A head coach has to understand a lot of different things - fundamentals, schemes, a whole range of personality types, time management - but one of the most powerful tools a coach has is being able to project and understand talent. At every level of the game, highly sought after players fail, and under-achieving ones succeed. It's part of the reason why people love the game. It's complicated, schematic, and impossible.
Brady Hoke embraced that impossibility by training Dennis Norfleet at cornerback before the Sugar Bowl, as though three weeks of practice were enough, and moving Ross Taylor-Douglas from cornerback to running back to wide receiver. He also bounced a struggling Dymonte Thomas between nickel and two safety spots, and played Jibreel Black at every position on the defensive line during his career. Rather than projecting long-term, Hoke used position changes as a band-aid for struggling players and roster gaps. Not surprisingly, it didn't work.
Then again, roster changes aren't always done to simply move a player to a new position. For example, this spring James Franklin took some lightly used running backs, Jack Haffner and Adam Geiger, and practiced them at linebacker and safety. Why? Not to play those positions, but because he wanted them to practice tackling and physicality for their inevitable special teams coverage. Sometimes, a player practices somewhere to understand assignments, or just as an emergency option. They aren't always permanent changes.
For those that are, a coach has to weigh a player's ceiling at one spot versus their potential at another. All we can only hope is that the moves aren't simply wasting reps, and grade off of the things we know and the skills the players show on tape.
FS Jabrill Peppers
Peppers could succeed at safety, or linebacker, or as a running back. I haven't seen him throw the ball, but I trust him to do it.
With that said, the move to safety provides the most benefit for everyone around Jabrill. This covers up some of Jarrod Wilson's weaknesses, fills in a safety position that would otherwise be a big question mark, and brings an attitude that you'll find in all the best secondaries. It gives defensive flexibility against the pass, and bodies against the run. With no clear-cut QB, Peppers is your early leader for team MVP.
TE Chase Winovich
On the surface, this looks like one of the more confusing changes Harbaugh has made. Winovich came to Michigan as a scrawny, 216-pound linebacker, and he'll be leaving the position just when he's bulked up to 230 pounds, the year before James Ross III, Ben Gedeon, Desmond Morgan and Royce Jenkins-Stone bid farewell. And he'll be heading to a position that typically is even beefier.
What we know is that Winovich is athletic. After all, the native from Pennsylvania received offers from Florida State, Ohio State, Michigan State, Oregon, Missouri and Miami. His high school tape shows a fluid runner and instinctive playmaker:
Strengths: Good speed for an outside linebacker . . . Shows good discipline and fundamentals on stance and pre-snap positioning . . . Quick feet . . . Able to side-step blockers to make plays in backfield . . . High-effort player capable of tracking plays downfield and sideline to sideline . . . Willing to be physical . . . Does well at avoiding trash in traffic
Weaknesses: Very slight . . . Lacks some functional strength . . . Struggles to take ball carriers down initially . . . Does not use hands well to shed blockers . . . Could stay lower and drive his feet through contact . . . Sometimes just latches on and goes for a ride
Projection: Outside linebacker. Winovich clearly needs to add bulk to his frame, since he is reed thin and has the lower body of a safety. Although pass coverage is not highlighted in his film, his length and change-of-direction skills should make him at least decent in that area. He has a good nose for the ball and should be plus pass rusher if he can work on using his hands and, of course, add strength and mass to his frame. There is also a slight concern about how much weight he will be able to add without losing his best qualities, which are his quickness and speed. At his height he should end up around 240-250 lbs. by the time he's a college upperclassman. Since there's so much physical development in the works, it's hard to project what kind of athlete he might be; however, I think he could be a BCS all-conference type of player if he can maintain his athleticism.
Reminds me of: Shawn Crable. Crable had chicken legs but good length and a very developed upper body; he also had good speed and a knack for getting skinny to avoid blockers and shoot gaps.
This scouting report shows some foreshadowing of the position change. Winovich may be even more undersized for the tight end position, but he won't be a traditional tight end. Instead, he'll serve an Evan Engram-type role, challenging zones in the middle or blocking downfield when linemen can't. Harbaugh's offense relies on tight ends who are offensive threats; Winovich has the tools to excel at that.
His size is also something that Harbaugh can disguise with multiple-tight end looks and so many other blockers. Winovich would more often be double-blocking an end, picking up a corner blitz, or trap-blocking, especially away from the play to let the linemen shift their assignments. None of those things requires extreme size. In fact, speed is critical for the role.
With that said, it's hard to know if this change is permanent. Next year, Harbaugh will have Gedeon, Mike McCray, Mario Ojemudia and perhaps Taco Charlton at linebacker. Some other unproven entities: Noah Furbush, Jared Wangler, and freshman defensive ends Reuben Jones and Shelton Johnson. Depending on how those guys develop, Chase might be fine at tight end. He also might be needed back at linebacker.
FB Brady Pallante
Like you might expect, Pallante packs a violent punch, and does so from a low center of gravity. What's even more impressive, though, is his ability to shed blockers with ease. Pallante has the core to throw someone at least his size to the ground and keep his balance. It's hard to know whether he can the run the ball without coughing it up, but when it comes to trucking into guys and keeping his feet, Pallante has all the tools.
TE Henry Poggi
Poggi is still listed as a defensive end on the depth chart, so we'll assume (perhaps wrongly) that tight end is a secondary position for him. Two-way players will probably become a usual thing with Harbaugh, though exactly how often it happens, and how much those guys play on either side, is yet to be seen.
Poggi brings a bigger body and a lot more physicality than any of the other tight ends on the roster (including A.J. Williams). First off, he's strong as an ox. He knows his technique and leverage well enough to do a lot of damage as a tight end. He has the feet, as well, to reach the second level and pick up linebackers. At 6'4", 273 pounds, he's another example of Jim Harbaugh using roster moves to upgrade his bullying ability in the run game.
As a pass catcher, Poggi has both skill and experience. He played there in high school, and shows a surprisingly soft touch and unsurprising body control. He's still a bit lumbering and purposeful - he's not beating anyone to the endzone - but he gets the job done with his hands and knows how to play on a boundary.
In fact, if the defensive line can get held down by some combination of Ryan Glasgow, Taco Charlton, Willie Henry, Ondre Pipkins, Chris Wormley, Bryan Mone, and Mario Ojemudia, then it's possible that Poggi spends the majority of his time at tight end for at least this season. Again, he's still listed as a defender, but Harbaugh has shown he will mobilize his depth at certain positions to help elsewhere. Poggi has the skills, he should compete for playing time, and like Winovich, he can make an instant impact.
C Mason Cole
This may sound like a broken record, but Cole's position switch to center is, again, inspired. Cole is undersized at left tackle, but he's regulation-size at center, where 6'2", 290-pound guys can become Rimington Trophy winners. Cole has the footwork and technique to handle anything from stunts to pulls to blitzes, and that gives diversity to the running game while protecting the quarterback.
Cole is young for a center, and ordinarily it would seem like a tough transition in someone's second year to man the hardest position on the offensive line. But Cole has shown he's cut from a different cloth, and over the rest of spring practice and through the summer he can substantiate that claim by fortifying the center position and learning the entire line's assignments.
Is this move permanent? It's unclear. Word out of spring camp has been positive about the depth at tackle, and Logan Tuley-Tillman and Ben Braden give some more muscle on the edge than Cole has. At center, Glasgow is a warrior who can play through injuries, but he'll be suspended to start the year, and Kugler might need time to develop before being thrown in the fire. A team would like to have two good options at center, and with Mason Cole, Michigan still has that heading into a tough environment in Utah. After all, even if Kugler was everything Michigan fans hoped and dreamed, all it would take is one injury before fans were looking at Blake Bars or Ben Pliska.
TE Tom Strobel
Strobel is another who's still listed on defense, but has practiced at tight end to shore up depth. This move was less publicized, and Strobel is definitely a smaller piece to the puzzle, regardless of position. The redshirt junior defensive end occasionally earned praise from Brady Hoke, but the fact remains that he has appeared in only six games over three seasons and has just three tackles in his career. Strobel brings a 6'6", 270-pound body to the offense, but he doesn't have experience at tight end even dating back to high school. This move was done for depth and competition, and Strobel has strictly been a blocking tight end during the spring.
CB Ross Taylor-Douglas
Does this even count? The 5'9" Avon, Ohio product returns to the spot he was originally recruited for, where he'll get to work with Mike Zordich for the next few years. He'll need to - his technique is minimal, he's not fluid enough back-pedaling, and he doesn't react instinctively as a defender in the same way he does with the ball in his hands. But, he provides depth.
Douglas needs to settle into one position, so I'd assume this is his last position change. His most natural position is definitely running back; he harnesses his blazing speed naturally there, and has a bit of Oregon in him. (That's a sly way of saying, I wonder if he'll cough the ball up when he's tackled physically.) But Douglas wouldn't make a dent in Michigan's running back depth chart, and he didn't even make the list of fourteen possible kick returners that John Baxter tried out. As a third-string cornerback, he provides some upside and definitely some athleticism. That might be the best outcome for an unsuccessful signee.
So, what does this mean? It means Jim Harbaugh will send a more complete team onto the field this year than fans may have expected. Harbaugh is capitalizing on depth at certain spots, especially the defensive front seven, to shore up weaker positions elsewhere.
More than that, Harbaugh is molding an identity. With three defensive linemen and a linebacker practicing on offense, the side that was led by Devin Gardner the last time we saw them gets a shot in the arm and plenty of physicality to hold the trenches. On defense, moving Jabrill Peppers to the middle of the field imbues the back four with all his best qualities. And identity, after all, was what was missing during the Tate Forcier, Taylor Lewan and Devin Gardner years.
A little west of Ann Arbor, Mark Dantonio has proven that players can be extraordinarily versatile as long as their coaches can communicate the game as well as they understand it. Tony Lippett, who grew into the league's best receiver after heading to East Lansing as a cornerback, played both positions against Baylor and helped save a win. Moments like that are years in the making, and practice time is vital to make those moments reality.
It shouldn't surprise anyone, then, if one of these players, at a position they weren't recruited for, saves a win down the road. It could even happen in 2015, at a moment that might define the season. That's what these practices and roster moves were built for. And it's better than we could have said a year ago.