Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Grades from the First Third: Offense Part II

(Find Part I of the offensive grade here.  Find the defensive grades here.  On with the show.)

The star of the show.

Running Back
Half Full: Two or more running backs establish themselves as legit threats in the offense.
Half Empty: This position ends up being a heaping pile of mediocrity.

Ah, negativity, my old friend.  How I have missed you, what with being such a large part of my Michigan fan experience over the past few years.  I thought you might have taken a vacation to sunny Minnesota after my grades for the secondary and linebackers were both (trepidatiously) optimistic.  Well, not everything is rosy in the Michigan backfield these days, lets dig a little deeper.

Coming in to the season running back seemed to be a position of strength in the offense.  Unlike the defensive side of the ball there was plenty of depth at running back and a fair amount of hype.  We knew Michael Shaw was a burner, Vincent Smith had played well in his time last year before injury, and both Michael Cox and Fitzgerald Toussaint had drawn hyperbolic praise from coaches other than Fred Jackson.  Promising freshmen Stephen Hopkins and Austin White would give the position even more depth in the years to come.  Hell, maybe even Teric Jones would surprise after moving back from corner the year before.  As I said in my preseason review of the position,
"The sheer number of candidates seems to suggest that at least one or two backs can be productive."
Well, all we haven't really seen that come to pass yet, and it is becoming more and more possible that we might not find the two or three running backs who will help this offense produce at the highest level.  This hasn't hurt so far this year, but with a tougher slate of defenses coming up in the Big Ten season, and everyone's favorite hot button issue being, "OMG DENARDZ GONNA GET INJURERERD!!1!!1!" it seems ever more important that we find a way to spread the carries around.  That requires someone to take the next step.

Who wants to touch me?  I SAID WHO
First, the good news.  Michael Shaw seems like he has finally put it all together.  A consensus 4-star player joining the football team the same season as Rich Rodriguez came to town, Shaw was thrust into a major role early despite being a true freshman.  Once Brandon Minor RAGED his way into the primary role, Shaw was limited to spot duty and injury replacement.  Racking up exactly 400 yards in his first two season, Shaw seemed likely to be the breakout back this year although there were concerns about his lack of vision in the zone blocking scheme, and his tendency to go down on minor contact or slight gusts of wind.

Shaw struggled in the first two games this year, posting a 3.2 ypc on 15 attempts against UConn, then following that up with a 2.4 ypc on five attempts against Notre Dame.  By week three everyone was calling for new blood in the backfield, and Shaw answered back by rushing for 126 yards on twelve carries for three touchdowns against the Minutemen.  Last week against Bowling Green he went 59 yards on twelve carries but showed the same strong running style from the week before.  Ladies and gentlemen, until further notice this is your number one running back.  Shaw has been running harder and better the past two weeks than he ever has, and can hopefully continue to produce at a high level.  He may not be the Steve Slaton type counter punch we all hoped for, but for now all we can ask is solid production.

Now for the bad news.  The drop off from number one to number two is much too great.  Vincent Smith is coming back from an ACL injury in last years Ohio State game and seems to have lost too much explosiveness to be productive.  Outside of a great run against UConn for the first touchdown of the year, Smith's runs have been either no gainers or mediocre at best.  His size and skill set rely on quick cuts and agility, and neither seem to be at 100%.  If it weren't for his reliable blocking and pass catching ability he would probably be further down the bench.

Stephen Hopkins was an early enrollee in the spring, and garnered enough praise through the offseason that it became clear he would not redshirt.  However, outside of a one yard touchdown run against Notre Dame and a few runs against Bowling Green, one of them ending with a fumble, he has failed to break into the obvious hole in the lineup behind Shaw.  Expecting a true freshman to win this job might be a bit much considering the need for blocking and receiving that is required, but the open spot is there none the less.

Michael Cox getting carries against Bowling Green.
Now we come to the real enigmas, Michael Cox and Fitzgerald Toussaint.  Both players have been fawned over by the coaching staff over the offseason and in practices, but strangely none of that has translated to a shot on the field.  Cox was rumored to have trouble with the playbook despite being praised as the best athlete playing at running back.  Cox showed some nice moves against Bowling Green, but he was the 4th back to be put in the game, well after it was in hand.  Still just a sophomore, lets hope he puts things together soon.  Toussaint on the other hand seems to be still fighting the nagging injuries that have plagued his short career at Michigan.  Last year he was sidelined with a fractured collar bone and wowed on the practice team late in the year.  This year he was slowed in camp with a knee injury that became readily apparent on his long run against Bowling Green.  The kid is too fast to be caught from behind by a MAC linebacker.  These two both still seem to be promising options for the future, but for the time being they don't seem likely to contribute.  Hopefully they prove me wrong.

With only one back stepping forward, and his production not being guaranteed yet, I have to give this position the grade of Half Empty.  Time will tell if someone else can take the number two spot from Vincent Smith (or he can truly distinguish himself), but don't hold your breath this year.

Half Full: Dilithium.  Lots of it.
Half Empty: Poor decisions, turnovers, and an inconsistent offense.

I'll just get this out of the way right now.  The grade of this group is Half Full.  In fact it is trending close to Cup Runneth Over.  But you've watched the games.  You know this.

Why is this the case?  Denard Freaking Robinson.  Raise your hand if you thought at the end of last year that Robinson would lead the nation in rushing after four weeks, be one of the most statistically accurate passers in the country, and be a legitimate number one on every Heisman list made.  If your hand is still up, put it down you liar.  Nobody saw this kind of dramatic transformation coming.  Even if you thought Robinson would be a legit threat to start you probably conceded that it would be based entirely on his ability to run, and that his passing skills would need another year of development.  I mean, seriously, to say the kid was raw last year was an understatement.  If you weren't nervous each time he dropped back to pass, you were probably too drunk to notice he was even in the game(the 2009 season had that effect on people).

The talk of spring ball was the leap that Robinson had made in the offseason.  We heard his technique had improved as well as his grasp of the playbook, but we wanted proof.  Even an electric performance in the spring game came with a number of disclaimers, "our secondary is terrible," "it was against the second team defense," "seriously, our secondary is terrible."  As it became clear that he would be the first quarterback to take a snap against UConn everyone braced for what might happen.  "Either way," I thought, "It is going to be spectacular.  Good or bad."

You know what?  Good doesn't even cover it.  What we have seen through the first four weeks of the season is not an athlete taking snaps, but a skilled quarterback who just happens to be the fastest guy on the field.  The first game saw Denard pound away for 197 yards with 6.8 yards per carry while picking apart a soft zone for 186 yards with an 86% (!!!!) completion percentage.  The next week he topped those stats with 502 yards of total offense and calmly led the go ahead touchdown drive with three minutes left in the game.  Against UMass he debuted a level of touch on deep balls (after a quick interception) that most never would have guessed was possible this early in his development.  He followed that up with 129 yards on five (FIVE!) carries for two touchdowns and four of four passing for 60 yards in eight minutes.

You literally cannot say enough about his performance over the first third of the season.  Yeah, I know he could get hurt and the defenses are better in the Big Ten and sooner or later someone could find a way to slow him down.  I don't care.  I am so full of kool-aid right now (He didn't just use a "kool-aid" reference, did he?  Yeah, I did, and it's all because of Denard) that I feel like I am going to explode.  This team has unquestionably the most exciting player in the country playing the most important position in one of the most dangerous offenses in college football.  There is no ceiling to what Denard can accomplish this year because he has blown the roof off the building.  Highlight reel touchdown runs?  Check.  Efficient passing against zone or man coverage?  Check.  Ability to throw the deep ball?  Check.

The sky is the limit for this offense with Denard Robinson taking snaps.  I have already written about just how much watching Denard play has changed the way I watch Michigan football.  I stand by those words today.  The kid is just downright electrifying.  On top of that he is humble and genuinely committed to the team.  I was at Michigan for all four years of Mike Hart's career, and I never thought I would connect with another player the same way.  I remember my freshman year when my roommate would rattle off ridiculous high school stat lines that Hart would put up (my roommate happened to be from a rival high school of Hart's).  I remember being legitimately excited when I found out Hart lived one floor above me in West Quad sophomore year, and being star struck when I took a class with him second semester.  Hart was the kind of Michigan player that I loved to root for and he remained in that spot even last year as I fawned over Brandon Graham.  Now, four games into Robinson's sophomore season, he has officially knocked Hart out of the top spot for me.  I am all in for the Denard Robinson era, and I have a feeling it's going to be one helluva fun ride.

Now, this position group would have gotten an overwhelmingly positive grade even if Nick Sheridan and Steven Threet were the backups.  But knowing we have two qualified and capable backups only sweetens the deal.  We all know what Tate Forcier brings to the table, and we all worried after the first game that he might transfer or continue to pout on the sideline.  He has done neither and seems happier today than he was most of last year.  The kid loves Michigan and it shows in the way he has rebounded from the embarrassment of week one.  I wrote after that game how much I hoped Tate would get a chance to redeem himself, and last Saturday he was given that opportunity.  What he was able to accomplish was vintage Tate.  Twelve of twelve passing for 110 yards and a touchdown, with a couple short rushes followed by a 16 yard scamper for a first down.  Tate can't replicate what Denard does with this offense, but he can certainly replicate the success from last year.  He is a year older, more comfortable in the offense, and has a better presence in the pocket (not to mention he now has a pocket to pass from, not always the case last year).  You can absolutely win games with Tate Forcier at quarterback.

Not to be forgotten is Devin Gardner, the early enrolling true freshman who surprised everyone by grabbing the second string spot coming out of camp.  Gardner suffers from the same true freshman errors that any quarterback would in that situation, but he has loads of athletic ability and is gaining confidence on a daily basis.  Gardner has a ways to go before he looks as smooth as the other two quarterbacks, but if there is anyone who could unseat Denard Robinson as the starter in a couple years, it is number seven.

For the time being though, it is Denard Robinson's world.  We are all just lucky to be living in it.


  1. Sixth paragraph in the quarterback section: it should be "I have already written," not "I have already wrote."

    Great work!

  2. Fixed. Thanks for catching that. I do my best to proof read these, but some things slip through the cracks.