Head coach Brady Hoke typically doesn't let his position coaches do interviews outside of the normal fluff stuff controlled by the athletic department, but last Sunday, Michigan offensive line coach Darrell Funk managed to share a few answers with Scout.com reporter Sam Webb on the changes to the offensive line.
As expected, the interview itself is all-too-brief and hardly covers any of the "tough questions" about what went wrong with the offensive line in 2013 and what Michigan's coaches are doing to fix it. (Like many Michigan diehards, Webb operates under the assumption that Michigan's coaches know what they're doing, and thus he never pushes too hard in an interview. His interviews in general are typically positive.)
[Note by Big House Jack, 04/17/14 8:43 AM PDT: The interview does not appear to have been videotaped or recorded, so for the purposes of this analysis we are left to go primarily if not solely on Webb's written transcript. To the best of my ability I have kept everything sic erat scriptum. ]
Regardless, what Funk did offer can shed some light on Michigan's new offensive system heading into the 2014, at least partially. For instance, when asked about what adjustments/changes the offensive line had gone through -- that's about as "tough" a question as Webb posed -- Funk stated that he is having his players completely buy into Doug Nussmeier's new offense:
I think any time you have a change in coordinators, you have new terminology and that is a wholesale change. There are new words and a new system of calling it. That is the first thing that the kids had to memorize and we did. But once you learn Doug’s (Nussmeier) system and how he wanted it implemented and passed on to the kids. That’s the majority of learning is terminology. Then as far as the system and different things, there are so many ways to run zone plays and power plays and different things.
To the skeptic, this might appear like Funk is dodging the question. However, at least from what I'm seeing -- and admittedly this could be a reach on my part, Funk is first indicating the complete buy-in to Nussmeier's new offense. In so many words Funk is essentially saying "We're switching over to what Nussmeier wants to do, and that starts with teaching the players the specific terms that Nussmeier likes to use." So anyone who may believe that Nussmeier doesn't have 100% control of the offense going forward can now rest easy.
Spring Game Analysis: Offensive Line
•Maize n BrewWhile the spring game isn't the best thing on which to judge the progression of Michigan's offensive line, it is the only thing we have.
Why does this matter? So often we have heard from Michigan coaches when they've been asked if they're changing anything that they're not changing anything. How many times did we hear from Borges, after a bad game, "No, we're going to keep doing what we're doing, we just need to do it better"? Aside from the aforementioned statement by Funk, the only time I've really heard Michigan coaches say they're doing things differently is when wide receivers coach Jeff Hecklinski said that the coaching staff is constantly looking to stay ahead in modern recruiting.
Furthermore, it also indicates -- again, perhaps I'm simply grasping at straws here, as a Michigan fan -- that Funk himself is buying-in, accepting his role as the position coach, and also accepting that he has some of the responsibility. This is perhaps most evident in the statement that follows, where Funk mentions that he's gone back and looked at the tape from Nussmeier's days with Alabama:
There are different emphasis that every coordinator emphasizes a little more than others. Of course, the tape that we’ve been watching, a combination of Alabama tape and things like that we’ve seen. Some of the same plays that we ran last year that we’ll have some carryover. It has been busy, been kind of crazy that way in terms of that the kids have transitioned into it well and have worked hard.
Again, this could be something innocuous. I didn't see the interview in person; I didn't hear the tone he used. This could be Funk just giving a generic, non-insightful answer in the dim vein of "We've worked hard." Or he might be saying that he's looked at the Alabama tape as a means to not only understand his new offensive coordinator's philosophy but also see how his own offensive line could be better. It's not like he said, "I don't need to look at the tape. We're just going to keep doing what we're doing."
The other element schematically that Funk emphasized in the interview is simplicity. Borges was criticized throughout a great deal of his career for having offenses that were sometimes too complex for college athletes to follow and implement successfully. (Some have argued that, ironically, Borges may have been better suited for the NFL, but his track record at this point is so poor that him landing an NFL coordinating job is even more of a longshot than us getting a re-commitment from George Campbell.) With Nussmeier, it has been said time and time again that Michigan is going to make things simple for the offensive line. Funk says that it starts with getting their "A-list" plays down (which we are assuming is running inside zone):
Your ‘A-list’ plays that you’re going to run every week versus anything, you get good at them and you rep those the most. The refinement of the skills, techniques and the different looks that we see, of course Greg (Mattison) gives you a lot of different looks. You get a chance to work against every type of defense possible in terms of fronts and everything. That has been the good part of what we’ve done. We’ve gotten better at those base plays. Some of the auxiliary plays and different things that you don’t rep quite as much, we at least get introduced and use them when we need them.
The rest of the interview consists of the usual questions about competition at the various positions, who's doing what, who's healthy, who's not healthy, who's improving, etc. This might appear like a bunch of generic coachspeak -- because who really cares which players are doing well when we want the whole unit to improve -- but one name in particular stood out to me when Funk was discussing the center position:
Patrick Kugler has got a million reps this spring, mostly at center. I’ve played him a little bit of guard out of necessity at different times. So he’s got valuable reps at center. He’s getting bigger and stronger. Last year, he came in with a shoulder injury and he recovered. He was going to be a little bit behind strength wise and he is starting to come on. He is really a savvy football player in just terms of technique and knowing how to play the game. So as he gets stronger, he’ll get better.
Kugler was a guy who I thought was mostly overlooked at the spring game (probably because everything on offense looked pretty terrible to most people), and so it's no surprise to me that he's thoroughly in the mix at center alongside Graham Glasgow and Jack Miller. (Funk also mentioned walk-on Ben Pliska.) At this point, Glasgow is still the most likely to start given that he has the most game experience, but for the most part everyone agrees that Kugler, largely based on his recruiting acumen, has the size, technique, and coaching pedigree to be a better option at that spot. Furthermore, it should be noted also that Glasgow 'repped' more at guard during the spring game.
With the departure of Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield to the NFL, both right and left tackle are clearly not solidified. Funk offered a few thoughts on who Michigan can expect to possibility fill that void:
Probably as a position group, those guys have gotten better from day one to day 13 at a higher rate than any of them, which is good because we need that. The two that we lost, obviously [they're] going to play on Sunday. You don’t just waltz a guy right in and replace those guys. What you can do at the tackle position, which I haven’t had to do with those two the last couple of years, you can help tackles… you can help young tackles.
The guy who has really come on and really should be getting ready for prom in a few weeks but is already here is Mason Cole. He has done a tremendous job at left tackle and we knew he was an excellent player coming in. He is very athletic. He is going to get bigger and stronger. He’s probably been as pleasant as a surprise as anyone. You really don’t expect, mid years guys when they come in, they sometimes struggle. Mason has come in and pretty much, I don’t want to say effortlessly, but including the academic, social, and football, and lifting that kid has done everything that we’ve asked. So I think we’ll see some nice things from him.
Webb goes on to ask if Mason Cole has a viable chance of starting as a true freshman at one of the tackle positions, to which Funk responds in the affirmative. That would be absolutely terrifying. (My hope is that Funk mentioned him largely as an example of great potential we could see in a year from now.)
Although I didn't reproduce it in the block-quotes, Funk basically mentions every single offensive lineman as an option for everywhere. David Dawson is working out at both guard and tackle, so is Logan Tuley-Tillman, who is currently playing with his hand in a cast (club). Blake Bars and Ben Braden are both options as well. (Right now we are at the point where coaches sum up their players without saying much other than "He's coming along nicely.") Finally, Funk lamented over not having Erik Magnuson for spring practice -- as we understand it, he would be the most logical choice to replace Lewan at left tackle.
Lastly, Webb ends the interview on a topic that should give Michigan fans at least some marginal semblance of hope: attitude. Any offensive line wants to have the proverbial "nastiness" that doesn't back down from whatever an opposing defense throws at it, and simultaneously also has the mental toughness to weather adversity, which, given the Michigan State game last year, would be a welcome sight.
Is Funk seeing a change in attitude?
I’m starting to see it. We’re starting to see it more and more often. Our defense plays with attitude and that has been a big deal for them and it always is. We’re starting to work on that up front and get a little bit more. We’ve had almost melee’s here and there, which is not that bad. You’ve got to have a little bit of that. You don’t want fighting and punching and all that, but you’ve got to have some guys that are going and push each other. We’re starting to see that. Not as consistent as I want, and we’ve got to work on getting our pad levels down and all of these things that come with the position but in terms of that attitude, it is getting better that way.
Okay, so Funk didn't really answer any big, burning questions -- again, not that Webb is the kind of reporter to really pose any, given his love for the Maize and Blue. So you can interpret this in a few ways. First, you can come to the completely reasonable conclusion that Michigan is pretty much where we all thought they'd be: tackle is unsettled, as is center, as is guard. We are still looking for those best five, and we've been hampered by Magnuson sitting out the spring. Nothing has really changed, and all we can do is wait, hope the players progress, and hope the coaches know what they're doing in the long run.
Second, you can argue that there is at least some sense of progress, some very marginal indications that the offensive line is moving in a positive direction. Michigan is going back to basics, Nussmeier is keeping things simple (or, simpler) while focusing intensely on Devin Gardner, and the offensive line coach who prefers to run inside zone is now for all intents and purposes paired with a coordinator who runs a lot of inside zone. So this could work. Will it work well enough to get to a Big Ten championship? Ask again later.
So how much optimism should you have? Well, obviously, I can't answer that for you. Some fans looked at this interview and had mixed reactions. That's understandable. I personally wasn't thrilled that Funk wasn't asked specifically what went wrong with the offensive line in 2013 and how, specifically, the offensive line in 2014 is going to be different. Of course, even if Funk would have answered that question (and are we really thinking his answer would have been anything other than the word "Youth"?), it still doesn't change the fact that the only real, unshakable, crystal-clear beyond a shadow of a doubt answer Funk can give is on the field.
That's all from me right now. Go Blue.