Part eleven of the all-singing all-dancing season preview. Previously: The Story, 2009, quarterbacks, tailbacks, receivers, offensive line, secondary, linebackers, defensive line, special teams, offensive overview and predictions.
Note: video from last year is lightboxed; previous years will take you off the page.
(The picture at right was snapped by MVictors after the Utah game and will be forever lodged in my mind as the definitive image of Shafer's brief tenure as Michigan's defensive coordinator. Its got pathos in spades.)
The second thing that leapt out at me after "Brandon Graham is re-damn-donkulous" when I went back over the defensive UFRs is just how much bitching about Scott Shafer was contained therein. (We'll ignore the Purdue game since that didn't appear to be his decison.) GSimmons forgive me—or at least don't Blount me—but here goes.
It started during the Miami UFR, when I noted Michigan's bizarre insistence on the 4-3 against spread formations when they had a perfectly good senior nickelback available. And don't get me started on three-man lines featuring a true freshman when your best players on D are your senior defensive tackles. Too late:
… Michigan can't hold up against the run against a poor MAC team in this alignment, and it's pretty obvious why: you're lifting Terrance Taylor and Will Johnson, seniors and the best position group on your offense, for a safety and a freshman who, while promising, remains a freshman. You are then backing him up with Michigan's pretty crappy linebacking corps.
So I would like to know this: WTF is Michigan doing with a three man line on the field on a critical third and one late? And why are they using it at all on things that aren't obvious passing downs? … I am in no way ready to render a verdict on Scott Shafer or even give him the internet equivalent of the evil eye, but I have to admit my opinion of the hire is slipping.
Shafer didn't learn his lesson by the Penn State game, either:
Said 3-3-5 has not been effective at rushing the passer and has been a complete disaster against the run, but it got rolled out on third and one last week and second and six this week, with predictable results.
I just don't get it, man. You cannot put five guys in the box on a potential running down, especially when two of them are defensive ends, two of them poor linebackers, and the other a freshman NT. And yet.
After Illinois I bemoaned Michigan's inability to play assignment football ("They did not stay in their lanes; they did not stay with their man. They attacked the ball, only to find the "ballcarrier" bereft when they got there.") In fact, the only half-decent defensive performances came after Shafer was (apparently frozen out) and common freakin' sense won out. The Minnesota UFR:
So what in the hell happened?
In the postgame players and coaches said that Shafer dumped anything resembling complexity and went with a completely basic nickel cover two scheme. The Okie made an appearance on passing downs, but other than that there were a grand total of two snaps in anything other than a 4-2-5 nickel. (One of these was a 30 yard run, natch.) There was almost no substitution. …
Does this sound suspiciously close to what you were complaining for earlier in the season?
Um, not to get all high and mighty, but… yes? I've always hated the lack of flexibility engendered by playing a 4-3 against the spread, especially when the third linebacker is a ponderous run-stuffer like Johnny Thompson. And I never understood the idea behind yanking one of Michigan's best defenders (pick a starting DT) off the field except on passing downs.
So Michigan goes to a nickel. Harrison's lack of size is not a factor in the run game, he plays well against the pass, and everyone can go back to the way they played much of last year. Confusion removed, Michigan dominates.
The picture painted by the above is, in retrospect, one of huge incompetence. Last year Michigan regularly removed functional veteran players in favor of crappy ones that made no sense given the down and distance situations or the offense on the field, and those things only got fixed (-ish) once Shafer was removed from the decision-making process. It's not like the position guys covered themselves in glory with that 3-3-5 against Purdue but at least they pulled their heads out of their butts afterwards and put in the defense Michigan should have been running from day one against spread teams.
Also, I've heard from folks closer to the program than I that the stuff about Greg Robinson teaching them how to tackle seems like more than standard new defensive coordinator hype. This comes paired with dark assertions about eyerolling and "tackling" education that consisted of "run up to them really fast and give them a shoulder block." That's strange given that the buzz in preseason was that the position coaches were just yellers and it was Shafer who was an educator.
So, no, Shafer wasn't just a scapegoat. His schemes may be awesome but his playcalling, roster management, and ability to identify third wide receivers were beyond poor.
Well, I don't know. I was on record about being very on edge, man, about hiring a guy with one season that wasn't reason to cover your eyes to his credit in the past ten years, but Robinson wasn't working with much talent at Syracuse or Kansas City and his track record with more respectable outfits is a good one. Michigan certainly counts as a more respectable outfit than Syracuse, but that doesn't extend to that excellent Texas defense Robinson coordinated. Michigan hovers in-between.
Still, the opinion on the hire at the time doesn't seem insane from this distance:
Robinson walked into a good situation at Texas* and managed not to screw that up, then went to Syracuse, where he had an average defense on a horrid team (1-10), which he then proceeded to crater for the next three years. Before his brief, star-making turn at Texas—again, for doing nothing more than treading water—he presided over one of the worst defenses in the NFL, getting fired after three years. The last actual success you can plausibly attribute to Greg Robinson came during his tenure as the Denver Broncos' DC, when his defenses were top ten in the NFL and a significant aid in Denver's back-to-back championships. Since then it's been abject failure save the one year in Texas.
It's not like Robinson's never had success, but it's also not like he's shown much ability to take crap and shine it up even a little bit. From my perch as Google Master, I have really limited information, though, and when I went through Robinson's history, association with Pete Carroll, defensive philosophies, and all that stuff for Hail To The Victors 2009 I came out a bit more impressed. Robinson's move to these hybrids also seems like a forward-thinking move in an era of spread madness, something Michigan will now be more prepared for than just about any team in the country.
Rodriguez made the bed, and now we get to lie in it. I don't think it'll be as big of a deal as I did back then.
*(Obama drop not intended to express any approval or disapproval of current president; intended only to get the picture at right wider dissemination. Unicorn drop intended to express full approval of unicorns.)
Can Michigan sustain an injury anywhere without imploding?
Maybe one of the two interior linebackers can get hurt without a huge dropoff. JB Fitzgerald has some experience, practice buzz, and recruiting hype and should be okay if thrust into the lineup. And possibly a Ryan Van Bergen could be solved by sliding Martin over and sticking Campbell into the starting lineup. Neither would be good, but Michigan could probably live with it. Also, losing Mike Williams would probably be okay since he was battling with Emilien all year; that dropoff might not be huge.
Anyone else, though, and it's panic time. It is thin, thin, thin.
Okay, well, what if a couple freshmen come through?
Yes, there is the possibility Michigan's young bucks are of sufficient quality to stave off a defensive apocalypse. Roh, Campbell, Turner, and Emilien will all see plenty of playing time and are getting hype from all corners; by midseason if all pan out Michigan could be sporting reasonable depth at all positions not named Brandon Graham. Injuries early would be more harmful than injuries late, and God willing Michigan will be able to shelve the starters and blood the n00bs relatively early against Eastern, Indiana, and possibly Western in preparation for the Big Ten slog. The schedule sets up relatively well, I suppose.
This one I don't know about. I've been making the point for a while that Michigan's defense can run in place and look a lot better this fall just because it won't be on the blunt end of the country's 109th-ranked offense and 104th-best turnover margin. Michigan was 17 spots worse in scoring defense than it was in yardage defense last year, which ranked 15th nationally. This year an average offense, average turnover margin, and Zoltan point them towards finishing on the plus side of that metric this year. That seems something we can take for granted.
HOWEVA, that only gets Michigan to 67th nationally, their rank in total defense last year, and that's extremely kind given that two games were played in a monsoon, another was against a third-string quarterback at Purdue who had been moved to running back earlier in the season, and significant chunks of the season were spent with opposing offenses shutting up shop because the only way they could manage to blow the game would be to turn it over.
So a position-by-position eval:
- New Brandon Graham > Brandon Graham
- New Obi Ezeh > Obi Ezeh
- New Jonas Mouton > Jonas Mouton
- Stevie Brown, LB > Johnny Thompson, LB – probably by a lot
- New, Healthy Donovan Warren > Donovan Warren
- Troy Woolfolk > Stevie Brown, S
- Mike Martin = Terrance Taylor
- Boubacar Cissoko = Morgan Trent
- Charles Stewart = Mike Williams
- RVB < Will Johnson
- Brandon Herron < Tim Jamison
Those are big drops in the worse category and only incremental leaps in the better category, but I guess IME the starting talent on this year's defense is better than it was last year. That's not too hard to believe. Add in something less than total incompetence, insurrection, and chaos in the coaching staff and this should also be a step forward unless injuries strike Michigan down.
So… yeah. Michigan's defense improves in real, non-running-in-place terms. Maybe not much. But given the schedule they should claw their way to slightly above average, just like the offense.