X's and O's Mailbag: TEs & Formations

In GoBlueWolverine's weekly X's & O's series, Josh Turel tackles your questions on anything about football. In this edition Turel tackles some of the pressing questions surrounding the depth concerns at the TE position and how the offensive formations the Wolverines will utilize might be impacted by how they're answered.

This week's questions were submitted by Victors Club Message Board posters, “goblueinohio” and “energyblue1.”

Question one from goblueinohio: “Although the secondary is getting the most attention, how do you see the use of the TE position playing out this year? TE is such an important position for Michigan. Will UM really have to count on freshman TEs to survive this year? Thanks in advance for your great work.

Goblue, I think you bring up a very good point. The loss of Carson Butler really impacts the depth at the position and barring Butler’s return, or a huge leap from Andre Criswell or Chris McLaurin, it may be an issue all season long. I’m a big fan of Mike Massey, so I think Michigan will be fine in terms of a starting tight end, but depth is obviously another story. The key will be keeping Massey healthy. He missed a good portion of last season and was a “no go” in the spring. In his playing time last year, I was pretty surprised on how well he handled the blocking aspect of his job at his size and I actually think it is a strength of his now.

We have heard some good things about Criswell last year in practice but you cannot expect him to be fully comfortable at a new position in less than a year. As far as a the run game goes, I think he has the base physical skills to help the Wolverines there but I don’t see him as much of a contributor right away on the receiving end. You also factor in the number of reads and calls for the tight end in this offense in the running game and it’s clear that his transition is two-fold. Chris McLaurin didn’t really come in as a highly rated prospect and he has battled injuries along with a position switch. That being said, I don’t think the expectation level for him should be too high. Only McLaurin and Criswell were healthy for the spring game and based off that scrimmage, it confirmed that progress is needed. I think on a positive note, McLaurin is a lot more explosive in his routes than Criswell is, but the problem for him is finishing the play and catching the ball. That is something Criswell needs to improve upon as well.

Question two from energyblue1: Offensive formations????? Without Carson Butler does Michigan go to more 3 wr sets and or does Michigan use a pro formation with 2 backs, Hart and Minor/Brown?

Great question energyblue1. There’s no doubt figuring out formations is key for a zone blocking team like Michigan, which uses a lot of pro type formations. Generally, you would like to have either a solid two tight end game where you are mostly one back like the Indianapolis Colts, or a good fullback where you can go offset in the backfield. Defenses generally would rather have you balanced than unbalanced, but I think you can do a lot of good things running the inside/outside zone play from a two tight end, one back set either balanced or unbalanced. The problem is, Michigan seems to be looking for answers at fullback and tight end as of right now. They are huge in the zone offense for sealing off the perimeter of the defense. One key thing you would like your formations to do is allow for you to better identify the B gap defender. Ask any offensive coordinator that runs the zone play and they will tell you that they prefer running to the wide side of the defense, which is when the B gap is defended by a linebacker. On the opposite side, the B gap is usually defended by a 3 technique tackle. The reason most teams want to run away from the 3 technique tackle is because most of the time you’re going to end up cutting that play back up inside where you will have to deal with the nose tackle (shade technique) and the trail linebacker. Usually this play doesn’t gain much because it is hard to clear out the nose and get the linebacker sealed in time. Now, when you are running to the wide side of the defense, you have a numbers advantage. Generally, the defense will put their 3 tech and their numbers to the tight end side, usually leaving you with a 4 to 3 advantage away from the 3 technique tackle where the linebacker has the B gap.

Depending on how the depth situation plays out will determine the strength of the team. Generally, coaches do not force their schemes into a situation where the personnel does not allow for it. If the strength of the team is receiver and the weakness is at tight end, it doesn’t make a great deal of sense to run more two tight end sets than trips. That being said, I think Michigan will know more about themselves after training camp has concluded. They can better gauge where the strengths of the team are and which formations put them in the best situations. The depth at the wide receiver position is extremely good thanks to the return of Adrian Arrington and the addition of three talented freshmen. That should lend itself to more three and sometimes four receiver formations… especially if the other positions don’t rectify themselves

As far as using the split back pro formation, I was very surprised to see the Wolverines utilize that in spring practice. The split back formation is characteristic of teams that run the west coast offense. Over the past few years, the role of Michigan backs as receivers has diminished somewhat, but a guy like Carlos Brown can do some damage as a receiver with some polish. The split back pro formation is still coveted by offensive coordinators because it allows you to release up to five receivers while still having the ability to check into protections in the backfield. You can release five receivers or protect with seven all from one formation with on-field checks. Coordinators also like it for its ability to stretch defenses horizontally and vertically. You also create “oblique” triangle type stretches in zone coverage, which is something LaVell Edwards use to lecture about so much at BYU. The good thing about this formation is, because it is a two back offense with a tight end and two receivers, defenses do not sub for it. Conventional wisdom says you can get mismatches with the linebackers on the backs and tight end. That said, I think that statement was much more true back 10-20 years ago. Nowadays linebackers seem much more coverage oriented and athletic. If Michigan is going to use this formation, I imagine it will be in a situational manner. For that particular formation to be effective, improving in pass protection up front and receiving ability at TE and RB spots will be key.

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