Brady Hoke, Year Two
After the miracle, a rugged season
by Craig Ross
In Brady Hoke, Year One, I was a skeptic about the short-term fortunes of Michigan football, albeit in a schizoaffective way. Regardless of Hoke's abilities, I didn't believe he could do much with the defense he had inherited. But after watching defenders (gasp) actually tackling and making plays in the Spring Game, I concluded that the Michigan defense would be a lot better than U-M fans had any right to imagine. I sent my impressions to Brian Cook, and he posted them on MGoBlog.com. I said that while the 2010 defense was "the worst in the history of the galaxy," there was reason for hope in 2011.
On Cook's WTKA radio show in the preseason, he went out on a limb by predicting that Greg Mattison's 2011 D would move to the middle of the pack on the NCAA data board. I went further, suggesting the Michigan defense "would be above average or maybe even good." Much eye rolling in the studio. And, I had to concede, I was being an idiot. There was reason to believe the D would be OK. Maybe. But good?
Sometimes, when you assume you are being a moron, it is dismaying to learn that you just didn't go quite far enough. Or nearly far enough, in this instance, since farther out on the limb was the place to be. The 2011 U-M defense ended up ranked in the top ten in the nation.
While gushing over the defense, I also was persuaded that the offense would regress, perhaps markedly. Even before a game was played, the message from Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges was that they were traditionalists; that good offense is a lot about beating the other guys up, and the best way to do that was "power" football. While Rich Rodriguez wanted his linemen to dance with the defense, let the D choose its poison, and then get blitzed by a streak of pure lightning (Denard Robinson), Hoke's
preference is to pound the D into the ground and then let Denard dance on them, shoelace-less or even barefoot, if he wishes.
Borges pointed out that he had successfully coached many different types of offenses. Power. West Coast. Whack-you-in-da-mouth teams. Finesse teams. He made it plain that he knew what he had with Denard--a singular talent--and that he had inherited a zone blocking line.
"We want to run power, but that doesn't mean we are going to run it fourteen times a game ... at least not this year," Borges said back then. Darrell Funk, the offensive line coach and a compelling analyst of the game, told me, "We can zone block with this line. I can change it up a bit to fit what Al wants to do. But nothing in our schemes should pose that big of a problem." The question was, of course, could they run power?
I didn't trust enough. I felt that Funk was more accommodating of Borges's ideas than certain about the ability of his offensive line to adapt. More problematic to me was the reality that Hoke and Borges weren't very enamored of Rich Rod's spread offense. They knew they couldn't do a complete overhaul in one season, but they wanted to begin as soon as possible.
In last September's Observer, I called the regular season at 7-5, rising to 8-5 with a win over a "meatball" bowl team. This was a complete analytical failure. I saw 2011 as 2008 redux (on offense)--believing that the transition to a new system, even if moderate, would take more than one fall.
Cook suggested I go into witness protection.
Disguises were off for the opener against Western, since it was hotter than hell and a minimum of clothing was required. By the end of the first quarter many of the U-M faithful were also psychologically hot: the score was tied 7-7 and Western was deep in Michigan territory. Were we doomed never to escape Rich Rod's implosion? By going outside of the Michigan Family, had Bill Martin relegated us to 100 years of being (gulp) Indiana?
But then Brandon Herron intercepted an Alex Carder pass and ran it back ninety-four yards for a TD, the longest runback of an interception in Michigan history. Never have I been a part of such a collective sigh of relief. Michigan won the game, easily. Still, there was unease about Michigan's prospects the following week.
Near the close of the third quarter in the night game against Notre Dame, a cadre of Fighting Irish fans chanted, "It-sucks, to-be, a Mich-i-gan Wolv-er-ine." And just then, it did suck: up to that point the Irish had outplayed U-M, dominating the game and building a seemingly unassailable 24-7 lead.
I thought Notre Dame fans viewed taunting as a bit declasse, but, let's face it, after two years of last-second wins by Michigan it was hard to begrudge their exaltations. Goes around. Comes around.
As the hour neared midnight a furious U-M comeback wrested the game back. Michigan took the lead with 1:12 remaining when Michigan running back Vincent Smith took a screen pass and eluded five defenders on his way to a twenty-one-yard TD scamper. Seemed good, but not so fast, my friend: Notre Dame needed but forty-two seconds to traverse the field and score their own TD.
Absurdly, they'd left too much time on the clock. Down by three, Michigan took the ball at their own twenty. On second and ten with twenty-three seconds left, somehow, the Notre Dame defense left slot receiver Jeremy Gallon open along the right sidelines at midfield. After dodging a furious rush, Robinson found Gallon, and the diminutive receiver cut back, sprinted to the opposite sideline, and ran out of bounds at the seventeen. Expecting a field goal, a Notre Dame fan near me muttered something about "overtime." But Hoke had other ideas, and Denard's last-gasp toss was snagged in the southwest corner of the end zone by Roy Roundtree.
At this moment the Notre Dame parody had become something other than annoying; it seemed, rather, a gift to be savored. As one fan told me, waiting with the tens of thousands who refused to leave the stadium until after midnight, "This game isn't coming again. Not ever."
That miracle-working offense, though, came back for most of the season (it stalled against MSU, Iowa, and Va. Tech). On WTKA a continuing theme was "how good" the offense looked when Borges was running the shotgun and spread or spread-like plays, and how sluggish it seemed when the QB was under center, in a pro set. It also seemed, as the season wore on, that Borges had put the brakes on any transition away from the spread.
Midseason I had a eureka moment when Brian Cook suggested on air that Borges's theme was very much like Boise State's: plaster the defense with so many alternatives that it can never find a comfort zone. While the spread options a single player, forcing a defender to do A or B (and then taking the alternative), Borges was throwing this play, then that play at the defense--many of these disappearing or then reviving as the season wore on. And, yeah, often he reverted to standard spread ideas.
In the end, it worked out--Michigan scored slightly more points than in 2010--and Borges proved to be not just smart, but self-critical and reflective. He had been, perhaps, a bit too set on staying in his own "comfort zone," he told an end-of-season press conference. "What I've done in the past after I've changed jobs is pretty much just blew up everything that they did before, started over again, put in the offense, and away we go."
This time around, even with the ultimate plan of a more power and pro-style offense, Borges said he quickly realized he had to keep an "open mind," and that the transition would be slower than he originally intended.
This, more than anything, made me think Michigan really has something with Hoke and his crew--a feeling confirmed when the Notre Dame game actually did "come again." After years of beat-downs at the hands of OSU, Borges's offense shredded a very fine Buckeye D in the season finale, putting up forty points that could easily have been more. Denard rushed for 170 yards in the game and passed for 170 more, throwing a mere three incompletions. Fitz Toussaint ran for another 120. And, yeah, the fans were loud. They hadn't lost any passion for revenge, or for the rebirth of Michigan football.
Last year's miraculous 11-2 season was some part luck, some part players developing faster than expected, some part pure will--and all parts coaching. This Michigan staff did what really doesn't seem possible. After re-watching every one of last year's games, I came away thinking that Hoke and his staff had squeezed every single drop out of the season. To their credit, though, they have their own regrets. Borges, in particular, seems to take every bad play as a personal affront.
This year, national preseason predictions run hot, the Wolverines landing in most top twenty-fives (ESPN has U-M at number 8) and being a or the favorite to land in the Big Ten Championship game.
The best argument for such optimism is that the Wolverines have all-time icon Denard Robinson returning at QB. It is impossible to overrate what Denard means to this team (or community). He is our time's Benny Friedman or Tom Harmon, a player and personality we will not soon see again.
Whatever one might think of Rich Rodriguez, no one can deny that he gave Ann Arbor an impossibly wonderful present. Denard's field presence was apparent the moment he took his first snap against Notre Dame in 2009. He was nervous and fumbled the ball, and looked up to find himself surrounded by three or four Irish defenders. Within an instant, the defenders were snatching air and Denard, seemingly catapulted, was in the end zone. What! What did we just see?!
By now such plays seem commonplace. We take for granted that every Denard possession holds the potential for some jaw-dropping or inspiring moment. But, as fans, we are gifted a bonus. We get a perpetual smile. We find a man who is more interested in the success of his teammates than individual accolades. We receive a presence in the community, a person celebrating with classmates at basketball or hockey, just like any other student. A person who was amazed that President Obama knew who he was.
Coach Hoke also returns three terrific offensive linemen--Taylor Lewan, Pat Omameh, Michael Schofield--with potentially good replacements in the wings for center Dave Molk and tackle Mark Huyge. Michigan will try (mostly offensive guard) Ricky Barnum at center, but last year, the offense stalled without a healthy Molk. This year, Molk's a San Diego Charger.
Running backs are intact, and the offense returns experience and talent at wide receiver in Gallon, Drew Dileo, and Roundtree. Jeremy Jackson or Jerald Robinson could break through.
On defense, the back seven all started last year. Mini-icon Jordan Kovacs returns with talented guys competing at free safety. Super frosh Joe Bolden will push (the very good) Kenny Demens at middle linebacker, and the outside players, including budding star Jake Ryan, are back. This should be the strongest back seven in many years, anchored by very solid corners, J.T. Floyd and Blake Countess. Younger, talented guys are pushing for playing time.
The coaches are optimistic, but I am waiting for evidence that Michigan can run the ball without Molk. Toussaint, the first U-M running back to break out since Mike Hart, is also waiting--for the outcome of a pending OUIL. When he plays is a matter of conjecture. Hoke says he doesn't know. The backs behind Toussaint have talent, but none (except, perhaps, Thomas Rawls) seems an every-down back. Vincent Smith is proven, but can the five-foot-six, 175-pound Smith hold up as a primary player?
Offensive line depth is thin. Unless (very highly regarded) freshmen step up fast, injuries could pose a problem. The same is true at wide receiver, and tight end is worse. Only one recruited TE, Brandon Moore, has any experience, and his playing time has been limited; A.J. Williams, a freshman TE who looks like an OT, will be given a shot for some immediate role.
There are questions, but if (a) the team stays reasonably healthy, and (b) Barnum can play center, and (c) at least one offensive lineman and tight end step up, Michigan will score a lot of points.
But, yeah, you noticed. I skipped the defensive line, where Mike Martin, Ryan Van Bergen, and Will Heineger have all graduated. Michigan has no obvious current replacements. While Hoke recruited defensive linemen extremely well, it is rare for a frosh to step in early and play at a high level, especially in the defensive line. So Mattison and his staff came up with an alternate theory: "Let's go real fast, even if we are real small." Mattison has moved rush end Craig Roh to the strong side and told him to get bigger. Roh will be, no doubt, a very fast guy for that position. Mattison then moved linebackers Brennan Beyer and Frank Clark (status uncertain) to the rush end, making the U-M DEs as fast as any in the college game. He then moved an undersized rush end (Jibreel Black) to the three-tech (tackle), making him the smallest and fastest guy to occupy the position since, well, I don't know. Speed kills, right? Let's hope so.
Will Campbell has lost a lot of weight; now six foot five and 308, he will anchor the nose. Campbell has, from all accounts, dedicated the off-season to a conditioning regimen that seeks to match his fitness with his athletic ability. He could be the ingredient that allows Mattison's theory to cook.
Is any of this plausible? Hey, it is Greg Mattison, fergodsakes. In the spring this group of defensive linemen looked like they could play. If they have help behind them, this defense could be the most mobile rock pile in many years.
But then there's the schedule. Number 1 Bama in Texas. Notre Dame (do you think they owe us one?), OSU, and Nebraska on the road. A very good (at least) MSU team in Ann Arbor, along with an Iowa team that beat us last year. Northwestern and a quirky Air Force team are not pushovers. Nor is an improved Purdue team in West Lafayette. This is a very tough schedule, probably as hard as any team's in the country.
I wanna say, "Well, we will push Bama, but lose a close one, and then just win all the rest." What I do say is that 9-4 would be a very sweet result and nicely set up the transition back to (quasi) power football in 2013--and a more ordinary football life in Ann Arbor, post-Denard.
[Originally published in September, 2012.]