Round Pegs in Square Holes? A Look at Michigan’s Offense

Andrew GoodeCorrespondent IOctober 20, 2008

(I decided not to write anything on the PSU game because I don’t really have anything to say.  We played hard but got beat by a team that was: A. playing at home, B. loaded with veterans, C. much better than us.)

One of the popular current criticisms of Rich Rodriguez is that the players on this team don’t fit his offense and therefore he should “adapt” it to fit their talents. 

Purveyors of this view generally sound something like this: “He’s trying to fit round pegs into square holes!/He’s trying to fit square pegs into round holes!/Ahhhh Threet can’t run play Minor more this crap doesn’t work in the Big Ten!!!”

Some even lobby for a temporary return to a more conventional offensive look, as if lining up in the I-formation will magically cure our young QB’s inaccuracy or our third-string, walk-on tackle’s inability to block people.

Let’s get this out of the way right now: Michigan’s offense sucks because of youth/inexperience, inconsistency and injuries, not because they play the spread-option.  If they lined up in a pro-style, west coast, run ‘n’ shoot, wishbone, flexbone, single wing, or A-11, they would still struggle.  The results might vary a little bit, but this team would definitely not confuse anyone with 2001 Miami or 2005 USC. 

For those of you screaming for Coach Rod to adapt to his current players, I have some simple numbers for you (courtesy of Mgoblog).

West Virginia 2007: 26 percent pass, 74 percent run.
Michigan 2008: 46 percent pass, 54 percent run.

Pat White was better at running than throwing, so they ran it more.  Steve Threet is a better passer than runner, so we throw it more.  I understand we’ve been behind a lot, and therefore have had to throw more often, but this would not account entirely for a 20% shift in play-calling.

With that out of the way, I’d like to take a position-by-position look at Michigan’s current and future offensive personnel and how they fit into RichRod’s spread-option scheme.  Hint: these players fit a lot better than you might think.  (That’s what she said.)


The current incarnation of the Rodriguez “Spot The Ball” spread is based on speed and tempo.  All 11 players need to be able to run, and the no-huddle approach necessitates a high level of conditioning. 

As in any offense, the play flows through the QB, in this case ideally a dual-threat type.  The offensive line employs a zone-blocking scheme, nearly identical to the one used by Michigan in 2006 and 2007 (Who says our offense is completely different?).  Rodriguez has said that it doesn’t really matter how big O-Linemen are, as long as they can move.

Backs and receivers each fall into two categories.  Outside receivers are taller, possession-types, and slot receivers are typically shorter, speedier, and more explosive.  Running backs are classified as either SB (Superback/All-Purpose) or MX (Max/Power).  Slot WR’s and SB’s are somewhat interchangeable in that they both can line up in the slot or backfield to take pitches or handoffs, or to catch screens.  

Tight ends should be tall and athletic, with more of a premium on receiving than blocking ability.

Spread Option Dream Team

If I could pick any recent college players to build an offense to these specifications, it would look like this:

QB - Michael Vick (the VT one, not the USP Leavenworth one)
SB - Reggie Bush, Warrick Dunn
MX - LenDale White, Jacob Hester
Outside WR - Calvin Johnson, Braylon Edwards, Mike Williams
Slot WR - Percy Harvin, Peter Warrick, Santana Moss
TE - Kellen Winslow Jr.
OL - Jake Long, Jake Long, Jake Long, Jake Long, Jake Long (I’m sure there are plenty of others, I just can’t think of any off the top of my head.  Jake Long is ideal though - he is 6-7, 315, but he is very lean and athletic)

Now that we’ve established idyllic, unreachable archetypes, let’s take a look at what Michigan is working with.

Current Offensive Personnel

QB - Steven Threet (6-6, 230)

Obviously not the prototypical QB that you’d like to run the spread-option, but at times he has shown that he is capable.  He’s the only guy on the roster who can actually throw, so he’s got that going for him, and he is actually a pretty decent runner. 

He’s not going to roll up 100 yards a game a la Pat White or Vince Young, but he’s shown the ability to pick up first downs, get solid yardage on designed runs, and make the defense look stupid every once in a while (TD against Miami, OH, 58-yarder against Wisconsin).

I’m not gonna dog Nick Sheridan like many have the past few days.  He’s a guy who’s worked hard and gotten the most out of his talent.  The only reason he’s playing is because of Threet’s injuries and the team’s lack of depth. 

SB - Brandon Minor (6-1, 214)/Sam McGuffie (5-11, 185)

Against PSU, Minor showed that a bigger back can do damage in this offense as well.  He’s the number-one guy for the time being, provided he doesn’t regress back to fumbling every fourth time he touches the ball (true stat from the first six games).

McGuffie, Michael Shaw (6-0, 185), and Avery Horn (5-10, 185) are the speedy scat-back types preferred by Rodriguez.  McGuffie has also shown effectiveness as a receiver, whether he’s coming out of the backfield or lining up in the slot.

One of the biggest disappointments of the season is that Carlos Brown (6-0, 213) has barely played at all due to a variety of injuries.  In my opinion he’s the best all-around back Michigan has.  He is about the same size as Minor, but with as much or more speed than the smaller backs. 

MX - Kevin Grady (5-9, 228)/FB - Mark Moundros (6-1, 232)

Chiefly short-yardage guys.  Moundros is also a terrific lead blocker.


The current rotation consists of one highly touted prospect - Steve Schilling (6-5, 295), three former back-ups - Tim McAvoy (6-6, 288), David Moosman (6-5, 292), Mark Ortmann (6-7, 294), a redshirt freshman - David Molk (6-2, 282), a former walk-on - Perry Dorrestein (6-7, 308), and a former DT who switched positions about a week before the Utah game - John Ferrara (6-4, 274).  Yeah.

Projected starter Cory Zirbel (6-5, 292) and potential starter Mark Huyge (6-6, 292) have both missed every game with injuries. 

Outside WR

Michigan has plenty of these guys, and they fit the offense well (Tall, rangy, possession guys).  Greg Matthews (6-3, 207), Darryl Stonum (6-2, 190), Junior Hemingway (6-1, 214), Toney Clemons (6-3, 201).

Slot WR

Another area (in addition to QB and OL) where there is not much depth.  Martavious Odoms (5-9, 171) is a great fit and has played well when the QBs have been able to get the ball to him.  As he is a freshman, there have been some plays where he has run the wrong routes, making Threet look even worse than usual.

As with Carlos Brown, another huge disappointment has been the absence of Terrence Robinson (5-9, 170) due to, you guessed it, injury.  He would give the team not only playmaking ability but badly needed depth at a position that is starved for it.

TE - Kevin Koger (6-4, 220)

Keeping with the general theme of misfortune, it’s ironic that this position of lesser importance is also the one with the most depth.

Koger, Martell Webb (6-4, 249), and Brandon Moore (6-6, 221) are good fits in the offense.  Carson Butler (6-5, 250) would be, but he is a knucklehead and recently moved to DE. 

Future Offensive Personnel

This is written assuming that the current verbal commitments will stay that way. 

QB - Tate Forcier (6-0, 185), Shavodrick Beaver (6-3, 185)

Both are good fits for the offense, and both bring a little something different to the table.  Forcier is a passer who can run, and Beaver is more of a runner who happens to be a good passer.  Ideally, Forcier will end up as the next Chase Daniel/Drew Brees/Troy Smith, and Beaver will become Donovan McNabb 2.0.


I’m going to lump these guys together because I have no idea where they’ll end up.  Jeremy Gallon, Teric Jones, Vincent Smith, and Fitzgerald Toussaint are all in the 5-8 - 5-10, 165-190 range.  They’ll provide much needed depth and talent at the slot receiver position.


Only one commit so far - Mike Schofield (6-6, 270).  Despite the general poorness of Michigan’s O-Line this year, they have no seniors, so they could have anywhere from 15-20 scholarship players for next season.  With six freshmen redshirting this year, the depth and talent will be much improved.

This is the end, I promise

Based on what I’ve seen and read, I’ve come to the conclusion that Michigan’s general offensive suckitude is not because players are out of position or are being asked to do things that are not their strengths.  The reasons of failure are: inexperience (which leads to inconsistency), lack of depth (not talent), and injuries to key players. 

Threet is young and erratic.  Four true freshmen have started at skill positions.  Out of all the starters, only Schilling has any extensive experience.  QB, OL, and slot are extremely thin on numbers and/or quality.

Injuries have happened to: Threet, Minor, Brown, Shaw, Matthews, Hemingway, Odoms, Robinson, and almost all of the linemen.  Two probable starters on the line have been out all year. 

This is why we’re bad.  The on-field manifestation of these three factors is lack of execution, mental mistakes, and turnovers.  The causes and effects are intertwined and feed off of each other. 

The talent is there, we just need more of it.  If our verbal commitments stick, the QB and slot positions will be infused with quality players.  The six current freshmen who are redshirting will bolster the OL. 

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Michigan will be much better next year (a very big sturdy limb).  Inexperience will still have to be dealt with, but not as much as this year.  More talent and depth will help the process.    

Okay I lied, this is the end.


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