Not Just A Gimmick™, we hope. [Adam Glanzman/Special to MGoBlog]
For a player with a meager 113 yards from scrimmage in two years, Dennis Norfleet is the topic of discussion around these parts a whole lot, and that topic is usually "can we please get this guy the ball more?" This seems like an odd request to endlessly put forth regarding a player with 12 career offensive touches and zero touchdowns, but there's Norfleet atop the depth chart at slot receiver, and beyond that there's good reason to think he'll be a much bigger part of the offense this season.
Norfleet came to Michigan as the in-state recruit too talented not to offer late, even though he didn't fit the coaching staff's idea of... anything, really. He certainly didn't fit the MANBALL running back mold, nor the desire to head in the direction of fielding a receiving corps in which being 6'2" makes one a slot receiver. It felt like he was offered as an afterthought, and his usage in the years since reflected that; Norfleet would occasionally come into the game at the slot, get a totally surprising jet sweep, and head back to the bench to await his next special teams opportunity.
The problem with this wasn't so much the plays Norfleet was asked to run—getting a player that shifty in space is a good idea, and jet sweeps should accomplish that—but the obviousness of what he was going to do, and the fact that these plays often didn't fit into the larger scheme of the offense. This blog has extensively covered the constraint theory of offense—in essence, that an offense has a core set of plays, then "constraint" plays that take advantage of defenses overplaying those core plays—and that Al Borges went for more of a grab-bag approach.
Norfleet's longest career carry works as a great example of both the constraint theory and how he was misused, oddly enough. He broke a 38-yard run in last season's opener against Central Michigan when Michigan ran an end-around to him off a counter trap run; the counter action—especially the pulling right guard—drew the CMU defense to their right, and by the time the ball was pitched U-M's blockers had a very easy time sealing their men off from the real direction of the play:
This worked because Central hadn't yet learned that Michigan didn't ever really run the counter trap and that Norfleet's presence on the field almost certainly indicated he'd get the ball; it also helped that they were a 6-6 MAC team. Norfleet's runs after the opener weren't remotely as successful due to a couple factors: Michigan couldn't establish a base running game, and when Norfleet was on the field it was incredibly obvious what he'd do.
[Hit THE JUMP for the whole point of this post: how Doug Nussmeier can use Norfleet to boost Michigan's running game.]
Anyway, the point: I fully expect Michigan to utilize Norfleet a lot more this season, and there's reason to get excited about that prospect in Doug Nussmeier's offense. As we've also covered extensively, Nussmeier is a dedicated inside zone guy when it comes to the running game. As it so happens, one of the best constraints for zone runs is the jet sweep to a slot or wide receiver, and Norfleet's place on the depth chart—and Freddy Canteen's placement on the outside—suggests Nussmeier will take advantage of this.
Jim Light Football has a very informative post on various zone run constraint concepts run by Seattle at the NFL level and Wisconsin at the college level. These plays are predicated on having the majority of the players up front block for a zone concept, perhaps with one or two blockers sealing off the backside for a sweep, and forcing key defenders to choose between flowing to the potential zone run or staying home against the sweep; as you'll see, sometimes there's no right answer for the defender. While Michigan would most likely run this with a slot receiver instead of an outside receiver, with the slot replacing one of the two tight ends, this Wisconsin concept is something we could very well see this fall [emphasis mine]:
Wisconsin runs similar concepts with the jet sweep off of their inside zone running game. In this example the Badgers run the jet sweep out of a double wing set. From tackle to tackle the offensive line is blocking inside zone. The Badgers use the tight ends to block for the jet sweep. Once again it’s a split-flow read for the defense, running backs going in opposite directions along with two different blocking schemes.
Arizona State’s front four, along with four defenders from their back seven all work downhill to take away the inside zone run. That leaves only three defenders left for the Badgers to account for on the jet sweep. The tight ends work a double team on the end man on the line of scrimmage up to the safety who is the force defender. The receiver blocks the corner and Melvin Gordon is off to the races for an untouched 80 yard touchdown run.
You can see that the near-side defensive end (#93, I think?) shoots into the backfield, but the threat of the inside zone stops him in his tracks just long enough for Melvin Gordon to fly past him with the football. A couple of solid blocks on the outside, where every defender is accounted for because the rest were held up by the inside zone fake, are all it takes for a huge touchdown run.
This type of constraint doesn't just pose the threat of an occasional big play; when the threat of the constraint is on the field—and as the starting slot, Norfleet should be out there quite a bit—it forces defenders to keep that constraint in mind even on standard inside zones; defenses can't be as aggressive flowing to the football, and individual players can become more hesitant as they have to keep the threat of the sweep in the backs of their minds. Running this kind of stuff wouldn't just benefit Norfleet; it would make it easier for Michigan to successfully run their base offense. Consider the jet sweep/inside zone combo to be the new zone read/bubble screen.
Norfleet may not be the receiving threat that Michigan fans are used to seeing line up in the slot—though he's got a lot of potential working those underneath routes—but he's a different type of player who most likely will be used in a different way. He could, in fact, be one of the keys to Michigan making strides in the running game.