and... i like them? I think I like them.
Unlike other UFRs you may have read, this one comes with about 20x the NORFLEET! Michigan kickoffs were on Tuesday. Here's kick returns.
Michigan's deep set is usually Gedeon, Houma and Rawls then Dileo as a lead blocker (sets up opposite side of the field in case it goes there), and Norfleet returning. Houma and Rawls double the first guy to arrive while Gedeon's job is to wall off the second arrival so there's a hole between them. Up high it's like everybody else: four guys start just past the 50, two on the 40. Their job is to run downfield, then find somebody to hit and sustain that block. I'm sure Space Coyote is going to have a name for this but here's what it looks like:
After his injury Drake Johnson was replaced by Ross (vs ND) or Furman (elsewise). They change it up a lot up front. When Funchess was hurt Jackson folded back there. Hayes and Chesson rotated in at times.
Ball arrives after the...
|Kicker||Yr||Punter||Yr||Kickoffs||Yr||Punt return||Yr||Kick return||Yr|
|Brendan Gibbons||Sr*||Matt Wile||Jr||Matt Wile||Jr||Dennis Norfleet||So||Dennis Norfleet||So|
|Matt Wile||Jr||Kenny Allen||Fr*||Brendan Gibbons||Sr*||Drew Dileo||Sr||Drew Dileo||Sr|
Oh man. Despite the season-long suspension of Will Hagerup, Michigan has depth at both kicker spots and moves Dennis Norfleet into both return jobs. Brendan Gibbons will aim for a top five spot in the history of Michigan kicker accuracy; Matt Wile has established himself as a consistent B+ punter (at least), and Wile's being pushed by a freshman who's been booming them since spring practice.
This could be good. As long as they cover someone and block someone. Right. That bit.
Gibbons year by year
If BRENDAN GIBBONS continues his meteoric rise at the same rate he's improved over the last two seasons he'll be 6/6 on 60+ field goals and win the Heisman. This… is not likely. But a Groza finalist spot actually is, or would be except for the fact that Brady Hoke hates field goals. (Woo!)
Let's review: as a redshirt freshman, Gibbons was 1/5 on mostly chip-shot kicks, paving the way for other kickers to be about as bad. Michigan all but abandoned the idea of kicking field goals longer than 30 yards, and when Hoke was hired the first thing on many people's minds is "they HAVE to get a kicker, right?"
Brady Hoke gave Gibbons a hearty back-slap, transferring a millionth of a percent of his confidence to the beleaguered freshman, and lo, the next season he was 13/17 with his clutch kick winning the Sugar Bowl. As a junior, his range improved and he hit 16 of 18 field goals, including a 52-yarder. In terms of basic accuracy his 2012 was the third-best in Michigan history, behind only John Carlson in 1989 and Kicking Competency Lopata in 2007—and Lopata's long that year was 42. (MGoBlue doesn't have a long for Carlson.)
In terms of advanced stats, Michigan's field goal efficiency was 12th nationally. (Matt Wile did help out by hitting 2 of 3 long ones.) That's even more impressive when you consider that it was held down by Brady Hoke's tendency to scoff at long field goals, pull out a slab of meat, tear off a chunk, and scream "GIVE ME A FIRST DOWN OR GIVE ME DEATH!"
I may be excessively enthusiastic about Brady Hoke's aggressiveness.
Anyway, Gibbons is all but automatic now. He's tied for ninth all-time in FG% at M despite the awful start; the Hoke version of Gibbons would be a solid #1 at 83%. He should press into the upper reaches of the record book with a season similar to 2012, except that kickers are weird and can implode at any time. Brady Hoke emanates calm, though, so that is not likely to happen.
And Michigan has a great backup option in MATT WILE, who nailed a 52-yarder himself in the bowl game. He's the starting punter and kickoff guy—he can just kick things, often a great distance. Even if Gibbons shorts out Michigan will be turning to a guy who they can expect success from. So yeah, I'm breaking out the 5 even if this means I'll be building a moat if things go wrong this fall. YOLO.
[After THE JUMP: Norfleet! Norfleet! Norfleet! (Matt Wile. Terrible punt coverage.)]
I got into an argument with a Michigan State fan—yes, right there is the problem—about our respective kickers last year. In true Michigan-Michigan State fashion the Spartan was making points using selective data (Dan Conroy has a better leg!) and the Michigan fan spent way too much time building data and constructing charts to demonstrate a nuanced and supportable conclusion (Dan Conroy has a better leg but Gibbons was money inside the 40).
I pulled kicking data from NCAA's game summaries and managed to get data points on 241 field goal attempts by Big Ten kickers last season. I also plugged each kicker's season into a Sabre.com formula for rating the position created by a guy named Jeff Yutzler, but his formula is WAY too kind in my opinion (as in there were 13 B1G kickers who scored in the A- range or above). For ease I've just ignored blocked FGAs since there's little the kicker can do about those. Table? Table.
|Big Ten Total||x||73/79||56/74||40/66||7/16||74.89%||94.3%|
Michigan: home of high yutz values
This says Michigan's kicking is was really darn good, though low sample size applies for Wile of course. Here's a chart of Michigan and Michigan State field goal attempts last year. X axis and size represent distance, Y axis is the order in which the kicks were attempted. Click bigginses:
Gibbons was perfect inside 42 yards, though in comparison to the Big Ten he took a lot of kicks in that sweet 25-35 yard range. Wile was obviously the long guy.
Conroy was deployed a lot, and here you see he seemed to have a big hole from 35-45 yards. Inside that he's great, outside of that he's great; for some reason the dude missed a ton of FGs from medium range. Sort him by distance and it reads 13 goods, whiff, whiff, whiff, whiff, whiff, whiff, good, good, whiff, good, whiff, good, good, good, good, whiff, good, good, good. Kickers: weird.
[The rest of the conference after the jump.]
I've been complaining about Michigan's punt coverage for a while now but it was a Notre Dame message board* that finally screencapped the thing. Here's Michigan's coverage at the point of the kick against UMass:
Couple of gunners with two guys on them, two guys at LOS with a blocker coming down the middle. This was a short punt by Wile that would have been fair caught around the ten if the returner hadn't fumbled it.
Same, though the gunners are diving inside this time.
At the catch:
That's a 31 yard punt and there is a ton of room for a return if the guy doesn't fumble it.
Even worse as this time there's only one guy at the LOS. This one is the bomb.
If these guys could catch any of these punts, there is room.
UMass uses the spread punt, which is now almost ubiquitous.
When their punter contacts the ball,there are four guys already five yards past the LOS and a fifth is there.
None of the guys downfield is being dealt with by more than one blocker, and that heap at the top of the screen is comprised of four Michigan players blocking two UMass guys. This one was a duck that barely got more than 30 yards that Gallon stayed away from.
UMass's second punt is from the ten and is a line drive of about 35 yards. The director used an end-zone shot, but here's the catch:
UMass's third punt was from the 42. On the kick:
You've got the two guys M did in the center releasing; they're further downfield. There's a guy on the edge who is doing a crappy job of getting a release and two outside guys against single blocking who are free to run. This punt is a beauty that goes 45 yards in the air and is fair caught:
And this is one of the worst teams in I-A.
Playing with fire
Michigan is doing it. They're giving back large chunks of the yards Hagerup's boomers are grossing and leaving themselves exposed to a game-changing return.
It's probably too late to do anything about this without risking a Boccher-style debacle, and I doubt Hoke has much interest in doing so anyway. On the upside, if opponents keep doubling the gunners you'd expect a fake to be pretty effective once you're playing six on eight in the box. The opponent can choose not to do this if you're in a situation when a fake is a reasonable possibility, though, and then you're stuck with two guys past the LOS when the kick launches.
*[I found it by looking at referrers; it looks like it wants to stay off the radar in case trolls or ND Nation admins descend so I'll forgo a link.]
Unbalanced stuff, Denard under center.
First, in this pic from the Air Force Defensive UFR:
The slot receiver would be eligible if he took a step back and the WR at the top took a step forward, correct? So what is the advantage to having this alignment vs. having two players be positioned less than one yard differently? I can’t quite grasp what would compensate for losing an eligible receiver.
Normally, yes. Here Air Force is going to send the WR to the top of the screen in motion until he ends up behind the two guys in the backfield. That makes life easier for Air Force if they want to run to the short side because they've effectively blocked the corner to that side by putting him on the other side of the field.
Defenses can react to this by shifting but it's unnatural for them to do this. Sometimes they mess it up, especially when you're going at speed like Air Force does. The disadvantage created by making that WR ineligible can even be mitigated by sending him on a crazy route that takes him behind the QB. Is the offense going to use this? Probably not. Is the defense going to totally abandon defending this guy? Probably not.
Second, I saw the ESPN article about Denard’s passing from under center being pretty fantastic. Given that, and Denard being Denard, why wouldn’t we run a basic QB draw from that setup on the regular? Or is the passing being so good a result of defenses making sure to take that away?
The numbers here are relatively small—Rothstein charts 62 attempts from under center under Borges, which is two or three games of data. He's done well with those attempts, obviously. I have no idea why, and if you go all Gaussian on things it's clear that there's a lot of jitter in there. Via The Power Rank:
Rothstein does acknowledge the sample size issues. But just because your data is not big enough to be authoritative does not mean it isn't suggestive. Given the numbers, the chances that randomness explains all of the difference is a mere 6%. It's worth figurin' on.
There's a pretty obvious mechanism that makes Michigan's running game more effective from the shotgun—hi my name is Denard's legs. What is the reason Denard's only throwing interceptions from the shotgun? Nothing leaps out. The routes? They're probably the same. The drop-back? In the NFL, the shotgun is a more efficient formation (even accounting for down and distance) despite running quarterbacks being largely absent. Run paranoia? It seems hard to believe that's more of a factor from under center.
Three things do seem like potential mechanisms:
- Pressure. It's easier to max-pro when you've got a couple TEs or a couple backs. Also, it's easier to not tip your snap count against MSU. Denard + pressure == doom. If Denard is getting better protection from under center that would be an obvious way in which under center was really better.
- Situation. Michigan's more likely to go under center in short-yardage situations, making those passes more profitable as the defense expects run. Also a potential factor in "situation": Michigan may run more under-center stuff against easy Ds and default to shotgun when they think they're up against it.
- Luck. Sample size here is small enough that it probably explains some of the difference. It's hard to think TD/INT splits of 12-1 (under center) and 11-17 (shotgun) are totally explainable by luck.
The problem with throwing from under center is that sometimes you have to run it from under center, and that's burning downs at this point.
Seth has all this in a UFR database and will address it in more depth on Tuesday.
Punt versus kick return, fight.
Hey, Brian. I hoping you might be able to shed some light on a question. What is the difference between kick returner and punt returner? Why does Norfleet return kicks and Gallon return punts? Is it to limit their exposure to 11 special teams defensemen running downhill at full speed with the intent of breaking the returner's back? Or are there different skills involved? (Because who wouldn't like to see Norfleet returning punts, too?)
Kick returns are the junior varsity version of punt returns. As a kick returner you have a high-arcing kick travelling 60-70 yards before you camp out under it. If you fumble the thing, the nearest opponents are 20 yards away. You pick it up, you lose a few yards in field position, and no one has a panic attack. Either that or it's a touchback. BFD.
Screwing up a punt, whether it's by fumbling it or failing to field it, has much direr implications. A fumble is almost guaranteed to be a turnover, and we just saw Jeremy Gallon cost Michigan 25 yards by not fielding an Air Force punt. Additionally, punts can come in at all sorts of angles, generally much faster than kicks. Ever seen a kickoff fielded on the run? Maybe if someone is making a terrible decision on one that's going out of bounds. Otherwise, never. On punts it's not uncommon.
In addition to that, there are some different skills involved. Punts often involve dodging guys with little or no opportunity to get up to full speed. On a kickoff you're generally going to have the opportunity to get your motor humming before you have to make a cut. So a guy like Darryl Stonum made an excellent kick returner thanks to his top-end speed and ability to make a shallow cut at speed, but wouldn't have made much of a punt returner.
Gallon and Norfleet both have skills that make them a good fit for both positions. The coaches are currently more comfortable with Gallon back there, but if he keeps bringing out 2010 Gallon and Norfleet proves capable in practice, a switch won't be long in coming. Either way, at least Michigan won't be running a Greg Mathews out there.
I haven’t seen any film on last year’s game between Nebraska and MSU, but I have to believe that Nebraska had a relatively effective day on offense judging from the score and offensive numbers. (24 points and 190 yards on the ground) So with that being said and knowing that Michigan and Nebraska run similar offenses, can Michigan look at that the game film and implement some sort of parallel schemes against MSU that Nebraska executed and have a likewise outcome?
That game was won by Nebraska's defense, which limited the Spartans to under 200 yards. While the Huskers racked up 190 yards rushing it took 58 carries for them to get there—3.3 YPC. Unless Michigan can do the same thing to the Spartan offense they're not likely to win with that kind of rushing output.
Meanwhile, an offense with pitches like Nebraska's is one you have to dedicate yourself to. It's not something you can implement for a single week. You can change your blocking schemes, routes, protections, and playcalling, sure, but when you start asking a guy to make split-second decisions about whether to fumble a ball in the general direction of the running back you're asking for trouble.
FWIW, it does seem like Michigan is at least allowing the center to get his head up and survey the landscape before he snaps the ball these days.
When you've been blogging almost daily for almost six years you end up writing a bunch of things you regret. Here's a all-timer from last year's special teams preview:
Just don't fumble and we're good. Unless kicker is a black hole, but what's the worst that could happen?
I am so, so sorry. This is the worst that could happen:
That's the best kicker in the country, Nebraska's Alex Henery, and the worst, Michigan's two-headed monster. The whole picture wasn't quite that bad—when not suspended, Will Hagerup was quite good—but the complete inability to kick a field goal overrode all other positives and negatives, casting a pall of total incompetence over the unit. Jeremy Gallon's remarkable knack for doing the exact wrong thing 80% the time and fumbling the other 20% was a significant aid.
But this year we've totally got a new kicker! And far more options in the return game! And Hagerup's back! That's the ticket!
WHAT THE BALLS WHY IS THIS MAN'S PICTURE HERE
Everyone was terribly excited about freshman Matt Wile. He kicked at the Army game. He was not either of the guys responsible for the above graph. Therefore win. Therefore kicker. Therefore 35 yard field goals are feasible.
So of course Brendan Gibbons wins the job. Gibbons made one of four field goals in the first four games last year and biffed an extra point, whereupon he was sat down until the Wisconsin game. He attempted one field goal the rest of the year, that in the Gator Bowl whitewashing. He missed.
The idea of Gibbons hitting the field again gives me hives. At least this time around there's another option, though it's an option that lost out to Brendan Gibbons. Guh.
I always punt on kickers I haven't seen play but the chances Michigan has come up totally incompetent on two straight scholarship guys is low. Either Gibbons has gotten a lot better or they're trying not to put too much on Wile's plate.
There's some case for the former. Last year Rodriguez was claiming field goals were his "biggest concern" on a team starting air at cornerback; Hoke has been much more sanguine. Maybe that's just bravado, but it seems like he's doing better in practice. Kickers are weird. It would be very kicker-y if Gibbons finally got it together.
Predictions? There are no predictions here.
Rating: 3, then 5
Will Hagerup is back. Everyone says he's thundering punts off the top of the practice facility, Zoltan-style. He is also suspended for the first four games of the season. If staying home for last year's Ohio State game was a warning shot across the bow, missing the first four games of this season is an out-and-out broadside. Whatever his issues are it's safe to presume he's on his last strike.
If he manages to get through September without immolating his career, Michigan will have one of those punters color commentators call a "weapon" whenever he strolls onto the field. In Hagerup's case this is almost not hyperbolic. His 72-yard bomb was indisputably the play of the Purdue game:
After a shaky start featuring shanks and a blocked punt Hagerup quickly became one of the country's best. In Big Ten play he averaged 44.0 yards a kick, which would have been good for 19th nationally if sustained over the entire season. He was just a freshman, so it's reasonable to write off the early struggles as nerves and project that Hagerup will at least match those numbers when he's not suspended. Improvement is likely, and that takes him into the top ten nationally.
But he is suspended for the nonconference season. It appears that Wile will take his place. Some guy named Tom hit up his high school coach for his stats in that department:
Here are Wile's stats from his senior, junior, and sophomore years as a punter:
Year Punts Yards Average Long Inside 20 2010 40 1447 36.18 54 13 2009 31 1247 40.23 61 6 2008 16 586 36.63 54 6
Here is a video of him in 2010 at a kicking camp. He kicks five balls and averages 51.2 yards. Probably the most recent data of his abilities. He was also the punter during the Army All American game.
The dip as a senior is a little bothersome but the surge in balls inside the twenty means he was doing a lot more punting on a short field. Hitting 38 or 40 on a regular basis is a downgrade from Hagerup but one Michigan will live with. More problematic is the possibility Wile did not win the kicking job because he's already slated to kick off and punt the first few games.
Kickoffs and Return Units
This was miserable last year and one of the main perpetrators of the misery, Jeremy Gallon, is back as the punt returner. This is inexplicable to me:
Jeremy Gallon special teams error limit: determined. It is ten billion. I'm obviously on the tolerant side of the scale when it comes to coaching errors (outside of obvious game theory errors, about which I have an Al Qaeda level of zealotry) but JESUS GOD RICH RODRIGUEZ WHY DID YOU LET JEREMY GALLON RETURN KICKS AND PUNTS FOR TEN GAMES.
Gallon must be Steve Breaston in practice or something because he's held onto a job he's been terrible at through six million fumbles and a coaching change. Maybe he's better now. If he's not maybe they'll finally let Dileo return stuff. A change can't take as long as it did last year.
The other major issue in this department was (again) the kickers. Gibbons and Broekhuizen couldn't get kickoffs anywhere near the endzone and when Hagerup was deputized midway through the year he wasn't much better. Wile grabbed that job as soon as he showed up so improvement is expected here.
How much does this matter? After the Illinois game I pinged Brian Fremeau for advanced metrics on the special teams and he got back to me with numbers that said Michigan was well below average on kickoffs both ways, but had top-tier punting and only slightly below average punt returns. By that point in the season those four forces had combined to cost Michigan about a touchdown. I think that's low since Fremeau's numbers don't account for the field position Gallon gave up by letting punts roll all over the place*; add in a few more games and Michigan probably gave away two touchdowns of field postion over the course of the season. That's pretty significant.
Can a special teams coach fix this? Eh. One of the takeaways from the punting demo was the personnel: starters everywhere, lots of skill position guys. They'll head towards average because of that, reversion to the mean, and Wile.
Gallon and the kick returners? Ask again later. I'm not expecting miracles. Just HOLD ON TO THE DAMN BALL.
*[I assume so, anyway. I don't know how you'd even begin trying to account for that.]