Tales from the Deuce: My 2012 Michigan Preview

Head Coach: Brady Hoke; 58-52 (11-2 at Michigan)

2011 Record: 11-2 (6-2 conference)

Returning Starters: 15 (6 offense, 7 defense, P, K)

Overview: What a difference a year makes. Just think about it. This time last year, many Michigan fans wondered whether then-newly installed head football coach Brady Hoke would be up to the task of returning the Wolverines to prominence. On the one hand, Hoke had built a reputation as a program builder with stops at Ball State and San Diego State, respectively. However, this was Michigan; a bigger stage with brighter lights. Could Hoke really do it? Or was he destined to suffer the same fate as his predecessor, Rich Rodriguez? Thankfully things turned out well for the Wolverines in 2011. And it started the day Hoke was named head coach.  After all, he looked like the head football coach at Michigan; heck he even talked like the head football coach at Michigan, saying all the right things. The next 11 months or so proved to be no different.

For starters, Hoke made arguably, the best coaching hire in all of college football last year by luring Greg Mattison away from the Baltimore Ravens of the National Football League. He then proceeded to assemble the 7th ranked recruiting class (according to Rivals.com) in the nation. Then, to top things off, he led Michigan to an 11-win season, culminating with Michigan’s first BCS bowl win in over a decade. So what then, does Hoke have in store for an encore? Good question. The schedule is brutal and they lose key players on the defensive front. Still, the offense should be better, so let’s start there.

Offense: Michigan’s offense will once again be led by senior quarterback Denard Robinson. Although Robinson isn’t the most polished passer to ever wear the maize & blue, he is certainly one of the most electrifying. Indeed, Robinson’s accomplishments have been the stuff of legend. As the Wolverines’ starting quarterback, Robinson has shattered nearly every team, conference or NCAA rushing record for quarterbacks. In addition, observers and coaches alike have remarked that Robinson has continued to improve his skills as a passer, which should improve the efficiency of the offense. He will have help from an experienced offensive line led by junior left tackle Taylor Lewan. Also, expect Michael Schofield to make an impact up front as he moves to a more natural position at the other tackle spot. Tailback Fitzgerald Toussaint returns as Michigan’s leading rusher from 2011, but he may have to sit out a game due to disciplinary reasons. In his stead will be sophomore Thomas Rawls, who- if you believe everything running back coach Fred Jackson says- is the second coming of Tshimanga Biakabutuka.

Where Michigan will struggle is at receiver. Junior Jeremy Gallon, and senior Roy Roundtree return as starters, but neither have the big-play capability that the departed Junior Hemingway brought to the offense. One possible solution to this problem may be the much-ballyhooed conversion of quarterback Devin Gardner to wide receiver. While the internets have been abuzz with Gardner’s progress, it is still an open question as to whether Gardner can provide the deep threat the offense will need in order to punch their ticket to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Title game. Grade: B+

Defense: The coaching change in Ann Arbor had no greater impact on the team than on defense. It is hardly news that Michigan’s defenses under the previous regime were historically dreadful. Thankfully Greg Mattison’s return to Ann Arbor resulted in the Wolverines jumping from 101st to 8th nationally in scoring defense. This year, sophomore linebackers Jake Ryan and Desmond Morgan return, as does sophomore cornerback Blake Countess. Rounding out the back seven are seniors Kenny Demens (ILB) Jordan Kovacs (S), who were 1st and 2nd, respectively, on the team in tackling.

Quite honestly, the only thing stopping the Wolverines from having one of the best defenses in the country is the lack of depth on the defensive line. Without question, the absence of tackles Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen will prove to be problematic all season long. Left to fill the void will be senior defensive linemen Will Campbell and Quinton Washington. Combined, these two players have started one game, and they will be replacing two guys that started over 50; not what I would call a recipe for success. Grade: B

Special Teams: This area just might prove to be a strength for the Wolverines. Gone are the days of going for it on 4th & 5 inside the opponent’s 20-yard line due to a well-placed fear that our kicker couldn’t make a 30+yard field goal. Brendan Gibbons made sure of that when he hit a 37-yard field goal to win the Sugar Bowl last January. While Gibbons won’t ever be confused with Ali Haji-Sheikh, he has proved to be reliable. The punting situation is a bit murkier with Hoke recently announcing an open competition between junior Will Hagerup and sophomore Matt Wile. However, Hoke has recently stated that Hagerup will handle punting, so that is a positive. Receiver Gallon will handle punt returns, while sophomore Josh Furman (S) is listed as the kick returner. Expect speedy true freshman Dennis Norfleet to push them both. Grade: B

Final Analysis: It is quite possible that the Wolverines will have a better overall team this year and still have a worse record. For the first time since the Carr era, the Wolverines will field a team with talent, senior leadership at key positions, and continuity in the coaching staff. Unfortunately the schedule is brutal. Last year, the Wolverines’ first five games were at home. This year the Wolverines will begin the season in Dallas against the reigning national champion, Alabama Crimson Tide. And it doesn’t get any easier with road games against Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State. Nevertheless, success for the Wolverines will turn on three things:

  1. Whether Denard Robinson can take the next step as a passer.
  2. Whether the back 7 can compensate for the severe lack of depth and experience on the defensive line.
  3. Whether Devin Gardner can provide some game-breaking ability at wideout.

Prediction: 9-3 (6-2 conference; 2nd place in the legends division) with losses against Alabama, Nebraska and Ohio State.

Michigan Spring Game: Hoke Springs Eternal [Part II]

Ah yes. It’s that time of the year. That time when endless speculation concerning the fate our beloved Wolverines reaches its zenith. Indeed, the annual Michigan Football Spring Game was yesterday, and the second for head coach Brady Hoke. The Wolverines are coming off of an impressive season that saw the team win 11 games including a win in the Sugar Bowl. Appropriately, anticipation is high.

While the Wolverines return 15 starters from last year (6 offense, 7 defense, K/P), they need to fill some big holes on the offensive and defensive lines. Nevertheless, the Wolverines are right to expect much out of this year. They still boast one of the nation’s most dangerous offenses with quarterback Denard Robinson under center. There’s also reason for optimism in the running game as Fitzgerald Toussaint returns as the starting tailback, and probably Michigan’s best since the days of Mike Hart. Defensively, the losses of Mike Hart and Ryan Van Bergen will be significant, but the back 7 is almost entirely intact.

As the endless speculation continues, here are some of my observations from yesterday’s game.*

  1. Toussaint looks poised to build upon his success last year. He runs with great anticipation and without hesitancy.
  2. Quarterback Russell Bellomy looked pretty comfortable in the pocket. They didn’t run anything complicated through or at him. But he’s certainly better than the Nick Sheridan or David Cones of the world
  3. I was ready to call Thomas Rawls the latest beneficiary of running back coach Fred Jackson’s hyperbolic tendencies, but then he broke a long one. He’s got great size, runs downhill, and appears to have good vision, which is key for a tailback.
  4. Devin Gardner = meh. Looked great running with the rock, but I really only saw one good throw, and it was probably a better catch by Jeremy Gallon
  5. I liked what I saw out of the O-Line (both 1st and 2nd units).
  6. Having said that, it may just be that our D-lines weren’t all that impressive.
  7. With Junior Hemingway gone and Daryl Stonum off the team, there isn’t a whole lot to be excited about in the passing game. But Jeremy Gallon made a great adjustment in the air to catch a Gardner Pass. He and opposite receiver Roy Roundtree will be leaned on heavily to make plays given how thin the Wolverines are at the position.
  8. It was nice to see cornerback Blake Countess picking up right where he left off from last year. Granted it wasn’t the greatest pass from Gardner, but Countess showed off some skills with the pick.
  9. Thank god I didn’t block out an afternoon to watch this game in person. It was easily the most boring, vanilla spring game I’ve seen in a long time.
  10. But maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe it’s a sign of stability for the Wolverines. After all, this is the first time since the Carr era that we’ve had the same quarterback and offensive/defensive coordinators in back-to-back years.

*I fully comprehend that the Spring Game is merely exhibition. While the game features live contact, the quarterbacks are coddled and neither coordinator shows a whole lot, so caveats abound.

Tales from the Deuce [My Michigan Football Preview]

2011 Michigan Football Preview

Head Coach: Brady Hoke: 47-50 lifetime; (0-0 at Michigan)

2010 Record: 7-6 (3-5 Conference)

Returning Starters: 16 (8 offense, 8 defense)

The Team, the team, the team . . . so said legendary head football coach Bo Schembechler, whose coaching philosophy was rooted in a belief that success on the football field required selflessness, discipline, toughness, and above all else, a dedication to “the team.” Though Schembechler’s rugged and tough team-first approach to coaching endured within the Michigan program, long after Schembechler last patrolled the sidelines, many believe that Michigan lost sight of this identity under most recent head coach Rich Rodriguez. Don’t worry, this isn’t a re-hashing of those brief and tumultuous years under Rodriguez; I’ve already done that. Rather, this is a look forward. Thankfully, the events of the last few months lead me to believe that newly installed head coach Brady Hoke has things looking up in Ann Arbor. Whether the fruits of Hoke’s labor are fully realized in year one is another matter.

Offense: Michigan returns 8 starters from a juggernaut offense that ranked 6th in the nation. With junior quarterback/superhuman freak/Sonic the Hedgehog clone Denard Robinson at the helm, no doubts exist as to the explosiveness of the offense. What lies in doubt is how quickly the offense, or more importantly Robinson, will adapt to the system installed by new offensive coordinator Al Borges. Doubt exists solely because Hoke prefers to run MANBALL, which is a pedestrian way of saying that Hoke wants to run a more physical pro-style offense. Despite Hoke’s preference, all indications are that we’ll see more spread than expected this year. A more gradual transition to MANBALL should help Denard, who is affected the most by this change in offensive philosophy.

While early returns on Denard’s adjustment to the new offense (e.g. the spring game) were less than encouraging, all indications are that he has improved dramatically since that time. Besides, ole’ Shoelace won’t have to do it alone. He’ll be aided by an experienced offensive line led by senior David Molk who is on the Rimington Watch List as the nation’s top collegiate center. There is also a lot of experience at the skill positions. Senior wide receiver Darryl Stonum’s speed will be missed on the outside, but junior Roy Roundtree and senior Junior Hemingway should help pick up the slack. On the ground, no player has emerged as the clear-cut leader. As of today, Mike Shaw and Fitzgerald Toussaint are vying for the top spot, with Shaw leading by a nose. Regardless, the lack of a clear leader at tailback is troubling; thankfully we have Denard. Last, but certainly not least is senior tight end and captain Kevin Koger, who is talented and figures to play a prominent role in Borges’ offense. Grade: B+

Defense: Before the announcement of Greg Mattison as the defensive coordinator, the best thing that I could say about the defense was that it couldn’t get any worse. With Mattison calling the shots on D, I expect marked improvement. For the first time in 3 years, Michigan will have a coherent strategy on defense. Gone is the much-maligned 3-3-5 alignment. In its place is the 4-3 that Michigan ran for years pre-Rodriguez. Once again, the defense will be led by superhuman senior defensive tackle Mike Martin, who should be less encumbered playing in a 4-man front. Other defensive standouts include senior corner Troy Woolfolk, who returns after missing all of last season due to a broken ankle, and middle linebacker Kenny Demens. Question marks abound on defense though. Will Craig Roh break through as the pass rusher Michigan needs? Is this the year Will Campbell makes his mark? Are we playing the right guys at the WILL and SAM linebacker positions? And finally, is JT Floyd the guy at the other corner spot? He’ll be pushed by freshman Blake Countess and sophomore Courtney Avery, but he should stick at that spot.  In any event, these are all tough questions to answer, but critical questions nonetheless. Grade: C

Special Teams: Michigan’s special teams units were a mixed bag last year. On one hand, punter Will Hagerup really came on last year as the punter many expected when he was recruited. On the other hand, kickers Seth Broekhuizen and Brandon Gibbons were so horrendous at times, that it severely limited what options Rodriguez had inside the 20. Fast forward to this year, and the picture is still hazy. Hagerup has since been suspended for the non-conference portion of the schedule for undisclosed reasons, leaving freshman stud Matt Wile (a kicker) as his replacement. Wile will also challenge at kicker where Gibbons appears to be the incumbent.  Questions also persist in the return game. Sophomore Jeremy Gallon again figures to play a prominent role as the return man, but that should give any fan pause, as he constantly struggled last year in the same capacity.  Grade: C-

Final Analysis: Michigan’s success turns on three issues: (1) how well Denard & company adapt to Borges’ tweaked offense; (2) whether guys like Cam Gordon, Craig Roh, Tom Gordon, and JT Floyd/Courtney Avery can take that next step as players; and (3) how healthy Michigan remains all year as that was a major issue last year. The resolution of these three issues will likely dictate how far Hoke can take these guys this year. Especially since the schedule is not very friendly. By my count, 5 games (WMU, EMU, SDSU, Minn., & Purdue) can be safely considered wins. I think 3 (MSU, Neb, Iowa) will be close, but probably losses.  That leaves 4 (Illinois, Northwestern, OSU and Notre Dame) up in the air.

Prediction: 8-4; we beat ND, Illinois, and OSU, only because we’re better than Illinois, and we play ND and OSU at home. OSU will be a tougher game than some think, but the coaches have placed a laser-like focus on the school down south, which will pay off in the end.

Michigan Spring Game: Hoke Springs Eternal

This Saturday, the University of Michigan football team plays its annual spring game. As the days draw closer, reports abound regarding which players have had a great spring, which ones have not, and how each unit looks. As in almost every other year, most reports will be positive. As such, the hope for a successful football season in the fall will likely be at its highest peak around this time of year. All of this despite the fact that the team hasn’t faced any real competition. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll be just as glued to the TV Saturday (Big Ten Network, noon EST) as the next guy. I’m just saying be careful not to read too much into what you see. With all of that said, here’s what I’ll be watching for this weekend, listed by priority. Continue reading

Tales from the Deuce

Enough Already!

Ever since Michigan AD David Brandon hired Brady Hoke in January, there has been an ongoing critique throughout the internets excoriating Hoke’s tough-guy mantra as many things, but mostly anachronistic (See MGoBlog generally or today’s column on Rivals by Jonathan Chait).  While I too questioned his hiring, and the manner in which it was done, I think it’s time to ease up on the criticism. Sure, Hoke has taken great pains to differentiate himself from his predecessor Rich Rodriguez.  But I’m willing to give Hoke the benefit of the doubt. Mostly because he’s turned around two moribund programs (San Diego State and Ball State). But also because he’s more interested in attitude than scheme. Unfortunately, most of the criticism from the aforementioned writers is focused on just that; scheme.

Both Chait and Cook express deep concern over the change in offensive scheme from Rodriguez’ high-flying spread to Hoke’s more conventional pro-style.  This criticism misses the mark. Football teams don’t win because of scheme; they win because they execute in all phases of the game.  While Rodriguez’ challenges in Ann Arbor were legion, his biggest obstacle was that he was a one-trick pony.  Rodriguez was focused more on installing his offense, and less on putting a complete football team on the field come Saturday. This claim may seem unfair.  But when you consider some of the issues that plagued his teams, particularly on defense (e.g., two different DCs, neither of which ever ran a 3-3-5), and that he impliedly admitted as much, it is at least a reasonable argument to make.

Of course none of this means that Hoke will succeed as Michigan’s head football coach. Saying that you wanna run “manball” won’t ensure success.  Indeed, it will be no small task getting these kids to buy into his brand of football. Maybe that means that it takes a few more years for Michigan to truly be “back.” But hey, I’m willing to wait. Especially if that means that our team has an identity that isn’t rooted in incompetence at the expense of some highfalutin’ scheme.

Tales from the Deuce

Away We Go

As predicted, Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon relieved Rich Rodriguez of his duties as head football coach yesterday.  Brandon cited Rodriguez’ lack of success over his three year tenure as a primary factor in his decision.  In particular, Rodriguez’ record against his rivals, or as Brandon put it, the “red letter games” against teams like Notre Dame, Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State.   Having dispensed with Rodriguez’ dismissal, Brandon then addressed his approach for hiring a successor.  Brandon stated that while he understood the need to replace Rodriguez quickly, he would be motivated by making sure he got “exactly the right person to come in and be successful.”  So here we are.   Back where we were three years ago.  If you recall, it was a pretty bumpy ride the last time Michigan looked for a new head coach, and the past week’s events seem to indicate that we’re in for the same experience.  While you’re sure to hear a bunch of names thrown into the mix, here are the guys I would call (in order of preference) if I were Dave Brandon.  But before I move on, I should note that Jim Harbaugh is (regrettably) not on the list.  Between his (Jim) brother John saying he’s not coming to Michigan, and Brandon acknowledging the same in his press conference yesterday, it’s safe to say that he will not be Michigan’s next head football coach.

1.  Dan Mullen

The current head coach of the Mississippi State Bulldogs and former offensive coordinator for the Florida Gators has put together an impressive resume.  As the steward of the Florida Gators’ offense over the course of 4 years, Mullen flourished, helping the Gators win a national championship.  As the head coach of the Bulldogs, Mullen has compiled a 14-11 record in two seasons, including a 52-14 walloping of our beloved Wolverines in this year’s Gator Bowl.

Pros: He runs a similar offense, so there wouldn’t be a huge adjustment period.  He appears to be a solid recruiter and he has worked well with quarterbacks in the past (Tim Tebow and Alex Smith).

Cons: The ink is not yet dry on a new 4-year contract extension.  So leaving for Michigan now might present a similar set of circumstances as three years ago when Rodriguez departed West Virginia with a big buyout hanging over his head.  Also, defensive “prodigy” Manny Diaz has just been hired away from the Bulldogs to be the defensive coordinator at Texas

Likelihood: 20%

2.  Jon Gruden

Jon Gruden would be a nice consolation prize for those of us that clamored for Harbaugh.  As a coach in the NFL, he was one of the most successful during his tenure, with a record of 100-85 that included a Super Bowl win in 2002 with the Tampa Bay Buccanneers.  As a coach of the Oakland Raiders prior, he helped build a great team that made it to the AFC Championship game and then the Super Bowl the next year.  While he currently serves as an analyst and commentator for the worldwide leader, he continues to be rumored for a wide variety of jobs in both college and the NFL.  Most importantly, he’s a high energy guy with a high football IQ and he has a passion for the game that is rivaled by few.

Pros: While he has limited college experience, he could achieve the same type of recruiting success as former NFL-to-college coaches such as Dave Wannstedt, Bill Callahan, and even Chan Gailey.  Where he would be different is that he was a highly successful coach in the NFL, whereas the others were not.  He would also be the sort of high-profile hire that would rally the fan base.

Cons: He’s a pro guy so there could be a steeper learning curve than desired.  Babysitting 18-22 year olds would be quite a change from life in the NFL.  Also, while he’s constantly mentioned as a coaching candidate, he seems more content working in television; and that’s assuming Brandon would actually consider him.

Likelihood: 5%

3.  Gary Patterson

All you have to do is watch how Patterson’s team performed against the mighty Wisconsin Badgers in the Rose Bowl to know whether the guy can coach.  While some predicted the Badgers would roll, TCU proved that even with smaller but more athletic players, you can still be physical.  As the head coach of the Horned Frogs, Patterson has assembled a powerhouse program in the Mountain West Conference, boasting a 98-28 record over the last decade.  While Patterson took over a program on the rise, his predecessor Dennis Franchione never achieved anything close to what Patterson has done.

Pros: You wouldn’t be exaggerating if you said Patterson was the best coach in America.  He’s figured out how to do more with less, proving that he can hang with the big boys.  At 50 years of age, he’s just old enough to be content staying at Michigan; something we couldn’t say about Harbaugh.  And he runs a similar offense to Rodriguez so there wouldn’t be a huge adjustment period.

Cons: Like Gruden, he’s routinely mentioned as a candidate for coaching vacancies.  However, he’s never given any indication that he’s interested in leaving TCU.  Further, he has no Midwest ties; something that Brandon mentioned as a desired attribute for the next coach.

Likelihood: 20%

4.  Brady Hoke

Among the many names being mentioned as Michigan’s next coach, Brady Hoke is no doubt the redheaded stepchild.  Indeed, no name has drawn more ire amongst the Michigan faithful as Hoke.  This, despite the fact that he has put together a not-too-shabby resume.  Many think that the only reason that Hoke is being mentioned as a candidate is because of his relationship to the program, as a defensive line coach under Lloyd Carr.  But that would be ignoring the fact that he’s taken two perennial losers to levels unseen prior.

Pros: He’s the only “Michigan Man” on the list.  He’s also a terrific coach.  Anyone that can take the Ball State Cardinals to a 12-1 record, thus achieving the best record in school history, knows how to coach.  He’s done the same thing with the San Diego Aztecs, taking over a moribund program and turning it around in two years.

Cons: He lacks the “it” factor.  With a 47-50 record, he doesn’t move the needle like the others on the list, nor many that have been mentioned elsewhere.  Further, he has few (1-10) wins against ranked opponents.

Likelihood: 40%

You might read this list and think “that’s it?”  Well, if you consider all the factors that are at play in this decision, Brandon’s focus is likely pretty narrow.  In yesterday’s press conference Brandon stated that he is looking for an individual that possesses the following characteristics

  • Midwestern ties
  • Previous head coaching experience
  • A capacity to adapt to the skill set of his players
  • An understanding of what Michigan football is and it’s standards

This immediately eliminates guys like Boise State’s Chris Peterson, Utah’s Kyle Whittingham (and probably Gary Patterson), and any high-profile assistant coaches.  Regardless, it will be pretty interesting to follow the process; doubtless we’ll all be sitting on pins and needles.