In my fifty years of serious U-M football watching, this pre-season was the most difficult for me to parse. Will the 2011 Wolverines be any good? Will they be awful? The strands of information are a tangle of competing uncertainties.
After the spring game, I posted a note on Brian Cook’s MGoBlog, suggesting that the Wolverines’ beleaguered 2010 defense, perhaps the worst in Michigan history, might be “average” or even “above average” in 2011.
My thinking wasn’t particularly complicated. In the 2010 spring game, Denard Robinson and the U-M offense gashed the defense for massive gains. This past spring, the defense made more plays than I would have preferred. Since last year’s offense ranked eighth in the country in yards gained, I thought, “Well maybe this defense can do all right, after all.”
Bearing good news, I was a hero to Cook’s readers–until the next day, when I posed a question about the Michigan offense: If U-M’s worst-in-the-history-of-the-universe defense can stop U-M’s offense, I asked, then how in the world can the Michigan offense beat up on, say, a tomato can? It was as if I’d announced I was the Antichrist. My friends pronounced me “clueless.” My enemies were less restrained.
I’m all for Hoke-a-Mania and the attendant level of fan optimism and enthusiasm. And I had to admit that at least some of the objections made sense. The arguments were that (a) defenses are generally ahead of offenses in the spring (true); (b) the new Michigan offensive coordinator, Al Borges, was installing a new system (true); (c) the offensive line, thin to begin with, was missing its two likely stars, left tackle Taylor Lewan and center Dave Molk (also true); (d) Borges was protecting Denard for most of the spring, hamstringing his performance (maybe); and (e) for chrissakes there had only been fifteen practices with this offense (true).
I added two objections of my own. First, with Borges’s new system still a work in progress, the spring offense was a lot less than the sum of its parts. Second, the defense, with nearly all of its relevant parts intact, just had to get better. This was particularly true since Greg Matison, the new defensive coordinator, is one of the most highly regarded DCs in the country.
If these objections are valid, nothing in the spring really meant all that much. But if they’re valid, then no one knows how the team will fare this fall. A commentator on the Dan Patrick show called the Michigan fan base “delusional” for, as he saw it, grasping at faith over reason. He said that Michigan was “unlikely” to improve from its 2010 outcome, that seven wins would be “about as good as it gets for the Wolverines.”
Even I am not quite that pessimistic. But I am worried that the Michigan coaches may have to put square pegs into round holes.
Al Borges has been a successful offense coach in a variety of systems. He points out that he has run classical pro-style systems and West Coast systems, QB under center or in the shotgun, that he has a record of creating an offense that fits his talent. Yes, it is true that Brady Hoke wants to run power football. Coach Hoke is a believer that you win games by beating up the other guy. (I would say most football coaches, including Bo, Mo, and Lloyd, were in the same camp.) But Hoke and Borges understand what they have, and putting Denard Robinson into the classical QB role (Brady, Grbac, Henne, et al) is not a plan. So Borges has the daunting task of finding a balance spot for Denard–an offense that maximizes his skills but (as opposed to last year) protects him from being beaten to a pulp.
Borges and his staff obsessed over the 2010 film, trying to see what they could salvage. Zone blocking? Yeah, he could make a very simple transition into his version of the zone. Shotgun? Sure–Borges has hinted that he might be in the gun at least half the time. But the 2011 Wolverines won’t be passing into defenses selling out to limit Denard’s rushing alternatives. Wildcat plays? Yep. QB draws? Yep. But Denard will be expected to learn a different set of reads and pass more out of the pocket–or at least out of a moving pocket.
Can this work? I just don’t know. Borges wants Denard to learn to freelance out of pass options, but that was one of the few areas where he struggled last year. I want to share the faith, but I admit to some slavishness to reason. The offense has the most exciting player in the country. It has proven competence at receiver and a tight end (Kevin Koger) who should thrive in a Borges offense. The offensive line returns four starters, and there are young linemen ready to break out. There isn’t a star at running back, but there is plenty of healthy competition. It is a given that Hoke and Borges want to see an offense where the running backs gain most of the running yards and take most of the punishment. If the offensive line remains healthy, if Denard and backup Devin Gardner are healthy, the parts are there for some offense to thrive. Michigan loses, after all, only one starter.
But am I optimistic that Michigan can be a successful power team in 2011? No. If Borges can do that, he is Houdini. The dude is a smart and impressive guy. Not sure about magic. But damn, I want to be wrong.
Unlike his counterpart, Greg Matison didn’t pay any significant attention to last year’s film. First, he knew what defense he would play–the 4-3 under that worked for him with the Baltimore Ravens in the NFL. Second, in setting up his defense, he didn’t want the film to bias his valuation of the talent he had. Yeah, we sucked last year. It’s a new day.
The good news for Matison is that he also loses almost no one. Linebacker Jonas Mouton went in the second round of the NFL draft, but otherwise his defense is intact. Last year, Michigan had freshmen starters (safety Carvin Johnson, LB Cam Gordon) and a handful of other frosh playing key roles. These players will return as more battle-tested than usual sophs. All Big Ten nose tackle Mike Martin is back. So are Craig Roh and Ryan Van Bergen, two-year starters on the defensive line. Kenny Demens, getting his first opportunity to play, showed that he might belong at middle linebacker. LB Jake Ryan and safety Marvin Robinson, both redshirted last year, proved in the spring that they have the ability to play in the Big Ten. Plus, Michigan returns its best DB from 2009, Troy Woolfolk, who was out last year. J. T. Floyd may be pushed at corner by frosh Greg Bell and soph Courtney Avery. Assuming that Mouton’s spot can be filled, and that (high school All World) Will Campbell or Quinton Washington can play the new defensive tackle (three technique) position–well, maybe Matison can turn some water into wine.
So, how will Michigan do? I didn’t have much confidence in anything I might predict, so I checked out Bill Connelly at the blog network SB Nation. Connelly is a Missouri fan, and he has no dog in the Big Ten fight. He says, essentially, “Hmmmm,” (a) most starters back, (b) high five-year recruiting ratings, (c) high predictive metrics like Yards per Points; “soooo” by the time SB Nation releases its predictions, “there is a decent chance Michigan will be at or near the top of the Legends Division.” Hosannah.
But then Connelly rethinks the matter and surmises that Denard may be completely unsuited to any offense Al Borges can devise, and that Matison may realize that no amount of coaching can turn this group into competence. He concludes, “Count Michigan as a Big Ten sleeper, though you can feel free to ignore this if they go 5-7.”
My Ouija board says 8-5, including a bowl win over some meatball team. Hoke needs to gather some momentum this year, because the 2012 schedule is daunting: opening against ‘Bama in Dallas and later playing at Notre Dame, at Ohio State, at Nebraska, and then at home against Air Force, MSU, and Iowa (plus two teams to be determined–hard to believe at this point).
The coach has assembled a very strong staff. These guys know what they are doing. But can they do it soon enough for a fan base that may be losing patience? For the next couple of seasons, at least, we’ll need a strong dose of Hoke-a-Mania to embrace outcomes that may not be much different from the past.