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!