...talks about how UConn hasn't been in contact and how they're out. (HT: UMHoops)
Spring Practice Tea Leaves
Spring practice continues and there's the usual mix of unwarranted excitement and unwarranted doomsaying; that combined with the incestuous nature of the whole enterprise makes information wobbly. But wobbly is better than nothing.
A rundown of scuttlebutt received in my inbox and published elsewhere:
The conflicts start hot and heavy with Forcier, who has articles like this written about him:
"Coach Barwis, he's shown me a whole different life," Forcier said, chuckling. "But I'm getting a lot stronger, and that's a good thing."
On the field, Forcier, who is expected to compete with Nick Sheridan for the starting QB job, said one of the biggest challenges is adjusting to the snap, which he's had some trouble hanging onto during spring practices.
"It's just getting comfortable with how they snap it to you," he said. "In high school, you get these slow shotgun snaps. Here, these come back like rockets."
Yikes. There have been plenty of reports citing the usual harsh transition from college to high school, with balls zinged into linebackers' chests and hilariously arrogant attempts to reverse field resulting in 20-yard sacks.
On the other hand, multiple attendees have noted the positives to Forcier's game, especially in relation to Rodriguez's offense: he's elusive, extremely accurate on the run, and has enough zip to get the ball where it needs to go. Much of the practice time has been devoted to tougher passes—no bubble screens—and things the offense isn't good at yet, which makes them look worse than they might if they were operating with some of the easier stuff to execute.
At least that's the positive way to look at it. The other way to look at it is basically "we're going to die." One viewpoint is in relation to what happened last year—even skeptics have been very clear that the quarterback situation is vastly improved over DEATH. The other is comparing freshman Forcier to quarterbacks who are actually, like, good. The overall impression is that Forcier isn't a 9-3 QB, but neither is he a 3-9 one.
"Out of the freshman, they're all doing good, doing what I expect them to do, but Vincent Smith is showing a lot of potential. He's not backing down ... He's got real used to hitting early on. He does that very well."
"Vince, whewwwww. Vince Smith, he can move, he can run. He's out there running like the wind. He makes a lot of guys miss. I think we might be able to use him this year."
(Note the assumption in Forcier's quote there.)
"He's really come along," Rodriguez said earlier this week. "He's still confused sometimes, as all the freshmen would be, but he's shown some flashes in (Tuesday's) practice and he's a guy that's probably going to play some as a true freshman. I love his attitude, he loves playing and he's a quick learner on the field and he's got some natural ability, so I'm pretty excited about him."
This isn't wholly surprising. Smith's initially lukewarm reviews gave way to a more positive take after his impressive senior season. Though he didn't scrape his way out of the three-star ghetto, he moved way up on both major sites as they refined their rankings and Smith powered Pahokee to another state title. A couple of Florida correspondents said he was a terrific back whose ratings were held back by his size and a lack of pure white-hot speed, much like Oregon State's Jacquizz Rogers without the Name of the Year potential. (Vote for Mingo!)
Smith's got a number of veterans in front of him and isn't going to be an instant feature back with Minor looking like a beast and Brown (mostly) healthy, but it sounds like he's hopped in front of Cox and Grady and will spend this year vying against Michael Shaw to see who starts next year.
(At right: Brandon Smith tackling… uh… Brandon Smith? Is this like that A-Rod picture? Or one of those mirror universe episodes of any sci-fi show that goes on so long the writers get bored to tears with the characters?
One thing I definitely know: that's not some walk-on. Nope, it's definitely Brandon Smith in some sort of weird temporal vortex.)
This won't be surprising to anyone even vaguely familiar with Michigan football since Marcus Ray, but, yeah, argh safeties. Stevie Brown has been moved down into a nickel/OLB spot, much to the relief of everyone. This Free Press article says Brown "didn't have the impact many expected," which is a nice way of saying "had exactly the impact everyone feared." Now he's elsewhere:
"He's going to be a multipositional player for us," coach Rich Rodriguez said before practice Thursday. "Obviously, he's playing a lot of nickel back, in kind of a nickel-back situation. It's kind of a hybrid of an outside linebacker/strong safety position, which I think he's perfectly suited for."
Actually, he does seem well suited for that sort of role. Brown only got more frustrating last year when he started making the occasional sweet play to go with his free touchdown per game. Highly rated out of high school, Brown's a capital-a Athlete and seems an excellent fit for this coverage/blitz/tackle hybrid spot. An emailer reports back from the coaches' clinic:
Also there was some promising news on Stevie Brown. Greg Robinson talking about Stevie Brown said “He’s a hell of an athlete and he’s a hell of a lot better football player where we have him now (strong side LB)."
So hurray for all that.
However, moving him leaves just two returning players at the position: Mike Williams, who saw some playing time a year ago and didn't do anything of note good or bad, and redshirt freshman Brandon Smith. That's a horrifying lack of depth at a position we're all well aware can be an instant 60-yard touchdown for the opposition.
That was ominous enough. Then various reports came back that neither was starting. Longtime Michigan insider Maizeman:
Starting safeties (Thursday) were Woolfolk and Vlad. Yes, Vlad as starter. He looked, on Thursday, to be our best safety -- not even close.
Oy. That's a true freshman and a position switch starter at a position where Yards After Mundy can rack up in a hurry. When I profiled Emilien I noted he was an early enroller, an honor-roll student, and had a serious flirtation with Ohio State (which unearths functional-to-excellent unhyped safeties on a frustratingly regular basis). All of these things point to a sunny future for Emilien and I think sooner or later he'll be a good safety for Michigan. But by "sooner or later" I mean "later".
Woolfolk, meanwhile, was running at corner as of a week ago. With his departure the current two deep there is:
- Cissoko and Warren
- JT Floyd and Floyd Simmons, redshirt freshman walk-on.
Argh. It's hard to see the position switch as anything other than a condemnation of the projected starters at safety. The chatter now has Smith moving to linebacker eventually due to a lack of speed. You can see a hint of that in this Rodriguez quote:
"He has not played, he's a redshirt freshman, but he's got a lot of ability," Rodriguez said. "He's still got to get in shape to be able to play on the back end, like our safeties have to do sometimes. You've got to be able to run a lot, a whole lot, and they're still adjusting to that. But I think he's going to be able to help us in a lot of spots this year."
With Brown a senior and Smith a little ponderous for safety we might see the latter move to this hybrid spot during the year if Emilien and Woolfolk work out.
About That Defense
I got a number of emails from people smarter than me about football in regards to this 4-3/3-4 distinction; happily, none of them call me an idiot. A coach who attended the clinic a few days ago:
The report that the defense would come to resemble a 3-4 seems a little off base. After attending the Coaching Clinic and seeing the defense in action it is the same thing that you see at a lot of programs. First it is considered a 4-3 but it is a multiple 40 defense where you are going to see numerous adjustments (the same as any college program). They will slide into some 3-4 sets by dropping their Quick (strong side end speed rusher/lb hybrid) This can be called for coverage or zone blitz scheme.
The biggest improvement I believe you will see come in the form of tackling and angles. Greg Robinson has already overhauled the pursuit angles and has really stressed proper body mechanics when tackling. You could visibly notice the change in tackles and finish. Jay Hopson also commented that “Greg has really made a huge improvement to how we tackle. It’s night and day from last year.”
This sounds much like what was mentioned in What Is It. Michigan is basically going with a 4-3 that has the flexibility to drop into a 3-4 when the situation warrants it or Robinson just wants to throw a curveball. To do this you need a chunky linebacker at the standup end spot, a guy who can hold up (or penetrate) against a tackle on a run to his side, rush the passer, and credibly drop into a short zone. Shawn Crable would be an excellent fit. So would prospective recruit Will Gholston. (HINT HINT, MR. GHOLSTON.)
The closest analogue to what Michigan appears to be installing is the defense of the Arizona Cardinals, who run a "4-3 under" most of the time with a weakside DE/LB they call the "predator," thereby soundly defeating Michigan's nomenclature. As hybrids go, it's hybrid-y:
…in the 4-3 “under” front, like the Cardinals use as their base defense, which looks similar to the 3-4 to the naked eye, the biggest difference is in the outside linebackers. The strong-side linebacker is still outside the tight end. But the other outside guy — the Cardinals call this player their “Predator” — is almost always rushing the passer, although the Cards will occasionally drop him into coverage to mix things up. Other differences: The nose tackle shades to the A-gap (in between the center and guard) on the tight end side, and the end on that side moves between the tackle and tight end.
explained that the 3-4 defense creates the most confusion for the offense in terms of which outside linebacker is doing what, and the standard 4-3 offers the least unpredictability. The Cardinals’ 4-3 “under” scheme is somewhere in between the two in terms of causing the offense to guess who is rushing and who is dropping.
There is one uncovered linebacker—eg, "man who must take on unblocked guard"—in the 4-3 under, which is different from the 4-3 (none) and the 3-4 (two). That's the MLB, meaning Obi Ezeh. Onus, meet third year starter who's been fairly disappointing so far. You'll be good friends all year.
Also, here's Tyler Sellhorn, who's sent in an email or two before and contributed to Doctor Saturday, on what the whole "rush end/linebacker" thing was:
The Hermann era defense was better known in its day as a 5-2. 3 DTs and 2 DEs; however, the strongside and weakside specialized by personnel, tactics, or alignment. The weakside DE was called the "drop end" an excellent deployment of a SS type player (Stevie Brown). The strongside DE was called the "rush end", think Lawrence Taylor/Derrick Thomas. Calling it a 3-4 is "sexier" because safeties and speedy big guys would be prefer to be called linebackers than defensive ends. As an offensive line coach and former lineman, I hated playing "odd" fronts (with a nose guard). The angles for your usual blocks change significantly and when the defense chooses it is easier to bring up support from the outside and from the safeties. 3-4 is more flexible in the secondary as well because linebackers can be put in coverage much easier.
IMO, I think the (very) early returns are good for GERG.
So there you go.
A Brief Summary Of My State Of Mind
Look: we're not going to be good. There is a true freshman quarterback who, while as ready as he can be, is still not ready at all. The line is probably going to be okay, but not dominant. They're installing a new defensive package and holy God is the secondary thin. They'll get some reinforcements in the fall but it's like quarterback: when you've got six highly-rated options for two spots whoever wins that job is likely to be good. When you've got two, you're hoping that both pan out, stay healthy, and stay out of trouble.
Position switch starters—one of MGoBlog's primary "uh oh" heuristics—seem likely at safety (Woolfolk), DE/spinner (Herron), LB/SS (Brown), and LG (Schilling). None of those are huge deals in and of themselves as they don't involve flipping sides of the ball, like Ferrara did last year, and generally see players moving into spots where they are faster than the opposition or just plain better suited; together that's a lot of flux. Digging out of this hole is going to be a multi-year project, and I don't mean we'll only make the Alamo this year. Notre Dame went from 3-9 to 7-6 and though they had a bigger hole to dig out of they weren't starting over at quarterback. A similar improvement seems realistic.