Prior to the start of last season the breadth of Michigan’s offensive package was hailed as a major attribute. By midseason it was thought of as a hindrance. Enter new offensive coordination Doug Nussmeier with offensive refinement among his primary objectives. He is charged with devising a scheme that is complex enough to keep opponents off balance, but simple enough to allow his unit to execute it consistently.
“(Simplifying things) is what we want to do,” Michigan headman Brady Hoke said. “I think you manage your offense and you’re trying to put guys in the best position so that they can be successful. From week to week game plan against a style of defense, (but) at the same time I think you’ve got to have those base plays that you can hang your hat on. I think that’s what we will see more of and that’s what we’ll be more of.”
In order to establish those staples the play in the trenches must improve dramatically. The offensive line lost two major cogs to graduation in Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield, but there are a handful of returnees that have starting experience. In addition those that didn’t play are a year bigger and stronger. The question is, is that enough to ensure improvement?
“There is more to it,” stated Hoke. “Obviously if you are a 19-year-old playing against a 23-year-old there are some physical differences and some mental differences and experience. At the same time, we’ve got to do, as coaches, a better job with fundamentals, techniques, and the leverage that we want to play with. I also think the competition will really be something that continues to motivate guys and the improvements of day to day.”
“You look at David Dawson who is a tackle. We like his athleticism and what he can do. I think Chris Fox is a guy that now is in the competition at guard. (Patrick) Kugler is another guy who is a center who will be more into it. I think Blake Bars had a growing year, a second year that he grew a lot. We like Ben Braden and what he has done. Logan (Tuley-Tillman) is stronger, still a work in progress. He has got tremendous feet. I think as you go through this you see that competition and what they’re doing right now in the weight room since we’ve been on the road. (You see) what they are doing in the winter conditioning aspect of it. (You see) the O-line/D-line school that guys have been involved with on Saturday’s coming in on their own. I think that is part of it. For us as coaches, it is great to be back because now we have got more hands-on with them.”
If the line shows growth as expected the Wolverines will only have won half the battle. The tailback position much show a great deal of progress as well.
“It is not where we want it to be especially in the overall scheme,” Hoke said plainly. “But you mentioned it earlier… being a little simpler, being where guys can understand it, and making sure that we are putting one foot in front of the other as we go (is key). Justice Hayes emerged as a guy at the end of the year really gave us some things out of the backfield… protection in the backfield. Obviously, De’Veon (Smith) and Derrick (Green) are guys that need to continue to grow. Drake (Johnson) will be limited a little bit through spring, which is okay because he is a guy that loves the game. As you look as where we are at back there, I think the competition level obviously will be high and I think they will improve from a mental standpoint of how we want to play the game.”
The assessment of the defense didn’t elicit rosy feelings from Hoke either. There were aspects of the unit that made progress, but overall there was lot was left to be desired.
I think from a defensive side of it, I think the growth of Willie Henry, Chris Wormley, those two guys significantly. I think Matt Godin was beat up a little bit most of the year. Ondre (Pipkins) will be limited a little bit through spring. You look at (Mario) Ojemudia and Frank Clark and his development, Taco (Charlton) and his development. I think there is a lot of competition in there. I’m excited to see how these guys go through spring football. Up front, I think that is something that we’re excited about.”
“Obviously, we didn’t play well enough. Let’s start fundamentally. I think we hung on blocks a little bit too much, especially on the front. The two middle guys up front have to do a better job there. I thought that they got better as the year went on, but take the Ohio game, we gave up way too many yards… way too many rushing yards. We’ve got to do a better job. I think fitting the defense either from support positions on the back end or linebacker positions, we’ve got to improve that and know the strengths and weaknesses of every front, of every call. I didn’t think we tackled nearly as well as we did a year ago or the year before in the back end. I think that is something that with people wanting to spread you out, as you go through and you look at those guys who are going to play on the perimeter and their ability to be able to tackle… I think that is critical. We’ve got to do a better job fundamentally with that. Some of that is understanding the concepts of a defense.”
As is the case on offense, the maturation process will certainly help the defense’s development, but Hoke put the onus on his coaching staff to “do a better job” pushing buttons this year.
“I think (being a year older) does help to some degree, but I also think them knowing the defensive concepts from that standpoint of them understanding where your help is and where the weakness of a call may be (is key). We have to do a better job as coaches. The experience will help. I think if you look at the competition level around our whole football team (you’ll see it’s better). We’ve got 11 seniors and we’re going to be young, but I think it will be a better young now because of the experience of the 2013 season.”
“From the linebacker position, having Jake (Ryan) back is huge for us. I’m sure that Jake will be a little more full speed than he felt a year ago. Desmond (Morgan), James Ross, Joe Bolden are back and we have Mike) McCray now and we’re excited to see how he develops. He is a guy that we think is a big linebacker who can cover a lot of ground. Royce (Jenkins-Stone) has done some good things at times. (Mike) Ferns is in school right now. He got here early. Ben Gedeon got a lot of reps this year on kicking game and on defense. “
“I think with that whole group of guys there is good experience to some degree, but it’s definitely great competition.”