Shooting for the "most times a single GIF hits the front page" record.
Michigan lost one of the most genuinely enjoyable players to watch in recent memory with the graduation of Jeremy Gallon, and unfortunately, I don't think we'll be seeing a 5'8" dude with rocket boots and a cloaking device breaking school receiving records again anytime soon.
That said, the Wolverines don't lack players that can make your jaw drop. Inspired by this Matt Hinton piece on college football's most exciting players, here's my list of the Wolverines who should provide the most entertainment this season. Take note: this isn't a rundown of the best players, but a subjective list of who I think will be the most fun to watch—it's ordered by position, since what constitutes "fun to watch" varies wildly from person to person.
QB Devin Gardner
An obvious choice, especially since some of Gardner's bad habits—namely, reversing field when under pressure—can still produce spectacular results. He's an electric runner even when not at full health. He's got a heck of an arm; this throw against Notre Dame last year simply defies explanation. He continued the grand tradition of Michigan quarterbacks hilariously punking Tanner Miller. His ability to improvise has bailed out the offense on many occasions. Yes, this sometimes gets him into trouble—I know another throw from that otherwise amazing Notre Dame performance is going through your head right now—but it also poses a threat to opponents that is extremely difficult to defend, and it's sure fun to watch when everything clicks.
WR Devin Funchess
Again, an obvious choice is obvious, as evidenced by the GIF that graces the top of this post—and that wasn't the first time Funchess leaped over an oncoming defender:
The whole "hurdles defensive backs on the run" thing is pretty great, but that's just a small part of what makes Funchess so remarkable. He's a 6'5", 230-pound former tight end with legitimate top-end speed; his movements bear the grace of a much smaller player. Even when he slips, he seamlessly recovers, and the average defensive back is going to have a very difficult time contending with his ball skills or bringing him down once he makes the catch. Oh, and having oven-mitt-sized hands allows for him to make catches like this while on a dead sprint.
If Funchess isn't on the team in 2015, it'll be because he turned in a monster year and justifiably went pro, and I don't think anybody could begrudge him that move.
[Hit THE JUMP for eight exciting players not named Devin.]
We’ve heard you’re going to be a tougher defense. How will we see that on the field in the fall?
“Hopefully you see the aggressiveness in base defense as well as when we do pressure. And I think the way you see that, you’re going to see guys—it’s easier right now for our guys to run to the football than it has been in the past. In other words they understand that that’s how they’re going to play. The aggressive part of it is like, everybody kind of wants to get in on hits instead of saying you’re supposed to get over there on hits. The pressure, the way our secondary’s playing, they’re more aggressive, they’re trying to get on guys a little tighter, I think all those kind of things.”
Is this more the kind of defense you’ve always envisioned when you came to Michigan?
“Yeah, it definitely is. Offenses have made it difficult because they spread you out all over the place. If you’re going to sit and just let them take shots and take shots they’re going to have their success. On offense it’s just keep the ball moving, keep the ball moving but on defense I think you’ve got to change the math sometimes and you’ve got to say it’s not going to be, maybe, like it was in practice for you.”
Are you more comfortable with this defense than you have been maybe- is the transition finally over?
“No question. No question. The guys that are playing in this defense are ours. You know, I really respect the first group and the groups that we came in with. Anytime you come in and demand what we demand it’s hard, but these kids that are here now are all the ones that we brought in here. They’re the ones that we’re with every day of their lives. I mean, we spend so much time with these kids. You really are excited about their attitude. You’re excited about—you can coach them really, really hard and you don’t have to worry about, ‘Well, now do I have to go put my arm around them?’ No, they know that you are for them all the way. And I think our coaches have done a great job, and Brady from the top has done that where we’re going to coach you now, we’re going to make sure you do it the right way and sometimes it isn’t going to be pretty but the next play is the next play.”
What do you know about Jabrill [Peppers] today that you didn’t know seven days ago?
“I know that he’s a real good football player. Here’s what I didn’t know because you don’t know this because you’re not with him: he loves to play football. That’s what you didn’t know. You saw him in games be very, very aggressive and very talented but now that we’re with him, he just really loves to be out there playing and he brings it every play. He’s got to gain some maturity. You know, when you’re a guy who’s been as successful as he has I think you never, ever have heard someone say, ‘That’s wrong. You can’t do that.’ His coach is a tremendous high school coach, but he just brings a lot of fire.”
[Regarding Peppers] What went into the decision to finally settle on nickelback?
“Because the way offenses are nowadays you’ve got to play nickel so much more. The nickel position is a very, very important position on the defense now compared to what it was maybe five to ten years ago. You have to have a guy in there now that’s going to be playing a whole bunch in that game. If you put a guy at safety and then you need him at nickel he’s going to play two positions and he may not become as good as he could be at that time as a youngster.”
Brady has talked about talking to him [Peppers] about not getting wrapped up in how much attention he gets and all that stuff. What do you say to him about that and how do you think he’s handled it?
“I haven’t had to say a thing to him about that because we coach him really, really hard. There’s no pampering. You’re just a guy in our defense. Obviously, with what his success was in high school he’ll probably get attention. He’s been very mature about it. He understands it’s Michigan now. When you’re at Michigan you’re just one of the team and you’re responsible to do what the team’s asking you to do and that’s what he’s done.”
[After THE JUMP: more Peppers, improvement in the linebackers, and defensive philosophy]
In the half-hour we spent on the field talking to players at Sunday's Media Day, the theme of this offseason and fall camp was clear: change is here. For the offense, that means a change in coordinators, and with that a significant difference in how they practice. The tempo is being pushed like never before in Brady Hoke's tenure at Michigan, and that also affects the defense, which is dealing with change of their own, as the coaching staff on that side shifts roles while the defense moves from a 4-3 under to a 4-3 over.
I caught up with Dennis Norfleet, Jake Ryan, and Wyatt Shallman to discuss these changes and more, including Ryan saying he feels fully recovered from the ACL tear that limited him to just five starts in 2013. Tomorrow, I'll have further player interviews with the significant portion of the team that hails from Cass Tech.
You're getting work in the slot now pretty much exclusively, it sounds like. How comfortable are you at that position right now?
I'm getting a lot better. The wide receiving crew is really helping me out a lot. Coach Hecklinski is a great coach, he's getting me to feel comfortable when I get in there and getting me comfortable with my plays, so I'm doing pretty well.
What's been the biggest difference with the new offensive coordinator, the biggest change between last year and this year?
The biggest change is we're moving faster, up-tempo. We're a lot better as an offensive crew, we're more than a team, we're a family, so that's what makes a big difference to us now.
With that big increase in tempo, it sounds like you guys are getting more reps in. How much of a difference has that made in terms of getting more comfortable in the offense?
It's a making a lot of difference. It's a big difference because we have a lot of rotation, everybody gets to know their plays, nobody's going out there not knowing what they're doing, and if they don't they have people to tell them if they go wrong. That's a big difference.
How do you see your role being this year? Obviously you're playing the slot, but there's a lot you can do, so how do you see yourself being utilized in the offense this year?
I'm just doing my job, you know. If I get open space, I do what I do best, you know. I'm also being a role model for the younger players that came in. We're basically working as a team in everything that we do.
At returner, you obviously have a lot of experience there. Coach Hoke said you're getting a lot of the reps there but that there are a couple freshmen who are also coming in and making a push. How do you feel at returner right now, and is that a place you feel you can make a really big impact?
Kick returning has always been something that I go into the game and everything, you know, willing that I want to return a kick [for a score] every game. We've been rotating a lot, we've got a lot of players that are competing, spots that's not really set out for who starts where, so we're just having fun in camp right now and competing.
It sounds like both at slot and returner that you're working a lot with Freddy Canteen. What have you seen out of him in the spring and fall so far?
Canteen's becoming a better young man, not just a football player, just in life. He's been looking up to the older receivers, like Devin Funchess, me, [redshirt senior walk-on Anthony] Capatina. It's just a lot of people he can look up to, to become a better person, both in our lives and football.
You keep mentioning how you guys have come together as a team. What's been the biggest change since last year, and do you feel like as an upperclassman now you're really grown into a leadership role?
When I came in, I did things that upperclassmen always told me was wrong that I didn't think were wrong, but now that I'm older I can see what they were talking about. You know, it's more than just a game. We're trying to win a championship, the Big Ten, so as we go along that's the focus of our days. That's what we're ready for.
[Hit THE JUMP for Jake Ryan discussing his transition to middle linebacker and his full recovery from the ACL tear, and Wyatt Shallman talking about his role in the offense and the changes in style under Doug Nussmeier.]
Click to big. Right-click to open in a separate window so you can reference it as you go.
A few weeks ago I promised to finish this piece on the differences for Michigan's personnel in the 4-3 over. Sorry.
Refresher: What's a 4-3 Over? What you're looking at are alignments of the front seven. The "under" shifts the defensive line away from the strength of the defense and the linebackers swing the opposite way to compensate. Michigan would often align this to the hash rather than the offense, shifting the DL toward the sideline.
The "over" shifts the line the opposite way, but not to such an extreme. The linebackers wind up centered over the ball, and the DL spread across the formation. There is nothing 3-4 about it except the nose tackle.
Last time I talked about how going from a base under to a base over will demand the WDE and 3-tech play a little bigger, the SDE can play more like a rush end, and the nose's job stays pretty much the same except he's now the backside DT. Now on to the second level.
Strongside Linebacker (SAM): James Ross/Royce Jenkins-Stone
The 4-3 under is tough to run against—often they wind up blocking the backside DE in hopes of getting something from a cutback, since it's hard for the LT to get to anybody else. That meant the WLB could be a free hitter
On inside zone that strongside (right) tackle is trying to get a free release. The 3-tech could get aggressive and slow him up but the danger of playing aggressively on the DL against a zone running team is you open up the backside. The faster the OT gets out to the second level the more room there's going to be for the running back to dodge around the DT. A SAM who can read IZ quickly will be all up in that OT's face, able to affect both frontside gaps without opening up the backside cut. Every half-second of delay on the SAM's part is another yard for the offense.
But the SAM can't get crazy-aggressive attacking the OT or the C gap because that tight end is an eligible receiver, and there's another receiver on that side of the formation who could be slanting or dragging. Since the guess is Michigan wants Jake Ryan to be aggressive in the middle, Ross will end up in a lot of zone drops or in man-to-man on the tight end.
The fit: The WLB in the 4-3 under that James Ross played last year isn't hugely different, but it wound up playing differently because Ross was constantly having to take on blockers thanks to Michigan's Jibreel-Black-is-a-NT stunt-a-thon. His quick-twitch reads will be an asset, and his speed and coverage ability will be also. Michigan State's defense had Denicos Allen blitz a ton from this position, and got away with it because the handsy press coverage took care of the slant/drag passes that punish it, and because they had Max Bullough to read and react at MLB. Ross will get to blitz more than he did as the backside linebacker, but I'm guessing Michigan would rather he be the read-react-hit-spill dude so Jake Ryan can go viking.
[jump for the other two spots]
This here Friday because not enough for Dear Diary.
What do you think of the transition to a 4-3 over? Who else is running it? Is it so much of a shift?
Ace: While I was skeptical at first—it felt like a bit like a panic move—I've started talking myself into this being a positive change. The main reason is that it should allow Michigan to generate more of a pass rush, and in less predictable ways. Seth pointed out the benefits for both Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer in his post—they slide into roles more suited to their abilities in a way that gets them on the field at the same time. Add in the ever-present threat of Jake Ryan blitzing up the middle and I think the pass-rush will be improved thanks to this switch.
|When you have Clark and Beyer (and Ojemudia and Taco etc.) available this isn't the best use of Jake Ryan [Fuller]|
The defense should also be better suited to go against spread attacks by keeping Ryan in the middle. He no longer has to worry about playing over slot receivers or being the primary defender against bubble screens, and when Michigan goes to a nickel, they'll most likely lift James Ross for a defensive back—adding coverage without losing much from the pass rush.
Keeping the linebackers clean against the run is also easier in a 4-3 over; Iowa's linebackers were very successful last year in part because their alignment allowed them to roam free sideline-to-sideline—I was dumb enough to confuse "DTs aren't making plays" for "DTs not doing their job" in that post, when it turned out Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Passat were really good at holding up against double teams while the Hitchens/Morris/Kirksey trio combined for 35.5 TFLs despite rarely blitzing. I highly doubt Greg Mattison's defense will be as passive as Iowa's, but the Hawkeyes still provide a solid blueprint for how to get better production from the linebackers.
That brings me to my biggest concern, however, which is the defensive tackles. I believe the Henry/Pipkins combo will hold up fine at the nose, but the lack of experience at 3-tech is worrisome. The good news is both Chris Wormley and Matt Godin—the likely rotation there, along with Ryan Glasgow—were tweener DE/DT recruits with large frames, solid strength at the point of attack, and some concern about their edge-rushing ability; the last part matters much less now, and as long as they're not ceding ground with regularity, the experienced linebackers should be able to work behind them (Northwestern's linebackers managed to stand out in their 4-3 over even though their DTs routinely let the seas part).
My other main concern is how Ryan will handle more offensive linemen releasing to block him at the second level, but I have the feeling he'll figure it out. It's clear the coaches have been planning this shift for a while—see: Noah Furbush, MLB recruit—and despite a few minor bumps along the road I still have a great deal of trust in Mattison. If, as advertised, this shift allows the defense to be more aggressive in general and more adaptable against spread attacks specifically, I'm on board.
[Jump: Brian and BiSB go over this more. HA!]
The spring game-type-substance maintained its downward importance trajectory, but as it's the last glimpse of one of the big three sports we'll have until fall we'll talk about it all the same. This year's edition further expanded the punting-drills-and-standing-around section of the practice, so observations are necessarily light on the ground.
It's bad when Doug Karsch can't keep the sarcasm out of his voice.
This video is in Michigan's traditional zoom-o-vision, so you can't actually tell what Lewis did to get in the position he's in for the first interception.
The tone. Last year's "I like this team" has been replaced.
“We’re doing a lot of good things, but we’re not near good enough as a team to win games in the fourth quarter, which we didn’t do (last season), and play on the road,” said Hoke, entering his fourth season. “We’re a long way from being any good."
That reflects the reality of the program.
Depth chart grain of salt reminder. Spring is a season for motivational devices and experiments and therefore places on the depth chart should be regarded as vague indicators more than anything else. Case in point: Graham Glasgow was your second-team right tackle.
Lewis is in your grill yo [Bryan Fuller]
Very aggressive /teddyKGB. Every offseason for a team without an elite defense features coaches promising increased aggression, whereupon most of them quietly drop that promise when the season rolls around and it turns out that for Defense X being super aggressive is a good way to give up quick touchdowns. The cycle repeats the next offseason.
Michigan is promising aggression, and Mattison is putting his cornerbacks where his mouth is. Lewis:
“It’s huge, just getting hands on guys and trying to intimidate them," Lewis said. "That’s our key point right there -- being physical. That’s what (defensive coordinator Greg) Mattison is always talking about, being a physical defense.”
They spent most of the scrimmage session in the grills of Michigan wide receivers, playing MSU-style bump and clutch and grab and run. Word from the coaching clinic is that Michigan is adjusting to the way the game has been called of late. Lewis again:
“He said ‘be physical’,” Lewis said. “But he doesn’t care if it’s great defense and we get a penalty.”
This was highly effective when not drawing two flags on Lewis—the second a dubious one—or that one time the offense got Freddy Canteen lost on a deep corner route. Everything else was contested, and when the ball got to the receiver the corners were making a play on it.
Lewis looked terrific after a spring in which inside practice buzz has heralded him as a major comer; hell, he looked terrific most of last year except for the bit where the opposing quarterback regularly put the ball in the six-inch window perfect coverage provides. In this game he had two interceptions and two flags along with other instances where his presence forced drops or tough catches. The first interception came on the first play of the scrimmage (0:45 above).
The video doesn't do it justice since it kind of looks like Lewis is coming over from a zone. That was pure press man coverage on which he did the one thing the gypsy promised him he'd never do: make a play on the ball after achieving his position.
Is he supplanting? I don't know, man. Usually two returning starters who had the number of excellent interceptions Taylor and Countess did have impregnable positions on the depth chart. This situation is not usual, though, as those guys didn't have impregnable positions even as they were doing that—Taylor was yanked from the starting lineup briefly, even. And the last impression Michigan's coaches have is both guys getting smoked by Tyler Lockett, an impression that Countess might have reinforced when Canteen beat him over the top Manningham-style. (Gardner left the throw short and Countess recovered.)
At the very least the competition here is a real one, unlike, say, quarterback. And corner is a position at which a lot of players will see the field. Lewis has at least claimed a spot in Michigan's nickel package, which is half your snaps these days. Even when not in nickel, Michigan rotated last year and they'll rotate this year. It's likely that Lewis gets as many snaps as the starters whether he is one on paper or not, and then you've got Stribling and Peppers. Delonte Hollowell is hanging around, delivering the occasional hard shot on the unsuspecting.
If the spring game indicates one thing, it's that cornerback is better-stocked than it's been in a long-time. Michigan doesn't have a Woodson (at least until fall, anyway), but I can say without hesitation that I'm more comfortable with Michigan's fifth corner than I usually am with their third. Remember Football Armageddon, when Michigan decided covering a first-round NFL draft pick with Chris Graham was their best option? Yeah. Not so much this year.
Wilson got over the top on a late throw [Bryan Fuller]
Aaaand safety. Much less clarity there, and very little to go on from the game-type section. Michigan spent much of the day rolling whoever wasn't Jarrod Wilson to the line of scrimmage to further their aggression goals, whereupon he would cover a fullback or something or watch as a run play did not get to him.
Wilson did have one nice PBU on a looping ball over the top. The ball was late thanks to some pressure that forced Gardner to roll around in the pocket, but that's the kind of ball a safety can make a play on and the play was made.
As far as depth chart stuff goes there was zero clarity. If you put a gun to my head I'd say Delano Hill was slightly preferred. And then I would say "but…" and you would shoot me. Let's not do this gun to the head thing when talking about Michigan's safeties.
The Jake Ryan experiment. First off, the admittedly not-particularly-meaningful spring depth chart gives me the willies. Ryan at MLB, Morgan second-string behind him, Bolden starting, Ross running on the second team at new tinySAM. I am full of the willies.
It's hard to tell much about linebackers in spring, harder yet when the offensive line they're up against is barely releasing to the second level*. On plays where I watched Jake Ryan he looked okay. He's kind of a long, upright guy, so when blockers get into him he tends to let them under him. On the edge he would just juke a guy and explode past him; in the middle you have to take the block on because picking the wrong side of the guy means you just blew your run fit.
I'm not sure where he fits in an over defense, though, so if you're going to make a shift he has to go somewhere.
Meanwhile, Joe Bolden's ample playing time has been mysterious to me. Linebacker remains the hardest position for me to have a Serious Opinion about because there's just so much that goes into it, but the things that Bolden seemed to be screwing up were really obvious things like not being anywhere near your pass drop. Meanwhile when it comes to hitting people in the face and making them stop going forward there is no comparison between Bolden, who has been a drag-you-down tackler to date, and Desmond Morgan, who thumps you and then you stop moving. Michigan's head coach says "toughness" every other word, and Morgan is much closer to that on the field than Bolden.
As a result I've promised to eat a lemon on the internet if Bolden starts the opener over Morgan. The rules: Morgan has to be healthy, Bolden has to start, and Morgan cannot start.
*[Michigan had a great deal of uninspiring runs of 1-3 yards but few TFLs except that one time they put Henry in against the third team OL. This was in large part because the offensive line was doing its damndest to not repeat the mistakes of last year. Instead of popping off opposing DL immediately, they were maintaining doubles longer than you really should. This made life at LB relatively easy and thus many plays where a tailback crosses the line of scrimmage and encounters a pile of men.]
Poggi SDE, Hurst 3-tech, Henry nose on a second or third unit
Line ups and downs. Here the limitations of spring practice overwhelm. Michigan's first-team offensive line read Cole-Bosch-Miller-Kalis-Braden; the second team featured a left tackle with an enormous cast on his hand. Grain of salt, grain of salt, grain of salt.
Anyway, Michigan had a few guys that looked impressive: Bryan Mone entered the backfield with regularity and Maurice Hurst Jr flashed the first step that was the bulk of his recruiting profile. That they've pushed Henry down the depth chart is an excellent sign even if that particular arrangement is clearly motivational after Henry established himself a legit Big Ten player a year ago. Brennen Beyer displayed an excellent ability to discard… uh… true freshman Mason Cole on a number of snaps. Beyer has always been an active hands guy; the question with him is his ability to hold up against 330 pound trucks. A matchup with Cole is not going to answer that.
Michigan got push up the middle of the pocket for large chunks of the scrimmages and while they weren't penetrating on run plays with regularity, see the aside above. When Michigan's options were limited in the half-line drills, they ended up in the backfield more often than not. It seemed like 80% of those runs cut back behind the center, which is a win for the DL in that drill.
As for guys who had bad snaps we will extrapolate much more from than is reasonable: at 2:55 in the video above Derrick Green gets one of Michigan's better runs on the day by bouncing outside; that is there because Glasgow locked up with and drove Henry Poggi well off the ball. Tom Strobel got easily handled on a successful Hayes power play at 2:25; a linebacker wearing a number in the 40s also picked the wrong hole. Also… does anyone know where Chris Wormley was? I don't recall seeing him; I googled to see if anyone had mentioned anything was up with him and came up empty, so I assume he was there but rather anonymous.
I have to punt on other defensive end observations, as I was focusing on the linebackers and secondary for much of the day.
- They're trying to make good on the promise to be aggressive.
- The cornerback depth is terrific and the top end should be quite good.
- Michigan has a solid young core at DT; DE is more uncertain.
- Linebackers… ask again later.