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Predicting Michigan 2016: The special teams

Friday, September 2nd, 2016


Predicting Michgian 2016-SpecialTeams

Kenny Allen(Duane Burleson, AP)

Previous: Quarterbacks, Running Backs, Wide Receivers, Tight Ends, Offensive Line, Defensive Line, Linebackers, Secondary

Michigan’s special teams units was a bit of a train wreck during the tenures of Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke, but Jim Harbaugh helped shore things up in his first season.

Well, mostly.

Michigan did have some special teams blunders – none as infamous as the botched punt against Michigan State. But, in general, Michigan was solid in the kicking and return games.

Most of the major special teams contributors return, with the exception of Blake O’Neill at punter. Here’s how Michigan should stack up on each unit.

Field goal kicking:

Michigan’s starting field goal kicking job was a bit of a mystery heading into 2015, but former walk-on Kenny Allen stepped up and took control of the job. Allen converted 18 of 22 chances as a redshirt junior – including 15 of 16 successful attempts from fewer than 40 yards. Allen was perfect on extra points, converting all 46 attempts.

Allen was steady enough last season to assume he’ll take the field Saturday as the starting field goal kicker. But if he struggles, Michigan recruited a capable backup who should provide some insurance.

Quinn Nordin committed to Harbaugh after a recruiting slumber party and a decommitment from Penn State. He was the No. 1 ranked kicker in his class and projects as an accurate field goal kicker. Nordin’s career long field goal came from 51 yards out in high school.

Allen has proven himself as a reliable kicker, so Nordin would probably have to be phenomenal to steal that job from him preseason.

Career Stats – Allen
Year FG Made FG Att FG% Long PATs
2013 0 0 0 0 0
2014 0 0 0 0 0
2015 18 22 81.8 47 46-46 (100%)
Totals 18 22 81.8 47 46-46 (100%)
Kickoffs:

Allen was also very solid on kickoffs last season, averaging 61.4 yards over 78 kicks. He recorded 34 touchbacks.
In his senior year of high school, 19 of Nordin’s 23 kickoffs went for touchbacks. He has a bigger leg than Allen, but, as I said with the field goal kicking, will have to outshine Allen enough to take the job away from a steady starter.

Career Stats – Allen
Year Kickoffs Yards Avg Touchbacks
2013 0 0 0 0
2014 0 0 0 0
2015 78 4,791 61.4 34
Totals 78 4,791 61.4 34
Punting:

With O’Neill out of eligibility and Michigan looking for a new starting punter, Harbaugh has a few legitimate options he could turn to.

Allen has punted twice in his college career: A 51-yard boot in 2013 and a 57-yard blast for a touchback in the 2016 Citrus Bowl. Allen has a big enough leg to handle punting duties, but Harbaugh might want to split things up with Allen already likely handling the majority of the kicking.

Nordin averaged 52.9 yards per punt as a high school senior, with seven of his 10 attempts going for at least 50 yards. Six of his punts were downed inside the 20-yard line and he notched a career-long of 67 yards.

Nordin can handle punting, but would Harbaugh hand such an important job to a true freshman after punting burned the Wolverines last season? We can only guess. Nordin will be anxious to have a starting job with last year’s starter gone, but it’s possible Allen will take all three starting spots.

The other kickers and punters on the roster are James Foug, Ryan Tice, and Will Hart.

Career Stats – Allen
Year Punts Yards Average Long TB FC In-20 Blk
2013 1 51 51.0 51 0 1 0 0
2014 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
2015 1 57 57.0 57 1 0 0 0
Totals 2 108 54.0 57 1 1 0 0
Returning:

For the first time since Steve Breaston wore the Maize and Blue, Michigan posed legitimate home run threats in both the kick and punt return games last season. And the Wolverines return all five players who returned a pick or kick last season.

Jabrill Peppers leads the way on punt returns, averaging 11.4 yards per punt return in 17 attempts last season. He’s clearly the most athletic player on the team, so his big play potential is through the roof. Peppers only returned eight kicks last season, but averaged nearly 30 yards per return. He’ll be a weapon in both return games again in 2016.

Career Stats – Peppers
Year Ret Yards Yds/Ret Long TD
2014 1 6 6.0 0 0
2015 17 194 11.4 41 0
Totals 18 200 11.1 41 0

Jourdan Lewis was nearly as good as Peppers returning kicks, averaging 25.2 yards over 15 returns. Lewis is fast and can change direction quickly, but he doesn’t have the vision of Peppers, who refined his skills as a return specialist in high school. The All-American cornerback will likely be among the team’s primary kick returners to start the season.

Career Stats – Lewis
Year Ret Yards Yds/Ret Long TD
2013 1 18 18.0 18 0
2014 1 6 6.0 6 0
2015 15 378 25.2 55 0
Totals 17 402 23.6 55 0

Star wide receiver and team MVP Jehu Chesson dipped his toes into the kick return pool, returning four kicks for an average of 41.5 yards. Chesson exploded for his first return touchdown during the opening play vs. Northwestern, setting the tone for a blowout Michigan win. Chesson is a versatile offensive weapon, so he’ll likely get his turn on special teams as a redshirt senior.

Career Stats – Chesson
Year Ret Yards Yds/Ret Long TD
2012 0 0 0 0 0
2013 2 36 18.0 19 0
2014 0 0 0 0 0
2015 4 166 41.5 96 1
Totals 6 202 33.7 96 1

Other returners to watch include Dymonte Thomas, Amara Darboh, Chris Evans, Khaleke Hudson, Eddie McDoom, Nate Johnson, Kekoa Crawford, and David Long.

History says Michigan’s “Harbaughfense” will be more explosive in Year 2

Thursday, September 1st, 2016


Harbaugh

Last week we looked at how Don Brown’s scheme might affect Michigan’s defense. We learned that while it is indeed very aggressive, it is not a high-risk defense. I surmised that we can expect Michigan’s defense to eliminate roughly one big play allowed per game, which would theoretically result in three to seven points fewer per game, potentially taking an already very good Michigan defense into the elite stratosphere.

So of course this got me thinking about how Jim Harbaugh’s offense might develop from Year 1 to Year 2. Sadly, CFBStats does not have big play stats prior to 2010 so I couldn’t compare all of his Stanford teams. But we can still look at the 2010 team, or FULL Harbaugh as I’m going to call it, because it was his fourth season there and he had fully implemented his system with mostly his players. For good measure, and to give us a better idea of year to year progress, I also looked at his first two years in San Francisco and the year prior to his arrival.

Here is what I came up with.

The 2010 Stanford Cardinal offense averaged 5.8 big run plays per game (27th nationally) and 3.7 big pass plays per game (18th) for a total of 9.5 big plays per game (21st). The Cardinal’s big play percentage (total big plays divided by total offensive plays) was 13 percent, which was good for 22nd nationally. Not bad for something that looks like an offense from 1973, eh Joey Galloway? Oh, and by the way, Stanford went 12-1 and won the Orange Bowl that season, dominating Virginia Tech 40-12 — the most points the Hokies allowed all season.

Stanford’s 2010 toxic differential (big plays for, minus big plays against, plus turnover margin) was 3.5 on a per game basis, which was good for 16th nationally. The BCS title game participants that year, Oregon and Auburn, were tied for second in toxic differential at 6.1. Teams that are around at the end tend to rank highly in this metric.

Obviously, these numbers don’t give us much context on year to year improvement without comparing them to his earlier years at Stanford but I’ll go out on a limb and say he made significant improvements across the board from 2006 (pre-Harbaugh) to 2010.

Now on to his San Francisco years. Disclaimer: The stats I will use here consider big runs as 10 or more yards, as we’ve already used, however they use 25 or more yards for big pass plays as that is what the NFL stats consider big pass plays. I also understand that comparing college to NFL is not an insignificant factor but it will illustrate my point just the same: Harbaugh’s teams get drastically better Year 1 to Year 2 and beyond. No, this is not an unheard of concept, but people like Paul Finebaum didn’t get the memo. I assume he’s an avid reader of this blog.

Side note: I did not break these stats down into per game as I did with the college stats as all NFL teams play the same amount of regular season games.

The season before Harbaugh arrived, the 49ers had 40 big run plays (24th in the league) and 36 big pass plays (5th) for a total of 76 big plays (17th) with a big play percentage of 8.04 percent (15th). In other words, the running game did not generate many big plays but the passing game did. Overall, the Niners were a very middle of the road team in terms of generating big plays.

Enter James Joseph Harbaugh. The 2011 49ers had 56 big run plays (9th) and 28 big pass plays (19th) for a total of 84 big plays (13th) with a big play percentage of 8.46 percent (12th). A massive improvement in the run category, a regression in the passing game, but overall it was a jump up just outside the top third of the league.

Year 2 of Harbaugh — 2012 — saw the 49ers break out with 81 big run plays (2nd) and 33 big pass plays (11th) for a total of 114 big plays (2nd) with a big play percentage of 11.76 percent, also good for 2nd best in the league. Year 2 saw another big improvement in the run game as well as the pass game.

To recap, from 2010 (pre-Harbaugh) to 2012, our guy took San Francisco from 24th in big run plays to 2nd in just two seasons. The passing game saw a dip from 5th to 19th before recovering back to 11th. And the overall big play percentage went from a middling 15th to a whopping 2nd. If that’s what a 1973 offense looked like, I’ll take that any day!

Standard caveats apply, but let’s look at San Francisco’s toxic differential from that time period too. In case you forgot, toxic differential is big plays for minus big plays against plus turnover margin — a useful measure to help further see the big picture.

Harbaugh’s first three seasons in San Francisco
Year Toxic Diff. Big Play Diff. T/O Margin Result
2010* 11 (9th)* +12* -1* Missed playoffs*
2011 56 (1st) +28 +28 NFC Championship Game
2012 72 (1st) +63 +9 Super Bowl Appearance
*Pre-Harbaugh, no playoff appearances in 9 seasons before Harbaugh arrived

I’m no rocket scientist but I think those numbers and results are pretty solid.

What does all this mean for Michigan? A few things. First, it means that Michigan’s offense is very likely to improve in the big play stat categories. Here’s a look at their 2015 offensive big play stats.

In 2015, Michigan had 3.6 big run plays per game (118th) and 3.7 big pass plays per game (40th) for a total of 7.3 big plays per game (100th) with a big play percentage of 10.49 percent (98th). Big plays in the passing game were solid but big plays in the running game and overall left much to be desired.

It won’t be hard to improve upon the pedestrian rushing and overall numbers, but I’m not so sure we can expect significant jumps, especially in the running category. Why not? For as much as I like De’Veon Smith he is not an elite running back. No one will confuse him with Toby Gerhart or Stepfan Taylor and most definitely not Frank Gore. I do think we will see improvement (only eleven teams had fewer big run plays per game than Michigan last year) but I don’t think they’ll crack the top 50. But as I said last week, an improvement of one big play more per game could, in theory, yield more points.

In conclusion, as if we didn’t already know, Jim Harbaugh’s teams get much better (what a novel concept) year to year. Now while I don’t expect this to be an explosive offense I fully expect the man who attacks each day with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind to take his offense to the next level. Combine that with a high-pressure, low-risk defense, and it backs up the expectation that Michigan could be in for a very special season.

Predicting Michigan 2016: The secondary

Thursday, September 1st, 2016


Predicting Michgian 2016-SecondaryJourdan Lewis

Previous: Quarterbacks, Running Backs, Wide Receivers, Tight Ends, Offensive Line, Defensive Line, Linebackers

We’ll go from one extreme to the next as Michigan’s secondary couldn’t look more different than the linebackers heading into Jim Harbaugh’s second season as head coach.

While no starters returned in the linebacking core, Michigan returns a ton of its top talent in the secondary, including one of the best cornerbacks in the country and four other starters.

Returning starters:

Michigan’s secondary – and likely the entire defense – will be led by All-American cornerback Jourdan Lewis. Lewis returned to Michigan for his senior season after breaking out as one of the nation’s best cover corners in 2015. Lewis defended an incredible 20 passes in 13 games and picked off two passes. He locked down each team’s top receiver and figures to do so again this year, allowing Michigan’s other corners to take lesser assignments. There’s no better cornerback in the nation.

Safety Dymonte Thomas is a popular pick to break out this season (Mark Lomoglio, Icon Sportswire)

Safety Dymonte Thomas is a popular pick to break out this season (Mark Lomoglio, Icon Sportswire)

Beside Lewis will be senior cornerbacks Channing Stribling and Jeremy Clark. Stribling enjoyed his best season in 2015, breaking up three passes and grabbing two interceptions in 11 games. Stribling is a solid tackler and made strides in coverage last season. He should be the team’s second best player in coverage this year.

Clark had his ups and downs in 2015. While he finished the year with three passes defended and three interceptions, he left some opportunities out to dry and got burned a few times downfield. Clark will likely start the season as the team’s No. 3 cornerback, but he puts himself in more positions to force turnovers than Stribling. His high-risk, high-reward style will reap its rewards.

At safety, Michigan returns two strong veterans who enter their final season as Wolverines. Thanks to Brady Hoke’s decision not to use redshirts, Dymonte Thomas and Delano Hill are in their last year at Michigan.

Hill was excellent in 2015, starting eight games at safety and hitting his stride late in the Big Ten season. Hill broke out in a big way at Indiana, when he recorded 10 tackles and broke up Indiana’s attempt to tie the game at the goal line in overtime. Hill’s greatest attribute is his support in stopping the running game. He gets good reads and isn’t afraid to go up to the line to make stops.

His partner in crime, Thomas, is more of a pass defender. Thomas didn’t have any tackles for loss in his first three seasons, but he did break up seven passes in 2015. He’s a luxury for Michigan downfield, as he can provide help for Stribling and Clark over the top. The safety tandem complements each other in the run and pass game and Michigan will be in good hands in the secondary.

Career Stats – Lewis
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF PDef INT
38 79 29 108 1.0 5.0 1 28 4
Career Stats – Stribling
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF PDef INT
34 34 6 40 0.0 1.0 1 3 2
Career Stats – Clark
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF PDef INT
32 25 14 39 0.0 0.0 0 4 3
Career Stats – Thomas
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF PDef INT
34 41 17 58 0.0 0.0 1 7 0
Career Stats – Hill
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF PDef INT
33 47 20 67 0.0 2.5 1 2 0
Potential contributors:

Michigan has two redshirt freshmen who have a chance to contribute for the first time in 2016 after patrolling the sidelines last season. The first is Tyree Kinnel, a supremely talented safety out of Huber Heights, Ohio. Kinnel is another safety who provides great support in the running game. He’s a reliable tackler and athletic enough to make stops in space.

Keith Washington will be a player to watch at cornerback after committing to Michigan out of Prattville, Alabama. He might be the fastest player on the team, but his coverage skills will dictate whether or not he sees the field in 2016.

Career Stats – Kinnel
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF PDef INT
N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
Career Stats – Washington
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF PDef INT
N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
New faces:

Cornerback isn’t a friendly position for true freshmen on contending teams, but Michigan did welcome some very good recruits to Ann Arbor. David Long projects as an elite cover corner and could probably contribute this season in a backup role or as an injury replacement. Long has all the tools to match up man-to-man with receivers: speed, quickness and very good anticipation. If he can learn the college game quickly, he’ll be an impact corner in the future.

Lavert Hill came to Michigan with even more buzz than Long, thanks to dominance at Detroit King High School and the long recruiting battle between Michigan and MSU. Hill is another very good coverage corner who can stick with receivers and break up passes. Unlike his brother (Delano Hill), he’s much more of a pass defender than a run stopper and his tackling will need some work at the college level.

Josh Metellus committed to Michigan with his teammates Devin Bush and Devin Gil, out of Charles W. Flanagan High School in Florida. Metellus is a solid safety who can step up and help stop opposing running games, but he probably isn’t ready for a major role in 2016.

The final commit in this group is Khaleke Hudson, who is listed at safety but could probably play anywhere on the defense short of defensive tackle. Hudson is an elite athlete who might be the closest thing the defense has to Jabrill Peppers’ versatility. Hudson will see the field this season because he is physically ready to play at the college level, but it’s hard to predict what role he’ll play. Since the team is deep in the secondary, he might see spot snaps as a linebacker or on offense. Either way, he’ll be a fun guy to watch.

Michigan also got a preferred walk-on commitment from three-star safety Tru Wilson, who turned down several scholarship offers to become a Wolverine. Wilson shouldn’t see any time as a true freshman, but he could work his way into the rotation down the road.

Finally, Tyler Cochran joined Michigan as a preferred walk-on safety from West Bloomfield, Michigan.

Meet the rest:

Louis Grodman: DB, sophomore, 5-11, 183, from Commerce, Mich. (Walled Lake Northern)
No career stats
Taylor Krupp: DB, sophomore, 6-1, 186, from New Lothrop, Mich. (New Lothrop)
No career stats
Brandon Watson: CB, junior, 5-11, 203, from Wilmington, Del. (Eastern Christian Academy)
12 games played, 2 solo tackles, 6 assisted tackles, 8 total tackles
Matt Mitchell: CB, junior, 5-10, 186, from Dexter, Mich. (Dexter)
No career stats
Anthony Dalimonte: S, senior, 5-9, 176, from Bloomfield Hills, Mich. (Brother Rice)
No career stats
Jacob West: S, sophomore, 6-0, 195, from Pinckney, Mich. (Pinckney)
No career stats
Jordan Glasgow: S, sophomore, 6-1, 210, from Aurora, Ill. (Marmion Academy)
No career stats

Predicting Michigan 2016: The linebackers

Wednesday, August 31st, 2016


Predicting Michgian 2016-Linebackers

Appalachian v Michigan(Leon Halip, Getty Images)

Previous: Quarterbacks, Running Backs, Wide Receivers, Tight Ends, Offensive Line, Defensive Line

There aren’t many legitimate critiques to make about Michigan’s 2015 defense, which finished the season among the 10 best defenses in the country. But it did have one clear weakness that was especially obvious late in the Big Ten season: the linebackers.
Heading into the season, the Wolverines felt good about their linebacking corps. Veteran starters Joe Bolden, Desmond Morgan and James Ross figured to have solid seasons as seniors. Unfortunately for Michigan, they were the Achilles heel of the defense and, ultimately, were the undoing in the final game against Ohio State.

Now the position will see more turnover than any other spot on the roster. With new faces joining the team and a few veterans expected to step up, here’s Michigan’s outlook at linebacker.

Returning contributors:

With all three senior starters gone, Michigan will turn to a handful of players who figure to step into bigger roles at linebacker.

Senior Mike McCray is finally healthy and prime for a breakout season (Scout.com)

Senior Mike McCray is finally healthy and primed for a breakout season (Scout.com)

One of the most talked about players throughout the summer has been Mike McCray, who missed the entire 2015 season with an injury. McCray worked himself into the mix at linebacker during his sophomore year, playing in 11 games and even blocking a punt. McCray is a reliable, consistent tackler and has the size to plug up running lanes. His challenge will be getting to the edge on stretch plays or dropping back in pass coverage – two abilities Michigan linebackers lacked in 2015.

Another player who hopes to take on a much bigger role is Ben Gedeon. Gedeon quietly enjoyed a very solid 2015 season, playing in 11 of 13 games and making a career-high 34 tackles. He showed good burst late in the year, picking up 2.5 tackles for loss in the team’s final three games. The senior has spent his first three seasons as a very solid part of the linebacker rotation, but now he has a chance to take on an even bigger role.

Oh yeah, there’s another returning player joining the linebacking corps. His name is Jabrill Peppers.

Peppers makes the jump to linebacker after playing virtually everywhere on the field. He’ll likely line up at multiple positions again in 2016, but his main job appears to be shoring up a thin second line. Peppers is the best athlete on the team, but that really hasn’t translated into any breakout performances through two seasons. He’s shown flashes of his elite athletic ability, but Michigan fans are still waiting (in heavy anticipation) for him to actually explode.

Linebacker is the spot where Peppers can best demonstrate his elite versatility. If he settles into the position, he has a chance to be one of the best at the position in the Big Ten.

Career Stats – McCray
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF FR INT
11 2 0 2 0.0 1.0 0 0 0
Career Stats – Ben Gedeon
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF FR INT
37 42 28 70 2.0 5.5 0 0 0
Career Stats – Jabrill Peppers
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF PD INT
15 40 13 53 0.0 5.5 0 10 0
Potential contributors:

The rest of Michigan’s linebackers are relatively unproven, but a couple of guys stand out as having a chance to make an impact this season.

One is Noah Furbush, who has battled some injuries but impressed Jim Harbaugh during camp and should work his way into the mix. The redshirt sophomore is a fringe candidate for a starting spot and hopes to build on a season in which he contributed mostly on special teams.

Furbush was a beast in high school, recording well over 200 tackles and even picking up 43 tackles for loss during his career. He’s not much of a pass rusher, but his ability to read plays and get in the backfield gives him a good chance to play in Don Brown’s defense. Remember Furbush as a potential breakout player in Michigan’s defense.

A more under-the-radar player who might contribute is Reuben Jones, who made the switch from defensive end to linebacker after committing to Michigan last season. Jones was the first player to commit to Harbaugh at Michigan and has been working his way toward some playing time as a redshirt freshman. As a former defensive lineman, Jones would bring a backfield threat into the mix at linebacker, something Brown values in his defense.

Career Stats – Furbush
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF FR INT
9 3 1 4 0.0 0.0 0 0 0
Career Stats – Jones
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF FR INT
N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
New faces:

Harbaugh knew his roster was thin at linebacker, so what did he do? He brought in four highly-rated linebacker commits to stir up the competition.

The headliner of the group is Devin Bush, a Florida native who will get a look at inside linebacker this season. Throughout camp, Bush’s name has been at the top of the list of freshmen who will make an impact in 2016. He’s a good tackler with enough speed to get to the edge – something this group desperately needs. Bush showed good instincts in the spring game, but he’ll need more work in pass coverage before he’s considered a great all-around player.

Bush’s high school teammate, Devin Gil, joins him in Ann Arbor after they helped Charles W. Flanagan High School win the 8A division title in Florida. Gil was a less flashy player in high school, but showed a better knack for pass coverage than Bush. There’s a chance the freshman could convert to safety before his college career is done, but for now, he’s fighting for a chance to see the field with his old teammate at the next level.

If Bush and Gil came to Michigan as one package deal, Elysee Mbem-Bosse and Josh Uche came as another. The two committed to the Wolverines somewhat unexpectedly on Jan. 24 and have made some noise during fall camp. Mbem-Bosse was mentioned by Harbaugh Monday as a freshman who could play this season and Uche – a former defensive end – could end up playing a hybrid role as well.

With four talented freshmen in the mix for playing time, Harbaugh hopes Michigan will elevate its linebacker play from the start.

Michigan also welcomed preferred walk-on Peter Bush to the roster. Bush, a former quarterback, is a guy to keep an eye on from the walk-on list, as he had offers to play several positions at schools around the country.

Meet the rest:

Jack Dunaway: Sophomore, 6-3, 222, from Bloomfield Hills, Mich. (Brother Rice)
No career stats
Cheyenn Robertson: Sophomore, 6-3, 238, from Union City, N.J. (St. Peter’s Prep)
No career stats
Michael Wroblewski: Senior, 6-2, 242, from Sanit Clair Shores, Mich. (Detroit Jesuit)
No career stats
Alex Kaminski: Junior, 5-11, 209, from Ada, Mich. (Lowell)
No career stats
Jameson Offerdahl: Sophomore, 6-2, 214, from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (Cardinal Gibbons)
No career stats
Jared Wangler: Junior, 6-2, 229, from Royal Oak, Mich. (De La Salle)
No career stats
Wyatt Shallman: Senior, 6-3, 242, from Harland, Mich. (Detroit Catholic Central)
No career defensive stats

M&GB season preview roundtable 2016

Friday, August 26th, 2016


Harbaugh(Doug Pensinger, Getty Images)

Last year at this time no one knew what to expect. Everyone was hopeful about Jim Harbaugh’s first season, but coming off of a disastrous 5-7 showing and seven years of very un-Michigan-like football, we were all nervous. Our season predictions ranged from 8-4 to 10-3, with the latter being right on. Even though we didn’t know what to expect, we were generally right about what happened.

This year is a little different. There actually are expectations. And they are big. Michigan is ranked in the top 10 and several national pundits have predicted the Wolverines to win the Big Ten and reach the College Football Playoff. Are they just buying into the Harbaugh hype? Or could they be right? Here are our predictions for the season.

What are you most excited about this season?

Justin: When I think of the Michigan teams I grew up watching, I think defense. Sure, there were great offensive players that shouldn’t be overlooked — guys like Anthony Carter, Jamie Morris, and Tyrone Wheatley, to name a few. But a great defense, one that smothers opposing offenses, is what makes Michigan football in my opinion. Lloyd Carr rode the 1997 defense to a national championship. The 2006 defense was deadly until it ran into Ohio State and USC. And last year’s defense, which posted three straight shutouts, was fun to watch until it faltered late in the season.

I can’t tell you how excited I am to watch an upgraded version of last year’s defense with the addition of the number one recruit in the country and a blitz-crazy defensive coordinator. The biggest position battle in fall camp is at the quarterback position, but with the defense Michigan has, whoever wins the job will just need to be careful with the football and manage the game. And if the defense lives up to its billing, Michigan fans will be in for a special season.

Derick: The guy I’m most excited to watch is Rashan Gary, and it’s not even close. Gary is Michigan’s first ever No. 1 overall recruit, and he comes in as one of the most decorated commits since recruiting blew up several years ago.

Gary was the unanimous No. 1 player in the country on every major recruiting site, and comes into Ann Arbor to join a defensive line that’s already very good. Gary will line up with Chris Wormley, Ryan Glasgow, Taco Charlton, Maurice Hurst, Bryan Mone and others as one of the best lines in the Big Ten. If he makes as much of an impact as guys like Jadeveon Clowney and Robert Nkemdiche — who were similarly ranked out of high school — he’ll be the most exciting player on the roster.

Sam: I just can’t stop thinking (and giddily laughing) about how dominant this defense could potentially be. The front four should be an absolute terror for any offensive line in the country, the secondary is athletic, veteran, and potentially another highlight waiting to happen (looking at you, Dymonte Thomas), and the linebacker group seems to be getting good reviews despite a relative lack of experience. And, oh yeah, Jabrill Peppers will be roaming all over the field and should be unleashed to wreak havoc in Don Brown’s system.

Josh: Another year of Harbaugh. If that’s not a decided schematic advantage, I don’t know what is!

Joe: I’m super excited to see a few things during this upcoming season. The first would be the new style of defense that Coach Brown is bringing onboard. This should be a fun defense to watch and bring a ton of pressure and new looks. They should be ELITE from day one. The second thing I’m looking for is how the incoming class plays and improves over the course of the year. If they are everything we’ve read over the last few months, the future is BRIGHT!

What worries you the most entering the season?

Justin: As I mentioned above, I’m not overly worried about the quarterback position. As long as Speight or O’Korn doesn’t become a turnover machine, Michigan will be okay. There are enough proven weapons — Jehu Chesson, Amara Darboh, Jake Butt, De’Veon Smith — and a strong defense to lean back on. What worries me the most this season is the road schedule.

Michigan will be able to handle the non-conference portion of the schedule handily, and with Penn State and Wisconsin at home, I see those as wins. Then the Wolverines face Rutgers and Illinois, which should put them at 7-0 and very highly ranked. But that’s where things get tough. In the final five games of the season, Michigan has to travel to East Lansing, Iowa City, and Columbus with home games against Maryland and Indiana sandwiched in between.

Michigan has struggled on the road the past several seasons. To make matters worse, they haven’t won in East Lansing since 2007, Iowa City since 2005, and Columbus since 2000. That’s nearly a decade without a road win over any of those teams. And to have a chance at the College Football Playoff this season they’ll likely have to win all three. To at least win the Big Ten they’ll have to win at least two of the three, as long as the one loss is at Big Ten West foe Iowa rather than the other two, who are in the same Big Ten East as Michigan. It’s hard to see that happening.

Derick: I’m most worried about the expectations. Michigan won 10 games last season when it was the underdog and nobody expected much in Jim Harbaugh’s first year. But now, as the team jumps from irrelevant to popular national championship pick, it seems like things have escalated a little too quickly. Michigan has three extremely difficult road games at the end of the season,and if they take care of business weeks one through seven, those games will hold a massive importance. Can a team that hasn’t played many nationally meaningful games handle that gauntlet down the stretch? It’s going to be tough.

Sam: This one is pretty easy for me – I’m still not sold on the quarterback position. Yes, I know that Jim Harbaugh is widely reputed to be one of the best quarterback whisperers in the country and has worked wonders in season after season. But this is a pretty important position, and there still seems to be some disagreement over who will start. That’s usually not a great sign with real football only a week away. We’ve all heard of O’Korn as the high-risk/high-reward type while Wilton Speight seems to be the more prototypical “game manager” quarterback, but neither has the whole package. At least not yet.

Josh: The media keeps saying quarterback or linebacker. Personally, I am not worried (nor will I ever be) about the quarterback position as long as James Joseph Harbaugh is patrolling our sidelines. Linebacker is a slight concern but the defensive line is so talented and so deep (8 or 9 guys) that I don’t see the need to actually worry about the LBs. Plus, it’s not like they lost any world beaters off last year’s crew anyway.

Offensive line (both its progression and health) is my main concern and it’s not even close. There isn’t much proven depth, or depth period, behind the starting five so a significant injury to the offensive line could derail the entire season.

Even IF injuries are avoided we still have the issue of breaking in a new left tackle. If Grant Newsome doesn’t work, who steps in for him? Go ahead, look at the depth chart: four freshmen, and a small cadre of former Brady Hoke guys who have limited game action and a total of ZERO starts. If this team is to compete for a B1G Ten title the offensive line needs to not only be better than last year but they ALL need to stay healthy the entire year.

Joe: It’s gotta be the quarterback play that worries me the most. I was hoping that O’Korn would separate himself from the pack but that hasn’t happened. This could be viewed as a positive or negative. I trust in Harbaugh and hope this gets settled soon.

Who will be the offensive breakout player this season?

Justin: Based on the hype coming out of fall camp, Ben Bredeson is probably the smart pick here. But I don’t like to trust true freshman offensive linemen. I know Mason Cole worked out pretty well two years ago, but that’s more the exception than the rule. To me, it’s between two players: tight end Ian Bunting and receiver Grant Perry. Everyone knows Jim Harbaugh’s affinity for tight ends, and just because he has Jake Butt it doesn’t mean no other tight ends will see the field. Bunting is huge at 6-foot-7, 252, and after two years learning the ropes, he’s poised for a bigger role.

But when push comes to shove, I’m going to go with Perry, the slot guy who caught 14 passes for 128 yards and a touchdown last season. He showed enough potential to get considerable playing time in the season opener at Utah, where he caught three passes for 41 yards, but was still raw and it showed with mistakes that lead to turnovers. By season’s end, he looked more comfortable, catching five passes for 51 yards and a touchdown in the Citrus Bowl win over Florida.

This season, Chesson, Darboh, and Butt are established threats and opposing defenses will try their best to match up with them. That leaves the potential for Perry to rack up a bunch of catches and yards. He caught 105 passes for 1,727  yards and 20 touchdowns as a senior at Brother Rice High School in 2014 and racked up 176 catches for 2,771 yards and 27 scores in three years of varsity football, so he knows how to be productive. Now, with a year of college ball under his belt, he’s ready to take on a bigger role.

Derick: The breakout player on offense will be Ben Bredeson. Word from summer camp has brought nothing but praise on the freshman lineman, who was one of the top commits in the country. If Bredeson is playing well enough to earn the starting left tackle position as a true freshman, we can expect a 2014 Mason Cole-like performance, which would be a huge lift to the offense. With four solid veteran linemen to his right, Bredeson would be in a perfect situation to succeed.

Sam: This is a tough call for me, as I’m never sure what people want to constitute “breaking out” as. As far as I see it, Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson, and Jake Butt certainly can’t qualify for this, the majority of the offensive line is too veteran for me to see a true breakout coming, and De’Veon Smith is fairly proven as well. So while I do think all those guys will have nice years and I’m uncertain on the quarterback position, I will go with Tyrone Wheatley, Jr. By all accounts, Wheatley has the body type that will allow him to be a highly effective in-line blocker from the beginning while also possessing the speed and hands to be a legitimate (and legitimately terrifying) receiving threat. I think he’ll see a lot of action in two-TE sets and should be a major asset in both the running and passing games.

Josh: This one was tough, but I’m gonna go with Ben Bredeson. Yes, an offensive lineman. A freshman offensive lineman. I’m calling it now, Ben Bredeson will supplant either Grant Newsome, or more likely, Kyle Kalis before mid-season and perform at a (freshman) Mason Cole-esque leve

Joe: I want a running back to step up and take charge in a crowded backfield. We have some horses back there but I’d prefer a lead to get behind. I don’t care who it is, just make it happen.

Who will be the defensive breakout player this season?

Justin: Rashan Gary is the obvious choice here, but I’m going to go with Bryan Mone, who missed all of last season after suffering a broken leg in fall camp. Prior to the injury he figured to play a major part in the defense, rotating with Ryan Glasgow and Maurice Hurst. The injury meant more time for Glasgow, who shined in the role, but his season ended early with an injury of his own. Now, Mone says he’s in the best shape of his life, and with Michigan playing four linemen, he’ll get his chance to shine at nose tackle.

Derick: I want to say Jabrill Peppers, because he really hasn’t made a major defensive impact yet, but that feels like cheating. So I’ll go with Bryan Mone. Mone showed signs of being a solid defensive tackle as a true freshman, and expectations were sky high for his sophomore year. But after an injury ended his season before it even started, Mone fell out of the spotlight and has been flying under the radar since. If he’s healthy, he’ll be a huge piece in filling the gap left by Willie Henry in opposing backfields.

Sam: Everyone? Again, there are so many guys on that side of the ball that the field in my eyes is quite limited. You might make an argument for Taco Charlton on the line, but I think he’s proven enough already – he’s going to have an insane season. Bryan Mone could be an option here, as could the presumptive starting linebackers in Ben Gedeon and Mike McCray, but my pick is Dymonte Thomas. Thomas was a big-time recruit out of Ohio who is incredibly athletic, strong, and a sure tackler. The only question is whether he can be disciplined enough to prevent a big play here or there, but keep watching that interception he made in the Spring Game and tell me he doesn’t have the tools to be great.

Josh: Jabrill Peppers. Now hear me out first. Peppers’ impact was huge last year but his stats weren’t exactly something you brag about; 45 total tackles, 5.5 for loss. No picks, no forced fumbles, no fumble recoveries. If Matt Milano, a former three-star safety for Boston College can rack up 17.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks in Don Brown’s defense from that position what will the greatest athlete we’ve seen since Charles Woodson do? I’d be shocked if he didn’t have at least 15 tackles for loss, five sacks and a defensive touchdown or two.

Joe: It’s hard to say anyone on the defense will be a breakout player as they have a lot of studs coming back from last year. They are established and will carry this team from the get go.

Michigan will win the Big Ten if…

Justin: …they don’t suffer any key injuries. We all know that injuries are part of the game, but when the talent is there, a key piece of winning it all is staying healthy. Sure, Ohio State defied that logic two years ago when Braxton Miller got hurt, then J.T. Barrett got hurt, and Cardale Jones still lead them to the national title. But nine times out of ten, that scenario spells doom for a contender.

If Michigan stays healthy that means they’ll be at full strength all season. And with the talent they have, especially on the defensive side, that’s the recipe for a Big Ten title.

Derick: Michigan will win the Big Ten if freshmen linebackers like Devin Bush and Devin Gil can compliment a healthy Mike McCray and Peppers to give the defense a more solid anchor than last season. The secondary and defensive line will be tough, but the linebackers were the weak underbelly of the 2015 team. Left tackle will also be a position to watch. With the rest of the line already well established at the college level, the final piece to the offensive line will be crucial. Michigan has to run the ball much better to take a step forward in 2016. Finally, look for Jeremy Clark to either take a step forward as a fifth-year senior or a younger player to supplant him as the team’s third cornerback. Lewis and Channing Stribling were excellent in coverage last season, but Clark showed mixed results covering opposing No. 3 receivers. He got better toward the end of the season, but with possible championship expectations on the line, Harbaugh might not be so patient this year.

Sam: …they can stop Ohio State’s dynamic offense. The Buckeyes shredded Michigan’s once-stout defense in The Game last November and Urban Meyer always seems to find a way to move the ball (at least when he isn’t playing Michigan State in 2015). This season, I really think Michigan should be undefeated heading down to Columbus — there will certainly be challenges along the way, but no team on the schedule up to that point should be able to beat them on paper — and the days of The Game deciding the fate of the Big Ten race should return.

Josh: …there are no significant injuries, especially on the offensive line, the running game resembles what Harbaugh did at Stanford post Year 1 (200-plus yards per game) and Don Brown can finally be the one to figure out how to stop spread to run teams. Possible? Yes. Likely? Probably not yet. For the record I think Don Brown WILL figure out how to stop getting gashed by teams like Indiana and Ohio State.

Joe: The lines play at an elite level. They should be better and will lead this team to a Big 10 title if they play as advertised.

What is your prediction for the season (record, who will Michigan lose to, and what bowl game will they play in)?

Justin: Michigan topped last year’s prediction by one, though my prediction of a win over an SEC team in the bowl game was right. I had Michigan losing to Penn State, which was my only misstep. This year, I think we’re looking at an 11-2 team that will lose at Iowa and Ohio State. Jim Harbaugh will at least get past Michigan State in East Lansing and be 9-0 heading into Iowa City, but losses in two of the last three regular season games will be a disappointing end to a great season. Still, assuming Ohio State wins the conference and makes the College Football Playoff, the Rose Bowl will select Michigan and the Wolverines will head to Pasadena for the first time since 2007.

Derick: Last season I predicted Michigan would finish 9-4 and thought I was being “generous.” I didn’t know what to expect from Harbaugh’s team less than a year removed from a 5-7 campaign and certainly didn’t expect it to go into Happy Valley and push around Penn State. This season, expectations couldn’t be more different. Michigan is in everyone’s playoff discussion and Harbaugh is the biggest story in college football.

I don’t buy into hype, but I do draw conclusions based on facts and what my eyes tell me. Few teams have as many elite seniors who turned down NFL money to return to Michigan. Lewis, Butt, Chesson, Darboh, Wormley and others will play on Sundays, but here they are practicing in the Maize and Blue in August. As far as the incoming class goes, I don’ think Harbaugh has a top five class, I think he has the No. 1 class. Sure, other teams might have more five- and four-stars, but guys like Gary, Bredeson, Long and Hill could make an immediate impact as freshmen. Chris Evans is an offensive weapon who will almost certainly find himself a role in a stacked offense and Kekoa Crawford might, too.

Looking at the schedule, I think there’s no question Michigan will carve through its nonconference schedule. Maybe Colorado will turn out to be a little tougher than expected, but I don’t see any of that trio pulling off an upset in Ann Arbor. The pair of games nobody is talking about (but they should be) is Penn State and Wisconsin, who come to the Big House in Weeks 4 and 5, respectively. Penn State is breaking in a new quarterback and I’m not a believer in the James Franklin experiment, but Wisconsin, as always, will be a tough team to knock out. If Michigan gets through those two games, it’s a leisurely walk to East Lansing at 7-0.

That’s where things get tough. Like, brutally tough. Few teams in the FBS will be asked to play three potential top 10 teams on the road in a five-game span. But that’s exactly what Michigan has to do. Unlike at this time last year, I think Michigan is a better team than Michigan State, especially with MSU’s defense trending steadily in the wrong direction since 2013. We all thought the Spartans would take a major step back when Kirk Cousins left, and Connor Cook stepped in to lead them to the playoff, so don’t discount MSU just because of the new starting quarterback.

Even though I think Michigan State will be very good, I think Michigan will go into East Lansing and pull out a win. Harbaugh will have “Oh, he has trouble with the snap!” playing on repeat all week, and Michigan will arrive at Spartan Stadium with a vengeance. Just no tent spikes, please. I would be worried about a post-MSU letdown if it wasn’t for Michigan’s Week 9 matchup with a pathetic Maryland team. The quarterback situation for new head coach D.J. Durkin is so grim, I’d be shocked if the Terps can find six wins on their schedule.

Unfortunately, the undefeated train will come to a stop at 9-0. Iowa is still extremely talented after an undefeated 2015 regular season and something about Iowa City has never been kind to strong Michigan teams. I think the No. 2 Wolverines will fall to the Hawkeyes in a slugfest and need a win over Ohio State to win the Big Ten East. After outscoring a sneaky good Indiana team in the final home game, Michigan will go to Columbus with the College Football Playoff still in its sights. The young Buckeyes won’t be young anymore, after 11 games to replace their 450 draft picks, or whatever it was. Michigan will be much more competitive than it was at home in 2015, but I think Ohio State will come away with a close, maybe 2006-esque victory that knocks Michigan out of the title talk. OSU will head to Indianapolis and Michigan will be done at 10-2.

I think 10 wins will be enough to land Michigan a long-awaited Rose Bowl appearance against UCLA. Just like it did in the Citrus Bowl, Michigan will show up better prepared after a month of practice with Harbaugh and take care of UCLA, 34-20. With 11 wins in Harbaugh’s second season and Michigan State and Ohio State at home in 2017, Michigan will begin the season ranked in the top five and have a legitimate chance to make the final four.

Sam: I really want to pick Michigan to go to the Playoff, but…well…fine. Give me Michigan to run the table in the regular season with a couple close calls at Iowa and at Ohio State before losing to Alabama or Clemson in the first round. By my count, that should equal a 13-1 season with a Big Ten championship and a loss in the Fiesta or Peach Bowl.

Josh: Michigan will probably be favored in every game they play, aside from Ohio State, and they should win all those games. Given the talent returning and the coaching staff we have I am very optimistic about their chances this year. However, football isn’t played on paper and numerous things can upset the balance.

They should have beaten Michigan State last year and they also would have lost to Minnesota were it not for some Hoke-ian clock (mis)management by Tracy Claeys at the end of that game. They almost lost to Indiana — yes Glasgow out was a big factor — but it proves my point; it’s tough to win all, or even most of, your games in college football because injuries and other stuff happen.

I just don’t see how Michigan can get through an entire season without a major injury, or some Halloween voodoo a la Minnesota last year, causing setbacks. I think a 10-2 season is very reasonable, and that should not be viewed as a disappointment (lest I remind you that we suffered losing seasons in three of the seven years prior to Harbaugh and only ONE year in which they lost fewer than five games).

Losses will be at Ohio State (they are far more talented than Michigan but more importantly have been in the same system their entire careers) and at Iowa, Kinnick Stadium at night scares me for some reason.

They’ll play in another New Year’s Day bowl and the ‘Michigan is overrated’ headed into 2017 will start all over again. But hey, I thought this was a seven or eight win team tops last year and they proved me wrong. Here’s to hoping they do it again!

Joe: I’m looking at 10-2 season with losses at two of the three big road games. I think they’re still a year away from the CFP but wouldn’t be surprised if they sneak in. They still have some work to do. Let’s put the good guys in the Cotton so I can see them play in person.

Predicting Michigan 2016: The defensive line

Thursday, August 25th, 2016


Predicting Michgian 2016-DefensiveLine
Chris Wormley(Calros Osorio, AP)

Previous: Quarterbacks, Running Backs, Wide Receivers, Tight Ends, Offensive Line

For Michigan, the defensive line is the position group everybody wants to see. Thanks to a strong recruiting class and minimal attrition to the NFL, the Wolverines return a very deep defensive line that was excellent in 2015 until being struck by injury.

When Michigan sported a top five defense through the first half of the season, it was led by a defensive line that completely stuffed opposing running games and caused a little bit of mayhem in the backfield. Players like Jourdan Lewis and Channing Stribling enjoyed breakout seasons, but some of their success has to be attributed to the work done in the trenches.

Will Michigan be even better on the defensive line this year?

Major contributors:

Instead of naming starters, let’s take a look at all the defensive linemen who should play major minutes as starters or heavily-used backups this season.

Last season, everything started with defensive end Chris Wormley, who racked up an insane 14.5 tackles for loss. It wasn’t just sacks for Wormley – though he did have 6.5 – as he regularly got great jumps off the edge and stuff running backs behind the line.

Taco Charlton

Senior end Taco Charlton is getting first-round talk entering the season

Wormley has evolved into Michigan’s smartest defensive lineman and the Toledo, Ohio native should be just as productive as a fifth-year senior. Look for him to improve on his All Big Ten Third Team honors.

The other returning defensive end who saw major playing time in 2015 is Taco Charlton. Charlton was enjoying a solid season through 10 games, but really broke out against Penn State. He exploded for two sacks and three tackles for loss, including a bone-rattling hit on battered quarterback Christian Hackenberg. Charlton is a pure pass rusher who has quietly picked up 14 sacks the last two seasons. He’s only made four starts in his career 35 games, but this season he’ll see his role increase as a senior.

Then there’s Rashan Gary. We haven’t seen the freshman play a single snap at the college level, but I’m still expecting him to be an impact player wherever he lands on the defensive line. He’s listed as a defensive end, but Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Don Brown won’t be afraid to move him around and take advantage of his versatility. Gary is an elite pass rusher and an able run blocker, so he can play in any situation. He put on a clinic in the Under Armour All-America Game, tallying three sacks and taking home the MVP. Gary is one of the most highly-touted recruits ever, and the first No. 1 to come to Michigan. Fans should expect a special season.

Moving to the inside of the line, Michigan has one rock who holds the whole group together: Ryan Glasgow. The fifth-year senior won’t have much success rushing the quarterback, but he’s the best run stopper on the roster. Glasgow recorded five tackles for loss last season, but his real value came in plugging up the inside running lanes. When he went down with a chest injury, the run stopping game fell apart. Indiana and Ohio State absolutely shredded the Wolverines in the running game and D.J. Durkin had no answer without Glasgow anchoring the tackles. He’s not the flashiest lineman, but Glasgow is vitally important to the defense.

Maurice Hurst complimented Glasgow well on the inside of the defensive line, providing support against the run, but also recording three sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss. Hurst played in every game last season but should see more snaps this season with Willie Henry off the roster.

One of the biggest wildcards for the entire Michigan team could be Bryan Mone, who was a solid run stopper for the Wolverines as a true freshman in 2014. Mone was expected to be a game-changing nose tackle last season, but a devastating ankle injury ended his year before it even started. Mone will get a chance to reestablish himself as a good defensive tackle and combine with Glasgow to stuff opposing running backs.

Career Stats – Wormley
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF FR INT
38 44 39 83 12.0 24.0 1 1 0
Career Stats – Charlton
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF FR INT
35 36 15 51 9.0 14.4 1 0 0
Career Stats – Glasgow
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF FR INT
32 26 23 49 1.0 9.0 1 1 0
Career Stats – Hurst
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF FR INT
21 20 18 38 3.0 7.5 0 0 0
Career Stats – Mone
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF FR INT
12 2 7 9 0.0 1.5 0 1 0
Other contributors:

With Gary and Mone joining the rotation and taking up snaps, I think Matthew Godin might see a bit of a decreased role. Godin was a less effective version of Glasgow last season, specializing in stopping the run but struggling to do so after Glasgow’s injury. Godin will still be a part of the rotation because he’s a solid, reliable tackle, but there are a few players with higher upside ahead of him.

Two other players to keep an eye on are Lawrence Marshall and Chase Winovich. Marshall played in only three games last season, but his potential to be a pass rusher off the edge gives him a chance to get into the rotation. Winovich played in six games last season, but didn’t make much of an impact. He should be a depth guy heading into his junior year.

Career Stats – Godin
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF FR INT
22 9 17 26 1.5 2.5 0 0 1
Career Stats – Marshall
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF FR INT
3 1 0 1 0.0 0.0 0 0 0
Career Stats – Winovich
Games Played Solo Assisted Total Tackles Sacks TFL FF FR INT
6 2 0 2 0.0 0.0 0 0 0
New faces:

Gary stole the headlines for Michigan at defensive line, and for good reason. But there are two other commits from the line in the 2016 class.

Defensive tackle Michael Dwumfour is a valuable tackle who can get pressure up the middle. He racked up seven sacks and 21 tackles for loss in his high school senior season and could make an impact if he doesn’t redshirt in 2016.

Shelton Johnson is a less heralded commit from the 2015 class and is off to a rough start after being suspended by Harbaugh for an unknown issue. Johnson is a solid pass rusher off the edge, but took a step back during his senior season at Riverview High School in Florida, tallying only three sacks. He might not see much of the field in 2016.

Camden, N.J. native Ron Johnson was a 247 Composite four-star with offers from Alabama, Oregon, Stanford, Ohio State, Michigan State and other major programs. The potential is there for the defensive end, but the depth Michigan has along the line will mean a likely redshirt season for him this fall.

Meet the rest:

Michael Wroblewski: Senior, 6-2, 242, from Saint Clair Shores, Mich. (Detroit Jesuit)
No career stats
Salim Makki: Junior, 6-0, 264, from Dearborn, Mich. (Fordson)
No career stats
Garrett Miller: Senior, 6-4, 271, from Adrian, Mich. (Sand Creek)
No career stats

Is Don Brown’s defense high-risk? The numbers say no

Wednesday, August 24th, 2016


Don Brown(Melanie Maxwell, MLive.com)

Recently, I was having a conversation with someone about the impact that Don Brown will have on the defense. He was saying with an extra aggressive scheme Michigan will probably force more turnovers but they’ll also end up giving up more big plays and that could cause them to regress and be even more susceptible to high powered offenses like Ohio State.

I hadn’t thought about it that way before — though I have heard the high risk/high reward narrative before — but it got me really thinking about it and I started looking into the stats from Don Brown’s previous defenses to see what Boston College did with this aggressive scheme and whether it really is a high risk one. Spoiler: it’s not.

““High risk? No. We don’t just throw this stuff against the wall … take it and say throw in this,” Brown said on Monday. “Come on. We’re not doing that. We look at the formations, the personnel groups. We lean to be on the aggressive side. Whether you’re running or passing the ball, we’re going to have the ability when we dictate to come. That’s what it’s all about.”

During my research one unfamiliar term came up several times: toxic differential, which measures big plays for/against, combined with turnover margin. So I dug deeper to compare what Boston College’s defense did the past few years versus what Michigan’s did and how Don Brown will impact Michigan’s defense this year and going forward.

But first a brief primer on toxic differential. We all know if you win the turnover battle you’re more likely to win the game and we all know that you would like your defense to prevent big plays. But until recently, I’ve never seen a metric that combined both turnover margin and big plays for/against ratio.

So what defines a big play? The NFL seems to regard any play gaining 20-plus yards as a big play, but it does not differentiate between rush and pass plays. I didn’t like that as it values runs and passes equally. Then Pete Carroll gave me what I was looking for. He regards big plays as 12 or more yards rushing and 16 or more yards passing. This is probably a much better measure of big plays.

Unfortunately, that data is not readily available for college stats, so for our purposes we will consider big plays to be any rush of 10 or more yards and any pass of 20 or more yards. What toxic differential seems to give us is a very intriguing look into how successful teams are successful.

Before we get to Brown’s defenses, let’s take a quick look at the playoff teams from both the past two seasons to see how those team ranked in this metric. Last year, Oklahoma ranked 12th, Clemson 16th, and Alabama 19th in toxic differential on a per game basis. (Note: I found that using a per-game number better illustrated these stats as some teams played only 12 games while most others play 13-14). So three of the final four ranked in the top 20 in toxic differential. Michigan State was the outlier at 45th, but when looking deeper you find that they were 10th in turnovers forced and fourth in turnover margin, so that explains that. And so does a lucky win at Michigan.

The season before that — 2014 — shows a very similar picture with national champion Ohio State ranking first, runner-up Oregon eighth and perennial top-5 team Alabama 11th. Three of the four playoff teams ranked in the top 11. Florida State was an extreme outlier at 77th — worse than even Michigan, which was 58th. Even stranger, and further proving stats do not tell all, FSU was 104th in turnover margin at minus-6. Let’s chalk it up to the Jameis Winston effect or something.

Now the fun stuff.

Don Brown defensive stats compared to Michigan in 2015
Year Big Run plays (rank) Big Pass plays (rank) Total Big plays (rank) Toxic Differential (rank)
2013 BC 4.6 (38th) 3.6 (87th) 8.2 (59th)
2014 BC 3.3 (5th) 2.8 (34th) 6.1 (6th)
2015 BC 3.5 (8th) 2.4 (13th) 5.9 (6th) 24 (33rd)
2015 UM 4.8 (56th) 2.4 (13th) 7.2 (25th) -3 (77th)

In 2015, the Boston College defense gave up 3.5 big run plays and 2.4 big pass plays per game, which was good for eighth and 13th fewest in the nation, respectively. Of all the plays in 2015, they gave up a big play (either pass or run) 9.47 percent of the time, which was good for 11th-best. BC gave up an average of 5.9 total big plays per game, good for sixth nationally. They came up plus-3 in turnover margin and their big play differential (percentage of big plays for minus percentage of big plays against) came in at 2.78 percent, good for 28th overall. Their total toxic differential was 24. On a per game basis this ranked them 33rd nationally.

Great, so what does that all mean? In a nutshell it means that Don Brown’s super aggressive scheme is not a high risk/high reward defense. In fact, the stats show that if anything this defense actually helps prevent big plays (sixth fewest big plays given up per game in the country). Brown himself calls his defense calculated, bringing different kinds of pressure from different spots depending not only on down and distance but also based on their scouting report of specific opponents.

Nov. 30, 2013 - Syracuse, New York, USA - November 30, 2013: Boston College Eagles defensive coordinator Don Brown calls a play during the first half of an NCAA Football game between the Boston College Eagles and the Syracuse Orange at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York. Syracuse defeated Boston College 34-31. Rich Barnes/CSM (Cal Sport Media via AP Images)

Don Brown turned BC’s defense into one of the nation’s best despite a 17-21 record in three seasons (Rich Barnes, Cal Sport Media)

Michigan had a top tier defense as well last year, so one might assume their numbers would be as good, if not better than BC’s. It turns out they weren’t. The Wolverines gave up an average of 4.8 big run plays per game (aided by an absent Ryan Glasgow against IU and OSU due to injury) and 2.4 big pass plays per game, good for 56th and 13th nationally. Based on total number of plays Michigan gave up a big play 11.49 percent of the time, 59th nationally. All told, Michigan gave up 7.2 big plays per game, good for 25th nationally, very good but just over one big play more per game than BC surrendered.

Turnover margin left a lot to be desired for Michigan at minus-4 and their big play differential came in at -1.01 percent, 88th nationally. That means that they gave up a higher percentage of big plays than they produced, despite averaging an almost identical 7.3 big plays for and 7.2 plays against. Where they really got hurt was their inability to force turnovers. Michigan ranked near the bottom of the country in forced turnovers. To put in perspective just how few turnovers Michigan actually forced, only six teams in the country forced less turnovers than Michigan did last year.

Michigan’s toxic differential total was minus-3, ranking them 77th on a per game basis. All but one metric — big pass plays against — was worse than BC’s ratings, and in that one they tied with 2.4 big pass plays given up per game.

Michigan’s defensive coordinator last season, D.J. Durkin, was not known as a blitz-crazed maniac and his defense only surrendered 2.4 big pass plays per game, which was very respectable. Don Brown, or Dr. Blitz as he has been called, brings pressure on a self-described 85 percent of his play calls. Yet, his defense gave up the exact same number of big pass plays and less big run plays per game.

Going back two Brown’s first two seasons at Boston College, there was a significant improvement from Year 1 to Year 2 and then 2015 maintained that success. In his first season in Chestnut Hill, Brown’s defense ranked 38th nationally with 4.6 big runs allowed per game — an improvement by one big run per game from the previous season –, 87th with 3.6 big pass plays allowed per game, and 59th with 8.2 total big plays allowed per game. In 2014, those numbers increased dramatically. The Eagles ranked fifth with 3.3 big runs allowed per game, 34th with 2.8 big pass plays allowed per game, and sixth with 6.1 total big plays allowed per game.

It seems reasonable to expect a moderate decrease in big plays allowed per game over Michigan’s totals from last year due to the superior athletes they have at their disposal (and incredible depth at defensive line) compared to the talent Brown had at BC. Keep in mind that BC’s two play decrease from 8.2 total big plays given up per game in 2013 to their 6.1 in 2015 was a percentile jump of 53 spots. So by moderate I think we should look for about one less big play per game.

While that may not seem like much, according to Pete Carroll, each drive in which a team has at least one big play they are about 75 percent more likely to score. It stands to reason then that eliminating just one big play per game could result in giving up three to seven fewer points. For a defense like Michigan’s, which only gave up 16.4 points per game in 2015, that could mean the difference between very good defense and one of the best ever. Dare I say, Don Brown’s defense this fall could give the 1997 squad a run for their money?

The conclusion I draw here is that Don Brown’s super aggressive defense is actually a low risk/high reward scheme. Michigan was a very good defense last year and they might be even better this year.

2016 non-conference opponent preview: Colorado

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2016


2016 Opponent Preview - Colorado

Sefo Liufau(Stephen Dunn, Getty Images)

Over the past couple of weeks we have previewed Michigan’s first two opponents, Hawaii and UCF. Today we close out our non-conference opponent preview with Michigan’s third opponent, the Colorado Buffaloes.

Schedule
Date Opponent
Sept. 2 at Colorado State
Sept. 10 Idaho State
Sept. 17 at Michigan
Sept. 24 at Oregon
Oct. 1 Oregon State
Oct. 8 at USC
Oct. 15 Arizona State
Oct. 22 at Stanford
Nov. 3 UCLA
Nov. 12 at Arizona
Nov. 19 Washington State
Nov. 26 Utah

While Hawaii and UCF play in lesser conferences — the Mountain West and American Athletic Conference, respectively — Colorado is a member of the Power 5 conference the Pac-12. And the Buffaloes had the best 2015 record of the three, but that’s not saying much since it was just 4-9 overall and 1-8 in the conference.

Head coach Mike MacIntyre faces an important season if he wants to remain in Boulder beyond 2016. He inherited a team that went just 1-11 in 2012 and turned out four wins in his first season. But he regressed to 2-10 in 2014, and turned in the program’s the first winless conference record since 1915. Last season, Colorado doubled its 2014 win total with a 4-9 record, but that still means that he has only treaded water in his first three seasons at the helm. And that also means that Colorado has as many wins in the past four years combined — including Jim Embree’s final season — as Jim Harbaugh had in his first season at Michigan.

MacIntyre faced adversity last season, losing several key players to injuries, but with 76 percent of last year’s offensive production and 81 percent of last year’s defensive production returning this fall, the Buffaloes are one of the most experienced teams on Michigan’s schedule.

The once proud Colorado program has suffered 10 straight losing seasons since the successful Gary Barnett era concluded in 2005. Barnett guided the Buffaloes to a 10-3 season in 2001 and won the Pac-12 North in four of his five seasons. But since Dan Hawkins took over in 2006, they have finished no better than third in the North and have amassed a record of 35-88 overall and 17-68 in the Pac-12.

MacIntyre achieved a turnaround at his previous stop at San Jose State, where he inherited a 2-10 team, went 1-11 in his first season, improved to 5-7 in Year 2, and broke out with a 10-2 season in 2012, finishing the season ranked 24th in the BCS standings, AP Poll, and USA Today Coaches Poll. He hasn’t been able to work the same magic in Boulder and it will very likely end with his dismissal later this fall if he can’t turn it around in a hurry.

Offense
2015 National Rankings
Total Offense Scoring Offense Rushing Offense Passing Offense
67 97 86 49
Offensive FEI S&P+ Rushing S&P+ Passing S&P+
103 99 89 100
Projected Starters
Position Name, Yr. Ht, Wt 2015 Stats
QB Sefo Liufau (Sr.) 6’4″, 230 214-344 (62.2%) for 2,418 yds, 9 TD, 6 INT
RB Phillip Lindsay (Jr.) 5’8″, 190 140 rush for 653 yds (4.7 avg), 6 TD
WR Kabion Ento (Jr.) 6’3″, 180 38 rec for 607 yds (16.0 avg), 8 TD*
WR Shay Fields (Jr.) 5’11”, 180 42 rec for 598 yds (14.2 avg), 4 TD
WR Devin Ross (Jr.) 5’9″, 180 25 rec for 324 yds (13.0 avg), 2 TD
TE Sean Irwin (Sr.) 6’3″, 250 15 rec for 248 yds (19.1 avg), 0 TD
LT Jeromy Irwin (Jr.) 6’5″, 295 2 starts (13 career starts)
LG Gerrad Kough (Jr.) 6’4″, 295 10 starts (12 career starts)
C Alex Kelley (Sr.) 6’2″, 310 13 starts (25 career starts)
RG Tim Lynott (RS Fr.) 6’3″, 300 Redshirted
RT Sam Kronshage (Jr.) 6’6″, 295 6 starts (6 career starts)
*at East Central Community College

While Michigan’s first two opponents feature offenses that ranked near the bottom nationally last season, Colorado’s 2015 offense was slightly more respectable. The Buffaloes ranked 67th in total offense (396.8 yards per game), 97th in scoring (24.6 points per game), 86th in rushing (156.2 yards per game), and 49th in passing (240.6 yards per game). But advanced stats show that Colorado’s offense was worse than it looked on paper. It ranked just 103rd in FEI, which measures an offense per possession based on the strength of opposing defenses faced. And that 49th ranked passing offense ranked 100th in S&P+, which measures a number of factors on a play-by-play basis. With a national average passing S&P+ rating at 100.0, Colorado’s was 88.3, while Michigan’s was 124.5 last season.

Co-offensive coordinators Darrin Chiaverini and Brian Lindgren have just four full-time starters returning, but they welcome a productive junior college transfer and get back a starting offensive lineman who missed all of 2015 due to injury.

Senior quarterback Sefo Liufau has 29 games of starting experience and 32 games of playing experience under his belt, which is far more than Michigan’s starting candidates. However, he missed the final two games of 2015 and all of spring practice with a Lisfranc (foot) injury, so there’s always the risk of either reinjury 0r not healing completely. Liufau nearly had stiff competition for the job when Texas Tech grad transfer Davis Webb originally chose the Buffaloes before ultimately landing at Cal, where he it didn’t take long to be named the starter. But with the job firmly his, Liufau will look to build upon the 75 school records he currently holds.

Leading rusher Phillip Lindsay is back after rushing for 653 yards and six touchdowns a year ago. He shared the backfield with Christian Powell, who graduated, so that opens the door for others to step up. Junior Donovan Lee and Patrick Carr got more reps as the season went on — Carr rushed for 100 yards against UCLA — but Carr transferred following the season. Lee was actually the most productive back in limited carries, averaging 5.8 yards per carry. Junior Michael Adkins (5.0 yards per carry), junior H-back George Frazier (6-foot-2, 260), and freshman Beau Bisharat (a 247 Composite four-star who held offers from Oregon, Michigan State, Stanford, Nebraska, and others) will compete for carries.

The receiving corps suffered the biggest loss from last season in the form of graduating senior Nelson Spruce, who ranked second in the Pac-12 with 6.8 receptions per game and fifth with 81 yards per game, though he only found the end zone four times. The leading returning receiver is junior Shay Fields, who caught 42 passes for 598 yards and four scores. MacIntyre did add productive junior college receiver Kabion Ento from East Central (Miss.) Community College. Ento was a National Junior College Athletic Association first-team All-Region member after catching 38 passes for 607 yards and eight touchdowns. Four other pass catchers who caught at least one touchdown last season return, including junior Devin Ross, who ranked second on the team with two scores last season.

The offensive line returns three of last season’s opening day starters, though left tackle Jeromy Irwin suffered a season-ending ACL injury in the second quarter of the second game. He’s back to anchor the line after starting 11 games in 2014. The most experienced is senior center Alex Kelley, who has started 25 career games including all 13 a year ago. Left guard Gerrad Kough started 10 games last season while missing three with various injuries. The right side of the line is where the newcomers step in. While it’s not completely set in stone just yet, redshirt freshman Tim Lynott and junior Sam Kronshage started with the ones in an open scrimmage two weeks ago. Kronshage started six games last season, three at left tackle and three at right tackle.

Defense
2015 National Rankings
Total Defense Scoring Defense Rushing Defense Pass Efficiency D.
85 70 99 56
Defensive FEI S&P Rushing S&P Passing S&P
68 93 95 72
Projected Starters
Position Name, Yr. Ht, Wt 2015 Stats
DE Leo Jackson III (Jr.) 6’3″, 275 33 tackles, 2 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 FF
DT Jordan Carrell (Sr.) 6’3″, 300 52 tackles, 8 TFL, 1 sack, 3 FF, 1 FR
DT Josh Tupou (Sr.) 6’3″, 325 Redshirted
OLB Derek McCartney (Jr.) 6’3″, 250 70 tackles, 10 TFL, 5 sacks, 1 FF
MLB Addison Gillam (Jr.) 6’3″, 230 6 tackles
WLB Rick Gamboa (RS So.) 6’0″, 230 96 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 sack, 3 PBU
OLB Jimmie Gilbert (Sr.) 6’5″, 230 47 tackle, 8 TFL, 6 sacks, 1 FF
CB Chidobe Awuzie (Sr.) 6’0″, 205 90 tackles, 13 TFL, 4 INT, 10 PBU
CB Isaiah Oliver (So.) 6’1″, 190 19 tackles, 6 PBU
FS Ryan Moeller (Jr.) 6’1″, 215 47 tackles, 1 TFL, 2 PBU, 1 FF
SS Tedric Thompson (Sr.) 6’1″, 205 80 tackles, 5 TFL, 9 PBU

Colorado’s defense was pretty comparable to its offense last season, ranking slightly below average nationally, but not quite in the 100s. It ranked 85th in total defense (416.9 yards per game), 70th in scoring defense (27.5 points per game), 99th against the run (198.7 yards per game), 59th against the pass (218.2 yards per game), 56th in pass efficiency defense (123.79), and 68th in defensive FEI (-.09), which measures defensive efficiency on a per possession basis, based on strength of opponent.

When Michigan defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin left for the Maryland head coaching position after just one season, one of the names that came up as his replacement was former USF head coach Jim Leavitt. Harbaugh, of course, hired Boston College’s Don Brown instead, and Leavitt ended up in the same position at Colorado. In Boulder, he inherits a veteran defense that looks to take a step forward in his second season.

The defensive line has been a weakness the past few seasons, but has plenty of experience returning. Senior nose tackle Josh Tupou, who has started 31 career games, returns after redshirting in 2015 due to a violation of team rules. He was an honorable mention Freshman All-American in 2012 and honorable mention All-Pac-12 in 2014, so his return will be a welcome addition for Leavitt. He’ll be joined on the line by senior tackle Jordan Carrell and junior end Leo Jackson III, who combined for 85 tackles, 10 for loss, and three sacks a year ago.

Like the defensive line and offensive line, the linebacking corps gets back a key piece that missed most of last season. Junior inside linebacker Addison Gillam started 10 games in 2014 and was a first-team Freshman All-American in 2013, but tore his meniscus in Week 2 last season. Weakside linebacker Rick Gamboa was the team’s leading tackler as a redshirt freshman a year ago, while senior outside linebacker Jimmie Gilbert led the team with six sacks despite starting just three games. The other outside linebacker is junior Derek McCartney, who racked up 70 tackles, 10 for loss, and five sacks.

The secondary returns three starters including preseason Jim Thorpe Award candidate Chidobe Awuzie, who tallied 90 tackles and a team-high 10 pass breakups in 2015. He was a second-team All-Pac-12 performer and has 22 career pass breakups. The other corner is the lone new starter, sophomore Isaiah Oliver, who performed well as a true freshman last season. Both safeties return. Junior free safety Ryan Moeller and senior strong safety Tedric Thompson combined for 127 tackles, 6 for loss, and 11 pass breakups a year ago.

Special Teams
2015 National Rankings
Kick Returns Punt Returns Net Punting ST Eff.
44 94 81 90
Kick Return D. Punt Return D. FG Efficiency Opp Field Pos.
82 39 105 57
Projected Starters
Position Name, Yr. Ht, Wt 2015 Stats
K Diego Gonzalez (Sr.) 6’0″, 215 18-of-29 (62.1%), Long 52
P Alex Kinney (So.) 6’1″, 205 66 punts, 40.1 avg, 1 TB, 23 in-20
KR Donovan Lee (Jr.) 5’9″, 180 22 ret, 24.5 avg
PR Jay MacIntyre (So.) 5’10”, 190 4 ret, 9.3 avg

Special teams was a bit lackluster for the Buffaloes last season, so MacIntyre brought in a pair of new coaches to oversee the unit. Former special teams coordinator Toby Neinas was dismissed and landed at Rutgers, and in his place step Daniel Da Prato and Matt Thompson. Da Prato was the special teams coordinator at Montana State the past three seasons, while Thompson was a private kicking instructor.

Senior kicker Diego Gonzalez made just 62.1 percent of his field goal attempts in his first season as the primary kicker last season, but he did show off a big leg with a long of 52. In fact, he went 2-of-3 from 50-plus yards. He struggled mightily from the left hash, making just 5-of-12, but made 13-of-17 everywhere else. Sophomore punter Alex Kinney ranked ninth in the Pac-12 with an average of 40.1 yards per punt as a true freshman.

Outlook

It’s a safe bet to assume Colorado will be better than last season’s 4-9 record. But will that turn into wins against a tough schedule? And will it be enough for MacIntyre to keep his job? Colorado should win its first two games against Colorado State and Idaho State, but then it faces a grueling slate of at Michigan and Oregon in back to back weeks, home against Oregon State, at USC, home against Arizona State, at Stanford, and home against UCLA. Then they get a “breather” against Arizona and Washington State before finishing with Utah. It’s hard to see more than four wins there, but if they can pull off five, MacIntyre deserves another year.

What it means for Michigan

Colorado will be the strongest of the three non-conference opponents Michigan faces and both teams should be 2-0 when the meet in Ann Arbor on Sept. 17. If Michigan hasn’t shored up its quarterback situation by then, an experienced secondary could be a problem. But don’t expect Colorado’s offense to be able to put up enough points to legitimately give Michigan a scare. Michigan heads into Big Ten play at 3-0.

Predicting Michigan 2016: The offensive line

Wednesday, August 17th, 2016


Predicting Michgian 2016-OffensiveLine
Mason Cole(Melanie Maxwell, MLive.com)

Previous: Quarterbacks, Running Backs, Wide Receivers, Tight Ends

It’s not the most glamorous position on the football field, but no group will play a more important role than the offensive line for Michigan this season, especially with a new quarterback taking over and a heightened emphasis on running the ball.

Luckily for Michigan, it returns one of the most important qualities in an offensive line: experience. Four of the team’s five regular starters return for 2016 after Graham Glasgow was selected in the third round of the NFL Draft by the Detroit Lions.

The two unknowns heading into the offseason were who would take that fifth starting spot, and which reserves can step into a bigger rotational role.

Starting five

Four of Michigan’s five offensive linemen return after starting at least 12 games last season. The most solid, reliable player is fifth-year senior Kyle Kalis, who started all 13 games at right guard and elevated his play to near all-conference levels. Kalis has been a mainstay on the offensive line since his redshirt freshman season in 2013. Since settling in at right guard, Kalis has become a solid pass protector, but like much of the line, needs to take the next step to create the running game Jim Harbaugh envisions.

Grant Newsome played his way out of a redshirt as a true freshman in 2015 and now moves into the starting lineup (Melanie Maxwell, MLive.com)

Grant Newsome played his way out of a redshirt as a true freshman in 2015 and now moves into the starting lineup (Melanie Maxwell, MLive.com)

Fellow fifth-year senior Ben Braden takes up the other guard slot, coming off a breakout season in which he started 13 games and quietly put up some of the best performances on the line. Recruited as a tackle, Braden was hailed as a strong run blocker coming into Ann Arbor, but he’s done a nice job to date stopping the inside pass rush.

Both starting tackles return for the 2016 season, but with a bit of a twist. Fifth-year senior Erik Magnuson will lock down his familiar right tackle spot and be a major contributor on the line for a fourth straight season. He’s slowly turned himself into a strong edge blocker and enjoyed his best season under Harbaugh a year go.

But former starting left tackle Mason Cole will step into a new role for his junior year, though he’ll be just as crucial to this veteran line. After becoming Michigan’s first true freshman to start a season opener on the offensive line in 2014, Cole played left tackle in each of his first 25 games at Michigan. Now, he’ll step into Glasgow’s empty shoes as the starting center, a role he’s embraced this summer.

Michigan went through a disastrous period at center under Brady Hoke, struggling with the center-quarterback exchange, and at times, allowing defenders to get huge jumps off the snap. Cole will be critical in picking up the running game this season and shoring up the inside of the line. He’s a smart player and has the physical tools for a smooth transition, but Cole will be a player to watch when the Wolverines take the field Sept. 3.

Four starters down, and one question mark to go. The new kid at the starters’ table will be sophomore Grant Newsome, who takes over the vitally important left tackle position. Newsome is one of the best natural two-way blockers on the roster, coming into college as an excellent pass blocker and an able run blocker. He’s strong and explosive, but the key will be consistency and moving his feet off the edge on a play-by-play basis. Newsome will have his gaffs, like any young player, but as the season goes on, he’ll benefit from playing next to such an experienced group.

Projected Starters
Left Tackle Left Guard Center Right Guard Right Tackle
Grant Newsome Ben Braden Mason Cole Kyle Kalis Erik Magnuson
2015 Starts 1 13 13 13 12
Career Starts 1 25 25 29 24
Likely contributors

The starting five played a ton of snaps for Michigan last season, but there are a few returning players who contributed in the rotation. Perhaps the most seasoned backup, and a candidate for a starting role as a redshirt senior next year, is David Dawson. Dawson shared some time with Braden at left guard last season and held his own, especially in pass blocking. He’ll be an important depth guy in 2016.

Senior Patrick Kugler is in a similar situation, though his ceiling was much higher coming into Ann Arbor. The former five-star recruit played a backup role in 2015 and could provide some insurance if Cole struggles at center, which seems unlikely. Either way, the senior will play a role.

An interesting player to watch will be junior Juwann Bushell-Beatty, who played in only four games as a reserve lineman last season. The Paramus, N.J. native was just getting his feet wet last season, and passed his first college test. He might not take on a huge role this season, but look for Bushell-Beatty to make moves up the depth chart for 2017.

Ben Pliska played in two games last season, so his role could grow as a fifth-year senior in 2016. He can fill in at multiple positions on the line and gives Harbaugh another option if one of these contributors struggles or goes down with an injury.

Two linemen who didn’t play last season but should figure into the mix as redshirt freshmen are Nolan Ulizio and Jon Runyan. Both members of Harbaugh’s first recruiting class at Michigan, Ulizio and Runyan committed as three-star prospects. Ulizio fits the fits the typical Harbaugh bill — a smart, physical player who plays the position with a chip on his shoulder. Runyan is a little different, as he’s more of a quick, explosive lineman who may be a little undersized, but compensates with great technique. Expect both players to find a home in the rotation off the bench.

New faces

Michigan pulled in three new offensive line recruits in its elite 2016 class, led by Wisconsin’s finest, Ben Bredeson. That’s right, Harbaugh managed to pull a Wisconsin lineman away from the Badgers, and Bredeson is exactly what you’d expect from that ilk. One of the top offensive linemen in his class, Bredeson projects as a guard or tackle and could probably step into a bigger role if Michigan wasn’t so stacked with veteran lineman. Bredeson has decent size, but his value comes from his athleticism, which makes him an excellent run blocker. If he can bring his pass protection up to par, he’ll be a familiar face on the line over the next several years.

Harbaugh pulled another gem from the offensive line crop, snagging Michael Onwenu out of Cass Tech in Detroit. Onwenu is an absolutely enormous human who will play guard at over 350 pounds. He can pass block well for a big guy, but his specialty should be run blocking as he matures. It’s all power and strength with Onwenu, so his ability to learn the intricacies of the position will dictate his success at Michigan.

The third – and sometimes forgotten – man from this group is Stephen Spanellis, who committed to Michigan out of nowhere in January. Spanellis is just another big, strong lineman to add to the mix, joining the team at 6-feet-6 inches tall and around 300 pounds. He probably won’t play much of a role as a freshman, but the Baltimore native could factor in down the line.

Michigan also welcomed preferred walk-ons Anthony Kay, Carl Myers and Andrew Vastardis to the offensive line group.

Meet the rest

Greg Froelich: Senior, 6-2, 257, from Maplewood, N.J. (Deerfield Academy)
Greg Robinson: Freshman, 6-6, 290, from Hudson, Ohio (Hudson)

2016 non-conference opponent preview: UCF

Tuesday, August 16th, 2016


2016 Opponent Preview - UCF

Scott Frost(D. Bradley Helton, UCF Athletics)

We kicked off our non-conference opponent preview series last week with Michigan’s first opponent, Hawaii. Today we continue with Michigan’s second opponent, the Central Florida Knights.

Schedule
Date Opponent
Sept. 3 South Carolina State
Sept. 10 at Michigan
Sept. 17 Maryland
Sept. 24 FIU
Oct. 1 at East Carolina
Oct. 7 Tulane
Oct. 15 Temple
Oct. 22 at UConn
Oct. 29 at Houston
Nov. 12 Cincinnati
Nov. 19 Tulsa
Nov. 26 at USF

Oh how far they’ve fallen so quickly. Two years ago, UCF knocked off sixth-ranked Baylor to win the Fiesta Bowl and cap a 12-1 season. They finished the season ranked 10th in the AP Poll, the highest in school history. But head coach George O’Leary was unable to adequately replace quarterback Blake Bortles, who was drafted third overall by the Jacksonville Jaguars. After going 9-4 in 2014, the Knights sunk to 0-12 last season.

O’Leary resigned eight games into the season after posting a 81-68 record over 12 seasons in Orlando and quarterbacks coach Danny Barrett took over for the remainder of the season.

Enter Scott Frost. The former prolific Nebraska quarterback spent the past seven seasons on the coaching staff at Oregon, learning and then running one of the nation’s best offenses. From 2009-12, Frost served as wide receivers coach for the Ducks, and when head coach Chip Kelly left for the Philadelphia Eagles and offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich was promoted, Frost was named offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.

In the past three seasons under Frost’s guidance, Oregon’s offense has ranked second, third, and fifth nationally in total offense and fourth, fourth, and fifth in scoring. He’ll bring a winning mentality to a program that desperately needs it. Oregon went 79-15 during Frost’s tenure in Eugene, finishing in the top four nationally four times and no worse than 19th.

Offense
2015 National Rankings
Total Offense Scoring Offense Rushing Offense Passing Offense
127 125 126 102
Offensive FEI S&P Rushing S&P Passing S&P
128 126 128 122
Projected Starters
Position Name, Yr. Ht, Wt 2015 Stats
QB Justin Holman (Sr.) 6’4″, 225 127-250 (50.8%) for 1,379 yds, 7 TD, 14 INT
RB Taj McGowan (So.) 6’1″, 202 85 rush for 262 yds (3.1 avg), 1 TD
WR Tristan Payton (So.) 6’0″, 186 21 rec for 264 yds (12.6 avg), 1 TD
WR Tre’Quan Smith (RS So.) 6’1″, 200 52 rec for 724 yds (13.9 avg), 4 TD
WR Dontravious Wilson (So.) 6’3″, 200 44 rush for 147 yds (3.3 avg), 0 TD
TE Jordan Akins (RS So.) 6’5″, 240 14 rec for 152 yds (10.9 avg), 2 TD
LT Aaron Evans (RS Jr.) 6’5″, 290 12 starts (13 career starts)
LG Tyler Hudanick (So.) 6’5″, 300 9 starts (9 career starts)
C Jason Rae (Sr.) 5’11”, 288 10 starts (17 career starts)
RG Chavis Dickey (Jr.) 6’4″, 330 3 starts (15 career starts)
RT Wyatt Miller (RS So.) 6’4″, 290 8 starts (8 career starts)

To say that Frost will have his work cut out for him is putting it lightly. While his Ducks ranked fifth nationally in total offense last season (538.2 yards per game) , UCF ranked dead last (268.4). While Oregon ranked fifth in scoring (43 points per game), UCF ranked 125th (13.9). While Oregon ranked fifth in rushing (279.9 yards per game) and 36th in passing (258.3), UCF ranked 126th (81.3) and 102nd (187.2).

It helps to have an athletic quarterback returning, even if he didn’t put up enviable numbers in 2015. Senior Justin Holman completed 50.8 percent of his passes for 1,379 yards, seven touchdowns, and 14 interceptions. He’ll be pushed by senior Nick Patti, who converted from wide receiver, and freshman McKenzie Milton, a Hawaii native who originally committed to his home-state Rainbow Warriors before switching to UCF.

If there’s a sliver of hope for UCF’s offense it is that nearly every pass catcher is back, though Patti takes his 104 yards and one touchdowns over to the quarterback position. But he ranked ranked eighth on the team in receiving in 2015. Redshirt sophomore Tre’Quan Smith is clearly the leader at the receiver position after a debut season in which he caught 52 passes for 724 yard and four touchdowns. His 4.3 receptions per game were good enough to rank 10th in the American Athletic Conference despite UCF’s offense being the worst.

Sophomore Tristan Payton was the team’s second-leading receiver, although there was a big drop-off after Smith. Payton caught 21 passes for 264 yards and one touchdown. But he was a true freshman and a four-star recruit, so he could be due for a breakout season this fall.

The running game ranked third-to-last nationally in 2015, but last year’s leading rusher, C.J. Jones, has set his sights high for 2016.

“We want our whole backfield to lead the nation in rushing,” he said. “When you look at UCF and you look at rushing yards, we want to be at the top.”

When you look at the type of running game Frost guided at Oregon you can see that it’s not a completely unreasonable goal. But it’s certainly too much to ask for in Year 1. Jones led the Knights with 339 yards on 3.6 yards per carry last season with one touchdown. His backfield mate, sophomore Taj McGowan, rushed for 262 yards on 3.1 yards per carry and one score while battling injuries.

The offensive line returns 42 starts from last season. Senior center Jason Rae is the most experienced of the bunch with 17 career starts, while junior right guard Chavis Dickey — who started just three games in 2015 — is the second most experienced with 15 career starts. Dickey has the best size of any of them at 6-foot-4, 330. Redshirt junior left tackle started all 12 games a year ago.

Defense
2015 National Rankings
Total Defense Scoring Defense Rushing Defense Pass Efficiency D.
113 117 100 126
Defensive FEI S&P Rushing S&P Passing S&P
127 112 107 106
Projected Starters
Position Name, Yr. Ht, Wt 2015 Stats
DE Josh Odigie (Jr.) 6’3″, 236 51 tackles, 12 TFL, 4 sacks*
DT Jamiyus Pittman (Jr.) 6’0″, 295 45 tackles, 7 TFL, 4.5 sacks
DT Tony Guerad (RS Jr.) 6’3″, 275 28 tackles, 5 TFL, 2 sacks
LB Shaquem Griffin (RS Jr.) 6’1″, 213 9 tackles, 1 FR, 1 PBU
LB Chequan Burkett (RS Jr.) 6’2″, 230 56 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 3 sacks
LB Mark Rucker (RS Sr.) 5’9″, 217 15 tackles, 1 TFL
LB Errol Clarke (RS Sr.) 6’3″, 230 9 tackles
CB Shaquill Griffin (Sr.) 6’1″, 200 50 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 2 INT, 13 PBU
CB D.J. Killings (Sr.) 6’0″, 185 32 tackles, 4 TFL, 1 PBU, 1 FF
FS Drico Johnson (RS Sr.) 6’1″, 215 64 tackles, 4 TFL, 1 PBU, 1 FR
SS T.J. Mutcherson (RS Sr.) 5’11”, 195 31 tackles, 4 TFL, 1 sack, 2 PBU
*at Orange Coast College

While the offense has hope for improvement thanks to Frost’s offensive background, the defense returns just five starters from a unit that was one of the country’s worst last season. Frost brought Oregon outside linebackers coach Erik Chinander to Orlando with him. Chinander was a graduate assistant for the Ducks from 2010-12 and went to the Philadelphia Eagles with Chip Kelly, but came back to Oregon after the 2013 season. He promises to bring an “aggressive, high-energy, high-effort” defense to UCF.

The Knights ranked 113th nationally in total defense (464.1 yards per game), 117th in scoring defense (37.7 points per game), 100th against the run (199.2 yards per game), 109th against the pass (264.9 yards per game), and 126th in pass efficiency defense (166.95).

Frost added three junior college transfers to bolster the defensive line. However, two of them — projected starting end Chris Mulumbo as well as tackle Joe Sanders — are not on the fall camp roster. To add to the problems along the line, former three-star end Monte Taylor was dismissed from the team. Junior Josh Odigie, a transfer from Orange Coast College, where he recorded 51 tackles, 12 for loss, and four sacks, should lock down the starting end spot.

Junior tackle Jamiyus Pittman is the most experienced returning member of the line. The Moultrie, Ga. native started 11 games last season and ranked sixth on the team in tackles with 45. His seven tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks are the most of any returning Knight. The other tackle is likely to be redshirt junior Tony Guerad, who recorded 28 tackles, five for loss, and two sacks in seven games a year ago.

Like the defensive line, only one full-time starter returns at the linebacker position after the loss of leading tackler Domenic Spencer. Redshirt junior inside linebacker Chequan Burkett started all 12 games in 2015 and ranked third on the team with 56 tackles. He also led all players with five quarterback hurries. Joining him in the middle will be fifth-year senior Mark Rucker, who has recorded just 24 total tackles in his career — nine of which came in last year’s season opener against Florida International. The outside linebackers are likely to be redshirt junior Shaquim Griffin and fifth-year senior Errol Clarke. Both recorded just nine tackles last season in limited action.

The secondary is where the experience lies with four senior starters. Free safety Drico Johnson broke out last year as the team’s second-leading tackler with 64. He had eight or more tackles in five of the Knights’ 12 games. Seniors Shaquill Griffin and D.J. Killings are the starting corners. Griffin — the brother of linebacker Shaquim — recorded 50 tackles and led the team with 13 pass breakups, which ranked in the top 25 nationally. Killings started seven games last season while battling injuries and totaled 32 tackles.

Special Teams
2015 National Rankings
Kick Returns Punt Returns Net Punting ST Eff.
33 98 10 22
Kick Return D. Punt Return D. FG Efficiency Opp FG Eff.
50 57 43 114
Projected Starters
Position Name, Yr. Ht, Wt 2015 Stats
K Matthew Wright (RS So.) 6’0″, 185 13-of-17 (76.5%), Long 48
P Caleb Houston (RS Sr.) 6’1″, 225 65 punts, 44.2 avg, 2 TB, 28 in-20
KR Tristan Payton (So.) 6’0″, 186 30 ret, 24.2 avg
PR Tristan Payton (So.) 6’0″, 186 N/A

Like Michigan’s first opponent, Hawaii, UCF wasn’t bad on special teams last season, ranking in the top half nationally in most categories. They also have both their kicker and punter back. Redshirt sophomore kicker Matthew Wright connected on 13-of-17 field goal attempts in 2015 with a long of 48, while fifth-year senior punter Caleb Houston averaged 44.2 yards per punt with just two touchbacks and 28 downed inside the 20.

Sophomore receiver Tristan Payton is expected to handle both return duties. Last season he was the main kick returner, averaging 24.2 yards per return with a long of 35. He didn’t return a punt, however.

Outlook

With all the talent available in the state of Florida, it’s a certainty that Frost will be able to win some games at UCF before he moves up to a bigger and better gig. But don’t expect it to happen right away. He will certainly improve on last season’s record, and probably before he even reaches Ann Arbor. The Knights face South Carolina State, which went 7-4 last season in the Football Championship Subdivision, in the season opener. There are other wins available on the schedule, but the school-record 23,147 UCF fans who showed up to the team’s spring game should be patient this fall.

What it means for Michigan

Frost made news back in February with a tweak of Jim Harbaugh following Michigan’s Signing of the Stars event on National Signing Day.

“As long as I’m running this program, we’re not going to make a zoo out of National Signing Day,” he said during his post-signing day press conference.

That’s just fine with Harbaugh, who will always do things his own way. And that includes a big Week 2 win. Frost’s Oregon-style offense will give Michigan’s top-notch defense a good early-season look. UCF has even coined the moniker “UCFast” to describe the offense. It won’t be enough to scare Michigan, but will present a tougher test than Hawaii and it will be good to see how a Don Brown defense reacts to an uptempo, no-huddle offense.

Offensively, Michigan should have no problem moving the ball and scoring at will against a defense that allowed nearly 38 points per game in 2015. Look for offensive coordinator Tim Drevno to put on a clinic on the ground, taking advantage of an inexperienced and undersized front seven. Michigan wins big and moves on to Colorado.