At this point blame is being thrown around quite regularly for what is at the heart of the offensive debacle that has become Michigan's offense this season, and it seems as if no one on that side of the ball can avoid all blame. Even the bright spots — Jeremy Gallon and Devin Funchess, who have been almost all of Michigan's offense since September — have had issues here and there.
It still seems clear to me that Michigan's offensive line recruiting is exhibit A in any indictment of this offense. Consider the recruiting classes for what should be the basis of Michigan's starting lineup (big thanks to Seth at MGoBlog for doing an exhaustive look at this today):
2009 Class (would-be 5th year players): Taylor Lewan (starter), Michael Schofield (starter), Quinton Washington (defense)
2010 Class (would-be 4th year players): Christian Pace (no longer with the program)
2011 Class (would-be 3rd year players): Christian Bryant (oft injured, started one game), Jack Miller (Molk-ian project, started four games, replaced), Tony Posada (no longer with team), walk-on Graham Glasgow (starter at C after four games at LG)
Out of three classes that in an ideal world would provide Michigan with the entirety of its starting offensive line (when you talk roster management, this is one of the most important things to manage, right next to "always recruit a quarterback in every cla— Er, well) the Wolverines have two very good tackles and were bailed out by a walk on. Of the eight players in three classes, two are no longer with the team and one is now playing defense. That leaves five players. Take into account injury issues (Bryant) and quite possibly just whiffing on a center project (Miller) and the margin for error becomes -2. Michigan was in the hole to begin with thanks to a big hole in recruiting and attrition that just happens with college kids.
A few people have been wont to repeat ad nauseum "Michigan isn't that young". They are right. Two fifth year players working on 60+ combined starts and a RS-Soph at center doesn't sound all bad. The issue is really the focus of inexperience. Glasgow — the oldest of the three starters on the inside and the most experienced — is playing a position he switched to over the off-season and split reps at. One faulty snap a game should tell you all you need to know about his comfort level at one of the most important positions on the offense. He is flanked by two players that are still freshmen (one a redshirt) and who spent the first half of the season on the bench. It isn't just youth as a one word excuse to explain away the issues that are present and cut the coaching staff some slack. It is a very unfortunate dependence on woefully inexperienced players that haven't had enough time A) at their current positions (Glasgow), B) in a college training program (the 280 lbs Manguson, or C) on campus at all (Bosch). Couple that with the fact that these guys have played next to each other for just a few short weeks and the issues become even more pronounced.
It is easy given all of this to cut one coach some slack. Darrell Funk, Michigan's current offensive line coach, is a hard man to lob blame at these days (at least the kinds of logically consistent, informed blame that is part of a productive football discussion, not just the kind sputtered out between spittle caked shouts of "unacceptable"). He is hardly in an ideal position. However, last night on the podcast while trying to work through all the different issues that face this line, I had a thought that I felt might be worth bringing into the discussion: maybe Funk has been an issue all along?
Michigan's rushing offense, once again led by Denard Robinson, was 13th in the nation and both Denard Robinson and Fitzgerald Toussaint went over 1000 yards apiece while averaging greater than five yards/carry. On its face it seems like a win for the coaching staff that was not only new to the team, but trying to install a system that didn't always seem to fit what the players were best at. A good deal of this blame landed on Al Borges (the Iowa game in which Michigan ran for 3.4 yards/carry from mostly under center comes to mind), but Michigan also struggled against the three best run defenses it saw that year:
vs. Notre Dame - 114 yards, 4.3 yards/carry
at Michigan State - 82 yards, 2.2 yards/carry
vs. Virginia Tech - 56 yards, 1.8 yards/carry
The starting lineup that Funk and Borges walked into that year included:
RS-Sr. David Molk, a three year starter at that point and the eventual Rimington Award winner and all-American
RS-So. Taylor Lewan, a freshman all-American from the previous year
RS-Jr. Patrick Omameh, a fifteen game starter coming into the season
RS-Sr Mark Huyge, a two-year starter coming into the season
RS-So. Michael Schofield, a four-star recruit making his first entrance into the starting lineup (as a LG between Molk and Lewan)
All of this success as a line and run game comes also thanks to having the most prolific rushing quarterback in history starting as a junior next to a pair of capable and healthy backups in Vincent Smith and Fitzgerald Toussaint. It was a relatively easy situation to walk into and find success. Molk would go on to win the Rimington Trophy and grab all-American honors while Taylor Lewan would get honorable mention as an all-American. Huyge and Omameh started every game and Schofield moonlighted at LG on his way to the starting RT position these last two seasons. Everything is rosy, right?
Not exactly. While Molk was Molk and Lewan was still on the Jake Long 2.0 path, Michigan's other returning starter with some eligibility left took a step backwards in development. Omameh had been somewhat of a breakout star on the line in his first two years on campus, stepping in late in the 2009 season because of injuries and then serving as a big asset in 2010. Most of the blame for this was placed on the offensive transition. Omameh was asked to do other things, and he never picked those up. Despite being a fantastic second level blocker in zone schemes he struggled with pulling responsibilities. He was also never great in one-on-one matchups with above average DTs.
He would continue to flounder in 2011, not making much progress in any area but holding onto his starting job due to the dearth of viable options.
Question one: How much culpability did Funk have in A) the step back Omameh made in transitioning to the new scheme and B) his failure to markedly improve in two years under Funk.
Losing David Molk was always going to be a major blow to this team, but Michigan returned three starters on the line, including two guys that had started for two full seasons at their positions (Lewan and Omameh) as well as Michael Schofield, who was transitioning out to his natural position at RT. The two new players would be Ricky Barnum and Elliott Mealer, both of whom were four-star prospects out of high school that had been in the program for four years at that point. Barnum had flirted with a starting role in 2011 but was held back because of injury. Mealer never made much of a push for a starting role until it was handed to him in 2012. The addition of these two, as well as other issues, had an effect on the numbers:
Michigan dropped to 41st in rushing yards per game (183 yards/game, a 55 yard drop from the previous year) and no MIchigan running back was able to rush for over five yards/carry (Thomas Rawls was the only one to break four yards/carry and he did so largely in garbage time.
Part of this could be blamed on losing David Molk, but the uncertainty that surrounded his replacement is equally troubling. Michigan's offseason was spent primarily with Ricky Barnum practicing at center and Elliott Mealer practicing at LG. Michigan was to be without the services of Chris Bryant that year due to a broken leg, and Jack Miller still didn't seriously warrant consideration for playing time. Joey Burzynski, however, did intrigue coaches enough to get time in the spring game.
Things would abruptly change as Michigan coaches decided to flip Mealer and Barnum at the last minute. It was a bad omen. Michigan's interior line was a major hindrance that year, failing to get the kind of push necessary to run between the tackles with any regularity and both guards were unable to reliably pull on power run plays. Michigan was once again bailed out by Denard being Denard, as he led the team with 1266 of Michigan's 2389 yards.
Question two: How much of the failure for Michigan's inability to move Barnum and Mealer into the starting lineup after a year in the system falls on Funk? What does the last minute position flip between the two say about his ability to properly put players in the correct places?
For the layman, offensive line is perhaps the most difficult position on a football field to judge. The difference in a successful run play could be the technique of one player or a blown assignment that could be a blown line call or a missed pickup. Similarly, judging the effectiveness of the man coaching those players through the week is even more difficult.
None of us are at practice every day, and even if we were only a tiny sliver of the population would be able to distinguish the finer points of OL coaching from Greek. But this year isn't the first that Michigan has seen issues on its offensive line, and while those past issues may not fall entirely on Darrell Funk's shoulders, looking more closely at them might help explain why Michigan is in the position it is, and ultimately how much credit we give Funk for the good things that have developed along the line (Taylor Lewan: all-American) as well as how much blame (a regression in guard play, twice flipping LG for C).
Maybe one of the biggest issues has been Funk all along?