Once upon a time, Michigan fans mocked Nick Saban—before LSU, before Alabama and before the national championships that established him as one of the premier coaches in collegiate football.
But if Brady Hoke returns Michigan football to the upper echelon of college football, fans may owe a debt of thanks to Saban.
After the retirement of Lloyd Carr, Michigan successfully wooed Rich Rodriguez a year after he had passed on the Alabama head coaching job. Yes, there was a time when the head coaching job in Ann Arbor was considered superior to leading the Crimson Tide.
But since that time, the programs have gone in drastically different directions, and now it appears that Brady Hoke is following Saban’s blueprint for building a national championship contender.
After a disappointing 7-6 season, Hoke dismissed offensive coordinator Al Borges, replacing him with Doug Nussmeier from Saban’s own staff. With the offensive line in shambles, he also admitted that Michigan “would investigate” potential transfers, the main candidate being center Chad Lindsay, who has graduated from Alabama and would be immediately eligible to play.
Hoke, who rode into Ann Arbor espousing the “Michigan Man” mantra, has changed the course of Michigan football and is retooling his team in Alabama’s image.
Rebooting the Offense
During Brady Hoke’s first season, the offense successfully meshed players recruited for Rodriguez’s sprint-option offense into a hybrid pro-set attack. Quarterback Denard Robinson still ran—a lot—but he passed enough to keep defenses honest. The Wolverines finished 11-2, and while the team didn’t win the Big Ten championship—the goal for every Michigan team, according to Hoke—it did win a BCS bowl game.
After Denard Robinson graduated, Hoke declared that power football was returning to Ann Arbor, but the Michigan running attack was still powered by quarterback runs. The commitment to a power running game was hampered by a poor offensive line and the tentative running style of senior running back Fitzgerald Toussaint.
By the end of the season, Hoke had seen enough. Borges was fired and replaced by Nussmeier, who wasted no time in overhauling the offense.
Fast and Perfect
With limited practice time and lots of new material to teach his players, Nussmeier has revved up the pace of practice to get in as many plays as possible. Hoke says that the new pace has increased the number of teachable moments for his team.
The coaching staff also began spring practice earlier in the semester than past seasons, starting the week before spring break. This gave players time to acclimate to the new terminology and plays before putting on the pads.
“It’s a new style of practice,” said senior quarterback Devin Gardner. ”I’m loving him [Nussmeier] so far. I love the way he coaches.”
The offense is also configured to attack downfield on a regular basis while streamlining the number of plays and formations. The emphasis is on running fewer plays better while executing with a high degree of precision.
“Coach Nussmeier is really aggressive,” said Gardner. “He demands perfection and nothing less.”
Running back De’Veon Smith echoed Gardner when asked about the new offense.
“It seems a lot easier than last season’s offense,” said Smith. “It’s very high tempo, lots of energy.”
While the players are consistent in not making direct comparisons between Borges and Nussmeier, the new offense has generated genuine enthusiasm. Practice videos posted on mgoblue.com also show Nussmeier jumping in drills to show players exactly how he wants things done, an added benefit of having a coach who was a record-setting collegiate quarterback and played in the NFL.
In addition to a sense of urgency on offense, Nussmeier communicates in a different style than Borges.
Sophomore quarterback Shane Morris has noticed the change, saying, “Coach Nuss is lot more in your face—very demanding," a trait that Nussmeier shares with Nick Saban and a tool he's using to drive player development at Michigan.
Hoke is pleased with the changes Nussmeier has brought to Michigan, explaining, "He's not doing anything I didn't expect him to come in and do—from the intensity of how he coaches, to developing quarterbacks and paying attention to the details that you have to at every position on offense."
Multiple Running Backs
Unlike his predecessor Borges, Nussmeier seems to genuinely prefer using multiple backs in his offense.
“You look at the pounding the running backs take these days and how physical the game is,” said Nussmeier. “One back carrying the load all the time makes it awful difficult to stay healthy and sustain success over a season.”
The commitment to multiple backs has fostered a sense of healthy competition among Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith, the players most likely to be battling for carries next season.
“De’Veon and I are brothers, but competition is what will make this team better,” said Green. “Coach Nussmeier is all about having a one-two punch.”
Fans might not recognize Derrick Green, who has dedicated himself to dropping weight (20 pounds so far) and being in top condition for the upcoming season.
Ideally, both running backs will see significant playing time, but each is working hard to be the “one” in the one-two punch that Nussmeier envisions. The key to the top of the depth chart will be which player can be most successful at the inside and outside zone-running plays that Nussmeier brings with him from Alabama, and each player looks capable of breaking out next season.
Nussmeier won a national championship at Alabama with two running backs getting significant carries on offense. Last season, Alabama fell short when the team relied too much on a single back. The development of Green and Smith signals that he doesn't want to make that mistake again.
Freshmen in the Mix
Brady Hoke has always said that the best players will play, but Nussmeier has players on offense believing and, most importantly, performing to compete with more experienced players.
Both wide receiver Freddy Canteen and offensive lineman Mason Cole are getting rave reviews from teammates, and Hoke has already said that top defensive recruit Jabrill Peppers may be slated for reps on offense next season.
Hoke sometimes has favored experience and loyalty over potential during his tenure at Michigan. The late appearance of running backs Green and Smith last season when Toussaint struggled was puzzling.
Nussmeier has brought a culture of open competition with him from Alabama, where even though he had the luxury of talented, experienced players at virtually every position, he was still open to freshmen getting major reps—like Amari Cooper during the 2012 season.
At Michigan, that open competition may result in freshmen taking over spots on the depth chart next season.
The offensive line must improve if Michigan hopes to bounce back from last season’s disappointing 7-6 finish.
Nussmeier’s Alabama teams all had top talent on the offensive line. The rebuilding of the Michigan offensive line has been hampered this spring by center Graham Glasgow’s brief suspension and the loss of Erik Magnuson and Joey Burzynski (injuries) as the team works to replace tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield, who have left for the NFL.
Nussmeier may bring one more thing with him from Alabama.
Hoke has said Michigan “would investigate” the possibility of transfers joining the team for the fall season.
Center Chad Lindsay has graduated from Alabama and under NCAA rules would be immediately eligible to play for Michigan. He started four games for the Crimson Tide last season, would bring needed experience at offensive line and already has a relationship with offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier.
The last time Michigan faced Alabama, it wasn’t much of a contest, but the next time the teams meet, they may be the mirror image of each other.
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.