The nutty Michigan coverage isn't so much about Harbaugh as it is a signal to the Big Ten that Fox wants to party.
So my favorite way to learn things is to start an argument with someone who knows more than I do about that subject and see if my take can take the onslaught. On Sunday Magnus put an interesting question to the board about the current MGoTake on Kenny Demens:
I've seen many references to this in recent times, including when I was reading HTTV. There seems to be some sentiment around here that Kenny Demens is better than Obi Ezeh but he won't make anyone forget about David Harris. I'm kind of confused why people are down on Demens in that way. He's not Ray Lewis, but David Harris wasn't Ray Lewis, either.
As a junior, David Harris had 88 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, .5 sacks, 3 pass breakups, 1 fumble recovery, and 2 forced fumbles.
In a comparison of junior seasons, Kenny Demens had 94 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 3 sacks, and 2 pass breakups.
Those are pretty similar statistics, and while Harris did more in the turnover department, I'm not sure why people are insisting that David Harris was so much better. Demens still has a year to get to that level. He may or may not get there, but I don't think it's really a fair argument to compare the two careers right now.
Harris is special to Brian because he was the first great player uncovered in UFR. He's special to me because when I crossed that line between being someone who knows Michigan football and is truly
informed obsessed about Michigan football, I began going around telling people that David Harris (not Henne, Hart, Manningham or Long) was the most important guy on the team. In both cases that was in 2005, about the same time in his career that Demens was getting his unit dinged (vs. MSU et al.) for not being reactive enough. This has resulted in a bit of a bias on these pages from Brian and those principally informed by Brian to speak of Harris in near-Woodsonian terms. Whether you regard that as a weakness in our coverage, it fortunately leaves plenty of room for Demens to be both "worse than David Harris" and "a damn good Big Ten linebacker."
Here's the part of Brian's summation on Demens from HTTV that I am almost certain Magnus is responding to:
We got some clarity in 2011, when Demens was just okay. While he led the team in tackles, he managed just two TFLs against running plays. He barely beat blocks and was such a mediocre blitzer that Greg Mattison started playing him at nose tackle so he could send Mike Martin at the quarterback. On the plus side of the ledger, Demens was a surpisingly high-quality cover guy, sticking with players well down seams he didn't have much business covering.
First let's clarify that nobody's suggesting Demens is an average of 45s. The Unofficial MGoBlog Harris-Ezeh Scale of Linebackeritude...
...sees Demens firmly on the Harris end of the ledger.
That is a comedown from post-2010, when this site fell in love with Demens for being not-Ezeh and because most of his struggles were schematically blameable on GERG (plus the threat of a Dr. Vorax the Stuffed Beaver facewash if he did something good). He is a pretty good tackler. He stands up well to blocks. And he is one of the guys who helped make us stout in short situations last year. We like him.
Let's compare that to the feeling on David Harris going into 2006:
Harris was a player. He led the team in tackles, making a fair number of them near or behind the line of scrimmage. He was tasked with spying Drew Stanton during the Michigan State game and flashed his speed against Penn State when he tracked down Derrick F-ing Williams on an end around. His UFR number was +8 that game, a monster. Though Harris tailed off towards the end of the year, he's established himself as one of the Big Ten's better linebackers and certainly the best Michigan has.
Over the course of his senior season Harris went from a budding star that bloggers were into before it was cool, to a player of the decade who could diagnose the blocking assignments of a given play before people in the huddle did:
The difference I find is the instincts. Harris was great because he could read a play, make his decision, and shoot to where he needed to be. Having rewatched the late '90s games with new eyes I can see Dhani Jones had this to set him apart as well. Kovacs is the obvious modern example.
Ironically, "good in coverage, needs to be more instinctive" is the opposite of what we said in the 2011 preview:
It's clear by the rating above that I'm a Demens believer. I liked what I saw last year and I've seen MLBs who are pretty good to compare him to. David Harris, for one. He's not Harris but I think Demens is closer to him than Ezeh already. He just has a knack for getting to where the play is going. Though his coverage still needs some work he was decently effective in short zones last year.
There's no direct post-sophomore comparison for Harris because he had a knee injury that took two seasons to return from. Before that, freshman versions of Harris were the recipients of an a-normal amount of positive chatter. Spring chatter is just that and not worth putting that much stock into, however there's too many old copies of The Wolverine gushing about him to discount entirely. As soon as Harris was healthy he displaced the returning starter (McClintock) and never came off the field.
Demens before Iowa 2010 is equally hard to pin down. There was some trouble for which the entirety of Demen's culpability essentially came down to "is bad at choosing roommates." When he dropped behind Ezeh and position switching Moundros early his RS sophomore year the expectations were downgraded, only to be rekindled when it turned out this was just the work of the nefarious Dr. Vorax.
As for their respective junior seasons, the basis of the claim that Demens=Harris is in the tackling stats. Because the team can face radically different numbers of plays I like to use % of team tackles for this; though it doesn't change the point Magnus was making:
|2005 Season||52||36||88||2011 Season||49||45||94|
|TEAM 2005||539||269||808||TEAM 2011||481||380||861|
|% of 2005||9.6%||13.4%||10.9%||% of 2011||10.2%||11.8%||10.9%|
On the surface this seems to support your assertion that their respective RS Jr seasons were pretty comparable. Harris had a greater % of his tackles solo because the team was less into gang-tackling.
My memory said Michigan faced more passing offenses in 2005 than this year. However the stats say that 2005 and 2011 were almost identical in number of live plays:
|Live Defensive Plays||2005||2011|
|Opp. Rushing Attempts||430||429|
|Opp. Pass Completions||223||221|
The biggest difference seems to be the cornerbacks and LaMarr Woodley made the tackles that Kovacs and T.Gordon took for 2011. If you take the view that tackles missed by linebackers go to the safeties then:
|W. Barringer||10||29||14||Jordan Kovacs||12||51||24|
|Brandent Englemon||11||26||16||Thomas Gordon||13||41||26|
|Jamar Adams||12||21||6||Courtney Avery||13||17||9|
|B. Harrison||12||15||9||Carvin Johnson||8||9||5|
(I included Courtney Avery because some of Harrison's season was at nickel and it's hard to separate that.)
There's also a moderate difference in rushing yards/attempt between the seasons that you have to imagine the leading tackler had something to do with: Opponents in 2005 were held to 3.8 YPA; in 2011 it was 4.0 YPA. However this is a very flimsy statistical case. Magnus is correct that the numbers do not show a major difference between Demens and Harris's junior seasons.
For that we have to go to the realm of the individual games and plays. Here's the UFR comparison of their respective junior seasons:
|Notre Dame||5||1||4||Night and day from McClintock.|
|Eastern Michigan||5||0||5||Reading and reacting in the short zone.|
|Wisconsin||4||3||1||Reading and reacting in the short zone.|
|Michigan State||6||0||6||Playing very, very well. Entrusted with spying Stanton all day; shows the faith they have in him.|
|Minnesota||8||2||6||Well, we've got one linebacker.|
|Penn State||9||1||8||Biggest scrub to star transformation since...?|
|Northwestern||4||1||3||Unbelievably deep drops in coverage.|
|Iowa||3||3||0||Worst game since he became a starter. Still did okay.|
|Western Michigan||7.5||5||2.5||Kind of a rough start but played in odd conditions.|
|Notre Dame||13||4.5||8.5||Twelve tackles and few errors.|
|Eastern Michigan||3.5||4.5||-1||Slow to diagnose some things.|
|San Diego State||9.5||2.5||7||Not sure what to do with his Howard-esque coverage but I liked it.|
|Minnesota||4.5||2.5||2||Not many plays even got to him.|
|Northwestern||5.5||9.5||-4||Did not get outside even on speed options.|
|Michigan State||4.5||6.5||-2||Michigan's linebackers are not nearly as reactive as MSU/ND, even Northwestern, and it costs them.|
|Purdue||3||3||0||Not much got to him thanks to Martin.|
|Iowa||10||6||4||Stuck Coker cold a half yard from a critical third down conversion. I be like dang.|
|Illinois||7.5||3.5||4||Second consecutive solid game. Pretty good in coverage.|
|Nebraska||9.5||5.5||4||Three straight +4s. Surprisingly good in coverage for MLB.|
|Ohio State||5.5||4||1.5||Ate some blocks.|
Harris 2005: +35 in nine games (+3.9/game)
Demens 2011: +26.5 in twelve games (+2.2/game)
[EDIT: A copy error from 2005 screwed up my arithmetic. It is corrected now]
Now I realize UFR has changed a bit since then and that opportunities might be different and etc. etc. etc. etc. this is not scientific at all. What I'm really going by is the record in the comments. So those numbers probably don't mean anything.
What does mean things are the notes. In Demens you see "slow to diagnose some things" and "Michigan's linebackers are not nearly as reactive as MSU/ND, even Northwestern, and it costs them," and "Ate some blocks." Is it a weakness? I'm sure the coaching carousel Demens has had in his career is a big part of that. I'm also sure that among the most important attributes for a defensive player, perhaps even more important than his size or his speed or his tackling technique (though all matter a lot), is how many micro-seconds it takes him to react correctly to the play. In this Harris as a junior was outstanding, and Demens as a junior was "area for improvement."
Does this constitute a low ceiling for Demens? If you put a gun to my head: yes, I'd say he's RVB to David Harris's Mike Martin.
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.
The Ballad of Boubacar is brief and unfortunate
This is the second part of an in-depth look at the 2008 recruiting class, and more specifically Brian's recruiting profiles for that class. You can find part one, covering the offense, here. If you'd like to peruse the recruiting profiles yourself—a highly recommended time-waster—you can find links to each position group here. Without further ado, let's look back at the eight-member defensive class of 2008. This one's not for the squeamish.
Mike Martin Wrestles Not Mike Martin, Which Goes As Expected
Let's start with the good, yes? Mike Martin not only stands as the clear-cut best player in the class, but outside of two-star Patrick Omameh may very well be the only player to surpass expectations from when he hit campus. Those expectations, at least from Brian, were pretty high:
Guru Reliability: High.
General Excitement Level: High. The highlight reel is totally impressive, there are zero questions about work ethic or how in shape he is, and he's got pretty good guru rankings.
Projection: Will play in the DT rotation immediately, and will probably leap past Ferrara, Kates (if Kates remains on the team), et al to claim a starting spot once Taylor and Johnson graduate.
The remarkable strength that helped Martin excel for four years at Michigan was also on full display during his high school wrestling career, and fortunately there is video evidence of a young Martin perfecting his Hulk Smash. A Simmons-style running diary follows:
0:00 — Martin and his opponent—"Mo" is his name, judging by the cheers from people around the cameraman—jog onto the mat.
0:07 — Mo removes what appears to be an ankle tether, so maybe this is just an elaborate criminal punishment that almost certainly violates the 8th Amendment.
0:14 — Martin shakes Mo's hand. Martin releases his grip and Mo's hand goes limp, never again to function properly.
0:16 — The match begins. Martin begins stalking his prey, who ignores his coach's cries to "circle, circle!" and instead backpedals furiously to avoid Martin's grasp. Within seconds, Mo finds himself out of bounds.
0:36 — At the restart, Mo goes for an ill-timed high-five. Martin ignores this desperate plea for peace and immediately dives for a single-leg takedown.
0:44 — Mo manages to ward off the takedown, but once again backs himself out of the ring. When facing Mike Martin, this is not cowardice, but simply a display of proper survival instincts.
0:56 — On the second restart, Mo lightly pats Martin on the head. If you consult page 56 of your Worst Case Scenario handbook, you know this is the last thing you want to do when encountering a Mike Martin in the wild.
1:12 — Martin gets his hands on the back of Mo's head then explodes for a takedown, knocking Mo to the very edge of the mat. Mo sees an opportunity for escape and frantically crawls for the exits. Mike Martin is having none of that:
1:20 — As Mo's compatriots cackle at his misfortune, Martin assumes control and pins his convulsing opponent, ending this match with relative humanity.
1:50 — The two shake hands as Martin is declared the winner. Martin goes on to star at Michigan. Mo reattaches his ankle tether, vows to straighten his life out, and hastily seeks both physical and emotional therapy.
This Did Not Go As Planned, Part I
The first, and highest-ranked, of the Cass Tech Lollipop Guild line of cornerbacks was Boubacar Cissoko, a top-50 overall recruit to every site save ESPN, where he was outrageously(!) pegged as the nation's #28 corner. Regrettable statement goes here:
Guru Reliability: Maximal. The unified chorus: this is a perfect cornerback except he's 5'8".
General Excitement Level: High. Obvious physical limitation aside, the perfect corner.
Projection: Plays as a freshman and is starting next to Warren by his sophomore year.
Cissoko flashed promise as a freshman in 2008, even starting two contests. Then Michael Floyd and Golden Tate lit him up again and again in 2009 before Cissoko went on a crime spree that quickly found him off the team and then incarcerated. While Cissoko obviously never reached anything close to the potential that had Brian so excited, his recruiting profile did feature one bit of eerie foreshadowing [emphasis mine]:
A couple years ago, I watched [current Detroit Lions CB Chris] Houston and Arkansas play South Carolina. Redshirt sophomore Sidney Rice was the Gamecock's big star and Houston lined up nose-to-nose with Rice in eff-you press man on every single play. Spurrier went after him again and again; sometimes he won and sometimes he lost, but usually because Rice reeled in a perfectly-thrown fade. It was a fantastic individual battle and I came away impressed with both players. So did the NFL: Houston went with the eighth pick in the second round; Rice went just four picks later.
Maybe this isn't the most reassuring comparison, as Rice did end up with 7 catches for 128 yards and Arkansas lost, but... hey... free second round pick!
Michael Floyd vs. Michigan, 2009: 7 catches, 131 yards, and a touchdown. Somehow, the Wolverines won anyway.
Instead of 3-4 years of Cissoko stardom, this was the guy who ended up as a multi-year starter at cornerback:
Guru Reliability: High. No reason he'd be under the radar; offers about commensurate with ranking.
General Excitement Level: Meh.
Projection: Though he's being brought in as a corner a move to safety is likely given the above, where he'll probably end up buried behind Stevie Brown, Artis Chambers, Stewart, and maybe Brandon Smith until his junior year, at which point he might develop into a contributor.
If you read that and went "sounds like J.T. Floyd," give yourself a cookie. At least, "meh" was most everyone's general impression of Floyd until last year's Illinois game; his emergence as a reliable starting corner means he's surpassed most reasonable expectations for his career.
The final secondary recruit was safety Brandon Smith, whose guru ratings took a Marvin Robinson-like dive for very similar reasons:
Smith looks like a prototypical collegian at a strapping 6'2", 210, but the lack of big time offers is telling. It's easy to believe Smith could lure the gurus in with his impressive frame at various combines and inflate his ranking while leaving college coaches relatively unmoved.
Excitement level was only "moderate" and a move to outside linebacker predicted. Smith moved to linebacker, then announced his intention to transfer before the end of the 2009 season. He landed at Temple and is not listed on the 2012 spring roster.
This Did Not Go As Planned, Part II
Michigan's recruiting haul included four linebackers rated as four-stars by Rivals, providing promise of much-needed depth and versatility for the position group going forward. The class included New Jersey's Marcus Witherspoon (Spoon!)...
An explosive edge rusher who's probably too small to be a fulltime defensive end in college? Add four inches and some chicken legs and that sounds like Shawn Crable, who actually spent quite a bit of time as a defensive end anyway.
...as well as Youngstown product Taylor Hill:
What does Michigan have in Hill? The comparison above, Larry Foote, is a strong one. Like Foote, Hill is an undersized WLB who played his high school ball as a defensive end and specialized in getting into the backfield.
As you know, the Wolverines did not end up with new versions of Crable and Foote. Instead, Witherspoon hit a snag with the NCAA Clearinghouse and eventually signed with Rutgers, while Hill was on the team for all of one game before transferring to Youngstown State.
Fellow linebacker recruit J.B. Fitzgerald—"a good bet to be a multi-year starter"—also joined the ranks of the disappointing. Kenny Demens is the only class of 2008 linebacker to make a significant impact despite being pegged as a "low upside sort" and getting a less-than-complimentary player comparison:
Chris Graham may not be the most appealing comparison, but the elements are all there: a little undersized (I am of the belief the 6'1" frequently thrown around as his height is overstated), has difficulting getting through traffic, praised for his short range burst and thumping tackling. Graham never figured out how to play in control or get to the right place at the right time and was thus a disappointing starter; if Demens can play smarter he could be anything from a decent starter to a borderline all Big Ten pick.
Admittedly, that's a pretty accurate assessment. Now let's try to forget about the carnage of this class, which featured the legal adventures of Justin Feagin and Cissoko, not nearly enough Sam McGuffie YouTube magic, transfers from several critical commits, the hope that Witherspoon could mitigate the loss of Nick Perry to USC, and no Terrelle Pryor. Though, on second thought, that last bit turned out just fine.
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.
Eric Upchurch. Upchurch's spring gallery.
The Spring Game came and went and I don't think it was just me: this one seemed flat in comparison to previous editions. The last time Michigan had a spring game so devoid of intrigue it was 2007, when senior versions of Hart and Henne ruled on offense and Lloyd Carr was the coach. Carr often seemed like he'd prefer it if his team played in front of no one, and this tendency was most frequently expressed at spring games. 2007 was boring and that was the way of things: boring.
- 2008: closed to the public thanks to Michigan Stadium construction, we still get our first glimpses at the spread offense… and our doom. The sense of the willies you got reading descriptions of what went on (you dismissed it as meaningless spring game stuff because you didn't want to ruin your summer as well as your fall) was the first indicator of what we were in for. The turnover party did not stop until the season did.
- 2009: Tate Forcier's coming out party. Program savior gets a run out for the first time as an early enrollee, performs brilliantly, everyone high-fives. Ace puts together Weapon of Choice video that is then recut into Weapon of Choice w/ Christopher Walken video. Youtube now thinks this video is set to Avril Lavigne's "Girlfriend," which is Skynet-level commentary on how that Forcier thing worked out.
- 2010: Denard Robinson's coming out party. Program savior gets a run out for not quite the first time but definitely the first one in which he looks like a plausible quarterback, performs brilliantly, everyone high-fives. Afterwards mgovideo published cutups of all three QBs' snaps so people could engage in Lincoln-Douglass debates about who should be the starter.
- 2011: Will Al Borges stuff Denard Robinson into a pro-style offense designed for the exact opposite sort of quarterback? Answer: argh, yes. Spring game spawns offseason-long running debate about whether it's pure folly to move away from all shotgun, all the time. Borges participates in internal conflict version of that debate and generally sides with the shotgun crew, except against Iowa, for which we all pay dearly.
The past four years the spring game has been an important data dump that has indicated quite a lot of things about Michigan's season to come. Doom in 2008. Better quarterbacking the next couple years but with a fatal flaw: Forcier and Robinson's blowout performances came against Michigan's defense, which merely blew. Last year displayed to all how bad an idea it was to go under center a majority of the time.
This year Michigan spent about the same number of snaps as last year in the spread, ran Denard out there for one series, gave the established top tailback a few carries, and the whole thing was… just there, flopping around being dull and stuff.
Maybe this opinion is influenced by the fact that I wasn't there, but I don't think so. The things we think we found out are generally less exciting than "introducing DENARD ROBINSON!" and less important than the possibility we might totally screw him up. This is a sign of health in a program. It just makes this post a little less throbbingly important than it has been recently.
Anyway, there were some things we did learn…
DonkeyPuncher231 (please change that username someday, dear DP) has spliced together just about the whole thing:
The official site put out a highlight video about half that length:
An unofficial box score from AnnArbor.com. Notables:
- Gardner two of seven with an INT and 36 yards passing.
- Bellomy six of nine but the same yardage as Gardner.
- Gardner 9 rushes for 41 yards.
- Toussaint five for 39.
- Rawls 9 for 39.
- Hayes and Smith had one yard between them on 11 carries.
- "Unknown" caught two balls for 20 yards. Tacopants?
That data in hand, let's talk turkey.
Backup Quarterback Derby? I've Never Heard Of Such A Thing
Michigan's coaches took the Colonel Tressel approach to the obvious #1 storyline of the day, Russell Bellomy looking a lot better than Devin Gardner. Bellomy praise was ladled out but when a reporter asked point-blank who the #2 guy was, Hoke's response:
If you were to name a No. 2 quarterback today, who would it be?
“Well, it’s Devin.”
I see nossing. I do not comment on Devin Gardner throwing multiple five-yard dumpoffs in a manner that John Shurna thinks is unusual and Northwestern's perpetual 6'9" euro center who takes threes despite never making any of them thinks is inaccurate. Neither do I comment on Gardner throwing an interception that, while a pretty good play by one Blake Countess, was also very late.
Borges's Bellomy praise was specifically parceled out after a section of Gardner hype:
You gave most of the snaps to Devin Gardner and Russell Bellomy today …
“Yeah, that’s what we were trying to develop. We decided before we came in that we were only going to play Denard just a little tiny bit. We wanted to see these other kids.”
Thoughts on their springs overall?
“Yeah I think Devin in particular has had an outstanding spring. He’s really done some very nice things and has developed in the position more and more. Needs more time in situations like this where there’s a lot of people watching and the pressure’s on and all that, but he has really done a nice job. And Russ -- I said it last week and the week before -- Russ has been steady and solid and [when] guys get open he hits them. He makes very few mistakes. He’s just one of those kinds of guys. He too is very athletic and can get himself out of some messes. He’s a solid guy.
If Gardner's been really good and Bellomy uninspiring but solid and mistake-light throughout the spring, only one of these traits came through on Saturday.
Twitter took the evidence on hand, considered it carefully, and wrote out a PhD thesis about how Gardner was terrible forever and Bellomy should be the backup quarterback as Gardner became LarryJustin FitzeraldBlackmon. And, yea, because twitter always has the most considered opinions these were not immediately regretted in the morning and… actually, hold that twitter sarcasm for one twitter moment.
Do we of the twitter hivemind regret that? Let's consider the evidence. Last year Gardner got into various games and threw 23 passes. He was 11 of 23 for 176 yards (7.6 YPA), one touchdown, and one INT. There was also this:
The defense would like to add this:
That's not much to go on. Let's make our data big, at least insofar as it can be made so.
In three consecutive spring games he's looked bad. You may remember Jake Ryan bursting onto the scene last year with a pick six thrown directly at his dome by Gardner. Yeah. Stuff on Gardner from the last spring game post:
As per usual, many events from the spring game are in the eye of the beholder. Is Devin Gardner's inability to find anyone open an indictment of him, an indictment of the second-team wide receivers, or… uh… like… people being covered? I know that latter seems improbable but I have seen football games in which this has happened. …
Unfortunately, there was a lot that was unambiguously bad, most of it from the quarterbacks: interceptions whistled yards over the intended receiver's head or thrown directly at linebackers, a Mallett-like plague of dropped snaps, offsides calls, etc. The general impression was more 2008 than 2010. … The QBs sucked on their own. …
Devin Gardner was also inaccurate in drills. They have this dig route where a slot receiver works to the seam then cuts his route off 15 yards downfield and Gardner was consistently missing it.
Robinson went out and did okay for himself after that business, minimizing its importance in our attempts to judge him. For Gardner it remains a big chunk of the time we've gotten to see him.
Here's the video of the year previous:
A summary of that from the immediate aftermath:
Devin Gardner looked raw as hell, fumbling snaps, scrambling into trouble, and reverting to that ugly shotput motion whenever he was forced to throw on the run. He looked like a freshman, which is okay because he is a freshman. However, the torrent of spring hype that suggested Gardner would probably not redshirt because he would be Michigan's best quarterback by UConn… eh, not so much. Maybe it was just a bad day. Even if it was an off day, Robinson showed enough to relegate Gardner to the bench for the first couple games and hopefully his whole freshman year.
Gardner did show the his deep touch on a third and long seam to Odoms that was laid in perfectly. Odoms dropped it.
Gardner got safetied and intercepted on the same play and still probably had a better overall outing than he did yesterday.
So. This is our oeuvre. Now consider Michigan's situation:
- They didn't even attempt a long pass yesterday, presumably because they were all covered. After tight end, wide receiver is the position on offense that could most use an instant talent infusion.
- Most of the unambiguously good things Gardner did yesterday involved his legs. That scamper down the sideline… good lord y'all. It's not a big stretch to declare him the best athlete on the team outside of Denard, and given that size and wingspan he could be pushing close to #16.
- Bellomy looks like a competent game manager should the need arise.
- Given Robinson's previous two seasons at QB, the need almost certainly will arise.
- Moving Gardner away from quarterback gives Michigan exactly two QBs this year and next and means either a true freshman or low-profile redshirt sophomore starts for M in 2013.
What do you do with that? Hell if I know. If you still had Forcier around and recruited a 2012 quarterback I would be at the post office right now watching Hoke mail a bow-clad Gardner* to Jeff Hecklinski. If there were enough of us and a fiddle we'd probably be singing Hava Nagila and dancing.
*[He's also wearing a full uniform, pervs.]
In Michigan's current situation, moving Gardner is asking for this interlude in game nine:
MCDONAUGH: Michigan's quarterback is now Jack Kennedy. Ask not what your team can do for you, Jack, amirite?
MILLEN: He looks really, really sweaty.
MCDONAUGH: Astute observation, Matt. Jack Kennedy is soaked in a bodily fluid we dearly hope is sweat.
MILLEN: Someone should get him an IV. I… what is that? That can't be healthy.
MCDONAUGH: Jack Kennedy is leaving a trail of viscous material behind him that must be a slurry of sweat and pure, distilled fear. Here's the snap. Kennedy hands off from the I-form… Vincent Smith with a one-yard loss.
MILLEN: Can all that fluid really be coming out of his body?
MCDONAUGH: Take it from my uncle Morty: all that and more. Vincent Smith with a one-yard loss.
MILLEN: How can he even hold on to the ball?
MCDONAUGH: I have no idea. This series of one-yard losses may be the most heroic in football history. Vincent Smith tackled for a loss of one.
MILLEN: Just look at him not fumble that snap despite having lost half his body weight in the past six minutes.
MCDONAUGH: It's kind of beautiful.
MILLEN: For spacious skies. For aglumb waves of grain. For purple mounted mohair above the fruit-tossed Spain. AMERICAAAAAAA—
MCDONAUGH: Hagerup in to punt.
MILLEN: –AMERICAAAAAAAA, GOD SPED HIS FACE ON THEEEEEE. AND CROWN THY HOOD WITH BROTHERGOOD FROM PEA TO SHINGLING PEA.
MCDONAUGH: Inspiring stuff from Ann Arbor. Michigan has six yards of offense at the half. We'll be back after this commercial break.
SCENE. This may have been drug-induced.
Anyway. They'd probably just put Gardner in and hope they hadn't stunted his development to the point where he'd be totally useless. Things would go poorly.
Could you blame them that much, though? If Hoke reaches for the brass ring next fall and it blows up in his face because Denard goes down and the guy who was supposed to be his backup is at wideout, I probably wouldn't even be mad. It would suck, but I want a guy who will swing for the fences.
While the coaches are going out of their way to make it sound like that is not in the cards, sometimes the relationship between reality and what coaches have to say to not have horrible things happen is great. If Devin wants to be the #2 QB going into fall Michigan would be foolish not to downplay the WR stuff until he's on campus in the fall. Once he's there, then talk to him about moonlighting while still being the #2.
Gun to the head, I think he does see a lot of time at WR in fall camp. He'll still practice most of the #2 QB snaps but also taking a share of snaps at WR when Denard is out there. They'll teach him one of the four spots—probably Hemingway's—and use him in certain three and four wide receiver packages for 15-20 snaps a game. If he proves to be a top-flight guy quickly Michigan might not have much choice about using him more in tight games, but we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.
If Denard goes down for any length of time, it'll be Devin.
Meanwhile there are 20 or 21 other positions Michigan has to fill…
All Eyes(z) On Campbell
"It just means I can't slip at all, because I got 120 eyes on me now," Campbell said of leading the team on the field.
Well… there's no denying he looked a lot better.
Like, a lot. Last spring game guy was a lump who managed to not get blown off the ball most of the time and just about never did anything. During the year he was largely that with some nice plays mixed in, but too infrequently to be encouraging. In the spring game he had clearly progressed enough to actually beat his man to the gap more than once.
You know all those runs Rawls had where he had to abort mission and find another hole? Most of those were headed at Campbell. Since we got a baseline for Ricky Barnum in the time he got before his ankle injury last year—decent Big Ten player even then—that's a hopeful sign.
Mattison and Hoke hated it, though, hated everything. I am factoring in further improvement as this line Heningers themselves into ship shape by fall. Enough to survive a 'Bama onslaught? Probably not, but they'll be okay afterwards.
Other DL Items
Roh and Black each showed some pass-rush ability from their spots and neither got ostentatiously rammed into the endzone on a big run play. The going was tough for the offense. With four-ish starters back from an OL that paved the way for Michigan running backs—IE, no Denard—to average 5.7 YPA last year, I'll place that in the good column. The extremely tenuous good column.
One nice thing the moves do is it allows Mattison to play a ton of games with his line. Black and Roh can both function as outside DEs just fine, so Mattison can call plays where the line slants and stunts such that one of those guys ends up playing a WDE-ish slot whenever he wants. What Michigan lacks in bulk they'll have to make up for with quickness and the element of surprise; Mattison will have some chess pieces to do that with next year. Note that the touch sack on the Gardner waggle came from the containing… Black. Usually your three-technique is not the guy asked to do that.
The depth here was also encouraging. Richard Ash made a couple nice plays, which I was not expecting. One was an excellent string-out on a stretch play that forced the tailback to awkwardly cut behind him. I was beyond not expecting that. I don't think John Gasaway will get on me if I say I was shocked. Yeah. Later he showed up two yards in the backfield directly in the path of an iso; he got blocked from the side but the bounce he forced saw Marvin Robinson chop poor Vincent Smith down for a one-yard loss.
Redshirt freshman Keith Heitzman also was a standout on the second units, though his inability to flow down the line at the proper angle was the main issue on Rawls's fourth-and-short touchdown. He got into the backfield plenty. Once you've got a guy who can get there it's not that hard to get him to take the right angle against air.
Toussaint clubberates Morgan, via the Wolverine
None serious. Desmond Morgan took a cut block from Fitzgerald Toussaint and limped his way to the sidelines for the day; a source indicates that is not serious and shouldn't affect him at all. Jerald Robinson also had a minor boo boo that should not affect him.
The only player to miss the game was backup SDE Nate Brink, and that injury was no surprise since it happened before the Sugar Bowl. Barring a non-contact injury, Michigan should hit fall camp with everyone on the roster ready to go. Everyone save Brink, the suspended Josh Furman, and the mysteriously absent-but-returned now Tamani Carter got a full spring session in.
So they've got that going for them. That's a lot better than last year when five or six important players, including Toussaint and Lewan, were sidelined.
The Burzynski Start
World, meet Joey Burzynski, the redshirt sophomore walk-on who started at left guard in the spring game. That's not a huge surprise since a lot of shadowy spring practice reports praised him as a potential contributor and he had seen some time with the ones in the King of Tight Frames' highlight videos throughout the spring. His start may not mean anything more than Michigan wanted a decent right tackle (Elliott Mealer) on the second unit to give Bellomy a little time, but the guy started the spring game and must be considered an obvious member of the two-deep.
This is a development that strikes me as concerning. Redshirt freshman Chris Bryant has been getting a lot of shadow praise for a year now and he doesn't seem to be anywhere close to finding a starting job. Not only is he behind Mealer on most days when Mealer is a guard, he's behind Burzynski. Decrement your Bryant excitement meters.
No offense to Burzynski, but until proven otherwise the assumption here is that the spot featuring a walk-on is going to be a problem. Even if it's not that's a spot that will be subject to fierce competition in fall.
Q: does Michigan have enough faith in one of its incoming freshman tackles to move Kalis from primary tackle backup—this site's assumed role for him as a freshman—to left guard competitor? A: Dunno. I do know they like Ben Braden a lot, like far more than the recruiting sites did. Whether he's got the polish to be that third tackle or not I don't know. I would look at insta-move of Kalis inside as a good sign as far as Magnuson and Braden go. That'll be something to watch for in the spring.
Thomas Rawls: Ramming Speed
We got a few carries from Toussaint to remind us that yes, Virginia, Michigan has a true feature back again. The headliner amongst the backups was sophomore Thomas Rawls, who showed a knack in short-yardage ramming and the sort of spread-oriented north-south RAGE runs that Brandon Minor used to specialize in.
It was the short yardage that was most impressive. Michigan's OL was rarely getting Rawls the holes they intended to get him. I'll leave the debate about whether that was Mattison's DL being better than expected or the OL worse for people who enjoy debating impossibilities; what was certainly impressive is that when that happened to Rawls he downshifted behind wherever the intended hole was supposed to be and burst into the next one over—closer to the middle of the field. He lowered his head, knocked guys back, and showed enough presence of mind to reach the ball across the goal line when he was suspended near it. Your short-yardage back: check.
Rawls also displayed that north-south bowling ball mentality on a couple of belly plays from the gun on which flailing arm tackles failed to bring him down and he fell forward after contact. He's got enough of a package to also provide breathers for Toussaint when he wants out. He'll get 5-10 carries a game this year and fill a role. Not sure if he'll ever reach feature back status with two more years of Toussaint and the Isaac(?)/Smith cavalry coming in next season, but he doesn't have to to be a good idea.
Vincent Smith: Did I Do Something Wrong?
Dear Tiny Jesus,
It's me, Vincent. All praise to your save percentage. Could you make sure the spring game is the last time I ever run an iso play from under center? I never go anywhere and it hurts a lot when six 300 pound defensive tackles fling me into the natatorium.
Congratulations on your call-up with the Blue Jackets.
Tiny Bros Before Other Bros,
(Smith will be the third down back again and will level some dudes way bigger than he is to open up third down conversions. The power of Rawls hopefully compels Michigan not to run Smith out of the I any more.)
Spring game disclaimers apply, but where were Jerald Robinson and Roy Roundtree? They were out there. They were not targeted frequently. IIRC Roundtree got a hitch from Robinson on the first drive and then was not gone to again. Robinson featured from time to time but never as a downfield receiver, always as a checkdown option and usually a checkdown option being given a crappy pass.
The only receiver to make an impact was Gallon. I'd prefer Michigan's main target to be a big dude with a bigger catching radius, no offense Denard.
Secondary Status Quo
After a series of video clips heavily featuring comer Terrence Talbott with the ones instead of JT Floyd it was Floyd who got the start Saturday. He played well, making quick tackles on the short stuff. Later he broke up a slant on a goal-line situation only to get a horsecrap PI call (BOOO PRETEND REF, BOOO). While Talbott got some run, I don't think Floyd's job is under serious threat. Especially after Mattison gushed about him at that Glazier clinic some months ago.
As a unit the secondary was excellent. Countess got a pick and there were very few downfield completions. A skinny post from Gardner to Gallon stands out as the only one of note. Default note about how that makes the WRs look bad goes here; comparison to Michigan defenses pre-Mattison also does. To virtually skunk an offense in 60 plays is quality. With Talbott emerging Michigan seems to go four-deep at corner, maybe five or six depending on how ready Hollowell and Taylor are. The comparison to the Never Forget days is wondrous.
If the depth isn't quite as good at safety at least Jarrod Wilson and Marvin Robinson seemed on top of things… most of the time. Wilson was the guy Rawls made most of his highlights against. If either starter goes down there will be some hairy moments. One of the two should be able to replace 80% of Kovacs next year.
Robinson is out of the doghouse and to see him play well was good because I'd gotten some practice buzz that indicated he was out of shape. He's obviously not; he seems tuned in. Michigan will need him. Even if Furman's stuff was as minor as his lawyer suggests he'll be behind this fall. If it's not as minor he might not be available for a while.
Do Not Be Alarmed, Rich Rodriguez Is Still In Arizona
Formations and such: Michigan still can't run out of the I worth a lick, which is fine by me. I suppose we have to downshift into that stuff eventually, but I'd rather it be clear as day that the way to go is shotgun just to prevent any further Iowa-like misunderstandings of where Michigan's capabilities lie.
Aside from that the most interesting aspect of the day's formations was the most common set: two backs, three WRs, shotgun. That was the meat and bones of the spread and shred in its Slaton/White/Schmitt heyday and Michigan has a pretty good replica of that in Toussaint/Robinson/Hopkins, albeit without the spread-oriented OC and the lethality of the spread in the early aughts as allies.
This says what everyone expects about the TEs—yuck—and suggests that if Michigan can't block 'em they're going to spread 'em. If it's going to work they are going to have to make that gray area defender pay for cheating. We'll see.
Brandin Hawthorne: Mauler of Walk-ons
The most interesting thing that happened after Jack Kennedy entered, signaling the end of serious attention from most folk, was Brandin Hawthorne going ham. He shot a gap for a backfield TFL reminiscent of his slice into the Irish backfield late in that game, then intercepted a TE-bound ball on the next play.
He made a few other tackles here and there and looked… really good.
Now, we've seen him on the field and there's only one way Hawthorne making contact with a Big Ten blocker ends. That would be "poorly," and that would be why Desmond Morgan took his job last year and won't give it back this year.
I'm just saying, though. Just sayin' that when Michigan goes to a nickel package on a passing down I think having Hawthorne in there as a blitzer and cover guy instead of Morgan would behoove Michigan. Morgan's a little ponderous on his pass drops, and if it's a passing down Hawthorne's limitations against rushes aren't relevant. Just sayin'. Throwin' it out there.
You, athletic department intern who has to read these things: don't say you got it from me. Ask Mattison to repeat that thing he was saying a couple months ago about using Hawthorne as a nickel WLB and how smart that seemed even before he was killing walk-ons in the spring game. Yeah.
- Bellomy ran a QB power from the gun, so it's still there and it might stick around for a while. Bellomy did decently with it.
- There were also a few inverted veers, none of which went for a ton of yards. Gardner did impressively juke himself into a crease outside on one; he was blown dead before he could test it.
- Kaleb Ringer had an impressive track-and-tackle on Hayes in the open field off a dumpoff. Next play he whiffed a tackle on Toussaint (I think it was him).
- Jeremy Jackson's lack of separation from Blake Countess was… not surprising.
- Demens blanketed a Brandon Moore TE out that Gardner shouldn't have thrown but did; he made a nice play on the ball. His coverage is an underrated aspect of his game.
- Antonio Poole only popped up on my radar when he lost leverage on a Gardner scramble late.
Weather could have been worse. This is what Indiana was facing down for their now-cancelled spring game:
Tre Roberson put the One Ring into the fires of Mount Press Box and things returned to normal.
Random picture on the twitter:
Tuley-Tillman, Bosch… OH GOD WHAT DID THEY DO TO DENARD BREATHE BREATHEEEE
LaQuon Treadwell with Morris and Bosch:
Alumni game recap at AA.com.
Bullets and whatnot from:
Also AA.com has an article on Burzynski.
So I hit up a Glazier Clinic last week. I'm not sure what the etiquette is about actually talking about this stuff since the atmosphere in the room was not at all similar to press conferences in which carefully evaluated non-statements are provided. For instance, at one point Greg Mattison said that "I've never seen such awful technique" than that of the defensive line upon his arrival.
Mattison didn't say anything offensive, but he was very blunt. If he knew someone would be posting about it on the internet he might not have spoken like that, which means I probably shouldn't be in the room. But being in the room was exceedingly useful for me as I try to figure out what people are supposed to be doing on the field. So here's a mostly paraphrased recap that I don't think anyone could possibly get mad at.
I also listened to an hour of Funk after Mattison was done; having missed two hours of table-setting and lingo I had a hard time grabbing anything that I could relate to you. FWIW, Funk's presentation was three hours of inside zone minutiae—I don't think we're dumping zone any time soon. Craig Ross took in the whole thing and provided a few notes that I'll post Friday.
Mattison. Very personable, obviously a veteran of the clinic circuit. At points reminded me of a folk singer in one and only one very specific way: after explaining this formation or this coverage or this defense, he would fire off some zingers, get everyone to laugh, and then continue with business. I can see why he's regarded as a great recruiter.
His interest in teaching was also clear. Occasionally it felt like it was a college class as Mattison asked the room what player X would be doing in a particular situation. That lent a lot of credence to his assertion that one of two primary reasons he came back to college was a desire to "influence young men—that's what we do." (Brady Hoke was the other.)
On message. Mattison kicked the session off with about 30 minutes describing Michigan's philosophy, goals, and motivational techniques before getting into Xs and Os. He started by talking about Hoke; that "the one thing Brady did was bring back what made Michigan what it is." Michigan hasn't been "one of those teams loaded with unbelievable stars" but plays fundamentally sound, tough defense with maximum effort. Etc.
There were then the usual bits about Hoke's "Years: 133, Championships: 42" call-and-response and a statement that the Sugar Bowl was "fine" but he would trade 100 of them for a Big Ten Championship. The rooms say "THE TEAM THE TEAM THE TEAM," of course. The program is on message.
Position switches. As I wrestled with how to handle this various coaches in the room told every-damn-body that Mattison said Brennen Beyer was moving to WDE and Craig Roh to SDE. This was explicitly stated. Adjust the wiki pages.
Helmets to the ball. A major theme: "loafs" are not tolerated and Mattison wants to see the jersey of 10 guys at the end of every play. When he catches a defensive lineman getting passed by another one he asks the kid how fast he is, and when they say "4.7" he says "well that guy must be a 4.3 then."
At the end of the session Mattison was discussing a corner blitz they didn't run much because the corners didn't come hard enough. One of the cut-ups was from the end of the third quarter against OSU. This play:
The coaches' film is a wider shot and emphasized the huge distance Floyd had to make up to catch Miller before the touchdown. Mattison took the opportunity to point out that this was an example of the corners not coming hard enough and gush over Floyd ("I love this kid") in general and specifically as an exemplar of the Michigan philosophy. Floyd's effort led to this:
And that led to a field goal.
Bonus: For those looking for a reason other than blind luck that Michigan recovered 80% of opponent fumbles this year, in practice all incompletions are live balls. Mattison credited this practice for getting players moving towards the ball at all times and being in position to scoop up live balls in actual play.
Technique a priority. This was a feature of both the general philosophical section and the chalk talk. Mattison did not select the cutups himself—that was delegated to a video coordinator—and didn't know exactly what would come up. This made for an interesting dynamic as he evaluated each play live. He repeatedly digressed from his main topic to note the footwork of his linemen: Van Bergen is getting distance with his first step. All of these guys have identical footwork. There was also a long discussion about why your rush end needs to start with his outside foot back when he gets a tight end to him*. Etc.
In the philosophical section he noted that Michigan was probably the only team in the country with a head coach who coaches a position, that nose guard. It was at this point he told the story about Hoke coming to him fuming, saying he "wasn't going to be one of those head coaches who just walk around" and demanding a position group. He took the nose. Zinger: "now… I question why he coached the best player on the team."
Here he also noted that everyone hits the sled every day and that this was not something the previous coaching staff did frequently, if ever. This is where the bit about "I've never seen such awful technique" came in. Pretty much the only thing negative Mattison said was about the state of the team he was handed. Everyone who's surprised raise their hand. That's no one.
The final bit on this: "don't go be a scheme coach, focus on technique."
*[The reason is the biggest threat to the rush end in this situation is getting reached and if the tight end flares out to do so that first step needs to be one that gains him distance, something you can't do while remaining square if your outside foot is to the LOS. Disagreement with this appeared to be a pet peeve of Mattison's.]
Big plays. Obviously a priority just from the play on the field. Section on this concentrated on the secondary, declared the biggest problem with big plays. Hates it when safeties "look like blitzing linebackers" when there is a pile. He wants a cup around the pile and safeties to make tackles at least six yards downfield.
Now, that doesn't mean Jordan Kovacs needs to make a tackle six yards downfield. In this context a safety is a player in a deep zone. This is most often the corners and Gordon/Woolfolk.
Rotation. This is a Hoke thing Mattison was skeptical about: Michigan rotates the entire defense on every play of practice. Run on—snap—run off. This is "not pretty" when your 21st and 22nd best defensive players are going up against the first team offense but builds conditioning and depth and was credited for "saving the team" in the Sugar Bowl when injuries whittled down available defensive linemen to dust. Think Martin and Van Bergen in the third quarter.
Goal line philosophy. To Mattison it's simple: one zone "you run perfectly" and an all-out pressure.
When they're backed up. Mattison asked the crowd to think of what they are thinking when they've got the other team backed up, and then said "how many of you are thinking 'don't give up a big play'?" Mattison's been there and tries to fight that. Now if you're backed up, "if we have a great run pressure, we're coming after your ass."
This goes here.
Not exactly a run pressure but Michigan is sending all five guys on the line there. "When you have a chance, when they're backed up, go after their ass."
Third down. "For us, we're gonna pressure." Mattison on the end of the Akron State game:
You saw the Ohio game, you probably thought 'this guy is the dumbest sonofabitch in the world' He turned a wide receiver loose against Ohio a couple minutes left in the game.
But we intercepted it on the next play. Did we win? Yes. So we were aggressive and we won. [laughter]
So they'll be aggressive come hell or high water, that's clear.
4-3 versus 3-4: THE FINAL WORD. "We'd be here for hours" if someone tried to argue him away from playing the 4-3 under. Said something along the lines of "if you've got that 330 pound nose tackle and your ends and your linebackers, okay, God bless you." I thought of Pipkins—what is Mattison going to do with a 330 pound nose?
Anyway, Greg Mattison will never run a 3-4. End of story.
4-3 under assertions from the man himself. These aren't too different than the things you'll hear about the under when you read up on it on the internet but just to confirm, the basis of the defense:
- Rush end: "The whole thing is predicated on the rush." Must be a great player, and athlete who can spill power (ie, get into a pulling guard and stop him in his tracks), drop into coverage, and win one-on-one battles with the tight end. All that and he's got to be a ferocious pass rusher. More similar to the SAM linebacker than the SAM is to the ILBs.
- SAM linebacker. Must not be outflanked either in the run or the pass game. Hugely important not to give himself up one for one on the edge. [Editor's aside: that's something we were talking about a ton early in the year. It got a lot better as the season progressed.]
- Inside linebackers. The usual: the mike has to be a little bigger, a little stronger, and the will has to be able to adjust to coverage outside of the box. An important difference between the two is the WLB has to be able to run vertically down the seam whereas the MLB can pass his guy off; IIRC this year the guy running down the seam was Demens, not Morgan. Adjustment based on Demens's surprising ability to stick with guys downfield?
- Nose tackle. Also hugely important. "You cannot win with a weak nose." We should start calling our incoming five star "No Pressure Pipkins" right now.
- Corners. "Corners are corners" but the field corner (Countess) is not involved with "heavy work" and usually just has to clean up plays that have been strung out. The boundary corner (Floyd) has to be a bigger guy better in run support. It's a seven man front; if you go eight you'd "better have a war daddy" at field corner because he's got to cover an outside receiver with little additional help.
Michigan does not align to strength but rather aligns to field—ie, if you're on the left hash the SAM will be to the wide side of the field and if you're on the right hash the SAM will be to the wide side of the field. You can flip your tight ends all around and Michigan won't flip in response. I assume the flipping from earlier in the year was a necessary evil as Michigan tried to get everyone up on the new system.
The most important thing. One of the line shifts Michigan runs is called "pirate technique."
Kyle Kalis. Mattison saw one of the St. Ed's guys and mentioned that Michigan had recruited a "real man" out that school, one that "may just maul some of our guys."
Jake Ryan. Mattison said Michigan was "blessed" at SAM linebacker—probably including Beyer in that assessment—and that Ryan was a major player. A major player they probably wished they didn't have to run out as a freshman, but a major player.
Mattison referenced a particular play against Nebraska on which he lined up on the wrong side of the field. I remember that but I don't think it was against Nebraska; there's no mention of it in the UFR. "Still a lot of coaching to do" with him but it's clear they think he has vast potential.
JT Floyd. As mentioned, Mattison seemed enamored with him. "Love that kid."
Desmond Morgan. Came up on a couple of clips where he ended up clubbing offensive linemen. Mattison said something along the lines of "think he'll hit you?" And "is that good or what? For a little freshman?" It is unknown whether he has ever said "freshman" without preceding it with "little."
Morgan tipped one of the blitzes they run; Mattison mentioned that he told Morgan he'd play three technique if he kept it up. This is a common threat, as…
Kenny Demens. …they literally did this with Demens, playing him at nose so they could have Martin run the blitzes he wasn't coming hard enough on. In contrast, the SAM (Ryan) was called out as a guy who does come hard.
Some secondhand reports that the implication was Demens's job is under threat have filtered out to premium message boards; I did not get that vibe.
Jordan Kovacs. Michigan's "down safety" or "close safety"—I'll stick with strong, FWIW—was "tremendous."
Departing DL. Heininger "really became a football player." Seems like they think they'll miss him. Van Bergen "really, really played" for M and Martin was of course the best player on the team.