Offense 2008: Five Questions, Five Answers
Who are these guys?
No, seriously. What the hell is going on? Where's Henne? Hart? Long? Is that a running back taking snaps? Do they know you're allowed to take a snap from under center? Who stole my football team and replaced them with Valdosta State?
Exciting new kids in order of projected use this year:
- Martavious Odoms. He’s the only healthy slot receiver and is the Chad Henne of WRs: a starter from day one in high school. He’s ready-ish to play and will be counted on heavily; may return kicks.
- Darryl Stonum. Michigan needs someone to put the fear of God into opposing safeties and Stonum’s the guy with that rep. Early enrollment means he’s not as clueless as your average freshman; hell, he’s got just as much time in this system as anyone on the team.
- Michael Shaw. Slightly ahead of McGuffie because I think they’ll use him in th slot a bit.
- Sam McGuffie. Run, annoyed man. Run.
- Terrence Robinson. Injury sets him back, obviously, but once he’s back he’ll rotate into the slot.
It is possible this ends well. Michigan will surround Sheridan with a deep and varied set of receiving targets, and the spread ‘n shred can turn a wobbly-armed but heady passer into Zak Kustok or Bret Basanez. It doesn’t demand the precision howitzer Carr’s pro-style system did. The physical limitations (and senior year injury) that forced Sheridan to walk-on somewhere don’t have to be fatal.
But if we’re being honest with ourselves there’s little chance it starts well. The note of distress coming from practice observers and press conferences is clear, and the scary thing is a lot of the reported problems are things like “throws bubble screens backwards.” (Michigan fans are going to find out how spoiled Chad Henne’s unerring accuracy on screens made them.)
Though practice reports got less alarmed as fall camp progressed—there was even video evidence of Sheridan completing passes farther than six yards downfield—Michigan's best hope here is for something functional, a guy who can throw a bunch of screens and keep the offense moving.
This offensive line can’t be as bad as Notre Dame’s, can it?
This was going to be a “definitely not” until the Zirbel injury and John Ferrara’s move from defensive tackle to potential starter. Now it’s just “probably not.”
There’s a fair quantity of talent slated to start. Schilling, of course, was an OMG shirtless recruit waylaid by injury. He should be much better this year. Moosman and Molk were both four-star sorts. That’s three of your starters with guru approval, and the guys who didn’t get it are both redshirt juniors who’ve seen a series here and there.
Plenty of teams have gotten away with worse outfits. Georgia and Auburn both started multiple freshmen last year and that worked out pretty okay; just because the nearest and dearest line to go through a painful youth movement became Most Extreme Epic Disaster Challenge does not mean this is Michigan’s fate. Whenever it’s dark out and your thoughts turn to Notre Dame’s 2007 season replicated in winged helmets, just remember that Charlie Weis spent fall camp installing a spread option look for one game against Georgia Tech and neglected things like technique or pads. It was coaching malpractice on an unprecedented scale; Michigan won’t go down the same road.
HOWEVA, there are some major concerns. We know these things about Mark Ortmann:
- He was not a big time recruit.
- The coaching staff thought he was clearly worse than a guy (Schilling) who was not ready to play last year.
- He’s the starting left tackle virtually by default.
Unless we’re lacking some critical piece of information like an undisclosed, lingering injury or Ortmann’s sudden improvement, that looks a lot like a recipe for blindside hits galore assuming Michigan ever tries a pass longer than ten yards. Which they may not. But that’s another question.
And then there’s Zirbel injury, which puts Michigan one ligament away from starting a true freshman or a guy who was playing defensive tackle two weeks ago. Even if the line stays miraculously healthy, the lack of confidence in Molk is troubling.
If a couple of guys don’t pan out or, worse, get injured, darkness threatens to warsh over the dude at quarterback.
Will Rich Rodriguez and Calvin Magee be inherently better than Carr and Debord?
Michigan fans have complained for years on end about the predictability of Michigan’s offense. Whenever Michigan replaced its starting receivers, it was a guaranteed run. Whenever a tight end lined up at fullback, it was a guaranteed pass. Fullback shuffles were 90% runs to the side of the shuffle, and the few times it wasn’t didn’t justify the expense in yards and downs expended to launch the surprise.
This differentiates them from zero fanbases nationwide. Hell, West Virginia fans had a field day decrying the “predictable” offense Rich Rodriguez ran after his departure. Seriously:
“i will be glad whenever mcgee is officially gone. his 'i will only call 4 different plays' mentality can suck up in michigan right now for all i care.”
In a way, it was predictable: you run 70% of the time and a hefty chunk of the passes are bubble screens. In another way it obviously wasn’t. Touchdowns don’t score themselves.
Anyone who’s read this blog for a while knows my opinion, and it was best summed up in the aftermath of the Horror:
If every Michigan fan can tell you certain things obviously tip Michigan's plays, what are the chances opposing coaches don't know this? Zero. Everyone knows what Michigan is going to do. This is something we've heard every time a bowl opponent is asked about us for the past half-decade and probably longer. It's an arrogant waste of expectation because you expect that you won't need to fool the other team. It's like playing poker without ever bluffing.
This opinion is apparently shared by many, including current members of the team. This is perhaps the most damning quote I’ve ever read on the topic, and it comes from Brandon Graham:
“Everybody knew exactly what we were going to do. That was like the arrogance of being at Michigan. ‘Our players are better than yours.’ That’s how it was. That kind of got to (players) when it stopped working. The big games, like Ohio State, we would want to show them something we didn’t do during the season. But we’d go out there and do the same thing.”
This thinking is ancient, dating back to Bo and the days of unlimited scholarships. Michigan assumed it was inherently better than its opponents and every game was an exercise choking out the variance so that superiority could show.
It is also the complete antithesis of Rich Rodriguez. This was an opinion expressed earlier:
Rodriguez comes from a wholly different background than Carr, coming up through the ranks at NAIA schools and Tulane and Clemson and West Virginia. Until Pat White showed up he never had a significant talent advantage against the vast majority of opponents. He never, ever had the luxury of lying back and thinking to himself "if we out-execute the opponent we will win," and it shows. He invented a whole new offense and used it to exploit inefficiencies in recruiting. To seal the Sugar Bowl against Georgia he called a fake punt, exploiting inefficiencies in fourth-down playcalling. For the past seven years he has played Moneyball at West Virginia.
To me, the exciting thing about Rodriguez is not necessarily his system but his mindset. He's looking to squeeze out every ounce of expectation, make every resource stretch as far as he can, and now he's been provided resources few other coaches have.
This is the Coal Spoon theory, and it answers this question simply: yes.
You know, I get emails from time to time complaining about how negative I’m being, but not in a “you’re just incorrigible” way. They mostly complain about the depression induced.
What can I say? For the first time, Michigan is violating several of the preview heuristics: don’t switch a guy at the last second and give him playing time. Don’t completely change your system—not that the change is bad, but it will be painful in the short term. Don’t start a walk-on at quarterback. Have something other than crippled goats backing up your offensive line.
These things are nigh insurmountable obstacles in the quest for a non-ugly offense. There’s just too much that can go wrong (or already has) for the offense to function at an aesthetically pleasing level.
It shouldn’t get anywhere close to the radioactive mess Notre Dame was, or even be the worst offense in the league. The Rodriguez system doesn’t demand that much out of either of the shaky position groups. It does demand that the skill position players be able to beat their guys one-on-one in the open field, and Michigan should have the athletes to do this with regularity.
I think we’ll see an offensive of extremes this year: good or better against teams with shaky athleticism, bad or worse against A-level opponents. Scanning the schedule I see only three or four of those.
One major caveat: the situation at quarterback and on the offensive line is extremely fragile. If a guy goes down or just doesn’t pan out the dropoff as you go back is severe; there is a small chance a couple guys implode and the offense makes a short trip off a cliff.
- People are very excited about Martavious Odoms going into 2009, like Steve Breaston excited.
- Sheridan starts off the starting quarterback, is replaced at some point, but ends the season as the guy.
- Junior Hemingway establishes himself a starter midseason.
- The running back situation involves a mess of players; Minor, Brown, McGuffie, and Shaw all see 100 carries. Brown has the best YPC.
- Michigan has a better offense in-conference than they did last year. (Ninth.)
- Ricky Barnum ends up starting five or six games.
- Michigan is around 50th in yardage.