Look close, your leader to start at tight end is in there somewhere. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
A lot of ink has been spilled over the past couple of years in regards to the shift of the Michigan offense back from the spread-n-shred days of Rich Rodriguez, and while a lot of it is overblown, there remain a few important points which must be considered because they will have a big impact on the direction of the offense over the next two years as Brady Hoke and his staff build a roster in their own image.
You know where I am going with this: what's the deal with the tight end, yo?
The popular narrative is that Rich Rodriguez didn't have any use for them and he would rather unleash a flurry of molecule sized slot receivers to dart around the secondary. This is to a certain extent true, but not as much as people like to make it out to be.
Slot receiver was more emphasized in the offense, but the contributions of Martell Webb and Kevin Koger were sizeable. One of Rodriguez's tricks was a heavy reliance on an H-back in the run game (one example here), and the passing game still utilized Koger as a target in the receiving game* -- Webb existed more as a blocker with spot duty as a receiver.
The biggest gripe one can levy against Rodriguez is that he just didn't go out and get enough tight ends to keep this kind of production up. Part of this could be him slowly changing the offense, part could be the incredible selective vision that also kept him from recruiting offensive linemen at all, and part of it could have just been that for the first couple years on campus he had two very talented tight ends that fit what he needed and a backup to take over down the line in Brandon Moore. Either way, the position went unaddressed.
Now, with an offense that values the tight end more than Rodriguez's did, the Wolverines have a significant hole at the position, and seemingly nothing to fill it with.
*(Koger's role under Borges and Co. was expanded in the number of catches -- 23 in 2011 vs. 16 and 14 in the previous two years -- and he caught as many TD passes in '11 (4) as the two previous years combined, but the yardage total wasn't far off with Koger gaining 220 yds in 2009, 199 in 2010, and 244 in 2011. None of that takes into account Koger being the only TE with any significant production in 2011 while splitting time with Webb in 2009 and '10.)
The odds-on favorite to start at TE for the Wolverines this fall is Brandon Moore, the redshirt senior that came in as part of the same recruiting class as Koger. Moore's time on the field has been severely limited, and thus far in his career he has just two catches.
Moore is the presumed starter because he has been on campus the longest, is the most natural fit for the position, and was well-regarded as a recruit. Yes, this is grasping at straws. It gets worse.
Also likely to see some time on the field is Ricardo Miller, former big time WR recruit that turned into a meh WR recruit after a move to Michigan from Florida, who then got to campus and moved to TE because he ended up being a tweener. While that comes with positives -- Miller should be a good receiving option over the middle and a matchup problem for smaller secondary players -- it also has its disadvantages. Miller is 234 lbs, and is probably susceptible to getting thrown around when tasked with blocking defensive ends, thus disqualifying him from contributing much as an end-of-the-line blocker. Miller will play the U-back, a receiver and backfield blocker role.
Then there is Mike Kwiatkowski, the walk-on from Macomb MI. Kwiatkowski has the size to hold up as a blocker and if all goes according to plan he could be a solid presence when Michigan goes into bigger formations. Behind him is Jordan Paskorz, a former defensive recruit that hasn't shown much and is probably one of the last options to contribute. If you see him on anything other than special teams duty or games already well over in the fourth quarter, there could be some serious issues.
The last two options are both true freshmen, and both bring wildly different skillsets to the table. Of the two AJ Williams seems like the most likely to see the field. Williams is already 260 lbs and played OT in high school. Odds are he gets the most playing time of the two freshmen because of his utility as a blocker.
The wildcard is Devin Funchess. With Michigan's dearth of receiving options, Funchess could find a way onto the field. He is 6'5 and just over 200 lbs, so the odds of him lining up on the end of the line are slim to none. However, used in the slot or on the goal line, Funchess could provide a solid option over the middle.
There just isn't much proven talent here, and expecting Brandon Moore to finally live up to his recruiting hype after four years buried on the bench is almost as crazy as thinking Ricardo Miller can be a capable blocker on the line of scrimmage or Mike Kwiatkowski could be anything more than a solid walk on that provides depth.
Michigan will most likely rely heavily on three-wide sets, fullbacks, and only run one tight end out on the field at a time other than special packages. There doesn't seem to be anyone likely to replace Kevin Koger's receiving production from a year ago, which means that burden will fall to an almost equally thin WR corp.
Things will get better in 2013 when Williams and Funchess have a full year on the team under their belt, Miller returns, and Jake Butt steps on campus. However, true depth at the position is probably still two years off at the least. So, don't throw out that spread playbook just yet, Al.