Great to hear that former RB Fitz Toussaint will more than likely be the feature back against the Bengals. Starter Leveon Bell tore his ACL midseason, and Backup DeAngelo Williams is still suffering from a high ankle sprain suffered in week 17.
Great to hear that former RB Fitz Toussaint will more than likely be the feature back against the Bengals. Starter Leveon Bell tore his ACL midseason, and Backup DeAngelo Williams is still suffering from a high ankle sprain suffered in week 17.
[Author note: This thing is long and pretty technical. That said, I think there will be sufficient payoff and value for you the reader. Still, be ye warned.]
Have you ever wished there were a convenient way to rate rushers the same way we rate passers? Sure, passer rating has its weaknesses—all mathematical formulas do—but despite it's issues, I've come to appreciate passer rating as a very useful framework to evaluate a player/team when it comes to passing the ball. In the same way that finding a corner piece to a jigsaw puzzle helps you figure out it's entire quadrant, once you have an idea of what to expect from the passing game you can leap to other touchstones to determine what to expect from the running game. A rusher rating would be just the sort of touchstone needed to really start messing around for those of us who are so inclined. This diary lays out what I think should work for these purposes.
To recap some of my previous work: passer rating combines four important factors—completion percentage, yards per attempt, interception rate, and touchdown rate—and blends them into one number. For rushing stats, important information for coming up with an analogous metric has been hard to come by until cfbstats.com came along. Tons of fascinating and useful data, for free. God bless the internet.
To come up with the rating, I looked only at positions that would be considered normal rushers (QB, RB, TB, FB, HB, SB, WR) that have an average YPC greater than zero. If you can’t meet those criterion, then you cant represent a normal rusher, thus sayeth the me. Other positions register rushing attempts but allowing the odd rush by a punter to color your view of what normal looks like would be dumb. See the chart below for more information. Also, if a guy averages negative YPC, uh, find something else to do, kthx. Other than that, no other filter was applied but some math wonk tricks were and I’ll talk about those as we go.
Completion Percentage → Gain Percentage : Parsed play by play is necessary to generate a replacement for completion percentage. I opted to go for Gain Percentage: the percentage of attempts that resulted in more than zero yards. I figured the basic goal of a pass is to complete it (brilliant insight, I know) and the basic goal on a rush attempt is to gain positive yardage so…any gain of more than zero yards is mission accomplished. This parameter is as much about team skill as it is about player skill but the same can be said for Completion Percentage.
Interception Rate → Fumble Rate: The direct analogue would of course be fumbles lost per attempt but that’s not the right way to do it IMO. The luck factor that influences whether or not the team actually loses possession has nothing to do with the fact that bringing possession into question is a terrible idea. So, all fumbles whether lost or not are counted in the calculation.
There is also a bit of mathematical wonkiness deployed as well. Mike Hart is famous—at least around here—for his deftness at protecting the rock. It was awesome: 991 carries, 5 loose balls, 3 losses of possession. That was an aiight career, but these guys were kinda, sorta, maybe, better (!) at protecting the rock:
|Jacquizz Rodgers||Oregon State||789||1|
OK, so the wonkiness…a lot of people who register meaningful rushing attempts do so at a pretty low level of opportunity. Even stud RBs often split carries with other backs: Eddie Lacy siphoned off carries from Mark Ingram before becoming the man, and T.J Yeldon did the same to Eddie Lacie. So in order for fumbles to make sense for players that get meaningful carries in low doses, we need to consider the question: at which point does a low fumble rate cross the threshold from wait-and-see to holy-crap-check-that-dude-for-stickem?
What we have here is a chart comparing the observed percentage (red dots) and the mathematical probability (blue line) that a player will have at least 1 fumble versus the number of carries he has registered. The red dots are binned in increments of 1 so the sample sizes out past 150 are pretty thin but if bigger bins are used, you’d see a scatter of points that more closely follow the mathematical fit, because… math. The blue line was derived using logistic regression.
The weirdness at zero for the mathematical expectation might be concerning as it suggests that there’s a 20% chance you’ve fumbled despite not having a single carry to your credit. However, that is just an artifact of the data. It is possible to fumble on your one and only carry as actual observations show. What the math does, though, is it considers the sample size of the observations and then finds the best fit possible to the overall dataset. There are ways of dealing with that issue, but…I rather talk about football. Also, KISS. This is good enough for my intended purpose.
Anyway, the point of doing all that is it allows me to apply what I’ll call the Phantom Protocol. Basically, I take that curve, subtract it from 1, and add the resulting value to the player’s fumble total. As the number of carries increases, the effect of the phantom fumble recedes thus leveling the playing field and letting us evaluate players with low sample size as best we can. The result of this bit of data manipulation is that a guy with no fumbles in 16 carries is assigned an average fumble rate and by the time 100 carries are registered, the penalty is not perceivable. Below 16 carries, the assigned penalty is pretty stiff but this trick levels the playing field to let us look at guys with few carries and not just dismiss them with the low sample size red card. Sure, 16 carries is still a low sample but at least the rating self corrects for the fact that fumbles take time to manifest.
Most importantly though, the protocol adequately acknowledges players with low fumble rates even though they have a lot of carries. It’s easier to have a 1% fumble rate after 100 carries than it is to have the same rate after 789 carries. That said, after a while the fumble rates should be allowed to speak for themselves. Quizz Rodgers and Mike Hart need their proper allocation of DAP; nothing more, nothing less. I think the ghost protocol concept accomplishes exactly that.
Touchdown Rate: This one is also directly analogous but here again I’ve deployed the ghost protocol to credit guys with low sample the expectation of an eventual TD. TDs come about much more freely than fumbles do with goal line attempts and the like so this credit vanishes very quickly. But fair is fair: the protocol giveth and it taketh away.
Those are the components directly analogous to the ones used in passer rating and these would be enough to go about the business at hand. However, whereas a passer’s job is to get the ball into the hands of a play maker, players that are given the ball whether by pass of handoff are called upon to be the playmaker. Certainly the scheme, play call RPS, and execution of the supporting cast all have major influence on the results of a play but the ball carrier can do things that elevate the call from good to great. I wanted to be all formal-like and call this the Impact Run Rate but this [stuff] is s’posed to be fun, man. Hence—
The 20 yard threshold is usually referenced as registering a play as a big play. That would certainly qualify as a big play by any standard but that threshold seems to have been established somewhat arbitrarily in my opinion. On average, a generic runner on a generic team in a generic game gains about 4 yards per attempt with a standard deviation of about 7.5. Its called the standard deviation for a reason as a huge swath of observations (about 2/3rds) occur within 1 SD of the mean, or between –3 and +11 (remember: discrete data). The other 1/3 of observations get split evenly with 1/6 below -3 yards and 1/6 above 12. I’ve used objective criterion, you know, math, to define Impact Runs as those that register 12 yards or more. To register one of these the player’s entire team has to execute the play correctly, then the carrier he has to do something special (i.e. juke a dude, break a tackle, be fast). This is the real life manifestation of the Madden Circle Button and its informative. It’s the difference between Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith.
Denard Robinson was great at this but it might be surprising to hear that he wasn’t the best. Percy Harvin in the spread option was ridiculous in this category. Percy had touched the ball a lot when he was a Gator and 27% of the time, he darted for an impact run. By Contrast, Denard’s DQ% was ‘only’ about 15%. Could you imagine Denard breaking loose almost twice as often? Of course, the scheme, the team’s execution of the scheme, and the player’s deployment within the scheme has a lot to do with this number. Florida circa Percy Harvin was galaxies away from Michigan circa Denard Robinson. Percy Harvin was the 3rd rushing option in Florida’s spread and shred, Denard Robinson was options 1-10. Also, being the QB in the spread-option means you are concern #1 for defenses: the cornerstone. That was triply the case when facing Michigan with Denard in the captain’s chair. Harvin was usually one-on-one with a guy 10 times slower than he was who was also probably pooping his pants.
Denard’s DQ% was pretty stable around 15% (scheme be damned) but his utility rate (723 career carries) was second to none save minor conference QBs. His closest proxy Pat White (684 career carries) broke loose at a 19% clip in RichRod’s Scheme. However, the Big EEEast sans Miami and Virginia Tech wasn’t quite the Big TEEEN. Denard went up against stout defenses way more often than Pat White did and did so without the benefit of Steve Slaton or Noel Devine and the benefit of a revolutionary offensive scheme. When Pat White lost RichRod is DQ% dropped to under 12%, Denard didn’t bat an eye. Everyone *knew* they had to stop Denard and only him on *every play* and they still had their hands full trying to actually do it. The fact that Michigan could never position itself for him to win the Heisman trophy will always be one of my sports fan laments. For ever and ever and ever. He better get a Legends Jersey or I’m qui’in’. I don't care if that’s silly. You’re silly. Where’s my bourbon?
Passer Rating was developed such that an average QB would end up with a rating of 100 according to the data set that was used to develop it, which was gathered two maybe three football eras ago when linemen couldn’t really block and scholarship limits weren’t so much. I’m not sure how they went about the process of pinning the rating to average==100 and I don’t have the data to try an replicate the results…so, I kinda, sorta, you know, pulled something outta my [hat]. That is to say: I did what I think is correct or at least valid. I normalized each parameter by it’s par value, summed them together, then forced resulting rating to equal 100. Ultimately the 100 thing is completely arbitrary, but negative numbers are weird, I guess. All said, a rating of 100 means the player was a solid runner but not special, below that you wonder if he should be running at all.
Now that we have a calibrated formula its time to get down to business, application. I calibrated the rating so that 100 was a normal guy, but to figuring out what par should be is a little more complicated. I mentioned earlier that if you cant get to a rating of 100 I don't think you should be a primary running option and I also think we should only look at primary running options to establish our benchmark. But being a primary running option means different things depending on where you’re lining up.
When trying to crack a nut like this I often find that the data itself will help you figure out where to chop it. In the chart below I have plotted Average Rating vs. Amount of Carries. Obviously, the better runner you are, the more carries you should see but runners that are REALLY good are few and far between…this chart shows that dichotomy very nicely. I like to look for population gaps and/or inflection points in a performance curve. Those usually a good places to drop an anchor as far as I’m concerned. When they are near each other it’s a dead giveaway. Based on the data itself I’m using 115 for RBs, 70 for QBs, and 120 for WR as performance benchmarks.
So, this is all well and good but the real test is whether or not things make sense. Here the values for the B1G in 2013:
|Team Name||Player Name||RB Rat||Attempt||Yds/ATT||TD%||FMB%||Gain%||Dillitium%|
This generally looks pretty reasonable to me in terms of an overall ranking as well as a relative ranking. The players/team you’d expect to be at the top and bottom of the list are where they are supposed to be. If anything I’d criticize the Mendoza line at 115 given how we all feel about Michigan’s running game last year. Maybe 115 is just the threshold of suicide and 130 or better is what we fans really want from our teams. But, even this jibes with what I think.
As with passer rating, this rating depends on player skill, surrounding support, and offensive scheme. Toussaint’s YPC and Gain%—components heavily influenced by surrounding support (i.e. the O-Line)—are way under par. So is his Dilitium % which is a skill/talent/speed thing but the dude had a bum knee and he’s not that far off of par there. Makes sense. So, he hit the Mendoza line even though he had bad support in front of him, sorta like Gardner. These numbers make sense to me.
I mentioned in my last diary that it was interesting to hear grumblings about De'Veon Smith being ahead/competitive with Derrick Green because I think the numbers bear this out. Check this out:
|Player Name||Att||TD||Fum||Gain %||Yds/ATT||TD%||Fum%||DIL%||RB Rat|
These guys played with the same support and in the same system so the differentiators on display here are essentially Skill and Opportunity. Neither Green nor Smith actually registered a fumble but the Ghost Protocol affect Smith’s rating more because he has far fewer carries. Indeed, Smith’s rating is also bolstered by a phantom touchdown, but this effect dissipates faster because TDs occur more frequently. So the math is screwing Smith over here a bit. Meanwhile, Smith’s Gain % and YPC (hitting the right hole at the right time) and DIL% (juking, speed, whatever) were the highest on the team last season. Yep, Small samples yadda yadda. Just sayin’.
Anyway, that's a lot of words and I hope this was worth the read. Of course, I will be referring to this information in future diaries. Thanks for reading and let please provide and criticisms or comments you might have in, uh, the comments section.
The Detroit News has an article today about Michigan's offensive Line. Some interesting comments were from Fitz Toussaint who said he knew the line needed to to develop. He also mentioned that he will continue training around campus for Pro Day so he can continue working with Derrick Green and De 'Veon Smith. He feels he has more he can help teach them. Kudos to Fitz for sticking around.
Kyle Kalis mentions that he suffered a severe sprained ankle in the Minnesota game which was the reason for his reduced time.
There is also a discussion about how the line has gelled. Let's hope it shows Saturday.
Edit: MLive has a more indepth article on Kalis. I'll add it here:
This article has a different story and says Kalis didn't want to sit. He was hurt but didn't want to come out. He sat down with Funk and Borges and was told he was the guy and would be the guy but there were reasons he needed to sit. He took it as a reason to work harder and it paid off.
I love the attitude.
In the aftermath of the CMU game, I’ve seen a few comments about running backs that go something like this: “If you took out X’s long run, his YPC would have only been Y, so he really wasn't that effective,” or variations thereof. This got me thinking a little about the limitations of using YPC to summarize running back performance, so I've put together a couple ways of looking at running back performance against Central.
First off, sample size concerns are rampant. Statisticians frown on many, many things, but they take particular umbrage when you do anything with a really small sample (read: less than 30). But, like our beloved coaches, we live in the real world where we have to make decisions based on incomplete information; so we continue on despite the limitations of the dataset.
Strength of competition is also suspect. We don't know for sure how good CMU will be this year, but we do know they were outscored by fifty points in the only game they've played this year. They may not be great this year.
Yards per carry is calculated by summing all rushing yards for a player and dividing by number of carries, making it an average (or sample mean). A sample mean is a very useful way of summarizing data with one nagging flaw: it is particularly vulnerable to outliers. The median, on the other hand, as the most central value, can be interpreted as a more typical expectation for a dataset. One extremely high or low value will have virtually no impact on the value of the median. Here's an example: Derrick Green's YPC for the CMU game was 6.1, 2 whole yards higher than Toussaint's 4.1. But Green's median carry of 3 is an entire yard shorter than Toussaint's 4. The YPC might lead you to conclude Derrick Green was a better bet for getting yards than Toussaint, but the median says at least 50% of Toussaint's carries went for 4 or more yards in comparison with Green's 3 or more yards. Since If you needed four yards for a first down, you may want to give it to Toussaint. That's potentially valuable information not contained in the YPC. Then there's the pesky fact that TD runs have a maximum length. If we're two yards out from the end zone, that's the maximum the player can get for that carry. This artificially lowers the YPC of a player who gets the ball over the line; in particular Toussaint's YPC would probably have been higher.
The table below contains a few measures of central tendency for the players who had at least 3 carries (three is still too small, but a line had to be drawn somewhere and Rawls' touchdown seemed to merit his inclusion in this list). Rawls gets no standard deviation because three is a small number.
QB Devin Gardner wins the YPC sweepstakes with a blistering 7.4 YPC bolstered by a median carry of 6 yards. I would advocate getting this man some more carries, but that's a) already happening and b) potentially troublesome for our passing game. Regardless, Gardner does a good job here no matter what metric you use: no negative yardage, a great longest run and two touchdowns on only 7 carries. At least for this game, our shiny "more passing-oriented" quarterback was our most effective running back, which speaks a bit to the value of athleticism at that position.
Among the running backs, Toussaint and Green duke it out for maximal effectiveness depending on which measure you use. Green wins on YPC, longest run, and least negative minimum run. Toussaint had a higher median, most touchdowns, and most carries. Rawls has the highest median of the RB's, but since he only had three carries, sample size tells us to pay no heed.
Hearkening back to the days of Three Yards and a Cloud of Dust (TYaaCoD), I wanted to know who was more reliable if you need three yards every time you rush. The table below contains the percent of carries the player achieved at least three yards, embodying the spirit of slightly-in-jest Schembechlerian Michigan Football.
Personally, though, I find three yards slightly lacking. If you run three yards every rushing play and you rush every play, you end up facing 4th and 1 every series. Our Fearless Leader would still go for it on fourth down every time (Heil Hoke!), but it's not an optimal situation to find yourself in. What you really want is someone who can pick up 3.5 yards or so every play, so you get a new set of downs after every three. The play-by-play is unhelpful in this regard, however, only listing integer values for yards. So I also calculated the Four Yards and a Cloud of Dust (FYaaCoD) metric, which is how the table below is sorted. If you get four yards every carry, you can go on rushing forever.
I did make a slight modification to the success rates of both metrics: I counted a touchdown as a success regardless of how many yards the play was because there is no further to go.
|Row Labels||Total Yds||Carries||TYaaCoD||FYaaCoD|
For TYaaCoD, you would want the following players rushing in order: 1. Green 2. Gardner 3. Rawls 4. Toussaint 5. Smith 6. Johnson. All players are between 50% and 75% successful at getting 3 yards against CMU, which is heartening. Moving to FYaaCoD, you would want 1. Gardner. 2. Rawls 3. Toussaint 4. Green, 5. Johnson 6. Smith.
There's some shuffling when you move to FYaaCoD: Derrick Green drops from first to fourth, and Smith falls to sixth at a slightly disappointing 29% success rate. Rawls still has only three carries, but two of them pass the FYaaCoD test, so he has a terrific success rate of 67%. Almost as good as Devin Gardner, who had over twice as many carries. Devin's ability to scramble is probably for real. Toussaint's actual strength as a running back comes through a bit more on the FYaaCoD metric. On his 14 carries, he hit 4+ yards 57% of the time, and he often surpassed four. That increases the chance of success for future plays, as the distance to the first down marker is smaller.
I thought about running the same analysis with passing yards, but it didn't feel right since yards per catch vary widely based on the play. Your wideout running the deep route will end up with more yards per target than the slot ninja you toss the bubble screens to. That is more schematic than based on individual skill. It is true that running plays are also not all created equal. But every running play starts behind the line of scrimmage and heads as far as possible into enemy space, making comparison a reasonable exercise.
Any statistical summary is just that: a summary. We lose information when we look at average, median, min, max, total yds, TYaaCoD, FYaaCoD, etc. that is available to us in the actual dataset. Our lizard brains just can't process significant amounts of data in numerical form in any reasonably quick fashion. But there is one thing we are great at: reading charts. So I've assembled the information from each rushing effort for everyone with 3+ rushes in order from least yards gained to most. I've colored the touchdowns Highlighter Yellow™ so you can include/exclude them from your mental calculations as needed.
For recent time's sake, Drake Johnson. Fare thee well, 2013 Drake. We hardly knew ye.
A. We were completely misguided to push for Devin-Gardner-to-wide-receiver last year when his natural position is clearly running back. The fact that QB's get an extra blocker has no bearing on this.
B. At this exact moment in time, the staff's decision to go 1. Toussaint 2. Green 3. The Field. is pretty justified. We saw flashes of brilliance from both of them—maybe even more from Green—but Toussaint overall had a better day. If Green sheds a few pounds and picks up just a hair more speed in the process, though—and I think we all expect that to happen— he could become the clear #1 even by mid-October. De'Veon Smith is not yet ready for world-beating, but he did display that vaunted balance. Hold off on judgment on him at this point.
C. Charts are indeed fun to look at.
D. Norfleet had one rushing effort for 38 yds, which I didn't include in this analysis because dividing by zero is difficult and because his YPC would make Brian cry.
Contrary to popular opinion a couple days ago, Brady Hoke said that Derrick Green is now the number 2 back behind Toussaint.
"Fitz (is) No. 1," Hoke said. "Then it'd be Green No. 2, then (Thomas) Rawls and (De'Veon) Smith and then Justice Hayes."
Obviously a lot of this has to do with the injury to Drake Johnson. It is interesting to me that he moved up the depth chart quickly. Sure, he had that great run against Central, but that had more to do with great blocking. Overall, his running seemed pretty "meh" that game.
According to this scuttlebutt (edit: not scuttlebutt but direct quote), Fitz would be the starter tomorrow but the 2 freshmen would be behind the returning RB crew of Rawls, Hayes, and Drake. Since the season starts in 10 days that seems unlikely to change dramatically in a short period of time. Could be a nod to the veteran players but seems the "Green is 2nd in line" talk is premature.
In fact, Hoke said his hierarchy right now would probably feature Toussaint, redshirt freshman Drake Johnson and juniors Thomas Rawls and Justice Hayes -- with Green and fellow freshman De'Veon Smith falling somewhere behind the pack.
Looks like this video might have been lost in the shuffle last night, since I was advised to make a thread for it in the CTK Day 15 thread.
First practice video, with a first glimpse of Derrick Green and Shane Morris officially in the Maize and Blue.
What amazes me about this site is the amount of content posted during the dead of summer, when people should be, you know, outside and not worrying about the nickelback (NTN)* on passing downs. Mind you, I say this with 100% absolute love and appreciation, as it really makes those bathroom br…er, interminable time between seasons a bit more bearable. The only problem, if you’d call it that, is that with such great, consistent diarists like Mathlete, Six Zero, Seth, CRex, and LSAClassOf2000 (and I’m sure to be missing others, so my apologies in advance), it makes it tough for people without advanced knowledge of mathematics, drawing skills, or hilarious fish-out-of-water tales to think of anything useful to post. Luckily, I’m here to post random thoughts on football without any of those messy facts, charts, or thoughtful analysis that bogs down everyone else. But I will definitely make consistent references to late 80’s/early 90’s pop culture, because nothing draws eyeballs like Battletoads puns.
And let it be known that I have yet to receive my copy of HTTV (available now for ordering if you are a horrible person who didn’t love Brian enough to sponsor his Kickstarter because you spent all of your money on funding a Deathstar), so if anything happens to overlap that is purely coincidental. So no need for a spoiler alert, but perhaps a didn’t-mean-to-tap-into-the-hivemind-alert. Also, this is not exhaustive – I don’t have the knowledge of football that other writers here possess, so me saying “Lewan is really good and Mattison knows how to coach” isn’t going to be ground-breaking; I’m going for a “key points” approach here. So without further ado, I bring you a preseason Best and Worst for Michigan (and college in general) football in 2013.
* I’m not a fan of all Nickelback songs, but that is one awesome movie tie-in song!
Best: Finally the focus is on actual football
While it is undeniable that college sports drive a multi-billion-dollar industry (but don’t tell EA that), the actual seasons for football and basketball are about 4 months each, with only a bit of overlap. So after the first week of January and/or the first week of April, the “official” engine driving the gravy train for network and cable television, websites, merchandisers, etc. shuts down for about 8 months. Unfortunately, there are still 24 hours a day that need to be filled with something, whether it be talking heads arguing over “issues” and obscure hypotheticals, former athletes pontificating on the need to have “played the game” to really understand why throwing on 3rd-and-12 is the right call, or scanning the police blotter in every college town to see if the Ven diagram of college kids getting drunk and/or fighting and college football/basketball players intersects.
So when the football season ends, the focus immediately turns to NSD, wherein a bunch of grown men’s and women’s emotions wax and wane according to the whims of high-schoolers participating in very weird hat dances.
|One of these is awesome, one is insanely awesome, and one is Denard rocking a great look.|
March is dominated by commercials for Southwest Airlines and Capital One credit cards with a dusting of basketball sprinkled in, and just when that madness ends, we get inundated with draft combine reports and the respective NBA and NFL drafts. And as the weather gets warmer, you finally think “self, what else can they report about? Kids are not even in school; at most they will be some puff pieces about charity work and new coaches getting used to a particular school.” But no, you are instead bombarded with stories about kids slacking off, whether or not a former coach is somehow partially responsible for a suspected murderer because the Program actually happens IRL, and old men talking about “big changes” that will only make things more convoluted and disjointed as sports go full Voltron with super-conferences and paychecks.
I guess my point is that in a few short weeks, fans of college football will actually be able to celebrate the sport itself, even if the depressing accoutrement isn’t going anywhere. Those recruits will now be in the lineup (or at least at practice), the returning players will be settling into their roles, and all of the coach-speak/playbook prognostications/expectations will manifest themselves in an actual product on the field. The silly season is over; bring on the games.
Worst: Addition + Subtraction != Reality
One of the common refrains I’ve read recently about the upcoming season is the old “addition by subtraction” on offense as Gardner takes over for Robinson at QB. As the thinking goes, the loss of Robinson and his career 10,776 yards of offense will be mitigated by Devin’s superior throwing ability and a more balanced, Al Borges-friendly offensive system.
This phrase has always driven me crazy, if for no other reason than football doesn’t work like math. A football team is comprised of innumerable players, coaches, opponents, etc.; we’re talking thousands of meaningful variables. Change one and you might have a major effect on the system, but the far more likely outcome is that nothing demonstrably happens or, worse, the output is worse. And it’s this last scenario that really scares me about losing Denard and installing Devin at QB full-time.
Just because you’ll be able to shove a slightly less misshapen peg into an ever-changing hole doesn’t mean the entire enterprise, or even a component like the offense, will function better a year later. Other than Jeremy Gallon’s mountain goat imitation and The Threat keeping the chains moving, the passing attack is long on potential and short on real results (I believe Funchess will have a solid year catching the ball, but when you can’t block at UM you aren’t going to be on the field much). Fitz’s recovery sounds promising but will he be the guy who ran for 5.6 ypc in 2011 or struggled to break 4 in 2012? I don’t know, and while there is guru-approved talent in the backfield (Green and Smith) and is a position where young talent can flourish, nobody with shoelaces has been able to consistently gain yardage on the ground for years now. And while in years past defenses had to respect the ability of UM’s QB/RB/WR/braided decoy to bust a massive run, Devin isn’t that type of player and defenses will treat him (and by extension this offense) accordingly.
Of course, Devin isn’t the perfect Al Borges QB either, but in theory he’ll be better able to throw downfield accurately and COMPLETELY IGNORE ANY TYPE OF SCREEN PASSES, amongst other things. Call me skeptical, but I still see this offense living and dying with the line giving whoever lines up at RB the time and space necessary to get into the second level. Protecting Devin will definitely help as well, but he’s enough of an athlete to buy himself some time on obvious passing downs if necessary; limiting the number of times he lines needing 8+ yards for a first because they tried this twice would be great.
|Unleashing the dragon is not officially endorsed by Al Borges, but he’s not officially against it either.|
Best: The Flying V
One of my favorite movies growing up was D2: The Mighty Ducks, the sequel to, I don’t know, the Joshua Jackson vehicle The Mighty Ducks. It’s 100% crap if you watch it critically; rampant product placement, jingoism and mindless flag-waving up the wazoo, and the most lax enforcement of international junior hockey rules known to man (seriously, the team adds players to the squad midway through the tournament by signing them up after a street hockey game). But by gawd, 13-year-old me loved this movie so much, and mostly because the creators pulled the comic book staple of expanding the Might Ducks universe by introducing new characters with exactly one “secret/mutant” power/character trait. Now you had the super-tough guy Dean to team up with Fulton (himself mostly known for his rocket shot) to make the Bash Brothers. Julie “The Cat”, with her lightning-quick reflexes, could even defend the previously-unstoppable triple deke. Luis Mendoza was the fastest guy the ice had ever seen, but couldn’t stop to save his life. And I guess to fill out the roster they added a cowboy (Dwayne) and the aforementioned street hockey star Russ (more on him later).
So why does this matter? Well, for a couple of years now, the RB situation at UM always left like a cut-rate casting of the Ducks, with guys trying to fill in the “power”, “speed”, “every down”, etc. roles but with limited success. They played hard and, at times, could fill in their roles admirably, but it should trouble people that even with Fitz’s decent 2011 season and barely playing his first year, Denard accounted for 42% of the team’s total rushing yards during his career. In virtually every circumstance, he was the best/only real option to move the ball on the ground, whether it be in short-yardage, designed first-down runs, even catching out of the backfield toward the end of last season.
This year, it feels like the situation will be improved if for no other reason than the talent in the backfield is significantly better than in years past. Even coming back from injury I expect Toussaint to be better than he was last season, and if he can’t line up full-time in the backfield is still a great change-of-pace back with (I hope) the elusiveness and phone-booth shiftiness everyone saw a couple of years ago. Green and Smith were some of the top RB recruits in the nation last year, and both look capable of running the ball 20-25 times a game if needed. Shallman and Kerridge should be able to provide some power in short yardage (I guess Rawls could improve here as well but who knows) and, in Shallman’s case, maybe a bit more in the open field. Guys like Hayes and Johnson look like situational backs who could move into the slot in certain formations and cause issues against LBs and Safeties. And to both make Brian happy as well as wedge in the reference that drove me to shoehorn the RB situation into this horrible analogy, Norfleet is the ultimate Knuckle-puck and a player I expect will help immensely in the return game if nothing else.
Getting yards on the ground still relies immensely on the guards and center blocking FAR better than they did last year, but it finally feels like the backfield could whip out a flying V of talent.
Worst: Where’d the “Gimmick” Go?
With Denard gone and Devin and co. clearly moving toward a more “classic” offense philosophy, I’m having to come to grips with the fact that the atypical elements of this team are rapidly disappearing. It always drove me crazy when people would call the spread option a “gimmick” offense, because last time I checked the goal was to score points as frequently as possible by maximizing your strengths and exploiting the weaknesses of your opponent. It wasn’t THAT long ago that people viewed the forward pass as (at best) a fad and (at worst) an affront to the game that killed 18 people and injured 100s, and even the multiple-receiving TE craze of recent years was scoffed at when it was first introduced. It’s an offense that clearly works in college, and the flexibility it gave in terms of play-calling helped make UM stand out a bit compared to the Big Ten-ness of offenses at outfits like Iowa, Wisconsin, and MSU.
While Al Borges’s offense looks to move the ball far better than other teams in the conference and should feature a fair number of wrinkles, the designed QB runs, unpredictable formations, and Worst Waldo Ever are probably relics of the past.
Worst: Stupid Elephant
Even though UM won’t be seeing Purdue until 2017 doesn’t mean that the Boilermakers couldn’t dramatically affect UM’s season as they unleashed Perry, clumsiness elephant in the world upon Jake Ryan and his precious ligaments. Though it sounds like he’ll be back in time for most of the conference slate, he’ll likely just be getting his conditioning and game-speed bearings when the meat of the schedule (@MSU, Nebraska, @NW, @Iowa, OSU) kicks in. Mattison Uber Alles and all that, but its going to be interesting to see how this defense responds without their leading tackler (88 total tackles) and pressure generator (team-leading 4.5 sacks). Let’s hope the hype around Clark, Ojemudia, and Washington is for real, because that line is going to have to generate a significantly better pass rush. You can only blitz so many times before good offenses figure out how to exploit those holes, and UM’s corners simply aren’t experienced/good enough right now to play on islands (though I do think they’ll be good).
And an aside: having recently had a birthday and solidly entering my early 30’s, I am definitely feeling my age when it comes to minor injuries. Whereas in years past running a couple extra miles or tweaking a muscle lifting took all of a day to recover from, now I’m limping around like I’ve got shrapnel in my ankle if I don’t stretch 10 minutes before jogging. So perhaps it shouldn’t surprise me that 20-something-year-olds can bounce back from these injuries in record-breaking time. It just blows my mind that Ryan will see the field 7 months after this injury. Heck, when Timmy’s Dad came back from his ACL injury and was a reasonable approximation of the player he was before, people thought it was a miracle.
You Decide: The (Near) End of an Era
I apologize to the mother of the equine that is about to be bludgeoned again, but we are rapidly nearing the end of the Rodriguez regime’s influence on Michigan football. While RR coached his last game on the UM sideline on January 1, 2011, the long tail from recruiting, player development, and (minor) cultural impact is still affecting Hoke’s regime years later. That’s the thing about coaching changes; the head guy may leave his office in a single day, but the fallout from his time at the helm literally remains for years. And we all know how it feels when a guy just lingers.
(* Full Disclosure: I remain a staunch believer that RR’s tenure at UM could have turned out quite differently if a handful of about eleventy billion things had gone differently. Your mileage with him will likely vary, but the guy who recruited Lewan, Denard, Gardner, Fitz, Ryan, etc. and obliterated a number of school records – admittedly both good and bad – could have worked in Ann Arbor.)
While we have seen some players from his regime leave in the past, the transition from last year’s squad to this year really feels like the first natural “purge” of RR’s most prominent players. The kids who left in 2013 were the first full RR class to matriculate, the kids who signed up after the 3-9 season and survived immense negative karma that welcomed them to campus, Stretchgate, the losing seasons, the Process, and, finally, some redemption.
The two names that I suspect stick out for most MGoBloggers are Denard and Kovacs; the Alpha and Omega that embodied the dichotomy and extreme variance that was a hallmark of the Rodriguez years.* Denard was the scintillating maestro of an offense that could be maddening for fans and opponents alike. At his peak, Denard was the most exciting player Michigan had fielded in a generation; his two transcendent games against ND rank up there with Biakabutuka against OSU, Braylon’s new Math, Chris Perry’s marathon versus MSU, Mercury Hayes leading the comeback against UVa, and a slew of performances by Woodson, Wheatley, and Hart. His flaws were well-documented (mediocre passer, injured, the sometimes-victim of being the best option on every play), but when he was on he gave fans the feeling of having the “ringer” in a game; of having the guy who was so much better than everyone else that it didn’t seem fair.
If Denard was the quintessential spread QB recruit, Jordan Kovacs epitomized the other mythos of Rich Rodriguez: gritty walk-on makes good. Sure, if you read his Wikipedia page the story feels incredibly predictable, but at the time I doubt anyone expected the kid with a single preferred walk-on offer at Toledo (yes, that Toledo) would become a team MVP and leave this program as one of the better safeties in its history. He just made plays, and I’ll admit that my testicles will probably retract a bit the first time someone goes deep on Michigan this year. I suspect Gordon will slide in adequately enough, but you don’t replace a mult-time conference award winner easily, regardless of the story told in getting him on the field.
This season will only accelerate the exodus of The Last Guy’s recruits, and while I am exceedingly happy about The Current Guy’s performance, it is still a bit sad to see some of the standard-bearers of this important era in Michigan’s history move on.
* You could also make a case for BWC, the biggest “can’t miss” prospect that flamed out under RR and only recovered under the steady hand of Hoke and Co. Because if there was a third defining element to the RR era, it was big-name prospects (Tate, Cullen, Cissoko, etc.) failing to live up to expectations.
Best: The Gap is Shortening
Of all the systemic and natural advantages certain programs have – coaching stability, location, tradition, money, SEC-ness – probably the most important to sustained success is player development & talent replenishment. The reason programs like Alabama, LSU, Stanford, Oregon, OSU, etc. have been successful recently is that the depth charts usually remain pretty flush with talent year over year. Sure, you’ll see holes pop up here and there as recruits flame out or unexpected attrition occur, but for the most part good teams stay that way because when you graduate one all-conference performer there’s usually a guy or two behind him to fill in those shoes.
If you take a look at the unofficial depth chart, you’ll notice there’s this massive wall of players for 2016 and 2017 crumbling to a handful of 2013 starters and regular contributors. This drop is less precarious on the defensive side than the offense, which makes sense given the coaching staff’s composition and their early focus when they took over, but it highlights the “blue-bloods”/“first-world problems” meme you see thrown around with consistently-great teams that, once upon a time, included UM.
A common refrain you hear from programs like Texas, OSU, UM, Alabama, OU, Oregon, etc. is that if they aren’t winning the conference and playing for the MNC/major bowl game, the season is a “disappointment” even if they win 9+ games. This inevitably drives other, less consistently successful teams crazy because it reeks of entitlement and a sense of superiority. While that is probably a part of it, the bigger reason is that these teams know they are so superior in talent compared to most of their competition that the band of variance for their season is relatively narrow; they’ll rarely lose more than 2-3 games a season because they probably only play 3-4 teams with comparable talent a year. Even with the odd upset, they’re not worried about making a bowl game or having a winning record unless something cataclysmic happens. Because they have depth, the natural ebb and flow from injuries and departures year-to-year is muted; the whole “we don’t rebuild, we just reload” refrain. That was never true under RR (I get into the lasting influence of his tenure below), and the later Carr years had their fair share of talent gaps that culminated in the Horror and the aftermath.
Hoke is obviously doing a great job replenishing the cupboard with top-notch talent, and I suspect that in a year or two the expectations for UM will return to their lofty heights. But if anyone thinks that there won’t be quite a few true/RS freshmen playing meaningful minutes this year, you’re going to be surprised. 8-5 is just as likely as 11-2 despite the seeming upward trajectory of the team in recent years.
Best: And in a Hurry!
This is a late addition given the events of the BBQ, but by gawd Hoke is doing work when it comes to skill position players, which was the last “real” concern people had regarding his recruiting acumen. In hindsight, his early focus on linemen and depth makes sense since a Denard-led offense should be able to score a reasonable number of points to hide many deficiencies on that side of the ball. But having already picked up some of the best RBs and WRs in last year’s class, he wasted no time grabbing some of the best WR, RB, and DB players early on for 2015. This won’t totally mitigate that gap between upperclassmen and the rest of the depth chart, but Hoke and co. are going to do their best to eradicate that issue with overwhelming force.
Best: We want people to pass?
After living through the weekly carpet-bombing by 5x Heisman Trophy winners like Ben Chappell, Scott Tolzien, and Chris Relf, the last thing I’d thought I’d be saying a couple years later is that the secondary looks like, if not a strength, at least an adequate part of the defense this year and one of the strengths of the team going forward. Taylor impressed me as the chief replacement for Countess after his own ACL injury (damn you Perry!), and veterans like Avery and camp surprise Hollowell should help fill in the gaps and limit the reliance on the younger talent. There definitely isn’t a Woodson, Hall, or Jackson in the backfield, but the corners should be able to stick with enough receivers on the schedule that teams will have to at least earn those long completions.
Best/Worst: Come On B1G
It has been discussed on this board many times before, but looking around the conference I’m not seeing any teams poised to make the leap up in competition. On one hand this should make UM fans happy; the Big 2, Little 10 situation pumps up the win totals. At the same time, when the third best team is either an in-transition Wiscy, a sanctioned PSU, or a meh MSU, it doesn’t speak highly of the strength of the conference and how it will be perceived when bowl selection and rankings roll around. I expect MSU’s defense to be one of the stronger units in the nation and for Wiscy and NW to continue to exceed their talent level, but you’d hope that “better than expected” wouldn’t be the ceiling for over half the teams in the conference.
So that’s it. Comment away below if you got this far, and tell me where I screwed up. I’m sure I did somewhere. John Navarre’s still the QB, right? Go Blue!
Just a quick wallpaper I worked on tonight. It's not my favorite, but I'm pretty sure that's because my taste is changing slowly due to all the damn baby/portrait photography I'm doing at the moment. Anyway, it's a neat look for Fitz, who, having DIED (I can only assume an injury as brutal as his caused his demise), has risen again as an undead running back of doom. Enjoy.
EDIT: I don't normally put these in the board, but since the substance was so minimal for this wallpaper (no, I'm not doing a mobile version), I figured it was best to not be a diary. Feel free to move, mods, as you are omnipotent on these pages. Also, not sure whether this should be OT...?