The Michigan Wolverines are the No. 17 team in the nation, according to the USA Today Coaches Poll, with excitement building as head coach Brady Hoke and his staff prepare for life without playmaker Denard Robinson. Whether he was at quarterback or running back, Robinson was a weapon, a threat to score every time the ball was in his hands.
Now, in 2013, without Robinson, the Wolverines are in need of another weapon.
A look up and down the roster shows names like Fitzgerald Toussaint, Thomas Rawls, Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo as the most productive offensive returnees, with Toussaint and Rawls on the ground, Gallon and Dileo through the air.
They are quality players, but not guys that defenses scheme to stop on an every-down basis, not guys that create mismatches and put stress on a defense because of their athleticism and talent. They are solid college football players, but not the fear-striking ballplayer that keeps defensive coordinators up at night.
Enter sophomore tight end Devin Funchess. The 6'5", 235-pound second-year player caught just 15 balls for 234 yards last season, but he led the team in receiving touchdowns with five scores.
Funchess is the weapon and a nightmare for defenses. He is the answer to the Wolverines' search for a playmaker.
After spending the offseason working on blocking to make himself an every-down player, as AnnArbor.com points out, Funchess is poised to break out. He will be on the field for run downs and pass downs, and that means defenses will have a more difficult time handling him.
And that's a good thing for Toussaint, Rawls, Gallon, Dileo, offensive coordinator Al Borges and the entire Michigan offense.
Tight end is the "it" position on the football field. The rise of the flex-move-H-back-type players has created a problem for defenses, especially when those players are active in the run and the pass game.
For defensive coordinators, the problem comes in the form of sub-packages. When Michigan is in 21 (2 RBs, 1 TE), 22 (2 RBs, 2 TEs) or 12 (1 RB, 2 TEs) personnel, the normal move from defensive coaches is to keep base people in the game, because these are largely running personnel groups. As you can see here, run personnel plus a play-action fake gets linebackers and safeties creeping toward the line and creates space for Funchess to operate.
Here you see Michigan in 12 personnel, a heavy run set, and again, play-action makes the defense look foolish. The linebacker crashes to the run as Funchess sneaks out, leaving him wide open in the middle, an easy throw for most quarterbacks.
Thanks to the offseason, when Funchess improved his blocking enough to be every-down player, the sell of play-action will be easier on the entire Michigan offense. Defenders will have to slow the crashing into the box for the run. Linebackers and safeties will have to find and keep eyes on Funchess as they also try to stop the run game.
In that aspect, Funchess helps open up the offense. Either defenders react in slower fashion to the run, because of the possibility of the fake, or they fly into the box and give quarterback Devin Gardner his tight-end target open with plenty of room to run.
The other area where Borges should have a field day with Funchess is in true-to-form passing situations. On third-and-mediums or third-and-longs, Funchess should be the first-down producer for the Wolverines, because he is such a difficult athlete to cover.
The sophomore is bigger than just about every defensive back in the country, and he is faster than most linebackers that he will face. That creates a problem in zone and man-to-man coverages. Even when Funchess is not open against a safety or a nickel back, he is open. Put the ball up in the air and let the big kid go up for the rebound.
That versatility gives Borges free reign to move the sophomore around, much in the way Notre Dame used Tyler Eifert. Fuchess can line up all over the field and remain effective. Line him up inside. Line him up outside. Line him up on the line. Line him up off the line. Send him in motion from inside to the outside. Send him in motion from the outside to the inside.
Move Funchess around to get the mismatch in the passing game that the Wolverines are looking for on a given play.
Now, as an every down-type player, Funchess should be the guy, the weapon, for the Wolverines in 2013. Being able to line up all over the field is going to open things up for the sophomore. The threat of play-action to the tight end will help loosen up the run game. The success of catching balls through the middle of the defense will open up the wide receivers on the outside.