Posts Tagged ‘Offensive line’

Inside the Numbers: Sending out an S.O.S. on the LOS

Wednesday, November 13th, 2013


(Rick Osentoski, US Presswire)

Since returning to Ann Arbor in January in 2011, head coach Brady Hoke has preached that he wants to “hear football.” He wants to hear the sound of helmets striking each other, shoulder pads colliding into each other, and players trying to drive one another into the ground. He wants to “hear football” when Michigan takes the field because he wants his team to be tough, physical, strong, and powerful. Yet, the only thing Hoke has heard from his offensive line is silence.

Michigan’s offense has derailed in the month of November, and its offensive line deserves much of the blame. Prior to November, U-M’s offense averaged 42.4 points and 446.5 total yards in its first seven games. In its two November contests, the offense has scored 19 points and gained 343 total yards combined, averaging 9.5 points and 171.5 total yards per game.

To make matters worse, not only has Michigan rushed for minus-69 yards on 65 carries in its last two games, it has rushed for positive yardage in only one of those eight quarters. Against Michigan State, U-M set a program low with minus-48 rushing yards, breaking a 51-year-old school record that Michigan wanted to stand untouched for all of eternity. Then, with minus-21 rushing yards against Nebraska the following week, the Maize and Blue became only the second team this millennium to turn in negative rushing performances in back-to-back games.

Gardner has been sacked 14 times in the last two games (Detroit Free Press)

The lousy offensive display in East Lansing was unacceptable by Michigan standards, but was somewhat understandable. The Spartans’ defense was ranked in the top three in the nation in almost every relevant defensive category, including scoring defense, total defense, rushing defense, and passing yards allowed. There is no doubt that MSU’s defense was one of the best defenses in the country, if not the best.

But Nebraska’s defense was not.  Prior to last Saturday, the Cornhuskers were ranked #46 in scoring defense, #70 in total defense, #85 in rushing defense, and #39 in passing yards allowed. This mediocre defense—the same one that allowed 516 rushing yards to its two prior opponents—stunningly prevented Michigan from netting positive rushing yards for the second straight week.

There is no way around it: Michigan’s offense currently is broken. Before it can be fixed, the problem must be identified first. For the Wolverines, they must look no further than the offensive line.

Entering the 2013 campaign, expectations for Michigan’s offensive line were high. Blame for last season’s sub-par performance from the offensive line was placed upon the three then-senior interior linemen—whom former head coach Rich Rodriguez recruited to play in his zone-blocking schemes—whose skillsets did not mesh well with offensive coordinator Al Borges’ man-blocking schemes. The below-average play was written off as a cost of the transition from Rodriguez’s spread read-option offense to Borges’ power offense. With talented, but inexperienced, interior linemen with skillsets more suited for Borges’ man-blocking schemes joining the starting lineup this season, significant improvement along the line of scrimmage was expected.

Instead, Michigan’s offensive line has worsened despite starting an All-American and future high-first-round NFL Draft pick at left tackle. The decline has never been more evident than in Michigan’s two November games, in which U-M rushed for minus-69 yards, lost more than one yard per carry, allowed 26 tackles-for-loss, and allowed 14 sacks. Thus, the Wolverines’ offensive line has been so poor in November that it has averaged 13 tackles-for-loss allowed and seven sacks allowed, while U-M’s backs averaged minus-34.5 rushing yards, in those contests.

However, the decline in the play of Michigan’s offensive line has not been limited to only the month of November. The cracks have been there all season. To oversimplify, an offensive line has two responsibilities: (1) create holes through which running backs run; and (2) prevent the opposing defense from sacking the quarterback. Michigan’s national rankings in offensive categories that help track whether an offensive line has maintained these responsibilities have tumbled. Not only have the rankings tumbled, they have fallen so far that they are similar to Michigan’s rankings in 2008—a year considered to be the season in which Michigan had its worst offense and offensive line in recent memory, if not ever.

To see the similarities, here is a table comparing these Michigan’s 2008 and 2013 national rankings in these offensive categories:

Michigan National Ranks: 2013 vs. 2008
2013 2008
Nat’l Rank Average/Game Nat’l Rank Average/Game
Total Offense T-83 385.33 109 290.75
Rushing Offense 97 135.33 59 147.58
Yards Per Carry 111 3.25 73 3.91
Passing Offense 51 250.00 108 143.17
TFLs Allowed 123* 9.00 116 7.75
Sacks Allowed T-105 2.89 T-57 1.83
*Last in FBS

According to the table above, the only offensive categories in which Michigan is better in 2013 than 2008 are total offense and passing offense. These improvements can be credited to quarterback Devin Gardner. Gardner—who leads the Big Ten in total offense and points responsible for—is a far superior quarterback than the platoon of Steven Threet and Nick Sheridan that completed less than half its passes in 2008.

However, Michigan has been worse in every other offensive category in the above table this season compared to 2008. Even though there are only 123 FBS teams, the Wolverines are ranked outside the top 100 in rushing yards per carry, tackles-for-loss allowed, and sacks allowed. Plus, Michigan is on the edge of being ranked outside the top 100 in rushing offense, too. To cap it off, U-M has allowed more tackles-for-loss in 2013 than any other FBS team in the nation, permitting defenses to tackle U-M players behind the line of scrimmage nine times per game.

Defenders shooting through the line has been a common site the last two weeks (Huskers.com)

It must be noted that offensive lines are one of the toughest positions to evaluate because there are no statistics that measure individual performance—at least none made available to the public. Coaches use other units, such as assignment grades and loafs, that indicate how well an individual offensive lineman has played. Assignment grades determine how well offensive linemen executed their assignments each game, while loafs measure how many times offensive linemen did not provide the effort needed to finish a play. But given that Michigan has started nine different offensive linemen in nine games, only one of which was due to injury, it seems likely that all stats measuring the performance of offensive lines have come to the same conclusion: Michigan’s may be one of the worst in program history.

Unfortunately for the Wolverines, with only four games remaining, there is no permanent solution that will fix this before the season ends. A shift in Borges’ play-calling may slightly alleviate the problem.  As “Inside the Numbers” alluded to prior to MSU, Borges has been tipping his play calls based upon Michigan’s formation, especially on third downs. Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory confirmed this observation in the aftermath of the Cornhuskers’ 17-13 win against the Wolverines with this quote: “They had certain tendencies. Whatever formation they came out in, we knew what they were going to throw at us.” When defenses notice these tells, they adjust accordingly and put the offensive line in situations in which it has no chance to make the necessary blocks to execute a play successfully.

But Michigan fans must be patient because this would only be a temporary, limited solution. The other issues affecting Michigan’s offensive line—mostly inexperience—can only be fixed with time.  Of the seven linemen Michigan has started along the interior, six are no older than redshirt sophomores and zero made a collegiate start prior to this season. Plus, in 2014, U-M will have seven additional linemen—all of which currently are either redshirt freshmen or true freshmen—that will be available to play.

Raw talent will not be an issue for Michigan’s offensive line in the future. Of these 14 offensive linemen available to play in 2014, Rivals.com rated nine of them as five- or four-star high school recruits. These players have very high ceilings. The question will be whether Michigan will be able to develop and transform their vast potential into reality. If so, Hoke finally will be able to “hear football” from his offensive line once again. If not, the silence will become deafening.

Three Notes You Should Know Before Michigan-Nebraska

  1. At the moment, Michigan is a 2.5-point underdog against Northwestern, according to Las Vegas sports books. This is the first time in the history of this series that Michigan has not been a favorite against the Wildcats. Prior to this year, the Wolverines always had been at least a three-point favorite against Northwestern, with U-M being a 21.3-point favorite on average.
  1. Michigan has forced 18 turnovers through nine games this season, matching the number it forced in all of 2012. However, U-M has converted only 11 of those 18 extra possessions into 65 points—eight touchdowns and three field goals. Further, the Wolverines have turned the last three turnovers they have forced into only three points, despite starting the ensuing series at the opponent’s 41-, 33-, and 26-yard line.
  1. Wide receiver Jeremy Gallon has 947 receiving yards for the 2013 campaign and 2,278 receiving yards for his career. Gallon needs 40 receiving yards to pass David Terrell for the fourth-most career receiving yards in Michigan history and 53 receiving yards to become the 10th wide receiver in program history to have a 1,000-yard season.

You can follow Drew on Twitter: @DrewCHallett

Predicting Michigan: The offensive line

Thursday, July 25th, 2013


Continuing our positional breakdown and predictions series, Derick takes a look at the offensive line and what we can expect from the unit this season. For previous posts, see Quarterbacks.

Last Year’s Line

Many fans wonder how Michigan will fare after losing over half of the starters from the 2012 offensive line. Brady Hoke graduated three talented linemen this year, when Elliott Mealer, Ricky Barnum and Patrick Omameh moved on to the NFL. All three former starters were left undrafted in April, but signed as free agents afterwards.

Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield are the only returning starters. Lewan started every game for the Wolverines at left tackle in 2012 while Schofield did the same at right tackle. These two fifth-year seniors will be critical in shaping the 2013 line, as Michigan offensive line Coach Darrell Funk tries to restructure this unit with the help of a couple of talented recruiting classes.

Returning Starters: Know What To Expect

Losing three starters from the offensive line may look like a blessing to Michigan fans when they consider the makeover project that could have taken place had Lewan declared for the 2013 draft. He may only make up one-fifth of the line, but the first-team All-American gives what promises to be a very young offensive line the anchor, leader and teacher it needs.

Lewan returned for his senior season to take care of unfinished business and lead the young line

Lewan figured to be a sure-fire top-10 pick in the 2013 draft, but elected to return to Michigan for his senior season. Lewan’s decision not only gave Michigan a talented player on the field, but also an unquestioned leader at a position where it definitely needs one.

In returning to school, Lewan proved himself to be a ‘Michigan Man,’ a label that only the Maize and Blue faithful can understand. Much as Brady Hoke did when he took the job at Michigan, Lewan will demand immediate respect from the young players that will share important minutes on the offensive line this season. As the returning Big Ten Rimington-Pace Offensive Lineman of the Year award-winner, Lewan will make everyone around him better while solidifying the most important position on the offensive line: left tackle.

On the field, Lewan is one of the best lineman in the country, and has even been named to the Walter Camp Player of the Year Watch List. He has the ability to protect the quarterback against almost any other player in the country, as he showed in the 2013 Outback Bowl when he contained South Carolina’s freak athlete Jadeveon Clowney for the majority of the game. One thing that has frustrated fans is Lewan’s tendency to pick up personal fouls after the whistle. While his competitiveness has caused him to pick up some of these late flags, Lewan should be able to stay away from these types of mistakes as a fifth-year senior. Hoke will count on Lewan to be a leader this season, so the mental mistakes should be rare for the tackle.

On the opposite side of the line should be Schofield, who will likely start at right tackle. The redshirt senior spent most of the 2011 season at left guard before moving to his current place on the right side for the entire 2012 season. With Lewan and Schofield, the tackle positions should be a strength of the Michigan team in 2013, despite the questions that remain for the rest of the offensive line.

Projection
Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield will both start in every game, barring injury
Career Stats
Games Played Games Started
Lewan: 37 Schofield: 39 Lewan: 35 Schofield: 23

Next In Line: 2013 Contributors

For a football team to have the kind of success Michigan is hoping for this season, having depth on both lines is crucial. The starters get most of the attention, but when the big guys need a break, the back-ups play a big role. Michigan returns three players that have seen time on the line and could be called on to play bigger roles now that three major pieces have graduated.

After redshirting his freshman year, center Jack Miller appeared in six games at center last season. Redshirt senior Erik Gunderson has seen little game time but did play in five games last season and can give Michigan another veteran presence during his fifth season. Joey Burzynski started to see more minutes on the line near the end of the 2012 season and could contend with the freshmen for major minutes this season. Even if these veterans don’t play a majority of the snaps, they will provide Coach Funk with much more security at the offensive line position if some of the highly-regarded recruits have difficulty holding up in the Big Ten.

Projection
Miller, Gunderson, and Burzynski all come off the bench and contend for important minutes
Career Stats
Games Played Games Started
Miller: 6 Gunderson: 9 Burzynski: 12 Miller: 0 Gunderson: 0 Burzynski: 0

Worth The Wait: Last Year’s Class

Don’t let this year’s top-10 class make you forget about the group Brady Hoke recruited in 2012. All the senior leadership on the line last season allowed Michigan to redshirt several highly-rated recruits at the offensive line position.

Magnuson is the next in line under Lewan's guidance (Jeremy Wadsworth, Toledo Blade)

These redshirt freshman will be led by former five-star Kyle Kalis and four-star Erik Magnuson. Kalis was rated as a top-10 offensive lineman by Scout, Rivals and ESPN and considered one of the best high school players out of the state of Ohio. Kalis is highly regarded for his athleticism and superior blocking ability, which he used to completely dominate defenses in high school. Magnuson is similarly gifted, and is known for playing harder than most other players on the field. One word that has often been used to describe the two young linemen is ‘power,’ which has turned them into great run-blockers. If Kalis and Magnuson play big roles on the line this season, expect the Michigan running game to improve drastically with physical backs like Thomas Rawls.

Fellow classmates Blake Bars and Ben Braden also received redshirts last season, despite receiving high grades during recruiting. Bars is an interesting player, because he could take advantage of Michigan’s hole at center to land himself a starting job. Always regarded as more of an interior lineman, Bars was more of an under-the-radar recruit in the shadow of Kalis and Magnuson, but could fight for minutes and play a significant role for the 2013 team. Braden stands out from his classmates because his strength is in the pass-blocking category, and he could see some playing time as a result. He had the lowest ranking of the four recruits, but that says more about the strength of the class than it does about Braden’s game.

Projection
Kalis and Magnuson win starting jobs while Bars and Braden battle with the impressive freshman class for more time
Career Stats
Games Played Games Started
Kalis: 0 Magnuson: 0 Bars: 0 Braden: 0 Kalis: 0 Magnuson: 0 Bars: 0 Braden: 0

Fresh Faces: The Sequel

Everyone around Michigan football is excited about the group of offensive lineman that make up the 2013 recruiting class. Brady Hoke landed six standout players for the line, and now the team might have more depth than ever at the position. Dan Samuelson, Kyle Bosch, David Dawson, Chris Fox, Patrick Kugler and Logan Tuley-Tillman are six of the top players in Hoke’s latest top-10 class. Kugler and Bosch have a chance to start from day one, and their classmates aren’t far behind. While the 2012 class gives Hoke the option to redshirt the whole class like he did last season, some of these guys may be too good to wait on.

Likely the newcomers will be split, with a couple earning true-freshman minutes and the others taking a year to develop. That being said, their performance in pre-season practices will obviously determine who plays this season. The fact that Hoke can even consider redshirting so many of these players speaks to the talent of the players that came to Michigan before them.

Projection
Kugler and Bosch play during the 2013 season, with one of them winning a starting job. The other four either redshirt or fill in for injuries where needed, and play big roles in the future.
Average Star Ranking:
Bosch: 4 Kugler: 4.25 Dawson: 4 Fox: 4 Tuley-Tillman: 4 Samuelson: 3.25

Wrapping Up

With so many options at offensive line, Michigan is one of the deeper teams in the country at one of the most important positions. Two strong recruiting classes in a row will build that kind of depth, and in Lewan they have potentially the best player in the country to help groom the young talent. Offensive Coordinator Al Borges has 19 offensive linemen on the roster, and so many of them have the talent to be starting Big Ten players that it’s hard to imagine blocking as a weak point for the 2013 team.

To help Devin Gardner settle into the offense in his first full year as starting quarterback, Lewan and company need to be strong. Physical running backs like Rawls and Derrick Green will also count very heavily on the interior strength of this unit to create space to run inside. While skill players get most of the national attention during the course of a football season, the teams with the best play in the trenches usually come out on top. Luckily, Michigan has many talented options to choose from in 2013.

The Michigan Medley discusses the importance of Lewan’s return

Thursday, January 10th, 2013


Yesterday afternoon, offensive tackle Taylor Lewan announced in a press conference that he would return to school for his senior season. It came as a surprise to nearly everybody as the 6’8″, 309-pound junior was projected to be a high first round pick in the upcoming NFL Draft. It’s rare for a player of his caliber to forego what would have certainly been a large paycheck, but it’s very refreshing to see.

During the Lloyd Carr tenure, especially as his career went on, it seemed that making the jump was pretty much the norm, though Jake Long, Chad Henne, and Mike Hart all stayed for their senior season. Long, like Lewan, was a sure-fire high draft pick and parlayed the gamble to come back into the top overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft. Lewan has the potential to do the same as long as he can avoid the injury bug.

Lewan proved his NFL potential by shutting down Jadeveon Clowney in the Outback Bowl

It’s always a risky move to put on hold an NFL contract for one more year of college ball. Just ask USC quarterback Matt Barkley who would have likely been a first round pick last season, but chose to return and suffered through a poor and injury-riddled season that will likely hurt his draft stock this April. On the other hand, Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck did the same a year ago and it payed off.

What’s most impressive in my opinion is the reasons Lewan stated for his decision. For one, he loves college, and that was evident more than ever during Wednesday night’s basketball game against Nebraska when Lewan got up in front of the band and led them in The Victors. Secondly, he stated that he has unfinished business, having not achieved a Big Ten title yet in his career. Third, Michigan has a long tradition of great offensive linemen such as Jon Jansen and Steve Hutchinson, in addition to Long, who have stayed through their senior years and still went on to long and productive NFL careers. Lewan realized that and what a special opportunity it is to play for Michigan.

“If you play at the University of Michigan, whether it’s basketball, hockey, football, there’s a tradition here and there’s something you want to be a part of,” Lewan said. “And if I do what I need to do, I’ll be able to play in the NFL for however long, but you only get one more year of college.”

The other reason he gave for returning is the most telling and the most important: he wanted to be a leader the way last year’s senior offensive lineman, David Molk, was for the younger guys on the team. Brady Hoke has brought in a great haul of offensive linemen to fill a void that was left thin by the previous regime. While the young guys such as Kyle Kalis, Blake Bars, Ben Braden, and Erik Magnuson, as well as this year’s incoming class, are extremely talented, perhaps nothing is more valuable than being able to grow and learn alongside an All-American to see what it takes to become one and what it takes to be a lock for the first round of the NFL Draft.

The foundation that was put in place by Janson and Hutchinson and Long and Molk has now transcended three coaching staffs and personifies exactly what it means to be a Michigan Man. Had Lewan chosen to make the leap, no one would have blamed him for doing so, but it would have left next year’s offensive line extremely young and inexperienced. That’s not a recipe for success in college football. His return provides leadership in addition to talent and it sets an example for the talented young guys.

“Kyle Kalis and Ben Braden and Erik Magnuson, I want to be a part of their lives for one more year and help them develop into something where they can possibly be in my position in a couple years,” Lewan said.

Lewan’s return is probably the best news Michigan could have received this offseason – better than any recruit Hoke will sign on Feb. 6 – because it will have both an instant impact next season and a residual impact on the future of the offensive line. Bravo to Lewan for embodying what college football is supposed to be about rather than simply using it as a stepping stone to the riches of the NFL.