It's time to get excited about the Michigan Wolverines
With three of our top 16 highest-graded returning defensive interior players, our top returning defensive end in pass-rush productivity and our highest-graded cornerback and possible Heisman trophy candidate all back for 2016, expectations were through the roof for the Michigan defense.
Through the first two games of the season, the Wolverines have our highest-graded overall defense, ranking No. 1 against the run and on the pass rush, and No. 3 in coverage. This has been accomplished without top CB Jourdan Lewis and with only 61 combined snaps between DT Maurice Hurst, DT Bryan Mone and DE Taco Charleton.
While impressive thus far, the dominance of the Michigan defense was always expected, especially against the likes of Hawaii and Central Florida, two teams that combined for three wins in 2015. The real questions coming into the season were on offense — in particular whether the offensive line would show improvement and could the offense as a whole function with a new QB.
Through two games, those questions appear to have positive answers as well. Michigan grades out as our sixth overall offense, led by our second-highest pass blocking and 15th-highest graded run blocking offensive line. Again, this is against clearly inferior competition, but every phase appears to be clicking right now — something that couldn’t be said truthfully about Harbaugh’s first team until the bowl game.
Is this success sustainable? That obviously remains to be seen, but it’s worth taking a look at the performances of the offensive line and QB Wilton Speight through two games to look for indications of future success.
An improved line in both phases
Much of last year’s offensive line remains intact. Center Graham Glasgow graduated and was drafted in the third round by the Detroit Lions, and he has been replaced by Mason Cole, who was the unit’s left tackle his first two seasons in Ann Arbor. As expected, Cole has taken well to his new position, giving up just one hit on 58 pass blocks through two games and grading out as the country’s third-best run blocker and third-highest overall center through two games.
Elsewhere the improvements have been significant on the right side with right guard Kyle Kalis and right tackle Erik Magnuson. Kalis has been particularly impressive thus far, as he returned this season after finishing last year ranked 197th out of 212 offensive guards back for 2016, but through the UCF game sits ranked seventh overall in the country in our offensive guard grading. Magnuson fared slightly better last season, finishing the year ranked 66th out of all returning tackles, but currently sits 15th this season thanks in large part to no pressures being given up in pass protection.
New left tackle Grant Newsome is currently graded our 23rd-best left tackle, thanks in large part to the fourth-highest pass blocking grade at the position. Like Magnuson, he has yet to yield a pressure, although his run blocking has yet to be as efficient. The left guard position has been the weakest point of the unit thus far, as both Ben Braden and Ben Bredeson have split reps at the position and graded out around average for the position.
Speight significantly ahead of Rudock through two games
By the end of the 2015 season, QB Jake Rudock had built a solid rapport with receivers Jehu Chesson, Amara Darboh and TE Jake Butt, but through the first half of play he had been one of the worst QBs in the country. Through the first nine weeks of the season he ranked 16th out of 17 Big Ten QBs — 150th overall in the country. Speight actually relieved Rudock toward the end of the Week 9 game against Minnesota due to injury, but Rudock returned the following week against Rutgers and played significantly better through the end of the season. In fact, the only QB to grade higher than Rudock for the remainder of the season was Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, and he had the benefit of two extra games via the ACC conference championship game against North Carolina and of course the national title game against Alabama.
Fast forward to this summer, and it wasn’t clear until the week before the Hawaii game who would win Michigan’s starting QB job. Speight ended up beating out John O’Korn, and through two weeks has played at a level not seen from Rudock last year until almost two thirds of the season had passed.
One area in particular that was a significant weak point for Rudock last year was his intermediate and deep passing, as he lacked touch and accuracy throughout most of the 2015 season on downfield throws. This has been an area of strength for Speight thus far, as although he clearly doesn’t have prototypical arm strength, he has still been efficient when throwing the ball longer than 10 yards from the line of scrimmage. Thus far he has completed 11 of 20 throws at least 10 yards through the air for 250 yards, four touchdowns and an interception. While this is a small sample size and may not seem particularly efficient, consider that last season in blowout wins against Oregon State, UNLV and BYU, Rudock completed just six of seventeen passes in the same range with an interception and no scores. In addition, top receiver Chesson didn’t have his first above-average graded game until the Minnesota game last year, while this season he has graded positively in both games, hauling in seven receptions on nine targets for 127 yards in limited reps.
Taking into account three drops and one pass where he was hit as he threw, significantly altering the path of the ball, Speight was accurate on 28 of 36 throws against Central Florida. Obviously this was a highly efficient game, especially considering it was just his second start, but it’s also worth noting that UCF spent much of the afternoon stacking the box with eight or nine defenders, daring Michigan to throw the ball. Speight obliged, and torched the Knights for 312 yards and four scores.
Room for improvement going forward
Albeit against with a small sample size, Speight’s efficiency has lessened significantly when faced with pressure. With a clean pocket on 42 drop-backs through two games, he has completed 32 of 42 passes for 448 yards, seven touchdowns and one interception (his first pass of the season). In ten plays under pressure he has taken two sacks and completed just three of eight throws for just nine yards. On pressure throws, his NFL QB rating has dropped from 139.7 to 45.8. It’s clear through two weeks that Speight is capable of finding his weapons when he has a clean pocket, but he will surely be tested further under fire with better competition.
Working in Speight’s favor, and that of the offense as a whole, is time. This is something last year’s squad simply wasn’t afforded, as the Wolverines traveled to Utah Week 1, where they faced what proved to be one of the stingiest defenses in the country for the first half of the season. This year, the start of the season has been much more forgiving, and Michigan does not see its first road test until October 8th at Rutgers. While they will be tested against Penn State and Wisconsin in Weeks 4 and 5, Michigan matches up very well with both teams because of their defense and won’t be tested again until October 29th in East Lansing against Michigan State.
Yes, excitement levels about the offense need to be a bit measured because of the poor competition level through two weeks, but considering the defense has lived up to expectations and the fact the offense is clearly ahead of where it was this time last season, there is certainly reason for continued optimism in Ann Arbor.