How stubborn is Brady Hoke? For the Michigan Wolverines that may be the most important question of the 2011 season.
At this point it’s not about whether a guy with a 47-50 record as a head coach deserved to be the next head coach at Michigan. History is filled with people who may have appeared to be undeserving of their opportunity but thrived once given it. Although his record today is still 47-50, there are no signs he is in over his head: His recruiting was solid. The coordinator hires were terrific. The star quarterback he inherited is still here.
But everyone wants to know how Hoke will utilize that star quarterback. Watching Denard Robinson and the Michigan offense last year was about as much fun as you can have watching football. I’m not exaggerating when I say it felt like Michigan could score on any given play. Many of Robinson’s runs were so good they were laughable. This allowed him, on several occasions, to give the defense the slightest perception he might run before tossing it to a receiver so wide open that anyone in the bar who said “I could have scored there” wasn’t wrong.
The architect behind all of that, Rich Rodriguez, is no longer in Ann Arbor. That’s not unfair nor is it necessarily sad; it’s just unfortunate. This offense probably fails to take a really big leap because of that fact, but I think it can still take a step forward.
I am basing that largely on a hope that Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges (who came with Hoke from San Diego State) will be more flexible than Rodriguez was when he first arrived. They have said all the right things but we really won’t know until Saturday afternoon and maybe not even until the next Saturday night.
People may doubt Robinson’s ability to be a consistently accurate thrower in an offense more pass-oriented than he’s accustomed to, but people doubted his ability to go from “running back who stands where the quarterback stands” to Heisman candidate and he did that in one offseason. The Spring Game may not have been encouraging but I’m willing to wait and see.
|How much of this will we see from Denard this season? (Credit: John Peckham)|
As for the defense, it will be better than last year. There won’t be true freshmen everywhere. Greg Robinson is no longer the defensive coordinator. (Let that sentence sink in for a moment.) The new coordinator is Greg Mattison, who last year at this time was preparing the Baltimore Ravens defense for another stellar season. Michigan went from a handle-less bicycle to a Porsche in that department. This still won’t be a great defense but unlike the offense there’s no concern about messing with a good thing. Michigan fans won’t want to cry this season when the other team has the ball.
Another thing this team has going for it is the schedule. The first five games are at home and include Western Michigan, Eastern Michigan, and San Diego State. Notre Dame, Nebraska, and Ohio State all come to Ann Arbor. That is why I will be optimistic and predict a 9-3 record for Michigan. Nebraska feels like a loss while Notre Dame, Michigan State, Illinois, Iowa, and Ohio State are toss-ups. Ask me tomorrow and I might say 8-4, but you only get one prediction so 9-3 it is.
Not to get all defensive, but a new coaching staff makes predictions difficult. Nobody really knew what to expect three years ago and the same is true as we head into the 2011 season. All eyes will be on Robinson and the offense: How many designed runs will there be? How often will he be under center? Has his accuracy and decision-making improved?
And it all leads back to the coaching staff’s willingness to blend their personal schematic preferences with their personnel. Everyone knows Robinson’s biggest asset is his speed so it will be imperative that the coaches maximize that—even if they don’t maximize it to the same extent Rodriguez would have. Finding the right balance as Michigan tries to win this year and begin the transition to a new era is easier said than done, but Wolverine fans are ready to embrace it.