Michigan 'Ask Kyle' questions answered: Should U-M bench an offensive linemen?
ANN ARBOR -- Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson turned his second snap against Air Force into a 79-yard touchdown run.
That dash for the end zone nearly doubles the tailbacks' output -- for the season.
The Wolverines' Fitz Toussaint had just 7 yards on eight carries against the Falcons, and Vincent Smith and Thomas Rawls didn't fare any better in the opener against Alabama. The backs combine for 49 yards on the season.
This week's mailbag features a growing concern about Michigan's non-Robinson running game, as well as questions about the tight ends, playcalling and even one entry about -- gasp! -- UMass. You know, the team Michigan plays this week (3:30 p.m., BTN).
The Wolverines are a 45.5-point favorite, so don't feel too bad if you forgot about it.
OK, on to the main event (as always, questions are edited for grammar/brevity):
Question: With the offensive line struggling to get push, even on a much smaller team like Air Force, is there any chance we will see some changes on the line, maybe Kyle Kalis or Erik Magnuson getting some playing time?-- beefyisbad
Answer: Michigan already has played 12 true freshmen this year, and coach Brady Hoke said this week he won't make it 13 unless disaster strikes. That pretty much rules out Kalis and Magnuson (as well as Ben Braden and Blake Bars) from playing.
A different question, though, is should they play? I haven't seen the freshmen in action, because Michigan has barred the media from practice, but I still think the answer is no. Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges spoke throughout the offseason about the challenges inherent to playing true freshmen offensive linemen. Borges calls it a "developmental position," which means it's a spot a player must grow into -- physically, mentally, emotionally, you name it.
A freshman receiver can step on the field and use his athleticism to get by until he picks up the tricks of the trade. That's not really true of offensive linemen -- and compounding the issue is their responsibility isn't just for themselves. It's also for the quarterback they're protecting, and I think Michigan is wary of getting Robinson popped because of a freshman miscue.
For those reasons, barring injury, you won't see Kalis or Magnuson until next season. And if you see them before then, that's probably a bad sign. But what about someone else?
The top candidate to be replaced would be right guard Patrick Omameh, who has been a step (or three) slow on pulling. That directly undercuts the running game. The problem for Michigan, though, is who replaces him? The only scholarship reserves are redshirt freshman Jack Miller, who plays center, and the true freshmen, which Michigan is reluctant to play. The only other guy is sophomore Joey Burzynski, who was put on scholarship the week of the opener. And would he be any better than Omameh, a senior who started every game since the final three weeks of his freshman season?
Michigan's offensive line isn't getting the job done (49 yards on 27 carries by the tailbacks), but tenuous depth means it will have to find solutions among its current personnel. There are news starters at three positions (Ricky Barnum at left guard, Elliott Mealer at center and Michael Schofield at right tackle) and Borges said that group still is meshing.
But it's about to run out of time, with No. 20 Notre Dame on tap next week and then the onset of the Big Ten schedule.
Question: Is there anyone on the roster that can give us a boost on offense? I want to believe that Fitz Toussaint can handle the job, but he seemed tentative his first game back. Could it have been the "first-game jitters?" -- xmichiganx
Answer: Toussaint is going to get every opportunity to show he can get the job done, and he's shown little that indicates he can't be productive. He got eight carries against Air Force -- eight! I'm not ready to make determinations based on that kind of sample size, especially when the tape shows very little running room. And that's not on Toussaint, but the offensive line.
By the way, who would actually be a better option in there? He's got experience that only one player can match, and that guy -- Vincent Smith -- doesn't come close to him as a rusher. Toussaint is going to be the guy, and expect Michigan to feed him frequently against UMass to get him untracked.
Question: Will we continue to use our tight ends in the passing game? Last year, Kevin Kroger was not used efficiently. -- Gretchen
Answer: Devin Funchess has been a factor in one game in his career, so let's not rush off to anoint him as the next Rob Gronkowski. Same time, the freshman flashed against Air Force the kind of size (6-foot-5) and athleticism that could make him a nightmare matchup for defenses.
Cover him with a linebacker, and he'll outrun you. Cover him with a defensive back, and he'll outjump you. Air Force didn't have an answer for that riddle, as Funchess racked up four catches for 106 yards and one touchdown. Maybe other teams will figure out a solution -- or maybe Funchess' production tapers, as the grind of playing big-time college football sets in.
But his speed and size -- and the matchup problems they create -- aren't going anywhere. That's a weapon Michigan hasn't had in a while, and also hints at the offense toward which its moving. Borges wants to implement his West Coast scheme as soon as Robinson sails off into the sunset, and pass-catching tight ends are a big part of that. Funchess is the future.
Question: This isn't the same UMass that came in a few years back and gave Michigan fits. I mean, Indiana crushed them last week. I also believe Michigan's run game will get on track with Toussaint getting his legs under him. Your thoughts? -- Roger W. Krueger
Answer: Thing is, Roger, this is the same UMass team that Michigan held off in 2010. The Minutemen, that season, finished 6-5 in the FCS. They lost to the Wolverines by five -- and they lost to New Hampshire by 26 and Delaware by 18. They also lost to Richmond and Rhode Island -- but hey, at least they held off William & Mary for that four-point win.
That was a bad UMass team, which tells you all you need to know about Michigan that year. It could score points -- 42 of them against the Minutemen -- but was inept defensively. Players on that side of the ball have talked at length about not really having a specific game plan -- Mike Martin called it playing "backyard defense."
It isn't UMass that's different this year, but Michigan. Same high-powered offense (a little less explosive, but significantly more consistent), yet it also plays a little ball on defense too. And that's, you know, not a bad thing. Expect a blowout Saturday, which the Wolverines desperately need.
Question: The OL, Denard, the RBs, and WRs all seem to run the spread read-option best. Is Borges being stubborn and egotistical, determined to prove his offense is better? Or, is he handcuffed to run something other than what RichRod ran? -- Tally10
Answer: Michigan runs a ton of spread stuff, even though Borges never coached the scheme before arriving here. He tabled his three decades of experience with one system to capitalize on the talent that existed here -- while also transitioning to his scheme, which is the future.
I've backed Borges before, and will continue to do so. He's not perfect -- I still shake my head at the fourth-down play-action call on the goal line against Michigan State last year. But Borges inherited one of the country's most explosive offenses, and has found a way to actually increase scoring, while also finding better consistency. And, he did it while blending two schemes together, one of which he had no prior experience coordinating.
Borges is not perfect, but he has made the most of a hard situation. Let's keep in mind what happened the last time someone came to Ann Arbor coaching an offensive scheme that didn't already exist here -- Rodriguez forced non-spread players into a spread scheme, and Michigan posted the worst record in school history. Borges helped lead Michigan to a Sugar Bowl.
And lastly: I've seen considerable growths in Denard Robinson's passing this year. It's still early, and I want to see it over a few more games before I crown Robinson as a true dual threat ... but I think he's been very good so far. He did better than most quarterbacks against that Alabama defense, then was outstanding against Air Force. His decision-making is night and day. Borges deserves a hat tip for that growth.
Question: After a blowout loss to No. 1 Alabama and a close win over unranked Air Force, what is the mood of the team right now going into this weekend's game? -- TulsaTom
Answer: It's mostly positive, to be honest, but the team knows it must improve to compete for a Big Ten title. I think Michigan is kind of mirroring Hoke's temperament -- as even-keel as they come. To me, he didn't sound all that different after a win against Air Force than he did after a loss against Alabama. And I think evenness helps shave off the highs and lows some players experience, especially the young ones.
And keep in mind: Despite the embarrassment against Alabama and frustration against Air Force, this team really does have a chance to compete for a league title. The Big Ten is down, as we've seen from surprising losses from Nebraska (against UCLA) and Wisconsin (against Oregon State) and others. Michigan's biggest obstacle for a divisional title, Michigan State, has to come to Ann Arbor.
Question: Why can't U of M ever recruit D-Line talent like other top teams? It seems like this is a never-ending cycle where the D-line is not a top priority. Someone needs to wake up and recruit that position along with LB like they do when it comes to the OL. -- tampawolv
Answer: Michigan isn't recruiting defensive linemen? What about Ondre Pipkins and Mario Ojemudia, members of the 2012 class who already are part of the Wolverines' rotation up front, even though it's a position rarely played by true freshmen? Tom Strobel, Chris Wormley, Matt Godin and Willie Henry join them in a six-man defensive line recruiting class, the largest since Bo Schembechler was coach.
There are three more locked up for 2013 in Taco Charlton (Pickerington, Ohio), Maurice Hurst Jr. (Westwood, Mass.) and Henry Poggi (Baltimore).
Michigan has a terrific young defensive line coach in Jerry Montgomery, but Greg Mattison and Brady Hoke's expertise also is on the line. Hoke is the personal coach for the nose tackles. This is all very attractive to defensive line prospects, which is why the Wolverines have been successful recruiting the position -- and likely will continue to be so.
As an aside: Michigan has recruited the heck out of linebacker as well. Joe Bolden and James Ross, members of the 2012 class, already are vying for starting roles despite Michigan returning starters at their positions. Bolden's bid for the middle linebacker spot is particularly intriguing, because Kenny Demens is in his third season as the starter there. But Bolden is challenging, which speaks to more great recruiting at this position.