"What (Michigan coaches) told me is that they're focusing on point guards right now, but if anything opens up, they'll definitely come back on and recruit me as hard as they were," said Towns
Where to start, really? [Bryan Fuller/MGoBlog]
In Brady Hoke's fourth year at the helm, Michigan heads into fall camp with far fewer questions about the starting lineup than we're used to hearing this time of year; even the offensive line looks pretty much set, though of course concerns about their ability will follow this team well into the season. Today I'm taking a look at the five players—some penciled in as starters, some not—whose emergence is critical to Michigan's success in 2014, either due to the depth at their position, their potential to become a real difference-maker, or both.
You'll be shocked to see that the list begins with an offensive lineman.
RT Ben Braden
Braden is #1 with a bullet for me. He replaces an NFL draft pick at a critical spot on a line in need of a whole lot of improvement, and the options behind him are very limited. Braden has great potential due to his Lewan-wowing combination of size (6'6", 322 lbs.) and athleticism, but there are also significant concerns—that same Lewan article, from last August, stated the starting left guard spot was Braden's to lose, but even in a season when the guards rotated with alarming frequency he played just two games, both as a reserve.
While it's far too early to say a lineman heading into his redshirt sophomore season has panned out or not, the fact that a true freshman and a 6'1" walk-on—Kyle Bosch and Joey Burzynski, respectively—saw the field over Braden last year is certainly worrisome. Adding to that concern is the depth at tackle this season. If Braden can't lock down his spot at right tackle, the first tackle off the bench looks likely to be another true freshman, Mason Cole, if the spring is any indication. A trio of redshirt freshmen provide depth, but none are close to sure things: Logan Tuley-Tillman likely needs at least another year of development, Chris Fox mostly spent last year rehabbing an ACL tear, and David Dawson seems more suited to guard.
It's true that any of Michigan's O-linemen could be on this list—in fact, there's another later—but Braden's spot in the lineup appears the least certain, and he just happens to be in a spot that could cause a complete reshuffling of the line if he can't hold the job.
NT Ondre Pipkins
There are really four interior defensive linemen that could go here; Willie Henry, Chris Wormley, and Maurice Hurst were under serious consideration, but Henry seems like he'll be at least a passable starter, and the three-tech spot—where Wormley and Hurst are slated to play—doesn't have the same importance as the nose (while boasting more depth on this roster). Also, only one of these guys was a five-star All-American out of high school, and it's Pee Wee Pipkins.
Pipkins is, rather shockingly, already a true junior, and his time to make that five-star impact is quickly running out after he blew out an ACL against Minnesota last year, just as he was showing signs of reaching his potential. He's reportedly fully recovered from that injury, though there's no telling how it'll affect him until he's back playing in actual games. If he's healthy, he could develop into some unholy combination of Gabe Watson and Alan Branch; he could also be the next Will Campbell, and that's without accounting for the potential that he's not fully comfortable on that knee.
While Michigan doesn't necessarily need Pipkins in the starting lineup—Henry can start at the nose next to a three-tech platoon of Wormley/Hurst/others—they need him to be healthy and productive enough to rotate in a good deal, unless Bryan Mone is remarkably ahead of the curve for a true freshman nose tackle. It'd also, of course, be really nice to see the affable Pipkins return to the how-the-hell-is-that-blob-chasing-down-Stefon Diggs form he showed in his standout Army AA Game performance a couple years ago.
WR Amara Darboh
|"Today in practice I witnessed the single greatest catch I've ever seen in person." — Devin Gardner|
We got a couple tantalizing looks at Darboh before he missed the 2013 season with a foot injury: the amazing catch from a 2012 Outback Bowl practice (right) and a nice deep sideline grab in the 2013 Spring Game. While Jehu Chesson did a solid job as the #3 receiver last year, Darboh was considered the clear leader for that role—really the #2 receiver role at the time, before everyone figured out Devin Funchess was a tight end in name only—and he also garnered more hype as a recruit.
This admittedly isn't an area of significant need for Michigan; Freddy Canteen, Moe Ways, Jaron Dukes, and DaMario Jones provide plenty of depth and talent at receiver.* None of those guys possess the combination of talent, physical development, and knowledge of the offense that Darboh has right now, however, and the capable-of-catching-anything aspect to Darboh's game is something I'd like to see on the field.
Having a sure-handed possession receiver across from Devin Funchess could make Michigan's passing game downright scary, and early in the season it could also help cover for the absence of a receiving threat at tight end while Jake Butt recovers from his ACL injury. Darboh, who's now listed at 6'2", 211 pounds, potentially fits that bill better than anyone on the roster.
*I'd include Drake Harris, too, but he's coming off a lost senior season of high school due to a hamstring injury and he needs to gain weight, so a redshirt hopefully beckons.
RG Kyle Kalis
This should probably be Jake Butt's spot, but I'm going with Kalis here, since he's a five-star talent on a line in need of that, and after one rough year it appears he's been written off by many. I mean, this was in Brian's post-spring 27 Tickets, when he (ever so jinxfully) assumed now-Buckeye Chad Lindsay would transfer from Alabama to Michigan and take over the center spot:
27. G Kyle Bosch, So. [Last time: 25]
Under assumption that Lindsay comes in, Glasgow displaces one of Braden/Bosch/Kalis. Random guess here is that it's Kalis because Bosch should improve more as younger guy but your guess is as good as mine. So is Hoke's.
Kalis was left out of the top 27.
While I realize Kalis underperformed last year, and not all of that can be chalked up to coaching ... well, you all saw the mess on the line, and assigning individual blame for that tire fire is a difficult, if not impossible, endeavor. Kalis was thrust into a starting job as a redshirt freshman, then moved in and out of the lineup as the coaches tried (and failed) to find something that would work—not exactly a recipe for success for a first-year starter regardless of talent.
And boy, does Kalis have talent. Offensive linemen are the toughest prospects to project with much accuracy, but he looked like the surest of sure things out of high school. Many of his issues last year appeared to stem from uncertainty about his assignment; given his freshmandom and the sheer number of schemes Michigan tried to run last year, that's understandable. The simplified, inside zone-centric offense under Doug Nussmeier should suit him well; if he's confident enough in his knowledge of the playbook to stop thinking and starting clobbering, we could see a huge step forward from him this fall.
NICKEL/S/CB Jabrill Peppers
Braden is the #1 X-factor, in my opinion, because of his importance to the team's success this year; if you think of X-factors as players who can make an impact in a number of ways, however, the obvious choice is Peppers. Obviously.
The coaches maintain that they'll start him out at nickel, and he could make a huge difference there as a prototype hybrid space player who's equally adept in coverage and run support. He could very well start from day one at strong safety, the only spot in the secondary with any real uncertainty, and the way Greg Mattison utilized that spot in the Spring Game—aggressively rolling the SS into the box often—is ideally suited for a player like Peppers. He could even challenge Raymon Taylor at boundary corner, though with the rise of Jourdan Lewis the need for Peppers at corner appears less than the two other defensive positions he could play this year.
Personally, I'm hoping that sooner or later he starts at strong safety, where he could bring a level of playmaking Michigan hasn't had back there since... uh... let's go with "a while ago." I don't believe the coaches will ask Peppers to make an impact on offense this year, but special teams is another story—his potential as a return man is massive, and I have a hard time believing the coaches won't try to get the ball in his hands one way or another.
Pelini forever. The day that Bo Pelini ceases being a Big Ten coach is going to be a sad one.
He screams like a lunatic, he makes jokes about his cat, he wears… that… and looks like he believes the camera is taking a piece of his soul with it. Joke's on you, camera! Ain't got no soul, he thinks. Oh and his offense is kind of a looney tunes spread triple option thing that is both modern and very Nebraska. I only wish he was still in our football conference.
Always the best thing out of media days. Mike Spath's anonymous chatter articles are quality as always and the defense one is free. An opponent on the tao of Countess:
"I thought Blake Countess was tough to play against. He's not real physical but he's one of those guys that knows what he does well and what he doesn't. And he sort of lulled us to sleep. We kept thinking that we could go at him and I think that's what he wanted because he stepped in front of two balls, picked one, and we didn't throw at him very much after that."
Countess had INTs against Minnesota, Iowa, and OSU last year, FWIW. The offense is paywalled, but I have to quote this bit:
"They were one of those teams that were tough to prepare for and not tough at the same time because they did so many different things. We had a lot of guys watching a lot more film the week before because they could run 75 different plays in the same game, but I think what stood out was that they didn't have an identity and they never had go-to plays so if you just played sound, technique-strong football, you were OK."
And that had a lot to do with Michigan's ups and downs. OSU did not play anything approximating sound football in their secondary last year and Michigan ate them up; Iowa is nothing but sound cover two and Michigan could do nothing.
The overall theme of that latter one is that opposing teams have a hell of a lot of respect for Devin Gardner since he did not die last year.
You could knock me down with a feather right now. Shock and alarm at unexpected news:
"Going in (to camp, there will be competition between Devin Gardner and Shane Morris)," Hoke said during his appearance on "Numbers Never Lie." "We've got great competition. (But) if we opened the season today, Devin would start for the Wolverines."
I will personally fight anyone* who sends me an email about whether Morris should start.
*[Offer not valid unless you are Ellen Degeneres.]
Ready to go. Ondre Pipkins is cleared and even more importantly, is apparently fit.
"He's done a nice job, he's made a lot of progress and he's passed the conditioning test and all those things," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said this week. "We'll probably be smart with him as we move forward, you know, especially on two-a-days.
"We'll (watch his) reps and those things. But he's cleared and ready to go."
Figuratively and literally massive for the defense. Article notes that Willie Henry is slated to compete with Pipkins at nose, but I'm hoping they figure out that they can start both those guys. We'll see.
'96 Colorado. I missed this game; remember sitting in a car listening to the end of it just terrified about the Hail Mary.
Well, no. No we do not. Hoke on the opener:
Brady Hoke says he gets some grief from alumni about having App State on the schedule. No one wants to see those highlights, he says
— Nick Baumgardner (@nickbaumgardner) July 31, 2014
He didn't do it.
LEMON UPDATE. Aw man I am going to have to find like a video crew and a roaring fireplace.
Junior linebacker Joe Bolden was named the 2014 Meyer Morton Award winner. The Morton Award is given to the player who "shows the greatest development and most promise as a result of the annual spring practice."
Jarrod Wilson and Chris Wormley also pulled in awards.
The plan. After experimenting with Graham Glasgow at tackle it seems like Michigan is going to leave him at center:
When fall camp opens Sunday, though, Hoke says Glasgow -- who is suspended for the season-opener against Appalachian State due to an offseason drunken driving arrest -- will begin where he ended last year. At center, and likely with the first team.
"I would say he could (be with the starters at center) early in camp but then you’ve got to develop others," Hoke said this week at Big Ten media days in Chicago. "This is why, when you make decisions that don’t help the team, you find out how you hurt the team.”
If Glasgow does move that says more about Ben Braden than anyone else. That is an outcome I don't want to see, as that would be a major strike against a player who was hyped up as a physical marvel by many people a year ago.
It also sounds like the current plan is to leave Cole at left tackle for this year to provide a backup there. Tuley-Tillman and Fox are both likely to need another year before putting them on the field would be anything other than a major problem.
The rehab. Ondre Pipkins is cleared to practice at the start of fall camp
It could be worse, everyone! Man, Illinois fans are grasping at straws:
Tim Beckman came into this morning's press conference after a long bowl game-less winter and a 4-8 season record with only one conference win. But something was noticeably different about his speech this time. He finally seemed comfortable and confident at the podium.
… he hardly pauses or stumbles for the right words. His "uhs" and "ums" are fewer and farther between than in the past. He came off as a true leader and respectable speaker.
Well, I know that our coach starts every sentence with "well" and is not exactly Steve Spurrier. But there's going to be a post this year on an Illinois blog that says "we may have lost by sixty points but it seems like Tim Beckmann's dressing himself these days, so things are really coming along for us."
Unfortunate for Northwestern. Projected starting corner Daniel Jones is forced to retire thanks to injuries. Corner being the Wildcats' achilles heel since it ceased being "the whole team," that bodes unwell for the Wildcats and better for Michigan. Jones was lost for the year in the opener, so this is more Northwestern not getting that guy back than anything else.
The Daily makes the Daily show. You gotta put it in your click hole, nerds.
The most correct thing. This isn't relevant to anything but it is the most correct thing that's ever been said:
I spent five days in Las Vegas by myself earlier this month. If that sounds like your idea of paradise, let me stop you right there, because you’re wrong. Even though I know nothing about you, I’m fairly certain that five days alone in Vegas is enough to make anybody rethink their life. Five days in Vegas with friends or family is still probably four days too many, but being alone in Vegas is like finding out halfway through a party that you were invited by mistake. Everyone is having the time of their lives around you, and even though you were excited when you arrived, you’re just off to the side wondering what you’re doing there.
As someone who spent a week in Vegas by myself*, this is so accurate. I eventually just spent the money for wifi (this was back when wifi still cost money at hotels) and sat in my hotel room because being alone by yourself is so much more tolerable than being alone around everyone. Vegas by yourself: horrible.
The rest of this article is an entertaining Mark Titus piece on attending an NBA scout "school" and finding out just how horrible that job is. So it's sports! On topic! (Not on topic.)
*[Qualified for the WSOP during the heyday of online poker and couldn't hector any of my friends into railbirding me. WSOP was very large that year so there were four separate Day 1s for a quarter of the field and two Day 2s.]
Etc.: Arian Foster gives classic 'Sheed interview. 1985 Big Ten commercial might as well be from 1685. BHGP sent a horse to Big Ten Media Days. This is legit you guys. Hooray Michelle Beadle. Michigan unranked in opening coaches' poll.
Big Ten coaches really like the word "think." Derrick Walton transitioning away from being just a shooter. I found the only Penn State fan that doesn't loathe us with the fury of a thousand suns.
In honor of our annual right there -----> which I expect will get Kickstarted a third year in a row today, I thought I'd share a little sneak peak from it. Brian asked me to create these for the linebackers page:
Click to big. Right-click to open in a separate window so you can reference it as you go.
That's a side by side comparison of Michigan's prohibitive starters this year before and after the "shift" to a 4-3 over and accompanying position changes were announced. Seeing it you can start to appreciate how all of those announcements make sense.
For the lay, what you're looking at are alignments of the front seven. The "under" shifts the defensive line away from the strength of the defense and the linebackers swing the opposite way to compensate. The result is very much like a 3-4 (picture the WDE in the photo above as yellow) and plays like it. In this alignment the strong side is the left because there's a TE there. Michigan would often align this to the hash rather than the offense, shifting the DL toward the sideline.
The "over" shifts the line the opposite way, but not to such an extreme. The linebackers wind up centered over the ball, and the DL spread across the formation. There is nothing 3-4 about it except the nose tackle.
Let's run through the positions to appreciate what's changed and what will be expected of them.
Weakside Defensive End (Frank Clark/Mario Ojemudia)
Ojemudia lined up as a 7-tech in the under [Fuller]
In the Under: The WDE is the leading pass rusher. He lines up so far outside of the backside offensive tackle that he'll wind up getting a 1-on-1 battle with that guy all day. The tradeoff was being further from the point of a attack in the run game. The WDE is further from the run game but in position to drop into coverage, a thing he was tasked to do quite often as the DE-like linebacker opposite him charged into the backfield. Much of the good done by the over shift is it creates double teams elsewhere to preserve the WDE's ability to attack upfield.
In the Over: The weakside end is still outside the offensive tackle, but shaded in a "5 technique," i.e. over the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle.
If you remember your 5-techs from 4-3 under school, you'll get the difference, though unlike your Ryan Van Bergens the weakside end usually doesn't have a tight end lined up to his side (ace even, H-backs and the like do happen) so he needn't be a double-team-eating anchor. The new WDE's biggest change is he's not dropping into coverage all the time. He has to control that OT in the run game, and often he has to cover the B gap. The linebackerity of the position has been removed; this man is a defensive lineman, and not necessarily a flashy one—Michigan State's been plugging their workhorse DE Marcus Rush in this spot for four years while various SDEs make the highlight reels.
The fit: Clark showed signs of being a pretty good player by the latter half of last season and now up near 260 he is large enough to not get kicked by OTs. As a pass rusher he's only like fifth or sixth in the conference, partly because the interior DL couldn't push the pocket very often, and partly because he wasn't great at closing when he beat his guy. Ojemudia and true freshman Lawrence Marshall aren't large men in your memory, but both claim to be up to 250 now. They're all better full-time defensive ends than 3-4 OLBs.
[Jump for the rest of the DL—LBs coming up in Part II]
- Jake Ryan has been cleared to play.
- Ondre Pipkins tore his ACL.
“It was very good to win this past weekend. Homecoming, the Brown Jug, multiple things that were good. There was improvement, which you want every week. Fundamentally and with technique. We have to continue that with all positions. Two penalties and no turnovers, probably as much as anything besides winning, was very good for us as a football team and something for us to make sure that we pay attention to. I think we do, but the significance of that was huge to be plus two in turnover margin.”
Losing Ondre Pipkins, how does that affect what you guys do?
“Well, Richard Ash … We have some multiple guys. Willie Henry can play the three. Ryan Glasgow. Your heart just goes out to Ondre. Any guy that gets hurts, obviously. It’s something that is a little bit of adversity for him obviously and for our team. Just like anything else, we’ll work together and get through it.”
Is that past the redshirt deadline?
“That’s all something that we’ll have to appeal and do all that stuff with. It’s way too soon to say it is or isn’t.”
10/5/2013 – Michigan 42, Minnesota 13 – 5-0, 1-0 Big Ten
Jon Falk has a compatriot at Minnesota. He's probably had a dozen over his 40 years as Michigan's equipment manager. Some guy who comes in with the latest Gopher coaching staff, wonders what it's like to hold the jug in his meaty palm, and maybe once gets to shepherd it for a year. Since Falk arrived at Michigan a fresh-faced young thing four years into Bo's career, his opposite number has had this experience three times.
In proof lingo, this means that beating Minnesota—beating up on Minnesota, usually—is a necessary but not sufficient property of Michigan teams that want to do anything with their seasons. Sometimes you can retain the Jug despite not being very good; sometimes you can retain the jug despite being headed for 3-9 because Nick Sheridan has an out-of-body experience. When you're headed for 3-9 you get a little misty about the Jug coming out. When you're not the worst team in Ann Arbor since the 1930s it's a checkbox to fill out.
Michigan did so in perfunctory style, grinding out a second half in which they went from vaguely threatened to bored. Since this came on the heels of narrow escapes against teams that lost 43-3 to Ohio on Saturday and 41-12 to Buffalo last week, it's progress. How much is unknown.
This game settled into a grim fugue state almost from the drop, as Michigan manballed its way into the endzone on a Statement Drive to start the game. Unfortunately, that Statement was "by putting Taylor Lewan next to Michael Schofield we can bull our way down the field against Minnesota." That statement is unlikely to apply to many teams on the schedule. But, hey, progress.
Then Minnesota donned turbans and embarked on the Ishtar Drive. An epic production galaxy-spanning in its dullness that arrived at its destination two hours too late and failed to have the desired impact, it ate up the rest of the quarter. Michigan left it without having attempted a pass.
This was a little dull.
It was the kind of dull that had Space Coyote, the Michigan's blogosphere's resident instant analysis savant, pleading with the masses that the intricacies of a well-blocked power play were just as appealing as, say, watching 175-pound Venric Mark activate his truck stick on an Ohio State safety. I can't imagine there's another Michigan fan in the world more receptive to that argument than yours truly and even I wasn't buying that as the secondary effect of all that manball kicked in: punt, commercial, play, end of quarter, commercial, play play, punt, commercial. Touchdown, commercial, kickoff, commercial—the NFL special. As the teams' attempt to blow through this game in record time was thwarted by the networks, being in Michigan Stadium became the worst concert of all time interrupted by bouts of football-related activity.
It was the kind of thing that made you consider what the purpose of your fandom was. Am I only here to see Michigan end a game with a larger number on the scoreboard than Opponent? Is there any valid goal outside of this? Am I a bad fan for wishing something interesting would happen? Do the people on twitter who scorn you for having feelings other than Go Team have a point? What is the point of any of this, and why can't they make the wifi work?
At halftime, the guys in front of me discussed whether they would bolt for Frazer's, and two did. I'm usually a guy who thinks leaving an athletic event before it's decided is a mortal sin, but I kind of envied the guy in the home-made muscle shirt screwing off to a place where he could get a beer and not hear "Build Me Up, Buttercup." At any other time, I would have thought this man's attendance at Michigan Stadium was a necessary property of a fan that he had just shown was not sufficient by leaving a touchdown game at halftime like he was a sorority girl about to blow a .341. On Saturday, I was with him in spirit.
This is a fearful development. I don't want to think like that. I want to be forever ten years old, excited by everything. On Saturday I had a long look down the elevator shaft.
It'll pass like the moment above did. Someone will do something interesting, and there will be something at stake other than a piece of crockery that just means you're not horrible, and sometimes not even that. I had a bad day, I was pissed at Dave Brandon when I discovered I was thirsty but knew I couldn't do anything about it without missing a large chunk of the game I was there to see even if it was narcoleptic, I was emo after the last few weeks of expectation-depressing terror. It'll pass, and the doors will close on the moment where I reached out and felt the slight outlines of a limit to my fandom.
Michigan won by a lot, eventually.
Completely one-sided highlights:
Brady Hoke Epic Double Point Of The Week. Has to be Michigan's new favorite worst nightmare at wide receiver: Devin Funchess. Relieved of many blocking duties and deployed on the outside, Funchess displayed fantastic hands on a couple of catches outside of his body, ran routes that got him tons of separation, and went right by a Minnesota cornerback(!) on a straight-up fly route(!) to prove himself Michigan's best deep threat(?). By the end of the game he had newspaper types plumbing the statistical depths for completely invalid comparisons to Jim Mandich, who was a tight end, which Devin Funchess is not.
Honorable mention: No Turnovers, which may be Devin Gardner's temporary name until such point as he turns it over. Schofield and Lewan were mashing as tackle brothers. Blake Countess did have a pick six, albeit one of no importance. James Ross and Desmond Morgan had lots of tackles, usually at the LOS when not facing spread formations.
Epic Double Point Standings.
1.0: Devin Gardner (ND), Jeremy Gallon (ND), Desmond Morgan(UConn), Devin Funchess(Minnesota)
0.5: Cam Gordon (CMU), Brennen Beyer (CMU)
I guess? [Upchurch]
Brady Hoke Epic Double Fist-Pump Of The Week. Wow. Are we at a loss here? We might be at a loss here. Countess's interception was after the game was decided, as was the long Funchess fly route thing. Michigan's longest run went for not many yards. I guess we're going with Fitzgerald Toussaint scoring an easy ten-yard touchdown, as it hinted that Michigan may be able to run the ball forward? Yeah, okay.
Honorable mention: Funchess reception, pick one. Countess pick. Black FF.
Epic Double Fist-Pumps Past.
8/31/2013: Dymonte Thomas introduces himself by blocking a punt.
9/7/2013: Jeremy Gallon spins through four Notre Dame defenders for a 61-yard touchdown.
9/14/2013: Michigan does not lose to Akron. Thanks, Thomas Gordon.
9/21/2013: Desmond Morgan's leaping one-handed spear INT saves Michigan's bacon against UConn.
10/5/2013: Fitzgerald Toussaint runs for ten yards, gets touchdown rather easily.
[After THE JUMP: actual game analysis instead of pathetic emo self-pity mooning!]
Funchess is listed as a tight end, but you played him as a wide receiver. Was that the plan?
“Well we obviously planned it that way. Getting him out on the perimeter a little bit, a mismatch in a lot of ways because he runs awfully well. He’s a big target. And then we get into the 11 personnel and he’ll be a tight end. Just trying to really take advantage of his skill sets.”
No turnovers coming out of a bye week has to be a big plus.
“It’s huge. No turnovers. Had two penalties. So I think that speaks to how these guys have really worked. The bye week, I thought, came at a good time for us in a lot of ways. It was good to see us respond.”
It’s one thing to have a plan, but another to execute it. You obviously want to get the running game going. Can you talk about how that played out?
“Well we wanted to run the ball. We wanted to send that message. I thought we did a pretty good job of it. We didn’t have as much yardage probably as we’d like to have from that aspect, but I really believe the threat was there consistently throughout the game that we were going to run the football. I think tackles for loss, I think there were three until the last when we were milking the clock at the end. I thought it worked out well.”