Mailbag: Center vs Shotgun Fight, Punt vs Kick Return Fight, Let's Be Nebraska(?)

Mailbag: Center vs Shotgun Fight, Punt vs Kick Return Fight, Let's Be Nebraska(?)

Submitted by Brian on September 14th, 2012 at 3:46 PM

Unbalanced stuff, Denard under center.

First, in this pic from the Air Force Defensive UFR:


The slot receiver would be eligible if he took a step back and the WR at the top took a step forward, correct?  So what is the advantage to having this alignment vs. having two players be positioned less than one yard differently?  I can’t quite grasp what would compensate for losing an eligible receiver.

Normally, yes. Here Air Force is going to send the WR to the top of the screen in motion until he ends up behind the two guys in the backfield. That makes life easier for Air Force if they want to run to the short side because they've effectively blocked the corner to that side by putting him on the other side of the field.

Defenses can react to this by shifting but it's unnatural for them to do this. Sometimes they mess it up, especially when you're going at speed like Air Force does. The disadvantage created by making that WR ineligible can even be mitigated by sending him on a crazy route that takes him behind the QB. Is the offense going to use this? Probably not. Is the defense going to totally abandon defending this guy? Probably not.

Second, I saw the ESPN article about Denard’s passing from under center being pretty fantastic.  Given that, and Denard being Denard, why wouldn’t we run a basic QB draw from that setup on the regular?  Or is the passing being so good a result of defenses making sure to take that away?


The numbers here are relatively small—Rothstein charts 62 attempts from under center under Borges, which is two or three games of data. He's done well with those attempts, obviously. I have no idea why, and if you go all Gaussian on things it's clear that there's a lot of jitter in there. Via The Power Rank:


Rothstein does acknowledge the sample size issues. But just because your data is not big enough to be authoritative does not mean it isn't suggestive. Given the numbers, the chances that randomness explains all of the difference is a mere 6%. It's worth figurin' on.

There's a pretty obvious mechanism that makes Michigan's running game more effective from the shotgun—hi my name is Denard's legs. What is the reason Denard's only throwing interceptions from the shotgun? Nothing leaps out. The routes? They're probably the same. The drop-back? In the NFL, the shotgun is a more efficient formation (even accounting for down and distance) despite running quarterbacks being largely absent. Run paranoia? It seems hard to  believe that's more of a factor from under center.

Three things do seem like potential mechanisms:

  • Pressure. It's easier to max-pro when you've got a couple TEs or a couple backs. Also, it's easier to not tip your snap count against MSU. Denard + pressure == doom. If Denard is getting better protection from under center that would be an obvious way in which under center was really better.
  • Situation. Michigan's more likely to go under center in short-yardage situations, making those passes more profitable as the defense expects run. Also a potential factor in "situation": Michigan may run more under-center stuff against easy Ds and default to shotgun when they think they're up against it.
  • Luck. Sample size here is small enough that it probably explains some of the difference. It's hard to think TD/INT splits of 12-1 (under center) and 11-17 (shotgun) are totally explainable by luck.

The problem with throwing from under center is that sometimes you have to run it from under center, and that's burning downs at this point.

Seth has all this in a UFR database and will address it in more depth on Tuesday.

Punt versus kick return, fight.


Hey, Brian. I hoping you might be able to shed some light on a question. What is the difference between kick returner and punt returner? Why does Norfleet return kicks and Gallon return punts? Is it to limit their exposure to 11 special teams defensemen running downhill at full speed with the intent of breaking the returner's back? Or are there different skills involved? (Because who wouldn't like to see Norfleet returning punts, too?)


Kick returns are the junior varsity version of punt returns. As a kick returner you have a high-arcing kick travelling 60-70 yards before you camp out under it. If you fumble the thing, the nearest opponents are 20 yards away. You pick it up, you lose a few yards in field position, and no one has a panic attack. Either that or it's a touchback. BFD.

Screwing up a punt, whether it's by fumbling it or failing to field it, has much direr implications. A fumble is almost guaranteed to be a turnover, and we just saw Jeremy Gallon cost Michigan 25 yards by not fielding an Air Force punt. Additionally, punts can come in at all sorts of angles, generally much faster than kicks. Ever seen a kickoff fielded on the run? Maybe if someone is making a terrible decision on one that's going out of bounds. Otherwise, never. On punts it's not uncommon.

In addition to that, there are some different skills involved. Punts often involve dodging guys with little or no opportunity to get up to full speed. On a kickoff you're generally going to have the opportunity to get your motor humming before you have to make a cut. So a guy like Darryl Stonum made an excellent kick returner thanks to his top-end speed and ability to make a shallow cut at speed, but wouldn't have made much of a punt returner.

Gallon and Norfleet both have skills that make them a good fit for both positions. The coaches are currently more comfortable with Gallon back there, but if he keeps bringing out 2010 Gallon and Norfleet proves capable in practice, a switch won't be long in coming. Either way, at least Michigan won't be running a Greg Mathews out there.

Option MSU?


I haven’t seen any film on last year’s game between Nebraska and MSU, but I have to believe that Nebraska had a relatively effective day on offense judging from the score and offensive numbers. (24 points and 190 yards on the ground) So with that being said and knowing that Michigan and Nebraska run similar offenses, can Michigan look at that the game film and implement some sort of parallel schemes against MSU that Nebraska executed and have a likewise outcome?


That game was won by Nebraska's defense, which limited the Spartans to under 200 yards. While the Huskers racked up 190 yards rushing it took 58 carries for them to get there—3.3 YPC. Unless Michigan can do the same thing to the Spartan offense they're not likely to win with that kind of rushing output.

Meanwhile, an offense with pitches like Nebraska's is one you have to dedicate yourself to. It's not something you can implement for a single week. You can change your blocking schemes, routes, protections, and playcalling, sure, but when you start asking a guy to make split-second decisions about whether to fumble a ball in the general direction of the running back you're asking for trouble.

FWIW, it does seem like Michigan is at least allowing the center to get his head up and survey the landscape before he snaps the ball these days.