Earlier this month, in the print edition, we had a fairly broad-brush story about Michigan football, as you get to know the Wolverines, who will play South Carolina in Tuesday’s Outback Bowl.
With the game looming, it seemed wise to turn to an expert on Michigan, to get more details about what makes the Wolverines tick and how they might approach this matchup with USC. To that end, few people know more about Michigan football than Michael Rothstein, who covers the Wolverines for ESPN.com.
He was kind enough to answer five questions (plus a bonus) about Michigan. Of course, to read much more of his reporting on the Wolverines, you can check out his work at wolverinenationespn.com.
Here now, his answers to some burning questions about Michigan …
1. How do you expect Michigan to use Denard Robinson in the bowl game? Presuming that we’re all guessing on that first question, what non-quarterback role has Robinson proven to be most effective? Split out wide? Aligned as a running back in the backfield? Some hybrid thereof?
Michael Rothstein: Michigan will — and as you said, this is a lot of educated guesswork — line Robinson up at a combination of quarterback, running back and at wide receiver. Even if he moves around in all of these positions, his most effective spot will probably still be at quarterback, where he can run the zone read and make decisions that way. It is how Robinson has gained the majority of his 4,395 career rushing yards and if he can show he can throw the ball, it makes him very dangerous. I’m most curious to see him out as a wide receiver. Robinson has caught two passes in his career — both against Iowa on Nov. 17. Having him run routes and catch passes could go a long way to helping his potential future NFL career. The most interesting wrinkle, though, would be lining him up at running back. Michigan’s starting back, Fitzgerald Toussaint, is out for the season and the Wolverines have not gotten much from any of their rushers other than Robinson all year. It might be the spot where Michigan needs him the most, even if he isn’t most effective there.
2. As someone who covered Michigan before Brady Hoke arrived, what have been a few of the biggest changes he’s made to the program, either culturally or scheme-wise, that have had the biggest effect on Michigan’s immediate success under him?
Rothstein: Unlike most fan bases and coaches, I’m never a huge believer in “culture change” as much as some guys don’t work out or wear out their welcome and it is best for all parties to move along. That said, there has been a philosophy shift, and that is the biggest change for Michigan. In bringing in Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, the Wolverines switched to a 4-3 defense from a 3-3-5 base which never really worked under Rich Rodriguez. Both Hoke and Mattison are defensive line coaches at heart, so they have placed a major emphasis there and it has showed. Mattison, as those in the SEC know, is one of the better coordinators in the game and his schemes have revitalized this Michigan group. I’d point to the defensive shift and also having older players with a lot of experience the past two seasons as the biggest reasons for the turnaround. A lot of these guys played a bunch under Rodriguez as freshmen and sophomores, so this was, in part, their natural progression.
3. Michigan seems to have a very strong team defense without any enormous star on par with Jadeveon Clowney. Why have the Wolverines been so good on defense this year in spite of the lack of star power and turnovers created? If there is a star on this defense, it would be linebacker Jake Ryan. What has enabled him to have such a strong season?
Rothstein: Much of it goes to Mattison. For whatever reason, he is able to connect with his players and put them in good positions most of the time. A former Michigan defensive lineman explained it to me as these coaches hardly ever get stark raving mad, but show disappointment. The disappointment tactic works better than being mad because they are made to feel they let the entire team down by not doing their jobs. Ryan has been Michigan’s best defender and is emerging as a star perhaps as soon as next season. He has great feel for the game and is able to shed blocks well, so he is usually around the ball. Part of his success comes from Mattison’s scheme as well. The way Michigan calls its defense seems to fit well with his strengths — pass rush, making plays in space — which have been what has stood out. An underrated part of this defense is its safety play. Jordan Kovacs has been a consistent starter who will finish his career in the Top 15 in career tackles. Thomas Gordon is a ballhawk who, when Michigan does force a turnover, usually plays some role in it.
4. Perhaps the most interesting matchup in this bowl game is Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan and Clowney, depending on how often Clowney rushes from that side. Devin Taylor will certainly also test Lewan. How would you handicap the matchups for Lewan and analyze his season as a whole?
Rothstein: Michigan’s offensive line has been fairly bad this season as a group, which is part of the reason Lewan’s success stands out so much. He has won almost every matchup he has been in this season, including the two top defensive fronts in the country in Alabama and Notre Dame. He hasn’t seen an individual talent like Clowney, though, and for both teams, a 50-50 split could be what happens. Both are future first round NFL picks. Lewan is good at both pass blocking and run blocking, but is a touch better against the pass. While Taylor will also put some pressure on Lewan, I’d expect Lewan to win those matchups 75-80 percent of the time, as he has done the majority of this season. I’d also imagine Michigan will double Clowney where ever he is, especially if he is lining up against Michigan’s right tackle, Michael Schofield.
5. Michigan’s offensive stats aren’t as impressive as its defensive numbers, and we all know Robinson and Devin Gardner are the two main players to watch on Michigan’s offense. But who are the other skill position players who could give USC some trouble, especially if the Gamecocks focus too much on stopping Robinson?
Rothstein: If Gardner is able to throw the ball downfield, Michigan has three above average to good targets there in senior receiver Roy Roundtree, junior receiver Jeremy Gallon and freshman tight end Devin Funchess. Funchess is a matchup problem if a team puts a linebacker on him because he has receiver speed and a big frame that can outjump most people. Gallon is a small guy — 5-foot-8 — but has very good hands for a college receiver and high-points the ball really well on jumps. He’s made plays over larger cornerbacks and safeties consistently. Roundtree is a question mark. He had a standout sophomore year, went a season-and-a-half with almost no production and then has made a bunch of plays in the last four games. He is also Michigan’s big play target at the end of games. He caught the game-winning touchdown pass to beat Notre Dame last season at night and made an acrobatic catch to set up a game-tying field goal against Northwestern this season. Those are Gardner’s three favorite targets and could be the beneficiaries if Robinson does run routes. Unless Robinson is in the backfield, I wouldn’t be too concerned with Michigan’s running game as the backs have not shown much this season at all, especially with Fitzgerald Toussaint out for the year.
5a. Anything I left out? Feel free to spitball some more thoughts here …
Rothstein: The suspension of senior cornerback J.T. Floyd, a South Carolina native, doesn’t look huge on paper but could be a big loss for Michigan. He has been the Wolverines’ most consistent corner the past two seasons and a leader on the defense. Without him back there, Michigan will now start sophomore Raymon Taylor and junior Courtney Avery — neither of whom was a starter at the beginning of the season. Taylor has played most of the year in place of the injured Blake Countess and has done well, but Avery still needs to prove himself. He was the initial starter after Countess’ injury, but lost his job to Taylor due to inconsistency. The other thing Floyd’s loss does is hurts depth there. If Taylor or Avery were to get injured, Michigan would look to little-used sophomore Delonte Hollowell, little-used freshman Terry Richardson or freshman Dennis Norfleet, who played running back all season. Speaking of Norfleet, he could be a threat in the return game. He has come close to breaking off a kick return for a touchdown most of the season.