The 135th edition of the University of Michigan Wolverine Football Team was unveiled at Michigan Stadium for its annual glorified practice that is known as the spring game.
This year’s format had the ones, twos, and sometimes threes on display. The format consists of drills, and some scrimmaging for approximately 40-45 minutes. Spring is a time of teaching and learning, of competition for positions, of improving player skills as well as team development. The fifteen days of spring are busy, and Hoke recalls with fondness the old days when 20 practices were allowed. Since the format consistently runs platoons of players in and out, a running back for instance, cannot establish much consistency.
At the top, it should be pointed out that while spring football activities are interesting, they are not a very good barometer for spectators of starting lineups and or position lineups. Also, the quality of some position groups is hard to quantify because of format. Details of any but the most basic schematic are obscured.
What can be seen is the enthusiasm of both players and coaches, even executing only base plays. Coach Hoke has been pleased with the enthusiasm, physicality, and progress of all the position groups. Reports are that practices have been fast and physical. The offensive pace has picked up, but did not please Hoke today. It was their first practice out of doors this spring.
Often spring heroics do not translate to bright lights time, or someone surprising steps up in the fall. Most of the wounded Wolverines will be back at full throttle in the fall, including Erik Magnuson (competing at Left Offensive Tackle), and Ondre Pipkin. Graham Glasgow (maybe the Wolverines best Offensive Center) is now back at spring practice having missed much of it. While Erik will be returning from injury, Graham returns from the doghouse in time to participate only in part of the spring practices.
Also stepping out of the doghouse along with Graham is punter Will Hagerup. Special teams are more special when Will is punting. His punting consistency and his 44-yard punting average the year before last was outstanding, and such performance this season is needed.
This year there has been appropriate fan concern regarding the upcoming season’s prospects, both offensively and defensively, with good reason, as last year’s 7-6 record was unexpectedly bitter.
LAST LOOK AT LAST SEASON:
It included a Bowl loss to Kansas State in the Fiesta Bowl (31-14), which many fans considered especially irksome, as they perceived KSU as less than a football power.
Before that there were losses to major rivals MSU (29-6), and Ohio State (42-41). Also aggravating were underwhelming wins over lesser powers Akron (28-24), and Connecticut (24-21), teams which should not be able to play to Michigan’s competence level. Penn State took the Wolverines measure with a team handicapped by NCAA penalties (43-40), and Iowa (24-21) prevailed. The win over Notre Dame at home in the second game was but a brief flash of greatness in an otherwise pedestrian season.
Obviously it was a season in which the team did not meet its own goals, or live up to the extensive pre-season ballyhoo. While some Kool Aid is still there, so far a damper has toned down expectations to a more realistic level. Coaches and players will give success an extreme effort. There seems to be more physicality.
Head Coach Brady Hoke has to engineer remedies, and an important step toward that was the reassignment of coaching duties among much of the staff and the firing of Offensive Coordinator All Borges. Coach Borges believed in complex offensive line blocking. Observing poor results, he tinkered extensively with OL personnel resulting in many personnel changes in the line during the season, seemingly adding more confusion than satisfying result.
He also believed in a single running back system. He would have enjoyed Chris Perry’s efforts. Remember Perry’s 51-carries against MSU years ago? He looked so tired at the end of the game that I wondered if he was going to be able to get off the grass.
Coach Borges did not achieve much success last year in producing an effective running game, other than that provided by OB Devin Gardner.
Pass protection was inconsistent and Gardner suffered. He showed remarkable toughness game after game, sack after sack. Borges relied mainly on the returned from injury Fitz Toussaint, as his main running back weapon. Fitz in turn relied on the offensive line to supply sufficient holes. The holes often weren’t there, and Fitz often didn’t get there, ending the season with paltry 3.5-yards per carry average. Even with experienced Tackles Lewan and Scofield outside, the interior line struggled, and struggled from game Two and onward.
Unfortunately, Devin contributed too many interceptions and some fumbles. Excessive pressure on him by a leaky offensive line, and backs that did not block effectively contributed greatly. I thought that they ought to have had a dedicated QB coach, but in a way they have addressed that by having a competent GA mentor the QB this season. It will be interesting to watch Coach Nussmeier’s approach. Coach Borges is a good Coach and an interesting personality, but the time was ripe for this change, and he left very well compensated.
Hoke on new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier: “One thing I’ll tell you is he has done an excellent job — the teaching part of it, the details, all those things. Obviously, he is here because we think he is an awfully good football coach in all areas. It’s been a lot for the kids. We have put them in a lot of uncomfortable situations through spring, asked them to learn a lot and see what stuck a little bit. Again, today we didn’t do a whole lot, on either side of the ball to be honest with you. He has done a nice job.”
MORE TEAM 135:
The running back competition is interesting: the two front runners being Derrick Green and D’Veon Smith. Green is now better conditioned at 227. At times Green has looked like the front runner. And Smith is no slouch. He started Saturday. Justice Hays may be the frontrunner for third down back. His pass protection skills are well developed. Big Wayne Shallman (243lber) is reminding of Aaron Shea at H back. Ross Douglas, and Drake Johnson (when he gets healthy) will be in the mix.
The receivers will be outstanding. Devin Funchess is one solid reason. Although Jake Butt is injured, so there will be a search for pass catching talent at Tight End, the talent level at wide receiver seems outstanding. Keith Heitzman is now a Tight End and was with the Ones. Fleet Jehu Chesson will be back. Amara Darboh will return to full action, Da’Mario Jones, Jaron Dukes, C’sonte York, Drake Harris (healing hamstring), and true freshman Moe Ways and others will compete. Dennis Norfleet is still fleet. Early enrolling Freshman Freddy Canteen has drawn attention as a play maker this spring, and he gathered attention Saurday. He can play the slot and play as a wide out. He had a thirty-yarder in 7 on 7, as well as the play of the practice, a 44-yard catch. He gets open. On that 44-yarder wide open. Bo Dever had a couple of nice catches. Again, there is not lack of talent, and they will make up for their lack of experience. I believe this position group may be the strength of the offensive team when all is said and done. An experienced Devin Gardner will help.
BACK TO 134 DEFENSE:
Surprisingly, to compound Wolverine woes last season the defense developed some startling tendencies, such as letting out big plays, blown pass coverage, and missing makeable tackles. With the defense often facing bad field position forced by three and outs and offensive errors, it got worse as the season progressed. Nearly all defensive position groups were affected, but corners and safeties are always the most obvious.
The team performance in the 2014 Fiesta Bowl was nothing to shout about, a real downer on both sides of the ball. About the only bright spot in that defeat was that Shane Morris was credible at QB.
REASSIGNMENT OF COACHING DUTIES AND NEW OC:
The past is prologue. Last season effects how this season is approached. Some proactive and hopefully effective steps for betterment have risen out of the ashes. With the departure of Coach Borgess, a new Offensive Coordinator has been named-every Wolverine with a pulse knows that Doug Nussmeier, lately OC at Alabama, has been hired. If the Offense is better the Defense will improve by not being placed in as many adverse field position situations, or as tired.
Coach Nussmeier believes in tailoring scheme to the personnel, something at which Coach Borges also professed to believe but but did not seem to excel. Not that Coach Nussmeier has bought multiple copies of Offensive Line Play For Dummies for OL, t he has simplified the scheme and the number of its applications, Coach Nussmeier is a zone blocking guru. Reports are that the offensive practices are crisper and that Coach N. demands crisp practices and attention to every detail. Spring is a good time to get a look at a new Coach.
Duties among some of the existing staff have been reassigned. Cornerbacks and Safeties each have their own Coach. I believe this is a step in the right direction. Some fans have been a little funky regarding the retention of OL Coach Funk. He is an expert in the zone blocking schemes that Nussmeier espouses. We’ll see how they do.
OBSERVATIONS FROM PRACTICE:
No score was kept. Much of the practice consisted of position group drills including some 7 on 7.
During the scrimmage the Number One OL was comprised of OC Jack Miller, LT Freshman Mason Cole, LG Kyle Bosch, and RG Kyle Kalis. Miller was singled out in Hoke’s press conference as doing well, and also getting time at guard.
This day did not belong to the offense although it is said last Saturday did. Hokes take on how the Wolverine offense looked: “Inconsistent. I think there were a couple good runs in there that they did a pretty good job with. We needed to be a little more consistent in the protection game. Through the course of the 15 practices, I think there has been some real improvements made.”
My take: The defense looked light years ahead. The offensive play calling was purposefully vanilla. The defense looked like it knew what was coming. I didn’t see all the practices. Saturday, the offensive line seemed a work in progress but seems to have some interchangeable parts. They have good size. Finding at least eight good players at the position is a necessary project. Consistency will come later. Platooning in the 3 lines helped disrupt consistency, especially on offense.
Devin Gardner threw a 44-yard pass to Freddie Canteen which went all the way and it was the play of the game. Canteen was often split out. Devin was 2/10 for 55-yards and a TD. Shane Morris was 5 of 11/73 with three pass over 19-yards. Both QBs threw an interception, both to Jourdan Lewis.
Justice Hayes led the running backs with 6/33 and a long run of 12-yards. De’Veon Smith started and hauled 9 for 21-yards. Ross Douglas toted 7 times for 15-yards. Derrick Green had 6 for 16-yards.
Coach Hoke on his group of running backs … “I am very excited because I think we are better. I think they have all improved with the new system, the protection part of it. They struggled early and played a little slower early because of that. They are starting to grasp it pretty well. I think when Drake Johnson gets back in the fall it will be good, he’s done a lot of everything but contact. It will be fun to see who emerges.”
My take: If these running backs get more holes more often, they will get sufficient yardage, perhaps outstanding yardage. There are talented numbers. Also the there is a bevy of talented receivers. Except for Devin Funchess, they are not n experienced group, but they are talented. Freshman WR Freddie Canteen led the receivers and had the one long catch already mentioned. Freddie has speed, speed, speed, and it appears he will make a name for himself while benefitting his team. Jehu Chesson nabbed two passes-one for 28-yards and a second for 38-yards.
Frank Clark led the defense. It recorded 5-sacks. They played press coverage a lot, and they were swarming aggressive. In a post-game interview I asked big Ben Braden which defender bothers him the most. Without hesitation he named Frank Clark, saying. ” It doesn’t look like it, but Frank Clark hurts”. True. In results, and physically. He slickly slipped around Big Ben for a sack. Joining Frank in looking good at some point were Willie Hurst, Brandon Watson, Raymon Taylor, Blake Countess, Brennen Beyer, and Jourdan Lewis, and others. Lewis made his presence felt with two interceptions. Blake Countess had two break-ups.
The starting Number One defense was: Clark and Brennen at DE and Ryan Glassgow and Mathew Godin at tackle. Tom Strobel and big Freshman Bryan Mone also played Mone is a large and gifted athelete.
The DBs were aggressive with more press coverage. They blitzed often. Man to man press coverage was alive and well in Michigan Stadium Saturday. It is good for the offense to see that in practice.
The DBs seem to be thriving on the new split of DB coaching duties between safeties and corners according to Jarrod Wilson who commented affirmatively on it in response to my post practice question to him regarding that subject. I remember at least one nice pass breakup by Wilson. He is all of 6’2”, and certainly in the rangey mold of DBs now sought by the Wolverines.
Raymon Taylor and Jourdan Lewis were the Number One CBs. The strong safety was Jarrod Wilson and the free safety was a surprise-Delano Hill.
My take: The offense was generally overwhelmed by a much more aggressive defense than the Wolverines fielded last year. The defense won most of the battles in the trenches. It is said that this time of year defenses are usually ahead of offenses. If that is true then the Wolverines are true to form.
How Hoke feels on the pace of practice and how it translated today … “I think we will have 39 freshman in the fall, we have 38 sophomores here now, 20 juniors, and 12 seniors. So, we need as much work and as many reps for all those guys as we can. I’ll be honest with you, when we got to the scrimmage part I thought it was kind of slow, compared to how we have run the pace and the reps. A big part is the teaching aspect, the reps, the technique, the fundamentals and the other part is putting them in uncomfortable situations because they are going to be a little young. But they are going to be in uncomfortable situations in the fall.”
It seems to me it will be easier to get the defensive engine back on track, as both Mattison and Hoke are defensive gurus, and there is an influx of new blood for the troubled defensive backfield. While there is no salt, there will be plenty of Pepper. He gives every indication of being ready to produce at the D-1 level physically and talent wise. Their new 4-3 Over instead of 4-3 Under positioning scheme will possible prove more effective pass rushes. The likes of Taco Charlton, among others could benefit the team in this area.
Without question, this is the most important season of the Brady Hoke era so far. Michigan’s offensive engine ran off the track last year and it will be heavy work lifting it back on the rails. Coach Nussmeier will certainly have to do some heavy lifting. I’ve got a feeling it will get done right. Every game is important but another loss to Michigan State or Ohio or Notre Dame this season will cause mass fan dissatisfaction. We have to help the Spartans put a diaper on the noise. Same for Ohio. And the Irish.
Team 135 is not a finished product, but it appears a little bigger, stronger, more aggressive, and more talented than Team 134. The big question is by how much.
How much will they grow as football players, and how soon? It will be interesting to watch.