Every week we take this opportunity to do a roundtable obsessing about something, usually quarterback, center, non-Gallon receivers, and non-Gordon safety. This week we obsess about all those things.
The Depth Chart:
Center of everything: Brian Cook
Wide retweeter: Blue in South Bend
Fiddycentback: Seth Fisher
Left guardian of the database: Mathlete
Weaksnide lifehacker: Ace Anbender
Five-technical questions for you: Heiko Yang
And the question:
What position on each side will be most critical to the 2013 team's success?
Seth: We took this to mean the spot you're most focusing on with this team, not which is most important in general (otherwise everyone would say quarterback and associate editor/business manager). Also to avoid obvious things that are obvious, it is stipulated that all are agreed Gardner hurting ouches are the very worst things.
Brian: Even without the possibility of injury this is Gardner by a mile. On one hand, here's a guy who got moved to wide receiver last year and has five games under his belt. He was recruited as a dual threat guy and won't really be one.
On a couple others, dude would have had a top ten passer efficiency mark last year if he'd had enough attempts, and without any cupcakes padding out his stats. Except Iowa. He's spent the offseason hanging out with QB gurus from coast to coast, impressing NFL scouts as a top junior QB, not getting kicked out for boozing, that sort of thing.
Blue in South Bend: Outside of Devin Gardner (who remains the correct answer no matter how you phrase the question), I'm keeping an eye on the tight ends. The depth chart is really thin with the departures of Mike Kwiatkowski and Brandon Moore. They don't really have a game-ready "U" TE, and AJ Williams is the only guy on the roster who has shown the ability to kinda sorta sustain a block (and even that is... yeah). Michigan ran more 2+ TE sets and almost no 0 TE sets with Denard completely out of the lineup last year, and the odds are pretty good that Borges wants to get back to that this year.
But can he kinda-sorta catch? (Fuller) P.S. What do you think of my new caption macro? Captions!
He may either have to get creative (such as putting Dennis Norfleet on Terry Richardson's shoulders under a large trenchcoat jersey) or abandon some aspects of the playbook before even taking them for a test-drive. I think we'll see some position switching to deepen the ranks, and we'll see a guy or two (cough cough Wyatt Shallman cough) moved to a U-TE/H-back role to give them some more flexibility.
On the defensive side, the answer is Devin Gardner. Beyond that, strong safety is worth watching. I really like Jarrod Wilson, and he looks good in the back end, but I don't know whether he can fill Jordan Kovacs' slack in run support. I'm sure I'm not the only one who thinks he's more of a free safety. If you re-watch the spring game, you'll notice that Wilson made exactly one tackle, and it was him hopping on Funchess' back until the whistle blew. Neither his recruiting profile nor his 2012 play screams "omnipresent tackling machine." If it becomes a problem, will it force Mattison to run more 'even' coverage schemes (cover-2 or quarters)? Will Thomas Gordon's nose for the football be enough to compensate? Or will we just return to the days where 40 yard running plays are a thing that happen sometimes? SO MANY QUESTIONS AND ITS STILL JULY.
But seriously... Devin Gardner.
Seth: Yes, Gardner Gardner Gardevinygardner has to work out but I don't know what you guys are so worried about that occurring. Most fears have been answered. Why was he moved to receiver? Because they wanted his athleticism on the field, and you know he was taking QB reps all that time. What about the awful spring games? He had a good one. No experience? He started last year against four groups of relatively competent human beings plus Iowa and put up a 160 QB rating. Can he match Denard's production? In five starts against better competition last year his metrics were better than Robinson's. Can his superior passing ability make up for Denard's effect on the running game? In the three games Brian bothered to UFR the running plays with Devin at QB indeed weren't as effective but the passing made up the difference and then some:
[Hit the jump for the table, Mathlete, Heiko and Ace]
Gardner (Minn, NW, Iowa)
Why does he run around in the backfield so? The better to escape and do amazing things my dear. Much as the coaches would like to flip the switch and say "NOW we're playing with POWER," when you have the premier athlete of the 2010 class on hand you don't just use him as an artillery piece.
If the last question is "Can Borges use him effectively" I counted 40 different formations Borges threw out in just the first three games with Gardner starting. Forty percent of those plays were from the gun, a third from under center. Later we saw him pull out the Pistol. Don't let ho-hum power runs and PA deeps balls to the receivers in the Spring Game fool you; that always happens in spring games.
Maybe we should call this feature "This Week's Obsession with Jarrod Wilson" (Fuller)
Other than him getting injured, I'm not so worried whether Gardner can perform as I am whether Michigan can find a guy to snap it to him. Once Molk left Michigan's interior line turned into a confused pile of goo a lot of the time. I chalked a chunk of that up to having a center who wasn't reading or leading well. Whatever the limit is for how much a guy on the internet can appropriately criticize a player at a difficult and highly technical and nuanced position, I probably stepped on it a few times last year in re: Mealer.
Well, all of the possible candidates to replace him except Kugler were around last year and never threatened to displace him. They were also freshmen, so okay, but somebody is going to have to read the maniacal defenses we'll see this year, starting with Notre Dame and their unblockable front three. Someone's going to have to keep the guards—very likely to be two redshirt freshmen—on their correct assignments. Even snapping the ball is an underrated part of center, and that's before you figure there should be three different distances (under center, shotgun and pistol) he'll have to master. I don't know if that guy will be Miller or Glasgow by the end of fall, but it seems to be a coin flip right now whether either of them will be an improvement from mediocre.
On defense I'm with Bryan on Jarrod Wilson at strong safety being the guy to watch, for different reasons. Safeties are supposed to take time to develop—the more plays they see the more quickly they react to what's in front of them and avoid the traps defenses set for them. That's even more true in this defense as Mattison never quite stopped asking his safeties to do Ed Reed things once they stopped being actual Ed Reed.
Early on you can bet your Jamar Adams jersey defenses will be planning to pick on Wilson; they saw him make the same kid freshman mistakes you did, and as a tackler he's mostly untested. His Kovacsian qualities won't be as much of a focus: Mattison was already de-emphasizing the strong safety's role as "just give us a place to stand" last year as the linebackers were less likely to let something by them. As this happened the safeties were slowly becoming more equivalent; this season I expect Wilson to be the overhang guy on odd coverages as much or more often than Gordon; Jarrod needs to make the sophomore leap so that doesn't burn us. I'll especially be watching him early, since the best thing he could do for himself is make a few big plays against the non-conference schedule to get offensive coordinators to scheme against somebody else.
Mathlete: The laws of (pound sign) HOT SPROTS TAKES require me to not select Devin Gardner. I should have answered sooner. I was actually going to go with the interior line, anyway. Other than an injury to Gardner which is clearly the path to worst case scenario, the interior line is the position I have the most concern about. Whether it is Toussaint or Green the running game will be fine with Kalis and Kompany can perform at a decent level. Offensive line is such a complicated group and with a lot of new bodies in place this year, their ability to gel is going to be absolutely critical. Michigan has made it clear they are going whether it is working or not and it would nice to get some traditional productivity on the ground this year so we don't have to depend on three Gardner scrambles on third down to keep each drive going.
As to the defense, it's hard to pinpoint a specific position with how Mattison puts together his blitz packages but Michigan has to start generating more pass rush to get to the next level as a defense. Like Bryan and any traumatized Michigan fan I am bit nervous about regression to the mean at safety and the big plays but if the defensive ends or whoever else Mattison sends can generate some quality pressure on the quarterback this season I think the defense can make the jump from solid to great a year ahead of schedule.
Heiko: Hey guys, not that this is relevant to our major conclusion (Gardner), but Wilson will be playing free safety, not strong. I know they had him come up in run support a lot during the spring game probably just to shore up those skills, but he was invariably lined up as free safety. There's nothing in his recruiting profile or evidence since enrolling that says anything other than "deep coverage." Incidentally, Michigan ran a pure cover-1 with the starters exactly once (http://youtu.be/tR5U4ocyf94?t=1h8m10s) during the spring game, and when that happened, Gordon rolled up in the Kovacs spot and Wilson was the centerfielder. Yay.
Everybody forgets Dileo. (Upchurch)
ANYWAY. To answer the question, on defense, Desmond Morgan, James Ross and Thomas Gordon will be most critical to the team's success. While that's not exactly a unit (ILBs + SS), I think you'll see those guys in on making all the critical plays. They've got a great blend of experience and smarts, and Ross is poised to blow up and make people go "OMG mini-Ray Lewis eeeeeee." They'll hold the defense together while the new starters on DL and the secondary figure things out.
On offense, the non-Devin answer to this question is the receiving corps. Borges will happily shred teams all day as long as his quarterback is cool-headed and upright. Michigan's ability to do that will depend on whether the new receivers (Darboh and Chesson) can step up and take the weight off Jeremy Gallon's back. Also whether Funchess can become more well-rounded. Post-spring survey said "maybe" with a bias towards "yes", so I'm optimistic.
Ace: Has anybody mentioned that Gardner is the obvious choice on offense? Oh, is that everybody? Alright, then.
I think the baseline for Gardner's play is still well above average, so I'm not entirely sure quarterback is the position most crucial to the team's success if we're going by performance versus expectations — barring the worst case scenario, of course, in which Shane Morris becomes the real answer to this question. I'm torn between center and non-Gallon wide receiver as the position that must step up the most for Michigan to reach their full potential, and in the end I must agree with Seth; we saw last year how a below-average, assignment-blowing interior line can sabotage an offense, and it's up to Jack Miller first and foremost to turn that around. Gardner's numbers from last year, especially considering the circumstances, are already a reason to run around and go eeeeeeeeeee. If he's provided a viable interior rushing attack — and that's all about the line, presuming at least one of Michigan's stable of backs will be at least competent — then man, the offense could be fun.
Defensively, the spot that I think merits mention is WDE. I'm assuming Cam Gordon or Brennen Beyer will fill in admirably in Jake Ryan's absence, and the rest of the linebacker corps should be quite strong. The secondary has some question marks, but the steady presence of Thomas Gordon and the return of Blake Countess — not to mention the addition of Dymonte Thomas at nickel, where I think he'll make a huge impact — should keep them a solid unit. The real miracle of Michigan's defensive turnaround under Greg Mattison is that it's happened without the defense being able to generate a strong pass rush without blitzing, and while the defense has done quite well the last two years, that limits their ceiling, as well as Mattison's playcalling. Between Frank Clark, Beyer (if he's not needed at SLB), Mario Ojemudia, and Taco Charlton, the Wolverines should find at least one player who can get to the quarterback with consistency; with Ryan out, that will be the key to maintaining their impressive defensive performance.
Love this feature. Please please please keep it around.
I agree with Mathlete that it's all about the interior line on offense (with obligatory assumption that Gardner doesn't get broken). I am more than a little alarmed that as rough as the interior line was last year, nobody playing this year could take their jobs until they graduated.
On defense improved pass rush seems the biggest variable. Frank Clark, your time is now!
Regarding last year's interior not giving up their jobs, who would have taken them? The back-ups were all RS or true freshman. As frustrating as the interior of the line was last year, a trio of fifth year seniors beating out a bunch of first and second year freshman will never be that puzzling.
"...I wouldn't be so sure those women were innocent. The children are obviously innocent - if they are less than five."
It's not that they shouldn't push for a starting role, but simply that you probably shouldn't look too much into a freshman losing out to a RS senior. Pointed taken, though, about the back-up role. I didn't remember Burzynski playing ahead of Miller; that probably is a bit more diagnostic of Miller's ability last season than Mealer holding on to the starting spot.
"...I wouldn't be so sure those women were innocent. The children are obviously innocent - if they are less than five."
I agree that it would generally be exceptional for a freshman or RS freshman to beat out a senior for any position, and especially offensive line. I think it should be more common, though, for really young linemen to beat out bad linemen. Our interior line was bad last year, regardless the age of the players manning it.
Being forced to play three highly-rated true freshmen on the O-line probably cost Borges his job at Auburn as much as anything.
About 95% of O-Line commitments end-up redshirting. It is the highest of any position for lots of reasons. It is why I doubt even the great Kugler will be able to crack the line-up this year.
The basic reason is, for the O-line, college football is almost a different sport. Not only are they suddenly facing (often for the first time) players that are equally capable physically, the complexity of college defenses forces the O-line to make decisions on almost every play. Suddenly, a kid who was just crushing weaker fools in high school is now facing his physical equals AND he has to think on every play.
It's ironic to me that, other than QB, the "skill" position players have MUCH easier jobs than the O-line in terms of thinking on every down.
The QB is nearly always the answer to who is most critical. So that answer is obvious.
But since Gardner is experienced and we have some idea of what we are getting, I would broaden my answer.
In that case, I'd say the answer is Center. Since taking over the position, the absence of Molk (and here I am including the VaTech game because my assumption is that he was too hurt to be effective at much more than not snapping a fumble) has spelled doom for the offense. The Center position in 2012 was a big weakness. It is my understanding someone else even had to take over the job of making the line calls. And now Michigan has a new Center again.
However the Center performs in 2013 will go a long way to dictating how the running game and consequently the offense goes.
Is that a pro-style scheme doesn't ask as much of its centers as either the previous regime's system or the hybrid 2011 system. There are fewer reach blocks, and fewer shotgun snaps. Obviously the line calls are a big thing, but given Miller's two-year apprenticeship, I'm not overly concerned.
I think you hit on something there with the defensive point about Countess ... We always want to believe that guys coming back from injury will be just as good or better than before. Sorry to be a downer, but that doesn't always happen. We have seen today along that Ringer and Poole are having a hard time coming back to playing health. Not saying BC won't be serviceable but he could be a half step slow or a late cut or weak pushing against the WR at the line-of-scrimmage. That could be what takes him from lockdown corner to just a standard slightly above average one. That same fear stills hangs over my thoughts with Jake MF Ryan and Fitzy Twosie. Guess we'll just have to wait a couple weeks and see.
I know this, for sure, because I once ate pizza and played NCAA Football on XBox with John Navarre.
I hope Gardners stats don't lie to us, b/c he can't logically fall back from what he did last year. He prepped maybe 30% of his time as a QB in this system. Competed against all BCS level opponents (and Iowa) with no game experience. Now 100% of his time is prepping at QB with expereience and time in the system. He can't get worse.
I think the WRs can be servicable if not playmakers (Gallon should be all B10) since they all have at least a year in the system. If the 2 FR WRs see the field extensively, I think that's a good sign of their playmaking ability, rather than a bad sign re: the others.
So, it comes down to OL- can we handle an injury to the tackles, and can the young GCG group outperform last years veteran but less talented group?
Defensively, I expect the DL to be solid, but without Jake Ryan won't be making big plays. The LBers are experienced and pretty talented so they will be good. Here, it comes down to how many big plays will the !Kovacs secondary provide?
Will we win 1 or 2 out of 3 of @MSU, @NW, Neb? That's what will determine our participation in the B10 ttitle gaame.
I think you're 99% right (I didn't actually do the math there) but that you're underestimating the impact of James Ross and Desmond Morgan. There will be big plays aplenty, and I believe the LBs will combine for more TFL this year than last, it just won't be the same guy every time. And that's a good thing.
And let's not forget that Ryan should be back for our stretch of five brutal games to end the season. At that point, if Clark is getting pressure as the WDE, our defense could be the reason we win the B1G.
I don't see Gardner sans injury as really a big variable; at least one to the negative. At worst he's adequate, and at best he's OMG. He could make us great, but he's probably not going to kill us. And all he's going to be doing is running around for his life if the interior line isn't improved. A good line and he's going to look really good in any case. If that is regularly breaking down he's going to need to be Superman to make us look good.
And defense, likewise. The secondary should be good, the linebackers should be good and better when/if Ryan comes back. There's been a lot of hype, but no game proof that the D-:Line is coming along and going to give us some pass rush. I still think we're a year or two away from it being a true holy terror, but if it could be an above average Michigan line, it should make for another really good defense. And we can prepare for great soon...very soon.
(*It was Mathlete right? The jump says BiSB comes after, but he was before and Mathlete was after...so I assumed the jump notice was wrong, not the headings for the sections).
Maybe pointing out the 370 words on Jarrod Wilson's prospects at SS before Heiko made everybody look silly by knowing something will get me mentioned next week. It's almost enough to make me a hater, I admit.
Otherwise I agree with those who say DG is a known quantity: he's good. I divide my offensive worries between OL and WR. Defense is full of little concerns (SLB, DT, FS) but no huge ones IME.
Overestimating what's "known" there. Point to the "strong" safety in the following photos from Iowa:
Everyone's asked about the safety positions and if Gordon is going to move now that Kovacs isn't the "strong" safety anymore, and the answers are "no" and "they're interchangeable." Wilson was playing deep a lot in the spring game when he was paired with...wait for it...Jeremy Clark! Who is a "free" safety, albeit a large one. The reasons Clark was playing up and not Wilson on most plays were 1) they're trying to work on Clark's tackling and Wilson's coverage, and 2) that's how the defense aligned to what the offense was doing.
We're not designated box and free anymore and haven't been since mid-way 2012. The distinction in this defense is Gordon will typically play the field side, making him more of a "free" safety in the conventional sense, but nominally the "strong" safety since that is the side where you'll have the SAM and SDE lining up.
Here's a standard ho-hum play from last year:
Gordon is on the "strong" side because it's the field side. Kovacs is actually further back, and on the "weak" side with Clark and Ross.
All we're saying is Wilson will be playing Kovac's position. We call it "strong safety" only because that signals to a readership who've learned positions on NCAA X games that he's the more tackly of the two.
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I think we've been operating under the assumption for over a year now that the Michigan's safeties would become increasingly undifferentiated, and by as soon as this year they would essentially be interchangeable. My point was simply that you are replacing Jordan Kovacs' skill set with Jarrod Wilson's skill set. Kovacs operated as an incredibly reliable stop-gap in the running game, so the potential absence of those skills could make a big difference.
Now, like I said in a previous TWO (I like that acronym, btw), I really like that the secondary is going to be much more athletic this year, and Wilson replacing Kovacs is a big piece of that (along with Countess replacing Floyd and Thomas replacing/supplementing Avery). But maintaining sound run support, in my mind, is the difference between "solid" and "eeeeeeee."
We know he'll be splitting time with Q, but when he's in there he has to start being a playmaker drawing double teams, blowing things up in the middle and getting a push into the backfield. If he can do those things with some consistency, our DL will be a force. If he's just a guy whose most notable contribution is a good impression of Hoke, that will be disappointing considering his physical attributes.
“Heaven goes by favor; if it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in." —M. Twain
I'm not worried about Gardner because we have more than just speculation to go on. After starting four games, with one month to prepare and with a shaky interior line, he put up decent stats against a very good South Carolina defense:
Michigan put up 28 points, which is close to good enough to win with Michigan's defense in most games. Except for one blown offensive assignment (darn Kwiatkowski and ESPN who keeps showing it again and again) and one blown coverage Michigan probably wins that game.
Given the above, Gardner has now had an off-season to prepare and the interior of the line will at least be different (FWIW). I contend there is nothing indicating the offense should be worse than last years unit.
On defense, I don't think it can be overstated what the loss of Kovacs AND Ryan could mean. Those two combined have been a big reason the defense has performed to the level it has the past few years. Mainly becuase of their intelligence and instincts. Those are the hardest things to replace. I still think Mattison has enough working parts to make sure the defense does its part, but I have more concern about that than I do anything on offense.
"Anyone who isn't confused, really doesn't understand the situation." - Edward R. Murrow
Skipping the obvious Devin Gardner disclaimer, the correct answers:
On offense, it's the interior O-line. Gallon, Darboh, Chesson, Jackson, Dileo, Funchess, Butt etc. will be very good if healthy; if we lose Gallon, things get tougher but still doable. Darboh will be a pleasant surprise. But the interior O-line--specifically center--will make or break this offense. I agree with Hoke that "competition is good" but even better is having a great player that just can't be challenged because of his...greatness. Molk proved what a difference a good center can make, and then so did Mealer (in a different way). IF Miller or Glasgow or whoever can turn in an improved performance from last year, I'm confident that Braden and Kalis will be more than adequate to move some bodies and create an interior running game.
I can't emphasize enough how important an INTERIOR running game is. The ability to run up the middle is the holy grail of offensive football. Even the best spread minds salivate over between-the-tackles running--look at Chip Kelly and Urban Meyer if you need proof. Inside running sets-up play action, opens passing lanes, and provides opportunities for outside runs. Not to mention that it's the shortest distance between two points to go up the middle.
IF Michigan can establish any kind of between-the-tackles running game against good defenses, we are looking at a potential 12-13 win season. If not, 10 wins would be darn near magical.
Defensively, it's the pass rush, and specifically the WDE. Mattison and Hoke have proven that DT and SDE players will always be solid...but whence cometh the pressure? If the holy grail of offensive football is interior rushing, then the holy grail of defensive football getting consistent pressure on the QB with a four-man rush. "But wait a minute, Utah, wouldn't the holy grail of defense be stopping the interior rush?" Yes, smarty-pants, but you can't do that effectively if you're running overload blitzes or keeping two safeties deep because there's no other way to stop the pass.
If the Frank Clark hype is real and the dude can produce double-digit sacks, our defense will be among the best in the nation. I generally believe the hype is almost-real and that Clark is probably looking at an 8 sack or so campaign, but improved production from the interior (esp. Black) will get us closer to 30 sacks than last year's pathetic 22. And if there's pressure on the QB, then Wilson's job is much, much, much easier.
Said it perfectly regarding the center position not being as crucial in a pro style as the spread. Your worries should only be on a first year starter at that position, but I think Miller will do well by B1G season.
If anyone one the line misses a block, the play is probably dead. It doesn't matter what system you're running.
Our pro-style running game looked WORSE than our spread attack last year. Let's not pretend the position is "easier" in a pro-style offense; it's just different. You still need guys that can block. The question is, will Braden-Miller-Kalis be significantly better than Barnum-Mealer-Omameh. To me, the biggest unknown is center.
And make no mistake about it--the center still has line calls, organizational duties, and has to snap the ball every play.