. His status for the fall is dependent on how his rehab progresses.
- Martavious Odoms, Junior Hemingway, and Je'Ron Stokes will practice a little today and will hopefully be full-go by the end of the week.
- Vlad Emilien, Jared Van Slyke, and Quinton Washington will hopefully return to practice next week.
- The guys who are out for spring (David Molk, Brandon Herron, Mike Martin, and Vincent Smith) are progressing on schedule.
- Tate and Denard are splitting reps with the first team. Rich does not care if one guy wins the job, or if he has a few guys who are ready to play. He wants to have at least two QBs ready to play. The guys understand that they're competing for the starting position.
- Tate Forcier is being challenged by the coaches this spring, with football, academics, as a student-athlete at the University. He's very competitive, and likes being challenged to improve.
- Denard has a better understanding of the offense and the passing game than he did last year (unsurprising, since this is his first spring). He still has a ways to go, but he's improving. Once he gets the QB position down, he'll learn other positions to get him on the field.
- Gardner is fun to be around, and has a high energy level. He's learning quickly, but still has a lot to improve upon. The coaches can't expect too much too soon.
- The quarterbacks are practicing full-contact to work on their ball security. Normally they'd have non-contact jerseys. Once the QBs get used to taking some hits, they'll let them wear non-contact jerseys.
- Michael Cox has had a very good spring, and Michael Shaw has had some good days and some days "where we expected more out of him." Fitzgerald Toussaint is also in the first group with them; he's gotten bigger and is getting a good grasp of the offense.
- Stephen Hopkins is a big guy, and they needed a big back to replace Minor and Grady. He has a chance to play some at big back this fall.
- Austin White has been a little banged up this spring. However, he has the talent to help the team in the future.
- Kelvin Grady and Terrence Robinson have gotten some reps at running back. Grady missed some strength work when he was practicing with the basketball team this winter, and Rodriguez would let him return to basketball this fall only if he can handle it academically, and isn't just going to sit on the end of the bench.
- There is still competition ongoing at the safety position. They don't have a comfortable 2-deep, and probably won't until fall. Vlad Emilien's injury has hurt them there.
- Cameron Gordon has had a really good spring, and that's one of the better personnel changes they've made.
- Jordan Kovacs is capable of playing any safety position.
- Some days there has been good kicking performance, sometimes not so good. The situation still isn't comfortable punting or placekicking.
- Will Hagerup with arrive in the fall and will compete with Seth Broekhuizen for the starting punter spot in the fall.
- There is no starting kicker yet, as the best performer is different every day. That situation won't be resolved until fall. Brendon Gibbons has a strong leg, but he's been back-and-forth.
- The snapping and coverage units look good, and they have the athletes to contribute there.
- "We'll have a better team, and I expect us to have a good team, yes." This spring practice is much, much better than two years ago, and is a little better than last year.
- Chemistry - The leadership can come from not only the 12-man senior class, but also some underclassmen who can be leaders.
- Thursday, Friday, and Saturday is the annual coaching clinic. Thursday will be a practice in just shorts, and Saturday will be a full-scale scrimmage. This is the most important scrimmage of the spring.
- There has probably been more talk about the changes to the defense than there have actually been changes. They did a lot of multiple-front stuff last year, and Greg Robinson is trying to best fit the scheme to Michigan's personnel. They're trying to find the right combination of simplicity for the player to learn and the flexibility they'd like from the defense.
- Regarding Demar Dorsey, Rodriguez said "If anything changes with any of our signees, I'll let ya'll know if anything happens with that."
After Rich was done speaking, the media got a chance to watch a couple periods of practice. My observations from that:
- Injured guys running inside Glick Fieldhouse: Mike Martin, Vincent Smith, Brandon Herron.
- Red Shirts (no contact): Quinton Washington, Zac Johnson, Vladimir Emilien.
- Green Shirts (limited contact): Devin Gardner, Austin White, Je'Ron Stokes, Junior Hemingway, Karl Tech, Martavious Odoms.
- Mark Moundros only practiced with the linebackers.
- Adam Braithwaite quote of the day: "We're gonna be the best-tackling team in America."
- Visitors to practice: former Michigan QB Rick Leach, former WVU running back Avon Cobourne, the leading rusher in West Virginia history and current Montreal Alouette.
A roundup of Spring Practice happenings, all of which should be taken only somewhat seriously. Steve Breaston was "Black Jesus" before he even set foot on Michigan Stadium turf. Patrick Omameh was instantly the star of Michigan's six-member line class despite his status as the least-heralded of any of them. Meanwhile, the warnings about future Bronco Dann O'Neill were immediate. On the other hand, Grady Brooks was supposed to be a ninja and Kevin Grady a ball of knives. Practice rumblings seem to have the same predictive power as recruiting rankings: far from infallible but equally far from useless.
Erm, so… yeah. I will believe this two to three years after I see it but apparently Denard Robinson is running with the ones a lot and looks "radically improved," according to one emailer. Forcier seems to have struggled in comparison. I'm a little leery of spring practice reports at all times and that goes triple when it comes to using a few spring practices to overrule what we saw in twelve games last year. The improvement Robinson would have to undergo—and the lack thereof from Forcier—to be a viable threat to start is vast. I'm filing this under "motivational tactic" for now. Jon Chait is on the "it could happen" side of the fence.
By all accounts, Gardner is considerably behind the two sophomores. If Denard is a capable QB this year his redshirt seems assured.
BONUS: here is Robinson running a long way, albeit with aid from crappy walk-on tackling.
I don't usually do this, but when you've spent a lot of time extracting the superfluous bits from AnnArbor.com's SEO-friendly headlines, this brings out your inner thirteen year old:
running backMike Cox closely this spring
Past the middle school bits is the picture of an emerging running back in Michigan's five-way spring derby. His high school coach hints at some of the practice reports coming from the usual sources:
“He’s tough as nails,” Driscoll said. “He’s very tough and they’re going to have a hard time with him because he’s a big guy that’s really fast. That’s the trouble. He’ll hit you, too. He’s not going to back down from anybody.”
Everyone else comes in for sporadic praise and criticism. There's no consensus on who might be emerging as a tentative (and largely ceremonial starter). Probably the biggest news is a lack of all-encompassing Fitzgerald Toussaint hype.
Wide Receiver And Tight End
With Junior Hemingway and Je'Ron Stokes out there's not much on the outside and Roy Roundtree has moved there intermittently in sets with Martavious Odoms and Jeremy Gallon at slot. When the outside guys return, Michigan will have three or four slots they'd like to work into the lineup.
Here's Odoms answering some questions:
Odoms remains an endearingly terrible interview, but the mention of more two-slot formations is something to pay attention to. Tight ends, like Toussaint, have been largely absent from the spring buzz thus far.
Jerald Robinson has been the most impressive freshman so far, but the outside receivers have been plagued by drops. Kelvin Grady has evaporated, for what that's worth.
On the offensive line, Schilling and Molk stand out to AnnArbor.com, which is not something I feel spectacular about since 1) Schilling is an established quantity entering his fourth year as a starter and 2) Molk is injured and not practicing.
Patrick Omameh is staying at guard for now, though I'm still holding out hope they shift him outside and let Ricky Barnum and Quinton Washington fight to the death for the spot. Four guys competing at tackle, two of them redshirt freshman and two of them upperclassmen who struggled badly in pass protection last year, is a sketchy situation. That has not come to pass, nor has either freshman pushed through into the nominal starting lineup.
I'm a little leery of a strapping 6'3", 208 pound kid who spent the brief duration of his Michigan career to date at wide receiver being the starting deep safety, but with Vlad Emilien out with a minor injury it's Cam Gordon who is the front-runner in the 2010 Grady Brooks Memorial Spring Hype Award chase. He comes in for mention by Rodriguez during a speech at a local football coaches' convention:
"Defensively, guys that have been impressive the last week or so, Kenny Demens, Cam Gordon, Craig Roh’s had a couple good days. Renaldo Sagesse, we were teasing him, Thursday he had the best practice since I’ve been here. I asked him what he ate for breakfast. I didn’t know if it was Canadian bacon or something, but he’s had a terrific spring."
It has been Gordon this, Gordon that at deep safety. This may be largely due to a lack of bodies. Justin Turner is practicing at cornerback, Vlad Emilien is injured, and the three guys who played the spot last year are either box safeties (Williams, Kovacs) or corners (Woolfolk). It's gotten to the point where Brandin Hawthorne, who was a high school defensive end (albeit a tiny one), is splitting time back there.
On the defensive line there's been a consistent stream of positives about virtually everyone. Sagesse, Campbell, and Banks all came in for specific praise from Robinson at today's press conference. Even longtime non-entity Adam Patterson is getting some praise at the defensive end spot he and Greg Banks are keeping warm for Mike Martin. Perhaps the biggest news is the Sagesse praise. If Sagesse is a legit option at DT, Michigan doesn't have to think about sliding Martin inside to platoon with Campbell. I think he will be. I like him in UFRs last year.
Demens, meanwhile, has been the only linebacker to get a fair share of practice hype. Ezeh and Mouton have not been mentioned; Roh comes in for praise as a 250 pound outside linebacker but that's not a surprise. I'm not sure what to make of that: Demens was behind a walk-on last year and didn't see the field even when Michigan was rotating their linebackers so they could yell at them better. His only appearances were on special teams and Michigan's goal line package. Maybe he's a guy who is aided significantly by the move to the 3-3-5? If his issues were mental this defense allows you to do a lot of blitzing and play downhill.
And then there's corner, where Justin Turner still lags behind JT Floyd. No offense to Floyd, but I think that gives everyone hives. Even if Demar Dorsey comes in and is lights out as a true freshman, he's a true freshman and having a hyped guy like Turner struggle to break into the starting lineup in a secondary this chaotic is not a good sign.
Also, Craig Roh coughs and answers questions:
(Odoms, Roh HT: The Michigan Faithful.)
Michigan Defensive Coordinator Greg Robinson met with reporters for about a half hour today. Notes from his press conference.
- The defense is moving exclusively to a 6-2-3 (a little April Fools Day humor(!) from Robinson).
- The "new" defensive scheme isn't that dissimilar to what the team ran last year. With the hybrids, there are a lot of different alignments possible. The only big change from last year is some of the terminology.
- The changes weren't an all-Rodriguez or all-Robinson decision. Everyone on the staff wanted to see certain things tweaked a bit, and their input went into it.
- Between years (and over the course of a year), things should always be evolving to match personnel, the opposing offense, and other factors. Coach Robinson is always open to adjustments.
- As he has repeated many times, Robinson's been around football long enough that there are very few schemes he hasn't tried. He ran 3-3 fronts with the New York Jets and the Denver Broncos. With the Jets, the scheme worked particularly well against the Buffalo Bills, who liked to spread the ball a bit.
- Robinson's overarching philosophy is to make the defense strong from the inside out. Having strong defensive linemen, linebackers, and deep middle players is important to that. Robinson also believes in the "weak link theory," that the weakest spot on the defense dictates how good a defense can be. Developing depth is very important to eliminating weak links.
Year One To Year Two
- There was a big emphasis last year on getting more speed on the field (i.e. Stevie Brown playing linebacker). That will continue this year.
- A few items about specific games from last year. The Michigan State game was a good defensive performance, aside from a couple breakdowns related mostly to inexperience. Same with the Iowa game, aside from two specific things that ended up being big plays for Iowa (and a third, less egregious one). The team played some good ball against Wisconsin, but they were pretty banged up, and had to play through that. The Ohio State game was a good performance to end the season, but not good enough because the team didn't win the game.
- The defenders are "absorbing" the defense just fine. The offense is adding a few wrinkles, so they're getting tested by some things they have seen before.
- There's a night and day difference from last spring to now in terms of Robinson's comfort and communication with the staff and players. He knows people's personalities so he can read them better, and the same goes for them knowing him.
- The outside world doesn't need to hear quotes from Robinson to be confident in the defense - they won't believe it anyway unless and until they see it on the field.
- There's a good chemistry mix with younger guys (particularly redshirt freshmen) playing with real enthusiasm. When they're surrounded with more experienced guys, it can be a great thing. The team has been putting in the work, and they understand the expectations. This youth movement didn't exist last year.
- The biggest concern is still a lack of depth. Last year, they didn't have 18-19 guys who were ready to play on defense, but they still had to sub in those seven or eight other guys. Hopefully they'll have that this year, but there are still 15 or 16 defensive guys who won't be here until fall, so you never know.
Coaching and Personnel
- Though Robinson had input, the hiring of Adam Braithwaite was ultimately Rich Rodriguez's decision. Braithwaite is very experienced, having been a coordinator (albeit of a D-3 school) in the past. He's worked with Rich Rodriguez in the past, and the entire coaching staff has confidence in him. He also will be an exceptional recruiter.
- Robinson has worked with inside linebackers a lot in the past, so coaching them this year is not a new experience. He didn't coach them last year because Hopson was already in charge of them. As for how they're doing this spring, it's too early (only eight practices so far) to talk position battles or anything like that. They have a couple experienced guys but quite a bit of youth.
- Losing Mike Martin for the spring will give other defensive linemen more reps, which will hopefully help them be more ready in the fall. Robinson would guess that Renaldo Sagesse and Greg Banks were probably some of the hardest-working players on the team in the offseason conditioning program. Banks is starting to show some true leadership on the team as well. Also on the defensive line, Will Campbell has matured a lot. Last spring he was still like a high schooler - and was probably thinking a bit too much about his prom.
- Floyd Simmons has been playing a lot at Stevie Brown's old position. Thomas Gordon and Mike Williams are new to that spot, though it is somewhat similar to the role Williams played last year. Jordan Kovacs is still playing that box safety spot.
- Cameron Gordon is playing a lot at the deep safety spot due to injuries to some other guys. Brandin Hawthorne has been getting some reps there as well. Gordon is raw on defense, but has a natural feel at defensive back, and they hope he can continue improving. He has a defensive temperament and is very tough.
- At the corner spots, Troy Woolfolk is very comfortable, and is playing well. He's much more settled than last spring, when they had to move him around a bit more. James Rogers has good length, but is somewhat new to the position after switching last year. People forget that JT Floyd is still a young guy who was just a redshirt freshman last year. He put in a lot of work in the weight room, and will have more experience this year as well. Justin Turner is still a work in progress. He's got a prototypical frame for the position, and JT Floyd is helping him learn the position.
I’ve talked to a few people about spring practice and some of the early enrollees' progress. There’s nothing earth shattering, since we’re basically only 5 practices in, but here’s what I’ve been hearing so far.
- Stephen Hopkins has actually lost 15 pounds; he’s at about 228 now.
- Christian Pace has already gained 15 pounds.
- Jerald Robinson has gained somewhere between 10-15 pounds, and has been mentioned quite a bit. A lot of buzz around him, and the catches he’s made.
- Anthony LaLota is up around 260 pounds now. Unfortunately, he has an elbow injury.
- Cameron Gordon is the most surprising for everyone. His name keeps coming up. I’ve heard that he tackles well and has really good coverage skills. The people I’ve talked to say he’s just a natural ball hawk. Good decision to move him to safety.
- The offense looks more in sync than last year, despite Molk being out. It’s practice, though, so everyone looks good. It feels like there’s a lot of competition out there.
- A lot of the early enrollees have a chip on their shoulder. They want to play early.
- Pat Omameh has impressed everybody. Everyone has described him as “huge.”
- Justin Turner is progressing as well as everyone has hoped. There is no reason for concern
with him. I think everyone had high expectations for him, and he seems to be meeting those.
- Jeremy Gallon has been practicing really well. The person I spoke with about him said he’s really fast, and coming along nicely.
- JT Floyd has been working really hard to see the field. He’s a case where he has more confidence this year, which will help. He understands more of what he’s doing this year.
Earlier in the year I took a cue from Michigan's odd announcement of Adam Braithwaite as an OLB/safeties coach to theorize that Michigan was adopting something half 3-3-5 stack, half 4-3. You can put whatever label you want on it, but it's apparently similar to what Virginia Tech runs. After yesterday's press conference, though, the prevailing opinion is that Michigan's defense is going to be half 3-3-5, half 3-3-5. This, for the Ohio State fans stopping by, is 100% 3-3-5.
Wha? Aigh! Justin Siller! No—
Evidence for the switch is plentiful. In this episode of "Inside Michigan Football," Troy Woolfolk talks about "the new defense":
In yesterday's press conference the players all made references to the 3-3-5. The usual array of practice reports coming from shadowy trenchcoated internet folk all say that not only is Michigan running the 3-3-5 in practice, that's all they're running. This is no longer in the realm of rumor.
Is it in the realm of sense? I don't know. The major reasons I and other tea leaf readers were banking on an aggressive 4-2-5 were threefold: it's basically what Michigan was trying to run most of last year, available bodies on the defensive line point towards an undershifted four-man front, and Michigan's latest recruiting class features a zillion guys who were told they would be "quick" ends a la Roh.
The 3-3-5 as a base set obliterates the quick. Michigan cobbles theirs together by dropping Roh back to one of the outside linebacker spots. The defensive end spot not occupied by Ryan Van Bergen is now going to be a Banks/Patterson platoon or a 294-pound Mike Martin. Since 3-3-5 defensive ends are not lumbering quasi-DTs like 3-4 defensive ends (more about this later), Martin seems like a questionable fit at end; the alternative is platooning Martin and Campbell, two of the most physically dominant players on the team.
The Unresolved Questions
Is this an alternate look or a base set? If it's a base set, how often will they deploy a four-man front?
Early indications are that Michigan will use it as a base set. One theory out there is that Michigan is running the 3-3-5 to the exclusion of other defenses because Mike Martin is out for spring. I don't think that makes sense. A team that spends all its time learning one set of responsibilities because one player is out for spring practice only to switch to a considerably different set in fall is a team that is going to get its coach fired at the end of the year. Teams don't devote the entirety of spring practice to a "new defense" that is then a changeup when the season comes.
Michigan used the 3-3-5 from time to time last year, most prominently in the Ohio State game when it was an effective base set that shut down Ohio State's I-formation running:
This is actually more of a 5-3 since the DEs are lined up over the guards and the box safeties are rolled up tight to the line of scrimmage, FWIW, but that's a matter of alignment against a run-heavy team. Note that Roh is an outside linebacker here.
This forced OSU into some bunch formations that forced Michigan out of the stack; OSU also attacked it by running single-back formations that are inherently strong against single deep safety defenses because of old-timey football wonk stuff. Buckeye Football Analysis has a deeper analysis if you're in the mood.
When OSU went unbalanced, Michigan responded by putting Roh's hand down and going back to their usual undershifted four-man line. For Michigan the personnel will be exactly the same, allowing them to shift between fronts at will. So if the 3-3-5 isn't working in a particular game or just turns out to be a bad idea, they aren't totally screwed.
They would be at least partially screwed, however, since they're piling more and more on the plates of linebackers who spent a lot of time last year wondering what to do (or decisively doing the wrong thing). The way West Virginia ran a 3-3-5 allows linebackers to be blitzing players who have to do a minimal amount of reading, but if it doesn't work then all that time will be time that could have spent fixing what ails Ezeh and Mouton in a 4-2-5.
I'm not thrilled that Michigan seems to be changing its defense again, especially since I've been pitching defensive coordinator continuity as a major reason Michigan's defense will improve in 2010, but given what they ran most of last year the only players who will be making major changes are the linebackers. In the West Virginia version of the 3-3-5, defensive ends are basically the same as they are in a 4-3. The nose tackle is more of a two-gap player if you can make him one, but that's not something that requires a lot of reading. So… yeah. Maybe it will work.