Last season the Michigan offense lurched and sputtered before collapsing during a 1-4 stretch during a November to forget. Michigan entered the month competing for the Big Ten title and ended in conference cellar after a near-miss offensive eruption versus Ohio State—falling short on a two-point conversion in the final minute.
Head coach Brady Hoke had seen enough after three seasons to dismiss offensive coordinator Al Borges and replace him with Doug Nussmeier, formerly of Alabama.
Nussmeier inherits an offensive line characterized by poor play and injuries that loses its two best players to graduation. He also needs to contend with the injury of quarterback Devin Gardner, who injured his foot versus Ohio State, missing the bowl game, and who is expected to still be “limited" during spring practice.
Nussmeier also needs to replace receivers Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo and replace tight end Jake Butt, who is out indefinitely with an ACL injury, according to mgoblue.com.
Among this chaos, Nussmeier is expected to cultivate an offensive identity for Michigan and help the team compete for the Big Ten title next season.
A crucial element of his offensive play-calling while at Alabama was the use of the inside and outside zone-running plays. If he can solidify the offensive line, Michigan has two capable running backs who could thrive in a system similar to what Nussmeier ran in Alabama.
The inside and outside zone-running plays both depend on the offensive line following simple blocking rules. If an offensive lineman finds himself covered, he blocks the player in front of him. If uncovered, he helps block the defensive lineman on the play side—creating a double team—before sliding off to attack a second-level defender.
There are many wrinkles and tweaks to these plays, including the blocking techniques used by the lineman to engage the defenders, but the basic idea is to neutralize players at the point of attack to create seams for the running back to exploit.
This play is ideal for running back Derrick Green, who has the power and speed to blast through traffic in the middle of the field.
Offensive linemen are taught to drive the defenders back often with the help of a teammate with a double team, while the running back aims for the outside hip of the offensive guard and makes a decision to go straight or cut back to the middle of the field.
This play lends itself to the strengths of running back De’Veon Smith, who has the speed to get to the corner of the offense and take the ball upfield.
Offensive linemen make a lateral move to get their helmets across the defenders and drive them to the sideline. The running back aims for the outside hip of the last lineman (tackle or tight end) and either continues to take the ball outside or cut back up the middle.
These plays will struggle if the middle of the offensive line doesn’t drastically improve from last season. Opposing teams could flood the gaps between the offensive guard and center with near impunity—blowing up many running plays in the backfield. If the Michigan offensive line improves, Nussmeier will have the running backs to have a solid running attack.
But if the offensive line is as bad as last season, it won’t matter who is calling the plays or running the ball—everyone will be on the hot seat.
Phil Callihan is a featured writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise, noted, all quotations in this article were obtained via Press Conferences or in person.