CONGRATS ON THE FIRST DOWN, RUTGERShttp://www.sbnation.com/college-football/2016/10/8/13214664/michigan-rutgers-final-score-stats-2016 …
per Bruce Feldman
Seems a bit petty and unnecessary, and not really even that funny.
Oregon president Michael Schill opened the press conference to introduce new coach Willie Taggart with a joke (but it's not really a joke): "I told him I can only give him one bit of advice which probably everyone in the state of Oregon can give him, which is: Go find a great defensive coordinator."
Ducks defense was certainly a step or two below dreadful this year. Certainly hope Brady Hoke finds his level soon and has great success.
Brady Hoke's former team scored 78 points. His current defense gave up 70.
The section on Michigan:
Do not tell me we are not a nation of sadists. The minute this 78-0 win over Rutgers began to get horrendously out of hand, everyone I know sought it out over actual games that mattered. But I was watching to see the nobility of futile struggle and supporting poor Rutgers in their impossible quest to get a first down! Sure, Camus. Sure.
Rutgers finally did get a first down, and in fact got two. This is a real accomplishment: Michigan’s defense is first in the nation in total defense, dominant at pretty much every position on the field.
It’d be cruel to mention that former Michigan coach and current Oregon defensive coordinator Brady Hoke’s former team scored 78 points this weekend and that his current team allowed 70. It’d be crueler to make up a stat called The Hoke Differential and note that the variance in The Hoke Differential this weekend was 148 points. I'd never suggest doing that. Nope.
Rutgers. Not that they were in the Top Whatever, but I feel like ceremonially demoting them is only appropriate after one of the worst Power 5 losses we have ever seen. Here is a sad man from Rutgers failing to appreciate anything I, you, we, or anyone has to say about his pain.
I realize this may be stupid, but I'll lead with my chin and ask: With so many college head coaching positions available, why is Brady Hoke's name not brought up at all? Has there been anything mentioned about him in recent weeks, or even months in the media? I risk missing something obvious but am concerned I'm not and my worst fears on the subject have been realized.
An offering ("BRADY HOKE IS FULL OF BAD IDEAS AND IS NOT A GOOD COACH AND HERE IS AN EXTENDED WORLD WAR TWO METAPHOR TO PROVE IT") from EDSBS:
It was posted mid-day yesterday on that site, but (SIAP) I didn't see it here. Hat tip to Touch The Banner.
So here we go again, the 2015 Michigan football season is nearly upon us, and I am trotting out the same column format in the hope that denizens of this blog will want to read 10,000 word recaps of games laced with references to 90’s cartoons, professional wrestling, and random animated gifs.
If you want to read last year’s pre-season column, and boy you should if you want to have one of those cry-laughs that are all the rage, check it out. Spoiler alert – I spend a LOT of time being semi-optimistic about Brady Hoke and actually defend Dave Brandon.
Best(?): New Beginnings
When Michigan takes the field against Utah on September 3rd, Jim Harbaugh will be the third different head coach to lead the charge for the Wolverines in the past 8 seasons. The previous three coaching changes at Michigan spanned a combined 39 largely drama-free seasons.*
But no, really, this time it feels right. With Rich Rodriguez, you had an outsider, an innovative offensive coach trying to change the culture of a program that had always been wary of these “gimmicky offenses” (it was like the town elders describing dancing in Footloose whenever Joe Tiller’s Purdue Boilermakers came to town), his tenure beginning on rocky footing and never recovering after a disastrous first season, as the losses mounted and the media-stoked torches and pitchforks came out. People forget, especially the younger fans, just how strange it was in 2008 to see Michigan be decidedly below-average, even awful. Sure, Michigan had suffered through some bumpy seasons, a 4- or 5-loss season here or there, but it hadn’t posted a losing season since 1967. For perspective, the people alive today who even faintly remember that season are nearing retirement age. But as soon as Carr walked off the field with his Capital One Bowl, I don’t know, commemorative Alec Baldwin coffee mug, whatever lingering braces to the gates holding back football’s Father Time gave way, and Michigan finally suffered through a perhaps long-overdue run of on-the-field disappointment and off-the-field tumultuousness. If you want the gory details, you can delve deep into the archives of this site or pick up a book.
When I say Michigan was “due” a downturn, it doesn’t mean I wanted that to be the case; obviously as a fan, I expect the teams I root for to win every game at all times, rationality be damned. But the signs had been there for some time that UM was falling behind the rest of college football even if the wins were still somewhat-consistent. It wasn’t just App St. and Oregon blitzing them in 2007; OSU had taken 6 of the last 7 meetings between the teams, they had lost 4 straight bowl games, and seemed unwilling to adopt more explosive offensive systems despite having top-notch NFL talent on that side of the ball for the bulk of Carr’s tenure. The defenses never handled mobile QBs particularly well, and as teams moved toward more wide-open, spread-infused offensive systems it never felt like UM learned to compensate.
As a testament to Carr and his recruiting, this reticence didn’t always matter; despite what is said about the utilization of mobile QBs to level out talent discrepancies by forcing defenders to account for all 11 players on the field, you can win a whole lotta games by being way more talented than those other offenses, scheme be damned. That’s why Indiana and Antwaan Randle El, who was a great college QB, never won more than 5 games while he was there and, save for barely-ranked Minnesota and MSU, never collected any prominent scalps. And so, Michigan could afford to stay largely pat as long as the talent keep flowing into Ann Arbor consistently, which is why those last couple of Carr years, with the (comparatively) mediocre classes coming to the head, probably shouldn’t have seemed so strange. They were top-heavy teams with shallow two-deeps that led to Johnny Sears being entrusted as a #1 cornerback for about 1/2 of a game before everyone looked at the scoreboard. Decided talent advantages and consistent coaching netted you 6-9 wins a year, then good fortune and fate decided the rest; it’s why UM seemed to ping-pong between 8 and 11 wins depending on the strength of its upperclassmen. Some years they looked like fringe national contenders; others they couldn’t get out of their own way.
But I digress; RR didn’t work out in large part because his defenses were historically terrible, he suffered through a miserable string of bad luck (TO margin, injuries, media), had some issues recruiting and retaining players, and just never connected with a large component of the UM fanbase. Plus, when Bill Martin was succeeded by noted pizza delivery man Dave Brandon and UM slogged through an uninspiring 3rd season and a shellacking at the hands of Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl, the writing was on the wall.
I’m REALLY not going to relive the coaching search following RR’s departure, but again, why did we think Dave Brandon was any good at his job? Because he acted like a smug asshole when responding to the Free Press and Stretchgate? By displaying the same temperament as a 12-year-old Vlogger , Vine-Star, Snap-chattress, or whatever Vanity Fair keeps telling me is the new wave in “cross-platform media stars”?
So in came Brady Hoke, a former UM defensive line coach who grew up under Lloyd Carr and represented the sole viable branch of his coaching tree. He had two semi-successful stints at other programs, winning 12 games in his last year at Ball St. and another 9 at San Diego St. two years later. He preached defense and “toughness” above everything else, seemed to embody the derisive term “manball” while still fielding semi-explosive pro-style offenses, and, well, said this at his first press conference.
That sound you heard was a decent number of middle-aged UM fans letting loose a sigh of relief that FINALLY UM had a coach who understood why winning was important and how special a program it was, feelings that were completely different than at any other program in the country. At Michigan you were expected to win with class and dignity, not like UM’s rivals who were, I guess, known to either win while pillaging college towns in the Midwest or losing while flinging their poop at the TV cameras?
I honestly don’t know anymore, but at the time it was super-important that Michigan be run by a “Michigan Man”, a phrase that I’m sure my 21-month-old daughter will start repeating ad nauseam once she realizes repeating the word “f*ck” is pretty played out.
Anyway, feel free to, again, read this blog’s archives or pick up another book if you want the gory details of the Hoke/Brandon era. It started off fantastic, with UM winning 11 games and the Sugar Bowl, besting ND and OSU in exciting contests, and generally looking like a competent program again. And yeah, it felt like a bit of an aberration even while it was happening, with a fantastic turnover margin, unsustainable 4th-down stoppage rate, and a healthy dose of luck sprinkled in.
Brady Hoke, though, recruited like a madman, and even when the wheels started to come off as remnants of RR’s offensive playmakers weren’t replaced and UM burned through offensive coordinators with little progress, it still felt like UM could just talent their way through the potholes of the “bare cupboards” left behind by the previous regime.
But if anything, every successive season under Hoke showed just how far behind Michigan had fallen compared to both its rivals (MSU, OSU, even ND) and college football in general. The team wasn’t showing progress, and that sense of malaise, of indifference by the fans, went from simmering to scalding, driving down attendance and further eroding an already-fragile relationships between those in the stands and the athletic department. It all came to a head against Minnesota, when Shane Morris was out on his feet and a bunch of grown-ass men were either too scared, too dumb, or too weak to protect him. And this is coming from a guy who initially defended Hoke and his handling of the situation. I still believe that Hoke honestly felt that Morris hadn’t suffered a concussion, and there appeared to be significant amount of confusion on the sidelines at the time, but regardless it was yet another example of the terrible leadership you saw under Hoke, wrapped up in lame explanations and an inability to adequately respond to complex issues. Brandon was out shortly thereafter, and Hoke followed after the season, but both of their fates were sealed long before.
So in came Jim Hackett, who has (thus far) turned out to be everything Brandon wasn’t as an AD – thoughtful, humble, proactive, and aware that the fans cared more about UM fielding a competent team they could be proud of than whether or not Beyonce recorded a 30-second video at halftime. He set his eyes on the biggest unicorn in Michigan maize and blue, Jim Harbaugh. The guy who delivered on a promise to beat OSU, who turned Stanford into a top-10 program, took the San Francisco 49ers from middling franchise to the cusp of hoisting the Lombardi trophy, and who was really UM’s last, best hope at unifying the fractured fanbase. And unlike in coaching searches past, Hackett never lost focus, never made an errant comment to the media, or forgot to bring his phone on a boating trip; he just snagged one of the best 10 football coaches in the world to come to his alma mater and win games, a man who tweets about attacking days with enthusiasm previously unknown to mankind and signs his letters “Sincerely yours in football”.
So yeah, UM is entering yet another season with a different man at the helm, but for once it feels like the stars are aligned. And, yeah, it might still not work out the way everyone hopes, but at least this feels like the right beginning with the right coach leading, and after the last decade of UM football, it feels like a damn miracle.
Worst: Wasting Time
I was skimming the old depth chart and realized, much to my dismay, how many guys were entering their third and fourth years in the program because they wasted a redshirt on a one-game “tryout” as a freshman or, worse, some meaningless special teams play. I mean, I loved Dymonte Thomas’s punt block in the moment, but I’d love it even more if it had come as a RS Freshman and Harbaugh would have another 3 years to mold him into a competent safety. Same with Shane Morris, who played spot duty as a freshman because Hoke failed to watch any game tape, ever, of his QBs behind Gardner. I know that not every coach is crazy about grad transfers, and perhaps the administration was more strict about it, but Shane Morris is now entering his true junior year with years of bad habits and technique to rehabilitate and little incentive by the coaching staff to do so, as he’s apparently behind Rudock this year and has a mountain of competition in 2016. This is all speculation, I’ll admit, but if Morris still had 3 years of eligibility instead of 2, I’m guessing the coaches and fans would be much more optimistic about him leading the team either this year or in the future.
Now, obviously there are going to be guys who will earn early playing time; Peppers didn’t come to UM to sit behind Blake Countess for a season. But there was more competent depth than I think Hoke wanted to admit those first couple of years, and so by wasting whole years on a couple of downs, the vicious cycle of playing younger players early could very well hamper Harbaugh in his first year or two at UM.
I trust that Harbaugh will be able to maximize the players he has on the roster regardless of years left, but it’s just annoying to see Ben Gedeon entering his third year of playing time with a total of 36 total tackles to his name.
Best: Coaching Competence
There’s a meme around here that refers to former UM kicker KC Lopata as the platonic ideal of “Kicking Competency”, a replacement-level college kicker who mostly hit the kicks he was supposed to and missed the others. Coming on the heels of Garrett Rivas, one of the best kickers in UM’s history, it was a letdown, but he at least provided fans a baseline expectation for special teams; get the ball inside the 30 and you were probably good.
Now, I’m not going to say anyone on the last coaching staff was outright incompetent at his job; you don’t get to coaching at a major college program, even one as semi-dysfunctional as UM was for large stretches of the 00’s and 10’s, without being very good at your job, at least abstractly. Brady Hoke didn’t seem to know how to run a team, but he did a solid job building up the defensive line and his recruiting was top-notch. I thought Al Borges didn’t know how to call a game or mold an offense with the pieces provided, but he absolutely knows a great deal about football and, in a vacuum, could devise a slew of offensive plays that would be successful. Doug Nussmeier played in the NFL for a couple of years, was an offensive coordinator at a number of prominent college programs (UW, Alabama, UM, now Florida), and will probably be a HC at some point in the near future. The oft-criticized Darrell Funk showed demonstrable improvements across the offensive line despite limited depth and injuries, Roy Manning tried his best to coach cornerbacks despite not having any experience at that job heading into 2014, and while I’m of the camp that guys like Fred Jackson and Dan Ferrigno (as a special-teams coach) shouldn’t have been holding those positions last year, it’s not like either is devoid of talent or knowledge of the game. It’s telling that most of them struggled to find comparable jobs after Hoke was let go, and a couple (Borges and Ferrigno jump out) were seemingly dragged along by Hoke at his various stops without much additional vetting.
Regardless, it was clear pretty early on last year (and really, the last couple of seasons) that the coaches weren’t “coaching up” to their level just as much as players seemed to underperform compared to ability. Older players seemed as lost as freshmen at times, the offense was consistently bogged down due to poor execution at every major group, the defense struggled to deploy press coverage despite preparing it during the offseason, largely abandoning it once Blake Countess got repeatedly burned against ND and Rutgers, and special teams found ever more impressive ways to not field the right number of players. Last year’s team didn’t have nearly enough talent or experience to overcome these coaching issues, and it showed in the season’s results.
Which is why fans should be as excited about the rest of the coaching staff changes as they are about Harbaugh taking the lead. Everyone knows Harbaugh is a great coach, but with additions of guys like Drevno, Durkin, and Baxter, while also retaining Mattison to help with the defensive line, the team will have a staff that can at least get the players to perform at their expected levels consistently and, you hope, provide the type of guidance and in-the-moment leadership that great teams are built on. Hell, having guys like Wheatley and Zordich at positions they have coached previously and capable of doing more than drown listeners in hyperbole will be a breath of fresh air. The talent is there for UM to be at least competent on offense and very good on defense; I expect the coaches will make sure they are given every opportunity to at least meet this level, if not exceed it.
Best: Actual QB Competition
This should come as no surprise to those who watched Russell Bellomy take snaps against Nebraska, or Shane Morris get trotted out against Minnesota, that Brady Hoke and his offensive coordinators never seemed able or willing to introduce real competition at the QB position except in extreme circumstances. He never recruited more than 1 QB in a class, completely skipping the position in 2012, and made it known to each recruit that he wasn’t going to bring in anyone else to compete for the position in a given year. There are assorted rumors that Messiah deWeaver decommitted from Michigan specifically because Harbaugh planned on bringing in other QB prospects in the class, an about-face to what he heard from Hoke. And I’m not going to slag the quality of the kids brought in each year, but no QB brought in by Hoke has looked capable of starting except for maybe Morris, and even that is tinged with the expectation for massive improvement under Harbaugh’s tutelage. That’s why soul-crushed Devin Gardner was the starter the past two years despite a clear degradation in performance.
Now, that’s all changed since Harbaugh showed up. With Gardner’s graduation, the QB position is one of the real question marks on the team, and Harbaugh addressed it early and often by snagging Iowa’s Jake Rudock’s graduate transfer, John O’Korn’s “regular” transfer from Houston, and recruiting two QBs in the 2014 class (Alex Malzone and Zach Gentry) and potentially 2015 (Brandon Peters and Victor Viramontes). In addition, he inherited Shane Morris as well as Russell Bellomy (EDIT: Bellomy packed up and transfered to UTSA) and Wilton Speight. If you are counting at home, that’s 6 (EDIT: 5) possible QBs this year and 8 (I believe) next year, assuming nobody leaves, decommits, etc. And there’s variety there, from more finesse throwers like Rudock and Malzone to rocket-armed bombers like Morris and Gentry, and a range of athleticism that would work well with Harbaugh’s penchant for dualish-threat QBs.
Now, having eight possible QBs next year when you only have about that many at for all three LBs isn’t optimal, but it is a marked (and necessary) departure from the last couple of years. It’s a bit cliche, but a good QB can spackle over a whole bunch of other issues, and I have to think that had there been better options these past couple years under center, or at least the program drive to promote healthy competition, the offensive sputtering might have been mitigated somewhat. I’m the biggest Gardner homer in the world, but there were games he clearly didn’t have it, and being able to trot out someone, anyone who could settle the team down would have been a godsend, similar to when Tate Forcier would step in for Denard due to injury or inconsistency for a series or two.
All signals point to Rudock and Morris being the only viable starters this year, with Rudock getting the nod right now due to ball security and experience. We’ve all heard the positive buzz around Morris, and I suspect we’ll see him play some this year especially if Rudock struggles (I know Brian has been quick to dismiss his benching at Iowa as just another indictment of Ferentz’s rapidly-loosening grip on his sanity, and his stats looked fine given the offense he was stuck in, but I’ll have to see him on the field before I’m completely comfortable), but when you can get a fifth-year senior with starting experience, you don’t put him on the bench unless Morris just absolutely outplays him. Besides, this year isn’t one where UM is competing for a conference title BUT they need to get back to winning football games they should – that means beating your Rutgers and Marylands of the world. Rudock gives them the best chance out of the gate.
Best: The Gang’s (Mostly) Back
In what feels like forever, Michigan won’t be breaking anyone new into the starting lineup this year, with the only major addition being OC/OL coach Tim Drevno, one of the better offensive line coaches in the country. It’s been said a million times before, but offensive lines do best when they have continuity and experience (talent helps, and UM has a good amount of that as well), and this year’s team should have 4 upperclassmen starters and a true sophomore (Cole) who ably filled in from “go” at left tackle last year. Depth behind the starters remains a bit scary (LTT, JBB, and Dawson still seem like projects to varying degrees, and Kugler isn’t really an option outside of center unless you like small guards), so the loss of Jack Miller and Glasgow assuming those snaps, isn’t optimal. My guess is that Kugler will get every chance to take over at center if either of the guards struggle, but right now it looks like one of the better units in the conference both as run-blockers as well as in pass protection.
Worst: Blocky-Catchy-Runny Guys?
To say that Michigan’s offense struggled over the past couple of years would be selling the tire-fire short a bit, but what was so unnerving wasn’t so much that the team failed to execute consistently as much as they never seemed to have a consistent plan or identity except in the broadest of strokes. The nadir of narrow-minded planning was UM trotting out tackle over to out cro-Magnon fellow Neanderthal Minnesota in 2013, but the offensive philosophy under Brady Hoke could best be described as
¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Passing plays often appeared to be 1-man routes, and Devin Gardner was often called on to “improvise” first downs, sacrificing ribs and sternum because the sidelines couldn’t think of something more productive. It led to a whole lotta this:
Now, there won’t be any such questions under Harbaugh, who has shown the ability to meld his general offensive philosophies (power running football, multiple tight ends with frequent pre-snap motion) with the talent available. He turned Toby Gerhart into a dominant college back and a 2nd-round draft pick, Tyler Gaffney into an All American, and a bunch of guys who should probably be working as associates at hedge funds into NFL TEs. And oh yeah, he might have had something to do with Andrew Luck being the #1 overall draft pick. As for the NFL, he fixed Urban Meyer protégé Alex Smith enough to nearly get to the Super Bowl, then nearly won it all with Colin Kaepernick. And he showed he could establish a great running game with players lacking elite speed, as Frank Gore enjoyed a bit of a resurgence under Harbaugh.
So the question isn’t whether Harbaugh is capable of producing efficient, sometimes spectacular offenses, but whether the team he inherited has the players to do so this season.
With the departure of the much-maligned Devin Funchess, the receiving core is basically two semi-known commodities (Darboh and Chesson) who probably both top out at competent #2/#3 receivers, a track guy in Chesson who might just be fast and a great special teams blocker, and a bunch of potential that is either freshmen (Cole and Perry), coming off injuries (Harris), or Moe Ways, who will probably get the reputation for being great catching contested balls because he can’t get away from anyone. I know there’s been some buzz about Darboh stepping up, but he collected nearly half of his yards and 40% of his receptions against IU and Miami (NTM), struggling to get separation against anyone else even when Devin Funchess was healthy and, theoretically, drawing more attention from the defense. I’m holding out hope that Canteen takes that next step, but he’s still a guy who looks great on tape but never had more than 1 catch or record more than 8 yards in a single game last year. It also sounds like he might be moving permanently to corner, so what the hell do I know. And while there are those who never thought Norfleet would work at UM as a receiver, I still think he’d be a solid slot option on a team that needs someone to step up. I mean, Perry might have burned his own redshirt given his play in fall camp, but trusting a freshman at that position is always dicey, and I’d rather have an extra year of a senior than a meh freshman season when UM isn’t competing for titles.
There’s definitely some talent here, but unless Harris shows he’s recovered from yet another hamstring injury and can stretch the defense vertically, nobody in the receiving core looks like they’ll put the fear of God in opposing secondaries. That’s a big reason I’m banking on Rudock getting the nod at least to the start the year; this team is going to rely on shorter passes with minimal mistakes to move the ball vertically, and Morris’s arm strength isn’t as helpful when nobody is farther than 20 yards downfield.
Now, if this team is going to have a true downfield threat, it will probably come from the TE position. Jake Butt is the obvious headliner at the position, and I expect him to put up great numbers both as a safety valve for the QBs as well as a key downfield threat. Since Harbaugh likes to roll out multiple TE sets, I also expect Khalid Hill to be involved heavily in the running game as a blocker as well as an extra set of hands. Ian Bunting could be a monster in the right offense if his catching radius is as advertised, but it’s all potential with him thus far and he still needs to show he can transition from WR to the flex TE position Devin Funchess occupied before everyone realized he couldn’t block. A Jim Harbaugh-led offense with Butt as the lead TE should terrify the rest of the conference, but he’s only going to be able to reach his potential if someone else, anyone else can stretch the field or at least keep the secondary from closing in on him on obvious passing downs.
As for the running backs, I don’t know man. I want to believe that someone out of the Smith/Green/Isaac/Johnson parallelogram of runners will emerge as a leader for the position, but right now it sure seems like the pack remains pretty jumbled. With the three guys who actually played last year, you kind of wish you could Voltron them into a single back because THAT guy would be downright unstoppable. Smith feels like the closest analog to what Harbaugh had in Frank Gore, a guy who can work his way through traffic for a couple more yards but isn’t going to run past anyone. Green has all the size and ability in the world but never seemed able to put it all together, and I’ve heard enough questions about his vision and finding holes that he might fall out of favor quickly with Harbaugh. Johnson is coming off another ACL injury, and while he isn’t going to make most guys miss, what we did see last year was a guy who could take what the line got him and bruise past a couple more defenders if he got a step on them. Of the lot, Johnson looked like the most average runner, which sadly probably also made him the best. But he’s still recovering from surgery and (I assume) will have an uphill battle to get playing time this year unless everyone in front of him falls apart.
Ty Isaac has both the pedigree and the look of a #1 back, but struggled at times in USC’s offense and seemed buried on the depth chart at the end of the year. He remains a tantalizing option as a runner and receiver but without the college-level production to quite quiet the nagging doubt you may have.
I suspect that Smith, Green, and Isaac will share playing time to start the year, but for Smith to get a plurality of carries if he can consistently find the hole and get positive yards. This is the prototypical Smith run, and it’s the type Harbaugh loves to see.
Smith will never wow you with his speed, but the guy at the top of UM’s record book wasn’t a burner either. Isaac has that rare mix of size and speed you dream of as a coach, but it sounds like he’s had limited practice reps and hasn’t played a down of “actual” football for over a year. I’ve never been super-high on Green because it did seem like he missed rushing routes more often than the other backs (not to say Smith and Johnson always followed the right path), and unless that’s been addressed in the offseason I don’t see him bringing enough other skills to the table to compensate.
Best: Hoke's Thick Blue Line
You can throw literally any type of rock and hit an issue with Brady Hoke's tenure at UM, but the one thing that he did very consistently was recruit defensive linemen. Of course, this should come as no shock because that was his favored position throughout his coaching career, basically serving in some capacity as a defensive line coach until he took over at Ball St. He inherited some nice linemen in Martin and RVB and turned them loose, creating one of the more dominant short-yardage units in the country during 2011. The next couple of years were less impressive, but the defense always held up reasonably well on the front line and consistently improved against the run. So it should come as no surprise that the defensive line looks to be perhaps the strongest unti on the team even with the loss of Bryan Mone. Maurice Hurst has been getting rave reviews this offseason, while both Willie Henry and Ryan Glasgow should build on solid seasons last year. I know other people have said as much, but if Henry figures out how to actually play the position effectively, he'll be a damn All-American candidate given his natural size and strength.
Now, the one knock against Hoke's defensive line production is that it never figured out how to generate an organic pass rush - every year you'd hear about the team wanting to "Earn the Right to Rush 4", then you'd see Frank Clark chasing a QB into open space and nothing much coming of it. Barring a huge jump by
Taco Charlton or Lawrence Marshall, though, I'm not sure this team will be much better at getting to the QB from the edges. I've been a big fan of Mario Ojemudia because he had a great motor in high school and always seemed faster than he probably was, but it's 2015 and in three years has 6 sacks and remains somewhat undersized. Mattison has always shown a penchant for bringing pressure via the LBs and safeties, so the hope is that him and Durkin will be able to generate pressure that way if it doesn't come from up front, but it's still a bit depressing that both OSU and MSU seem overloaded with rushers while UM is trying to get by with smoke and mirrors.
Best(?): About those Linebackers
You know how I mentioned earlier UM has about as many QBs on the roster as LBs for 2016? Yeah, let’s forget about that for a minute and remember that in 2015, UM should be fielding an all-senior LB core for what feels like eons. Ross, Morgan, and Bolden have all been starters in the past, fending off competent replacements and generally playing at an acceptable level whenever they’ve seen the field. After years of seeing underclassmen thrust into ill-fitting positions, it is refreshing to know that the LBs are deep and experienced, and with the improved defensive line should be a formidable front 7.
And yet, I can’t shake a lingering sense that something is missing. While all three players have been objectively “good” during their time at UM, they have also all been singled out as the weak links before. For all the talk about Morgan’s ability to stop a ball carrier dead in his tracks, he’s still not a great athlete and is coming off an injury that knocked him out all of last year. Bolden led the team in tackles last season but has struggled at times in coverage, and seemed to bust far more often than the other LBs last year when forced to play in space. He also enraged the walking hemorrhoid that is Mark Dantonio by plunging a tent spike into MSU’s field last year, so there’s that. Ross was always touted as a cerebral player but has struggled to keep his spot on the field, losing out to RJS last year (before reclaiming the spot) even though Stone didn’t necessarily drape himself in glory with playing time. Ross is also a bit undersized for the strong side LB, though his ability in coverage should help against spread teams.
I’m suspecting that Ben Gedeon sees a decent amount of playing time, especially given his reputed athleticism and the lack of playmakers along the defensive line; if there is someone who you’d bring on a delayed blitz, you could do worse than a 6-3, 241 lb bowling ball who a rocket strapped to his ass. Despite my reservations, this does feel like a position of strength for the team this year, and since I’m trying to stay optimistic I’ll leave concerns for the coming seasons for next year’s preview, wherein I’ll be too drunk off a Big 10 title to care!
Worst: Covering with 3
Off the bat, I am ecstatic with 3/4 of the defensive backfield. Jourdan Lewis was a revelation last year, and should be one of the best corners in the conference this year. He’s physically aggressive to a degree that belies his size, and his recovery speed led to some spectacular plays last year. He also had 2 INTs and 6 PD to go along with 39 tackles, which is more than a couple of LBs last year (ugh).
We all know about Jabrill Peppers and his exploits; beyond being the Hybrid Space Player on defense, he can move over to corner or safety in a pinch and probably be on the top 3-4 in the conference at those spots. A freak athlete that should have a nice, long NFL career, the only concern I have is that he missed parts of last year due to injury and might take a bit to get his feet under him. Retaining Mattison and not substantially altering the defensive schemes for the secondary should help, though. My only other concern is that there is a lot of pressure put on the kid to be the “next” Woodson by a portion of this fanbase, and so fans may be disappointed if he’s only really, really good this year. I know, a minor concern, and I fully expect him to be a highlight player each game.
As the mantra goes, boring safeties are great, and Jarrod Wilson is like watching freshly-painted walls dry while The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is projected on said wall in a loop. So Jarrod Wilson is going to be so much fun to not hear about this year, and Brad Pitt should probably stick to movies in which he ages chronologically.
The problem with the secondary is that you have to have a second cornerback, or a third safety, or some human being with enough speed to keep up with receivers flying down the field, trying to catch an oblong ball. And that’s where it gets a bit dicey for UM. Blake Countess leaving was a surprise, but at the time people figured he’d been passed by other players on the roster and that with Michigan’s focus on press coverage, Countess’s notorious troubles keeping up with receivers made him the odd man out. Then Wayne Lyons transferred from Stanford’s elite pass defense, and everyone though Michigan was set.
Yet, here we sit a couple of weeks before Utah and Michigan is apparently giving serious looks at converted safety Jeremy Clark and converted WR Canteen, to say nothing of Dennis Norfleet getting a shot at the position in the spring game. I know that Harbaugh loves to tinker with guys and see if any can make position switches for added depth, but I’m not loving the lack of clarity across from Lewis. Again, having Peppers means there’s no need to panic, and Delano Hill sounds like he could slide into a safety slot if necessary to free up Peppers and/or the team can play more nickel coverage with Lyons playing a bit more off the receiver. But these are all sub-optimal solutions, and the expectation seemed to always be that Lyons would take over for Countess. The fact that isn’t the case gives me pause even with the positive buzz you’ve been hearing about Clark and his athleticism.
I still think the secondary will be solid, but if that second corner spot remains in limbo, or Lewis goes down for any sustained period of time, it could derail much of the improvements expected by the front 7.
Best: Fielding 11
John Baxter believes in spread punting. He also believes in fielding 11 men virtually all the time on special teams. Those two factors make him a massive upgrade over the last regime, and that doesn’t get into the massive number of blocked kicks his teams have accrued over the years. It kind of sucks that Dennis Norfleet left right when he might actually have guys in front of him to block on returns, but whoever winds up returning kicks and punts should find it a marked improvement over the Hoke era.
I almost didn’t feel it needed to be said, but it wouldn’t be a Michigan season without the fans irrationally directing all their ire at a certain player for when the team struggles. In years past it was Stevie Brown, Obi Ezeh, Taylor Lewan, Devin Gardner, and Devin Funchess. Funchess, in particular, apparently kicked the puppies and stole the girlfriends/boyfriends of a large percentage of UM fans, as that guy couldn’t buy a break. It didn’t help that he clearly wasn’t 100% all season, but sometimes fans are carrying around flaming hammers and you best not look like a nail.
Part of me wants to believe that the Harbaugh enthusiasm will shield this team from that level of vitriol, but who the heck knows anymore. It isn’t worth speculating, but I am formally asking the readers of this column (and more generally this site) to remember that these are human beings playing a sport largely for your entertainment; they are also in their late teens/early 20’s. Cut them a bit of slack if they miss an assignment or drop a pass. They absolutely do give a shit about this team, and treating them like people with feelings would be fantastic!
Last year I predicted 8-4, 9-3 if MSU or OSU took a step back. Yeah…that didn’t really happen. MSU took a step “back” from the best defense in the country to just one of the best, and OSU won a bunch of games, I guess. I don’t know, I stopped watching after the Pizza Pizza Bowl.
MSU will obviously continue to be one of the better teams in the conference, but last year you saw the cracks in the armor, and though it is true that they were mostly abused by some of the best offenses in the country while shutting down the rest of the conference, that kind of papers over just how abused they were by OSU, Oregon, and Baylor. They gave up 49, 46, and 41 points in those three games, and this year they’ll have to deal with the loss of Ed Davis, a competent starter and maybe the first “major” player MSU has lost to injury during their run. Their offense is still quite good and so I don’t expect a huge dropoff in the win total, but it feels like a team that might be coming back to the pack a bit.
PSU survived their sanctions about as well as you could have expected, somehow discovering a dominating defense while fielding an offense that isn’t terrible. Hackenburg still doesn’t feel like the sure-fire NFL QB he’s touted as, and he does have a bit of Devin Gardner 2014 look behind that shaky line. Still, Franklin has been recruiting like mad, and it looks like they’ll be even more competitive in the near future.
OSU is the defending national champions, and 2014 was supposed to be the rebuilding year. They seem to have an all-conference player at every position, and Draftageddon was basically a Pokemon exercise of collecting as many OSU starters as you could. They’ll win a bunch of games and, barring losing all three QBs, should be in contention for a playoff spot.
The rest of the conference looks mediocre; there’s talent in pockets, but teams like Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Nebraska have to replace large parts of their offenses and have question marks at key spots.
As for Michigan, it’s going to be a bit rough this first year, even with MSU and OSU coming to town. On the road against a solid Utah team to start the year may not be that bad simply because of Harbaugh’s manic focus, and Oregon St. and UNLV shouldn’t be too tough. BYU seems like it’s reeling, but Taysom Hill looked like a Heisman contender last year before going down with injury, and like seemingly all BYU players is way older than you think (he’s 25). In 5 games last year he had almost 500 yards rushing and 8 TDs to go along with 975 yards passing and 7 TDs, completing almost 67% of his passes. He’s big, he’s fast, and until proven otherwise I’m not sure UM is built to stop that type of dual-threat option. Unless Harbaugh works some magic, UM is going to lose at least one of those games. Next up are Maryland and NW, which seem like winnable games against teams that are scuttling a bit. MSU follows that, and that feels like a competitive loss with the hope of Harbaugh trolling Dantonio into a catatonic state. Two weeks later it’s off to Minnesota for a rock contest, and you figure UM is due for a letdown against them, Rutgers, or IU. Going to Happy Valley, against that defense, is going to be a tough task, though by that point Hackenburg may be sitting on the sidelines in a full body cast. The showdown against OSU follows to end the season, and UM has played OSU about as tough as anyone these past couple of years. OSU will have come off playing MSU as well, so even if Meyer’s team is deep in the playoff hunt they might not be 100% going into that game.
So it’ll sound a bit of a downer, but this feels like an 7-5 team with the potential to go 6-6 and 10-2 with a 2011-type run of luck. If they look solid against Utah to open the season, I could absolutely see them winning 9 games this year, but I’ve been burned too often recently with optimism and there remain real questions at the skill positions and in the defensive backfield, to say nothing of the QB battle.
So thanks for reading this far. I hope to make these more specific and less of a general overview for specific games, and please feel free to leave comments below with suggestions. And yes, I forgot to put in a reference to professional wrestling. Oh wait…