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Looking Ahead: Offensive Skill Positions

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Right now the future of Michigan football looks murkier than ever. After three years of the spread-n-shred revolution in Ann Arbor, the corner office in Schembechler hall sits empty. On top of that, an important recruiting weekend has been postponed, and the rest of the 2011 class hangs by a thread.

Even the coaching transition of late 2007 didn't seem this dark. We were still Michigan, still had talented players, still had world class facilities, still had that aura. What do we have in 2011? What does it mean to be Michigan?

StoopsMyAss over at BHGP would answer: not much.

Frankly, the man makes a lot of valid and reasonable points. High schoolers today aren't as familiar with vintage Michigan. Few kids making college decisions in the next month probably remember the last time Michigan beat OSU, and they weren't even in high school the last time Michigan was in the hunt for a BCS bowl birth in the final month of the season. The media pressure on the head coach over the last three years has been absurd, and whoever steps into the head job will spend most of his career on a hotter seat than 95% of the coaches in the country.

While I personally think the Michigan name still counts for something in the eyes of recruits and coaches, there really isn't any accurate way to measure that going forward. I am content to let StoopsMyAss err on the side of Iowa as I will on the side of Michigan when it comes to the feel of the program.

However, the dude doesn't abide statements like this:

Michigan is saddled with mediocre, if not awkward, personnel. The players on Michigan's roster, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, do not seem obviously translatable to any other scheme than they were recruited to play. In most cases, a new coach would require a new scheme. A roster overhaul would then be required for almost any new coach who takes over that program. Whereas Iowa has a roster that is filled with players that can best be described as malleable. As an example, if a coach were to want to install the ever-popular pass-spread offense at Iowa tomorrow he would have immediately, a QB that was one of the more highly prized QB recruits for that style of offense from two years ago in A.J. Derby. That is a small, but meaningful example.

I get it. Michigan converted to a spread offense which everyone views as basketball on grass. All these players are too soft to play real smash-mouth football. On top of that, Rodriguez failed to bring in top-10 classes that we are used to.

I don't buy it. While Michigan isn't stocked with 5-star talent, I would still venture to guess that things aren't as dire as most believe. While some notable recruits have flamed out (JT Turner, Cissoko, LaLota, Emilien, White), there are still a great deal of highly thought of players that weren't just recruited by spread coaches out of high school.

In fact, the situation today is preferable to that of 2008. Unlike '08 there is more evenly distributed depth at each position as well as upwards of 8 starters returning on both sides of the ball. (I will get to the misconception that Michigan's offense is to "spreadified" at the end of this entry).

Over the next couple of days I am going to break down the roster and look at just who is left. Granted, none of this takes into account the transfers that can and will happen, and despite the relative stability of this year's recruiting class so far, it could ultimately end up being a lost year if the coaching situation isn't resolved soon.

Let's look at each position and see what the next coach might have to work with, and how that group grades out in both spread and pro style offenses. We will break each position group down into upperclassmen--who can help the team succeed in the short term--and underclassmen--who are the foundation for future success.

(I'll add recruiting rankings, year specific stats--where indicated--and/or career stats as a helpful guide. Recruiting rankings are in 5.5-6.1 scale for Rivals and stars for Scout. Also, many, many thanks to MGoBlog for their depth chart by class. Odds are if you need something related to Michigan football, you can find it on MGoBlog. Please let me know in the comments if I messed up any numbers. Also feel free to tell me I'm an idiot.)

Quarterback

Upperclassmen: Denard Robinson 6'0 193lbs (Jr. 1 year starter, B10 Off Player of the year, 2010 stats: 182/291, 2570 yds, 18/11 TD/INT, 1702 yds rushing 14 TDs), Tate Forcier 6'1 190lbs (Jr. 1 year starter, 2009 stats: 165/281, 2050 yds, 13/10 TD/INT)

Underclassmen: Devin Gardner 6'4 210lbs (RS-Fr. 5.9/5-star 7/10 for 85 yds and a TD with 25 yds rushing and a TD in his only appearance before his medical redshirt worthy injury. Granted, that was Bowling Green.)

Arguably the most stacked position on the team is also the one with the biggest question mark. Who will be around next year? Denard Robinson is perhaps the most explosive player in the country, but that is also somewhat dependent on the system he is playing in. Although there is no denying his marked improvement as a passer over the last year. 2010 saw Robinson have six 200 yd passing games and one 300 yd game. Furthermore he is dangerous on both designed QB runs and zone-read plays. Tate Forcier is a deadly accurate Favre-esque gunslinger who might not be comfortable playing second banana, and might not have the grades to last. While off the field issues have swirled around Tate this year, he still remains a viable FBS quarterback with the skills to lead a diverse range of offenses. Unfortunately, there is a non-zero chance that both of these players end up leaving the team this off season, which would be a major blow to both depth and experience. Fortunately, Devin Gardner should still be on the roster come fall, and possesses the kind of raw passing talent and athleticism to make him an effective option in whatever style offense this team adopts.

Spread Option Grade: A (A- if Forcier transfers). If this team stays the course offensively, there shouldn't be any questions at quarterback until Gardner moves on. Three highly rated recruits, two of whom have a year of experience as the starter, and one just happened to rewrite the record books for mobile quarterbacks.

Pro Style Grade: B*. While Robinson won't be utilized 100% effectively lining up under center and throwing out of the pocket exclusively, he has shown enough improvement as a passer that one would think he would be a solid option. Forcier might win the starting job over Robinson, but he would need to get more comfortable throwing from the pocket first. The x-factor here is how quickly Gardner could learn the offense, as he has the size and skillset that would eventually make him the best option of the three if he continues to improve.

*(Obviously this grade falls if Robinson and/or Forcier transfer, but we will cross that bridge when we come to it)

Running Back

Upperclassmen: Michael Shaw 6'1 188lbs (Sr. 802 yds, 12 TDs), Vincent Smith 5'6 180lbs (Jr. 877 yds, 6 TDs), Teric Jones 5'9 198lbs (Jr. 7 yds), Michael Cox 6'1 211lbs (RS-Jr. 177 yds 2 TDs)

Underclassmen: Fitzgerald Toussaint 5'10 200lbs (RS-So. 5.8/3-star), Stephen Hopkins 6'0 230lbs (So. 5.5/3-star)

Who knows? There is talent here--or at least it seems like there is talent here, but we have seen more injuries over the last two years than meaningful production. Michael Shaw has the recruiting pedigree and speed that would seem to make him a perfect fit in the spread offense, but just when it seemed like he was finally going to break out last year he got injuried and spent the rest of the year frustrating irritable Michigan bloggers everywhere with two or three carries a game. Vincent Smith has been doing yeomans work these last two years despite being less than a year removed from a torn ACL this year. Smith is a fundamentally sound running back that is just three inches and 20lbs too small. Michael Cox is an x-factor. He has garnered praise in practice and camp for his ability and athleticism, but has never turned that into playing time in a game. Teric Jones is a career backup. Most of the promise in this group rests with the two underclassmen. Fitz Toussaint has shown flashes of ability, but never stayed healthy enough to break into the rotation. Hopkins also showed some promise, but fumbling problems kept the freshman in the doghouse most of the season.

This is the group to be worried about moving forward.

Spread Option Grade: B-. I really want to go higher, but I can't until someone takes a step forward and proves themselves capable. This position group was the one thing holding the 2010 offense back from Oregon levels of dominance (that and a defense that ensured the offense got the ball at the 20 each possession after the opposing team inevitably scored).

Pro Style Grade: C. Again, this is probably generous. A shift in offensive philosophies probably leaves Vinny Smith and Teric Jones without positions. We all know what Smith can do in the I-Form, and it aint pretty. If Shaw stays healthy he showed an improved ability to run between the tackles, but that is a big if. Cox and Fitz are both relative unknowns outside of practice legends. Hopkins seems like the best bet in the pro style, and when your 3-star sophomore is the best option the grade is going to take a hit.

Fullback and Tight End

Upperclassmen: Kevin Koger 6'4 256lbs (Sr. 512 yds, 5 TDs), Brandon Moore 6'5 257lbs (RS-Jr. 5.8/3-star), John McColgan 6'1 235lbs (RS-Sr. Former walk-on. Saw limited time this year at FB)

Underclassmen: None (Possibly Ricardo Miller, but those are just the faintest of rumors as of now)

Here is where we run into the first problem with any potential change in offensive philosophy. A pro-style coach that depends heavily on tight ends is going to be up shit creek. Koger is a fine tight end, but more of a pass catcher than the big bruising blocker that Martell Webb was this year. Moore is an unknown entity after seeing the pine for the past three years behind Webb and Koger. Fullbacks don't exist on this team beyond McColgan. He was used sparingly this year but seemed to be effective. Let's hope he can be in the future.

Spread Option Grade: B. Only due to lack of depth. Koger has shown ample receiving ability over the last two years, and is a solid run blocker. If Moore lives up to his high Rivals rating this group will be fine for the next year. Fullback isn't a concern as this team should be able to use either TEs in an H-back role or Hopkins as a lead blocker.

Pro Style Grade: Doom. Seriously. If this team goes to the pro style, look for a couple days of spring practice trying different players at FB/TE to give this team some depth.

Wide Receiver

Upperclassmen: Junior Hemingway 6'1 225lbs (RS-Sr. 2010 stats: 593 yds, 4 TDs), Darryl Stonum 6'2 195lbs (Sr. 2010 stats: 633 yds, 4 TDs), Martavious Odoms 5'8 175lbs (Sr. 956 yds, 2 TDs), JeRon Stokes 6'0 193lbs (Jr. 5.9/4-star)

Underclassmen: Jeremy Jackson 6'3 203lbs (So. 5.5/3-star), Jerald Robinson 6'1 199lbs (RS-Fr. 5.7/4-star), Ricardo Miller 6'4 217lbs (RS-Fr. 5.7/4-star), DJ Williamson 6'1 178lbs (RS-Fr. 5.5/3-star)

This group is deep in 2011 and unproven after that. Hemingway, Stonum, and Odoms are as good a trio of receivers you will find in the conference next year. All three are good blockers downfield and don't drop many passes. Stonum and Hemingway showed a real knack for making big plays down field this year--both have a handful of long touchdown receptions on their resume. They are good at finding openings in the defense and using their body to get proper position and make plays. They should excel in any offense. Odoms is a do everything player. He is a tenacious down field blocker, good on bubble screens, and the most sure-handed player on the team. Past that the only players to see any action have been Stokes and Jackson, and neither one has done much of anything in his time. The worry isn't great just yet, especially with well thought of recruits Miller and Robinson coming off a redshirt year along with DJ WIlliamson, a speedy project on the outside.

Spread Option Grade: B+. This group gets docked a couple grades for being top heavy. While there is plenty of capable youth in the program, someone is going to have to step up in 2012 when the top three receivers leave.

Pro Style Grade: B. Much the same as the grade above, but knocked down slightly because there doesn't seem to be the prototypical #1 receiver waiting in the wings to take over. The three seniors are all capable of splitting the load next year, but after that this team will need one guy to be "the guy", and he might not be on the roster yet.

Slot Receiver

Upperclassmen: Kelvin Grady 5'10 176lbs (RS-Sr. 211 yds in 2010), Roy Roundtree 6'0 176 (RS-Jr. 1369 yds, 10 TDs), Terrence Robinson 5'9, 176 (RS-Jr. 5.8/4-star)

Underclassmen: Jeremy Gallon 5'8 188lbs (RS-So. 5.9/3-star), Drew Dileo 5'10 172lbs (So. 5.6/3-star)

This future of this unit hangs in the balance with the program's offensive philosophy is up in the air. A pro style attack isn't going to have the need for this many slot receivers, and while Roy Roundtree might be able to transition to the outside. Grady has shown an ability to make plays on occasion and could steal time in four and five wide sets. The rest of these players might have a harder time working from the outside of the offense. In a shift to the pro style this group will probably be heard from the most in the return game (outside of Roundtree). Gallon Dileo should see most of the kick and punt return duties next year regardless of his offensive position. Gallon somehow works his way into return duties game after game, so either he shows enough in practice to get a chance or he had pictures of Rodriguez committing a crime. Either way I would imagine he still makes a few appearances in the return game. Terrence Robinson also has a couple kick returns to his name and could be a factor to preserve the health of receivers like Odoms and Stonum. The rest are probably afterthoughts in a different offense.

Spread Option Grade: B: One proven commodity (Roundtree) and three more players that have shown moments of promise (Gallon, Grady, and Robinson). This year the problem wasn't as big because the TE position took on a larger role in the offense, but with the graduation of Martell Webb and the unknown impact of Brandon Moore, this group of slot receivers could be looked on for more contributions next year.

Pro Style Grade: C maybe? Mostly because the use of five scholarships on slot receivers is a waste in an offense that will probably rely more on TEs and FBs. Roundtree will get his touches regardless of the offense, but the rest of the guys will have a tough time finding a niche at receiver.

* * *

Overall outlook? Good, not great.

There is depth at quarterback, running back, and receiver which should be useful for whatever offense is run next year. A coach isn't going to walk in and find a bunch of NFL caliber prospects, but he will be looking at skilled upperclassmen and a great deal of underclassmen with the potential to grow into average or better Big Ten caliber football players.

Now, as promised let's look at why everyone thinks this offense is a bunch of ill fitting spread players who will wet their pants and cry in the event of a shift to a pro style offense. There are three main areas:

  • Lack of a stereotypical pro style quarterback.
  • The last staff's emphasis on recruiting slot receivers instead of tight ends and fullbacks.
  • The size of the offensive line (more on that tomorrow).

The issues at quarterback have little to do with the skills of the players we have, and much more to do with who will be around next year in the event of a change. All three quarterbacks have the skills to be at least serviceable options in a pro style offense, and Devin Gardner has the size and raw talent to possibly grow into a very good pro style quarterback in a year or two. The biggest question under center is who will stick around to take snaps.

The another pertinent issue in a shift to a pro style system is the dearth of tight ends and fullbacks on the roster, two positions that are relied on much more in a pro style offense. This is true of Michigan's roster where five slot receivers are on scholarship vs. two tight ends and one walk on fullback. Fortunately guys like Ricardo Miller could be in line for a position switch to TE, and Stephen Hopkins showed this year that he is big enough to handle some lead blocking duties. While the transition next year could be rocky at these positions, the chance for immediate playing time might be enough to lure in higher rated and more college ready fullback and tight end prospects in the next two years.

Tomorrow I will be back with a look at offensive and defensive linemen.