Position-by-Position Look at the Offense
After looking around the league a lot the last few Brews, it felt right to spend a little more time on the Wolverines this time around. Let's get to it, shall we.
After watching a lot of Carlos Hyde and Todd Gurley, I've fallen in love with the physical, punishing style that Michigan needs to establish. There's a lot to be said for putting an offense in 2nd and 4 consistently - it limits three-and-outs and helps keep your defense fresh in the fourth quarter, it takes pressure off of the quarterback, forces the defense to defend everything and keeps a coordinator's playbook wide open. So far, Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith have not provided that for the Wolverines, but I think the philosophy is right.
Green, especially, came to Michigan with a lot of fanfare, and reasonably so. However, while much has been made of his lackluster performance, only one of the four five-star players taken in 2013 garnered real success their first year, and that was Thomas Tyner at Oregon. Greg Bryant of Notre Dame got 14 yards, and Ty Isaac got 236 for USC. In fact, only two freshmen last year in the Power 5 conferences got as much as 800 yards: one was Shock Linwood, a redshirt freshman for Baylor (881), and the other was Alex Collins, at Arkansas under Bret Bielema (1026).
Much will be expected from both Green and Smith, and I'll look forward to seeing more decisiveness and speed from both of them. Nussmeier is doing the right things by practicing tempo (he has two great backs who can keep each other fresh) without being an Oregon-style tempo team. Make no mistake that Nuss will want to play a bruising game, and as long as both runners get their chances against the linebackers, things will be fine in that department. I'll want to see how their instincts have improved, Green's especially.
Jake Butt will be out for at least three or four weeks of the regular season, and while sooner is always better than later, we need him back by the Michigan State game. Sparty's linebacking corps is undergoing the most turnover, and there really isn't an answer for Jake Butt anywhere on that roster. In the meantime, it should be fun having road-graders like Heitzman and Williams manning the trenches against the likes of Minnesota, Rutgers, and Penn State. Neither player is going to catch a lot of balls, but that just makes it more effective when they slip out into the flat for a timely gain. Again, the fact that everyone on the depth chart (cough, Devin Funchess) is a good blocker is severely underrated.
Hoke has said Williams has upgraded his catching ability in the winter, and it's not uncommon for players to take a big step entering their junior year so he might surprise. Heitzman will be a big game-experience guy on the offensive line doing all the right things. Like running back, I'm not worried about this corps, and they'll put in their time and facilitate the run game. I'll enjoy watching Heitzman pick up corner blitzes.
Devin Gardner is a lot of fun to watch when he's on. The problem is all the rest of the time. What we need to see from him this year is faster progressions and knowing the route tree and timing better. Last year, he locked on to either Jeremy Gallon or Devin Funchess and often threw in bad situations. If guys like Jehu Chesson or Amara Darboh are getting catches, it'll say as much about them as it will about Gardner's evolution as a quarterback.
The other important thing to watch will be turnovers. This has been played to death, but having 7 turnovers against Akron and UConn absolutely killed us. It would be optimistic to say those problems are gone, however. I think Gardner's fumbling will be under control, but Devin will be asked to throw even more balls from the pocket and to a lot of receivers he doesn't have experience with. This will be something to watch against Notre Dame, which has KeiVarae Russell and Max Redfield in the secondary.
Both Devin Gardner and Braxton Miller will be seniors this year, which means the 112th meeting will look very different. Miller and Gardner are interesting mirrors of one another - on the one hand, they produced near-identical yardage rates, and both of them are, at the heed of their coaches, trying to shift their games into the pocket. On the other hand, Miller is a much more elusive and comfortable runner than DG. Gardner is a great athlete but didn't protect himself once defenders caught up with him, exposing himself to hits Miller rarely saw.
Gardner, meanwhile, is a better thrower - he regularly threw further downfield than Miller, took snaps under center, got more of his offense from the passing game, and showed aggressiveness throwing into coverage, whereas Miller would hesitate sometimes even with wide-open receivers. Ohio State's attack is considered impenetrable, but I expect to see more Braxton Miller turnovers this year... though Urban Meyer will try to scheme out of that. But I wouldn't be surprised if Gardner takes another step forward while Miller regresses a little bit.
Conspicuously devoid of experience, it's difficult to even say much about our prospects, as there's precious little film on many of these players. It's also a very deep position group, with Darboh, Chesson, Drake Harris, Freddy Canteen, Funchess, Norfleet, and more. Michigan has probably the most talented receiving corps in the Big Ten, and it's a group that's getting faster under Nussmeier.
The money position. An offensive line is in a good place when there's a good starting five and depth behind them. Hoke made a comment this spring about needing to find the best five guys, and while there's a little something to that, I want to highlight the other side, depth, for a minute because I think it's important.
The line sucked last year despite having two NFL draft picks because the drop-off from them to everyone else was precipitous. Even though we lose Taylor Lewan and Schofield, the year of practice and seasoning was critical for everyone else. Erik Magnuson, Ben Braden, and Kyle Kalis should be fine, and that's 60% of our line and the entire right side. I'm not as high on Kyle Bosch or Graham Glasgow, especially if he's a center, but there are more options behind them. Joey Burzynski is healthy, Jack Miller should get a longer look at center, Patrick Kugler is probably still a year away, and David Dawson is coming along. This makes it a very different situation from last year. If any one of these guys takes a big leap forward they're going to see the field more and stopgap a rotation that was a nightmare of emergency options last year. So at least there's that.
As for the best starting five, I think that will fluctuate more than Hoke wants it to as the year progresses. There's probably a young guy or two who will make leaps during the year, and there'll probably be injuries. But regardless of if there's a revolving door at one of the guard spots, we absolutely need to see more push and more dominance inside. Bosch is a true sophomore and will be 19 for most of this season, but he's also now over 300 pounds. As long as there's some more toughness and determination, the line coupled with Smith and Green should be ready to take another step in 2015.
What To Do With Jabrill?
Roy Manning, now the cornerbacks coach, put it best when he said that he wants Jabrill Peppers to enjoy the rest of his time at high school, and let his college experience happen when it happens. To that extent, I think it's fair to not extrapolate too far about an athlete as gifted as Peppers, regardless of the excitement for all concerned. Football takes work - a lot of it - and while it bends to the very gifted, it does not bend for those who don't work at it.
With that said, I'm sure the coaches have had discussions behind closed doors about Jabrill's potential, both on the field and for the program. He can play defense. He can return kicks. He's a good running back but, if he's to follow Charles Woodson's path, he would play more at wide receiver (for the record, Woodson had 11 career carries and 25 receptions). Peppers will try to beat a number of Woodson's benchmarks; Charles started his first game as a freshman, on the third game of the year. Peppers, a true competitor, will try to best that. Woodson won the Heisman Trophy his junior year and, if he had stayed, could have tied Ohio State's Archie Griffin as the only two-time recipients. Jabrill will be trying to win it as a freshman. Also, Charles did not see the field on offense until his sophomore year. We'll see if Peppers can beat that.
One problem for Peppers will be his competition - Dennis Norfleet is a fast, fast man and led the league in kickoff return yardage a year ago. At running back, a physically unforgiving position as well as an unglamorous one, Peppers would team up with Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith. If he sees the ball as a freshman, it would likely be as a receiver on some simple routes (the Big House would go wild), as well as spot duty for Norfleet. This belies a more important question; where will Jabrill play on defense? How the coaches situate him could impact his whole career.
Brady Hoke has said very little, but what he has said implies that Jabrill will see the field as a nickelback, unless he earns a greater role in fall camp. It would be tempting to put him at safety, but here again the script has already been written. If Peppers is as good a cover man as he has shown so far, he will bring his perfect blend of linebacker physicality and corner quickness to the same spot that Woodson brought his. Rather than staying deep and preventing big plays, Jabrill will use his speed on the edge, the five yards of jostling, physical man coverage, and the corner blitzes to serve as his eye test, and let the Heisman voters take notice.
Hitting the Links Enjoys a Massage
I will continue highlighting memorable moments from the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry. The 1973 game, which ended with a 10-10 tie and both teams going 10-0-1, began with this moment involving the Michigan banner.
This is also very good to simply pick up the essence of Urban Meyer's offense. He will stretch you horizontally with athletes, and obviously stretch you vertically with wide receivers, but he wants simple plays and effective running. Wonderfully, Braxton Miller struggles more being a quarterback in a straight-up system than when he is asked to make simple throws like the one you see to Wilson.
This time the BTN crew looks at the West division. I probably should have included this with their B1G East analysis, but apparently the Internet is teeming with enough links for me to not worry about feast or famine. Also, a fun fact: in the Power 5 conferences, there are 5 returning running backs who got at least 1,200 yards last year. Three of them are in the B1G West and another is in the B1G East. The fifth is T.J. Yeldon.
I hadn't realized this but the Big 12 continues to tread water and did very poorly in the draft - with 13 fewer draftees than the Big Ten.
This is maybe a silly link but it's a fun look at the Big Ten, re-ordering the schools based on when each one was founded, their endowment, how many championships they have, etc.
This piece looks at Scott Cochran, but more generally at everything that Bama has accomplished. It feels long sometimes but is interesting at the same time... especially getting to see the workout facilities.
K-State's Sams, who got 23 yards rushing against Michigan as a back-up quarterback, will transfer to an FCS school due to lack of playing time.
If you remember Ty Isaac, he was one of the first running backs we fell in love with under Hoke's initial recruiting blitz. The Trojan now wants to play closer to home. Although, if Isaac had committed to us, we probably wouldn't have Derrick Green.
Whatever the losses might hurt us, I'd love to see a stacked non-conference schedule almost every year. We play Florida in 2017 and have home-and-home series set up with Arkansas in 2018-19, Virginia Tech in 2020-21, and UCLA in 2022-23. But I'd love to ride my jetpack to a 2021 Notre Dame contest.
Bosch has a great line from Vince Lombardi, and from this article it doesn't surprise me that he's worked so hard while he's been at Michigan.
The thing to highlight is that Indiana's defensive players have a lot of new confidence now with their 3-4, but we'll see if it helps. Kudos to Kevin Wilson for the gutsy decision to completely switch his base defense; also, Wilson is a cool coach, if you haven't had the chance to hear him much.
BHGP has a nice article on the team's success with two-star recruits. But I don't think being linked here makes it viral or anything.
Brian Kelly is entering his fifth season, or Act II, as Bill Connelly writes.