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2014 Michigan Football Preview: The Offense

Michigan will take the field again soon. We'll look at what the offense has in store.

Roy Roundtree
Roy Roundtree
Leon Halip

At Washington, Doug Nussmeier inherited an offense that was ranked 118th and a team that went 0-12. He almost doubled the offense's production in his first season, and by the time he left three years later, the Huskies' attack was 25th in the nation. At Alabama, his teams averaged 38.5 points a contest, and in his two years there he produced the second- and third-best offensive seasons ever in Crimson Tide history. He's been called a player's coach by the players, an innovative recruiter by Jeff Hecklinski, and a great quarterbacks coach by Nick Saban. But he's also just a great offensive coordinator.

It takes more than that, though. The players are and always will be the heart and soul of the team. So, all this week we'll be taking a closer look at Team 135, including a position-by-position breakdown today and tomorrow. Today, we'll cover Nussmeier's side. Michigan lately has not looked like the Michigan of old, but the closer that Nussmeier can return them to that standard - with powerful downhill running, smart and aggressive passing, and dominating wide receivers - the closer Michigan will be to #43. All right, let's get to it.

Quarterback, Devin Gardner

A lot of people around the country and in the Big Ten aren't as high on Gardner as I am. Last year's roller coaster was just that, but DG's turnover problem was something that got fixed about two-thirds of the way through the year. He's athletic, throws an accurate deep ball, and is (in my opinion) one of the ten or fifteen best quarterbacks in the country. It's rare to combine someone with almost as much speed as Denard Robinson and the kind of downhill throwing that you see from Devin.

Whether he can read his progressions and settle in to a new group of receivers is another matter. He's shown a lot of favoritism to receivers he trusts can make plays, and he also seemed to try and do it all on occasion, maybe out of frustration with the situation the offense was in. He's a smart guy, and a fierce competitor. I'm looking forward to seeing what Devin does this year, especially if he gets comfortable with more receivers. I believe he will.

Behind him, Shane Morris is ready and waiting. Every year in college, I know I grew by leaps and bounds; even if Morris isn't ready to supplant Gardner this season, having another go-round under the bright lights and standing right next to the big stage will do wonders for him. He's another downfield thrower with athleticism; I'm looking forward to seeing him throw a lot of slant routes and post routes to wide, rangy athletes.

Offensive line, Cole, Magnuson, Miller, Glasgow, Braden

Hoke has been accused of favoring seniors a time or two, but - well, at least there aren't any of those where the line is concerned. Cole is a young guy who's pushing other people out of the lineup, and he's doing so in part thanks to an almost 20-pound gain over the summer. "He's developed faster than I've seen a kid develop at 18," Frank Clark said in April. In fact, when Mason actually made it on campus, he was amazingly still 17. And he might be a starter on Day 1. He would be the first freshman left tackle in Michigan history.

The lineup above will not be what Michigan fields in Week 1, with Graham Glasgow's suspension, and the 2014 season still has some vibes of '13, when different lineups were shuffled through constantly (or I'm still just having nightmares). What has improved is the line's depth, and this is a key that will help us enter the fight with two hands. This line might be erratic, or penalty-prone. Mason Cole could struggle against elite pass-rushers - and the Big Ten has a few. They might struggle with combo blocks or exotic blitzes. They might not be good at the point of attack. But I doubt that this unit will fall apart at the seams like last year's did, and some games, some of the season, it should be pretty darn good.

Footwork and technique are always necessary for good O-line play, but it becomes even more important when you're as tall as most of our guys are - Mason Cole is the short guy among the starters at 6'4". While this is encouraging in a long-term sense, the night practice was obviously the opposite of encouraging. But if this unit gels, especially that 633-pound right side of Glasgow and Braden, I could see us flipping the switch from bad to very good pretty quickly.

I am more optimistic about the interior of the line than last year. Jack Miller apparently struggled with getting the center's calls right, prompting the change to Graham Glasgow. He'll have worked on his game, and he also bulked up to 299. Graham Glasgow is probably our best lineman, and Erik Magnuson, a little light but chiseled at 294 pounds, will help protect the weak side. The inside is now the experienced part, and hopefully it shows.

I also like our second unit, even if it's not ideal for the lineup to be changing. Kalis, Bosch, and Dawson all fought for starting spots, and they could be one of the more interesting backup units in the conference. There's a number of young linemen coming up behind them, as well. There's potential, in short, and a lot of mediocrity until that potential is realized. It's basically what you'd have if there were a lot of players like Taco Charlton leading your defense: upside, and headaches. We'll see what this means for 2014.

Running backs, De'Veon Smith, Drake Johnson, & Derrick Green

The power running game Michigan had was usually a slow-developing one; it didn't help, on top of everything else, that a lot of the running plays featured the back setting up a full 7.5 or 8 yards behind the line of scrimmage (example). Derrick Green, for what it's worth, had solid speed for a 240-pound back, but he couldn't cut decisively, and when he did get open space, he wasn't strictly punishing defenders like a 240-pound (in-shape) fullback would. Michigan was taking the downsides of a power run game without the upsides, and that was why they needed Devin to run as much as he did.

There are a lot of reasons for optimism in 2014: one is Nussmeier, and another is the chance for some more speed. Drake Johnson has the potential to be a valuable cog in the running game, thanks to his more speed-based game while also bringing a 211-pound punch (which is almost 20 pounds more than Justice Hayes). I feel like Green can embody what the staff is looking for, but we would be fine with Smith and Johnson.

The staff is building its offense on inside zone, and they'll want runners who can take on linebackers. At the same time, a little more speed means that runners can also bounce a play outside that was intended to be between the tackles and still get positive yards. Smith, who had the best combination of speed and strength of the Fitz-Green-Smith trio, also had the best yardage numbers of the three backs last season by at least a yard. This year, all the runners look more like Smith (no, not that Smith): Green is rejuvenated and Drake Johnson is healthy. We'll see if they can take on the inevitable blitzes and also catch the ball a little better, however.

Wide receivers, Funchess, Darboh, Chesson, Canteen, Norfleet

The wide receiver situation has solidified in fall camp: Darboh and Chesson will battle for the #2 receiver spot, and Canteen will battle Norfleet and Ross Douglas in the slot. If this holds, Michigan will have a 6'5", a 6'2", and a 6'3" receiver with speed on the outside, fighting for 20-yard gains, or else going through the middle, challenging defensive backs to keep up and work through their assignments.

There was a lot of passing at this weekend's night practice, and that may be how the team succeeds in 2014. Once teams felt their blitzes would always get home, Part II of Michigan's horrible season was underway. The running backs haven't shown the ability to pass protect or catch the ball, but we have much better options now than Drew Dileo at the slot (sorry, Drew). Also, all the running backs should at least know the pass protection schemes. Mattison's been hammering home a lot of blitzes, so even if this is a hurricane, we'll be comfortable playing in the hurricane. And with any amount of time, Gardner has terrific options deep.

Tight ends, Jake Butt, A.J. Williams, & Keith Heitzman

JB, who missed four games to injury a year ago, came on late in the year. From Nebraska onward, he corralled 13 catches for 168 yards in four games played - almost three-quarters of his production on the year. Even though he came physically prepared (Al Borges was amazed at how much he had worked to be ready), he still needed most of the season to settle in to the offense. The Funchess-Williams Jeckyll-and-Hyde situation of a year ago looks distinctly improved, and I'm happy with having two (hopefully mauling) blockers on the line until JB returns. Any pass-catching abilities they add will be gravy.

Michigan was showing a lot of two-tight end looks in the night practice, which makes sense. Offense is built on being multiple, and I have a sneaking suspicion that both Williams and Heitzman will be called on to catch some bail-out passes in the flat - and they'll be ready to do it. Also, having one or two tight ends on hand stretches the box out a little and lets the offense dictate the game a little more. I think this is one of Nussmeier's strategies for dealing with a funky line.


So, where does this leave us? Obviously, the story is strewn with picking up the pieces from a nightmare campaign, and something of a nightmare decade, now, for Michigan fans. Is the will to win back? Are the pieces in place? In some sense, that's only something we can find out on the field, for as Bo said, those who stay will be champions. The players who put in the work, when the bright lights were gone and no one was watching, will show what they can do. If the desire to prove naysayers wrong is enough, then we will see a highly motivated team take the field on August 30th. And that, more than even the talent or the coaching, is what we need.

Go Blue.