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Mailbag: Dealing With Audibles, Should Funk Stay, and Where Will Malik McDowell End Up

Today we tackle questions about Mattison's defense and how susceptible it is to offensive audibles at the line of scrimmage, whether or not keeping Darrell Funk on staff is a good idea, and what will eventually happen with Malik McDowell's recruitment.

Leon Halip

Back with another edition of the mailbag. Only a couple questions this week so it should be quick and easy. As always, send your questions in to zwtravis at gmail dot com.

My anxiety from watching Michigan all season comes from a wide array of issues (many of which you all have covered), but I noticed a trend that never got addressed and may be a contributing factor to our defensive woes. Frequently, while on defense, UM would line up, the opposing offense would line up, the opposing coach would see our look and then the entire offense would look to the sideline for the new play that was undoubtedly, consistently successful. With Mattison coming from such a successful defense in Baltimore that prided itself at hiding coverages, looks and blitzes, why did we not make a more concerted effort to disguise our defense? The offense would consistently read our pre-snap look, change the play and be wildly successful. Do you agree? Why (yes or no)? Are we too young? Not talented enough? Is it too complicated to show one look pre-snap then change? It happens every Sunday...

There are a couple things at work here.

Saying that other teams use audibles to catch Michigan with its pants down (so to speak) is probably a bit of selective memory. Michigan had a good defense this year (barring a few breakdowns) and its biggest issues were elsewhere (like starting a 285 lbs DT against Ohio State and playing opposite an offense that was often allergic to sustained drives). But on to the question:

First, as much as these calls and reactions sound like a great idea — and good coaches can use them very effectively — it isn't always the case. The old analogy that football is a lot like chess is apt here. You don't necessarily want to let your opponent dictate the flow of the game and get you constantly reacting, because it becomes easier to get set up for a counter-punch. Thus, most offenses try and glean a little more information pre-snap in an effort to set up a better result of the play.

While it is easy to look at Michigan's lack of reactions to opposing offenses when audibles are called at the line of scrimmage, there is a lot more going on than we know. The offense is making calls based on specific reads that may or may not turn out to be good ones. Michigan may be setting opposing teams up based on what is on film. If you show an all out blitz in the Okie package (everyone within five yards of the line of scrimmage) but already plan on pulling back a lot of that pressure, then you've already set yourself up well if the offense calls a draw or quick pass, because your defense will be set up to defend that.

Similarly, a lack of counter-audibles doesn't mean that the defense is necessarily letting the offense put one over on it. There is a lot more going on in an individual play than we can possibly see from our couches. Occasionally an offense is going to get a good play call or catch Michigan off guard with an audible, but the same is true for Michigan's defense having the right call to get a big stop. Play calling in football is an incredibly complex art and even the best are going to get burned occasionally.

Which leads to point number two: just because it may be optimal for Michigan to switch up what it is doing when an opposing offense tries to audible into something better, doesn't mean that Michigan's players are capable of handling that. It takes a special combination of experience and football IQ to make these reads on the field as time is ticking down on the play clock. Famously, Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen were able to do most of the line calls in 2011 — something that worked out well that year — but even that came after those two had played next to each other as starters for multiple years before. Michigan didn't have that type of consistency and experience on the line or really anywhere on the defense, and when you're weighing your options, sometimes it is better to go with what defense you originally called rather than put a player in a position to make a wrong audible because he reads things wrong. Having someone like Jordan Kovacs or Max Bullough on a defense adds a lot of possibilities because both players think like coaches in the same way that Ryan Van Bergen did.

Defensive audibles are a great way to adjust to what the offense is doing, but just like everything else you risk over-thinking things or trying to force something too quickly. The same is sometimes true of offenses.

I may have missed it in another article, but was there any mention of replacing the O-line coach Darrell Funk? I still see him listed on the Mgoblue site. Is there speculation coach Nuss will get a say in the matter? I don't mind if you just respond to me or put the question in an article, but let me know if it's the latter so I can keep my eye out for it.From what I have heard all the position coaches are going to stay. I think there was an official announcement.

Funk and the rest of the assistants are staying, and I think that is probably the right call for a few reasons:

- A lot of the struggles last year, at least in my mind, stem from Michigan trying to do too much in terms of schemes and protections. Funk is a zone guy by trade, and with Nussmeier bringing a lot of inside zone I think it is a good match. If MIchigan can focus in on a few things it does well, that should allow the offensive line to gain a lot more comfort in what it is doing. Last year's offensive game plans seemed to be very reactionary, and consistency should help immensely.

- Continuity is a big deal also. Funk knows the kids and they know him. I think Nussmeier bringing in a new guy (or Hoke/Brandon) messes with that and increases the learning curve for any changes Nuss wants to make. It is much easier if you have a meeting with a guy who knows the players and he can help adapt your adjustments in scheme so they are implemented seamlessly. Offensive line technique is incredibly complex and jargon-filled. Having someone that already speaks the same language as the players reduces the adjustment period to the new offensive philosophy.

- Recruiting. Funk is a big reason Michigan has done as well as it has bringing in OL the past couple years. Furthermore, those two impressive classes are both finally somewhat experienced, having both been on campus for over a year. There isn't any reason to rock the boat on this front.

Finally, I don't like the idea of firing someone just for the satisfaction of doing it. Heads do not need to roll, sustainable changes need to be made to better the team. I don't know if bringing someone else in to run the OL really means a positive change, and it seems like the biggest reason anyone can come up with for firing him was "well, we were so bad last year." I'm more concerned about this year and the future, and I think Brady Hoke agrees. That seems to be why Funk is still around, there is still a good argument to be made for him being the best guy for the job overall.

From all I see from Malik McDowell on social media and recruiting websites he is going to Michigan State. Sounds like his parents are coming around to Sparty somehow as well. Do you agree? Any reason why that will or can change?

Since this is a recruiting question I asked Anthony and Eric to weigh in. Here is what they said:

Anthony: Most of what is coming out about Malik has been total speculation, the rumors about him leaning toward MSU included. If you take a close look at the past year of Malik's recruitment, you'll notice that the trend is always pointing to the hotter school at the moment. Michigan was apparently close to getting his verbal when they were hot on the trail in late 2012, and as Michigan State played better it was rumored that it was becoming a 50-50 battle. Now, Michigan State is fresh off of a Rose Bowl victory and is suddenly the team to beat for his services.

My point is this: Malik and his family have kept their thoughts within the family, leaving us to speculate based on the performance of the two in-state teams. Gun to my head, I do think McDowell ends up going to Michigan State because of the great defensive coaching they offer, but don't count Michigan out.

Eric: Malik McDowell's recruitment is pretty low-key for a prospect who is rated as a five-star on every site except for ESPN. After this weekend, Malik has taken official visits to Alabama, Florida and Florida State and will see LSU and Michigan State in the coming weeks before making his decision.  After cancelling an Ohio State visit for the chance to take an official to East Lansing, the Spartans have good reason to feel positive about their chances with McDowell.  These last three visits lead right up to National Signing Day on Feb. 5, which is when McDowell is believed to be be announcing.

As of now, Malik is set to take part in the HYPE Athletics National Signing Day event at their headquarters in Deaborn Heights, Michigan, but it is not quite set in stone yet. In prior interviews, McDowell has alluded to the possibility of waiting until after NSD to make his decision. As things stand right now, NSD is the target for his decision.

Those close to his recruitment have admitted that there is some draw from family members to consider going to school in the South. If he were not to take this route, the prevailing thought process is that Michigan would offer the advantages most important to his parents in terms of education. However, that may have shifted- even if Malik does stay up North. It's hard to nail down where he is leaning one way or another, and it honestly looks like a crapshoot until he announces.