who fails upward better: Whitlock, Kiffin, or Brandon?
|Jake Ryan||So.*||Kenny Demens||Sr.*||Desmond Morgan||So.|
|Cam Gordon||Jr.*||Joe Bolden||Fr.||Brandin Hawthorne||Sr.|
|Royce Jenkins-Stone||Fr.||Mike Jones||Jr.*||James Ross||Fr.|
It's step-up time for the linebacking corps. They return every contributor from a year ago and get freshman-to-sophomore transitions from Jake Ryan and Desmond Morgan. Kenny Demens, Cam Gordon, and Brandin Hawthorne are entering their second consecutive years in a sane defense for the first time in their careers and could/should see larger than average leaps in performance.
They will need to be much better. Mike Martin isn't going to bail them out on six plays a game anymore. Ryan Van Bergen isn't walking through that door. Ryan has to become an elite pass rush threat; Demens and Morgan need to take on blockers and funnel to help far more consistently than they did a year ago.
This is well within reach. Now about getting there.
|SLOWER THAN BLOCKS|
|eats MSU cut|
|eats OSU TE|
|eats him again|
|FASTER THAN BLOCKS|
|flow hard son|
|GOT SOME THUMP|
|Iowa FB denied|
|No Coker part 1|
|line to seam PBU|
In 2010, Kenny Demens was not Obi Ezeh, and this was enough. Expectations were sky-high for Demens in 2011 if only because he seemed so much better than Michigan's incumbent that he had to be pretty good. In retrospect, his somewhat disappointing output was always the likely outcome. Like almost everyone else on the defense, Demens had experienced position-coaching chaos and shifted from system to system on a semiannual basis.
Stepping into an entirely different coaching regime naturally meant hesitation, and hesitation was what we got. I put up this extremely scientific pie chart after Eastern Michigan put up 4.5 YPC despite throwing six times:
We'll talk about the Jake Ryan edge allowance below; here we're fixated on the big red thing labeled "hesitant linebacker play." This was the week after I'd watched Notre Dame's linebackers tear ass after anything that moved, so I may have had a view of proper linebacker play improperly biased towards running your balls off as soon as a guard gives you a direction.
I don't think so, though, as Michigan linebackers were exploited on the edge for much of the year. Blue Seoul captured a Kain Colter option TD in With Pics(!), and while I suppose Carvin Johnson, who Seoul criticizes, could have been more Kovacs-y on the play, he did follow the golden rule of leverage by keeping Colter well inside of him. It's just that there was no one to clean up afterwards:
Johnson's mistake should have been worth a few yards, but not enough for Northwestern to convert. Earlier he was unable to shut down an outside run that got turned up at the numbers:
He's even with Hawthorne, who was the backside LB, and well behind nose tackle Mike Martin in his attempt to shut the play down. This is because he took an angle upfield of a blocker on a perimeter run, which is one of those "you better make the damn play" decisions. Demens wasn't close.
Demens got a –4 in that game and was negative the next week against MSU as the Spartans pounded the edges and found Michigan LBs a step slow. Too often Demens did not do what Johnson is managing above, like on this Ed Baker run against MSU. Watch him eat a block and let Baker to the edge:
I know this is not an edge play, but it's symptomatic of the main issue.
You want edge biff? Edge biff.
State couldn't get out to the second level on Hawthorne and he is free. This is a quintessential example of what you hear about the WLB in the under: he often ends up the free hitter because of the configuration of the DL whereas the MLB has to take on a block. Demens takes on a block, loses leverage, does not funnel to his partner, and off Baker goes. This was 60-70% of all the complaining I did about the linebackers last year and my A-#1 bitch about Jonas Mouton. Michigan linebackers aren't good about keeping leverage. (Yet.)
Before and after that, Demens was pretty good between the tackles. He pounded ND for twelve tackles and a +8.5 and was consistently above average late in the year, picking up three straight +4s against Iowa, Illinois, and Nebraska before falling back towards zero in the OSU game. Late he started playing faster. His third-and-one stick of Marcus Coker was hands down Michigan's tackle of the year:
Yeah, Kovacs collapsed Alex Carder's lung. He did not stop that truck dead in its tracks. Demens was also the second key on that Braxton Miller rollout against OSU, tracking him to the edge and forming up at the right spot to allow Black to come from behind.
For Demens, it's about playing fast and going hard. Last year Mattison literally played him at nose tackle because he'd rather have Mike Martin blitz; Demens needs to go when he goes, and decide to go more quickly. That should be in reach. He'll be a solid run defender and decent down the seam, but a lack of raw athleticism probably sees him top out at a bit above average.
[hit THE JUMP for Bolden as Samson, Jake Ryan(!), and Desmond Morgan]
A note before we start: this preview relies heavily on the defensive UFRs of last year because there’s a convenient numerical system that does a decent job of summing up a defensive player’s contributions. One caveat: the system is generous to defensive linemen and harsh to defensive backs, especially cornerbacks. A +4 for a defensive end is just okay; for a cornerback it’s outstanding.
|STRONG DE||Yr.||NOSE TACKLE||Yr.||THREE-TECH||Yr.||WEAK DE||Yr.|
|Craig Roh||Sr.||Quinton Washington||Jr.*||Will Campbell||Sr.||Jibreel Black||Jr.|
|Nate Brink||Jr.*#||Richard Ash||So.*||Ryan Glasgow||Fr.#||Brennen Beyer||So.|
|Keith Heitzman||Fr.*||Ondre Pipkins||Fr.||Matt Godin||Fr.||Frank Clark||So.|
Okay okay okay. Breathe. Breathe in. Breathe out. Feel the lung expand and contract, and feel a calmness wash over you. Yeah. Calm. Calm.
Michigan lost three starters, may be starting a 280-pound three-tech, moved the only returning starter, and has a walk-on seriously pressing for playing time. If they're not starting a 280-pound three-tech, they're starting a 280-pound WDE. Will Campbell inherits a starting spot essentially by default.
No no no no. Calm. Callllm.
The big piece of news that hit when the Big Ten Network was let inside the velvet rope at Michigan practice was Jerry Montgomery naming Quinton Washington one of his starters instead of Brennen Beyer. This was followed up by a depth chart confirming this fact.
Clarity came Monday when Hoke made an appearance at the UM Club of Greater Detroit's kickoff dinner that I was at, waiting for the Q&A session with Greg Dooley and Angelique Chengelis. Hoke took questions, someone asked him about the defensive line, and Hoke gave a straight answer. To paraphrase: Michigan is planning on rotating six guys. Washington will be the nose in certain packages with Campbell at three tech and Black at WDE. In other packages they'll remove Washington and slide everyone down, inserting Beyer at WDE and going with Roh-Campbell-Black-Beyer.
Who's the sixth guy? You got me. I'd guess it's Nate Brink, but it didn't come up.
this year he'll totally live up to this image. really! (probably not really.)
This time we mean it, Will Campbell: it's now or never. The one-time five-star recruit is now a senior. He's been handed a starting spot by the graduation of three DL starters and Rodriguez's crappy recruiting. This makes everyone nervous because obviously.
There is some good news on this front. After a couple years in which Campbell appearances were all but guaranteed to draw this sort of commentary…
I'm not at the point where I can tell you the ten different things Campbell did to get blown four yards downfield, but I can blather on about pad level: man, pad level. Am I right?
…his cameos were fairly effective last year. He got limited snaps, of course, but only ended up negative against Iowa, when he got cut twice on big Coker runs. He had a +5 against ND, a +3.5 against SDSU, a +4 against Minnesota, and a +4 against Illinois, three of which came when he blew up a third and one by himself:
Unfortunately, these positives and highlights are all against the worst offensive lines on the schedule (and ND, oddly). Michigan didn't put him out there much against tougher competition; now they've got no choice.
"The most dramatic change I've seen in a body on our team is Will Campbell," said left tackle Taylor Lewan. "His body is transformed. He was a sloppy 350 and now he's a toned down 308 kind of guy. He looks real good. His conditioning shows it. You should see him run. He's like a gazelle. It's unreal. I think Will is going to do some special things this year."
Come on, baby. He's getting the full-court press from Michigan's three-headed DL coaching staff, and I wished and hoped my way to thinking he was a lot better this spring:
Last spring game guy was a lump who managed to not get blown off the ball most of the time and just about never did anything. During the year he was largely that with some nice plays mixed in, but too infrequently to be encouraging. In the spring game he had clearly progressed enough to actually beat his man to the gap more than once.
You know all those runs Rawls had where he had to abort mission and find another hole? Most of those were headed at Campbell. Since we got a baseline for Ricky Barnum in the time he got before his ankle injury last year—decent Big Ten player even then—that's a hopeful sign.
While that hasn't kept the coaches from grousing about things, their expectations are not my expectations.
Finding out that Campbell will flip between three tech and the nose is probably a positive tea leaf. Leverage has always been a problem, and at 6'5" he's never going to be a great burrower. Get him one on one and he can deposit folks on their butts. That is what he'll generally be allowed to do at the three. His ability to do that on passing downs is going to be a huge factor in how effective that line configuration is—three techs can get good rush, and Michigan's ability to get pressure out of the WDE spot is very much in doubt.
What to expect here is a mystery. My WAG: adequate play that's on average a few points to the good on UFR charts (which is average for DL, as it measures MAKING PLAYS more than not doing so). Maybe a fringe draft pick if Michigan is pretty lucky. I don't think he'll be worse than Heininger, and he was pretty decent by the end of the year.
[hit THE JUMP for the GREAT MYSTERY beyond the KEN OF MAN (and Craig Roh)]
|Taylor Lewan||Jr.*||Elliott Mealer||Sr.*||Ricky Barnum||Sr.*||Patrick Omameh||Sr.*||Michael Schofield||Jr.*|
|Erik Magnuson||Fr.||Joey Burzynski||So.*||Jack Miller||Fr.*||Kyle Kalis||Fr.||Ben Braden||Fr.|
This again. One year after Michigan's offensive line looked pretty shiny as long as you did not consider the cliff after guy #6, Michigan's offensive line looks really shiny… as long as you don't consider the cliff after guy #5. Or maybe guy #4. In a best case scenario, still guy #6.
Last year, Michigan had Michael Schofield to step into the lineup, and needed him to. This year any injury will see a walk-on or freshman—probably a true freshman—hit the field. Yipes.
But let's not think about that. As long as the starting five stays intact, the line should be quality. Taylor Lewan is projected as a first-round NFL draft pick, Patrick Omameh is in his fourth year as a starter, Michael Schofield started most of last year and moves to a more natural position, and the other two guys are redshirt seniors. Michigan should have a better line this year even without David Molk.
That first step's a doozy, though.
Rating: 5 of 5, not considering depth
Guralnick/Greilick, Detroit News
At this point, "Taylor Lewan is the next Jake Long" is not hope or hype or projection but just a (pretty much) true thing. Lewan may not go first overall in the NFL draft but he's already being projected in the top half of the first round next year, should he choose to depart.
After a promising but penalty-filled freshman year, Lewan cut out the holding calls and stoned opposing pass rushers, snap in, snap out. The primary reason ultra-hyped MSU DE Will Gholston started playing judo chop with various Lewan limbs was that he had no hope of impacting the game in any other fashion:
|AGILITY TO PULL|
|gets outside on p&p|
|another sprint counter|
|donkey some guy|
|nice seal on Worthy|
|stands up Binns|
|gets Toussaint edge|
|fails to cut on screen|
In a game where the Michigan OL was overwhelmed, blitz or not (Mark Huyge got 7 protection minuses), Lewan had a measly +1. Across twelve games of fending off the opposition's best pass rusher he racked up a total of four protection minuses. Two of those were for not cutting a guy on a screen; a third was not getting out on a corner on an attempted double pass. The fourth is somewhere in that video above, and I'm not even sure what that was. Even counting that there was literally one QB hurry going one-on-one with Lewan last year, to say nothing of actual sacks. There is a reason he is getting the NFL hype.
(Note that when blitzes cause confusion not localizable to one or two players that sends in free rushers I file that under "team." Lewan's no doubt responsible for some of those. When he identifies a guy to block, it's over.)
The black lining in our silver cloud was Lewan's lack of impact in the run game. He started off well, with three games around +10 in the UFR run chart and a 7-3-+4 against ND in limited opportunities—Michigan did jack before eviscerating Gary Gray in the fourth quarter. This was noted.
how often have you thought about Taylor Lewan this year? Not often, right? Mostly when he takes some donkey and punches it so hard in the nose shards of cartilage come out the back of its donkeyhelmet, right? (In a non-personal-foul acquiring way, of course.)
After that, he struggled to register on the run chart until late. His Big Ten season:
|5||MINN||5.5||6||-0.5||Yeah, surprised me too: had a couple busts and one bad whiff.|
|6||NW||4.5||2||2.5||Why so low, numbers? Discussion later.|
|7||MSU||6||5||1||Lucky to have both arms in his shoulder sockets.|
|8||PU||7||1||6||Would like to see him more involved somehow.|
|10||Illinois||8||5||3||Had some mistakes in space.|
|11||Nebraska||9||-||9||Finally some productive donkey hatred. Belly helps him produce; also got Toussaint the edge on a play that would have gone badly otherwise.|
|12||OSU||9.5||1||8||Effective against DTs, mostly, also getting to the second level.|
There's a certain amount of busting plays that is part and parcel of being an offensive lineman, especially one learning a new offense. That doesn't bother me. What does is the overall lack of positives until the tail end of the season. Heavily involved linemen will be putting up twice the positives and negatives as the above—Omameh had eight games where his positives were above ten and five where they were 13 or greater. Lewan didn't get there, and I think this was because of Omameh, ironically:
What is with those Lewan numbers?
The system doesn't try to judge blocks that are far away from the play and often declares an easy thing done okay to be a zero, so backside tackles and down-blocking guys a gap away from the play rarely register. Lewan rarely registered and this week's picture pages were examples of Schofield pulling, Schofield pulling, and Schofield pulling. Why is Michigan pulling the converted tackle backup and running away from their donkey-hating first round tackle?
The only conclusion that makes sense is they hate pulling Omameh. When they did pull left, they pulled Molk or Schofield and Molk, only rarely trying Omameh.
We'll talk about that when we get to the right guard, but Omameh came on in those last three games in which Lewan finally got some traction. Once they could pull the right guard, the left tackle got to express his donkey hatred.
With Omameh figuring it out and another year of experience for both, Michigan figures to be more left-handed on the ground; combine that with the pass blocking mentioned above and factor the injuries Lewan dragged around all year and the projections for his 2012 should be sky-high. He should be an All-American, or at least play like one.
[hit THE JUMP to find out about the other starters, but probably not the backups.]
|Roy Roundtree||Sr.*||Devin Gardner||So.*||Jeremy Gallon||Jr.*||Brandon Moore||Sr.*|
|Jeremy Jackson||Jr.||Jerald Robinson||So.*||Drew Dileo||Jr.*||AJ Williams||Fr.|
|Amara Darboh||Fr.||Ricardo Miller||So.*||--||--||Devin Funchess||Fr.|
This bit could be better. Roy Roundtree suffered more than anyone in the transition from the spread 'n' shred to the spread 'n' pasted-on-West-Coast-stuff, plummeting from 72 catches to 19. Notre Dame and Sugar Bowl savior Junior Hemingway is off to NFL practice squads as a seventh-round pick; following him out the door are Martavious Odoms (replaceable) and Kevin Koger (uh…).
In their stead Michigan will field a forest of unproven guys with limited upside, freshmen, their backup quarterback, and Jerald Robinson, the one vague hope for a high quality downfield threat who is not the backup quarterback.
It should be noted that Michigan is running the opposite of the Holgorsen style "you came here an X, you learned it in three days, you repeated it 60 times, you are forever an X" specialization offense. Jeff Hecklinski said as much last year…
"The difference in this offense is there aren't really slot receivers as much as outside receivers — they play everywhere on the field and we move them around," Hecklinski said. "The switch is big because of all the little things asked of them - they have to convert routes, pick up checks and route changes and coverages."
…and the frequent deployment of Junior Hemingway in the slot and Jeremy Gallon outside confirmed that over the course of the year. Therefore "slot" is used to denote the player who is going to get all the wide receiver screens, which will never be bubble screens.
Assertion: Junior Hemingway was the most valuable Michigan wide receiver since Braylon Edwards. Hemingway may not have been as good as Mario Manningham or even Adrian Arrington, but imagining last year without his ability to rise from a thicket of hands to snag "no no no no no no YESSSSSSSS" touchdowns is not a pleasant exercise. He is the undisputed king of yards per target since 2005. He was important.
Unfortunately, Hemingway's gone. Left behind is the mismatched collection of runty Rodriguez slot receivers, Rodriguez leapers who run like hobbled ducks, and… maybe Devin Gardner. Definitely Devin Gardner.
Aw, hell, I should probably start off talking about Roundtree and stuff but everyone wants to know about Gardner.
Yeah, man, he's going to play. Unless Jerald Robinson delivers on the perpetual low-level hype, no one else on the roster comes close to Gardner's combination of size, leaping ability, and speed. At the very least he'll frequently attempt the Terrelle Pryor "oops I'm huge" redzone fade…
…and it's hard to see him not being more than that given the alternatives. Gardner played exclusively at wide receiver at the Mott open practice, and with the first team. I've heard from multiple source since: that's no smokescreen.
While no one knows how this will go, the steady drumbeat of hype from players is encouraging. It took about all of a dozen spring practices for reports like this to reach my ears:
Someone who's seen Gardner at all of Michigan's practices so far says he's "instantly Michigan's best receiver and adds a new dimension to the offense." He's "crazy athletic" with "surprisingly great hands."
Similar reports popped up on the premium sites, and when fall camp started and everyone asked anyone in front of the mic about the possibility, his teammates said "dang." Kovacs:
"He's a great athlete, I feel like he could play anywhere and he could probably take my spot if he tried," Michigan senior safety Jordan Kovacs said. "He's a natural athlete, and if they play him at receiver, I'm sure he'll be pretty good.
"Wherever he plays, he's going to make big plays."
"When he gets out to receiver, you think he's a receiver," Robinson said. "He looks like he's been playing there for years."
And then there's this extremely reliable and not all dated video of Gardner screwing around at WR as a high school kid:
That's the ticket, man. They might have to protect him from getting jammed, but that's not too hard: line him up off the LOS, possibly in those stack formations, and there you go. Then it's about running the routes and catching the ball.
The possibility of a "devin gardner dunked on tacopants" tag and a paucity of options to fill the Junior Hemingway role that bailed the offense out time and again last year will see Gardner on the field. It may be sparingly at first, but if it's crunch time against Alabama do you want him on the bench?
Attempting to predict what happens here is very difficult, but I'm betting Gardner is one of four players approximately level on catches and yards at the end of the year, with no true star player. The upside is tantalizing, though, and your best hope for an offense that scorches both ground and sky. Devin Gardner, you've been X-factor'd.
[hit THE JUMP to read up on Roundtree, Gallon, and company.]
Rating: 4.5 of 5.
|Fitzgerald Toussaint||Jr.*||Stephen Hopkins||Jr.||Vincent Smith||Sr.|
|Thomas Rawls||So.||Sione Houma||Fr.||Justice Hayes||Fr.*|
|Drake Johnson||Fr.||Joe Kerridge||Fr.*||Dennis Norfleet||Fr.|
|FOR THE LOVE OF GOD GET THIS MAN A SLIPPERY JERSEY|
|MAKES YOU MISS|
|jukes three Gophers|
|cuts all the way back|
|stop and go six|
|ONE CUT AND GO|
|finds a gap on power|
|simply outruns Purdue|
|hits the edge vs UNL|
|NOT SMITH AS A BLOCKER|
|crappy cut block|
|find a man, man|
|WILL MISS A CUT OR TWO|
|wrong side of Schofield|
Fitzgerald Toussaint spent his first couple years at Michigan as china in a bull shop, laid up with various injuries that prevented his considerable talent from seeing the field. This did not prevent Fred Jackson from calling him both "Mike Hart but fast" and "Chris Perry but fast." God bless Fred Jackson.
In 2011 his bones and joints mended as Thomas Rawls's failed him at an inopportune time and Toussaint was thrown into a three-way battle with Vincent Smith and Mike Shaw for the starting job, one that last year's edition of this post hoped (and predicted) he would win:
Toussaint 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. … Anything from Mike Hart (except crappy :( ) to Mike Hart (except fast!) is possible.
Bumps and bruises continued to dog him (he missed the ND game and his inexplicable two carries against MSU almost has to be injury related) but Toussaint actually delivered on Jackson's hyperbole.
He kind of is Mike Hart, but fast:
"full on Hart déjà vu," I said
Juking in a phone booth was Hart's specialty. Toussaint has that and sprinter's speed. As a bonus, he didn't fumble in 187 carries last year. He only lacks Hart's pile-pushing doggedness.
After the inexplicable MSU game, he blew up. His first 20-carry game was the next week against Purdue; he smoked five different Boilers on his signature run of 2011…
…and ended up with 170 yards. The offense imploded the next week and took Toussaint with it, but after that he laid waste: 192 yards against Illinois, 138 against Nebraska, and 120 against Ohio State. (Then the offense imploded again.)
At season's end Toussaint had become Michigan's first 1,000 yard back since Hart and at 5.8 YPC its most efficient since Tim Biakabutuka was going ham on Ohio State in 1995. When he wasn't going off during his second half surge, it was because the walls were coming down around him and there was nowhere to go.
He is legit. He runs between the tackles, finding a crack and jetting straight upfield when it's there. He is a decisive cutter with good vision. When it's not there he can stutter-step and bounce outside. Once in the secondary his change of direction often leaves safeties flapping in his wake. If there's a downside it's a spotty blocking record and not much activity in the passing game (just six catches a year ago), but those are things that Michigan can fix as time goes by.
Toussaint would enter 2012 with a rock-solid lock on the job but for that offseason DUI, which should see him miss the Alabama game. (That assumption may be dubious given the depth chart, but I'm still guessing he gets the standard one game DUI suspension.) That gives Thomas Rawls a crack at the job, and the two subsequent games should be comfortable enough that Toussaint will get eased back into the lineup. By the time ND rolls around, he should resume his place as the feature back.
Toussaint's raw numbers won't reach Hart levels because of the suspension, the guy next to him in the backfield, and the potential emergence of Rawls, but a replica of last season beckons, plus 40 or 50 carries. He'll be All Big Ten caliber even if he doesn't get on the list.
[hit THE JUMP for the rest of the cast of characters.]
The tumultuous recent years of Michigan football have spawned some truly boggling "this hasn't happened since" statistics. Most prominent was the OSU streak, of course, but this year Michigan enters a year running the same defense it did a year ago since 2007. Next year they'll have guys with a third year in a single system for the first time since 2003—remember Jim Herrmann's one-year experiment with the 3-4 in 2004. I'm just wow, man.
Even more remarkable is that if Denard Robinson remains healthy they'll get a season's worth of starting from a senior quarterback* for the first time since John Navarre 2003 almost a decade ago. If I hadn't used the Grosse Point Blank "TEN YEARS!" joke for basketball's 2009 tourney bid, I'd deploy it now. I'll still use this:
Yeah, Piven, I feel you.
If you don't remember, senior quarterbacks are good to have. They're generally efficient, even when they aren't escapees from a top-secret government experiment attempting to breed a new race of Sonic The Hedgehog soldiers. They change plays at the line and don't throw interceptions and sometimes pilot the kind of offense that can sing your baby to sleep with its metronomic precision.
Is that happening? Uh… probably not. But the Sonic thing gives you a lot of room for error.
*[Chad Henne's '07 season does not qualify, as he missed games against ND, Penn State, Minnesota, and Wisconsin (basically—he threw five passes) and was wounded most of the rest of the year, most painfully when he was throwing up Sheridan-esque moonballs en route to 68 yards passing against OSU. That space station was not fully operational until the bittersweet Citrus win over Florida.]
|QB drawin'||Hopkins floater|
|juke in out in out in .||holds up Hemingway|
|drop snap deadly||ZIPPY ARM|
|bursts outside||no pressure == good|
|patience FTW||can zip it|
|damn Lavonte David||no pressure again|
|VEER ME BABY||no pressure rollout|
|gashing Purdue||UNLEASH THE DRAGON|
|woop woop||bombs it deep to Hemingway|
|zooooooom||chuckin' it up|
|shortie vs OSU||fires deep anyway|
|seeya Shazier||deep corner|
|SCRAMBLE MORE||back foot bomb|
|you never do this||bumpy bumps|
|hate you David||Odoms back of EZ|
|WTF READS||UNLEASH THE D'OHGON|
|looks open on the corner||this is more Smith's fault|
|again misses a keep read||PLAIN IMPRESSIVE|
|pitch the ball!||sets feet on roll|
|refuses to pull||nails Dileo|
The comedown was predictable, and a little sad. Denard Robinson's electrifying 2010 season saw him garner Heisman votes and All-American nods like they were rushing yards. He shoved a rainbow down Notre Dame's throat and made them pop out of your head. He shattered records, big records, NCAA-wide records for rushing quarterbacks, and if he hadn't been saddled with the Worst Defense Ever on the other side of the ball, he might have continued doing so ad infinitum.
But he was, so he didn't. Enter Al Borges, a guy who has about as much experience with running quarterbacks as Rich Rodriguez did with intricate West Coast passing games. Enter Brady Hoke, who declared that POWER would be run powerfully. Exit the Denard-iso-based offense that disguised for Robinson's many shortcomings as a passer by getting guys flabbergastingly wide open.
Down went many of the stats. Denard's rushing yards dropped from 1702 to 1176. His yards per carry went from 6.6 to 5.3. Passing yards dropped by about 400, yards per attempt went from 8.8 to 8.4, and Denard's already high interception rate ballooned from 3.7% to 5.8%.
There wasn't much compensation in terms of keeping Denard hale. His carries scarcely dipped (256 in 2010, 221 in 2011) and he got knocked out of games against Michigan State and Illinois. It just did not work as well.
That said, the offense didn't fall off too much. Buoyed by a tough schedule, Michigan's offense didn't slide much in advanced metrics (FEI went from 2nd to 9th) and had barely budged after the regular season. They put up more points against Ohio State than any Michigan team since Fritz friggin' Crisler. They return eight or nine starters depending on how you want to configure the offense and how you feel about tagging Ricky Barnum a starter. If they can refine things…
Denard just wasn't very good at reading defenses (or wasn't allowed to be) in any phase of the game. There's no reason he would be good at the passing stuff given the Rodriguez offense. He'd stare down guys, like when Kevin Koger ended up wide open in the flat against Purdue. If he got a little pressure he'd chuck balls off his back foot, like he did three times against Northwestern.
It didn't seem like the coaches had a whole lot of faith in Denard's decision-making on the ground either. While they showed various option looks, these were basically run plays on which opponents had to respect the RB. Denard pitched once, and that was a fumble. In the Nebraska game I became increasingly more perplexed at Denard's refusal to pull the ball, eventually giving him an epic negative score for not doing zone reads at all properly. In retrospect it seems clear that those weren't reads at all if they were being so consistently missed—they were called keeps or handoffs and if the defense did something unsound, oh well. Here's a paradigmatic screenshot:
That speed option was a keep for a loss of three, and Denard's not even looking at a potential pitch.
After arghing arghing I came to this conclusion…
The one time he did pull the backside tackle blocked the end inside and nobody scraped, which makes me wonder if I am putting all of this on his shoulders when Michigan has abandoned the zone read in favor of making it look like the zone read but not actually giving Denard the option.
…and after several months remove that still seems like the most likely explanation.
Hypothesis: you choose to rep one thing hard to be an expert. Previously, it was zone stuff that forced defenses to be wrong with certain players and get players wide open. Under Borges, it was West Coast passing. The read skills atrophied to the point where they were not reliable enough to use regularly, Denard was always coming from a thousand miles behind in the air, and the results were a step back all around.
Borges hasn't turned into someone else, so the way forward is obvious… but might not be achievable.
Denard's season trajectory told a story of real progress culminating in that brilliant Ohio State performance:
So… we have a pattern now. In the beginning of the year Denard had no idea what to do with this passing offense and his lack of comfort screwed up his mechanics. As he progressed and Borges adapted to his strengths the comfort level rose and he hit a plateau of totally acceptable performances before lighting up OSU. The progress is undeniable. He'll regress a bit against VT but if he nudges his DSR above 70% it's time to quietly hope he can have a ridiculous career capping year in 2012.
The best part of going 14/17 for ten YPA? Three QB draws for 10, 10, and 16 yards. Run and tell that, homeboy. If Denard is the QB he became after the trash tornado game, look out: 59% completions, 7-4 TD-INT, 8.4 YPA against Purdue/Iowa/Illinois/Nebraska/OSU translates into… I don't even know what.
Here's his UFR chart for the year:
[Hover over column headers for explanation of abbreviation. Screens are in parens.]
[I went back and did a passing chart for the Sugar Bowl FWIW.]
After the dismal Michigan State trash-tornado-and-double-A gap game, something clicked. Or he stopped being bothered by an abscess on his elbow (or "boo boo" in Hokespeak). Either way, the uptick was dramatic.
This is hard to see in the traditional stats for two reasons: Gary Gray and weak opponents early. Denard's YPA actually dipped by a yard (Sugar Bowl included). The closer look UFR provides shows progress, and a lot of it. After racking up 17 BRs in the first seven games, Denard had just one per game in the last five before the bowl. His interception rate plummeted from an insane 7.1% to a still-very-bad 4.2%. His downfield success rate leapt up into the same approximate range he spent his sophomore year in, and he even scrambled a little against Nebraska.
The Main Thing
This is not going to be news, but my God, the interceptions. Last year when Football Study Hall took the top 100 I-A QBs by passing yardage per game and ordered them by interception rate, Denard was 84th. His 2011 number (5.8%) would have been 99th(!) on the list. Worse than Jacory Harris, BJ Daniels, Stephen Garcia, and everyone else except Boo Jackson of OHIO.
Virginia Tech is of course the great raspberry in the narrative of progress here. Since I am the worst (seriously: I apologize profusely for not doing that UFR, I really am the worst) I'm more hand-wavy than usual about what went on but I did go back and chart all of Denard's throws. I found an MSU-like game in which he responded very poorly to pressure, and since VT pressures a lot and got Michigan behind the sticks all the time, he was often put in positions to fail.
I noticed a similar trend when I went back through my Denard clips from last year. Most of the throws filed under "zippy arm" are ones in which Denard can set up in the pocket and chuck it without having to re-set his feet. Por ejemplo:
It's when he has to move around and re-set that we get most of the erratic throws, and it didn't take much for him to revert to bad habits last year, as the first half of that Northwestern game showed. He backfooted a bunch of throws that he didn't have to:
Stepping into those gets them off accurately without getting you sacked.
It's no coincidence that Denard's by-far-worst outings of the year were against the two teams that got in his face over and over. All quarterbacks see their performance decline when they get pressure; few have as an abrupt a cliff as Denard did last year.
Rodriguez's solution to this problem—if he ever had to consider it—was to make the offense so heavily run-based that passes were rarely met with heavy pressure. Straight dropbacks were rare, and defenses were hesitant to blitz in case they got a constraint play in their face or blitzed up the wrong gap. Borges probably won't and probably can't assemble an offense where the parts move just so, and anyway Denard threw a bunch of interceptions as a sophomore.
There's only one thing that can fix this, and that's Denard not deviating from his mechanics as much and knowing where to go more. At the Glazier Clinic, Al Borges talked about the "backside cuts" that are built into Michigan's passing game. Those are deep routes that are supposed to be aborted to whenever the guy away from the main thrust of the play gets one on one coverage. Borges said Denard was "very aware" of these backside cuts, "very aware," and visions of double-covered WTF bombs danced in my head.
He should be more aware of the other guys running those routes (e.g., safeties) this time around, and have better timing on some of the underneath stuff that was an issue. He will get pressure, and I don't think his issues are the kind of thing you can fix in an offseason. There was a groaningly inaccurate pass at the open scrimmage in which Denard had to move around and he made a leaping heave across the middle that was yards behind a crossing route. That's just never going to go well.
Improvement should be expected, though. Denard was still super raw a year ago, he is entering year two, and you know he worked at it all offseason. How much will be the tale of the season.
A Couple Other Things
1. FOR THE EVER-LOVING SAKE OF SNEEZY JESUS WOULD YOU JUST TAKE OFF WITH THE BALL WHEN NO ONE IS OPEN?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?
Sorry. Sorry. I just don't get it, man. The ratio of ridiculous athleticism to passing skillz dictates that whenever Denard gets past read two he should be thinking about an exit strategy. But Denard all but refuses to run. He scrambled more than once in exactly one game last year, Nebraska.
It's almost as if he wants to prove he's a quarterback so badly that he refuses to use his legs when not required to. This combines with the feet-setting thing in a toxic cocktail. I'd prefer it if Denard either set up and threw without moving his feet or ran, with nothing in-between.
Survey says: unlikely.
2. Shorten the passing game.
The trend in the ND game—bombz—was one that lasted throughout the season. That trend:
Hoping for the fluke explanation, but there seems to be some merit to Door B. He's a breakdown of passes in last year's Notre Dame game:
- Hitch: 9
- Flat, seam, bubble: 6 (one waggle FB flat!)
- Deep curl, flare: 3
- Tunnel screen: 2
- Post, corner, fly: 1
- Throwaway: 1
- Run around like Tate: 2
This is a dedicated short passing game that ran a ton of curl/flat. Denard completes 60% for 1 TD and no INTs, averaging 6.1 YPA. This year we've got the eight downfield chucks, two throws behind the line (8% of attempts) instead of 11 (over 28%), and a total lack of free touchdowns in the seam or hitches to stationary targets that worked well last year when Roundtree wasn't dropping them.
Some sort of perimeter stretch would help Michigan a great deal. Those flats and quick hitches and bubbles are not only highly effective quasi-run plays but drag linebackers away from Denard in the middle of the field. Borges is still thinking like a guy who has a quarterback who happens to be the fastest kid in the country instead of a guy who has the fastest kid in the country at quarterback.
3. I-form snaps are inherently dumb with Denard.
Short yardage, whatever, fine, but any other I-form snap is burning money.
What to expect
I don't actually know, man. He's not going to do that Cade McNown thing. He should get a lot better. Extrapolate the back-half of his season out across a full year, add in a year of experience, and pray for health, and you've got a Heisman contender.
This is the worst thing I've ever said, but I don't think he'll get there. Thus the 4.5 above instead of last year's 5-plus-exclamation-point. There will be a game or two against elite defenses in which Denard's limitations are made plain, and that will keep him out of the running. His interception rate can end up halved and still be really bad. There's just too far to go in one offseason.
The projection in numbers: YPA remains static. Completion percentage jumps up a few points, scrambles are a little more common, and interceptions drop to around eight. Rushing is about the same as last year.
Devin Gardner spent last year making cameo appearances in the two-QB package Al Borges calls "deuce" but should by all rights be called "Fritz" and running the base offense when Denard was inevitably banged up. Neither of these things went that well except on that one pass in the Illinois game. Gardner rushed for 3.5 YPC even if you exclude the Michigan State game and its yakety sack, completed fewer than half his passes, missed a blitheringly wide open Hopkins against MSU and threw a fugly interception against Purdue.
Then spring practice hit and rumors leaked out that Gardner was not only playing wide receiver but playing it ridiculously well. Gardner has spent every waking moment since deflecting questions about his position; 42% of all sports content on the internet since has speculated about a potential position switch, its costs, and its benefits.
This site's been on Team WR from the beginning and became even moreso after an alarmingly poor performance in the spring game that caused me to survey the Gardner oeuvre with a suspicious eye:
In three consecutive spring games he's looked bad. You may remember Jake Ryan bursting onto the scene last year with a pick six thrown directly at his dome by Gardner. Yeah. … [The year before that] Gardner got safetied and intercepted on the same play and still probably had a better overall outing than he did yesterday.
When fall practice started up Hoke offered up the only piece of solid information he's provided in months by admitting that yes, Gardner was practicing at WR. His potential impact there will be covered in that position preview.
Gardner will have an opportunity to play at both spots. He's getting the same load of QB reps and moonlights at WR when other quarterbacks are taking snaps, and Borges pointedly defended Fritz from a reporter's question despite the thing seeming to run out of gas after the Denard end-around package was adequately scouted. He may not be the first guy off the bench if Denard needs to come off for a play, but any long-term issue will likely see Gardner ascend to the starting spot, where his performance is anyone's guess. He needs to get a lot better to be plausible; raw athletes going into their second year in the same system do that sometimes, but maybe not often when they're spending at least half their time at another position.
Redshirt freshman Russell Bellomy [recruiting profile] is the third(?) stringer and only other QB on the roster. He was clearly more effective than Gardner in the spring game, but had the luxury of going against backups and was a checkdown-heavy dink-and-dunker. He went six of nine, sure, but he averaged six yards a completion. He displays some athleticism, though not anything in the same stratosphere as either of the veterans. Tate Forcier was his YMRMFSPA; former Purdue quarterback Brandon Kirsch is also a decent comparable.
The coaches have been talking him up some. When Tom Dienhart hit up a practice he returned back with this news about Bellomy:
…the guy to watch is Russell Bellomy. Brady Hoke told me he is faster than you think. I also asked him if he’d be comfortable if Bellomy had to play, and Hoke said he would.
It's hard to tell whether Bellomy's development allows Gardner to play wide receiver or the crying need at wide receiver forces people to play up Bellomy's progress. Either way the downgrade from Denard to Bellomy would be severe. A few plays here and there for dings will be fine.