Yesterday, we at Maize n Brew began a series where Anthony Broome and Drew Hallett would address what they believe are the 10 biggest questions and storylines surrounding Michigan football and whether the Wolverines will find success in 2015. The first installment investigated the impact of the return of the messiah himself, Jim Harbaugh. If you haven’t read it yet, you can here. Today, Anthony and Drew will discuss whether Brady Hoke left the cupboard bare for Harbaugh, and, if not, whether Harbaugh and his staff can develop that talent in just one offseason.
Drew: Our discussion yesterday was about the impact Jim Harbaugh’s return to Ann Arbor would have on all areas of the Michigan football program, and much of our focus was on the off-the-field ramifications. Now it’s time to switch our focus to the product that Michigan will put on the field in 2015. Everyone reading this knows that Michigan was 5-7 last season, and, not only was Michigan 5-7, it was a bad 5-7. The Wolverines’ five wins were against two Group of Five schools, a Penn State team that had turnstiles for an offensive line, an Indiana team that was down to its true freshman, third-string quarterback, and a Northwestern team in what’s referred to as #M00N. And Michigan almost lost two of those, so you could say that Michigan was lucky to finish 5-7.
Some stats that have been thrown around this offseason are that Michigan returns the most starters in the Big Ten and has the most experienced two-deep in the nation. Usually, such stats indicate that Michigan should perform well now that the Wolverines have experienced, physically mature players on the field. But being experienced and physically mature doesn’t mean much if those players are not talented. And, given that Michigan returns this experience from a team that, as I just noted, was extremely disappointing last season, there’s a question if this team is talented.
Anthony, I will defer to you since you are the former recruiting editor here at Maize n Brew. Did Brady Hoke recruit poorly at Michigan, leaving the cupboard bare for Harbaugh? Or were there other factors that contributed more to Hoke’s downfall and eventual termination from Michigan?
Anthony: I will say this about how Hoke recruited:
Obviously, his classes, sans 2014 perhaps, were some of the best in the nation. There is quite a bit of untapped potential there, but there were some big whiffs along the way. Jabrill Peppers and Derrick Green were arguably the two biggest "wins," but there was also players like Da’Shawn Hand, Darrin Kirkland Jr., Mike Weber and Darian Roseboro. Out of respect for the guys on the current roster, I will not say that they "settled" on players, but there were more than a few examples of having to scramble after a so-called lock decided to go elsewhere.
It is pretty apparent to me why Michigan struggled and got worse every year under Hoke. The staff simply did not prepare them well enough and they did not do the little things well, which we alluded to in yesterday’s conversation. There was also the big, dark Dave Brandon cloud hanging over the program, which would make it tough for any coach to work effectively.
Drew: I agree that Hoke recruited well at Michigan. His first two full classes at Michigan were ranked sixth and fourth in the nation in their respective years by 247Sports Composite Rankings, and it’s hard to believe that all of those five- and four-star prospects are just busts that both Michigan’s coaching staff and the scouts at the major online recruiting services misevaluated. There has to be talent there.
However, there are two areas where I think Hoke struggled on the recruiting trail: wide receivers and defensive ends. You talked about some of the misses that Hoke had on the recruiting trail. One that you didn’t mention was Laquon Treadwell, for whom Michigan led for months before he opted to attend Ole Miss, where he has made an instant impact. Instead of landing Treadwell in that 2013 class, the receivers that Michigan signed were three-stars Jaron Dukes, Csont’e York, and Da’Mario Jones. York has been dismissed from the program, and neither Duke nor Jones have surpassed their low expectations. And the one quote that former Michigan wide receivers coach Jeff Hecklinski uttered, that "speed is overrated," still irks me. Michigan loaded up on big-bodied receivers that lacked explosiveness and an ability to stretch the defense vertically. Speed is a critical component to a receiver’s success, and to not recruit it is to not recruit talent.
With regards to the defensive ends, Michigan has not recruited a true pass-rush threat off the edge in quite some time. Frank Clark, a three-star recruit whom Hoke added during the last-minute blitz of his initial 2011 class, was the closest Michigan came to having that weapon during Hoke’s tenure, but Clark never had more than five sacks in a season. Other weakside defensive ends were Taco Charlton, who was a project with limitless potential due to his raw physical tools, and Mario Ojemudia, who has lacked the weight to be used on all downs. And it’s more frustrating when I look at Columbus and see an army of terror in the form of pass-rushers.
Nonetheless, there is talent at other positions. There must be. It seems, though, that talent has not yet been developed. So I guess my question to you, Anthony, is where does Michigan need to develop that talent the most.
Anthony: The offensive line is the biggest area of need, in my opinion. It is arguably the key to the entire offense and can make whoever is back there at quarterback have an easier time running the offense. They were flat-out awful in 2013 and made strides in 2014, but they were still well below par.
You mentioned speed being something that was "overrated" at wide receiver by the old staff. That is also a problem. After losing Jeremy Gallon and Devin Funchess the last few years, the Wolverines are left without a proven playmaker in the passing game, outside of maybe Jake Butt, who has had problems staying on the field as well.
If we go over to the other side of the ball, it is clear that defensive end play is something that needs to improve. Frank Clark was good at times, but the rest of the guys have yet to really make a big impact along the defensive line.
With the staff in place they have on the defensive side of the ball, I would be very surprised if there was a huge dropoff, if any on that side of the football. The offensive staff has its work cut out for them. But overall, the biggest leap forward this team needs to make is up front on both offense and defense.
Drew: It may be unfair for just one position to be the litmus test, but how the offensive line performs this season will shed light on just how much of a development problem Michigan had under Hoke. In 2012 and 2013, Michigan signed a total of 10 offensive linemen, not including longsnapper Scott Sypniewski. Five were considered top-100 recruits (Kyle Kalis, Erik Magnuson, Patrick Kugler, Kyle Bosch, and David Dawson), while two others were still four-stars (Chris Fox and Logan Tuley-Tillman). Michigan also added four-star Mason Cole in the 2014 class. There may be no position whose success is tougher to project to the collegiate level than offensive line because high school offensive linemen flourished by bullying much smaller defensive linemen and still need add 30 to 40 pounds after they enroll. This is one reason why it can be unreasonable to assume that offensive linemen will make an instant impact out of high school. However, Hoke brought in too much talent on the offensive line for it to perform the way it has the past two years. Michigan’s offensive line in 2013 arguably was the worst in the entire nation, and, though the line improved in 2014 -- let’s be honest: it could not possibly be worse -- it was still only about average at run blocking and struggled at pass blocking, according to metrics used by Football Outsiders to evaluate offensive line performance. With question marks at so many areas on offense entering the 2015 season, Michigan could relieve lots of concerns about the team’s ability to move the football if the offensive line can finally come together as a cohesive unit and live up to its potential. Maybe this will occur just because Michigan returns starters at all five spots on the offensive line, but, as Ohio State proved last season when it essentially broke in an entirely new offensive line, experience is not necessary to have a proficient offensive line if the talent can be developed.
So can offensive line coach Tim Drevno develop that talent in just one offseason, Anthony? And is there any other position that you think will benefit greatly from one offseason with Harbaugh?
Anthony: I think the offensive line will be the most improved unit on the team based on last year’s production. It’s a somewhat-veteran group now and with an experienced line coach in Tim Drevno, this group should be able to develop the good habits and chemistry needed to be a good unit.
There is enough untapped potential there that they will find someone, anyone that will be better than last year.
Outside of those guys, you would have to think quarterback will be an improvement. Is there a star signal caller on the roster? Maybe, but not yet. Where we will see the biggest step forward is taking care of the football and decision making. That along with an improved offensive line could be very big for the Wolverines.
Drew: We may need to wait one season before we discuss the staff’s ability to develop quarterbacks because, if graduate transfer Jake Rudock is the starter, it will be Rudock’s experience at Iowa that wins him the job, not necessarily the instruction Rudock has received in his short time in Ann Arbor. However, if Rudock transforms from the check-down quarterback he has been the past two seasons into an unstoppable throwing machine, then, yeah, it would reveal how well the staff can develop quarterbacks.
But let's save our discussion of Michigan's quarterbacks for tomorrow.
Tomorrow, Anthony and Drew will continue this series by addressing the quarterback battle that is transpiring in Michigan's fall training camp, discussing whom Michigan wants to be the starter on September 3rd, and debating who will be the starter then.
Previous Installments of Michigan Football's Biggest Storylines in 2015
August 17th: The Impact of Jim Harbaugh's Return