This is our off-season strategy, and I love it
It's easy to forget that the "Hail Mary" is not just a football play, but also a prayer. While Brady Hoke's desired scheme is more Lloyd Carr than Rich Rodriguez, his coaching approach is certainly closer to Art Briles' play-calling than Mike DeBord's.
So what the hell does that mean?
I love--as I believe most do--Hoke's aggressiveness on fourth down. But we've learned quite a bit more about his willingness to go "all in" this off-season, and the result will be a 2014 team that looks drastically different from its predecessor. No less than six position changes that could affect the starting line-up, a new offensive coordinator, and significant scheme change on defense. This is the "Hail Mary" off-season: it is both a long, risky pass, and a prayer.
2013, to me, was The Season of Infinite Pain. It wasn't just the losing, it was the way we lost. The go-backwards offense that decided four downs were just too many combined with a defense that seemed to know exactly when to self-destruct made for a season that was excrutiatingly painful to watch, and I believe that the manner in which we lost (and won) was even more of a factor in our recruiting death spiral than the record itself. In the few games where the offense did click (Notre Dame, Indiana, Ohio) the defense couldn't keep-up, and the offensive line was never even close to adequate.
I hope we're all still smiling in December
So what did Brady Hoke do about this? He fired his friend and Offensive Coordinator--with whom he'd had lots of success. He made wholesale changes to the positions the defensive staff coaches, and removed himself as a position coach. He will be instituting a new scheme on both sides of the ball--completely new on offense, and moving from a 4-3 Under to a 4-3 Over on defense. Make no mistake about it, this change on defense is almost as significant as moving from a 3-4 to a 4-3 (but not as significant as going to a 3-3-5). On top of that, Hoke is reshuffling a slew of starters and key back-ups.
Here's what I love about this:
- It's all on Hoke. If this season ends in disaster, the J. Ira and Blah Blah Blah Coach will be the last place for the finger to point. It's mostly his roster, the coaching staff has been rebuilt, player positions have been changed. The answer to the question, "Can Brady Hoke coach?" is now clearly: "See 2014 season."
- The courage to change. I get Brian's negativity about some of the changes. A new OC? A new scheme on defense? Changing the position of your best player on defense (maybe the best player on the team)? It all smacks of desperation. That's scary as hell, and should make you nervous. It makes me nervous. But last year was awful, and here is a coach saying, "You know what? We have to make significant changes. Tweaks aren't going to do it." He's admitting the failure--not just through coachspeak--and making changes that could turn things around.
- Win or lose, this should be better to watch. Devin Gardner called it "a new style of practice." We know that Nussmeier at least practiced the no huddle at Alabama. Whether or not we see U-M stopping for a group chat between every play this season, I would expect the offense to move more quickly and the QBs to have more time at the line. I can damn near guarantee you'll see some of the constraint plays many on this board have been clamoring for, since Nuss' has always used WR screens and extended hand-offs. And we now know that Devin Funchess will be playing "on the outside." Nussmeier has always used a balanced attack that focuses on getting the ball in the hands of his playmakers and scoring points. Even if our offense doesn't set records this year, it should be a lot more fun to watch.
- Defense, too. The Tampa Two defenses that were en vogue in the NLF in the early '00's (and longer for the Lions) proved that "bend-but-don't-break" defense could work. Forcing the offense to plod towards the end zone and use all their downs increases the chances of a mistake and forces an offense to be more precise. I have two problems with that: 1) It's much harder to do against a no-huddle offense, since you can't rotate your D-Line as much, which MUST get pressure. 2) It's not as fun to watch. Last season, it often seemed like Mattison's "Keep the ball inside and in front" mantra mostly meant, "If you want a first down passing over the middle, we're happy to give it to you." Compounding that frustration was the snake-bitten (or gypsy-cursed) outside coverage that always seemed to be in the right place at the right time but didn't make the play. Even though we produced 17 INTs and nearly as many turnovers as we did in 2011 (when we recovered a ridiculous 20 fumbles) it never felt like a game-changing or play-making defense, mostly because there were far too many times when we let teams like Akron, Penn State, Indiana, 2nd-half Iowa, Ohio State, and Kansas State move the ball seemingly at will. Too many times, when it mattered most, our defense whiffed. Hoke says NO MORE! The changes that have been made public about positions and scheme strongly suggest we are moving to a high-pressure, in your face defense closer to MSU's style than Monte Kiffin's. I expect more blitzing, more play-making, and more TFLs. Might we get torched more often? Maybe, but I'd rather watch that brand of football, and I think players (and recruits) would rather play that way.
- Musical chairs on defense. Moving Keith Heitzman to TE is a virtual no-lose change: here's a guy who had been passed by younger players at SDE, switching to a position he played in high school where we need toughness and depth. But moving your best defender (and maybe player) to MLB from what was closer to a 3-4 OLB? It's a gamble, and not a small one. The upside is huge: if you go right, Jake Ryan is there; if you go left, JMFR is there. Starting from the middle, he has the potential to be involved in every play. But what if he's not very good at his new job? What if JRIII gets put on his ass by opposing TEs? What if Desmond Morgan is too slow to play the WILL in a 4-3 Over? Hoke took his deepest, most experienced position group on the entire team and changed everything. If it works, it could be beautiful. If it doesn't, he could be fired. But Jake Ryan went from 6.8 tackles/game to 3.7 and, even more alarming, from 1.27 TFLs/game to 0.56. Sure, some of that is the injury, but some of that is opposing teams saying, "We're not letting him beat us." Now? Defensive coordinators will have to fool Ryan to beat him, because we already know he can shed blocks and move sideline-to-sideline. If he can diagnose plays, he's going to kick some serious ass in 2014. And now Mattison is his position coach.
Do these changes make me nervous? Of course. These are huge changes, and change always brings risk. But, to me, these changes seem to directly address the issues--both in terms of success and enjoyment--that made 2013 so damn unwatchable. And win or lose, we'll know what we have in a head coach.
What it all boils down to is this: it's Hoke's fourth season, and very much the fourth quarter in a game he's losing to stay on as Michigan's blah blah blah Head Coach. And he's not calling the safe, conservative I-form off tackle play, or even the single-back play-action post; while it may require some help from the heavens, he's calling the fucking Hail Mary.
We'll just have to pray it works.
[Ed-S: bumping this to diaries. I wonder who the Diarist of the Week will be...]
After picture paging a play from the spring game in which James Ross makes one of his several TFLs on the day, I was trying to think of his best comparison. Forgive me for going outside Michigan lore, but I think he compares decently well to Sean Spence, or at least has the potential to in the future. For those unfamiliar, Spence is an outside linebacker from Miami(FL) who was selected in the 3rd round, #86 overall by the Steelers in the 2012 draft. In full disclosure, I'm a Miami grad, (currently at Michigan and don't worry, Michigan always comes first) so that's where my knowledge of Spence's career comes from. It is also likely the reason why I was able to quickly connect the two's similarities. Anyways, here's the meat of why I think they're similar:
Recruiting and Measurables
Both were 4-star outside linebackers, but Ross may have been a little more impressive. Spence's offer list looks lacking, made up of Rutgers and North Carolina types, but he committed early enough to explain that away. Spence was part of the famous 2008 Miami Northwestern High ("national championship" high school team) of which Miami pulled basically their entire number one class that year, most of which turned out on the bench or became an interception machine (Jacory Harris), but I digress.
Spence was listed as 6'0 and a tiny 186 lbs (!!!), whereas Ross was listed as 6'0, 209. Spence ended up coming in at 5'11", 231 lbs at the Combine, and I wouldn't be surprised if Biggs was trying to sneak in an inch or two. Ross is listed on the latest roster at 6'1", 223. I think around 230-235 is reasonable to expect Ross to end up at, although if he actually is north of 6', he could end up a few pounds larger.
Strengths and Weaknesses
If it wasn't obvious yet, one of the reasons I think this comparison works is because they both could be classified as under-sized. Ross may outgrow that moniker, but for now, it's appopriate. Additionally, they're both quick, smart, instinctual linebackers who can bring the wood, despite their size. Dan Gibbs can vouch for Ross. Here's a few snippets of Spence's draft profile from NFL.com; tell me it doesn't sound familiar.
He was a four-year starter at Miami, and although undersized he makes up for this deficiency through speed, instincts and overall athletic ability
He can quickly diagnose a play and use his explosive hips to meet running backs and deliver the blow.
Spence is undersized and needs to play free of big blockers on him to be productive. He can flow to plays but "rides the pole" and falls off tackles at times.
I'll confess, but I don't know what "rides the pole" means in a football context, so maybe Ross can be free of that weakness. I'd assume it's a bad habit of making initial contact and stopping his feet, but that's just my guess.
Spence played in every game as a true freshman, and only didn't see the field a handful of times in his career - due to injury and a pesky little Nevin Shapiro related suspension. Happy that Ross won't have that on his resume. Spence made a name for himself with a couple plays in a loss to Tebow in Gainesville his freshman year, and eventually became the leader of Miami's defense. He played some at the MIKE his senior year due to injuries and the graduation of Tennessee Titan starter Colin McCarthy. He ended up a Butkis semifinalist and earned All ACC honors (har har har ACC, but still) before graduating and heading for the NFL.
This started out as a focus on a great play that James Ross made en route to 8 tackles and several TFL in less than a full games snaps. Safe to say this kid might be pretty good. Anyways, it somewhat evolved into realizing that however talented and large our interior offensive line may be, they're still developing and gelling this spring. Usual caveats apply, I am not a football coach, just an educated fan and former high school player - let me know if you disagree with any assesments.
Link, thanks to mgovideo, one of the biggest free perks for Michigan fans. Play starts at 1:11
Michigan comes out in what Al Borges would probably draw on the first page of his autobiography: offset I with a tight end (the size of a small tackle) and a full back with his hand on the ground. All that's missing is Funchess lined up next to Lewan with Jake Butt in motion and this would turn into what Al Borges probably dreams about at night. The tight camera angle doesn't show the wide receiver personnel or formation, but I'd bet it's some combo of Gallon/Darboh/Jackson/Chesson based on my memory. Lewan appears to be trying to make a check of some kind, but that's just my hope based on the breakdown that happens on the interior. It was not uncommon for him to make line calls last year apparently, so it wouldn't surprise me if he's still encouraged to do so, if not moreso.
The defense, meanwhile is lined up in basically its base 4-3 under, with Beyer and Ross only slightly outside of their normal positions. Ojemudia is offsides, too. Get onsides there, terminator eyes. Your D-lineman are Ojemudia, Willie Henry (who played a lot), Pipkins and Godin (I think).
As the ball is snapped, it's apparent why James Ross was a half a yard closer to the line of scrimmage than Desmond Morgan - he was real excited about his A-gap blitz. Coach Mattison probably was too. We already see that Kalis is pulling: he's opened up his hips well and his first step is directly for the spot Devin Gardner is vacating. Everyone save Kalis and Williams will down block. Kerridge is headed for Godin. Notice that Miller has his sights set on double teaming Henry despite James Ross and his reckless abandon for the A gap. I think this is the first breakdown, and Miller ends up being a non-factor when he probably could have picked up Ross and turned this into a gain. I think he could be good, this is just a growing pain of a young center in the spring.
As Devin reverse pivots and prepares to hand off to Drake Johnson, most of the offensive lineman have done their road grating jobs. Lewan has joined Braden on Pipkins, and Peewee doesn't have a shot against the All-American and his young giant friend. AJ williams has left Ojemudia for Willie Henry and Schofield is prepared to help see him off. Miller, in hopes of sealing off the back side, has now taken himself completely out of the play as I mentioned. Desmond Morgan has read run as well, but I think he heads for the wrong gap. James Ross is already going to be in Kalis' hip-pocket shortly - that's his guard read anyways. Guard pulls, you run right through where he left straight to the ball carrier. Meanwhile, Morgan should be scraping playside as fast as possible until he sees daylight and or Drake Johnson with the ball.
Kalis has his sights for Brennan Beyer. Schofield has Henry sealed and Williams has left him to chip Ojemudia and keep ole laser eyes away from flying down the line. Ross continues his plan to arrive early for his scheduled meeting with Johnson.
Kerridge has stalemated Godin, Kalis is headed upfield ready to for either Beyer, a hypothetical Desmond Morgan or a safety. But, James Ross is not only deadly, but apparently silent. Kalis needs his head on a swivel here - I have a feeling he got a little excited for 5 yards of momentum and a one-one matchup in the open field. Then again, he thinks the backside should have been handled. Anyways, at this point it's pretty clear to Drake Johnson that things are not going to end positively. Could Braden have left Pipkins earlier and found Ross? Possibly, but I'm pretty sure his job is to donkey the guy who is head up on him until there can be no more donkeying and then find someone else.
Drake Johnson, I have a Mr. James Ross here to see you. Again we see Morgan could've taken a better angle, and if Ross were picked up, there is a lane and a freight train named Kyle Kalis headed downfield.
Two yard loss.
P.S. Devin please calm down when celebrating and wrap yourself in bubble wrap.
Video rendition of http://mgoblog.com/content/picture-pages-one-step. Analysis courtesy Brian.
Two Michigan Players have received weekly honors from the Big Ten
Michigan's James Ross III named #B1G Co-Freshman of the Week after posting a career-best 12 tackles against Iowa.
This is also Devin's second consecutive Offensive Co-Player of the Week (in three starts).
Andrew interviewed incoming freshman James Ross the other day. He talks about where Michigan wants him to play, how big he is right now, and Greg Mattison's tastes in music.