I did not make this headline up
Denard Robinson and Fitzgerald Toussaint
Denard, can you talk about re-establishing the running backs? Denard: “First of all, our offensive line played a great game, and once Fitz got the ball in the open field, he made things happen.”
Fitz, can you talk about the long touchdown run and what you saw? Toussaint: “I just saw daylight. Coach Jackson always stresses, when you see a crease, shoot through it like a cannon. That’s what I did, and credit goes out to the offensive line for creating that for me.”
Talk about focus you had coming up to this week? Denard: “We knew we had to bounce back this week. Everybody prepared hard, and everybody was ready. We did what we had to do. That was a great team we faced.”
Do you enjoy the diversity of the offense, and are you excited about how it gets so many of your teammates involved? Denard: “I think I was excited about everybody. Everybody that watched the game was excited, and I’m in it, so I’m loving it.”
Fitz, you look like you found an extra gear. Did the bye week help you get healthier? Toussaint: “A lot of it was to get off my feet more and get a little bit more treatment on my body for me to be healthy for this game.”
Does this game show that you can be the lead back for Michigan? Fitz: “I still feel like we have to go out there every Tuesday and throughout the whole week to just compete. All the running backs.”
Fitz, on your touchdown run, what was the moment you knew you were going to go all the way? Toussaint: “There wasn’t really a moment. I … kind of just saw it and hit it.”
At what point did you know that Taylor had sprung you? Toussaint: “I really can’t even remember the moment. It just happened so fast.” Did anyone touch you at all? “I have no clue. I’m just happy that the line opened up the hole for me.”
Denard, can you talk about being 7-1 and it could be anyone’s division to win? Denard: “We just have to focus on this team, Michigan. We have to come out ready to play every weekend because [in] the Big Ten there’s always competition. That’s what we have to do every week.”
Fitz, can you talk about what it feels like walking off the field this week compared with how it felt two weeks ago? Toussaint: “Every team faces adversity. It’s not really how you have adversity. It’s really how you respond to it. We knew we had two weeks to get prepared for this game, and we did what we had to do.”
Denard, you guys have gone against the Michgian defense in practice. What’s different about it this year? Denard: “Well, everybody holding each other accountable. That’s the biggest thing. If the cornerbacks don’t play good defense the D-line won’t get pressure. So everybody holding each other accountable.”
Fitz, in the deuce packages, how do you guys see defenses playing that? Toussaint: “It’s kind of hard to play it because when you have your best athletes in the game, it’s kind of hard to really actually practice that formation. I think it’s kind of hard.”
Can you guys talk about how tired you are of hearing about people waiting for the Michigan collapse? Toussaint: “We really just focus on going out there and preparing every week for Saturday.” Robinson: “We don’t really care about what other people think. It’s about this team. Team 132.”
Denard, do you feel half the defense going with you on the jet sweep fakes? Denard: “Coach Fred -- Freddy J -- he told us one good fake equals two blocks. I just run full speed and hope somebody runs with me.”
Mark Huyge and Craig Roh
Mark, how much did you emphasize the run in practice the past couple of weeks? Huyge: “Well it’s always an emphasis. One of our main goals is to get some tailback yardage, too, and really put it on that, because when we can get our tailbacks out and take some pressure off Denard, that’s a big thing, and that’s a big key to our success on offense.”
Mark, how hard is it for you to shuffle the offensive line and still produce the way you did? Huyge: “Well even in practice and throughout the couple years here since all the guys have been here, we’ve been playing next to each other. I know I’ve been on both sides. Ricky, Mike Schofield, Patrick Omameh, they’re all going back and forth, right and left sometimes. It’s not really that big of a deal, though. We have pretty good chemistry up front, and it showed.”
Craig, when you see Mike Martin produce the way he did, how does that alter your own attitude? Roh: “Well, that guy is just a physical beast. He’s a very dominating player. When you see that, you’re like, ‘I can do that.’ It’s cool to see him because you’re like, ‘That guy’s right next to me, and I know he’s going to beast his guy, so I have to beast my guy.’ ”
Craig, what changed after that first touchdown? Roh: “We just made a few adjustments. Usually in games, offenses come out with a few tweaks here and there. We just adjusted and we came down and played Michigan defense.”
After the last game, did you feel like the offensive line was under a lot of scrutiny? Huyge: “We didn’t get it done in that game. The key was to move on as quick as possible from that, make the necessary adjustments. We were under a little bit of pressure, but we knew if we played our game and executed to how we’re capable, we’ll be just fine.”
Craig, what was discussion like after the first touchdown, and what were the adjustments? Roh: “We knew everything was okay. They scored a touchdown. We never want that, but we weren’t freaking out or anything. We were like, “Okay, let’s just settle down and play Michigan defense.’ ”
Was that the most confident you’ve seen Fitz? Huyge: “I think he was just himself. I didn’t really see anything that stood out. I know he had a couple big runs there and that one long run when he cut it back. I was really impressed with that because he found the opening and got some good blocks downfield. Steve Watson threw a great block to spring him.” You said he was just himself. What does that mean? “He’s actually a pretty sarcastic guy. He’s always trying to start stuff with me, and then he’ll back off right away. He’s just a cool guy.” He does this in games? “No, not in games.”
You’re 7-1, tied for division lead heading into November. What’s your feeling about that, and what’s your motivation? Roh: “We just need to keep improving and play the way we know how to play. We can win every game here.” Huyge: “That’s just the main thing. One game at a time.”
Mark, can you talk about Taylor Lewan’s toughness? Huyge: “Obviously Taylor is a pretty tough guy. He’s been banged up before. He just keeps fighting through it. I know in the game I remember him saying he might have gotten rolled up on a couple of times, which happens, but he just kept fighting through it.”
Craig, can you talk about the effectiveness of your perimeter defense? Roh: “Offenses are going to look at tape and if one thing works the offense is going to do that, but that’s something that we’re working on as a defense to be tougher on that perimeter.”
How much of a focus was that in practice? Roh: “I mean the focus is always on technique and perimeter defense comes from good technique and aggressive playing. I think that was more of the focus than just perimeter defense. We take unbelievable pride -- this whole entire defense takes pride in perimeter defense and inside defense. Really everything.”
Mark, can you talk about the challenges of flipping from right tackle to left tackle when Taylor went out? Huyge: “I’ve played both in my career and I do it in practice a lot, too. It’s not too difficult. Sometimes it takes a little bit, a few plays to adjust. I feel confident I can do that.”
What was Taylor’s demeanor while he was trying to soldier through the game? Huyge: “He was just saying that, ‘I’m going to stay in, and let’s go.’ I mean, yeah, he wasn’t going to get pulled out.”
Craig, on the safety, were you looking for the safety, and how much of a turning point was that? Roh: “I mean, you’re looking for the offensive set. You’re looking for the tendencies coming off of that. When you have them pinned back, that’s always on the forefront of ... you front that that is a possibility. When Mike Martin got that safety, I couldn’t be any happier.”
Craig, what is your definition of Michigan defense? Roh: “Michigan defense is just dominating everything. And every aspect of life. That’s a rough definition.”
Does anything change for you guys when Marve comes into the game? Roh: “I mean we just keep playing our technique. Keep playing our defense the way we know how to play it. We adjust somewhat to personnel.”
After Devin’s interception, you turned to the power play and the run game. Huyge: “We like to run the ball as an offensive line. I’d personally rather run than pass. It’s fun to get going. When the offensive line gets it going, the running backs running hard, it’s a fun thing.”
During the off week, was there anything special you paid attention to that paid dividends today? Roh: “I just thought technique. We just focused on technique and played hard-nosed Michigan football.” Huyge: “Just improving from last game and getting back to the fundamentals and basics of football.”
Hoke said he wanted to challenge the offensive line. How did he challenge you guys? Huyge: “All of our practices are pretty physical, and that’s one thing where we try to go out and hit people. Sometimes we’re a little -- I don’t want to say tentative, but it looked like on film. We did not get it done, and we needed to just go out and just play as hard as we could.”
Mike Martin and Courtney Avery
That safety -- kind of a defensive lineman’s dream, eh? Martin: “Van Bergen did a good job with giving me a little bit of a presnap idea of what they were going to do. We were looking for a few things, but he did a good job of where they were going to slide the protection, and when it came down to it, we were just aggressive off the ball, and good things happened.”
On the play following the touchdown, did you feel like the defense needed to step up? Martin: “Yeah. This defense is great with responding to adversity whether it’s a sudden change -- whatever it might be -- or we get scored on, which we never want that to happen. But we did a great job of coming to the sideline and regathering and knowing that we had to play better defense, and that’s what we did. We responded well. Period.”
Craig defined the defense as dominating every aspect of life. Do you have different definitions? Martin: “Playing Michigan defense, and coach Hoke says it all the time and Coach Mattison -- it’s really playing with the mentality that first of all no one can run on you. No one can run the ball. You have to have that as a defensive line, up front, as a whole, as a defense. When they pass, getting to the quarterback. Really just getting 11 hats to the ball every single play with the effort that’s just crazy. I think we did that today. We’ll watch the film, have improvements, and we’ll get better for next weekend.” Avery: “Going off what Mike said, from the secondary’s standpoint, we want to keep everything inside and in front and then just get 11 hats and pursuing like crazy to the ball.”
Why is this team better equipped to handle the second half of the season? Martin: “Well, our mentality every single day when we take the practice field, whether it’s on a Tuesday or Wednesday, any work day during the week, watching the film -- we just have the mentality that we want to get better. Every single day. This defense is hungry to get better. We have young guys, stepping up, playing. That’s what it’s all about. We’re just going to keep on taking positive steps forward, and from this point on every single game is a championship game for this program.”
That easy touchdown was the first of the year. Avery: “I just feel we didn’t attack it as well as we would like to and we didn’t cup it as well as we would like to, but we made some adjustments and coach brought us over to the side and told us just to attack it and that’s what we did. We stopped that play later on during the game.”
Mike, you got the safety in the first quarter, but then in the fourth quarter when they were backed up in their own endzone again, you got called offsides. Did you get a little trigger happy on that one? Martin: “Well, the mentality of our defensive line is getting off the ball. That was definitely all my fault and I was really trying to get a good jump on the ball, which is what you try to do every single snap. I should have been smarter on my part of it knowing they were going to do it in the black. I just have to get better on my half of it. Coach talked to me about it, and I didn’t do it again.” So it was because they did something with the snap count? “Yeah, they got me. They did a good job with that.”
Mike, after the Michigan State game, Hoke said he was going to challenge the offensive line. Did you notice anything different in the way they practiced? Martin: “Yeah, that was probably a big part of it. They did a great job of executing, and really it’s because of how good of a look we gave them during the bye week. We played really physical in our bye week. It wasn’t lackadaisacal, take-a-week-off-because-we-have-a-week-off type of practices. We were going after each other, and we were giving each other the best looks we could up front, and it showed on the game field today.”
Hoke praised Mike’s tackle 16 yards downfield. He said that means something. Courtney, what does that mean? Avery: “It just goes back to the effort and pursuing to the ball. You just have to keep fighting and the ball’s not the endzone until it’s in the endzone.” Does it help the rest of the defense to see a guy hustle like that? “Oh definitely. …”
There’s been a lot of questions about the defense. After eight games, do you feel like those questions have been answered? Martin: “You know, every week’s going to be a test for us. There’s always going to be people saying different things about our defense, but the most important thing is really the guys that are in that locker room. The guys that are in that team defensive room. Those are the most important guys. We’re going to play for each other. Courtney and myself and everyone else in that defensive room, including the coaches, we’re all in this thing together. We just have to make sure that we control what we can, which is how we play, every single week.”
Courtney, can you talk about your interception and the ability of this defense to make stops? Avery: “That’s a great thing about our defense. It just seems when we have our backs to the wall, we seem to rise to the challenge. With the interception, they ran that play before, and they got a big play out of it. Coach brought us to the sideline, told us to attack that, so I just did what the coach said and attacked it and it came out good for us.”
Is it different to feel like there’s something to play for in November other than just pride? Martin: “Yeah, time’s flown by. Senior year and this year for this team is huge. November is championship football for us. Going from month to month, we know we have to get better. Week by week, I think we’ve done that. Sometimes we haven’t taken the biggest steps forward that we want to, but we’ve gotten better, period. I’m confident that we’ll continue to do that. These games coming up, we’ve got Iowa away. That’s going to be a great test for us as a team and as a defense to respond in a high-[stakes] environment. That’s going to be a battle for us.”
Courtney, how did Blake Countess play today? Avery: “Blake’s been solid in practice, and during the game he looked really good. He’s coming along, he’s improving, he’s working hard. He’s a hard worker.”
Courtney, you said Purdue got a big play earlier in the game using the same play on which you got the interception. Was that the touchdown pass on their first drive? Avery: “Yes, sir.” How close was the ball to hitting the ground?“It was pretty close. He bobbled it actually twice, and then once I got it, it was pretty close to the ground, yes sir.”
How close was this game to Michigan football on both sides of the ball? Martin: “I think coach probably said he hasn’t seen the film yet, but he probably said that we played with great effort … But I say the same thing. I just know period that we were busting our butts to the ball, we had guys doing whatever they could to make a play. You’re never going to play a perfect football game. That’s going to happen. The thing’s that’s important is to take steps forward every single week. We’ll look at the film and make sure that we correct those things and play even harder next week.” What about the offense? “They were playing their butts off. The thing we’ve gotten better as a team is complementing each other. Offensively, them holding onto the ball, time of possession, running the football, putting points on the board. And then us getting the ball back to our offense. They were playing physical and it showed on the scoreboard, period.”
Denard Robinson and Vincent Smith
Why was the passing game better today? Denard: “We just clicked. We worked on it in practice, and we just had to put it forward in games, and that’s what we did today.”
When the last time you had a rushing, receiving, and passing TD in the same game. Also, can you talk about the game plan that utilized you in a unique way? Smith: “I was just put in the right place at the right time. The coaches know what I’m capable of. What I have to do for the team to help them out.” Was it fun? “Real fun. And the last time I threw a pass was in high school, but not like three [TD’s] in one game.”
When did the 2-QB thingy arise? Denard: “We’ve been doing that in practice. We’ve been working on it. Coach said he’d throw it at us, and just be ready. And he called it, so we were ready.” Were you expecting it that early? “Oh yeah.”
That was an unorthodox offense today. Is that exciting for you? Denard: “Oh yeah … Just going out and having fun with my teammates.”
Denard, how comfortable did you feel in the passing game? You looked more comfortable. Denard: “Oh yeah. I mean, we’ve been practicing getting it down with the receivers, and we were just on the same page.” How much you looking forward to going on the road? “Both of us are looking forward to that.” Smith: “I mean it’s just another football game, and that’s what we love to do. We just love to come out to compete, and it’s another night game.”
You guys have been putting up a lot of points. How does the team feel about this new offense? Denard: “We’re confident. I mean, we’ve been playing [well], and we trust Coach Al to give us the right play and make things happen, because we have some playmakers.”
Are there other things we haven’t seen that you might show us? Denard: “We can’t tell them that …” Smith: “Not that I know of.”
(more after the jump)
9/24/2011 – Michigan 28, San Diego State 7 – 4-0
A long, long time ago now a Lloyd-Carr coached Michigan team was struggling through the 2005 season when they met Northwestern. A lot of throws to Tacopants (Jason Avant's 11-foot-tall imaginary friend) on both sides later, Michigan emerged with a 33-17 win and I embarked on one of the first of an endless procession of stat-nerd diatribes about the evils of punting.
You've probably heard it already: punting decisions have not kept pace with the increasingly offensive nature of the game, leaving coaches in a perpetual state of risk- and win-avoidance. Romer paper, Pulaski High, Mathlete chart. Etc.
In this particular Northwestern game, though, Carr went for it on fourth and five from the Northwestern 23, a decision I thought was too aggressive(!). When paired with a number of similarly aggressive calls from earlier that season, it seemed like a sea change for the old man:
In multiple cases he's made tough, correct decisions: going on fourth and goal from the one against Wisconsin, pounding it into the line twice against Michigan State, etc. Even when the strategy has backfired, he accepts the downside and persists in a more aggressive posture.
In context, the Penn State gaffe seems more like one last hit of that sweet Bombay Popsicle* snuck in-between rehab sessions than evidence of 1970s thinking taking hold. Lloyd Carr has checked himself in to the Betty Ford Center for Coaches Addicted to Low Variance. I wouldn't expect a flying-colors discharge any time soon, but he's made the first, biggest step.
*[I don't know either.]
That change lasted into the fourth quarter of that year's Ohio State game. Having acquired a two-score lead by converting a fourth and inches around the Michigan 40, Carr reverted to his primitive instincts at the crucial moment. With three minutes left from the Ohio State 40, he called for a wide receiver screen on third and ten. It gained six yards. With a two point lead, three minutes on the clock, no Ohio State timeouts left, and a fourth and four on the Ohio State 34, Carr punted. Ohio State drove for a touchdown; Carr would never again have the opportunity to kill a game against the Buckeyes.
In the moment, Carr choked. Six years on that single decision seems like the best way to explain why a lot Michigan fans found his tenure frustrating despite its high rate of success: the program was perpetually making poor decisions because a combination of fear and arrogance. Something could go wrong if you made a high variance decision, and Michigan could spit on expected value because This Is Michigan. See any game in which Michigan acquired an 18-point lead or the first half of the Orange Bowl for confirmation.
Carr coached like he had a kickass running game and killer defense no matter the facts, which was the difference between being a legend and a being a B+ coach who lost the battle with Tressel authoritatively. Hell, even Tressel blew games when he failed to adjust to the reality that sometimes his defense and special teams were not enough, and he ran roughshod over the Big Ten for nine years.
Part of the reason a segment of the Michigan fanbase (including the author) blew up at Hoke's hire is because it seemed to represent a return to that expectation-spurning 1970s decision-making.
Brady Hoke put a lot of those fears to rest by going for—and getting—the win against Notre Dame with eight seconds left. That decision was a no-brainer. If the field goal team had run out onto the field, I would have been livid. That was a test he passed, but it was one with a low bar.
On Saturday, Hoke sent out the punting team with about two and a half minutes left in the first half. It was fourth and two around midfield, and I was mildly peeved. It was not the percentage play, but I've watched a lot of football and it seemed too much to hope that even the rootin'est, tootin'est, eyepatch-wearingest pirate of a head coach would go for it. Needing more than a sneak and up fourteen in the first half, the world punts. My peevishness was directed at football coaches in general, not Hoke in particular.
And then an angel came down from the sky, and signaled timeout. Great trumpets erupted from the flagpoles, playing a fanfare as a golden staircase descended. Each of the steps was engraved with the names of World Series of Poker winners. Down from the clouds strode Doyle Brunson, clad in a jacket of hundred-dollar bills. And lo, Texas Dolly spaketh unto the people: "check-raise." Brady Hoke sent the offensive line onto the field.
This was a really, really good decision. Even if you don't believe the exact outlines of the Mathlete's calculations, it is not close: average offense versus average defense means the break-even line is around eight yards. This was not an average situation. Michigan had Denard Robinson against a pretty horrible run defense. And that number does not take into account the game situation. If Michigan gets the first down they are almost certainly robbing San Diego State of a possession. Punting gets you thirty, forty yards of field position. Getting the first down puts you in good position to score and is essentially another +1 in turnover margin. You need two yards and you have Denard Robinson.
stealing a joke from the internet: the guy on the right looks like he just looked into the Ark of the Covenant. via the News.
One speed option later Michigan was en route to the endzone and had essentially ended the game. Without that massively +EV decision they go into halftime up maybe 14, maybe 11, maybe 7 points. That ugly third quarter becomes the gut-check time most were predicting before the game. Maybe Michigan comes out on top (24-21, say). Maybe not. That didn't happen because when Michigan had its boot on San Diego State's neck, Hoke called Z 22 stomp right.
The Lloyd Carr example above shows we don't know that Hoke's going to do this consistently, that he'll stick to the non-pejorative MANBALL when the pressure is at its greatest, but so far so good. Even my doubts about Hoke's ability to math up in the waning moments of an Ohio State game are faint. When things go wrong he does not scowl or pout or throw headsets like Rich Rodriguez or Brian Kelly or Bo Pelini. He does not go on tilt. He calmly talks to guys about what in the hell they were thinking.
Hoke continues to leave best-case scenarios in the dust. Saturday night I watched Dennis Erickson punt on fourth and five from the USC 37 and thought "my coach would never do that." Then I watched Erickson chew out the punter who put the ball in the endzone because that's what happens when you punt from the 37 and thought "my coach would never do that."
That felt good. It felt invent-a-time-machine-to-assure-yourself-its-all-going-to-be-okay good. It feels like Michigan has finally learned how to gamble.
Boy do I want to play poker with certain people on the internet. Evaluating the decision has popped up on every Michigan message board. It's mostly been met with praise, but man, there are a lot of people who can't estimate and multiply out there. Maybe it's Carr Stockholm syndrome.
A reminder: anything on the MGoBlog photostream is creative-commons licensed, free to use for non-commercial applications. Attribution to Eric Upchurch, the Observer, and MGoBlog is appreciated.
Mark Huyge is delighted to be here. From the above SDSU photoset.
It's not quite the Molk death glare. It's more like Shifty-Eyed Dog.
Try to look at Mark Huyge ever again without having that play in your head.
That's a great question. Just as our rationality leads us to a belief in an objective reality, Kant believed there is an objective morality we can locate from the same process. The Categorical Imperative is an absolute, fundamental moral law on par with Minnesota losing to teams from the Dakotas. Things are either right or wrong—there are no gray areas, and context does not apply. You could call him the BJ Daniels of philosophy*.
*[Ten-cent summary of Kantian philosophy cribbed from Three Minute Philosophy, which is terrific. Philosophers wishing to quibble with my paraphrase of a comedic summary are invited to consider the moral consequences of their actions and also jump in a lake. USF fans wishing to WOO BJ DANIELS can skip to the latter.]
And the internet eeeed Countess. When Troy Woolfolk headed to the sidelines, all Michigan fans everywhere winced. When Blake Countess replaced JT Floyd in the third quarter, all Michigan fans everywhere prepared for the deluge.
It never came, and as a result everyone from my uncle to the internet to the newspapers are having little freakouts about Michigan's #4 corner. I am with all of you. The only thing stopping Countess from having a few PBUs or interceptions was Ryan Lindley's inability to throw the ball anywhere near the guys Countess had blanketed but Lindley targeted anyway.
For most of the third quarter I stopped watching the offensive backfield and started watching downfield coverage and while I won't be able to confirm this on the tape I think Countess was doing really well even when people weren't going after him. I'm with the rest of the internet when I suggest that Troy Woolfolk should take the Minnesota game off to recover from his multiple nagging injuries so we can see some more of the freshman.
I thought Avery did well, too. He had a third-down slant completed on him and was the DB victimized on the touchdown but in both cases he was right there tackling/raking at the ball. Is he doing something wrong I'm not perceiving yet? Because I think he's playing better than Woolfolk, who gave up some groan-worthy easy completions. (I don't blame him for allowing Hillman to bounce on one third down conversion because he was clearly held.)
Release the Martin. This week in the I-told-you-so files: Mike Martin is just fine. His good day last week was obscured by EMU never throwing and having quite a bit of success attacking away from him. Against SDSU he was nigh unblockable, bowling a veteran offensive line over backwards multiple times and drawing holding calls left and right. Craig Roh had two big plays and will show up doing little things when I do the UFR; Will Campbell had a couple of line-pushing plays. Hillman's YPC was still over five, so there are issues but I think a big chunk of them are localizable to…
Problems. So… everyone's talking up Jake Ryan, too. I'm with everyone in a general, long-term sense but a little less enthused about his performance on Saturday. One of the results of the first few weeks of UFRing/picture paging is that whenever the opponent tries to get outside I immediately focus on Ryan. Result from last week: three "aaargh Ryan" screams that no one in my section comprehended. He's still giving up the corner way too easy.
Also, there are two caveats to an otherwise encouraging performance from the secondary. One: Lindley and his receivers were flat bad as a group. Drops, bad routes, and bad throws artificially boosted Michigan's efficiency against him. Some of that was caused by pressure. Some of it was just a crappy opponent. Two: I wonder if Michigan's familiarity with the SDSU offense allowed them to beat the Aztecs' favorite routes into Michigan DBs heads.
Still, 5.3 YPA and actual depth at corner. +1 Mallory.
Offensive construction bits. Another week, another confirmation that running Denard is the offense. While I still groan whenever they line up under center, snaps from there were limited. I would really prefer it if they never ran I-form power on first and ten again, though. They've mixed in some inexplicably effective short play action so far; if they can't run that will probably dry up.
Things I liked: That screen to Smith. The essence of an RPS+3 is when three offensive linemen have no one to block for 30 yards. And then the much-discussed speed option debuted. I'd gotten a couple insider emails telling me it was part of the offense but thought it would be extremely bad form to publish that, so I'd been waiting. It was quite a debut.
I'm hoping we see Borges add wrinkles at the same rate Rodriguez did. He'll have to to keep the run offense ahead of the wolves. He's off to a good start.
via the Detroit News.
Tailbacks. I'm suddenly happy with Michigan's tailback situation after Vincent Smith made a lot of yards on his own, including the above touchdown where he kept his balance at about the five and managed to drag a safety into the endzone. There was also the zone play where he squeezed through a crack in the line it's possible literally no other D-I back would have fit through.
Toussaint, meanwhile, didn't have the yards Smith did but ran hard on the inside; I still like him best but understand if they're going to split duties between the top two. I feel bad for Shaw—maybe it's time to put him on kickoffs? He's got speed Smith does not.
The Denard question. So they did run a curl-flat. Denard went to the curl way late and threw his first interception. Not sure if that was schemed or just bad execution by the offense. If it's the latter that might be attributable to not running it over the offseason as Borges attempted to install his route packages, route packages that now seem like things Denard just can't do.
A three-point plan in an attempt to get Denard back on track:
- Stop throwing on the run.
- Provide some easy throws early—all hitch, snag—in an effort to get him calmed down.
- Develop some sort of counter-punch to the opponent getting all up in Denard's face on the rollout PA. A shovel pass?
Bending but not breaking. Michigan's giving up a lot of yards but not a lot of points. Frankly, some of this is luck. They are acquiring turnovers at an unsustainable rate. Not unsustainable for a mediocre defense, unsustainable for Michigan 1997. When the well dries up they'll do some more breaking.
The other thing is the secondary. Michigan's newfound ability to make plays on deep balls and Jordan Kovacs being stone-cold reliable (so far /crosses self) have erased cheap touchdowns for the opposition. WMU's touchdown came on a 15-play drive. ND touchdown drives went 7, 10, 7, and 4 plays. San Diego State's took six plays but started from the Michigan 38. The only quick drive Michigan's given up all year was ND's desperation drive, on which Michigan gave up chunks on purpose because of the time situation and then tried an NFL-style defense they weren't ready for and blew it. The longest touchdown other than that was the 16-yard pass Lindley hit in the third quarter.
Opponents have ripped off chunks on occasion, but they have not been handed free touchdowns. Michigan's at least making them earn it. That's a necessary first step on the road away from completely awful.
The next opponent. When Minnesota managed to hang with USC on the first weekend of the season they seemed like they might be more intimidating than your average Minnesota team. Then they lost to Not Even The Good New Mexico and North Dakota State and seemed even less intimidating than your average Minnesota team. Compounding matters: Jerry Kill is again out of commission with his seizure issue.
I did not VOAV this week for reasons of being spooked. Boyz In The Pahokee provided the usual bounty if you are jonesing.
ST3 goes Inside the Box Score:
Matt Wile. Wait, let me try that again. MATT WILE!!! Yeah, I think he was properly pumped up to play his Dad's team. Net yards per kickoff were 50 for SDSU and 49.2 for UofM. To be even on kickoffs is a win for us. Net yards per punt were 34.7 for SDSU and 43.5 for Michigan. To gain almost a full first down per punt is huge. Two punts were inside the 20, and two were 50+ yards. #82, Terrance Robinson had 2 ST tackles and did a great job as the gunner on punts.
Wile's just lost his punting job; if that allows him to improve his kickoffs and compete for the field goal job, Michigan's kicking could be one of those strength things by midseason.
Lordfoul's weekly Hoke for Tomorrow:
Michigan needs Hagerup back.Maybe Hagerup isn't the only answer. Wile's kicks are improving it would seem, both on KOs and punts, possibly because his nerves are settling down. Kickoffs regularly made it to the goal line and only 1 of 4 punts was returned for much while they averaged 49 yards per with a long of only 51(!).
Player participation notes from jtmc33.
You see that conch shell he's got in his hand? At some point in the first half he was talking into it like it was a cell phone. That is all.
Media, as in blog rabble. BWS hops aboard the Countess bandwagon and points out Denard can't throw.
MGoBlog : The Big Lebowski :: The Hoover Street Rag : The Hunt For Red October:
After the Notre Dame game, I tweeted very simply: "And the singing, Captain?" "Let them sing." The moment was too good to start worrying about the future. But at some point, the future arrives and you need to deal with it. How well prepared you are for that future plays a large role in how well you're able to handle it when the moment arrives. The non-conference schedule, particularly one played as four games at the start of the season should, theoretically, be a nice combination of challenges and the working out of kinks. Before the mission starts, you must know the capacity and capabilities of your crew.
Media, as in local newspaper. John Niyo on the defense, which is extant. Chengelis on the fact the team is not vintage. San Diego State had big pictures of their former coaches as signals. The Daily on RVB's Hillman chase:
Fifth-year senior defensive tackle Ryan Van Bergen caught Hillman from behind inside the 10-yard line and knocked the ball loose for the second fumble.
Try reading it this way: a 288-pound defensive tackle caught the nation’s second-leading rusher from behind in the open field — 30 yards away from the line of scrimmage.
Van Bergen got a block from fifth-year senior defensive tackle Mike Martin, but most of his help came from practice.
“But when it comes down to it, we have the most explosive player in the country in our backfield,” Van Bergen said. “We get to play against (junior quarterback) Denard (Robinson), so we’ve learned how to take angles at guys who have speed.
“I took off on my horse just thinking, ‘I’ve almost caught Denard before, maybe I can catch this guy.’ ”
“They were very emotional after the game, depressed, disappointed, upset, however you want to say,” said Long, whose team dropped to 3-1 after Saturday’s 28-7 defeat. “It was a very emotional locker room after the game and not in a good sense.”
They probably would have done a “poor job” of answering questions, Long said, so he kept them behind closed doors. “It’s my job to protect them,” Long said Sunday. “This is not pro football.” …
"The defense got shocked by the speed of especially one guy (Robinson),” Long said. “They got shocked by the strength they had up front and the speed of quarterback early in the game.”
• Offensively, Michigan is 13-for-13 on red-zone opportunities. It is one of 13 teams in the country to have scored on every trip inside the 20-yard line this year.
• Even better? The Wolverines have scored touchdowns on 12 of those 13 trips. That 92-percent touchdown rate trails only Texas Tech nationally.
One of the main arguments made in favor of Shotgun Forever is that red zone efficiency is not a stat that shows much repeatable skill year to year and that the huge chunks of yards Michigan picked up without, you know, scoring in 2010 would turn into points if you just left the damn thing alone (and got a kicker). The early returns are excellent.
National takes. Smart Football:
- Michigan 28, San Diego State 7. Brady Hoke’s new team faced his old team, and I’m still not sure, despite their 4-0 record, that we know anything about this Michigan football team. The defense seems to be improving under DC Greg Mattison, but they’ve been using so much movement and motion to cover up their talent weaknesses it’s unclear how the defense will fare against a polished opponent. And while the offense has found a better rhythm running a Rich Rodriguez-lite Denard Robinson attack — including Denard’s long TD run on the speed option — his passing line was abysmal: 8 of 17 for 93 yards, no TDs and two interceptions. He’s obviously uncomfortable in the new offense. He looked like a more polished and comfortable passer last year. I chalk some of this up to the fact that the very techniques he’s using are new, but he’s going to have to improve for UM to have success. That said, given Michigan’s favorable schedule — no Wisconsin and the easy part of the Big 10 schedule up next — we may not learn anything about Michigan until the last three weeks of the season, when they play Illinois, Nebraska and Ohio State.
No one else bothered. A couple weeks after puntosauring himself into a loss against Iowa State, BHGP documents Kirk Ferentz opening Iowa's game against ULM in a shotgun spread, demonstrating the Carr thing above perfectly.
A few rows in front of me at the Western game was one of those guys who exasperatedly yells out a piece of football wisdom he's picked up over the years whenever he is affronted by its lack. His wisdom was "turn around for the ball," which he yelled at Herron a couple times and the cornerbacks a couple times.
I was with him, but then a funny thing happened: no one could complete a fly route on these mediocre corners. Here's everything I've got marked fly/go/fade (which I am totally inconsistent about) from the first two weeks:
|Opp||Ln||Dn||Ds||O Form||D Form||Rush||Play||Player||Yards|
|WMU||M25||2||12||Shotgun 3-wide||Nickel press||6||Fly||Floyd||Inc|
|Demens's delayed blitz gets him in free(pressure +1, RPS +1) but I wonder if he didn't time it quite right. Another step and Carder is seriously harried. As it is he gets off an accurate deep ball on Floyd's guy, who's got a step. Floyd runs his ass off, starts tugging jersey early, and... I'll be damned. He strips the ball loose(+2, cover +1). That was textbook. Gibson -1.|
|WMU||M19||1||10||Shotgun 3-wide||Nickel Eff It||7||Fly||Avery||Inc|
|Sends: house. Obviously something gets through(pressure +1); Carder chucks it deep to a fly route Avery(+2, cover +1) has step for step. He's right in the WR's chest as he goes up for the ball. WR leaps, then reaches out and low in an attempt to stab the ball. Avery rakes it out. Gibson -2. Demens(+1) leveled Carder, BTW.|
|Opp||Ln||Dn||Ds||O Form||D Form||Rush||Play||Player||Yards|
|ND||O36||2||10||Shotgun 4-wide||Nickel even||5||Fade||Woolfolk||Inc|
|Hawthorne as a standup DE-ish thing and Ryan as an MLB. Blitz telegraphed? I don't remember this play. Survey says... yes. Ryan blitzes, Hawthorne drops into coverage, ND picks it up. Rees wants Floyd on a fade covered by Woolfolk. Woolfolk(+2) is step for step and uses his club to knock the ball away as it arrives. Robinson(+0.5) was there to whack him, too. (Cover +1)|
|ND||O44||1||10||Shotgun trips||Nickel even||4||Fade||Avery||Inc (Pen 15)|
|No question about this. Avery shoves Floyd OOB on a very catchable fade (-2, cover -1).|
|Floyd on Floyd action. Floyd(+1, cover +1) has excellent, blanketing coverage on Floyd but the back shoulder throw is perfect and his hand is a half-second late. Floyd stabs a foot down and Floyd can't do much other than ride him out of bounds. Sometimes you just have to tip your hat. This is one of those times. That is hard. That is why Floyd (not our Floyd) is going to be rich in about nine months.|
|ND||M21||2||10||Shotgun 4-wide||Okie||5||Fade||Van Bergen||Inc|
|They back out the MLBs this time and send the DL plus the OLBs. RVB(+1, pressure +2, RPS +2) is instantly past the G assigned to him because of a poor pickup; Rees chucks a ball off his back foot that's not catchable. Eifert gives it a go, though.|
|ND||M16||1||10||Shotgun 3-wide||Nickel even||5||Fade||Floyd||Inc|
|Floyd(+2, cover +1) in press here and stays step-for-step with Floyd on the fade, breaking it up as it arrives. Fade is not well thrown, which helps.|
|ND||M22||2||2||Shotgun 3-wide||Nickel even||5||Fade||Avery||Inc (Pen 15)|
|Kovacs rolls up; check. They take advantage of the man to man to take a shot at the endzone. Avery(+1, cover +1) is right in the WR's face as the ball comes in; it's low and to the outside and Avery can't do anything about the futile one-handed stab the WR makes, but it's a futile one-handed stab. Avery is hit with a terrible PI flag (refs -1)|
|ND||O39||1||10||Shotgun empty||Nickel even||5||Fade||Floyd||Inc (Pen 15)|
|Hawthorne(+1, pressure +1) gets a free run at Rees so he chucks it to Floyd, Floyd(-2, cover -2) is beaten instantly and starts yanking the jersey in a desperate bid to not be an instant goat.|
|Miscommunication between QB and receiver means pass is nowhere near anyone. Blitz was just getting home.|
Your score excluding the miscommunication: two legit pass interference penalties, one horsecrap call, one 26-yard completion to Michael Floyd, five incompletions. What's more, in each case save one pressure-forced incompletion and the two legit PI calls the corners are 1) there and 2) making a play on the ball.
That's seven out of nine legitimately good plays from the DBs on accurate deep balls. On all but one—the legit Avery PI—the corners were on an island as Mattison sent at least five. No bracket here. The Avery PI was a zone, the rest of it was man coverage, much of it press.
Michigan's press-ish coverage success in fly routes in 2011 including a game against Michael Floyd: 88%. The exception was virtually unstoppable and still drew a plus from the ol' softie who does these things. That's miraculous in last year's context. Hell, it's miraculous in a lot of contexts. How has this happened?
Michigan Press Coverage As Explained By Underpants Gnomes
STEP 1: Line up a yard off the LOS with inside leverage.
STEP 2: When receiver releases outside, turn hips and run with him real fast.
STEP 3: NOBODY CARES WHEN RECEIVER LOOKS FOR BALL
STEP 4: NOBODY CARES!
STEP 5: When receiver reaches up for ball, punch him in the face.
OPTIONAL: grab his jersey a bit and get away with it
OPTIONAL: scream SHORYUKEN.
STEP 6: Profit: arm-waving motions indicating that the pass was incomplete.
OPTIONAL: shake head to indicate "no."
OPTIONAL: pick up horsecrap pass interference call.
Floyd on Floyd action:
Avery on Jones action:
Why it works. That whole find-the-ball thing is hard. Todd Howard was coached to do it but always did it late, whipping his head around just in time to see the ball zing by. When you do that you've given yourself an even tougher job than the WR, who's been tracking the thing since it left the QB's hand. Lots can go wrong there. He can slow up and you bowl him over. He can slow up on a deliberately underthrown ball. He can slow, then extend a la Manningham. Or you can just not find the ball quickly enough.
In contrast, the shoryuken technique seems pretty easy. Focus on the WR's chest. When his arms go up, get your arms/head/body in between those arms. Faceguard the guy for bonus points. Net result: incompletion or spectacular Prothro-style catch. Mostly the former.
It's hard to get lost because you're following the WR's chest everywhere, and the only bomb you can't defend is the one that's just past your outstretched arms. That's hard to throw and hard to catch.
Gibson –8. Two games in I am a believer in Tony Gibson Was The Worst. These are the same guys as last year making these plays. Notre Dame clearly identified these fades as a weakness to exploit, especially in press coverage, but got little out of them. If you discount the Avery PI, on the eight fade attempts against press coverage opponents got 41 yards, just over five yards per attempt. Even if you count the Avery PI that hops up to 6.9 YPA—still worse than the NCAA average of 7.2 YPA.
Compare that to last year, when even doing something right meant you did something wrong:
Small sample size disclaimers apply, but Tony Gibson? The worst.
Downsides and low upsides. So this style of coverage seems pretty effective, obviously. There are two major downsides to my eyes:
- Low upside. Since you are never looking for the ball you are highly unlikely to intercept it.
- A tendency to pick up PI calls. Refs give you more leeway when you are looking for the ball. Bumping a guy with your back to the ball is always going to be an issue, but you can get away with "look and lean," as Spielman calls it.
I'm a little concerned about our corners' speed when asked to run real fast. Against Western Floyd gave up a yard or two of separation to a MAC receiver on his successful fly defense; in the second clip above it kind of feels like on a longer route Jones will pull away from Avery. Those are hypotheticals, though, and whatever limitations of Floyd and Avery have do not currently include a tendency to get burned deep.
This allows cool stuff. Michigan can press with one high safety because of this, which opens up the blitz possibilities that produce big plays. While the coverage style precludes big plays from the cornerbacks it allows them from other parts of the defense, and those big plays are bigger. What would you rather have, an interception 30 yards downfield or the quarterback fumbling the ball?
Tony Gibson. The worst!
HEY TOMMY REES
CHECK IT OUT I'M ALL GONNA BLITZ YO
LOL LOOK HOW CLOSE I AM TO THE LINE
WHY IS EVERYONE LOOKING AT YOU?
HEY MAN… I'M NOT BLITZING BE COOL
LOL JK YES I AM. HEY… THAT GUY IS OPEN
IF I WAS NOT BLITZING I MAY HAVE BEEN IN THIS AREA
TOMMY REES IS A JERK
I HOPE HE THROWS A BALL BACKWARDS FOR NO REASON LATER
This happened a lot. Michigan would line up, show something unsound, and Rees would check into something that would punish the defense. Blue Seoul highlighted another instance where Michigan tipped its blitz:
Also a result:
Michigan would line up in its okie package on plausible running downs like third and five, which caused Rees to check to runs up the middle. With no linebackers and Mike Martin dropping into coverage these went for about 20 yards.
Hell, even when good things happened this was going on. Look at this dude on Kovacs's interception:
That is a 65-yard touchdown waiting to happen if Rees's brain isn't going FLOYDFLOYDFLOYDFLOYDFLOYDFLOYD. The difference between a great call and an idiotic call is Rees not being a true sophomore in his fifth start with deep man love for Michael Floyd.
Seriously. Michigan's defensive RPS is going to have huge numbers because Mattison is doing all sorts of crazy stuff. This defense is the philosophical opposite of the bland 4-3 cover twos of Iowa, Michigan State, and Wisconsin.
They show a bunch of different fronts, blitz from everywhere, don't bother to cover guys in the seam when there are no safeties… it's a freak show out there. Sometimes it works. When it doesn't it's ugly. ND's last touchdown is especially galling because Michigan had to know ND would see this massive bust on the Kovacs INT and check into "free seam touchdown" when Michigan checked to cover zero. In this instance there was at least a guy vaguely in the area, but they've got a lot to work on.
Blitzing is not such a good idea when you wave your hand and say "sir: I am blitzing." In the first half Michigan tipped their blitzes a lot. Matters improved when Hawthorne came in—I watched him blitz without so much as taking those anxious shuffle steps, let alone going LOL I'M AT THE LINE—but it's disconcerting to watch the Michigan defense freak out on a QB handclap so consistently. They should know by now that the clap often leads to a check, because the offense did that a ton last year.
So… where is Michigan's check after ND checks? You can't check all the time because then ND's check will be "let's change their play without changing ours" but you have to check some of the time, particularly early.
Avery could have done better here. He's beaten to the inside too easily and can't tackle on the catch. He is not capable of dealing with Mike Floyd. Not many are, but predictions in this space of a bust-out year are not off to a good start. It's early yet.
Not that it would have mattered: Avery can run his slant for Floyd and Eifert is still hand-wavingly wide open. Dude could have gone for 150 against us if Tommy Rees's brain wasn't going FLOYDFLOYDFLOYDFLOYD.
Another reason for worry. This defense is unsound. Does Mattison want it to be unsound because it makes Kovacs pop up for turnovers or does he have little choice in the matter because he's starting a walk-on (Heininger—Kovacs has graduated), a couple freshmen, and only 2.5 non-walkon seniors (RVB, Martin—Woolfolk is the half)?
I don't know, but I'm betting it's the latter. I am glad they've got a week to practice not leaving guys wide open all day. They're busting coverages every other play.
Previously: The Story.
The existential crisis that was last year's secondary has been the subject of emo rehash and frequently-updated "Never Forget" banners in this space for going on a year now. In mid-August of 2010, Troy Woolfolk did something strange and painful to his ankle and I—and I assume a good chunk of the Michigan fanbase—decided ankle-exploding time was drankin' time. Twitter archived the results; read from the bottom.
The headache I had the next morning did not subside until Greg Mattison was hired.
Woolfolk wasn't going to cure last year's secondary issues by himself but he was going to be a decent returning starter in a secondary without any other than Jordan Kovacs. Without him this section of last year's preview started "What's the point of anything?" because everyone left was either a freshman, walk-on, or JT Floyd.
After a deceptively promising start courtesy of the vast incompetence of Zack Frazer and Notre Dame's backup quarterbacks, the doom took hold. Everyone who saw a snap last year contributed to it but if we have to pick a single moment that best represents Michigan's 2010 secondary it would have to be this:
JT Floyd picking up a –3 against Penn State
That is how Matt McGloin tears you up for 41 points on nine drives. Let's never speak of this again.
While this year's secondary won't bring back memories of Charles Woodson, improvement is almost a given. It could be vast, even. Every contributor returns save James Rogers. Woolfolk is back and healthy, and there's a small horde of freshmen.
If you believe the message board chatter about Tony Gibson's coaching acumen, Curt Mallory is a huge upgrade. My favorite apocryphal story is that when Scot Shafer resigned he told Rodriguez he would take all the blame publicly if Rodriguez admitted to Shafer that Gibson was "the worst secondary coach in the country." Shortly after his resignation, Shafer did pop up in the News stating it was all his fault. Poppycock? Probably, but you can't rule it out.
Things are looking up. They could be okay. Not okay for Michigan, but okay for a mediocre Big Ten defense. They've got a cap—like everywhere on this attrition-wracked team the depth is a little scary. The starters still include a walk-on and the talent level as measured by stars is strictly second-rate. They haven't disproved that on the field, so expectations should be kept in check.
That there are any except doom is pretty cool. Bohemian Crapsody begone.
|Corner #1||Yr.||Corner #2||Yr.|
|Troy Woolfolk||Sr.*||Courtney Avery||So.|
|JT Floyd||Jr.*||Tony Anderson||Sr.*#|
|Terrence Talbott||So.||Blake Countess||Fr.|
[* = player has taken redshirt. # = walk-on.]
Woolfolk in T-Woolf mode
Unless something very depressing happens in the near future I will not need any power tools this year. Troy Woolfolk is healthy, and while he's probably not going to be All Big Ten he's fast and steady enough to get good reviews a couple of years ago when he split time between safety and corner. There is empirical evidence for this, and how: Woolfolk's absence from the safety spot marked the point the 2009 defense went off a cliff. Michigan went from giving up 23 points per game with Woolfolk at safety to 37 without.
Those reviews have moved from potentially ignorant bloggers to the head coach. Woolfolk was one of three defensive Wolverines to be named a starter by Hoke weeks before the season (Kovacs and Martin were the others) and is conspicuously first when Hoke talks about his corners:
"(Woolfolk is) is a guy who I think, as a senior, has taken some ownership and he's done everything," Michigan coach Brady Hoke. "J.T. is fighting. Courtney Avery is fighting, Terrence Talbott, they're all fighting with each other to see who's going to be the guy."
Mattison joined in as well:
What are your impressions of Troy Woolfolk? "I'm really, really impressed with a senior -- with a new staff, with a new system -- with a guy that comes out every day and says 'I'm going to do what you tell me to do, I'm going to do it how you tell me to do it, and I'm going to try as hard as I can to do it.' ... I think his technique is improving."
That bit at the end about his improving technique is a little ominous. Woolfolk's injury and position switches may leave him vulnerable to Morgan Trent-like deficiencies. The two are similar players: very fast, rangy corners who are tough to beat on a fade but can struggle when opponents are changing direction rapidly. Woolfolk's main advantage over Trent is want-to. Trent spent his senior year raging against the new regime and saw his play suffer. Woolfolk should have no such issues.
Assuming he's healthy, another year to learn the position and get bigger should see him improve on his previous form. There is a nonzero chance his earlier performances were not representative of his ability, but the smart money is on Woolfolk being at least average. It wouldn't be a surprise to see him go at the tail end of next year's NFL draft.
|juuuuust evades the fingertips|
|jars the ball free|
|comes up too hard|
|pwns a UW guard!|
Opposite Woolfolk the battle is on between sophomore Courtney Avery and redshirt junior JT Floyd. The bet here is that Avery wins that battle. Avery drew into the starting lineup last year when Floyd exited with yet another injury and seemed to outplay the guy he was replacing.
What he brings to the table is still up in the air. He was seeing spot duty relieving Floyd and Rogers even before Floyd's injury; he also split time with Terry Talbott when Michigan went to nickel and dime packages. In that role he was erratic. He wasn't good, per se. But in the tire fire that was last year's secondary he showed a little spark. This spark allowed other portions of the tire fire to spew ever more pitch black tar smoke into the observers face, yes. The spark remained.
Here's an erratic UFR that might not mean that much because he's a corner and his playing time was highly variable:
Zone vacancy II.
|MSU||-||-||-||Didn't register. Yay?|
|Iowa||-||5.5||-5.5||The whiff, the zone vacation, etc.|
|PSU||-||-||-||DNP, I think.|
|Illinois||3.5||0.5||3||Two key tackles.|
|Purdue||3||6||-3||Gave up the big screen.|
|Wisconsin||2.5||3||-0.5||Could have been harsher on him.|
It's not great, though a big chunk of his Indiana negative might have been erroneously given. The blogosphere ferociously debated whether a particular frustrating Iowa touchdown was mostly on the head of Kenny Demens or Avery and eventually decided it was kind of both but maybe probably mostly Demens. The UFR still registers Avery as the victim.
Given the circumstances—tire fire—he did well to not get hammered on a consistent basis. Try to judge him as a freshman by comparing him to his classmates: the highly-touted Cullen Christian was a blinking "throw at me" sign whenever he was on the field. Terrance Talbott was clearly behind. His main issue was playing zone coverage too aggressively, vacating his zone as he chased receivers across the field.
His quickness and aggressiveness bodes well. This is just Bowling Green (see also: the brief blip of Ray Vinopal hope) but Michigan hasn't had a corner who's able to recover like this in a while:
Avery's two years younger than Floyd and was healthy through the entirety of last year and spring practice. He played quarterback in high school; nagging injuries scuppered plans to play him both ways as a senior. He was just learning the rudiments of playing corner when he was thrust onto the field last year. Even if Avery and Floyd were close a year ago—something that is generous to Floyd—Avery should improve much faster than his competition. Avery has never seemed to "transparently lack the speed to be a Big Ten cornerback."
With practice buzz generally talking up Avery, it would be a surprise if he was not the starter. If not now, then by the Big Ten season. He should make a big leap forward in year two.
The primary backup and presumed nickel/dimeback will be the loser of the Avery/Floyd battle. This preview presumes that will be JT Floyd. Our last glimpses of him were against Penn State, when he turned in the coverage-type substance at the top of this post and a few other howlers. Here's one:
The game before that, it was Floyd who gave up slant after slant on critical third downs against Iowa. Even before that this blog declared his coverage "only brushes up against adequate."
|Iowa||2.5||11||-8.5||Oh my god the slants.|
|PSU||3||12||-9||Awful, awful, awful.|
Floyd was so overmatched as a redshirt freshman that Rodriguez and Robinson pulled him off the field, moved Woolfolk from his duties as a fairly effective free safety, and inserted Mike Williams to disastrous effect. Yeah, that could be another symptom of the insanity that ruled decision-making on the D these last few years. But unlike Kenny Demens's debut, Floyd's return to the field didn't make anyone think his removal was a mistake.
As you can see at right, Floyd started off well enough against the incompetent quarterbacks of the nonconference schedule. A number of whiffed tackles and Mouton-like angles against UMass were cause for concern. That concern bloomed, then metastasized in the Big Ten schedule.
|Nate Montana gift|
|breaks on to break up|
|reads and attacks|
|boxed out by Rudolph|
|sucks up on drag|
|allows Willis to drag him 15 yards|
First he was amongst the many Wolverines who were too confused or too slow to keep those four-yard Indiana routes from becoming eight. While he wasn't a major factor in the Michigan State game, he imploded against Iowa and Penn State.
In context it seems like his relatively benign Michigan State game was because the Spartans had even easier prey elsewhere on the field. And maybe Michigan protected him in favor of that prey. Remember the sinfully easy 41-yard touchdown Cullen Christian yielded? Yeah:
Why the hell is Cullen Christian the guy in man coverage on a receiver running a fly route? Why isn't it Floyd? Christian(-3, cover –3, RPS -2) is smoked crispy as he bites on an out and up gives up the touchdown. Roh was about to hit Cousins but no matter.
After that it was the elevator straight down and the injury. If he gets a lot better this year it's time to take the Gibson chatter seriously.
If there are injuries, options past the top three are dicey. With Floyd and Woolfolk held out of spring practice the starting cornerbacks were Avery and Tony Anderson, who's one of many walk-ons threatening for playing time. Anderson played ahead of Cullen Christian and Terrance Talbott; Christian transferred soon after. Talbott remains.
The hope is that's motivational or Talbott can accelerate past Anderson's spot on the depth chart as his scholarship-having self surpasses Anderson's walk-on ceiling. Talbott got sporadic time last year and was okay for a freshman. He got lost on zone drops and was a weak tackler, etc. The book on him…
The book on Talbott: short, smart, agile, excellent in coverage but needs a year or two to bulk up for college.
…seemed pretty accurate. He can be a contributor down the road… if he sticks with football. There were widespread rumors Talbott was off the team, by choice, for a period this offseason.
Beyond Talbott it's true freshmen, but at least there's a horde of them. Maryland's Blake Countess arrives with the most hype and should be the biggest threat to play. (Caveat: last year Cullen Christian arrived with the most hype.) Greg Brown [recruiting profile] enrolled early and was decent in the spring game. Those two feature on the first depth chart. Talbott does not.
The rest of the n00bs: Raymon Taylor [recruiting profile] is speedy, might not have the greatest change of direction, and got a fourth star from Rivals. Delonte Hollowell [recruiting profile] is yet another smurfy Cass Tech corner who can't be put on outside receivers; he'll probably have to wait for time to open up at nickelback. He is rooting hard for Thomas Gordon to win the safety job opposite Kovacs. Finally, Tamani Carter [recruiting profile] is probably a safety; as a guy Michigan hijacked from Minnesota it will be a bad callback to Ray Vinopal if he doesn't redshirt.
That's five dudes instead of three; if it turns out some of the guys ahead of them on the depth chart can't play the one who emerges as a contributor will probably be better than Talbott and Avery were last year.
|Free Safety||Yr.||Strong Safety||Yr.|
|Jordan Kovacs||Jr.*#||Thomas Gordon||So.*|
|Marvin Robinson||So.||Carvin Johnson||So.|
[* = player has taken redshirt. # = walk-on, or former walk-on]
Is it possible that last year's Michigan defense actually one-upped the safety horror on display in 2009? Yes. It was actually worse than even the situation that gave rise to this in last year's preview:
Their [Kovacs and Mike Williams's] powers combined in episodes like "Iowa tight ends are open by 15 yards," "We don't have a guy in the deep middle on third and twenty four," and "What would Juice Williams be like if he was an unstoppable 500-foot-tall robot?"
While the situation two years ago was never good it didn't drop off a cliff until Michigan moved Troy Woolfolk to corner. First Mike Williams and then Jordan Kovacs leisurely escorted opponents into the endzone for the remainder of the year, sure. But last year Michigan started out with this…
…and then pulled a similar switch by moving Cam Gordon to spur and inserting true freshman two-star Ray Vinopal. Vinopal wasn't quite as likely to take a terrible angle. Instead he was a 160-pound object in the way of Wisconsin's various house-sized Katamaris.
Artist's impression of Vinopal tackling Montee Ball
He also took some terrible angles. Kovacs was better but still kind of eh—he has not yet found that Iowa zen where the slow small white guy is always in the right place—and Michigan never got competent play from the other spot. Survey says increase doom panic victory 2010. And there was much rejoicing.
It can't be that bad again, right? I'm seriously asking this. Please, someone tell me it can't be that bad again. If no one else is willing to stand in front of that howitzer I guess it's up to me: they can't be that bad again.
|blasted all over|
|fends off the RT|
|shoots the gap|
|instant tackle on WR|
|tackles in the backfield|
|leaking out into the flat|
|capable zone coverage|
|almost a 95-yard Rick Six|
|not so smrt|
|inexplicably slows up|
It was already a foregone conclusion, but Brady Hoke explicitly confirmed that Jordan Kovacs will start for a third year this fall. He did so almost before anyone asked. The man once mistaken for Matt Cavanaugh by Greg Robinson is on track to becoming the first four-year starter at safety since
Jamar Adams [Ed-M: Marcus Ray ('95-'98). Adams's RS Fr year was Shazor/Mundy]
Unfortunately, thanks to the defensive implosion of the last three years this does not necessarily mean he is any good. Whether he is or not is a subject of heated debate wherever Michigan's starting secondary is discussed. His freshman year he was solid as a box safety. His instincts and tackling made him an effective force player and blitzer. Then the whole Woolfolk-to-corner thing happened and he got switched into a deep half role. To say he struggled was an understatement. Some UFR comments from that portion of his freshman year:
Just can't play a deep half.
Again burned as a deep half safety.
Enormous bust #3.
So that didn't go so well.
Last year Michigan tried to move him back into the box by switching to a 3-3-5 in which he was the "bandit" (a strong safety that spends his time on or near the LOS), but then they spent a lot of time in a two deep shell that saw Kovacs's deep limitations tested again. He did not pass with flying colors but thanks to his awareness and solid tackling was not the flaming dump truck the rest of the secondary was. It's not a coincidence that the new coaching staff has been talking him up. Hoke:
"He's a guy that can get things lined up for you, and he's a tough guy, and he will go attack the football," Hoke said of the former walk-on. "He has a great deal of pride in his performance on a daily basis. He's one of those guys who has an urgency about getting to the football. I'm pleased with what he's done to this point. I would guess that he won't take a step backward."
Kovacs did improve last year, and significantly. Kovacs went from deep half dead meat to "the king of moderate-moderate-0". In three different games (ND, BGSU, and Indiana) he had plusses that exactly offset his minuses; in four more (UConn, UMass, Iowa, and Penn State) he was just above or below breaking even. He was excellent against MSU…
…may have had his best game at Michigan. He's so reliable; on a day when Michigan couldn't find a tackle it didn't want to miss, Kovacs twice dragged down TEs in space to boot MSU off the field. Only one counted, unfortunately.
…but he broke down late, picking up negative days against Illinois, Purdue, and Wisconsin.
Even so, his season was a step forward from obvious liability to "certainly not a liability." Even if he's a walk-on and even if he's obviously small and slow, he should continue improving. He'll be a little less small and slow with another year of conditioning. Being in a coherent defensive system should help put him in positions to make plays. His redshirt year was not spent on the team so he's not as close to his ceiling as your average redshirt junior.
He's not going to be Reggie Nelson. That won't keep him from becoming the first Michigan safety you only hate a little tiny bit since Jamar Adams.
Thomas Gordon: prison abs, manages to look badass on last year's D
|sends the house|
|makes a solid TFL in some space|
|get outside his blocker|
|moves up into the gap|
|not brandon harrison|
|search and destroy|
The spot next to Kovacs is second to only weakside linebacker when it comes to mystery on this year's team. One candidate is sophomore Carvin Johnson, who had a plentiful helping of hype early and started in the spring game. The other is redshirt sophomore Thomas Gordon.
These two are familiar with each other since they spent last year duking it out with each other. The twist: they were doing so at Spur; Cam Gordon had locked down free safety. This year they're swapped.
The smaller Gordon has the advantage. He played at nickelback in the spring, swapping with the WLB on passing downs and covering slot receivers. He seemed well-suited for that spot. Moving him to safety signals some discontent with the options there, and since the move practice scuttlebutt has talked him up a bit more than Johnson. When Countdown to Kickoff flagged down DBs coach Curt Mallory he described the situation at safety like this:
It starts with Jordan right now. … He's done a great job, had a good two-a-days. Then we've got some younger guys in there. Thomas Gordon, I've been really pleased with how he's improved. [pause] And then with the two other guys…
That sounds like Johnson had eleven days to displace Gordon for Western Michigan. As of publication there's been no indication that switch has happened. Gordon was just named a starter by the WMU depth chart.
Gordon's 2010 was abbreviated. He started the season thanks to an injury to Johnson and played pretty well. Particularly impressive was his ability to roar off the edge without pulling a Brandon Harrison by zooming right by the quarterback. Gordon showed a knack for coming in at the fastest possible speed that would allow him to rope the QB to the ground, which accounted for many of his plus plays last year. Here's a good one against Notre Dame:
Outside of that it was minus half points here and there for poor coverage or missed tackles. He and Johnson displayed a knack for finishing his day with around three positive points and two negative ones. The spur was not a high-impact position either way last year until Cam Gordon switched to it and promptly got himself lost on flat zones he'd never been asked to play before.
Like Avery above, Gordon's ability to not be the most spectacularly flaming tire is encouraging. He came in with bler recruiting rankings but—again like Avery—he was a high school quarterback who got a Michigan camp offer and then did not play in his high school's secondary because of injury. He's beaten out some actual scholarship players and drawn praise from the coaches for his play. When I clipped something he did last year it was usually something positive.
I have the same optimism about this Johnson/Gordon combo that I had last year. This, of course, terrifies me. It seems unnatural to think an unproven Michigan safety could be competent. I like Gordon's agility and tackling, though, and while there will be rough spots early by midseason he should settle into that midlevel safety range like Englemon or Barringer.
Carvin Johnson does not like losing.
Curt Mallory wants his safeties to be interchangeable, so this will probably be a situation like offensive line where there's a line behind the starters and whoever the top backup is will come off the bench no matter who exits. That is likely to be Carvin Johnson. Johnson shouldn't feel too down: what small tea leaves we've gotten from the defense suggest he will be the first defensive back off the bench when Michigan goes nickel—in the Saturday punting demo he was on the field plenty as Thomas Gordon played nickelback in Michigan's third down package.
His season was even more abbreviated than Gordon's due to injury. I clipped three events from him last year:
- A bad zone drop against UConn
- An Indiana touchdown on which he was playing some sort of weird ILB and got crushed.
- A nice open field tackle on Rob Henry.
#2 won't be an issue if he's playing a deep safety; #3 is an asset that was promised by his recruiting profile. One… maybe not so much. Though people talk him up Michigan felt it necessary to move Gordon back, whereupon he won the job. He's probably a little unreliable at the moment.
Past Johnson there are actual scholarship(!) players who weren't(!) in high school last year. One is Marvin Robinson [recruiting profile], he of the obligatory OMG shirtless pictures…
…and that thing he did in the spring game where he ran with a slant pattern while Mike Cox was waving at him en route to the endzone. Practice reports on Robinson alternate tales of massive here-comes-the-BOOM-type hits and equally massive touchdown-ceding errors. If you hit up that recruiting profile you'll see a lot of skepticism he can play safety; last year he spent a good chunk of his time at WLB. That may be his long term destination.
For now he's behind Kovacs. He seems to be the second guy in the pecking order; Michigan will try to avoid using him until he has that consistency thing every coach ever but especially Michigan's keep harping on.
The final scholarship guy is Josh Furman. Furman's a bit like Avery in that he was almost exclusively an offensive player in high school. (He put up some Rawls-like games in the Maryland state playoffs.) Michigan managed to redshirt him last year, so his recruiting profile is about all we know. He's reputed to be super athletic, like six FAKES out of five 40 athletic, and will have a role on special teams this year. When asked about the safeties for CTK, Mallory mentioned Kovacs, Gordon, Johnson, and Robinson but not Furman. He's still a year or two away from seeing the field on defense.