All the spring practice news along with this post have me pumped for September! At least I have Tiger Baseball to somewhat tide me over.
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.
has a few more games to play.
Thank you. So much. For writing this.
I appreciate the gratitude. I'm nervous, but I'm excited-nervous, like I used to be before big games when I played/coached, not scared-nervous, like I used to be before tests I didn't study for. It's the feeling of confidence in a good plan and the expectation of success coupled with the understanding that you never know what the day will bring or if your plan will work.
Now we just have to execute. (In memory of Al Borges)
You eloquently encapsulated my thoughts re: the news of the last week.
Could Hoke's moves be defined as "desperation?"
Perhaps, but sometimes "desperation" is a good thing.
Making drastic (and educated) changes to things that aren't working is a good thing.
You can make a strong argument for all of the changes...and point to all of them as having a positive impact.
Or, you can just keep doing the same things over and over again and expect different results.
I appreciate the feedback. I hope it all works.
For whatever reasons, some known and some unknown, the coaches were very conservative with the team in 2013. It made for an extremely painful and frustrating brand of football to watch.
I'm getting the sense that the coaches are going to let it all hang out in 2014. They really have no choice. All but maybe 1 or 2 will have their jobs on the line.
Like mentioned, I believe that the "bend no break" defense will be gone and more of a return to Mattison's first year with alot of blitzes.
Even with a tremendous amount of youth, the team has a ton of talent. Roster for roster they should be better then any team they play except maybe one or two.
Overall the physicality of the team needs to be taken up several notches. I think a Hail Mary analgy is perfect. This team absolutely has to win when they should, and not just barely win but run the opposition off the field.
I'm expecting the returning players to play with huge chips on their shoulders and the coaches to really make a statement this season.
Not sure "conservative" is the way to describe our offensive philosophy last year, what with our constant OL changes and major changes in points of emphasis from week to week (No screens! Lots of screens!). The inconsistency probably did not aid our development.
...I have to be believe that the cluster-eff between the OTs was recognized in practice and it resonated into every aspect of the team. When Pee Wee went down, that symbolically sealed the reticence the team was already beginning to feel and their confidence seemed irrevocably shakened after (not Akron) UConn on offense. Dev was asked to do more than he was ready for and the D bent and broke at the weirdest times. Strange year.
I personally thought that last year would see these changes, especially on defense...but regardless, no time like the present!!!
A measly upvote wasn't sufficient...this was a great read & very well done. Thanks for posting!
Great points. Put it in a new perspective that I never considered:
Do the same thing as 2013 and go 9-4 at best, probably 8-5, possibly 7-6 again;
Make these changes and you are gamling on going 11-2; Or it doesn't work and you go 8-5
There are some parallels to changes that Beilein made to his coaching staff several years ago. To be sure, I think Beilein's coaching changes were more severe. But nonetheless, I like that Hoke is making bold moves instead of just tinkering. Why not go for broke? I'm really hoping that with Gardner, Green, the WR corps, we see significant improvement. The great unknown and fear, of course, is the OL. Really, there's nothing we can do but wait. On the defense, I really hope that with Peppers, Ryan in the middle, and the return of Pipkins, we see vast improvement.
We just aren't there yet, but our schedule next year could really help. There has been a lot of moaning about how terrible the schedule is for fans going to the home games in 2014. That may be the case. However, when you look at the schedule, the first six games definitely look winnable, with ND perhaps being the hardest. If Michigan can win those first six games, and the team becomes "seasoned" and experienced, that could bode well for the rest of the year and the future. Win the first six and at least split the last six is a record no worse than 9 - 3. Of course I don't like it, but that would be enough for Michigan to get over the hump (in terms of line play.) This would be a good enough record to keep Hoke, and his staff, and for depth and experience to be there for 2015 and beyond. I really, really, really don't want the team to deal with more instability and coaching transitions.
The problem with talking about gelling is that we did the same thing this year. Maybe it will happen next year. I think Hoke will get this year and the next to show if he is the man or not. I hope these changes will work for the better. The nice thing is we should know pretty early since the Akron and UConn games were definitely harbingers of what was to come.
of analysis on the meaning, potential pros, and possible consequences of the many changes we're seeing these last several days, both in staff assignments and possible position changes. IMO, you did a better job of connecting the dots than anyone else on the net or in print has done so far.
This is what I love about this board---a great MGoDiary or well-written MGoBoard post, followed by insightful discussion. Once again, not dissapointed, as the followup discussion has spawned several well thought-out responses and I feel smarter for having read it from top to bottom.
So what kind of record for the upcoming season vindicates Hoke's Hail Mary?
Nice article. I enjoyed it.
It's not just the record. Hoke could go 8-5 and keep his job, depending on how that 8-5 looks and who we beat. If we beat MSU and Ohio but lose some unlucky close games to Notre Dame, Penn State, Northwestern, and Rutgers, then lose a close bowl game, I think he stays. More likely, we go 9-3 and fall to Notre Dame, MSU, and Ohio. He probably still keeps his job, assuming he was competitive in those games and in the bowl game.
Losing to all three rivals plus another loss puts him in ultra-hot water, and five losses all but guarantees he's out. But if the recruits keep coming in and the losses are close, 9-3 would probably be the benchmark.
Style will be as important as the record in 2014. If the teams looks good and is obviously progressing, Hoke keeps his job. If they look like they did last year--even if they win eight games--I think he's gone.
But I think ten wins--no matter who they are against--and he definitely keeps his job.
Beating either STAEE or Ohio next year will be a major upset. Both programs are much further along so those are unhealthy expectations. Every time people INSIST Hoke beat those teams I grind my teeth -- should we? Yes, in principle because ThisIsMichiganFergadsakes, but last season the team was in no way ready and I don't see how anyone could possibly not see that unless they're flat-out delusional.
HOWEVA, even for all the team's rawness some expectations weren't met: Squeaking by Akron and Connecticut, getting RPS-PWND by depleted Penn State, not merely losing to STAEE but getting curb-stomped, back-to-back negative rushing yardage games, embarrassing turnovers on offense, embarrassing implosions on defense, not showing up for the bowl game (not that I don't empathize).
That's a lot to reverse even without thinking of actually taking down our arch-rivals. I mean, yeesh, let's learn to stop tying our own shoelaces together before we talk of taking down the Rose Bowl Champs. Beat the cupcakes by 2-3 TDs, controlled victory over PSU, not going backwards, top it off with that soul-crushing 1-point loss to OSU and a close loss to K-State and even at 8-5 people would be singing a different tune. The problem was that the team started out bad and only seemed to get worse.
So even if we're looking at another 8-5 season, it's HOW that 8-5 looks that matters. If it's because the QB can't complete a long pass over STAEE because of a trash tornado, that's one thing. If it's because App State controlled the line of scrimmage, Hoke might not even last the season.
Great, great post! I still don't think Hoke's job is riding on 2014 though. I suspect that the inherited OL issues are understood throughout the athletic department and Brandon will exhibit patience through 2015, barring unmitigated disaster this fall. "Unmitigated Disaster" being defined as something like 4 wins.
I'm cautiously optimistic about all the changes, although I'm admittedly unclear about what sort of learning curve is involved (for the players) in switching from an under to an over front. Will the skills they've practiced and developed over the past three years translate, or does this sort of change involve starting from scratch?
Offensive changes will be happening too, but I'm guessing that will involve a great deal of simplification from Borges' schemes, so the offensive guys might have an easier time than the defense. I still think the OL will get blown up a bunch this year (just read this January '13 post from Seth again - sigh!).
Personally, I hope Hoke is retained at least through 2016. I think that year is likely to be special regardless of the coaching staff, and I'd like to see the guy who brought in the 2012 through 2014 classes have the opportunity to coach them as upperclassmen.
What can I say... posts like this are a big part of what makes this the best blog of all.
Thank you for expressing our hopes and fears in such a clear and informed way.
Appreciate your incite and I agree with your comments. I was hoping for something like this. I didn't like the non agressive defense from last year and obviously the offensive line was a huge problem. Part of it might have been about youth and I'm hoping this is a sign the coaches think this is the time they can rely on the players to play a more agressive style on both sides of the ball. I'm looking forward to seeing the results.
...but if you're a 4-3 team, I don't care if your base is Over or Under. And if it is to you, and that's a significant change for you, you're not doing it right. Sun Tzu is rolling in his grave.
IMO, the 4-3 Under and 4-3 Over are very, very different. The 4-3 Under is actually pretty similar to a 3-4: your SAM and your WDE are your most interchangeable positions, and either of those guys needs to be prepared to eat a TE or OT. You use a NT much like a 3-4, and your 3-tech and SDE (5-tech) are pretty similar positions. The biggest difference is that you will see two-gapping much less in an Under than in a standard 3-4, but 3-4 defenses (even in the NFL) are one-gapping a lot more now.
The 4-3 Over essentially replaces your SAM with a 9-tech (your SDE will line-up near the TE, usually outside, sometimes covering, and rarely inside) and leaves your new SAM uncovered. This is creating a new position in the defense: a uncovered LB that must be able to make plays in space. The NT must be able to consistently two-gap and the 3-tech must either get consistent penetration or two-gap. There is a lot more responsibility for the 3-tech in this defense, and I think they'll leave Henry there instead of moving him to nose. This defense further emphasizes the MLB, who must now be able to stop runs in the A, B, and C gaps. The WLB must also be able to take on more blocks in this defense and needs to be ready for B and C gap runs.
So, other than the LB positions being drastically different, adding a new position to the D-Line (which suits Taco and Beyer MUCH better than the Under SDE), and strategically changing the way you blitz, contain, and control gaps, it's pretty much the same.
I'm pretty sure Steve is a coach. It was probably before you joined but he used to provide great insight to the casual fans here, similar to Magnus or Space Cayote these days.
Despite this excellent perspective it otherwise seems people's perceptions are still flipping back and forth between tinkering and panic, as if there's no middle ground. The coaches are making changes. Of course they are. After 2013 I'd panic if they weren't making changes. And these changes are rather significant. Of course they are. Who the hell wants insignficant changes??
This just looks to me like good ol' professional problem-solving.
1) Diagnosis: Your OC is out of control, changing schemes on the fly. Solution: Get a new OC that excels at installing a base scheme.
2) Your DT-dependent 4-3 under isn't getting pressure, your linebackers are eating blocks, and the soft middle is being exploited. Solution: Change the scheme and move your best playmaker to emphasize interior linebacker play.
Will these work? Who knows? But it's not like Hoke is chasing ghosts by converting to a wide-open spread because "that's what everyone else is doing" or doubling down on I-form. If I was coach I'd recognize that 2013 called for a thorough review and it looks like they're doing a good job addressing the weaknesses with what they have.
While the position changes, schematic changes, etc. should induce a tad of anxiety I full-heartedly agree that this is a good move. It is, as you said, Hoke realizing last season was a disaster and this shows his willingness to change to (hopefully) avoid a similarly disastrous season this year.
I would be infinitely more anxious/concerned if few or no changes were made.
...I generally agree with you. The problem on offense last year wasn't personnel/inexperience and it wasn't schematic--it was the intersection of the two.
Nussmeier's system (or what we can infer of it from his stops in Tuscaloose and Seattle) promises to be easier to learn, more consistent in its application and should put less pressure on the weak points of the roster. It's not a silver bullet, and we will probably still have trouble with Michigan State's and Ohio's defensive lines. But I expect us to:
A) be more consistent
B) run more effectively from the RB position
C) produce fewer TFLs
D) face fewer 3rd and 8+ downs
E) improve over the course of the year, rather than regress
On the other hand, Borges was pretty good at designing vertical pass plays, and there's always a chance (esp considering we lose both tackles to the NFL) that we regress in the one department that bailed us out in the close wins. Nevertheless, I expect us on balance to be moderately better on offense than we were in 2013--and if we had been moderately better on offense in 2013, we probably would have won 9/10 games instead of 7.
As far as the defense is concerned...I just don't know. On paper we should improve, but I'm not sure how I feel about the moves at LB. Ryan might be better than Morgan or Ross in the middle, but he wasn't just our most consistent pass rusher (in 2012), he was also the most consistent in stopping outside runs. OTOH, we were terrible at covering crossing patterns. Had we been better at that...well...everyone who beat us or threatened to beat us (Ohio excepted) did it with crossing patterns.