it's a major award
It's the day before a Michigan football season, so there's an 80% chance you're about to see Bump, Canham, and Bo. Survey says…
…bingo. Three years ago I posted it up to point out just how long it had been since Michigan had to think about who would be its head coach: forty years. They'd secured an A-list candidate but whenever you're trying something new after doing one thing forever, things can go awry. They did—you may have noticed.
I thought about Bump and Bo over the summer when Ramzy at Eleven Warriors took a brief hiatus from ripping Kirk Herbstreit* to survey the new enemy in Ann Arbor. He used a certain picture, which I'll put next to what seems like the most representative image of Rodriguez on the first three pages of a generic image search. I'm not sure what that will be yet. Let's find out:
Slotting the two coaches** into the image above is left as a bloody obvious exercise for the reader.
Hoke may not have a winning record but he's got bravado. That, the knowledge he's not a Super Genius, and his magical intestines plus Denard Robinson is a pretty good start. When Hoke was hired I said "sometimes having an identity feels like having a ceiling," but thanks to Jim Tressel kindly donating his career and most of the meanest kids in Ohio to the cause that ceiling is a lot vaguer than it was in January. Let's go find it. In Pasadena, preferably.
*[Ramzy : Kirk Herbstreit :: Brian : punting from the 34]
THIS CONCLUDES the 2011 edition of the MGoBlog season preview. Every year I tell myself I'm going to get ahead of the curve and start posting these things two weeks before the season; every year something comes up and I spend this week eating microwaved dinners and staying up until 5 AM. At this point it would feel wrong to do it any other way (but I'm definitely doing it some other way next year).
The Story, 2011
- Offensive line: 4.5. Excellent if allowed to zone block, more than two injuries and it's time to panic
- Receivers: average of 3.5. Good depth, few stars, a lot rides on Hemingway.
- Running backs: 3. Six bullets (for now) instead of two; everyone's older.
- Quarterbacks: 5! Denard.
- Offensive questions: Verdict is basically last year's offense minus 5-10 Denard carries per game.
- Secondary: average of 2.5. A little depth, no freshmen, look out for Avery.
- Linebackers: average of 3. Demens bustout.
- Defensive line: average of 4. Top end is sexy except for SDE; depth is precarious.
- Defensive questions: tackling how much the GERG effect can help us. Survey says: lots.
- Special teams: average of 2. Hold on to the damn ball, and kick it between the posts.
- Ace previews Western.
- Stupid predictions: less horrible turnover margin and 8-4.
I would have bumped some fantastic diaries if doing so wouldn't caused everyone's heads to explode with word overload. If you're just dying for 3:30 tomorrow and need more, the Communist Football Almanack finishes in spectacular style, Jamiemac previews Western with prop bets a-plenty, and Michael Scarn drops a personal essay.
Now it's time for a hype video.
Here's to less drinking during UFRs. Go Blue.
Previously: The story, the secondary, the linebackers, the defensive line, the offensive line, the receivers, the running backs, the quarterbacks, special teams, defensive questions, offensive questions.
The theory of turnover margin: it is nearly random. Teams that find themselves at one end or the other at the end of the year are highly likely to rebound towards the average. So teams towards the top will tend to be overrated and vice versa. Nonrandom factors to evaluate: quarterback experience, quarterback pressure applied and received, and odd running backs like Mike Hart who just don't fumble.
|Year||Margin||Int +||Fumb +||Sacks +||Int -||Fumb -||Sacks -|
|2007||0.15 (41st)||14||15||2.46(33rd)||14||13||2.17 (67th)|
|2008||-.83 (104th)||9||11||2.42(33rd)||12||18||1.83 (57th)|
|2009||-1.00 (115th)||11||5||1.83(68th)||15||13||2.33 (83rd)|
WELCOME TO YET ANOTHER YEAR where I predict Michigan's turnover rate plunges towards zero. I'm seriously this time though.
For the first time on this chart Michigan should have a non-insane person running things. In 2007, it was either injured Henne or Mallet; 2008 was death, 2009 was freshmen QBs, and last year was essentially a redshirt freshman. With Denard's return this is the first time since 2006 Michigan can expect their QB to be less turnover prone than the year before. (This obviously goes out the window in the event of a major injury to Denard. Also out the window: life, hope, puppies.)
But… I'm seriously this time. Even if Rodriguez had some weird evil turnover juju when he was around he's gone. Turnovers regress like a mofo. People have argued with me about this plenty and I do believe them somewhat:
- NFL turnover margins regress like a mofo and always will.
- College TO margins might have extra regression because low turnover teams tend to have senior quarterbacks and then break in new ones, and high turnover teams tend to have young quarterbacks who return. What looks like randomness is potentially roster turnover.
- Sucky defenses case fewer turnovers because things are easy.
So Rodriguez-era stuff was negative because the defenses were turrible and the quarterbacks were young. The defense does trace a largely negative track as it declines from 29 turnovers in the last Carr year to 20 in RR year 1, 16 in RR year 2, and 19 in RR year 3. Turnovers from the offense are about constant in the era of lots of freshmen, but in 2006 Michigan coughed it up just 12 times.
If Robinson remains healthy Michigan should improve significantly. The defense has to suck less and Robinson's responsibility should improve rapidly relative to players more than a year removed from being novelty freak shows. I'm afraid that Robinson is just a fumble-prone guy—Mike Hart didn't need experience to hold on to the damn ball—but the interception rate should dip considerably.
On the other side of the ball, a defense that rushes more than three players and has Martin, RVB, and Roh should get back to at least average in sacks. The center of the Gaussian distribution here is probably –3 turnovers on the year; even that would be massive improvement.
Position Switch Starters
Theory of position switches: if you are starting or considering starting a guy who was playing somewhere else a year ago, that position is in trouble. There are degrees of this. When Notre Dame moved Travis Thomas, a useful backup at tailback, to linebacker and then declared him a starter, there was no way that could end well. Wisconsin's flip of LB Travis Beckum to tight end was less ominous because Wisconsin had a solid linebacking corps and Beckum hadn't established himself on that side of the ball. Michigan flipping Prescott Burgess from SLB to WLB or PSU moving Dan Connor inside don't register here: we're talking major moves that indicate a serious lack somewhere.
Last year there were a half-dozen of varying severity. This year I'm not sure there are any, except insofar as people on the defense are all switching positions because of the scheme change. I'm not sure how much those count.
Here's a dossier:
- RVB is now a full time three-tech instead of a 5-tech on a three-man line. He's already started as a three tech in his career.
- Roh is now a WDE full time instead of a 3-3-5 OLB/DE.
- Kenny Demens is now a MLB instead of a snack for a guard.
- Thomas Gordon is a starting safety instead of a SLB/safety-type-object.
- Some wide receivers are flipping outside from the slot.
- Third string TE Steve Watson was on defense last year.
None of this comes anywhere close to Mark Moundros maybe starting at LB, Cam Gordon starting at FS, and Roh moving to LB. Anyone who's starting is moving to a spot they've played before or goddamn well should have (Roh).
The lone exception is Thomas Gordon, who is going to be playing at a new position after being a random DB his freshman year, then a spur. That's still not flipping sides of the ball. It is a concern. At least this year there are no obvious panic moves. Sliding Gordon from a nickelback to safety is not starting John Ferrara or pushing Mark Moundros as the solution at MLB.
An Embarrassing Prediction, No Doubt
There's no bottom if Denard and a couple of other key defensive players are hurt. Leaving the worst-worst case out, a relatively healthy Michigan has no business losing to WMU, EMU, Minnesota, or Purdue at home.
San Diego State, Northwestern, Illinois are all losable but Denard should be able to snake at least one of those. 5-7 is the floor.
The schedule is fairly soft, with no true road games until Michigan State (the game at Northwestern will be at least half M fans) and both Penn State and Wisconsin rotating off. If the offense maintains its current level of productivity and Mattison mediocres the defense real good, the only game that still seems entirely out of reach is Nebraska.
That's not to say Michigan can reasonably expect to win all games in reach. Taking more than two from Notre Dame, Michigan State, Iowa, and the Akron State Golden Bobcats seems to be irrational optimism. 9-3 is about all you can reasonably hope for.
There are a lot of ugly predictions like 5-7, 6-6, and 7-5 from the newspaper folk after their fifty words on the running backs* and it's easy to see why if you're looking at the surface. If you look at the final scores of last year's games it's easy to find extra losses but not extra wins.
If you look at the yardage margins and turnovers it's an entirely different picture. Michigan is poised for a big bounce. Robinson should cut down on his enormous mistakes considerably and a defense that bothers to rush will increase those of opponents. Nineteen starters return; Brendan Gibbons will either be much better or quickly replaced. GERG is gone. The offense will change and that's a drag but the things that made Robinson so insane are not that hard to exploit and he is still rapidly developing. This looks like a team that had a combination of bad luck and youth last year that should improve by leaps and bounds.
The catch: depth. It is a huge issue on both sides of the ball, with a half-dozen players essentially irreplaceable. Injuries happen; with Michigan which injuries will be huge. Huyge or Heininger or Cam Gordon going down is no big deal. Losing Denard or Martin or Demens is massive. A fully healthy Michigan looks like a (fringe) contender for a division crown, but football teams are not fully healthy.
|9/24||SDSU||Lean to win|
|10/8||@ NU||Lean to win|
|10/15||@ MSU||Lean to loss|
|11/12||@ Illinois||Lean to win|
|11/26||Akron State||Lean to loss|
Wisconsin, Penn State, Indiana
I add it up and I come up with eight wins and change. Assume one irreplaceable player is annihilated and that comes back down to an even 8-4. Unlike last year, when I predicted 7-5 but thought 6-6 was more likely than 8-4, I think Michigan is more likely to surprise to the positive until such time as we have another Woolfolk ankle explosion pity party.
Some commenters have suggested that the exactingly specific predictions in the previous posts today suggest I'd be predicting something better than 8-4, but I think turnovers, while getting much better, will still be in the red. Though the special teams issues can't be as bad they will still be a problem that could kill Michigan in a close game.
Also, 50th in advanced metrics is still bleh territory since they correct for schedule strength. For example, that's worse than Purdue and Penn State last year; the Nittany Lions gave up at least 21 points in every Big Ten game and Purdue got bombed for at least 34 five times in conference.
*["Michael Shaw is expected to start but power back Fitzgerald Toussaint will also see time. If he had any newshole anymore we would tell you about Vincent Smith, but oh well."
/end running back "scouting".]
Is Al Borges going to play to his strengths or Denard's?
Borges has been talking about lots of wide receivers and lots of shotgun since people started him asking the obvious question of the offseason. This has not kept people from asking him "yeah, but how much?" The only thing Borges could have done to get people to cease and desist is present a signed contract guaranteeing a certain number of shotgun snaps and QB Draw Oh Noes.
He didn't quite do that in his interview with the BTN crew when they hit up Ann Arbor, but he came closer than he ever had before:
Point blank: Denard "is the priority." (Readers wishing to contrast with Rich Rodriguez are asked to focus on his obsession with a poorly-run 3-3-5, not his inability to squeeze maximum production out of the ragtag 2008 offense.)
The spring game disputes this version of reality:
They kept running the waggle and Denard could not get anything out of it. There was a guy in his face the whole time; the resulting throws were frequently incomplete due to inaccuracy. In the video above when Hoke references a couple of "drops" the best examples the BTN can dig up are Drew Dileo almost making a spectacular one-handed stab and Darryl Stonum almost making a spectacular sideline lay-out.
Maybe in a tackle football game he can escape that contain guy on the regular, but that seems like a high variance strategy with limited upside. Option 1: beats corner guy, is on corner, has shot at running some probably not immense distance or hitting a crossing route of some variety. Option 2: second and 20. There's a reason the waggle is strictly an occasional changeup—whenever you've got the ball and are spending time with your back to the defense there's a chance something awful is going to happen, like John Navarre getting blown up in that one MSU game.
But after the game Borges said Denard would run more "in the real world" and that's a long time ago now and every indication we've had since is that the offense isn't going to be a whole lot different than it was last year.
ONE: it suggests that Al Borges is awesome. His career has hinted from this as it rambled from scrambling Forcier-a-like Cade McNown to brutal play-action annihilation with Ronnie Brown, Cadillac Williams, and Jason Campbell to a flexible multi-formation West Coast attack featuring Ryan Lindley in any formation you care to name. Now he's got the squarest peg he's ever run across and he's busily shaving his offense to match.
TWO: This is the way to go, especially now. In the NFL, shotgun formations are more efficient:
Shotgun formations are generally more efficient than formations with the quarterback under center.
Over the past three seasons, offenses have averaged 5.9 yards per play from Shotgun, but just 5.1 yards per play with the quarterback under center. This wide split exists even if you analyze the data to try to weed out biases like teams using Shotgun more often on third-and-long, or against prevent defenses in the fourth quarter. Shotgun offense is more efficient if you only look at the first half, on every down, and even if you only look at running back carries rather than passes and scrambles.
In college, running quarterbacks have a real advantage that the Mathlete stumbled across while trying to figure something else out:
In Denard's specific case the threat of a run from him is the reason he could surge to 20th in passer efficiency (Chad Henne 2006: 26th) one year after being totally incompetent.
Al Borges is going to do his damndest to keep Denard productive, upright, and beaming.
How much will Borges's lack of familiarity with cheetahs in Porsches strapped to jet engines and dropped out of an airplane hurt the offense?
It is going to hurt somewhat. Pretty much the only thing Rodriguez was consistently awesome at was introducing wrinkles in the run game that consistently produced. Remember that dreamlike first half against Penn State in 2008 when Brandon Minor emerged from nowhere and raged his way down PSU's throat? Rodriguez was fantastic at that stuff.
It petered out in his first two years because he had nothing to go to—no constraints—when the defense started cheating on him. With Robinson the wrinkles not only to the run game but to the defense-crippling QB Draw Oh Noes resulted in either points or plays where the points were there for the taking if only the players could have executed. Maybe the fundamentals were lacking. I tend to think of these things as youth and bloody fate. Either way you could see the outline of something great and tentacled in Michigan's fumbling missteps and blown opportunities. Rodriguez's offense was gorgeous in how it gave defenses awful choices.
Al Borges can do that. In his first year at Auburn, Jason Campbell averaged 10 YPA. Ten! That is a great many yards per attempt.
I'm not sure he can do that with Denard. He'll give Denard a more sophisticated offense that he won't execute as well as Borges needs him to; he'll use Denard's legs but not quite as effectively as Rodriguez would have. These guys are good because they've spent a lot of time specializing in ways that make them successful. There is a necessary lack of efficiency once they get outside their comfort zones.
Is anyone going to help Denard out?
I think so. Injuries laid up Shaw and Toussaint last year; both are apparently healthy. It's also possible that Vincent Smith will be closer to his late freshman form now that he's almost two years removed from his ACL tear. Add in a sophomore Hopkins and a couple freshmen and there are a lot more bullets in the chamber than there were last year, when Michigan was down to Smith and a fumble-prone Hopkins most of the season.
Without a similar plague of injuries, whoever emerges from those six guys is going to be better than the one who emerged from two. That's still going to hold true even when the grim reaper scythes one of Shaw or Toussaint down in the Big Ten opener. (Don't even think this isn't happening.) Getting production out of the tailback is key. If they can do that they can approximate last year's offense without putting undue pressure on Denard's bones.
In the passing game the #1 candidate to turn incompletions and short gains into longer ones is Junior Hemingway. He averaged 18.5 yards a catch last year and showed signs of being a guy you can just chuck it to because he'll come down with it. A fully healthy, senior Hemingway is a potential breakout performer.
Is the offensive line cut out for this?
Las year's offensive line was a B+. They didn't get an A because of a zillion Taylor Lewan penalties and mediocre play at right tackle. The interior line was very good. This year everyone is back save Steve Schilling and Perry Dorrestein. Dorrestein was a replacement level starter and Schilling has a touted, capable backup entering his redshirt junior year. Four starters return.
If this is not a great offensive line it will be because of a mismatch between what they were recruited to do and what they've been asked to do. Of late there has been a surge in OL skepticism from the premium practice reports on the message boards; I interpret this as a bunch of power being run not very effectively by a crew that should be running primarily zone.
If "this" is old-school MANBALL running, the answer is no. If it's a hybrid between last year and MANBALL, they'll get by. If they're making people cheat on the zone they will kill.
Michigan will backslide. But let's set the point from which they will backslide: I believe the advanced metrics. Michigan's field position was terrible, field goals were terrible, turnovers were terrible, and so forth and so on. We would have gotten a better picture of this offense if the field position they gained was honored either by the special teams or the defense. What happened last year was a lot of excellent play marred by turnovers from a true sophomore first-year starter with the weight of the world on his shoulders.
If Michigan did not have the #2 offense in the country last year, they weren't far off. What we had going last year was both explosive on the ground (5.6 YPC exceeded Carr's best effort this decade by almost a yard and a half) and in the air:
Last season, his first as a full-time starter in former coach Rich Rodriguez's spread offense, Robinson had 16 runs that covered at least 20 yards and seven that exceeded 30 yards. He had at least one 20-yard gain in nine of the Wolverines' 13 games last season. He scored touchdowns on runs of 87, 72, 47, 32 and 32 yards. He also had 12 pass completions of more than 40 yards. That's more than Stanford's Andrew Luck.
Criticisms about Michigan's inability to score points against elite defenses mostly boil down to inopportune turnovers and bad defense. In games against Iowa, Penn State, Wisconsin, and Ohio State, Michigan averaged nearly 440 yards. Because of the defense, special teams, and Denard's high turnover rate they didn't turn those yards into enough points—and they still scored 28 or more in three of those games. The bowl game was the only real clunker.
It was for real and it returns everyone save Steve Schilling, Martell Webb, and Darryl Stonum. Those three guys have upperclass replacements that should do just fine. The main issues with maintaining last year's level of productivity are:
- Regression to the mean.
- Keeping Denard upright.
- Not suffering more than two injuries on the OL or at TE.
- Having horrible enough field position to lead the country in long TD drives again.
- Not screwing it up.
#2 is the biggest problem. The most efficient version of the offense is also the one most likely to get Denard knocked
up out. They'll move away from that when they can, which will mean a hit. This is some version of #4: not screwing it up. I don't think they will. We will get some symbolic MANBALL—the first play against WMU is probably going to be power out of the I-form that goes for three yards—to please the Great Tradition and then Borges will get down to the business of being a coordinator instead of Mike DeBord.
Let's hit shift and comma!
- junior Denard > sophomore Denard
- Toussaint/Shaw/Smith/Hopkins > younger, more injured versions of same
- junior Patrick Omameh > sophomore Omameh
- sophomore Taylor Lewan >> Huyge/Lewan/Penaltyfest
- Huyge/Schofield > Huyge/Dorrestein
- David Molk == David Molk
- Junior Hemingway == Junior Hemingway
- Roundtree/Grady == Roundtree/Grady
- Ricky Barnum < Steve Schilling
- Kevin Koger/Brandon Moore < Koger/Webb
- Martavious Odoms < Darryl Stonum
- This is still going to be a very good offense, and this year they should have points to show for it.
Last Year's Stupid Predictions
Michigan 2010 finishes atop the rush YPC chart above without considering the UMass game and by a considerable margin.
Gardner ends up burning his redshirt in very, very frustrating fashion, because…
Check-ish. Michigan is trying to un-burn that redshirt.
Denard is pretty much your starting quarterback all year, but…
…Forcier plays in every game, bailing Michigan out in one critical fourth quarter.
Not quite every game but lots of them. Forcier did bail Michigan out against Illinois and came damn near doing so against Iowa.
Vincent Smith gets the most touches amongst the running backs. Second: Shaw. Third: Toussaint. Fourth: Hopkins.
Pretty close. Toussaint's injuries knocked him out.
Robinson is Michigan's leading rusher.
All too easy.
Darryl Stonum does not exactly go Chris Henry on the planet but does greatly increase production via a series of big plays: 30 catches, 650 yards, 6 touchdowns.
Stonum did see his production increase to 633 yards but it took him 49 catches to get there. The Chris Henry lite of the offense was Junior Hemingway, who had 593 yards on 32 catches.
Michigan breaks out the triple option with regularity, using Hopkins as the dive back and Shaw/Smith the pitch guy. They also dig out those WVU formations where the slot motions into the backfield, with Grady the man beneficiary.
This Year's Stupid Predictions
- Yards per carry drop quite a bit but nose above 5.
- Shaw claims the starting job to himself in week four, gets injured shortly after, and Toussaint takes over. Both are much better than Smith at making extra yards. At the end of the year they've all got somewhere between 400 and 800 yards.
- Denard rushes for 1200 yards. His interception rate falls significantly but is still not great.
- Michigan runs more zone blocking than gap blocking. When they do gap block they are a left-handed team thanks to Taylor Lewan.
- Koger's production is up a bit but total TE catches only go up slightly: 20 last year, 30 this year.
- Huyge gives way to Schofield mid-year.
- Michigan finishes around 15th in FEI and other advance metrics. By yardage they drop to about the same spot; scoring offense increases from 25th to match.
1. How does the shift back to the 4-3 under fit the personnel?
left: stack no blitzy. right: 4-3, though an even 4-3, not the under
Better than the 3-3-5-type-substance but it's not going to be a huge difference. Fits:
- BETTER: Roh (LB/DE to WDE), Demens (MLB to MLB with guys in front of him)
- SAME: RVB(DE to SDE/DT), Martin (NT to NT), Heininger (DE to SDE), Gordon (spur to SLB), Jones (WLB to WLB), Gordon (FS to FS), cornerbacks
- WORSE: Kovacs (bandit to SS)
Craig Roh and Jibreel Black were men without a position last year. Though Roh actually help up pretty well when he moved to the DL late, he was still miscast as a DE in a three-man line. Black just got crushed. This year both will be playing weakside DE, where they can get after one tackle.
Kenny Demens will be shielded by two senior defensive tackles, allowing him to flow to the ball like he did against Iowa. Michigan set of small, quick WLBs is better suited for the 4-3 since it will be harder for opponents to get a hat on them.
The major negative is not finding a way to keep the two safeties near the LOS. Both are effective blitzers who are a little dodgy in a deep half.
2. How big is the coaching upgrade? Will the transition hurt more than it?
The Mathlete's numbers suggest a coaching change is a drag on the improvement of very bad defenses worth about eight spots. It seems flabbergasting that that could be the case for this specific situation, however. dnak438 found a GERG effect of approximately negative 30(!) spots. While you should take that with a grain of salt because the sample size there is extremely small, each grain adds to a pile threatening to eclipse the Schwarzschild radius. Going from Greg Robinson not running a system he knows to Greg Mattison teaching exactly what he's taught for a zillion years has to be a positive even in the short term.
What causes that drag? Probably a system change. How long has Michigan been running its current system? Six games. They've probably got more experience running the under than the 3-3-5.
Then there are the position coaches: Adam Braithwaite was a grad assistant promoted to LB coach without the usual stops at East Nowhere State. Tony Gibson was reputed to be mostly a recruiter. Bruce Tall seemed pretty good but in his place Michigan has Hoke, Mattison, and Jerry Montgomery. That's an upgrade across the board.
3. Why is everybody so suicidal when the personnel doesn't look entirely doomy?
doug karsch interviewing popular perception about the defense. via firstbase
Slap me for saying this but the starting lineup isn't that scary save for two spots: SDE, where walk-ons Will Heininger and Nathan Brink are backed up by Nobody At All, and WLB, where four cats are fighting in a sack. You know what they say about WLBs: if you've got four you don't have any.
The rest of the line is Martin, Van Bergen, and Roh. Demens is promising at linebacker and they've got a couple of good options at SAM. And the secondary isn't awesome but Avery/Woolfolk/Kovacs/Gordon looks like it could be below average, which will seem like heaven. This year's edition of "Are You Experienced?" sees Michigan move towards average. There's still a gap, but it's narrowing. The Decimated Defense series also sees its Michigan number creep towards sane.
So why is everyone, including myself, afraid of going 7-5 this year with just about everyone back everywhere?
Well, there's depth. Once you get past those starters its scary. There are three backups I wouldn't wince upon seeing enter on the field: Black, Jake Ryan, and Carvin Johnson. I guess Brink fits in there as well but only because he'd be spotting another walk-on. Everyone else on the line has been beaten out by Brink and Heininger, I have little faith in JT Floyd, and even if Marell Evans was injured at Hampton he's done little in four years of football. When injuries happen the dropoff will be severe. It won't even take injuries for the defensive line to wane in effectiveness. Modern football rotates the DL. Michigan has a choice between tired starters and ineffective backups.
Even so I still can't work up the same sense of bowel-crippling panic I had last year when I believed the secondary would tread "horrible, polluted, razor-blade-filled, despair-laden water." Let's poke around at
PROJECTED FRESHMAN CONTRIBUTORS
2010: Black, Gordon, Gordon, Johnson, Avery, Talbott
2011: Maybe Ash
2010: 4-3 under, 3-4, 3-3-5
2011: 4-3 under
RADICAL MIDSEASON SWITCH TO ENTIRELY DIFFERENT SYSTEM
2010: Third year running
2011: Hell no
2010: Rubbing a stuffed beaver in your face
2011: Navy SEAL tridents
Michigan wasn't just rocking an underclass two-deep, they were rocking a freshman-heavy two deep. This could work out! For a given definition of work out!
4. What is with Will Campbell? Isn't the situation at SDE just horrible?
Man, I don't know about Campbell. Maybe his center of gravity is just too high. Maybe he'll never learn technique in the same way Mike Cox can't remember to run into the hole.
The situation at SDE is caused by whatever it is with Will Campbell and will not be encouraging. Heininger was already a non-entity in the passing game and that was 28 pounds ago. And who the hell knows about Brink? I'm guessing Mattison is just trying to get that spot to hold up against double teams in the run game and will rely on Roh/Martin/Van Bergen to get the pass rush. If they can do that it's a win.
Can they do that? Why do I ask myself unanswerable questions?
Michigan will be much, much better this year. How much better depends on:
- The health of key, irreplaceable pieces. These are Martin, Demens, Van Bergen, and the starting corners.
- The improvement of last year's freshmen. Avery, both Gordons, and Black all have the potential to leap forward Darius Morris style.
- Nathan Brink. If Michigan's unearthed something here that not only makes SDE acceptable it means the guys he beat out are potentially serviceable.
- Craig Roh. He could be anything from Tim Jamison to James Hall.
The first bit is unknowable but I can hazard guesses on the latter three: two of the four freshmen above will be startlingly good. Two will be meh. I'm guessing Thomas Gordon and Avery are the former. Brink will not be as bad as everyone feared but that SDE spot is going to be averaging +2 for the season, which is bad. Roh will be in the 75th percentile of his range, a fringe All Big Ten guy.
When I wrote that the D should improve but "not enough" I didn't account for a GERG/RR effect that is real. They'll be better than 82nd in advanced metrics this year by a long shot.
Now, behold the greater-thans and less-thans!
- senior Mike Martin with ankles > Mike Martin
- junior Craig Roh playing his actual position >>> linebacker Craig Roh
- junior Demens >> sophomore Demens/Ezeh
- sophomore Cam Gordon > freshman Gordon/Gordon/Johnson
- Woolfolk >>> Rogers
- sophomore Avery >> freshman Avery/Floyd
- T. Gordon/Johnson >> Gordon/Vinopal
- senior RVB == junior RVB
- Kovacs == Kovacs
- Heininger/Brink == Banks
- Jones/Hawthorne/Herron/Morgan << Mouton
It's going to take two years to dig out of this hole completely but I think the defense will rebound more effectively than stats and conventional wisdom suggest.
Last Year's Stupid Predictions
Fumbles recovered double to ten.
Michigan recovered seven.
The secondary is actually better than last year's secondary because long touchdowns are less frequent. It will still be very bad.
First sentence: false. Second: true.
Mouton is much better, leads the team in TFLs and sacks, and is still incredibly frustrating.
Very accurate. Mouton led the team in tackles (117), was in a three-way tie for TFLs (8.5, Kovacs and RVB tied) and had two sacks. RVB (4) and Banks (3) beat him but not by much in a pathetic year for sacks.
Mike Martin is great and should get first-team Big Ten recognition, though he probably won't.
This might have actually transpired if he hadn't gotten laid up with high ankle sprains. Before he was chopped down against MSU he was playing very, very well.
Mark Moundros holds on to the starting MLB job all season.
Michigan manages a modest improvement in yards allowed, getting up to the 60-70 range nationally.
Not so much: Michigan dipped to 110th.
More accurate than anyone thought possible.
This Year's Stupid Predictions
- Courtney Avery busts out. Going into next year people are talking about him as an All Big Ten performer.
- Kenny Demens leads the team in tackles with Northwestern-MLB-type numbers.
- Brink is a legitimate player, better than Greg Banks was last year. The biggest source of pain on the defense is the WLB.
- Craig Roh leads the team in sacks with eight.
- Sacks almost double from 1.4 per game to 2.4. That would be a move from 98th to around 30th.
- Turnovers forced go from 19 to 27.
- Michigan noses just above average in yardage allowed. Advanced metrics have them about 50th.
- EVERYTHING SEEMS WONDERFUL
No more pictures of multiple dudes we've never seen play at media day. No more projecting things from a spring game performance. No more first-year starters, walk-ons, underclassmen, uncertainty, or woe. No more charts about how some guy was pretty good for a freshman.
There is only one person we are going to talk about this year.
On a paper-thin roster lacking in stars Denard Robinson stands alone. For all the fretting about a lack of playmakers on the offense, basically the same set of guys finished 8th in total yardage last year and better than that in the advanced metrics that try to account for variations in schedule strength and opportunity.
Denard is an offense worth of playmakers himself.
|HE RUNS||HE THROWS|
|he runs draws!||whippy, live arm!|
|the ur lead draw||zings to covered 'Tree|
|no soup for safety||zips one in|
|darting past hands||slant rope|
|"that's six"||tight window|
|also six||nails Grady|
|part of good UW day||plausible deep!|
|he runs power!||gorgeous deep ball|
|shoestring tackle||deep corner|
|barely run OOB||steps back to bomb|
|he improvises!||the heave|
|zipping by the MLB||back shoulder toss?|
|weaving read keeper||developing touch!|
|actual scramble||gorgeous floater pass|
|he zone reads!||down in the hole|
|keeper W TE assist||beauty soft fade|
|wide open corner||qb oh noes!|
|he jukes !||fake bubble doom|
|Wisconsin TD||blindingly wide open|
|four missed tackles||cover zero in the alps|
|WOOPS Calabrese||dart to Hemingway|
|WOOPS a safety||when bad is really bad!|
|he punts!||gets 'Tree killed|
|Pooch punt||The X is for XTREME|
When it was all said and done Denard Robinson had shattered a half-dozen team and NCAA records. This is the kind of thing that gets you on All-America teams, so a bunch of different organizations put him on All-America teams.
These organizations go back to the days when passing was for communists and every team was led by a quarterback with more rushing attempts than passing yards. They should be used to the Fraziers and the Crouches that show up on their lists.
They are, but Denard was something else, something that caused the Football Writers Association of America to dump the word "running" from the previously very explicit "running back" spot so they could cram Robinson on their first team next to LaMichael James and Kellen Moore. Denard's 2010 was spent redefining what one man can do.
That was damn near everything. Robinson was the nation's fourth-leading rusher with 1702 yards on 256 carries; he shattered the I-A record for rushing yards by a quarterback. Vincent Smith was second on the team with 601 yards. Denard was 20th in passer efficiency with 2570 yards on 291 attempts, 18 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions. He averaged just under 20 carries per game in addition to all his passing attempts, got knocked out of damn near every game, watched Tate Forcier lead comebacks against Iowa and Illinois, and listened to every pundit in the world say the offense must not rest entirely on his shoulders lest we break him.
Do I even need to tell anyone this? Recapping Denard Robinson's 2010 is like reminding you about the time you fell out of an airplane. You remember. It was exhilarating, terrifying, and is etched into his memory forever. I probably don't need to tell you this. But here are some fun highlights anyway.
THE TOP FIVE THINGS DENARD ROBINSON DID IN 2010
5: I'M FROM TECMO BOWL, SORRY
4: WOOP WOOP SCORE
3: RANDOM LONG DRAW TOUCHDOWN THAT IS ALL RLDTDS
2: MAN UP CRAB
1: DENNIS BERGKAMP DENNIS BERGKAMP DENNIS BERGKAMP
That felt nice. Now to this year's business.
WE CAN MAKE HIM BETTER
Denard has spent the offseason working really hard and smiling at people. What are the areas in which Denard can improve? There are some. Really. There are three.
It's okay to scramble. This would be a much better example if it wasn't a spectacular long touchdown but sometimes your negative Denard Robinson highlight is also a spectacular long touchdown. Raise your hand if you had a slow-motion "nooooo" moment the instant Denard cocked his arm to throw that one pass to Junior Hemingway against Illinois.
Well done, well done YOU'RE DENARD ROBINSON AND THERE'S NO ONE WITHIN TEN YARDS OF YOU JUST RUUUUUUN.
Borges has been harping on this since his arrival. The latest version:
"If nobody's open, the broken play is probably the hardest play to stop in college football, any football," Robinson said Wednesday during a break in the Wolverines' preparations for their opener Saturday against Western Michigan.
He had been asked if he's been encouraged to scramble if the read isn't there.
Reading between those not-so-subtle lines, the answer was a resounding yes.
Hopefully we see some movement forward with the legs when Denard breaks the pocket.
If you miss, don't miss so spectacularly. Robinson's never going to be Ryan Mallet when it comes to zinging it in between levels in the zone, and that's fine. His accuracy isn't as thrilling as it seemed in his first couple games, and that's fine, too. It's still pretty dang good. Here's his UFR chart:
|2009, All Of It||1||7||6(2)||3(1)||4||4||-||-||?||-||44%|
Those numbers are slightly south of Chad Henne but not by much. But we start having issues when Denard not only misses but misses by a country mile. Many of his interceptions were like this:
LOL WUT. The chart shows he was performing at a near-Henne level when it came to downfield accuracy last year, but it doesn't show this:
That success rate has to be wrong.
It's not wrong, it just doesn't weight passes based on how damaging the particular inaccurate ball is. Against MSU, Denard threw the following balls not to his receiver:
- Endzone interception #1 on route Roundtree had two steps on. [Zero points]
- Wide open Stonum on fly route about 20 yards downfield that's airmailed. [Three points]
- Hitch to Odoms on second and nine from the 11 that would have been first and goal. [Zero points]
- Endzone interception #2 on slant that Hemingway was open on. [Zero points]
- Covered slant zinged over Grady [Zero points]
- Bubble too far in front of Roundtree. [Seven points]
- Other interception on route where Grady had plenty of room to the inside of the field but the ball was way, way too far outside, allowing sinking corner to react and intercept. [Zero points]
How big of a deal is it to throw a bubble screen a step in front of a receiver? One unit of big deal. How big of a deal is it to throw a makeable 20 yard touchdown over someone's head on third and three? Two, three units of big deal. How big of a deal is it to throw endzone interceptions when you have open receivers? Five units of big deal.
Denard had too many units of big deal per miss last year. This is because he was one year removed from being a novelty freak show.
He will get better. Robinson's decision making is always going to be easier than your average quarterback because he doesn't get a heavy rush and can use his legs as the world's most deadly play action fake. He's just got to throw it to the guy.
That Denard managed to finish 20th in passer efficiency despite being 84th of 100 qualifying QBs in interception rate is testament to how deadly the offense is if he can just throw straight. Hopefully Borges's focus and Denard relentless workrate cuts down on the throws that are Pryor armpunt specials. He just needs to miss less badly.
Shift the ball outside and when you get hit hold onto it like whoah. Robinson's turnover issues are not limited to the passing game. Michigan lost 14 fumbles last year, tied for 15th-worst in the country. Though I'm not sure how many were on Denard since he was the offense it's safe to say a high proportion of them were his. His ball security needs to be improved.
Also he could get out of bounds if they've got an angle on you.
Chris at Burgeoning Wolverine Star had an intuition about Robinson's effectiveness that he put into numbers. Those numbers bore his intuition out spectacularly. It's about Denard on passing downs. You'd expect he was less effective, but how much less effective is impressive and sobering:
||Passing Downs||Season totals|
|QB runs (YPC)||19 (7.9)||256 (6.6)|
|Scrambles (YDs)||5 (31)|
When robbed of his legs Robinson went from lethal to slightly better than 2008's Threet/Sheridan combo and their 5.1 YPA. A freshman Tate Forcier hit the NCAA mean of 7.2. Last year Michigan was an offense that had to stay ahead of the chains like those old Nebraska options teams. Third and long was over.
He'll do better this year. He remains a guy who gets his yards because the opponents are so focused on his legs that they do stuff like you see in the highlight clips above. I've trashed Gerry Dinardo for some goofy tweets about Michigan needing to run power to help the defense, but his analysis about the offense is hauntingly on the money:
"If you put Denard under center and you don't run designed quarterback runs — and I'm not sure whether they are or not — I think you become very easy to defend. They don't have a dominant tailback, Denard's not a typical under-the-center, drop-back or play-action quarterback, so I'm not sure where the offensive explosion is going to be generated.
"I think we've just watched this in Columbus when Terrelle Pryor is underneath the center and doesn't have a designed run, they struggle. So I think as you continue to put (Robinson) under center, if he's not moving the ball, and you put him in the shotgun, it's the same as last year — nobody can tackle him even if you don't block everyone you're supposed to block.
"What happens if you're not as explosive with him under the center as you are in the shotgun? You're going to revert back to some of the things they've done the last couple of years."
This is what I was talking about when I described my fear they would turn Robinson's legs from a threat you have to account for on every play into a nice bonus. Unless Michigan gets a bust-out year from one, possibly two, skill position players, the only thing on the offense that will force opponents to cheat is Denard Uber Alles. You either build your offense around that and roll the dice on Denard staying healthy or you degrade the offense's effectiveness until you need Superman to stop being Clark Kent and get in the damn phone booth.
This is an incredibly tricky balance. The instant Denard gets dinged everyone will moan that they're relying too much on him. Every drive that sputters because Denard is not deployed at maximum threat level will cause people to moan they're not relying enough on him. If Michigan had a defense that could give the offense some cover they could play it conservatively. Instead they have a tire fire Greg Mattison is valiantly hosing down.
If Michigan is going to keep Denard upright without sabotaging their offense, they will have to get progression from Denard as a passer even when he can't threaten a run. Running power with these running backs and this line isn't going to cut it.
When Denard inevitably gets banged up, Devin Gardner will be the guy flinging his helmet on and handing off a couple times. He filled that role in the first few games of 2010 before Tate Forcier reasserted himself in the backup role, whereupon Gardner came down with an extensively documented back malady en route to a medical redshirt. A recent NCAA policy change means we don't know if he actually got it or not, but that's a worry for 2014.
Gardner's action consisted of ten passes, seven of which were complete for 85 yards and a touchdown, and seven rushes for 21 yards and another TD. Everything except one negative four yard rush was against Bowling Green.
His other appearances on the field have been in a couple of spring games and the fall scrimmage/punting demo. In them he's looked kind of horrible. Disclaimers about practice apply, but I haven't seen what the usually glowing reports about him are talking about. I place equal faith in my lying eyes observing practice and someone else's lying eyes observing practice, so that's a push. If pressed into service this year he'll be an obvious downgrade; next year is when he'll be truly serviceable.
The third guy on the roster is Russell Bellomy, who is a true freshman. All knowledge about him is encapsulated in his recruiting profile. Unless disaster hits the two guys in front of him he'll redshirt. He's a raw, athletic thrower who's kind of like Tate Forcier if Forcier had played baseball during his summers instead of hanging out with Marv Marinovich. That's good and bad.
Rating: 3 of 5.
|Mike Shaw||Sr.||John McColgan||Sr.*|
|Fitzgerald Toussaint||So.*||Steve Watson||Sr.*|
|Vincent Smith||Jr.||Joe Kerridge||Fr.|
For some reason I feel real good about this group of guys.
The Tenuous Starter
|carlos brown fast…|
|just runs by the SLB|
|make a decisive cut|
|burst into the open field|
|cuts hard backside|
|…but doesn't fall over if you breathe on him|
|runs through three tackles|
|spins for YAC|
|keeps balance on goal line|
|always falls funny|
|just UMass but still|
|vision can be laughable|
|complete stop in hole|
After two years of injury, redshirt sophomore Fitzgerald Toussaint seemed on his way to Bolivia. Maybe that judgment was a bit hasty, but he was healthy for chunks of last year and couldn't push his way past a thoroughly mediocre group in front of him (he had eight carries), so the internet jumped to conclusions. That's what the internet does.
The internet has recently jumped to another conclusion based on rapturous scrimmage reports and Toussaint getting the Golden Carry in front of the media before they were abruptly ushered out of practice. Everyone else can go to Bolivia: we're going with Fitz.
The thing is this also happened last year. Toussaint redshirted due to a shoulder injury, then started building up the hype train. By the time last fall's preview rolled around, Fred Jackson had called him Mike Hart (except fast) and Chris Perry (except fast) and local insiders were saying he was a "clear #1" in the tailback derby.
Toussaint followed this surge in momentum up by damaging himself. An ankle injury took him down late in last year's fall camp. He was was listed as "out" on the injury report for UConn and Notre Dame and didn't play against UMass. When he got on the field against Bowling Green he ripped off a long run and a touchdown… and then immediately hurt his knee. He was then out for Iowa, MSU, Illinois, and Penn State. To date he's been china in a bull shop.
While the Jackson hype spotlight has moved on to the new freshman hotness, Hoke and Borges have focused on Toussaint. So have the papers, though when they focus on him they are lying like a boss:
"I wasn't as comfortable (last year) as I am in this offense," said Stephen Hopkins (6-0, 228).
Fitzgerald Toussaint, like Hopkins, is a bigger back — stronger and more physical, and this type of offense fits his style.
"I like this offense a little bit better," said Toussaint (5-10, 195). "It's smash-mouth football."
Guh? Toussaint is not large. He is a bigger back in the way Mike Hart is a bigger back: not at all (except fast!). All round knowledge must be reshaped to fit into the new square knowledge holes.
If Toussaint grabs the job he'll be closer to Hart than Shaw or Hopkins. I'm not sure if he is Except Fast—that long run above features BGSU players running him down from behind, but he was the 60M state champ in high school. Hopefully his injury issues were the cause.
Because of those issues, we have little more than the BGSU runs and his high school tape to go on. That tape again:
I like it. It makes me tingly. Tousssaint seems to have that jittery short-range quickness that allows little guys to survive, even thrive, as they pick their way through the chaos.
I'm hoping he emerges as the guy. If he beats out a healthy Shaw he'll be well on his way to translating that tape to college, and I could get used to a jump-cutting Houdini with sprinter's speed. Toussaint is the offense's Roh: the wildcard. Anything from Mike Hart (except crappy :( ) to Mike Hart (except fast!) is possible.
Third Down Back
|gets what you give him…|
|here's a free touchdown|
|Y U NO FAST|
|…and sometimes more|
|whiffed Purdue tackle|
|dancing past Huskies|
|slips through small holes|
|flare screen specialist|
|LB + Smith = easy slant|
|srsly about slant|
|still flare specialist|
|cuts charging slot LB|
|pops S pretty good|
When Al Borges said Michigan had settled on a third down back but he wouldn't tell the public who it was, the existence of the role was far more interesting than who it might be. It was bloody obvious who it was: Vincent Smith. He is 5'6" and the coaches have spent the fall gushing about his toughness. He played as a freshman because he was a better pass blocker than anyone else after Minor got too banged up to stay in if he wasn't running. If you need some one to leak out into the flat or annihilate a blitzer, he's your guy.
That's what they mean, right? They don't mean to run him on third and freaking one over and over again, do they? I'm not thinking about this possibility. Eat it, paranoid fears of irrational coaching decisions past.
Those taken care of, Smith has actually suffered a demotion by taking the new role. He was the only Michigan player to exceed 50% of Denard's carries last year. He didn't tear up the field with them, averaging a meh 4.5 YPC. The clips at right are not exactly "wow" moments. Smith seems to have a good sense for how his blocking will set up; he does not break many tackles or drag carriers for YAC, nor does he juke guys out of their jocks. He's just a guy.
The hope with Smith is that the ACL injury he sustained in the '09 Ohio State game was not entirely healed last year, or at least Smith had not recovered the jitterbug agility that caused me to attribute "top-end shiftiness" to him, channel my inner Fred Jackson by comparing Smith to Hart after he did this…
…and declare "I will not be dissuaded" that he would start next year (check) and be good (eh… not so much). This year will determine whether that was excessive enthusiams based on small sample size or the real, ACL-having Smith.
Smith's lack of rushing yards was one thing, but the weird thing was his lack of involvement in the passing game. After making ten catches in less than a game and a half at the end of his freshman year, he made only 15 during the entirety of 2010. That's quite a bit what less than the "30, 40, even 50" I predicted before the season. This year he'll probably get towards the 30 range; his rushing attempts will dip but not that much unless you believe the two guys in front of him are going to be super mega healthy, which would be a silly thing to believe. Like his Pahokee teammate Odoms, Smith is a useful piece opponents won't lose sleep over.
|massive short yardage overreaction|
|not Vincent Smith|
|can move laterally|
|good agility for beef machine|
|lead block for Denard|
|kicking out for Denard|
|great vision here|
|clubs PSU LB|
Now we descend into the woolly depths. Sophomore Stephen Hopkins is a surprise find down here. A big mooseback with no competition on the roster when it comes to being 230 pounds and capable of carrying a football, Hopkins was hailed as the obvious solution to the tailback issue once Hoke installed MANBALL. Hell, I was arguing that even sans manball Hopkins and his blocking heft were the best fit in a Denard-heavy running offense.
So of course Hopkins has been a virtual non-entity this fall. He did show up in a Media Day interview seeming chipper and vowing he hadn't played a snap at fullback; other than that he's been invisible save a couple of "oh and that guy" references from the coaches.
The insider chatter keeps mentioning the doghouse, and eagle-eyed observers of the season preview of Inside Michigan Football caught him doing something called "log rolling," which I thought was when you tried not to fall off a log into a lake. It turns out to also refer to a punitive activity people inflict on football players. Hopkins is doing it. So… yeah, he's in the doghouse. Since that doesn't seem to be a weight problem it's an off-field issue.
Whatever it is it will have to be serious if it's going to knock Hopkins off the field long term. He's the only guy on the roster with a plausible claim to being a short-yardage mauler, and we're all sick of watching Vincent Smith on third and one. He fills a role and fills it well; unless the Rawls hype is something other than the usual Fred Jackson stuff Hopkins will be the guy they call on when they want to MAN some BALLS in a VAN down by the FIRST DOWN MARKER.
I think he'll have a role elsewhere as well. That thump-thump section at right makes a good case that if you're trying to maximize Denard's effectiveness Hopkins is your guy. While Smith is the best pass blocker available, when he impacts a linebacker he's just trying to stall him. He does not do this:
Hopkins creates windows other backs don't. When three yards and a cloud of dust is a win, he'll be in there.
After Hopkins it's freshmen and obscurity. Thanks to the tireless efforts of the Jackson family the least obscure kid down here is Thomas Rawls. He's Mark Ingram except faster… or Kevin Grady not asked to run stretch plays. Even before he was laid up with a shoulder issue in fall camp he'd fallen behind the veterans. Catching up now is going to be difficult. If he's as difficult to tackle as the Jacksons say he could wrest the short yardage job from Hopkins while he's in the doghouse; more realistically he'll get a few carries here and there in preparation for more serious efforts in 2012 and beyond. Fellow freshman Justice Hayes [recruiting profile] looks like he'll redshirt. A move to receiver is a possibility.
Finally, redshirt junior Mike Cox finds himself buried on the depth chart even after the coaching change he celebrated with some unwise tweets. He can be the most physically talented running back on the roster all he wants. He's just about out of chances, and he's nowhere near the field. We'll always have long runs in garbage time, Mike.
We've seen very little from Michigan fullbacks since the advent of the Rodriguez era. When it came time to bulk up Rodriguez would just run Robinson at the line, bring in Webb and Koger at the same time, or use one of the tailbacks as a lead blocker.
Appearances by John McColgan were infrequent, too infrequent to draw conclusions. He did catch one of those two-yard touchdown passes fullbacks are always reeling in and whack Clayborn with help from Huyge on a third and short against Iowa.
He's a senior and should be all right. Moving Steve Watson to an H-back type spot suggests he won't be anything more than a specialist. I'm betting fullbacks are only more prevalent when Michigan is "imposing its will" on an opponent, and by "imposing its will" I mean "boring the hell out of everyone in the third quarter against a MAC opponent." Here is the mandatory fluff article about his increased role in MANBALL anyway.