Five Questions And Five Answers: Offense 2015

Submitted by Brian on September 2nd, 2015 at 1:50 PM

Previously: Podcast 7.0. The Story. Quarterback. Running Back. Wide Receiver. Tight End And Friends. Offensive Line. Defensive Tackle. Defensive End. Linebacker. Cornerback. Safety. Special Teams.

1. I bet you're mad because this isn't a spread offense amirite?

I am a spread zealot, it's true. However, I am not crazy. Therefore I am happy that Jim Harbaugh is the coach at Michigan no matter what offense he wants to run.

Meanwhile, the Harbauffense is not a spread but neither is it the old style "expectation is for the position" offense. Harbaugh's offense has a certain reputation…


…and it does live up to that. It goes beyond that. Whereas the late Carr offenses tended to drive one thing into the ground over and over until it settled into a 3.4 YPC groove, Harbaugh loves to troll defenses with constant motion, trap blocking, and—yep—spread elements.

The Sugar Bowl demolition of a Virginia Tech team that a year later would hold Brady Hoke's first team under 200 yards of offense is the canonical example of the motion. Stanford shifted, and shifted some more, and continued shifting until grand cracks developed in VT's run fits.

That relies on the opponent screwing up because of your shifts and is not always going to happen… but it does sometimes. After Stanford had blown it open, Harbaugh deployed a play that I've used at various MGoEvents over the past few months. At each it plays like stand-up comedy:

They practiced that, and then used it as a middle finger.

[After THE JUMP: building Rome, explosions, Rudock]

Harbaugh's offenses put mental pressure on the opposition in a way that previous manball offenses at Michigan did not. This came up constantly during the Al Borges's tenure; I said that having to dodge a safety near the line of scrimmage sucked while Borges's defenders said they'd take it all day and twice on Saturday. It's clear that Harbaugh is in the former category. Like spread offenses, Harbaugh loves to screw with opposition safeties.

He is also highly flexible. If you invite him to throw, he will throw. He clearly desires quarterbacks who can grab yards on the ground, and will work towards offenses in which that is a moderately-sized component of the whole. QB rushing yards per year at various tenures, which I have not bothered to adjust for sacks:

  • USD: -25, 400, 700
  • Stanford: -150, 100, 350, 450
  • 49ers: 180, 550, 550, 650

Harbaugh loves running his QB on third and short and will use zone read principles on occasion. Statues need not apply.

And, I mean, even the manball stuff is not garden variety. "Pro style offense" is increasingly a misnomer since it's generally used to talk about an Iowa-type outfit that operates from under center with two wide receivers instead of the passing spread that dominates the NFL. But even if we take "pro style offense" to mean 1980s NFL offense, Harbaugh doesn't fit that either. The number of pro style offenses that will happily line up in the formation generally designated "goal line" on first and ten from their own thirty is zero. Harbaugh, though:


In this Harbaugh gets some of the advantages that the spread had when it was first coming up. It was weird, and people didn't know what to do with it. This is weird, and people don't know what to do with it. If you can execute these blocks you have acquired an advantage because you've put a large man on cornerbacks who stay on the field no matter how much blocky/catchy you deploy. When those corners meet offensive linemen they go for a ride.

Not many football teams have not been able to execute these blocks well enough to make this an asset. Harbaugh's have.

I like the spread because it works. Harbaugh's offense also works. These days vanishingly few teams running traditional offenses can consistently crack the top 20 in rushing YPC. That list is basically Wisconsin, Alabama, and Stanford. Harbaugh built one of those teams from three stars. I'm cool with whatever he wants to run.

2. Can they build Rome in a day?

Much to our chagrin, Michigan fans have gotten used to the two-year process involved in digging out from a massive hole. The 2009 offense was meh but so so much better than 2008, which led to the Denard madness of 2010. The 2013 offensive line was a complete disaster; the 2014 line was meh. You don't just flip a switch; you spend a year cleaning yourself off.

I think that will be the case this year as well. So many of the problems with last year's team were players manifesting the overall chaos and incompetence of the program. Repeated failures to block the right guy on bubble screens—probably the easiest play in football to execute—stood out:

Then you had Funchess losing any ability to care and the tailbacks running at random and a much-reduced but still extant pile of OL errors and Devin Gardner. Poor Damn Devin Gardner.

Harbaugh is going to fix those things. It will take some time.

But I'm saying there's a chance. Michigan gets virtually the entire offense back save Funchess and Gardner, and the transfer of Jake Rudock is spackle for the enormous hole at quarterback. This is a veteran team all of a sudden: Michigan is set to start one underclassman (Mason Cole) against Utah, maybe two if Drake Harris beats out Jehu Chesson.

For Michigan to look HARBAUGH really quick there are four main things that have to happen:

  • One of Ben Braden or David Dawson has to get good this year.
  • One or more tailbacks has to go in the extant holes consistently—not even find cracks that are hard to find, just go in the damn hole the play is designed to open.
  • Rudock has to be the guy I thought I saw during the UFR series on him instead of the guy Iowa fans think he is.
  • They need someone to catch long passes. If the running game gets going, Jake Butt is a valid answer here.

Hitting on all of those at the same time is unlikely, but not so unlikely I discount the possibility entirely.

One other thing to consider: this might feel much better than it actually is. Michigan was close to last nationally in turnover margin a year ago and had special teams that were utterly incompetent in all the ways you gain and lose field position. They will be running downhill if those things get fixed, thus leading to lots of articles about a renaissance that hasn't quite happened.

3. Aren't we worried there will be a lack of explosion?

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Next year we hope to have more than one picture of Drake Harris [Bryan Fuller]

Yes. Harbaugh's Stanford offenses got away with it because they were so damn good at doing what they do that their tight ends could double as downfield pass threats. That requires a ridiculous level of efficiency that Harbaugh only acquired in his third year. Also they had Andrew Luck.

Michigan does not have Andrew Luck and they do not project to be so good on the ground that opponents freak out about the run game to the point where TEs average almost 20 yards a catch. Neither do they have a back that feels like the kind of guy who will rip off 50-yard runs that should have been ten yard runs.

Either Drake Harris is instantly the truth—something I'm not banking on even if he remains healthy—or Michigan looks like a rich man's Iowa. Touchdown drives will be long, grinding, and relatively rare. Big plays will be thin on the ground.

That is the main hangup this year. The good news is that Michigan's defense and special teams should be well-suited to win the kind of field position battle a low-turnover, decent, boring offense will get in a lot of.

4. Which Rudock is it?

I explained most of my position in the quarterbacks preview, but I didn't offer a hot take. Here is that take: Rudock is a good, efficient, accurate quarterback who was making the best of a bad situation at Iowa. Accusations that he is a checkdown machine are vastly overstated because Iowa is in the last stages of the Ferentz death spiral.

I would like to re-iterate the pieces he was working with a year ago:

Mark Weisman, the main tailback, had the fifth-lowest "highlight yards" average in the country last year. In a nutshell, that means that once Weisman got five yards downfield he was one of the worst players in the country at getting more. That led opposing safeties to play in the parking lot. Iowa's receivers consisted of an inconsistent but promising downfield threat (Tevaun Smith), a mediocre slot receiver (Kevonte Martin-Manley), and a fast guy who was terrible at football (Demond Powell). Martin-Manley, the most frequent target, had a meh 58% catch rate despite being targeted mostly short by a very accurate QB. In pass protection, the Iowa offensive line was reminiscent of 2013 Michigan—a couple NFL draft picks at tackle and a disaster on the interior—except Brandon Scherff was no Taylor Lewan. (They were better on the ground.)

The one very bad no good read against Nebraska got inflated into a major problem when it was more likely a one-off issue; Rudock got dumped on because he was the quarterback and the quarterback always gets a disproportionate share of the credit and blame.

At Michigan, he will look like a different guy.

5. Well?

Rich man's Iowa it is. Michigan doesn't have the playmakers to have an excellent offense, nor will they be as efficient as they need to be if they're going to manball it the way Harbaugh wants. Those things are a year or two away.

In 2015 they will be a conservative outfit that punts after gaining 20 yards a lot. They'll grind out enough points to keep Michigan in games and win a fair few of them; they will not be mistaken for late Stanford.

Neither will they be mistaken for Actual Iowa, though: the talent is better just about everywhere. Someone in the running back corps is going to be good, and Jake Butt will paper over issues with the receiving corps because he can be that flex guy on the level of a Tyler Eifert.

It's gonna feel much better.


  • Jake Rudock >>> Severely Broken, Out Of Warranty Devin Gardner
  • Older Kalis, Glasgow > younger Kalis, Glasgow
  • Older Cole >> freshman Cole
  • Magnuson at tackle > Braden at tackle
  • Healthy, older Jake Butt > ACL-recovering Jake Butt
  • Williams, Poggi, Winovich, Hill  > Williams, Heitzman
  • Four-headed Harbaugh tailback > younger three-headed tailback


  • Grant Perry == Dennis Norfleet
  • Amara Darboh == Amara Darboh


  • Drake Harris or Jehu Chesson <<< Devin Funchess
  • Braden < Jack Miller

Last Year's Stupid Predictions

Devin Funchess challenges but does not reach Jeremy Gallon's single season receiving record, and then gets drafted in the first round.

He did not challenge and got drafted in the second round. Half point for the second.

Devin Gardner is a slam dunk first team All Big Ten performer; he still makes too many bad decisions to be truly great.

    Slightly wrong. Devin Gardner was a mess.

Michigan's OL is Cole/Mags/Glasgow/Kalis/Braden for virtually the entire season unless Kalis's back flares up. If there is a change it is Glasgow shifting to RG with Miller entering at C.

Miller instead of Magnuson, but Magnuson got hurt. Pretty decent.

The running game improves significantly, starting out depressing and ugly but improving throughout the season until Michigan reclaims mediocrity at around 4.2 YPC. There is little separation between Smith and Green.

Highly accurate if you leave out the rote walkovers of Appalachian State and Miami (Not That Miami).

I complain about Norfleet being underutilized last year.

    Yep. Gimme, though.

Sacks plummet to the surprise of all. Cole is overmatched by elite rushers but handles the rank and file just fine; Braden is a bit of an issue that Michigan covers with tight ends. Tailback pass blocking gets so much better that it makes up for losing the tackles and then some.

Accurate. Michigan was middle of the pack in sacks allowed.

Michigan has a great passing offense, scraping the top ten in YPA.


My main error last year was not accounting for the fact that 2013 might ruin a quarterback in much the same way being on the front lines of World War I would.

This Year's Stupid Predictions

  • Rudock starts the whole year and turns in a season like last year at Iowa except more efficient: 60% completions, 8 YPA, excellent TD/INT.
  • Glasgow and Kalis perform excellently, with Glasgow getting drafted in the middle rounds.
  • Both Braden and Dawson play early in the season, with Braden eventually winning the battle.
  • Jake Butt leads the team in receptions and wins the Mackey award.
  • De'Veon Smith and Drake Johnson emerge into the two main backs, with Smith getting a plurality of carries because he's healthy to start.
  • Ty Isaac functions as a weird H-back hybrid guy and third down back and makes 30-40 catches.
  • The run game moves up to good-ish, as Michigan approaches five yards a carry but doesn't get there.
  • Harbaugh.



September 2nd, 2015 at 2:14 PM ^

a big effect on our overall record, but it may have a big effect on how competitive we are in games that we lose.  That is to say, I don't think that is a make or break issue between 7 wins and 10 wins, but it would make us a much better team even in losses.  It would be particularly beneficial for Butt as defenses would not really get to scheme against him as much and could tie up a safety who has to shade. 

I think you will see a lot of Lloydish pass plays this year.  We will see a steady stream of bubbles, hithces, and outs to stetch the defense from side line to side line and open up the middle of the field.  The deep threat will come if those plays succeed and defenses will bite on them.  I don't think there is a home run hitter in that group of receivers, though.


September 2nd, 2015 at 2:17 PM ^

That makes a lot of sense.  The last time I went and saw Harris play (like everyone else)  was back in his Junior year of high school and I have to keep reminding myself that at this point theres no way he can be the play maker he was then, even if he does become extremely effective on the outside this year.

Zone Left

September 2nd, 2015 at 2:24 PM ^

If safeties actually have to account for a vertical passing game, I think 9-10 wins becomes the expectation rather than about 8. We're going to be able to run the ball better this season, but you're looking at another order of magnitude improvement if the safeties have to hang back.

The other piece you're not accounting for is if Jake Ruddock really does bring quarterback play up to a "B" level or not. If he's not ready to play in this system, there's a 6 win season coming.

Personally, I think we're getting an Arkansas season from last year. By the end of the year, we should be scary. The start might be miserable, though.

Ali G Bomaye

September 2nd, 2015 at 2:23 PM ^

Harbaugh's Stanford teams averaged 3.0, 4.9, 5.3, and 5.2 yards per carry.  Keeping in mind that the year before he took over Stanford was a 1-win tire fire that averaged 2.1 yards per carry, and Michigan should be significantly more talented than his first two teams, I think somewhere around 5 ypc is a reasonable expectation.


September 2nd, 2015 at 2:49 PM ^

it depends.  last year michigan benefited from several huge outliers where they rushed for 250-300 yards vs poor teams and then mostly struggled at like 3.0 ypc (just a guess, i did not look up) vs much of the rest of the schedule.  

i think they improve a little across the board but 5 will be tough.  breaking the 4.0 ypc barrier vs osu, msu, and the better teams on schedule will certainly help (as opposed to the 3.0 or under mess of 2014), but do they have enough of app st, indy, mary, miami, etc type teams on schedule where they hit big outliers at like 8.0 ypc and up the overall?  

id say 4.8 seems pretty accurate when alls said and done


September 2nd, 2015 at 2:11 PM ^

 In theory the Funchess ranking is true but in terms of actual performance I say it's a  > to a push not a >>>.

You forgot Harbaugh/Drevno/Fisch>>>>>>>>>>Hoke/Borges/Nuss/Funk


September 2nd, 2015 at 2:15 PM ^

I have to agree.  Funchess was underutilized, and he knew it.  It seems like he quit on a lot of plays and maybe even on a lot of games. It sucks to not have him this year but it's not like there is this massive drop in production that Michigan has to replace.


September 2nd, 2015 at 3:55 PM ^

I see a healthy Funchess >>> Chesson as a moot point because a healthy Funchess is not what we're replacing. If in fact he was hurt. Not saying he wasn't, just don't rememeber if it came out that was the case.

Chick Evans

September 2nd, 2015 at 4:23 PM ^

Yea I'm with you there, outlook would be more positive. But I don't know, I feel like any of our receiving corps can step up and have AT LEAST as good of a season as he had last year. While Funchess' potential was high, his results were underwhelming and frustrating to say the least. I don't think at the end of the year it will necessarily be that big of a downgrade from his last year's performance.


September 2nd, 2015 at 2:12 PM ^

I'm not one of those guys who follows teams other than my own to the point where I know their rosters really well. Obviously we know Ohio State's offense is a sports car so there's no point in asking about them. However, I do wonder about Michigan State. It sounds like the main thing holding back Michigan's offense this year will be lack of explosive playmakers in the backfield and at receiver (unless someone emerges, of course). My question is, just how elite are MSU's though? Or are the predictions of State's offense being among the best in the country pretty much just based on Cook and that O-line being so good as to compensate? Honest question.


September 2nd, 2015 at 2:37 PM ^

It all depends on how they handle the losses of Mumphrey and Lippett.  Neither of those guys were elite, but they were consistent and gave Cook outlets when under (limited) pressure.  They should be okay on offense and that defense helps a good deal by giving you good field position, but I'm not as high on MSU's offense as others are even with a couple All Big-10 linemen.  I think it will be fine, but I also expect that we'll see it struggle to keep up against good offenses like Oregon and OSU.  Sadly, there aren't a lot of elite offenses in the conference, so it won't probably matter too much.  But barring a major turnround by a guy like Burbridge, it's going to be a passing attack that can beat up the crap teams but will struggle downfield against teams that can cover.  I actually think that might be UM's best chance at beating MSU this year; you force MSU to just plod down the field and, if you can get some pressure on Cook, I think you'll see some bad throws and maybe an opportune TO.  But I think the offense will be efficient enough for them to score against most teams they play.


September 2nd, 2015 at 3:47 PM ^

Lippett was pretty elite last year.

65 catches for 1200 yds, ave over 18 a catch.   That's a major playmaker.

It is difficult to judge the original question and give a good answer.  Why?  A year ago at this time Lippett was just a guy.   So maybe a just a guy last year makes a similar leap. Or not.

I think if Kings gets the throws Lippett gets he will be that type of player.  He has among the best YAC of any guy in the Big 10.

As for running game no one knows but you have a top end OL you can plug in a bunch of guys and get good production - Wisc has done it for 15 years, and before the past 7 UM did it for 30 years.   They have 2 elite OL and a bunch of other decent ones.


September 2nd, 2015 at 2:38 PM ^

went to State. He sent me an article yesterday (can't remember where it was) that basically stated they were worried about the lack of big playmakers in the WR corps. 


That said, Cook is legit, and so are his big uglies up front. Not sure who their RB is but they have a (recent) history of making at least good system guys, and sometimes legit great guys. 


September 2nd, 2015 at 4:30 PM ^

Stumbled upon a Spartan slappy/beat writer on the radio in Grand Rapids this morning.  Apparently the RB position is of minor concern...they've shown an ability to reload there so they brushed it off.  WR wasn't a major concern either - guy even said Burbridge would be the break out receiver for MSU. He said the biggest concern for MSU is the secondary.  Ed Davis is out and they have new Safety's and Corners. (btw: so sick of the "No Fly Zone" monicker - which the slappy was quick to lob out there)

The Oregon game will be an interesting game to watch next week to see how the Ducks go after the newbs in the the backfield. 


September 2nd, 2015 at 2:12 PM ^

I had forgotten about that!  I'm dying!

BTW, went to a talk by Minnesota's OC and they have an awesome system for teaching motion and formation that is simple.  I wonder if Harbs uses something similar.  It looks like it since he's able to call so many formations on one play.  

The system designates starting position, motion, and final position, but it would be really easy to add a few "final" positions in the call.


September 2nd, 2015 at 2:14 PM ^

It will be interesting to see if the offense looks more like Stanford of San Francisco as an end result. I think its going to depend largely on who wins the QB position each year. I will be very sad if Ty Issac doesn't turn into an absolute stud here. In his recruiting film he reminded me of my favorite Michigan running back of all time: Ty Wheatley. I'll take that every day of the week and twice on Saturday. 


September 2nd, 2015 at 2:18 PM ^

One of the running backs A) Hits holes and B) shows some good, not great, ability after contact. I was honestly hoping Ty Isaac would break out in camp, but it wasn't to be. 


I can take Rich Man's Iowa. I'm hoping (maybe ridiculously) that they end up showing flashes of poor mans Stanford by the end of the year. 


I just am bleeding to see proper execution and some real mental and physical toughness. We looked like wimps last year Vs. State. That poured salt into a festering wound. 

South TX MFan

September 2nd, 2015 at 2:19 PM ^

"One or more tailbacks has to go in the extant holes consistently—not even find cracks that are hard to find, just go in the damn hole the play is designed to open."

It was maddening last year whwn the OL would actually do a great job blocking and the RB would run into a pile instead of hitting a gaping hole in the line.

Sent from MGoBlog HD for iPhone & iPad


September 2nd, 2015 at 2:20 PM ^

strikes me as being enormously optimistic. Given his record, he's more likely to get injured again than he is to see significant playing time over the course of the season. And that's damn unfortunate for everybody, especially Drake.