When spring ball opens for Michigan at the end of February, new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier will be looking for a solution to the Wolverines' consistency and production issues. It is a tall task, one in which every facet of the offense has to be fixed, and Nussmeier is going to have to cram a lot into the 15 sessions to make a headway in solving the myriad of issues.
Michigan's offense was a wildly inconsistent mess in the 2013 season. The unit failed to establish the run, could not protect the quarterback and had an up-and-down passing game that was buoyed by throws out of scramble drills and screens. The Wolverines needed help, and that is why the program ponied up the dollars to bring in the former Alabama and Washington offensive coordinator.
The job for Nussmeier is simple, in explanation: limit negative plays, find a quarterback, create a legitimate running game and move the ball down the field through the air. However, a look at the Wolverines' issues on tape shows detailing the solutions is the only easy part about fixing the problems.
Quarterback Devin Gardner, the 2013 starter, will be limited in spring ball thanks to a post-regular-season foot surgery. That means 2013 backup, Shane Morris, will get heavy reps, and both early enrollee Wilton Speight and 2011 signee Russell Bellomy will, at least in theory, be in the mix for Nussmeier. However, it also means that the Wolverines likely will not get the quarterback question sorted out until fall, barring a miraculous spring performance from Morris under the new coordinator.
Since the quarterback box will go unchecked until fall, look for Nussmeier to attempt to make positive gains with the running game. Derrick Green was one of the crown jewels of the 2013 recruiting cycle, but his first season at Michigan was less than inspiring. Outside of his 19 carries for 79 yards against Northwestern and 12 carries for 47 yards against Ohio State, he left much to be desired.
Nussmeier will have to make Green work, and luckily for the running back, his new offensive coordinator has created rushing lanes in many different ways. With T.J. Yeldon, Nussmeier relied on the zone-running scheme at Alabama, something which benefited the vision and shifty nature of the Tide's premier running back. At Washington, the coach worked zone runs with Chris Polk, as well as draws and the Power-O, and he employed a true fullback at times to get the talented rusher space to operate.
Green is a big back, so look for Nussmeier to throw a lot at him in spring ball to see what works best for the Wolverine rusher. Given Green's skill set and lack of top-end speed, the rising sophomore will likely be most successful with a heavy dose of inside zones, leads and powers.
Nussmeier leaves an Alabama roster stocked to the gills with running back talent, taking on a Michigan backfield that has limited options. Green will contend for the starting job, while fellow 2013 commit DeVeon Smith and 2012 signee Drake Johnson will push him for the gig. Johnson is coming off a knee injury, so his action in the spring will be carefully monitored.
While the running back battle will be discussed heavily in the spring, the biggest task will be determining who blocks the zones, powers and draws out of Nussmeier's scheme. The Wolverines tried a lot of different ingredients along the offensive line in 2013, but they ultimately never got the recipe right over the course of the season. Finding an O-line combo that works is paramount to both the run and pass games of the Wolverines.
The team has bodies at the position, but it is a matter of readiness more than depth. The Wolverines brought in high-quality talent in 2012 and 2013 and then added Mason Cole as an early enrollee in 2014 to make the offensive line work. It is now time for the athletes to deliver the goods on the field; Nussmeier and the Michigan program need cohesiveness on the line.
So, Nussmeier goes into spring looking for a reliable running back, needing cohesion on the offensive line and likely unable to answer his question at quarterback. A lot on the plate for the new offensive coordinator in a spring where head coach Brady Hoke is hoping to see real results.
Oh, and Nussmeier also has to solve the weapons question for the Wolverines.
Jeremy Gallon, Michigan's top receiver in 2013, ran out of eligibility, which means his shifty ability to lose defenders during scramble drills, to make himself a target and his runs after the catch are no longer available to the Wolverines. Jehu Chesson showed flashes in 2013 and stands as the leading returner at the wide receiver position.
Beyond Chesson, the receiving group is wide open. Dennis Norfleet is the only other receiver to catch a ball who returns for 2014, and that means Nussmeier will have to find bodies that can play to help manufacture some production. The coach gets added help in big-bodied 4-star receiver Drake Harris and speedy 4-star wideout Freddy Canteen enrolling early to add to the ranks.
Nussmeier does get help in the creation of downfield threats at the tight end position, but even at the position Michigan was the most comfortable on offense, there is trouble. Jake Butt, who had a strong freshman campaign, tore his ACL recently, as reported by MLive.com's Nick Baumgardner. That means star tight end Devin Funchess will work in spring, but Butt will have to wait until fall to work his way back into the mix.
The Wolverines need work at every position group on offense. The team has a lot to prove, and Nussmeier has a lot of progress to make in a short spring season. For Michigan and its new offensive coordinator, this spring will be more about starting the process than about answering questions.
If Nussmeier can take positive steps toward solving the plethora of offensive riddles in Ann Arbor, then he has a shot to find answers in fall camp.
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