Each week for the remainder of Michigan football's 2014 season, I will review the film of Michigan's most recent game. The goal is to dive into the gritty details and share exactly what transpired on the gridiron. This will not be a play-by-play analysis. Instead, this column will focus on the key takeaways I discovered from watching the film. For example, do you want to know who the five offensive linemen Michigan should start at Notre Dame this weekend are? Not only will I provide my answer, I will include screen shots of the last week's game film with my annotations, so you can see exactly what I am seeing.
However, I will be upfront and and admit that I am not the most adept at football X's and O's. I have never played or coached competitive football on any level. My knowledge of the sport has been gleaned from watching hundreds of football games at the collegiate and professional level, readings books and articles about football strategies and schemes, and spending countless hours playing the Madden NFL and NCAA Football video game franchises (which obviously makes me a football genius). There are others in the Michigan blogosphere, such as Maize n Brew staff writer and contributor SpaceCoyote, that are more qualified to write this column than I am.
Nevertheless, this does not mean I do not know what I am talking about. I understand football. I understand how football is played. I understand what I am seeing on the film, especially when looking at it frame by frame. I admit that I am not a football expert not to discredit myself but to encourage you to submit your input below. I want this space to be a home for smart, intelligent, and reasonable football discussion about X's and O's. If you see something in the film or my screen shots that you think I missed, comment below. If you disagree with or have a different opinion of my film analysis, comment below. I want to learn just as much as you do, and we can do it together with this weekly column.
Now that the pleasantries have been exchanged, let's turn on the projector.
Who Should Michigan Start on the Offensive Line at Notre Dame?
Michigan's offensive line was atrocious last season. We know this. I am not here to rehash all of the specifics. But one reason why it was so poor was a lack of cohesion. Too often did Brady Hoke and the staff try to plug new linemen into the starting lineup to remedy the problem. The result: nine offensive linemen started a minimum of one game, Michigan tried five different combinations of starters in 13 contests, and no school arguably had a worse season-long performance from its offensive line than Michigan. Frequently inserting new linemen into the starting lineup did not help matters. It only made them worse as no chemistry developed among the linemen.
Michigan does not intend to repeat that same mistake in 2014. In the offseason, with no starter set in stone, the plan was to uncover the best starting unit as soon as possible and stick with those five linemen all season. The thinking was, even though there may be some speed bumps early as the starters learn new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier's zone schemes, they would gel together and improve significantly over the course of the year.
Those plans were ruined, though, when Graham Glasgow, Michigan's most experienced and possibly best offensive lineman, was suspended for last weekend's opener against Appalachian State after police arrested him for driving under the influence back in March. This meant that the Wolverines needed to utilize a temporary offensive line without Glasgow against the Mountaineers before starting its permanent one against Notre Dame. They did just that, starting Mason Cole at left tackle, Erik Magnuson at left guard, Jack Miller at center, Joey Burzynski at right guard, and Ben Braden at right tackle, while subbing in Kyle Kalis at right guard, against an overmatched Appalachian State. They performed admirably, helping the Wolverines rush to the tune of 350 yards and 9.7 yards per carry.
However, Glasgow has returned from his suspension and will be available to compete at Notre Dame. So now the questions begin. Will Michigan stick with the starting five that attained so much success against Appalachian State? Or will Michigan insert Glasgow into the lineup instead? If Glasgow starts, at what position? Will he replace Kalis or Burzynski at right guard or Miller at center? Or will he slide in at left guard and kick Magnuson out to left tackle?
Hoke delivered this non-answer at his press conference on Monday:
Hoke says Kalis' back is fine. Not going to say who starts Saturday and who won't. "We have a plan."— Nick Baumgardner (@nickbaumgardner) September 1, 2014
So I decided to look at the Appalachian State film to see which cast of offensive linemen will be the best for Michigan at Notre Dame and the rest of the season.
After reviewing the film, Cole, Magnuson, and Braden have solidified their spots at left tackle, left guard, and right tackle, respectively.
Among these three, Magnuson was the most impressive on Saturday. He did everything that was asked of him. When he was matched up one-on-one with an App State defensive lineman, he routinely got a push and drove the defender off the line of scrimmage. When he needed to make a combo block to reach the second level and seal off a linebacker, he did it with ease. There may not be much to write home about with regards to App State's front-seven, but Magnuson was Michigan's most consistent lineman, especially when the Wolverines ran the football.
What caught my eye, though, was Magnuson's play recognition when he pulled. Last season, Michigan's guards struggled mightily when they pulled, either looping too far away from the line of scrimmage or not noticing how the play developed in front of them. Magnuson demonstrated on Saturday that he does not commit these errors.
Michigan is in shotgun with three wide receivers and A.J. Williams with his hand down adjacent to Braden. The call is for Green to run to the strong side of the formation off Braden and Williams with a pulling Magnuson (circled above) leading the way. Both of Appalachian State's safeties are playing high, so there are only six defenders in the box. If Michigan executes its blocks correctly, a big gain will be had.
Devin Gardner handles the snap and gives the football to Green as Magnuson begins pulling to the right side. If all of Michigan's blocks are executed as designed, Magnuson will be able to lead Green into the gap outside of Williams and pick off the linebacker allowing Green to scamper for no less than 10 yards and likely many more.
But, as noted by the circle above, not every block was executed correctly. Braden allowed the defensive lineman he is supposed to be blocking to fight through. If Magnuson continues to pull towards the gap as designed, that defender will be able to shoot behind Magnuson into the backfield and tackle Green for a loss or no gain. Instead, Magnuson realizes that Braden has been beat and peels off to assist Braden.
This block by Magnuson, seen in the circle above, provides Green with the time and space he needs to hit the gap at full speed on the outside. Although Magnuson no longer can block the linebacker sprinting over to stop Green, Green still would gain about five yards even if he is brought down on first contact, which is much better than the loss he would have suffered if Magnuson had not prevented Braden's man from penetrating into the backfield. Here, Green was not brought down on first contact. Instead, he ran through a very weak arm tackle and gained 19 yards, all of which never would have occurred if Magnuson, as the pulling guard, did not recognize the development of the play.
Cole, on the other hand, was the shakiest among the three Michigan linemen that solidified their spots atop the depth chart against Appalachian State. This is no surprise for a true freshman starting at left tackle in the season opener--the first to ever do so at Michigan. One reason why Cole had some issues was his lack of size and strength. At 6'5" and 292 pounds, he is diminutive relative to his predecessors (Jake Long: 6'7", 315 pounds; Taylor Lewan: 6'8", 315 pounds). Additionally, whereas most offensive linemen redshirt their first season to rebuild their bodies and improve their strength, Cole has been in a collegiate strength and conditioning program for only eight months. This leaves him vulnerable to being pushed around by defensive linemen from time to time.
On its first non-broken running play of the season, Michigan is in an offset I-formation with three wideouts. The call will be a halfback draw to Green. Appalachian State, running a 3-4 defense, has only three down linemen, and Cole (circled above) is responsible for blocking the App State defensive lineman lined up directly across from him.
Gardner receives the snap and acts for a split-second as if he will pass before handing the football to Green. Yet, as Green accepts the football from Gardner, Cole is being shoved backwards (Cole is not the only culprit here, which will be explained further down). It is normal for an offensive lineman to cede a yard or so on a draw to further the illusion that he is pass blocking, but Cole has been knocked back at least two yards. And, worse, he has been knocked back right into Green's running lane, which, if available, would provide Green with a large chunk of yards.
Cole cannot recover and ultimately clogs Green's path, and, because Appalachian State's outside linebacker (No. 13) was left unaccounted for on the edge, Green has nowhere to go. All he can do is slam into the back of Cole and hope to push the pile forward for a measly one or two yards. Here, the pile does not move, and Green is stopped at the line of scrimmage for no gain. This is the consequence of starting an undersized lineman at left tackle. Cole will not always be able to out-muscle defensive linemen. There will be times when he is manhandled, which will kill some big-play opportunities.
Also, Cole is trying to catch up to speed in understanding the mental aspects of the position. Most know how difficult the transition from high school to college is physically for offensive linemen, but it is just as difficult mentally. Not only are the playbooks more complex, the defensive schemes they must face are more advanced than anything they saw in high school. Cole, a nationally heralded recruit in the 2014 class, was lauded for his pass-blocking technique and ability to slide well, which is a key component as to why he did well as a pass protector in his one-on-one battles against Appalachian State. But, when App State threw a stunt at him, he was not prepared one bit.
Michigan is in shotgun with four wide receivers and Green at tailback. The call will be a passing play with Green leaking out of the backfield as a fifth target, so the offensive line has no help in keeping Gardner on his feet. Cole (circled above) is responsible for blocking Appalachian State's defensive end on the far side (also circled above).
As soon as the football is snapped, the App State defensive end and tackle on far side stunt. The end takes a step to the edge, causing Cole to be off-balanced, before using a quick cut back to the inside, while the tackle loops around the end to the outside, as the arrows indicate above. After cutting inside, the defensive end uses a swim move to slip past an out-of-position Cole rather easily. There may be a question about whether Cole and Magnuson should ahve passed these defenders off to each other, but they remained with their original assignment instead.
After beating Cole, the Appalachian State defensive end has a free run at Gardner. Gardner tries to use his mobility to escape the pressure and continue the play, but he is unable to do so, which leads to the only sack Michigan allowed in the game. The Wolverines suffered an eight-yard loss and were forced into a third-and-12 scenario that stalled a promising drive. It was a teaching moment for Cole, but it also was a reminder that he must learn what it takes mentally to be a starting offensive lineman at the collegiate level before he faces a murderers' row of defensive ends once the Big Ten slate commences.
Nonetheless, do not allow the previous two plays discourage you about Cole's potential. Given the circumstances, being that he was a true freshman starting in his collegiate debut, he played quite well and certainly had more ups than downs against Appalachian State.
Michigan is in the I-formation, and Jehu Chesson has just motioned over to line up beside Cole (circled above). The call will be a run for De'Veon Smith to the weak side of the formation, just inside the right guard, Burzynski. Although the run is designed to be away from him, it still is Cole's job to seal off the left side of the line in case Smith needs a cutback lane.
Smith takes the football from Gardner and begins to follow fullback Joe Kerridge into the gap left of Burzynski, who has walled off the defensive end. Kerridge surges into the gap to collide with the inside linebacker crashing down. There still seems to be room through which can maneuver, but the other App State insider linebacker (No. 88) is rolling over to shut the door. As this all happens, Cole has leverage against the near side defensive end, positioning himself to the outside and beginning to shove the end down the line.
Cole crushes him. Just obliterates him. With the help of Chesson's block, this leaves a gaping hole into which Smith can cut back. As Smith follows his primary running path, he recognizes that No. 88 will shut down the gap on the right side when he reaches the line of scrimmage. So Smith jukes back to his left, sprints through the wide-open cutback lane untouched for 10 yards, and finishes with a 15-yard run for a first down. Although there were other contributors, the result of this play came to fruition because Cole completely mauled the App State defensive end. Cole had other plays similar to this throughout the contest, but this was by far his most bone-crushing block.
Overall, Cole performed well enough that he deserves a second start at left tackle. There has been some discussion that he should be benched to allow the stronger Magnuson to shift over and Glasgow to assume the left-guard duties. However, despite some miscues, as indicated above, Cole still executed most of his assignments and showed real promise. He will only improve as the season progresses, even while facing fiercer competition, and the value of establishing chemistry between Cole and Magnuson, who both may be the stalwarts on the left side of the offensive line for the next three seasons, is enormous.
Now that left tackle, left guard, and right tackle are set, the next question is whether Michigan should start the same unit that just led the Wolverines to 350 rushing yards or insert Glasgow into the starting lineup. The answer is simple: start Glasgow. Last week's offensive line achieved very positive results, but it did so versus an opponent that allowed an average of over 220 rushing yards per game in FCS last season. Appalachian State does not have a stout defense by any means, and the defense against which Michigan will square off in South Bend will be much tougher to crack.
If Michigan wants to defeat Notre Dame on the road and be successful this season, it needs its best five offensive linemen on the field this weekend. To sideline its most experienced and arguably best offensive lineman would not be in furtherance of Michigan's objectives. If the Wolverines want to remain aligned with their preseason plan to find their best five offensive linemen as soon as possible and stick with them the rest of the season, they cannot wait to insert Glasgow into the lineup. He must start this weekend.
Because Glasgow has the versatility to play both center and right guard, the final question is who should Michigan's fifth offensive line starter be: Burzynski, Kalis, or Miller. The one who should be eliminated from consideration immediately is Burzynski. The former walk-on has worked extremely hard in his five years in the program, but he just does not have the physical attributes or talent to be a Big Ten-caliber offensive lineman. At least as a starter. Not only is he limited by his height, which is a short 6'1", he does not have the technique or strength to compensate. This is why Burzynski has been subpar in the small spurts of playing time he has received.
For example, let's look at how Michigan's rushing attack functioned when Burzynski was the right guard versus when Kalis was the right guard against Appalachian State. Burzynski was on the field for Michigan's first two drives. The Wolverines had nine carries for 35 yards and an average of 3.89 yards per carry. On the other hand, Kalis manned the spot at right guard for the next five possessions, during which Michigan called 14 runs that gained an astonishing 229 yards for an average of 16.36 yards per carry. There is no comparison.
Although unlikely, one may try to argue that Burzynski's production suffered because the rest of Michigan's offensive line needed more than a few plays to work out the kinds before the rushing attack could explode. However, what transpired during the following play shoots down that argument.
Michigan is in the pistol with Green set to the left of and slightly behind Gardner. Michigan also has three receivers on the outside, with Williams lined up next to Cole but off the line of scrimmage. The call will be for Green to accept the handoff and then run through a gap between the right guard and right tackle, Burzynski (circled above) and Braden, respectively.
As Gardner gives the football to Green, all of Michigan's offensive linemen execute their blocks as designed. Except for Burzynski. Cole and Magnuson wall off the left side of App State's defensive line, Miller works his way to the second level to pick off the inside linebacker, and Braden kicks out the outside linebacker. If Burzynski can remain engaged with the defender lined up across from him, Green will run for a minimum of 15 yards and may find himself dancing in the end zone when it is all said and done. But Burzynski completely whiffs on his block as the App State defensive lineman throws him out of the way with sudden swim move.
Now, the App State defender is three yards deep into the backfield when he meets Green. Green does what he can to avoid the intruder, but the lineman grasps just enough of Green's ankle to haul him down for a one-yard loss.
In summary, what could have possibly been a touchdown run ended in a tackle-for-loss allowed because and only because Burzynski failed his assignment miserably. This did not happen only once. There were other instances of this during Michigan's first two drives, too, albeit not as egregious as this miscue. Burzynski gave it his best shot, but the truth of the matter is that he is no better than Michigan's seventh-best offensive lineman and should not be in contention for a starting spot.
This leaves only two candidates for the final spot: Kalis and Miller. Kalis is the former five-star recruit that plays right guard but had an underwhelming redshirt freshman season last year. Miller is a center that is much more of a fit in Nussmeier's zone blocking schemes than under the Al Borges regime but lacks the muscle to overpower defensive tackles individually. Because each plays a different position along the offensive line, the impact of selecting only one of the two to start on where Glasgow plays must be taken into consideration.
Against Appalachian State, Kalis displayed his proficiency for mauling defenders and opening lanes for Michigan's backs when run blocking. As aforementioned, the Wolverines' rushing attack really soared once Kalis was inserted into the contest, recording rushes for gains of 62, 61, 59, 19, and 12 yards, all of which were run either to the right behind Kalis or to the left behind a pulling Kalis. A perfect example of his ability to pummel defenders is the 12-yarder.
Michigan is in the pistol with two wideouts and two tight ends--Williams is adjacent to Braden while Khalid Hill is next to Cole and off the line of scrimmage. The call will be inside zone to the right side, which means that Smith will look for a gap behind Kalis (circled above), the right guard. Because Kalis is not lined directly in front of an Appalachian State defensive lineman, his initial responsibility will be to chip the down lineman between he and Braden.
As Smith prepares to receive the handoff from Gardner, Kalis makes his combo block on the aforementioned down defensive lineman with Braden. Kalis' assistance provides Braden with sufficient time to work his way across the face of the defender, so Braden can seal off the defender from the left side. Once Kalis believes that Braden is in good position to hold the block on his own, he leaves Braden and makes his way to the second level to leave a path of destruction and doom.
The App State defender that Kalis encounters at the second level (No. 12) is a safety and has no chance of neutralizing the rumbling right guard running at him. Kalis engages the safety at the nine-yard line, places his hands inside the safety's shoulders, and drives him all the way back into the end zone, clearing a path for Smith to score his first touchdown of the day. Notwithstanding Kalis owning a superior size advantage, it was a devastating block that indicated the type of strength he possesses. And it was not the only time he abused a defender on Saturday.
No one doubts Kalis' physical attributes, but there are concerns regarding his lack of consistency. On one play, like the one that was just analyzed, Kalis can use his strength to overwhelm the opposition. But, on the following play, he will make a mental mistake that submarines it. Although these mental miscues did not pop up frequently on Saturday, there was one play in particular during which Kalis was left in the dust by an App State lineman for this reason.
Michigan is in shotgun with three wide receivers and two running backs. Facing a third-and-long near midfield, the Wolverines will call a halfback draw that sweeps Justice Hayes to left side of the formation in an attempt to catch the defense off-guard. Kalis' (circled above) responsibility is to prevent the App State defensive lineman (circled above) from cutting across the formation to stop Hayes on the left side. If the lineman attempts to shoot the gap upfield, this will cause no problems because doing so would take the lineman completely out of the play. All that matters is that Kalis not allow the lineman to beat him to his left.
So what happens? Kalis allows the Appalachian State lineman to beat him to his left. To be fair, the Mountaineer makes a brilliantly athletic move to smoke Kalis. When the ball is snapped, the defender takes a quick but ferocious jab step to the left as if he planned to shoot upfield. Kalis reacts and slides to his right immediately. However, as Kalis moves to his right, the App State lineman jukes back in the other direction and sprints through the crease to Kalis' left before Kalis even realizes what has happened. Kalis attempts to get his hands on the defender at the last second, but he is so far out of position that he completely whiffs on the block.
The Appalachian State lineman sprints across the formation and hauls down Hayes for a loss of one yard as Kalis watches from a few yards away.
While the move by the Mountaineer was superb, the problem for Kalis was that the lineman never should have been allowed access to an inside path. Kalis, knowing Michigan's play call, needed to understand that keeping the Mountaineer to the outside was his main priority. But Kalis did not. It was unlikely that the play, if executed correctly, would have netted Michigan a first down, but an eight- or nine-yard gain provides Michigan an opportunity to go for it on fourth down. However, because Kalis screwed up his assignment, such an opportunity was squandered. Kalis has the potential to be an All-Big Ten guard down the road, but, if that ever is to materialize, he must scrap these mental errors soon.
Miller competed at center for Michigan almost the entire game against Appalachian State. It was the first extensive playing time he had received since his last start against Connecticut in the fourth contest of the 2013 season. What stood out in Miller's performance this past Saturday was how comfortable he was with Nussmeier's zone blocking schemes. Whether he was utilizing a combo block or a reach block, Miller seemed to be finding his way to the second level to wall off linebackers with relative ease.
Michigan is in the pistol with a power formation as Williams and Hill line up outside the two offensive tackles. The call will be for Smith to run the left outside Cole and Williams. The task for the offensive line is to shift to the left around Appalachian State's defense in order to shield Smith's path.
The ball is hiked, and Miller (circled above) begins his combo block on Appalachian State's nose tackle. Miller wants to hold this block long enough to allow right guard Burzynski to work his way around to the left side of the Mountaineer lineman. Once Burzynski is in position, Miller can begin to look upfield to find a target to block at the second level.
Miller sustains his block for enough time to allow Burzynski to get into position to continue the block. Miller then runs two yards upfield into the second level, where he locates Appalachian State's nearside inside linebacker sprinting to the far side to provide support for his teammates. Miller has none of this. He puts his hands on the linebacker and swings into position on the left side of the linebacker, preventing him from having any free path towards Smith, who has just received the football from Gardner.
Miller stones this Appalachian State linebacker. The defender moves nowhere for the duration of the play as Smith, who benefits from splendid blocks set by other Wolverines, charges his way into the end zone for a 13-yard touchdown.
This is a great example of what Miller can do as a combo blocker. All game, he would break free into the second level and routinely wall off linebackers from Michigan's running backs. He may not be the biggest lineman, but he has a quickness that assists in his ability to reach the second level before the linebackers can beat his positioning. This undoubtedly is the best move in Miller's repetoire.
Another move that Miller showcased on Saturday is his ability to reach block. A reach block is extremely difficult to perform because the offensive lineman begins the play at a positional disadvantage. For example, a defensive lineman is lined up a shade to the right of an offensive lineman. However, to execute his assignment, the offensive lineman must get to the right side of the defensive lineman to make his block and seal him. But this block can be challenging because it means the offensive lineman must reach across the defensive lineman to make it work.
Michigan is in a power I-formation as it attempts to convert this third-and-short for a first down. The call will be to run Smith to the right edge, where he will be able to select a gap of his choosing to pick up the first down. However, to make this play work, Miller (circled above) must execute a reach block to make his way to the right side of the App State nose tackle that is shaded to Miller's right. If Miller is unable to make this block, the nose tackle will penetrate into the backfield to the right of Miller and clog Smith's running lane, likely causing Smith to be tackled shy of the first-down marker.
Miller hikes the football to Gardner, and, as soon as it is out of his hands, Miller lunges to his right before Appalachian State's nose tackle can get out of his stance. This allows Miller to beat the nose tackle to the spot where he needed to be. As the circle above indicates, Miller now has position on the nose tackle and can seal off a crease through which Smith can run.
Miller holds off the Appalachian State nose tackle just long enough to shove him out of the play once Smith gets to the outside and then cuts back in towards the line of scrimmage. Because of Miller's reach block, Smith is able to pick up two yards easily and extend Michigan's possession, which would end with a touchdown pass to Devin Funchess on the following play.
However, the reason why Miller was booted from the starting lineup after the Connecticut contest last season was because he committed too many mental errors and lacked the needed upper-body strength to win one-on-one battles. On Saturday, as evidenced by the number of combo and reach blocks he made, Miller cut down the number of miscues he generally tended to make. But it still was evident that Miller still can be tossed around like a rag doll when he is all by himself against a defensive lineman, even one at Appalachian State.
This play was diagrammed and broken down earlier in this post when discussing Cole. This was when Michigan ran a halfback draw to Green, but it was stopped for no gain because Cole was shoved back into Green's running lane. However, Cole was not the only culprit. Miller (circled above) was also responsible for how this play ended.
Similar to Cole, Miller was completely overpowered Appalachian State's defensive lineman--in this case, its nose tackle. While it is routine for an offensive lineman to give some ground to trick the defensive lineman into thinking that the quarterback will pass rather than hand off the football on a draw, Miller never establishes leverage in this one-on-one matchup. He is pushed backwards more than a few yards, clogging Green's running lane. You already know the result: a possible 10-yard gain or so is shut down for zero yards.
A similar outcome transpired later in the contest. Michigan is in an I-formation with Williams set adjacent to Cole on the left side of the formation. The call will be a counter to Green to the strong side of the formation. Miller (circled above) is lined up directly across from Appalachian State's nose tackle. For this play to be run as design, Miller must position himself to the left of the nose tackle and wall him off from the backside.
Initially, it appears that Miller had done just that. As Green prepares to make his cut back to the strong side of the formation, Miller is on the left side of the App State nose tackle. If Miller can just seal him off there, Michigan will be fantastic shape to earn a big gain to the far side.
However, Miller does not have the strength to hold his ground and sustain the block. Appalachian State's nose tackle is able to push Miller back a few yards, which interferes with Green's cutback lane. Although Green still has some room to work his way back to the far side, he has slowed down considerably to try to avoid the nose tackle charging his way through Miller into the backfield. Green has slowed down just enough that, when the nose tackle slips past Miller, he is able jump on top of Green for a three-yard loss.
Both Kalis and Miller have their pros and cons. Kalis has the strength and size to be an enforcer at right guard but tends to commit too many errors. Miller is exceptional at combo blocking and sealing defenders at the second level but lacks the physical strength to win many one-on-one battles with defensive linemen, especially in the Big Ten. Given that Glasgow has the ability to play center, is bigger and stronger than Miller, and has demonstrated that he can combo block from that position just as well, Kalis should be named as Michigan's fifth starting offensive lineman against Notre Dame.
With a starting offensive line of Cole, Magnuson, Glasgow, Kalis, and Braden, from left tackle to right tackle, Michigan has size at every position, except for maybe Cole at left tackle. But all five should be able to win one-on-one matchups with opposing defensive linemen on a consistent basis. Plus, Cole and Magnuson, both of whom were recruited as pass-protecting left tackles in high school, can work in tandem on the left to secure Gardner's blind side, while Kalis and Braden, both large bodies with mean streaks, can pave the way for Michigan's running backs as they did against Appalachian State. And, then, Michigan will have its most experienced and possibly best offensive lineman in Glasgow, who can do all of the things that Miller can do, leading the group from the center position.
This is the offensive line Michigan should start not only against Notre Dame but for the remainder of the season.
De'Veon Smith is 1A, Derrick Green is 1B
Entering the season opener against Appalachian State, Derrick Green was considered Running Back 1A on the depth chart, while De'Veon Smith was slotted in at Running Back 1B. Green, who was ranked as the top running back recruit in the nation in the 2013 class, had shed at least 20 pounds in the offseason and has returned to his optimal playing weight of 220 pounds. Accordingly, Green performed well during fall camp, which earned him the start against the Mountaineers.
Green shared carries with Smith but accepted more handoffs from Devin Gardner than any other running back. Green started slow, but, by the end of the game, he was running up and down the field with ease, finishing with 15 carries for a game-high 170 yards and a touchdown. It was Green's first 100-yard performance of his career, and it likely will not be his last.
However, despite being Michigan's leading rusher and averaging 11.3 yards per carry against App State, Green should be Running Back 1B on the depth chart, while Smith deserves a promotion to Running Back 1A. Green may have had the better total numbers, but, not only did Smith have great numbers himself (8 carries, 115 yards, 2 TDs), he also looked better on the film than Green. This is not to say that there is a significant gap between the two. Both performed near the same level. But there are elements to Smith's game that will benefit Michigan's rushing attack more than what Green brings to the table.
Smith may not have been as heralded as Green as a high-school recruit, but Smith certainly was no slouch, earning a four-star rating from online recruiting services. He drew comparisons to former Michigan great Mike Hart. And it is not difficult to see why. Against Appalachian State, Smith demonstrated that, although he may not have blazing speed, he has the vision, shake, and footwork to pick up rushing yards in tight spaces, which is exactly the type of running back Michigan needs behind an offensive line that may not be able to open the largest holes this season.
Michigan is in the shotgun with Williams lined up adjacent to the left tackle, Mason Cole, and Smith to the right of Gardner in the backfield. The call will be a sweep to the strong side of the formation for Smith, with the right guard, Kyle Kalis, pulling as his lead blocker.
Smith takes the football on the sweep, and Kalis pulls to the left as designed. Michigan is in great shape on this play as the rest of the offensive line and Williams have done an excellent job blocking Appalachian State's defensive line to the inside, providing Smith with space on the outside. As Smith prepares to follow his run the outside of Kalis' block, one of App State's safeties is crashing down fast to the outside.
This is where Smith's excellent vision is evident. Rather than continue to run to the outside, which has been closed off by the safety, Smith recognizes that he has a cutback lane to the inside of Kalis and a blocker out ahead in Erik Magnuson. So Smith sticks his left foot into the ground and bursts back towards the middle of the field out of the reach of the crashing safety.
And, just like that, Smith is gone. Smith breaks into the open field, steps out of a few ankle tackles, and finishes with a 61-yard run--the longest of his career. This play was made because (1) Michigan's offensive linemen executed their blocks to perfection and (2) Smith had the vision to see where the open gap was. Not all running backs own that type of vision. Instead, they would have plowed into the safety on the outside for a minimal gain. But Smith recognized how the play was developing and used a quick shake to record a big gain.
On the other hand, Green does not appear to have the same vision that Smith possesses. Although there was one play where Green cut back against the gain for a sizable gain, the hole was so wide that he would have had to have been blind to have missed it. Where real vision can be evaluated is when running backs notice the smaller, hidden cutback lanes that have opened. Whereas Smith noticed this in the foregoing play, Green did not see it on the following play.
Michigan is in an Ace formation with tight end Keith Heitzman lined up outside the right tackle, Ben Braden, and off the line of scrimmage. The call will be for Green to run to the outside of the strong side of the formation.
Green receives the handoff and begins to make his way to the strong side of the formation as designed. The path towards the strong side, though, has debris in it as Heitzman and Kalis are unable to get much push on the Appalachian State defenders they are blocking. However, with Magnuson sealing off a defensive lineman on the weak side and Miller already at the second level, a cutback crease has presented itself for Green. If Green changes directions, he surely will pick up a large gain.
But Green never sees the cutback lane and continues to plow forward into a big mass of bodies where there is not gap through which to run. So, rather than posting a rush for a minimum of 10 yards, Green is dropped for no gain.
In addition to not having the best vision, Green has proven himself to be much more of a downhill runner than a back that can make defenders miss in the backfield. Throughout the game, during plays which have been analyzed above in the section about Michigan's offensive line, Green was confronted with an Appalachian State defender in the backfield and rarely made him miss. Instead, Green is at his best when the offensive line opens up all of the holes for him, allowing to gain a full head of steam.
Michigan is in an Ace formation with three wide receivers and Williams lined up off the line of scrimmage beside Braden. The call will be for Green to run towards the outside of the strength of the formation, as Michigan's offensive shifts down to the right to open gaps through which Green can sprint.
Green accepts the football from Gardner and runs towards his right. As he does this, the seas part as every Michigan blocker has executed his assignment to pure perfection. Cole, Magnuson, and Miller have walled off the left side of Appalachian State's defensive line, while Williams, Braden, and Kalis have sealed off the right side. The result is a large hole that opens up as Green prepares to run through it.
Green sprints through the gap with ease without needing to make any quick cuts. Once Green is through it, he sees Appalachian State's safety crashing down to contain the run. But slot receiver Dennis Norfleet has executed a form-perfect block on one of the App State cornerbacks, allowing Green to bounce out his run without needing to make any quick moves. The result is a 59-yard scamper for Green that sees him go untouched until he is tackled at the end of his run.
This was a great running play for Michigan, but this play was much more about Michigan's offensive line than Green's ability as a runner. The offensive line set up those blocks perfectly, creating a hole through which I could have sprinted through for a 30-plus-yard gain. Generally, this is what Green needs to reel off a big play. If the offensive line does not open a gap for Green, he rarely is able to create his own yards. Against Appalachian State, seven of Green's 14 non-goal line carries gained no more than one yard, meaning half of his carries essentially were stopped for nothing. On the other hand, all eight of Smith's carries traveled for no fewer than two yards. As a downhill runner with little shake, Green needs the offensive line to open the holes for him or else his applause-worthy runs will be few and far between.
This is why Smith should be 1A, while Green should be 1B. This season, Michigan is not expected to field a dominant offensive line that will blow open holes for its running backs. The most likely scenario is that the offensive line will struggle at times, or most of the time, to move defensive linemen as they please. This means that Michigan needs to give more carries to the running back that has the vision, patience, and shakes to make gains out of nothing. That running back is Smith, which is why he should earn the lion's share of carries against Notre Dame.
The No. 1 jersey is back.
Next week, I will review the film for Michigan-Notre Dame. Much of this week's Film Focus was devoted to the play of Michigan's offensive line, but the hope is that next week's edition will concentrate on more areas.