Michigan's new-look offense in need of major improvement
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Doug Nussmeier was hoarse on Saturday. An afternoon spent yelling corrections to an offense still very much in the learning stage had sapped the voice of Michigan's first-year coordinator. Judging by what the Wolverines showed on the field, Nussmeier's vocal chords might have been the hardest workers in the Big Ten this spring. "He's a yeller, without a doubt," quarterback Devin Gardner said. "He likes to scream and get his point across."
But Nuss doesn't scream for screaming's sake. Gardner learned that in a conversation with Keith Price, who played quarterback for Nussmeier at Washington, and 15 spring practices only drove home the point. "All the things he said about him held true," Gardner said. "Great coach. Great guy, and a great person to be around. He's a hell of a teacher."
If it feels as though you read this new-offensive-coordinator-as-savior story just last week, it's because you did. Nussmeier and first-year Florida offensive coordinator Kurt Roper have plenty in common, though it feels like Roper and Gators head coach Will Muschamp face more immediate pressure than Nussmeier and Michigan head coach Brady Hoke.
Still, Nussmeier, who replaces Al Borges, will need to train his pupils well to keep the pressure at bay. It is Hoke who keeps (correctly) insisting that the Wolverines play football to win championships. Given that, another season as average as the past two would likely generate some soul-searching by Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon. Since the Big Ten's new divisional alignment will force Michigan to finish ahead of Michigan State and Ohio State if it wants to reach the conference title game, a championship of any kind will require significant improvement from last fall's 7-6 campaign.
The statute of limitations on blaming Rich Rodriguez has passed. Hoke had little control over his first recruiting class, but he now has signed three classes in which he had a full cycle to recruit. Considering the past two Heisman Trophy winners were redshirt freshmen, it's reasonable to expect that a coach should play enough of his guys in his fourth season at the helm to offset any deficiencies he inherited. Any flaws in Team 135 rest squarely on the shoulders of this staff. So, this group has to produce, and the quickest way to do that is for Nussmeier to breathe life into an offense that averaged 2.5 yards a carry during a stretch that saw the Wolverines go 2-6 in their final eight games of 2013. If Saturday is any indication, that's asking a lot of Nussmeier.
The Wolverines didn't hold a traditional spring game. Instead, they held an open practice that ended with a prolonged situational scrimmage. A coaching staff can hide an awful lot under those circumstances. The offense was vanilla. The defense used basic coverages and basic blitzes. What the set-up can't hide, however, is whether the offensive line can block the defensive line. In fact, the simplicity of the schemes only serves to highlight any deficiencies in either group.
Maybe Michigan's front seven is poised for a banner year. The Wolverines allowed 3.8 yards a carry last season, so a slight improvement would suggest that Michigan could be stingy against the run no matter the opponent. The Wolverines finished seventh in the Big Ten and tied for 66th nationally in sacks last year (1.92 a game). If defensive coordinator Greg Mattison -- one of the best in the business -- helped his players get just a little better, at least a modicum of pressure was to be expected on Saturday. (And if incoming freshman cornerback Jabrill Peppers is as good as advertised, it could allow Mattison to be more creative with his coverages and pressure packages.)
But Michigan's offensive line -- an inexperienced group in a state of flux as coaches attempt to determine the correct positions for each player -- struggled to block Wolverines defenders in both the run game and the pass game. The major takeaway? Either the offensive line must dramatically improve between now and September or everyone in Ann Arbor needs to hope Michigan's defense is suddenly on the level of Michigan State's or Florida State's. "The focus is on playing consistently day in and day out. We've got to avoid the lost yards. I saw them again today," Nussmeier said. "Too many lost yards. Too many sacks. You can't have that."
Nussmeier showed in two seasons at Alabama that he can beat teams with either the pass or the run. He has a clear knack for play-calling, and he has proven quite adept at varying tempo and teaching his quarterbacks to get the offense in the correct play. But before we go any further, let's examine what Nussmeier inherited that first year with the Crimson Tide in 2012. AJ McCarron was his quarterback. Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon were his tailbacks. Cyrus Kouandjio, Chance Warmack, Barrett Jones, Anthony Steen and D.J. Fluker were his starting offensive linemen. Kevin Norwood, Christion Jones and Amari Cooper were his receivers. Warmack and Fluker were first-round draft picks last April. It's entirely possible that every player mentioned above will start in the NFL at some point. That group could have run a basic inside zone two out of every three plays -- with some kind of play-action pass on the third -- and crushed most of the foes on its schedule. This Michigan group has some notable talent, but it isn't stacked like that 'Bama group. Nussmeier will have to be more creative to get anything close to similar production out of the Wolverines. He'll have to teach all his players, the skill guys and the linemen, to understand the basic rules of his offense and to recognize potential outcomes before the snap.
"You're trying to teach the players how they can cheat by recognition. We're not to the level yet where we can recognize, and that's half the battle," Nussmeier said. "Once you know what's coming, if you communicate, then you've got a pretty good chance to handle it."
Fortunately, Nussmeier has some raw material. Gardner has a strong arm, and he's mobile and smart. He is still working on identifying the Mike -- the middle linebacker, which is not as simple as it sounds and is a requirement in a zone-blocking offense such as Nussmeier's -- on every play, but he made huge strides in his first 15 practices under Nussmeier. Tight end Devin Funchess is a more seasoned version of what Nussmeier had in O.J. Howard at Alabama last fall. Receiver Freddy Canteen, a freshman early enrollee, already looks like a star in the making. On Saturday, he lined up outside and in the slot and routinely got open.
But none of that will matter if the Wolverines can't protect Gardner or open holes for their stable of backs. It's telling that one of the biggest storylines on Saturday was the play of freshman early enrollee Mason Cole, who may keep the left tackle spot warm for the injured Erik Magnuson (shoulder) or who may wind up starting somewhere along the line by virtue of superior natural ability and a lack of better options. "He's a player who is far above his age," defensive end Frank Clark said of Cole.
All of Michigan's linemen must improve for the Wolverines' offense to work, though. The hard fact is that Michigan lost two NFL-caliber offensive tackles (Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield) from a line that wasn't all that good last year. The Wolverines return a combined 36 starts. To put that in perspective, Lewan alone had started 35 games going into last season.
Of course, offensive line chemistry is a curious thing. It's possible that once a starting unit is set, the group will come together and surpass last year's production. It's also possible that some of the young players -- Cole, for example -- are potential future stars. We also didn't get the complete picture of Michigan's spring practices. We saw only one of 15, and we may not have gotten a representative slice. "Last Saturday and last Tuesday, we were a little bit better than we were today," Hoke said on Saturday. "I thought we were just a little inconsistent. Leverage. Some of it was body posture. Running our feet through things."
Besides, it is important to remember that Michigan lost four Big Ten games by a total of 11 points in 2013. A year ago, Michigan State was coming off a similarly frustrating stretch and turned it into fuel for a Big Ten title and Rose Bowl win. "The 7-6 record, I don't think it tells the whole story," Gardner said. "We were really close to being a really good team."
Unfortunately, one open practice isn't enough of a sample size to judge whether Michigan will go from oh-so-close to over-the-top or slide in the other direction. In fact, the 15 practices the coaches saw likely weren't enough. Hoke probably summed up the mood best when he posed a rhetorical question about the Wolverines' offense. "Room for improvement?" Hoke asked. "Oh my gosh. There's no question. We need a lot of improvement."
Michigan opens on Aug. 30 against Appalachian State. What could possibly go wrong?