Despite a 5-0 start to the season, the Michigan offense didn’t seem to be taking the next step that many expected based off the flashes in 2012. Devin Gardner was still very hot and cold, thanks in part to inconsistent offensive line play in front of him.
The Wolverines have since gone 1-3, losing to Penn State, Michigan State, and Nebraska. And even more concerning, their last two games have produced a combined 19 points, a far cry from their 42 points per game average for the previous seven.
Unfortunately for Michigan, these offensive woes won’t be an easy fix. From puzzling offensive play designs to poor decisions by Devin Gardner, to receiver’s lacking enough separation, to an offensive line doing no one any favors, the Wolverine offense has spiraled to a concerning downturn, but for their post-season bowl expectations and their draft-eligible prospect’s draft value.
Offensive Line Play: Taylor Lewan Can’t Do Everything
Senior left tackle Taylor Lewan is still really good. But the rest of the Michigan offensive line, especially the interior unit, has struggled mightily as of late, especially against Nebraska. Of the interior three offensive lineman, only redshirt sophomore center Graham Glasgow has experience. Struggling in blitz pickup, delayed stunts, and initially quick pass rushes, the entire interior unit has forced Devin Gardner to rely on running back blitz pickup far too often along with needing to make pocket escape plans earlier than he’d like. Also, in the run game, the offense struggles to get significant push downfield, barely winning at the first level and forcing the read-option game to make very late decisions to attempt to get the defense off balance. Unforunately for this offense, experience likely is the only cure for their woes, but they haven’t hit their stride the way the coaching staff likely expected by this point.
As for the offensive tackles in the offense, senior right tackle Michael Schofield has been solid, but not without issues. With adequate leg drive downfield, he’s not an overly athletic mover in space, struggling to consistently keep his balance in space and pickup his man. Suitable for this offense in pass protection, he’s flirting with an NFL future, and he’ll likely be relying on his Michigan bloodlines for him to get a serious shot.
Finally, it’s really amazing to see just how much better Taylor Lewan is compared to the rest of the unit. While he’s had his struggles (especially against Michigan State the week previous), Lewan was in command for the entire Nebraska game in pass protection and was the only Michigan lineman to consistently win downfield as a run blocker. Look at the play below for an example of just how dominant he is, as he holds his pass block perfectly, with near flawless technique from his hands to feet, for seven full seconds.
Despite his incident against Michigan State, Taylor Lewan has shown just how dominant he can be as a pass blocker, and has proved that he still belongs in the 2014 class’s elite. When you also consider his true leadership role on this team, both on the offensive line unit and for the team as a whole, Lewan is the type of building block you want in your NFL locker room and certainly warrants a Top 10 pick still.
Decision Making: Devin Gardner Not Progressing as Expected
I’ll be the first to say that I had very high expectations for Devin Gardner coming into this year. With another year in Al Borges and Brady Hoke’s offense, along with Jeremy Gallon and Taylor Lewan returning, the near-future seemed bright for Gardner. However, he simply hasn’t improved nearly as much as I anticipated. After a promising victory over Notre Dame that was productive yet not flawless, Gardner seemed to have built the communication with his offensive weapons and felt comfortable in the offense.
But after a very unimpressive performance, both statistically and scouting-wise, against Nebraska, I’m very much ready to hit reverse on the Gardner-NFL express. Still possessing the arm strength to drive the ball across the field and the athleticism to make plays with his feet, Gardner consistently missed opportunities to make special throws against the Cornhuskers. Below is a prime example, misreading the safety leverage, bypassing his seam-route running tight end with no safety help, and instead getting sacked.
Gardner’s biggest area of stunted development is his lack of anticipation of the defense and his receivers routes. His timing when he hits the top of his drop back is a major concern, and he doesn’t seem to have a good feel for which receiver will be open based on his pre-snap reads. He also seems tense to target the middle of the field outside of short drag routes, and doesn’t take advantage of no centerfield safety nearly enough. Also, he’s struggled in his decision making of when (and where) to escape the pocket under pressure. The play below shows a mix of poor play design (we’ll get to that) and a poor decision for Gardner to roll out the wrong way on a 3rd and long play instead of trying to find an open receiver.
Overall, it’s clear Devin Gardner will need another year of development. Hopefully by then, his personal development will continue, and the young position players and lineman struggling now will develop along with him.
Position Players: Big Plays Be Damned, this Offense Needs Consistency
Before getting into detail of which position players (running backs, tight ends, and receivers) are having success this year, it’s important to point out that the offensive play-calling has severely limited this offense’s success against more fundamentally sound defenses. The offense has gotten away from shorter timing routes and interior combo routes, instead running more vertical stretching, deep breaking twin-set routes that force Devin Gardner to hang in the pocket far too long. With a struggling Gardner and limited running success thanks to poor interior offensive line play, the offensive play-calling is doing this unit no favors in their attempt to have consistent first down gains.
That being said, the receiving unit’s lack of depth is made up for by the big play ability of receiver Jeremy Gallon and sophomore tight end Devin Funchess. While I won’t touch on Funchess too much because he’s not draft eligible, the long, physically built, strong-handed tight end is likely to become Devin Gardner’s best friend next year and could be a future Top 50 pick himself.
As for Gallon, he’s put up mega numbers this year, thanks in large part to a 184 yard, 3 touchdown performance against Notre Dame and a 369 yard, 2 touchdown performance against Indiana. With plus body control after the catch and the vision to pick up quick chunks of yards, he’s able to consistently pick up yards after catch, and they work to get him in those opportunities as much as possible. But outside of drag routes and vertical routes (along with some comebacks), he doesn’t have much success in getting separation downfield, a big reason why the offense should attack vertically as much as it does. Gallon’s diminutive size and lack of ideal true NFL-level separation is likely why he’ll struggle to be a Top 100 pick on draft day despite his production.
After a start that lead to BCS aspirations, the Michigan offense’s struggles have driven this team to a 6-3 record, with their remaining three games not easy victories. The next two are on the road (against Northwestern and Iowa), and the final game against the undefeated Ohio State Buckeyes.
The offense likely won’t be able to flip a switch and turn into one of country’s best, despite that expectation coming into this year. But they can salvage the season, give Devin Gardner tools to build on for his expected return, and send seniors Taylor Lewan, Jeremy Gallon, and others onto the NFL Draft process on a positive note.