Is Michigan Football's Problem Talent or Coaching?

Zach Dirlam@Zach_DirlamSenior Analyst IINovember 15, 2013

What are Michigan's problems right now?
What are Michigan's problems right now?Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

It is clear the Michigan football team has a problem. The Wolverines have lost back-to-back games in ugly fashion. That may even be a generous statement considering they have combined for negative-69 yards rushing in their outings against Michigan State and Nebraska.

Some of the Maize and Blue faithful believe coaching, especially offensive coordinator Al Borges' play-calling, is the main issue. Others point to youth, mainly on the interior of the offensive line, as the main reason behind Team 134's struggles.

Which is it, though? As Nick Baumgardner of MLive recently tweeted, it is a combination of the two:

My take on the "youth" stuff w/ Michigan's OL? Half and half. Can't be ignored, but can't be a crutch either.

— Nick Baumgardner (@nickbaumgardner) November 4, 2013

Offensively, there is no question the line has been the center of just about every problem. The front five cannot block well enough for Michigan to run the ball with any consistency. This puts an enormous burden on Devin Gardner, who is having troubles of his own right now due to the poor blocking.

Devin Gardner has been battered the last two weeks.
Devin Gardner has been battered the last two weeks.Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Gardner has been sacked 14 times and hit countless others in Michigan's last two games. It has been painful to watch him get battered. The pummeling he has endured is taking a toll on him physically and mentally. There are times when he leaves the pocket too early. His accuracy gets a bit shaky.

Both are direct results of the beating the offensive line has allowed its quarterback to endure.

Considering that the line and running backs are constantly overwhelmed by blitzes, throwing the ball upwards of 30 times per game is not really an option either.

Again, half of this is a product of the Wolverines playing three newcomers, two of whom are freshmen, between the tackles. There are instances when Kyle Bosch, Graham Glasgow and Erik Magnuson are beaten physically.

Most of the errors, though, appear to be mental. It seems like every time a sack is allowed, there is a Michigan lineman looking around for someone to block.

This is a sign of youth.

Adjusting the starting guards and center near the midway point of the season did not exactly help matters either. (subscription required) analyst (and former All-Big Ten guard) Doug Skene wrote:

I think assumptions are drawn based on the tradition of offensive lines at Michigan, but it just takes so long to transition from high school to the college game. Every once in awhile you get an outstanding player that can make the transition faster, but it really takes two, three, four years because of the nuances of the position.

That's why you want upperclassmen - because they've been through the reps over and over again, and they've corrected them. They're not thinking out there, but just reacting, and right now our young guys have just got so much they're processing on every snap that they're playing tight, and slow...

Is it fair to put some of the blame on the coaches for this, though? Absolutely. The line is not improving on a weekly basis, which is why head coach Brady Hoke and Co. are rightfully being criticized.

As for the play-calling, a former Michigan football player believes Borges deserves some slack given the circumstances.

Another alumnus told Chris Balas of TheWolverine:

Offensively, most of the guys feel that Al Borges takes too much of the blame. Could he be doing some things differently? Yeah, but for those of us that played on offense, we get it better than the fans, and he's got two hands tied behind his back. What game plan do you run when the offensive line can't hold a block for one second?

Need more proof youth along the offensive line is a recipe for disaster? Five of the top six teams in the Big Ten in terms of total offense all have one thing in common: Veteran blockers.

Ohio State4010
Penn State3110

In an era when everyone wants results now, it is hard to preach patience. However, fans need to remember Hoke inherited a team with just eight scholarship linemen. After adding Chris Bryant in 2011, Hoke signed 10 linemen in the next two classes.

This is far from an ideal situation. Improvements need to be made, but the talent is there. Now it is all about how the freshmen develop between now and next season. 

On defense, outside of the secondary, the unit is improving. Younger players are beginning to shine.

Some of Michigan's younger defensive linemen have flashed great potential over the past two weeks.
Some of Michigan's younger defensive linemen have flashed great potential over the past two weeks.Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

It is clear Michigan does not have cornerbacks with the ability to play tight coverage very often. This leads to more cushion for opposing receivers to avoid getting beaten over the top. Freshmen Channing Stribling and Jourdan Lewis have shown promising signs, as has redshirt sophomore Blake Countess. Now they have to finish plays.

The front seven has been much better. Against Nebraska, the Wolverines racked up seven tackles for loss. Defensive ends Chris Wormley, Taco Charlton and Willie Henry each made important contributions. All of them are freshmen.

Sophomore linebackers James Ross III and Joe Bolden combined for 14 tackles.

Yes, this season has been difficult to endure. Given the young talent on this roster and yet another star-studded class coming to Ann Arbor, better days appear to be on the horizon. 

"I don't think there's any question we'll have the guys here to run any system we want, but there is a transitional phase here," Borges said, according to TheWolverine (subscription required). "We're two years behind it, really, because we didn't do it at the beginning... With that comes some growing pains."

Now is not the time to start calling for Hoke's and Borges' jobs. If nothing has changed in 2014, then it will be time for some serious reevaluation of Hoke and the entire staff.

Want to talk more Michigan football? Follow me on Twitter @Zach_Dirlam.


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