Red Sox nation hoists names like Aaron “Effin” Boone and Bucky Dent up on the grand facade of ignominious moments in their history. Well, when it comes to Michigan football, the name Wildcat fans will never forget when it comes to last year’s Hail Mary loss in the Big House is Roy Roundtree. I’m still not over that unbelievable finish and Daniel Jones tip that turned in to a miraculous catch by Roundtree. The game was won in my mind (even though I was in full NU late game paranoia mode) and this was going to be a signature win for the ‘Cats and really make the division race very interesting. Well, we know what happened and since that moment I’ve been really looking forward to Michigan coming to Evanston this year for the re-match.
In all likelihood, this game will matter big time in the division race, as the B1G schedule makers (his name is Mark Rudner) has purposefully created a schedule where intra-division games occur in November. The ‘Cats face Michigan November 16 in Evanston after a late season bye week cushions our November 2 game at Nebraska. Today, the very talented Zach Travis of MaizeNBrew.com joins LTP to weigh in pretty deeply with the Michigan perspective. I’ve become a huge fan of M&B over the past two years in particular as they’ve been not only extremely generous in their coverage of NU, but they also produce deep dive analysis of our team that I’m not even providing, like this X and O breakdown of our playbook. Welcome Zach, and let’s get started.
LTP: Perhaps Roy Roundtree is payback for A-Train’s fumble in 2000 or some kind of weird circular karma. We’re still pained by that one, but I have to say, most fans are circling the rematch in Evanston this year (second only to that “other” team you love to hate whom we play at night in our B1G opener). ‘Cats fans are looking at our November date as a must-win that has a strong likelihood of having division title implications. How does this one shape up from your perspective on the “importance” scale?
ZT: The A-Train fumble is still one of my most painful sports memories, so thanks for bringing that up.
Given the current Big Ten outlook, I think this game is going to be very big for both teams. Michigan gets Northwestern right after games against Michigan State and Nebraska, meaning the Wolverines could possibly look to cap a complete sweep of Legends division favorites with a win in Evanston. Although it could just as easily be “let’s avoid a three game losing streak”. I actually like Michigan’s chances against MSU and Nebraska better than I do against the Wildcats. The Spartan offense still looks to be a legit weakness, and I don’t see Nebraska’s defense bouncing back enough to slow Michigan’s offense now that it is run by a capable quarterback and not a terrified, duck-throwing backup (last year’s loss still burns). Neither game is an easy win, but Michigan has definite advantages.
As for the game against Northwestern, Michigan was one play away from a loss last year, and that WIdlcat offense still terrifies me. The only other game all season Michigan’s defense looked as hapless and lost was Alabama, and until I see Michigan deal with the speed option consistently I can’t help but worry that Northwestern will have the same success.
LTP: Devin Gardner scares the crap out of me. I’m clinging to the notion that somehow Michigan is uncharacteristically not as explosive at WR as you’ve historically been. What happened this spring that should give NU fans pause about the receiving corps?
ZT: In the spring game? Uh, nothing. I mean, Amara Darboh pulled in a pretty nifty catch on the sidelines and Devin Funchess did his normal “I’m 18-feet tall and you’re not” act down the middle, but this is still a unit with a lot of questions and few answers.
Fortunately, Jeremy Gallon returns as Michigan’s number one option. His rapport with Devin Gardner has Michigan fans salivating, as the two hooked up for 500 yards and three TDs in the final five games of the season (which you can extrapolate to 1300 yards and 8 TDs in a full season plus bowl, and yes, we’ve done the math already). I don’t know if he will be quite that successful over a full year, but he is athletic and plays much bigger than his listed height of 5’8. At the other spot will be one of two second year receivers, either the aforementioned Darboh who is a thick, catch-everything sort, or Jehu Chesson, a lithe home-run threat with speed to burn and a big catch radius (he is a long 6’3). Neither has done anything in an actual game as of yet.
Michigan will probably ease those guys in by relying a lot on guys like Funchess, last year’s breakout tight end that still has some serious blocking deficiencies, but is a very talented receiver. Drew Dileo, the sure handed slot receiver who put the team on his back against MSU last year will also be a good safety valve for Gardner. I think Michigan has potential at all the receiving positions, but it will depend on how big a step forward a lot of this team’s youth is able to take. Can Funchess block well enough to be a true dual-threat TE? Are Darboh and Chesson ready to make major contributions? Can one of the true freshmen step in? This will be a highly scrutinized group in fall camp.
LTP: Based on your insights of the offense for 2013, what types of changes in scheme and/or general philosophy can we expect to see unfold this fall?
ZT: Michigan is finally going to settle into the pro-style offense it has been flirting with for two years. Given the personnel, it might actually work.
The last two seasons the Wolverines just didn’t have the right pieces to make standard I-form and Ace formations work. The O-Line was ill-equipped to block power running plays, the backs were more comfortable running spread-based plays, and Denard was Denard. Michigan went a lot heavier with pro-style stuff late in the year with Gardner, but it laughibly became “how many times in a row can Gardner run play-action before actually handing the ball off for real?”. Michigan still had trouble getting anywhere without reverting to shotgun and using Denard in different ways as a running/option back. I think some of the spread elements will stick around because Gardner is too dangerous to keep leashed in the backfield all the time, but mostly you’ll see a lot of down field passing and between the tackles running. Whether the latter works (and its effect on the former) will go a long way toward establishing how productive this offense as a whole can be.
LTP: Break down the offense this year, including names that are likely to surpass Fitzgerald Touissant at RB.
ZT: I’ve already done receivers and TEs, and quarterback is obvious, so let’s focus on the run game. Up front Michigan has the best pair of tackles in the conference. Taylor Lewan is all-everything and Michael Schofield is a third-year starter and all-conference level talent (IMHO). Those two are set in stone. Between them, things get dicey. Michigan’s disappointing run game a year ago was caused in large part by the three interior linemen that struggled throughout the year to execute the blocking in traditional run plays. They are all gone, but that leaves Michigan with a bunch of second- and third-year players vying for starting jobs. Former five-star recruit Kyle Kalis should have the RG spot locked down. He came to Michigan about as college ready as HS linemen come and sat out the requisite redshirt year. Next to him will most likely be Jack Miller, the heir apparent at center who was David Molk’s protege/receiver-of-headbutts two years ago. He is a center through and through (something Michigan didn’t have last year that certainly didn’t help) and will be pushed by Patrick Kugler, a true freshman that happens to be the son of former Pittsburgh Steeler OL coach and current Tulsa coach Sean Kugler. The LG spot is between RS-Fr Ben Braden and former walk-on Graham Glasgow. Michigan will be young on the inside, but that will hopefully be mitigated by these players being more comfortable in the scheme than last year’s starters.
At running back it looks like a two horse race between Fitz Toussaint, who is reported to be making good progress back from his broken leg, and the true freshman five-star ball of hype, Derrick Green. Green is more the prototype that Hoke and Borges are looking for, but Toussaint proved to be very good two years ago, and won’t cede the job very easily. I imagine both will split carries early with Green slowly taking more and more of the offensive load as long as he can settle into the other job duties such as blocking/blitz pickup/etc.. Justice Hayes will likely get first crack at the third-down role that Vincent Smith vacated.
LTP: It appears that LB is the strength of Greg Mattison’s “D”. Frame-up the relative strengths and weaknesses of the “D”.
ZT: Linebacker certainly looks to be a strong spot this year, and were it not for Jake Ryan’s injury in the spring (an ACL tear that some expect him to recover from by October, which whoa) I would make the argument that this has the potential to be the best linebacking corp in the conference. Desmond Morgan slides to the middle where I think he will be solid as a junior and third-year starter. This move is mostly because James Ross seems to have arrived. He was impossible to keep off the field as a freshman and has the kind of instincts and quickness that remind many of great WLBs of Michigan’s past. He is going to be very good. Mark that down. At SLB Michigan will try and get by with either Cam Gordon or Brennen Beyer. Gordon is an athletic vagabond, having played WR, FS, and SS/LB hybrid during his time at Michigan. He should be a solid option to replace Ryan. Beyer moved over from WDE to help bolster depth, and while he will be a little more limited athletically, he should hold up better against the run and give Michigan another look at the spot.
On the line Michigan gets back Quinton Washington after a surprise year last year in which he was quietly one of Michigan’s best defensive linemen. He should be able to anchor the middle as Ondre Pipkins gets further acclimated to the starting role he seems destined to claim next year. At three-tech, Jibreel Black is currently the leader by default, but will be heavily pushed by a couple of second year players, Chris Wormley and Matt Godin. Keith Heitzman seems like first in line for the starting SDE job, but could also see himself pushed by a Tom Stroble. On the weakside, Michigan is looking for Frank Clark to finally take a big step forward and become a pass rush force. If he can’t do it, there are a couple younger options behind him.
In the secondary Michigan returns Blake Countess from an ACL injury against Alabama last year. Countess was Michigan’s best corner going into 2012 and should be the same this season as long as he is fully recovered. Across from him will be last year’s fill in, Raymon Taylor, who started the majority of the season in Countess’ place. Thomas Gordon returns as one of Michigan’s safeties and he will be joined by sophomore Jarrod Wilson, a long, rangy FS that has the athleticism and hype (four-star early enrollee in 2012) to make up for the loss of Jordan Kovacs if he can settle into the starting lineup without too many hiccups.
Michigan’s defense lacks star power, but it is filled with experienced contributors and promising younger players, and I think it will be just as good as last year’s unit with the possibility of being even better if one or two players can really step up.
LTP: Michigan’s 2014 recruiting class has been getting all kinds of love from the recruiting gurus, but tell us about some of the instant impact freshmen THIS year.
ZT: All the talk of Michigan’s 2014 efforts actually overshadowed what was an equally hyped 2013 class. I expect a few players to have important roles. Derrick Green is first on the list, but defensively, Michigan has two early enrollees that have already made a strong push to play early and often.
One player is safety Dymonte Thomas, a high four-star recruit out of Ohio that looks to have already locked down the nickel corner position. Michigan went with smaller corners in this role the past couple years, but the spring game foreshadowed a shift in philosophy, using the nickel as more of a hybrid linebacker, someone who can blitz, take on the run, and drop into coverage. Just another weapon for Greg Mattison to use. I can see Thomas playing quite a bit both at nickel and around the secondary. The other early enrollee is DE Taco Charlton, who already looks the part at 6’6, 260 lbs. and is an impressive athlete. He could help Michigan by providing a pass rush if he is able to show some proficiency at stopping the run.
LTP: It appears nearly every B1G team seems to have a back-loaded schedule, with perhaps the exception of NU. Schedule surf for us and tell us your likes and dislikes of how things lay out for Michigan.
ZT: I think the schedule is very favorable to Michigan. The non-conference slate isn’t easy, but Michigan gets Notre Dame at home and has a manageable road game at UConn before the first bye week. The month of October is just three games, with one road trip to Penn State sandwiched between visits from Minnesota and Indiana. Michigan could be 7-0 at this point going into another bye week.
Having @MSU, vs. Neb, and @ Northwestern to open November is about as rough as it gets, but think about this: by that time, the Wolverines will have had nine weeks of the season to acclimate the young interior offensive line and receiving corp to playing major roles. Jake Ryan could be back from his injury and the rotations on the defensive line should be set. There are no freshmen in November, and while all those other teams will have had just as much time to iron out wrinkles as Michigan, I think Michigan will benefit a lot by having that much time to bring along a few young players at key spots and getting them to play closer to their high potential. Finishing the season with a trip to Iowa and a home visit from Ohio State won’t be easy either, but if the Wolverines can manage to take care of business in the early season, they will be very well positioned to make a run at the Legends division title in early November.
The team could still be a little too young in spots, but there isn’t a team in the Big Ten that has it all figured out, so Michigan has as good a chance as any to get to the Big Ten title game.
LTP: Zach, thanks for playing. I appreciate the time and insights and we look forward to November 16 in Evanston!
We’ve got a slew of content still to come, so be on the lookout this weekend for some more media day post-script stuff as well the announcement of our NUComers QB Club event on Monday, August 26 6pm-8pmish. Tickets go on sale Monday morning at 9 am ct.
Other First Look 2013 team previews to date:
- Cal (Cal Golden Blogs)
- Syracuse (Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician)
- Maine (Peter Warner, Bangor Daily)
- Western Michigan (MLive.com)
- Ohio State (Eleven Warriors)
- Wisconsin (Bucky’s 5th Quarter)
- Minnesota (Daily Gopher)
- Iowa (Black Heart Gold Pants)
- Nebraska (Corn Nation)
- Michigan State (The Only Colors)
- Illinois (The Champaign Room)
We’ve now completed all 12 opposing team previews!
LTP Flag Project
I told you we’re cranking on the LTP N Flag Project. Every day I post one of these beauties, three more of you step up and send in more photos. It’s awesome. How fun is it to see this on a daily basis? Today, Jim Hoff shares the purple pride with this photo recently taken along the Grand Canal in Venice, Italy. If you’d like your flag added to the LTP N Flag Map (see the navigation bar atop this home page to find the map) simply email us a jpeg of the photo at email@example.com and we’ll post it here and give you a shout out as well. Great job, Jim!!!