Spring Stuff, 2017: Offense

Submitted by Brian on April 17th, 2017 at 12:37 PM

The following folks did not play and are thus unmentioned: Drake Harris, Juwann Bushell-Beatty, Nolan Ulizio, Ian Bunting, JaRaymond Hall.

In addition, a few guys got the you're-a-starter hook: Mason Cole, Chris Evans, and Kekoa Crawford were only out there briefly.

A little more feelingsball

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HI [Bryan Fuller]

That was fun! I enjoyed it. The weather was terrific and the game was sort of an actual one insofar as OL depth permitted it and there was football to be observed and conclusions to be drawn from that football. At no point did anyone put on a little mesh hat so they could run an hour of kickoff drills.

Jim Harbaugh may be completely unpredictable in many things—he did not talk to reporters after the spring game, oddly—but he's made Michigan football very fun. I appreciated this on Saturday, sitting outside and watching the actual football. So, it seems, did many other people: I've usually just driven to the Crisler parking lot and parked. This would have been impossible on Saturday. The announced attendance (57,000 and change) was a totally made up number but it seemed plausible. What a nice change.

Highlights

Quarterback

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[Patrick Barron]

So... this might be a thing. If you recall, last year we entered the spring game expecting John O'Korn to be the starter; there had been some mumbles that Wilton Speight was right in the thick of it that most people discounted because of previous mumbles about how great O'Korn looked in practice. The spring game was an inflection point:

I am now convinced it's a real competition. Wilton Speight only had six attempts, but he completed five of them, confidently. I also had the benefit of observing the Ford Field practice, where nobody seemed clearly ahead of the pack at quarterback. Another piece of evidence in favor of a real competition: no quarterback got a quick you're-a-starter hook. John O'Korn is not a lock.

On Saturday Speight didn't get a you're-a-starter hook. He got a you-threw-a-101-yard-pick-six hook. John O'Korn took over for his team's final two drives, driving for touchdowns on both. Meanwhile, Brandon Peters did this:

One pick six marred an otherwise confident and accurate performance. The two best throws in there are probably the ones to Nate Schoenle, about whom more in a second. The first was a third and long conversion at 4:30 that looks a lot like the guy we saw on Peters's high school tape—unusually, I mean that as a compliment. He's got his guy, he knows it, and he tosses an accurate, catchable ball. Peters's ability to vary speeds is uncanny for a young quarterback, and it's good to see some of that is translating to college.

The second is the Schoenle wheel route to open the winning drive, which is just... dang, man. That's a hell of a throw, and Peters was making it most of the day despite a strong and swirling wind. (The earlier fade down the sideline that Jordan Glasgow got over the top on felt like it had been pushed by that wind.)

Peters moved decisively to get out of the pocket when necessary, scrambled for a touchdown, did not throw into coverage much, and was accurate on all but a couple throws. He looked very plausible at the same time Speight struggled.

As always you do not want to read too much into a disjointed, pressure-laden spring game. Unlike last year's QB competition this one has an incumbent. It's always hard to dislodge a guy who has a season under his belt, especially a guy who was reasonably good last year. Speight finished third in the league in passer rating and #2, Perry Hills, had 18 attempts a game. He's still the starter, probably. The spring game added "probably" to that sentence.

Running back

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easy for Isaac [Eric Upchurch]

Chris Evans got three carries and then sat for the day, in case you were wondering if he was a sure-fire starter. That's the same playing time De'Veon Smith got last year. Evans looked as shifty as he did a year ago but may have added some extra YAC power; hard to tell in that brief glimpse.

So instead of that let me tell you a thing about Evans: he coaches a local kids flag football team. This in and of itself is odd and very, very Harbaugh. An acquaintance of mine relates that his kid is in this flag football league, and that his game was at 7:15 in the morning, with a potential second game at 9:30 if his kids' team won. Chris Evans is at this game. Not because his team is playing—his team is the one waiting for the winner at 9:30. Chris Evans is... taking notes? Watching intently? Is Chris Evans, starting Michigan running back, scouting a flag football game at 7 in the morning? Yes. Yes he is.

One other Evans-related note: while he didn't participate in much of it, I'd be surprised if the frequent five-wide shotgun looks weren't related to his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. Hopefully Michigan gets on the good side of that McCray-Dalvin Cook go route matchup this year.

In Evans's absence we got a lot of Karan Higdon (12 carries to lead everyone), Kareem Walker, Ty Isaac, and walk-ons. Higdon and Isaac looked like Higdon and Isaac; both were the beneficiaries of the second-team DTs getting consistently gashed. I continue to like Higdon's combination of sharp cuts and low pad level and think he'll a productive #2. Isaac looks fine, but his touchdown was untouched and he didn't make a ton on his own. Walker didn't get a ton of opportunity he did have another run like he did last year where he bounced off some tackles to gain additional yards.

Your walk-on du jour here is Tru Wilson, who was quick through the hole and very small. Very little chance he breaks through the five scholarship guys who will be on campus this fall.

Wide Receiver and Tight End

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Black can go get it [Eric Upchurch]

The wide receivers are going to be young but that might not matter. Kekoa Crawford got a quick hook and can be penciled in as a starter. Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black certainly look the part already. DPJ was held relatively in check by Keith Washington, and I'm already like "impressive job, Keith Washington" when he's been on campus for two years and DPJ has been on campus for two months.

Black played the part of Guy Opposite Dennis Norfleet on O'Korn's touchdown drives, running the same fade over and over against Benjamin St-Juste for completions and flags. Black is bouncy, 6'4", and adjusts well to balls in the air. He's all right. Meanwhile, Brandon Brown got a shot of Nico Collins veritably looming on the sidelines.

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The guy behind him to the right is 6'2" Brad Hawkins. Collins is huge. Collins, Black, DPJ, and Hawkins are a veritable fleet of catching-radius guys who can go get contested balls and make quarterbacks right. That is one recruiting class. Also they got Oliver Martin. I'd managed to forget how ridiculous this WR class was.

In the slot, Eddie McDoom was doing McDoom things before an apparently ankle injury knocked him out. On replay that injury didn't seem too bad: there was no plant or twist. Ankle injuries generally don't keep guys out months and months, so he's probably going to be fine this year. Here's hoping, because I don't want to disappoint this guy.

Curse everything in the world that prevents us from selling that.

Also in the slot was walk-on Nate Schoenle, who was on the receiving end of Peters's best throws of the day. One was a tough diving catch on the game-winning drive. At 6'2" Schoenle gives you downfield ability a lot of slots lack and Peters is clearly comfortable with him; I mentioned him as a guy generating buzz before the game and he'll generate more of it now. Nate Johnson didn't get a target, IIRC. Schoenle looks like a real threat for slot PT.

[UPDATE: Johnson did make a catch, fumbling as he fought for extra yardage.]

So with all that it's getting late early for Drake Harris and Moe Ways. Harris did not participate, and for a guy with his injury history facing down this wide receiver class that is tough. Ways did play but not until the second half when the rotation was getting deep indeed. Two of his plays were questionable, as well. He ran a four yard route on third and five; he messed up his footwork so badly on a back-shoulder fade that both of his feet were out of bounds on a potential touchdown. (Ambry Thomas got hit with a flag for holding him, FWIW.)

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Eubanks looks the part now [Patrick Barron]

At tight end Nick Eubanks appears to have made a move. He looks like a tight end now, which is step one. He was also targeted frequently. Michigan only found middling success doing so; the sheer number of balls he saw implies he's been making plays this spring. Here he only almost made a play, dropping a tough fade route from Peters after executing a textbook Manningham slow-and-extend to wall off the safety he'd gotten over the top of.

As a recruit Eubanks was regarded as a crazy athlete who needed seasoning. He's probably a year away from delivering on that athleticism; he certainly looks the part now.

Zach Gentry, meanwhile, both does and does not. Does he look like a tight end? No.

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no [Bryan Fuller]

Does he look like Jeff Samardadjzijaadfh? Kind of. Except tall!

That's a busted coverage and not exactly black-belt receivering but just look at the guy and his long loping strides and ability to shake enough to put not-Kovacs on his butt. Spring reports frequently noted that Gentry fielded a ton of targets, and sure if I'm a quarterback I'll look for the guy who puts Jake Butt's catching radius to shame. I feel a Funchess move coming on.

Ty Wheatley Jr is Michigan's sole remaining Kaiju, and that makes me sad. When I checked out his blocking that made me happy, though. He had another of his catches where he looks implausibly fast for a large man, and with Asiasi's departure he's going to get a ton of PT; he's Michigan's top blocking TE by a mile now and he brings a two-way ability that could be lethal. Just has to develop a bit.

Offensive line

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if Runyan could be a real RT candidate that would be nice [Bryan Fuller]

The spring game format seemed designed to keep the defensive line from annihilating everyone and succeed in that regard. The starting line, or close to it, was kept together; the backups mostly got Michigan's second-team DL. And while those second-team DTs are huge alarm bells, that's another post.

This is for this post: I was pleasantly surprised by the lack of defenders swallowing a tailback two yards in the backfield. Setting aside five yards lost when Kareem Walker unwisely decided to reverse field, Michigan backs were TFLed for a total of six yards. That means that the OL was getting its assignments right virtually the whole day. I don't expect that when one OL is playing deep into the regular season; for two to mostly get it right in spring, with all the rotation they've been doing, is impressive. Steve Lorenz keeps bringing up the Ewing Theory in relation to the OL departures...

3. I'm sticking with my Ewing Theory belief on the offensive line's potential in 2017. Ace Anbender at MGoBlog picked out former PWO Andrew Vastardis as a guy who stood out today and I'm inclined to agree. Vastardis was one of three or four PWOs last cycle the staff believed would, not could, be a difference maker sooner rather than later. He's not going to start this season, but he was a good indicator that a lot of guys have improved this off-season. Cesar Ruiz is ready. The pieces still need to be shuffled out, mainly at right tackle, but holes were paved consistently today.

...and I can see that. If Michigan can field a line that doesn't have a guy who runs by first-level defenders on the regular that would be good for their YPC and my blood pressure.

Your starter-ish line was: Cole/Bredeson/Kugler/Onwenu/Runyan, with Cesar Ruiz and Andrew Vastardis from the second unit impressing both myself and Ace. Given the context...

...we shouldn't anoint the guy as Glasgow 4.0 just yet. Straight up dominating some bad players is a good first step, and he did that. Most of Michigan's big runs came when the second-team DL got caved in by the second-team OL.

Also in walk-ons I'd love to get lucky on: ominously-named Greg Robinson has plausible size at 6'6" 290, per a yet-to-be-updated roster, and played a bunch at left tackle. He got blown up on a couple runs and did not seem nearly as fluid as Vastardis.

Ruiz got some run at guard in the second half, FWIW, but Bredeson never kicked out to tackle. These things seem to be contradictory since the OL with Ruiz at guard necessarily has Bredeson at RT. Michigan either 1) thinks Bredeson can't play tackle, 2) thinks he needs all the time at guard he can get to get ready for the season, or 3) thinks a guy on the roster is a capable RT. That latter could be Bushell-Beatty, who we did not see because of injury, or Runyan. Your author is guessing that #2 is the truthiest here, after Bredeson's understandably error-prone freshman year.

Blitz pickups were pretty bad; unclear if that was a tailback issue or a QB issue or an OL issue. Probably some of all three. Blitz pickups in spring against Don Brown and squat missile dude Devin Bush were always going to be a problem. They are a problem. It would only be notable if they were not a problem.

Comments

Monocle Smile

April 17th, 2017 at 12:51 PM ^

The throw around 1:27 of the highlight vid is the one that makes all the talking heads tumescent with glee. Hash to the opposite sideline on a rope. That's an NFL arm.

I Like Burgers

April 17th, 2017 at 1:05 PM ^

Was thinking about that yesterday too.  I think Speight probably still starts the season, but wouldn't be surprised to see some alternating series/quarters during the first several games like Brady and Henson did and then having Harbaugh make a Smith/Kaepernick midseason QB change.

If Peters has the higher ceiling and this year is a semi-rebuild with larger goals for 2018, why not get the young guy seasoned now.

I Like Burgers

April 17th, 2017 at 2:00 PM ^

I know there's no playing to develop potential with Harbaugh, but I am curious what he would do if he has a true 1A and 1B situation at QB.  Rudock was always the starter because there was no one else close.  Same goes for Speight last year.

So I wonder what would happen if Speight is the best QB at the start of the season, but Peters improves enough and is showing more in practice by the time conference play rolls around.  I can't see him sticking with Speight just because he was the starter at the beginning of the season.  And since Peters seems to have the higher ceiling, I could definitely see that situation happening.

Pit2047

April 17th, 2017 at 1:52 PM ^

That was dumb when Carr did it and it's still dumb now. Harbaugh has made it pretty clear that QB competitions end when training camp does. After that the starter is the starter. When Rudock struggled he didn't rotate in another guy, same with Speight. The only reason Kaep took over was because Smith got hurt, and when Smith came back he never rotated them to see who he liked best. He made a decision and stuck with it.

1VaBlue1

April 17th, 2017 at 10:46 PM ^

The starter, in this case, would have to be awfully bad to lose the spot because the backup is barely getting reps.  None of them with the first team!  What Speight needs to worry about - assuming he wins the starting position - is a mid-season injury, like last year.  If Peters improves, and plays well in relief of the injured starter, he may well keep the job.  Just like Kaepernick...

Another assumption being that O'Korn is just out of luck...

Kevin13

April 18th, 2017 at 10:34 AM ^

you compete up until the first game and then the winner needs to have the coaches trust and not looking over his shoulder with every mistakes. If the play becomes so poor you need to make a change you do it and then give the next guy up every chance to be successful.

corundum

April 17th, 2017 at 3:32 PM ^

2-3 for 8 yards sounds like a vintage Lloydball run, pass, pass, punt waste of a drive to me. Score even a FG there or get a couple first downs and Illinois probably doesn't have the time to comeback and win. Totally spit-balling here, but I doubt putting Henson in for a series helped one bit in what turned out to be a very close game.

stephenrjking

April 17th, 2017 at 5:38 PM ^

Actually, Henson's first drive consisted of three Anthony Thomas runs and resulted in a touchdown.

At any rate, at the end of the second quarter, Michigan led 20-7. Brady and Thomas then combined for a nice TD drive to put them up 27-7. Thomas was then finished for the day due to an injury so minor he never missed any other time, and some sustained Illinois offense plus a couple of flukey looooong Rocky Harvey TDs (and then a snap over Tom Brady's head late in the game) put a fork in the game.

It had absolutely nothing to do with Henson's play. Blame Lloydball? Sure, a bunch of late runs with Walter Cross failed to sustain enough drives to run out the clock. But that's not an issue with Henson. 

stephenrjking

April 17th, 2017 at 3:16 PM ^

"A few games?" Michigan lost two games, total, that season.

One of them, MSU, Michigan platooned and played Henson to start the second half (due to a Henson bomb that scored a TD late in the first half) and put Brady in later on. Crucially, when they put Brady in, they also opened up the playbook into comeback mode, a Lloyd specialty. Given Michigan's complete inability to stop Plaxico Burress at any time during that game, and the Lloydball reluctance to change gears to all-passing if there's a chance to run the ball, it is unlikely that the result is any different.

The other loss, against Illinois, is one of the flukiest losses in Michigan history and had zero to do with QB rotation at all. They had a safe 20 point lead in the second half (with Brady playing!) when Anthony Thomas got a bit dinged and Carr decided to shut him down for the day because the lead was "safe." 

 

I Like Burgers

April 17th, 2017 at 1:22 PM ^

I don't think anyone is debating that college Speight is on par with college Brady, but the talk about the heir apparent being ready to take over is similar.  Having lived through that time when I was in college, everyone was ready to push the incumbent Brady aside and usher in the Henson era.  And when it comes to that, the Speight/Peters talk is similar.

711 Arbor

April 17th, 2017 at 1:26 PM ^

I was also at UM at that time and people were excited for Henson because he was Drew Freaking Henson, was a local kid and was on the cover of Sports Illustrated.  People wanted to see what he could do, not that we need to repalce Brady because he sucks.  I would venture that we might need to replace Speight because he can't get the job done (See his last 4 football games)

I Like Burgers

April 17th, 2017 at 2:26 PM ^

Your disagreement is basically agreeing with me though because we're both saying people are ready to see what the backup can do because we've seen enough from the other guy.  And the backup seems as capable but with a higher ceiling than the incumbent.

And in general, I'm talking more about going in to the 1999 season, when Henson was a sophomore.  We had already seen enough of Henson in his freshman year and people were ready for him to take over for a senior Brady in the same way people are ready to have Peters take over.

Also, Brady wasn't that much of a stud in college as people seem to remember.  If I gave you two stat lines, could you tell me which was Brady and which was Speight?

Player A: 200/323, 2427 yds, 61.9% completion 14 TD, 10 INT

Player B: 204/331, 2535 yds, 61.6% completion, 18 TD, 7 INT

 

 

The answer is Player A is Brady's junior year in 1998 and Player B is Speight from 2016.  So whatever you felt about Speight last season, is probably the same way you felt about Brady going into his senior year.  

Brady's success as an NFL player really clouds people's memories of him as a college QB.  There's a reason he went in the 6th round.

I Like Burgers

April 17th, 2017 at 4:19 PM ^

I'm guilty of it at times too.  I mean, hell, a comment or two up from this I was saying I don't think anyone was saying college Brady was on par with college Speight and when you look at the stats....welp.  That's pretty much on par.

I Like Burgers

April 17th, 2017 at 2:34 PM ^

Brady's stat lines from his junior and senior years are almost the exact same as Speight's from last season.  I posted it above, but its worth posting again:

Brady 98: 200/323, 61.9%, 2427yds, 7.5ypa, 14/10

Brady 99: 180/295, 61.0%, 2217yds, 7.5ypa, 16/6

Speight 16: 204/331, 61.6%, 2538yds, 7.7ypa, 18/7

 

If you thought Brady was pretty fucking good as a college QB, you must also think Speight was pretty fucking good because statistically, they are about the exact same.

The problem with Brady is that his college career is often viewed through the prism of his NFL career.  He wasn't anything extraordinary in college.

M-Dog

April 17th, 2017 at 2:49 PM ^

Brady was up and down (actually down then up).  

His Orange Bowl game against Alabama (his last) was teriffic.  He also had very good games against Illinois in '99 and OSU in '98, both losses where he was trying to engineer a comeback and almost did.

His poor games were earlier in the season, both in '98 and '99.

The Henson experiment was shorter and ended more definitively than most people remember, only a couple of games really.  

Brady was the clear starter in most of '99 with no ambuguity or looking over his shoulder.

 

 

DY

April 17th, 2017 at 3:04 PM ^

Don't forget MSU in '99, where M was down 27-10 entering the 4th quarter. Brady led three scoring drives over 75-yards were basically him throwing on every down only to lose 34-31 because the D also gave up a 4th-quarter as well.

Michigasling

April 17th, 2017 at 3:06 PM ^

I watched the games when they were televised nationally and couldn't figure out why they kept pulling Brady for this Henson kid the fans kept calling for. Maybe Brady threw an interception, but then Henson came in and threw an interception.  Brady had to wait his turn; why couldn't this other guy?  How well can he play if he doesn't have any continuity or feel the coaches had faith in him?

Of course it later came out that the Yankees had drafted Henson for baseball, and Carr's post facto defense for benching Brady now and then was that Henson needed the playing time because baseball kept him from summer practice. 

It also later came out (at least to some, in days of pre-twitter secrecy) that Steinbrenner was an OSU booster and wanted to get Henson out of there when he WAS needed as starter. Giving him an ultimatum of take the $ now or forget it.  I always felt Brady's low draft grade had to do at least in part with the pros assuming his own college coaches didn't have confidence in him. 

JeepinBen

April 17th, 2017 at 12:59 PM ^

The real way we'll know if Gentry is the next jeff samardzija is if the Chicago media starts fawning in a way that would make Tebow blush. At least the Cubs drafted him, but why didn't the Bears and Sox also draft him? Also, did you know that Tom Zbikowski was a boxer?