Coaching Points: Michigan's Open Fall Scrimmage
|Melanie Maxwell - MLive|
I didn’t get to go to the scrimmage. Instead, I had to suffer through a weekend in Traverse City. If life is at its most miserable in that scenario, I’ll take it every time. Alas, I’m basing much of this off of the video I was actually able to watch thanks to an Instagram account (linked below, big thanks due there). I take media/fan reaction with very little seriousness. I think both tend to overreact. They react because they are paid to overreact (clicks!) or are fans. There also isn’t necessarily a consistent understanding of what’s going on.
But the reaction to the scrimmage Saturday was pretty consistent. So, when presented with the opportunity to watch some video, I took it. Here is my reaction.
And here's the video link to Instagram for those wondering.
For what it's worth, I did only watch each video approximately once. I didn't spend a ton of time dissecting it all, so I can't get that in-depth from an actual performance standpoint.
I was fairly adamant last year that my belief was that execution was, in fact, a much bigger issue for Michigan than play calling. I took a lot of flak for that, mostly because of the insinuation that execution is merely a problem that players face. While it’s a bit of a chicken and egg scenario, I stand by my statements that execution issues lead to the seemingly never changing “base” for Michigan’s offense last year. They struggled at what they wanted to be their base so consistently, that it was the coaches' belief that they needed to scheme in an advantage. Once that scheme was discovered by opposing teams, however, bad things understandably happened.
Now, we fast forward to this year. Michigan has slimmed down the playbook, slimmed down the run schemes. Michigan still didn’t look great on the offensive line. No one should have expected different, they shouldn’t be looking great right now: 1) they are improving upon where they were last year; 2) they are still mixing and mashing as a unit; 3) they are, in fact, young.
But, and I said this last year, they are not advancing and improving as fast as they should be. Even with a simplified playbook, they aren’t getting better quick enough. It’s an execution issue, this playbook can’t get much more simplified from a run scheme standpoint. And yet here we are. Funk is a very smart OL coach, he knows his craft inside and out. He is not incompetent as some are wont to believe some coaches are, probably because believing that makes everything simpler to digest in some way. But he does know his craft and knows it very well. But this execution theme is significantly on him and his position group. His knowledge is simply not translating, for whatever reason, to his players quick enough. I’m on record saying that both Lewan and Schofield improved in their time at Michigan under Funk. Maybe it takes a certain ability or time and suddenly things click for the players. Maybe more reps in a simplified scheme will make that light bulb moment more likely. But there is an issue with it not working with the players on the team right now, it’s that simple. Borges didn’t help the problem, certainly, he didn’t help them improve at a quicker pace, but it is my opinion he did what he thought would help them be more likely to succeed enough in that very moment. He was sacrificing some long-term growth for a more immediate success. Trying the other approach with Nuss, things still aren’t looking good. [Note: this post isn't intended to be about Borges, only to compare and contrast last year's offense with this year and moving forward; I'm not wanting to spend more time discussing coaches that are no longer with their teams to large extents, so that talk will be kept to a minimum]
Things will get better. They’ll get better over the next two weeks. They get better over the course of the season. There is no reason to give up on these players, and there is no point on giving up on Funk at this point. But it doesn’t seem to me that it is improving fast enough, and that’s an issue for me and my perception of Funk. I like Funk. I think he knows his stuff inside and out. But I’ve long been of the mindstate that it isn’t the coaches’ knowledge of the game that I question, things about scheme, playbook, and their understanding of technique. It’s their ability translate that information to the players so that they can become better. That’s the hardest part about coaching, but also the most critical, and what separates the most successful to the less successful coaches. And I think currently that part of coaching is struggling along the OL.
|Melanie Maxwell - MLive|
This whole thing is exacerbated by the fact – in what is likely a bit of a decoy – that Michigan seemed to run majority Power O in the scrimmage, and still was awful at blocking it. They’ve been a Power O base since Hoke’s arrival. Why the hell can they still not figure out how to block it?
They did look better running the inside zone. They more consistently got into their assignments. Unfortunately, they did very little once they got into their assignments. Feet stopped moving, they lost their punch and didn’t power through to finish drives through their feet, hips, and then upper body. At best, they stalemated. The RBs can help them out a bit, but these are minimal holes. Enough to get positive yardage and maybe fight through some arm tackles for a few more yards, but not much more.
But Power O was still a mess. Missed blocks, poor technique, etc. They will be majority inside zone come season, it’s Nuss’s preference and what Michigan is best at. But Nuss also needs Power O to keep defenses honest, and what we saw today won’t keep many teams honest.
|Melanie Maxwell - MLive|
The concepts were very, very simple and vanilla. Don’t expect them to get much more complex by the start of the season though. For one, Nussmeier tends to keep his passing concepts more simple. For two, Gardner is still spending too much time thinking and then reacting, rather than just playing. Unfortunately, some of his mechanics are looking like they are reverting because of it.
Nuss is in a tricky situation. He likes to stretch the field vertically, but that takes good pass protection and a steady run game, two things he won’t have in droves. So when he looks to lean on the short and intermediate pass game (something he does less of nominally then his predecessor), things aren’t as tight. It doesn’t help that probably the biggest weakness of Nussmeier’s passing attack is an aggressive, tight, cover 1 defense. His passing offense, in a vacuum away from the run game, relies a lot on the WR being better than the guy across from him and getting open. Michigan has big bodied receivers, but with simplified routes and not always a consistent deep threat, it makes it difficult to get separation.
And that’s a big reason why you’ll see a lot of 2 TE sets. For people freaking out, 2 TEs won’t be out there the vast majority of snaps. They’ll split it with FBs who can run as H-backs (Houma did this a lot), they’ll move them around to get a feel for numbers and coverages and what not, and they’ll utilize it, certainly. But Nussmeier will trot out three WRs about as much as two TEs.
|Melanie Maxwell - MLive|
Anyway, 2 TEs do wonders for the run game, particularly the zone run game. They add another gap for the defense to be responsible for, forcing the defense to either drop another player (8 in the box against 12 personnel) or make more reads and react quickly enough. It’s difficult to maintain gap responsibility for college players against that, which is why you see teams like Alabama, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Iowa, and PSU utilize a zone run scheme with a lot of solo 12 personnel. So get used to it. It also maintains a vertical threat in the pass game.
As much as that, with a team that struggles in pass pro, it allows Michigan to be somewhat of a more legit run threat while giving them a simple enough pass protection scheme (and numbers) to block any defensive front. This is Nussmeier’s way of being able to stretch the ball vertically. 8 man protection schemes, H-back can leak strong side, RB can leak middle or weak side depending on his reads. So it can be up to a 4-man structure with Gardner able to dump it off, but it allows what is typically a twin set up to work downfield and find a single matchup between the WRs and DBs.
The biggest complaint here is the talent gap supposedly between the TEs and the WRs. First, it’s not merely about the talent gap, as maintained above. It’s more about being able to run the full offense, scheme, and everything else. Yes, you want your best players on the field as much as you can, but you need to run your stuff to take advantage of them. This is one way of doing that.
Two, the WRs are young as well. People complain about how young the TEs are (or not good at blocking), but the WRs aren’t a whole lot better. I bet the TEs will show improvement in their blocking this year, and with the distance that Nussmeier tends to split out his WRs, they are depended on in run blocking as well, there really isn’t a significant difference here (Nussmeier tends to keep tighter splits with his WRs so they can threaten the whole field from their set position).
I know people like the spread, I know people thing that if Michigan trotted out more of it, that it would mitigate some of the issues. That’s not necessarily the case. And Nussmeier has some background with spread concepts, he’d trot them out there if he thought they would. But between the lack of consistently adequate pass protection and Gardner still thinking through the offense instead of getting the ball out quickly and on time, this is the safer, more consistent approach. It’s better for the run game, it’s better for the pass game. When Gardner starts getting more comfortable with this offense, his reads, then they can go that direction a bit more, but he’s still thinking too much to take that route. He has the capability, I do tend to worry if last year, his turnover problems (struggling to read underneath coverages) and his lack of trust for the OL will forever take away from his ability as a passer. I hope not though.
The defense is going to be a single high defense. I'll explain what that means in a post this week. But it was almost all Cover 1 and Cover 3. This will allow the CBs to be aggressive, and should make coverage a bit easier for the SS. It will not be press coverage 90% of the time, the CBs are still going to back off at times. But even when they did that they seemed tighter than they have in the past. Still need to improve footwork and hand usage a bit - Peppers lunged badly one time trying to press, Lewis got grabby a bit too much at times - but they look better as a unit. Still looked to be some confusion in some of the SS and NB coverage, but hard to tell from the camera angles and on one viewing.
LBs were very fast to the ball. Bolden did an excellent job dissecting a screen (OL didn't help much), and they were very downhill. I maintain that while Michigan will be a 4-3 Over base, they will still run a lot of Under. That showed during spring, and showed again during the scrimmage. It will be based on the opponent, but Michigan isn't completely moving away from the Under front.
DL looked much quicker, especially inside. Did a much better job holding up on their initial double. Again, OL caveats, but combined with the LBs speed, they were able to get gap sound at the LOS this year instead of stagged between the LOS and 5 yards deep. That lack of stagger and more consistent front line will make them much harder to run against. Still need to see more technique wise from the DEs, who look strong against the run, but don't get off blocks or set themselves up well enough consistently against the pass. Play calling and offensive scheme apply here as well.
Things weren’t pretty from what I saw, but in reality, they are about where I thought they’d be at this time. This really isn’t a freak out new revelation, it’s pretty much on track. Things certainly need to improve, there is no denying that. But the offense is looking to be more consistent, and I thought the first team was in many regards. The run blocking did, for the most part, at least get into their assignments. They did get 1-3 yards most of the time instead of negative yards. I’m telling you, 2nd and 12 is significantly different for an OC than 2nd and 8. 2nd and 8 or 3rd and 6 leave everything theoretically open. 3rd and 10+ closes much of the playbook. So things should be better and more consistent. Nussmeier is trying to utilize his talent to run his playbook. That means 2 TE sets, that means a simplified pass structure, and it means running some Power O with the inside zone.