Midseason Expectations Revamp: Offensive Backfield

Submitted by Brian on October 14th, 2016 at 12:01 PM

QUARTERBACK

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[Bryan Fuller]

SEASON PREVIEW TAKE: Some concern generally overridden by Harbaugh's flawless track record as a QB coach and developer:

On one level, "who is the starting quarterback?" is the single most critical question about the 2016 Michigan Wolverines. On another level, eh, it'll be fine.

By the time the preview was published Speight was expected to start, and he has indeed started. The "expectations" section pointed out that Speight had just as much experience in Harbaugh's system as Rudock did even then, so a repeat of Early Rudock was probably not on the cards. On the other hand:

It's probably irrational to believe that the starter will be late-season Rudock. Despite Rudock's early struggles this is a guy who was a solid two-year starter at Iowa prior to his arrival. Speight has about two quarters of on-field experience, and O'Korn's season and a half ended in disaster.

...The end result should be somewhere near last year's outcome: 60% completions, 8 YPA, 2:1 TD-INT. The ride there should be far less turbulent.

I offered some clarification as I projected a new starter would be one of the most efficient QBs in the league: the Big Ten has no quarterbacks.

NUMBERS AT THE HALFWAY MARK: Close to preseason projections. He's at 62%, 7.5 YPA, and an 11-2 TD-INT ratio. The YPA is a bit off the target mark, but Speight's done a good job avoiding interceptions. He's also been fortunate that a number of throws against Wisconsin didn't get picked off. S&P+ has an "expected turnover margin" metric; Michigan is +6 on the season but expected to be +3; I'd imagine most of this is a gap between the number of PBUs the other team has gotten without picking the ball off.

Otherwise, fancystats are oddly enthusiastic, with S&P+ declaring Michigan the #26 passing offense thus far despite peripheral numbers that are mediocre. They do capture Speight's tendency to start slow:

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Michigan has a spate of average-or-worse P5 passing defenses coming up (Illinois, MSU, Indiana, and Iowa are all in a band between 46th and 68th in S&P+, with Indiana(!!!) leading the way at 46) along with a good Maryland outfit (that is terrible at run defense, surprise) and the looming monstrosity that is Ohio State. The schedule doesn't uptick until the Game and whatever postseason Michigan arrives at; Speight should reach the end of the regular season with numbers at least equal to his current production.

FEELINGSBALL: It's hard to tell if we're genuinely disappointed in Speight's performance as a redshirt sophomore first-year starter or if we just don't have anything else to complain about. UFRs and PFF suggest the former, however. Speight's shown a couple of nice attributes—he's got excellent pocket presence and will find second and third reads—that are offset by spates of iffy accuracy, especially early.

This certainly doesn't feel like a passing offense on the verge of the top 25 nationally, and Speight stands out as the single biggest fixable problem Michigan has.

UP OR DOWN OR EH: I'd say this is a slight downgrade, because Speight's actually gone slightly backward from a strong start. The trajectory has been flat over the past few games, and he's increasingly unlikely to take off a la Rudock.

RUNNING BACK

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[Eric Upchurch]

SEASON PREVIEW TAKE: De'Veon Smith was projected as the main man, flanked by Ty Isaac and Drake Johnson, the two veteran options. Smith was "a good bet to be Michigan's first 1,000 yard back since Fitz Toussaint" after a second half surge in 2015, but I did use "plurality" instead of "majority" when describing his workload.

Ty Isaac was expected to emerge after a rough 2015 largely based on practice hype and Harbaugh press conference pronouncements; I expected him to be the clear #2 and heir apparent. Chris Evans actually got quite a lot of airtime for someone listed as a backup to Jabrill Peppers at the "spread H" position I made up so I could shoehorn Peppers into the RB post, because the practice chatter about him had been nonstop.

Karan Higdon, on the other hand, was shoved in with the freshmen and mostly forgotten about.

NUMBERS AT THE HALFWAY MARK: Drake Johnson's recovery from the forklift thing was apparently exaggerated; he has not played. Smith has gotten the plurality of carries and might have a slight majority of snaps but it's a lot more even than we thought it would be preseason. This is partially because Michigan's been on the friendly end of a lot of blowouts; it is partially because the top four backs are all producing. The four milkmen:

  • Smith: 61 carries, 5.5 YPC
  • Ty Isaac: 53 carries, 5.5 YPC
  • Evans: 48 carries, 8.3(!) YPC
  • Higdon: 35 carries, 7.4 YPC

This is, how you say, unsustainable. Higdon in particular has been handed multiple offset draw touchdowns so easy that most readers of this blog could have picked up a first down on them. The fancystats that ignore garbage time have Michigan 21st as a rush offense.

FEELINGSBALL: Along with the linebackers this unit is the most pleasant surprise of the season. Smith has mostly picked up where he left off in the bowl game. There have been a few iffy cuts but those are the exceptions rather than the rule; he seems to have learned to press the hole and put himself in another gap. His pass protection may have fallen off a bit and he fumbled against Rutgers; otherwise he's been close to the best version of himself.

Meanwhile the other three guys are revelations. And yes, three. Since Isaac did little last year and nothing after his fumbles against Maryland this is actually three players bursting onto the scene, not two. And burst they have. Each guy brings a slightly different package of skills to the table. Isaac is huge and can weave from one hole to the next, stiffarming the first DB he meets into a pile of sludge. Evans is lightning quick and will turn five yards into 50 more consistently than other options—he's averaging 10.3(!) yards a play after he gets those first five, which is a bonkers number. Higdon is the best guy for a power play, a shifty guy who runs low to the ground and bounces off tackles.

All of them have looked like capable feature backs. Ty Wheatley's found some traction with his charges this year.

UP OR DOWN OR EH: Major upgrade. Michigan entered the season still a little suspicious of Smith and uncertain if there was anything high-quality behind him. Six games into this season Michigan appears to have four good to very good backs.

Comments

Brhino

October 14th, 2016 at 12:10 PM ^

It's been fun watching the offense smash down the field swapping running backs sometimes every single play.  I wonder how the guys feel about sharing carries that evenly.

Space Coyote

October 14th, 2016 at 1:27 PM ^

The combination of high center of gravity and a fairly long stride make is so he can be cut down a bit more easily than you'd like (he's not just tall, he runs fairly high as well). He has good strength, but he does go down more easily than you'd like.

Yet every announcer so far has called him a bruiser or power back, which he really isn't despite his size. Like I said, he's strong, he throws a good stiff arm on the outside, but he isn't a guy that's going to lower his pads and drive piles, despite his bulk.

reshp1

October 14th, 2016 at 1:43 PM ^

I always thought what made Smith hard to bring down (other than being a beast) is that he has stubby legs that take a lot of small steps. This probably why his top end speed suffers, but the flip side is at any given point his center of gravity is generally pretty much over whichever foot is planted on the ground. 

Toasted Yosties

October 14th, 2016 at 12:14 PM ^

I understand keeping Speight in as starter (he's likely going to be the guy for years to come). I do wish we'd see O'Korn come in for a few plays here and there. His few pass attempts have been excellent and his mobility would add another wrinkle for defenses to think about. Any chance we see that over the next six games?

MaizeAndBlueWahoo

October 14th, 2016 at 12:42 PM ^

Don't understand this idea that what we see now is what we'll always get.  I am not saying that Speight is any kind of a lock to keep his job, but I don't get the mindset that says he's a lock not to.  Right now, Speight is developing faster than anyone else, on account of getting all the game reps, and six games is a bullshit sample size to declare that he's obviously worse than someone nobody's ever seen at all.

MaizeAndBlueWahoo

October 14th, 2016 at 1:10 PM ^

Yup.  I guess I should rephrase - it's not that I don't get it, I've seen it a thousand times.  We all have.  For some reason, fan psychology has evolved so as to compare the flaws of the guy we've seen to the idealized version of the guy we haven't.  We've yet to watch the backup fling the ball five feet over anyone's head, so clearly, he's not going to.

TrueBlue2003

October 14th, 2016 at 5:40 PM ^

coaches do get it wrong sometimes.  It's probably not common, and the instances in which it does happen probably cause confirmation bias.  Lloyd played Henson in a share with Brady for way too long in the 1999 season, Dantoni took a few games to realize Cook was his best QB in 2013, etc....

The difference is that we have Harbaugh who knows QBs as well as anyone though.  Gotta trust that he's playing the best guy.

Kevin13

October 14th, 2016 at 1:18 PM ^

at least for me, I expected him to be a little bit better then he has been. Especially seeing how poorly Jake started last year, but conitually improved as the season went on. I expected the same from Wilton. However, he has seemed to regress a little bit since the start of the season and what little bit we have seen of O'Korn he has looked pretty decent.

Coaches see these guys everyday and that tells me that Speight is our best right now, but unless he starts improving I doubt he would be the long term answer there especially with young studs here and coming in. He could easily be displaced in the future. Only time will tell if he steps up or is replaced.

champswest

October 14th, 2016 at 9:49 PM ^

consistently improving. I remember him starting to turn it around about half way through the season (right where Speight is now).
I don't think Speight is regressing. In his last two games he has faced the best defense in Wisconsin and rain in Rutger's.
Our quarterbacking is on par with last year and has a decent chance to keep pace.

ChiCityWolverine

October 14th, 2016 at 1:51 PM ^

I think the fairest take on Speight and the QB position in 2017 and moving forward is that just like any other position on a Harbuagh team, players will compete in Spring and possibly Fall camp for the job. Starting gigs are earned, not given. 

Speight has been good, not great so far this season. His experience and proven performance has certainly given him a legitimate leg up on the competition. It hasn't been good enough to make him a lock to retain the job. but Peters (or whoever) will still need to show a lot to unseat him. 

somewittyname

October 14th, 2016 at 12:14 PM ^

Pretty fair take. I've felt like a lot of talk regarding Speight has been more negative than this and have been somewhat baffled as to why. I think it's easy to get caught up in how great this team is at so many position groups and wish Speight was at that same level, but when you stop and put it in perspective with regards to reasonable preseason expectations, I think Speight is shooting par. Par will be good enough until Thanksgiving, then we're going to need a couple birdies.

Toasted Yosties

October 14th, 2016 at 12:21 PM ^

It's hard to argue with his stats. He's doing very well statistically. Perhaps I don't have the football eyesight to have a valid opinion but it feels like he could have a few more interceptions. Some of his short passes have been thrown high or late and I haven't felt like it is trending positively. I worry it'll catch up with him eventually. Hope I'm wrong though.

1VaBlue1

October 15th, 2016 at 8:16 AM ^

As much as he could have more interceptions, he also could have more completions.  He's suffered some drops, and he's thrown from a pressured pocket several times.  You can't call out just the possible picks when there are also possible completions that have been missed.  

That said, I do agree with your point - he could be better.  IMO, the eye test is so-so at this point in the season.  But considering that he's only started 6 games, I'd like to see where he stands in comparison with other 6-game starting QBs on championship caliber  teams.  Maybe that's not a fair compairson based on offensive style, but it would be interesting to see.

stephenrjking

October 14th, 2016 at 12:30 PM ^

The Speight issues have a lot to do with expectations. I've been a bit bearish on him because he flat misses too many receivers, and the offense bogs down. His accuracy killed the first two drives against Rutgers, for example, and except for one pass against Wisconsin he couldn't move the team consistently at all.

But the reason this is a concern is that the rest of the roster is good enough to compete for a national title. And, due to where things are next year with rosters of both this team and certain rivals, there's a "this is the year" feel to the season.

And Speight may be the cog that holds the team back. He has, so far, been quite proficient as a game manager. He doesn't turn the ball over much (yeah, he's been lucky a couple of times, but every QB is) and he puts the rest of the team in a good position to win. And he can on occasion make the key throw that wins a tight game.

But OSU looks better than we expected. And, were we to advance there, teams like Alabama and Clemson look as good as ever. Of the top five teams in the rankings right now, Michigan easily has the biggest questionmark at QB.

With expectations this high, then, some angst is no surprise.

ST3

October 14th, 2016 at 12:46 PM ^

Alabama's QB's is ranked 37th in efficiency at 149.4.

Watson is 44th at 146.8.

Speight is 48th at 145.0.

He's the lowest of the 5, but he's just one good game away from jumping ahead of Watson and Hurts. The difference between 145 and 150 is negligible. Track record suggests Watson should surge, but Speight and Hurts should have the same questions attached to them. Interesting that both schools are playing traditional power football - win with defense, a solid running game, and play-action passing.

wile_e8

October 14th, 2016 at 12:53 PM ^

  1. Hurts also adds a running component that Speight doesn't
  2. Watson has a track record that gives him the benefit of the doubt over Speight
  3. Neither of those teams are likely to get left out of the playoffs unless they outscore OSU in the Shoe 

MotownGoBlue

October 14th, 2016 at 1:01 PM ^

If you've actually watched Hurts throw the ball you'll quickly discover that he is on par with Speight in regards to accuracy and arm strength (very average and both throw an ugly ball). It's the "Bama machine" that keeps those wheels turning... (Hurts is merely holding on for dear life but he can take a hit and gain a few positive yards with his feet -- Speight's the better leader but he's not going to "wow" anybody with his play.)

stephenrjking

October 14th, 2016 at 4:17 PM ^

Have you watched their defense? It is really, really, really good. Their D-line is terrific. They've scored a defensive TD in every game. 

Yeah, Ole Miss scored a lot of points against them while playing from behind. We gave up a bunch to Colorado. That happens. I think, at best, our defense is marginally better than theirs. But there's no way we're going to score 43 points against them.

ST3

October 14th, 2016 at 4:34 PM ^

No, I haven't watched them play at all. I'll take back my "Easily?" comment because if you factor in the Bama QB's running ability and his pedigree as the #1 overall dual-threat QB recruit, he has an advantage over Speight. But I don't think the gap between Speight and the other 4 is as large as some around here would have us believe.

Colorado scored 28 on us, but only 21 was on the defense. I haven't watched Bama so I don't know how many points their offense has given away through turnovers. There schedule so far doesn't impress me that much. I don't think it's any tougher than ours. The fancy stats like our defense. Bama is giving up 292 yards per game to our 213. You can say that Bama is giving up yards in garbage time, but again, our average score is 50-11 so there's a lot of garbage time in our games too.

somewittyname

October 14th, 2016 at 1:01 PM ^

As I said in my post, I get that Speight is not your typical championship quality QB, especially in the era of Lamar Jacksons, Crab Legs, etc., but that is part of my point. If people had significantly higher expectations for a RS soph 3* Borges recruit who had proven nothing except maybe a bit of moxie vs. Minn, then honestly those expectations were just silly.

As far as Speight statistics and specifics go, I'm not sure that Speight has gotten all that lucky. He has thrown a number of dangerous passes, but compare that to anyone since Henne, and at least he's not throwing the ball right into the chests of linebackers. His dangerous passes are not frequent and not slam dunk INTs. Maybe advanced stats would say he should have one more INT or something along those lines, but it's not going to be 4 or 5 more.

Also, the Colorado game, likely a function of injury, really hurt his completion %, rain vs. Rutgersdidn't help, and he's also been a victim of a number of big time drops from the likes of Butt, Chesson, and Darboh.

What I like about Speight is the following. Remember the diving catch by Chesson in the endzone vs. Rutgers where Speight sidestepped pressure and stepped up and threw that perfect pass? Just before that he did almost the exact same thing in the pocket but overthrew the receiver. Point is, we've seen many times how he's not perfect but adjusts on the fly and many times how he shakes bad plays off. I think he's got the intangibles that Harbaugh wants and they are working on the minutiae. I think he'll be ready for OSU and I think we'll have enough to take them down.

1VaBlue1

October 15th, 2016 at 8:27 AM ^

Can you argue that any of Bama's last three National Champ QB's were better than Speight?  They weren't.  They were more game manager than Speight has been this year.  Nondescript, flashless, game managers that (as highly rated recruits) should have been better.  When you have the defense coupled with a solid, pounding offense, you can win.  Michigan has that this year.  And I'll take Harbaugh in a competition of QB wits over Saban anyday.

mgoblue98

October 16th, 2016 at 3:40 PM ^

is certainly better than expected, but their defense gave up 450 yards, including 236 on the ground, to a Wisconsin offense that averages below 400 yards per game and has not been good at running the ball.  I don't think they are quite as good on defense as advertised.  That being said, that may not translate to the last game of the year as improvement is generally to be expected.