Watching our beloved Wolverines suffer yet another frustrating loss to a team that is not all that good, while our offense continues to look inept for large stretches of time, has been incfedibly frustrating and tough on the fanbase. That this is the 6th out of 7 years in which Michigan has really struggled (Lloyd's final season, all of Rich Rod's, all of Hoke other than 2011), has left us all depressed, angry, frustrated and pretty much emotionally fatigued with respect to Michigan football. The emo / ennui has permeated this board, and even (especially) the front page content. All of it is justified.
That said, with our biggest rival (are they still a rival when we never beat them? Do they consider us a rival, or is it more like our rivalry with MSU pre-2008? Oh, wait, positive post, sorry) coming into town this Saturday for what is always my favorite day of the year, I was hoping to generate some discussion on reasons for optimism, with a healthy side dose of reasons that we might not be too bad off if the coaching staff remains intact.
I am sure that some of these will be met with disagreement, which is fine, but my hope is that we can try to keep a civil, high-level discounse on these topics, instead of the usual "Al Borges are fat" stuff. Here goes:
1. Let's start with the defense. They have faded down the stretch a few times, but this unit is well above average, trending towards solidly good. Now look at the roster? Which real contributor do we lose? I count all of nobody. Avery hasn't been a significant contributor, and one of the up and comers may even be an improvement at his position. As for QWash ans Black, both have been very good, but we get back Pipkins. Also, Henry has really come on. I am really excited to see him after another full camp. Also, there doesn't seem to be any concerns about coaching on this side of the ball. So, we have a young defense that returns just about everyone, with another full offseason / camp under great coaching, next year. Add in Peppers and some of the young guys for depth, and this unit should be anywhere from VERY GOOD to DOMINANT.
Quick aside to address the only concern that I have heard about the D, which is that they have feded down the stretch. That tends to happen a lot with younger teams. Sure, coaches shouldn't allow it and all that, but it happens. Younger units tend to be (1) more erratic, (2) prone to busts on a play to play basis, and (3) tend to collapses down the stretch. Also, hard to fault them when they get stop after stop after stop and the offense just keeps shooting itself in the foot and giving the ball right back. That would demoralize any unit, especially a young one.
2. The offense. I know, worse offensive output since ever. Incompetent play-calling. Lack of improvement. Hard to dispute those concerns, but let me try. First, a QB and a RB are only as good as their offensive line. You could have Tom Brady at QB this season, and if he doesn't have 3-5 seconds to go through his 7-step drops, his reads and his progressions, it won't matter. Tom Brady or Peyton Manning can't do anything at QB when there are defenders in their face before they complete their drop. While Devin has been a disappointment this year, this whole season is almost a useless data point on him, given the state of the blocking. The only conclusion to draw with respect to Devin is that he is not a very good QB in the situation where his line, RB and TE can't block for him. That's it. We have no knowledge from this season as to how he will do when he is put in a situation in which he can actually play QB as opposed to looking like a kid running from "it" playing tag. I think that the better data point is last season and the beginning of this season when we actually did have some blocking. In those situations, he looked damn good. So, if we can get any blocking going for him, I still think that Devin is going to be damn good.
Same goes for the RB production. I will say that Fitz has been terrible this year in two regards; he can't block for shit and he falls backwards. That said, since dropping a few pounds, #1 RB in the 2013 recruiting class Derrick Green has looked very good, even with our craptastic line. For 2 straight games, he has shown an ability to get north/south and fall forward on contact. Remember that this is a kid who missed much of camp with some injuries and who came in overweight. I am absolutely psyched to see this kid next season after a full offseason in a college S&C program and then a summer camp. He is going to be special, in my opinion. Also, don't write off Mr. Leg Churn Smith. Offseason S&C, summer camp - he is going to be damn good, as well.
How about TE? I almost don't include Funch here, but Jake Butt has looked very good this season, despite being way underweight and a true freshman (as a position that is notoriously difficult for freshmen to play). Offseason S&C and another full camp - I expect a very solid to good season from Butt. When we line up Funch as a TE in a 2-TE set, we will have some serious match-up problems for defenses next season.
WR - hard to be optimistic about losing our #1 WR, but I actually am. We should get Darboh back next season. His camp buzz was pretty high last season. If he returns to full strength, he could be very good. Also, Chesson is still raw, but he has steadily improved throughout the season. Exactly the type of player who could make a jump with a full offseason and camp (I know, common theme, but we are a really young team). Between these two, Funchess and some of the young kids, I think that our receiving corps will actually be fine next season.
OK, I saved OL for last because it obviously is the biggest problem for our team. We knew coming in that this was going to be a rough spot for the team. Without assigning blame, RR taking all of 4 guys over 2 seasons, one of whom never played, followed by the "process" 2011 class, this position was a gaping crater when Hoke arrived. When he came in, it was an area that he immediately addressed through recruiting, but the fact is that recruiting addressed the problem 3-4 years down the road. For 2012, 2013 and even 2014 to some extent, this position was doomed before Hoke walked in the door, and there is simply nothing that can be done about it.
With that as a backdrop, let's look at next year's line. Mags, Glasgow and Kalis are all logging plenty of PT. While they aren't playing well, I attribute that more to lack of experience than anything else. The tools are there. If they all put on the requisite good weight this offseason (especially Mags), and work on improving their chemistry as a unit, they should all be serviceable. As for the tackles, at the beginning of the season, I would have said that losing Lewan and Schofield was be insurmountable, neither has been particularly good this season. Yes, Lewan will be a loss, but he has been far from what he was last year. Also, I will not miss the 1-2 stupid penalties that get almost every week. On balance, I expect that our line will continue to struggle at times, but that we will stabilize such that we will at least give our playmakes time to work, and will actually improve by next season. Hell, I know that this is not a popular opinion, but I think that the line has actually improved over the padt two weeks. The offense is far from there, but there were numerous plays against Iowa where Devin had time in the pocket. Also, while I am still not overly optimistic for next season, after that I expect the line and the offense with it to really take off. 2015 will return the entire depth chart from 2014. That's Wisconsin level line continuity.
Finally, coaching. I know, we all hate Borges arouns here, and I will convince nobody, but I offer the following:
1. The offense has sucked this season, with the aforementioned OL issues. What does this tell us about Borges? That he is not a good OC with a shit terrible OL. That's all. It doesn't tell us how he would do with a good line. Maybe he is just not good at sealing with this particular type of situation, but he is excellent with a fully-functioning offense? Maybe not. They point is that being bad in one situation does not necessarily translate into being bad at everything. Mitch McGary is a terrible FT shooter. Does that mean that he is a bad shooter from the top of the key? Or from the paint? Remember that Al was the OC during our very successful 2011 season? Sure,the players were RR's players, but who was calling the plays? Al, and they worked just fine. Shows that he can be very good given a halfway decent OL.
2. Transitions suck. I know that many have discounted this, but this really is our first season running the offense that we will ultimately run. When Denard was here, we run pretty much a RR spread with only a sprinkling of pro-style concepts. There should be a 2nd year jump for the offense next season.
3. Other coaches struggle in their third year. When a coach is fired, it tends to be that his seat was hot for a while, and his late-tenure recruiting was bad. RR's seat was hot from day 1, and his last season or two of recruiting was a complete mess. Who care's why, it just was. When a new coach comes in, their 3rd year team is made up primarily of the last coach's prior two classes. As RR's last classes were disasters, and the 2011 class that followed was sacrificed to Brandon's "process," Hoke is really in the difficult position of a "bare cupboard across the board. This third year was always going to be a struggle as the Late Lloyd / early RR recruits graduated over the past season, and their replacements are almost entirely young kids or low-ranked, different system oriented RR recruits. This should work its way through over the next 2 seasons, such that next season will be better and by 2015 we will be "fully stocked." One analogous situation: MSU was 6-7 in Dantonio's 3rd season. Hoke is currently 7-4. Where would MSU be if they had prematurely canned Dantonio or either of his coordinators?
Sorry for the length of this post. Discuss.