1. Is Michigan about to be on the wrong side of history?
When Rich Rodriguez was hired at Michigan, Gary Danielson infamously predicted Michigan would be the last major program to move to a spread offense. Five years later, Michigan is shedding the spread as the NFL adopts it en masse. I am a spread zealot, no foolies, and while I may be influenced by factors like…
- Associating pro-style offenses with Mike DeBord, "the expectation is for the position," and opponents saying they knew exactly what was coming game after game.
- Psychic scarring from things like Donovan McNabb, Carlyle Holiday, The Horror, The Post-Apocalyptic Oregon Game, Northwestern 2001, and even Braylonfest.
- Denard Robinson!
…I've also watched an awful lot of football over the past eight years and there seems to be no substitute for the defense-wrecking ability to run with a guy who can throw, and give him the ability to make that decision after the defense commits.
'bout to get yards'd
These days the thing that's all the rage is packaged plays that give the quarterback the ability to pick from a number of simple options based on the alignment of a couple players, and not just on the college level: Doug Marrone and company got scooped back up by the NFL largely because they ditched a complicated pro-style offense for quick decisions that make the defense wrong every time. Tavon Austin is a 5'8" wide receiver who went 8th overall in the NFL draft. The Great Satan in Columbus has Denard but tall at quarterback.
Meanwhile, the idea that Michigan needs to run a rough-and-tumble offense to cope with the rough-and-tumble Big Ten is total horseshit. If you haven't noticed, the Big Ten sucks at football, Michigan is recruiting a billion times better than anyone except Ohio State, and Ohio State is a spread option team. If we accept the fact that you have to run power to defend power, isn't the corollary there you have to run the spread to defend the spread? Clueless spread outing after clueless spread outing through Carr's career certainly suggests that. I mean, Michigan was fortunate to escape a home game against Northwestern last year because they gave up 248 rushing yards and 10 YPA.
Add in Michigan's stubborn adherence to the increasingly archaic huddle and it does seem like there's a little bit of dinosaur in the program even if Brady Hoke is hip to Romer. Arguments in favor of the huddle include feelingsball arguments like "it helps your quarterback be a leader"; arguments against include Nebraska lining up with 25 seconds on the play clock and checking into an RPS +3 play once they saw Michigan in a man to man alignment:
Where did they get that call?
From the sideline after they got lined up with 25 seconds on the clock and Michigan showed man coverage with one high safety. That was not aww shucks luck. It's using the extra information the defense gives you to exploit it. Michigan, meanwhile, is usually still in the huddle with 18 seconds on the playclock and often scrambles to the line with no other option than running what's called no matter what the D shows.
It kind of sucks that Michigan doesn't seem to want to do similar things. You'd think every coach would love the opportunity to get whatever information they can before making a decision.
Michigan's not using these newfangled offensive innovations. They suck so much at varying tempo that you, reader, have screamed "WHAT ARE YOU DOING?" more than once in two-minute drills the last two years.
I love everything about Brady Hoke, but this is the one thing that makes me fret at night when I forget about Jabrill Peppers.
[After THE JUMP: DeBord is not Borges, Borges is not DeBord. Gardner confirm. Interior line muttering.]
2. But the pistol?
Yes. It is Michigan's great fortune that their upward-looking coaching staff* has just seen Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin and Colin Kaepernick obliterate NFL defenses with spread elements. Borges's mindset was made clear when he talked to Sam Webb about the pistol, mentioned those three quarterbacks in the NFL, didn't reference a single college, and emphasized the fact that Griffin got hurt:
"Now this has really been kind of a recent development with the quarterbacks running the ball more and it’ll be interesting to see here over the next few years how that holds. A lot of things come and go in the NFL. RG3 got hurt last year and don’t think that didn’t get some people’s attention."
Everyone's who's tried to analyze the correlation between QB runs and injuries has come back saying there doesn't appear to be one. A Slate analysis actually found a slight negative correlation, and a guy who went into his study with "a pretty strong conviction that there would be a positive and significant relationship between number of hits and injury" ended up concluding the same thing Slate did.
This is not to argue that Michigan should have Gardner take off 15 times a game; I mention it because that seems to be a good insight into Borges's state of mind. He finds the spread distasteful at best and is willing to marshal crap arguments against it. Nothing about it was worthwhile until the NFL finally tried it out last fall. Now it is an Innovation and using it no longer makes you an untouchable.
So it'll be a part of the offense. Michigan's told everyone they will retain spread concepts…
"Devin was recruited to run the spread," coach Brady Hoke said last week at Big Ten media days in Chicago. "Philosophically, we’ll be much more downhill running team. Philsophically, we’ll be under center more.
"But the spread will still be in place, keeping some people honest. So that will still be part of it."
…and drips of information from the inside confirm that they continue to practice the inverted veer—a play so successful for Michigan that they just can't dump it. Pistol read option is obviously in line as well. Borges wants to throw everything at a defense, always.
SO THAT IS THE GREAT RELIEF in our worry. I fully admit that my paranoia is rooted in the belief that Lloyd Carr's Michigan teams rarely lived up to their talent because of milquetoasty what-might-go-wrong approach that saw them do things like run into the line against Alabama until they were down two touchdowns when they had Tom Brady and David Terrell facing off against a horrible secondary. Or make Michigan fans think "oh no, not again" when Michigan scored to go up 18. Or install a zone strech running game that (almost?) literally had no counters built into it.
The lack of imagination and exile to NFL position coach Siberia for Terry Malone for taking tentative steps towards changing that were second to safety play as far as late Carr frustrations went. I think everyone had a bit of dread that was coming back.
It's not. Al Borges is emphatically not Mike DeBord. While he's not a fan of spreads, he's got "CHICKS DIG THE LONG BALL" tattooed across his chest (trust me) and has led aggressive, efficient offenses when handed anything other than Tommy Tuberville's sclerotic quarterback recruiting to work with. He is an inveterate tinkerer. He just hates the spread. So, okay. I think Michigan won't be taking advantage of everything they might, but as long as they go for the jugular we'll be okay.
*[What I mean by this: Michigan prefers to look at the NFL for ideas, instead of other colleges. Carr did the same thing. in contrast, Rodriguez would go anywhere and look at anything from D-III on up for ideas. You can see this not only in the offense but in Michigan's refusal to run the spread punt formation adopted by every school more forward-thinking than Iowa. The spread punt is not legal in the NFL: only the gunners can be more than X yards downfield before the punt gets off. Therefore Michigan does not run it.]
3. Is Gardner really going to be all that?
Uh… yeah. Literally everything that has reached my ears this offseason about Gardner has been something between positive and rapturous. The public stuff has been in this space: Manning camp, spring game, Whitfield, teammates. The insider stuff has been just as positive, if not more so. At the Mott scrimmage Gardner spun the ball with authority, altered trajectories and speeds, and looked in total command of the offense. The only thing we lack is sample size.
We'll start getting that tomorrow. But I'm telling you: you guys. Gardner's arm, running ability, improvisational skills, and dedication to getting better are all there. You know how Michigan was talking up Brian Cleary's quantum leap and then like two days later Shane Morris was installed as the clear backup? To me, that's Michigan's coaching staff having a pow-wow and deciding they need to have Morris ready because Gardner is a major threat to depart for the NFL after the season.
He's going to be good. Very good.
4. The interior line—why would we not die this year after dying last year?
Can Glasgow play?
The offensive line section's comments featured a dude ranting at me for being excessively optimistic after giving the interior guys a two and saying that "mediocrity would be a win" at the center position. People are punchy about the offensive line.
While it doesn't look good coming off a year in which I should have given the interior OL a zero, there are reasons to expect improvement. Kyle Kalis should be an upgrade for Omameh for what Michigan wants to do. Omameh got picked up by the Niners as a free agent and was moved to tackle, a spot he never played at Michigan. Thus went Omameh's ability to pull. While Omameh was easily the best interior OL a year ago, he was an undrafted guy recruited to run zone stretches. If Kalis is mentally ready he opens up great possibilities, like, say, pulling to Lewan.
The other two spots are dodgier, but at least this year there is some plausible competition that gives Michigan a bullet or three. Braden was bashed out to tackle by Chris Bryant's emergence, and the walk-on is a guy you can believe in more than the 6'1" dude last year. We will know a lot more in a few games. If Glasgow can play—like, really play—things immediately become much sunnier there. I think he can and that Jack Miller is the guy with the shakiest profile, but that's admittedly an opinion based on circumstantial evidence as thick as vapor.
Meanwhile, last year it was Barnum or Mealer, Mealer or Barnum, and the starting center was a last-second switch because the other guy couldn't get the calls right. At the very least, Miller should be able to do that.
I'm not high on these folks this year, but take it from someone who had to UFR the Nebraska game: it just cannot be worse.
Also, some of the derision heaped on the OL rightly belongs to the tight ends, who were freshmen last year and are now sophomores. Kerridge also moves from a redshirt freshman to his sophomore year. A sizeable advance from the three primary blocking-type skill players is likely, and that will help the offensive line look better too.
Last year's implosion was ugly and not particularly relevant to this year since the offense changed dramatically when Gardner was the quarterback and the interior line has graduated.
So: I believe in Gardner, and Toussaint, and that the overall blocking will be improved not only by the new guys on the line but also the maturation of the new generation of blocky/catchy guys. I think Al Borges will be much better equipped to take advantage of Gardner's skills than Denard's, and I can't really find a spot on the offense that I think will be meaningfully worse than last year:
- Junior Gardner > Robinson/Bellomy/Gardner, throwin'
- Toussaint/Smith/Johnson/Rawls/Green > Poor Damn Toussaint/Rawls
- Kyle Kalis > Patrick Omameh
- Glasgow/Bryant/Miller > Mealer/Barnum
- Michael Schofield > junior Michael Schofield
- Williams/Funchess/Butt/Paskorz > freshman Williams/Funches plus Kwiatkowski
- Sophomore Kerridge > Freshman Kerridge
- Pro-style Al Borges >> self-loathing spread Al Borges
- Justice Hayes == Vincent Smith
- Taylor Lewan == Taylor Lewan
- Drew Dileo == Drew Dileo
- Jeremy Gallon == Jeremy Gallon
- Chesson/Jackson/Reynolds == Roundtree/Jackson/Reynolds
- not having Denard Robinson to paper over rushing issues <<< having that
- Oh, right… except for that guy who ran for 7.2 YPC last year. Michigan can overcome that if Gardner is superman.
Last Year's Stupid Predictions
Devin Funchess exceeds last year's Koger production.
Koger had 23 catches for 244 yards and 5 touchdowns; Funchess had 15 for 234 and 5 touchdowns. So no; "matches" would have been close.
Roundtree, Gallon, and Gardner are all in an undifferentiated heap around 30-40 catches and 400-700 yards.
Gardner got moved back to QB midseason after accumulating 16 catches for 266; Gallon's crazy chemistry with Gardner got him up to 49 for 829; Roudntree was right in the middle at 31 for 580. If Robinson hadn't gotten hurt this would have been about on point.
Denard has about the same production rushing, gets his INT rate down to better-than-sophomore-year levels-but-still-not-good (3.4%!), and ends up in New York for the Heisman ceremony. He does not win.
Uh, no, for a lot of reasons.
Overall rushing YPC goes up slightly thanks to Borges having more of a grasp on what works and Rawls improving the productivity of the third-tier carries. Playing Alabama without Fitz may have a distorting effect on this.
- Even worse.
Barnum isn't Molk but acquits himself well at center and gets drafted late after an honorable mention ABT-type season.
Oh god. To be fair we didn't know about the Mealer switch at this point.
Kyle Kalis waits for most of the year, unable to redshirt because of minor injuries; Mealer does hold the LG job.
- Kalis did redshirt but this was basically right… somehow.
There is no Iowa game where they try to go under center for most of it.
- Gardner changed this. Robinson games… yeah.
Yardage moves up to 20th; advanced stuff is about the same but things feel better because the offense is less prone to wild swings (58 vs Minnesota, 40 vs Ohio State, bupkis vs VT, etc.)
Yardage collapsed to 78th, as did advanced stuff.
Not a good performance.
This Year's Stupid Predictions
- Gallon and Gardner chemistry is a real thing that propels both of them way up statistical charts. Gallon challenges Braylon's single-season receiving record.
- Gardner is not quite as statistically amazing as he was last year but is clearly the best throwing quarterback in the Big Ten. His legs are a side asset.
- If healthy a month into the season, Bryant moves into the starting lineup. Glasgow displaces Miller at center. The interior line struggles early before rounding into an acceptable unit.
- Toussaint goes over a thousand yards at over 5.0 YPC. He gets the lions share of the carries. De'Veon Smith emerges into the #2 back by midseason.
- Funchess blows up thanks to Gardner and the Darboh injury. He's the #2 receiver on the team.
- I complain about Dileo being underutilized at some point.
- Michigan splits its snaps about equally between shotgun, pistol, and under center.
- The offense rebounds from the ugly numbers a year ago, in part because Alabama isn't on the schedule and Michigan doesn't spend half of the Nebraska game with the backup QB (knock on wood). Passing offense skyrockets from 94th to top 20.
- Rushing remains basically static (41st, 4.8 YPC) as an improved line and Toussaint can only do so much to keep pace with Denard's missing 7.2 YPC. YPC will actually drop a few tenths.
- Borges seems like a much better coordinator when he's not trying to work with pieces he'd never have recruited.