this week in unintentionally grim-sounding recruiting headlines
Have you been able to regain your focus for the bowl?
“Yeah, I think so. We’ve have five or six very spirited practices, and they haven’t been clumped together so much that the kids have gotten tired. We kind of have a philosophy with bowl practices that we’re not going to practice real long anyway, so yeah, I think they’re pretty good that way.”
You’ve talked about quarterbacks taking a year or so to be comfortable with your system. Was that last game with Denard as close as it’s going to get before next season?
“Yeah. He’s getting there. The last game -- the last couple games, really Illinois to a degree, too, other than a turnover or two … but yeah, I think he’s catching on. He’s doing pretty much what every quarterback I’ve had in the first year has done. He started a little slow. Again, I said this before, is our passing game is so different from what they’ve done. There were going to be pains because there always is. He’s starting to absorb the concepts and be able to understand what we want, and it’s showing up at the end more than it did earlier.”
Is there something specific you’re looking at with Denard in terms of development going into the bowl game?
“Same stuff as always. Fundamentals. Fundamentals and basic understanding of route structure, timing the routes, it’s always the same, and it’s always a work in progress in the first year, but we’re further -- much further now than we were when we started.”
(more after the jump)
Two pretty much unrelated things in one post. I blame everything.
Vince Young; Garrett Gilbert
A Braves and Birds post on the recent downfalls of Texas and Florida spurred responses from Blutarsky and Smart Football about the role of various schemes as your talent level waxes and wanes. The B&B theory:
…we can criticize [Texas] for not learning the lesson of the Vince Young era. Apparently, the lesson that Brown took was “recruit five-star quarterbacks from Texas,” when he should have concluded “recruit quarterbacks who can run.” In short, Texas was seduced by the prospect of a local five-star pocket passer and shifted their offense away from what worked for them when they were upsetting USC in the game of the decade.*
One can look at Florida and see the same mistake. Urban Meyer has always won with mobile quarterbacks. … Nevertheless, Meyer was seduced by the same siren that causes Mack Brown to jump off the deck of his ship and swim to his doom. He had a five-star pocket passer – John Brantley – living one hour from campus, so Meyer committed his post-Tebow Gators to Brantley. Meanwhile, Meyer did not offer Denard Robinson a chance to play quarterback in Gainesville.
Brantley and Gilbert imploded, the team went with them, and the guys coordinating them left. Michael goes on to say this is a "cautionary tale" for Brady Hoke, whose most successful prior year was with Nate Davis. Davis is claimed to be mobile.
I'm not in agreement with his police work there. Hoke's offensive coordinator at Ball State was Stan Parrish, not Al Borges, and dubbing Nate Davis "mobile" is stretching the term. Davis averaged 3.7 non-sack carries per game in 2008, i.e. he had some scrambles and QB draws. For his part, Borges had great success with statue Ryan Lindley* (-57 rushing yards this year) at SDSU, Davis-ish scrambler Cade McNown (a couple hundred yards per year) at UCLA, and only-secretly-athletic Jason Campbell (30 rushing yards in 2004) at Auburn.
Michigan's long-term trajectory on offense should not expose them to the same problems Texas and Florida experienced. Hoke is a defensive guy who famously goes sans headset and Borges's successes have come with throwers at QB. That some of the throwers have been able to move a little doesn't make a difference. The offense is still not predicated on the QB's legs; instead the legs are a bonus that keeps some plays alive and gets you some yards on scrambles. In Michigan's case they are moving towards their OC's expertise, not away from it. (At least insofar as Greg Davis had any expertise. He and GERG should start a cover band.)
Variance: super teams hate it.
After passing through Get The Picture's digestive system the above post spurred Smart Football to offer some thoughts on the difference between a pro-style offense that is intent on putting up points and one that's intent on not blowing it:
For the truly elite-level recruiting teams, I think the agnosticism of pro-style treats them well because they basically recruit incredible players and then figure out the system and scheme later. Moreover, spread offenses, option offenses, and really any pass-first offense (including West Coast attacks of which I’d put Georgia in the category) require very good quarterback play. Alabama and LSU are basically designed to win in spite of their quarterbacks; Nick Saban does not want to return an all world defense with a bunch of five-star playmakers and lose because his QB was a junior and had some “growing pains”, which absolutely happens at every level. …
For everyone else having an identity and being somewhat contrarian helps a lot because it allows you to focus your recruiting on guys that can help you, and in many cases it means you don’t have to compete with some other teams for those guys. … Moreover, because you have a system with specific skills required, you can develop those skills. There are many examples, but think about how those Texas Tech teams under Leach always had four guys who could contribute and were open, even against the best Big 12 teams, because they’d worked on those skills every day for two years before they got in the game and had countless reps.
The former is what Ohio State did for years under Tressel, managing games with Krenzel and Boeckman and Zwick and Belissari and even most of the time with Troy Smith and Terrelle Pryor. They massaged enough safe points out of their offense to let the reliably crushing D win games. Sometimes—usually against Michigan—they went full-throttle. This happened when they feared the opponent more than variance.
The latter is why hiring Paul Johnson was a good idea for Georgia Tech but would be a bad one for Georgia, why Leach is a great hire at Washington State, and how Rodriguez made West Virginia into a power with rag-tag recruiting classes and some duct tape.
Michigan was in the former camp, but after Bo they accomplished their goals less successfully than OSU. This goes back to the Mo era, when Michigan would show up for the game with three or four losses and inexplicably beat—often thump—John Cooper's national title contenders. To me, Michigan-OSU in the 90s will forever be a fourth quarter exchange between some ranting Buckeye fan and a snot-nosed teen version of yrs truly:
MAN ADVERTISING BEER ON HAT: You have four losses! We're ranked in the top five! We're a national title contender!
FUTURE BLOGGER: You were.
That was fun as far as it went but playing spoiler ain't no way to live. For Michigan to not be a second banana in the league they either had to
- recruit and execute better
- get an identity that allowed them to perform better than their recruiting rankings
Rodriguez was an attempt to do the latter. Hoke is an attempt to do the former, or at least he seems like it. Borges is a wildcard. Maybe he's content to ramp his offense down into Tressel/Lloydball territory once the defense is truly locked in, but maybe Michigan will morph into a team with an identity on offense, even if that identity is the Boise State and Stanford have used lately.
When to put the toys in the box
There is a point at which it makes sense to trundle through games as safely as possible. That point is when you have the LSU/Alabama/OSU massive talent advantage over all comers. If Hoke's recruiting continues at the level it has, Michigan may achieve that. More realistically, a lack of oversigning and/or culture of rampant barely-punished extra benefits will leave them short of that, leave them in the same 8-10 range they usually inhabited under Carr.
That will mean they'll have to have something to rely on on offense other than don't-screw-it-up-ball if they're going to be nationally relevant more often than they have been in the past 20 years.
The early returns here are inconclusive since Borges is biding his time with Denard while recruiting Shane Morris. But they are encouraging, both when it comes to Hoke's game theory aggression and Borges's tendency to keep the pedal depressed when it makes sense to. Buried deep in his own territory up 17 against a Nebraska team that has struggled to move the ball, he'll run-run-punt; staked to a three point lead against Ohio State second down is for moving chains.
*[Lindley's implosion this year—he's now 80th in passer rating—suggests Borges is a plus playcaller/schemer. SDSU returned much of their offensive line and has Ronnie Hillman; while their WR situation was bound to drag the numbers down it shouldn't have been that severe.]
"Without effort, he had learned English, French, Portuguese, Latin. I suspect, nevertheless, that he was not very capable of thought. To think is to forget a difference, to generalize, to abstract. In the overly replete world of Funes there were nothing but details, almost contiguous details."
---Jorge Luis Borges, Funes, the Memorious
The above reference is to a short story my 11th grade English teacher (Hi Mrs. Bruton!) would be very proud I remembered. In it a fictional JL Borges speaks of conversations with a young autistic savant named Funes. Funes is so mathematical he invented his own way of counting. Then he dies of congestion of the lungs. So it goes.
The other pic is from an early M presser with Al Borges when he was asked how he would use Denard. There were contiguous details: You gotta use him. We'll think up some ways to utilize those legs. We're going to run our offense. The voice was sharp, mocking.
And through the season the thoughts of the young Borges were realized:
They were ways, but not the way.
We have all moved on from the last three years. We have t-shirts and memes and a competent defense and a win over Ohio and a new spiteful way of referring to our rival. Yet until Shane Morris is zipping DOs to myriad tight ends in the flat there is going to be a Godwin's Law*-ishness about discussing the offense that best fits the offensive personnel at Michigan because we fired the guys who invented it.
* Technically it's a corollary.
First a note that advanced users can skip: I'm using formation because each formation comes with a set of strengths and weaknesses selected by the guy calling the plays. Once the ball is snapped all hell breaks loose and it's way harder to judge decisions or coaching. Of the relevant formations, the I-form is great for running because you get two backs (one usually a lead blocker) immediately moving toward the line of scrimmage and your play's chosen point of attack, but not great for passing because either you're committing two eligible receivers and precious QB time to a run fake, or you're immediately showing pass when the RBs are bailing out of the QB's drop line. The Ace is basically I-form but you swap the FB for a WR or TE. It's a compromise formation, slightly better for passing, not great at either.
The shotgun's fundamental running flaws can be somewhat mitigated by: 1) Zone Blocking, which lets the runner scan for creases like a QB instead of hitting a certain spot ASAP, 2) Backs who can see and accelerate quickly into those gaps, 3) A run-threat QB who can keep the defense from teeing off the tailback, 4) Spreading receivers out so that their defenders are too far away to help the inside running game, and 5) Optioning and the threat thereof, e.g. Rich Rodriguez's zone read.
These are kind of very specialized things to get, and you need like three or four of them just to get shotgun running on par with the natural advantages of I-form running. If you can run out of an I against eight in the box you are indefeatable; if you can run out of a shotgun AND your running QB can pass you are indefeatable. So it's not like the way is the only way. The reason your friendly bloggers are always yelping "shotgun! shotgun!" is because by the above rationale, a team with Molk, Toussaint, and Denard, and which used to have Rodriguez himself coaching them, should be pretty awesome at running from the shotgun, which is still the best passing formation.) /tutorial.
Chart of formation tendencies (pass & run)
Excised: Plays when the score differential >16, 4th quarters, plays inside the M or opponent's 3 yard line.
|San Diego State||62.1%||29||82.8%||13.8%||3.4%||-||-||-|
The games where Michigan was 25% I-form were, as predicted, at the beginning of the season. The Fritz took its place against Minnesota and then it was all shotgun ru…
Okay so it was inexplicably becoming a team that passes 60% of the time in a trash tornado against MSU and then two game-plans which look absolutely identical. Because Purdue's defensive ends were pliant this worked brilliantly against Purdue as Borges called mannish plays to the end. The thing is for some odd reason he didn't stop I-forming the Purdue game away until it was the 4th quarter of the Iowa game.
Here's a weird thing though: when I run the same numbers for '09 and '10, Rich Rod was way I-Form against Iowa as well. 20% I-form in fact, when he was 96% gun all other games combined. He did it both years, and only for Iowa. Is there some Lloyd-Ferentz pact to run substantially more I-forms versus each other every year?
Anyway it went away. Illinois looks like an intermediary step but 7 of the 8 plays from the I were during that interminable 14-point lead after the defense had established itself as 2006-ian. Following that game it almost disappeared from 1st downs (chart in excessive charting area post-jump*). It's the same story just more dramatic. Red Zone is more so, as the I-form was largely abandoned in the red zone during relevant plays of the last three games of the season:
So it is at this point where Funes the Manballious makes his impression on the young Borges, or vice versa, and the rational meets the abstract, and the result is sublime.
Have you noticed any difference in Brady this week at all?
“Not really, no. I mean, it’s Ohio, so he’s fired up about that, but in terms of prep, no. It’s not just another game, but it is pretty much just the same preparation.”
How has the focus been?
“Well we haven’t practiced yet. We did a little bit Sunday, but it was off the charts. You can tell that there’s a little more pep in the step”
Was last Saturday as complete a performance you’ve seen from Denard this year?
“I think yeah, it would rank among one of the top ones. We’ve been encouraging him so much, and in this game particularly, to pull the ball down when guys aren’t open. And he did that, and it made a difference, so that helped us keep some drives alive. We’re going to continue to do that, but because the way they played their defense particularly … there were some opportunities to pull it down and run. He did [throw the ball], when there were open receivers … there were a couple throws that were a little ill-advised but for the most part he played a solid football game.”
What do you think has kept him from scrambling previously?
“Yeah, sometimes as a quarterback, and everyone I’ve had is like that -- they want to prove that they can throw the ball, but there’s a point where you have to use your skills. We talked about it before, I said, ‘You have to use your skills more. You have great skills. Let’s make these guys pay for some of this stuff.' He took it to heart. Here’s the delicate balance: you don’t want to turn down open receivers. If you start looking to run every time you drop back, you can’t pass the ball. You can’t do that. That has to be something that’s instinctive or just comes from a result from the receivers being covered. But you can’t drop back and say every play’s a quarterback draw and then if somebody’s open, throw it, and expect to have any sort of passing game. That’s absurd. I don’t care how good the running quarterback is. That being said, where does one start in the other end? But in this game we were a little more quarterback-is-going-to-be-the-check-down oriented. And we’re like that anyway.”
(more after the jump.)
In terms of Denard’s progress, what do you see on film that most people can’t see? “Well the issues with Denard, I think in the last game, were pretty much ball security deals. Other than that, he didn’t really throw the ball too bad. We didn’t throw the ball a lot with him, and he got hurt later in the game, so you didn’t see as much, but he’s managing the game pretty well. When he doesn’t get the yards, somebody else does. When nobody gets the yards, then we have issues, and that’s happened in a couple games -- those games we shouldn’t have lost. Denard’s growing in our offense. Nobody wants to hear that. I told them in the beginning, that I told him he’s not going to gain 1700 yards. We’re going to try and get somebody else involved. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of that. There’s certain games he’s going to get more than he’s going to get in other games. As long as we’re getting productivity from our running game, if it isn’t him, that’s fine.”
How has his role changed since the emergence of Fitz? “It hasn’t changed much at all, it’s just a matter of who’s getting the opportunities. Sometimes they’re taking Denard away. By taking him away -- if you watch the second play of the game it’s probably the best example. We ran a little misdirect divide zone, and he carried out the
fade fake and three guys went with him, which gave Fitz an opportunity to run through a big cavity where there was nothing left but a corner or a safety, or I don’t remember what. People don’t understand the residual effects of Denard. Sometimes it’s not always him running for 200 yards, but him getting someone else to run for big yards. He helps in that respect.”
Why has ball security been an issue? “Well a couple times we dangled it in the pocket. He was doing a good job with it for the most part. We dangled it in the pocket one time. We have to keep the ball inside the perimeter of your shoulders so that you naturally brace when you get hit. That’s one of them. And he got the ball away from his body one time when he was running. He’s been pretty good running the ball, taking good care of the ball. We got a couple close calls where I think the ground caused the fumble in a couple games, but that’s generally it. You usually fumble when you’re fundamentally bad. You don’t keep the ball with five points of pressure and it gets away from your body and somebody strips it.”
(more after the jump)
We're splitting the coordinators now, so Greg Mattison's transcript will be up after I eat something.
On the last four plays, do you wish you would have been able to call a run or a roll-out? “Yeah, you were going to struggle rolling out. They were in full blitz. Guys coming outside. I mean, you could roll out but your odds were not very good. Your best -- in four straight full blitzes, your best case scenario was the single coverage matchups. We got our hands on three out of four balls, but for whatever reason it didn’t work out. But not a lot of reservation about that. Like I said, rolling out conceptually sounds good, but when the edge isn’t clean, it doesn’t look as good as it sounds.”
Any thoughts of running on first down? “No. Absolutely not. 16 seconds with no timeouts? What’re you going to do? If you run the football inside of 18 seconds, your odds, if you fail, of getting back lined up to run another play are very very slim, not to mention you eliminate probably two calls. So that would be bad playcalling. Bad strategy.”
What about the last play, with two seconds left? “That’s a possibility. That’s a possibility, and it was a couple different options we could have used there. We chose the one we chose and it didn’t work out. I wish it would have. But that’s viable, but at three yards, again, if you don’t make it, you’re going to look silly. When you have a seven-man pressure staring at you in the eyes, superman’s going to struggle running through that.”
Has Denard gotten tentative running the ball? He looks slower. “I don’t think so. I haven’t timed him, but he doesn’t look any slower to me. So my answer to that is I don’t think he has. No. Not really.”
MGoInterjection: I did notice that on the outside runs, he constantly looks for the cutback … “Well, what’s happening on those is he’s got to start cutting off his outside foot. We talked about that. That’s happened twice now, maybe three times when we’re cutting off our inside foot and he slipped. So we’re getting that corrected.”
(more after the jump)