Michigan is not that good at football in 2013. This has engendered multiple, moralizing narratives. Michigan is soft. Michigan doesn’t have a winning mentality. Michigan has quit on the coaching staff. Michigan’s recruits were overrated. Michigan’s staff is terrible. Michigan can’t win without Rich Rod’s players. I told you Hoke was a bad hire before I changed my mind for two years! Panic! Panic! Burn it all to the ground! When does basketball start!?!
Reality is a bit less cathartic. The simple diagnosis: Michigan’s offensive line stinks. That exacerbates other issues throughout the offense, such as Devin Gardner’s decision-making, and puts too much pressure on a good but not excellent defense. Conceding seven sacks and rushing for negative yards is not a formula for winning. Michigan has regressed from Hoke’s first season. When you take a look at the roster, there’s a reason for that. Michigan had a black hole in its offensive line recruiting in 2010 and 2011. Those non-existent players are now juniors and seniors.
Here is the offensive line Hoke had his first season in 2011. Upperclassmen are in bold.
This was a veteran line, with a fair amount of talent. Four returning starters. Four were fourth or fifth year players. The fifth, Taylor Lewan, was a potential first round draft pick. Molk won the Rimington Award as the nation’s best center. Omameh would end up earning All-Big Ten honors before he left. There was almost no depth behind them.
Rich Rodriguez’ 2009 class had Lewan and Schofield, but no interior linemen. The one offensive lineman signed in his 2010 class left the program due to injury. In 2011, Hoke was hired less than a month before signing day. He kept Bryant, a Rodriguez recruit, and signed Miller, an unheralded defensive end prospect to be a center. The third lineman left the team during fall camp.
Michigan had incredible luck with offensive line injuries in 2011. Cracks surfaced in 2012. Then we came to 2013. Upperclassmen, again, are in bold.
That says pretty much what you need to know. Michigan had the two fifth-year tackles return. They have a lot more depth. But they returned almost no experience on the interior line. Chris Bryant is coming back from a broken leg. Jack Miller is still a bit undersized. Michigan is cycling in freshmen and former walk-ons.
Offensive linemen, perhaps more than any other position, need time to develop. There’s a learning curve. There’s also the simple matter of putting on weight. Taylor Lewan weighed 270 as a senior in high school. He plays now at 315. That doesn’t happen over a year or a summer. Ideally, these guys redshirt and spend a few years eating, lifting and learning. You hear from them as upperclassmen. Michigan is not in the ideal situation.
Michigan was not going to have a good line. The hope was it would get by with Lewan back, Kyle Kalis emerging, smoke, mirrors and modest development. That didn’t happen. The depth issues don’t excuse all of what is happening. But they place it in a more realistic context. A rough patch was inevitable. The question is why the rough patch became an epic fail.
Personnel-wise, Hoke and his staff saw this coming and planned ahead. They signed 10 offensive linemen in 2012 and 2013, many highly touted recruits. Some scoff at the academic restrictions argument. But that may have prevented Michigan from going the SEC route and signing the best JuCo linemen to fill the gap. Maybe this staff whiffed on everyone. We suspect, as freshmen, they just aren’t ready yet.
Handling this season is more of a question. We are ignorant of the finer points of offensive line technique or coaching. We’re unwilling to declare that the problem based on output. On a common sense level, Michigan had two options when the problems became apparent. (A) Stay the course. Hope repetition breeds improvement. (B) Meddle. Try different personnel combinations and schemes. See if you can find something that works. Option (A) was off the table, after near, unthinkable losses to both Akron and UConn. Option (B) came with the real risk of just making things worse, which seems to have happened.
Play-calling may have intensified the problem (not just for this guy). Commitment to power football for Michigan, this year, has meant a lot of telegraphed runs from under center into stacked fronts. There has been a reluctance to revert back to spreading the field. Gimmicks such as extra linemen and keeping extra blockers with two guys running routes have not helped. The team’s red zone strategy of late seems to be trying not to get knocked out of field goal range. That said, it’s not clear how much is Al Borges’ play-calling and how much of it is players making his plays look bad. Even the best play call requires a modicum of blocking.
Winning 11 games in 2011, coming with a fair bit of fortune, made everyone believe the transition would go smoother than expected. But this was still a comprehensive rebuilding job, more akin to what Mark Dantonio had to do at Michigan State. Hoke is two recruiting classes into it, with no Kirk Cousins.
Michigan was bound for a transition year (to some degree) in 2013. That may be the case for 2014 as well. The interior line will have a year of experience. But, they will be incorporating two new tackles. They lose Toussaint and Gallon. Gardner remains an ongoing concern. It may be the defense, 25th in yards/play after finishing 101st in 2010, that has to carry them.
Looking at the roster demographics, Michigan will be at optimum level in the 2015-16 range. Hoke can talk about Big Ten titles or 10-win seasons. But the goal right now is to keep the momentum going.
[Photo via USA Today Sports]