Nuss went from sense-bringing savior to Brandon crony really in one trip to South Bend. And he didn’t even make our list. [Fuller]
The assistant you changed your opinion on the fastest, negative or positive? Note: this was inspired by a conversation about Durkin, whom nobody took. In fact we probably left a lot of answers on the table in trying to avoid the obvious.
Adam: I was on the fence when Jedd Fisch was hired; he hadn't spent more than two seasons anywhere since his time as an assistant QB/WR coach with the Ravens from 2004-2007, and his stints as an offensive coordinator in college and the NFL yielded uninspiring results. One need only look as far as his Hello post to see that advanced stats weren't kind to his tenure as a college or pro OC outside of one shiny FEI number in 2011.
You shouldn't judge based on a limited data set, and Fisch's work is a reminder why. Jake Rudock, already a pretty good quarterback when he got to Ann Arbor, saw his completion percentage rise 2.1% and his yards per attempt rise 0.7 yards to 7.8 from 2014 to 2015. The Harbaugh caveat applies, but the receivers also made big year-to-year improvements.
[After the jump: another thinks—we had them coming]
Coachbot is malfunctioning. Someone give him a whack.
Purdue coaches all look alike. Jerry Kill doesn't know what Darrell Hazell looks like.
So Michigan has lost to the Ebola coach and goofy Minnesota uncle this year.
Also in Minnesota, I would pay to see Jerry Kill do this:
The status (please don't be the status). Sam Webb laid out his opinion of the way things are going to go on the Scout message board in an extensive post. In brief: his guess at the moment is that Brandon is relieved sometime after the season and this delay may end up buying Hoke another year.
I find it implausible that Michigan would risk that. The fanbase is right on the edge of dropping out in droves—a recent Free Press story touting the fact that Michigan only lost about 700 season ticket holders ignores the fact that Michigan has now completely burned through its once-legendary waitlist. Hoke's return threatens to create a serious dent, and once you break the habit it's hard to get people back in it.
Recruiting shouldn't override common sense here. Even if Michigan goes with another Process that sees them hire a coach in the middle of January the recruiting impact won't be enormous because this class is so small. If Michigan hangs onto 8-10 guys they could add a few fliers and be fine. The guys they hang onto are actually touted recruits instead of the mess that was Rodriguez's last class.
Maybe I shouldn't worry. A lot of these projections come with disclaimers like "if Michigan splits with MSU and OSU". MSU opened a 15.5 point favorite—the most MSU has ever been favored in the series—and that was quickly bumped up to 17. That gives Michigan a less than ten percent chance to win. OSU just bombed Rutgers 56-10; that spread is likely to be in the same range.
Tony Gibson, the first-year West Virginia defensive coordinator, had an interesting dilemma midway through the second quarter facing the dynamic Baylor offense. The Bears had arrived in Morgantown averaging an FBS-leading 623 yards per game and 67 points in their past two meetings with the Mountaineers. Baylor had just retaken the lead, 20-14, on a 63-yard touchdown catch-and-run by Antwan Goodley.
On the play, WVU's Terrell Chestnut took a vicious block from Corey Coleman to spring Goodley. The WVU cornerback was down on the field for minutes and done for the game due to a concussion. The Mountaineers also had lost their other standout corner, Daryl Worley, for the game at the start of the second quarter after he injured his ribs on a punt return.
WVU blitzed 46 times, Petty got discombobulated, and WVU ran away with a win over #4 Baylor after holding the Bears to just 315 yards—their lowest total in four years. Without both starting corners. With Tony Gibson their defensive coordinator.
Good one, universe. Just when I think I can't feel your steel-toed boot you find the last possible nerve that feels anything.
Other basketball takes. Grantland* oddly dispatched a guy to cover the Michigan-Northwestern game. He comes back with an impression of Ann Arbor clearly derived from the rims clanging so loud it sounds like a Gary, Indiana, steel mill before it closed in 1979, but once he gets past the grim midwesternness of it all it's a good piece:
. In the post, Smotrycz and Novak get rough with Shurna, putting their bodies into him, bumping him off the ball, and generally making him fight for every inch. Shurna hates this physicality, hates it viscerally and philosophically and every other way you can hate something. More often than not, he casts a look at the referee, hoping for a foul call, before retreating to the perimeter. He'll finish the game with 21 points, but after his second jumper of the half, with 19 long minutes remaining, he's scored all but four of that total. The rest of the game is a vanishing act.
I still think whenever Beilein ends up with an open scholarship late he should scour Northwestern's commitments for whoever their totally rad guy is going to be. That seems preferable to snatching Colton Christian away from low majors.
Holdin' the Rope credits Denard in the headline and provides a link to the Novak dunk that brought down the house during Michigan's 10-0 second half run:
Re: Denard, A half-dozen Michigan football players including Roy Roundree and Denard held court in the student section after they were honored for winning the Sugar Bowl. One thing you can say about Michigan football: they are not too cool for school.
HTR also dubs freshman NU PG Dave Sobolewski "Sobocop" in an attempt to insult him for prompting the Morgan tech. This will certainly backfire and cause Northwestern fans to admiringly dub him that for the rest of his career. Sippin' On Purple, make this happen.
*[Grantland pays Brian Phillips and Chris Brown money to write about sports. I'm not hearing criticism of it even if it runs some dumb stuff. That's easy enough to ignore; the good bits are very good. VIVA LOS SIMMONS.]
Perhaps no one on the team has bought in to the new approach more than Mark Donnal, the 6-9 junior who is already committed to the University of Michigan. The league's top post player is averaging a team-high 20.4 points and 8.7 rebounds after averaging 15 points and seven boards last season.
Donnal, who probably receives more double-teams near the basket than any other player in the NLL, is sinking 79 percent of his shots from the field, as well as from the foul line.
Big guys in high school usually tower over opponents and can just oaf their way to easy buckets, but if you've seen any video of Donnal you know he's unusually skilled for a 6'9" post type. He's Pittsnogalian.
That sounds like an adjective from a lost chapter of Gulliver's Travels featuring a race of lovable, enormous tattooed weirdos. It's a keeper, that is.
CSB midterms. The NHL's Central Scouting Bureau has released their midseason rankings, which are the first to put a number on prospects rather than a vague letter. Voila:
#9 Jacob Trouba #28 Phil Di Giuseppe (freshman) #31 Boo Nieves #82 Alex Kile (2013) #157 Connor Carrick #175 Justin Selman
Incoming goalie Jared Rutledge is the #36 goalie, which would mean he's not getting drafted. Daniel Milne and future Rutledge backup Steve Racine are the only draft-eligible recruits not listed.
Trouba is the top-ranked American. A CSB scout on him:
“Jacob has offensive skills and he really does defend well. You can just tell by how he plays in all areas of the ice that he’s a big kid who skates really well, he loves to jump into the play and has confidence because he knows his skating can get him back, so he rarely gets caught out of position. He’s going to be someone people are going to talk about; we’ve known about him for a couple years and he’s not disappointing this year.”
Remember that these are North American skater rankings only; Europeans and goalies will push these folks down. Those are mid-second-round ratings for PDG and Nieves, not late first.
WCH calls out Connor Carrick as notably under-ranked; if that's true Michigan will definitely have five draftees with Selman a potential sixth. Kile is a surprise. One: I didn't know he was draft eligible this year. Two: he's got 7-8-15 in 29 games with the Green Bay Gamblers of the USHL, which is a far cry from the 38, 35, 30, 29 you see at the top of their scoring charts. He's kind of big at 6-foot, 195, but not the kind of big that gets you drafted above your skill level by the NHL.
Meanwhile in the odious machinations of junior hockey magnates. Nieves's rights were traded in the deadline flurry. This is never good, but Nieves has reconfirmed that he has no interest in the OHL:
Nieves was traded to Saginaw, which isn't any closer to home than Michigan or notorious for shelling out under the table payments. Also if he was going to leave he had an opportunity before signing up for another year of prep hockey with Matt Herr. Usually when a player committed to college changes his mind it's the year before he's scheduled to arrive. Only the specter of competing against Shawn Hunwick is sufficient motivation to ditch when college is around the corner.
Meanwhile in things you'd do for a dollar. Rumor is the Winter Classic is headed to Michigan in the near future, and not just the state:
Multiple sources told Yahoo! Sports this week that the NHL is in advanced discussions with the University of Michigan about holding the 2013 Winter Classic in Ann Arbor.
One source, who spoke on a condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak on the matter, said Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon wasn't initially sold on the idea of the NHL hosting an outdoor game at Michigan Stadium. But over a matter of a couple of weeks, the source said "something happened to make it go from looking like it could happen to [a point where] it probably will."
No doubt long deliberations with a man dressed in a curly fries outfit eventually led to the breakthrough. Would Dave Brandon threaten to break Michigan's own attendance record and hopelessly conflict a ton of people when Michigan inevitably plays a bowl game on the same day? Yes. The curly fries are very convincing, and there is at least one dollar in it.
Guh. I only talk about coaches who coach for Michigan unless I need to give Tony Gibson minus even more of the points:
The previous CB coach, Gibson, who I believe also is joining the Arizona staff, wasn't big on technique, at least not when he was a WVU. Players have stated that he would tell them, "just get to the spot." Lockwood came in and changed that, and with that change came nice strides of improvement in the cornerbacks.
Unfortunately, the spot was ten yards away from the receiver.
A few rows in front of me at the Western game was one of those guys who exasperatedly yells out a piece of football wisdom he's picked up over the years whenever he is affronted by its lack. His wisdom was "turn around for the ball," which he yelled at Herron a couple times and the cornerbacks a couple times.
I was with him, but then a funny thing happened: no one could complete a fly route on these mediocre corners. Here's everything I've got marked fly/go/fade (which I am totally inconsistent about) from the first two weeks:
Demens's delayed blitz gets him in free(pressure +1, RPS +1) but I wonder if he didn't time it quite right. Another step and Carder is seriously harried. As it is he gets off an accurate deep ball on Floyd's guy, who's got a step. Floyd runs his ass off, starts tugging jersey early, and... I'll be damned. He strips the ball loose(+2, cover +1). That was textbook. Gibson -1.
Nickel Eff It
Sends: house. Obviously something gets through(pressure +1); Carder chucks it deep to a fly route Avery(+2, cover +1) has step for step. He's right in the WR's chest as he goes up for the ball. WR leaps, then reaches out and low in an attempt to stab the ball. Avery rakes it out. Gibson -2. Demens(+1) leveled Carder, BTW.
Hawthorne as a standup DE-ish thing and Ryan as an MLB. Blitz telegraphed? I don't remember this play. Survey says... yes. Ryan blitzes, Hawthorne drops into coverage, ND picks it up. Rees wants Floyd on a fade covered by Woolfolk. Woolfolk(+2) is step for step and uses his club to knock the ball away as it arrives. Robinson(+0.5) was there to whack him, too. (Cover +1)
Inc (Pen 15)
No question about this. Avery shoves Floyd OOB on a very catchable fade (-2, cover -1).
Floyd on Floyd action. Floyd(+1, cover +1) has excellent, blanketing coverage on Floyd but the back shoulder throw is perfect and his hand is a half-second late. Floyd stabs a foot down and Floyd can't do much other than ride him out of bounds. Sometimes you just have to tip your hat. This is one of those times. That is hard. That is why Floyd (not our Floyd) is going to be rich in about nine months.
They back out the MLBs this time and send the DL plus the OLBs. RVB(+1, pressure +2, RPS +2) is instantly past the G assigned to him because of a poor pickup; Rees chucks a ball off his back foot that's not catchable. Eifert gives it a go, though.
Floyd(+2, cover +1) in press here and stays step-for-step with Floyd on the fade, breaking it up as it arrives. Fade is not well thrown, which helps.
Inc (Pen 15)
Kovacs rolls up; check. They take advantage of the man to man to take a shot at the endzone. Avery(+1, cover +1) is right in the WR's face as the ball comes in; it's low and to the outside and Avery can't do anything about the futile one-handed stab the WR makes, but it's a futile one-handed stab. Avery is hit with a terrible PI flag (refs -1)
Inc (Pen 15)
Hawthorne(+1, pressure +1) gets a free run at Rees so he chucks it to Floyd, Floyd(-2, cover -2) is beaten instantly and starts yanking the jersey in a desperate bid to not be an instant goat.
Miscommunication between QB and receiver means pass is nowhere near anyone. Blitz was just getting home.
Your score excluding the miscommunication: two legit pass interference penalties, one horsecrap call, one 26-yard completion to Michael Floyd, five incompletions. What's more, in each case save one pressure-forced incompletion and the two legit PI calls the corners are 1) there and 2) making a play on the ball.
That's seven out of nine legitimately good plays from the DBs on accurate deep balls. On all but one—the legit Avery PI—the corners were on an island as Mattison sent at least five. No bracket here. The Avery PI was a zone, the rest of it was man coverage, much of it press.
Michigan's press-ish coverage success in fly routes in 2011 including a game against Michael Floyd: 88%. The exception was virtually unstoppable and still drew a plus from the ol' softie who does these things. That's miraculous in last year's context. Hell, it's miraculous in a lot of contexts. How has this happened?
Michigan Press Coverage As Explained By Underpants Gnomes IN STEREO
STEP 1: Line up a yard off the LOS with inside leverage.
STEP 2: When receiver releases outside, turn hips and run with him real fast.
STEP 3: NOBODY CARES WHEN RECEIVER LOOKS FOR BALL
STEP 4: NOBODY CARES!
STEP 5: When receiver reaches up for ball, punch him in the face.
OPTIONAL: grab his jersey a bit and get away with it OPTIONAL: scream SHORYUKEN.
STEP 6: Profit: arm-waving motions indicating that the pass was incomplete.
OPTIONAL: shake head to indicate "no." OPTIONAL: pick up horsecrap pass interference call.
Floyd on Floyd action:
Avery on Jones action:
Why it works. That whole find-the-ball thing is hard. Todd Howard was coached to do it but always did it late, whipping his head around just in time to see the ball zing by. When you do that you've given yourself an even tougher job than the WR, who's been tracking the thing since it left the QB's hand. Lots can go wrong there. He can slow up and you bowl him over. He can slow up on a deliberately underthrown ball. He can slow, then extend a la Manningham. Or you can just not find the ball quickly enough.
In contrast, the shoryuken technique seems pretty easy. Focus on the WR's chest. When his arms go up, get your arms/head/body in between those arms. Faceguard the guy for bonus points. Net result: incompletion or spectacular Prothro-style catch. Mostly the former.
It's hard to get lost because you're following the WR's chest everywhere, and the only bomb you can't defend is the one that's just past your outstretched arms. That's hard to throw and hard to catch.
Gibson –8. Two games in I am a believer in Tony Gibson Was The Worst. These are the same guys as last year making these plays. Notre Dame clearly identified these fades as a weakness to exploit, especially in press coverage, but got little out of them. If you discount the Avery PI, on the eight fade attempts against press coverage opponents got 41 yards, just over five yards per attempt. Even if you count the Avery PI that hops up to 6.9 YPA—still worse than the NCAA average of 7.2 YPA.
Compare that to last year, when even doing something right meant you did something wrong:
Small sample size disclaimers apply, but Tony Gibson? The worst.
Downsides and low upsides. So this style of coverage seems pretty effective, obviously. There are two major downsides to my eyes:
Low upside. Since you are never looking for the ball you are highly unlikely to intercept it.
A tendency to pick up PI calls. Refs give you more leeway when you are looking for the ball. Bumping a guy with your back to the ball is always going to be an issue, but you can get away with "look and lean," as Spielman calls it.
I'm a little concerned about our corners' speed when asked to run real fast. Against Western Floyd gave up a yard or two of separation to a MAC receiver on his successful fly defense; in the second clip above it kind of feels like on a longer route Jones will pull away from Avery. Those are hypotheticals, though, and whatever limitations of Floyd and Avery have do not currently include a tendency to get burned deep.
This allows cool stuff. Michigan can press with one high safety because of this, which opens up the blitz possibilities that produce big plays. While the coverage style precludes big plays from the cornerbacks it allows them from other parts of the defense, and those big plays are bigger. What would you rather have, an interception 30 yards downfield or the quarterback fumbling the ball?
The existential crisis that was last year's secondary has been the subject of emo rehash and frequently-updated "Never Forget" banners in this space for going on a year now. In mid-August of 2010, Troy Woolfolk did something strange and painful to his ankle and I—and I assume a good chunk of the Michigan fanbase—decided ankle-exploding time was drankin' time. Twitter archived the results; read from the bottom.
The headache I had the next morning did not subside until Greg Mattison was hired.
Woolfolk wasn't going to cure last year's secondary issues by himself but he was going to be a decent returning starter in a secondary without any other than Jordan Kovacs. Without him this section of last year's preview started "What's the point of anything?" because everyone left was either a freshman, walk-on, or JT Floyd.
After a deceptively promising start courtesy of the vast incompetence of Zack Frazer and Notre Dame's backup quarterbacks, the doom took hold. Everyone who saw a snap last year contributed to it but if we have to pick a single moment that best represents Michigan's 2010 secondary it would have to be this:
JT Floyd picking up a –3 against Penn State
That is how Matt McGloin tears you up for 41 points on nine drives. Let's never speak of this again.
While this year's secondary won't bring back memories of Charles Woodson, improvement is almost a given. It could be vast, even. Every contributor returns save James Rogers. Woolfolk is back and healthy, and there's a small horde of freshmen.
If you believe the message board chatter about Tony Gibson's coaching acumen, Curt Mallory is a huge upgrade. My favorite apocryphal story is that when Scot Shafer resigned he told Rodriguez he would take all the blame publicly if Rodriguez admitted to Shafer that Gibson was "the worst secondary coach in the country." Shortly after his resignation, Shafer did pop up in the News stating it was all his fault. Poppycock? Probably, but you can't rule it out.
Things are looking up. They could be okay. Not okay for Michigan, but okay for a mediocre Big Ten defense. They've got a cap—like everywhere on this attrition-wracked team the depth is a little scary. The starters still include a walk-on and the talent level as measured by stars is strictly second-rate. They haven't disproved that on the field, so expectations should be kept in check.
Unless something very depressing happens in the near future I will not need any power tools this year. Troy Woolfolk is healthy, and while he's probably not going to be All Big Ten he's fast and steady enough to get good reviews a couple of years ago when he split time between safety and corner. There is empirical evidence for this, and how: Woolfolk's absence from the safety spot marked the point the 2009 defense went off a cliff. Michigan went from giving up 23 points per game with Woolfolk at safety to 37 without.
Those reviews have moved from potentially ignorant bloggers to the head coach. Woolfolk was one of three defensive Wolverines to be named a starter by Hoke weeks before the season (Kovacs and Martin were the others) and is conspicuously first when Hoke talks about his corners:
"(Woolfolk is) is a guy who I think, as a senior, has taken some ownership and he's done everything," Michigan coach Brady Hoke. "J.T. is fighting. Courtney Avery is fighting, Terrence Talbott, they're all fighting with each other to see who's going to be the guy."
What are your impressions of Troy Woolfolk? "I'm really, really impressed with a senior -- with a new staff, with a new system -- with a guy that comes out every day and says 'I'm going to do what you tell me to do, I'm going to do it how you tell me to do it, and I'm going to try as hard as I can to do it.' ... I think his technique is improving."
That bit at the end about his improving technique is a little ominous. Woolfolk's injury and position switches may leave him vulnerable to Morgan Trent-like deficiencies. The two are similar players: very fast, rangy corners who are tough to beat on a fade but can struggle when opponents are changing direction rapidly. Woolfolk's main advantage over Trent is want-to. Trent spent his senior year raging against the new regime and saw his play suffer. Woolfolk should have no such issues.
Assuming he's healthy, another year to learn the position and get bigger should see him improve on his previous form. There is a nonzero chance his earlier performances were not representative of his ability, but the smart money is on Woolfolk being at least average. It wouldn't be a surprise to see him go at the tail end of next year's NFL draft.
Opposite Woolfolk the battle is on between sophomore Courtney Avery and redshirt juniorJT Floyd. The bet here is that Avery wins that battle. Avery drew into the starting lineup last year when Floyd exited with yet another injury and seemed to outplay the guy he was replacing.
What he brings to the table is still up in the air. He was seeing spot duty relieving Floyd and Rogers even before Floyd's injury; he also split time with Terry Talbott when Michigan went to nickel and dime packages. In that role he was erratic. He wasn't good, per se. But in the tire fire that was last year's secondary he showed a little spark. This spark allowed other portions of the tire fire to spew ever more pitch black tar smoke into the observers face, yes. The spark remained.
Here's an erratic UFR that might not mean that much because he's a corner and his playing time was highly variable:
Zone vacancy II.
Didn't register. Yay?
The whiff, the zone vacation, etc.
DNP, I think.
Two key tackles.
Gave up the big screen.
Could have been harsher on him.
It's not great, though a big chunk of his Indiana negative might have been erroneously given. The blogosphere ferociously debated whether a particular frustrating Iowa touchdown was mostly on the head of Kenny Demens or Avery and eventually decided it was kind of both but maybe probably mostly Demens. The UFR still registers Avery as the victim.
Given the circumstances—tire fire—he did well to not get hammered on a consistent basis. Try to judge him as a freshman by comparing him to his classmates: the highly-touted Cullen Christian was a blinking "throw at me" sign whenever he was on the field. Terrance Talbott was clearly behind. His main issue was playing zone coverage too aggressively, vacating his zone as he chased receivers across the field.
His quickness and aggressiveness bodes well. This is just Bowling Green (see also: the brief blip of Ray Vinopal hope) but Michigan hasn't had a corner who's able to recover like this in a while:
Avery's two years younger than Floyd and was healthy through the entirety of last year and spring practice. He played quarterback in high school; nagging injuries scuppered plans to play him both ways as a senior. He was just learning the rudiments of playing corner when he was thrust onto the field last year. Even if Avery and Floyd were close a year ago—something that is generous to Floyd—Avery should improve much faster than his competition. Avery has never seemed to "transparently lack the speed to be a Big Ten cornerback."
With practice buzz generally talking up Avery, it would be a surprise if he was not the starter. If not now, then by the Big Ten season. He should make a big leap forward in year two.
The primary backup and presumed nickel/dimeback will be the loser of the Avery/Floyd battle. This preview presumes that will be JT Floyd. Our last glimpses of him were against Penn State, when he turned in the coverage-type substance at the top of this post and a few other howlers. Here's one:
The game before that, it was Floyd who gave up slant after slant on critical third downs against Iowa. Even before that this blog declared his coverage "only brushes up against adequate."
JT Floyd: UFR '10
Oh my god the slants.
Awful, awful, awful.
Floyd was so overmatched as a redshirt freshman that Rodriguez and Robinson pulled him off the field, moved Woolfolk from his duties as a fairly effective free safety, and inserted Mike Williams to disastrous effect. Yeah, that could be another symptom of the insanity that ruled decision-making on the D these last few years. But unlike Kenny Demens's debut, Floyd's return to the field didn't make anyone think his removal was a mistake.
As you can see at right, Floyd started off well enough against the incompetent quarterbacks of the nonconference schedule. A number of whiffed tackles and Mouton-like angles against UMass were cause for concern. That concern bloomed, then metastasized in the Big Ten schedule.
First he was amongst the many Wolverines who were too confused or too slow to keep those four-yard Indiana routes from becoming eight. While he wasn't a major factor in the Michigan State game, he imploded against Iowa and Penn State.
In context it seems like his relatively benign Michigan State game was because the Spartans had even easier prey elsewhere on the field. And maybe Michigan protected him in favor of that prey. Remember the sinfully easy 41-yard touchdown Cullen Christian yielded? Yeah:
Why the hell is Cullen Christian the guy in man coverage on a receiver running a fly route? Why isn't it Floyd? Christian(-3, cover –3, RPS -2) is smoked crispy as he bites on an out and up gives up the touchdown. Roh was about to hit Cousins but no matter.
After that it was the elevator straight down and the injury. If he gets a lot better this year it's time to take the Gibson chatter seriously.
If there are injuries, options past the top three are dicey. With Floyd and Woolfolk held out of spring practice the starting cornerbacks were Avery and Tony Anderson, who's one of many walk-ons threatening for playing time. Anderson played ahead of Cullen Christian and Terrance Talbott; Christian transferred soon after. Talbott remains.
The hope is that's motivational or Talbott can accelerate past Anderson's spot on the depth chart as his scholarship-having self surpasses Anderson's walk-on ceiling. Talbott got sporadic time last year and was okay for a freshman. He got lost on zone drops and was a weak tackler, etc. The book on him…
The book on Talbott: short, smart, agile, excellent in coverage but needs a year or two to bulk up for college.
…seemed pretty accurate. He can be a contributor down the road… if he sticks with football. There were widespread rumors Talbott was off the team, by choice, for a period this offseason.
Beyond Talbott it's true freshmen, but at least there's a horde of them. Maryland's Blake Countess arrives with the most hype and should be the biggest threat to play. (Caveat: last year Cullen Christian arrived with the most hype.) Greg Brown [recruiting profile] enrolled early and was decent in the spring game. Those two feature on the first depth chart. Talbott does not.
The rest of the n00bs: Raymon Taylor [recruiting profile] is speedy, might not have the greatest change of direction, and got a fourth star from Rivals. Delonte Hollowell [recruiting profile] is yet another smurfy Cass Tech corner who can't be put on outside receivers; he'll probably have to wait for time to open up at nickelback. He is rooting hard for Thomas Gordon to win the safety job opposite Kovacs. Finally, Tamani Carter [recruiting profile] is probably a safety; as a guy Michigan hijacked from Minnesota it will be a bad callback to Ray Vinopal if he doesn't redshirt.
That's five dudes instead of three; if it turns out some of the guys ahead of them on the depth chart can't play the one who emerges as a contributor will probably be better than Talbott and Avery were last year.
[* = player has taken redshirt. # = walk-on, or former walk-on]
Is it possible that last year's Michigan defense actually one-upped the safety horror on display in 2009? Yes. It was actually worse than even the situation that gave rise to this in last year's preview:
While the situation two years ago was never good it didn't drop off a cliff until Michigan moved Troy Woolfolk to corner. First Mike Williams and then Jordan Kovacs leisurely escorted opponents into the endzone for the remainder of the year, sure. But last year Michigan started out with this…
…and then pulled a similar switch by moving Cam Gordon to spur and inserting true freshman two-star Ray Vinopal. Vinopal wasn't quite as likely to take a terrible angle. Instead he was a 160-pound object in the way of Wisconsin's various house-sized Katamaris.
Artist's impression of Vinopal tackling Montee Ball
He also took some terrible angles. Kovacs was better but still kind of eh—he has not yet found that Iowa zen where the slow small white guy is always in the right place—and Michigan never got competent play from the other spot. Survey says increase doom panic victory 2010. And there was much rejoicing.
It can't be that bad again, right? I'm seriously asking this. Please, someone tell me it can't be that bad again. If no one else is willing to stand in front of that howitzer I guess it's up to me: they can't be that bad again.
It was already a foregone conclusion, but Brady Hoke explicitly confirmed that Jordan Kovacs will start for a third year this fall. He did so almost before anyone asked. The man once mistaken for Matt Cavanaugh by Greg Robinson is on track to becoming the first four-year starter at safety since Jamar Adams[Ed-M: Marcus Ray ('95-'98). Adams's RS Fr year was Shazor/Mundy]
Unfortunately, thanks to the defensive implosion of the last three years this does not necessarily mean he is any good. Whether he is or not is a subject of heated debate wherever Michigan's starting secondary is discussed. His freshman year he was solid as a box safety. His instincts and tackling made him an effective force player and blitzer. Then the whole Woolfolk-to-corner thing happened and he got switched into a deep half role. To say he struggled was an understatement. Some UFR comments from that portion of his freshman year:
Just can't play a deep half.
Again burned as a deep half safety.
Enormous bust #3.
So that didn't go so well.
Last year Michigan tried to move him back into the box by switching to a 3-3-5 in which he was the "bandit" (a strong safety that spends his time on or near the LOS), but then they spent a lot of time in a two deep shell that saw Kovacs's deep limitations tested again. He did not pass with flying colors but thanks to his awareness and solid tackling was not the flaming dump truck the rest of the secondary was. It's not a coincidence that the new coaching staff has been talking him up. Hoke:
"He's a guy that can get things lined up for you, and he's a tough guy, and he will go attack the football," Hoke said of the former walk-on. "He has a great deal of pride in his performance on a daily basis. He's one of those guys who has an urgency about getting to the football. I'm pleased with what he's done to this point. I would guess that he won't take a step backward."
Kovacs did improve last year, and significantly. Kovacs went from deep half dead meat to "the king of moderate-moderate-0". In three different games (ND, BGSU, and Indiana) he had plusses that exactly offset his minuses; in four more (UConn, UMass, Iowa, and Penn State) he was just above or below breaking even. He was excellent against MSU…
…may have had his best game at Michigan. He's so reliable; on a day when Michigan couldn't find a tackle it didn't want to miss, Kovacs twice dragged down TEs in space to boot MSU off the field. Only one counted, unfortunately.
…but he broke down late, picking up negative days against Illinois, Purdue, and Wisconsin.
Even so, his season was a step forward from obvious liability to "certainly not a liability." Even if he's a walk-on and even if he's obviously small and slow, he should continue improving. He'll be a little less small and slow with another year of conditioning. Being in a coherent defensive system should help put him in positions to make plays. His redshirt year was not spent on the team so he's not as close to his ceiling as your average redshirt junior.
He's not going to be Reggie Nelson. That won't keep him from becoming the first Michigan safety you only hate a little tiny bit since Jamar Adams.
Thomas Gordon: prison abs, manages to look badass on last year's D
The spot next to Kovacs is second to only weakside linebacker when it comes to mystery on this year's team. One candidate is sophomore Carvin Johnson, who had a plentiful helping of hype early and started in the spring game. The other is redshirt sophomore Thomas Gordon.
These two are familiar with each other since they spent last year duking it out with each other. The twist: they were doing so at Spur; Cam Gordon had locked down free safety. This year they're swapped.
The smaller Gordon has the advantage. He played at nickelback in the spring, swapping with the WLB on passing downs and covering slot receivers. He seemed well-suited for that spot. Moving him to safety signals some discontent with the options there, and since the move practice scuttlebutt has talked him up a bit more than Johnson. When Countdown to Kickoffflagged down DBs coach Curt Mallory he described the situation at safety like this:
It starts with Jordan right now. … He's done a great job, had a good two-a-days. Then we've got some younger guys in there. Thomas Gordon, I've been really pleased with how he's improved. [pause] And then with the two other guys…
That sounds like Johnson had eleven days to displace Gordon for Western Michigan. As of publication there's been no indication that switch has happened. Gordon was just named a starter by the WMU depth chart.
Gordon's 2010 was abbreviated. He started the season thanks to an injury to Johnson and played pretty well. Particularly impressive was his ability to roar off the edge without pulling a Brandon Harrison by zooming right by the quarterback. Gordon showed a knack for coming in at the fastest possible speed that would allow him to rope the QB to the ground, which accounted for many of his plus plays last year. Here's a good one against Notre Dame:
Outside of that it was minus half points here and there for poor coverage or missed tackles. He and Johnson displayed a knack for finishing his day with around three positive points and two negative ones. The spur was not a high-impact position either way last year until Cam Gordon switched to it and promptly got himself lost on flat zones he'd never been asked to play before.
Like Avery above, Gordon's ability to not be the most spectacularly flaming tire is encouraging. He came in with bler recruiting rankings but—again like Avery—he was a high school quarterback who got a Michigan camp offer and then did not play in his high school's secondary because of injury. He's beaten out some actual scholarship players and drawn praise from the coaches for his play. When I clipped something he did last year it was usually something positive.
I have the same optimism about this Johnson/Gordon combo that I had last year. This, of course, terrifies me. It seems unnatural to think an unproven Michigan safety could be competent. I like Gordon's agility and tackling, though, and while there will be rough spots early by midseason he should settle into that midlevel safety range like Englemon or Barringer.
Carvin Johnson does not like losing.
Curt Mallory wants his safeties to be interchangeable, so this will probably be a situation like offensive line where there's a line behind the starters and whoever the top backup is will come off the bench no matter who exits. That is likely to be Carvin Johnson. Johnson shouldn't feel too down: what small tea leaves we've gotten from the defense suggest he will be the first defensive back off the bench when Michigan goes nickel—in the Saturday punting demo he was on the field plenty as Thomas Gordon played nickelback in Michigan's third down package.
His season was even more abbreviated than Gordon's due to injury. I clipped three events from him last year:
#2 won't be an issue if he's playing a deep safety; #3 is an asset that was promised by his recruiting profile. One… maybe not so much. Though people talk him up Michigan felt it necessary to move Gordon back, whereupon he won the job. He's probably a little unreliable at the moment.
Past Johnson there are actual scholarship(!) players who weren't(!) in high school last year. One is Marvin Robinson [recruiting profile], he of the obligatory OMG shirtless pictures…
you're welcome, ladies
…and that thing he did in the spring game where he ran with a slant pattern while Mike Cox was waving at him en route to the endzone. Practice reports on Robinson alternate tales of massive here-comes-the-BOOM-type hits and equally massive touchdown-ceding errors. If you hit up that recruiting profile you'll see a lot of skepticism he can play safety; last year he spent a good chunk of his time at WLB. That may be his long term destination.
For now he's behind Kovacs. He seems to be the second guy in the pecking order; Michigan will try to avoid using him until he has that consistency thing every coach ever but especially Michigan's keep harping on.
The final scholarship guy is Josh Furman. Furman's a bit like Avery in that he was almost exclusively an offensive player in high school. (He put up some Rawls-like games in the Maryland state playoffs.) Michigan managed to redshirt him last year, so his recruiting profile is about all we know. He's reputed to be super athletic, like six FAKES out of five 40 athletic, and will have a role on special teams this year. When asked about the safeties for CTK, Mallory mentioned Kovacs, Gordon, Johnson, and Robinson but not Furman. He's still a year or two away from seeing the field on defense.
I promised I wouldn't talk about Rich Rodriguez's job status until the season was over but apparently I'm going to. I blame everyone.
Too many posts in the Fire RR vein argue things no one is disputing. This one titled "The Buck Stops at Rodriguez," argues that a head coach is in charge of his program. This is not very enlightening. Neither is restating his record. We're all aware of Rich Rodriguez's record. We watched it. Saying "but this happened and I was sad" means you're answering the wrong question. You're answering the question "what will make me feel better?" Sometimes you're answering the question "who would have been the best choice for 2008?"
These are the questions I'm interested in:
Which football coach will give Michigan the best record in 2011?
What about 2012?
What about 2015?
You hire a coach for the long term. I think you fire a coach for the short term, though, and the point at which you boot the last guy is when you think the next year isn't going to meet a reasonable minimum threshold of progress. I completely understand people who have hit that point. You can save your comments about how he needs to go—neither I nor anyone else cares to hear it for the one millionth time in the last three days. It's an understandable position. If Rich Rodriguez is cut loose after the season and Jim Harbaugh comes in I will not be in the streets with a bullhorn.
But I wouldn't endorse that move (at least not right now), because I think the answers to questions one and two are conditionally "Rich Rodriguez."
Upperclass Denard: How Does It Work?
Michigan has a unique talent on its hands in Denard Robinson, and they've acquired a mobile offensive line, slot receivers, and tailbacks to complement him. Some of these players can easily transition to another scheme. Stephen Hopkins can I-back with anyone. The outside receivers are just outside receivers. Taylor Lewan is going to hate donkeys in any scheme.
Others can't. The gaggle of tiny waterbug types—including Dee Hart, though he probably won't end up at M if there is a change—are going to be marginalized. I'm not sure how well the offensive line will hold up in an offense that prizes power over movement. Michigan isn't going to be able to materialize an excellent fullback and tight end depth out of nothing.
And then there's Denard. He could move to receiver or tailback, I guess, or more likely transfer, or you could bring in a spread guy, or you could try to keep Magee, or you could just ride with the guy who has already made Denard the all-time leading QB rusher in the Big Ten, will make him the all-time leading QB rusher in NCAA history, and turned Pat White into one of the best quarterbacks in college football before that. One of the "Smiths or MGoBlog" posts contains an argument I've made before:
For everyone that wants RR gone, I submit a short rebuttal.
This team (could) return 22 of 24 starters next year. The #4 offense in the country will return every skill position player except Martell Webb and the offensive line should improve even with losing S. Schilling. The 2011 schedule is set up for a Big 10 Championship. Rodriguez will finally have experience and depth at his disposal on offense. No freshmen(even redshirt freshmen) save possibly Hart will see the field. Don't you want to see what could become of this offense and the stars it could attract with stability up top? If you broom RR then what? If you bring in Harbaugh, Denard is either gone or a slot back. I have no idea how much attrition you get but this offense has been molded by RR for 3 years, it will not be as good.
I think that's indisputable: you will lose offensive firepower by making a change. Over the course of his career Rodriguez has established he is standard deviations above the mean as an offensive coordinator. Criticisms about the offense exist but are limited to suggesting that this group featuring two seniors and a sophomore quarterback isn't really the fourth-best offense in the nation because they're not scoring enough. That's true—Michigan is only 19th in scoring offense—but the blame for that rests largely with a defense that doesn't force turnovers (or punts) and the nation's worst kicker situation. If you adjust for all the vagaries that make straight yardage and scoring statistics unrepresentative, pile on a strength of schedule factor, and average it all out this is not, in fact, the fourth best offense in the country:
Michigan is still ranked #2 nationally in rushing and #3 overall in Points Above Normal but the game scores are coming down.
While Michigan's performance over the last three games is not that good, it would still be top 25. If you're wantonly throwing that much data away to make that your conclusion you've just gone Nanking on math for little reward.
Whatever you lose had better be made up for by better play from special teams and defense, but if we're rebooting the defensive coaching staff what does it matter who's doing ninja stuff on the other side of the ball? Unless Anonymous New Coach, who we'll call "Jim Harbaugh" for simplicity's sake, brings in someone who can play instantly the only way that will happen is by bringing in a better defensive staff. Michigan can do that without disrupting something that looks like it's going very right on the other side of the ball.
The obvious argument against that is Scott Shafer, Jay Hopson, and Greg Robinson. That's why the conditional case for bringing RR back rests on either 1) grabbing Jeff Casteel, probably in the event of a Bill Stewart firing, or 2) clearing everyone (or almost everyone) out, bringing in a defensive coordinator with a track record of established recent success on the college level, and giving him carte blanche to bring in the people he wants to bring in. This will be expensive but I hereby volunteer a dollar from each Michigan season ticketholder to make it happen.
The Convincing Argument Against
I AM SO PUMPED ABOUT THIS SMOOTHIE I'M THINKING OF I AM TOTALLY GOING TO KICK THIS SMOOTHIE'S ASS WHAT IS YOUR DEAL, BANANA AND WHEATGRASS? i hope i'm not having an aneurysm—YEAH SMOOTHIES
Recruiting, basically. Rich Rodriguez is chased around by a horrendous narrative caused by a lot of losing and a lot of other stuff. Jim Harbaugh has to deal with a DUI and some self-serving statements about Michigan's academics—these don't live up. If Michigan goes 9-3 next year under Harbaugh, people are delighted. If Rodriguez does it there remain many, many grumbles. Michigan can throw away the last three years and start over.
Even if this reduces expectations short term, the narrative is totally different and recruits might be more amenable to jumping on board. Fuzzy Dunlop, who amazingly does not have a tennis ball avatar:
Many of those saying the defense is not Rodriguez's "fault" miss the essential point. It doesn't matter whose fault it is. What matters is who has the ability to rectify the situation. And we are fast approaching the point where Rodriguez will no longer have that ability (if he ever had it).
The defense sucks. Let's say it's not Rod's fault. Fine. So how does he fix it? Get great defensive recruits? If we lose out, or eke by Purdue, what makes anyone think the good defensive recruits will be rushing to come to Michigan this year? Perception becomes reality -- our defense is perceived to be a joke, with terrible coaching -- this is not a situation talented players are going to rush into.
He gets a little more negative than I am but the point is valid. Unfortunately, at some point the baggage in your past becomes an active detriment to your future. Rodriguez is either already there or one season from it.
The Gibson Issue
Defensive backs coach Tony Gibson is a lightning rod for criticism because the secondary is a disaster zone and the internets have it that he and Rodriguez have a Clinton-Blair style "special relationship," with all the charges of cronyism that brings. Even Michael Rosenberg is making that argument after years of blithely ignoring the DerpBord era. (Q: What's the difference between a Free Press columnist and a message board poster? A: Editors.)
Unfortunately there's no statistic you can point to that definitively says he's good or bad but the vague outlines provided by the NCAA's site aren't exactly damning:
Pass Eff Rk
That's not great aside from the bizarre first year (West Virginia was terrible at run defense so teams just ran) but it's consistently above average. In six years Gibson had three players drafted, one of them (Ryan Mundy) a guy who transferred away from Michigan because he wasn't going to get playing time. That's about one per slot he was in charge of, assuming that the spur and bandit were not his responsibilities. The rest of WVU's team saw eight guys drafted across nineteen spots.
None of this is definitive but it's at least an indication that Gibson isn't the anchor certain FFFFFUUUUUUU sorts make him out to be. The debacle here could be a coaching issue, but Occam's razor suggest it's talent (and attrition). Cbuswolverine put up a diary looking at the experience of the top five and bottom five secondaries in the country with the expected results—everyone but LSU averages at least 3.5 years on campus, and LSU is at 2.75. It is possible that Tony Gibson is a huge problem, but even if he was we wouldn't know. His reputation as a great recruiter is commonly stated, but we have even less data on that.
I put in a Mathlete request for a fancy math version of the above statistics that would adjust for schedule strength and maybe parse out the sacks in the three years they're available.
What I'd Do At 7-5 Or 6-6, Probably—I Mean If We Lose By A Billion In Three Games, Probably Not, But Let's Just Say If The Season Plays Out Like It Looks It Will
I'd fire Robinson. Then I'd bring in Casteel if he's available post Stewart firing or broom most of the defensive staff and bring in someone making SEC dollars along with two other established position coaches, and then I'd give Rodriguez 2011 and hope like hell. Michigan's in a bad spot either way, but at least Ivan Maisel's with me.
Yeah, that's right: Ivan Maisel.
Other bits: for folks complaining about the O/D coaching breakdown, Touch The Banner surveys the Big Ten and finds that literally every team in the league has four defensive assistants and all but one (Purdue, which has a dedicated ST coach) has five offensive assistants, or would if they hadn't fired their head coach already. Maize And Go Blue is here:
After Rich Rodriguez spoke to the assembled media on Sunday, I got a chance to talk to some of Michigan's assistants. I didn't talk to Calvin Magee or Greg Robinson because we've already heard from them in the past couple weeks, and I didn't get a chance to talk to Greg Frey or Adam Braithwaite.
Each of the three quarterbacks brings something different to the table. Tate's experience of starting 12 games is a significant factor, but the coaches need to make sure he stays disciplined. Denard is the most explosive of the three quarterbacks. As for passing, "he's worked on it, I don't want to say refined." He deserves a lot of credit for putting in the effort, and "he's picked up the offense a lot more than what he had last year." Gardner is a superb athlete who is getting better every day.
The competition is helping the team, because each quarterback has to work hard every rep or risk being replaced.
Though Tate acknowledged slacking a bit this summer, "He didn't come in bad shape. He passed all his conditioning tests." He's been willing to put in the work in practice so far: "I've been pleased with him this camp."
Denard has a much better idea of the offensive scheme and what the coaches are trying to accomplish. "You don't cloud your mind and slow up your feet, and that's what he was doing last year." Over-thinking contributed to part of his problems last year.
Denard does a lot of work in technique drills, but he's not consistent yet. The coaches work on tightening his mechanics from weight transfer to follow-through, which is the sort of stuff a lot of high school kids don't learn. He came in as an athlete trying to play quarterback, and the coaches are trying to turn him into a quarterback who's athletic. He's been willing to put in the work.
Denard's ability to pass will open up defenses, allowing him to rush for more than the 5.1 yards/carry he got last year. "Not just the passing, but I've opened up the playbook a little more to him. We knew what we were gonna do with him. I think defenses knew what was coming." He has the potential to score 4 out of every 10 times he touches the ball due to how explosive he is.
Both quarterbacks at reading the defensive end on the option play. They're prepared to make the read against all sorts of different defenses, so they'll be familiar with everything they face.
"I don't know yet" if Denard will be the starter. The coaches are repping all three quarterbacks while the media focuses on Denard.
Tate came in a little more polished out of high school. Denard and Devin have needed more work on their throwing mechanics out of high school. Both must have worked hard individually this summer to be where they are today.
The different skill sets among the quarterbacks all fit in with what the offensive staff wants to do. They don't want a guy to just stand there. All three quarterbacks have the necessary mobility.
(Short but sweet)
On Stephen Hopkins: "Before he's done here, he'll be another Chris Perry. Feet, shallow cuts, power. I mean, I don't know if Chris ever weighed 230 or not."
4-5 backs will get serious playing time this year.
"They're working extremely hard and doing well." Dews is a little more anxious to see how his guys can do compared to the past, because now there are people with three years in the system. They know the expectations of them.
Junior Hemingway and Darryl Stonum have been in the system since they were freshmen, and now they're able to help be leaders for the younger guys, because they've been there before.
As far as moving guys to the other side of the ball goes, Dews says "I don't worry about losing anybody if it's going to make our team better." It happens every year in college football, and if it's good for the team, "whatever's going to help us win and compete for BCS bowl games, I'm all for it."
Kelvin Grady has matured quite a bit. He's catching the ball well this camp. He looks a little bigger than last year, and is playing with more confidence. He is not one of the slot receivers who have gotten time on the outside.
Darryl Stonum "did come back in great shape. He's been kind of a piston. He's been out there rolling." Getting contacts has helped him catch better. He really started coming on in the spring, when he realized the opportunity he would have to be a starter. Wearing a cast on one arm helped train him to always catch with his hands. He understands the offense, but needs to refine his technique, and he's willing to do that. He's gorwn up and learned from his past mistakes.
Junior Hemingway has had a pretty good camp. "Junior has shown flashes for a couple years now. Obviously his biggest issue has been being on the field. Obviously when he's healthy and he's playing, he certainly can help us."
On Ryan Van Bergen - Works hard, always around the ball, "he's a great student of the game." He's bigger and stronger than last season.
Pass Rush with the three-man front is tough to evaluate right now. The Michigan offense doesn't have much drop-back passing, so they're hard to evaluate against. "It won't always just be three men rushing."
Craig Roh might be one of the guys adding pressure (from linebackers). GERG will put together some different packages to mix up pressure.
The freshmen have just finished school, and will be able to focus on football now. They're all doing well so far. Tall noted that there are five freshmen in his position group - Jibreel Black, Terry Talbott (Tall used to confuse the Talbotts' first names on recruiting visits), Richard Ash, Kenny Wilkins, and preferred walkon Chris Eddins.
Kenny Wilkins is working at defensive end. "He's pretty good-sized. He's probably up somewhere around 6-4, 270... He's got good size for a young player."
Tall wishes he could have picked a different number for Jibreel Black, so he wouldn't be compared to Brandon Graham so much. "55 was a very special player, and you don't want to put that on anybody."
Troy Woolfolk "was in great shape, he was having a great camp, you hate it for him." If there's any good to come out of his injury, it's that he gets to come back next year. It makes you sick to see a kid that's worked so hard go down.
"You know we can't sit around feeling sorry for ourselves because nobody else is going to feel sorry for us."
All the freshmen are playing hard. At free safety, Carvin Johnson is "doing a great job and has great ball skills." Terrence Talbott has been a pleasant surprise, and Cullen Christian has been practicing at both corner positions. All of them need to keep growing, and work on their tackling.
James Rogers has been playing well, but the second starting corner position is still up for grabs. There are still two weeks to prepare the guys to play.