Where are all these receivers coming from?
Many have noticed, and begun commenting, on Rich Rodriguez’s apparent stockpiling of receivers. This has been addressed a bit by Brian on the recruiting board, but I thought I’d go into a little more depth to explain why every RR is building up bodies at the position.
The depth chart looks awful large. Once the 2010 commitments step on campus, the receiver corps will include Martavious Odoms, Terrance Robinson, Jeremy Gallon, Darryl Stonum, Junior Hemingway, JeRon Stokes, Roy Rountree, Thomas Gordon, Ricardo Miller, Toney Clemons, Jeremy Jackson, James Rogers, Jerald Robinson, and likely Justin Feagin. That’s 14 receivers, with only Clemons in his final year. And don’t forget there’s still four scholarship players, Kevin Koger, Brandon Moore, Martell Webb and Steve Watson, at tight end. That’s 18 pairs of hands to feed. How is he going to do it?
Rodriguez’s offense, is, of course, different than that previously used at Michigan. One important distinction is the position of Slot Receiver. RR likes to have a scat-back type of player here with a slightly different skill set than your prototypical wideout. Size and leaping ability are secondary for a slot receiver to speed and agility. Circus catches aren’t as necessary, since most routes are short. The slot is meant to catch the ball in space, then make defenders miss. Odoms, Terrance Robinson, Jeremy Gallon, and, if he moves, Feagin fit this mold. Last year, Odoms pretty much dominated this spot, but that’s not typical of RR’s West Virginia offenses. Rather, Odoms got so many balls because once Robinson went down, he was the only man standing. Starting next year, I think you’re going to see a two-man rotation in the slot, with another man always ready to go for depth at an injury-magnet position.
In case this recruiting season didn’t clue you in, Rich Rodriguez is phasing out the Tight End position. I imagine, so long as he has Koger, the position will remain in the offense quite regularly through 2011. But come 2012, I wouldn’t be surprised to see just one or two Tight Ends on the roster for a change of pace, or goal-line situations.
That leaves Stonum, Hemingway, Stokes, Rountree, Gordon, Miller, Clemons, Jackson, Rogers, and J. Robinson. For one, we can imagine Gordon moving to linebacker, although this isn’t a given; since he was offered as a receiver, and unlike Feagin there hasn’t been mention from the coaches as to a positional change, I’m gonna consider him part of the receiver corps.
That gives us 10 pure receivers on the 2010 roster, all of them options. First of all, you’ll see some redshirts on some 2010 freshmen, probably J. Robinson and Jackson. Now we have eight. Eight is still a lot. And eight is actually what we’ll need!
THE SPREAD’S NOT JUST FOR RUNNING
Rodriguez’s offense at W.Va. was mostly about the run, particularly once the astounding legs of White and Slaton and Devine arrived. But I’m going to postulate, based on the recruiting focus since he got here, that plans are to make the passing game a greater part of the expected offensive output.
The formation I believe we’ll see more and more from Rodriguez will be the one-back, 4-wide. This includes a slot, and three wideouts. In a running-based spread, the wideouts head out on routes designed to open up space for the tailback, quarterback or slot receiver to function in. So long as they are all threats 1-on-1, they have to be guarded.
But other programs that use the spread have done a better job incorporating receivers. Brian commented this year that it sometimes seems like the receivers were running random routes – anything to get the secondary away from the ball. This was highly ineffective, especially since we didn’t have a quarterback who could get the ball to these guys.
I trust Brian in most things, but from everything I’ve seen of RR, if his receiving scheme was basically saying “get open,” then it wasn’t by design so much as he had other areas to focus on.
TALENT ATOP OF TALENT
This year, you can’t fault RR if the passing game wasn’t his primary focus. New team, new scheme, yada yada, but the talent really wasn’t there. Threet didn’t have enough time to pick apart a defense, nor was the redshirt freshman prepared by experience to fully utilize their talents. There wasn’t a true go-to receiver as we’ve had in past years. Greg Mathews was the most trustworthy pair of hands. After that, Stonum was a true freshman and played like one. Hemingway had mono. Roundtree was waiting for his muscles to grow onto his 6’3 frame. Clemons had catching issues.
There’s a progression formula I’ve been using to determine a player’s expected growth in value to the team:
Adjusted Star Rating * [1/2(years-in-school / years-in-school-plus-1)] plus (Adjusted Star Rating / 1.6)
(The “Adjusted” part means I change their star rating once we see them on the field. For recruits, I just use their star rating.)
Bigger jumps occur earlier in a player’s career. What we end up with is a level of expected performance based on their talent and their year, which is roughly equivalent to the familiar star rating system. A 2.00 player is what you’d expect for a typical starter at Indiana or Northwestern. A 3.00 player is a typical starter at Purdue or Michigan State. A 4.00 player is what you’d expect from a 4-star recruit in his 4th season. Over 4.50 is an All-Big Ten performer. Over 5.00 is a 1st round draft pick.
Here’s the receivers RR had available to him in 2008:
G. Mathews – 3.83
J. Hemingway – 3.50 (out for season)
D. Stonum – 2.81
T. Clemons – 2.63
Z. Babb – 2.63
R. Roundtree – 2.50 (redshirted)
L. Savoy – 2.50
J. Rogers – 2.19
Even though there’s talent there, it’s young talent. For Big Ten, that’s average. For Michigan, it’s mediocre.
Here’s projected 2009:
G. Mathews – 4.00
D. Stonum – 3.94
J. Hemingway – 3.83
R. Roundtree – 3.50
T. Clemons – 2.88
J. Stokes – 2.81
L Savoy – 2.56
C. Gordon – 2.50
J. Rogers – 2.40
That’s a huge difference. Your top three guys are expected to perform at or near what you’d expect from a senior 4-star recruit, whereas last year we had one guy near that level, and the next was below average.
From here, it’s all uphill.
D. Stonum – 4.31
J. Hemingway – 4.00
J. Stokes – 4.00
R. Roundtree – 3.83
C. Gordon – 3.50
R. Miller – 3.13
T. Clemons – 3.00
J. Jackson – 2.81
J. Rogers – 2.50
J. Robinson – 2.19
D. Stonum – 4.50
J. Hemingway – 4.10
R. Miller – 4.38
J. Stokes – 4.31
R. Roundtree – 4.00
J. Jackson – 3.94
C. Gordon – 3.83
J. Robinson – 3.06
And if you think that’s the only part of the passing game that will improve, look at what happens to our quarterback rating in that time:
2008: Threet/Sheridan – 2.27
2009: Threet/(Forcier/Robinson) – 2.69
2010: Forcier or Robinson – 3.50
2011: Forcier or Robinson – 3.83
The offensive line, too, will see a marked progression from about 3.20 to 4.20.
So in the years to come, Michigan is going to be stocked at receiver. In the 2011-2012 seasons, it is very conceivable, barring major transfers and losses, that RR will have at least four and as many as seven superb options at wideout. There will be a considerably better quarterback, protected by a considerably better offensive line. Is all this talent really just for show, or is there something more?
THE POSITION OF WIDE RECEIVER IN MICHIGAN’S OFFENSE, 2011 TO 2012
I have to imagine that Rich Rod knows what he has at these positions, and that Devin Gardner (who, if his 5-star is for real, would surpass Forcier or Robinson by 2011), is being made aware of it. The question remains, however, how do you utilize all of it.
The answer is a Spread and Shoot.
Look at the roster for Texas Tech’s Air Raid offense:
Missouri, too, had 16 receivers. Texas carried a ton. Florida and Northwestern had ‘em coming out of their ears. And note that Michigan actually carried 19 on the roster last year, though nine of those were non-scholly walk-ons.
Oklahoma, who uses a more Pro-Style offense, had considerably fewer.
Now, the spread has at most five receivers on the field. But in order to keep using the entire down-field as a threat, it's never the same guys. They rotate...a lot! For Michigan this year, however, the rotation wasn't there. If you sent Mathews and Stonum running in circles for five plays, you'd end up with Babb and Rogers. If I'm an opposing defense, and I've got to cover James Rogers down field, with Sheridan under center, then hell, I'm gluing a 3-star cornerback to him and telling the safeties it's backfield hunting season.
If RR has any specific plans for this kind of team, I imagine those plans are more vertical than anything college football has seen for awhile, and well more than anything we’ve imagined.
Most teams today – and we saw a lot under Lloyd – send a man on a deep route as a matter of course. But there’s a drawback – if you’re sending your Super Mario deep every play, he’s going to either let up on the gas, or wear himself out in three plays.
Go try sprinting 45 to 60 yards downfield, juking and turning various angles. Now hustle back to your starting point, and do it again. Repeat six times. Have someone whack you or knock you down a few times while you’re at it.
Two things will become apparent very quickly:
(1) Darryl Stonum is in much better shape than you, and
(2) huff....huff .... huff ..... there .... is. ....no...... huff ..... f’in .... way ...... someone ..... can ...... do ..... this ... huff .... 26 times in a row!
(the Barwis pit is over there, by the way. Help yourself)
I didn’t even ask you to out-jump someone and catch a pass.
BUT THERE'S NO "PASS" IN "RICH RODRIGUEZ"
What these spread offenses do a lot of is substitute. In a year with mediocre talent at receiver, horrible talent at quarterback, and a marked and stated preference for the running game, Rich Rod had 15 players catch a ball last year. Of course, many of these are running backs. So here’s another stat: James Rogers, the 8th man on the wide receiver depth chart, appeared in 9 games. Zion Babb was in 6. LaTerryal Savoy caught four passes all year, but lined up at receiver for 11 of the 12 games. Two safeties and three cornerbacks also lined up for the offense at times.
Those are slightly above what you’d expect from a Lloyd Carr team. But that’s a lot of receiver substitution for a team starting a walk-on QB and his noodly appendage.
They're also, by the way, WAY above what you'd expect from a Rich Rodriguez team, too. Clemson under RR utilized half as many receivers. Tulane spread the ball less as well. And West Virginia, as legend tells, was the runniest of the runny.
Yes, and you can't get Ricardo Millers to go to any of those schools, either.
In his previous gigs, Rich Rodriguez was very good at maximizing offensive output by maximizing certain positions. This is great at a school where you have to make recruiting decisions early and often. W.Va. can have a big season and be a player in the national dual-threat QB sweepstakes, but they were never going to be the kind of school that's on every kid's list in the country before they even get a call. RR didn't come here to turn Michigan into West Virginia. RR came here to further his career, to do better than he did at West Virginia. There's not much further you can go with the running game than he had with Devine and Pat White. What's wrong with imagining that he actually has designs on creating college football's ultimate offense?
The offense, I think, is going to make considerable more use of its receivers every year between now and 2012. The plan, as I see it, is to not just spread the field horizontally with a 4-wide alignment, but spread it vertically by having at least two receivers who can’t be left one-on-one going deep into the secondary on every play. It’s Terrell and Walker all over again, except while Stonum and Hemingway catch their breath, Ricardo Miller, JeRon Stokes and Roy Roundtree are doing the damage. Even if the ball doesn’t go that way, the simple necessity of covering multiple deep threats will keep the safeties back, and open up some space for the slot receivers, the crossing routes, and, of course, the slippery quarterbacks and smurfs-with-jetpacks running backs.
It makes too much sense not to. It’s the purest ideal of the spread, only realized here because Michigan can actually get enough talent so that the 4th or 5th receiver on the depth chart is worth double coverage. It’s the perfect marriage of the tried-and-true Lloyd Carr concept of maximizing talent differential, with the Rich Rodriguez ideal of making the defense cover the entire field, then beating them with speed and specialty-type players.
That’s why, at least in my opinion, Rich Rodriguez has stockpiled so much talent at the Wide Receiver position.
That, and because if you’re after a 2010 or 2011 5-star quarterback, already being stocked with targets for him makes an awfully good selling point.
But that still doesn't mean they're going to all be wracking up 1,000 yards. To that, I recommend reviewing the comments these guys made when they signed. They're not "I'm going there to be the next Braylon Edwards." If there's a theme to any of it, it's "this program is on the way up and I want to be a part of it!" He's getting guys who want to win championships; okay, every guy wants to win championships -- but he's getting guys who are picking their school based on where they think they can win championships.
And if you ask me, I believe RR thinks that way too.