If you tuned in to our pre-spring game roundtable last week you would probably have picked up on the one major worry of this off season: the offensive line. Michigan is coming off of an abysmal year in that regard, and to make matters worse the Wolverines are losing two NFL-quality tackles and changing the offense, all while dealing with an OL depth chart that has only a couple juniors on it.
Rightfully so, we were all in different states of panic/unease about the whole thing, and most of us agreed that there probably wasn't going to be much to glean from the spring game anyway. Michigan was without Eric Magnuson who is projected to start this fall, and was still running a very simple version of its offense.
While the spring game isn't the best thing to judge Michigan's OL progress on, it is the only thing we have. In that spirit, I decided to dive in and break down the scrimmage portion, indicating anything good or bad that I noticed in each play.
On with the show....
Play One - Michigan starts at its own two-yard line in a two tight end/ace formation. Your starters, from right to left are Ben Braden, Kyle Kalis, Jack Miller, Kyle Bosch, and...early enrollee and freshman Mason Cole. Reason number one to panic is that a kid who should be in high school right now won the right to start at LT in this game over a bunch of guys that have been on campus for a couple years. Woof.
As for the play, it is a PA zone left with a boot back to the right (wide). The defense largely bites, and while it seems like it is probably Frank Clark's responsibility to be the force player on the backside, we aren't here to talk about the defense so he gets a pass. The blocking is largely irrelvant, which is good because the offense looked bad enough with just Gardner tossing an ugly pick.
Play Two - One tight end (left) with a fullback motioning into an offset I-form (right). Michigan runs to the right (wide side) away from its TE. So our first real run play and things aren't th—
Okay, so it has already happened. The first run play and we already have multiple problems. (1) Braden has gotten no push on Brennen Beyer, (2) Kyle Kalis has turned his shoulders and allowed the DT to get leverage right into the hole, and (3) Miller is already leaving the combo block when it is clear that Bosch does not have it. It doesn't matter what the linebackers do, this play is dead to rights and the QB has barely turned to move toward the RB. Smith takes a small cutback lane and doesn't lose yards (!).
Play Three - Shotgun four-wide. This is a debacle. Motion sends Canteen to the wide side of the field and the nickel corner sticks in to blitz. Five rushers means one-on-one blocking. Naturally, this means two guys get to Gardner before he even has a chance to go through his progression. Smith can't handle blitz pickup off the blind side and the LG (Bosch?) get's absolutely run past by Ryan Glasgow. Gardner zings the pass away before the pressure gets home. Not ideal.
Play Four - Two TE, twins to the right (wide side), ace backfield. It looks like outside zone to me, but I could be wrong. The hole ends up being a slight cutback as Taco doesn't squeeze down the backside and Desmond Morgan plunges playside. Of course, the offense doesn't do much with this as Shallman whiffs his block and Glasgow can't seal off Morgan, who slides off to help the safety clean it up for a small gain.
Four plays in and I already regret putting myself through this. There hasn't been one consequential block that led to a positive play for Michigan yet.
Play Five - One TE (right) with the H-back motioning into the backfield for an offset I-form to the right. It is a pass, and I'm not really sure what is going on with it. Glasgow (RT) downblocks to the DT giving the DE a free run with only the RB in the way. The defense also sends a backside corner blitz that sneaks past the entire OL. Morris gets it away, but that was rough.
Play Six - Shotgun, H-back on the right, RB aligned to QB-left in the backfield. Here is something:
That almost looks like a pocket forming. It is short lived as Logan Tuley-Tillman at LT is driven back into the QB, collapsing the pocket. However, the right side actually did a good job establishing that side of the pocket and picking up the blitz from the safety. Not a ton of progress, but at this point I'll take it.
Play Seven - Michigan back on its two-yard line. Two TE, ace backfield. More zone left which means another cutback as the defense gets leverage on the frontside of everything. Michigan picks up three yards. So far the cutback thing worries me. Michigan's backs don't have many options and are forced into it. Of course the play picks up three yards, so who am I to complain.
Play Eight - TE left, H-back right, ace backfield. Michigan is extremely lucky that Maurice Hurst Jr. doesn't make this play two yards in the backfield as he sidesteps the center on the snap and runs right around him. Even with this flub the play might have went somewhere if someone blocked Allen Gant, but alas, they don't.
Play Nine - Shotgun. H-back and RB both aligned on the left. Not much rush means not much gets through and Speight launches one too long.
Play Ten - TE, H-back to the left. Ace backfield. H-back motions into the backfield into an offset I-form. This play doesn't actually look to be that badly blocked. Michigan doesn't majorly whiff on anything (outside of Kalis, who already has a hard job having to get playside on a DT lined up that way of him to begin with). Michigan gets a couple yards.
Play Eleven - Same alignment as play ten. This one looks like inside zone left to the layman (me), but it is hard to tell because the line gets absolutely no push and is shoved backward and down the line by the defense which forces Hayes to bounce the play outside for a minimal gain.
Play Twelve - Shotgun, H-back to the right. I am just now realizing that Michigan has run every single play so far from the left hash. I have no idea why this is. RB is aligned to Gardner's left. On the snap we see that the defense is only rushing four while the offense is sending both the RB and the H-back into pass routes. Can the line hold up to a four on five rush? Somewhat surprisingly, yes. The G-C-G combo inside does a good job establishing the front of the pocket while Ben Braden forces Beyer's rush to take him past the QB. Cole breaks down at the LT spot a little and lets Clark push him into Gardner more than one wants to see, but this doesn't matter as Gardner steps up and gets the throw away. Sure, this was a vanilla pass rush, but outside of the early enrollee freshman LT, Michigan's line did a pretty solid job here.
Play Thirteen - Same formation as play twelve. This time Heitzman motions across to the left. At the snap a safety comes tear-assing down from the short side of the field. Michigan has six blockers (the RB stays in for blitz pickup) for five rushers, and once again this turns into an exercise in Yakety Sax-ery. The rush gets through up the middle, but Gardner gets the pass away before the pocket implodes in on him. Bright side, it looked like Hayes did a pretty good job making contact on the blitzing safety, but the ball was out quick enough that he didn't have to sustain the block.
Play Fourteen - Shotgun, TE to the right, RB lined up next to Garder on the left. The defense blitzes off the right and no one picks it up. The rest of the rush is blocked well and Gardner gets this quick pass off before the blitzer can get home. Positives: good blocking on the left hand side and enough time for Gardner to throw. Negatives: this was a quick timing route and in a real game the blitzer probably has time to make a play before Gardner gets the throw away clean. Also a negative: not one offensive lineman had any idea that they just let a defender get free run at the quarterback.
Play Fifteen - Ace with a TE and H-back to the left. Four man rush into long play action. Gardner hits Canteen for a big one, despite getting pressure from Clark off the left side. That was AJ Williams' assignment, and while Clark got close, it actually wasn't a bad effort to stay with the block. Yay tight ends providing a positive impact on blocking this year! Also, I'm not sure how Canteen got that open, but if he can keep that up, he is really going to be able to carry some water for this team.
Fine, that's the last "carry water" pun you get out of me in regards to Canteen. You people are no pun.
/sees self out
Play Sixteen - Ace formation, two TE. Michigan runs play action into the full boot, taking the offensive line almost completely out of the play.
Play Seventeen - As this play is set up the announcers are delivering a good amount of boilerplate on Mason Cole, who has been getting significant time. Will he follow that with a spectacular blocking busted assignment? Only time will tell...
Ace form with a TE and H-back to the right. This one is a run and the first time we have seen a pulling guard all day as Bosch swings around to the right. The right side of the line does a good job getting into the DL and setting up the blocks as Bosch comes right around tight to them. Everything seems to be going swimmingly outside of Joe Kerridge who missed his kickout block on the linebacker, Royce Jenkins-Stone, who fills the hole. Fortunately, Jenkins-Stone runs right into Bosch's block and in doing so cuts off the linebacker help flowing from inside out. DeVeon Smith slips out of the attempted grab tackle and scampers for a few more yards. Not bad. Probably the best blocked run play we have seen today from the offensive line (Kerridge, not so much).
Play Seventeen - The announcers are still heaping praise on Cole, which can only mean that they are upset that the previous attempts at a jinx have not landed and they want to see Cole literally thrown into Gardner for a sack. That can be the only explanation.
Shotgun, TE and RB aligned right, but more importantly WE HAVE A DENNIS NORFLEET SIGHTING. Let's watch him not get the ball. The defense brings five with the extra rusher coming in the form of a linebacker off the right side. The line does a pretty good job stoning the defense on the left (including Cole, who doesn't allow the rusher inside of him), but Justice Hayes does a weird head fake at the blitzing LB before shooting around him into a pass route. Gardner gets the pass off to a covered Devin Funchess. It is incomplete, but Jourdan Lewis is called for the PI.
Play Eighteen - Shotgun, TE right, RB left. Michigan has crossed the 50, and in doing so has shifted to the right hash for what I think is the first play of the scrimmage from that side of the field. Again, four linemen rush with an extra rusher coming from the LB (safety? Hill?) on the right. The RB comes across and picks up the blitz while the line does a good job forming a pocket. The pocket is well enough established that Gardner has a chance to step up when Cole lets Clark get a little upfield of him and turn in on the QB at about six yards. Not bad.
Play Nineteen - Ace with a TE on the right. We are back to the left hash because football played from the right hash is for commies or something. This is another zone left play (have they run zone right yet? I don't think so) and it ends up going off pretty well.
That is a running lane. I know, I forgot what they looked like too. Cole could probably do a better job collapsing his man down and opening some space at the end of the hole for Smith to work, but all in all it ends up being a pretty good five-yard gainer.
Play Twenty - Ace with an H-back and TE both on the left. Michigan brings Bo Dever across in motion and lines him up behind the H-back. No offense to Bo, but he is the last guy I want to telegraph "Run Going Here" with. This goes double when the defense already has numbers on that side of the formation. Predictably, this goes nowhere.
No, that isn't the end of the scrimmage, but there is little the next twenty plays will be able to tell me that the first twenty didn't. So, what is that? A few things...
Help is on the way? First of all, Michigan wasn't playing with its full offensive line in this one. Eric Magnuson was out of the game due to injury, and Michigan is looking to possibly add a grad-year transfer, Chad Lindsay, from Alabama that started a handful of games for the Tide last year and would immediately be a near-holy lock for a starting spot on next year's OL.
These are two potentially big additions to the line. Magnuson is slated to play the LT spot. Having him there is much better than the spring game alternative, which was early enrollee freshman Mason Cole. Magnuson looked like a promising player at times last year and once he worked his way into the lineup he stayed there (unlike many of Michigan's other attempted stopgaps).
Lindsay would give Michigan a second upperclassman to play on the interior with Graham Glasgow (assuming Glasgow doesn't move out to RT).
Tackle depth isn't that. Cole playing at LT was fun and all for the novelty value and the opportunity it gave announcers to hurl platitudes at the young man who was clearly outmatched (but, props to the kid for stepping up. He did do a few good things out there and a lot of his problem was just being a 285 high school kid lined up across from Frank Clark. I don't want to sound too critical, because I'm impressed he stood in there). However, it further points to a real issue for Michigan: there is no tackle depth. The 2012 class had two potential tackles, the aforementioned Magnuson and big Ben Braden. Braden couldn't cut it on the interior last season and was never heard from again after being the focus of much buzz in the spring and early fall. He didn't look great at RT in the spring game, and Michigan worked Graham "I used to be a center and before I was a guard" Glasgow in at the position. If this sets off a flashing red siren in your head...well, it should.
The spring game further confirmed that Logan Tuley-Tillman is in need to development, and I don't remember seeing Chris Fox at all. That is it for scholarship tackles. Magnuson should get healthy, but if Michigan is forced to move Glasgow outside that portends bad things for the depth chart. Obviously any in season injuries would be catastrophic. Yay.
It isn't all bad. Watching the first twenty plays of the spring game was rough, but one thing I will say in this group's favor is that the failures seemed to be young players getting beat by better defensive linemen with more experience. Michigan's DL might not be a Bama-level juggernaut, but there is talent. More importantly, Michigan didn't look like it was always confused and there wasn't a continual string of blown assignments leading to huge losses. Most run plays made it back the line of scrimmage, which wasn't a guarantee last year. Michigan's young guys just got pushed around. That is something that can be fixed with technique and strength training — something these young guys have a lot of time for over the next couple years. Problem is, it might take that long before Michigan is really good.
That isn't to say that there weren't breakdowns. Michigan's pass protection in the spring game was generally pretty bad. Part of this is on the running backs, but there were too many defenders that got a free run at the quarterback while a offensive lineman went the other way to block nothing.
Are the next four months enough time to solve these problems and turn this offense into something functional? That remains to be seen, but hope isn't completely lost.