[Editor's note: holy hell, man. This is like a PhD thesis.]
It hits you like a thousand knives stabbing you all over your body. You can't breathe. You can't think. At least, not about anything but the pain.
I'm searching for a metaphor.
Amidst the phantom flags and the Angry Michigan Hating Bounces and the dropping of babies on 3rd down on Saturday you could not possibly have missed a notable lack of competency in the 11 guys tasked with making sure the other guys score less than we do, otherwise referred to as "Michigan's Defense."
This is Part II of the afore-bumped diary "The Decimated Defense," a look at what has happened to turn Michigan's once vaunted defense into..
I don't have a metaphor...
Something that has a lot of really shiny beautiful parts, that ostensibly looks like something grand and wonderful, but like with some major defect or hole in it, from which pours in death and destruction...
In the wake of, well, that, I'm sure that you, as I, need to understand what happened to Michigan's defense, how we got here, will it get better, and can it be avoided again?
In the first of this series, I went through Michigan's last five classes to see if we could find where and what went wrong in defensive recruiting to lead us to a day when Jordan Kovacs was all that stood between the program and the bottom of the sea. We looked at the cheap rivets, the lack of safety training, and missing life boats, while Brian UFR'ed a really big iceburg.
It was long, and mostly stuff you already knew, and at one point you had to fix yourself a sandwich, but at the end we identified two factors that were very likely contributors:
- Small classes
- High attrition
Today we put that in context. I compared the current rosters to the recruited rosters of Michigan, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Penn State, Michigan State and Alabama, to see how each of these teams were built, and what was lost along the way, in order to understand why should so many other luxury liners and loveable tugboats and whatnot stay dry as we face a watery grave?
(Excel spreadsheet lives here.)
Recruiting: Quantity and Quality
Rose: The fall alone would kill you.
Jack: It would hurt. I'm not saying it wouldn't. Tell you the truth, I'm a lot more concerned about that water being so cold.
Here's how Michigan stacked up in pure defensive recruiting from 2005 through 2009 (Rivals ratings used):
|Michigan||Alabama||MSU||Notre Dame||Ohio State||Penn State|
This counts every recruit that came in ready to play defense, except athletes who played their entire careers on offense. It also includes offensive recruits later moved to defense. It excludes walk-ons.
Many nuggets here. Let us bullet:
- Notre Dame fans who blame recruiting for some of their woes have a beef. Their classes have been highly ranked, but even smaller than paltry Michigan's!
- Bama LOL
- Michigan and Penn State recruited pretty similarly. The big difference was that PSU brought in 7 more 2-stars.
- Michigan and Ohio State both recruited 20 players of 3-star caliber, and 3 blue chips, but OSU had 9 more 4-star players during that time.
- Michigan State clearly isn't in the same recruiting league as these others. They're basically averaging one lower star per recruit
- ...but out of a respectable class size.
- Even so, Alabama had more 3-star defensive recruits over this time than Michigan State.
Michigan's closest recruiting analogue here is Penn State, with the high-end (4-5 star) recruiting separated by one more 5-star guy for us. You can call Notre Dame basically a Michigan-light. If anything, the Fighting Irish have been even pickier about talent than U-M, OSU and PSU, except they haven't been as successful at reeling in the big fish as any of the major schools profiled.
For these schools, the distribution seems weighted slightly toward the top, but their bell curves are only slightly ahead of OSU and Bama. However, when placed beside each other, it's easy to see how large amounts of recruits can generate a much more sizeable talent pool from which to draw starters.
So recruiting tells a story, but certainly not the story. Certainly, Alabama and Ohio State recruited the most 4- and 5-star players, and subsequently have great defenses.
Michigan and Penn State should, just going by recruiting, have about the same level of defense, with maybe one more NFL-bound player in Ann Arbor, and maybe a bunch of 2-star guys backing up at Penn State instead of Michigan's walk-ons. Or it would be, if attrition was constant. We will see in the next section that it isn't. But you knew the problem wasn't just recruiting, anyway, since you know that Penn State's defense is legitimately good, and Michigan went into this season steering a pre-WWI luxury liner.
First, though, while we're on pure recruiting, let's look real quick and see if it's actually the age of the recruits that matter. Since they should be theoretically the heart of a great defense, and since the distribution among all schools except Michigan State was fairly equal when it came to 4- versus 5- stars, let's just look at those two groups, and when they came in for each school (MSU left out to spare them the indignation of looking like Antarctica):
|Michigan||Alabama||Notre Dame||Ohio State||Penn State|
[At this point I would ask everyone else to pause for a moment while we give Irish, who has been waiting patiently all this time, an opportunity to assign righteous blame on Ty Willingham. HE did this, precious!]
Okay, so other than an '05-'06 "Domer LOL," did we get anything out of this?
Penn State's great defense has a lot of high-rated juniors and seniors on it -- more than any other school. Michigan was kind of even, but actually should have had more upperclassmen than Bama or Notre Dame. Ohio State has been strong all the way through. Alabama is going to be really really good in a few years.
There's nothing here to suggest Michigan should be really bad. Not yet.
The Other Shoe, of Which Its Current Gravity Situation You Were Well Aware
Rose : Don't you understand? The water is freezing and there aren't enough boats. Not enough by half. Half the people on this ship are going to die.
Cal: Not the better half.
Cal, if you make it off that ship, and if that whole heir-to-a-robber-baron thing doesn't work out for you, you might make a fine SEC recruiting coordinator.
What I'm talking about is Alabama's over-signing strategy, which has been covered many times on this blog. In short, the Crimson Tide under Saban have recruited more guys than they have scholarships for, expecting enough will find reason to get themselves expelled or booted off the team before the count becomes official. The ultimate effect is that Saban has a strong incentive not to keep troubled players, particularly less talented troubled players, in school.
I bring it up now because:
|Def. Recruits||On Roster||On Roster %|
- Michigan has had higher attrition from 2005 to 2009 than Alabama.
- Let's rephrase: Michigan has had higher attrition than a team that has been TRYING TO SHED PLAYERS.
- If Ohio State is pulling a 'Bama, there is zero evidence for it here. They have a reasonable number of recruits, and very low attrition.
- Penn State, as I mentioned before, is a much older team, and therefore has had a lot more time to lose guys to graduation and leaving early for the NFL and whatnot. In that light, their retention rate is pretty darn good.
- Michigan State and OSU ended up with about the same number of recruits on their respective rosters, while Bama was just a bit higher.
- Notre Dame's team is much, much younger, hence the high retention rate.
- Attrition has generally been higher for the teams with coaching changes in the last few years.
- Michigan's 28 scholarship athletes on defense may work on your pre-2005 EA Sports video game (which had a 55-player limit) but is way, way below the competition.
- 58.33 percent, as it turns out, is in fact quite putrid.
Attrition is going to normally be between 60 and 80 percent, for any team.
The 2005 class isn't expected to leave very much for 2009 -- those are the current 5th year seniors. Guys play early because of their great talent, or because of [Position] Armageddon, or because you're Michigan State and know that 4-star prospects come along so rarely that when you get one you can't wait to rip open the cover and see if you won a Golden Ticket!
For the bigger programs, NFL Early Entry takes its toll from the junior (2006) ranks. Sophomore classes are generally mostly transfers. Freshman attrition has a lot to do with the tough transition from The Hottest Shot in Home Town High to collegiate freshman (class breakdowns will be in another section).
Let's break this down, too, by talent. Because it's not just numbers, right? If you have 28 guys on the roster, but they're all highly recruited athletes who have shown they belong on an NCAA roster, you're still afloat.
|4*+ Recruits||4*+ Retained||4*+ Ret %|
Among primo athletes, Michigan was slightly above Michigan State, which is our small sample outlier (MSU lost three 4-star player to injury or transfer from its 2006 class, and one 2005 guy graduated). Penn State, at a respectable 72 percent, was a victim of graduation and the NFL. Notre Dame still has all 20 of its blue and light-blue chippers, thanks to packing them into later classes. Alabama is about where Penn State is, but remember, the Tide packed their high-level guys in from 2007 on.
Still, for our purposes, the important thing to note is that we still have 16 4-star defensive athletes on the roster, which is just two less than Penn State (but 11, i.e. a whole 'nother defensive unit, behind Ohio State).
While we're at it, let's see the 3-stars:
|3*- Recruits||3*+ Retained||3*+ Ret %|
Now we see the difference.
Retention rates are down across the board here, as this group is more likely to be hit harder by the transfer-due-to-playing-time bug.
Michigan State, you can see, built their city on 3-stars, with retention rates similar to that of 4-stars for the big schools.
Bama dropped almost half of their 3-stars (evidence of the Saban Stratagem working harder on the less-pedigreed?), ending with the same amount of 3-star guys as Penn State, but of course from a march larger pool.
Of course, our 3-star retention rate sucked too, except ours came out of the more meager Penn State/Ohio State/Notre Dame budget. All told, we lost 10 guys: Quintin Patilla, Johnny Sears, Brandon Logan, Quintin Woods, Artis Chambers, Chris Richards, Carson Butler, Chris McLaurin, Adrian Witty (who may make it onto the 2010 haul) and Marrell Evans. Most, but not all, of those guys transferred when they saw playing time disappearing. All but Witty (who may end up not counting) were pre-Rich Rod guys.
But this ship can't sink!
She's made of iron, sir! I assure you, she can... and she will. It is a mathematical certainty.
To help put Michigan's attrition in perspective, let's look at it by class:
|AVERAGE||Michigan||Alabama||MSU||Notre Dame||Ohio State||Penn State|
Here's what the attrition looks like next to two of our three annual rivals:
I postulated in the opening diary that not having any old guys around was hurting us. It seems our competition did much better. Ohio State still has over half of its 2005 on the roster as 5th year seniors. We have none. Other than us outliers, everyone else has about a third of their oldest class around.
Of the seniors, we are blessed with 63 percent, which looks good against Bama's mass exodus (under 54 percent), but is sub-par nonetheless. Notre Dame still has 90 percent of its 2006 class.
The one place where Michigan is up against the average is in true freshmen, the one spot it hurts the least to lose guys. Our 2008 class stands out for premature desolation -- that is something that could likely hurt us down the road.
You can be blasé about some things, Rose, but not about Titanic
So before we start ripping into Michigan recruiting and retention, and assigning blame (yes, I will do this before we're done), let's get an important thing out of the way:
There is still talent here, and will still be talent here.
Brandon Graham and Donovan Warren are about as great of players as you could ever ask for, and Mike Martin and Craig Roh are on that same path. Ryan Van Bergen has been everything expected. Steve Brown has come a long way to be effective at a position nobody may have ever imagined for him. 4-star recruits Jonas Mouton and Mike Williams have shown themselves to be prone to mistakes, but are effective players (usually) when protected from having to play defensive quarterback.
The point is, most teams, as we shall see, don't get Grahams and Warrens and Martins and Rohs and Van Bergens. They have to pray their precious few blue chips end up more like Warren and less like Jonas Mouton, while waiting for their legacy 3-stars (Woolfolk) and athlete fliers (Ezeh) and a cascade of JT Floyds to get competent.
Michigan isn't "most teams." We can recruit with the big dogs. When times are good, we can reasonably expect most of the defensive positions to be filled with upperclassman 4-star talent or better, with young 4-stars and maybe a few diamonds in the rough pushing them for playing time.
However, as we shall see, you cannot reasonably expect your 4-stars to all pan out. You need backup plans. You need the dudes.
A horrible confluence of events:
- Michigan had generally small recruiting classes
- Those defensive recruiting classes were about on par with Penn State anyway, and well below those of Ohio State
- Michigan had exceptionally high attrition from its 2005 to 2008 classes.
- Attrition disproportionately attacked our higher-rated players.
- Attrition disproportionately attacked our older players
- Of Michigan's 3-star recruits, a disproportionately few ended up as contributors
This all resulted in a generally young defense with a good but well-short-of-the-competition retention of high-end talent, and pretty much zero in the way of backup talent.
When the attrition is cut out, we are visibly deficient next to our competition. Of the guys we've kept on, every one that is a true freshman, or didn't work out, cuts further into our ability to field a team. In fact, let's run that same thing again with just upperclassmen (classes 2005 to 2007):
|MSU||Ohio State||Alabama||Penn State||Notre Dame||Michigan|
And there you have it: the guys that Michigan has left are good, but there are only 13 recruited upperclassmen left on the roster, spread out evenly between middling 3-star and blue chip. Note that every other comparative school has a great big chunk between 5.7 and 6.0 -- that's high 3-star to just-below-a-blue chip. Everyone but Notre Dame has another hump of 3-star guys as backups. The next closest rival is Notre Dame, which is considered an incredibly young team. Everyone else has over 22, i.e., enough scholarship athletes left on the roster in the junior years or above to fill the two-deep.
The one thing we have on everyone else: two 5-stars. That's Graham and Warren. Indeed, we spared no expense in a luxurious 1st class cabin, but our ship is visibly lacking in the hull department.
Who's to Blame?
If you want a short way of saying it, we had Alabama-level attrition from Penn State-sized classes. We lost the bulk of our upper classmen to injuries and Clearing House snafus and sad lack of talent, and couldn't recruit or hold onto anybody for depth. We missed opportunities to find diamonds in the rough while looking for new coaches. We didn't recruit a safety for a decade.
No one solitary factor caused this. A small recruiting class is fine if you still get highly rated players who stick around and pan out (Notre Dame, Penn State), or if you have a lot of 3-stars behind them from which you can draw le creme (Michigan State, Alabama).
And (except for musing along the way) I failed to even touch on several other very important factors, such as the fact that Michigan had four different defensive coordinators over this period, or that it seems an inordinate of our recruits ended up overrated.
But that doesn't mean everyone's absolved. There were a number of points along the way when, without hindsight, a better job probably should have been done:
On Lloyd, and his staff:
- Someone should have recognized the weak depth at safety back when Marlin Jackson had to move there for a season. Lloyd let the positition go unaddressed in recruiting for years, which killed us in 2005 (burning Brandon Harrison's redshirt in the process).
- And then he came back with Jonas Mouton and Stevie Brown, two outside linebackers, meaning in the recruiting year immediatly after "Safety Armageddon" we got ZERO defensive backs.
- Ron English had (still has) a strange belief that Johnny Sears was a great future cornerback, even after The Horror.
On Rich Rodriguez, and his staff:
- 2008's defensive recruiting was a page right out of Notre Dame: a spattering of 4-stars, but no "diamonds in the rough" discovered, no guys brought in for a certain scheme. Two never made it to campus, and a third has been kicked off the team. I have to believe there were enough 3-star speedy defensive backs who would leap at a Michigan offer if we put in the research. The coaching change, and then RR's focus on the (even more depleted) offense didn't allow that to happen.
- Shafer. We spent a year with a defensive coordinator who was dismissed at the end of it, meaning we were right back where we started, minus a (rather paltry) graduating class, at the start of 2009
Is There Any Hope?
Not for this year, no.
And not for next year either.
That is to say that there's no hope in this study for Michigan's current defense to suddenly turn into a Top 15 defense that Michigan has traditionally thrived on. There isn't even an endless cupboard of 3-star guys from whom one or two could emerge to fill holes (a la MSU). We're basically down to walk-ons who can tackle, and praying nobody runs by them at this point.
Basically what this exercise shows is that we got triple-whammied by relying on too few highly rated guys not to bust, relying on a normal number of recruits to stick around to graduation, and having some upperclassmen around who could surprise late in their careers as contributors. You can't plug iceburg-sized holes and fix years of mistakes and bad luck with one slick move.
Based on what's left on the roster, in 2011 we may end up being better (but not deeper) than Penn State and Michigan State, but not by much, and almost certainly not better than Ohio State, Notre Dame, or Alabama. However, if our attrition rates come down from their ludicrous highs (which can be expected), and we get ourselves some nice classes, there is great hope for 2012. Also, I expect Notre Dame's silly-high retention rate to drop once people give up on Weiss, or players next year decide they don't fit into Tenuta's schemes, though I can't deny they have the basis for a pretty solid team.
For the rest of this year, I recommend, no matter who the opponent may be, the strategy we take into every game starts with a burned ship and ends with Tate Forcier throwing jump balls deep down-field. The offense has shown it is quite capable of awesome. No more Lloyd ball -- not in 2009, not in 2010.
We are a team that can get torched by Illinois and Indiana and Eastern Michigan, thus our strategy must be to always torch more.
As for the future, well, another class full of defensive backs and linebackers can't hurt. This kind of bad is the kind that seeps deep into next year, but at least in 2010 we should have what's left of the 2008 class and some of the 2009 class ready to contribute, and also that rare second year under the same coordinator. Roh and Martin and Van Bergen are a defensive line we can bank on. The defense will lag behind the offense by a year, but the situation isn't actually as desperate as it was there. On the other hand, there's no Rich Rodriguez/Calvin Magee schematic/coaching advantage for the defense to coax greater early returns, or promise future greatness.
In the long term, defense is solved by lots of recruiting. I suggest going for lots and lots of fast guys, using the carrot of early playing time.
Screw the look of the deck. Screw the extra 3rd class cabins. I want bulkheads that go all the way up, and close up tight, and reinforced steel second hulls, and lifeboats, lots of lifeboats.
We need the dudes.
As Delta Tau Chi men Lawrence Kroger, John Blutarsky and Kent Dorfman illustrate above, there are two ways of making sure your House always has enough good brothers to stay strong:
- Bring in lots of fellas. "Pinto" and "Flounder" may look like pretty useless guys, but you never know: one of them might have access to a car that, when modified and matured, will save your whole fraternity.
- Keep 'em there. "Bluto" here is a 7th year senior. While the NCAA frowns upon 7th years for guys who aren't Mormon quarterbacks, you can get away with being choosy in your class selection if you can stay true to your mission and keep "Otter" from chasing tail outside your doors, or "Boon" from listening to his girlfriend, or "D-Day" from riding off into the sunset. The young guys are the future of your program but it's the oldest guys who make the house.
In Michigan terms, this means if you find yourself with only a few quality guys and not much else, the entropy of the recruiting-to-player process will kill you. You don't just need enough 4-stars to fill the roster spots, but enough also to cover injuries to good players, and the inevitability that some guys won't pan out, or will get injured, or will transfer.
I said there would be hope. So here it is: Rich Rod seems to be way ahead of me on this. We are in on a lot of defensive back prospects, including 4-stars aplenty. Not only this, but starting last summer, RR packed a cannon with scholarship offers and has been shooting them into every high school defensive unit in America. The result has been an odd recruiting year, with guys jumping onto the board with high interest at crazy times through the year. If it's dudes we need, it seems RR and GERG are already on it.
Advice for Further Study
I posted a copy of the Excel spreadsheet above. I would love it if someone would add more teams to the study, or qualify the recruits by creating a new category for later-career ranking. In that, I mean find some way to reassess each player based on his performance thus far against what we should expect from a player of any given Rivals Rating. I'd like to see how Michigan stacked up in picking up guys who would come above versus below expectations.