Last week, Michigan head football coach Brady Hoke replaced embattled offensive coordinator Al Borges with Doug Nussmeier, who comes from Alabama where he served as offensive coordinator under Nick Saban for the past two seasons.
Nussmeier's Top Problem Before Next Season
Nussmeier helped Alabama set offensive records in his first season (2012) for touchdowns (68), total points (542) and total offense (6,237). He also mentored quarterback AJ McCarron while capturing a national title. But the Alabama offense stuttered somewhat this past season, as Alabama failed to defend its national title.
Nussmeier’s reputation made him a candidate for the head coaching position at the University of Washington before being lured to Ann Arbor to join Hoke’s staff.
Nussmeier has a challenge ahead of him as he takes over as offensive coordinator for a team that limped to a 7-6 final record after entering November as a Big Ten title contender. With national signing day approaching and spring practice bearing down, Hoke has some important issues to tackle.
Work some recruiting magic
Nussmeier has a reputation as a great recruiter and Michigan can benefit from his southern contacts. Most importantly, Nussmeier needs to keep Michigan's current commitments in the fold. One of his first trips will be to visit 2015 commitment running back Damien Harris, who tweeted his apparent disappointment with the firing of Borges.
It remains to be seen whether Nussmeier can flip running back Jeff Jones, who is currently committed to Minnesota but is rumored to now be considering Michigan.
Michigan could take a hit in recruiting if recruits start bailing out, but Nussmeier brings substantial experience that should appeal to potential recruits. As a former top collegiate player with pro experience and a successful track record of developing collegiate quarterbacks, Nussmeier has a track record that few coaches can match.
The Michigan offense was a disaster last season.
While the Wolverines ran up impressive statistics versus Ohio State and Indiana, the offense practically disappeared against Michigan State, Iowa, and Northwestern. The offense also struggled on the road—a staple of the Hoke regime. With tough road games on tap for Michigan next season, things need to be fixed immediately.
Questions about the offensive line and running game lingered all season. Borges’ play-calling was also problematic and Nussmeier needs to sort through the game film to determine the root cause.
Hoke decided that Borges was a large part of the problem and replaced him. Now, Nussmeier needs to evaluate how much blame the remaining members of the offensive staff bear for last season’s problems.
Offensive line coach Darrell Funk needs to be evaluated regarding the lack of player development on the offensive line that resulted in defenses wreaking havoc on quarterback Devin Gardner and stymieing Michigan's running attack. Longtime assistant Fred Jackson also needs to be held accountable for problems at the running back position. Derrick Green and De’veon Smith should have been given more snaps earlier in the season when senior Fitzgerald Toussaint struggled.
Nussmeier will need to make changes quickly if he decides to upgrade his staff.
Find an offensive identity
Last season, Michigan's offense had no consistency. Prior to the season, Hoke announced a return to playing power football at Ann Arbor, but it never happened.
The offensive line couldn’t run or pass-block early in the season and Gardner was forced to run for his life. He took a beating and threw numerous interceptions until late in the Penn State game when Borges turned conservative and tried to run the ball. From that point on, Michigan's offense spun wildly up and down, going from great performances against Ohio State and Indiana to missing in action versus Michigan State, Iowa and Northwestern.
Nussmeier needs to determine what kind of offense he can run with those players he has available. This isn’t Alabama, with wave after wave of top talent on the roster. Michigan is beginning to stockpile talent, but it still has a way to go to match the top teams in the country.
Can Nussmeier do more with less? Borges couldn’t and was fired.
Evaluate Devin Gardner
Gardner had a baptism by fire last season scrambling behind a porous offensive line and nonexistent running attack. When Gardner was the primary running attack, the offense was explosive, but his passing game suffered. When he ran less later in the season, his passing improved, but Michigan's offense was inconsistent.
Nussmeier will need to mold an offense that emphasizes Gardner’s talents or else pull the trigger and make Shane Morris the starter. Gardner took a beating this past season and he earned the respect of his teammates for playing despite breaking his foot during the Ohio State game.
If Nussmeier determines that Morris is the best fit for his offense, his management of Gardner will be closely scrutinized.
Salvage the offensive line
We don’t know whether Borges was given an opportunity to argue for his return as offensive coordinator, but he could have said that most of Michigan's problems on offense last season stemmed from the poor play of the offensive line.
Nussmeier will need to find some answers there in order to have any hope of having a successful offense next season.
Michigan shuffled nine players through the five offensive line positions and will have to replace its two most consistent linemen—tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield, who will both graduate.
Injuries and inconsistent play caused Michigan's line to be constantly shuffled. Offensive linemen usually take a year to successfully transition to the collegiate level. That means next season's starters, whether good or bad, are already on Michigan's roster.
The best hope is that the returning linemen will mature with another offseason of weight training coupled with a switch to a zone-blocking scheme which Nussmeier favors.
If Michigan's offensive line struggles again next season, Borges might have the last laugh.