things go poorly
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.
This is the most receptive of any group he's had coming in (at all 8 or 9 stops). It would be easy to say "we were good last year" on offense, and resist changing. It's an enthusiastic group in spite of all the changes they've been asked to make. It's easy to teach them, because they've bought in.
Shotgun - used quite a bit. "We're gonna gun more than we've ever gunned." [ed: w00t.] They've run plenty of shotgun in the past, but this will be more than that. Two-tights is part of the offense, but you'll see as much shotgun as you'd see from any NFL team, and a lot of the tight end in motion.
Haven't done a whole lot of stuff this year that he's never done. "We have more QB runs, but that aside, our offense is our offense, and we're going to gear what we do to what he's capable of doing."
"[Brady] wants to establish toughness, and he wants to establish effort. And you can't talk it: you've gotta do it." Defense and offense are geared to downhill running, coming off the ball, etc. "Not that we want to turn it into 'bull elk on bull elk' on every single play."
Offense install - "We are now at install 5 today. We have 6 installs of major pieces of our offense." They'll add 'frills,' e.g. screens, 2-minute, goal line, etc. as it goes. "We've gone slower here than I have other places, because I'm trying to give Coach Funk in particular, but everybody... a chance to review and install." They'll complete install 6, and have 4 or 5 practices to review it all. "That's about 60-70%" of everything that they'll do.
The end of spring and fall camp are different beasts. In fall, you have to figure out your starters, and get them ready to play, then focus on your first opponent. "Right now, it's just an audition." They'll have a depth chart out of spring "Like anything else, it'll be in pencil."
Defense - "I very seldom comment on the defense other than to say 'Greg Mattison is as good a defensive coach as you're ever gonna get, and he will get every ounce out of those kids.'"
There's always pressure to succeed, whether or not you have talent. "If you're gonna have pressure, it's better to have talent."
"Michigan is a special place. The walls talk to you here. You walk down the hall and you can feel it... I coached at Auburn where football was a big deal, and I loved Auburn. This is a little different."
Denard and Devin both excited about the change. Doing some "next-level oriented" things, and that's attractive to QBs. More effective in this offense? "We want to pose a balanced distribution of the ball in an aggressive style." The tailbacks will be more involved. That will sacrifice numbers for the QB, but he might be able to throw more effectively with a power running game. He also poses a threat in the passing game as a runner with his scrambling.
Drop mechanics are toughest for Denard - even though he was a dropback QB in high school. With footwork issues - the biggest change - he has really grasped that concept well. "He's still a work in progress, but he's done very well."
"You run for yards but you pass for miles," though Denard is a better checkdown as a runner than throwing to a checkdown receiver might be. "Make plays, and let the good lord make miracles." They want him to use good judgement, but they'll let the kid run. "You have to give him a chance to do what he does."
Who compares to Denard? "Michael Vick is similar. Yeah, he's the first one that comes to mind." Most comparable with speed and passing ability.
Anticipation throws: "That is what he's been doing very well." Good on timing routes and throwing before the breaks. "The guy's an accurate passer... When they guy's open, he's gonna hit him more often than not. When he isn't open open, [Denard] has a way to create... A good passing game, the ball's delivered as the receiver comes open in a manner and fashion that allows the receiver to run with the ball once he catches it."
Denard reading defenses: "He's a pretty good decision-maker." His struggles are more within the offense, not making reads. "He's not hitting defenders in the chest with the ball."
No designed QB runs in last year's SDSU offense, but with Denard's ability, they'll go back to Cade McNown plays, for example, when Borges did have designed QB runs. "More people are going to touch the ball, yet he is going to be the focal point of the offense." If he's more effective running than the backs, he'll be used more as a runner.
Denard came out of 10 games last year with injury, SDSU's Ryan Lindley didn't come out of a single game last year. If giving the RB the ball a bit more keeps Denard healthy, then that's good. The tailbacks have to be worthy of those carries.
"He poses the threat of a quarterback draw every play." Scrambling - "If you understand the footwork of our offense, that comes naturally." The guards set the depth of the pocket, and the tackles set the width. With only 4 rushers against 5 linemen, there should be scrambling lanes if necessary. "Certain quarterbacks will run 5 or 6 yards, he may run 55 yards." They tell Denard "don't turn down wide open receivers, but if they fall off, run like hell."
Devin competition - "Devin is formidable." He does some really good things. Has some of the same traits as Denard, but is a taller prototype with pocket passer height. Can work inside the pocket more easily, but he obviously isn't as fast as Denard. "You play or somebody replaces you. It's that simple." At this point, Denard is the starter, and there's no reason to believe he won't be in the fall - even though Devin is pushing him. "They're competing and I love it."
Planned playing time for backup QBs? "I would never say never, but it's never been my approach." Borges doesn't really believe in putting the backup in for a series every game or something.
"I've been happy with our tailbacks... We've had flashes of excellence from all of them, and [picking a starter]'s not a decision we have to make today." For one back to stand out, he'll have to be a complete player. "Block and protection, run the football, be consistent. The guy who demonstrates the most consistency is the guy who's gonna play."
"Vince Smith is a pure football player, I mean in every sense. He's coachable, tough, not real big obviously but I've had guys his size be very effective... Vince has a good football IQ. You tell him something, he understands what you're talking about, and he'll do it."
"Michael Cox has done some very nice things."
Michael Shaw just came back to padded practices (from a broken hand) and he's made some nice plays.
Who can be downhill RBs - "All of them really... Cox has done it, Shaw came back the other day and he did it, Stephen Hopkins is just that kind of runner, period." Hopkins is a lot like Atlanta RB Michael Turner. He is a hybrid RB/FB, and has done some nice things.
McColgan has done a great job leading the way for the backs. Not gonna show up in the scoresheet, but helps the running game.
"I think Roy's had a really good spring. All them, really. We've had some nice catches." Roundtree has been very consistent. Junior Hemingway is moving well, and has great range. Darryl Stonum has also played well. "Jeff Hecklinski does a nice job with those guys. He'll coach those suckers up." They're running more intermediate cut routes in this offense. "We throw it down the field a lot, but more intermediate cuts."
Gallon and Dileo, et al, role has not changed a whole lot. Odoms and Roundtree have played inside and outside. "We're not a spread team, but you're gonna see we're in 3 and 4 wides a lot now."
TE position is similar to the FB - not heavily featured in the recent past, but they're catching more balls than they've caught in the past. "I'm a tight end guy."
Brandon Moore has been very effective. Steve Watson caught a TD pass the other day. "Steve's fired up."
"We've got some good people there, and I think when it's all said and done we'll be pretty good there." They will recruit tight ends heavily going forward.
Injuries on the offensive line haven't affected installation too much. "We found a way to get 5 of them out there, and they haven't done a bad job." Some guys are having to learn multiple positions.
Lewan could be a good football player - needs to add weight, and work on some fundamental technique issues. He has the talent for a bright future.
"We're a downhill running team." Their scheme is geared to O-line getting off the ball and being aggressive. "We're in a 3-point stance and we're gonna do our best to move whoever's in front of us." It's different playing from the shotgun every snap.
Practice Photos and Video
Michigan's new football coaching staff met with the media today prior to the start of spring ball. Here are some excerpts of what they said. Video coming tomorrow.
Head Coach Brady Hoke
I spent much less time with Hoke because we've had chances to hear from him before. The assistants have much more new stuff to say.
"We've talked a lot about 'this is a fresh start' and going back to square one."
The facility upgrades are a lot different than last time Hoke was here. "You look aesthetically at how everything looks, and it's beautiful. It's a sign of the times in college football."
Defensive Coordinator Greg Mattison
"We have to take who we have, and make them as good as they can be." Can the team make dramatic improvements on D? "It has to. Michigan forever - and you guys know it longer than I do - Michigan has taken great pride in defense, and will take great pride in defense again." It starts with technique, fundamentals, and stopping the run. Not allowing big plays and great red zone defense are huge.
It was tough to come to Michigan, because the Ravens are a great team, and "probably one of the best franchises in the NFL right now." In the end, he couldn't turn down working with Brady again and coming to Michigan again. He likes working with young guys and teaching the game.
On Hoke: "He's number one a great leader, he's a great person, as far as knowing what has to happen. He loves Michigan. He's always loved Michigan. He has a passion to get Michigan back to where it always was." Mattison and Hoke stayed close even though they weren't on the same staff for several years.
Cameron Gordon will play outside linebacker, because they want to get the guys into the best position they can to make plays. "And then what's the most upside." He has great ability to grow, and has that upside at OLB. "As compared to being a safety, I think he can do that too, but we have other guys that can do that."
"How dangerous? I don't know that, because we haven't hit anybody." Don't know how tough the team is until they have contact practices.
Nobody on the staff is selfish or looking out for their owns goals. "Everybody has Michigan first. It's not about any individual on that team."
Mattison hasn't watched any film on the defense from 2010. The only useful thing would be for individual ability, but he'll learn that through conditioning. "The players we have here are who we have here." Improving the defensive rankings doesn't matter. "I want this defense to be the best they can possibly be... It doesn't matter what the numbers were before. If the numbers were 50 a game and it goes down to 40, that isn't good enough." The bar at Michigan is higher than most places.
The coaches have to invest their own effort for the players to buy in. "Through their effort, they can become 'Michigan football players' again. And they're not far off."
"Very very physical, aggressive defense. A defense that, when somebody comes out on that field, they know their in a war." The other point of pride is having excellent technique.
Young kids are excited to play for a coach who's had Ray Lewis, Haloti Ngata, and Ed Reed play for him. "The good news is, you don't coach these guys any different than you coach them. It's just teaching."
Defensive Line: Jerry Montgomery
"They're going to be a reflection of me. I'm passionate about what I do, they'll feel that passion, and eventually it will rub off." The defensive linemen will play with intensity and "we're going to be the best-coached group on the field." Building a relationship with the players is one of the most important parts of coaching.
There are a lot of different defensive schemes out there, "but at the end of the day, you get to a lot of the same things." Michigan's 4-3 this season won't be worried about confusing the offense or disguising what they're going to get on a given play, unlike some of the other schemes out there. It'll be a lot of "here we are, come at us." Think along the lines of what Iowa does.
"Our goal is to stop the run first. That's priority number one."
The players who are best capable of playing "within the defense" will be the ones who play. If they're All-Americans in another scheme, but can't accept the coaching, they aren't going to play.
Coach Mattison is able to compare linemen to Haloti Ngata, Terrell Suggs, and other great NFL linemen, so they know the bar is set high, and what they're aiming to achieve. "What they're asking is 'how can I be more like him?' Well, I'm going to them them." They'll watch the Ravens film because "we're going to be running that defense. So we've got the luxury of using that film."
"I'd like to rotate a bunch. But we've gotta have the players for us to do that. I won't know until we get deep into spring ball what type of depth we have." They want to keep the linemen fresh as much as possible.
It's exciting to work under Coaches Hoke and Mattison, because they're former D-Line coaches, and it's great to learn under them.
On Mattison: "Regardless of how old he is, he's great with the players, he relates to the players, and he's a great recruiter." He's as energetic as Montgomery, despite the age difference. He has the enthusiasm of a young guy, and cam back to college because he loved recruiting so much.
Offensive Coordinator Al Borges
The installation timeline for the offense isn't set in stone. They'll work on certain things as long as they need for the players to get it.
The important qualities for a quarterback are 1) proper management, and getting the offense into the proper plays, 2) throw accurately, and 3) "when there's breakdowns, particularly in the passing game, can you create?" The third quality separates system QBs from great ones.
There will still be some designed run plays. "He's not gonna rush for 1700 yards, I've already told him that." If he runs for 700 less and makes up for it in passing yards, that's a win. "Denard wants to be a next-level player." He's aware that this coaching staff gives him an opportunity to develop enough to play quarterback at the next level.
Borges has coached guys who can run in the past, but nobody with Denard's running skills. "He definitely has next level skills." As a quarterback? "Possibly." He's about as big as Michael Vick, and a little faster. He just needs to get the passing skills where they need to be.
Devin Gardner has a chance to play. "We have complete respect for what's been accomplished by Denard and anyone else in the lineup. But by the same token, everyone's going to have to prove to us they can play their position." They'll start with the guys that finished last year, but there's no entitlement.
The offense has a zone package, but they're not primarily a zone running team. "We're a combination of zone, gap, and insert schemes." They'll explore more options with what works well in practice. They've gone toward more gap in the past (SDSU) and also more zone (Auburn). All of it is available. The read-option isn't dead, but it's not a priority of this team.
Aaron Wellman, the team's strength coach, is as good as anybody at determining every individual player's maximum efficient weight. If guys can be most efficient a little lighter, so be it.
Running Backs: Fred Jackson
Every player in the running back position group (even Vincent Smith!) will play both running back and a bit of fullback, except John McColgan, who is strictly a fullback. They won't necessarily be doing the traditional Iso blocking, of course. Added versatility will make them all better players.
Running backs in this system have a wider range of responsibilities than the previous system. They have to be able to be pass catchers not just in the flat, but as downfield receivers as well. For the running backs, the spread wasn't that complex an offense. "For this offense, you're involved in every scheme of the protections, you're not free-released as much."
Vincent Smith is excited for the new offense, but he's a little nervous that the new offense has a reputation of favoring bigger backs. "But Vincent Smith for his size, pound for pound, I'd put him up against anybody. He's a tough, tough kid."
On Mike Cox: "He is by far better-suited for this offense. What he has to do to see the field is grasp the offense. I think I've talked about that in the past."
As high school players, Thomas Rawls is very similar to Mark Ingram: "What Mark has done right now, you can't really compare to anything," but they are very similar coming out of high school.
Justice Hayes is versatile enough to play several positions. "He can play running back, he can play receiver, he can play defensive back." For now, he's a running back, but "he can do a lot of things."
Offensive Line: Darrell Funk
It's tough to know what you have at your position group until actual spring practice starts. At offensive line, it's even tougher until you get them in pads. "I'm really excited. Even though we really enjoy recruiting and all those things that come with the job, we're here to coach football."
The biggest key for these guys is to teach them the new system, including the terms, etc. that are different from before. "There'll be some growing pains that way." That doesn't mean it's all about three yards and a cloud of dust - you have to be able to run and pass.
It's not just football that the players need to adjust to: "in the weight room, and in the training, and in the conditioning... doing things like we want to do."
They had to transition the offense from spread to pro-style at San Diego State as well, though that was more of a passing spread. "It ended up being real good in a 2-year period." The Aztecs were a 2-win program the year before this staff came in, so they might start a little further ahead at Michigan.
This group of kids at Michigan is an intelligent and attentive group. "It's mostly older kids in there. The David Molks and some kids who have played a lot of football." They're very willing to learn.
"We don't want guys to put on bad weight... just like every place, there's some guys who need to put on weight and there's a few who probably need to lose a pound or two. At the end of the day, if you can perform what we need done at, say, 290, and you want them to be 300: at the end of the day, production is key."
Tommy Tuberville, 1/11/2010:
"We're going to air it out," Tuberville said. "We're going to keep the Air Raid. I think it's something that Tech has hit upon that gives them that identity to recruit."
Rich Rodriguez, sometime in 2008:
“We’ll adapt. I like winning too much not to adapt a little bit to our personnel.”
Brady Hoke, 1/14/2011:
"I think you'd be remiss as a coach if you don't know your personnel, and you try to implement something that maybe you're not quite ready for. There's a way to grow to it. So we're not going to try to put any square pegs in round holes."
Midway through Rich Rodriguez's first season it had become clear that Michigan was spectacularly bad at football for the first time since the 60s, and the blame started to go around. A large portion of it was directed at Rodriguez shoehorning Michigan's pro-style personnel into the spread offense, and it was all dumb. Very dumb. I wrote a post explaining how dumb this was called "The Golden Age of Tin." In brief:
- Despite having NFL talent up and down the roster Michigan was about 70th in offense in 2007. All of that talent left.
- Michigan had moved to a zone running game two years before Rodriguez arrived and he changed very little on the line.
- Four of the five starters skill position starters were freshmen who had never played in a pro-style offense. (Brandon Minor would later return from injury/discontent/quasi-suspension and play pretty well.)
- The run-pass split was almost 50-50 a year after WVU ran 70% of the time.
- The quarterbacks were bad in any system.
A couple years later, Nick Sheridan is a grad assistant, a redshirt junior version of Steven Threet has a 18-16 TD-INT ratio for a 6-6 Arizona State team, and Michigan's spread offense is one halfway decent turnover margin/defense/kicker from being awesome. Rich Rodriguez did a lot of things wrong in his time in Ann Arbor, but installing the offense he'd been running for 20 years wasn't one of them.
Because of all the things he did do wrong, however,
he's in a sad car with sad child. Al Borges is now in charge of Denard Robinson, a bunch of slot receivers, tailbacks no one except Fred Jackson thinks much of, and… well… a pretty decent set of pro-style outside receivers, tight ends, and (probably) offensive linemen.
Borges is going to do the only thing he can do with this personnel: coach a pro-style offense with a vertical passing game. This is not going to be as good for Michigan as continuity would be, but the person to blame for that is the athletic director, or Rich Rodriguez, or some of the things Rich Rodriguez did wrong. Al Borges has not spent the last 20 years figuring out how to get mileage out of quarterbacks who double as drag racers in the offseason. He's spent it saying "no, I'm not Jeffery Tambor" and passing to open up the run.
Coincidentally, the best example of what happens when you replace a Rich Rodriguez-type coach with a more passing-oriented guy is when West Virginia replaced Rich Rodriguez with Jeff Mullen. Mullen was the QB coach responsible for turning Wake Forest into a miraculously effective offense through 2007 and arrived in Morgantown promising more balance in the Mountaineer offense. He got it:
Unsurprisingly, passes got less effective as they became more frequent. The thing that dropped WVU from a national title contender to just another top 25 team was that despite rushing less, rushes also got less effective.
If you're thinking Steve Slaton's exit for the NFL may have had something to do with that, replacement Noel Devine actually rushed for 6.3 YPC. What happened? Burgeoning Wolverine Star has a table of its own that highlights the severe drop in productivity from quarterback legs that started as soon as Rodriguez left. Pat White's rushes were exactly as frequent—down to a tenth of a percentage point—as they were in 2007 but his productivity dropped alarmingly. White averaged 6.7(!) YPC under Rodriguez and just 5 under Mullen.
While it's possible the schedule was tougher and the team weaker after Owen Schmitt and a few others graduated, Devine's numbers suggest the most likely explanation for that huge drop is that Mullen didn't know what the hell to do with White.
So. Michigan fans wishing to protect their soul-tingly-bits would do well to regard quotes like these from Borges as gentle untruths created for public perception:
"I've been doing this for 24 years. I'm no genius and I do not pretend to be one, but I have a hell of a lot of experience with a lot of different types of quarterbacks."
But when Borges goes on to compare Robinson to Michael Vick and what he's doing with the Eagles…
"They said Michael Vick couldn't be a West Coast-style quarterback, and he's one of the top five quarterbacks in the NFL. Why? Because they put him in situations to run and throw. Denard is 6-feet tall, like Michael Vick. He can run and he can throw and make things happen. If Michael Vick can do that with the Philadelphia Eagles, why can't Denard Robinson do that at Michigan?"
…he suggests that "a lot of different types of quarterback" boil down to guys running NFL offenses with various scrambling add-ons. This is not a fluke. Borges has an array of quotes along those lines. It's also not very realistic. Vick's long and winding journey to becoming a good NFL quarterback took ten years of intensive coaching. When he was three years out of high school (like Denard will be next year) he had a 9-7 TD-INT ratio; VT ran 74% of the time. Their offense was a grab-bag of spread 'n' shred mixed with pro-style that featured a heavy dose of option and even more "Mike Vick makes one read on seven-step drop and starts running." It was pretty effective, but it was even more run-heavy than Rodriguez's Pat White days and took the most outrageously athletic player in the last two decades to make it go.
I'm not sure Denard is quite that, and if we're talking about putting Denard in positions to run or pass that just sounds like a lot of rollouts. And here's the weird thing about Robinson: the guy hates running the ball when he's not explicitly directed to. When he got to the edge this year he invariably chose to throw even when it was third and three and there wasn't a guy within six yards of him.
run run run run run nooooooo okay [ninja stuff] wooooo
Maybe that's because Michigan's offense revolved around Denard running 25 times a game and he didn't want to put any more tread on his tires, but seriously, how many times did you scream "run!" at the TV or field last year?
Maybe this will work out. Maybe Michigan will run four verticals at opponents until their safeties scream for help, whereupon Denard will be able to enact one-read-and-scramble. It would be easier to imagine this happening with Braylon Edwards on the outside, but Michigan did have some success throwing deep in the bowl game and I'm guessing Denard's going to spend most of his offseason throwing fly routes.
But if it doesn't, there's no alternative. Coaches are old and crotchety and just are who they are. They have a very specific, gradually moving corpus of knowledge and when they deviate from that performance suffers. Borges is an effective coordinator with a certain sort of offense. Without it he's probably going to be a version of Jeff Mullen. This is no one's fault, really, just like it wasn't anyone's fault three years ago when Rich Rodriguez surveyed his offensive personnel and felt the crevasse beneath him inch open for the first time.
Tommy Tuberville, 12/27/2010:
"I still believe in running the football," he said. "More than what they did in the past. That's the biggest difference. We want to be a bit more physical and be able to run the ball, which will help throwing it down the field, too."
RIP, air raid. RIP, spread 'n' shred.
BONUS: we should put together a pool for when and where the first column approvingly citing Borges's ability to adapt relative to Rodriguez by comparing their first seasons shows up. Bonus points will be awarded for the most irritatingly shallow glossing over of the difference between junior Denard Robinson with seniors around him versus freshman Threetsheridammit surrounded by fellow freshmen.
DISCLAIMER SECTION: I expect these things next year: Denard is a better thrower, turnover margin is a lot better (fourth year running, that prediction), all yardage metrics drop, scoring drops slightly from 25th but is better distributed across the schedule, FEI plummets. Improvement from the defense and, god willing, kicker will mask a drop in offensive power.
Now that Mississippi State has been pointlessly scouted to death, Michigan fans have set to finding fans of every team Al Borges ever coordinated. Maize 'n' Brew put Cal up first despite the fact that Borges's tenure there consisted of a single star-crossed year; this is the view from the plains.
So, Al Borges. I won't bury the lede: after watching him for four years at Auburn, I don't think he's a particularly good fit for Michigan's current personnel, Denard Robinson most especially. He is as advertised: a veteran, pro-style, pass-first West Coast disciple. But there's a reason he's that veteran, namely that he's a whip-smart, clever, above-all solid offensive coordinator.
He might not be a Malzahn or Kelly-style miracle worker, but I can assure you he's not a Jeff Mullen or Steve Addazio or Patrick Nix, either. (No, I wouldn't expect the return of the Avalanche anytime soon.) Given the right tools to work with and a quality defense on the other side of the ball, there's no reason Borges couldn't be the coordinator for a championship-caliber Big Ten team.
Auburn fans would argue he proved that in 2004; it's a testament to how dominant that offense was (and how wretched it had been the year before*) that even after his final two teams finished 76th and 97th in total yardage, he remains universally respected and admired among the Tiger fanbase. Yeah, a well-trained sugar glider [ed: ?] could have turned Campbell, Williams, Brown, Marcus McNeill, etc. into a competent offense, but that 25th-place finish in total offense you mentioned doesn't come close to doing that unit justice. They finished fifth in yards-per-play, first in yards per-pass attempt (at 10.0 a pop), second in passing efficiency, all against an SEC schedule and all with Tuberville's Carr-like insistence on downshifting into clock-killing mode as soon as the lead hit two scores. (Which it did a lot that year.)
Before that year Campbell had been a head case who'd already gone through three coordinators in three seasons. Borges got his head on straight, deployed the two-headed monster of Williams and Brown to maximum efficiency, and even added in the occasional gimmick play to good effect. It really was a terrific coaching job, and a lot of Auburn fans will tell you his 2005 effort -- in which Auburn finished 24th in yards per-play and scored 27 or more points 9 times, despite replacing Campbell with Brandon Cox and and not discovering a running back until Kenny Irons emerged at midseason -- was even better. (They're exaggerating, but it was still awfully nice.)
So what happened after that? Certainly Tuberville's conservatism and the lack of help from the world's most mediocre set of position coaches (the same ones who eventually got Tony Franklin fired midseason) didn't help, but the principal problem IMHO was the collapse of the passing game. Cox's myasthenia gravis—a debilitating muscle disease—seriously reduced his effectiveness, a series of recruiting busts meant that there were no replacements for the two departed NFL receivers on the outside, and the loss of McNeill opened up huge problems in pass protection. For a coordinator who set up his running game with the threat of an efficient passing game (even in 2005, Cox threw 44 times against Ga. Tech, 40 times against LSU, 33 times vs. Wisconsin, huge numbers for a Tuberville team), this was DEATH.
So how much blame does Borges finally share for the downturn? Not that much; the lack of player development from the position coaches, Tubby's handcuffing, and plain old bad luck in Cox's downturn hurt more than anything Borges did. Nevertheless, he does share some blame for things getting as rocky as they got, there's some lessons for Michigan's expectations for Borges here:
- He needs the talent. Obviously, the array of tools at Borges' disposal in '06 and '07 wasn't nearly what it was in '04 and '05, but the cupboard wasn't as bare as to totally excuse the off-the-cliff plummet Auburn experienced. It may be fair to say that Borges is well-equipped to maximize a talent advantage over lesser opponents -- his success with a very talented SDSU offense by MWC standards this year would seem to be more evidence -- but isn't as effective "coaching up" lesser weapons. In the long term this is probably a good thing.
- He's not going to recruit that talent himself. Can't speak for what he's done at SDSU or his previous stops, but virtually any skill position player who truly shone at Auburn -- during his tenure or after -- was either recruited under his predecessors or after he'd departed.
- He's not super-flexible. Borges' schemes didn't change a whole lot as Cox's effectiveness decreased and his receiving corps began sucking. It was still the same array of mostly off-tackle and iso runs, play-action passes (yes, waggles!), and occasional pro-style passing concepts. They just stopped working. Borges made some offseason comments to the effect that Auburn would do more to get the running backs and tight ends involved in the passing game (as they had been in 2004), but that never really seemed to develop.
To that same point, Borges did precious little work at Auburn with a "dual-threat" quarterback, but what little he did wouldn't be very encouraging where Denard is concerned. That work came with Kodi Burns, who came to Auburn as a true freshman in 2007. Cox began that season completely out of sorts and Burns was brought off the bench in Weeks 2-4 to stop the bleeding. It didn't seem like Borges had made much of an effort to teach Burns the offense or develop a functional package to put his running skills to use; Burns seemed to mostly just take the snap and run around. A true freshman Kodi Burns might not have been able to do much more than that, but it still just didn't seem like Borges had much of an idea about what to do with him at that stage. Obviously Robinson is miles and miles ahead of where Burns was (or ever got to) as a quarterback, but maybe it's something to keep in mind all the same.
Again, none of that is to say Borges can't succeed at Michigan ... but the current situation just isn't in his wheelhouse. Based on the last half of 2005 (when Cox, Irons, and the AU receivers were at the height of their powers) and what he's done at SDSU this season with the Lindley-Hillman-senior wideouts package, I'd say the prototypical Borges offense is one with an accurate (and not necessarily strong-armed) pocket passer, big NFL-type receivers on the outside to stretch the field, and a single stud running back as a home run threat out of the backfield. It seems like aside from Darryl Stonum, Michigan doesn't have any of those things.
What's ironic, says Alanis, is that Michigan used to have those things in bunches. Give Borges Henne, Hart, Long, and Manningham/Arrington, and you're going to have one of the best offenses in the country, hands-down. And maybe he can work some magic with Denard (or Gardner), and Hopkins, and Stonum/Miller/Jackson/whoever. But I can't shake the feeling that Borges is the right guy in the right place at the wrong time.
*[Since you asked, sort of, and because it shows how deeply, deeply flawed Tuberville's understanding of offense is, in 2003 Auburn used co-offensive coordinators: quarterbacks coach Steve Ensminger and offensive line coach Hugh Nall. Tuberville asked them to operate the identical scheme run by Bobby Petrino in 2002, but with a twist: he would ask them for either a running play or a passing play as the situation demanded, and then Nall would make the playcall if Tubby had requested a running play, and Ensminger the playcall in the event of a pass. (I don't think this has been officially confirmed, but it's a matter of general understanding amongst Auburn fans.) And that is how you take Campbell, Williams, Brown, and like four other NFL players and wind up with a lousy offense. Nall wound up as a trucking company executive when he left Auburn; Ensminger's next job was as an assistant coach with a local high school.]
Jerry walked back what pessimism existed in the above—there but under the "this guy is pretty good" bit—in a brief addendum:
So I read back over what I wrote yesterday and it's too far on the negative side, I think. I don't mean to imply Borges can't/won't succeed at Michigan, I'm just worried it's going to take a couple of seasons for
1. Hoke and Co. to recruit the missing pieces for the offense (especially a load-carrying RB)
2. Borges to coach up the pieces he's got, like (hopefully) Gardner.
Given the state of the defense, I wonder if he'd really be given the necessary slack to survive a Rodriguez-like transition period. But Mattison ought to help. If he's Hoke's Malzahn, there's no question Borges can be his Ted Roof.
I think Borges will be all but forced to adapt when there turn out to be things that work with Denard and things that don't. In the Cox case above criticisms about not adapting to the situation might overlook the fact that there's no adaptation that turns suck into not suck. See Michigan's 2008 offense—when you don't have anything you can adapt all you want and you're still going to be hilariously bad.
Most of the questions in my inbox I don't have an answer to, but does that ever stop sportswriters? No.
1. With all the Hoke love from ex-players & everyone else for that matter, how could Bill Martin have misread the whole "Michigan Man" situation when he hired RichRod? He had to get some sort of vibe about supporting a MI Man & not an outsider. Did he ignore this, or was he ignorant of it?
Bill Martin seems like an affable sort of guy, but an affable sort of guy who wasn't actually on the football team and really likes sailing. I bet he was taken aback by the way Rodriguez's tenure developed. I think most people were surprised the vehemence with which Rodriguez was denounced once he started losing games.
But I'm not sure it really mattered, since at the time there were no Michigan Man options that were even vaguely plausible. Hoke—the sole Carr assistant to have a head coaching job at the time—was idling at 7-6 in his fifth year at Ball State. DeBord had failed miserably at CMU. Ron English was in charge of the defense that made The Horror and Post-Apocalyptic Oregon Game possible. Harbaugh was still unproven.
Even if Martin could anticipate a negative reaction from the Carr clan, it's not like there was anything he could do about it without producing a backlash 10 times as massive as this year's Hoke doubt.
2. With all the shouts of failure to hire a BIG name coach, looking at the hires of the last few years from "elite" schools: USC - Kiffin, Miami - Temple's coach, Florida - Tx D Coordinator, Florida St. - Jimbo Fisher, Notre Dame - Kelly, Tennessee - Dooley; big name coaches from big name schools rarely switch jobs within the college ranks - the last BIG name coach to do so would have to be RichRod - food for thought.
I guess that depends on your definition of the word "big." It's true that most jobs on the Michigan/Oklahoma/Florida/ND level are terminal destinations. But Stanford isn't, especially when the guy at Stanford is a famous Michigan alum. Harbaugh should have been poachable, and maybe he was but for the NFL. We'll never know. Meanwhile, there is a list of guys who are acquirable who may not be "big" names but seem like as good of any idea as possible when you switch coaches.
As for that list above:
- Fisher was a hot OC at LSU that was imported to be HC in waiting/by proxy in the same sort of transition that saw Bielema and Chip Kelly smoothly ascend to the throne and experience fairly quick success. (Bielema took a little while to get going.)
- Muschamp is an archetypical hot coordinator.
- Brian Kelly qualified as a big name in the mold of Urban Meyer after championship runs at two different schools experiencing their greatest success.
- Kiffin was the last act of an idiot and was met with the same sort of love at USC he was after his departure from Knoxville.
- Dooley was a last second desperation hire after Kiffin left that was like hiring Hoke in 2007.
I'd say the first three are good ideas, the fourth a bad idea, and the fifth the sort of thing that happens when your head coach leaves in early January. In Tennessee's case they were left in the lurch involuntarily. Michigan did it to themselves.
At least Dooley provides a hopeful example. Despite being in shambles in mid-January they recovered decently enough in recruiting and outperformed expectations down the stretch. Sometimes guys catch fire with more resources and a fortunate recruit—or existing player—and that can quickly erase their uninspiring previous record. One year after Tennessee's Maple Street Annual asked me to write a piece about how to cope with a 3-9 crater, there is palpable optimism in Knoxville.
In the presser introducing Hoke as HC, Dave Brandon mentioned that he was a "data guy," and that the data showed that when you bring in a HC w/no ties to the area and/or university, it usually doesn't work. However, a look at the top programs in recent college football history show important counterexamples:
- Urban Meyer, Florida: no ties
- Mack Brown, Texas: asst coach Iowa State 1 year, OC Iowa State 2 years (1980-81), OC Oklahoma 1 year (1984)
- Nick Saban, LSU: no ties
- Les Miles, LSU: no ties
- Pete Carroll, USC: OC U. of Pacific, 1 year (1983)
Did these guys have assistants on staff who had ties? What was the key to their success in winning over the respective fan bases?
Winning games? Those guys save Carroll and Meyer all came from BCS programs they had significantly outperforming their historical baseline, and Meyer had just turned Utah into the #2 team in the country after making Bowling Green a terrifying MAC opponent. And then they won immediately. Saban was 12-2 in year two. Miles lost six games in his first three years. The first time Mack Brown won fewer than nine games at Texas was this year. Meyer won the national title in year two.
Before any of these guys could be hated they were loved, and Rodriguez probably could have managed that trick if he hadn't presided over the worst three year stretch since Harry Kipke*.
If there's a common thread between these coaches it's recruiting, where all were monsters. You knew that's what you were getting with Brown, suspected it with Saban and Miles, and hoped for with Carroll.
*[I have your back, MVictors]
So, I've accepted the fact that we have Hoke and Borges (mostly). The offensive personnel is obviously geared toward a zone read option type of offense with athletic lineman, lots of slot ninjas and a running quarterback.
Two actual questions for you:
1 - How is this line at pass protection? Do the techniques change much between zone-read option spread teams and pro-style teams? I know Kerrigan, Liuget and Watt were blowing up our plays quite a bit, but I'm hopeful the assignments and techniques would not be very different. Now, Iso-blocks on runs plays....argh.
It was difficult to tell since teams spent most of the year deathly afraid of losing gap responsibility and letting Robinson slip into the secondary. Many opponents seemed content to let Denard sit and survey. In one on one matchups the line did very well against Iowa, Michigan State, and Penn State but not so well against Purdue (ie: Kerrigan) and Wisconsin. The numbers were consistently 1) low in amplitude and 2) good in percentage. The line wasn't asked to do a whole lot. They usually did it well.
It was a mixed bag, but they were starting a redshirt freshman and an injury-laden platoon at the tackles. I don't think there's much of a difference in pass protection between the two offenses in terms of technique, but pro-style attacks usually put a greater premium on five- and seven-step drops.
A bigger concern than this being an awkward transition is how much of the good pass protection last year was an illusion wrought by Robinson and the scheme.
2 - Thinking about a pro-style offense that employs slots and would fit fairly well.... What about the Patriots offense? Slot guys, undersized receivers and running backs....Obviously Tom never runs, but they could incorporate the single-wing QB runs and ISQD's pretty easily as well as roll-out run-pass option plays....Am I dreaming here? Is there any way with the Michigan connections over there that Borges/Hoke could go in this offseason pick Belichick and Brady's brains and/or outright steal some of that offense all together? What about the Eagles offense? It seems this would be a pretty good recruiting pitch - "You know Tom Brady? The Patriots? That team that crushes people all the time? Yeah - we're running their offense."
The Patriots may be pros but they don't really run a pro-style offense anymore thanks to Brady. Unfortunately for Michigan's immediate future, the things that make Brady one of the greatest QBs of all time—pinpoint accuracy and I'm-from-the-future coverage reads—are the things Robinson has in shortest supply.
Long term I'm down with what seems to be Borges's preference for a pass-slanted West Coast offense, which is a system that works and works well when you've got the right guy at the helm. One positive about returning to something resembling the old offense is that college football's tilt towards spread systems has made pocket guys more available, and Michigan's reputation was enough to lure Ryan Mallett north despite that not being the best idea in the world for him personally.