Friday, September 02, 2011

The Hoke gamble and the uncharted road

You already know my general-sense expectations for Michigan this year. If you don't, here's the very brief summary: 8-4 record, slightly worse offense, significantly better defense. That's the headline version.

The full story is slightly a lot more complicated.

When people ask me the inevitable "What do you think about Brady Hoke" question, I sort of dumb it down so I'm not explaining myself for 10 minutes. What I think about Brady Hoke is that he has an unspectacular career record and not enough meaningful experience to make me feel comfortable. He also has been the coach for six months now, and in that time he has made the best coordinator hire of the offseason (something that fits into his history of hiring really good coordinators), kept every important piece of the team intact through the coaching transition and gotten 23 commitments for a 2012 recruiting class that most services are calling the best of the country. Oh, and Ohio State has completely imploded, leaving recruits dangling from the Ohio recruiting tree and an unknown position coach as the guy in charge (temporarily).

If coaching changes are a gamble, hiring Brady Hoke was like going all in with jack-10 and getting jack, 10, 10 on the flop. Things are looking way, way better than anyone could have expected. In about 16 hours, we'll get to find out how he does in those tricky game things.
. . . . .

FYI, this is not a team preview. If you want that, you're gonna have to head over to MGoBlog to read the roughly 30,000 words he's posted in the last five days (!!!) on every position group, heuristic and various topic of debate. He also his own version of "the story," which is basically, "This team will be OK but not great, so be realistic about your expectations and revel in the mind-blowing things Denard does on a weekly basis." That's my interpretation, anyway.

But no matter where or what you're reading, all predictions/projections/expectations are things that are based on uncertainties. That isn't usually the case for teams that return 20(-ish) starters, but it becomes the case when you hire a coach with nearly polar-opposite philosophies from the guy he's replacing.

When Brady Hoke sits/stands in front of a microphone and talks about power football and the girliness of zone blocking and how the spread doesn't properly prepare a defense, he's talking like you'd expect a Michigan coach to talk. He's also talking about things that are pretty difficult to reconcile with what we've seen from Michigan over the past three seasons. This is a team that was built to run the spread, has a QB sculpted by God to run the spread option and has a defense that was intended (and has been very, very unsuccessful) to stop all the typical spread principles.

Fortunately, one of the few things Hoke has established is that what he says doesn't really have much impact on what he does (or, more specifically, what his coordinators do). Hoke lets his coordinators do what they do best: At San Diego State, Al Borges ran a shotgun, three-wide, one-back set the large majority of the time while Rocky Long ran a true 3-3-5, the kind RichRod wanted to run if it had ever been able to find somebody who knew how to do it. At Ball State, he let Stan Parrish (he of the hilarious head coaching record) run a shotgun-heavy spread so Nate Davis could tear apart MAC-tastic defenses. Long story short, when Brady Hoke has been successful, it's because he hasn't really done the things he tells people he wants to do.

Al Borges has a much more extensive history. It usually involves some sort of a "pro-style" offense, but it varies depending on the personnel. Back when he was at UCLA with Cade McNown, it was bootleg city. With Jason Campbell, Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown at Auburn, it was a lot of handoffs of all varieties and some wildly effective play-action. At San Diego State, it was boatloads of shotgun and some (gasp) zone read.

What does that mean for Michigan's offense? You'll have to read between the lines and/or watch a lot of seemingly useless preview videos to figure it out, but we can get a decent idea:

Borges has told everybody who will listen that he will be running more shotgun than ever before and doing things he's never done before to "tailor" the offense to Denard. Every MGoBlue video I've seen features at least one zone read out of the shotgun for every generic I-formation hand0ff. That interview above includes a QB lead, which was basically Michigan's base running play last year.

Summary: The offense won't be that different. When you have Denard, one real tight end, no fullbacks, an army of small-but-effective slot guys and an O-line built more for getting to the second level than crushing defensive tackles, this is what you have to do.

On a related note, these comments from a roundtable-style Heisman discussion on -- where pretty much everybody agreed that Denard Robinson will be the first high-profile candidate to "fall out of the race" -- made me laugh a little and shake my head:
Brady Hoke wants a dropback passer in a traditional offense. Robinson seems ill-fitted for the new style. ...

There are going to be system issues with new offensive coordinator Al Borges. Word is Michigan wants to be more of a power-running, pro-style passing attack.
Negative. Brady Hoke and Al Borges might "want" those things eventually, but they don't exist right now. This is what happens when you read/conduct interviews but don't actually observe any football.

The passing game will be a little different. RichRod's passing game was fairly primitive in that it basically used the threat of the QB running plays to open up hilariously easy throws in the middle of the field. Some of those were fun. But when the defense didn't need to respect the run, the results were disastrous. Here's a chart put together by somebody who's better than me at making charts. The numbers on the left side are Denard Robinson on "passing downs" in 2010:

Passing Downs Season totals
Runs 23
QB runs (YPC) 19 (7.9) 256 (6.6)
Comp/Att 31/71 182/291
YPA 5.7 8.8
Scrambles (YDs) 5 (31)
Sacks 4
TD/INT 0/5
Gack. This is why Al Borges is overhauling the passing game. Michigan's ability to run for 5.6 yards per carry last season despite having no healthy, legitimate running back is the reason he won't be overhauling the running game.

In short: To the casual observer, Michigan's offense won't look that different. There will be more stuff from under center (with bootlegs probably becoming a regular feature) and there will be more advanced pattern trees in the passing game, but Denard will still average 15-plus carries a game and will still operate out of the shotgun probably 60 percent of the time (or more). This isn't the equivalent of Paul Johnson showing up at Georgia Tech, installing the triple option and then running it 700 times. The changes to the offense will be gradual enough that if you squint, they'll barely be noticeable as long as Denard is the guy running the show.

On defense, the question isn't what the scheme will look like -- Greg Mattison says it's a 4-3 under, which means the linebackers are shaded to the strong side of the formation -- but whether the product will actually be better. No, scratch that. The product will be better. Greg Robinson was an unmitigated disaster running an incorrect version of the 3-3-5 that may or may not have been forced upon him, and with that mess gone, any competent replacement would be better. Greg Mattison is more than competent: He was a very good defensive coordinator at Michigan, Notre Dame and Florida before running the not-too-shabby Baltimore Ravens defense for the past three years. And Urban Meyer recently called him "the best recruiter in the country." So yay for that.

For the first time in at least four years, Michigan has a good defensive coordinator who knows exactly what he's doing and will do it all season. This is soothing after ... well, you know.

There are actually plenty of capable parts on defense: Mike Martin is a legitimate All-American at D-tackle (hopefully his ankles stay intact this year), Craig Roh could lead the Big Ten in sacks now that he's playing defensive end (where he should have been forever) instead the dumb linebacker-type position he was forced to play in the 3-3-5, Ryan Van Bergen is a good defensive end/defensive tackle, Kenny Demens looks like a potentially excellent middle linebacker and Troy Woolfolk is back at corner after suffering a broken ankle last fall that doomed Michigan's secondary to depths previously unknown. And there are no freshman starters, something else that couldn't be said at any point in the past three years.

So how much can a team improve in one offseason when it keeps almost all of its relevant parts, moves those relevant parts into more practical positions (for the most part, anyway) and gains a real system being taught by a real defensive coordinator? That's pretty tough to quantify, because there aren't a lot of prior examples of a team going from such an abyss of incompetence to something near the opposite end of the spectrum. I mentioned a while back that Stanford skyrocketed about 80 spots last year in the relevant defensive categories under Vic Fangio, and Illinois had a similar (but not quite as extreme) turnaround under Vic Koenning; if Greg Mattison were named Vic Mattison, we'd be golden.

Realistically, that level of improvement doesn't seem likely ... except moving up, say, 60 spots would put Michigan at 50th in total defense (yeah, that means the defense was 110th last year), and that's about where I think they should end up given the strengths, relatively minor weaknesses, experience and D-coordinator. An above-average defense isn't out of the realm of possibility. But if that doesn't happen for whatever reason -- if Martin gets hurt or Demens regresses or Woolfolk has lost too much of his ability or the iffy safeties can't cover anybody -- I'm not sure what the floor is. In a relative sense, "better than last year" is the worst-case scenario; in a compared-to-everybody-else sense, I don't know what that means.

So ... that's where we stand. The tl;dr version that's slightly more informative than the first paragraph of this post:
  • Brady Hoke says all the things sportswriters love to hear about toughness and time of possession and stuff that doesn't really mean anything, but he hires excellent coordinators and gets out of their way, which might be his best quality (and that's not a backhanded compliment -- IMO, the ability to delegate is massively underrated and was essentially RichRod's undoing).
  • The offense won't look much different this year. Al Borges has explicitly said that he'll be using more shotgun and is tailoring the offense to fit what Denard does best, and practice/scrimmage videos basically bear that out.
  • The defense will be better. There is no possible way it ends up worse, and I'm not even concerned about the possibility of a jinx by saying that. It can't be worse -- it should be significantly better, but exactly how much better depends on a number of things that are just about impossible to predict. Average-ish (which would require massive improvement) actually seems reasonable.
. . . . .

This is the part where I should write something witty and conclusive. I don't know what to say. I feel like I have a decent idea about what this team will look like, but I could be wrong since all those assumptions are based on limited practice videos and assumptions of health and whatnot. There are so many things that are the same and yet so many things that are different; that formula could yield something good, bad or anywhere in between.

And the big-picture outlook carries the same qualifiers. Like I said earlier, coaching hires are a huge, everything-in-the-pot gamble. If you hire Nick Saban, you're going in with pocket aces. If you hire Brian Kelly, you've got king-queen. If you hire a mid-major coach with a .500 career record, you're basically flipping a coin and hoping for the best. All the positive "OMG we hired Rich Rodriguez" stuff turned out to be wildly wrong for various reasons that don't need rehashing, and all the criticism at the time of Hoke's hire might turn out to be just as wrong -- things are certainly leaning that way a few months later. But the games must be played before that decision can be made. Nobody will care about spectacular recruiting classes and tingly "this is Michigan" speeches if he doesn't win any more games than the last guy. I hope he does, because (besides the obvious reasons) he's doing everything else right.

The countdown is at T-minus 16 hours. I don't know where this is headed, but I'm ready to find out.


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