January 9, 2014

Offensive recruiting under Doug Nussmeier

Al Borges is out and Doug Nussmeier is in as Michigan's offensive coordinator. The Wolverines' offensive approach won't change significantly, but the results are expected to improve. Nussmeier has coordinated several successful offenses over the past six years (only a rebuilding project at Washington saw his unit drop out of the nation's top 30 offenses in terms of yards per play).

With the new coordinator in town, U-M's recruiting plan on that side of the ball becomes more clear.

Quarterback

This year's Alabama offense was the No. 7 unit nationally in passing efficiency after the 2012 team led the country. Signal-caller A.J. McCarron was the triggerman for both, with all but 43 of the Tide's 693 passes over the two years.

McCarron is a classic dropback passer, standing 6-4 and 214 pounds. Alabama quarterbacks were sacked only 40 times in the past two seasons, but McCarron still finished with negative rushing yardage over that span. Mobility in the quarterback is a nice bonus, but not the focal point of Nussmeier's system. Backup Blake Sims did finish with 4.07 yards per carry this season, so Nussmeier knows how to use the quarterback's legs if they're an asset. Playing and coaching under John L. Smith - a spread offense guru who trusted Nussmeier with molding Drew Stanton at Michigan State is one example.

Nussmeier has pursued - and landed - pro-style quarterbacks David Cornwell (2014) and Ricky Town (2015) in the past two Alabama classes, two players who fit the mold of pass-first players who can move a little bit.

Michigan fans are wondering if Town will consider Michigan now that Nussmeier has moved on from Tuscaloosa. While Town has reaffirmed his Tide pledge, his relationship with the program primarily centered around Nussmeier, so the door could open down the road. Whether or not U-M can lure Town, it's clear that excellent pro-style passers are the targets.

The way Alabama's offense has played in recent seasons, arm strength is important to Nussmeier's scheme, perhaps moreso than precision in the short passing game. The play-action nature of the Tide passing game allows for plenty of downfield shots, and the opportunity to show off NFL throws.

Running Back

Nussmeier's offenses have taken advantage of a wide variety of backs in the past couple seasons at Alabama, and used several per season. That alone should mean that the Wolverines will look to build up a strong stable of talented tailbacks with Nussmeier at the helm.

Size has been key - fortunately for big backs already on the U-M roster like Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith - and should be an emphasis going forward. Michigan's 2014 pursuit of 6-1, 213-pound Vic Enwere and 6-0, 198-pound Jeff Jones are right in line with Nussmeier's preference. Most players he's pursued are about 6-0 or taller, and over 200 pounds. 2015 commit Damien Harris is likely licking his chops after seeing Nussmeier's use of freshman Derrick Henry late in the 2013 season. While Harris isn't 6-3, 238 pounds like Henry, he has similar ability to power through tackles and outrace second-level defenders to the endzone.

Six different Alabama running backs combined for 398 carries this fall. Sophomore T.J. Yeldon earned more than half of those carries, but the other five averaged nearly 40 apiece, so keeping several running backs - and giving them opportunities - is part of Nussmeier's offense. Don't be surprised if U-M looks to maintaining a large running back group.

Nussmeier's offense has seen limited use of fullbacks, instead focusing on a one-back rushing attack. They are threats in the play-action game when implemented, and get heavy use on the goal line. Still, fullback will not be a focus of Michigan's recruiting in the near future - especially with a few already on the roster. H-back types who can play multiple roles are important to his scheme.

Wide Receiver

With the play-action passing game so important for Nussmeier's scheme, big, fast outside receivers with the ability to stretch the defense have been the priority in his recruiting. The majority of Alabama's top receivers were 6-1 or taller this fall, though there was also use for slot-type players like Christion Jones and Chris Black.

As Michigan has already been doing over the past three years of recruiting, look for the Wolverines to place the greatest emphasis on size and speed. Early enrollees Drake Harris and Freddy Canteen are both 6-3, and 6-4 classmate Maurice Ways will join them in the summer. All are excellent fits for what Nussmeier has looked for in the past.

In the 2015 class, former commit George Campbell is the type of player that Michigan covets, and the Wolverines will do what they can to help him see that his future is still in Ann Arbor. In-state product Brian Cole is another big, physical wide receiver that fits what Nussmeier has used in the past.

There is also room for smaller explosive playmakers, such as recent 2015 offeree Christian Kirk. The 5-10, 190-pounder is electric with the ball in his hands, and complementing the outside receivers with a shifty slot player (while not sacrificing too much in the way of size) will be another key.

Tight End

If Michigan fans were worried that the breakout seasons by tight ends Devin Funchess and Jake Butt would not be duplicated going forward, think again. Nussmeier had one of the nation's best freshman tight ends at his disposal this year in O.J. Howard, and he used the 6-6, 237-pounder effectively in the run game and the passing game. Continuing to use tight ends in both phases will be a key in his recruiting.

2014 commit Ian Bunting is very similar in style to Butt and Funchess, and a great fit for the offense Michigan will run. Tight ends must block well to become a factor in the play-action passing game, and Bunting spent most of his senior season helping his team's rushing attack. He is a gifted pass receiver already, so he has added to his total package and become an even better fit for Michigan.

Look for the Wolverines to pursue tall, thick tight ends going forward. Players who can contribute only as blockers are possible (sophomore A.J. Williams was used primarily this way for Michigan in the fall), but those who are limited to just catching passes will more likely be wide receivers than tight ends (a move we saw Funchess make this season).

Offensive Line

This is perhaps the position group at which Nussmeier's recent offenses will be most exciting to his new boss, Brady Hoke. A physical brand of football with a smash-mouth running game have been the hallmarks of the Alabama scheme over the past two years.

Surprisingly, though, the Tide haven't had as many 350-pound maulers up front as it has seemed (especially to Michigan fans, who lamented the Alabama dominance up front in the teams' game last fall). The offensive linemen on the roster this season ranged from 295 pounds to 320 pounds, with a couple outliers in either direction. Given that the Tide's running game is zone-oriented - albeit with power and man blocking also in the arsenal - the emphasis is on technique and strength, rather than sheer size.

Expect Michigan to continue recruiting big, tall linemen, but the focus on quick feet and the ability to move in space will be perhaps at a slightly higher priority than they had been. 2014 commits Mason Cole and Juwann Bushell-Beatty both bring plenty of size and athleticism, and when they're in game shape, they have the feet Michigan is looking for.

2015 commit Jon Runyan Jr. also fits the mold better now than he did under Borges, whose goal was to mash people off the ball by winning one-on-one battles with size. He's only 255 pounds, and although he should be closer to 300 by the time he arrives in Ann Arbor, he'll never bee a 330-pound mauler, either. His fit in the system is a bit better with a primarily inside-outisde zone running game.

Given that Michigan offensive line coach Darrell Funk has long been an advocate for a zone running game (until the ill-fated mashup of styles under Borges), he could still be a good fit for the U-M offense. Retaining him would also be a boost for the Wolverines' top remaining 2015 target, Pittsburgh four-star Sterling Jenkins. Jenkins fits what Michigan is looking for when it comes to size and athleticism, so expect more of the same going forward.

Nussmeier as a recruiter

As noted above, Nussmeier was the lead recruiter for Ricky Town. By selling his offensive system, the Wolverines' new coordinator was able to lure Town to Alabama over offers from Florida State, Stanford, USC and others. It's clear that, particularly at the quarterback position, he will be able to recruit the players he wants the most.

He primarily focused on his position and recruits from the state of Alabama (where Michigan has traditionally not been active) for the Crimson Tide, but Nussmeier also has Midwest ties from his days at Michigan State. He was the lead recruiter for 2014 UA pledge Derek Kief out of Cincinnati, and should be able to settle into whichever geographic region he is assigned.

Nussmeier has won head-to-head battles with some of college football's bigshots - five-star Bo Scarbrough, who held offers from just about every top program before committing to the Tide, is one example - and should be able to do the same at Michigan. He did it with a Washington team that was rebuilding from an 0-12 hole, landing the nation's second-best tight end (Austin Sefarian-Jenkins) in the 2011 class, and with resources more similar to what he had in Tuscaloosa than in Seattle, Nussmeier should be able to sell his system and the program.

Stay tuned in the coming days for more on the Nussmeier hire.

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