Reanimating Michigan Football
Zombies, pistols, & Al Borges
by Craig Ross
From the September, 2013 issue
In his first two years as head coach, Brady Hoke brought Michigan football back from the land of the undead. He did it by humbly adapting his style to the talent he inherited--something his predecessor, Rich Rodriguez, didn't even attempt. And so far, Hoke and his staff look like off-the-charts recruiters, bringing in high-quality talent that fits their systems. With the young players already in Ann Arbor, and more on the horizon, the Wolverines this season have a credible shot at a Big Ten championship--their first since 2004.
Just how zombiefied was Michigan under Rodriguez? In three seasons, he won only 25 percent of his Big Ten games, the worst record in the team's history, and exactly one against a quality opponent (Wisconsin in 2008). His signature spread offense put up prodigious numbers--but his constantly morphing defense gave up even more. In 2010, Rich Rod's last year, Michigan averaged thirty-three points per game. Opponents averaged more than thirty-five.
The journey back has turned largely on the improvement of the defense. At the end of the 2010 season, athletic director Dave Brandon did more than fire Rodriguez and hire Hoke. He also approved a college-record compensation--starting at $750,000--to land former Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Greg Mattison.
Sometimes, you get what you pay for. Mattison transformed one of the worst defenses in the country into one of the best. In each of his first two years, the defense gave up about half as many points as it did in 2010. Last season, Michigan allowed a meager 320 yards per game. Of the 120 FBS teams, only a dozen did better.
Mattison deserves most of the credit--but not all. Arguably, part of the defensive improvement in the Hoke era can be attributed to the more deliberate pace of Michigan's offense.
Coaches have long speculated that offensive and defensive success tend to "bleed" into each other. Exactly how that might happen remains largely unexplored, but Rich Rod is Exhibit A: his lightning offense forces his
defense to spend more time on the field than most any coach would prefer. In his last year here, 2010, the Michigan defense faced 963 plays. In Hoke's first year, 2011, that number fell to 803. Defending against 160 fewer plays, Michigan almost had to do better.
In 2012 Rodriguez took his spread to Arizona, and he had a pretty good year (8-5) with an offense that averaged an enormous thirty-eight points per game. But the Arizona defense--led by Rich Rod's former West Virginia defensive coordinator, Jeff Casteel--faced an astounding 1,085 plays and gave up 35.3 points per game. Of the 120 FBS teams, Arizona finished 102nd in defensive scoring and 118th in yards allowed. Yikes.
So I was willing to listen when U-M offensive coordinator Al Borges told me that he perceives himself to be a part of the Michigan defensive structure. When his offense runs a lot of plays and controls the clock, he explains, the defense has a chance to rest, and the opposition offense has fewer opportunities for success. Conversely, an offense that doesn't hold the ball can tire a D out and, even worse, allow the opposition more opportunities to probe and find a sore spot.
The Michigan Rooting Universe has exulted in Mattison's success but sees Borges as more of an enigma. This is understandable, since by the most common measures of offense U-M has been pedestrian. In 2012 U-M's offense was fifty-eighth in points scored and seventy-ninth in yards gained. That's not very good. But my preferred measure is yards per pass attempt, and there, Michigan has been very solid, finishing twelfth in 2011 and twenty-first in 2012. Given last year's schedule difficulties and the mid-season transition in quarterbacks, I give Borges high marks.
Coming off his 11-2 first season, Hoke's 8-5 second-year record was a major reversion. But I think that result was mostly bad karma. Michigan was very fortunate to win eleven in 2011. It was unlucky in 2012.
Last year, Michigan lost three close games, recovered fumbles at a low rate, suffered sixteen more turnovers than its opponents--and endured the injury of quarterback Denard Robinson, leading to the loss at Nebraska. But as Ann Arbor stats guru Ed Feng points out on his website, ThePowerRank.com, "Turnovers forced regress strongly to the mean," so that number is likely to improve. And Robinson's injury gave his longtime understudy, Devin Gardner, a chance to adjust to the spotlight before taking over the leading role this year.
While I think Hoke got lucky in 2011, he also surprised me--and maybe even himself--with his flexibility. When Rodriguez came to Ann Arbor, he inherited two massive and pro-style QBs (Ryan Mallett and Steven Threatt) markedly unsuited for the spread offense. Mallett, seeing the big picture right away, transferred. That first year, Rodriguez tried to use Threatt and walk-ons in roles they could not possibly fulfill, and the team flopped. At the end of the year, Threatt left, too.
Rich Rod's offense took off with the arrival of Denard Robinson, deservedly a Michigan icon. But while Robinson was completely suited to the spread, he was an awkward fit for the system Hoke and Borges wanted to employ, a power run and West Coast passing game.
The coaches' first inclination was no different from their predecessor's. "From day one we will be under center," Borges announced at his first press conference. "We're a pro-style offense ... Because of [Robinson] and the things you can do with him, we will be in a little more shotgun than we've used in the past. But to say we're going to be a [shotgun] team? No, we will line up under center, with a guy in the home position coming downhill on our runs."
Well, no. It wasn't long into the 2011 season before the Michigan offense became strictly run-spread, stapled to a pastiche of spread and pro-style passing constructs--albeit mostly the latter. Borges, to his major credit, admitted that he had underestimated how difficult the transition would be, and his offense became a lot more spread than West Coast. Moving against his own instincts, he chose to use the elements at hand.
For 2013, Borges now has players suited to the West Coast offense he prefers. But--irony alert--his two-year purgatory with the spread has left him with a greater appreciation of the concepts, particularly in the running game. Indeed, he admits there are things about the spread run game that he might even like. While there is a lot of noise that 2013 is finally Year One of Michigan's offensive future, I predict it will retain at least some vestige of the past.
Borges, like everyone else interested in football, saw what QB Colin Kaepernick did with the San Francisco 49ers last year, running many play-side reads out of the "pistol," an advanced spread formation with the quarterback in shotgun and a running back behind the QB. And, egads, the perpetually moribund Washington Redskins offense exploded using the same formation and the skills of runner/passer Robert Griffin III.
Devin Gardner is tall and rangy, can throw the ball in the pocket and on the run, and has excellent run instincts and ability. Who does this sound like? The QBs at San Fran and Washington. And what offense would seem to suit him? Pistol-spread with pro passing concepts. Certainly, Al Borges was paying attention (he seems to pay attention to everything), and Michigan used the same formation and plays in its bowl game against a very good South Carolina defense. The twenty-eight points the Michigan offense put on the board against the Gamecocks' thirteenth-ranked defense was the second-most the school had allowed in the season. Given Gardner's skills and the fact that the pistol worked at the end of last year, it is hard to imagine Michigan won't use some version of it in 2013. As one coach told me, "Borges could run his entire offense through the pistol if he wanted to."
Borges and his boss are still under-the-center and power guys. But Borges is inclined to throw every formation he can think of at the defense, and one of these is bound to be the pistol, or something that mimics it. Playing swami, I see some weird cross between the pistol and the Tom Landry-era Dallas Cowboys offense, added to Bill Walsh's 49er (via his Cincy Bengal days) passing ideas. Borges is, first of all, a Walsh disciple.
While Devin Gardner seems poised to break out into stardom, Borges is hamstrung by the lack of a backup QB. Russell Bellomy is probably (I hope) a better QB than he showed in last year's Nebraska debacle, but Bellomy is out for the year with an injury. That leaves Brian Cleary, a walk-on, and freshman Shane Morris in the wings. Morris is a highly rated recruit with a major-league arm and a good mind. In a perfect world, Borges would have liked to redshirt Morris this year. Now, to a near certainty, Borges will have to start getting him ready to play in 2013.
The OC has other issues to deal with. The good news is that running back Fitz Toussaint is back from his ACL injury. However, Borges also has two potential superstars in the wings. Derrick Green, from Virginia, was considered by many to be the best high school RB in the country, and Deveon Smith was the best back in Ohio last year. Both have impressive high school tape; neither likes to be tackled. Toussaint is the starter, but at least one of the frosh will push him. Michigan has plenty of depth, and scat-back Dennis Norfleet gives Borges the option for a variety of looks and formations--and that variety is one of his priorities. The great news is that left tackle Taylor Lewan, Michigan's best player, returns for his senior year even though he would have been at worst a top ten pick in the NFL draft. Right tackle Michael Schofield also returns, and he, too, may find his way onto an NFL roster. But, as it was last year, the interior of the line is a question. None of the three new starters has any experience. Kyle Kalis, a redshirt freshman, was considered one of the best high school linemen two years ago, but if he's transitioned to the next level, it isn't yet obvious. Nonetheless, he is likely to start at right guard. Left guard is a dogfight, with candidates ranging from former walk-ons to highly regarded recruits. Unlike last year, Borges has alternatives. Perhaps redshirt frosh Ben Braden leads.
Center is a lot like the guard positions. Jack Miller knows Michigan's offense like breathing. But is he big enough and physical enough to key the offense? If not, can a true freshman of major regard (Patrick Kugler) learn the position right away? If not, perhaps walk-on Graham Glasgow will show the coaches he can play at this level. The fact that the center position seems unsettled isn't a positive.
Aside from Gardner's continuing health, the number one offensive priority in 2013 is developing an interior line that allows Michigan to run the ball. If this happens, the wild card will be tight end/receiver Devin Funchess--a weapon, at six-foot-five, that few defenses are equipped to handle. If Michigan can run the ball, defenses will be compelled to bring a safety down into the box to make sure the Wolverine offense doesn't control the field and the clock. And if that happens, running Funchess at slower LBs and/or smaller safeties should be like shooting fish in a barrel--and open up opportunities for the passing game.
Michigan has experienced and proven receivers. Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo can play--thank you, Rich Rod. Jeremy Jackson can catch the ball, and Norfleet has already proven himself a multipurpose weapon. Add promising young players Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson, and Borges has plenty to work with. This could well be Michigan's best offense in many years.
At this juncture, even hard-edged Michigan fans like Brian Cook of mgoblog.com assume the Michigan D will be good, because, well, Greg Mattison. And the defense certainly dominated the vanilla and tepid offense Borges chose to put on a field in the Spring Game.
But Mattison also has challenges. His most experienced players from last year have graduated. His best playmaker, strong side linebacker Jake Ryan, tore an ACL and was thought to be done for the year, though rumor has it he may be ready to play by mid-October.
Still, even discounting Mattison's magic, there is reason for optimism. True freshman Dymonte Thomas is the probable starter at the nickel (beating out the established and pretty good corner/nickel, Courtney Avery), and his size should help the D line improve on last year's anemic pass rush. Blake Countess, a potential All- Big Ten performer, is back and healthy at corner. The other corner, junior Ray Taylor, should improve over his pretty good sophomore season, but he will be pressed by the deposed Avery. With Thomas Gordon back at safety, the only real sore spot in the secondary should be the strong safety. As of August, redshirt frosh Jeremy Clark and sophomore Jerrod Wilson look most likely, though a true freshman could make a push.
Cam Gordon will pick up Jake Ryan's LB position. While he isn't the sort of playmaker Ryan is, there is every reason to believe he will be more than adequate. Future superstar James Ross (a sophomore) has to be on the field, so Mattison has installed him on the weak side and moved junior Desmond Morgan to the middle, where he'll compete with sophomore Joe Bolden. Both are talented and experienced, and each should push the other to improve.
The DL lost two starters, but Quinton Washington is back at the nose and will be pushed by sophomore Ondre Pipkins. With three quality rush ends (Frank Clark, Mario Ojemudia, and true frosh Taco Charlton), Mattison was able to move Jibreel Black inside. Black is a bit undersized, but the plan is to overcome that with his quickness. (That may sound silly, but Mattison has some history of making these kinds of adjustments work.) Willie Henry, a promising redshirt frosh, will also play. Redshirt frosh Chris Wormley may get a look here or at the strong side defensive end. There is plenty of depth--a Mattison staple is using many defensive linemen to keep them fresh.
Aside from the strong safety, the biggest question is at the strong side DE. While Mattison has highly regarded recruits lined up to compete there, the position, like center, probably won't be decided until a week or two before the opener.
So, Michigan has holes or maybe just potential holes. On offense, it isn't clear what the structure will look like, or if the structure can overcome the hypothetical weakness in the middle of the line. I am betting, though, that this will work. On defense, as Lloyd Carr has said, "You are only as good as your worst player." This may be a slight exaggeration, but the fact that nine of eleven positions seem solid doesn't mean the D will follow suit. One or two of Hoke's young players will need to break out.
Overall, I am optimistic. Notre Dame, Nebraska, and OSU are at home. Tough tests against MSU, Northwestern, and Penn State are on the road. Assuming Gardner remains healthy, I think the prognosis for Michigan's first Big Ten championship game appearance is pretty good. Let's call it that: a trip to the Rose Bowl in January.
[Originally published in September, 2013.]