2014 Preview: The X-Factors Comment Count

Ace August 5th, 2014 at 2:15 PM

Where to start, really? [Bryan Fuller/MGoBlog]

In Brady Hoke's fourth year at the helm, Michigan heads into fall camp with far fewer questions about the starting lineup than we're used to hearing this time of year; even the offensive line looks pretty much set, though of course concerns about their ability will follow this team well into the season. Today I'm taking a look at the five players—some penciled in as starters, some not—whose emergence is critical to Michigan's success in 2014, either due to the depth at their position, their potential to become a real difference-maker, or both.

You'll be shocked to see that the list begins with an offensive lineman.

RT Ben Braden

Braden is #1 with a bullet for me. He replaces an NFL draft pick at a critical spot on a line in need of a whole lot of improvement, and the options behind him are very limited. Braden has great potential due to his Lewan-wowing combination of size (6'6", 322 lbs.) and athleticism, but there are also significant concerns—that same Lewan article, from last August, stated the starting left guard spot was Braden's to lose, but even in a season when the guards rotated with alarming frequency he played just two games, both as a reserve.

While it's far too early to say a lineman heading into his redshirt sophomore season has panned out or not, the fact that a true freshman and a 6'1" walk-on—Kyle Bosch and Joey Burzynski, respectively—saw the field over Braden last year is certainly worrisome. Adding to that concern is the depth at tackle this season. If Braden can't lock down his spot at right tackle, the first tackle off the bench looks likely to be another true freshman, Mason Cole, if the spring is any indication. A trio of redshirt freshmen provide depth, but none are close to sure things: Logan Tuley-Tillman likely needs at least another year of development, Chris Fox mostly spent last year rehabbing an ACL tear, and David Dawson seems more suited to guard.

It's true that any of Michigan's O-linemen could be on this list—in fact, there's another later—but Braden's spot in the lineup appears the least certain, and he just happens to be in a spot that could cause a complete reshuffling of the line if he can't hold the job.

NT Ondre Pipkins

There are really four interior defensive linemen that could go here; Willie Henry, Chris Wormley, and Maurice Hurst were under serious consideration, but Henry seems like he'll be at least a passable starter, and the three-tech spot—where Wormley and Hurst are slated to play—doesn't have the same importance as the nose (while boasting more depth on this roster). Also, only one of these guys was a five-star All-American out of high school, and it's Pee Wee Pipkins.

Pipkins is, rather shockingly, already a true junior, and his time to make that five-star impact is quickly running out after he blew out an ACL against Minnesota last year, just as he was showing signs of reaching his potential. He's reportedly fully recovered from that injury, though there's no telling how it'll affect him until he's back playing in actual games. If he's healthy, he could develop into some unholy combination of Gabe Watson and Alan Branch; he could also be the next Will Campbell, and that's without accounting for the potential that he's not fully comfortable on that knee.

While Michigan doesn't necessarily need Pipkins in the starting lineup—Henry can start at the nose next to a three-tech platoon of Wormley/Hurst/others—they need him to be healthy and productive enough to rotate in a good deal, unless Bryan Mone is remarkably ahead of the curve for a true freshman nose tackle. It'd also, of course, be really nice to see the affable Pipkins return to the how-the-hell-is-that-blob-chasing-down-Stefon Diggs form he showed in his standout Army AA Game performance a couple years ago.

WR Amara Darboh

"Today in practice I witnessed the single greatest catch I've ever seen in person." — Devin Gardner

We got a couple tantalizing looks at Darboh before he missed the 2013 season with a foot injury: the amazing catch from a 2012 Outback Bowl practice (right) and a nice deep sideline grab in the 2013 Spring Game. While Jehu Chesson did a solid job as the #3 receiver last year, Darboh was considered the clear leader for that role—really the #2 receiver role at the time, before everyone figured out Devin Funchess was a tight end in name only—and he also garnered more hype as a recruit.

This admittedly isn't an area of significant need for Michigan; Freddy Canteen, Moe Ways, Jaron Dukes, and DaMario Jones provide plenty of depth and talent at receiver.* None of those guys possess the combination of talent, physical development, and knowledge of the offense that Darboh has right now, however, and the capable-of-catching-anything aspect to Darboh's game is something I'd like to see on the field.

Having a sure-handed possession receiver across from Devin Funchess could make Michigan's passing game downright scary, and early in the season it could also help cover for the absence of a receiving threat at tight end while Jake Butt recovers from his ACL injury. Darboh, who's now listed at 6'2", 211 pounds, potentially fits that bill better than anyone on the roster.

*I'd include Drake Harris, too, but he's coming off a lost senior season of high school due to a hamstring injury and he needs to gain weight, so a redshirt hopefully beckons.

RG Kyle Kalis

This should probably be Jake Butt's spot, but I'm going with Kalis here, since he's a five-star talent on a line in need of that, and after one rough year it appears he's been written off by many. I mean, this was in Brian's post-spring 27 Tickets, when he (ever so jinxfully) assumed now-Buckeye Chad Lindsay would transfer from Alabama to Michigan and take over the center spot:

7879940[1]27. G Kyle Bosch, So. [Last time: 25]

Under assumption that Lindsay comes in, Glasgow displaces one of Braden/Bosch/Kalis. Random guess here is that it's Kalis because Bosch should improve more as younger guy but your guess is as good as mine. So is Hoke's.

Kalis was left out of the top 27.

While I realize Kalis underperformed last year, and not all of that can be chalked up to coaching ... well, you all saw the mess on the line, and assigning individual blame for that tire fire is a difficult, if not impossible, endeavor. Kalis was thrust into a starting job as a redshirt freshman, then moved in and out of the lineup as the coaches tried (and failed) to find something that would work—not exactly a recipe for success for a first-year starter regardless of talent.

And boy, does Kalis have talent. Offensive linemen are the toughest prospects to project with much accuracy, but he looked like the surest of sure things out of high school. Many of his issues last year appeared to stem from uncertainty about his assignment; given his freshmandom and the sheer number of schemes Michigan tried to run last year, that's understandable. The simplified, inside zone-centric offense under Doug Nussmeier should suit him well; if he's confident enough in his knowledge of the playbook to stop thinking and starting clobbering, we could see a huge step forward from him this fall.

NICKEL/S/CB Jabrill Peppers

Braden is the #1 X-factor, in my opinion, because of his importance to the team's success this year; if you think of X-factors as players who can make an impact in a number of ways, however, the obvious choice is Peppers. Obviously.

The coaches maintain that they'll start him out at nickel, and he could make a huge difference there as a prototype hybrid space player who's equally adept in coverage and run support. He could very well start from day one at strong safety, the only spot in the secondary with any real uncertainty, and the way Greg Mattison utilized that spot in the Spring Game—aggressively rolling the SS into the box often—is ideally suited for a player like Peppers. He could even challenge Raymon Taylor at boundary corner, though with the rise of Jourdan Lewis the need for Peppers at corner appears less than the two other defensive positions he could play this year.

Personally, I'm hoping that sooner or later he starts at strong safety, where he could bring a level of playmaking Michigan hasn't had back there since... uh... let's go with "a while ago." I don't believe the coaches will ask Peppers to make an impact on offense this year, but special teams is another story—his potential as a return man is massive, and I have a hard time believing the coaches won't try to get the ball in his hands one way or another.



August 5th, 2014 at 2:36 PM ^

Ian Bunting is my Offensive X-factor, especially with Butt recovering from injury and Funchess now a WR. I'm expecting him to play right away and follow a similar trajectory as Butt last season; slowly work into the system and by the end of the year be the #2 or #3 guy. However, some of that will depend on how soon or well Butt can make it back.


August 5th, 2014 at 2:38 PM ^

Whew. Optimism peppered in with a lot of salty questions. The part that jumped off the page is realizing PeeWee is a freakin junior already. Wow. This time next year he will be in the "Thank you Seniors" thread. Ugh. Please win big.


August 5th, 2014 at 2:40 PM ^

OL - You could put any and all of the OLmen on here. Top 5 X Factors = Top 5 OLmen.  Even Glasgow needs to get better, and if he can stabilize the center position and lead from the inside to out, it would have a dramatic impact on the whole unit. Or if he can swing to RT and fill a hole, that's huge too.  Magnuson is changing positions and LT spot is critical for pass protection.  Braden, Kalis, Bosch - check check check.

WR - I'm not convinced the hype was real on Darboh. We've heard practice hype before (e.g., Jerald Robinson). We've seen leaping catches (e.g., Devin Gardner).  It doesn't mean much. Chesson seemed to come in with more upside as a recruit and has, at this point, an advantage in health and experience.  Chesson and or Darboh will obviously be important, but Canteen is the real X-factor here IMO.  He could be an instant-impact performer.  If he has the route-running and quicks that his hype would have you believe, he's the perfect complement to Funchess. He's relatively thin, but he's 6'1 or 6'2, not some wee specialist. Gimmee that Manningham.

Totally agree on Pipkins, and clearly Peppers' upside is off the chart.

The other X-factor is gardners health, but that goes back to OL.


August 5th, 2014 at 3:38 PM ^

I'd hope we run a decent amount of 3 wide sets, especially with Butt out.  Based on what I've heard about players abilities, I'd have Funchess on outside (for obvious reasons) and Canteen on the outside as well, based on his speed and route running, and put Darboh in the slot based on his size and supposedly great hands. 

It'll be interesting to see if Canteen is more like a Manningham or a Breaston type. If he plays like either I'd be very happy.  If Darboh could channel some Avant, and Funchess continues do do even more Funchess stuff, this could be one of the most entertaining passing attacks in a while.


August 5th, 2014 at 2:54 PM ^

 "None of those guys possess the combination of talent, physical development, and knowledge of the offense that Darboh has right now"

Unless Nuss is leaving in most of the passing game that Borges used, wouldn't Darboh's knowledge of the offense be about the same as the other receivers that were here in the spring?


August 5th, 2014 at 3:14 PM ^

...he was here in the spring, which wasn't the case for Ways. Probably could've worded that better and said something about having more experience with the speed, physicality, and technique required to play the college game; was trying for brevity.


August 5th, 2014 at 3:06 PM ^

I personally think Kalis was injured sometime before or during the PSU game. There have been a couple of off-hand comments to this effect IIRC, but nothing definitive. He'd played reasonably well up to that point and whatever errors he made seemed to be mental vs getting overpowered. Then, overnight was getting put on skates and getting shoved 3 yards into the backfield and then got yanked the next week. Later in the season, he came back strong and was one of the better OL during the Bowl and Spring Games. I think he'll be fine this year if he stays healthy.


August 5th, 2014 at 3:07 PM ^

for a column that didn't start with snarky negativism.  Your columns are a joy to read, Ace, and this one was no exception.  Once again you prove that it is possible to write of what ails without the dripping negative sarcasm.

A standing ovation indeed.

If not X- factors, maybe Y- factors, will be the intensity that both lines bring to the game on every play.  Both lines are average to above average in size and strength, time now for them to announce their presence with authority.  Time now to see the OL forming pockets or blocking five+ yards down field when needed, time to see the DL blowing up the opposition's OL. 


August 5th, 2014 at 3:08 PM ^

Pipkins is a real need, but what about a DE? Nothing has been more obviously missing from the Mattison defenses than a four-man pass rush. If a Frank Clark can actually deliver on his hype, that's a huge boost to the entire defense. And it has been a real hole in recruiting (when we were high in the Hand sweepstakes, Mattison was quoted discussing how hard it is to find elite pass rushers in the upper Midwest). Developing a guy like that in house would be huge.

Overall I like the list, and this is a big part of what makes a season what it is: the guys who grow into something extra over the course of the year, adding a dimension or filling a hole we though would be a weakness.


August 5th, 2014 at 3:24 PM ^

IMO, Clark is probably going to be who he was last year. A guy that gives you some pressure every 4th or 5th play and occasionally turns in a spectacular play, but not a true edge threat that you have to scheme around. If a DE breaks through this year, my guess would be Taco. He's always had the phsycal tools and it seems like lack of trust from to the coaches that he'd play his responsiblities was the reason he hasn't seen a bigger role. The move to the 4-3 over should play to a player of his type too.


August 5th, 2014 at 3:43 PM ^

I'm optimistic. I didn't think our pass rush was that bad last year actually. Our super soft coverage and big holes in the zones let QBs get the ball out quickly and on time, which really depressed the sack numbers, but I didn't really get the feeling QBs ever had all day to sit in a nice pocket against us. The other problem is the DTs weren't really caving the pocket either, so often the QB could just step up.

With how many mobile guys we have on the schedule, a unit that plays responsibly and covers their gaps is probably just as important as guys that could terrorize backfields. If our DBs are truly going to be more agressive and play man and jam at the LOS, that could make the difference between getting the sack and arriving just as the ball is released.


August 5th, 2014 at 3:14 PM ^

I'll throw out Keith Heitzman as my X factor guy. We've been without a good blocking TE for a while (AJ Williams seemed lost out there still, and Butt was decent, but a bit undersized). If he can make the position switch smoothly, a reliable, upper classman that's pyshically and mentally mature at TE could be the difference between the running game sputtering and finally finding some rhythm. Jake Butt being unavailable for at least a few games, and probably working himself back into game shape for a couple more only makes Heitzman that much more important.


August 5th, 2014 at 3:20 PM ^

I agree with Mr. King above. The theme of last Fall's camp was the right to rush four. If we get to that point with the amount of talent that is behind the line our defense will be lethal.

Also - 2014 previews are starting up on MGoBlog. Woo-hoo!


August 5th, 2014 at 3:33 PM ^

Everyone is expecting a better D this year. 

We have more experience.

Peewee is back and Peppers has arrived, but my mini X factor is Hagerup.  

I hope to see him put our improved D in better spots.  Pin the other team deep near their end zone so the D can attack.  If the O stalls get our D an extra 10 yards to operate.  Hopefully his problems are behind him and we see a great year from him.     


August 5th, 2014 at 4:44 PM ^

What about the so-called Borges toys of Hill & Shallman and we might as well throw in Norfleet? I assume that the first half of the season will be failry vanilla as the goal is forwards, and everyone but DG is young.  But, I'd think starting with Spary we might want to employ some innovation, assuming anything I said is "acurate".

Michigan Arrogance

August 5th, 2014 at 5:05 PM ^

It's strange how these days the RB position has been so devalued. I realize we have huge OL issues and agree that this top 5 could be the entire OL corps, but it's weird to see a M team with no proven RB not have a spot on this list.


August 5th, 2014 at 7:00 PM ^

The August 4 issue of Sports Illustrated has an article about the declining usage of running backs in the NFL. The article cites statistics showing the percentage of offensive plays resulting in rushing attempts went from 57.1% in 1973 to 41.7% last year, an all-time low.
In 2013, for the first time ever, no running back was selected in the first round of the NFL Draft. The first back taken in that draft, the Bengals’ Giovani Bernard, went at 37. This year, Bishop Sankey was the first running back selected when the Titans chose him at number 54.
The Sports Illustrated article also mentions that the NFL trend might become more running back by committee than overworking a featured back.  In theory, this would prolong the professional careers of talented running backs.


August 5th, 2014 at 6:18 PM ^

not be wise. The difference between him and Norflett cannot be  significant regarding running ability and speed. Special team service only exposes him to unnecessary risk of injury.  

This year they should let him accilimate to college level football and not low percentage heroics.

Brown Bear

August 5th, 2014 at 6:40 PM ^

I'm optimistic about the offensive line this year. Call me crazy, but for some reason I just have a feeling they are going to surprise us.
Gosh I hope I'm right.


August 5th, 2014 at 7:05 PM ^

Long Snapper-Holder-Kicker

There was something that seemed almost automatic about the Glanda-Dileo-Gibbons triumvirate in Michigan’s kicking game the past two seasons.  Think Northwestern 2013 and the Dileo slide into the snap from Glanda and Gibbons’ last-second field goal.  Little is being said about the Special Teams X-Factor, but whoever wins those jobs will be facing added pressure to replicate what those three did for Michigan’s special teams.


August 5th, 2014 at 7:46 PM ^

I think he'll end up backing Henry at NT, but not making much of an impact. I'd put our pass rush as the biggest X-factor of the year. If we can get some combination of guys (don't much care which ones, Henry, Hurst, Clark, Charlton, whoever) to generate some real QB pressure this year, in combination with what will probably be improved CB play across the board, that will take our D up a huge notch. We lost or struggled to win far too many games last year because we just couldn't make big stops when we needed to. Third down defense is the key.


August 6th, 2014 at 6:01 AM ^

amen...as OP indicated he couldve listed all 5 OL (and 2-3 backups as well) and no one wouldve blinked as even just C+ performance across the OL would be drastic improvement for this team and their record.  but as we all know, thats been hammered to death, the OL needs to get it done to win.  but the D needs to create TO's, flip fields, limit big plays, and get off the field - so 3rd down D is huge.  if D consistently limits effective run games on 1st and 2nd downs, they stand better chance of being able to pin their ears back in obvious passing situations....and thats what this team needs since they lack elite pash rushers.  ability to pressure QBs with 4 (and 5 when necessary) will be huge x-factor...gotta get off the field on 3rd downs, bottom line


August 5th, 2014 at 9:56 PM ^

The O line will be decent by the end of the year. The D line may not be very good if Pipkins does not step up. These positions are what they are! The 2 things that keep Michigan down and have since LC was coach are the special teams and defensive secondary.

Michigan starts at their 17 while their opponent starts at the 27. Other teams cover well and know where the ball will be kicked and do not hesitate. It seems that Michigan is always waiting for good field position to "open up" their offense.

Punt exchanges do not go well either and you can't discount the importance of losing or gaining a few yards of field position several times each game.

I am so tired of watching our defensive backs chasing receivers and not knowing where the ball is. They don't look for the ball and are constantly beaten deep. I think that it is a residue of "bend but don't break". It does not work anymore. When we had 125 scholie players, it was OK but that was awhile ago. Attention to detail counts and M doesn't have it. I hope that Nussmeir demands attention to special teams and that someone takes these good athletes we have in the secondary and coaches them to play against 21st century teams.

ND Sux

August 6th, 2014 at 8:52 AM ^

Freddy Freakin' Canteen.  I am impressed with his quick feet, but he also looks to have the straight-line speed to juke and get deep in a hurry. 


August 6th, 2014 at 9:30 AM ^

I think Derrick Green and DeVeon Smith are paramount to the success of this team. Yes, the O-line needs to come together and create more holes to run through. I still think these big backs will crush opponents and create that 1-3 yards in the first half that translates into 5-7 by the 4th quarter.                                                                                                                                              Frank Clark - it's his time to shine. This dude should lead the team in sacks and create havok all over the backfield.                                                                                                                   Jake Ryan - his new move to Mike should be interesting. I'm hoping that he doesn't have to think too much given a position switch, and he can just tear around and blow up the plans of our opposition.                                                                                                                      Freddie Canteen - Freddie has the quickest feet and best moves of anybody I've seen at WR in a minute. I really think he shines early and often, and the duo of Funchess and Canteen will be tough for teams to stop.                                                                                                       Nuss - coach Nuss has a ton of nice weapons at his disposal, and I really like how he gets after the kids when he coaches. He seems to be a tireless teacher on the field, and I really think his energy and enthusiasm will go a long way with helping our offense improve.