at least it's not just us?
Shouldn't Spock be in this?
Hi. Me. Back. So before that much-appreciated vacation, I used this space to talk about constraint theory of offense and provide a rock-paper-scissors matrix for offensive/defensive play calling in various offenses. Today I'm on to Part III, the one where I tell you that Rock-Paper-Scissors is only a fraction of the football head game, because the actual decision trees are far too complicated for even a coach to play all of the interactions, let alone teach them. Moreover, unlike in RPS, or super-advanced-nuclear-capable-canid RPS, there are levels to things: scissors cuts paper better than it cuts (but still cuts) woven kevlar.
Rock-Paper-Scissors is a game you learn to play on the bus ride to school in 2nd grade or thereabouts. It is a very simple, 2-dimensional, triangular matrix:
…meaning every point interacts with every other. It's one dimension past a coin flip but you still only need to remember three interactions (yellow lines). Based on your personal capacity for testing the limits of social institutions, you either very quickly or eventually tried to insert an additional dimension to the triangular matrix, and realized that you were exponentially increasing the amount of interactions you had to remember.
Your 2nd grade mind didn't draw this; it just exploded the same way it might if you interlaced Grbac to Howard, Wangler to Carter and Robinson to Roundtree into the same video. Then it came up with a brilliant way to add a point without adding dimensions:
Bazooka!!! Bazooka blows up rock. Bazooka turns scissors into mangled slag. Bazooka leaves only scant streaks of carbon where once was paper. This idea is not totally silly, since defensive coordinators call bazooka like all. the. time.
Bazooka = Vanilla
Just as the offense wants to get really good at one basic thing and then do that thing all the time, many defenses are deploying the same concept. It's a bit harder for them because they have to react to various offenses on the schedule and various plays, but the concept's the same: the defense wants to stay in a scheme that is basically sound, and will mix in blitzes and different coverages as constraints, so that they can keep running their well-practiced, mostly sound blanket defense. Bazooka is a jack of all trades, solid against the run, solid against the pass, solid against tomfoolery, and vulnerable only to great offensive play and their own physical/mental limitations.
Defenses are a bit more varied than offenses but the most popular vanilla D these days, as I mentioned in the earlier discussions, is a Cover-2 zone (above-left) against run-first teams, or the Tampa 2 against pass-ier teams (above-right).
The difference between those two is in the MLB's coverage duties—in a Tampa he has the deep middle, in a regular Cover 2 he has the short middle and can be more involved in the run game. Everybody, including the cornerbacks, are hovering around close enough to gang-attack running plays like a pincer; and soft spots in the zone (everyone has them) are relatively small and difficult for non-accurate quarterbacks.
If these guys are all reacting correctly and aggressively to the run, if the cover guys are fast enough to close their zones, and the four rushers can generate pressure with regularity, this defense can bazooka anybody's rock, paper, scissors, candle, Vulcan, or whatever. Of course that is way easier said than done—remember offenses are recruiting, training, practicing, and designed for attacking this scheme.
Offensive rock is made to beat defensive bazooka. I want you to look at the above and imagine various offenses succeeding against them. ISO running forces the linebackers to read run, read the hole, and get there in time to take out a lead blocker and lead runner who by design are getting there ASAP. West Coast passing lives in those soft spots under and between the coverage. Air Raids attempt to warp the zones into providing bigger holes by flooding and stretching them. Option running makes a balanced coverage into an effective numbers advantage for the offense at the point of attack. Vanilla defense is made to stop whatever's thrown their way, and offenses gain success by making Mr. Jack-of-All die a consistent bleeding death.
To see vanilla defense in action throw a dart at any recording of Iowa in the last 12 years; their M.O. is to stick to this maniacally. The converse in-conference would be Michigan State. On the way home from Europe this weekend I randomly sat next to MSU LB Chris Norman. Other than "Wisconsin's offense was way tougher than any of the SEC teams," and "lol Michigan's uniforms last year," Norman happily admitted "YAARRGGH SPARTY SMASH!!" is the coaches' favorite blitz, and that they'll run it or something like it more than any other play. Some teams like paper.
So there are exceptions but the exceptions can be beat with your properly executed scissors. The point remains that all matrices aside, much about football comes down to defeating your opponent's bazooka, or vanilla thing, or "rock" defense with your rock. If you recognize this particular bit of wisdom from DeBordian philosophy, well yes in this DeBord is absolutely right. But if you don't properly mix in your constraints, and you always run rock to the same spot/guy out of the same formation, and you shuffle your fullba…uh let's not go there.
Next time (last one? I think it is but I keep stretching these): What's Our Rock?
This is a follow up to to Doctor Rocklove a few weeks ago, where I identified the influence of offensive sets on philosophies. If you're not familiar with offensive theory you should go back and read that. If you're a football coach you are welcome to pinch the bridge of your nose and shake your head, for this is only going to cover about 20 percent of what you know to be the basics of offensive football.
The point today is to look at some of the base plays of various offenses, and a few of the constraint plays that they use to counter, and what defenses do to counter that. In doing so I hope to
find stumble upon a better explanation of Borgesian offensive theory than the "grab bag" this space has previously suggested.
That Thing You Do
You've probably read enough college football boilerplate by now to have heard a coach talk about "what we'd like to do." This does not have to mean one play, but it often means one concept—very much like a play—which the team will be able to execute to perfection against the defense they want to see. That play is usually going to be low-risk, and if executed flawlessly against the vanilla defense it's built to beat, it will gain a consistent 5 to 7 yards. It can be run out of many formations, and you will practice it a thousand million times until you are sure it will work every time unless the opposition "cheats" to beat it.
For Vince Lombardi it was the sweep. For Wisconsin (and virtually every high school in our division in the late-'90s) it was the ISO. It could be the Triple-Option (Bo), or the Zone Read (Rodriguez), or Hitch-n-Out (Walsh) or Levels (Peyton Manning's favorite), or 62 mesh (Captain Leachbeard). With passing offenses, which is Borges's thing, it's important to note that the core concept itself can often be a package of plays which work off of each other, none particularly favored; for running the same concept will vary where on the line it will attack.
You can go crazy for your core concept. You can practice it incessantly. You can recruit players whose skills best fit what they're supposed to do on that play. You can even focus physical training on developing muscles that are used on that play. The better you are at that play—and this is a sliding scale—the more the defense has to move someone or do something to "adjust" to you. But this is a zero-sum game, so if you're moving a defender to stop the base play, he's no longer doing the thing he was doing before. He is making something else way easier than it should be. He'll do this anyway, until you make him pay.
Constraint Theory of Offense and RPS
What you choose as your core play or concept will determine much about the other things your offense does, because now you add plays to punish defenses for adjusting to your base play. That's what coaches mean by "constraint"—you are constraining the level to which the defense can react to your bread and butter. What you are essentially doing is creating an environment in which you get to run your core play, which you've practiced more than any other play, exactly how you drew it up as much as you can.
Certain concepts are almost always constraints because they won't work against vanilla defenses. Delayed handoffs work because the defensive line is closing on the quarterback as if it's a pass play. Halfback screens work well against blitzes but if a linebacker is in man on the running back, a vanilla defensive concept, you're screwed.
Defensive wins in rock, paper, scissors are rare and lucky guesses; usually a D's successes come from outstanding execution of a vanilla defense, for example if the nose tackle shoots past a playside block and forces a pitch on a speed option (as if that could happen).
Defenses have constraints too but theirs are limited by the offense's greatest advantage: whoever has the ball chooses the play (the D's advantage is so much more can go wrong with offensive execution). Defensive constraints translated to boilerplate sound like "we took away the run and made Denard beat us through the air." What they mean is the defense was cheating against the offense's base play all game but leaving themselves more open to the constraint plays, betting on poorer execution by the offense.
Dantonio last year sent two blitzing linebackers up the middle on many occasions, taking away Michigan's bread 'n butter play "Denard-'n-stuff." This forced Michigan into our constraint, which was targeting open receivers in short zones, but then Dantonio took this away by having safeties replace the blitzing LBs. This opened up another constraint by making deep coverage completely up to the cornerbacks, but then a trash tornado covered that constraint for them.
What the constraint theory does for playcalling is create a kind of matrix of offensive adjustments to defensive adjustments and adjustments to those adjustments. For a typical varsity high school team that matrix is probably 20 plays, and for college football it's more complex, and in the NFL the adjustments are so myriad and subtle I'd have an easier time teaching EMI/RMI shielding (it sounds hard).
Because the shades of gray in such a big decision matrix make for convoluted understanding, I've tried to (over-)condense the basic constraints of four basic offenses. There is way, way more but these are a few of the constraint packages that Michigan used last year.
Offensive Concept: I'm bigger, faster and stronger than you are, so I'm gonna hit you so hard your momma cries, then evoke masculine metaphors.
Defensive Concept: Control the point of contact, win 1st down, never let the train leave the station.
|Rock||Man-on-man blocking, backs hit 2nd level at full speed running vertically. Repeated success quickly tires defenders, especially if the backs are regularly hitting defensive backs, and sets up soul-crushing play-action.||Read and react. Have LBs who can react quickly to the right hole (5-2, 4-3 under, 3-4), or b) have superior DL beat their blocks while the LBs maintain their gaps (4-3). Zone behind that so CBs can pincer.|
|Paper||Prey on the reacting linebackers by running play action, then rolling the pocket away from the point of attack and passing deep.||Blitz their favorite gaps. The point is to control where the point of contact occurs, so the sooner that happens, the sooner one of them will take out the lead blocker, and the sooner the ballcarrier is tackled.|
|Scissors||Screens, draws, and quick, short passes to curl and out routes to take advantage of corners' fears of something deep.||Back off into safe coverage--these days it's cover 2 man, meaning the cornerbacks are in man on WRs with safety help over the top. This takes the CBs out of run support but any pass deep is into double-coverage.|
Timed Passing (West Coast)
Offensive Concept: A symphony of route design and timing that puts defenses into a progression of impossible choices.
Defensive Concept: Throw off your timing, suffocate your routes, kill your conductor.
|Rock||Quick routes by receivers and RBs that make a zone defender commit to one guy, then hit the other guy before another defender can come up.||Cover-2, and faster, smarter zone defenders who pass off receivers seamlessly, so that the O has to check down to nothing, throw into a super-tight window, or just runs out of time before the pass rush gets home.|
|Paper||Run the ball with power, delayed handoffs and screens. Once the defense is thoughtlessly stepping backwards when the QB is, they're no longer able to react to something as basic as a RB and his convoy pointed downhill.||Zone blitz, i.e. drop DL into coverage while random LBs and safeties blitz or squat in short zones. Reads and blocking are much more difficult, and small windows become no windows.|
|Scissors||Throw "hot" into the pressure, with pre-arranged hot (post-snap) reads that both the QB and his receivers make.||Levels/Robber. Drop back in a 3-deep zone while rushing 5 (often the SLB/nickel). Robber reacts to runs/screens or replaces guy who blitzed for instant pick/scared QB.|
Read Passing (Air Raid, Pro)
Offensive Concept: Spread, mesh, read, and gun, so on any given play, at any spot on the field, we can put it where you ain't.
Defensive Concept: Anywhere you can get, I can get faster
|Rock||Spread to pass. The O-line is spread to basically neutralize line play (DL will break through eventually but seldom right away). Receivers run "mesh" routes against each other, then cut off their routes when they've recognized the D in order to find soft spots in the zone.||Cover-3 zone, trusting your LBs to intelligently route receivers and react and trusting the QB and WRs can't connect on all of their 7-yard passes and that soft spots are small.|
|Dynamite with a cut-able wick||Curls, and/or bubble screen whenever the defense is obviously backing off. Dana Holgorsen has altered this to delayed handoffs and screens by using two RBs and putting one in motion to simulate the spread.||3-5-3. The Air Raid threatens the whole field to open up the easy passes off of two crossing routes, so forget pass rushing and clog up the middle.|
|Scissors||(This is just mean) Four Verts: suddenly the deep receiver is no longer just a quick glance to keep you honest but a high-low with the seam.||Press man coverage/blitz up the middle.|
Option (Triple-Option, Zone Read)
Offensive Concept: Reverse the traditional 7-on-6 "numbers" advantage of the defense in the running game (i.e. their front 7 versus 5 OL and a running back) by having the quarterback participate, and "blocking" an edge defender by optioning off of him instead of wasting a body.
Defensive Concept: The cat has more patience than the mouse.
|Rock||Isolate an unblocked front-7 defender against the QB and another accessible option he can go to once the defender commits.||Change up the edge attack so the QB is reading the wrong guy or walking into a trap. Scrape exchange, slant the DL, etc.|
|Paper||Fake the option and then send a quick seam over the heads of the oncoming defenders.||Cheat extra defenders (8 or 9 in the box) into the area where the option will occur so nobody gets isolated and/or blitz into one of the options (e.g. CB blitz or MLB blitz into RB's hole) so unblocked guy can focus on one option.|
|Scissors||Option 3. This is the FB dive in a triple-option and the bubble screen in the spread 'n shred, and is a constraint called by alignment.||Line up "clean" with safeties still in coverage, and if they option do what you can to delay the decision and await the cavalry.|
Next time in this series: vanilla defenses, and the best offense for Michigan this year and beyond.
Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the I
Things of offense: Manliness, shotgun, impeccable timing, and options
Over the last few seasons we've talked a lot in this space about how shotgun formations and the spread are awesome, while anything else will steal your children. This is a myth—all offenses that score points are equal—but you could almost be forgiven for thinking that we are spread zealots when we have a tag called "i am a spread zealot no foolies." Most of the time we were saying "this is what Michigan should run right now," but to say most of the authors here haven't been partial to Oregonian offenses is an insult to your bias sensors.
Part of this is because I haven't always used the most correct terminology, or used sets and formation and personnel and philosophies as interchangeable when they're not. What we haven't said very much is talk about other offensive philosophies and why they are awesome too. What I'd like to do then is rectify some of that.
HUUUGE thank you to Tyler Sellhorn and Steve Sharik for looking over this stuff, then saying "omigod this is only like 10% of what offense is." Everything below that is correct came from them, but as you read I ask you only think of them as exasperated professors watching their theories butchered by a student presentation.
I. What's the Point of Offense?
Scoring is the point. How you get there is what we're talking about, and that's strategy. Offensive strategy comes down to a fairly simple concept: find a thing that you can beat a base defense with most of the time, then build in things around it to force the defense to defend you with a base defense. Anything can be adjusted to, but adjustments are usually unsound and thus make some other aspect easier than it should be. Where coaches disagree is on what that thing is, and whether to get so good at that as to be nigh unbeatable at it, or to get good at other things that beat base defenses too. What follows is a layman's oversimplification of offensive formations, and how they relate to offensive philosophies by a layman who needs to oversimplify it to get it.
* That link is to Chris Brown's "Why Every Team Should Apply the Constraint Theory of Offense" and you should read that.
When I started trying to make formations and philosophies into the same thing, two coaches I asked about it said don't do that because personnel groups matter more. A formation is two things: personnel (how many RBs and TEs vs. receivers are there) and set (how they line up). Common backfield sets are the words you're probably most familiar with: a. I-Form, b. Split-backs, c. Ace, and d. Shotgun.
But these words are only part of the set nomenclature. "I-Form" means the RB, FB, and HB are more or less in a line (though the FB is often shifted one way or another). "Split-Backs" refers to where the RBs are lined up, whereas "Shotgun" just means where the quarterback is lined up. What you know as "Ace" is actually referring to personnel, i.e. there is just 1 RB in the backfield. In the above examples both (c.) and (d.) could be called "Ace."
"Pro Set" is a specific alignment of the wide receivers, where one side has a receiver (the "flanker") plus a tight end, and the other side has just one receiver, the "split end."
The part defensive coaches are most concerned about when they're matching is not the set but the personnel. Football coaches express personnel in numeric terms you may have heard them yell at their wards but never understood: Twelve! Twenty! Twenty-One!, i.e. 12, 20, 21. These numbers, like "43" for a 4-3 defensive alignment, are combo digits where the first refers to the number of running backs out there, and the second to how many tight ends. So "12" means there's one running back and two TEs, "21" is two RBs and a TE, "11" is one RB and one TE. A third digit in the representation is the receiver count, e.g. 104 personnel means 1 RB, 0TE, 4 WRs.
So the four examples above are a.) I-form 21 Pro, b.) Split-backs 21 Pro, c.) Ace 11, and d.) Shotgun 11.
III. Why Set Matters
There are tradeoffs to how you line up your backfield, especially in the running game. A running back who starts the play behind the quarterback (a., b., or c.) will get the handoff a few yards behind the line of scrimmage with a running start in the direction you want the ball to go, but if the QB's getting a shotgun snap that handoff occurs six feet behind the line of scrimmage, and if the RB is moving it's not forward. This is a considerable disadvantage—one second after the snap a ball carrier about to hit his hole at full speed is far preferable to one at a dead stop far behind the line of scrimmage.
"Spread" has virtually lost its meaning but it's basically the opposite of bunching, the idea being to trade off some of the "I can put lots of guys at any point of attack on the line really really fast" for a measure "I can make your defenders pull apart to open up more space for my athletes to beat yours in space." I couldn't find a coach to back me up on this but I see horizontal spreading as a sliding scale between how much of the line of scrimmage in the box can you attack quickly with lots of guys (less spread) or how much of the line of scrimmage outside of the tackles can you attack quickly with one guy in space (more spread). Again, this is a tradeoff between things that are (specific talents nonwithstanding) equal.
Three of the four formations above are made to threaten this quick-strike downhill runner. Having the QB under center gives the RB in an Ace formation that head start. With multiple backs you threaten such quick attacks at multiple gaps in the line (think of two chess bishops next to each other), though when you go to 20-something personnel the defense will likely match.
I-form gets the added bonus of a fullback hitting that same hole even faster, either as a lead blocker or the main attraction. This is the key to such favorite I-form plays as SLAM! and WHAM! and BUHBUHBLAM!!! So long as the O-line can do its job the speed and power with which such an attack hits a base defense can make it good for 3 or 4 yards consistently. I've just described part of the base premise of Manball philosophy.
There are plenty more than this, but the four concepts that seem to cover most offenses you need to know are:
- Manball: My bigger- and stronger- and faster-than-you-are running back and his lead blocker are going to attack any spot between the tackles so fast your defenders won't get there until we're already in your backfield. Requires: Talent across the board. An OL who can't block 1-on-1 can screw up the play; an RB who loses all momentum at the moment of impact is giving up an extra YPP.
- Timed Passing: aka "West Coast:" A symphony of route design and timing that puts defenses into a progression of impossible choices, living and exploiting those precious seconds when your zone defender can't be in two places at once. Requires: Quick-thinking, –seeing quarterback with strong arm and laser accuracy, WRs with great hands for catching under duress, pass-pro OLs.
- Mesh/Read Passing: Spread, mesh, read, and gun, so on any given play, at any spot on the field, we can put it where you ain't by having QBs and receivers read your coverage and go right to the holes. Requires: Smart QB and receivers who can quickly read a defense, receivers with speed to open up those holes, incessant drilling so that QB and WRs are "in sync" or "on the same page."
- Option: Isolate an unblocked defender so that he's forced into a Catch 22; when he makes his decision, take the option he didn't. Requires: QB with running back skills, quicker OL, WRs who can sustain blocks.
All of these are unbeatable strategies if executed properly against a base defense. And it's important to note that none are restricted to any one formation. What was so cool about the Zone Read, which uses an option philosophy, is that it does so from the same formations NFL offenses normally use for their Timed/Read passing games, preserving all of those passing advantages for the constraint plays. At Michigan Rich Rodriguez ran a ton of QB Iso out of a shotgun spread, sending a lead blocker (at times the RB, an H-back, or a pulling guard) into the intended gap and having Denard Robinson (and Feagin before him), act as his own I-back. It's also key to remember that most offenses use many concepts, in fact most NFL offenses today, though they call themselves West Coast, all use concepts that are very Air Raid.
However the formations do have some relationship to the above philosophies. To way oversimplify, here's a matrix of base effectiveness for each common formation and the four above philosophies ("1" being "Most Effective, and "4" being "Least Effective"). Also I'm comparing the formations to each other; West Coast still works quite well out of the I-form I'll have you know.
|Shotgun Spread (11, 12)||I-Form (21, 20, 22, 23)||Split Back (20, 21, 22)||Ace (12, 13)|
|MANBALL||4. Can work as a changeup (e.g. the delay) against defenses keying on ZR or pass, or with a great rushing QB.||1. Multiple RBs and blockers quickly hit many points of attack with forward momentum.||2. Two RBs mean either can get the handoff and get outside the tackles quickly, but any lead-blocking plays are slow to develop.||3. Single RB hits the hole with momentum, but no lead blocker. Power is mostly a check against passing.|
|Timed Passing (West Coast)||3. RB can stays to help with protection and QB should have time to survey, room to step up into the pocket. But because it's a pass-heavy set the defense will be keying on it, meaning less time to throw.||4. Relies a lot on play-action, rollouts, and the running game being good enough to make opponents cheat on it. Works if D must respect PA.||2. RBs and OL are already set in pocket formation. Great formation for a good Pro-style QB/WR combo to let routes develop. Usually frees a TE or RB in the flat as an outlet. Lack of spread hurts.||1. Horiz. spreading helps, drop-back is timed with routes. PA, threat of screens, end-arounds, and pre-snap motion force D to play it honest.|
|Mesh/Read Passing||1. QB is immediately in position to see and throw, receivers are spread horiz and vert. However lack of running threat lets D tee off with 9-techs, etc. Most NFL offenses today are this.||4. RBs are mostly limited to flat routes that you can high-low and TE is only inside receiver, but D overplaying run should get WRs good space for curls and slants.||3. Two receiver options are RBs starting far behind the line so meshing routes is difficult. Threat of run establishes pass options.||2. Receivers can be arranged to spread horizontally or bunched to flood a zone, RB acts as center threat.|
|Option||3. Spread 'n Shred. It gives up ground and is slower to develop. Options btw dive and QB off-tackle; Option 3 is a pre-snap read (bubble screen). Speed option gives up the dive for Options 2 or 3.||2. Nebraska under Osborne. The triple-option is often run from this set since Option 1 (the FB dive) can happen super-quick.||1. The triple-option ("Houston Veer") was born from this set. The playside RB is the dive, and you can option off of multiple front 7 players.||4. One of your "backs" is a receiver so the way to run Triple-O is to put that guy in motion (think Denard Jet), which basically means you're converting to an I-form.|
No the formations are not created equal. Some are better at running, others passing. But the thing to remember here is the rule of constraints: if you can do something well from a formation that doesn't do it well, the things that formation does do well are now available to you. Oregon's offense works so well because running so effectively from the spread means defenses have to cheat against the run against an essentially passing formation. Meanwhile MANBALL offenses are best if filled with great passing pieces, e.g. Henne and Braylon/Avant, because if the safeties are backpedaling away from a 21 I-formation, well yipee.
When Brian complains about DeBord it's often because his playcalling was so predictable. The crime here wasn't anything to do with Manball as a Philosophy, but in not using the pass as a constraint, and in telegraphing which side the play was going—more often than not behind Long/Kraus because the other side was Mitchell/ Ciulla/ Schilling/ Ortman/ McAvoy/ Riley/ Whatever—by shifting the fullback to that side. Defenses would do the unsound thing, and there would be zero constraint. Conversely, when I was making yards-per-attempt cases from the UFRs earlier this year it again wasn't anything wrong with Manball the Philosophy, but because the offensive personnel's strengths were the wrong strengths for that philosophy. By 2015 I'm guessing that will have reversed.
Next Museday: a grossly oversimplified matrix of Rock, Paper, Scissors for each philosophy, and the RPS counters by defenses for each, then a long discussion of which philosophy I think Borges really believes in.
Nothing will ever bring home how bizarrely intense people get about spring football than Orson's annual in-depth review of Florida's spring game. It's the closest he gets to being a conventional team blogger, a straightforward piece of analysis long enough to be a Marky Mark Mangino post livened up by Orson's tendency to call things a "boiled bag of rat innards". Orson is writing about defensive tackles. It is April and college football is bored.
Michigan's got one of those this weekend and these are the things I'll be extrapolating answers from the tiniest filaments of evidence about:
Is Can Have Tailback
Michigan's tailback last year was Denard Robinson and when it wasn't Denard Robinson it was people being enraged that Vincent Smith wasn't really fast or falling down past the line of scrimmage. This year some variety of pro-style offense will be deployed; having a tailback becomes significantly less optional.
- Vincent Smith, the 5'6" Pahokeean who was the leading non-Robinson rusher last year with 601 yards. He took 136 carries to get those—4.4 per—and struggled badly against anything approximating a good defense.
- Michael Shaw. Carlos Brown 2.0 averaged a full yard per carry more than Smith mostly because he got hurt after the Bowling Green game.
- Michael Cox. The Loch Ness Monster is reputed to be a stallion of a man capable of great feats. Unfortunately he is 50-50 to run towards the correct endzone on any given play.
- Stephen Hopkins. Hopkins had some fumbling issues and only ended up with 37 carries last year but his size made him an effective lead blocker for Robinson and his rushes promised a Minor-like downhill moose down the road. We're a bit further down the road and Hopkins's new head coach loves him some moose.
- Fitzgerald Toussaint. Toussaint has been vaporware in his first two years. Maybe he can stay healthy for the next twenty seconds.
There is also The Greatest Player In The History Of The World According To Two Jacksons. Thomas Rawls enters with the sort of hype you can only get by being a generic late-rising three star coached by Fred Jackson's son and recruited by Fred Jackson. Since he didn't enroll early we won't get to test the Jacksons' theory that Thomas Rawls encompasses the power of the sun and gently warms the earth each morning.
Looking for: A somewhat lighter, faster Hopkins with a grasp of what he should do. He's probably going to be the best back on the roster and he's now in a system that loves/needs a guy like him.
Fearing: Vincent Smith looks pretty much the same and still has a lock on the top TB spot. It's plausible that Smith's injury lingered into last season—remember he tore that ACL during the OSU game, so he had well under a year to get ready—and that he'll display a lot more speed and agility two years removed from it. If that's the case then maybe he can be a decent Big Ten starter. If he's still the same guy he was last year and he's still at the top of the depth chart and he's getting a lot of carries from the I when Denard could be doing something, guh.
Will only believe three games into the season: Cox as Herschel Walker. That guy is never going to play. He's a redshirt junior and couldn't get a carry last year even when half the tailback corps was injured and the rest was Smith and freshman Hopkins. And this is at tailback, the position where you can leap into the starting lineup on day one if, say, you're a human battering ram who runs like a gazelle. The only RB in recent Michigan history to get noticeably better late in his career was Chris Perry. Everyone else was the same guy they always were.
The Roundtree Question
What do you do with the Big Ten's second leading receiver when his production was predicated on the threat of Denard Robinson running and his position only sort of exists in the platonic ideal of a MANBALL offense?
The answer to this is probably "nothing." Borges said something about running a ton of three and four wide this season. Even if that's forced it sounds like Borges is going to roll with it, especially because his best wideout seems most comfortable in the slot—kinda need to have three WRs to have a slot—and the tight ends are sparse and stone-handed. Late-era Carr teams based out of three wide even after Steve Breaston had moved on to the NFL. Borges is more of a bomber than Carrbord and just spent a couple years running one of those "West Coast" offenses that throws damn near everything out there. So… yeah, expect three wideouts.
Okay, then, but the further question is: what will Borges do with the guy? Roundtree went nuts last year when the threat of Denard Robinson sucked safeties up and saw him stunningly wide open against Notre Dame and Indiana and Illinois and several other times besides. Can Borges run what he wants to run and surround Roundtree with nothing but grass?
Looking for: Michigan safeties to fail spectacularly because they can't decide whether to take Denard or stay back. If you can't do it to Michigan safeties you can't do it to anyone.
Fearing: Borges can't evolve the system to keep ahead of defenses and get those almost free touchdowns. I'm sure he can emulate QB Lead Oh Noes but Michigan had to keep re-arranging it to prevent safeties from showing up in the wrong place at the critical moment. Borges is a smart guy but his knowledge is in another arena. I'm not sure he'll be able to create as many opportunities with Denard's legs.
Will only believe three games into the season: Jeremy Gallon on the field.
Okay, You Run Power, But How?
Michigan ran POWER last year. They didn't run it much, but they did use it as a counter to the constant stretch action. It was fairly successful as a changeup. That move was part of the shift in Michigan's offense away from a true zone read to an odd QB-as-TB thing people called "QB iso" and didn't know what to do with—the AP put him on their All-America team as a "back." Like Rodriguez coming into DeBord's already extant stretch offense, Hoke is walking into a situation where his guys have some clue about what the new stuff is.
Unfortunately, we've seen bits and pieces of power plays run from under center in the practice videos that have invariably been stuffed. This is rock hard evidence it is not a good idea. So, like, what I'm saying is that if you've got Denard Robinson and you want to run power you might as well line up in the shotgun and run it with Denard Robinson, right?
A secondary question: how serious is Hoke about his distaste for zone running? He seems like a pretty hands-off guy when it comes to the offense, but if there's one thing he's stressed on that side of the ball it's that the team "will run power" and fullbacks will have their spine compressed and whatnot. This is something of a problem because Michigan has just completed the transition away from hampeople. Mike DeBord installed a zone stretch running game in 2006 and Michigan started recruiting to it. That first class was David Molk and Mark Huyge, now redshirt seniors.
Everyone recruited since has been either a relatively light and mobile spread OL or a prototypical left tackle. The prototype will be fine in any system; guys like Molk and Omameh and Ricky Barnum might not be. If Michigan spends the offseason putting beef on the interior line it might work out… or it might give them a bunch of tweeners not particularly good at anything.
Looking for: QB power.
Fearing: RB power.
Will only believe three games into the season: Michigan guards as effective drive blockers.
It was at last year's spring game that Robinson went from a freak show who should be moved to tailback to a freak show who should be in the Heisman running. He can't improve that much again without melting anyone who watches him, Ark of the Covenant style, but he was still pretty raw last year. He had bouts of drive- and game-crippling inaccuracy; he occasionally joined the Rex Grossman "f*** it, I'm going deep" club; he was restricted to a set of limited routes that teams adapted to as the leaves turned. He should progress. How much?
Looking for: Incremental improvement.
Fearing: Uncomfortable on drops and still prone to chucking slants well behind his receivers.
Will only believe three games into the season: hopefully that Denard Robinson can do anything.
Probably not this throwback
Three days later we can say this is probably not an April Fools joke. If you're like me you thought the announcement Michigan and Notre Dame would wear throwback uniforms for their upcoming night game (with lasers!) was a cleverly plausible April Fools joke. It is not so:
"We're going to have throwback uniforms. As they will," Kelly told the Tribune. "I can tell you what theirs look like -- They have a block 'M' on them, and a number, and a number on their helmet. How's that? The adidas [Ed:* (this means footnote)] people at Michigan are going to be (ticked) at me."
Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon told The Detroit News on Friday that while Michigan is working on a special uniform project for the night game with Adidas and is excited about it, nothing has yet been determined.
If I was the AD I'd tell people Michigan was going to come out in throwbacks, then make a derisive wanking motion in their direction when Michigan hit the field in the same classic uniforms they've been wearing since time began. This is one of infinite reasons why I'm not the AD.
The immediate worry is that Michigan's "throwbacks" will be throwbacks in the Ohio State sense—"this stupid-looking stormtrooper outfit has nothing at all to do with whatever we claim it does"—instead of the Lions sense—"they should wear these all the time." If we were still with Nike this would not even be a question. Our throwbacks would come with futuristic lizard scales—mascot appropriate!—and they'd make the wings on the helmet wings of flame because that's rad. Adidas might actually produce a throwback that looks reasonably like what players wore in the long long ago.
As you might expect, MVictors has a list of changes since Bo's arrival. If there's a number on the helmet we're going back to at least 1968—and who wouldn't want to commemorate 1968? BONUS: Doctor Saturday pointed out on twitter that Michigan and Notre Dame were in one of their periodic snits during the 60s and never played.
*[Back in the day when I was editing everyone's Every Three Weekly stories I bought a few usage/copyediting books. My favorite was Lapsing Into A Comma, the one written by a longtime Washington Post grammar curmudgeon. One of the things that stuck is that you are not obligated to comply with the marketing department's wishes when you are trying to write understandable English sentences. Yahoo does not have an exclamation point because that's punctuation in the middle of a fricking sentence(!). E-Trade is not E*Trade because we are not multiplying trade by 2.71 etc etc etc. Adidas is Adidas, not adidas, because it is a proper noun. Do not let marketers define the acceptable limits of language because obviously.]
Dana Holgorsen, West Virginia’s new offensive coordinator and head coach in waiting, has frequently said that his entire record breaking offense can be installed “in three days.” And, now that his three days of spring practice are up, he said on day four his team will simply “start over,” and will run through this install period three or four times during the spring. Wait, what? Hasn’t Holgorsen been a part of record breaking offenses for more than a decade, including the last three (at Houston and then Oklahoma State) as head orchestrator? Doesn’t saying you can install your entire top tier Division-I men’s college football offense in three lousy days seem a little bit like, I don’t know, bullshit?
Yeah, kind of, but Chris Brown (not that Chris Brown (or that other Chris Brown inexplicably wearing a Jalen jersey)) goes on to explain that if you were going to boil down Holgorsen's philosophy in one word it would be "specialization." No one plays, or even thinks of playing, multiple positions in his offense. Receivers are X or Y or Z from the day they show up until the day they leave.
This may go against "getting the ball to your playmakers," but Holgorsen argues the ball will find them anyway. Brown:
The idea is a simple one: with limited practice time and, to be honest, limited skills, kids need to focus on a few things and to get better at them — the jack of all trades is incredibly overrated. While Urban Meyer’s Florida offense thrived for a time with Tebow and his omnipositional teammate, Percy Harvin, I’d argue that this reliance on a “Percy Position” — a guy that can play most every skill position on offense — eventually does more harm than good. I’m all for getting the ball to playmakers in different ways, but I am not — and neither is Holgorsen — a fan of doing it to the detriment of repetitions and becoming a master at your given position.
Michigan did this pretty well on offense, something best exemplified by Roy Roundtree becoming the second-leading receiver in the league as a slot receiver without a ton of wiggle. Michigan also avoided the widespread position-flopping on the offensive line that was characteristic of the late Carr era when someone went down injured.
They were beyond horrible at this on defense. A quick list of players who switched positions just last year: Cam Gordon, Thomas Gordon, Marvin Robinson, Craig Roh, Renaldo Sagesse, Adam Patterson, Ryan Van Bergen, JB Fitzgerald, Jordan Kovacs, and in one sense or another every damn player. Michigan moved from a fairly straight 4-3 under with an "okie" blitz package to a 3-3-5 to a 4-2-5 nickel back to a fairly straight 4-3 under to a 3-3-5 again, except they ran everything too and went from primarily 4-3/3-4 against MSU and Iowa to a straight 3-3-5 against PSU. It was a complete disaster that eventually undermined even what looked like an offense ready to put the throttle all the way down and probably justified Rodriguez's quick firing.
Random mental exercise: boil down other coaches' philosophy into single word.
- Lloyd Carr, Jim Tressel, Mark Dantonio: execute
- Rich Rodriguez: numbers
- Chip Kelly: pace
- Gus Mahlzahn: bewilder
- Bret Bielema: hampeople
- Danny Hope: whimper
- Pat Fitzgerald: MacGuyver
- Jerry Kill: kill (this should be Jerry Kill's philosophy in all things)
- Mike DeBord: waste
Restate position on trash talk. Good. Draymond Green:
And then to lose twice, it still bothers me. Because it’s Michigan and I hate, just, it makes them feel like they’re better than us. After them not winning at the Breslin for like 13 years, however long it was. And now they feel like this is their state. And this is Michigan State’s state. We own this state, it’s our state. And it gives them the hope and a crazy reason to think this is their state. And I completely disagree with that 100 percent.
A BRIEF LIST OF REASONS MICHIGAN'S BASKETBALL TEAM BELIEVES THEY ARE BETTER THAN MICHIGAN STATE'S BASKETBALL TEAM:
- Beat Michigan State 61-57 at Breslin
- Beat Michigan State 70-63 at Crisler
- Finished with better overall record
- Finished with better KenPom ranking
- Advanced to second round of NCAA tournament
- Came up three points short of Sweet 16 bid
- Did not start elf who bakes cookies
- Is better than Michigan State's basketball team
These reasons probably do not qualify as crazy, especially when there are zero seniors departing. (Via UMHoops)
Rankings that may or may not mean anything. Scout is the first off the mark with a top 100—actually, a top 300. Blue In Cleveland compiled players of interest. I'll whittle his whittling down to guys Michigan seems to be in the top three for:
Stefon Diggs is listed as #2 at SAFETY!, 5*,- 16th overall
Zeke Pike #3 QB, 5*, 25th overall
Jordan Diamond #9 OT, 4*, 40th overall
Sheldon Day #9 DT, 4*, 64th overall
James Ross #2 MLB, 4*, 72nd overall
Royce Jenkins-Stone #7 OLB, 4*, 105th overall
Chris Wormley #13 DE, 4*, 112th overall
Danny O'Brien #14 DT, 4*, 131st overall
Ron Thompson #5 TE, 4*, 137th overall
Terry Richardson #8 CB, 4*, 139th overall
Kaleb Ringer #8 MLB, 4*, 206th overall
The two OL commits picked up three-star rankings, which whatever. They're OL. Even final rankings for them are wobbly; these are hardly extant. Matt Godin landed just outside the top 300, FWIW.
As I said when Hoke was hired, he's got a combination of a great in-state class, several out-of-state guys who were Michigan leans from birth (Diamond, Wormley, Day), and a strong Ohio class in a year where OSU is light on scholarships. That was before all this Tressel whatnot went down. Hop out to a good start and hold on to it and he could bring in a much-needed shot in the arm.
It just keeps going until the day it stops. More Ohio State WTF:
Ohio State officials were aware Jim Tressel had forwarded sensitive emails to quarterback Terrelle Pryor's mentor in Jeanette, Pa. during an initial March 8 press conference ….
During that original press conference, Tressel was asked by Yahoo! Sports' Dan Wetzel specifically if the coach had forwarded the emails to anyone else. Tressel seemed to answer yes but he was interrupted by AD Gene Smith who said that information was part of the investigation. It is not clear how far back that Ohio State officials knew about the additional concealment of the Sarniak information.
Smug popcorn consumption image macro goes here.
Etc.: Also in that UMHoops post: Glenn Robinson III picks up a couple positive reviews in early AAU action and Michigan is still getting mentioned for 6'6" German PG(!) Patrick Heckmann. Now we get to speculate about Max Bielfeldt's loaded family paying his way instead of Illinois fans. More realistically, he would be an option if Darius Morris enters the draft. MGoBlue practice videos up the music drama. Zoltan's working at a private equity firm during this whole lockout business. Hockey commits Tyler Motte and Evan Allen score all three goals in a Honeybaked win over Shattuck for a U16 national tourney title. Charlie Sheen's Detroit appearance… not so good.