that makes one of us
MANBALL: BEATING the opponent with POWER running and repetitive CONTACT and MANLY CAPITALIZED WORDS.
West Coast: A symphony of route design and timing that puts defenses into a progression of impossible choices
Option: Isolate an unblocked defender so that he's forced into a Catch 22 decision.
Justin Verlander: A metaphor.
After reading Parts I, II and III of this series you might think a college offense must only be one of these things. That is a very effective thought, as the best offenses in college football according to people who can extricate offense from defense, special teams, winning, fairy dust, and these days seem to center around doing one of these things very well.
But doing one thing well and building around that isn't the only way to build an offense. In fact if you only do your one thing well and can't execute other things, the other team will adjust quickly and now you won't do your one thing well anymore. These were the points made in the previous articles, the first (Doctor Rocklove) to explain the terminology, the second (Rock, Paper, Scissors) to describe constraint theory and demonstrate a Rock/Paper/Scissors for four different philosophies. The third (Pulls Bazooka!) got into the concept of vanilla defense. This last asks the question: what's Michigan's rock?
The Verlander Effect: Doing Multiple Things Well is Good
I'd like to first hone in on how "Rock" is used in this context, since it's not just another cell in an equal triangle matrix.
In honor of Opening Day today I'll use a baseball metaphor. Pitchers, like offenses, usually build a strategy out of a maximizing the effectiveness of one thing they are exceptional at. A 95+ mph 4-seam (ie straight-up) fastball is a common "rock" pitch that will, to a typical batter looking for any kind of pitch, give the most trouble. To keep hitters from sitting on the fastball, the pitchers use slow-speed secondary pitches, for example a curveball and/or changeup. This is the constraint theory at play. But when you break down the pitch selection of a typical Fastball-Curveball-Changeup starting pitcher, you'll notice quickly that the fastball is between 40% and 50% of his pitches. Football offenses function on the same principle: throw the fastball, and mix in curveballs and changeups to keep the hitters/defense from overreacting to, and thus killing the effectiveness of your heater.
Now to relate this to Michigan's offense. You see, not everyone has the same suite of pitches. Among Tiger starters Doug Fister is the normal fastball-curve-changeup guy, but Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello both use a 2-seam fastball, ie a breaking fastball, as "rock." This pitch will dive downwards and (righty on righty) inwards. The downward motion gets a hitter aiming for the meat of the baseball to hit the top of the ball instead, the spin absorbs some of the power of the stroke, and the result is a lightly hit ground ball. To keep hitters from simply adjusting their aim, the 2-seamer's constraints are a 4-seamer (leading to a pop-up), and a slider, which has a lateral motion opposite that of a 2-seamer.
This brings us to Justin Verlander, the best pitcher in (and MVP of) the American League last year. Justin's "rock" is a killer 4-seam fastball – it has lots of lateral movement and lots of velocity and is a total bitch to hit. In a season between half and two thirds of his pitches will be the fastball. However any MLB hitter who is looking for any fastball will be able to hit it, just as Northwestern defenders can stop a Wisconsin rushing attack if they're looking for it or a I-AA team can...let's not go there. Justin also has a devastating curveball and changeup, both of which will F you up if you're looking for his fastball. Verlander's curveball is like Cam Newton's arm: the constraint is good enough in its own right that you can't beat it unless you're overreacting to it, in which case you're now going to be eaten alive by the fastball and changeup.
In 2010 and 2011, Verlander leapt from being a great young pitcher to undeniably elite. What happened is he developed a 2-seamer game. The two-seamer and the slider arrived in 2010 and now account for about 15% of Justin's pitches.
This is all strategy; the other 90% is execution.
What Does Michigan Do Very Well?
The offense of 2011 at its apex was versus Ohio State. Since the Sugar Bowl strategy became "dear God stay away from the middle" on account of Molk playing gimpy, last year's Game is also the best representative we have so far (other than practice video zoomed into Toussaint's nostril hairs) of the 2012 offense. So let's re-live that game from the perspective of formation, personnel, philosophy, and RPS to get a feel for the current Borgesian ideal.
Remember, personnel is the number of RBs and number of TEs, so 22 is two of each. Subtract the total RBs and TEs from 5 to know the number of receivers. I defined "Value" on this scale: 1: Fail. 2: Got some yards, not what it was supposed to. 3: Did what it was drawn up to do. 4: Did better than it was drawn up to do. 5: Broke open for big yardage/score.
|M31||2||5||Shotgun||12||Zone read belly||Option||Rock||1||0|
|O47||1||10||Split Backs||21||Flare screen||West Coast||Scissors||4||6|
|O41||2||4||Shotgun||20||Inverted veer keeper||Option||Rock||5||41|
|M48||1||10||Denard Jet||12||Jet sweep||MANBALL||Rock||3||5|
|O40||1||10||Denard Jet||12||Counter pitch||MANBALL||Rock||2||3|
|M7||1||10||Shotgun||11||Zone read dive||Option||Rock||2||2|
|M9||2||8||Shotgun||11||Inverted veer keeper||Option||Rock||1||2|
|M20||1||10||Shotgun||10||Zone read dive||Option||Rock||2||3|
|M20||1||10||Shotgun||11||Zone read keeper||Option||Rock||1||1|
|M22||2||9||Shotgun||11||PA TE flat||Option||Paper||3||7|
|O16||1||10||Shotgun||11||Inverted veer give||Option||Rock||2||2|
|O14||2||8||Ace||12||Waggle TE flat||MANBALL||Paper||2||3|
|O6||1||G||Shotgun||12||Zone read dive||Option||Rock||1||0|
|O6||2||G||Shotgun||20||Inverted veer keeper||Option||Rock||5||6|
|M20||1||10||Shotgun||11||Inverted veer give||Option||Rock||4||8|
|M39||2||2||Shotgun||20||Inverted veer give||Option||Rock||3||4|
|M43||1||10||Shotgun||20||Triple option dive||Option||Rock||3||4|
|M47||2||6||Shotgun||12||Triple option keeper||Option||Rock||3||5|
|O45||1||10||Shotgun||21||PA TE seam||Option||Paper||5||26|
|O13||2||4||Shotgun||12||Triple option pitch||Option||Rock||1||-7|
|M10||2||9||Shotgun||11||QB draw||West Coast||Scissors||4||10|
|M20||1||10||Shotgun||20||Inverted veer keeper||Option||Rock||5||22|
|M42||1||10||Shotgun||20||Triple option dive||Option||Rock||2||3|
|M45||2||7||Shotgun||11||PA rollout out||MANBALL||Paper||3||4|
|M28||2||7||I-form||21||Waggle deep out||MANBALL||Paper||5||20|
|O31||2||In||I-form||21||Power off tackle||MANBALL||Rock||3||5 + 13 Pen|
|M13||1||10||Shotgun||11||Zone read keeper||Option||Rock||2||3|
|M10||2||7||Shotgun||11||Inverted veer keeper||Option||Rock||3||6|
|M4||3||1||Goal Line||23||Waggle TE corner||MANBALL||Paper||3||4|
|50||1||10||Shotgun||11||Zone read dive||Option||Rock||1||-1|
|M49||2||11||Shotgun||10||QB draw||West Coast||Scissors||5||16|
|O37||1||10||I-form||21||Power off tackle||MANBALL||Rock||5||20|
|O17||1||10||I-form||21||Power off tackle||MANBALL||Rock||2||2|
|O5||2||G||Goal Line||23||Power off tackle||MANBALL||Rock||3||5|
|O1||3||G||Goal Line||23||Bootleg||MANBALL||Paper||1||1 (pen -25!)|
Non-bullets with charts:
Counting "Denard Jet" as another Ace formation, here's the breakdown:
|Philosophy||Shotgun||Ace||I-form||Split Backs||Goal Line||Total|
And the breakdown by RPS %:
As you can see the RPS rolls look more like a Verlander pitch-type tracker than a triangle matrix of equal things. You can also see Borges working in his West Coast game like a 2-seamer/slider tandem. If there was a base play in there it's probably the zone read from a Shotgun 1-back, 1-TE formation, with the blocking switched up (read: "veer"). Borges threw a lot of fastballs, but it worked:
Remember 3.0 on my value scale means the offense was getting that 3rd down conversion, that 5 yards on 1st down, or setting up that 3rd and short every time. Manball accounted for about 72% of plays, and its effectiveness was strong, including many plays that broke big. The corollary of rock's effectiveness was that the constraints all performed better. This offense was working. About the only complaint here is that the Option game was totally missing a constraint. There was one play where Michigan actually faked this constraint—you know what that constraint is—and it was wiiiiide open, but then the play went rock and got stuffed. This is a minor complaint.
* Y U NO BUBBLE SCREENS?
What the hell was this offense?
It was Fastball-Curveball, with some West Coast sprinkled in. Even Rich Rodriguez's Pat White teams would sprinkle in that much pass-first philosophy, because that's another type of changeup you can throw. What we see here though is that the Option-from-Shotgun philosophy and MANBALL-from-mostly-shotgun philosophies are working in tandem. If you recognize this, it's really not all that different than Michigan's offense in 2010. If you have Denard, you run POWER with him, or you use him in a zone read option.
So after all that you're saying Al Borges is running the same offense Rich Rodriguez ran?
Wait, you were the subheads a second ago; when did you become a bolded alter-ego?
Answer the question!
Well no because it was just 75% shotgun versus like 85%, but other than that, yeah, kind of. But it's not Rich Rod's offense (the Zone Read) from West Virginia; it's what RR did when he got Denard. And I might point out that this was against Ohio State, so while I'm using it as a stand-in for the 2012 offense, that's not quite right because Borges has said and shown in other games that he's not going to have Denard run this often. This was Ohio State; this was balls to the wall.
The lesson of the 2011 offense is that Borges believes in all of this stuff, and despite earlier reticence, is happy to take the best of different philosophies and best use his personnel. And he can identify what that is.
The other thing is how he uses things other than the normal constraint plays as his changeups. Michigan is pitching with a plus-fastball and plus-curveball out of the same "motion," in this case formation. The personnel change on virtually every play, and the changeups are rare and (sometimes) devastatingly effective.
As a 2011 strategy it was frustrating during Iowa to see Michigan come out in an I-form on 1st and 10 in the 1st quarter, and then to hear Borges in the press conference treat questions about that as if we were asking about I-form on 2nd and 2 in the 4th quarter when Michigan's in clock-kill mode. This he learned, as he learned the best way to use Denard is to keep the threat of his legs involved in everything.
So why all the "Power" in the press conferences?
We learned this isn't actually philosophic zeal so much as the fact that one of the key benefits of running power for coaches is getting to say the word "Power" in press conferences. One of the nice things about Power is using the rhetoric, and until the massive incoming linemen and rocket-armed QB and pounding tailbacks and stable of tight ends and tall receivers are on hand to make a Wisconsin offense a reality, these coaches will be happy to take the best of all philosophies and run with them.
Next time in this series (last time?), I'll tackle why recruiting for the Wisconsin offense is perhaps a good idea for the future.
If you read Heiko's 3/22 presser transcript you probably guessed already what the MSM angle would be for this spring. If you missed it, here's the highlights:
"Hello everyone. It's Spring. Spring is FOOTBALL TOUGHNESS time. [Points off-screen]. Toughness and finishing. I'll now take questions that are not about Will Campbell."
Can you name some positions that you feel need to be addressed after last year's departures?
"Well you may not realize this but we lost three guys on the interior of the defensive line so I'm really looking for someone to step up th…say, this isn't a question about Will is it?"
Do you feel like you need guys on the line to be team leaders?
"Oh yes absolutely. Seniors, guys on the line, seniors on the line mostly. You, the Asian kid in the back!"
What do you like specifically about Elliott Mealer at the left guard spot?
[everyone grabs coffee while Hoke answers a few uninteresting questions about condo-blocking or whatever F you]
Have you seen consistency out of Will Campbell so far?
"I'd say that he has been consistent when he's consistent, but that hasn't been consistent. What we're looking for from all of our players is that they're always consistent, and not just consistent some of the time. He is mostly consistent, but when he gets inconsistent, that's when there's consistency issues. When there's inconsistency we have consequences, which we call 'consistequences,' and he has been very consistent at winning consistequences."
Last year you coached the interior defensive line. Does that mean you're going to be coaching W…
When a player is perceived as a blue chip out of high school is there a…
How long does Will Campbell have to prove himself?
Well after four years of playing they lose their eligibility so, hey where's everybody going?
Eric Lacy, the Detroit News:
Ann Arbor — Time is running out for Michigan senior defensive tackle William Campbell to prove he deserves to be a starter.
Michael Rothstein, ESPN Wolverine Nation:
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- He's down to his last chance. For three seasons, defensive tackle Will Campbell has oozed potential and possibility. From the acclaim he came in with from Cass Tech in Detroit to his massive size, everything about him appeared to be can't miss.
Nick Baumgardner, Ann Arbor.com:
For Will Campbell, the sand in the hourglass of his Michigan football career is starting to thin out.
There were other angles. Kevin Minor of Rivals.com eschewed the tick-tock approach to stretch "he lost 35 pounds" into 800 kind words from his buddies. The AP reporter led with both O and D lines and didn't get to BWC's countdown to oblivion until the 7th graph. Mark Snyder went with the tight ends because #ManballIsEverything. Drew Sharp almost assuredly said something that made Drew Sharp sound dumb.
When I interviewed Ryan Van Bergen a couple months ago, we talked a bit about Will. The gist of the discussion revolved around Will knowing his role, knowing what's needed of him and that it's simply a matter of execution. Ryan was clear in saying that near the end of the season, Campbell started to realize how important he was to Team 133's future. Apparently, Will has gotten the message, as the coaching staff is impressed with his developing leadership skills this off-season.
The Viking Age
What you are witnessing here is a going on six-year Norse saga as told by contemporaneous headlines: "Gone Viking: Sluggish Scandinavian Economy Forces Soldiers to Seek Fortunes on High Seas." Told as narrative it's so much better:
The legend began when he committed to Lloyd Carr in the summer before his junior year of high school. Pre-Hoke a high-profile kid pulling the trigger more than a year out sounded weirder; you're going to have to trust me on this. Four Nick Sheridan quarters into 2008 he then decommitted so he could give everyone a heart attack at the Army Bowl. His freshman year he enrolled early with expectations of replacing the graduating Taylor. Then Will hit a wall, apparently because his all-important pad level was too high to penetrate it. My Sparty little brother began reminding me that NCAA'10 Will Campbell was an 85 and Greg Jones a 74, this being supreme evidence that MSU can justify being the trolls of college football for having to put up with such perpetual indignities. Barwis set about rebuilding him as Barwis does, and in retrospect that freshman year should have been a redshirt, but you can't really redshirt a 5-star DT when you just graduated most of your defensive line, right?
The saga's nadir was reached his sophomore season. Enough folks were ready winding up to pitch the b-word by then that MGoUser West Texas Blue penned a "don't use the b-word" diary showing his progress was about on par with most of his classmates except (sigh) DeQuinta Jones. When things didn't go so well that year, the warrior threw down his sword/hammer/axe/polearm/seax/whatever F you to serve as a backup guard, a less prestigious post given to Vikings who cannot strike low enough to defeat a shield wall. Will got up to 350 pounds and served a quote about being lazy that fit the narrative.
But with the rise of the new king, Brady Hokesson the Pointer, and thanks to many battle losses among the hirdfense, Will was called back to the D-line. This is the rising action where the warrior is trained by three of the Great Wise Men of Nose Tackledom and we get a montage of weight running, coaches yelling "STAY LOW!" and "USE YOUR HANDS!", and much punishment of sleds. This culminates in a flash of +5 in the UFR for Notre Name, followed by the first reveal of god-like powers against Illinois sometime between before and after the Illini Zooked out for the year. Now it approaches its climax. Post-montage he is 315 and a leader and we still have no idea if he'll be good enough to give Michigan a shot at a great defense this year. Will he? Won't he? And the girl?
Guess how much time is left?
I don't know, dude, 13 games or something. Let me watch! And for the record pointing out that there's 1/4 left to go right when the film's getting good is just as annoying as it sounds like.
Why the fascination?
The obvious answer is as obvious as a press conference angle. Here's a list of every Michigan player recruited from 2008 to 2011 who was was a 5-star to at least two major sites (Rivals, Scout, ESPN):
|William Campbell||DT||6'5"||317||6.1 (5 stars), 5th DT||5 stars,
|79 (high 3 stars),
That is the list. Gardner, Turner and Cissoko got the 5th from Scout and nobody else.
My own obsession on Will led me to that study of body shapes earlier this year, and also led me to ask various people who know football better than I do what's so hard about learning pad level. Their answers were between "it's actually really hard," and "YOU try learning to do a thing that your brain is sure is going to break your spine."
Rivals slotted Big Will just under fellow DT and similarly sized Chris Davenport of LSU. Davenport is now going into his redshirt junior season as LSU's top backup at OT, unless he's passed this spring by sophomore Evan Washington. There's nothing particularly remarkable about Davenport in circles who follow guys in Davenport's position carefully. They have plenty of 5-stars waiting their turns, and even more dudes who don't make an impact until their fourth year on campus. That is to say they only want Davenport taken outside and disemboweled for not living up to his hype about as often as they want him to replace the guy ahead of him (second-team All-SEC junior Chris Faulk); for the SEC this is considered a placid reaction.
Michigan is hardly a place that has never seen a blue chip. We have also seen blue chips morph into spectacular busts, and tables that explain this to us by showing things like 50%+ of 5-stars get drafted by the NFL while dramatically smaller %s of lesser star ratings do so, and can remind ourselves that once in awhile everyone who recruits 5-stars ends up with one from the half that don't become superstars. This is binary and human brains are good at binary.
What we're not quite as used to, what the old narratives don't really know how to address, is the blue chip who's kind of just a really good teammate who's working hard and has some talent and some technique issues that take a long time to work out but is slowly becoming the kind of guy who's a consistent contributor. If all you saw was the ESPN rating you'd be fine with this.
Eventually the Mathlete is going to come out with a PAN-based bell curve to replace our binary "made it or didn't" tables but when he does I bet you it looks like this:
The "inconsistency" and "…when he chooses to use them" and "out of shape" quotes that have escaped at times fit a narrative we do know: the loatheable, self-absorbed pre-star who wastes his God-given talents enjoying the benefits of them. But that is not at all Will Campbell. Those who interview him find him jovial, if a little shy. There's no hint of academic issues (he's on track to graduate in four years). The inconsistency isn't from lack of willpower (ha!) but the fact that a 6'5" guy needs to do worse things to his spine than a guy who's 6'3" in order to "get low." After essentially trolling recruiting followers he hasn't to my knowledge so much as registered a femto-ego on college football's touchy-ass vanity sensors. This means nothing except, no, it does: he loses rap battles to guys from Whitehall, Michigan:
More than anything he's proof that completely normal college guy brains exist in pretty much every kind of body, including incredibly athletic 6'5" 350-pound ones. And that normal guy brains are wired much more strongly that we credit them to not get spinal injuries.
When pressed with "when will we get our Norse god of nose guards" questions the coaching staff now answers with "he's a leader who leads defensive line meetings and sets up extra film sessions." Again, you can read too much. He's the senior and doing the things the seniors do, and while he should get credit for that it's not like this is at all out of character for normal likeable college guy.
Does the recruiting hype still mean anything? Yeah, kinda, since if you read his recruiting profile it still has him pretty dead to rights except for the timeline. You can also peer into his UFRs from last year and find less than superstardom, but also non-air:
|WMU||Campbell||-||2||-2||This is not happening.|
|ND||Campbell||5||-||5||Please be real.|
|EMU||Campbell||3||2||1||Doesn't seem that real.|
|SD State||Campbell||4.5||1||3.5||Keep hope alive.|
|Minnesota||Campbell||4||-||4||"Get off me"|
|MSU||Campbell||-||-||-||Did not register.|
|Purdue||Campbell||2||1||1||Not getting a ton of push.|
|Iowa||Campbell||-||4.5||-4.5||Got cut to the ground and was a major culprit on two long runs.|
|Illinois||Campbell||4||-||4||Time to get excited about him again until next week.|
|Nebraska||Campbell||1||-||1||Also crushed face.|
|Ohio (NTO)||Campbell||1||-||1||Didn't register.|
Given no Martin, no RVB, and not even a Heininger (unless Brink is as Brink-y as they said he'd be last year, or Ash/Washington/Pipkins surprise), Campbell is almost assuredly going to start this year as the anchor of the defense. Whatever terrible coaching he got from missing out on a redshirt season and the switch to offense and whatever you count RR's staff as, it's hard to point to a guy in college football who's had access to higher quality position coaches than he has since last year.
Maybe he'll be a superstar. Probably he'll just be somewhere between decent and good. I feel like we've been saying that for a long time, but in the absence of real information what else is there? The trickles from insiders who know they're going get these same questions say things that suggest the talent, the arms, the strength, are all there and he's gotten better. We all want to know—I desperately want to know—but the answer for this one really just is let's wait and see.
As for help from Pipkins, Michigan's 2012 freshman 5-star DT, I wouldn't want to bank on it. He doesn't have Campbell's height—he's 6'3—but watch the video: he has some fundamentals to learn. Another saga, that.
A-Train, Perry, Hart. Photos archived from MGoBlue.com
Here is what has Michigan football fans all aflutter this week: With two 4-star running backs committed to our class, do we still have room for a 5-star running back? #firstworldproblems. Since this is our concern, I thought we'd take a look at the prospective depth charts that past Michigan RBs committed to and see if the prospective mountain for 2013 prospects is any harder than the typical Michigan starting tailback's, prospectively speaking.
When the next class arrives in 2013 Toussaint and Hopkins—a permanent fullback I mention because he's the B.J. Askew type of fullback who will eat up carries—will be seniors, and Vincent Smith will be gone. Barring attrition, the next generation, i.e. the guys an additional 2013 commit should expect to be competing with, will then look something like this:
- Thomas Rawls, Junior
- Justice Hayes, RS Sophomore
- Drake Johnson, RS Freshman
- Dennis Norfleet, RS Freshman or Soph.
- Wyatt Shallman, Freshman
- Deveon Smith, Freshman
Three RBs in the 2013 class gives us potentially five freshmen competing for carries with a sophomore and a junior. "Barring attrition" would almost be a fool's gamble given the history of the position in all my years of following Michigan, except Hoke's program has so far (very small sample) been actually kind of remarkable in holding onto guys—policy is to give them all the benefit of the doubt.
Anyway we have the dudes; if Iowa RBHG gets bored one day he will find too many sacrifices for even his mighty, smite-y hand. This means Michigan is doubtful to take any more add-on running backs to pack the roster unless they or someone on the list is switching to defense. However there is absolutely room—even a need perhaps—for a high-profile back in this class.
The recruiting profiles of a lot of these guys suggests any could be beatable by a hypothetical freshman 5-star. Norfleet and Johnson were both very under-the-radar guys. The former and Justice Hayes are more like scat-backs who could as easily end up as slot-kick returners (though from yesterday's Spring video it looked like Hayes has bulked up a bit since last year, or else someone else is wearing 5. Insiders?). Asking if Shallman is really a running back is entering the realm of media cottage industry. Rawls is so Kevin Grady. At this point Smith is a 4-star to Scout, an Anton Campbell Memorial "no idea, but I guess he committed to Michigan" 3-star to Rivals and a guy named Smith to the other sites. Throw a dart at that group in two years and you could hit anything from (respectively) Mark Ingram/Steve Breaston/Barry Sanders/Mike Hart/Ron Dayne/Eddie George Except Faster to six Brackenses.
Of all positions tailback seems the most freshman-friendly, so it's not as necessary to stockpile today for 2017. On the other hand if you look at Michigan history the lesson is MOAR TAILBACKS. In fact Michigan's great running backs of the last two decades have mostly committed to apparent depth charts way more jammed with highly rated players and established starters:
The thing that's readily apparent is the youth. Michigan averaged about two recruits per year at RB, and graduated one a year. Some didn't move far—Chris Floyd, B.J. Askew, and more recently Stephen Hopkins switched to a type of ball-carrying fullback. A good many switched to defense. A good many quit the team too. But look at the depth charts so many highly rated backs committed to:
- Tshimanga Biakabutuka would have to beat out Tyrone Wheatley, Rickey Powers, and Ed Davis, not to mention a higher rated recruit in his own class. He earned 149 carries in two years versus that group then became his own legend as a junior.
- Chris Howard signed on with two all-everything backs with a sophomore Biakabutuka already established, and ended up the nominal starting RB for a national champion.
- Clarence Williams, the Cass Tech mite, didn't seem afraid of larger classmate J.R. Ford or the aforementioned guys; he beat out Howard and Floyd as a freshman, became the feature back as a sophomore, and spent his whole career battling Howard, Floyd, and A-Train for carries.
- Anthony Thomas was the second-least heralded of four heralded backs who might have believed they were coming in to wait two years for Howard and C-Will to clear out. The train arrived at the starting station his freshman year and eventually broke most of Michigan's rushing records.
- Justin Fargas signed up beside Walter Cross, while freshman A-Train was tearing it up, and before A-Train's classmates skedaddled.
- B.J. Askew came in with three other freshman backs, including 5-star Ryan Beard, when Thomas had two more years, and two more 5-stars, including the electrifying Fargas, had three.
- Chris Perry had about the clearest route to the starter's gig of anybody, but that still meant behind two 5-stars with sophomore eligibility (Beard, Fargas), and one junior (Cross).
- Mike Hart might have looked like depth no matter which class he signed onto. To win the starting job as a true freshman he beat out senior David Underwood, junior Pierre Rembert, sophomore Jerome Jackson, and higher rated freshman Max Martin.
- Kevin Grady saw the freshman duo leap to the top of the depth chart in 2004 yet opted to join the Wolverines in 2005.
- Brandon Minor and Carlos Brown arrived when Grady was to be a sophomore and Hart had two more years as starter locked down.
- Shaw's snake-oiling away from Penn State was to join McGuffie and Cox as the generation that should wait two years for Minor/Brown to clear out. McGuffie hurdled everyone to start much of '08.
- Fitz Toussaint and Vincent Smith signed on before McGuffie left, and piled into a two-seater filled with eight other RB-or-Slot bug types.
- Hopkins signed up to maybe be the thunder guy in case they wanted to keep that job after Minor left, but still had to contend with the boatload of slot bugs.
The list of guys who didn't commit to imposing depth charts full of established and/or hyped underclassmen reads thusly: Kelly Baraka, David Underwood, Pierre Rembert, Darnell Hood, Alijah Bradley, Jerome Jackson. The moral: if you want to be the starting tailback for Michigan you always have to compete against other highly rated backs. This isn't coach speak; it's the standard. A running back who commits here is almost 50% likely to end up at another position or another school. Standard operating procedure is to arrive behind an established junior star and last year's freshman phenom, and if you manage to earn carries against those guys there's still two more classes of blue chip backs arriving after you to steal them.
Enough Carries to Go Around
So two things are true: Michigan has for a long time recruited many more guys than they need at the running back position, and the position has experienced a lot of attrition and position switches. The latter was probably by design; Lloyd Carr recruited at least Weathers, Woody Hankins (who was an RB as a freshman and as a junior), Ian Gold, Jon Shaw, Charles Drake and Darnell Hood with the idea of a defensive swap in mind. Anyway it never stopped the parade of hyped backs to Ann Arbor, despite the fact that until 2008 the coaches always preferred a feature back kind of system. A quick look at the numbers shows there were a lot of carries slipping through the starters' grasps:
|Year||Starting Tailback||Class||Carries||ALL RB Carries||% RB Carries|
|Total||ALL STARTERS (not itals)||--||3,832||6,881||55.7%|
Note: In years with two players listed, the one in italics is the nominal backup who got carries due to the nominal starter's injury. Their stories are intricate and known. Anyhoo, speaking to this year's freshmen, if anything it's not the other backs they should be worried about; it's Denard taking carries away from the entire RB corps.
The closest comparison to the situation for a hypothetical three-man 2013 class is probably 2004 (the year Hart won the job), since there's a lot of guys on the roster now whose profiles would suggest "just a guy" more than "future star." Any year between 1997 and 2000 makes a good case study for a seemingly insurmountable climb for any one recruit, but even in the heart of the A-Train years there were plenty of carries that went to guys like Justin Fargas and B.J. Askew. There were also plenty of Ryan Beard/Walter Cross/Ray Jackson/Pat McCall types who came with hype and couldn't crack the depth chart.
This is what Wyatt Shallman and Deveon Smith are signing up for. Given Michigan's history of stockpiling talent at this position, adding a five-star to this class is no deviation from the norm; in fact it would probably bring us closer to a "typical" depth chart. Fitz will be a senior when these guys arrive, and none of Drake Johnson/Dennis Norfleet/Justice Hayes/Thomas Rawls at this point should seem more insurmountable than, say, a Jerome Jackson. On the other hand an Isaac commit would mean carrying eight scholarship backs in 2013, something we haven't done since 1997. It's way too early to predict this kind of stuff but I'm sure jamiemac wouldn't call you crazy for a Justice Hayes to receiver prop. And while we can't ever plan for transfers, busts, or injuries, and I certainly hope all of these guys play out their eligibility, I don't think anybody is willing to bet on that. If Michigan wants to take another blue chip, history says there is room and opportunities available. However it's not the year Michigan can afford a scholarship for a depthy flier dude to keep up alumni relations or something like that.
Shouldn't Spock be in this?
Hi. Me. Back. So before that much-appreciated vacation, I used this space to talk about constraint theory of offense and provide a rock-paper-scissors matrix for offensive/defensive play calling in various offenses. Today I'm on to Part III, the one where I tell you that Rock-Paper-Scissors is only a fraction of the football head game, because the actual decision trees are far too complicated for even a coach to play all of the interactions, let alone teach them. Moreover, unlike in RPS, or super-advanced-nuclear-capable-canid RPS, there are levels to things: scissors cuts paper better than it cuts (but still cuts) woven kevlar.
Rock-Paper-Scissors is a game you learn to play on the bus ride to school in 2nd grade or thereabouts. It is a very simple, 2-dimensional, triangular matrix:
…meaning every point interacts with every other. It's one dimension past a coin flip but you still only need to remember three interactions (yellow lines). Based on your personal capacity for testing the limits of social institutions, you either very quickly or eventually tried to insert an additional dimension to the triangular matrix, and realized that you were exponentially increasing the amount of interactions you had to remember.
Your 2nd grade mind didn't draw this; it just exploded the same way it might if you interlaced Grbac to Howard, Wangler to Carter and Robinson to Roundtree into the same video. Then it came up with a brilliant way to add a point without adding dimensions:
Bazooka!!! Bazooka blows up rock. Bazooka turns scissors into mangled slag. Bazooka leaves only scant streaks of carbon where once was paper. This idea is not totally silly, since defensive coordinators call bazooka like all. the. time.
Bazooka = Vanilla
Just as the offense wants to get really good at one basic thing and then do that thing all the time, many defenses are deploying the same concept. It's a bit harder for them because they have to react to various offenses on the schedule and various plays, but the concept's the same: the defense wants to stay in a scheme that is basically sound, and will mix in blitzes and different coverages as constraints, so that they can keep running their well-practiced, mostly sound blanket defense. Bazooka is a jack of all trades, solid against the run, solid against the pass, solid against tomfoolery, and vulnerable only to great offensive play and their own physical/mental limitations.
Defenses are a bit more varied than offenses but the most popular vanilla D these days, as I mentioned in the earlier discussions, is a Cover-2 zone (above-left) against run-first teams, or the Tampa 2 against pass-ier teams (above-right).
The difference between those two is in the MLB's coverage duties—in a Tampa he has the deep middle, in a regular Cover 2 he has the short middle and can be more involved in the run game. Everybody, including the cornerbacks, are hovering around close enough to gang-attack running plays like a pincer; and soft spots in the zone (everyone has them) are relatively small and difficult for non-accurate quarterbacks.
If these guys are all reacting correctly and aggressively to the run, if the cover guys are fast enough to close their zones, and the four rushers can generate pressure with regularity, this defense can bazooka anybody's rock, paper, scissors, candle, Vulcan, or whatever. Of course that is way easier said than done—remember offenses are recruiting, training, practicing, and designed for attacking this scheme.
Offensive rock is made to beat defensive bazooka. I want you to look at the above and imagine various offenses succeeding against them. ISO running forces the linebackers to read run, read the hole, and get there in time to take out a lead blocker and lead runner who by design are getting there ASAP. West Coast passing lives in those soft spots under and between the coverage. Air Raids attempt to warp the zones into providing bigger holes by flooding and stretching them. Option running makes a balanced coverage into an effective numbers advantage for the offense at the point of attack. Vanilla defense is made to stop whatever's thrown their way, and offenses gain success by making Mr. Jack-of-All die a consistent bleeding death.
To see vanilla defense in action throw a dart at any recording of Iowa in the last 12 years; their M.O. is to stick to this maniacally. The converse in-conference would be Michigan State. On the way home from Europe this weekend I randomly sat next to MSU LB Chris Norman. Other than "Wisconsin's offense was way tougher than any of the SEC teams," and "lol Michigan's uniforms last year," Norman happily admitted "YAARRGGH SPARTY SMASH!!" is the coaches' favorite blitz, and that they'll run it or something like it more than any other play. Some teams like paper.
So there are exceptions but the exceptions can be beat with your properly executed scissors. The point remains that all matrices aside, much about football comes down to defeating your opponent's bazooka, or vanilla thing, or "rock" defense with your rock. If you recognize this particular bit of wisdom from DeBordian philosophy, well yes in this DeBord is absolutely right. But if you don't properly mix in your constraints, and you always run rock to the same spot/guy out of the same formation, and you shuffle your fullba…uh let's not go there.
Next time (last one? I think it is but I keep stretching these): What's Our Rock?
This is a follow up to to Doctor Rocklove a few weeks ago, where I identified the influence of offensive sets on philosophies. If you're not familiar with offensive theory you should go back and read that. If you're a football coach you are welcome to pinch the bridge of your nose and shake your head, for this is only going to cover about 20 percent of what you know to be the basics of offensive football.
The point today is to look at some of the base plays of various offenses, and a few of the constraint plays that they use to counter, and what defenses do to counter that. In doing so I hope to
find stumble upon a better explanation of Borgesian offensive theory than the "grab bag" this space has previously suggested.
That Thing You Do
You've probably read enough college football boilerplate by now to have heard a coach talk about "what we'd like to do." This does not have to mean one play, but it often means one concept—very much like a play—which the team will be able to execute to perfection against the defense they want to see. That play is usually going to be low-risk, and if executed flawlessly against the vanilla defense it's built to beat, it will gain a consistent 5 to 7 yards. It can be run out of many formations, and you will practice it a thousand million times until you are sure it will work every time unless the opposition "cheats" to beat it.
For Vince Lombardi it was the sweep. For Wisconsin (and virtually every high school in our division in the late-'90s) it was the ISO. It could be the Triple-Option (Bo), or the Zone Read (Rodriguez), or Hitch-n-Out (Walsh) or Levels (Peyton Manning's favorite), or 62 mesh (Captain Leachbeard). With passing offenses, which is Borges's thing, it's important to note that the core concept itself can often be a package of plays which work off of each other, none particularly favored; for running the same concept will vary where on the line it will attack.
You can go crazy for your core concept. You can practice it incessantly. You can recruit players whose skills best fit what they're supposed to do on that play. You can even focus physical training on developing muscles that are used on that play. The better you are at that play—and this is a sliding scale—the more the defense has to move someone or do something to "adjust" to you. But this is a zero-sum game, so if you're moving a defender to stop the base play, he's no longer doing the thing he was doing before. He is making something else way easier than it should be. He'll do this anyway, until you make him pay.
Constraint Theory of Offense and RPS
What you choose as your core play or concept will determine much about the other things your offense does, because now you add plays to punish defenses for adjusting to your base play. That's what coaches mean by "constraint"—you are constraining the level to which the defense can react to your bread and butter. What you are essentially doing is creating an environment in which you get to run your core play, which you've practiced more than any other play, exactly how you drew it up as much as you can.
Certain concepts are almost always constraints because they won't work against vanilla defenses. Delayed handoffs work because the defensive line is closing on the quarterback as if it's a pass play. Halfback screens work well against blitzes but if a linebacker is in man on the running back, a vanilla defensive concept, you're screwed.
Defensive wins in rock, paper, scissors are rare and lucky guesses; usually a D's successes come from outstanding execution of a vanilla defense, for example if the nose tackle shoots past a playside block and forces a pitch on a speed option (as if that could happen).
Defenses have constraints too but theirs are limited by the offense's greatest advantage: whoever has the ball chooses the play (the D's advantage is so much more can go wrong with offensive execution). Defensive constraints translated to boilerplate sound like "we took away the run and made Denard beat us through the air." What they mean is the defense was cheating against the offense's base play all game but leaving themselves more open to the constraint plays, betting on poorer execution by the offense.
Dantonio last year sent two blitzing linebackers up the middle on many occasions, taking away Michigan's bread 'n butter play "Denard-'n-stuff." This forced Michigan into our constraint, which was targeting open receivers in short zones, but then Dantonio took this away by having safeties replace the blitzing LBs. This opened up another constraint by making deep coverage completely up to the cornerbacks, but then a trash tornado covered that constraint for them.
What the constraint theory does for playcalling is create a kind of matrix of offensive adjustments to defensive adjustments and adjustments to those adjustments. For a typical varsity high school team that matrix is probably 20 plays, and for college football it's more complex, and in the NFL the adjustments are so myriad and subtle I'd have an easier time teaching EMI/RMI shielding (it sounds hard).
Because the shades of gray in such a big decision matrix make for convoluted understanding, I've tried to (over-)condense the basic constraints of four basic offenses. There is way, way more but these are a few of the constraint packages that Michigan used last year.
Offensive Concept: I'm bigger, faster and stronger than you are, so I'm gonna hit you so hard your momma cries, then evoke masculine metaphors.
Defensive Concept: Control the point of contact, win 1st down, never let the train leave the station.
|Rock||Man-on-man blocking, backs hit 2nd level at full speed running vertically. Repeated success quickly tires defenders, especially if the backs are regularly hitting defensive backs, and sets up soul-crushing play-action.||Read and react. Have LBs who can react quickly to the right hole (5-2, 4-3 under, 3-4), or b) have superior DL beat their blocks while the LBs maintain their gaps (4-3). Zone behind that so CBs can pincer.|
|Paper||Prey on the reacting linebackers by running play action, then rolling the pocket away from the point of attack and passing deep.||Blitz their favorite gaps. The point is to control where the point of contact occurs, so the sooner that happens, the sooner one of them will take out the lead blocker, and the sooner the ballcarrier is tackled.|
|Scissors||Screens, draws, and quick, short passes to curl and out routes to take advantage of corners' fears of something deep.||Back off into safe coverage--these days it's cover 2 man, meaning the cornerbacks are in man on WRs with safety help over the top. This takes the CBs out of run support but any pass deep is into double-coverage.|
Timed Passing (West Coast)
Offensive Concept: A symphony of route design and timing that puts defenses into a progression of impossible choices.
Defensive Concept: Throw off your timing, suffocate your routes, kill your conductor.
|Rock||Quick routes by receivers and RBs that make a zone defender commit to one guy, then hit the other guy before another defender can come up.||Cover-2, and faster, smarter zone defenders who pass off receivers seamlessly, so that the O has to check down to nothing, throw into a super-tight window, or just runs out of time before the pass rush gets home.|
|Paper||Run the ball with power, delayed handoffs and screens. Once the defense is thoughtlessly stepping backwards when the QB is, they're no longer able to react to something as basic as a RB and his convoy pointed downhill.||Zone blitz, i.e. drop DL into coverage while random LBs and safeties blitz or squat in short zones. Reads and blocking are much more difficult, and small windows become no windows.|
|Scissors||Throw "hot" into the pressure, with pre-arranged hot (post-snap) reads that both the QB and his receivers make.||Levels/Robber. Drop back in a 3-deep zone while rushing 5 (often the SLB/nickel). Robber reacts to runs/screens or replaces guy who blitzed for instant pick/scared QB.|
Read Passing (Air Raid, Pro)
Offensive Concept: Spread, mesh, read, and gun, so on any given play, at any spot on the field, we can put it where you ain't.
Defensive Concept: Anywhere you can get, I can get faster
|Rock||Spread to pass. The O-line is spread to basically neutralize line play (DL will break through eventually but seldom right away). Receivers run "mesh" routes against each other, then cut off their routes when they've recognized the D in order to find soft spots in the zone.||Cover-3 zone, trusting your LBs to intelligently route receivers and react and trusting the QB and WRs can't connect on all of their 7-yard passes and that soft spots are small.|
|Dynamite with a cut-able wick||Curls, and/or bubble screen whenever the defense is obviously backing off. Dana Holgorsen has altered this to delayed handoffs and screens by using two RBs and putting one in motion to simulate the spread.||3-5-3. The Air Raid threatens the whole field to open up the easy passes off of two crossing routes, so forget pass rushing and clog up the middle.|
|Scissors||(This is just mean) Four Verts: suddenly the deep receiver is no longer just a quick glance to keep you honest but a high-low with the seam.||Press man coverage/blitz up the middle.|
Option (Triple-Option, Zone Read)
Offensive Concept: Reverse the traditional 7-on-6 "numbers" advantage of the defense in the running game (i.e. their front 7 versus 5 OL and a running back) by having the quarterback participate, and "blocking" an edge defender by optioning off of him instead of wasting a body.
Defensive Concept: The cat has more patience than the mouse.
|Rock||Isolate an unblocked front-7 defender against the QB and another accessible option he can go to once the defender commits.||Change up the edge attack so the QB is reading the wrong guy or walking into a trap. Scrape exchange, slant the DL, etc.|
|Paper||Fake the option and then send a quick seam over the heads of the oncoming defenders.||Cheat extra defenders (8 or 9 in the box) into the area where the option will occur so nobody gets isolated and/or blitz into one of the options (e.g. CB blitz or MLB blitz into RB's hole) so unblocked guy can focus on one option.|
|Scissors||Option 3. This is the FB dive in a triple-option and the bubble screen in the spread 'n shred, and is a constraint called by alignment.||Line up "clean" with safeties still in coverage, and if they option do what you can to delay the decision and await the cavalry.|
Next time in this series: vanilla defenses, and the best offense for Michigan this year and beyond.
Content note: I'll come back to Manball Matrix next time. I thought this was more timely. Note II: So you won't miss another commitment, while reading this article you are advised to hit refresh on your browser at regular intervals.
It was a commit-a-palooza unlike Michigan had seen since scholarship offers were sent by telegram and a signing ceremony was when a young player stepped off the platform of Kerrytown Station to serenades by hawkers, haberdashers, and hazing-minded upperclassman. Within one week of Michigan's annual summer camp, seven players were moved to end their recruitments and commit to the Wolverines' Class of 2004:
The verbal explosion was mostly camp commits, i.e. guys who impressed enough to earn an offer which they immediately accepted. In an age when mid-June was still quite early to be filling nearly half of a class, Commit-a-Palooza '03 was remarkable. With Morgan Trent and Max Martin this was 9 of eventually 22 signed.
[Quick: two more recruits probably just pledged; hit refresh now!]
Michigan later filled that class with Henne, Jamar Adams, Alan Branch, Jamison, Arrington, and a lot more roster fodder who appeared unremarkably in early UFRs, or didn't. At the time I wrote an email I just spent way too much time trying to find that talked about early signees of years prior. The point was to temper the post-euphoric expectations of pre-Facebook friends by showing how previous early birds had a greater chance of busting, what with all the offseasons, lifting clubs, and senior years between now and National Signing Day. Then I proved myself inconclusive.
With an 8-man commit-fest that forced me to put time stamps in my database to keep track of % of class filled, and which puts the '03 bonanza to shame [refresh reminder], let's try it again. Here's the players, classes 2003 to 2011 in my database who committed to Michigan at least 50 weeks before National Signing Day:
I didn't include several guys who later decommitted, but I did count Will Campbell, who verbaled to Michigan in June of 2007 (!) and a year later decided to lead Rodriguez on a merry chase until 5 weeks to NSD. Many of these guys—Hollowell, Helmuth, Chambers, Trent—committed on the offer after Junior Day.
Well there's Mario, and…well that's a lot of guys who didn't or haven't lived up to their hype. Schifano gave up football, Grady was overrated before he was the guy you could count on to get Michigan at least a mention in the Fulmer Cup, Chambers and Helmuth were whiffs, Cissoko … his thing, and these days the extent of our Campbell and Ricardo dreams are Gabe Watson and Tim Massaquoi.
Busts can come from any time, and this is a small sample of early RR and late Lloyd recruits who didn't have the pedigrees of the solid-to-high 4-stars Hoke is bringing in. Taking out kickers, players with more than half of their eligibility left, guys who didn't qualify, guys who lost their best years to injury before we could get a feel for their evaluation, and proprietors of Fck Lions, here's the apparent success rates by when they committed:
|Weeks to NSD||OvRtd||+/-1*||UnRtd||Success Rate||Avg Diff||Tot|
|50 or more||4||6||--||60.0%||-0.95||12|
|40 to 49||5||10||--||66.7%||-0.50||17|
|30 to 39||3||22||1||88.5%||-0.29||35|
|20 to 29||7||15||1||69.6%||-0.52||27|
|10 to 19||4||9||--||69.2%||-0.31||17|
|5 to 9||5||25||1||83.9%||-0.52||36|
|1 to 4||1||8||--||88.9%||-0.22||19|
|Week of NSD||5||18||2||80.0%||-0.26||29|
"OvRtd" (overrated) to me means guys who probably should have been pegged at 1.5 or more stars below their Scout/Rivals average. "UnRtd" means 1.5 or more stars and were, in order, Hart, Molk, Branch, Englemon and Omemeh. Google Doc here so you rip apart my totally subjective ratings. "Total" on right includes the guys I cut out so you can see the flow of a recruiting year before the Hoke era. FYI 30 to 39 week corresponds to about May-June.
[Refresh now anyway.]
Does this mean anything for the flood of early pledges this week, or much of this year's class for that matter? I don't really think so, no. Mostly what this says is that Michigan had a ton of busts over the last decade of recruiting, and that juniors who commit immediately upon receiving a camp offer are seldom primo athletes.
As of now Michigan has filled approximately half of its projected Class of 2013, (figuring on 22 total) at a point in the cycle when traditionally only about 6 percent of the class has taken shape. A look at previous 50-percent points demonstrates just how unprecedented this is for Michigan:
|Year||Commits||Avg Stars||50% Full By||Days to NSD||Final Scout Rk||Final Rivals Rk|
A handful of these 2013 guys—maybe one or two more than of a class put together later in the year—will probably disappoint from their lofty rankings. This is an inevitability. In fact count on a few never making it to campus, because 17-year-olds change their minds exactly as fast as popular music turns over. But then when you add up that attrition and apply it to the class that formed over the weekend, it's still shaping up to be one of the best incoming groups since Yost was greeting his freshmen at the train station.
So hit refresh one more time, because it only gets better from here.