to play football, not to play trumpet
Background image by mgouser hillhaus
A thing I noticed this offseason while going over the depth and usage of various Michigan defenders is that Mattison used a lot more nickel than we gave him credit for. One thing Ace noted was that we're (finally) recruiting more cornerbacks. We shrugged a bit while losing two more CBs to playing time transferitis this fall, but I don't think we should be shrugging so much.
A little background (skip this if you already know personnel terminology and usage): Defensive coaches tend to match their personnel to the types of players on the field for the offense, NOT the formation. In general the number of backs and tight ends will be matched by linebackers, and the more that come out for receivers the more DBs the defense will send out. Three wide receivers generally means five defensive backs (i.e. nickel), two wide receivers equals four DBs (e.g. 4-3 or 3-4), etc.
The classic personnel shift is on 3rd and long, when the steady rock-pounders make way for the seven-yards-or-bust fellas. But it happens so often despite the situation that it's more accurate to see the game of matching personnel as another strategic aspect of the master's football game.
The offensive personnel is usually expressed in three digits meaning # of RBs, # of tight ends, and # of receivers, respectively. So 113 means 1 RB, 1 TE, and three WRs. Sometimes they'll call that same "eleven" personnel, referring to the first two digits. Examples below; click embiggerates.
How the matching up occurs is up to the coach. You could, for example, play a run-first OLB whenever a fullback is in, and sub him for a more rangy linebacker when the the fullback runs off the field for a tight end who's a known receiving threat. This happens all the time, but it's hard to track the defenses' reactions since we can't tell one linebacker in a formation from another in UFR. We do have data from which we can determine how many receivers were out there at any given time, and it's clear from these data that the more receivers the more defensive backs.
|WRs in Game||DL||LBs||DBs|
The last row is important because it shows Michigan left its base 4-3 Under set for an extra defensive back far more often than otherwise, usually at the expense of a linebacker. We didn't go to a nickel every time three receivers stepped on the field, in fact there were 22 plays charted where Mattison put his 4-3 personnel against four-wide (mostly against Northwestern and Purdue). But the charts not only say that Michigan was forced out of its base 4-3 set often; it says we played more Nickel downs than 4-3.
|Receivers in Formation|
If I remove 4th quarters and all plays that occurred when Michigan was up by more than one score, the 4-3 just barely edges the Nickel, 147 to 140. This isn't opponents trying to play catch-up. It's two things: the personnel that Mattison inherited, and the spread offense forcing Michigan to adapt to it.
Why all the nickel and diming? The first part is a story about outside linebacker. Early in the 2011 season Michigan played Brandon Herron and Brandin Hawthorne at WILL, while at SAM we lost Cam Gordon to injury and his backup was a redshirt freshman. That freshman, Jake Ryan, was earning his way toward more playing time, but in the meantime we still had Carvin Johnson taking snaps at free safety while Thomas Gordon was in at the nickel role. Watch what happened at about mid-season:
That is Gordon moving to free safety and splitting time with Woolfolk, while the freshmen linebackers had their usages increase. Greater faith in Jake and Des explains some of the variance, however the real story is matching personnel:
|San Diego State||2.51||4.38||1.88||43.21%||44.44%||6.17%||6.17%|
I pointed out the two extremes on the schedule with boldation: Northwestern used about twice as many receivers in their formations as Iowa did, but there was a limit to how many defensive backs Michigan would counter with. The nickel served as well for 4 WR as for 3, yet accounted for 4 in 5 plays. However when the opposition went to 2 WR (Iowa), Mattison could spend a majority of the game in the 4-3.
When Michigan's on offense. Nothing is out of the ordinary yet, but when we turn the tables and show how defenses have reacted to Michigan's personnel it gets interesting:
|Season||Avg. Receivers in Formation||Avg. DBs in Formation||Difference|
This is not including anything when Michigan was more than a score down, but the season averages counting everything say about the same thing. I went through the plays and even a few youtubes and yes, in 2010 they played one-high against us despite spreading the field to pass as much as Purdue. Michigan went bigger in 2011, and got more defensive backs, which is counterintuitive except for one factor: opponents in 2010 really really really feared the running game, and tempted Michigan to pass.
Okie dokie. | Greg Shamus via ESPN
One more table to break this down by Michigan's opponents last year, 4th quarters and two-plus-score leads excised:
|Opponent||WRs in formation||DBs in formation||Difference|
|San Diego State||2.44||4.89||2.4|
Nothing really jumps out except perhaps more spread in close games, and SD State's apparent paucity of linebackers (weird—didn't they just have that guy who recruits lots of linebackers there?) Actually that's Charlie Strong's 3-3-5, and the GERG numbers from 2010 are similar due to the same effect.
What it means for this year. Alabama and Air Force aren't going to be spread it out—their challenges are elsewhere. However the Big Ten schedule is spread-heavy, with Ohio State joining the ranks of the many-receivered. Due to recent attrition, Michigan goes into 2012 with just six scholarship cornerbacks for three positions that will be filled half the time. It's a good thing the coaching staff has four guys coming in at corner to replace the one expected departure. These days, in order to keep up with the Joneses, that nickelback position has to be considered as much of a starter as, well, a third receiver.
PREVIOUSLY ON "MGOBLOG WRITERS DRAFT THEIR OWN BIG TEN TEAMS FOR A GIMMICKY PRESEASON SERIES OF POSTS"…
SETH got Denard, and therefore won. He also drafted a killer 1-2 DT punch.
ACE drafted all the Wisconsin players he could think of and screwed me by taking James Vandenberg too early.
HEIKO drafted two spread quarterbacks and was being egged on to take more.
BRIAN is going to need all the pass rush he can muster since Nathan Scheelhaase is his quarterback, but he's got a lot of that and Taylor Lewan.
SNARK was passed back and forth.
READERS are reminded that the goal of this thing is to assemble the most impressive-seeming full starting 22 plus a nickelback and FB/H-back type.
When we left our noble drafters, BRIAN had just cursed fate and time, taken Scheelhaase due to rules he himself implemented, and then nabbed Denicos Allen. Our scene set, we return to the WAR ROOM of the TOLEDO RAMADA INN. The SECOND PICK of ROUND FOUR is set to happen…
/moans incomprehensibly about his QB situation
PICK: Michael Buchanan (DE, Illinois)
CURRENT O: Braxton Miller (QB, OSU), Taylor Martinez (QB, UNL), Kyle Prater (WR, NW)
CURRENT D: Michael Buchanan (DE, Illinois)
BRIEF EXPLANATION: This 6-6, 240 lb terror is statistically the B1G's best returning DE not named Tom. He racked up 13.5 TFL and 7.5 sacks last season. Illinois has had a pretty good track record with defensive linemen over the past few years, so I'm with Ron Zook on this one.
OPTIONAL SNARK ABOUT PICKS MADE EARLIER: Sucks to whoever has to pick Tom.
PICK: Ricky Wagner (OL, Wisconsin)
CURRENT O: Montee Ball (RB, UW), James Vandenberg (QB, IA), Ricky Wagner (OL, UW)
CURRENT D: Chris Borland (LB, UW)
BRIEF EXPLANATION: Trenches. MANBALL. America. [ED: Also it turns out I was wrong about Lewan being the only elite LT in the conference this year—NFL types love them some Wagner.]
OPTIONAL SNARK ABOUT PICKS MADE EARLIER: Ignoring game theory + James Vandenbergy > Game theory + Nathan Scheelhaase. SCIENCE.
CURRENT O: Denard Robinson (QB, MICH), Michael Schofield (OT, MICH)
CURRENT D: Kawann Short (3T, PUR), Johnathan Hankins (NT, OSU), Jonathan Brown (MLB, ILL)
EXPLANATION: Ace can be the Badgers, my goal is to be the Wolverines on offense and the Lions on defense...the Detroit kind. That continues with the junior Brown at middle linebacker. He's 6-1/235, faster than Denicos Allen, more powerful than Chris Borland, and able to average 2 TFL PER GAME against Big Ten competition while just a sophomore. His positives are speed, tackling, play diagnosis, coverage, blitzing, picking through traffic, getting off blocks, and laying huge, fumble-inducing hits. His negatives are he once Karl Malone'd a Wildcat, which to the people who make Big Ten lists is the next worst thing to beating up a nun. Since Gunther Cunningham can't have him for two more years, I'm drafting Brown right here.
On Schofield: Okay so he's by far not the highest rated linemen left on the board and if he played for Northwestern I'd be saving him as a value pick, but there's a precipice from here on tackles who can move enough to fit the spread, and everyone but the Wisconsin Anbenders in this league is running a spread. So...Schofield, who thank-UFR has been as heavily scouted as any remaining tackle (for the year he was +97/-51.5/45.5, closer to Lewan than Huyge). Those reports, mostly from guard, say he's about as fleet-footed as 6-7/300 guys come. His best game last year was vs. Northwestern when Michigan started pulling with him; his only Kryptonite is Kawaan Short (and I have Short). There's a reason Rodriguez was hell-bent on getting Schofield and that's the same reason I'm reaching to make sure I have at least one spread tackle I'm absolutely sure of.
OPTIONAL SNARK ABOUT PICKS MADE EARLIER: Somebody make this into a graphic meme with the Brian photobomb: Spends year crediting interior DL for Gholston's sack numbers...drafts Denicos Allen.
CURRENT O: Montee Ball (RB, UW), James Vandenberg (QB, IA), Ricky Wagner (OL, UW)CURRENT D: Chris Borland (LB, UW), William Gholston (DE, MSU)
BRIEF EXPLANATION: I'm in desperate need of a pass-rusher, and with the available options dwindling I'm finding fewer and fewer reasons not to pick Gholston, the 6'7", 278-pound freak who's named to damn near every pre-season watch list out there. Gholston may not take on every block head-on, but he still managed to pick up 16 TFL and five sacks 2011, and that latter total should only increase this year. With 70 total tackles last season, 36 of them solo, he was no slouch against the run, either. If Gholston comes close to living up to his considerable hype this year, I just got the steal of the draft.
PREEMPTIVE SNARK ATTACK: Shut up, Heiko, and pick Robert Marve already.
CURRENT O: Braxton Miller (QB, OSU), Taylor Martinez (QB/RB, UNL), Kyle Prater (WR, NW), Devin Gardner (QB/WR, Michigan)
CURRENT D: Michael Buchanan (DE, ILL)
BRIEF EXPLANATION: The B1G doesn't have too many speedy downfield guys, so I wanted another jump ball threat to complement Prater. I'm taking Gardner. He's another unproven commodity, but let's be real. He's 6'4", 203 pounds, and was "instantly Michigan's best receiver" this spring. Did you know that he can throw, too? Maybe he's not the best at reading defenses, but he is the missing component to my Wildcat/Flea-flicker/Triple Pass/Quadruple Option offense. He won't get used too much in Borges's offense this season, but I'd like to take this opportunity to remind everyone that this isn't fantasy football (see rules/objective). Stats won't matter much. That inevitable instability in your knees when you picture Miller, Martinez, Prater, and Gardner simultaneously on the field terrorizing your 5'11 linebackers, however, does matter.
OPTIONAL SNARK ABOUT PICKS MADE EARLIER: If we were playing Settlers of Catan, this would be the equivalent of me taking all the ore. Except for the Denard ore. Seth got the Denard ore.
CURRENT O: Nathan Scheelhaase (QB, ILL), Jared Abbrederis (WR, UW), Taylor Lewan(LT, M)
CURRENT D: John Simon (DE, OSU), Denicos Allen (LB, MSU), Terry Hawthorne (CB, ILL)
BRIEF EXPLANATION: There is no way Abbrederis should still be here. He's the Big Ten's leading returning receiver with 933 yards and by far its best punt returner. He's a rising junior, too, and should improve more than guys entering their senior years. He's 6'2"! He's fast! He led the conference with a 17.0 YPC! Nick Toon is gone and Abbrederis is about to get rained on by Danny O'Brien! Look at all the trophies and trees he's got! He's still on the board here!
You guys are racists. Seriously, you need counseling. Even Aceconsin left Abbrederis on the board.
All the better for me since I need a guy for Scheelhaase to throw 80% of his passes at whether he's open or not.
Speaking of counseling, the second pick here is a guy who's faster than Roy Roundtree. Yes: that Terry Hawthorne. He's now a senior corner coming off a strong junior year who projects into the top half of the NFL draft and is the Big Ten's surest bet to be a lockdown corner in 2012. He's bigger than the other candidates and is so important to the Illini that he's going to get the Woodson role and double as a wide receiver. And now no one can take Roundtree.
Side note: Four Illini went in the top 48 picks of the most recent NFL draft and they're flying off the board here. It's almost like Ron Zook was a good recruiter, but not a very good football coach.
EVIDENTLY REQUIRED SNARK ABOUT PREVIOUS PICKS: Michael Buchanan had his jaw wired shut and will hit fall camp a fairy-like* 156 pounds. And that's Heiko's least insane pick. I blame medicine. Meanwhile, Ace picks MSU's second-best starting DE and Seth talks some ish he knows not wot of.
Let me rap at you, Seth: I said Gholston's production was almost entirely on pursuit and that his big plays were the product of other guys forcing plays back into him. Guys like Denicos Allen and his manic blitzing. WORD TO YOUR MOTHER. ALSO FOOTBALL GAMES ARE WON IN THE TRENCHES AND WITH SHUTDOWN CORNERBACKS AND A LACK OF RACISM, RACISTS.
*[actual fairy, with wings and dust and all that]
CURRENT O: Braxton Miller (QB, OSU), Taylor Martinez (QB/RB, UNL), Kyle Prater (WR, NW), Devin Gardner (QB/WR, Michigan), DeAnthony Arnett (WR, MSU)
CURRENT D: Michael Buchanan (DE, ILL)
BRIEF EXPLANATION: WHATEVA. I DO WHAT I WANT. And I want to add to my offensive star power with the selection of DeAnthony Arnett. Arnett is the quintessential "space player" in the Steve Breaston mold who has nice speed but more importantly ball skills and good wiggle after the catch. Even with Michigan State's recent glut of highly ranked receivers, I think Arnett is most likely to emerge as No. 1. I briefly considered Raheem Mostert for this duty, but I didn't like that he was lowly regarded as a receiver out of high school and barely contributed on offense last year despite clearly being the fastest guy on Purdue's offense. Someone else can have him.
SNARK: The funny thing is I also considered taking Abbrederis, but as I was google-scouting him, my search bar kept auto-completing to "Jared Abbrederis walk on." The guy's a (former) walk-on. Sure he's fast, but his production has been the result of other teams stacking up against Montee Ball and double-covering Nick Toon. Also, I personally checked up on Michael Buchanan in Chicago. His jaw was just fine.
CURRENT O: Montee Ball (RB, UW), James Vandenberg (QB, IA), Ricky Wagner (OL, UW)CURRENT D: Chris Borland (LB, UW), William Gholston (DE, MSU), Johnny Adams (CB, MSU)
BRIEF EXPLANATION: Adams can play either boundary or field corner for me, having started 11 games at field as a sophomore before switching to the boundary for all 13 games last season. While Adams isn't the biggest corner at 5'11", 177, he's a physical corner who plays big; he's recorded 50+ tackles in each of the last two seasons, and even added three sacks in 2011. The conference is short on elite cover corners, and while Adams doesn't fall into that category, he's solid against the pass (3 INT, 6 PBU LY) and gives my squad very solid run support from the secondary.
SNARK: Don't mind me, just drafting a team full of players who made the B1G title game last year. Meanwhile, Heiko's defense is comprised of stick figures and crushed dreams, but he's clearly unaffected by logic, reason, or even snark.
CURRENT O: Denard Robinson (QB, MICH), Michael Schofield (OT, MICH)
CURRENT D: Kawann Short (3T, PUR), Jonathan Hankins (NT, OSU), Marcus Rush (DE, MSU), Jonathan Brown (MLB, ILL), Micah Hyde (CB, IOWA)
BRIEF EXPLANATION: Elite defenses start up front, and the aptly named Marcus KILLQUARTERBACKSACK further feeds my craving for 3-and-out bloodsport. Last year he was one of the best ends in the conference with 58 tackles, 4 sacks, and 12 TFLs from a mostly the 5-tech position (against M they split him out a bit more). And all this as just a freshman, meaning this year he should be as much improved as anyone else in the conference. Evidence of that: in the MSU spring game they had to pull him out early after he wracked up five tackles and three sacks. He can play WDE or 5-tech for me. DL count is up to 178 tackles, 29 TFLs, and 12.5 sacks, just slightly better than the combined production of 2011 Roh/Martin/RVB/Heininger with just 75% of the spots filled.
And just in case one of Heiko's 800 quarterbacks thinks to do something as womanish as throwing the ball OVER my DL of DOOM (please nobody teach Scheelhaase how to do this; Ace at least I trust to honorably run power), I've grabbed the last of the conference's highly rated cornerbacks. Micah Hyde is Marlin Jackson, down to the moonlight season at free safety. He''s 1st team all-conference to everybody, is the best tackler among Big Ten CBs, and can be trusted to shut down any one good receiver for a game (which is the most any of these teams is going to have anyway) and arrives with 39 games of experience.
SNARK: All ye holders of unblocked Spartan sack leaders, call me when your guy beats Lewan.
CURRENT O: Montee Ball (RB, UW), James Vandenberg (QB, IA), Ricky Wagner (OL, UW), Keenan Davis (WR, IA)
CURRENT D: Chris Borland (LB, UW), William Gholston (DE, MSU), Johnny Adams (CB, MSU)
BRIEF EXPLANATION: Davis was Iowa's secondary option last year due to the presence of Marvin McNutt, and he's still the conference's returning leader in receptions per game after hauling in 50 passes over 12 games in 2011. At 6'3", 215, Davis gives Vandenberg a big target; while he doesn't have game-breaking athleticism, he's got good hands and jump-ball skills, making him both a reliable possession receiver and a viable downfield threat. A four-star talent out of high school, Davis earned an offer from Oklahoma, and he's got the potential to be the Big Ten's best receiver now that he's out from under McNutt's shadow.
SNARK: It's difficult to bring the snark with this pick when Seth is putting together a really strong team. Thankfully, that team features neither Taylor Lewan nor the conference's second-best tackle (Wagner), but I guess it's cute that he's talking smack on Brian's behalf.
CURRENT O: Braxton Miller (QB, OSU), Taylor Martinez (QB/RB, UNL), Kyle Prater (WR, NW), Devin Gardner (QB/WR, UM), DeAnthony Arnett (WR, MSU)
CURRENT D: Michael Buchanan (DE, ILL), Jordan Hill (DT, PSU)
BRIEF EXPLANATION: We're approaching a big drop-off in B1G interior defensive linemen, so I'm taking a hiatus from drafting quarterbacks to claim Hill before I'm left with some guys from Indiana. At 6-1, 300 lbs, Hill has good size and leverage. His measurables have a slight edge over those of Illinois DT Akeem Spence, who was also under consideration and also very good. Hill had 8.0 TFLs and 3.5 sacks from the 3-tech position, which earned him some All-B1G love. When teams ran at him (to avoid Devon Still), they didn't get very far, as he ending up leading the Penn State defensive line with 59 tackles. The Nittany Lions are verging on becoming a tire fire, so who knows how their defense will do this year, but in a bubble Hill still has the talent and the potential to be drafted -- like, actually drafted, by like, a real NFL team -- in 2013.
SNARK: Seth's defense is only worrisome because his players are liable to ragdoll Denard Robinson or knee people in the nuts. Since Seth has Denard Robinson, worrying about the former can be his prerogative. And come on, Ace. Have a little imagination. Picking Keenan Davis is like picking Jared Abbrederis. Both will spend the rest of their careers gluing glow-in-the-dark stars to their 8-foot ceilings.
Uh, guys… are we getting worried about the season yet? Denard and Lewan went off the board early, Gardner was picked at WR, and Seth reached for Schofield, and that's it as far as M players. Meanwhile we seem to be drafting most of MSU's defense and the entirety of hypothetical conference title game foe Wisconsin.
CURRENT O: Nathan Scheelhaase (QB, ILL), Jared Abbrederis (WR, UW), Taylor Lewan(LT, M)
CURRENT D: John Simon (DE, OSU), Akeem Spence (DT, Illinois), Jake Ryan (LB, M), Denicos Allen (LB, MSU), Terry Hawthorne (CB, ILL)
BRIEF EXPLANATION: I'll grab Spence, then, a guy who various folks are hyping up as a potential first or second round pick in next year's draft. Sixty-nine tackles is an impressive number for an interior lineman and Illinois's stout run defense was due in no small part to his contributions. Nine of those tackles came against Michigan, a team that kicked his ass the year previous. Three-tech: secured.
And then I will AMP my PASS RUSH with ELECTROLYTES. Whether it's at WDE or SLB, Jake Ryan is a guaranteed breakout player entering his sophomore year. He's got the defense down now, he's added 20 pounds, and he finished last year with a flourish--4 TFLs against Virginia Tech. He pairs with Allen and Simon to terrify your "quarterbacks," neutralizing any advantage...
/weeps in corner
EVIDENTLY REQUIRED SNARK ABOUT PREVIOUS PICKS: Dude, Abbrederis was Wisconsin's go-to-guy in their big games last year: 95 yards against Nebraska, 113 against OSU, 93 against PSU, 119 in the bowl game. And he averaged over 15 yards a punt return when Toon and Ball were on the sideline. Y'all be some Black Panthers up in here.
To be continued when Ace stops fighting the fact that he's slowly beginning to look like the unholy offspring of Dantonio and Bielema, Heiko finds moar quarterbacks to draft, Seth stops playing with his Denard action figure, and Brian talks himself into a "yeah, Nathan Scheelhaase… this could work!" narrative.
“Well. I can tell you this. It’s fun to be back out there. Do I look like I’m 25? Because I sure feel like it. Tell you what, it’s fun to be out there catching again. It’s fun. That’s what you do it for.”
How long do you hope to keep doing it?
“I don’t know, maybe 30 more years. Who knows? As long as Brady keeps me. Who knows, he might not want to keep me very long. Who knows. I tell you what, this part of the season is what you really really look forward to coach. This is the teaching time. This is the molding of your team. Wellman, he gets the lucky part. He has them more time than anybody now with the new rules. But we get to have them and get to coach them and get to be around them. Especially when you’ve got some great kids and you’ve got some guys who are fun to coach, and that’s how the first couple days have been.”
What can you glean from just a few practices?
“Nothing really other than they have worked hard in the offseason. You don’t know anything until the pads come on. I think on the defensive side of it, though, when you install the defenses, because there’s carry-over -- they’re a lot more alert. They understand it a lot better. Last year at this time it was probably like they were talking a foreign language. Now they kind of understand it. When that happens now you can get into the little things that make that defense better because they do understand it. I’ve been pleased with their awareness and their interest in learning.”
What do you mean by little things they pick up on?
“Well, like in every defense, for example, you can draw it up and you can say, ‘You have this gap, you have this responsibility, you should align like this,’ but when a guy really starts understanding what the whole defense is about, then you can say, ‘Okay, when they’re in this formation, I can expect this.’ Or ‘when they motion like this, beware of this.’ You’ll hear a corner, for example, yelling out on the motion to the linebacker now, ‘Get ready for the end.’ Well a year ago they’re just hoping they’re aligned right. And just kind of trying to play their responsibility. And those are the kinds of things that happen once you’ve had the same group for a couple years.”
Last year it took a little while for the defensive line to gel. Will it be quicker for this group?
“I don’t know. I don’t know, and I’m not trying to be vague. You never know about your team until the bullets start flying, until you start really really getting tired, getting banged up, hitting. How does a team react then? That’s something why Brady runs a very very physical camp, and that’s why that part of it is something you have to work through and you have to make sure you can handle it, because that’s what it is in the Big Ten conference, so we don’t know that.”
MGoQuestion: Have you bought into the philosophy of rotating defensive linemen?
“That’s always something I like to do. You have to find out who earns the right. It’s always been a deal that you earn the right to be on the field as a Michigan football player. I don’t care what the reason is or why there should be a guy going in there. You don’t go in there until you earn the right. In fact I’ve been at places before where the starter would get after the second team guy because he wasn’t doing well enough because he needed somebody to come in for him. If you’re a great football player, you need a little bit of a break every once in a while in a tough, physical game, but you don’t want somebody to go in there that can’t handle his responsibility and help that team win. That’s what this is all about, to find out who -- is it 15 guys? Is it 11? Is it 12 guys? Is it 20 guys? Who earns the right to be out there during the heat of a game.”
Have you had the chance to look at Jake Ryan as a rush end?
“No. We’ve only had two practices. That goes along with the same idea that you put your best 11 on the field wherever they are. Obviously if a guy’s used to playing one position and you have to move him, you may not be as good. But that other guy coming in, the combination of the two might make you just as good.”
How comfortable are you with the thought of him playing there?
“I can tell you this: any time Jake Ryan is on the field, I feel good. Based on how he has worked and -- now again, he has to go through this camp also, but Jake Ryan has really really worked extremely hard. I’ll be interested to see how he does because now it’s [not] new to him either. I don’t know what he gained. He had a very very good offseason as far as strength gains and weight gains and that sort of thing, too.”
Do you have enough confidence in Cam Gordon to move Jake Ryan down?
“Based on the spring and based on last year, I’d say yes. The key again -- everything starts all over today. That’s what everybody has to understand. It doesn’t matter that Craig Roh has started three years. Everything starts all over again every season. You expect a guy that has played three years to really be advanced in how he plays. Cam Gordon went from safety to SAM linebacker. That was a transition for him. He’s gained weight, he’s gotten stronger, now let’s see how he does when we start hitting, and then you’ll know.”
Has Thomas Gordon been able to pick up where he’s left off?
“Again, all I can go by is what Aaron says that they did in the offseason and two practices. Based on that, I’m very optimistic. Maybe a week from now. Maybe two weeks from now …”
You set statistical goals for your defense. When do you start talking about those as a team?
“We have set goals that we have written on a board, written on a wall -- that’s every year. Those goals are based on Michigan. Those goals are based on what is expected to be a winning defense. Those goals are set so that if you reach those, you’re playing Michigan defense. Every team that comes in has to get it to that level to be able to do that. We don’t lower our standard for what we see on the practice field. We have to raise the practice and the talent and the level and that kind of thing to get to that goal … Everything that you do in a practice: pursuit drill, running to the football, tackling, technique work, all of those are what allow a player to then get the numbers that make those goals. That’s our job as coaches and that’s their jobs as players is to work to get good enough to obtain those goals.”
What are some of those goals?
“Well the nubmer one goal is win. That’s the number one goal on our goal board. There’s a third down goal. I don’t know the numbers -- there’s a point goal. All those things. I don’t talk about those in public. They’re in our team, but they know exactly what the number of points you would love to hold them under to be successful.”
Are they realistic goals?
“Do you think I’d give an unrealistic goal? Let me just say this: I think last year, I think they probably obtained a number of those goals in a number of games. Again, I don’t mean to say anything -- all I’m saying is when you look at great football teams, and what it takes to win, you establish set parameters that you have to do. Third downs, red zone, turnovers, missed tackles, all those kinds of things, and then you set what you have to do to be successful in NCAA football. And they know they have to achieve that. If you achieve it you should win, and that’s what the bottom line is.”
Do those goals stiffen in your second year?
“No. You don’t put the goals to what you [or] somebody perceives as your talent level. You put the goals of whoever is playing defensive football has to do to be successful. I would imagine, out of 124 NCAA teams, a lot of them would have the exact same goals. That is kind of what is the formula for winning on defense. So you, as a coach, you have to make sure your players are doing what they have to do to achieve those goals.”
How much more responsibility does Frank’s absence put on Brennen Beyer?
“I think you always have to have -- no matter who it is -- you always have to have a plan B. You always have to have that, and you never go in there with the idea of, ‘Okay, I got a good guy here. I hope he stays healthy.’ No matter what, you always have to have two and you’d like to have three deep of guys -- and they’re always competing. When you have a great defense, then that guy that’s number two or number one, he might want to look over his shoulder, because there’s always somebody that’s going to be there to take the position. I think you always have to go in with that idea.”
MGoQuestion: How has Brennen Beyer’s weight gain (20-30 lbs from spring) affected his speed?
“In the first two practices, again, no pads -- the biggest thing is probably he feels very comfortable at that position now. So he’s had a whole spring going from the SAM linebacker standing up to have his hand on the ground all the time. I don’t think it was 20-some pounds. I think he was like 10 pounds and he got a lot stronger. He just seems more and more comfortable there. That’s what he played in high school, and I think he really feels good about that position.”
The players say they’re more comfortable with you. Are you more comfortable with them?
“I don’t know if you’re more comfortable. I like these guys, I can tell you that. I like these guys because all I do is watch them from when the season was over with through the winter conditioning through summer conditioning, in two practices -- you know what, these are our kind of guys. Whenever you had good people that work really hard and try to be Michigan, then all you can do as a coach is try to do everything you can so that they can feel like Mike and Ryan and those guys did when they walked off the field that last game. You do everything you can so that they can be successful. They’ve been very alert. They’re a fun group to be around. I told them today when [I walked] in there, I said, ‘God, the greatest time of the day is this meeting,’ because you see all those guys and they’re attentive and all that.”
What have you seen from Alabama’s offensive line on film?
“No question. I’m with Brady 100% on that. Watched a lot of film on them. We studied them all offseason. You watch them and they’re very very talented. They’re very physical, and they’re very big, and they’re very experienced. They’re a very very good offensive line.”
What kind of reports have you gotten from Aaron Wellman on Ondre Pipkins?
“It’s so early, you know. You have a guy who a month ago he’s in a class somewhere in high school, and then all of a sudden he’s at the University of Michigan. It’s just too early.”
Has Kenny Demens stepped up to his leadership role as senior middle linebacker?
“So far Kenny’s been like the other backers -- he’s doing what the’s supposed to be doing. Again, when the pads come on and we start hitting, and you’re in the dog days and everything like that, now you can kind of label a guy a leader. That’s where you earn it. These two practices right here, that’s just coming out and doing what you’re supposed to do. It’s not really where you measure anybody. ”
When will you hit for the first time?
“I don’t know. Is it Friday? Friday, full pads. I thought we were hitting the last two days -- I wasn’t sure, ya know, we were … That’s the other thing that Brady’s done a great job of. When you get a more mature team or a team that’s been around the same system, they learn how to practice. Nobody on the ground. And you can get a pretty physical, pretty aggressive practice with no pads on because they protect each other but still go really hard. That’s what you see if you watch an NFL practice. In the rules, they don’t even allow them to wear pads most of the time. They still get some really good practices. And that’s the same thing that we’ll try to do more, too.”
How do you explain last years’ turnover success?
“The one reason is because in our system, we strip in every phase of practice. So any time a ball carrier is running with the football, our defense is trying to get that ball out. When you're not doing live tackling, we’re doing strip--you’re always tugging at that football. The biggest reason--the biggest reason why we had more success on turnovers is because guys ran to the football. The reason you get turnovers is because guys are around the ball. Think of how many times you’ve seen a game where a guy fumbles and the ball’s just lying there and you're going, ‘Come on, somebody get on it!’ Well a huge part of our defense is effort and running to the football because when you do that, you’re going to have more success tackling and you’re going to have a chance to get turnovers, and that’s big for us.”
And is that something you have to teach the freshmen?
“Definitely. We’ll do circuits in practice with that where we’ll practice that, and they see it real clear. Our upperclassmen have done a great job of trying to pseed up the freshmen on what is expected. So much as where you’re watching the tape and something goes on, a senior may say to them, ‘You don’t do it that way. This is Michigan.’”
This goes out to all those young linebackers out there who have given me your letters of intent:
♪ There was Bell, and a Hill, but I never saw them playing
No I never saw depth at all, 'till there was you.
There were safeties who gained weight, and a JUCO straight from Butler
But they were no Obianna Ezeh, 'till there was you.
Oh there were walk-ons, and converted fullbacks, they tell me,
And sweet freshman "Spinners," and Roh at "Quick"…
There was Ken-ny Demens, and a plush-toy Castor face-wash,
But no other linebackers at all, 'till there was you.
Till there was you! ♫
Linebacker depth: EXTANT!
This is Part III of the thing where I go over the depth chart and predict what will happen if the starter at any given position is hurt for an extended period of time in 2012: Who goes in?, What's the dropoff?, How do things shuffle?
And this time, there's goods here. There's depth in the SAMs and the WILLs and the MIKEs and the macks and the rovers. Whatayatalk whatayatalk: Where'd-we-get-it? With a Greg who knows the territory! With the jacks from the buckeyes, and the bucks from the mitten, and ROLBs from the overlooked, redshirted, 3-star, buck- and spart-passed over huckleberry bin. Whatayatalk, whatayatalk. Ya can talk, ya can talk, ya can bicker ya can talk, ya can bicker, bicker, bicker, ya can talk all ya want, but it's different than it was!
Quickly again. Photos are all by Upchurch unless otherwise noted. Ratings are given in Saturn-punting Zoltans. Think of them like stars except more heavenly. Five is an all-conference-type player (Denard to Kovacs); four is a guy you'd call "solid" (RVB to Demens); three is an average B1G player (Morgan to Hawthorne); two is a guy with a big hole in his game (freshman Kovacs); one is trouble with a capital T, and that rhymes with P, and that stands for Poole.
SAM (Strongside Linebacker):
In case of emergency: Jake was a revelation last year as a redshirt freshman who as the season progressed kept giving the coaches less and less excuse to yank him. The nature of his position, which rotates often, and the nature of his cavalier game make it hard to quantify the effective difference of an injury here. By design he's the most replaceable guy on the defense; by the magnitude of his effect when he's in the game, there are few, if any, guys on the team who you'd less like to lose. He was far from perfect—his problems holding the edge led to some ugly things in the Northwestern-Michigan State part of the year—however there were also those times when a "running" quarterback would see this crazy freshman coming inside the edge blocker and think to himself "oh I'm so going around that idiot," only to end up flat on his back 20 yards in the backfield. Nothing was more satisfying to a fan base recovering from Passive 3-3-5 syndrome than seeing this crazed high-necked Viking bellowing something unintelligible at fast-retreating Logan Thomas.
Heiko took this
Cam Gordon is the nominal backup, and since the freshman who played ahead of him last year (Beyer) has made the move to WDE, you would imagine the onetime receiver, onetime epitome of ethereal spring optimism at free safety, and onetime 3-3-5 spinner will have finally settled into a useful something. He spent most of last year with a back injury that gives us precious little information on what he might become. So is C.Gordon a junior stunted by position switches, bad fundamental coaching and injury who's now ready to erupt, or a guy with bad fundamentals doomed to be remembered for that one time he was badly cast in the hero role of a box office flop?
What you want are his credentials for a position that rotates like a train of traveling salesmen; what I've got for you is a barbershop quartet of coaches singing songs about him. One thing they don't say is "platoon." Despite his safety pedigree and safety frame versus Jake Ryan's oft hand-down deployment, the coaches haven't indicated Gordon is a situational backup. The SLB in this defense is supposed to be more like a WDE than the other two linebacker spots, and Cam is not that. On the other hand he seems tailor-made for the side-job of the SLB: covering the guy in the slot.
So I'm saying if Ryan goes down, Michigan probably goes with Gordon and eases off the gas a bit, leaning less on pressure and more on coverage from the position. The real drop-off won't be too severe, as there are other guys who can blitz if the SLB becomes more coverage-oriented, and there are rush options extant. The apparent drop-off will feel like when we lost Marcus Ray—the defense is still the defense but that sense that somebody's about to lose an important body organ will be appreciably depreciated. You'll see Gordon plenty either way.
In case of dire emergency: Well like I said this position rotates. Don't know what will happen with Clark, but if he's in at WDE that means Brennan Beyer can easily reprise his 2011 role over here. Mario Ojemudia could be pressed into service. And any of the freshmen linebackers could end up here. Of the four, I picked Royce Jenkins-Stone as the SAM since Bolden already seems to be the two-deep man at Mike, and Ringer was here for spring practice at Mike, and scouting reports say Ross is a coverage-y WLB-type, while RJS has been described as a raw, blitz-loving knife. That's an SLB. It'd be best if he redshirts to learn how to be the second-most aggressive guy on the defense (WDE is the first) while holding the edge.
MIKE (Middle Linebacker):
In case of emergency: Responding to my size chart in last week's article, TSS started a thread about how Demens, who's listed at 248 on the spring roster (which is a copy of last fall's), has significantly more beef than the rest of the linebacking crew. The image above seems to reject the notion that he's the Carl Diggs among the Brackinses; the variability charts for the 2012 linebackers say he's huge (right, via TSS). So I checked the average listed size for a Michigan contributing linebacker since 1993, and it says he made big:
|2nd (Sophomore or RS Fr)||236||228|
|3rd (Junior or RS Soph)||246||232|
|4th (Senior or RS Junior)||248||233|
|5th year Senior||252||238|
Most of our starters played over 240 in their 4th or 5th years. Over 230 is where it seems the contributors need to be. And when you look at the depth chart for 2012 there are exactly three dudes who seem likely to fit that description:
|Kenny Demens||248||Jake Ryan||230||Desmond Morgan||220|
|Joe Bolden||230||Cam Gordon||222||Brandin Hawthorne||214|
|Mike Jones||224||Royce Jenkins-Stone||215||Antonio Poole||212|
|Kaleb Ringer||219||James Ross||209|
Knock-knock … Orange … yada yada … you have Joe Bolden, the 2012 recruit I am most giggity about, and for good reason. He had the kind of performance as the starter (Demens was wearing that club you see above) in the spring game that makes even the cautious prognosticators say "I think we have something here." Then they pull out the David Harris comparisons.
There's nothing I can really add to the recruiting profile or the lofty expectations except to focus on what he brings to the table right now. That is a guy with freshman-grade Kovacsian play-diagnosis skills that must be tempered by "is a true freshman," plus a lot of range and athleticism that must be tempered by "is probably not strong enough yet to get off blocks." I don't think Demens should be worried about losing his job this year unless he's banged up, however in that eventuality Michigan has something between what Desmond Morgan was last year and a freshman Manti Te'o on hand, and should be just fine. Orange you glad!
In case of dire emergency: The phrase "Who? MIKE JONES!" had a very short meme life on the MGoBoards, and it is the considered hope of every Michigan fan that it should never become the headline of an MGoInjury Roundup or uttered without irony inside Michigan Stadium ever. Before the injury that ruined his 2009 coaches were suggesting he might displace Mouton; alas that seems to have been motivational spring hokum. More hype/hokum was Mattison saying he's an unstoppable speed rusher. We saw Jones a bit while Michigan was killing clock against Minnesota and he looked, um, safety-ish. There is a job for a safety-ish linebacker in this defense—the Will—but there are so many other slight LBs on this roster that tripping the 220-something wire puts you into the mix at middle. I would think before we see Jones start, Morgan would slide down to MLB and Hawthorne become the full-time WLB. While time is running out for Jones, he's not ignorable.
WILL (Weakside Linebacker):
In case of emergency: You can argue about the stars being low for a sophomore whom I already said was at 3 stars when starting as a true freshman—that was at the end of last year and I expect Des should still be improving exponentially as this season goes on. I also predict this year you'll start seeing more Jake Ryan in him, since everyone from recruiting analysts to coaches have raved about grittiness, something we haven't had the opportunity to see much of just yet. If our next Eckstein McGritsalot loses that opportunity, the safety net is the the safety-like Brandin Hawthorne.
If you have the opportunity to give the coaches one suggestion for 2012, please join the MGoCrusade to have Hawthorne deployed as the WLB when Michigan goes to nickel. Until Morgan emerged in the second half of last year, Hawthorne had lain tenuous claim to defense's most open position. Brandon Herron, the beefy Yang to Brandin's Yin, dropped out of the race after the double-fumble touchdown rally and has graduated. Hawthorne was excellent in coverage, knifed into the backfield for a key stop against Notre Dame, and displayed Pahokeeian speed to all parts of the field … except when a blocker came near.
For you Tiger fans, Hawthorne is the Ramon Santiago of this defense. He is great at what he does, but playing him every down is going to expose his weakness against the run. So what does happen if Des goes down? It's probably Joe Bolden, but with more Hawthorne appearances.
In case of dire emergency: Trouble with capital T, rhymes with P, stands for…oh actually we don't know what we have in Antonio Poole except his name lends itself well to the Music Man theme. Really he's a redshirt freshman who was ignored by Rodriguez but picked up quickly by Hoke. His recruiting profile lists abilities of play diagnosis, tackling, and translating of the Facebook pages of CRex's in-laws. Third on the depth chart is where you'd want a redshirt freshman to be. Anyway if you see Poole that means he's better than expected, or that "dire emergency" includes the MLB depth chart too. Same goes for James Ross, who was at one point the highest rated linebacker of the 2012 uber-haul, and may yet have a long career beside Bolden (Orange!), however he's listed in the vicinity of 200 lbs. and would probably benefit from a redshirt more than Ringer, who was here for Spring ball. Since redshirting a consensus high 4-star is a luxury we haven't had around the linebacking parts in some time, I suggest we take advantage of it.
[Ed-H: Bump. There, I did it. No more Urban Meyer.]
I got a little busy at work during the winter, and then recruiting magic was happening, and then I figured it was too late for this post. But finally I got a day off, and it's raining, and I've had these screencaps online for 6 months, and I've got literally nothing better to do for a few hours on this sunday. So here is the Nebraska game wrap (with pics!)
That was kind of unexpected. AND AWESOME! It was without a doubt our best game of the year. Heck it was our best game IN YEARS. It was maybe the best team performance since the 1997 PSU game, although I'm probably forgetting some good ones in between.
During the game, I remember thinking the score was pretty close and anything could happen until the turnovers made it a laugher. But after watching it a few times since then, we really did dominate in all phases of the game.
By the end of the 3rd, the stat sheet was pretty one-sided. They really only had 2 great plays all game. (Two plays that I highlighted in the preview post.... so maybe I'm not completely stupid. Still, I did rag on MSU's O-line which gelled pretty strongly by mid-season. ooops.)
Defending the option
Like most of the Michigan fan base, I have huge man crush on Mattison. The things he and his staff are doing, and the performances they're getting from our players are out of this world. I would love to just sit at his feet, follow him around, and absorb as much football knowledge as possible.
If you've accomplished as much as this man, people won't make a big deal out of you using your moobs to signal the playcall. (This GA knowns that peripheral vision is sometimes a weird thing.)
Defending the option is so simple, yet so hard. You need your players to know their assignments and play with decisiveness.Here is Jake Ryan demonstrating the textbook definition of "forcing the pitch".
Nebraska has this play blocked pretty much as you would draw it up. Ryan is the 'optioned' man who is unblocked. Martinez doesn't see the whole open up on the backside, but he's running to where the play is called. He's supposed to read Ryan and "make him wrong".
Jake's first step is lateral as if he's going to squeeze the zone on the slot receiver. But when he sees the option motion coming towards him, he cuts upfield with authority. Martinez reads him correctly, and it looks like this should be a decent gain for the Huskers.
Meanwhile, Mike Martin has beaten his block and is pursuing to stop cutbacks, and the secondary is coming up in run support.
Ryan's change of direction is so fast that Martinez can't get a good pitch off with his left hand. Burkhead managed to fall on the loose ball, but if he hadn't we had two guys coming up quickly and there would have been no way for Martinez to get it with his face planted in the ground. The moral of the story is that one way to defend the option is to make those options keep the ball and get killed, or pitch the ball and get killed.
Another way to stop the option is to get an unexpected defender free. Nebraska comes out in a 4-wide set to try to get a good personnel matchup. But we just stay in our base 4-3 so it doesn't matter when the TE comes down to the line of scrimmage.
Mike Martin explodes through the line and forces the pitch FROM THE BACK SIDE. That's impressive.
Meanwhile, Kovacs is up in run support and all over his assignment as you would expect from a player of his intelligence. He reacts so quickly that the blocker whiffs on him. And the pursuit isn't giving Burkhead anywhere to go.
Getting a 5 yard TFL on first down against your opponent's bread and butter play ... that's a good a thing.
Getting off blocks
One of the stark differences between last year's defense and .... uh ... others... was how well they were getting off blocks and getting to the ball. I don't want to disparage former defensive coaches...BUT the improvement was remarkable.
We're in our zone blitz package with Martin dropping and Demens rushing. Demens gets doubled. That's a pretty big weight disadvantage for him.
So he squares up and gets some arm's length separation from the defenders, one of whom starts looking for someone else to block.
Martinez decides the coverage is too good and thinks he can squirt through that passing lane. But both Demens and Ryan see it, react to it, and clamp down on that hole.
Ryan slaps the ball out. Check out how far away from the ball Van Bergen is. But he's got his head up, he's disengaged from his blocker, and he's pursuing the ball.
One funny bounce later and it's in RVB's hands. Brian keeps saying that fumble recoveries are just luck and 50-50 propositions. I would disagree and say the fumble recovery percentage is more of a function of the number of each team's players near the ball when the fumble happens. In this case, we were a little lucky because Nebraska had more guys near the ball. But if RVB isn't hustling and getting off his blocker, our chances of getting that ball go from slim to none. So yes, luck plays a part, but I don't believe it's JUST luck or that it will always regress to the mean..
And lets not forget the good hustle and technique which caused the fumble in the first place. Strip that ball!
(The other 85% after the jump)
Vastly underrated; properly rated
Previously: The Offense
My look back at Brian's epic 2011 football preview continues with the defense. This one got a lot more interesting than the offense, because despite all the warm fuzzies we felt from the GERG-to-Greg transition*, expecting a jump from the #110 total defense to #17 would have been outrageous. As in get-this-man-a-straitjacket outrageous.
Thankfully, the performance of the defense exceeded all reasonable expectations, and even most of the unreasonable ones. Let's peep last year's predictions, shall we?
*Not to mention the Tony-Gibson-to-Anyone-But-Tony-Gibson transition.
The move to three-tech won't be an issue [for Ryan Van Bergen]. He played it two years ago and when Michigan went to a four man front last year they stuck him back inside. He's now 290, a three year starter, and a senior. He's a good bet to crack double-digit TFLs and get some All Big Ten mention.
RVB actually ended up at strongside DE, which probably helped him lead the team with 12.5 TFLs. He ended up earning All-Big Ten honorable mention from both the coaches and media and graduating as one of the most beloved Wolverines in recent memory.
Demens will benefit from the move to back to the 4-3 under more than anyone save Craig Roh. With RVB and Martin shielding him from linemen he won't be in nearly as many hopeless situations where he's one-on-one with a guard He should be the team's leading tackler by a healthy margin and see his TFLs skyrocket from the measly 1.5 he managed a year ago.
Michigan's defense will probably be too bad to warrant much All Big Ten consideration, but honorable mention seems reasonable.
A year after inexplicably having to move past not just Obi Ezeh, but converted fullback Mark Moundros, on the depth chart at middle linebacker despite subsequently making it painfully obvious that he should've been the starter all along, Demens had his breakout season. He led the team with 94 tackles—second was Jordan Kovacs at 75—and saw his TFLs jump to a respectable five. Like Van Bergen, Demens was an all-conference honorable mention.
Even so, [Kovacs's] 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.
This may still be underselling Kovacs, who took to competent coaching even better than expected and became the team's rock in the secondary, covering for his athletic limitations with usually-impeccable positioning. No, he's not Reggie Nelson, but I don't think you can find a remotely rational Michigan fan who harbors even the tiniest bit of ill will towards Kovacs. Michigan's shocking lack of big plays allowed—both against the pass and the run—can largely be attributed to his play; despite missing a game, Kovacs led the team with 51 solo tackles. He also notched 8 TFLs. All hail Kovacs.
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.
This time around, the optimism regarding the free safety position was justified. Thomas Gordon had his share of struggles, especially late in the season, but for the most part he was quite competent. Around here, safety competence is a luxury on par with consistent placekicking.
Sacks almost double from 1.4 per game to 2.4. That would be a move from 98th to around 30th.
Michigan finished with 2.3 sacks per game. That put them at... 29th. Tip o' the cap.
Turnovers forced go from 19 to 27.
Brian's continued insistence that turnover luck would someday go Michigan's way finally paid off; the Wolverines forced 29 turnovers. It also helped that this defense actually tackled people.
EVERYTHING SEEMS WONDERFUL
YOU HAVE NO IDEA HOW RIGHT THIS WOULD BE.
Morgan was the MGoBlog Sleeper of the Year based on a wide array of scouting reports that praise his instincts, lateral mobility, and toughnosed hard gritty gritness. I thought he'd have to cool his heels behind Demens for a couple years, but he may get on the field quicker than anyone expected.
No full credit simply because Mike Jones was projected as the starter at WLB, a fact I had completely forgotten about until I looked back at the preview. Morgan ended up playing in 12 games, starting seven (the first being in week two against ND), and finished fifth on the team in tackles.
If [J.T. Floyd] gets a lot better this year it's time to take the Gibson chatter seriously.
This wasn't really a prediction, but... yeah. Tony Gibson minus all of the points.
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.)
Points for mentioning Countess as the most likely freshman to see the field. No points for giving him one sentence when he took over the starting job by midseason, especially considering the Christian caveat. As you'll see, the hype that should've surrounded Countess went—justifiably, in the preseason—to Courtney Avery.
Not So Much
Healthy again and less abandoned in the middle of the defense, Martin's numbers should soar. Before the sprain Martin was on pace for 11 TFLs and 4 sacks; after it he got just a half TFL the rest of the year. While the front of the schedule is a bit easier, Martin had 8.5 TFLs and 51 tackles a year ago. Reasonable progression should have gotten him to 11. Add in further progression plus three DL coaches plus a bit more help on the line plus a free-roaming QB attack role and 15 to 18 TFLs plus a little more QB terror should be within reach. He should be All Big Ten. He might be better.
I hate that I have to put this prediction in this category, but here it is. While Martin was the best player on the defense, his numbers were hampered by having to play the nose; he finished with six TFLs and 3.5 sacks. Despite the lack of statistical production, Martin's efforts were recognized with second-team All-Big Ten honors. He also forced a pitch on a speed option. See you on Sundays, MM.
"Experience" was why [Will Heininger] got the nod; that experience consists of backing Brandon Graham up. In is time on the field he rarely did anything wrong; he rarely did anything right, either. He was a non-factor. As a guy spotting Graham from time to time that's cool, but as a starter or a guy rotating with another equally obscure walk-on that's a recipe for zero production out of a spot that should see its fair share of plays. If this spot averages out as a zero next year that's probably good—and that's not good.
The biggest swing-and-a-miss on the list. Heininger swapped spots with RVB and started all 12 regular-season games at five-tech DT before missing the Sugar Bowl with a foot injury. He exceeded all expectations of a walk-on raised in the shadow of the Big House, proving he could hold his own against Big Ten competition and be a positive force on the interior. After the season, Brian ranked him as the third most siginificant departure on the defense, behind only Martin and Van Bergen. While part of that is due to the remaining depth along the defensive line, I don't think anyone thought Heininger's absence would be felt in such a way.
Brink will play. After mentioning Heininger's experience he said Brink has "practiced very well, played well, been productive" and promised to rotate six guys on the line. Six is a weird number because it means one of Black, Campbell, or Brink is on the fringe. Given the lineups Campbell seems the most likely even though that seems unlikely.
If you're saying "who?" you're probably not alone (though you read this blog, so you probably aren't saying "who?"). Walk-on Nathan Brink was penciled in as the starting SDE at one point in the fall, earning much preseason praise for his unlikely rise up the depth chart. After garnering all that hype, however, he made almost no impact, recording just one tackle while barely seeing the field. He's a prime example of why you must take all offseason practice hype with a grain of salt, especially when said hype involves previously-unknown walk-ons.
We've yet to see the much of the pass-rushing skill that made Roh a top 50 recruit. He's displayed hints of the ability to zip past tackles before they know what hits them when suffered to rush the passer—there's a chance that when he puts hand to ground and is told to let it rip that he goes bonkers. Roh is the biggest X factor on the team. He could end up with anywhere from a half-dozen to twelve sacks.
Playing his third position in three seasons, Roh didn't quite go bonkers, tallying four sacks and eight TFLs. Roh's play still markedly improved from his previous two seasons, but he still hasn't lived up to the sky-high recruiting hype. Much of the blame for that can fall upon the shoulders of Greg Robinson and Co., and we'll see if one last position switch, this time to SDE, finally results in Roh producing double-digit sacks.
In high school, Ryan was an outside linebacker in an actual 3-3-5. As such, he spent a lot of time screaming at the quarterback from angles designed to make life hard for offensive linemen. That's not far off his job in the 4-3 under but it comes with a lot more run responsibility—the SLB has to take on blockers in just the right spot so that he neither lets the play escape contain nor gives him a lane inside too big to shut down. Expect to see him on passing downs but only passing downs this fall.
Ryan became a pleasant early-season surprise when he started against Western Michigan and made his presence felt by batting an Alex Carder pass that Brandon Herron would intercept and return 94 yards to the house. While certainly more of an asset against the pass than the run—his balls-to-the-wall approach was great on blitzes, but not always sound when keeping contain—Ryan proved that he was by far the best option on the strong side. Just one year later, all-conference honors are very much in play.
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.
Troy Woolfolk's return from the exploding ankle of doom wasn't as triumphant as we all hoped. While he started ten games—six at corner and four at safety—Woolfolk never looked fully comfortable on the field and was supplanted at each position by a younger player (Countess at corner, Gordon at safety). It would be quite a surprise to see him taken in this week's NFL draft.
Courtney Avery busts out. Going into next year people are talking about him as an All Big Ten performer.
After showing much promise as a true freshman, Avery was the obvious candidate to grow into a big-time role as the team's top corner of the present and future. Instead, he started the first two games, then ceded that role to J.T. Floyd, Woolfolk, and eventually Countess. Avery was a solid nickel corner, and should reprise that role in 2012, but his progression wasn't as great as expected.
Craig Roh leads the team in sacks with eight.
Nein. Despite Michigan's impressive rise in team sacks, they were spread pretty evenly across both the D-line and the back seven thanks to Mattison's blitz-happy approach. Ryan Van Bergen paced the team with 5.5, with Jordan Kovacs actually tying Roh for second with four.
Michigan noses just above average in yardage allowed. Advanced metrics have them about 50th.
I know Brian has no complaints about being so hilariously wrong on this one. As noted above, the Wolverines finished 17th in yardage allowed, and they also shot up to sixth (faints) in points allowed. Football Outsiders's FEI metric ranked them as the #16 defense in the country. Despite watching every second of the 2011 season (usually twice), I still have a hard time not believing I'm the victim of an elaborate hoax or a drug experiment gone horribly awry. If you see me waking up in a gutter and GERG is still the defensive coordinator, please do me a favor and run me over with an SUV. Make sure to double-tap, please.