Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Spring Practice Preview: Offense

It's time to see what the Inkster product can do leading Michigan's football team.
Redshirt junior Devin Gardner is the clear front-runner for the quarterback job.  After Denard Robinson got hurt against Nebraska, Gardner started the next five games, going 75/126 for 1,219 yards, 11 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions.  Michigan appears to have a "franchise" type quarterback, but what will Michigan's offense look like with him fully entrenched at the position?  Gardner is better from under center than Robinson ever was, so the I-formation stuff should be more prevalent.  He can still run the shotgun passing stuff, but he's not a downhill runner in the same way that allowed Robinson to run for 1,000+ yards the past few seasons.
Others to watch: The only other scholarship quarterback on the roster for the spring is redshirt sophomore Russell Bellomy.

With Fitzgerald Toussaint injured, Vincent Smith off to his post-college career, and Derrick Green not arriving until summer, the pickings will be slim this spring.  This should be Michigan fans' first chance to see redshirt freshman Drake Johnson, who earned some praise from Brady Hoke around bowl time.  He has good size and speed, but that doesn't always translate to success.  Junior Thomas Rawls (57 carries, 242 yards, 4 touchdowns) and redshirt sophomore Justice Hayes (18 carries, 83 yards, 1 touchdown) earned some carries, but neither one did much with his opportunities.
Others to watch: Sophomore Dennis Norfleet has moved back to running back after a short stint at corner for the Outback Bowl.  Sophomore Sione Houma and redshirt sophomore Joey Kerridge will fight for the fullback spot.

In the five games that Gardner started at quarterback, fifth year senior Jeremy Gallon had 31 receptions for 511 yards and 3 touchdowns.  He looks to be the top receiver in 2013, but there's plenty of room for others to emerge.  Two other seniors return in Drew Dileo (22 catches, 331 yards, 2 touchdowns) and Jeremy Jackson (4 catches, 31 yards), the former of which is a jack-of-all-trades, the latter a lumbering possession receiver.  Then there's sophomore Amara Darboh, who played but was never targeted, and redshirt freshman Jehu Chesson.  Since Dileo appears to be nothing more than a complementary receiver, it would be good for Gardner and the Michigan offense to find another reliable target between Darboh and Chesson.
Others to watch: Fifth year senior walk-on Joe Reynolds (3 catches, 22 yards) worked his way into the rotation last season and has decent quickness.

Sophomore Devin Funchess (15 catches, 234 yards, 5 touchdowns) should have playing time locked up at the U-back position.  Fellow sophomore A.J. Williams is a mammoth tight end who's more of a blocker.  The wild card in the mix is freshman Jake Butt, who enrolled early and is physically developed enough to play as a freshman.  Williams isn't much of a target downfield, so if Gardner can work out some chemistry with Butt in the spring (and summer), Michigan should have a nice 1-2 punch of receiving tight ends between Funchess and Butt.
Others to watch: Redshirt junior Jordan Paskorz has played in just one game (on special teams against UMass) during his three seasons, and the rest of the guys on the roster are young-ish walk-ons with little experience; the best of those is redshirt junior Dylan Esterline.

The two sure starters are the bookend, fifth-year senior tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield.  Between those two will be any combination of about a dozen other players, because the three interior starters graduated.  Redshirt freshman all-everything guard Kyle Kalis will probably step in at one guard spot.  That leaves the other two spots up for grabs between redshirt sophomore Jack Miller, redshirt junior walk-on Joey Burzynski, redshirt sophomore Chris Bryant, and redshirt freshman Ben Braden; the former two will probably vie for the center spot, while the latter two will fight for the right guard position.  None of them have played extensively, and if either Bryant or Braden starts the season, it will be his first ever game experience.  In the long term, Braden will probably end up at right tackle, so you could see Schofield and Braden flip if the coaches aren't confident in Braden's ability to pull.
Others to watch: Redshirt freshman Erik Magnuson will have every chance to succeed Lewan at left tackle, and classmate Blake Bars has practiced at both center and guard.  Both appear to be at least a year away from playing significant time.  True freshman Kyle Bosch has apparently impressed people with his size and work in the weight room as an early enrollee, but he's very young; if the coaches wouldn't play Kalis as a freshman, they probably won't play Bosch, either, unless injuries occur.  But it will still be interesting to see how Bosch fares in the glorified practice.


  1. If it's me running this offense, I'm lining Devin Funchess up all over the place, inside, outside, slot every once in a while, I'd even break out the old wing back thing now and again, if only to just mess with your head some. If you do that, you can take a little bit of pressure off of a young and not all that athletic group of wide receivers by giving him some of their outside snaps.

    I also believe that barring injuries, we will be much improved on the offensive line despite replacing three starters (thank you again Taylor Lewan ..... sincerely ... really ..... thanks ... really ..... I mean it.

    While last year's group was older, they were experienced only in the sense that they had been around the program. Omameh was a four year starter yes, but neither Barnum nor Mealer had a lot of minutes. And really, it isn't like Shofield was anything even approaching a fixture prior to last year as I'm pretty sure he only had 8 or 10 career starts and those were all (I think) at guard. This year you get another four year starter along with an almost 3 year starter. In my mind, the only questions here revolve around Miller and center. Given the choice, I'm taking mostly bigger, more athletic, hopefully nastier, and only slightly less experienced over last year's group every time.

    See what I just did there, I both disparage and then exalt Shofield's experience within the same paragraph. That there is some slick spinning, I don't care who you are.

    The guy I worry about here is Gardner. I'm hoping he's good, but in my darker moments I keep remembering his State Championship game, during which I kept thinking to myself, "I hope this kid can catch."

    1. I like the idea about moving Funchess around, but until he can block that might be difficult to execute.

    2. I'm pretty sure that's always been the plan. You saw it a bit last year (splitting him out for fades and such). Remember, he was still young last year and trying to learn the fundamentals of simply playing the U-back position (how to block from that position, how to run routes from there, etc.). I think as his career progresses, you see more and more of him being lined up all over the place to create mismatches for the defense, and possibly even more simply to make the defense think a bit more (defense thinks is a certain, say 21 personnel, but line up like it's 3 WRs). You always want the defense to be thinking about other things pre-snap so that they aren't as effective post-snap, and that's the option that moving him around gives you.

  2. In the opinion of this blog, what fundamentally separates A.J. Williams from the rest of the O-line if he never sees any balls thrown his way.

    What can he do that Schofield can't do, for example, and vice versa?

    1. I think Williams is a better athlete than Schofield and can move better in space, which will help Williams in blocking linebackers. His footwork was terrible last season, and he really shouldn't have been on the field. If a tight end never sees the ball thrown his way, then he's not much different than a tackle; I don't think we should necessarily assume Williams won't be a receiving threat at all.

      Lots of teams have "blocking tight ends" and "receiving tight ends," so if you're suggesting that Williams get moved to tackle, then I disagree.

    2. Thanks for commenting on that. No suggestion on moving Williams here ... I was just curious about how you view him. In my memory, there hasn't been anyone like him at that position in many years (viz, someone that big and tall, a TE with legit O-line size).

    3. Martell Webb was the biggest TE I remember off the top of my head - about 6'4", 270 lbs.

  3. Nice preview - it works as an overall snapshot for where the team is on offense.

    The OL configuration will certainly be one of the most interesting things to see. I'd guess the veterans (Burzynski, Miller, Bryant) get the first team snaps to start, with plenty of rotation behind them.

    That Bosch-Kalis argument doesn't hold water. Kalis had to beat out 3 experienced veteran starters (no matter how unimpressive their performance was, 4 years is a huge difference) while Bosch has to beat out people with similar experience levels.

    The OL situation could make it hard to get a read on the RBs and vice versa. It is a little surprising for me to read excitement about Drake Johnson and universal dismissal of once-hyped Thomas Rawls. Rawls beat out Johnson in hype coming in and beat him out for playing time but suddenly Johnson's the next big thing because ... it's Spring I guess, and the freshman aren't here yet.

    The young WRs will be watched closely. I think Dileo and Jackson will be OK - far from the disaster many anticipate - but if we see a lot of Reynolds that will make me a little nervous.

    Agree that Butt could play a big role, but hopefully Funchess and Williams show a lot of improvement and significant physical development. Williams should tone up and slim down and Funchess needs to add mass. I like both kids' potential quite a bit.

    Most people will scrutinize Gardner's performance, but I think it's more interesting to see if Bellomy has improved and maybe get a sense for how he's bounced back from the humbling Nebraska experience.

    1. You and I both know that true freshmen on the offensive line are rare. It hasn't happened at Michigan since 2006 (and even then Justin Boren was starting due to injury).

      I'm not excited about Johnson - I still stick by my previous assessments of him - but there aren't many options in the spring with Toussaint, Green, and Smith all missing. Rawls wasn't hyped by me coming out of high school, either, so it wouldn't take much for my belief in Johnson to surpass my belief in Rawls.

      Jackson is slow. Always has been, always will be. Off the top of my head, I can't think of a single receiver (with any significant amount of playing time) in the last 15-20 years at Michigan that has been as slow and lacking in athleticism.

    2. Absolutely agree that true freshman are rare, but the circumstances are even more rare: zero returning experience at 3 positions. Typically you'd at least have a few Mealer types who have been playing a backup role for a few years. Our most experienced guy will be a RS soph with only mop-up duty on his resume.

      Not saying Bosch will play but his chances are much better than Kalis' last year.

      I don't doubt that Johnson will get the ball in Spring and that too much will be read into it, but the shift in fan perceptions that occurred as a result of Hoke's off-hand compliments seem like an overreaction by some others. Johnson could fit the system well (hit the hole fast and straight - worry about the rest later) but I don't think the OL can support that kind of no-wiggle back, yet.

    3. Did Kalis enroll early last year? If he didn't that's another big difference between him and Bosch.

  4. When predicting a future Left Tackle, does he switch to a Right Tackle if a left handed QB?

    1. Most likely, yes. If Morris were to win the job, you would see the "blind side tackle" playing on the right side.

    2. Thunder, Just to get a better feel for how interchangeable your blindside tackle can be. How well do you think Lewan would do if he had to switch to the right side this year? Would he be as good as when he plays left?

    3. I think Lewan is athletic enough to be the blind-side tackle, regardless of which side it is. The problem comes in the form of reps. A lot of it is muscle memory, and he wouldn't be used to kick setting with his right foot, the different hand placement, etc. You wouldn't make that switch in the middle of a game or even in the middle of a season for one or two weeks. You would want to rep that in the offseason, or if your right-handed QB would miss a large chunk of the year (for example, if Denard went down against Nebraska and couldn't play QB for the rest of the year and the backup was a left-hander) then you could make the switch during prep for Minnesota.

  5. Speaking of the center position. Do you think Jack Miller at 6'4" 285 or so might be fast enough to pull some from the center position. That might serve to compensate some for a weight disadvantage against BIG nose tackles. I know hardly anybody does it and it creates issues with exchanges and tangled feet with under center QBs, but Army does it some running the wishbone, and Oregon has done it a bunch when they've had a center that could move.

    I keep leaving my number but Big Al never calls back.

    1. Michigan pulled Mealer on occasion last year, and Molk pulled at times, too. Miller was listed at 288 last season, so I think he'll be at LEAST 295 or so by this coming year. I don't think he'll be particularly undersized. Barnum (who never played center but would have if he could have snapped better) was only 296 and Molk was even lighter than that. I don't think size will necessarily be an issue there.

  6. Obviously, Hoke said it in his interview that Kalis is taking reps at RG and Braden at LG, respectivley. You and many others have usually assumed that Kalis would be at LG?! What in his film makes you think that would be the better fit.

    Kalis originally said (during his recruitment) and later re-iterated that the staff wants him at RT! Could he be groomed to be Schofield's replacement next year and possibly Braden and Magnuson compete for LT, loser moving inside to LG?

    1. I think Kalis is a superior pass blocker for a guard, so that's the main reason why I see him more at LG than RG. But I wouldn't have a problem with him playing on either side.

      Kalis could play right tackle, but again, I think he fits best as a guard. It's possible that Braden/Magnuson compete for LT, but I think Braden is more of a RT or an OG; if anyone moves inside, I would assume it would be Braden before Magnuson.