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Spring Film Focus: Quarterbacks

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After studying the film from Michigan's spring game, here is an X's and O's analysis how Shane Morris and Alex Malzone performed and what it means for the 2015 season.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Film Focus is back!

Last season, when I joined Maize n Brew, I began the Film Focus series to provide an X's and O's analysis of how Michigan performed each week. The series took a look at offensive blocking schemes, press man coverages, how specific plays worked, and the performance of individual players among other interesting topics. I wanted readers to see the things on the football field that are easy to overlook when watching the game in real time. Though the breakdowns were tough to swallow at times last season as Michigan stumbled to a losing record, I have been itching to break down some new film.

And now we have it! Michigan's spring game was last Saturday, and I spent the much of the weekend watching the tape and breaking down each play that Michigan ran. There's not much to extract from Michigan's formations or plays because, unsurprisingly, everything was very vanilla. On offense, Michigan spent most of its time in two-wide under-center formations or three-wide shotgun sets. And there was always a tight end. Always. On defense, for the most part, Michigan was in a 4-3 Under when the offense had two receivers wide and in nickel when the offense had three receivers to the outside.

So I decided to focus on individual performances, looking at technique, mental mistakes, and the such. And, because I took so many notes, I have decided to do an X's and O's breakdown of each position group rather than split it between offense and defense.

Therefore, let's start with how Shane Morris and Alex Malzone performed.

Shane Morris

Shane Morris was the better of the two quarterbacks in the spring game. He completed 11-of-24 passes (45.8 pct.) for 135 yards (5.6 YPA), a touchdown, and an interception. That is not a stat line that screams legitimate Big Ten starting quarterback, and Morris' critics would be quick to point that out. However, the numbers don't tell the whole story. For example, by my count, Morris' receivers dropped four passes in the first half, and one led to his only interception of the game. If his receivers make those catches, his completion percentage shoots up to 62.5, his yards per attempt look more pedestrian than poor, and he has a turnover-free game. This doesn't mean he was great. But he wasn't that bad.

What impressed the most was Morris' touch on the fade route. Whether he was targeting 6-foot-2 Amara Darboh or 6-foot-4 Jaron Dukes, Morris knew his receivers had at least seven inches on 5-foot-7 converted corner Dennis Norfleet, so he picked on Norfleet all game by throwing fade route after fade route. It's how Morris earned a big chunk of his passing yards and completed the only touchdown scored in the game by both teams.

Let's take a look at Morris' 37-yard completion to Darboh, which was the game's longest play, on 3rd and 28. The Blue team is in a three-wide shotgun set with twin receivers on the far side and Darboh on the near side. The Maize team is in its basic nickel package and has Norfleet in press man against Darboh with Jeremy Clark set deep behind him:

Morris Fade to Darboh for 37 - 1

Morris calls for the snap and drops back. As he finishes his five-step drop, his first read is Darboh, who used a quick hesitation move at the line of scrimmage to get a clean release:

Morris Fade to Darboh for 37 - 2

Morris doesn't wait and throws a lob to Darboh. However, this can't just be up for grabs. This must be a perfect lob. Darboh has a step on Norfleet but only a step, and Clark is sprinting to provide support over the top. If the throw is too long, it falls incomplete. If the throw is too short, Norfleet could turn his head and make the pick -- or not turn his head and be flagged for interference if Darboh tries to come back to the ball. If the throw is too far inside, Clark will have an easy interception. Dropping a dime between two defenders to the boundary side is very difficult and requires perfect touch and timing:

Morris Fade to Darboh for 37 - 3

Perfect. And Darboh never had to break his stride:

Morris Fade to Darboh for 37 - 4

This was an NFL throw, and I'm not sure Michigan has someone else that can make it.

Another thing I noticed when breaking down Morris' fades was his recognition of when it was open. Let's fast forward to Morris' 14-yard touchdown pass to Dukes. It's 1st and 10, and the Blue team is in a three-wide shotgun set with twin receivers to the far side and Dukes on the near side. The Maize team is in its nickel package again, but notice Jabrill Peppers on the far side. He's not lined over the slot receiver and is showing that he might blitz. Morris reads this pre-snap and knows that, if Peppers blitzes, Delano Hill will be responsible for Bo Dever in the slot and Clark will shuffle towards the middle of the field in Maize's Cover 1 man scheme. This means that the undersized Norfleet would be on an island against Dukes and Morris would have Dukes on a fade if he wants it:

Morris Fade to Dukes for TD - 1

Morris calls for the snap, and the first thing he looks for is the direction Clark is headed. He sees Clark sidestepping to the hash mark and the center of the field, so he knows that Peppers is blitzing from the right and Norfleet is on an island against Dukes to the left:

Morris Fade to Dukes for TD - 2

So Morris instantly turns to his left and begins his throwing motion. Clark sees Morris turn and target Dukes, so he starts to cut back to provide support for Norfleet:

Morris Fade to Dukes for TD - 3

But, because of those initial steps to the center of the field, Clark has no chance to recover. This is a pure one on one between Dukes and Norfleet. After he executed a jam at the line and nudged Dukes towards the sideline, Norfleet is in Dukes' uniform and seems to have the advantage. However, Dukes still is tightrope-walking along the edge:

Morris Fade to Dukes for TD - 4

And, once again, Morris' touch and timing on the fade is so perfect that the ball is sailing past Norfleet's helmet just as he turns back to make a play on the ball. Norfleet doesn't see the ball until it drops right in Dukes' hands as he crosses the goal line. Touchdown:

Morris Fade to Dukes for TD - 5

Morris also demonstrated that he's improved his pre-snap reads for routes other than fades. Near the end of the game, the Blue team faced a 3rd and 3, needing a first down to continue to run down the clock and secure the win. The Blue team is in a four-wide shotgun set with bunched trips to the near side and Darboh the lone receiver on the far side. The Maize team is in its nickel package, but it looks funky because Peppers is lined up over Jake Butt inside of defensive end Henry Poggi, who is in a three-point stance:

Morris Slant to Darboh for 11 - 1

Prior to the snap, Clark begins to creep down towards the line, revealing to Morris that he plans to blitz. At the same time, Norfleet, who was in press coverage against Darboh, opens up his hips and steps back, acting as if he plans to have outside leverage. Morris realizes that Darboh will be running a slant into open space behind Clark's blitz:

Morris Slant to Darboh for 11 - 2

At the snap, Clark blitzes into the waiting arms of Juwann Bushell-Beatty, so Morris' first read is Darboh. As Norfleet backpedals, Darboh sprints three yards upfield before he breaks into his inside slant. Norfleet tries to change directions in a hurry to close the gap:

Morris Slant to Darboh for 11 - 3

But Morris throws a dart that is a bullseye before Norfleet can get there. First down:

Morris Slant to Darboh for 11 - 4

However, it wasn't all good for Morris. He still made his fair share of mistakes, and many of them were ones that were too familiar. We know Morris has a cannon for a left arm, but we also know he tends to force throws into tight windows when he doesn't need to take that risk. There was the Blue offense's third play, on a 3rd and 6, when he targeted Dever on a four-yard out from the far hash mark. Though it showcased Morris' absurd arm strength, it didn't need to be thrown because it was short of the first down and needed to be perfect to avoid Peppers intercepting it and running it back. There also was the time when Morris tried to rifle one to Dukes on a quick inside slant before Dukes would be sandwiched by Norfleet and Joe Bolden. Dukes could have caught it, but he let up at the last instant because he didn't want to be decapitated. I don't blame him.

Another concern is Morris' knack for throwing off his back foot when he feels pressure. Or maybe I should say his inaccuracy when throwing off his back foot. Coaches want quarterbacks to step into their throw in the pocket even if there is a pass rusher coming straight at them because the throw will be more accurate. However, many quarterbacks will lean back and throw off their back foot because they want to lessen the force of the hit they're about to take. Morris did this numerous times, relying on his arm strength when he didn't step into a throw to get a pass down the field. However, Morris' accuracy was shaky at best when this happened, and he left plays on the field because of it.

For example, in its opening drive of the second half, the Blue team is moving down the field and faces a 2nd and 9 at the Maize 43-yard line. The Blue team is in its big Ace formation with a tight end on the outside of both tackles, and the Maize team is in a 4-3 Under with Peppers making it look like a 4-4 and Hill lining up as the deep safety:

Morris Incomplete to Butt - 1

Morris takes the snap and fakes the hand-off. This is play-action. Darboh is on the near side and running a fly route, taking Norfleet out of the picture, as Butt plans to run a deep out underneath. I think the Maize team is in a Cover 3 because of Norfleet and Channing Stribling's outside leverage in the photo above, but Peppers tracks Butt as if he is in man:

Morris Incomplete to Butt - 2

Morris completes his drop and surveys the field. However, he doesn't have much time because Tom Strobel has beaten Ben Braden and is closing in. Morris sees that Butt, who is out of frame, has made his break into his out route down and begins to wind up. However, because of Strobel's pressure, Morris leans back and throws off his back foot:

Morris Incomplete to Butt - 3

Morris' throw flutters in the air en route to Butt, who shook free of Peppers when he broke into his route. If this is accurate, Butt can catch it and turn upfield for a big gain:

Morris Incomplete to Butt - 4

But Morris' throw is too far outside. Butt tries to lunge for it but can't haul it in:

Morris Incomplete to Butt - 5

This is a missed opportunity for Morris, and the Blue team punted two plays later.

Overall, Morris had an above-average game even if numbers say otherwise. He displayed some excellent touch and timing on his fades as well as improved pre-snap recognition. He also threw some other nice balls that were not broken down here. However, he still needs to work on his decision-making, show he can use touch on passes other than fades, particularly those across the middle of the field, and not throw off his back foot as much.

Alex Malzone

Many were eager to see how Alex Malzone would perform in his first spring game, and, well, he looked like a true freshman that had only 14 college practices under his belt. Malzone completed 15-of-27 passes (55.6 pct.) for 95 yards (3.5 YPA), no touchdowns, and two interceptions, and fumbled a hand-off in the second half. And it's hard to believe, but those numbers are inflated. Before the final drive, during which Blue's corners played way off of Maize's receivers and permitted the Maize team to gain five to seven yards at a time, Malzone completed only 8-of-19 passes (42.1 pct.) for 51 yards (2.7 YPA) and two interceptions. Some of this was play-calling. Most of this was Malzone.

I mention play-calling because it seemed like the vast majority of passing plays that were called did not have a single receiver traveling more than five yards past the line of scrimmage. The receivers and tight ends ran quick outs, quick slants, and quick hitches all the time, but it was rare to see a receiver breaking deep. Now, this may have been because BTN's cameras zoomed in on Malzone after the snap and BTN spent more time showing Jim Harbaugh standing on the field or interviewing former Wolverines rather than providing useful replays. But it seemed the Maize team opted to go full Greg Davis.

And you never want to go full Greg Davis.

So I think that had a drastic impact on Malzone's stats, but I also think that Malzone stopped looking to take a shot downfield after his two early interceptions -- both of which were great defensive plays and not so much Malzone's fault. And, the few times Malzone did throw downfield afterwards, he didn't look comfortable whatsoever.

For example, with 23 seconds left in the first half, the Maize team chooses to throw rather than take a knee. They are in a three-wide shotgun set with twin receivers to the near side. The Blue team responds with its basic nickel package, and, given that Jourdan Lewis and Brandon Watson are playing outside leverage, it seems to be a Cover 4:

Malzone Incomplete Post to Winovich - 1

Malzone calls for the snap and drops back. He first looks to his left before he progresses to his second read, which is Chase Winovich running a post in the middle of the field. Winovich puts a move on Dan Liesman, plants his right foot into the ground, and cuts into his post route. The move forces Liesman to be off-balanced and grasping for air:

Malzone Incomplete Post to Winovich - 2

Malzone sees Winovich breaking open across the middle of the field and targets him. However, Malzone's throw is an absolute duck and just wobbles in the air with no spiral:

Malzone Incomplete Post to Winovich - 3

Malzone's throw hangs in the air and is inside of Winovich rather than leading him into open space. Winovich tries to turn back and look over his other shoulder to make a play on the ball, but he has no chance. The pass floats past Winovich and almost falls into the arms of a diving Dymonte Thomas, who was playing deep in prevent in zone coverage:

Malzone Incomplete Post to Winovich - 4

This would not have been a gain for the Maize team if Malzone's pass had been accurate because Blake Bars was flagged for a blatant hold, but this was a discouraging play by Malzone. He threw a duck in the middle of the field when he had no pressure near him and a receiver cutting open across the field. This should have been an easy toss and catch to set up a potential end-of-the-half Hail Mary. Instead, he's lucky it wasn't intercepted.

Another reason Malzone may not have felt comfortable taking shots downfield is because he does not have the arm strength or the velocity on his passes that Morris does. Let's look at his first pass of the game. It's 2nd and 18, and the Maize team is in a three-wide shotgun set with twin receivers to the far side. He's not in the frame, but Jehu Chesson is the flanker on the far side with Lewis on him. The Blue team is in its nickel package:

Malzone Hitch to Chesson for 21 - 1

Malzone calls for the snap, takes one step back, and fires to the far side:

Malzone Hitch to Chesson for 21 - 2

But "fires" may not be the appropriate term because the ball doesn't have much zip and hangs in the air. Malzone wants to complete this pass to Chesson, who's running a quick hitch, from the far hash mark. This is a long pass, and it needs to get there in a hurry because Lewis, who played off of Chesson at the snap, has made a break on the ball and wants to jump the route for an interception and a celebratory strut into the end zone:

Malzone Hitch to Chesson for 21 - 3

Lewis just misses. It's a very lucky break for Malzone. And, because Lewis decided to go for the home run rather than play it safe and crush Chesson on the catch, Chesson is able to scurry up the far sideline for 21 yards before he is shoved out of bounds. Yes, 21 of Malzone's 51 passing yards before his final drive were from this very risky completion:

Malzone Hitch to Chesson for 21 - 4

There are other concerns I could break down -- like reads that Malzone missed -- but I think that will improve as Malzone becomes more familiar with the playbook and accustomed with the speed of college football. Also, I don't want to dwell too much on the negative because it doesn't take a football expert to know that Malzone struggled.

The one area in which Malzone did well was pocket awareness. Coming to Michigan, he had a reputation for his moxie and ability to stay poised under pressure. We didn't see it with regards to having amnesia and forgetting his bad throws, but we did see it with how he maneuvered in the pocket as it collapsed around him. He twice escaped the pocket as pressure bore down on him and threw the ball away to avoid a negative play. There was another play when two pass rushers were about to meet where Malzone stood when he scooted up in the pocket and kept his eyes up. You don't see this often from a freshman.

The play that stood out was on this 4th and 10 during the Maize team's opening drive. The Maize team is in a three-wide shotgun set with twin receivers to the near side, though the flanker on the near side is out of frame. The Blue team is in a dime package, but, moments before the snap, the Blue defense reveals that it will blitz. Blake Countess sneaks in from the slot while Desmond Morgan looks prepared to hit the A-gap. This will be done to open space for Royce Jenkins-Stone to stunt into the middle and bring pressure right in Malzone's face. Take note that Winovich will not stay in to block:

Malzone Pocket Awareness - 1

After the snap, Malzone looks to his right to make his first read before he comes back to the middle of the field. As this happens, Countess blitzes from slot and Morgan pushes Patrick Kugler to Morgan's right to open a hole for Jenkins-Stone's stunt. De'Veon Smith comes up and gets a piece of Jenkins-Stone, but his block won't last for very long:

Malzone Pocket Awareness - 2

Malzone knows that there is pressure to his left and Jenkins-Stone is about to close the gap now that he's disengaged from Smith's block. So Malzone begins to move to his right. However, Malzone doesn't do this in a frantic fashion where he brings his eyes or the ball down. He continues to keep his eyes downfield, where he sees Winovich crossing:

Malzone Pocket Awareness - 3

While on the move, Malzone throws a perfect pass that is on the money. However, Winovich tries to basket-catch it, and the ball whizzes past him and falls incomplete:

Malzone Pocket Awareness - 4

Overall, it was a tough outing for Malzone. While he seemed comfortable in the pocket, he didn't exhibit the accuracy we had heard he possessed, which is disappointing given that he didn't take many shots downfield. Though I criticized his arm strength above, he has the arm strength to complete longer passes, even if it isn't in Morris' class. So he needs to have the confidence to attack the defense vertically. If he doesn't, defenses will put eight and nine in the box against Michigan and stifle the running game. And this performance was a reminder that Malzone is a true freshman trying to learn on the fly.

What It Means for 2015

It means that Iowa graduate transfer Jake Rudock will be the favorite to be Michigan's starter against Utah, and Morris will be the favorite to unseat him. Rudock is a proven commodity. A safety net. He's started 25 games and has shown he's a game manager that can take care of the football, make the right throws, and prevent Michigan's offense from falling into a pit of darkness. The drawback is that Rudock doesn't take calculated risks down the field and can be too safe, but there is a question if that is his natural inclination to throw short or was his obligation to obey Davis' play-calling. We will find out soon.

Morris will be the challenger. Though it'd been reported that Morris and Malzone were neck and neck throughout the spring, Morris was much better on Saturday. He has the physical tools to make all of the throws, including that fade that will be a pain to defend. Heck, if it wasn't for those fades, the spring game would have ended in a 0-0 stalemate. Malzone is a contender in this quarterback battle because it was thought that he would make better decisions and commit fewer turnovers -- the two biggest criticisms targeted at Morris. But Malzone still is trying to get a grasp on the speed of college football, and, until that happens, he won't have that "football IQ" advantage over Morris. Maybe the pieces will come together for Malzone over the summer. But, as of now, he's not ready.

It's not the best-case scenario for Michigan, but it's not a nightmare either. Rudock is a one-year stopgap, if Michigan needs it, to ensure that the passing game can be productive in 2015. Morris proved that he should be a viable backup, and, if he can improve his decision-making, he has the chance to live up to his five-star billing and unseat Rudock. And this gives Harbaugh the luxury of redshirting both Malzone and Zach Gentry, while Wilton Speight, who missed the spring game because of a leg injury, can be third-string.

That's how I predict things will shake out at quarterback for the 2015 season.

Or at least that's what the X's and O's predict.