Thursday, August 30, 2018

EGD's Michigan Football Preview 2018 -- Part 7: Safeties, Viper

In an earlier installment of this series, I wrote that the 2017 Michigan defense had two distinct weaknesses.  One—discussed in that earlier piece—was the ability of opponents with skilled receiving backs to exploit weakside linebacker Mike McCray in space.  The other was that Michigan’s safeties, Tyree Kinnel (FS) and Josh Metellus (SS) were vulnerable to vertical passing routes in the slot.

On further examination, however, I am not sure I agree that vertical slot routes was such a consistent weakness after all.  Rather, it was a vulnerability that one team, Penn State, mercilessly exploited.  There was this desperation heave to 6’7” jump-ball specialist Mike Gesicki.  There was this one-handed grab by another Penn State receiver.  There was a straight up fade to Saquon Barkley—though really just another example of McCray getting worked in space.  There was even this slant route that abused Kinnel to the tune of 26 yards.   

The Penn State coaches might have detected this weakness by watching M’s game film from the Cininnati game, in which some no-name slot receiver dusted Metellus for what should have been a walk-in touchdown had the QB not overthrown him.  After the Penn State game, however, M seems to have adjusted to the problem.  Subsequent opponents were not able to even approach Penn State’ success on the vertical slot routes.  

Yet opposing offenses still found success against Michigan in the slot, whether through late improvisations on scramble drills, seeing-eye Hornibrook balls, or the deadly crossing routes to K.J. HIll that largely cost Michigan the Ohio State game.  Those plays may have taken great execution, but they still happened though—and that about sums up the state of Michigan’s safeties.  Kinnel and Metellus are solid and responsible; they are not the murderous turnover-machines that teams like USC, OSU, and Alabama consistently field at safety.  Even, sadly, when J.T. Barrett throws one right to you.

With McCray giving way to faster, more athletic linebackers and substantially all of Michigan’s other key defensive players from 2017 returning except Mo Hurst, ratcheting up the slot coverage a few notches is priority #1 for Don Brown and his charges.  Solve that issue and avoid springing a new leak somewhere else, and the 2018 defense should be the best Michigan has put on the field since Charles Woodson was in town.  

As for personnel, Kinnel is now a senior and very much the “old man” of Michigan’s starting defensive backfield.  While he’s a reasonably good athlete with strong coverage chops, he’s not the kind of dominant talent who can expect to shut down an electric slot like K.J. Hill on pure talent alone.  But safety is definitely a position that favors the savvy veteran, so hopefully all the years of (Michigan secondary coach Mike) Zordich yelling at him will pay off with a monster senior season.  Anyway Hill’s a special case; Michigan will probably have to play its best cover corner, Lavert Hill, on K.J. when the time comes— look for Kinnel to stone his own slot responsibilities in the meantime. 

As for the box safety, Metellus has reportedly locked the job down again despite a bit of a push from heavy-hitting J’Marick Woods and converted WR Brad Hawkins.  And that’s pretty much good news, really.  Yeah, Metellus didn’t catch that pick against Ohio State but overall he’s pretty much what you want in a box safety: decent speed, knows where he needs to be, physical tackler.  Now he’s got a whole year of starting experience under his belt, so life slows down and the 2018 version of Metellus catches that ball.  I mean, his hair is way too cool not to give him another chance. 

Backups are not much of an issue.  Woods, your resident head-hunting style safety, has played some already and looks competent.  He’ll get time behind Metellus and should do well with it.   At the free, M has the coverage sprite Jalyn Kelly-Powell and the mysterious Hawkins—neither of whom we’ve seen.  Hawkins has the more prototypical size and likely the more well-rounded game, but probably doesn’t see the field outside garbage time unless Kinnel gets dinged.  JKP is more of an undersized CB/S tweener known for his coverage skills—which potentially makes him a useful situational piece right away.  

Speaking of hybrids, Don Brown doesn’t play a traditional strongside linebacker (except in certain packages) and instead seeks out and fields a spread-killing LB/S combo player that he likes to call “Viper.”  His first Michigan Viper was Jabrill Peppers, of course, the guy who came to Ann Arbor back in 2014 as the #2-ranked high school player in the entire country and was expected to spent the next few years forcing Big Ten offensive coordinators to delete the “screen pass” pages from their playbooks.  

Peppers was named an AP all-American first-teamer in 2016 and then declared for the NFL Draft, where he was taken in the first round.  So that’s a pretty high standard to match.  And yet Peppers’ successor as the Michigan Viper, Khaleke Hudson, looks well on his way to doing precisely that.  

Peppers, its worth noting, played at about 205 lbs. at Michigan.  He began his career as a boundary corner and might well have wound up a traditional safety—which is what the Cleveland Browns seem to think he is.  Maybe that makes sense in the NFL—the EGD don’t know, he don’t watch the NFL.  But Michigan’s a college team that needs a super-fast guy at the linebacker level to deal with spread offenses, and so they made Peppers a tiny linebacker.  And he was great at it—as long as he didn’t need to take on blocks, which he generally didn’t because he played behind a defensive line with guys like Chris Wormley, Ryan Glasgow, Willie Henry, and Taco Charlton.  

Khaleke Hudson isn’t a defensive back playing in a linebacker’s spot.  He’s a true hybrid player, at 220 lbs.  He tackles skill players in space about as well as Peppers did.  But he’s a superior blitzer and can discard a blocker when he needs to.  Hudson has also shown a knack for stripping the ball and generally creating havoc in opposing backfields.  Now that he’s a junior, expect even more destruction.

This is hopefully an academic discussion, but officially the backup viper is the third amazing Glasgow brother, Jordan.  But there’s a good chance the real viper backup is actually Josh Metellus, seeing as J’Marick Woods might well be a better box safety than Glasgow is a viper, and Metellus is kind of a poor man’s Jabrill Peppers.  But seriously, Khaleke, stay healthy bro.     

Bottom Line: Safeties & Viper
Probable starters: Tyree Kinnel (FS), Josh Metellus (SS), Khaleke Hudson (Viper)
Key backups: J’Marick Woods, Jaylyn Kelly-Powell, Jordan Glasgow 
Other possible options: Brad Hawkins, freshmen
Position grade: A-
Michigan has two responsible, reasonably athletic safeties with plenty of experience, a viper who’s the Rogue One version of Darth Vader in a winged helmet, and a little bit of depth.  

Sunday, August 26, 2018

EGD's Michigan Football Preview 2018 -- Part 6: Offensive Line

So, I logged into MGoBlog yesterday afternoon to check on things and was surprised to see a thread celebrating the actual start of the college football season.  Granted, the only FBS game was Hawaii @ Colorado State and the announcers readily referred to the affair as “week zero.”  But it’s pretty clear nonetheless that time is running short.  Michigan kicks off at Notre Dame in just six days and I still have a good five or six position groups to cover (depending on how they are classified).  Plus I was hoping to do a couple separate pieces on offensive and defensive schematics, which are not looking likely at the moment.  So in an effort to complete this preview before Michigan’s season actually starts, I’ll be going a bit less in-depth from here on out and just focusing on the most important information.  To that end, let’s go ahead and get started with Michigan’s 2018 offensive line. 

Ever since Jim Harbaugh returned to Ann Arbor, Michigan fans have looked forward to an offensive line resembling the dominant gap-blocking units Harbaugh assembled at Stanford.  For a multiplicity of reasons, that has not yet happened.  The 2015 and 2016 lines were underwhelming in the running game, though outstanding at pass protection.  But after that cohort of linemen largely graduated following the 2016 season, Michigan was left with a truly problematic line for 2017.  With LT prospect Logan Tuley-Tillman having been dismissed from the team in late 2015, Grant Newsome unable to return after a gruesome knee injury in 2016, losing top OT prospect Devery Hamilton to Stanford on a late flip in the 2016 recruiting cycle and then 5-star “silent commit” Isaiah Wilson flipping to Georgia in the 2017 class, the Wolverines simply could not buy a break at the OT position.  Michigan would reap the wages of this misfortune in 2017.

5-star prospect Isaiah Wilson had "silently committed" to
Michigan for 2017.  He decided to attend Georgia instead.
Mason Cole had played two seasons at left tackle, but moved to his natural position—center—in 2016.  M’s crisis at OT forced Michigan to move Cole back to LT at the start of 2017, however, thus making Cole’s backup (Patrick Kugler) the starting center.  But while the Cole/Kugler combo at LT/C was a frustrating downgrade from the Newsome/Cole combination that should have been, this issue paled in comparison to M’s problems on the right side.  M would begin the year with Nolan Ulizio starting at RT, but he soon proved ineffective and was replaced with Juwann Bushell-Beatty—a powerful run blocker who struggled mightily in pass protection. 

The tackles were not the only trouble spots on the 2017 line.  Both guards were second-year players (sophomore Ben Bredeson and redshirt freshman Michael Onwenu), and their inexperience would lead to costly mistakes.  Then, the offensive line coaching duties were unorthodoxly divided between gap-blocking maven Tim Drevno, who coached the interior line, and zone guru Greg Frey, who coached the tackles.  All of these potential issues would proceed to go about as poorly as possible.

At the start of the season, with the athletically-limited Ulizio at RT and the offense heavy on zone runs, Michigan struggled to run the ball consistently.  Difficulty in the running game could be tolerated so long as the line could pass block, but M’s pass protection was positively horrendous.  Michigan surrendered five sacks to Florida in their opener, gave up three more sacks against the woeful defenses of Cincinnati and Air Force, and then five more in their first Big Ten game at Purdue.  One of the Purdue sacks, a defense player came down hard on QB Wilton Speight’s neck and caused a spinal injury that ended his season.  A week later, the Michigan offensive line would allow four more sacks as Michigan sustained its first loss of the season—a forgettable 14-10 sludgefart in the driving rain against Michigan State.

The following week, Michigan replaced Ulizio with JBB at right tackle and redevoted itself to gap blocking offensive schemes.  The Wolverines ran for 271 yards and, for the first time all season, did not give up a sack.  The rushing production held up, as M rushed for 334 yards two weeks later against Rutgers, and 371 yards in the following game against Minnesota.  But the lack of QB sacks proved more a fluke against an overmatched opponent than a product of quality protection.  Minnesota recorded three sacks against Michigan, including this haymaker.  While QB Brandon Peters would somehow walk away from that hit unscathed, the lack of protection would catch up with him eventually; Peters sustained a concussion on a vicious hit from a Wisconsin defender and missed the rest of that game and the Ohio State game a week later.

When the dust settled on the 2017 season, two of Michigan’s three quarterbacks had missed games to injuries inflicted by pass rushers, the record was a disappointing 8-5, and Michigan’s best lineman, Mason Cole, had exhausted his eligibility.  Even so, only the most insufferable pessimist would fail to see the reasons for expecting 2018 to go much better.

Importantly, the main problem with M’s pass protection in 2017 was not with inferior athletes being physically beaten by opposing rushers; rather, M’s inexperienced linemen struggled to pick up simple twists and stunts and had great difficulty with zone blitzes and other schemes designed to confuse pass protectors.  The result was not poor blocks and quick pressures, but missed assignments and free rushers.  Chances seem very good that players like Bredeson and Onwenu, now with significant playing experience, will cope more successfully with DL tactics at this stage in their careers.  Redshirt junior Jon Runyan Jr., who has supposedly locked up the starting LT job, gives M at least one upperclassman on the edge.

Second, taking over at center is sophomore Cesar Ruiz, who came to Michigan last season as one of the highest-rated recruits in school history and immediately proved it—forcing his way into the lineup and threatening Onewenu for his starting spot at RG.  Ruiz should be an upgrade over Kugler at the center position, giving M one of the best interior OL groups (LG-C-RG) of any team anywhere. 

Third, M finally has some help coming from the recruiting ranks at OT.  Four-star defensive tackle prospect James Hudson flipped to offense in fall camp last year and is now pushing JBB to start at right tackle.  True freshman Jalen Mayfield was reportedly in the mix as well earlier in fall camp; the chatter on him has died down but freshman OL don’t pop in fall training camp unless they show up with advanced technique or ludicrous physical talent.  Mayfield.  Another third promising young tackle, redshirt freshman Andrew Stueber, is working back from injury and provides depth if nothing else. 

Fourth, Michigan’s 2018 quarterback situation should be at least somewhat more forgiving of dodgy pass protection.  Shea Patterson gets the ball out quickly, and his mobility is decidedly superior to Wilton Speight’s and at least comparable to John O’Korn’s or Brandon Peters.’  His skill set should ratchet down the degree of difficult for M’s line a at least notch or two this season.

Fifth, and perhaps most importantly, Michigan cut ties with Tim Drevno over the offseason and Greg Frey went to Florida State—and hired in their place renowned offensive line coach Ed Warinner.  Now, this is kind of an odd thing to view as an improvement because both Drevno and Frey are highly accomplished OL coaches in their own rights.  Yet Frey’s zone-blocking style proved a poor fit with Harbaugh’s offensive approach, and Drevno was not able to simply focus on the offensive line at Michigan.  Rather, Drevno’s status demanded a bump in title and responsibility, so he was the “run game coordinator” and co-offensive coordinator with Pep Hamilton.  Whether he was distracted by his additional responsibilities, overwhelmed, or whatever it was, Drevno had a rough year.  He couldn’t get his offensive guards on the same page with the tackles, seems to have needed Harbaugh to step in and fix the running game after the MSU loss, and ultimately gathered the offensive linemen together and apologized to them for his poor coaching before resigning in February. 

Enter Ed Warinner, whose bio includes coordinating the offense for the miraculous 12-1 Kansas team from 2007, coaching Brian Kelly’s offensive line in 2010-11, and coordinating Ohio State’s offense under Urban Meyer from 2012-2016.  He’s not going to be any kind of step down from Drevno or Frey; indeed, Warinner looks to be another coach in the mold of Greg Mattison or Don Brown: an a super assistant who embraces and excels at being an assistant.  That seems like just what the doctor ordered for the 2018 Michigan offensive line.

When the season kicks off, look for a starting line of Runyan (LT), Bredeson (LG), Ruiz (C), Onewenu (RG), and Bushell-Beatty (RT).  That’s a veteran line that should open holes in the running game and minimize confusion errors in pass protection.  As the season wears on, look for Hudson or possible Andrew Stueber to push through into the starting lineup—likely giving M a boost in strength and athleticism.  In case of injury, look for Spanellis to replace any of the interior three, while Hudson and Stueber vie for the backup tackle role. 

Bottom Line: Offensive Line

Probable starters: Jon Runyan Jr., Ben Bredeson, Cesar Ruiz, Michael Onwenu, Juwann Bushell-Beatty
Key backups: Stephen Spanellis, James Hudson
Other possible options: Andrew Stueber, Jalen Mayfield, Nolan Ulizio
Position grade: C+
Cesar Ruiz is likely to establish himself as an elite lineman by the time he is done at Michigan, but this is his first season starting and it may not happen right away.  Bredeson is a solid B1G lineman who can realistically content for all-conference honors this season.  After that, M is hoping for average production—which would be a significant improvement over last season’s catastrophe.  Right guard should be solid, whether it’s Onewenu or Spanellis, but Runyan and JBB could very well prove to be liability starters at the OT spots and an injury to either player could be devastating if the freshmen aren’t ready.  The best hope is for Runyan to surprise and for Hudson to break through early on. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

EGD's Michigan Football Preview 2018 -- Part 5: Quarterbacks

The name “Anthony Standifer” is not one that carries much meaning for the vast majority of Michigan fans. 

Perhaps those who watch a lot of college football in general recognize Mr. Standifer as a middling defensive back prospect who played one season for the Ole Miss Rebels before transferring to Eastern Illinois and playing out his career in obscurity.  But Michigan?  What’s Anthony Standifer got to do with the Michigan Wolverines?

Nothing, really.  Indeed, “nothing” might even pass for a satisfactory answer to some.  For those who have studied Michigan Football for far too long, however, watching with intense frustration almost every year as some strange culimination of minor butterfly effects conspires to rob the Wolverines of glory, Mr. Standifer’s connection with the program is clear.  And profound. 

You see, Anthony Standifer grew up in the far south suburbs of Chicago, in a town called Crete on the Cook County-Will County line.  There, he was a star player for his high school football team, the Crete-Monee Warriors—helping them to an undefeated regular season and 10-1 finish in his senior year.  He caught plenty of attention from college scouts as a cornerback prospect, drawing a three-star ranking and earning offers from Power-5 programs like Iowa, Pittsburgh, even Notre Dame.  And Michigan. 

Now, Standifer was star on the Warriors football team and a nice college prospect; he wasn’t the star.  Standifer’s best friend, a year behind him at Crete-Monee, was a player the prep scouts generally agreed was the top wide receiver prospect in the country.  That player, Laquon Treadwell, would receive scholarship offers from substantially every major college football program and finish his recruiting cycle as the #1-ranked WR prospect and #5 overall recruit on  In 2016, the Minnesota Vikings would select him in the first round of the NFL entry draft.  Five years earlier, in 2011, Michigan wanted Anthony Standifer to play on their defense.  But they really wanted Laquon Treadwell to play wide receiver.

No defensive back prospect anywhere in the country could be seriously faulted for declining a Michigan offer in early 2011, when Standifer received his.  The 2010 Michigan secondary had been an epic dumpster fire, and though Rich Rod and his failed defensive staff were gone his replacement did not inspire a ton of confidence.  Yet Standifer was undeterred, and committed to Brady Hoke and the Wolverines in June 2011.  

His friend and teammate’s verbal pledge to the Wolverines did not hurt their standing with Treadwell; Michigan was widely reported to as the leader for his services both before and during Standifer’s commitment, with college football recruitniks penciling Treadwell in for Michigan on various “way too early” signing day projections.  

Successive developments could only have boosted Standifer’s (and Treadwell’s) assurance in the program. The 2011 Michigan team won eleven games, including an UTL I thriller against Notre Dame, a 40-34 shootout against Luke Fickell’s Buckeyes, and a head-scratching Houdini act against Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl.  The defense, headed by elite defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, rebounded from a dismal #81 ranking on the S&P+ for 2010 to a very respectable #23 finish in 2011.  The team as a whole finished 11-2 and ranked #12 in the nation—the first time the program had ended a season with a top-25 ranking since Lloyd Carr’s farewell 2007 campaign.  

So it was quite the surprise when news broke in December 2011 that Standifer had withdrawn his commitment from Michigan.  Two months later, Standifer faxed his signed letter of intent to Oxford, Mississippi, home of the 2-11 Ole Miss Rebels.

Missing out on Anthony Standifer was a minor setback for Michigan, who nonetheless signed the nation’s #6-ranked recruiting class that season and has consistently fielded quality cornerbacks ever since GMat returned to the Big House.  Michigan remained the leader for Treadwell, and hopeful fans eagerly anticipated a five-star haul at QB (Shane Morris 😐), running back (Derrick Green 😞), and wide receiver for signing day 2013.  

But with his boy in Oxford rather than A2, Treadwell’s interest in the Wolverines slowly waned over the ensuing year.  Finally, on December 16, 2012, Treadwell disclosed that he’d eliminated Michigan from consideration in his recruitment.  Six weeks later, Treadwell too would commit to the Ole Miss Rebels.

Now, for Michigan to lose out on football commits to programs like Alabama and Ohio State is certainly understandable from one side of the equation, and losing out on recruits to Stanford or Northwestern (ah, okay, M doesn’t lose out on recruits to Northwestern) is understandable from another.  But losing recruits to a longstanding SEC punching bag with a mediocre academic reputation, known mostly for unapologetic racism, did not add up.  So Laquon had to add it up for us, which he did by tweeting out photos from Oxford recruiting visit with large stacks of cash and plenty of Rebel “hostesses.”

In subsequent years, of course, the brazen cheating at Hugh Freeze’s Ole Miss program would become a widespread joke among college football fans, until the NCAA finally stepped in with notices of allegations in 2016 and 2017.  The investigation would uncover what anyone who follows college football recruiting pretty much expected—a long-running scheme of directing cash payments and cars to recruits and enrolled athletes, tampering with ACT scores, and various & sundry other “impermissible inducements.”  As if that wasn’t enough, another story broke that outed Head Coach Hugh Freeze for repeatedly using his university-issued mobile phone to contact escort services while on recruiting trips.  The scandals forced out Freeze, one of multiple Ole Miss coaches to be issued a “show cause” order that prohibits contact with recruits, and the program was sanctioned with scholarship reductions and a two-year post-season ban.  

Being the bullshit, doormat program that they are, from Ole Miss’ perspective the sanctions were probably worth it.  After finishing 2-10 the season before Freeze arrived, Ole Miss went 34-18 over the next four seasons—including a 10-3 season in 2015 that included a win over top-ranked Alabama and a top-10 finish in the AP poll.  Those 34 wins may be vacated, but vacating Ole Miss’ wins does not erase the pain those 34 teams that lost those games endure any more than sanctioning Hugh Freeze or banning Ole Miss from bowl contention puts Anthony Standifer and Laquon Treadwell back on Michigan ‘s roster.  There truly is no justice with NCAA investigations, only pain. Except, perhaps, when karma gets involved.

The top overall recruit in the 2016 class, defensive end Rashan Gary, signed with Michigan after a protracted recruiting battle with Clemson that reportedly went down to the wire. Clemson did sign the #2 player, defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence.  But Ole Miss, despite receiving its first NCAA notice of allegations just two weeks earlier, signed both the #3 and #4 ranked players in 2016: offensive tackle Greg Little, and quarterback Shea Patterson.

Patterson would go on to enroll at Ole Miss and start ten games at QB over the 2016 and 2017 seasons. He played seven of those games as a sophomore, posting a gaudy 151.5 QB rating and 8.7 yards per attempt, before suffering a season-ending injury against LSU.  But then, news of Ole Miss’ post-season ban came down.

Having already played two seasons for Ole Miss, the two-year post-season ban would effectively preclude Patterson from playing for any kind championship or bowl appearance throughout the rest of his Ole Miss career.  So Patterson, along with at least five teammates, decided to transfer. 

Ordinarily, undergraduate student-athletes who transfer from one FBS program to another are ineligible for one year from the date of transfer.  But Patterson is a major NFL prospect, projected as a first-round selection for 2019.  So his basic menu of options wasn’t terrific: (1) stay at Ole Miss and get his ass kicked on a depleted, sanctioned team for a year, then go pro; (2) transfer to an FBS program, sit out one year, and then either play another 1-2 years of college ball or go pro with a likely reduced draft grade; or (3) transfer to an FCS program and play immediately, but receive (probably) inferior coaching and minimal exposure.

An NCAA rule change adopted in February 2016, however, authorized a waiver from the one-year transfer disqualification for a player whose “safety and well-being” was jeopardized by a previous coaching staff’s “egregious behavior.”  For Patterson and the five other Ole Miss defectors, this rule created a possible fourth option: transfer to another FBS program, secure a waiver, and play immediately.  But had Hugh Freeze and his assistants truly subjected Patterson or his teammates to “egregious behavior” that put their safety and well-being at risk? 

Patterson and the Rebel 6, who claimed Ole Miss tricked them into enrolling by downplaying the NCAA allegations and lying about the potential sanctions, believed they could make that showing.  So in December 2017, Patterson and his teammates began touring other prominent FBS programs, intending on transferring and seeking waivers for immediate eligibility.  Michigan hosted three of those players—Patterson, top safety Deontay Anderson, and wide receiver Van Jefferson—and likely would have signed all three of them had they the necessary academic qualifications.  Anderson and Jefferson did not—but Patterson did, and started classes in Ann Arbor in January 2018.

Now, the EGD has always found Patterson’s claim (that he was deceived into enrolling at Ole Miss) a bit dubious.  Actually, a lot dubious.  As noted above, the rampant cheating and improper benefits scandals at Ole Miss were an open secret for years before the NCAA got involved, and if it was obvious to college football fans then it should have been even more obvious to someone like Patterson—who played at IMG Academy (a Florida high school that recruits and provides advanced coaching and guidance for top athletes in a number of sports),  visited the schools both officially and unofficially, and had access to qualified advisors--including his own brother, who was on the Ole Miss staff.  That a two-year post-season ban—a fairly common sanction leveled for these types of infractions—could be (indeed, likely would be) imposed for Freeze’s flagrant clownshow of NCAA violations could hardly have been surprising.  

Ole Miss didn't buy it either, and formally objected to Patterson’s waiver request—setting up a showdown between Patterson and Ole Miss in some NCAA adjudicative tribunal.  But that showdown never happened.  Whether because Patterson had additional dirt on Ole Miss (EGD’s theory) or because all the grown-ups decided that the best interests of the student-athlete should take precedence (the official line), the parties ultimately worked out a negotiated resolution whereby Patterson toned-down the rhetoric of his application enough for Ole Miss to support it, and the NCAA rubber-stamped the waiver.  Patterson was now a Wolverine, and cleared to play immediately.

 M will probably only have Patterson for one season, two max.  But if he can post another 151.5 QB rating over 12+ games at Michigan, it’ll go a long way toward paying off that Laquon Treadwell-sized karmic debt that Mississippi owes the Blue.

And Patterson got a good start on this in spring camp, reportedly impressing his new coaches enough that he led for the starting job by the end of the session.  He solidified that lead enough in fall camp that the notoriously tight-lipped Harbaugh had already named him the starter for Michigan’s opener by the middle of August.  

Since there was no spring game this year, we have yet to see Patterson run a play in a winged helmet.  But Patterson’s seven 2017 games at Ole Miss should provide a fairly good preview of what we can expect.

The first thing you’ll notice about Patterson is the athleticism to extend plays.  He shows escapability in the pocket, can scramble some, and throws accurately on the run.  Denard Robinson he is not; he’s closer to Tate Forcier—though with a better arm and less of the insanity.  You’d have to go further back, though, for what I’d consider his best M comp: a guy who wore No. 7.

Patterson is an outstanding short game QB.  He’s got a quick release, makes fast, accurate RPO reads and gets a catchable ball to the edge accurately and with zip.  His deep ball—like practically any college QB—is inconsistent, but he has plenty of arm strength and excels at throwing open big receivers.  

On the negative side, Patterson is prone to taking chances downfield, and his unwillingness to give up on plays will sometimes lead him to force balls into coveragecheck down unwisely, fire lasers to hopelessly-covered receivers, or attempt reverse-field stunts.  But, hey, sometimes it works.    

All in all though, Patterson looks like an outstanding pickup for Harbaugh and the Wolverine offense. He’s experienced, has great physical tools, and he’s produced on the field.  

How well Patterson ultimately does at Michigan appears likely to turn on two key points.  First, how quickly and effectively will he adjust to Harbaugh’s offense?  The scheme Patterson ran at Ole Miss used predominately 10 (one running back, no TEs) and 11 (one running back, one TE) personnel, and most of their plays were RPOs (“run-pass options”) involving almost exclusively zone blocking paired with quick slants, pop passes, and deep routes.  It was Patterson’s job to catch the shotgun snap, mesh with a running back while reading a key defender, and correctly decide whether to complete the handoff (if the key dropped into coverage) or pull the ball back and throw (if the key committed to the run).  

This run-pass option (RPO) play pairs inside zone with a slot fade or stick route.  The QB meshes with the RB and reads the circled defender after the snap.  If the circled defender follows the Y receiver into coverage, then the QB completes the handoff and offense runs inside zone with a blocker for every frontside defender.  If the circled stays low to defend the run, then the QB pulls the ball and should have the Y receiver open in the seam.  In some versions of this play ("stick"), the Y receiver will stop his route in front of the deep safety
Michigan, by contrast, prefers heavier personnel groupings—using an array of fullbacks, H-backs, and tight ends on substantially every play.  And though Michigan is reportedly incorporating more RPO concepts into its offense, the M running game is almost certain to remain heavily gap-based after last season’s disastrous experiment with zone schemes.  Patterson will need to show he can be as effective in managing Michigan’s gap-based running schemes in heavy personnel groups as he was with zone concepts in Ole Miss’ spread offense.

The second key point in Patterson’s success is largely outside his control.  Michigan’s offensive line struggled terribly in pass protection last season, with inexperienced new starters struggling to pick up twists, stunts, and blitzes.  Free rushers  claimed Wilton Speight in week four, landed Brandon Peters in the concussion protocol against Wisconsin, and forced Harbaugh to start John O’Korn in key games against Michigan State, Penn State, and OSU.  Patterson’s escapability should certainly help him, no doubt.  But to produce the kind of numbers he’s capable of, he'll absolutely need better pass protection than what M produced last year.  If he gets it, and the EGD thinks he will, then watch out.
Patterson’s primary backup in 2018 will be redshirt sophomore Brandon Peters, who started five games in 2017 and did not exactly light the Big Ten on fire, posting just a 113.6 efficiency rating on 6.2 yards per attempt.  He was dreadful in the Outback Bowl against South Carolina, completing just 20/44 passes for 186 yards and tossing two interceptions.  But it’s important to remember he did that as just a redshirt freshman.  As a cerebral QB in the mold of a Todd Collins or Brian Greise, Peters will reach his ceiling only after mastering the nuances of the offense and developing advanced technique and muscle memory.  He wasn’t ready in 2017; he may or may not be ready in 2018.  But Perters can be a solid backup to Patterson, a superior athlete much closer to his maximum potential.  Hopefully that’s all M will need.

Two other QBs likely to see a few snaps this season are redshirt freshman Dylan McCaffrey and true freshman Joe Milton.  McCaffrey—son of Ed, brother of Christian—is another lanky pro-style prospect who some insist outranks Peters on the depth chart.  That seems unlikely—though nobody outside Schembechler Hall really knows these things for sure.  Either way, McCaffrey enrolled at M too skinny for the college game last season and has reportedly thickened up enough for prime time.  If M can secure some blowout snaps, we might get a chance to see what her can do.  

Milton’s a Pahokee kid with a rocket launcher for an arm, and will likely see time this season only because of a new NCAA rule change that allows a player to compete in up to four games without burning his redshirt.  More on him next year then.  This year belongs to Shea Patterson.

Bottom Line: Quarterbacks

Probable starter: Shea Patterson 
Key backups: Brandon Peters, Dylan McCaffrey 
Other possible options: Joe Milton
Position grade: A-
I had estimated this position group about a B or B+ until I watched Patterson’s film.  He’s a legit player and the only serious question is how well (and how quickly) he’ll mesh with his new teammates and Harbaugh’s schemes.  Then M has an experienced backup in Peters and developmental talent for the future in McCaffrey and Milton.  Pretty damn good.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

EGD's Michigan Football Preview 2018 -- Part 4: Defensive Line

The NFL is often said to be a quarterback’s league.  Certainly it takes much more than a good quarterback to compete for championships (as the plenty of Detroit Lions fans reading this post have undoubtedly observed). But in the NFL, without a good QB you don’t even have a chance.  A quarterback has won the AP Most Valuable Player award in ten out of the last eleven seasons, and 41 times overall (in the 60 seasons the award has been given). Only eight active QBs have won Super Bowls (Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Joe Flacco, and Nick Floes), and two others have reached Super Bowls (Matt Ryan and Cam Newton); all of those players have been Pro Bowl selections and four have won MVP awards.  

Michigan defensive line coach Greg Mattison
A good quarterback is important in college football too.  But unlike pro football, where an elite QB is essentially a prerequisite for championship contention, a college team can win with a run-first option QB or an athletically-limited “game manager.”  What a college team cannot thrive without, however, is a quality defensive line.  A team that plays a two-gap defense needs stout linemen to keep its linebackers clean, or the scheme quickly breaks apart.  A team that plays a one-gap defense, like Michigan, needs ferocious linemen to penetrate and disrupt the offense—or will find itself bleeding yardage and wearing down against increasingly confident opposition.  

Michigan by-and-large has had those linemen in recent seasons.  For all of M’s struggles elsewhere the defensive line has at least been solid dating back to the end of the Hoke era, and since 2015 has been among the best units anywhere in the nation.  The pinnacle of M defensive lines was the 2016 group, which boasted an all-American anchor (Chris Wormley), a first-round draft pick at WDE (Taco Charlton), another all-Big Ten player at NT (Ryan Glasgow), a future all-American at 3T (Maurice Hurst), and then a second-stringthat would itself have been among the better B1G defensive lines (WDE Chase Winovich, anchor Rashan Gary, 3T Matt Godin, and NT Bryan Mone) alone. 

Despite losing three starters to graduation, M featured another beastly defensive line in 2017—and heads into 2018 with prospects of a unit to rival the fearsome 2016 squad.  Anchor Rashan Gary, the #1-overall recruit in the 2016 class and projected top-10 NFL draft pick, is now a true junior and one of the most fearsome defensive players in the college game.  Winovich has returned for his fifth year at WDE; he’s pre-season all-B1G and projected as a second-day draft pick.  Behind those headliners, sophomore NT Aubrey Solomon is on the star track, playing in the regular DL rotation in 2017 as a true freshman.  

That leaves only 3T in question among the starting DL positions.  The expected starter there is redshirt sophomore Michael Dwumfour, a 285-pound penetrator in the Mo Hurst mold with a quick first step who the coaches have been hyping up ever since the since the end of last season.  He’ll undoubtedly be a downgrade from the player he’s replacing—Hurst, a consensus all-American who was projected as a first-round NFL draft pick until a heart condition diagnosed in the scouting process kicked him to the fifth.  But on a line with Gary, Winovich, and Solomon, all M really needs Dwumfour to be is healthy and okay.

Probably the more interesting aspect of Michigan’s 2018 defensive line is the second string. This is only partly because the heavy rotation of defensive linemen means second-string DL play significant snaps. Winovich’s eligibility expires after 2018 and Gary, as a sure-fire first-round draft pick, will likely leave as well.  That means this year’s second string gives us a preview of what to expect at the defensive end spots in 2019 and beyond.  There are quite a few young players to watch.

Kwity Paye is the 6’4” son of Liberian refugees who Don Brown found playing tailback and competing on state champion 4x100 team in Rhode Island.  Now he’s a 240-lb. defensive end.  Think Frank Clark without the DV.  Paye got into eight games last season and should see more action in 2018 as the staff gets him ready to take over for Winovich at WDE next year.  

At anchor, the awesomely-named redshirt freshman Luigi Vilain will compete with true freshman Aidan Hutchinson for snaps and the inside track on the starting role Gary is expected to vacate after 2018.  Vilain, who came to Ann Arbor as a WDE prospect and bulked up to ~ 260 lbs., should be the more pass-rushy of the two and has a year in the system.  But Hutchinson, with a bigger frame and the son of former Michigan star Chris Hutchinson, may develop into the better all-around player.  

The second-string NT is the veteran Bryan Mone, now a 335-lb. fireplug who will likely be deployed mostly in short-yardage situations.  Injuries have kept Mone from developing into the star player he appeared likely to become as a freshman, but there’s always a role for a big-bodied run-stopper on a defense.  

The other backup NT is another new face, redshirt freshman Donovan Jeter.  He signed with Michigan as a 250-lb. defensive end prospect, and is now listed at 309 lbs. and playing on the interior.  Between the massive weight gain, position change, and spring game cancellation, trying to predict Jeter’s style of play or level of performance would be utter folly.  But good NTs are hard to come by, so let’s all hope he does well.

The guy you’re probably the most familiar with, junior Carlo Kemp, was Rashan Gary’s backup in 2017. But now he’s up to 280 lbs. and has reportedly moved to 3T behind Dwumfour.  If he’s viable there, even as a reliable, Matt Godin-level backup, that would be great news.  M has plenty of DE prospects, athletic interior DL are hard to find, and Kemp did not appear headed for stardom at the anchor position anyway.

So, based on the above, Michigan’s anticipated 8-man rotation for the base 4-man DL would look like this:

Rashan Gary
Michael Dwumfour
Aubrey Solomon
Chase Winovich
Carlo Kemp
Kwity Paye

That’s not a bad lineup, especially if the unproven players at 3T and in the second string work out. But it’s also worth noting that M played a fair amount of 3-3-5 defense last season, which involves taking an interior DL off the field (typically the NT) and replacing him with another linebacker. While this concept sacrifices size, it adds a bit of speed to the defense and, more importantly, better enables the defense to confuse blockers because any of the nominal LBs can rush (and effectively become the fourth DL).  It just so happens that M has a number of linebackers they might rather have in the game this season than an unproven role player at 3T.  So don’t be surprised if we see a fair amount of three-man lines with Gary, Solomon, and Winovich, joined by physical ILBs like Noah Furbush or Joss Rosh as the fourth effective DL.  Indeed, unless Michael Dwumfour proves to be everything the coaches say he is, do not be surprised to see the 3-3-5 even more than Don Brown’s traditional 4-2-5 base.  And that’s, well, pretty much fine

Defensive Line: Bottom Line

Probable starters:Rashan Gary (Anchor), Chase Winovich (WDE), Aubrey Solomon (NT), Michael Dwumfour (3T)
Key backups:Carlo Kemp, Kwity Paye, Luigi Vilain, Bryan Mone, Donovan Jeter 
Other possible options: Ronald Johnson, Rueben Jones, Lawrence Marshall
Position grade:A-
One defensive end is an all-American, the other could be one, and the NT is a budding all-star.  This is another kick-ass DL that Mattison has put together.  Only the lack of a proven 3T and some unproven players entering the rotation keeps this from being a solid A. 

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