Shortly after Michigan‘s loss to Kansas State in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl last season, Brady Hoke fired offensive coordinator Al Borges and brought in Doug Nussmeier, who had spent the previous two seasons with Alabama. The firing of Borges was something that needed to be done; he completely failed to put his players in a position to succeed. Nussmeier was automatically dubbed an excellent hire because of the work he did with the Crimson Tide and quarterback AJ McCarron. That success has not followed him to Ann Arbor, however, but it’s no wonder why.
Don’t fix the quarterback… Tailor something to his skill set
It starts with Devin Gardner—who is the problem, but not within himself. Gardner was recruited to run an offense operated by Rich Rodriguez, and he looked like an excellent candidate to continue running that offense to success. At 6-foot-4 and just over 200 pounds, Gardner would have been a nightmare to defend in the spread offense. He can move the ball through the air and on the ground, and he’s a tough runner to bring down.
Gardner was never meant to play quarterback in a pro-style offense. I understand players need to have the ability to adapt at this level, but that’s completely changing his identity. Michigan needs to get Gardner out in space and give him options. Last season, one thing Borges did do well was move the pocket for Gardner, buying him time, protecting him and ultimately giving the Wolverines a chance to do something. This year’s offense has not done enough of that. Instead, one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation drops back into a crumbling pocket all too often, which isn’t where he is supposed to be.
Get De’Veon Smith and Justice Hayes out in the flat
Running backs De’Veon Smith and Justice Hayes our too quick and shifty to not be utilized. Michigan likes using that bubble screen, but it rarely finds success that makes it worth while. Getting the ball to Hayes and/or Smith in a slip screen has a lot of potential. Smith has been demonstrating in spurts all season that he can be a hard-nosed back and also get around you, while Hayes is mostly used in third-down situations. Both are impressive in space and can get going in a hurry. Why not get them out out in the flat more often?
A huge part of why Michigan has struggled on offense this season is because Gardner can’t get the ball out of his hand quickly enough. He is forced to hold onto it while receivers work to get open. Meanwhile, the offensive line is working to keep its quarterback off the ground, and pressure eventually breaks through. Giving Gardner a quick out would make a mighty difference, and those are two guys who can do damage with the ball in their hands.
Protect Devin Funchess by keeping him outside the hash marks
Gardner’s No. 1 target, Devin Funchess, has taken a mean beating this season. A lot of blame can be placed on Gardner as he rarely looks for another option, but there also needs to be a way to protect him, something beyond just not looking his way as often. I think the solution here is to utilize guys like Jake Butt, Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh in the middle of the field.
We haven’t really seen Butt generate a whole lot this season. He’s coming off an ACL tear that had him benched for a while, but now that he’s being installed back into this offense, it’s time to get him much more involved in the passing game. As for Chesson and Darboh, if they can solidify themselves in the slot position up the middle of the field, teams are going to be forced to respect that, creating more opportunities for Funchess out wide.
I’m not advocating for Michigan to completely limit Funchess to working on the outside—he’s a large target who makes an excellent option in the middle of the field, especially in the red zone—but he’s been left exposed too many times this season.
Instead of stubbornly making Devin Gardner drop back into a pocket that isn’t even very well protected, call and design more plays to get him out into space, which will protect him longer and give him a few more opportunities to do what he was originally brought to Michigan to do: make plays. De’Veon Smith and Justice Hayes need to be guys who can come out of the backfield, catch a ball in the flat and go to work. And finally, Devin Funchess needs to be better protected, and it starts with getting more out of Jake Butt, Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh in the middle of the field.