Michigan Football: Keys to Doug Nussmeier's Retooling the Running Attack
Michigan head coach Brady Hoke lured offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier away from Alabama with a clear mandate to rebuild the running game.
Michigan’s offense, once known for producing a steady stream of elite collegiate running backs and offensive linemen, had devolved during the post-Lloyd Carr era into one that relied on the quarterback position to power its running attack.
Last season was supposed to be different—but a patchwork offensive line and tentative running by senior back Fitzgerald Toussaint again had quarterback Devin Gardner scrambling for yards and taking a beating.
After a late-season collapse that crushed hopes of a Big Ten title, Hoke decided he had seen enough and handed the reins of the offense over to Nussmeier during the offseason.
Nussmeier inherits some of the same problems that hampered the running game under his predecessor—his ability to overcome them will be the main storyline for Michigan this season
Quarterback: Best Fit?
By virtue of his experience, Gardner, a senior, enters camp as the starting quarterback. Nussmeier has been tight-lipped about whether Gardner is a prototypical quarterback for his offensive system.
Last season Gardner gashed teams with his running ability but completed just 60 percent of his passes (59th nationally). Nussmeier’s last quarterback, Alabama's A.J. McCarron, completed 67 percent (12th nationally) of his throws.
Does Gardner have the accuracy to be successful in Nussmeier’s offense?
The offense has been simplified, which should help Gardner make better decisions. If Gardner falters, Shane Morris, who gained valuable reps last season in the wake of Gardner’s injury, and early enrollee freshman Wilton Speight, who played well during spring practice, are waiting in the wings.
A successful downfield passing capability is critical to loosening up the defense for the run.
Nussmeier will need to identify which quarterback has the best arm and decision-making ability to keep the defense from cheating up in the box.
Tight Ends: Waiting for Jake
When Gardner got in trouble last season, he could rely on Jake Butt to provide a seal block or be open for an outlet pass. Butt’s offseason ACL injury is a double whammy for the Michigan offense. It means one less experienced receiver and blocker until he returns, hopefully by the start of the Big Ten season.
Until then Nussmeier will need A.J. Williams and converted defensive tackle Keith Heitzman to fill in. Both have potential but will be hard-pressed to replace Butt.
Wide Receivers: Help Wanted
It’s important for the offense to have the capability to strike downfield and open up creases for the running attack. Last season poor blocking up front meant that Gardner was constantly running for his life. But least he had four reliable receivers (Jeremy Gallon, Drew Dileo, Devin Funchess and Butt) as targets.
This season the graduation of Gallon and Dileo coupled with the injury to Butt means that Nussmeier begins the season with a receiving depth chart depleted of experience.
Funchess returns, and freshman Freddy Canteen was the breakout star of the spring practice. But Michigan will need someone to emerge—maybe Jehu Chesson or Amara Darboh—to keep opposing defenses from ganging up on Funchess.
Running Backs: Locked and Loaded
Michigan is stacked at running back. Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith will battle for the top of the depth chart with Justice Hayes handling third-down duties.
There is still no word if transfer Ty Isaac will be eligible this season, but even if he needs to sit out the year Michigan will be well-stocked at running back.
The likely return of Drake Johnson from an ACL injury and Nussmeier’s desire to see top defensive recruit Jabrill Peppers line up in the backfield will provide additional depth.
Offensive Line: Can't Be Worse Than Last Season...
If Nussmeier has nightmares about the upcoming season, they feature his offensive line.
One look at game film from last year might have been enough to keep him from joining Hoke’s coaching staff in Ann Arbor.
The Michigan running attack will need to overcome the loss of its two best linemen to graduation—Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield—and overcome the distraction provided by Graham Glasgow’s arrest for operating a vehicle while intoxicated that forced him miss parts of spring practice and be suspended for the season opener.
Nussmeier needs sophomores Erik Magnuson, Kyle Bosch, Kyle Kalis and Ben Braden to step up and fill open positions—and Glasgow to stay out of trouble while anchoring the group. Freshmen Mason Cole and David Dawson are also in the mix for playing time.
Michigan’s whole season depends on how successful the offensive line will be in bouncing back from last season’s meltdown.
If the Wolverines can’t consistently run the ball, Michigan’s entire season, and maybe even Hoke's coaching tenure will be in jeopardy.
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.