Previously: Podcast 9.0A. Podcast 9.0B. Podcast 9.0C. The Story. Quarterback. Running Back. Wide Receiver. Tight End And Friends. Offensive Line. Defensive End. Defensive Tackle. Linebacker. Cornerback. Safety. Special Teams.
1. Are we still in love with Harbaugh's offense? It was a bit inert last year.
The last couple years this post has led off with a high-level look at the things Jim Harbaugh has done to keep his dinosaur-lookin-ass offense on the cutting edge. These have mostly focused on Harbaugh's little run tweaks that keep the opposition unbalanced: traps, offset draws, gap plays with zone principles, various ways to clobber people on the edge, and formations, formations, and more formations.
In UFR I try to have a reasonably low-level listing of all the plays Michigan runs. A typical game could have 15, 18, or even 20 runs different enough for me to name them separate things—and I'm sure there are subtleties I'm missing. Harbaugh's offense is a world away from any I've charted before. Everyone tweaks; everyone presents a moving target. (Except Late Carr-era Mike Debord.) The sheer blizzard of stuff Harbaugh throws out, with the offense adding new stuff almost weekly, is fun and effective.
But it wasn't the flashy tweaks and run schemes Harbaugh's resurrecting from the Fritz Crisler days that really stood out a year ago. It was Michigan's prep. When Athlon pinged Big Ten coaches for anonymous takes on their compatriots, the Harbaugh mania stood out:
"The team is starting to reflect Jim — you could see it more last year."
"They want to outwork you. That was the whole satellite camp thing last offseason. He wanted to send a message to the SEC and other schools that he will outwork you to make up for any advantage you might have over Michigan."
"They’re scouting opponents better than anyone in our league. They’re at Alabama’s level of prep and analysis, and as they’ve started to fit talent you’re seeing the effects. It’s hard to surprise them."
This was clearest in the Michigan State game. As mentioned in the section on Mason Cole, Michigan comprehensively defeated the double A gap twist blitz that had annihilated Michigan for going on a decade. They didn't just defuse it, they ripped it:
The biggest tactical takeaway wasn't the existence of something but rather its absence: MSU's double A gap twist blitz. You may remember that blitz from Spittle Flecked Rich Rod Rant and Spittle Flecked Al Borges Rant way back when, because Michigan ate it over and over and over again for TFLs and stuffs and sacks. No longer. They still run it. It's not working.
Michigan's opening first down was a double A blitz that got Bullough through, but to do so he had to go so fast that he overran the play:
Michigan got the other guy; Cole probably biffs on Bullough but he doesn't compound the mistake by turning upfield. It's his block that makes the room for the Smith cutback, and then it's Godzilla versus the fishing village time. ...
This was even happening when Speight was your shotgun quarterback. Smith's six yard TD late in the second quarter was another double A blitz that Michigan had the answer for:
By this point it seemed clear that shotgun snaps got double A blitzed a lot, so Michigan might even have gone with the gun here specifically because they wanted the gut of the D to be linebackers instead of DTs. McDowell rips outside and finds air. ...
The trademark MSU defensive playcall was comprehensively beaten. Finally. All of these plays feature the extreme aggression of the MSU linebackers being used against them, something that Michigan hasn't been able to do in forever. Can't block 'em? Run right by 'em.
Michigan won't let that stuff happen to them for a decade straight anymore. So they've got that going for them.
Harbaugh continues to morph his offense, adapting it to the players at hand. Sometimes this backfires when his players can't imbibe the firehose he puts in front of them—see the departed OL. There's a reason that Harbaugh's offense developed so quickly and cromulently at Stanford, where his only asset early was a bunch of nerd brains. This year Michigan's OL makes most of the shift to the Harbaugh generation. The exceptions are Cole, an OL nerd brain if there ever was one, and Kugler, the son of an OL coach in his fifth year.
This might be the year Michigan can really start making some hay by out-smarting the opposition. To date they've given some of that back with blizzards of missed assignments. Now they've got a shot at really paying off on that diversity. So, yes. Harbauffense for real.
[After THE JUMP: Pep effect, and running a dang stretch]
2. What does the Pep Hamilton effect look like?
The first hints of what Hamilton will bring to the offense popped up in the spring game, and were familiar to anyone who's watch the NFL in the past decade: passing spread. This site's post spring-game take had an aside about the change:
One other Evans-related note: while he didn't participate in much of it, I'd be surprised if the frequent five-wide shotgun looks weren't related to his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. Hopefully Michigan gets on the good side of that McCray-Dalvin Cook go route matchup this year.
Teams will go five wide with I-Form or even I-Form big personnel in an attempt to strand cornerbacks against downfield nonentities like fullbacks, tight ends, and running backs while the receivers show up in the slot and get either zone coverage or mismatches. If you throw a linebacker out there, well... we all remember that go route. If your running back is a downfield entity, that's a mismatch. If you spend a cornerback out there, you're going to see Donovan Peoples-Jones streaking down the slot, covered by a safety. Sort of.
Michigan has entities. They have Chris Evans and Ty Isaac, RBs who were outstanding WRs in high school. They have a fullback who can do this if you decide to ignore him:
They have a fleet of super athletic tight ends who can go Simmie Cobbs on 5'11" cornerbacks. Michigan has the personnel to whipsaw opposition defenses.
Fall chatter has more or less directly stated this is going to happen. Evans:
"I'm coming out of the backfield or in the slot ... we can block with five and send five receivers downfield. Stretch the field out with guys -- the good receivers that stretch the field out. It'll give me more open lanes to run through."
As we just saw in the OSU-Indiana game, going spread with a quick passing game is a good way to mitigate pass protection issues that threaten to be a season-derailing bugaboo.
Michigan is going to have its fair share of manball, of course. If things go well this offense might feel like a college version of the Patriots, alternating between a bunch of slick receivers in four-wide shotgun formations and a big manball formations featuring LeGarrette Blount. Which extreme has primacy will depend on where the opponent is weakest.
3. Can we run a damn stretch play this year or what?
Michigan's near-total inability to get yard one when running a zone stretch—one of just three bread and butter football run plays, along with power and inside zone—has rankled, baffled, and infuriated. It's not that Michigan is bad at it. Being bad at something you don't run much is a natural state of affairs; you try to make up for being bad at it by using it as a changeup, hoping that the defense will more or less run themselves into reach blocks.
No, Michigan wasn't bad at zone stretch the last two years. They were inept. The state of things summed up post-Indiana, which saw Michigan's last sad attempt at a stretch on the year:
I continue to find myself baffled at what Michigan thinks they're doing on stretch plays. These are always a constraint thrown in to be tricky and I assume they are not heavily repped. I still find myself baffled when OL run right by guys shaded inside of them. If it ever worked I might get the idea; if they ever chipped these plays might ever work.
I am projecting the way RichRod ran outside zone onto a different coaching staff so maybe this is right, but... uh, it ain't right. The prosecution submits Michigan's average gain on outside zone as exhibit A and rests.
That was far from the worst sad-bastard zone stretch Michigan's run in Harbaugh's tenure. I vote for this one:
Kyle Kalis was always a missed assignment waiting to happen but these kind of blow-by "blocks" on guys you must, must, must, must know you need to hit based on their presnap alignment have been depressingly common. Mason Cole had more than one blow-by last season. Michigan got lucky here that the DT he blew by took a bad angle to the ball, or this is a TFL instead of a nice gain:
I've done five years of stretch-heavy charting under DeBord and then Rodriguez, and every time I've seen an OL fail to help a teammate who is trying to reach block a guy lined up as far playside as that Florida DT the play ends in the backfield, give or take some defensive incompetence or Mike Hart business. Every time. And when Michigan ran stretch it was just about every time. The above clip was in fact the only one of Michigan's stretch plays to get more than five yards a year ago; on their other 10 attempts they averaged 1.6 yards a carry.
This was especially baffling because Mason Cole should have been the perfect Molkian center to reach the universe. Nearly half of Michigan's zone stretches on the season came against Colorado and their man-mountain nose tackle Josh Tupou. Michigan sought to outflank that guy but could not execute, because their approach was baffling. Here Cole tries to run away from Tupou, who is actually shaded playside of him:
Good luck with that reach block, Bredeson. I did not like this play:
There are five defenders across the LOS on this play. I'd argue that zero of them are effectively blocked. Even the force guy who has to accept a kickout block both draws a two-for-one and gets back to the ballcarrier. This is one of the worst zone stretch plays I've seen in a decade of doing this, and for five years in there that was one of Michigan's staple plays.
This was so consistent I almost assume it has to be as intended, except not once did any playside CU DL get blocked, at all, on plays that should exploit a hypothetical mobility weakness. On every single one the guy I expect to chip just ran by the guy and the guy behind couldn't do jack.
So the stretch went away, returning in brief spurts of two or three unsuccessful attempts at a time before submerging once more.
enter the Frey [Bryan Fuller]
Enter Greg Frey, assembler of the last legitimately good Michigan offensive line (2011: Lewan, Schofield, Molk, Omameh, Huyge), RichRod spread 'n' shred enabler, Indiana OL sculptor, Mo Hurst obliterator, Michael Rosenberg offender. Yea, Frey's accomplishments are many. Around here none are more impressive than the complete whoopin' he helped Indiana hand out two years ago. That was built largely on the stretch. Compare and contrast how Indiana handles a DT in the A gap with Michigan's approach above:
The polish of the IU OL in that game was impressive. Even though Michigan was down Ryan Glasgow, nobody expected a previously elite run defense to suddenly fall apart. They did because Indiana had the stretch down.
Michigan brought in Frey and may be moving to more spread looks, which is a natural fit for the stretch; they've also got an OL relatively well suited for it. Cole, Bredeson, and Kugler are all somewhere between fairly and very mobile. Onwenu would appear to be the glaring exception except for the fact that he managed some reach blocks even last year and may be the kind of freak who can hack it at 350. Ulizio... ask again later, but he's an OL getting up to 300, not coming down from way above it.
While the stretch is never going to be the primary thing Michigan runs it has excellent utility as a curveball, if they can only get it down. They imported the perfect guy to try with. Look for it this fall.
4. When is this offensive line going to be actually good?
poor damn Devin Gardner [Fuller]
This was the most salient and depressing question I fielded during my Chicago/NY/DC trip, delivered with Shakespearian pathos. I could not answer "this year." I mean... they will be fine, in all likelihood. I mentioned the nerd brain thing above and I do think there will be a step forward. But this is still two second-year players at guard and a certain job-by-default aspect with them. Also, right tackle.
Next year Michigan loses Cole and Kugler but inserts Ruiz into the center spot, rip-roaring and ready to go, and has a slew of options coming off redshirts. If they get lucky, Grant Newsome will also rejoin the fray. Three returning starters, the best center prospect in the last ten years entering the lineup, and a six-way war with a bunch of touted folks and no true freshmen in the mix... next year looks like an offensive line that you could celebrate.
Michigan's offense took a step backwards last year, with a slight dip on the ground (43rd to 49th in S&P+) and a more significant one in the passing game (8th to 28th). This space predicted conventional stats to go forward and they largely did; Michigan went from 4.2 YPC to 4.8; Speight's 7.7 YPA was just about on par with Rudock's 7.8.
Michigan's extensive garbage-time beatings distorted the raw numbers; S&P+ feels more accurate. Expected steps forward did not materialize as Michigan's senior OL stagnated and the Newsome injury blew up Michigan's fragile plan; also Chesson was pretty disappointing.
Michigan's lost quite a bit this offseason, but how much of it was difficult to replace? Darboh was solid but failed to make a bunch of potentially winning plays. Chesson faded out of games with depressing regularity. The only OL to miss is Magnuson. Jake Butt... maybe. Bunting seems capable of replacing much of that production. Smith was a lightning rod for most of his career and ended up not getting drafted.
There will be some step back from the WRs, especially early; by midseason there's not going to be much mourning over the lost. Speight steps forward, the tailbacks are more efficient down to down, and veterans truly emerge in year three of Harbaugh.
This should be a real step forward on the ground, with Michigan finally cracking 5 YPC and moving into the top 25 in S&P+. Passing S&P+ should move into the top 20, with pass protection the outstanding question. That will dip significantly; this should still be a significant improvement on last year and the best Harbaugh offense at Michigan. Yes, despite all the new people. The taint of Hoke recedes ever further.
- Wilton Speight, junior > Speight, sophomore
- Evans, Higdon, Isaac > Younger those guys + Smith
- Mason Cole, LT >> Newsome/JBB/Braden mashup
- Ben Bredeson, sophomore >> Bredeson, freshman
- Mike Onwenu > Kyle Kalis
- Perry, McDoom, Schoenle > Just Perry when he was available
- No Wildcat Package > Burning Snaps On That
- Black/DPJ > Chesson
- Crawford == Darboh
- Wheatley, McKeon == Freshman Asiasi, Wheatley
- Poggi and Hill == Poggi and Hill
- Ian Bunting, Zach Gentry, Nick Eubanks == Jake Butt
- Ulizio apparently << Erik Magnuson
- Patrick Kugler << Mason Cole, C
Last Year's Stupid Predictions
Quarterback production is very close to Rudock's a year ago but edges up slightly thanks to this ridiculous WR corps: 62% completions, 8.4 YPA, 2:1 TD:INT
62%, 7.7, 18:7. The receiving corps was less ridiculous than it should have been; this was pretty close to on point. One point.
Smith has five yards a carry and loses just one fumble.
4.7 and zero. Half point?
Bredeson is the left tackle starter for the duration and outperforms Cole's freshman year by a good bit.
Bzzzzt. He did start at guard and was only sort of bad.
Cole is ranked as one of the top centers available for the draft.
Butt wins the Mackey, is first TE drafted.
He did win the Mackey but it was more of a lifetime achievement award than a bonkers single season. He went in the fifth round after tearing his ACL in the bowl game; that one gets an incomplete. Half point.
Chesson has just under 1000 yards receiving and Darboh stays about static; both guys get drafted, Chesson early and Darboh late.
Invert Chesson and Darboh and this was totally correct. 3/4ths of a point.
Peppers scores 8 touchdowns as an all-purpose back, including one 40+ yard catch.
Bzzzt. Michigan's management of Peppers on offense was the worst thing about their offense a year ago. He did get 3 TDs on offense and added one on a punt return.
This Year's Stupid Predictions
- Speight is first team All Big Ten and has a decision to make about the NFL.
- Six different players crack 20 catches with one guy over 50. That's Crawford.
- Black and DPJ combine for 1,000 yards.
- Evans goes over 1,000 all-purpose yards and has 5+ YPC.
- Bredeson and Onwenu are collectively a large upgrade on guard play from last year.
- Khalid Hill creates two touchdowns with edge two-for-one blocks.
- Right tackle is a black hole.