After a couple years under Rich Rodriguez, it was clear that the offensive roster had become something very different than what it had been in the years before. While the coaches valued different qualities in offensive line (more agility for zone and reach blocking), wide receiver (less emphasis on size, more on speed and quickness), and quarterback (obvious statement is obvious),
Those were all changes that we could see, players that looked different than the ones who had come before. If you looked for a shift in tight end and fullback, you would have been left scratching your head. Those positions nearly didn't exist under Rodriguez.
Previously on...* Secondary
* Defensive Line
* Offensive Line
* Wide Receivers
In the four years of recruiting classes in which Rodriguez had some say, there were a total of three tight ends brought to campus. Two, Brandon Moore and Kevin Koger, were already on board well before Rodriguez signed on. The third, Chris Barnett, was a last minute addition — and eventual flame-out — once Hoke had come to town.
Koger had a solid career at Michigan and was an important parts of the offense — Moore was mostly an afterthought — but Rodriguez's complete disinterest in bringing a tight end to town, not to mention his decision to only bring in walk-ons at fullback, has been a major issue that Brady Hoke and Al Borges have had to deal with.
Deal with they have. In the last two classes Michigan has brought in four tight ends, and if one counts Wyatt Shallman, Michigan has brought in a fullback in each of the last two classes as well.
The players are young, but Michigan is building an offense that prizes unique weapons that create match up problems. For now, Michigan is working with some young options at its different spots, but there is potential for the future.
Y Tight End*
Last year: Sr. Mike Kwaitkowski
This year: So. AJ Williams
Having lost Kevin Koger from a year before and the early departure of Chris Barnett all added up to Michigan being in big trouble at tight end a year ago. For an offense that wanted to use the position a lot, sometimes running with two tight ends on the field at once, there was little hope left. That was until walk-on Mike Kwaitkowski stepped up and put together a solid season.
Michigan needed a solid hand-in-the-dirt tight end option. Having an extra blocker on the line was important for the offense, and neither of the true freshmen options seemed to be ready to contribute in that facet of the game.
This year, it will be time for AJ Williams to take a step forward and claim Michigan's more traditional run-oriented tight end role. While the Y tight end usually has a wider variety of assignments, Williams will be leaned on as a blocker first and foremost. He has the size at 6'6, 265lbs to make a difference in the run game, and given that Michigan's other two candidates for the Y spot are Devin Funchess and Jake Butt (both 30 pounds lighter than Williams), Michigan is still a year away from being able to unleash a true dual threat at the position. Like Kwaitkowski before him, Williams should provide a steady presence on the line, while making way for Funchess in some passing situations.
U Tight End*
Last year: Fr. Devin Funchess
This year: So. Devin Funchess
Nominally, Devin Funchess is actually a Y tight end. At least that is the spot he will likely move to once he is able to put on some more weight and improve his blocking. Once there he will be a matchup nightmare that won't tip the offenses hand when he is lined up on the line in a three point (i.e. probably not a run play).
As of now, Funchess is more of what Michigan will use the U tight end for. This position in the offense will be a lot like the H-back in the old Rodriguez offenses. Moving around, spending time in the backfield, and used as a receiver. Funchess doesn't really fit the mold of all of that (look for Khalid Hill and possibly Wyatt Shallman to fit the position a little more down the road), but Funchess's limitations in blocking on the line mean that the coaches will need to shift him around a bit more to use him on the field and cover his weaknesses. He has already admitted hsi problem last year (softness), and as he grows as a blocker, Michigan can begin to use him more as a Y tight end. Until then, getting him on the field is going to be very important.
Verdict: slight improvement
Last year: Jr. Stephen Hopkins
This year: So. Joe Kerridge
Hopkins came to Michigan as a tailback, but slowly got phased out of that role as Fitz Toussaint took ahold of the job and fumble issues plagued Hopkins. This shifted him to fullback — a move he embraced — and got him on the field last year in four starts. Michigan wasn't able to run often with a full-back because the offense still relied on a good amount of shotgun based run plays with Denard Robinson at quarterback.
This year, Hopkins is gone and So. walk-on Joe Kerridge will probably make moves into the starting lineup in a big way. He was one of Michigan's preferred options as a lead blocker in under-center plays a year ago, and as the offense goes more that way, he will likely get a bigger share of the offense. Of course, Sione Houma is a scholarship fullback and it wouldn't be surprising to see him make a move on the starting job. Still, for the time being, Kerridge fits the limited description of what this offense needs at the spot.
Verdict: slight improvement
*(Here's the thing: these distinctions matter in the offense, but with so many different players that don't have a full palate of skills to work with, Michigan is going to move these guys around. Funchess will probably end up playing a mix of both Y and U based on what he can do blocking. Williams is more of a bruiser. Houma and Shallman could get snaps at fullback or U tight end. Khalid Hill could work his way into the lineup at the U spot. Jake Butt is an X-factor as well. Long story short: Michigan has a lot of offensive weapons at its disposal, and a lot of this year is going to be spent putting some of these guys in different spots to try and maximize their strengths while guarding their weaknesses. This was probably the toughest "For Better or Worse" post to write, because improvement is hard to judge when the thing you're looking at is essentially so new. In two years we will have a lot better idea exactly who goes where and what does what. For now, it should be a fun thing to watch develop.)