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Mid-Season Report Card

October 26, 2011

 

With Michigan enjoying a bye week and just over halfway through the 2011 season, I figured it was time to hand out some midterm grades

QUARTERBACKS

At times, Denard Robinson has looked like the most electrifying player in the country capable of doing pretty much anything on a football field.  At other times, he’s looked like a QB who is confused by a new system and has regressed in the passing game.  The numbers aren’t pretty for Denard – 52% completion percentage, 1125 passing yards, and 11 passing TDs with 10 interceptions.  As expected, the rushing numbers are better with 716 yards and 9 touchdowns.  Overall those numbers are not terrible, but they are behind last year’s pace.  More importantly, Denard has not taken a leap forward in the passing game as most had hoped he would.  The Devin Gardner wrinkles have added a nice surprise on offense, and Gardner has looked good at QB in limited action, though he is clearly in need of more reps.  Even though the QB play hasn’t been stellar, save for MSU, they’ve come through when it’s needed.  6-1 is the only stat that really matters.  For that type of winning percentage to continue, Denard (and Devin) will have to play better the 2nd half of the season.

GRADE: B+

RUNNING BACKS

Before the season the hope was that one running back would emerge as the go-to back in this offense.  For a variety of reasons (injury, playcalling, talent) that hasn’t happened.  It’s clear by this point that Michigan will use a running back by committee approach the rest of this season, with the hot back getting the most of the carries depending on the game.  If any back has established himself its been Fitzgerald Toussaint, who has been the most prominently featured back.  That being said, he’s only carried the ball 62 times this season (I think Chris Perry once had that many carries in a game).  Fitz has racked up 333 yards so far this season, including a 100+ yard performance against Minnesota.  He’s looked good at times, and rather pedestrian at others.  Next in line behind Fitz has been change of pace back Vincent Smith. Smith has been our toughest runner and a great blocker and receiver on third down.  He’s still too small to be an every down back though. Stephen Hopkins has settled into a third down back/fullback role.  Overall, the running backs are tough to judge based on limited carries.  If they were more effective, I suspect we’d have more to work with – though 10 carries against MSU was ridiculous.  I’m tempted to give them an incomplete based on such a small sample size, but instead they get the mean.

GRADE: B-

WIDE RECEIVERS and TIGHT ENDS

Coming into the season, the wide receivers and tight ends were expected to be solid, but not necessarily a strength.  For the wide receivers, the expectation was that there was considerable depth, but no go to player, though Roy Roundtree and Junior Hemingway were certainly the leaders of the group.  I even though it was possible that one of them could be Michigan’s first 1,000 yard receiver since 2007.  7 games into the season, and it looks like we’ll have to wait another year for that 1,000 yard receiver.  To be fair, most of that blame can go on Denard Robinson struggling in the passing game.

Instead of talking about what they haven’t done, let’s talk about what they have.  Junior Hemingway is leading the way with 17 catches and 397 yards – not terrible numbers.  Hemingway has caught the majority of throws that have come his way and made several great catches down the field.  Right behind Hemingway is the surprise breakout receiver of 2011, Jeremy Gallon.  Gallon has more catches than Hemingway (18) and 291 yards total.  He’s also tied for the team lead in touchdowns (2) with 4 others.  Roy Roundtree, despite his heroics against Notre Dame has been a bit slow to come on.  Roundtree had 72 catches for 935 yards year but has only managed 10 catches so far this year for a meager 180 yards.   As a group, the receivers are way behind where they were last year statistically, but its hard to tell whether that is a function of poor QB play or poor play by the receivers.  In all probability, it’s a little bit of both.  The receivers spent much of the first 3 weeks of the season dropping passes, though they’ve come on recently.  And there have been hints in the post game interviews that not all of the mis-reads have been Denard’s fault.   The receivers probably saved the day against Notre Dame, but outside of that they haven’t been very effective.

GRADE: B-

There was plenty of talk in the preseason that the Tight Ends were going to have a huge role in this new Al Borges offense.  Unfortunately, that has yet to come to fruition.   Kevin Koger and Steve Watson have combined for just 11 catches (though 3 of them have been touchdowns) so far this season.  And in the case of Koger, he’s dropped at least 4-5 balls himself, which has hurt his stats and probably made him a target less looked at by the quarterbacks.  The tight end blocking has been suspect as well, with Michigan finding little success running off tackle, which usually involves a tight end.  Overall it feels like a bonus when we get production from this group, but it’s not something to rely on.  If we expect to make a run in the last 5 games, they will need to be better.

GRADE: C+

OFFENSIVE LINE

With 3 full-time players (Molk, Omameh, Lewan) and one player who saw significant playing time last year (Huyge) returning, this line was expected to be a strength heading into this season.   And while the rushing offense is still ranked 12th in the nation, there is no doubt this unit has struggled.  The transition from a zone blocking scheme under Rich Rod to Hoke and Borges’ preferred power blocking scheme has been a difficult one at times.  Though individually these players seem to be talented, they aren’t big enough or strong enough to really implement the scheme that Borges would like, and so we’ve been left with a hybrid blocking scheme.  At times, we blow people off the ball and open big holes.  At other times, particularly against blitzes, we miss assignments and let defensive players slip through untouched.  Prior to MSU these problems were probably masked by the athleticism of our skill players.  But MSU showed that as a unit we’re not quite ready to blow other teams off the line to pick up yards in 4-5 yard chunks.  Pass protection has been another problem, as last year’s scheme only required the linemen to position themselves in a way for Denard to roll outside the pocket or make a quick throw.  With Denard spending more time in the pocket, our ability to keep the pressure away from him has decreased.   All of that being said, the offense is still putting up almost 35 points a game.  But this is an area to watch as we continue to face better defenses.

GRADE: B

DEFENSIVE LINE

With seniors Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen returning, this was supposed to be the anchor of our defense this year.  Though given how bad our defense had been in previous years, that’s a lot like being the best player on a rec league softball team.  While at times they’ve been pushed around, especially against MSU and Notre Dame, for the most part the defensive line has held their own.  Craig Roh started the year slow but has finally found his groove.  Ryan Van Bergen, even though he is probably playing out of position, has made his presence felt in a variety of ways (fumble recoveries, sacks, QB hurries).   If anyone has been a bit of a disappointment it has been Mike Martin.  Martin is double teamed almost every play, but still hasn’t been as disruptive as one would hope.  He’s still the best player on our defense in my opinion, but will need to create more production if Michigan’s defense is going to continue to be among the best in the country (statistically).

GRADE: B

LINEBACKERS

One of the reasons that the defensive line may not be as impressive as expected is because the linebackers haven’t been doing their job well.  Kenny Demens came on strong late last year to seize the middle linebacker spot, but has been exceptionally quiet this year.  Though he leads the team in tackles, I can barely remember him making a big play so far this year.  Brandin Hawthorne has looked great at times, but undersized and unable to shed blocks at other times.  We all know about my man crush on Jake Ryan – and he’s lived up to it at times.  He has a nose for the ball and always seems to be where the action is.  BUT….he’s still making a lot of mistakes as you’d expect a first time starter to.  Against MSU he was noticeably quiet as well, failing to record a tackle.  Overall, both Northwestern and MSU exposed the weakness of this defense, the ability for the linebackers to make plays at the edge.  Whether it’s an issue of speed, recognizing the play, or just overall ability, we are incredibly vulnerable to any plays not right up the middle, and that is a linebacker issue.

GRADE: C+

SECONDARY

A year ago, I don’t think any of us would expect me to say what I’m about to.  I think our secondary is the strongest defensive unit.  Sure there are some problems, and I’m still waiting for the botched coverage to result in a big play. But we’ve come a long way in just a year or two.  Part of that is finally having some bodies back there to work with.  J.T. Floyd has turned into our best corner for sure, but its clear that the future lies with freshmen Blake Countess who shows no fear on the field.  Sophomore Courtney Avery, while undersized, is similar to Countess in that he’s not afraid of any matchup and is always in attack mode.  Senior Troy Woolfolk has been hampered with injuries and will hopefully be helped by the bye week.  While none of these guys are Charles Woodson, collectively they are a better cornerback unit than we’ve had in several years.

As for the safeties, we all know by now that all Jordan Kovacs does is Make Plays!  But Thomas Gordon, the other safety, is quickly showing his ability to do the same.  Gordon has forced 2 fumbles, recovered 3, and has an interception to go with it.  His tackling is still a little suspect, but he and Kovacs are doing the most important thing safeties can do – keep the ball in front of them and don’t let up big plays.

GRADE: A-  (Grading on a curve based on last year)

SPECIAL TEAMS

Much like the secondary, outside of the punting, anything was going to be an improvement on special teams.  As far as the kickoffs, kick returns and punt returns go, they grade out at a B-.  Nothing bad, but nothing spectacular.  Just above the mean.  We haven’t given anything up, but we haven’t done anything note worthy ourselves either.  Our punting, a small question mark at the beginning of the season, has been pretty good so far.  Of the 24 punts between Wile and now Hagerup, 8 have been pinned inside the opponents 20 yard line.  Hagerup’s performance alone against MSU helped us dominate parts of the first half (even if we couldn’t score points from it).  As for the dreaded field goals – they aren’t exactly a strength as of yet, but Brendan Gibbon’s ability to make 4/6 at least keeps Michigan fans from reaching for the antacid every time we attempt a field goal.  I still don’t trust him to win a game for us or kick anything longer than 42 yards, but he’s at least given me confidence in the shorter stuff.

GRADE: B

COACHING

Umm….I think the politically correct way to state this is that there has been a significant upgrade in coaching this year.  But inside it’s all I can do to keep from screaming “Holy Hell did I miss a team that looks prepared for a football game”.

In all fairness to Rich Rodriguez, the offense he installed – much of which is still in place – was a game changer for the Big Ten.  When we were healthy, the only way our offense was slowed down was if we made mistakes.  The defense and special teams….well you know the answer to that.

Getting back to the present, on offense Al Borges has done a nice job of mixing in the future of this offense with what will currently work in the present.  Denard Robinson still hasn’t thrown the ball well enough for the offense to be potent – but 35 points a game isn’t too shabby.  My chief complaint has been that some of the playcalling doesn’t seem to suit Denard’s strength (i.e. throwing outside the pocket). And against MSU I thought that both in a macro and a micro sense (the awful 4th and 1 call) really hurt us.  But I really like what Gorgeous Al has done to incorporate Devin Gardner.

Defensively, it feels like we traded in our 1994 Honda Accord for an Aston Martin.  Greg Mattison has taken a defense that finished near the bottom of the NCAA last year in scoring defense and total defense and turned it into a Top 10(!) scoring defense and a Top 40 unit in total defense.  And most importantly, when you watch the defense, you can tell they are well coached.  They tackle well, they keep plays in front of them, they force turnovers, they hit with a purpose, and they don’t give up on plays.  Scheme is important, but we finally look like a team that has mastered the fundamentals.  But if you want another stat, try this one on for size.  Michigan is one of only THREE teams in the country that has yet to give up a play of 40 or more yards the entire season.  That tells me all we need to know about how far we’ve come.

As for the man wearing the headset (or not as the case may be); for the most part Brady Hoke has been pushing all the right buttons so far.  6-1 is a nice start, and the way in which he’s done it is impressive too.  He seems to have complete control of the team and supreme confidence in his coordinators.  Ultimately his grade is going to be based on what happens in the last 5 games.  Given the schedule, all of them are winnable, though that is unlikely.  If we can go 3-2 (I’m thinking a win over Purdue + a split of the last 4), I don’t think anyone will have too many complaints with an inaugural year of 9-3.  Anything less at this point would be a bit of a disappointment for me.  If Brady can guide us to 4-1 and a ten win season then he deserves Coach of the Year Honors.

GRADE: A (if it wasn’t for the playcalling against MSU, this might have been an A+)

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Kref permalink
    October 27, 2011 1:09 AM

    Nice write up. I agree with almost all of your assessments and grades. The exception I have is that you called out both Denard and the WRs as the reasons for inefficient passing offense. I agree that both have made mistakes and have room for improvement, but I think you are a little too high on Borges. Our offense has not been good because of Borges. It’s been good because of the players. Although you did elude to not calling the best plays to fit our players, I think you graded the coaching way too high. Coaching deserves more of the blame and the players less. Also, you mention in a few areas that we’ve been good except for against ND and MSU. That’s kind of a problem. If we’re not good against the other mediocre competition then there’s a huge problem. If we’re not good against the quality teams there is still a problem. Don’t let our recent history make you think that 6-1 is ok. We should be undefeated right now. GO BLUE!

  2. October 27, 2011 10:11 AM

    I think Borges laid an egg against MSU, but i really liked the offense up until that point. Denard is epically bad when throwing the ball this year (save for perhaps the Northwestern 2nd half – when we put up 28 points). I think Borges’ playcalling could probably help Denard out a little more, but overall our biggest hurdle right now is that Denard isn’t making good throws.

    As for the receivers – I probably was a little harsh. It’s not their fault if the balls aren’t thrown where they are supposed to. But…they’ve also dropped passes and run some bad routes that have made Denard look bad.

    Finally, I don’t think 6-1 is ok – which is why my grades were relatively harsh. Even if we had beaten MSU I think we’d still have a lot to improve on. That being said, I think we have a decent shot to finish 10-2.

  3. Dr William Costello permalink
    October 27, 2011 12:37 PM

    Brady has said after every game that there is much that needs improvement. There still is. This is a team of generally mediocre talent. The staff is getting the most out of what they have to work with. Casey called me right after the MSU game and said we are still witnessing much of the damage from Rich Rod. MSU is a great team as evidence of their win against Wisconsin. They have a number of players who will be playing on Sunday. The fact that we were in a position to win at East Lansing is a great testament to the coaching staff. The lack of calls against MSU made a huge difference in the outcome. However, I am still amazed the running backs only carried the ball on ten plays. If the 4th and one would have worked we would all be singing Al’s praise. He rolled the dice and came up snake eyes. I thought the clown uniforms were awful and I hate the “crap” music played at the Big House before the games. But realistically this needs to be done to attract the top notch players who will get us back to a higher level of performance.

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