|Ben Bredeson||Fr.||Ben Braden||Sr.*||Mason Cole||Jr.||Kyle Kalis||Sr.*||Erik Magnuson||Sr.*|
|Grant Newsome||So.||David Dawson||Jr.*||Patrick Kugler||Jr.*||Michael Onwenu||Fr.||Nolan Ulizio||Fr.*|
Michigan's line took a quantum leap in 2014, going from a flaccid crew of confused gibbons to pleasingly mediocre. Last year's edition of this post positively marveled at the fact that these gentlemen got in the way of the opposition frequently enough to be average-ish:
It got better. It really did. The OL nadir is in the past. We can come out of the bunker and rebuild society now.
That assertion was based both on my charting and a bunch of stats, many of them of the advanced line variety. Advanced line stats make total guesses about assigning credit and blame between tailback and line but they're worth peeking at in case they tell a story. Michigan's 2015 stats are mostly about treading water:
|Year||Adj Line Yards||Opportunity Rate||Power Success||Stuff Rate||Adj Sack Rate|
Michigan was less likely to get tackled for loss and less likely to get the 5+ yard carries that opportunity rate tracks. Those were a wash as Michigan's line yards stayed static. Contrary to your memories of the OSU game, pass protection took a big leap forward.
A certain level of treading water is expected when a new coach with a new, complicated system arrives. With four starters back and Mason Cole moving to his natural position, a step forward is likely. It's just that fifth guy who gives pause…
An Editor's Note About Charts
With four returning starters you're going to see a bunch of charts derived from last year's UFRs. Here's how to read them:
|Game||Opponent||+||-||TOT||Pass -||Error Rate||Comment|
|1||Utah||5||8||-3||5||8%||Guy did X|
Game and opponent are self-explanatory. The +, –, and TOT columns are my evaluations of how the player did when run blocking. Keep in mind that zero is not good, or even average. It is the nature of the beast that any successful run has many successful blocks; many unsuccessful ones are submarined by a single error. We're looking for a 2:1 positive-negative ratio to be decently successful. A future pro might be more like 3:1 or 4:1.
"Pass –" is derived from the protection minuses in UFR. Two protection minuses are approximately equivalent to one sack or severe hurry. "Error rate" is the number of protection minuses divided by the number of available protection points. The above line is Ben Braden's from the Utah game, in which he was almost 1:2 in run plus/minus and had protection errors on 8% of snaps. That's terrible; the good news is that Braden got better.
TACKLE: JUST A GUY WOULD BE FINE THANKS
present, he said [Brian Fuller]
Senior ERIK MAGNUSON was thrust into the lineup too early as one the umpteen guys tossed into the maelstrom of the 2013 offensive line. He was a guard then; the next year he played some there and, after an injury cost him his job, as a blocking tight end. Last year he got flipped out to tackle.
There he... well, he was there. He was neither forceful nor overrun. He didn't shut down elite pass rushers or get blown through by mediocre ones. His UFR chart from last year is decidedly sparse when compared to Cole's:
|2||Oregon State||5||0.5||4.5||0||0%||Not as involved as others but got his job done.|
|3||UNLV||6||6||0||0%||Clean positive sweep from the OL.|
|4||BYU||2.5||3||-0.5||0||0%||M clearly left-handed when it wants to rely on tackles.|
|5||Maryland||4||4||0||2||4%||Clear left handed bias again.|
|6||Northwestern||6.5||1||5.5||4||10%||End of game was pretty.|
|7||MSU||3||2||1||3||7%||A little frustrated with his second level blocking.|
|8||Minnesota||5||1.5||3.5||1||2%||Good day for him although M is clearly left-handed.|
|9||Rutgers||3||4.5||-1.5||0||0%||Not real good on perimeter.|
|11||PSU||3||3||4||6%||Also took advantage of weak edge.|
|TOTALS||55||29||26||24||4%||65% run blocking|
It's not so much that Magnuson didn't execute, it's that he wasn't called on to do much. He's right around our run-blocking Mendoza line thanks to some good days against the overmatched bit of the nonconference schedule. 24 pass protection minuses over the course of a season isn't anything to write home about, but Cole's maturation and Magnuson's move to tackle are the top two reasons Michigan's pass blocking got a lot better a year ago. When I started to talk about the OL individually in the middle of last year this was the conclusion:
Magnuson is [just a guy] right now. He's okay at blocking. They don't run to him very much. There are not many plays on which he has a big role and that seems to be about half Cole and half Magnuson. He is the Jarrod Wilson of the offensive line.
He's boring. We appreciate this immensely, because we are well aware of the alternatives to boring after the past half-decade.
It's maybe a little disappointing that Magnuson seems to be topping out at boring. I usually pick out the particularly good or bad plays to embed in these previews; Magnuson doesn't have anything to embed either way. On the ground I had him for zero +2 blocks a year ago and one –2 block. Part of the reason he doesn't have a lot of magnitude in that chart above is that he usually does something completely adequate and not that notable. When he does score a plus it's frequently for excellent awareness. Here he reads a blitz and manages to redirect enough to hit the linebacker who would otherwise be burying Smith in the backfield:
When Magnuson does move a guy it's usually because the guy is already moving. He was good at reading and staying attached on slants in Michigan's zone game; a bunch of cutbacks opened up last year because he was able to shove a guy past his intended destination.
This is a power play but it's the same principle and from a camera angle that makes it very clear:
The other times Magnuson moves a guy is because he's already engaged with Kalis:
Magnuson was effective at doubling a guy and popping out to the second level.
These are all real assets. They are offset by what I described as a "lack of oomph" after the Indiana game. Magnuson is not likely to get drive in a one-on-one block, and occasionally he ends up looking a bit… finesse.
That play was an outlier but I don't have anything in the way of a one-on-one drive block in an entire season of clips. This is an area he should get incrementally better in since he's got another year of weight training behind him; the time for big leaps forward is likely past.
Not everyone is as indifferent as this space was. CBS NFL draft analyst Dane Brugler called him a "legitimate NFL prospect" and "one of the top ten senior offensive tackles in the country."
...moves with a smooth shuffle and wide base, transferring his weight well in his kickslide to mirror edge rushers. He stays low off the snap and prefers to use his hands to control the point of attack to out-leverage and out-power defenders. Magnuson is able to secure downblocks and anchor at shallow depth, driving his legs to finish in the Wolverines' power offense.
I disagree with this take, but it's out there. NFL.com's Chad Reuter told Mike Spath that Magnuson could work his way into the first or second round with a good 2016; I disagree with that take as well… but it's out there.
Magnuson was relatively advanced mentally a year ago and will benefit less than some of his compatriots from increasing familiarity with the offense. Improvement should be clear but not transformative; a good goal is for Magnuson to move beyond Just A Guy status, get on the All Big Ten team in a very down year for the tackle spot conference-wide, and get drafted late.
[After the JUMP: the biggest question mark on the team. And Jabrill Peppers! (Not really. But maybe!)]
Jim Harbaugh is the first person to admit he's obsessed with football. Everything else is secondary. This is a man who traveled to Paris with his wife, went to a Mexican restaurant that appears to be decent but by no means world-renowned, and declared it the best restaurant while also boiling down his personality into a damn near perfect tweet.
I"m not a food critic, merely a blunt instrument who only knows football. In my opinion this restaurant is the Best! pic.twitter.com/oIdvpemrIn
— Coach Harbaugh (@CoachJim4UM) July 15, 2015
Harbaugh is a blunt instrument. He doesn't get sick. He doesn't take holidays. He's a jackhammer. We know this.
Harbaugh also has strong ties to the military. One of his oldest, closest friends is retired Marine colonel Jim Minick, who now serves at Michigan's director of football operations. He has a well-documented history of bringing in military officers to speak to his teams. He stops by Omaha Beach while on vacation. He welcomes servicemen into his office and genuinely looks more excited to take a photo with them than vice versa.
Which brings us to yesterday. Harbaugh emerged from the fall camp submarine—his term; he's also referred to it as a "bunker"—to address the media for the first game-week press conference of the season. Harbaugh is well-known for his unpredictable, off-the-cuff answers in pressers (not to mention on Twitter). We have a "jim harbaugh says things he probably shouldn't" tag, and the proprietor of this site has described him as "being himself at maximum volume at all times" on multiple occasions.
The odds that Harbaugh had the time or inclination to seriously ponder Colin Kaepernick's protest of the national anthem before the press conference are exceedingly low. This is a football coach known for being way more football-obsessed than even the average football-obsessed football coach. He's briefly emerging from three weeks of fall camp and its four-hour practices and endless film study to talk about the Hawaii game. He's probably aware of the basic details of Kaepernick's protest, but that's not anywhere close to his primary focus. He's thinking about his team, preparing for Hawaii, and not letting on anything about the ongoing quarterback competition.
[Hit THE JUMP.]
|Henry Poggi||Jr.*||Khalid Hill||Jr.*||TJ Wheatley||Fr.*||Jake Butt||Sr.|
|Bobby Henderson||Sr.*||Henry Poggi||Jr.*||Devin Asiasi||Fr.||Ian Bunting||So.*|
|Michael Hirsch||Jr.||Jabrill Peppers||So.*||Zach Gentry||Fr.*||Nick Eubanks||Fr.|
A few years ago we split tight ends from the WR post and fullbacks from the RB post, figuring that under Brady Hoke there would be enough of them to warrant it. We even split guys into various categories because a tight end is not just a tight end. Then Jim Harbaugh came in. After an internal struggle this site has decided not to split each one of these columns into its own post, but it was a near thing. Those columns are:
- FULLBACK: a man with a steel plated head who runs into linebackers, gets
two50 carries in his career, and has six catches. See: Kevin Dudley, Sione Houma.
- H-BACK: A "move" tight end who motions all about, rarely lines up on the actual line of scrimmage, often goes from fullback to a flared spot or vice versa, and operates as more of a receiver than the fullback. Must be a credible threat to LBs; ends career with 40 catches. See: Aaron Shea.
- TIGHT END: Larger than the H-back, the tight end is a tight end who is actually tight to the end of the line. He comes out, lines up next to a tackle, helps him win blocks, and clobberates linebackers at the second level. He goes out into patterns as well, and may end his career with 40 catches himself. See: AJ Williams, Jerame Tuman.
- FLEX: Big enough to play on the end of the line credibly. Agile enough to play H-back credibly. Not great at either. Capable of splitting out wide and threatening the secondary. Sacrifices some blocking for explosiveness. Can be a prime receiving threat. See: Tyler Eifert, Jake Butt.
And of course many of these people bleed into other categories. Think of these position designations as Gaussian distributions in close proximity to each other.
So. These are the categories. The men who, uh, man them are many and varied and in one case the bar-none best in all the land. Let's start with him.
TIGHT END AND FLEX
opponents will call Butt dastardly this year [Fuller/MGoBlue]
In keeping with this site's tradition of dignified reserve, last year's preview claimed Jim Harbaugh called Jake Butt an "Ertz/Fleener Voltron" based on this quote:
"Jake is as good a prospect as we've coached at the college level," Harbaugh said. "We've produced a lot of great players in college at the spot and it's vital to our success."
And lo, he pretty much was an Ertz/Fleener Voltron. Per Pro Football Focus he graded out better than any tight end in the country as a receiver. Survey says: yup. I sort catch opportunities into four bins: routine balls, challenging ones, crazy ones, and uncatchable ones. Butt was a perfect 36/36 on routine balls, an outstanding 10/12 on challenging balls, and 3/3 on circus catches. Meanwhile Butt's enormous catch radius and excellent route running tend to move opportunities into easier categories. Only eight times last year did a Jake Butt target get filed uncatchable. (I don't count balls thrown away in the general vicinity of a player.) That means 83% of the time Jake Rudock tried to hit Butt, Michigan moved the ball. Butt targets averaged over 11 yards a pop. Voltron achieved.
There's still no better example of Butt's prowess than the touchdown from the opener where Jake Rudock first explored the wonders of the #buttzone:
Unless it's this sensational one handed catch against Rutgers in 2014:
Jake Butt can make your wrong-ass wrong throws of wrongness into something so right.
Even so, after eight catches in the opener Butt's production fell off. Over the next six games a struggling Rudock only hit him 14 times downfield for a measly 133 yards—there was a 44-yard screen that Harbaugh conjured in there as well. Butt's a tight end. Sometimes he's covered, sort of, and Rudock didn't look for him.
Then Harbaugh beat the stone-cold fact that a covered Jake Butt still isn't covered into Rudock's brain and production took off. Butt had 28 catches in the final six games and 376 yards. That's double the catch rate and triple the yardage. Much of that production returned to the magical land where only Jake Butt frolics:
In addition to his pterodactyl-like catching radius and Wilt Chamberlain hands, Butt's athleticism allows him to shake safeties with his routes...
...and occasionally split them after the catch:
Or just flat outrun a corner. An Indiana corner, yes. Still, this is a guy who had a 70-yard screen against OSU as a freshman and drew this praise from an anonymous Big Ten player even before his breakout junior season:
"We played them late in the year, and [Butt] was someone that was really tough to defend. He's incredibly athletic. He made a catch against us that not that many receivers even make, so he has great hands."
You could not draw up a better receiving tight end.
As a blocker... I mean... he's a great receiver. I say this somewhat seriously. Opponents have to treat him differently than a normal tight end, and the run game benefits from it. Against OSU Jabrill Peppers picked up a seven yard chunk largely because he looked like he'd throw to Butt for a moment and that was enough for two OSU players to freak out.
When it came to making actual contact with the opposition, Butt was decent. Middling. Okay. He was very much a finesse blocker, and this was good enough given the strictures his presence put on the opposing defense. This isn't a brutal finish; it's good enough:
[Butt is on the right side of the OL]
That is kind of the cap, though. Get him soloed up against a defensive end and it'll go like "tight end versus Chris Wormley" most of the time. In UFR his run contributions came out moderately positive against the lesser teams on the schedule and negative against likes of Utah, BYU, MSU, and... uh... Rutgers. The bowl was a nice step forward but repeatedly caving in the edge of Florida's defense could be interpreted as a motivation issue for the Gators. Pro Football Focus tastefully omits mention of his blocking when they reference him because he came out negative on the year.
Remaining upside in this department is limited since he's going from his third to his fourth year. What remains is probably more about the mental side of the game than a sudden surge in ability like AJ Williams had. He'll get a little stronger and a little wiser; what you see is close to what you're going to get.
That happens to be a guy who is going to break Jim Mandich's all-time TE receiving record, a guy guaranteed to be off the board by the end of the second round of the next NFL draft. Jake Butt is a captain on a team with Jehu Chesson. I mean. Harbaugh:
"From day one, Jake Butt is an A++ guy as a player. We're in a meeting or in an install and I see him on the edge of his seat sitting through a two-hour meeting and he's communicating with guys next to him. He's interpreting for the younger guys. He has pizzazz."
Butt's about to be the best tight end in Michigan history.
[After THE JUMP: Ol' Skillet Hands and friends.]
David and I didn’t have to travel far to scout our first game of 2016, as Corey Malone-Hatcher’s St. Joseph squad traveled to Michigan Stadium to face off against Kalamazoo Central as part of the three-day-long Battle at the Big House. St. Joseph started out slow, holding a 3-0 lead at halftime of a plodding back-and-forth contest. The second half, however, was a different story entirely, as Malone-Hatcher played a big part in St. Joseph’s 23 unanswered points; he got to the quarterback in the end zone on the second play of the half, forced intentional grounding that resulted in a safety, and the flood gates opened from there.
Malone-Hatcher finished with the kind of stat line you’d expect from a top-300 prospect: 10 tackles, four sacks, five TFLs, and one forced fumble. If you threw in QB pressures his stats would be even more impressive, as he was able to get into the backfield almost at will. It’s worth noting that he was able to accumulate those numbers while often deployed out of position at MLB; he certainly won’t be playing there in college, but he was able to tear through the middle of the line when asked to blitz.
[After THE JUMP: the highlight video and scouting report]
Hello. This post is sponsored by XFINITY, which is a space company. They'd like to take you to Mars—
It's a cable company.
Ah, so it is. Good catch. Back in my day we had to watch television on big stone tablets, but if you're an on campus student you can sign up for free(!) streaming of live sports, including BTN, to any of your gadgets. Off campus students can get both TV and internet service for $79.99 a month with no contract. Non-students, also known as "sad adults," can check out what's described by XFINITY as the "immersive X1 system"—are we sure this isn't a space company?
Fine. Can check out the immersive X1 system here.
[NOTE! This section uses the UFR catch chart. Passes are rated on a three point scale for catchability. 3: routine. 2: challenging. 1: crazy. There's also a zero for times when the player was thrown to without any chance of a reception.]
This is a 1. [Bryan Fuller]
|Amara Darboh||Sr.*||Jehu Chesson||Sr.*||Grant Perry||So.||Jabrill Peppers||So.*|
|Moe Ways||So.*||Drake Harris||So.*||Jabrill Peppers||So.*||Chris Evans||Fr.|
|Eddie McDoom||Fr.||Kekoa Crawford||Fr.||Nate Johnson||Fr.||Drake Johnson||Sr.*|
Michigan returns the entirety of a receiving corps that was amongst the best in the country by the end of the year. Last year's preview issued both inside and outside receivers a "2" in one of a few posts that were insufficiently optimistic about Harbaugh player development. That was accurate for a bit what with Chesson's inability to get on the same page with Jake Rudock and Grant Perry's freshman deer-in-the-headlights start; by the end of the year Chesson was putting the Florida secondary to the sword and Perry was juking guys for touchdowns on the goal line.
I have no reason to put this in the post but refuse to delete it [Seth]
Chesson enters this year a player highly anticipated by NFL types, usually named one of the top five wide receivers in the country whenever someone deigns to put a list together. Meanwhile, Harbaugh has spent the last several months swearing up and down that Amara Darboh is the team's best receiver. Per anonymous Big Ten players they're kind of a big deal:
“two receivers that they have, I think they are arguably the best duo in the Big Ten.”
Also Jake Butt exists. Whoever ends up taking snaps at quarterback is going to have a good time.
OUTSIDE RECEIVER: OUT OF AFRICA, INTO ENDZONES
Time is rapidly dwindling for Tom Rinaldi's soft-focus feature on Michigan's all-African-refugee starting WR corps; it says here that by midseason their collective performance will demand one. I wish I could bet on things like this.
Let's start with JEHU CHESSON, whose single-season performance took off like no other Michigan receiver in recent memory. Last year's edition of this preview said it was "anyone's guess" who got receiver snaps other than Darboh and spent a big chunk of its time talking about Chesson's vicious run blocking. This was because Chesson was coming off a 14-catch season during which he was "imprecise" and had a Darryl-Stonum-like ability to turn reasonably well-thrown balls downfield into adventurous incompletions. Drake Harris was given nearly-equal billing based on a torrent of practice hype and a relative silence regarding Chesson.
A couple of games into the season it seemed like nothing much had changed. After the Oregon State game—in which Chesson failed to adjust to a deep ball and picked up a bad offensive pass interference call—I said he was "just not consistent enough."
Here began a parabolic upward curve that ended with The Assassination Of Vernon Hargreaves By The Nice Person Jehu Chesson. Entering this season Chesson is hyped as a potential first round pick by CBS, NFL.com, and Sports on Earth. That is some kind of trajectory.
The breakout came in two stages. Against Maryland he had his first career four-reception game. He brought in a couple quick posts despite getting hit on or actually before the catch and burst open on another couple deep routes. He was overthrown on one and couldn't bring in a tough over the shoulder catch on the second. The latter was on Chesson—he didn't take the fastest path to the ball because he misjudged its flight—but all was forgiven on an eyepopping end-around:
Over the next few weeks Chesson established himself as a regular, productive receiver. From the Maryland game to Rutgers five weeks later Chesson had 16 catches, exceeding his previous season high. The 66-yard touchdown you see above was trumped by a kickoff return touchdown against Northwestern. I started comparing him to Steve Breaston. Chesson had a ton of catch-and-run chunk plays last year thanks to his speed; against Northwestern he impressively got the corner on Anthony Walker, the fastest LB in the Big Ten:
"I really feel like Jehu has everything it takes to be a great player, a great pro player," Harbaugh said ... "The only thing he was missing was tracking the deep ball and making those deep ball catches."
The lasting memory of the Utah game was a sure touchdown just evading Chesson's fingertips because he slowed down. While I thought that was the right play since he'd burned his man by yards, the lack of comfort and communication between QB and receiver was costly. There was a drop or two in there as well.
Chesson was the beneficiary of the Indiana defense and Jake Rudock's late season surge. He went off for over 200 yards, 64 of which were on a telepathic Rudock strike between four defenders. But even if you provide an Indiana discount, this was a new level for Chesson. He adjusted to a Rudock punt downfield...
...and on fourth and goal he went up and secured overtime despite getting nailed by two guys. Yes, that was just Indiana, but Chesson added 100-yard days against both Ohio State and Florida to end the year. The Assassination Of Vernon Hargreaves By The Nice Person Jehu Chesson caught eyes nationally, and while yes it's nice that Chesson beat a top 15 NFL draft pick deep twice, for my money that wasn't even the best thing he did in that game. My vote goes to this incompletion:
Chesson also had a spectacular over the shoulder catch while getting interfered with. Reasonable people can disagree on which of the five spectacular things Chesson did against Florida is the best one, and there is your massive improvement in a nutshell.
How much of this was massive improvement and how much was simply being given opportunities Rudock was not affording him earlier in the year is unknown. You have to wonder what his season would have looked like with a locked-in Rudock from the drop. He wasn't any less open early:
Add in a few of those early bombs and expectations this year would be truly out of control.
Or possibly just plain accurate. Chesson has everything you want in an elite receiver. You can heap expectations on Chesson and he'll be fine with it. Chesson's an A+ dude committed to The Team The Team The Team:
Asked if he put in papers to seek information from the NFL draft advisory board this winter, Chesson nearly started laughing.
He says he's more focused on wrapping up his degree in May and finding a graduate program to enter for next year.
"Maybe it was naive, I don't know," Chesson said with a smile. "It's great to have individual success, but that's not where I get my happiness from. If I don't play and I see other guys being successful, that's great. If I feel I can help the team win, anyway I can help I'll do it."
His speed is unquestioned, and occasionally subject to absurd hype.
"People don’t realize just how fast Jehu is, said UM tight end Jake Butt. "He’s easily a 4.3 (40) guy. He might even run in the 4.2s in Indy.”
While that's only possible in the land of handheld stopwatches, Dane Brugler asserts that Chesson's a "loose athlete with galloping speed" and a "a legitimate fifth gear," and he's judging with an eye to playing in the NFL.
He's a terrific blocker. Chesson's proficiency in this department is such that you probably know what gif comes next...
...and there was little to no dropoff even as he emerged into Mario Manningham 2.0. Against Rutgers he wrecked a DE:
Michigan frequently motioned him closer to the tackle box and used him as a blocker against linebackers, generally with success. (They also lined him up as a tight end on occasion, but he almost never actually blocked in those cases.) He had 28.5 positive run points to just 8 negatives, and while a chunk of those positives were for what Chesson did with the ball in his hands every NFL scout goes out of their way to praise his work without the ball. ESPN:
Excellent effort as a blocker. Leaves it all on the field. Takes good angles and busts his tail to get into position. Big and strong enough to sustain blocks once in position. Throws his body around in order to make a block when he can't get into good initial positioning downfield. Love watching this guy play the game.
His hands are solid to good—36/38 on routine catches and 9/14 on challenging ones a year ago. He's 6'3". He's not a technician yet but if he continues on his current path it won't take him long to get there. (Brugler: "prone to body catches and needs to add polish to his route tree.") That's the last box to check.
His trajectory is straight up and he's got the physical and mental ability to scrape his ceiling. He's going to be great as long as someone's throwing it to him. All Big Ten and off the draft board by round two, it says here. The huge numbers required for postseason awards are probably off the table given the diversity of weapons Michigan has.
[After THE JUMP: Peppers! (Was addressed as a running back and is not in this post!)]
Last week when we talked to you, you said one of the things you were working on was getting your head around at the right time. From a technique perspective, when is the right time to get your head around?
“When you’ve got a receiver under control. When you understand that he’s not doing any other route except for a fade, and that’s just going off your instincts, too. Just knowing that, okay, I feel like it’s time to turn my head around. Just being in phase, being in the hip, and going up and being a playmaker.”
So part of that is just experience?
“Yeah, and watching film. Honestly, that helps a lot, just seeing if they like back-shoulders or if they just like the normal fade, stuff like that. So just going up there and understanding what formations those guys like to do that and when they like to do it.”
One question I have is about off coverage. I know you play press man most of the time, but from a fundamental perspective, in off coverage what’s the most important thing? When I was talking to Coach Zordich earlier in the year he said in press you look at the belt buckle, then--
“It’s still the eyes. Your eyes are the most important thing in football, and just to watch the waist because the waist doesn’t really move. It’s understanding where your end points are and your keys and stuff like that and just knowing what to do. Just watching him and then using your tools to succeed.”
Is the corner’s first step more important in press or in off?
“The first step? In press, honestly. When you talk about the first step, if you misplace your steps in press that’s the difference between a breakup and a catch. In off coverage, I believe that it can be the same thing, honestly, but it’s more critical in press.”
Hawaii has one receiver who’s 6’5 and some receivers who are 5’10. I know you can’t say who you’re going to be matched up on, but in general when you have some guys who are really tall and some who are shorter, does your technique change at all?
“It could. You could be a little bit overaggressive with the bigger guys because they have a lot more surface to put your hands on and then a lot of times they’ll be a little bit slower than the little guys. A smaller guy, you’ve just got to be patient and move your feet and stuff like that. Yeah, you have to gameplan and understand who you’re checking.”
With some of the younger guys on the roster, guys like David Long and Lavert Hill, what’s impressed you most about where they’ve come from the beginning of camp until now?
“The way they learn, honestly, and just how fast they learn and have picked up the playbook, and that’s really what it is. I think that’s helped both of them.”
What about other guys in the corner group like Stribling and Jeremy Clark?
“Just experience, honestly. Having those guys play last year a whole bunch of snaps that really helps them, and just getting a feel going out there and playing.”
Welcome back! This is my semi-regular feature where we track the secondary ticket market and tell you when to buy or sell. My credentials for serving as your ticket advisor are I'm cheap and have been scrounging tickets most of my adult life. This does not make me an expert, so I lean on data and other experts.
The method is I check in every few days on TiqIQ (which collates all the smaller markets), Stubhub, and Craigslist (Ann Arbor and Metro Detroit), then post a price per ticket for two or more seats together. Then when I have enough data to say something I check in with our ticket partners at TiqIQ and ask them what the data mean.
One of the things I learned last year is saving a few bucks here or there on 2 tickets is interesting, however I could really save readers some money if I started tracking the group ticket market (4 to 10 people).
Let me learn for a bit longer before I start giving real advice here—historically I have only bought through the Alumni Association (which, $70 on your membership this year is going to save you more than that if you ever go to an away game), or there's that one time I paid face for 10 seats together to watch Denard shred Bowling Green, and wound up selling off the inevitable cancellation/girlfriend is too drunk extras for $10 apiece. No, the people who requested tickets initially didn't feel they should pay for them when they chose not to come that morning. If you're tasked with buying for your group this year, I'm sorry. We here at MGoBlog salute you. Also buy in July or early August. Seth tells you this on August 30th.
[Hit THE JUMP for the beariest market I've ever seen for an Indiana ticket in a bull pen]
“Senior captains for the 2016 season: offense, Jake Butt and defensively Chris Wormley. Thrilled with the leadership on our team right now. from the senior class and our younger classes. I think a lot of deserving candidates, but what a great honor for Jake Butt and Chris Wormley. I think they will represent our team very well.”
Game notes didn’t have a depth chart. Can you shed any light on the quarterback competition, at least?
“It’s been very good really from day one, the competition at the quarterback position. And the play at the quarterback position has been very good. I feel like it’s been improving as well, daily, weekly. All the quarterbacks are playing at a very high level.”
Just to follow up to that, do you know who your starting quarterback is right now? Do you expect to say before the game on Saturday?
“Yeah, I do—we know who our starting quarterback is, yes. And yeah, I’ll say who our starting quarterback is before Saturday. I didn’t say I was going to say it to you, who our starting quarterback is.”
What is it about Jake and Chris that you think will make them good captains?
“Well, they’re two of the hardest working guys. Two of the best players on the team. They both have a real great way of being good teammates. They don’t build themselves up and put others down around them. They both have that quality of building up other guys around them and making themselves smaller, and when you do that you make yourself very big indeed in the eyes of everybody, in the eyes of the whole world and the eyes of the people that are on your team.
“In so many ways: how they talk to the young players, how they coach the young players. I’ve caught Jake Butt in the act of helping the young tight ends on several occasions. Caught Chris Wormley giving advice and tips to the young defensive linemen, Rashan and Ron [Johnson], so that’s…I think that speaks volumes when I catch guys doing that.”
[Long pause as mic gets passed around. Just as someone’s about to ask a question, Harbaugh thinks of something else to add.]
“The good thing about our captain vote is it’s strictly voted by the players. All players that have been on the team for a year who really know the candidates for being captain. Coaches’ votes do not count and freshmen votes don’t count, so it’s the guys who’ve really been in the practices and the meetings and the trenches and the workouts year round that vote on the captains. That’s why it makes it such a great honor. That’s why it’s such a thing that means so much to all of us, to the team and to everybody involved. It’s your fellow teammates. It’s the players on your team, your peers, that are voting and making that assessment.”
When you have several worthy candidates for the quarterback position, what are the things that matter to you when you’re making that decision, when you’re trying to choose?
“Really all the guys haven’t played in the games in terms of game experience a whole lot. Each has game experience and has had game experience, but here game experience and…so, want to see the things that would really translate to the game in terms of moving the team, moving the offense, putting drives together, making first downs, converting third downs, getting the team into the end zone, avoiding the turnovers and the mistakes that hurt drives and keep points off the board.
“That’s been the major criteria. We’ve looked at everything, but that above all on the list is what we’ve been trying to evaluate in the practices. As I said, they’re all getting better and doing everything that we ask. Great understanding of the offense and what they need to do to be successful so been pleased.”
[After THE JUMP: the Kaepernick quote (including some important pauses), throwing gas on the Bredeson/freshmen hype fire, special teams info, and a little Hawaii scouting]
Jim Harbaugh Is Different, Part 347
The San Francisco Chronicle has a lengthy feature on the number one prospect in the country, Antioch (CA) RB Najee Harris, an Alabama commit who's also considering Michigan. As he has throughout the process, Harris keeps the state of his recruitment under wraps, but he did put forth one of the better Harbaugh recruiting stories I've seen:
On one of his two visits this year to Antioch High, the former 49ers coach sat in Principal Louie Rocha’s office, his feet propped on Rocha’s desk and his cap pushed back from his forehead as he chewed on licorice.
When Harris walked into the office, Harbaugh animatedly declared, “You’re a beautiful young man!” The room burst into laughter. He subsequently told Harris he should pursue a career in movies.
“It was kind of funny how he said it,” Antioch head coach John Lucido says. “It made Najee comfortable and kind of broke the ice with everybody.
Harris had more to say about Harbaugh. While I wouldn't read too much into it, I'd definitely check out that full article.
[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of the roundup.]
NOPE [Bryan Fuller]
[New bolded player rules: not necessarily returning starter, but someone we've seen enough of that I'm no longer talking about their recruiting profile. Extant contributor.]
|FEATURE BACK||Yr.||SHORT YARDAGE||Yr.||3RD DOWN||YR.||SPREAD H||YR.|
|De'Veon Smith||Sr.||De'Veon Smith||Sr.||De'Veon Smith||Sr.||Jabrill Peppers||So.*|
|Ty Isaac||Jr.*||Kingston Davis||Fr.||Drake Johnson||Sr.*||Chris Evans||Fr.|
|Drake Johnson||Sr.*||Ty Isaac||Jr.*||Karan Higdon||So.||Drake Johnson||Sr.*|
|Jabrill Peppers||So.*||Kareem Walker||Fr.||Ty Isaac||Jr.*||Ty Isaac||Jr.*|
Last year was more of the same from a Michigan running back corps that had slowly devolved since the moment Mike Hart left. Upticks from Brandon Minor and Fitz Toussaint were more than offset by yards eschewed, random running, that year Toussaint couldn't pass block a soul, and a steady stream of Michigan discards who blew up as soon as they landed on another team.
Large sections of your author's time were spent fighting with people about how bad it was or was not, so here's Dane Brugler on De'Veon Smith:
His vision and run instincts tend to run hot/cold, leading to questionable decisions, and with his lack of explosive traits, Smith needs to be more decisive and trust what he sees. He tends to leave you wanting more due to his marginal burst and instincts, but there is a place at the next level for Smith due to his power, ball skills and upside as a blocker.
It was pretty bad… and then it got better. Smith's outstanding Citrus Bowl was the exclamation point on a mid-season turnaround that looks a lot like those Chesson and Rudock experienced. It wasn't as dramatic, but it was there. I'm going to whisper the next sentence: it almost kind of looked like someone had figured something out.
Running back coaching matters? I want to believe.
THE MAN THE MAN THE MAN
After consecutive years where this preview listed options at all three roles above in an almost but not quite entirely arbitrary fashion, Michigan enters the season knowing who their first-choice back is: DE'VEON SMITH. They know who their short-yardage back is: De'Veon Smith. They know who their third-down back is: De'Veon Smith. They think he's good enough to put him in the bin with Amara Darboh and Jourdan Lewis and all the other veterans who don't need spring contact.
Survey says... eh, maybe. Smith's bravura Citrus Bowl against some tough, if potentially disinterested, customers was the exclamation point to a rollercoaster season. If you don't want to read the rest of this section here it is in 15 seconds:
Smith abandoned his pulling guard, disappeared into a pile of bodies, was still upright seven yards later, got caught from behind, shook off a defensive back, got caught by the same guy again, and shrugged him off once more like so much lint on his varsity jacket. Few sixty yard touchdowns in the history of Michigan football have been as likely to cause the coaching box to exclaim "what are you DOING?" the instant before the breakthrough.
That was Smith's 2015. For every shattered defensive back left trembling in a puddle of his own making...
...there was a truck lane ignored.
Last year's UFRs invariably contained a book-length subsection on the running backs and the yards they made or, more often, set on fire. As the lead back Smith came in for the plurality of the discussion. Depending on the week this discussion was either generally positive and hopeful...
/spittle shields at 70% and dropping
Actually… I got nothing this week. I thought the backs did well. I complained about a lead zone run last week. Michigan didn't block it well; Smith mechanically ran into the gap he should go in if they in fact did block it well. He ate a DT for minimal yardage. I didn't care if Smith actually got anything on the play, I just wanted to see him see what was going on in front of him and put a foot in the ground to give himself a chance.
He did that on this one:
That cutback doesn't look like it'll amount to much when he makes it but Michigan gets on some blocks and Smith runs through some guys and it's a nice gain. If he'd gotten swallowed by an unblocked LB back there it's still the right cut.
...or blackly grim:
I feel like this is going to lead into another running back diatribe.
Are they really diatribes?
Large portions of last year's preview focused on Smith's tendency to run at random, which outlets other than the Michigan obsessive bits of the internet picked up on:
The hope was Harbaugh and Wheatley could get Smith moving in the right direction more often, and for most of the season that was dashed.
But the frustration I experienced was not limited to Smith. Everyone who took more than a dozen or so carries made at least one mindbogglingly bad cut, from Drake Johnson to Ty Isaac to Derrick Green to Sione Houma. That's widespread enough to seem like a coaching issue, and Smith's trajectory confirms:
[UFR charting for ballcarriers is another spot where zero is bad. Zero means you got what was blocked and nothing else.]
|1||Utah||5.5||7||-1.5||0||Cuts late let M down.|
|2||Oregon State||15.5||4||11.5||0||4||Brutal Legend|
|3||UNLV||2||8||-6||0||Two very bad plays and not much to make up for it.|
|6||Northwestern||7.5||1.5||6||0||On just 8 carries.|
|7||MSU||5||5||0||0||2||Grinder; a bit frustrating with the cuts again.|
|10||Indiana||4.5||2||2.5||2||2||Frustratingly slow sometimes but made up for it with power.|
|11||PSU||9.5||4||5.5||3||+2 blocking, +2 on catches, and then +3 late, which fits a pattern discussed below.|
|12||OSU||7.5||7.5||0||1||Made a significant number of yards himself. Zero pass pro minuses.|
|13||Florida||15||2||13||0||1||I be like dang|
That is a veritable late-season surge. Smith came in for some clucking after the PSU game since I didn't care for three of his 13 carries, but in the context of the last five games that's the outlier and being good at running is the trend.
This was clearest in the bowl game. Smith probed for holes, showed off a Mike Hart-level backfield stutter, and fired off a decisive backside cut on his first three carries. The stutter's probably the most impressive but the cut is the most important:
That's vision, and I was floored as it continued for an entire game against the #5 S&P run defense:
And this continued! Presented with a DL penetrating almost to the handoff point Smith cut off his OL's back and blew through an arm tackle. On the three, Smith turned negative two yards into two by juking two dudes and running through a couple tackles. Even on certain runs where it looked like he'd screwed up, the tape revealed he was trying to make the best of a bad situation only to find that there was no relief elsewhere. It took me a couple takes to realize that this was Smith avoiding a wholly unblocked LB in the hole:
As I said in the table above, he's probably better off running right at the guy for a few yards but I prefer Smith seeing trouble and adjusting even if it doesn't work out. Early in the second half Smith cut to the backside of the line and got hewed down early because a safety blitz prevented Darboh from getting to the guy. That's an RPS minus; without the playcall Smith is ripping off another backside cut. Even with it if Cole had cut off penetration a little better Smith can attack the S head-on, and that usually ends badly for the DB.
At that point I hadn't done the OSU game and wondered if that was a one-off; now that the entire picture is in view it's obviously not. I mean… it's kind of a Rudock trajectory. It wasn't quite as obvious since Michigan tried its hardest to avoid the defensive lines of PSU and OSU, but it's there. That's why Smith was placed amongst the revered elders during spring.
So. The dude remains a nuclear-powered icebreaker. The number of tackles he blew through was truly impressive, and even when he was in fact being tackled piles had a tendency to lurch two or three yards towards the endzone:
I have literally dozens of these clipped:
Smith grinds out yards after contact better than any back I've seen at Michigan. Yeah, he's slow. Yeah, he's not going to juke a guy in the open field. But in the right situation he can be a killer. That situation is surrounded by very good blocking that delivers him three yards downfield on a consistent basis. Smith will turn that into five or eight or eleven yards better than anyone not named Fournette. Is he going to have that this year? Maybe, maybe not. Michigan should get closer to it.
Smith's peripherals are unambiguously positive. He fumbled just once last year. He was also a strangely effective third-down back, to the point where I called him "King Hippo Vincent Smith." This is mostly because of his consistently excellent pass blocking:
Smith has the oomph to stand up linebackers like nobody since Mike Hart. This was a point of discussion after Penn State, a game in which Smith only got eight carries and still managed to stick out as an asset:
Smith has power and agility and can pick guys up. Even big guys. … Then in this game he added a couple of dumpoffs on which he displayed that fun Smith-vs-defensive backs stuff. On back to back plays at the end of the first half he turned nothing into something, first getting a few when Rudock got nailed, and then plastering a DB across his windshield for a first down:
This is something you can work with.
His eight protection minuses on the season are only twice what Ty Isaac managed to acquire in scattered snaps against Oregon State, and there was a distinct lack of the "team" minuses I hand out when I'm not sure who screwed up. 13 over the course of the season is a really low number and off the top of my head I'd guess that two-thirds could not be on Smith.
As a bonus, Smith is a solid outlet option because of this SAT analogy:
De'Veon Smith : defensive back :: windshield : insect
In limited opportunities he's shown that he's also an asset as a run blocker:
After that game I described him as a "low-to-the-ground 230-pound brick"; after the pass block above I broke my longstanding commitment to pooh-pooh all motivation/effort talk:
I usually assume everyone's going all out all the time and dismiss motivation stuff, but this week I got frustrated with a couple players for a lack of want-to. Smith never lacks that. Smith wants to end you. Even if he's slow and his vision is lacking, that's something.
He's the kind of guy willing to play through just about anything, and that's something Harbaugh has noticed.
Smith is a good bet to be Michigan's first 1,000 yard back since Fitz Toussaint. He's got a half-season of being pretty good and has more upside than you'd expect because so many of his issues stemmed from an unfamiliarity with the offense and running back basics. Wheatley:
"(Now we're trying to) get guys like De'Veon and Ty Isaac (and Drake Johnson) to what I call a mastery level. Progressing past the things we did last year."
It says here that Smith's 2015 is a better version of his second half. Michigan will rotate him a bunch to keep him as healthy as possible—his pounding style is tough on him and caused him to miss chunks of multiple games—and this will keep his counting numbers from attracting national attention, but his YPC should take a big step forward along with his reputation amongst Michigan fans.
[After THE JUMP: Jabrill Peppers! And other guys, but also Peppers!]