The Good – The Defense
“Is the defense really good or does the offense suck?”
That question, or some version of it, is the one many Michigan fans are grappling with today. While it is certainly tough to benchmark the strength of the defense versus an offense that is clearly a work in progress, it’s not impossible. So let’s just look at what we can gauge from yesterday’s scrimmage.
The trucking of any 6-6, 310-pounder like a cardboard cutout is pretty darn impressive.
- If that was the only example of standout play from Willie Henry it’d be easy to chalk that feat up as an anomaly, but it wasn’t. Henry was an imposing presence throughout the scrimmage. And it’s not as if he hadn’t previously shown flashes of star-like ability. He was one of the defensive bright spots late last season. What he lacked was consistency. Throughout fall camp the word has been that that trait is no longer absent. It certainly was present and accounted for Saturday.
Three fourth-year players have been knocked out of starting spots.
- Blake Countess led the team in interceptions last year with six. Raymon Taylor led the team in tackles with 86 and added four picks. Desmond Morgan was third on the team in tackles with 79. Those are three of the better players on last year’s unit and by any objective measure at least average Big Ten players. All that collective experience wouldn’t be relegated to back-up roles unless the showings by their replacements were nothing short of exemplary. That has definitely been the case with Jourdan Lewis, Jabrill Peppers, and Joe Bolden.
Maurice Hurst brings more quickness to the position than they’ve had in years.
- There have been linemen with good get-off, but Hurst just seems to be quickest in recent memory. That includes another fairly quick interior guy in Jibreel Black. Furthermore, Hurst tested out as the third most powerful defensive lineman during the spring. The Wolverines have the luxury great depth at the position so they don’t have to wear him down by asking him to play too many snaps like they did Black. So Hurst be a quick, powerful and fresh weapon on the interior, especially on passing downs.
Conclusion: There is legitimate reason to believe this unit will be substantially better than last year… as long as it staves off complacency. The coaching staff reportedly got after the defense earlier in the week when the offense had some success running the football in scrimmage action. Greg Mattison’s bunch responded with Saturday’s effort. That’s the type of performance that will carry the team through its inevitable offensive growing pains.
The Bad – Inconsistent Quarterback Play
It’s difficult to separate the performance quarterback from the performance of the line, but the reality is Michigan’s signal caller is going to have to perform despite the line’s performance at times, especially early in the year. It’s not fair, but that’s the job.
Now it’s important to define what “perform” means. No quarterback can be expected to deliver stellar execution in the face of constant pressure. However, a coach can ask his signal caller to be an excellent game manager/decision-maker under those circumstances. There were times in Saturday’s scrimmage when Devin Gardner didn’t do that. The near interception down the sideline after a scramble in the early going drew Doug Nussmeier’s immediate ire. To Gardner’s credit, the very next time he was pressured (which I believe was the very next play), he threw the ball out of bounds. That type of decision will be crucial for a team whose success will quite possibly hinge on defense and field position early in the year.
There were some poor throws. The Countess interception on the out to Devin Funchess on the far hash was one example. Without the benefit of replay it’s impossible to say whether he stared Funchess down, threw late, or just didn’t put enough steam on the throw. Whatever the case, it was a play that Gardner is capable of completing.
Then there were the times where he felt pressure a bit before it got there. (That was obviously a byproduct of the unrelenting pressure applied by so-called second stringers Willie Henry and Maurice Hurst.)
To be fair to Gardner, there were some nice throws sprinkled in during the day. (The 40 yard post to Funchess and five yard fade to Funchess for a TD were two of the best.) He was the victim of a handful of dropped balls. He also missed on a probable TD to Amara Darboh on a long post route during which the young wideout stopped running. On the flip side, Gardner did a good job in blitz recognition and throwing hot to Darboh. So the Wolverines’ fifth-year senior quarterback didn’t have as bad a night as some of the depictions suggest, but it certainly wasn’t good either.
Shane Morris, by comparison, had a good night. He hung in the pocket longer and delivered more strikes. Simply put, he was more efficient. Now Morris made some mistakes too. He had poorly thrown fade that was picked off, and he hung on to the ball a bit too long at times. And while he saw a great deal of pressure, he didn’t face as much as Gardner. Those are all pertinent factors to consider when comparing the two performances, but they’d be more pertinent if the two quarterbacks were of comparable age and experience. Gardner is the veteran so the burden and expectations placed upon him are greater. He has to make the right play more consistently than he did during Saturday’s scrimmage for the team to be successful.
Conclusion: None of what’s mentioned above adds up to a quarterback controversy. Despite the desire in some for that narrative to be true, it simply isn’t. What has emerged, however, is a much different quarterback dynamic than one that existed last. Now if the right play isn’t made consistently enough during the season, Hoke and Nussmeier appear to have a legitimate bullpen to go to.
The Ugly – The Ongoing Offensive Line Struggles
This group was undoubtedly the source of the most angst, and understandably so. The defense was suffocating. There weren't many clean pockets and there wasn’t a ton of push in the run game.
So the performance was bad, but not unexpected.
One of the mitigating factors for the group was the musical chairs up front. The music finally stopped late in the week when the coaches settled on a top six (Mason Cole, Erik Magnuson, Jack Miller, Kyle Kalis, Ben Braden, and Graham Glasgow). This group will finally have a chance to establish some chemistry, especially once Kalis comes back. The last piece will likely be Graham Glasgow’s return to center (Jack Miller had a heck of a time dealing with Hurst in particular).
The scrimmage should adjust expectations accordingly. The line will almost certainly struggle early. The probability of immediate improvement in performance after losing the two best players on last year’s line and changing offenses just isn’t high. Any thought to the contrary is a Pollyannaish view. But make no mistake… they need to be much better than they showed Saturday. They have two weeks of practice left to achieve a modicum of consistency. From there it’s going to be about getting better game by game.
Conclusion: If this group hasn’t shown progress by midseason then current panic level be shown by some will be more warranted. For now, place faith in a defense that will likely make a few other teams look bad this year, and hope in the positive benefits of continuity and inculcation for offense looking to find its way.