Happy Tuesday, folks. Welcome to Morning Brews. Seeing as how yesterday was Labor Day, hopefully Brews can help you transition back into your work week. This morning we take a look at a position group that was less than stellar on Saturday against Florida. I’m talking about the offensive line, which is replacing three starters from last season’s unit. Nolan Ulizio, the new right tackle, has received a good bit of criticism for his performance on Saturday, but this morning I talk about why fans should wait before writing off the young man. Also in this morning’s Brews, I highlight a player who should be noted for more than what he accomplishes on the field this season.
As an aside, you may not have seen the interview our very own Trevor Woods posted yesterday since it was published during prime grilling time on a holiday - but you should read it. Trevor talked to Larry Culpepper, the Dr. Pepper guy from the commercials (yes, I’m serious), and the result was hilarious. Check it out.
Despite some rough sequences, the line will improve
When I watch football games, I focus on the offensive line. Perhaps it’s because those were the positions I played back in the day, but it’s also because everything starts with the line. In a literal sense, the play begins when the ball is snapped. But what I mean is that good line play allows there to be a good running game and a good passing game. You could put Barry Sanders and Tom Brady behind a terrible line, and, while they may still succeed through sheer ability, their performance will be hampered.
Seeing as how those two players are generational talents, it’s better to assume that they aren’t on your team - and that you need solid line play to succeed. At points during the game against Florida, Michigan didn’t receive an adequate performance from its front five. There were some growing pains and general inefficiencies that I won’t address much this morning (such is life when you’re replacing three starters). However, what I will address is a young man who had drawn more than his fair share of ire after an otherwise dominant victory - Nolan Ulizio.
Ulizio played sparingly in 2016, seeing limited action against Hawaii, Penn State, Rutgers, and Maryland. Coming out of high school, Ulizio was a prospect thought of as having a high ceiling - but needing work to see the field. This year he won the right tackle spot late in camp. I only heard him begin to be discussed as the starter very late in the final week. To secure the position, he beat out the likes of Juwann Bushell-Beatty, Jon Runyan, and highly-regarded incoming freshman Chuck Filiaga.
On Saturday, Ulizio had some ups and downs. He struggled early, and that’s the source of many fans’ displeasure with him. However, as the game wore on, he settled in and improved - displaying the sort of competency that I suspect caused the coaching staff to give him the nod. To illustrate what I’m talking about, let’s take a look at some film. He wears the no. 70 uniform. In the first and third clips, Ulizio is at the top of the line (toward the far sideline). In the second and fourth clips, he is at the top of the line but with a TE next to him.
This first clip is from Michigan’s first possession of the game. Following Florida’s opening drive and field goal, the Wolverines found themselves on their own 24 following a Chris Evans rush for a loss of one on the opening play. This play is designed to be a pass, and Speight is forced to take the emergency dump off to Crawford. Speight was forced to do so after breaking off his progression due to pressure. Ulizio is at the top screen and does a less-than-stellar job of picking up a simple twist stunt by Florida’s defensive line. Seeing as how this is the first series, the first game, his first start, and a big game, I’m willing to chalk this one up to nerves.
Later in the same drive, Michigan was on Florida’s 46 yard line. McDoom had just rushed for four yards to set up a second and six. This play has the receiver at the bottom and the tight end at the top of the formation running straight go routes, while the slot man runs a ten-yard stop route and the running back leaks out into the flat as a safety valve. Unfortunately, Speight only gets two (really, one and a half) looks into his progression. Ulizio whiffed on the DE who goes on to sack Speight. No bueno.
In Michigan’s first drive after halftime, Ulizio found a little bit of form - at least in the pass game. In the clip above, he adequately handles the DE who again tries to get around him to the outside. In this instance, Ulizio kept his feet moving (whereas when he whiffed in the previous clip, he let himself get stationary for half a beat which was exploited by the DE). In turn, he was able to guide the DE up the field which allowed Speight to hit Perry on a quick 5-yard route from the slot position.
In Michigan’s third drive after halftime, Ulizio again shows good pass protection. He engages the DE early, forcing him off his track to Speight, up the field and toward the far sideline. The line’s downfall in this play was Ben Bredeson, who took the DT into Mason Cole, but didn’t hand the DT off and slide in to handle the DE. The DE ran a twist stunt and had an unimpeded path to Speight, who in turn hurries a throw to an otherwise open Crawford. Completing that pass would have set up a third and four to six scenario. Instead, the team faced third and twelve.
There is undoubtedly room for improvement here, but there’s also no cause for alarm. After the next couple weeks, I will be surprised if Bredeson and Cole fail to adequately hand off defenders and pick up blitzes/stunts. Ulizio’s mistakes were not systemic, and can be coached up. Over the course of this game we saw improvement in Ulizio and the line as a whole, which is a good sign. Florida’s defensive line is very good and is representative of what Michigan will face from the best of the B1G.
Over the next couple weeks, Michigan’s line has the opportunity to make a lot of progress against less stout competition. The front five should be able to become a cohesive unit, and Ulizio will have time to work on his run blocking and pass protection against teams that won’t be on the same level as Florida in terms of physicality and skill. If the line continues to make these mistakes against the likes of Cincinnati, Air force, and Purdue, then it will be time to worry. But not now.
Thankful for my line, snapper and holder. You guys made this possible. https://t.co/vOgkw5XrRa— Quinn Nordin (@QuinnNordin) September 4, 2017
This last tid bit isn’t anything groundbreaking, but it is something I want to highlight. As we brought you yesterday, RS freshman kicker Quinn Nordin took home B1G Co-Special Teams Player of the Week honors following his performance against Florida. But more important than becoming the first player to hit two 50+ yard field goals in a single game (much less in a player’s first game), is the class and poise Nordin exhibited after the game. Frankly, this kid gets it. He’s humble, he’s composed, he’s a team player. I think it’s apparent already that Nordin will be a Michigan Man we can all be proud of. Check out his post-game interview to see a little of what I mean.