gambling establishment etc
So: everyone and their twitter feed has been pumping out confirmations/assertions that
- the initial reports of the divisions are accurate,
- Michigan and Ohio State will be left at the end of the season,
- the other protected rivalries are PSU-Nebraska, Iowa-Purdue, Wisconsin-Minnesota, Michigan State-Indiana, and NW-Illinois, and
- rumors that cross-division games are just tiebreakers are flatlining.
The only person dropping BREAKING RUMORS to the contrary is Dennis Dodd, who looks like Gollum and can safely be ignored.
Obviously those protected rivals are thoroughly stupid, and Michigan's going to have a tough hill to climb most years, but at least the other historical heavyweights have guaranteed matchups. Iowa and Wisconsin should have been paired with each other to make things even. I guess the MSU-Indiana game is slanted towards MSU but is that ever going to be relevant?
If all this stuff is true, and it's coming from so many different directions now that it almost has to be, Michigan and Ohio State fans can declare Mission Accomplished. At least 80% of the mission. #4 above is more an absence of crazy information than a presence of sane. I would like to see the first tiebreaker in divisions be overall conference record of opponents, even superseding head-to-head, but I don't think that's likely.
Got your torch? Pitchfork? Great:
A person familiar with the discussions says the Big Ten plans to announce Wednesday night how it will break up into two divisions.
The person, who spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because the conference hasn't released the information, says the process of putting six teams in each division was completed on Wednesday.
Random internet people at Frank The Tank's Slant, the unofficial home of expansion speculation are saying this is the breakdown:
IS THE DUMBEST THING IN THE HISTORY OF THE UNIVERSE DIVISION
I'm not vouching for that at all, but I haven't seen anything suggesting people have come to their damn senses and put M and OSU in the same division.
Rating: 4 of 5.
|Mark Huyge||Jr.*||Steve Schilling||Sr.*||David Molk||Jr.*||Patrick Omameh||So.*||Perry Dorrestein||Sr.*|
|Taylor Lewan||Fr.*||Ricky Barnum||So.*||Rocko Khoury||So.*||Quinton Washington||Fr.*||Michael Schofield||Fr.*|
|--||--||Elliott Mealer||So.*||Christian Pace||Fr.||John Ferrara||Sr.*||--||--|
Last year the big stat was Michigan's rushing game over the second half of the season, which went from turrible to solidly above average and hypothetically would have been 30th nationally if they hadn't been flailing around the first half of the season. A 3.5 was offered here after the previous seasons oh-so-warranted 1, and that seemed slightly pessimistic as Michigan firebombed its first four opponents on the ground (sacks, kneeldowns, and bad snaps obscured a 222 yard day against Indiana in game four).
Unfortunately, once the opposition got serious the loss of David Molk for all but three snaps of the Big Ten schedule could not be overcome. The right side of the line resembled Drew Palmisano during the Epic Karma series (hey-o!), David Moosman was not as agile as Molk and had a nasty tendency to chuck snaps anywhere but the quarterback's chest, and snap counts got predictable enough for Michigan State players to commit what seemed like five or so uncalled offsides penalties.
The result was a gradual decline, probably an extra loss or two—it's not hard to see Molk's presence swing at least one of the Iowa, Purdue, or Michigan State games, especially since half of Michigan's negatives in the MSU game were attributed to his absence—and the team's failure to lock down this blog's giddy projections of Michigan's BEST RUSH OFFENSE EVER (since 2000) after the first third of the schedule. The resulting absence from a bowl game has us where we are now, on a rickety boat approaching Niagara Falls.
But, hey, silver lining: Molk's absence last year means everyone this year started at least three games and could be regarded a returning starter if you want to squint at it. Sure, the two guys who tried right tackle last year were wonky enough to provide a redshirt freshman his starts, but… hey… like… whatever. Compared to last year, there's a ton of depth and experience. Compared to 2008, there is a Weisload. (Miss you, big guy xoxo.) Ask Rodriguez:
“Two years ago, it’s not even close,” Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez said. “… Now, we have four or five guys that have started, guys that have redshirted in (Taylor) Lewan and (Michael) Schofield and Quinton Washington that are now ready to play.
“We still have not as quite as talented in the ones and twos as we’d like to be, but we’ll have seven or eight guys when we’re done with camp in a week or two that we’ll feel comfortable playing.”
The interior line looks killer if Patrick Omameh can live up to the cascades of hype he's receiving, and the tackles… well… like… whatever?
Rating: 3 of 5.
After a spring in which already-hyped Taylor Lewan found himself starting at left tackle thanks to Perry Dorrestein's back injury—thus picking up an extra, even shinier layer of hype—you couldn't find a Michigan fan who would have projected him to start the year on the bench. But that's apparently the case, as the two veterans who made the right side such a mess last year have held onto their starting spots by the skin of their teeth. Rodriguez says this is due to considerable improvement…
“Yeah, the upper classman are battling to keep it. (Mark) Huyge and (Perry) Dorrestein have really done a good job in camp. The two young tackles (Michael) Schofield and (Taylor) Lewan have been pretty solid. They’re bigger, stronger and I think that competition has been pretty good. I’ve been really pleased they way Perry and Mark have responded to the challenge and really have their best camps since I’ve been here the last two years."
…but it is hard to imagine him saying anything else. I believe him, but like a lot of spots on the team the returning starters have a long way to go.
|huge whiff on LB|
|fails to cut LB|
|springs Minor TD|
|GOOD TACKLE STUFF|
|on his way to six points|
|huge cutback lane|
|blocking the backside DE|
|BAD TACKLE STUFF|
Your tentative starting left tackle is redshirt junior Mark Huyge. His issues in pass protection started as early as the Notre Dame game, when a Moosman injury forced Michigan to shuffle him inside. He picked up –6 points after being "driven back on multiple plays" on Forcier's game-winning drive and was so shaky against Michigan State that he was pulled for third-stringer John Ferrara; Ferrara "immediately gave up a crushing sack." This caused "So the right side of the line just can't block?" to become a UFR question and kicked off a stretch of ugly protection numbers that would span most of the rest of the season, with Illinois and Wisconsin standing out as late, hopeful exceptions.
By the Purdue game, Huyge's pass protection issues were "the usual" as he racked up a –5 on a day when the offensive line pulled a very poor 14/29 in the protection metric. He did manage to avoid any minuses on an "extremely shaky" performance against Penn State (Dorrestein got a –2). The clips at right are mixed, but since twenty-yard runs always get clipped and zero-yard runs are only taken out when they are important or seem emblematic of something, a 50-50 mix is not a great ratio.
So he wasn't very good last year. There's reason to expect a significant step forward, though. He enters the year at tackle and won't get bounced back and forth between different positions. He, along with the rest of the offensive line, got swoll in the offseason. After going into 2009 at 288, Huyge is now a strapping 306 pounds, and as a who-dat recruit on the offensive line you can expect a bigger leap forward between redshirt sophomore and junior years than, say, a tailback. And perhaps most importantly, he's held off the charging Lewan.
Perry Dorrestein: GOOD AT HUGZ
Right tackle Perry Dorrestein, meanwhile, started the year off as Huyge's backup and only drew into the lineup when injury forced him to, first temporarily against ND and then permanently for the Big Ten schedule. His first extended action came against Indiana and their surprisingly talented defensive ends. He did not fare well:
PROTECTION METRIC: 22/32, Koger –1, Brown –2, Team –2, Dorrestein –5.
That is not good. That is bad, and all of it save the "team" category came when Indiana defensive ends pwned the opposition. That might be understandable when you're a pass-catching tight end or a tailback, but Dorrestein was responsible for a lot of the Forcier chaos and didn't do much to justify Mark Huyge's move inside. Huyge's struggled in pass protection himself; unless Patrick Omameh surges into the starting position he lost in spring—not likely at this point—it's going to be those guys the rest of the way and the protection will be dodgy.
He picked up a –4 in the ugly Michigan State game, coming in for the same "right side of OL? More like the right side of oh noes!" criticism Huyge did. He was strictly a tackle, never moving inside.
|authoritatively pancakes him.|
|seals the playside DE|
|gets off the ball|
Dorrestein, like Huyge, threw on a bunch of weight in the offseason, but since he's going from 306 to 321 that's less obviously positive. He wasn't the guy struggling at the back of the OL group in the fall scrimmage—that would be Quinton Washington—but 321 seems a little hefty for Rodriguez's offensive style. It's not nearly as important for tackles to have the crazy agility the interior line needs, but those backside DTs need to be chopped down by backside tackles if cutback lanes are going to open up. I thought this might signal an end to the tackle competition before it began, but this is obviously not the case.
For what it's worth, the tackles had good days against Illinois and Wisconsin, the latter against an intimidating defensive line. This was a significant factor in Forcier's excellent passing day against the Badgers; it could have been better but Forcier still had to "get used to the idea" that the pass protection could be, like, good. It was hard to tell who was at fault in the Iowa game, when Iowa stunts consistently fooled the Michigan OL.
So that's all kind of scary, but it's worth noting that last year I was full of consternation about Mark Ortmann, whose junior year saw stuff like this go down in a single game…
Ortmann(-2) totally smoked by a blindside rusher… Ortmann(-2) took a poor angle downfield, though, and the MLB beats him, prompting Threet to pitch it despite a State LB having decent contain. … Ortmann and McAvoy just run by an MSU linebacker … A three-man rush; Ortmann's guy spins inside of him and dives at Threet's feet [to sack] … Ortmann(-2) beaten pretty badly [on a sack].
…and left me asserting "I'd be surprised to see Ortmann keep his job." Ortmann not only hung on to it, he played well the whole year, hitting the preview's projected upside of Adam Stenavich. If Michigan had been good and stuff he might have made an all-conference team (second team, but still). The moral is that linemen can develop at any point and that old ones are usually good ideas.
This year will be a big test for Greg Frey, who's generally well-regarded by the fanbase and can now show his mettle by improving the returning veterans in the same way he turned Ortmann into a pretty good Big Ten player.
Lewan left, Schofield right
Taylor Lewan is currently a backup but it wouldn't be surprising to see him supplant someone for one of the starting tackle jobs during the season. He's one of those guys who had an avalanche of recruiting hype actually followed up by at-practice hype—far from a given for offensive linemen—and, as mentioned above, he was sufficiently impressive in spring for visions of freshman starter Jake Long to dance in Michigan fans' heads. This site's take from spring;
On the outside there's been some shuffling with Dorrestein and Huyge flopping left to right at times. This may be due to Taylor Lewan's (right) quick emergence. He's been called an "obvious future star" and "reminiscent of Jake Long." Reports are still conflicting on his readiness but all agree that his upside is as rapturous as the recruiting gurus promised; it seems like it's matter of time before he claims the left tackle spot. That timeframe may be September or it may be next year. The most recent move suggests the move may come sooner rather than later. Flipping Huyge to the right seems to be an effort to get Michigan's best five on the field. If I had to bet, I'd go with Lewan as the starting LT against UConn.
The timeline is going to be at least a little less aggressive than that, but he's also got Jibreel Black's vote:
“The best pass blocker I went against is probably Taylor Lewan, most definitely. Running wise, I would have to say (Steve) Schilling.
Lewan's recruiting profile constantly references Jake Long—constantly sees other people reference Jake Long, that is—and sooner or later it seems likely he'll be a star. Since he isn't actually Jake Long a more realistic timeframe may be the Omameh one where the redshirt freshman year sees some sporadic playing time and starts when needed due to veterans getting injured or not performing, leaving the breakout for next year.
Lewan's classmate Michael Schofield is the backup right tackle (though either tackle going down will see Lewan enter the lineup). A well-regarded and athletic but relatively slight four-star prospect coming out of high school, Schofield's put on 25 pounds over the last year and now stands at 293—his father posts enthusiastically on Scout about how none of his clothes fit any more. Despite that gain, Schofield is probably another year or two away from playing time. In the fall scrimmage he was one of the few linemen to draw Rodriguez's ire (pad level, naturally).
Somewhat frighteningly, there are no other scholarship backups, not even true freshmen. In the event Angry Michigan Secondary-Hating God gets bored and starts picking off tackles like it's going out of style, the last-ditch option is either moving Omameh outside or bringing in Ricky Barnum, who's practiced everywhere his first two years at Michigan.
Rating: 4 of 5.
|seals Ethan Johnson|
|kicks out DT|
|executes tough reach|
|excellent scoop block|
|gets a cutback lane|
|cuts the living hell out of LB|
|blocks no one|
|shoots upfield immediately|
|slanting DT into backfield|
Steve Schilling, now a candidate for the Brooks Bollinger Memorial Eighth-Year Senior Award, returns for a fourth year as a starter. Unfortunately, none of those years have been super awesome. Persistent pass-protection issues at right tackle (perhaps understandable since Schilling's high school team almost literally never threw the ball) forced him to move inside last year, where his pass-protection issues were mitigated… but not exactly quashed. He came in for some worry after the Purdue game:
… man, the pass protection issues are not letting up and the second-most vulnerable guy other than whoever the right tackle is has been Schilling, which isn't good. You can sort of understand why a two-star sophomore who had only MAC offers is struggling at tackle. Schilling's at an easier spot and is a five-star junior. At this point he's probably not going to live up to the hype. That's not to say he's bad, but pass protection breakdowns from the LG spot are really frustrating, especially when there are many incidents where Schilling doesn't lose his guy but gets shoved so far back in the pocket that Forcier has nowhere to go when someone comes tearing around the right tackle.
Schilling did do well in Genuinely Sarcastic's run charting last year and get Black's vote for best run blocker, so he's not exactly bad. He's just not what people expected when he was the hotness picking Michigan over USC out of Bellvue, Washington.
He should take another step forward as a senior, obviously, and finish out his career a solid player. Reasonable expectations are being able to hold up against bull-rushes better and pick up more stunts, though that latter issue could be due to the problems at center once Molk went down.
|you go to ground now|
|sees it and jets|
|on his way to six points|
|gets outside the tackle|
David Molk didn't play in spring and had a green jersey through part of fall camp, so the question foremost in your mind is about his health. The good news is that he's basically Mike Martin when it comes to holding a guy out:
Is David Molk healthy now?
Coach Rodriguez: “Yeah. He scrimmaged yesterday a little bit. We didn’t have him go the whole time for precautionary reasons, but he got a few good series in and did pretty well.”
Hallelujah. Since he missed most of last year there's not a lot more to go on than this site's assessment of his redshirt freshman season, which was rapturous after the Penn State game:
He got dinged later in the year for being small, but in a system like this where he's reach-blocking all day his agility is an asset. Time and again against Penn State he successful executed these blocks, springing people into the secondary. Against Notre Dame he did the same thing.
The issues are obvious, though: too many missed blocks, and too many blocks where he's just not strong enough to deal with his man. But he's a redshirt freshman; strength should come.
As far as last year goes, he did pick up a couple of holding penalties against Western, resulting in a small cluck. The response of Rodriguez, who called him "one of the team's best players," and the offense when he went out with an injury indicates just how important he was to the team.
Healthy, back in shape, and ten pounds heavier than he was going into last year—twenty pounds heavier than he was the last time he got a lot of playing time against quality opponents—Molk should be the team's best lineman and in the conversation for All Big Ten at the end of the season, with a Rimington finalist kind of year his max upside.
Last but probably not least when it comes to the starters, redshirt sophomore Patrick Omameh is set to bust out. He was the Lewan of last year, the recipient of a torrent of practice hype who fans were surprised to see on the bench, even more surprised to see him still on the bench when Molk went out, and further surprised still when he danced his way into the starting lineup as a guard when he'd been hyped up as the next great Michigan tackle for going on two years. As late as February I was saying things like "Omameh has always been regarded a left tackle prospect."
This wasn't actually wrong:
But following weeks of pats on the back from his coaches, Omameh, in part of a widespread shift along the line, got the start at right guard in UM's third-to-final game of the year. Not only was it his first game action at the position, Omameh had never even worked at right guard in practice.
Why would Michigan make such a weird move? And then why would they stick with it? Well:
Yuck. Is there any hope for the OL going forward?
Well, Omameh had a very good day, and not just for a redshirt freshman. His agility is as advertised:
He was sealing DTs with Moosman all day; he seemed to have a grasp on pass protection, too. He was so obviously good that he's now your starter at RG, no questions asked, as Huyge and Dorrestein fight it out at right tackle. That's an important step forward for him. If he's languished on the bench as Ferrara got the start the hype on him would be heading towards Grady Brooks territory; as it is he's beaten out some more experienced options and played well as a redshirt freshman. You can now put him in pen somewhere on next year's line.
|great, Hart-like run|
|out on the MLB.|
|kicks the DL down the line by himself|
|pulls Omameh around|
In Michigan's offense the guys who can get 15 yards downfield and put a hat on a guy need to be guards. I can't tell you how many times I've UFRed a play where Michigan has creased the opponent's line and looks set up for a big play only for the guard releasing downfield to do an ole and for Michigan to get three yards. (Here's a Picture Pages from '08 that provides an example.) Last year when Huyge was forced inside his strike rate was iffy, as you can see in his "downfield no" section. Omameh and Schilling provide the potential for Michigan to have two guys who can get blocks downfield, sometimes way downfield, and turn those 3, 4, and 5 yard runs into 10, 15, 20, or more. That's why Omameh's inside.
There he's been getting buckets and buckets of hype, from here and anywhere else you want to look. Like most of the other guys on the line he's packed on the muscle, now checking in at 299 after last year's 276. The thing I remember most from the spring game was Omameh not only sealing but pancaking Renaldo Sagesse, a senior and decent Big Ten player, on one particular zone stretch. If this is true…
"The only way I can tell I'm heavier is by stepping on the scale," Omameh said. "I still feel like, and move like, the way I did when I came in. The strength is evident when I play."
This will be fairly brief since no one on the interior has seen game time. At center the primary backup is Rocko Khoury, a middling three-star recruit who was passed over last year in favor of the crazy shuffling. Since he was a redshirt freshman that's not a huge black mark. The ease with which Mike Martin was crushing him in the fall practice is slightly concerning, but hopefully Martin will be doing that to all manner of opponents.
At guard, redshirt sophomores Ricky Barnum and Elliott Mealer plus redshirt freshman Quinton Washington are the primary backups, with Barnum and Washington the top two guys on the depth chart. All came in fairly highly touted and have enough experience that seeing one on the field—probably Barnum—won't be cause for too much alarm.
Senior John Ferrara has fallen to third-string and will probably be limited to special teams; solitary freshman Christian Pace is guaranteed to redshirt.
[Editor's note: "F/+" is an advanced metric put together by Football Outsiders that combines a drive-centered efficiency metric with a play-centered one, adjusts for schedule strength, and comes up with a number that seems more accurate than just yards. For example, Big Ten offenses and defenses last year:
That seems more right than a measure of offensive efficiency that had Michigan's offense 9th in the league last year because they didn't play two below-average defensive teams. More about this later. The numbers below will differ from the numbers above slightly since the scatterplot is just Big Ten play and the below numbers take nonconference games (but not I-AA ones) into account.
You can get your fill of F/+ and everything else with the Football Outsiders Almanac, BTW. On with Tim's show:]
|Ohio State at a Glance|
|2009 Offense Rank||68|
|Offensive Starters Lost||2|
|2009 Defense Rank||5|
|Defensive Starters Lost||5|
|Program F/+||45.3 (3rd)|
The story on offense for Ohio State this season starts and ends with Terrelle Pryor. If he can take the next step as a quarterback, the skill players around him, including wideouts DeVier Posey and Dane Sanzenbacher and running backs Dan "Boom" Herron and Brandon Saine, will see him to put up big numbers. Returning five offensive linemen from the conference's third-best rush offense should help pave the way and keep Pryor's jersey clean.
All of this depends on Pryor's continued development as a passer, and a willingness from Jim Tressel to open the playbook for his star. Pryor's "breakout performance" in the Rose Bowl was much more a product of the latter, as Terrelle's 37 pass attempts was by far the most of his season, and while his efficiency was above his season average, it would have ranked 44th in the nation - behind many player's without Pryor's threat of running (or supporting cast).
On the other side of the ball, the Buckeyes lost a quartet of defenders to the NFL - though that hasn't stopped them from reloading in the past. Along the front line, defensive end Thaddeus Gibson took off for The League a year early and Doug Worthington graduated from OSU. All-Big Ten candidate Cameron Heyward (a first-team selection last year) will be relied upon more heavily; noted workout warrior John Simon will step into the middle. The Buckeyes lose linebacker Austin Spitler, but Ross Homan heads a talented group that shouldn't see too much dropoff. Despite losing Kurt Coleman, the Bucks should start three seniors in the secondary.
|Iowa at a Glance|
|2009 Offense Rank||89|
|Offensive Starters Lost||6|
|2009 Defense Rank||10|
|Defensive Starters Lost||3|
|Program F/+||21.2 (22nd)|
Like the Buckeyes, Iowa has an enigmatic quarterback who is looking to make everything come together. Ricky Stanzi was a pick-6 machine last year, though he was a killer in crunch time. His supporting cast won't be nearly as strong as Pryor's, with four offensive linemen shuffling out of Iowa City, including first-rounder Bryan Bulaga. Stanzi's main options in the passing game are Darrell Johnson-Koulianos and converted QB Marvin McNutt. Tight end Allen Reisner replaces Tony "oft-injured but routinely open by 25 yards against Michael Williams" Moeaki.
A strong D is responsible for the Hawkeyes' optimism going into 2010. Defensive end Adrian Clayborn was a terrorbeast in the Orange Bowl, and he returns along with tackles Karl Klug and Christian Ballard, with sophomore LeBron Daniel manning the other end. The linebacker corps takes a major hit with the losses of Pat Angerer and AJ Edds, and the secondary lost Amari Spievey early to the NFL. Aside from the defensive front, this unit could be looking at a step back after finishing first in conference play a year ago.
|Wisconsin at a Glance|
|2009 Offense Rank||30|
|Offensive Starters Lost||1|
|2009 Defense Rank||17|
|Defensive Starters Lost||4|
|Program F/+||19.5 (28th)|
The Badgers return the Big Ten's best rushing threat and last year's offensive player of the year in John Clay, Clay's entire offensive line from 2009, and one of the conference's most efficient passers in Scott Tolzien. Tolzien's efficiency may have been a product of being a mere complement to a dominating rush game, but with the Badgers are looking to repeat last year's gameplan he can do that again no problem. Deep threat Nick Toon headlines a good receiving corps, though tight end Garrett Graham has moved on to the next level. The offense, as per usual, will rely on enough play-action passing to keep defenses honest but the majority of Wisconsin's yardage will come on the ground.
The Badgers' defense was decent last year and possibly underrated. Wisconsin held Ohio State's offense to just 10 points last year, but lost thanks to three non-offensive touchdowns from the Buckeyes. Defensive End O'Brien Schofield and tackle Jeff Stehle are the big losses up front for Wisconsin, and linebacker Jaevery McFadden is gone after leading UW in tackles each of the past two years. The rest of the D is mostly intact, including last year's Big Ten Freshman of the Year in linebacker Chris Borland, and safety Jay Valai, who seems like he's been around forever. It's the consistency in personnel that has many people projecting the Badgers to finish near the top of the conference, and that's the spoils of returning 19-ish starters from last year's Champs Sports Bowl winners.
|Northwestern at a Glance|
|2009 Offense Rank||40|
|Offensive Starters Lost||5|
|2009 Defense Rank||47|
|Defensive Starters Lost||5|
|Program F/+||1.6 (57th)|
Mike Kafka quietly led the conference in total yardage last year, so losing him to the NFL(-ish) is a big deal. However, this isn't the Northwestern of old. The Wildcats can plug in Dan Persa, a redshirt junior with some experience under his belt. The run game is a much bigger question mark, as the Wildcats struggled on the ground last year. Kafka was the only player with more than 100 attempts, and leading rusher Arby Fields finished with just 302 yards on 3.6 yards per carry. What should help the running game this year is more experience. A green offensive line last year has grown up, which should also mean the Cats don't finish second-to-last in the Big Ten in sacks allowed this year.
Though Northwestern has become a program somewhat capable of reloading, replacing two NFL draft picks on defense is not something they're used to. Defensive end Corey Wootton and corner Sherrick McManus have left big shoes to fill, and safeties Brad Phillips and Brendan Smith have also graduated. That leaves linebackers Quentin Davie and Nate Williams and corner Jordan Mabin to be the stars of the show. I think they'll have trouble living up to last year's experienced defense, which was already in the bottom half of the conference by most measures.
|Penn State at a Glance|
|2009 Offense Rank||37|
|Offensive Starters Lost||4|
|2009 Defense Rank||9|
|Defensive Starters Lost||4|
|Program F/+||40.1 (6th)|
Quarterbacks continue to be a theme among Big Ten teams, as Penn State will have to choose between an unimpressive sophomore, a walkon, or a true freshman to lead their team this fall. Nittany Lion fans are denying it's a Threet/Sheridan situation, but I'll believe PSU has a competent signal-caller when I see him. Of course, the supporting cast will be much better than Michigan's was in 2008, with Evan Royster willing to carry a big portion of the offense. The offensive line has plenty of talent and gained experience last year. Stefen Wisniewski is the headliner there, moving from center to guard. Tight end Andrew Quarless is the only significant departure from the receiving corps, though with a young quarterback, having no security blanket (backup Mickey Shuler has also moved on to the NFL) could be an issue. Penn State is also starting a 6'3" converted guard at left tackle.
The other side of the ball sees serious losses, including a first-rounder in defensive tackle Jared Odrick, and all three starting linebackers. Despite those, Penn State will still be able to field an experienced unit as the new linebackers are all seniors, as are three defensive linemen and both safeties. Even in Penn State's dark years, the defense was good, and that should be the case again.
|Michigan State at a Glance|
|2009 Offense Rank||38|
|Offensive Starters Lost||5|
|2009 Defense Rank||73|
|Defensive Starters Lost||4|
|Program F/+||9.1 (43rd)|
The Spartan offense went from heavily run-biased in 2008 to pass-biased in 2009. With Larry Caper and Edwin Baker coming of age, there's bound to be more balance this year - which should only help Kirk Cousins continue his prolific passing. A couple starters on the the offensive line need to be replaced, along with leading receiver (by a country mile) Blair White, so I'm not willing to predict that the Spartans will be the top offense in the Big Ten, but they should be good or better. Former QB Keith Nichol will try to fill the "white wideout" void, and some people are projecting an All-Big Ten season from him... on the basis of two career catches. Still, there's a lot to work with in East Lansing, and Cousins is the lynchpin of this unit.
The Spartans will be led defensively by linebacker Greg Jones, who rejected an early entry to the NFL Draft to win a Big Ten Championship in East Lansing (or go to the Insight Bowl, either one). The Spartans' second-best defensive player last year, end Trevor Anderson, is off to the NFL, so the Spartans may have trouble replicating the pressure they put on opposing QBs last year. That's unfortunate, seeing as how MSU's secondary was - are you sitting down? - worse than Michigan's last year! Competent aerial attacks should shred the Spartans once more.
|Purdue at a Glance|
|2009 Offense Rank||53|
|Offensive Starters Lost||5|
|2009 Defense Rank||69|
|Defensive Starters Lost||6|
|Program F/+||5.4 (51st)|
Robert Marve is sure getting a lot of hype for a guy who finished just inside the top 100 nationally in pass efficiency last time he played a live down. There's nothing (aside from the four stars next to his name in 2008) that suggests he'll be better than Joey Elliott was last year. Running back Ralph Bolden has a torn ACL, causing him to miss at least part of the season, and his backup, Al-Terek McBurse, has been dinged up during camp as well. The Boilermakers return top receiver Keith Smith, along with a couple other key pieces in the receiving game. They do, however, lose a couple offensive linemen from a mediocre unit, which could mean a step back.
The defensive leaders for Purdue will be a pair of seniors in defensive end Ryan Kerrigan and linebacker Jason Werner. The linebackers should be the same as last year, with Joe Holland filling one of the spots, and Chris Calrino and Dwayne Beckford battling for the final position. The secondary is almost entirely new, as Torri Williams, David Pender, Brandon King, and Dwight McLean are gone. The defense should be a serious weakness of the Boilermakers.
|Minnesota at a Glance|
|2009 Offense Rank||109|
|Offensive Starters Lost||3|
|2009 Defense Rank||63|
|Defensive Starters Lost||8(!)|
|Program F/+||1.5 (58th)|
Adam Weber has had one of the more bizarre career arcs as a starting quarterback you'll ever see, with strong seasons as a freshman and sophomore followed by a disappointing 2009 (last in the conference in passing efficiency) and the threat of being replaced by a freshman in 2010. His struggles over the past couple years coincide with a number of coordinator and philosophy changes on offense for the Gophers, and if they return to more of a spread don't be surprised if Weber is replaced by MarQuies Gray. Running the ball, Duane Bennett should be better than he was last year, as he's had more time to improve from a 2008 knee injury. The top two receivers, Eric Decker and tight end Nick Tow-Arnett, are both gone. Gray might see time split wide when he's not behind center.
The Gophers' defense was middle-of-the-pack last year, and now the three starting linebackers are out the door (with one of the candidates to replace them, Sam Maresh, at a junior college instead of in St. Paul). The defensive backs should be a strength though, with Kim Royston, Kyle Theret, and Marcus Sherels all seniors, though Royston has had health issues with one of his legs. The defensive line was poor last year, and losing Eric Small and Cedric McKinley won't improve that. This defense should be awful.
|Indiana at a Glance|
|2009 Offense Rank||72|
|Offensive Starters Lost||4|
|2009 Defense Rank||88|
|Defensive Starters Lost||7|
|Program F/+||-14.9 (84th)|
The pistol offense has worked out in Bloomington (sorta), as the Hoosiers finished fourth in the conference in passing offense—but they couldn't run the ball at all. Quarterback Ben Chappell and running back Darius Willis both return, forming a solid nucleus, though Willis's top two backups are gone. Wide receivers should be led by Damarlo Belcher and Terrance Turner until Tandon Doss returns from a groin injury. On the offensive line, a terrible unit running the ball loses an NFL second-rounder, and the Hoosiers aren't likely to replace Roger Saffold with an equally-talented player. A few other linemen depart, though not all starters. The offensive line should be the downfall of this offense.
On the other side of the ball, the Hoosiers lose two players to the NFL in seventh-rounders Jammie Kirlew and Ray Fisher at defensive end and corner, respectively. For a unit that finished second-to-last in both scoring and total defense last year, that's not a good sign, as the Hoosiers aren't exactly pumping out draft picks. Also departing are linebackers Matt Mayberry, Justin Carrington, and Will Patterson, along with defensive lineman Greg Middleton. This unit could be historically bad, unless there's a lot of talent that should have been on the field last year.
|Illinois at a Glance|
|2009 Offense Rank||47|
|Offensive Starters Lost||6|
|2009 Defense Rank||91|
|Defensive Starters Lost||4|
|Program F/+||-2.8 (65th)|
Out goes the Juice Williams era, and in comes... Nathan Scheelhasse? The Illini brought in Paul Petrino to be offensive coordinator, so look for a QB-centric, pass-heavy offense. Juniors Mikel LeShoure and Jason Ford should do most of the rushing, but there's little proven talent in the receiving corps. Arrelious Benn, Chris Duvalt, Jeff Cumberland, and Michael Hoomanawanui are all gone, leaving behind little experience—and these aren't the talented prospects Zook was bringing in at the start of his tenure in Champaign. The Illini also lose an NFL pick on the offensive line in guard Jon Asamoah, along with aptly-named fellow starter Eric Block. They gave up a lot of sacks last year, and without the mobile threat of Juice (and with a move toward a downfield passing game), you can probably expect more of the same in 2010.
Defensive lineman Doug Pilcher is gone, as are defensive backs Donsay Hardeman and Dere Hicks, but the rest off Illinois's defense returns mostly intact. Of course, when that defense was dead last in the Big Ten in total, scoring, and pass efficiency defense, there's a legitimate question as to whether that is a good thing. Losing starting DBs off a horrible pass defense means more of the same is probably in order unless the Illini can do a better job getting to the quarterback. Unfortunately, they were - you guessed it - last in the conference in sacks last year. They have talent in the system, and if those players can grow up, there may be room for improvement (along with a return from Martez Wilson). However, there's a long way to go to even reach competency.
Overall rating: 3.
|Punter||Yr.||Kicker||Yr.||Punt Return||Yr.||Kick Return||Yr.|
|Will Hagerup||Fr.||Brendan Gibbons||Fr.*||Martavious Odoms||Jr.||Darryl Stonum||Jr.|
|Seth Broekhuizen||Fr.*||Justin Meram||Jr.*||Drew Dileo||Fr.||Martavious Odoms||Jr.|
|--||--||Seth Broekhuizen||Fr.*||Terrance Robinson||So.*||Mike Shaw||Jr.|
Just don't fumble and we're good. Unless kicker is a black hole, but what's the worst that could happen?
After a spring in which the motley collection of walk-ons assembled to punt managed to keep just one of their attempts on the field of play, it was a relief to see Will Hagerup launch Zoltan-like bombs in the fall scrimmage. While he's likely to go through some growing pains as he adjusts to college, mgouser Wonk put together a diary demonstrating that punter is a spot at which you can throw in a true freshman without much worry. A three-year study of freshman punters sees them land around 73rd nationally—just a smidgen below average—with a 39.3 net.
So your average freshman punter checks in just below average, and Hagerup is not your average freshman punter. He got the rare third star from Rivals and is their #1 true punter after a senior year in which he actually bettered Zoltan's numbers:
As a senior, Hagerup punted 22 times, landing seven within the opponent's 20-yard line, and averaging 42.9 yards per attempt. By comparison, Mesko had a career average of 42.5. In a statistic suggesting Hagerup applies adequate hang time to be a factor at the college level, opponents averaged just three yards per return against him.
No word on awesome high-stepping fakes, or disastrous mind-meltdown ones. Rodriguez called Hagerup "a real talent" this fall, then repeated it for emphasis. I'm not saying he's the Space Emperor of Space or anything, but while no one can replace Zoltan in our hearts Hagerup probably won't be far off on the field.
As per tradition when this site attempts to project a kicker it's never seen play, we punt. (HA!) Projecting kickers remains a rube's game. For example, last year this preview expressed "disquiet" because projected starter Jason Olesnavage couldn't beat out mediocre competition in '08, sucked in the spring game, and wasn't the touted freshman Brendan Gibbons. Olesnavage proceeded to go 11 of 15, a 73% strike rate. So we won't really have a grasp on what's going on here until midseason.
Right now the tea leaves are grim things scattered everywhere except the center of the cup, however. Rodriguez has been openly fretting about the situation since spring. An example from Big Ten media days—here Rodriguez is asked what's his biggest concern:
"Probably the kicking game, particularly field goals."
Troy Woolfolk's ankle had not yet been smitten, but even at that point being more concerned with anything other than the secondary (which thankfully finished second) sets off alarm klaxons. More go off when AnnArbor.com quotes Rodriguez saying "guh," which is my line.
But I was pretty guh last year, too, and that worked out okay. Hopefully Gibbons can find the accuracy to live up to his scholarship status; if he can't the silver lining is that Michigan might be forced into correct fourth-down strategy. That's the ticket!
Michigan found its best kickoff returner since Steve Breaston in the form of blazing fast Darryl Stonum last year. Stonum ripped off this critical touchdown against Notre Dame…
…and took enough other kicks out to midfield to see Michigan into the top 25 nationally at #23. Stonum himself was actually better than that; his 25.7 yard average would have been good for 4th if he took back all of Michigan's returns.
Touchdowns are outliers and we should expect Stonum's production to fall back to earth a little bit this year; hopefully Michigan has a better second option and can maintain their above-average production here.
When it comes to punts,
HOLD ON TO THE GODDAMN BALL
was the directive last year. It was not followed very well. This was actually an improvement on 2008, when kickoffs were also 50-50 to be horrible turnovers, but it wasn't very fun. A rotating array of jelly-fingered receivers toured the position last year, with Junior Hemingway's 10 returns for 86 yards and Martavious Odoms's 6 for 54 leading the returning players. (Brandon Graham's punt blocks actually made him Michigan's best punt returner: two for 36 yards and a TD.)
This year it looks like Hemingway has been relieved of duties. The four guys in contention this fall are Odoms, Terrence Robinson, Jeremy Gallon, and Drew Dileo. Gallon reputedly did not seize his opportunity to perform over the summer* and then suffered an ankle injury in fall, Robinson's hands have plagued him since his arrival in Ann Arbor (he was the only player to fumble a punt in the fall scrimmage), and Dileo is a true freshman. Your punt returner by default is Odoms until such time as one of the guys who isn't a fumble-prone starting receiver steps up and takes it from him.
Will that happen? It's 50-50. If it does I wouldn't put it past Dileo to step forth and claim the job. The man himself said he was recruited primarily to return punts, and reports from the fall scrimmage said that he looked extremely smooth doing that. If Odoms makes some bad decisions it won't take Michigan long to yank him.
I suppose here's where we should make mention of Michigan's coverage units. A combination of Zoltan and the spread punt formation made the punt cover guys highly effective, with opponents managing just 5.6 yards a return. I put together a little stat that measures how many yards a team gives back on average (so a punt without a return is zero) and Michigan finished 28th last year despite Zoltan finishing 9th in gross average. That's pretty good; Michigan can probably expect similar.
On kick returns, opponents averaged 22.3 per, which was slightly below average. Stonum's Beanie Bowl-opening KOR TD and some disturbing half-speed practice returns in the fall scrimmage have people worried, but that's scant evidence to suggest last year's kickoff team, which returns largely intact, is going to fall off a cliff.
*(Mmmm David Brandon euphemism.)
Note: the confusion about if Michigan is actually running a 3-3-5 this fall or if it's more of the 4-3 with deathbacker hybrid, or if it's "multiple" or whatever leaves the previewer at a loss when attempting to slot players into familiar roles. I've decided to take Greg Robinson and Rich Rodriguez at their word and will treat Craig Roh like a defensive lineman who frequently fakes playing linebacker and occasionally (or more than occassionally) does. This may be off.
|Craig Roh||So.||Mike Martin||Jr.||Greg Banks||Sr.*||Ryan Van Bergen||Jr.*|
|Brandon Herron||Jr.*||Will Campbell||So.||Renaldo Sagesse||Sr.*||Jibreel Black||Fr.|
|JB Fitzgerald||Jr.*||Richard Ash||Fr.||Terry Talbott||Fr.||Anthony LaLota||Fr.*|
|GET IN THE CAR|
|splits a double team|
|blows past the down-block attempt|
|zips around the center|
|SLASHING PAST OL|
|deep into the backfield|
|darts past attempted down-block|
|does attack on this one|
|drives blockers backwards|
|drives the opposing center back|
Martin blew up against Wisconsin, not that it ended up mattering.
Mike Martin was a promising freshman backup and promising sophomore starter. Now entering his true junior season, it's time for Martin to shed the promise and become the beast he has to be if Michigan's defense is going to tread water this season. With a position switch starter behind him at linebacker and Brandon Graham elsewhere, he goes from sidekick to superhero.
As you can see at right, Mike Martin is at his best using his agility and strength to zip past opposing offensive linemen and do mean things to ballcarriers in the backfield. The clips have a distinct lack of Watson-esque offensive lineman crushing; similarly, much of Martin's high school highlight video features him zipping around, not through overmatched kids. Though he can fight through opposition blockers from time to time and doesn't get blown back often, deploying him as a one-technique nose tackle exposes him to a ton of double teams—most of the highlights above feature him splitting two guys trying to zone him—and limits what he's able to accomplish. A switch to more of a 3-3-5, if that actually happens, will either mitigate this or provide outside linebackers windows to exploit; Martin's iron grip on the NT job is an indication that could be the plan. (More scheme discussion will take place later in the week.)
A quick survey of his UFR results from last year shows a guy who doesn't often end up in the minus column but also doesn't consistently produce like the star he has to be if Michigan's defensive line is going to maintain their productivity of a year ago:
|WMU||5.5||1||4.5||Two great pass rush moves on the interior are most of those points.|
|Notre Dame||2.5||-||2.5||Decent tracking down the run but zero pass rush.|
|EMU||7||1.5||5.5||Much better job getting off blocks this week and more active; this is probably because of the competition. Still, he's promising. Probably needs another year before he's truly an anchor.|
|Indiana||4.5||-||4.5||Indiana could not move him.|
|Michigan State||7||5.5||1.5||Mental issues on the Cousins run and the final Caper run.|
|Iowa||9||4.5||4.5||Demonstrated great agility several times and had a couple good pass rush moves but got crushed off the ball four times, too.|
|Penn State||2.5||2.5||0||Off day.|
|Illinois||7||1||6||No frontside creases all day; too bad about the linebackers.|
|Purdue||4.5||0.5||4||Relatively quiet; not getting much pass rush this year.|
|Wisconsin||12.5||2||10.5||Huge day, especially early.|
This, and the brief snippets of talent from Martin's freshman year when he was a backup to Will Johnson (after he snuffed out Wisconsin's second two-point attempt in 2008 I said he was "already kind of great" as a pass rusher), has seen this blog suggest/push/plead for Martin to slide to the three-tech spot made famous by Warren Sapp and occupied by backfield inhabitants Ryan Van Bergen and Alan Branch recently. In his third year in a college program, Martin has the potential to put up serious numbers if he can find himself one-on-one with sluggish guards. This requires a move away from the nose. It's also not going to happen, so you can put away your fancy dreams about Martin going all Babineaux on the Big Ten and dropping 28 TFLs.
Even so, it's time for Martin to make the same leap Brandon Graham did between his junior and senior years. I can't offer anything more powerful than this wonderfully ungrammatical assessment from Jibreel Black:
You look at the rest of this defensive line and there’s a lot of talent there, but is there anyone in particular that you look at and say, ‘wow man this dude is better than I thought he was? ‘
“Not necessarily better than I thought he was, because I know all of them are good, but when I see some plays that Mike (Martin) makes in practice, I be like dang. His explosiveness, his technique that he uses. You can tell the work that he put in with it.”
I hope to be like dang for large sections of the season.
Martin's reached the point where he's being held out of hitting because he's Mike Martin…
“Defensively, Mike Martin has had a tremendous camp. We limited him yesterday because we know what he can. He has been really good and probably our most consistent defensive player since camp started.”
…he's in good enough shape to crush the rest of his position group when Michigan does post-practice runs, he's an upperclassman with a year of starting experience under his belt… now is the time. I'm not sure if Martin will be on All Big Ten teams after the year, especially at a position at which statistics don't always tell the tale, but I'm confident in asserting he should be on them.
Banks left; Sagesse right
|burst past blockers|
|knifed through the line|
|cuts under his blocker|
The other tackle spot will be manned by the two seniors. Michigan lists Greg Banks first on its UConn depth chart but moved 289-pound Renaldo Sagesse away from the nose tackle spot he played decently at a year ago to back him up; to me this signals an intent to wear Martin out and keep the three-tech/DE spot fresh with constant platooning. We'll address the two as co-starters.
Sagesse and Banks are like senior versions of the two 5'10 freshman corners. They were middling recruits; they've established themselves solid but uninspiring Big Ten players. The closest comparison I can think of in the recent history of Michigan linemen is Rondell Biggs, the other guy on the ridiculous 2006 line.
|blasts the LT back|
|forcing a cutback|
|shoots past the center's block|
|both blow into the backfield|
Last year Sagesse was a "mysterious entity locked on the bench" after arriving at Michigan from the wild hinterlands of Quebec pegged to provide "functional depth." He actually did a bit better than that, as the clip reel shows: nothing negative enough to be worthy of pulling off, a few impressive plays, albeit against lower-level competition. The worst thing I've seen Sagesse do to date is get sealed and pancaked by Patrick Omameh in the spring game but we'll just chalk that up to Omameh being wicked sweet.
I was openly campaigning for Sagesse to get more playing time:
So this Sagesse guy is okay?
He hasn't seen much time but I have him down for +5 in that time with no minuses. Given the depth situation at DE and RVB's seeming inability to hold up—not surprising at 6'5" 270 something—doesn't it make sense to try Sagesse out as a starting NT and slide Martin over to the 3-tech? RVB can then back up the 3-tech and Graham. The line adds 30-40 pounds and doesn't have to roll out a walk-on when Graham needs a blow.
Van Bergen found his footing on the interior and that never came to fruition, but I remained on Sagesse's side to the point where I was campaigning for him to start this year, again so Martin could slide out.
Last year both started out well, with Sagesse picking up a total of 9.5 to the good against just one minus in the three nonconference games before Indiana; Banks had plus 6.5 and minus 0.5 in the same timespan. But from there both went radio silent, playing regularly but getting little in the way of up or down recognition. Sample reactions from the Big Ten schedule: "quiet," "meh," "played little," "also played little," and "one nice play for naught."
This isn't a terrible thing for a sparely-used defensive tackle, especially the nose spot Sagesse was at. Ideally you'd like some plays from the interior, but if Mike Martin is going to provide those you can deal with the other spot being functional. On the '06 Line of Doom, sophomore Terrance Taylor wasn't a star and that worked out okay. It is concerning that I didn't see either play in the Purdue game and Sagesse remained totally absent for Wisconsin.
Michigan's formations will go some way to determining which player gets more time. In three-man lines Sagesse is clearly going to be a pass-rush liability as a defensive end, but when Michigan goes to four (or brings in the "double eagle" package with the DEs lined up over the opposition guards) Sagesse's got more heft. I wouldn't be surprised to see both lifted for Jibreel Black or maybe Craig Roh on passing downs.
Take your pick of adjectives: workmanlike, yeoman, gritty, etc. Expect something okay here; the upside is low, but so is the downside.
And now everyone's worried about Will Campbell since his '09 cameos were unimpressive and he's stuck behind Adam Patterson on the depth chart. He's back on the upswing with his weight after losing a ton between the end of his senior year and fall camp, adding 15 pounds from '09 to '10. He now checks in at 333, the heaviest guy on the roster.
That could be good as Michigan starts putting good weight back on Campbell after his freshman year slim-down. It could be bad. Rodriguez complained about the conditioning of a "small handful," and Campbell seemed like an obvious candidate for the wingless doghouse. He wasn't in it, but that doesn't mean Rodriguez is pleased with his conditioning:
"He got a lot of reps in the spring with Mike Martin [out], and I think he got better. he's still got some things to work on, but he's a big, strong guy. Depending on what kind of shape he's in when we start will determine how quickly he can battle for that job.
"If he's in great shape when we come in, he can battle to start. If he's not, he'll struggle until he gets in shape."
On the field, Campbell lived up to his reputation as a very large guy in need of serious technique work. I've seen a lot of zone stretches by now and rarely has a nose tackle eaten it like he did against Iowa:
I'm not at the point where I can tell you the ten different things Campbell did to get blown four yards downfield, but I can blather on about pad level: man, pad level. Am I right?
That happened about midway through the year and Campbell virtually disappeared after it; the only other clip I've got on him is what seems in retrospect to be an excessively harsh evaluation of a big Baby Seal U run on which Vlad Emilien got pancaked and Kevin Leach blasted out of the play, too. But even so he did get sealed by the BSU center all too easily. There wasn't a lot of buzz about Campbell coming out of spring, and he failed to live up to this blog's expectation of a regular job in the rotation with an "an eye on maybe starting when Michigan goes bulky for games against ground-pounders like Michigan State and Wisconsin." As the Iowa cameo showed, that would have been a bad idea.
HOWEVA, planet-spanning defensive tackles take time, as West Texas Blue demonstrated in a diary running down the fates of Campbell's DT classmates. None of them did anything save OU's Jamarcus McFarland and (sigh) Arkansas's Dequinta Jones. Most redshirted, like Campbell should have. Since he's third team right now don't expect much more than short-yardage duty early in the year, with the hope being he can emerge into a competent Martin backup by midseason,
Meanwhile, Adam Patterson's odd Michigan career has taken another turn in his fifth and final year: he's now a nose tackle. An easy top-100 recruit out of South Carolina whose selection of Michigan was almost as surprising as Carlos Brown's, Patterson's been locked on the bench his entire career. My assumption was that the nose move ended any chance he had at regular playing time, but he's now second on the depth chart at a position that sees a lot of rotation. He'll play; I don't think he'll be much good. The dropoff after Martin will be similar to that Michigan experienced when Graham came off the field, though less severe since Martin won't be Graham and the backup is at least a senior.
There are a couple freshmen, about whom we know nothing that hasn't been covered by their recruiting profiles. Pahokee native Richard Ash went from 263 pounds about a year ago to 320 on the fall roster; with concerns about his fitness and drive dogging his recruitment he is a guaranteed redshirt as Barwis attempts to whittle him down to something approximating the player who briefly had Florida and USC offers before the weight got too sloppy. Everything the blog compiled on Ash is located at his recruiting profile.
Finally, Terry Talbott is a three-tech in the making. He's got the inverse issue: listed at 248 on Michigan's roster, he'll need a year and 20 pounds before he's viable. Neither appeared on the UConn depth chart; redshirts beckon.
Strongside Defensive End
RYAN VAN BERGEN
|DRIVING BACK OTHERS|
|blows the RG back,|
|gets under Stewart|
|gets playside of his guy|
|tearing around the corner|
|drives LG three yards back|
|blows into the RG|
|blasts into the backfield|
|CRUSHED BACK HIMSELF|
|drives RVB out of the hole|
|Tackle blocks down on RVB|
|Ezeh(?!?!) follows him|
|trouble holding up|
|AGILITY FOR DE? POSSIBLE|
|deep into the backfield|
|slices through two blockers|
|again through the line|
|splits a double team|
|gets playside of his guy|
|tackling(+1) at the LOS|
Brandon Graham is currently racking up defensive rookie of the year hype in Philadelphia, but the position is seemingly in good hands. Redshirt junior Ryan Van Bergen slides outside after a year starting at the three-tech defensive tackle spot. He was productive there, acquiring 40 tackles, 6.5 TFLs, and five sacks in his first year as a starter. He even tacked on four pass breakups, presumably on bat-downs at the line of scrimmage.
His season in UFR was okay for a DT:
|WMU||5||0.5||4.5||More effective on review; did not give ground, albeit against a MAC team.|
|Notre Dame||2.5||3||-0.5||Looked a lot like an out of position DE.|
|EMU||1||2.5||-1.5||Not holding up very well against doubles.|
|Indiana||8||1||7||Did virtually nothing until the 85-yard run, then single-handedly killed the next drive.|
|Michigan State||9||4.5||4.5||Great day against an MSU OL that planned to turn him into dust and could not, but irresponsible pass rushing cost Michigan more than once.|
|Iowa||5||-||5||Very competent against a day of single blocking, which got him a lot of half points.|
|Penn State||4||3||1||Also not a great day.|
|Illinois||2||-||2||Not a major factor. [here this just becomes true so i say it again]|
|Purdue||2||2||0||Not a major factor.|
|Wisconsin||1||1||0||Not a major factor.|
Disclaimers about UFR being a DL-friendly grading system apply; even so, that's pretty good for a redshirt sophomore entering the lineup for the first time. The drive after Indiana's "doomed from the start" 85-yard touchdown you may have seen on the sidebar when Jordan Kovacs or JT Floyd was discussed was probably my favorite series in last year's UFR process. Michigan desperately needed a stop and RVB provided:
Do you know what I did when Indiana had that 85 yard run?
I thought to myself "I bet Ryan Van Bergen missed a check and will spend the rest of the game personally destroying the Indiana offense."
No. I threw the cat at the TV and vowed to find Jim Herrmann and find a way to blame it on him.
His hulk up after that play continued through Michigan State (when he was "going from a non-entity to a guy who's making plays") and Iowa, when he "only got a +5" because of an array of half-points. Unfortunatley it evaporated on a meh day against Penn State and for the rest of the year Van Bergen was hovering around the zero that is not a good day for a DL. I think some of that has to do with the rest of the defense: Illinois just kept going outside and Wisconsin passing over the middle, leaving few opportunities for him to make plays.
The move outside is a complicating factor, though it remains to be seen just how much of one it is. In the clips at left there's a section in which RVB gets MASSEY'D back; understandable since at 6'6", 271 there's only so much you can do to avoid getting blown back on every play. The ratio of good to bad there is encouraging, but more encouraging for his future as a defensive end is the section on agility and those five sacks. As a bonus, before he slid into the starting lineup he was Graham's backup.
Van Bergen knows the position, was recruited to play it, and is entering his fourth year on campus with a season as a solid starter under his belt. Least useful phrase ever: he's not going to be Brandon Graham. Mitigating phrase: but he should be solid. At a spot more amenable to pass rush and with more experience, RVB should brush up against double-digit sacks and see his UFRs climb into the consistently good realm inhabited by, say, Tim Jamison as a senior.
Here's a change: instead of massive attrition and injury bringing a walk-on into play, at this spot a walk-on's unavailability is a problem. Will Heininger tore his knee up in spring practice and will miss the season, leaving Van Bergen backed up by… some guys… I guess.
The guy who most prominent in the fall practice was true freshman Jibreel Black, a stocky 6'1" 262 pound pass-rush specialist who was issued the just-vacated 55 and has a special section in his recruiting profile in which people either say things that sound like Brandon Graham or just flat-out compare him to probably the best defensive end ever to play at Michigan. Here's Rodriguez:
“He wears No. 55 and looks a little like BG at times. But he’s got a burst and some natural athletic ability. I’ve been really pleased with his progress.”
No pressure, kid.
Rodriguez further called out Black as "the freshman lineman most likely to have a chance to play." Black won't be much of a factor as a true freshman; hope for a year in which he holds his own when RVB needs a breather and maybe makes a couple of MAC offensive tackles look silly.
Redshirt freshman Anthony LaLota is also in the mix for playing time behind Van Bergen; he was a high four-star to the recruiting sites (recruiting profile) before a disappointing week at the Army game saw his rankings take a significant hit. He still checked in as a Rivals 250 guy and was just outside the Scout 100, so it wasn't too bad. Unfortunately, his height and weight were significantly overstated by the same sites and when he hit campus two inches and 30 pounds short of expectations, he was destined for a redshirt. He got that redshirt, got up to 256 by fall of last year, and is now listed at 270—possibly time to play, possibly in need of another 15 pounds since he's a couple inches taller than Black. The coaches have been radio silent on LaLota (a Google news search turns up zero, whereas Black is getting some pub), so it might be the latter.
Former tight end Steve Watson is also here, but he's pretty much David Cone on defense. I imagine if push comes to shove LaLota will see the field before he does despite the initial depth chart. That seems like a nod to seniority.
|IRRESPONSIBLE BUT EFFECTIVE|
|blows up WMU draw|
|making an ankle tackle|
|JUST THE FORMER|
|dropping into coverage|
|spinning inside of the OT|
|Incredibly open dig/seam|
|hit Cousins as he throws|
|excellent on the stunt here|
|murders this dead|
|reads the pull|
|gets outside and avoids a cut|
|two guys double Roh|
Roh against Purdue.
Craig Roh is the Denard Robinson of the defense: a highly touted recruit that should have spent his freshman year redshirting and sucking up Breaston-level practice hype before debuting as a promising but still so raw redshirt freshman in 2010. Since it's the Age of Doom, Roh had to start as a 225 pound defensive end in the Big Ten.
The results were mixed, trending towards negative. When opponents got a solid block on him he was done, something Michigan tried to prevent by slanting him extensively. That worked well enough, but since there's only so much you can do with a defensive end that small his pass rush repertoire shrunk from the Swiss Army Knife set that saw Roh rise to become a top 50 prospect on at least one site to the hope he could run around guys.
There was one major positive the clips at right don't show: he was seemingly better in coverage than Michigan veteran linebackers, able to track tight ends up to 20 yards downfield and surprisingly capable of doing something about it if and when the ball arrived. The hope at linebacker is that Roh's advanced coverage skills were Greg Robinson's doing.
But without further adieu, Roh's '09 numbers, keeping in mind that UFRs are slanted towards defensive ends and getting a small positive is treading water there:
|WMU||5.5||1||4.5||Pretty good debut; showed a variety of pass-rush moves including a sick spin.|
|Notre Dame||2||3||-1||Drew a key hold but mostly neutralized. Looked like a freshman.|
|EMU||6.5||3||3.5||A couple of nice plays when EMU put him on the edge and tried to fool or read him. Athleticism should be an asset against zone read teams.|
|Indiana||3||1||2||Not really in on much.|
|Michigan State||4.5||0.5||4||Not getting as much pressure as you'd like, though.|
|Iowa||5.5||1||4.5||Had a couple hurries, used his athleticism well from the backside on a couple runs.|
|Penn State||4||1||3||Got a sack against the real side of the PSU D.|
|Illinois||7||2.5||4.5||Effective slanting all day; not great in pass rush yet.|
|Purdue||6||4.5||1.5||Extensive discussion below.|
|Wisconsin||4||6||-2||Wisconsin was always going to be the team to own him.|
The Purdue game exposed Roh's limitations more obviously than any other. The Boilers lined up in an array of 3x1 sets and got big gains by running right at Roh when he lined up to the open side of the field:
Michigan flipped Graham to that side of the field and Purdue started rolling away from him to the receiver-heavy side of the field, completing a bunch of wide open passes. Michigan flipped back and Roh was again unable to fight through blockers to maintain his edge:
As the UFR made clear, there are a lot of reasons Michigan's defense was so porous last year but running out a freshman defensive end was one of them. The end result:
Roh did some good stuff on slants and was responsible when he had an opportunity to overrun plays, which gives him that modest positive score above, but big minuses in pressure fall mostly on the shoulders of the DEs and when one of the DEs is Brandon Graham they fall mostly on the shoulders of the DE who isn't Brandon Graham. So if you apply a chunk of that pressure metric to Roh, you get a solidly negative day.
This year Roh is better prepared for the rigors of the Big Ten. Rodriguez:
“He played last year at about 225 as a true freshman and did a good job. Now, he is probably closer to 240 to 245 and running just as well if not better. I think that and the experience that he has been out there before, you can see. He’s guy that we want to move around a little bit. Craig is a very active, high-motor player and being able 245-250 pounds is going to let him hold up…especially with those big physical team, starting with the first game.”
Going from 225 to 245 and from freshman to sophomore means Roh should make a greater leap than anyone else on the defense. He came to Michigan with a mountain of recruiting hype based on his diabolical array of pass rush moves and dominating Under Armor Game performance. He's got the hype; he's got the weight; he's got the experience…
Sort of! The catch in the Craig Roh explosion is this niggling move to the 3-3-5, where he's a strongside linebacker:
As Michigan's defense worked more in the 3-3-5 set during spring ball, Roh divided his time between linebacker and defensive line.
"There’s some changes," he said. "I’ve never been in a linebacker [position], second-level, setting up there. Some guys are playing basically the same position they played last year. For me, this is something new and different.
"[Defensive coordinator Greg Robinson] is helping me a lot with the learning curve."
No one's sure how much Michigan will be running a three man line this fall but it will be some, which will give Roh the ability to attack from surprising angles and use his vertical speed to get into the backfield. It will also expose him to play action, counters, and other plays he's not used to dealing with much that can take advantage of the inability to change direction that had everyone projecting him as a defensive end despite being linebacker size. Now, you could just say he'll blitz all the time but that would get predictable; it would also impinge on Jonas Mouton's ability to do the same thing, and Mouton's a guy who has the exact same strengths Roh does. They'll have to split the fun bits where they tear into the backfield.
All this makes it difficult to project what Roh will do this season. A guess: doubling his 7.5 TFLs and significantly adding to his two sacks is a good bet. I don't think he'll be a crazy star just yet, but I expect to be saying the same things about him next year that I'm saying about Mike Martin this year.
It's here more than anywhere else that confusion about exactly how "multiple" the defense is going to be wreaks havoc with position projections. One man's guess at the setup here: Roh will be able to flip from linebacker to defensive end with some aplomb, but his backups are likely to be one or the other.
The defensive-end-ish backup will probably be redshirt junior Brandon Herron, Roh's backup last year. Though he lost his job to the touted freshman he got a regular shift like Sagesse or Banks; unlike Sagesse or Banks his performance didn't register even the brief slices of notability the aforementioned seniors managed. The only clip I got that involves him is a single passing play against Indiana on which he successfully walls off a TE seam, and his UFR notes read "did make one good tackle," "eh," "some good run defense," "nonfactor," "meh," and "eh, ok." You get the idea.
That's not good because of Herron's position, which is supposed to be a source of big plays. As long as a guy like Sagesse holds the fort at his position things are pretty much good. If Herron does nothing positive or negative that's a much greater opportunity spurned. Gradual improvement is likely; Herron will remain a guy Michigan kills time with until Roh can get back in there.
While Herron was out in spring and Michigan was running something approximating a 3-3-5, JB Fitzgerald acted as Roh's backup. The linebacker preview already addressed his shaky '09 performance. As a backup here I imagine Michigan will always be in a three-man line so Fitzgerald can play linebacker; he's never played DE. His best shot at playing time is if Michigan has a passing-down package that sees Roh put his hand down.
A note before we start: this preview relies heavily on the defensive UFRs of last year because there’s a convenient numerical system that does a decent job of summing up a defensive player’s contributions. One caveat: the system is generous to defensive linemen and harsh to defensive backs, especially cornerbacks. A +4 for a defensive end is just okay; for a cornerback it’s outstanding.
|Jonas Mouton||Sr.*||Mark Moundros||Sr.*#||Carvin Johnson||Fr.|
|Mike Jones||So.||Obi Ezeh||Sr.*||Thomas Gordon||Fr.*|
|Kevin Leach||Jr.*||Kenny Demens||So.*||Mike Williams||Jr.*|
As far as massive disappointments go, linebacker outstripped even last year's secondary (which was clearly in trouble from the word go) and the series finale of Battlestar Galactica. With two returning starters entering their redshirt junior years and a hyped senior recruit moving away from the safety spot he could not manage, I was torn between a 3 and 4 last year. As the season progressed and both starters were replaced by their backups only to see those backups flail and the starters re-enter it became clear that something was drastically wrong.
Actually, it didn't even take that long. Even though Michigan won the Notre Dame game the linebacking corps came in for a hiding afterwards:
Words cannot describe how bad Obi Ezeh was in this game. It was a disaster, and this is a guy who's in his third year starting. Maybe the double switch of defensive coordinators has him behind the times for a third-year starter but that doesn't go much towards explaining a –8.5 that would have been worse if he hadn't been turned loose on a couple blitzes. Meanwhile, Jonas Mouton has been negative in both games so far after a promising finish to last year.
And the something didn't seem that mysterious:
Mouton and Ezeh belong to Jay Hopson, and the inside backers are the only guys who belong to Jay Hopson, and they're playing terribly. … Unless the two inside guys get radically better over the rest of the season, I wouldn't be surprised if Hopson was replaced.
The hope is that Hopson's coaching was as ineffectual as it appears—Mouton went decidedly backwards last year after a promising end to 2008 and Ezeh's gone nowhere in two years—and that the move of Greg Robinson to linebackers coach can adequately triage the two years of damage done.
This covers the middle and weakside linebackers since they seem close to interchangeable. Spurs are handled after; the bandit was classified a safety and handled in the secondary preview, the deathbacker is still a defensive lineman.
When The Sporting News's Dave Curtis published an article in early August declaring that converted walk-on Mark Moundros was the player on Michigan's team that needed to "step up" more than any other, that claim was met with derision on the message board. This was well and just because obviously that was insane. A few weeks later, Moundros is the projected starter at middle linebacker and one of Michigan's two permanent captains. Score: Dave Curtis one million, Everyone Else zero.
Moundros is a walk-on and spent last year playing mostly fullback, but his rise into the starting lineup has gone from probable motivational tactic to just plain probable as fall has gone along and Michigan's scrimmages have approached game conditions. In the semi-public fall scrimmage, Jonas Mouton was held out with a minor injury, leaving Moundros to start at MLB as Obi Ezeh tried out WLB. In Michigan's "Beanie Bowl" ones-vs-ones fall run-through, you can see Moundros paired with a healthy Mouton at around 2:00 minutes in the official site's highlight reel. It's too late for his prominence to mean anything other than a likely start on Saturday even if he is listed next to Obi Ezeh with an OR. He's some Rodriguez talking to confirm:
Rodriguez said he was initially opposed to fullback Mark Moundros making the move, but he came around quickly. "I told him I didn't think it made sense, but he said, 'I think I can bring something there'—and he has. It's not only learning the defense and the physical presence, but his leadership. He's going to compete and will be right in the mix based on spring."
This is a fantastic story but also a worrying one. The single clip I've got on Moundros from last year is a nice block on a linebacker in the Illinois game, which you'll note doesn't involve playing, you know, defense. One of this blog's primary heuristics for determining whether you can expect a position group to be good is the "position switch starter," which proclaims that any position group where a guy who played one thing last year is in position to start at another thing the next is always scrambling to control the damage as best they can. [Ed: Holy pants, I forgot about this in re: Cam Gordon, though that move was more foreordained than panicked.]
This comes in varying levels of severity: moving a weakside linebacker to the middle is not a big deal. Flopping sides of the ball is. For example, in 2008 when Michigan moved defensive tackle John Ferrara to guard and started him that was a definitive sign the offensive line was in shambles. In this context, "sparsely deployed walk-on fullback to starting middle linebacker" is as much of a flashing sign that says DOOM as anything I've ever seen.
On the other hand, during the Illinois game last year Ezeh actually ran out of a hole Juice Williams was about to enter with the ball so he could chase after a running back. It looked insane, causing me to dig out the "run away" bit of "Janie's Got A Gun" and the fake Magic card you see at right. By the end of the year whatever hope remained for Ezeh was vestigial indeed; merely having options other than him could maybe possibly hopefully slightly improve matters?
This is admittedly a faint hope, but merely going from whatever that was last year to okay would be a major step forward. Moundros is seriously pushing Ezeh at least gives the defense another bullet in the chamber. For what it's worth, I talked to a just-graduated walk-on in NYC would called Moundros a "beast" and thought he was at least physically capable of the job. Production from this spot should improve; Ezeh won't get worse and anyone who replaces him will be better since he's still around.
On the weakside, Jonas Mouton returns for his third season as a starter. In 2008 he started off wobbly (he actually spent the Utah game backing up Marell Evans, who is now playing for Hampton) but found his feet in the Big Ten season and looked for all the world like a guy ready to blow up. Last year's season preview approvingly cited his UFR chart—solidly positive in every Big Ten game save Michigan State—and proclaimed him "easily Michigan's best linebacker," "an excellent, explosive blitzer," and even "surprisingly stout when it comes to taking on fullbacks and even guards" before predicting a breakout season.
That didn't happen. Mouton's '09 via the lens of UFR:
|Notre Dame||3||8||-5||Major regression from last year; often went into pass drops without bothering to see if it was a run.|
|Indiana||7||8||-1||Surprised he came out this close to even. Major culprit on a few big plays.|
|Michigan State||7||8||-1||Exact same numbers from last week as he alternates great plays with killer mistakes.|
|Iowa||6||9||-3||Three weeks in a row: alternates great plays with killer mistakes.|
|Illinois||5.5||9||-3.5||The usual at this point. Excellent athlete, many mental mistakes.|
|Purdue||-||6||-6||Did this in like a quarter of playing time.|
|Wisconsin||6.5||11||-4.5||Jonas Mouton: big positive, bigger negative.|
Instead of breaking out, Mouton regressed. His '08 numbers were the inverse of the above, usually a hair above zero with the occasional big positive. He was lethal in the Fandom Endurance III game against Northwestern; the only times he was lethal in '09 were to his own team. By the Iowa game the pattern was established, with Mouton turning in a series of excellent plays unfortunately outstripped by his tendency to run himself out of plays and get lost in zone drops.
This kept happening until Mouton, like Ezeh, found himself on the bench after taking a series of angles so bad they were immediately apparent even to the dedicated amateur. There was this one against Indiana, but even that can't live up to whatever this was:
|opens up cutback lane|
|desperate diving tackle|
|way too far inside|
|fails to get outside|
|first enormous bust|
|wide open receiver|
|ride the TEs downfield|
|digs out a tough INT|
|into the backfield|
|screaming downhill at this|
|blows through his blocker|
It was around that point that JB Fitzgerald started getting more time, if only so the coaches could get in a proper row with Mouton on the sideline. Fitzgerald quickly proved himself just as liable to bust and Mouton got his job back, but only by default.
Unlike the situation at middle linebacker, it seems within the realm of possibility Mouton's light goes on and the talent he's flashed the past couple years turns into an All Big Ten kind of season. To deploy a cliche, he is the X factor, the guy with the greatest possible variance in his play on the defense. I'd settle for a return to his 2008 level; he is capable of more. There's a 25% chance he's awesome, a 50% chance he's okay, and a 25% chance he gets benched.
The hope here is for the Bennie Joppru.
Obi Ezeh came in for quite a bit of discussion above by way of figuring out how Moundros could possibly ascend to the top of the depth chart, so this won't be much of a surprise: wow, he was bad last year. This is my (least?) favorite demonstration:
I admit that when it comes to my knowledge of football, linebacker play remains an intricate mystery that I'm probably wrong about more than anything else, but whatever your scheme it ain't right when your middle linebacker doesn't move forward—like, ever—on a running play.
That Wisconsin game was the defense's nadir. The Badgers punted once en route to racking up 45 points and did this mainly by exploiting the linebacking. The sheer incompetence of it all, especially Ezeh's –10 on the day, prompted this response:
You rage, contrary to the above statement, seems particularly well-focused.
…you know the story: Mouton and Ezeh. Wisconsin's passing game was almost exclusively zingers over the middle to incredibly open receivers 20 or even 30 yards downfield. On every damn one both MLBs were vastly out of position and the throws were easy. The pair was also very poor in run support: Graham and Martin combined for 21 tackles. They combined for eight!
These are returning starters and redshirt juniors. They have gotten so much worse this year, and it's obvious to everyone from Bret Bielema to stupid bloggers with charts.
Ezeh hadn't developed one bit from the previous season and Hopson wasn't long for Michigan. Where Mouton has held onto his job and manages to enter his senior season with at some tattered hype dragging behind him, Ezeh's apparently lost his job to a walk-on, and not even the same one he was benched for last year.
With Moundros unlikely to nail down every snap, Ezeh will find himself on the field frequently. I'm not expecting a whole lot of improvement. But I think I am expecting some, for the reasons listed above: Greg Robinson in charge, another year of experience, a defensive coordinator who knows his name.
Demens left, Fitzgerald right
The enigmatic Kenny Demens is third string in the middle; after a seemingly productive spring he dropped off the map and has generated zero fall mentions as Moundros climbs the depth chart. He played sparingly in the fall scrimmage; last year he was passed over for walk-on Kevin Leach when it came time to replace Ezeh temporarily. He's spinning his wheels, seemingly on track to watch this year. Next year both of the guys above him will be gone and he'll get one last chance to step forward; the tea leaves are not encouraging at the moment.
|WHY HE DIDN'T START|
|epically bad angle|
|runs out of position|
|angle way too far upfield|
|no idea what he's doing|
|zipping up in a small crease|
|recognizes the play|
|flipped the line|
JB Fitzgerald is now the third string at what this site dubbed "deathbacker" a year ago; since he's behind Roh and Herron at a spot that's at least half defensive end he'll get some further discussion in the defensive line section. But if he plays he'll probably play as a true linebacker; Rodriguez has called him a "swing" guy they can play at any of the two and a half linebacker spots.
Can he play well? That's the question. He didn't play well when the Jonas Mouton Suspension Fiasco forced him into the lineup against Eastern Michigan, committing some of the same sins Mouton does above. On the other hand, his most extensive experience outside of that game was a start against Purdue during which he got a 3-4-negative 1 line and I said he was preferable to other options because he "didn't make me want to die more than once or twice," which woo linebackers.
I may be reading too much into this, but after the fall scrimmage Rodriguez was specifically asked about Demens and Fitzgerald and rambled this out:
They have played a lot of special teams. They’ve had good camps. JB is a guy that we really like because we can swing him. He’s knows our defense, so we can put him at a couple of different linebacker positions and he’s had a good camp. Kenny Demens has had a pretty solid camp. So I think we’re going to have more linebackers to play, but the veterans, Obi Ezeh, Mark Moundros, even though he is new at linebacker, Jonas Mouton, those veterans are going to be the biggest key because usually when you’re a senior you’re going to have your best year, or at least that is what you hope.
That reads like "yeah, they're not going to play unless Ezeh, Moundros, and Mouton can't."
Jones burning his redshirt left, Leach tackling an unstoppable 500-foot-tall robot right
On the weakside, sophomore Mike Jones is listed as the backup to Jonas Mouton. Jones spent last year taking a Carr redshirt by playing on special teams and driving me crazy about not having the option of bringing back a fifth year senior in the near future; he spent fall and spring lighting up opponents and building some real buzz for himself. He, too, was held out of the fall scrimmage with a minor injury; before that he was flying around like his recruiting profile suggested he might. The key passage from ESPN:
Exceptional edge blitzer that has great timing and quickness; speed rushes by the offensive tackle before he can get set. Offensive backs can't or won't block him when blitzing off the edge; really creates havoc in the backfield. Does a great job of using his hands to shed blockers in order to get to the ball carrier.
In his profile everyone from Jones to his coach to the gurus say "this kid loves to hit," a description that's being borne out by practice chatter. He's still pretty slight at 210 pounds, so a starting role is probably not in the offing. When Michigan's "multiple" defense phases into a 4-3 under, though, the weakside linebacker is a guy who doesn't usually have to take on linemen and can be a smaller, speedier defender. If Mouton's angles are still ugly and his are better he can find himself in a platoon role; he'll probably have to settle for providing breathers in anticipation of starting in 2011.
Walk-on Kevin Leach is third string here and should see his playing time restricted to special teams. It's a testament to something that Michigan's best option after Ezeh last year was a 205-pound sophomore walk-on. Leach actually got mixed reviews in UFR save the one "enormous bust" per game in his two starts against Illinois and Purdue, but at his weight he's not a long term solution at MLB and he obviously lacks the athleticism required at WLB.
both Johnson (left) and Gordon (right) rocked the #1 in high school
It's too bad the official depth chart had to go and upstage the prediction here that after Carvin Johnson's "Beanie Bowl" audition for the starting job at spur would be a successful one sooner rather than later. Rodriguez did hedge a bit in Monday's press conference by saying that position was "not set" and there could have been an OR there, but they didn't.
So it's his job. Despite Johnson's status as a true freshman, in some ways this is the more experienced player winning out. Johnson was 100% safety at Rummel, the "heart and soul" of the crushing defense that took his team all the way to the state final. A multi-year starter, Johnson's recruiting profile is full of praise for his football smarts and advanced technique. When Rivals bothered to rank him after his Michigan commit they were pleasantly surprised by what they saw:
Johnson is a fantastic tackler. He can tackle in the open field or fill the alley. He brings a pop at the point of contact and always has the ball carrier falling backwards. Johnson is a smart safety in the run game, picking his spots to make an impact and not overpursuing or being too aggressive.
The only negative mentioned was a "lack of elite straight-line speed," something that shouldn't be a problem at spur. There he'll be tasked with covering the flats in zone and riding tight ends into the deep seam. His recruiting profile picked him out as a true sleeper likely to exceed his relatively modest rankings based on local praise and late SEC offers, and while my usual heuristics lead me to be skeptical about a true freshman beating out a redshirt freshman with nary a fourth star to be seen, I've just got that feeling—what's it called—you know—optimism. Optimism enough to throw this position a 2, anyway. While two less-than-touted freshmen are not likely to be average Big Ten players in year one, I don't think we'll be looking back at 2010 and saying "oh God, what about that mess at spur."
Though Thomas Gordon has been on campus for a year, before he toured Michigan and Michigan State's camps before his senior year of high school he was strictly a quarterback. It was only the prospect of securing a D-I scholarship as a defensive back that saw him switch to defense, and that move was often restricted to passing downs by a hamstring injury. That combined with his status as the lowest-ranked member of Michigan's '09 class made his redshirt a fait accompli; that accomplished, he ascended to the starting job at spur in spring before Johnson's arrival put his job under fire.
Since Gordon hasn't played and I didn't pick up a word of practice buzz good or bad on him in his apprentice year—odd for a guy who was slated to start—I can't offer much more than what's in his recruiting profile. If I had to guess I'd say he's more athletic than Johnson since Rodriguez dubbed him "Prison Abs" and he played quarterback in high school, so if the two platoon for any reason other than keeping the two fresh, Gordon might be a passing-down substitution. More likely the PT he sees is in response to Johnson errors or long drives on which he gets tired.
Walk-on Floyd Simmons is third on the depth chart; he saw time on special teams last year and will again. Since he's a walk-on with scant playing time information on him is limited to his height (six foot) and weight (200 pounds).
|into the backfield|
|just a huge bust|
|a killer touchdown|
|first enormous bust|
|way too far inside|
Venturing into the wooly depths beyond the sanctioned two-deep we find Mike Williams, erstwhile free safety starter from last year. It looked for a second like he was being auditioned for that two-deep when he got plenty of playing time in the fall scrimmage, but now that he's still behind the guys he was behind in spring and the newly ordained starter, that looks more like an attempt to see whether or not Williams can contribute outside of special teams at all. The answer for a redshirt junior on the fourth string behind a walk-on is "no."
I won't belabor the point made in this space with DELICATELY PHRASED QUESTIONS during the season, but the video to the right should provide plenty of evidence as to why this is the case. That he's fallen so far down the depth chart after starting at the most critical position on defense goes a long way to explaining '09 and providing hope for 2010: Michigan may be losing crazy outlier Brandon Graham but they're also losing a crazy outlier in the opposite direction, too.
Notes from Rich Rodriguez's weekly press conference.
The team is relatively healthy, other than waiting on Fitzgerald Tousaint's status with a sprained knee, which they'll know in the next day or two. Outside of Troy, they've been fortunate through camp.
RR will talk to the QBs at the end of the week, and let them know the plans. Everybody gets reps in practice, so there shouldn't be a huge adjustment. "I don't think for our offense, they're worried about who's behind them. Everybody's gotta do their job." Could see scenarios where all three play during the season. "Everybody says, 'is Devin gonna be redshirted?' Probably not. Devin's probably going to play."
Starting QB - "I don't know if the coaches know yet, but I have an idea." Will know a guy or two who is ready to play, but he reserves the right to change his mind. As far as informing the players, "I don't need no Dr. Phil moment with the guys. 'Let me explain the situation and how do you really feel about it?'" QB rotation will be determined by "Basically a feel thing. How the game is going, how we want to attack the defense or how they're playing." Rodriguez won't have an itchy trigger finger if guys make one mistake. Seeing things from the sidelines will help them learn. When Denard played last year, he knew what the team was doing, not the why, or how it would be defended. Would have been nice to redshirt him, but needed him to play.
Shaw and Smith - "They've been the most consistent." Well-rounded with running, protection, and receiving. They understand offense the best. Michael Shaw's eligibility will be known in next couple days. Rodriguez is not sure all six tailbacks on the depth chart will play, but all of them have taken 1st and 2nd team reps. Teric Jones has moved back to offense. He showed enough in practice with other guys in class or injured that he'll settle there. "I think he likes, and probably can perform better offensively."
This fall is the most consistent Darryl Stonum's been in three years. Pleased with him this camp. He, Hemingway, and Odoms, are the most experienced. Stonum had to prove himself, but other guys did, too. "He's had to reach a certain maturity level. He's been very focused on it... He came into camp in great shape." He'll be a big factor.
The coaches are as comfortable with the secondary as you can be with freshmen. Rogers and JT Floyd provide a bit of experience. "The young guys will have opportunity, and have progressed well in practice." They'll improve during the season with experience. Rogers has been more consistent in practice. Some of the things that aren't "or" on the depth chart probably should be. More guys capable of contributing, you'll see more guys play this year.
Harder for the big guys to play a lot of plays. Martin is in good shape, but to play that much is a lot to ask. Ryan Van Bergen won't get that much either. Adam Patterson and Will Campbell will have an opportunity. RVB has a combo role - very athletic, and has a knack for pass-rushing. Jibreel Black is "readier than he was back then" at media day. The coaches have to play the best guys they have, and "right now Jibreel is good enough to play."
With a lack of experience in the secondary, they'll adjust scheme accordingly. "How do we limit the pressure on some of the young guys?" James Rogers and JT Floyd have played. The safeties are inexperienced. "That's the hope" to make up for inexperience with speed. They want to get a lot of guys to the ball.
Carvin Johnson as starter - "We probably could have put an "or" on there." There are still 3-4 practices before the UConn game. He's only played that position the last couple weeks. He gives the team athleticism at that spot.
True freshmen to play this fall will include all on the depth chart, and there could be others who "have a chance to sneak up in there." A lot of other guys are on special teams as well. In a couple years, Michigan won't be as reliant on freshmen, depending on recruiting and development.
It's not just the younger players who have nerves. "We're nervous too, as coaches." The only way to deal with that is play. Have young guys who need to play. "If they're not nervous, there's something wrong with them, or they're probably lying to you." They'll adjust. Eventually, you just are able to block everything out and play. Some young players will have to mature quickly.
Rodriguez doesn't worry about puffing up individual players. "It's all about The Team, The Team, The Team. That's why." Our guys aren't getting much national press anyway. Being one of 80 guys on a watchlist isn't that big a deal. He'll worry about touting guys at the end of the year. Is that just sandbagging? "I would never do that." Guys understand what team is about, and are working toward that. Their priorities are about the team, not individual glory.
"I'd rather have the element of experience than the element of surprise" as far as the depth chart. Might know eventually what we'll have, but there will be nerves through the first couple games. "Big Jonny [Falk] will probably have to bring a couple extra pairs of pants, in case they make a little mess, you know. If you see somebody running up the tunnel in the first quarter with big Jonny running behind him, carrying one of his books. Wardrobe malfunction or something."
"I hope it's not the case that we have to have shootouts. I think our defense would take exception to that."
"I think it means a lot, especially for our players and our staff" to start the season right. It helps with momentum for the following week. As for expectations, Rodriguez wants to play well, they haven't talked about win numbers. "Every team in America is excited about the first game."
Rodriguez doesn't worry about outside expectations. "Our expectations every year are to compete for the Big Ten championship." This year, keep showing progress, so the team can get to the point where they'll win close games and not beat themselves.
UConn is Big, physical team. Lots of experience. "Older group of guys that have kind of been-there, done-that." They won't make mistakes, so Michigan has to go out there to win it, not capitalize on the opponents' mistakes. Rodriguez's past experience against UConn helps a bit, but there are different guys, they've grown up, we're a younger team, etc. "We know a little bit about some of the things they do."
The key against UConn will be tackling well. The team does some live tackling in August, but they don't do as much as you'd like because you don't want to get hurt. UConn has great skill guys, so Michigan must tackle well.
The differences between Big Ten and Big East aren't as pronounced as some say. Schemes are similar - despite the reputation. There are some downhill teams, some spread teams. The Big East is underrated in terms of talent, they're just not as known. "I don't see it as a huge amount of difference." The Big Ten has more long-standing football traditions, which leads to a better reputation.
UConn's program has grown "quite a bit probably recently, because of the facilities." The University, state, and supporters have shown a level of commitment to go as high as they can in 1-A football. Coaching staff stability has helped the program achieve success.
"We have a rule anyway, once you score, you hand the ball to the official and celebrate with your teammates."
Two years ago, the team had no quarterbacks and very few guys overall with any experience. Even with young QBs, the sophomores are experienced. On defense, there are fewer guys who have played (particularly on the back end). It's OK to look at the last couple years to learn, but don't reflect too much.
"If we're recruiting you, it's because we believe you can play. how quickly you play" depends on you. won't put a guy in there unless he's ready physically and mentally.
The team might be more prepared for the no-huddle of UConn since they practice against it all the time. "They'll probably come right at us." Running downhill with play-action, and they'll take a couple early deep shots. "They'll run the ball right at us, they've got big linemen, and they'll see if we can hold up up front and tackle well." No huddle not a big deal.
Rich has played UConn 4 times "I think we won 'em all didn't we? So [the memories] are all good." The last one is memorable, because WVU was on a roll. The Huskies always played physical games.
On Thursdays, they practice in the stadium. Before the first game, the band comes out to perform. "As you all know, they're terrific." The players never get to see the band, so they'll get a chance to watch some performance, and sing The Victors together.
The team will see Brock Mealer walk out, but "once it's kicked off, we're worried about football."
For live updates of the games I'm attending, follow me on Twitter @varsityblue. If you can help out finding articles on any of the commits, @reply me on Twitter or e-mail me, and I'll try to include your contribution.
Performance of the Week:
MI DE/LB Brennen Beyer
Last week: Plymouth pasted Salem, 48-0. Beyer - from the start of the second quarter through the end of the game - had 2 receiving touchdowns for 43 yards, and a blocked punt, which he returned for a touchdown, to go along with several tackles. HD video highlights:
Seemed like a "man amongst boys" situation for the most part. Beyer is the standout performer this week.
This week: Plymouth takes on Howell on Thursday at 7pm.
FL QB Kevin Sousa
Last week: Lake Nona lost to Citrus, 0-14. This "Kickoff Classic" was a preseason game, not the start of the regular season. MGoReader Bob took in the game, and gave his impressions:
Even though half of the game was played in the rain, Sousa didn't look very sharp. Frankly, Lake Nona is not a very good football team. Citrus was equally as bad. Kevin had zero O- line blocking and was tackled many times for losses. His passes had zip but the wet conditions made them nearly uncatchable. I'm glad he fared well at the camps because the team he plays with is pretty sad.
Tom got in touch with Sousa's high school coach, and Kevin's approximate stats were: 15/34 for 136 yards and a pick, and 54 yards on 12 carries on the ground. The weather was a big factor as well.
This week: Lake Nona hosts Harmony at 7:30pm.
MI WR Shawn Conway
Last Week: Seaholm defeated North Farmington by a score of 26-6. Conway, predictably, was the star of the show:
Shawn Conway's 74-yard return on the opening kickoff proved to be a sign of good things to come for Birmingham Seaholm in their high school football season opener Thursday against North Farmington.
Conway added touchdown receptions of 6 and 15 yards, as Seaholm built a 26-0 lead heading into the fourth quarter. The Maples held on to win by a score of 26-6 in the Oakland Activities Association game.
He finished with 169 all-purpose yards, and given his 4 catches for 32 yards, he his other returns totaled 63 yards. One more article. You can see video highlights from the game here, and Conway looks very impressive (the quarterback... not so much).
This week: The Maples take on Bloomfield Hills Andover on Thursday at 7pm at Seaholm High School.
OH OL Jack Miller
Last week: Paul and I were there (for the first half) as Miller's St. John's Jesuit team pasted an overmatched Toledo Scott squad 49-7, after holding a 49-0 halftime lead. Miller only played sparingly on either side of the ball after a couple offensive and defensive series. Here's the HD video:
By my count, Miller had 3 tackles, including two for loss, and nearly came up with a fumble recovery on defense. Offensively, he had pancake blocks on nearly every running play. I was more impressed with him on that side of the ball.
This week: St. John's travels North to take on Birmingham Brother Rice on Saturday at 1:30 PM at Farmington Hills Harrison. Alas, it is during the UConn game, so I'll be missing it.
MI OL Jake Fisher
This week: TC West welcomes Grandville to the Great North at 7pm on Thursday.
FL OL Tony Posada
Last week: Plant got killed by Manatee 10-48 in their preseason game on ESPN.
From what I saw, the criticisms we've heard on Posada are accurate. He will have to get into much better shape if he's going to be a contributor at the next level. At this point, he's much better as a mauler than a pass blocker, as well. He did get a little nicked up during the game, but nothing seemed serious. He showed off his versatility by playing both tackle positions, as well as guard.
This week: Plant heads to Tampa Bay Tech (the only team to beat them last year) on Friday at 7:30.
OH DE Chris Rock
Last week: St. Francis DeSales beat Gahanna Lincoln 28-14. No word on Rock's stats.
This week: DeSales welcomes New Albany at 7:30 on Friday.
TX LB Kellen Jones
Last week: St. Pius X defeated Trinity Christian Academy 33-7. I couldn't find stats, or even a game article.
This week: St. Pius X travels to Sealy on Friday at 7:30.
OH CB/S Greg Brown
Also very workman-like last night was Greg Brown. The future Wolverine was hammered by Spartan defenders every time he got near the ball. Greg kept his wits about him, got up, walked back to the huddle and played ball.
This week: The Little Giants take on Toledo Whitmer on Friday at 7:30.
MI CB Delonte Hollowell
Last week: Paul and I were at Eastern Michigan as Cass Tech escaped Ann Arbor Pioneer by a score of 44-42. Here's the HD video:
Hollowell had a handful of tackles and a pair of pass breakups. He didn't play on offense, and looked like he may have been dinged up, which could explain his "meh" performance (also explaining it - Pioneer's gameplan placed an emphasis on avoiding his side of the field). His younger teammates 2012 LB Royce Jenkins-Stone and CB Terry Richardson also impressed, with Jenkins-Stone pounding away as a fullback (though he was inconsistent at linebacker), and Richardson playing well at both corner and receiver. Richardson returned a fumble 60-pluys yards for one of Cass Tech's scores.
Next Week: Cass Tech plays Detroit Central at 6pm Friday at Cass Tech.
Previously: The Story.
What's the point of anything?
I ask this question for reasons existential and practical. Earlier this summer Eleven Warriors pinged me for some help previewing Michigan's defense, so I talked about Mike Martin and the rest of the promising defensive line and mentioned the trouble at linebacker; the section on the secondary was simply this: "rank them last." At this point Justin Turner was still on the team and Troy Woolfolk's ankle was unaware of what Angry Michigan Secondary Hating God had in store for it.
When it, he, and we found out AMSHG's true power in mid-August I started drinking immediately, resulting in a night where I finally used twitter as God intended by blathering about having a power drill, burning my elbow on tea, coughing, not coughing, and finally drinking a horrible concoction of Cointreau with anything (the whiskey had been exhausted) and eating cold squash pakora with a slice of American cheese while mournfully contemplating everything from Mike Floyd to whatever 5'8" guy UMass will throw out there this year. The next day Henri the Otter of Ennui made his earliest-ever appearance on the blog (setting a record that will probably stand for all time) while I enumerated the options left at corner, mentioning Richard Nixon twice before a nominal first-string player at the semi-public fall scrimmage. Even if I've calmed down since, and I have a little bit, that's the existential chunk.
The practical chunk: the probable starters at corner, safety, and the safety-ish position that was called spinner (except when Greg Robinson was denying such a concept ever existed) and is now called spur are:
- at free safety, a redshirt freshman
- at spur, a true freshman (who will be treated as a linebacker, FWIW)
- at bandit, a redshirt sophomore walk-on
- at one corner, a redshirt sophomore pulled in favor of Mike Williams last year, and
- at the other corner, a true freshman.
Meanwhile, literally every backup except the aforementioned Williams has never played a meaningful snap at Michigan because they arrived two months ago or, in the case of James Rogers, was just one of those guys who seems like they're never going to play from day one. I could just point you to their recruiting profiles, tell you they'll be in the conversation for worst secondary in the league, and resume cowering in a closet. Previewing this position group is almost totally pointless: I've never really seen anyone play. They're probably going to be bad.
If this is an insufficient description of the situation, though, well, here's all this stuff.
|Corner #1||Yr.||Corner #2||Yr.|
|JT Floyd||So.*||Cullen Christian||Fr.|
|Courtney Avery||Fr.||James Rogers||Sr.*|
|Terrence Talbott||Fr.||Tony Anderson||Jr.*#|
[* = player has taken redshirt. # = walk-on.]
Technically, the position preview scale goes from one to five. Nothing has ever gotten a zero before even jokingly, not even the 2008 offensive line that consisted of seven guys who could plausibly play and actually started a defensive tackle who had been switched in the middle of fall camp. But I thought about it here. What Michigan has to offer at corner is going to be substandard unless a great miracle falls from the sky, and will probably be no better than last year's fare even before Woolfolk moved.
|SMOKED LIKE GANJA|
|The big touchdown.|
|doomed from the start|
|MADE A PLAY!|
|knocking it down|
The single person at this position who Michigan fans have seen on the field is redshirt sophomore JT Floyd. On the one hand, he was so overmatched last year that Michigan decided they should move Troy Woolfolk to his spot and unleash Mike Williams on the world; Williams promptly gave up a third-and-twenty-four conversion to Iowa and was subsequently swapped with freshman walk-on Jordan Kovacs, leaving a tiny, slow, inexperienced guy no one even recruited in the most critical spot on the defense. This went exactly as well as you might expect. The coaches thought this was preferable to having Floyd on the field.
For my part, the Indiana UFR waved a white flag even at 4-0:
Whatever lingering hopes you had that the corner spot opposite Warren could turn into a non-liability should be put in the corner and told to be quiet for a while. JT Floyd did better than I thought he did live but still remains a timid redshirt freshman who transparently lacks the speed to be an elite corner. Michigan is going to have to cover up for him.
So did the game column:
Seeing an Indiana freshman zip past not only the walk-on safety gamely pretending he doesn't run a 4.8 but the scholarship, potentially-starting cornerback not named Donovan Warren was alarming. If JT Floyd is going to play corner in the Big Ten he's going to do it ten yards off the line of scrimmage.
Floyd held onto his job for the Michigan State game, but that game saw Michigan adopt a fundamentally unsound formation featuring Floyd in the parking lot. State exploited this with a ton of virtually uncontested wide receiver screens:
They then countered those with the outside pitches that were the only consistently successful running plays Michigan State managed all day (QB scrambles were another story). Floyd may not have gotten smoked deep but it was only because he was playing Hail Mary defense all game. Seeing how untenable that situation was, Michigan's coaches made the move to Woolfolk at corner, thus opening up the already pretty much wide open floodgates. Except for sporadic plays and special teams duty, thus ended Floyd's participation in the 2009 season.
On the other hand, the coaches have been talking up his improvement since spring and have continued to do so through fall. Rodriguez 4/13: Floyd has "played well." Rodriguez 8/2: Floyd is coming off "a great spring." Also on 8/2: Rodriguez expresses "particular confidence" in Floyd and drops the t-bomb—"tremendous." Greg Robinson 8/11: Floyd is showing "a lot of progress." A spring practice source: Floyd is "vastly improved." And Robinson and Gibson on 8/25:
"J.T. Floyd may have been the guy that made the biggest jump from last season to the end of spring ball in so many ways," Robinson said on Sunday. "There's nothing any different - he's just worked really hard. J.T. just has a way about him - he leads well and his work habits - he's just a harder worker than he was at this time last year."
Gibson concurs. "He's done such a complete turnaround. You just take last year at this time, and he was just a guy really trying to work to the point that he’s at right now, and he’s done it."
|Indiana||4.5||8||-3.5||Tries hard. Clearly
|MSU||3||3||0||I'll take it.|
How meaningful is any of this? The fear is not very. This is replica of the Johnny Sears hype down to the sweet dreads: after being largely responsible for that heart-stopping moment when Ball State had a first and goal with a shot to tie Michigan in the '06 season, Johnny Sears was in line for a starting cornerback job after the graduation of Leon Hall. Sears was talked up all offseason, failed miserably during the Horror, was quickly yanked for true freshman Donovan Warren, and was off the team a month into the 2007 season. While that outcome is an negative outlier even with Angry Michigan Secondary-Hating God at full wroth, it goes to show that sometimes a coach praising a kid who's struggled and is being thrust into a prominent role is more hope than anything else. Our best hope may be that anonymous spring observer, who has no reason to pump up a kid in the hopes he'll keep it together.
Floyd was just a freshman last year and should improve significantly. The chatter's consistent enough and from enough sources that some of it is probably real. Average is about all anyone can hope for, though.
The other corner spot will probably (50.1%!) end up in the hands of freshman Cullen Christian. James Rogers had a tentative hold on the first string in the semi-public fall scrimmage that he maintained to the release of the fall depth chart, but since he hasn't played at all in his Michigan career—not even when the walls were falling in last year—he's likely to cede that by the time the season rolls around. If not by then, probably by the Big Ten season.
Christian gets the ultra-tentative nod here simply by virtue of his recruiting rankings, which were strong. He checked in a near five-star at Scout, a top 100 guy at Rivals, and hit three other top 100 lists. He's not a burner; his main assets are his size (6'1"), leaping ability, and excellent hips. ESPN praised his "coveted size, quickness, fluidity and savvy" and said he would enter college "ahead of the curve in terms of technique, understanding of coverages and size," and assessment basically echoed by Rivals and the rest of the chattering class. His main problem is tackling, at which he's pretty sucky.
How doomed is Michigan here? Still pretty doomed. But it is worth pointing out that if there's one spot on defense where a freshman can walk onto the field and not spoil everything, it's corner, where conservative play and safety help can mitigate the damage.
What, Me Backups?
The backups are unknowns or freshmen. The aforementioned James Rogers was a lanky high school tailback reputed to have great straight-line speed but no hips; Michigan took him as a flier recruit. He has not panned out, bouncing from wide receiver to cornerback for the duration of his career.
Rogers did come in for some fall fluff during Rodriguez's post-scrimmage presser:
James Rogers is a senior that has played over that position. He has had a really good camp. Some of the young freshman that are competing out there at that position … Again, James Rogers is a veteran. He has been around a little bit, so we have a little experience with James out there as well.
He has to play and may even get the bulk of the time early. The assumption here is that even if he's currently ahead of the freshmen he probably won't remain so for very long.
The two remaining freshmen are extremely similar. Terrence Talbott and Courtney Avery are middling three-star types from Ohio; Avery is probably the better athlete, since he was a star quarterback; Talbott is more polished since he's been a full-time corner but spent a lot of his high school career injured. Both approached but did not get four stars on one of the big three recruiting sites; both got "meh" from the other two; both are generously listed at 5'10" and truthfully listed at 165 pounds. They need 20 pounds before they're anything approximating Big Ten corners. Instead they get thrown into the fire immediately.
Talbott in a sentence:
The book on Talbott: short, smart, agile, excellent in coverage but needs a year or two to bulk up for college.
I don't have anything quite as neat on Avery but both Scout and ESPN praise his "exceptional athleticism" while calling him very, very small.
Reports out of fall camp have been conflicting, with certain folk claiming one or the other will play, possibly a lot, while the other is way too small and a guaranteed redshirt. There wasn't much to tell them apart during the scrimmage; whichever one does get drafted into playing this year is going to play a lot of conservative zone coverage and miss a lot of tackles.
There were rumors Kelvin Grady might get a shot at corner but with Martavious Odoms apparently moving outside full-time there's room for him to play at slot and he's been prominent this fall; if he does end up moving it will be a midseason panic thing. Teric Jones was moved back to offense after spending a year trying to learn cornerback, getting moved to safety, and then getting moved to cornerback again; obviously he's just not a D-I caliber player on D.
Rating: 2, generously
|Jordan Kovacs||So.*#||Cam Gordon||Fr.*|
|Marvin Robinson||Fr.||Jared Van Slyke||Jr.*#|
[* = player has taken redshirt. # = walk-on, or former walk-on]
Safety has been the positional bête noir of the Michigan fan for going on a decade now but things had never been as black or beastly as they were last year, when Boubacar Cissoko's epic flameout forced Michigan to go with the doomed Jordan Kovacs-Mike Williams combination. Williams was the most confused, least useful player I've ever broken down film of; Kovacs was just slow and small. Their powers combined in episodes like "Iowa tight ends are open by 15 yards," "We don't have a guy in the deep middle on third and twenty four," and "What would Juice Williams be like if he was an unstoppable 500-foot-tall robot?"
Williams has been shuffled off to third- or fourth-team spur to cover punts for all eternity, but the situation here is hardly less bleak than it was a year ago. Jordan Kovacs is now a sophomore walk-on and probable starter. Last year he debuted against Notre Dame, was one of two Michigan secondary members to be blazed on the infamous 85-yard Indiana touchdown, and then actually started making a name for himself as a solid box safety in the Michigan State game:
Jordan Kovacs registered a +4.5 and is single-handedly responsible for about half of the + tackles Michigan saw yesterday … Kovacs provided hard-nosed run defense that makes me think he'll be a positive contributor going forward.
Williams imploded in the next game, Michigan dropped Kovacs to free safety, and the walls caved in. The dividing line was clear as day in UFR:
|Notre Dame||1||-||1||Nice story.|
|EMU||2||1||1||Hasn't cost Michigan anything yet..|
|Indiana||3||4||-1||Hardy, but slow.|
|Michigan State||7.5||3||4.5||Some of these were just backside blitzes that he tackled on, but he did tackle. At other times he displayed a real knack for getting to ballcarriers.|
|Iowa||2.5||3||-0.5||Missed one tackle, made another few, good downhill box safety.|
|Penn State||1||6||-5||Just can't play a deep half.|
|Illinois||-||3||-3||Again burned as a deep half safety.|
|Purdue||1||5||-4||Enormous bust #3.|
|Wisconsin||4||4||0||Did pretty okay. No idea why they moved him to deep safety; he's pretty effective in the box.|
The Mike Williams bit is handled in the linebackers and has more on just how disastrous a switch this was, but the morals of the story: Kovacs cannot play free safety and is pretty effective as a tiny linebacker when he doesn't have to take on linemen.
|EFFECTIVE RUN BLITZER|
|jet past blockers|
|tackles Caper from behind|
|takes down the RB|
|WOULD BE A GREAT LB IF HE WAS 50% BIGGER|
|shoot up through a gaping hole|
|doesn't bite on the bubble fake|
|doomed from the start|
|bails and bails|
Michigan moves him back to tiny linebacker this fall, but it's not that easy. When Steve Sharik explained how you defend four verticals in the three-deep coverage Michigan would love to play all year if they can get away with it, he made it clear such a move was how you draw it up but not how it plays out much: frankly, three deep, one-high coverage sucks against four verticals. You know how a bunch of Michigan's passing plays in spring and fall came when the quarterbacks nailed the slot receivers in between levels in zone coverage? That's what happens, Larry, when you meet a stranger in the alps by playing exclusively one-high coverage.
So Kovacs is going to have to cover a deep half sometimes. This won't go very well, and Michigan's defense will be limited by it. On the other hand, the run defense shouldn't be nearly as bad with Kovacs filling the weakside alley; last year he racked up 75 tackles despite the late start. Marvin Robinson will press Kovacs for his job, but probably not take it. Iowa and Wisconsin have gotten away with players like him for years.
At free safety is this year's Grady Brooks memorial King of Spring Hype award: Cam Gordon. Though Gordon was recruited as a wide receiver, everyone on the planet expected he'd get his token chance at the position and then get flipped to defense, where Michigan desperately needed bodies and he projects better anyway.
This duly happened, except when Gordon and his 6'3" frame moved it was to free safety, not linebacker. This was pretty weird, and it got weirder still when the hype machine starter cranking out superlative after superlative. A sampling follows. Rodriguez:
“Cam Gordon has been really consistent all spring,” Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez said. We’re “really getting some confidence with him.”
MGoBlog's own Tom Van Haaren reporting back from some conversations with players on the team:
Cameron Gordon is the most surprising for everyone. His name keeps coming up. I’ve heard that he tackles well and has really good coverage skills. The people I’ve talked to say he’s just a natural ball hawk. Good decision to move him to safety.
By the spring game he was the undisputed starter at free safety; he managed to get through that without anyone even noticing him. In the safety business this is a win.
Unfortunately, Gordon struggled in the fall scrimmage, failing to wrap up on a number of tackles. Rodriguez was sticking to his guns afterward:
"Yesterday was not his best day practice wise, but other than that, he has a really good camp. He is a very physical guy and the game is really important to him. Again, he has not played. He has not played in the big stage yet. There is going to be nerves and there are going to be some mistakes, but he has just got to limit them… we look for a big year for him even though he is a redshirt freshman.”
As a redshirt freshman, a "big year" would be wrapping up his tackles and not letting anyone behind him for crippling long touchdowns. With his lack of blazing speed and inexperience, actually making plays seems out of the question. Misopogon dedicated a couple of his epically researched posts to the safety play and found that Brandent Englemon's traditional 1-0-1 as a junior was actually the second best performance of any safety in the UFR era (with Jamar Adams obviously finishing first).
Repeating that +0.7 per game would go a very long way towards bringing Michigan's defense back from the dead. That's optimistic. Cam Gordon will chase more than a couple opponents into the endzone. But not on third and twenty-four.
Marvin Robinson is the most shirtless recruit in the world
If you've been watching the Countdown to Kickoff videos frequently, you've probably experienced the same sort of cognitive dissonance I have when #3 comes roaring in from somewhere else and whacks a guy to the ground authoritatively or picks off an errant pass. This is not the competent-to-good LB hybrid version of Stevie Brown, it's Marvin Robinson, Michigan's first great hope for bandit. As a true freshman, the book on Robinson is contained in his recruiting profile, but you're probably familiar with the general outline by now: hyped Florida recruit enamored with Michigan since a freshman trip to Michigan's summer camp, early offers from USC, Florida, and the rest of the world, precipitous fall in the rankings, still a highly regarded prospect with athleticism Jordan Kovacs can only dream of.
Robinson's early performance has him pushing Kovacs. Woofolk noticed him even before practice started, and Greg Robinson knows a lady-killer when he sees one:
"I know this: he walks around the building looking really good."
His performance in fall was highlight-heavy and caught the attention of his teammates. He finished second to Jonas Mouton when AnnArbor.com media day poll asked who the hardest hitter on the team was. Ricardo Miller was one vote:
"When he comes to hit, everyone knows it. I think he's cracked his helmet twice this camp, and if that doesn't show you enough that he can, I don't know what could."
Robinson has huge size and speed advantages on Kovacs and will certainly play this fall, possibly as a passing-down replacement, possibly as something more. In an ideal world he would be so good he would ease Kovacs out of his starting role by midseason. I don't think that's likely since the bandit position is extremely complicated, but I do expect some sort of platoon where Robinson gets ahold of some parts of the playbook he executes better than Kovacs and is brought in regularly.
At deep safety, Vlad Emilien still seems like the first option behind Gordon but his initial returns have been discouraging. He enrolled early—giving him just as much experience as Kovacs—and then never played, Turner-style, despite the debacle going down on the field. Word was that the senior-year knee injury that cost him almost all of his senior season and his Ohio State offer lingered through the year. With that almost two years in the past now that can no longer be an excuse—any damage still lingering is permanent.
There may be some, as it was Emilien who was left in the dust by Roy Roundtree on the 97-yard strike from Denard Robinson in the spring game; Teric Jones caught and passed Emilien en route. Getting instantly passed by a position-switching guy the same class as you is a bad indicator, as is ending up behind a walk-on on the depth chart.
That walk-on is Jared Van Slyke, about whom nothing is known except his father is really good at baseball. True freshman Ray Vinopal (recruiting profile) is also at free safety. Rodriguez did mention him as a guy who has "a chance" to play this fall, he didn't show up on the first depth chart and he's probably going to redshirt.
The deep safety situation is grim past Gordon; if he doesn't work out you're either starting two walk-ons, moving up Emilien, who doesn't seem ready, or shuffling Robinson and or Kovacs around.