Coaching Points: Michigan's Open Fall Scrimmage

Melanie Maxwell - MLive
Limited Video
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.


Offensive Line
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.

Run Game

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.

Pass Game
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.

12 Personnel
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.


  1. Note: I am not calling for Funk's firing. Without being in coaching meetings, at practice every day, etc, there is no way I am qualified to make a statement like that. This is solely based on my perception from games and open scrimmages. Things aren't improving as I think they should be, but even then, it is from quite a limited POV.

  2. Thanks, Space Coyote. Your article should be important reading for fans.

    Given the bind our offense is in, do you see any tricks we can try more often to get space for our backs and receivers? Running the QBs more often? Running rub plays more often, testing officials on how often they want to call picks?

    1. Nuss will utilize a mesh concept quite frequently. While Borges had that in his playbook, they didn't utilize it a ton. Because of that, I still think the WRs are getting a feel for how tight that needs to be run to get a good pick and get them open in space on the far side. But if Nuss sticks to a similar plan that I saw in the scrimmage, the mesh concept will be a part of it.

      I also think you'll see more WR screens to help spread the defense laterally a bit more. That's another way, if you get defenses attacking downhill, that you can then attack vertical off of that similar to play action.

      There are certainly things we haven't seen yet, and I'm sure DG will do his fair share of read option type things (they are running pistol for a reason, and Nuss has experience running the QB). Some of those things to keep the defense honest should provide more space for these guys to run in.

      As much as anything though, if DG and his receivers can consistently be on the same page, then even the two-receiver pass plays can force the defense to stay back. If DG can hit single covered receivers and the receivers do the work to gain leverage on the DBs, then the defense needs to respect that and give help on the back end. That really opens things up underneath and allows for more of the crossing routes and things that Nuss likes to utilize to get playmakers open in space.

  3. Too bad you didn't get to go the scrimmage. I was hoping you were going to be able to share your thoughts on Cole, as I think he's an interesting player to watch.

    I like how you said that Borges may have sacraficed some long term development for short term gain. I think some of the guys on the line last year may have lost some confidence because of it. I don't think Nuss will have those reactions this year which should help considerably.

    Also, I'm curious about Braden and what about his skills that makes him such a lock at RT, yet not getting a shot at LT. I would've thought the coaches might have wanted to try him there and given someone like Dawson, who's kind of a jack of all trades kind of guy, a shot at RT instead of relying on a true freshman to start at LT.

    1. I'd have to watch more closely to grade out individual lineman. It seemed like Cole handled himself well, as in he stayed in front of guys and didn't commit penalties, but my question about him was/is still: can he move anyone? In the Jake Long years, the right side of the OL struggled to move defenders, but they also did their job well enough to allow Long to dominate his. If Cole can do his job in pass pro, then Michigan may be right hand dominant this year.

      As for Braden, my feelings for him has always been that his feet aren't quite quick enough for LT. He's very powerful and long, so he can pass protect well enough on the outside, especially with help. But as a blind side OT, you want a little nimbler feet than he has. Braden has the tools to be a great run blocking RT, but he still needs to improve his footwork and continue to refine his hand technique to take that step. But I think he's good to stay at that RT position away from the blindside.

    2. And, as you say, actually going to the scrimmage would give a lot better feel for how people individually played. iPhone video from far away doesn't do justice to seeing someone play in person.

  4. SC: I love your comments in MgoBlog. This blog will be a treat for me.

    So, from a guy who quit Football his Jr. year in HS (I was a 150lbs Tackle):

    One thing myself and my buddies think we have noticed more recently is a breakdown of just simple stuff that we had hammered into us in HS. I.E. we'll see a kid who's young, but still a 4 star prospect, get into a block and have bad pad level. Or not keep moving his feet.

    Or what we really see is a ton of arm tackles instead of kids using proper tackling technique.

    Are we just playing too much the monday morning football player? Or are you seeing stuff like this too?

    I guess what got me thinking was you mentioning the O linemen not moving their feet once they got to a block. Stuff like that was taught to me as a basic fundamental, and I was just a scrub. How does a 4* get there without this?

    1. I think in a lot of ways those sorts of things don't get the required attention they do at the youth level. Coaches certainly still talk about it constantly, but if you have a 6'5" 280 HS OT, even if he doesn't do those things, you can yell at him to do it, but he's still dominating. I think, especially in the trenches, that a lot of problem underclassmen have is just the process of how important technique is compared to just pure strength, and how they can't get by on strength alone at this level. So pad level (the coaches stress pad level constantly, and they do at every college program, it's just one of those things that young guys tend to play high).

      So it's not all just playing Monday morning football player. There is some truth to it. But, frankly, it's just hard. At this level just keeping the feet moving or just getting a helmet in front of a player for a tackle aren't enough. There is so much too technique, that I think some guys get caught thinking instead of playing at times. "Ok, my hands go here. My helmet goes here. My eyes go here." And at the end of the day, football is about hitting people. Technique is crucial, but if you're thinking about hitting someone instead of hitting someone, you aren't a whole lot better off yet. And I think you see that in some of the young guys. They are trying their damnedest to get into their assignment, get in the right position, get locked in, have their eyes right, but they aren't finishing the whole thing, it's not fluid, it's kind of a thought process one step to the next instead of just doing all those things.

      As for tackling as a whole, it's a problem at this level all over the place. And tackling is hard, it really is, with the caliber of athlete on offense these days, it is difficult. But the arm tackles, or the everything but arm tackles, they occur far too frequently.

    2. Late response, but oh well. Sometimes just being a great athlete makes up for bad technique. For example, Jake Ryan sometimes displays very poor technique. He does some quirky, almost irresponsible things with regards to shedding/fighting/engaging blocks and scraping through traffic, but he just gets the job done. He's kind of a mystery to us coaches, because he is not an elite-caliber athlete, but he can do unorthodox things and make great plays. Taylor Lewan was sometimes this way too. He'd have terrible technique on occasion and still just stonewall his opposing DE because he's just inhuman. Over the course of watching college ball and coaching over the years, you can pick out of the teams the players that are going to go on to play on Sundays just by seeing them make plays when they theoretically shouldn't. The players that make it big in the pros are the ones that are technically sound AND freak-athletes (some of them still suck at technique, but their just genetically superior to even other pro players). It drives me crazy sometimes, because I tend to be a perfectionist as a coach, but you can't coach great athleticism.

      I enjoy your posts on MGoBlog, so I look forward to your blog and getting some good insight. Keep up the great work, coach!

    3. I forgot to add that Jake Ryan isn't an elite athlete, but his quick-twitch reaction is uncanny.

  5. Since we didn't run the ball all that effictively in practice on Saturday, I started wondering if had Kalis played then maybe we might of been more efficient on the ground. What's your thoughts on him coming into the season? I've seen people suggest he's our hands down best lineman and others say he's been a huge disappointment this far.

    1. Again, I'd have to watch Kalis specifically to be more informed. It's something I had thought about doing and still may (OL grade out from early last year, to end last year, to this year, the way coaches tend to look at it as opposed to UFR (which is good for what it wants to accomplish)).

      My feelings on Kalis has been that he's simply been inconsistent, and that the mental part of the game was the biggest thing holding him back. He's shown flashes of destroying, but has also missed more than his fair share of assignments. Not knowing him personally, he seems like the type that takes his job very seriously, sometimes to the detriment of his play. He gets frustrated, and suddenly he's "trying to hard" and not necessarily doing the things taught to him. But if he has taken a step forward with regards to the mental aspect of the game, then he has the raw tools to be a very good OG in this system. We'll see one way or another.

  6. SC, this is a fantastic take on the open scrimmage. It was great for me, because it was less technical than some other articles I've seen from you, but still with a huge depth of knowledge and concepts I could grasp. So thanks. I think your bridging that gap between different levels of fan knowledge and interest.

    I thought you were dead on about DG being hesitant and thinking too much rather than just playing. I think QB play could be an issue for Michigan still. I hope he gets more comfortable.

    I started a blog recently with the idea of doing game recaps and the like. I was at the scrimmage and did my first recap on it. It's not nearly as detailed or knowledgeable or good as yours, but I think we came to some similar conclusions. Would it be ok if I link my scrimmage recap post here in the comments. If not, I completely understand. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

    1. I welcome and encourage you to share your blog. That's the only way to get it out there after all.

      And thank you for the complements as well. It means a lot.

    2. Thank you! The defense looked fast and aggressive. It looks like a plus defense to me. The offense has issues. Quarterback play is so key and I think it needs to get better in pretty short order. Here is my short take on the open scrimmage
      For some reason only the text is pasting, not the link itself, not sure why.

    3. I can follow you on twitter and send you a tweet. The link works pasted into twitter.

  7. I went to Michigan. My brother went to State.We very much get along though, and respect each others teams. It makes for interesting conversations :-).

    One thing came up though, in a recent conversation: After about 3 years, Hoke and Dantonio have similar records. However, Dantonio's teams were on the upswing. Michigan has alot of talent, but the O line questions are all big. Hoke can arguably said to be a better recruiter than Dantonio. Dantonio seems to squeeze all of the possible talent out of his guys and make them work in his system whereas all of Hoke's guys just haven't seem to put it together yet.


    A) Are Hoke and staff really not good at up-coaching people? Yes, the line is young, but Holy Cow some of these kids have been in the program for three years now. And many of them were 4* kids. Dantonio took his team to the Rose Bowl with a bunch of 2 and 3 star kids.

    B) Or, is recruiting overrated? Does Dantonio not get high start guys like Hoke, but he does a better job vetting the guys that are overlooked by the services?


    C) I've heard Hoke had a recruiting 'hole' he had to fix on the O line. Did Dantonio have similar issues?

    It just seems that with super highly rated classes Michigan is getting lower quality teams.

    1. Answering all that would take quite a bit, and delve a bit too much into the opinion side of things than I want to on this site. I personally don't think, for the most part, that the current Michigan coaching staff is insufficient when it comes to coaching their players. It does take time, it takes mentality, and there are just a lot of factors. I think the amount or "2 and 3 star kids" that MSU has is overstated by both MSU and UM fans (MSU fans because it's the chip on the shoulder, Michigan fans because they supposedly recruit better). There are a lot of flaws in recruiting rankings. Dennard was offered by MSU because they were looking at Mumphry's film. Bell was offered really late based on the recommendation from Tressell at OSU. Those weren't necessarily guys that Dantonio and company were going after early.

      I think there are a lot of flaws in the recruiting system, and they are far from always accurate. I think, in general, they give a good indication of ability, but it's not a hard and fast rule. They are also based, for whatever reason, on NFL potential. At the end of the day though, while I think a 5-star generally will perform better than a 3-star, these are all upper-tier athletes. The distinction between them is not that large, and it grows smaller every year. To the point that superior technique trumps the other stuff 9 times out of 10.

      Hoke had a bit of a hole at OL, and some talent issues at other position from lack of upper-classmen. Dantonio saw a big talent hole at DB when he arrived. You look at their defensive stats from that period (ran the same defense, same defensive staff for the most part) and they don't nearly approach where they are now. So recruiting your type of guy, being able to put them through your system year in and year out, and a bunch of other things factor in.

      I'm always an advocate (essentially) of giving coaches time to implement their program. Very, very few are good enough to be great immediately, and many that show that ability come into somewhat lucky situations. Circumstance can make even the best coaches unsuccessful (Saban wasn't great at MSU, Meyer struggled in the 2nd half of his tenure at Florida). Coaches should be allowed to run their program before being judged completely.

    2. Thanks for the input!

      I admit from a fans perspective it is easy to boil down things too simply. I also think that in some ways the roster that Hoke recieved his first year, with guys like Molk, RVB, Martin, etc. was almost a mixed blessing when it comes to fan interpretations. Everyone saw 11 wins and thought that was the way it would be from then on out.

      I like Hoke. Then again, I liked Carr. I didn't *dislike* RR but was skeptical after the first season (I knew we'd be down in the transition. But down to me was 6-7 wins). But now that I have some more perspective I think he was given too much of a job to pull off in 3 years. (I haven't read the Bacon book. I do think sometimes RR shot himself in the foot in some of the thigns he said, but who doesn't). As a Michigan fan I was spoiled by decades of coaching stability.

      I told my brother that even if Hoke isn't 'the guy' I'd like for him to stay another 2-3 years, if only because the guy can recruit and I think that the coaching carousel, or the impression of it, can be murder on a program.

      I am relieved that you think the current staff isn't necessarily bad. GIven MSU's success and our struggling it was always in the back of my head that maybe Hoke could recruit, but not coach up his guys; and that this philosphy worked in lower levels but not at Michigan as well. But I want to ride this out and see what he can do.

      The recruiting situation is interesting for me. If the players skill gap continues to narrow as you say, it could make for a very interesting College football terrain. A good coach with 3* who is an amazing teacher of fundamentals could take a historically down team and bring it back. Maybe that is what we are starting to see with teams like Minnesota starting to come back.

      Thanks again!!


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