Change has arrived on the offensive side of the football for Michigan. No more Denard Robinson means fewer dynamic breakaway quarterback runs, but it doesn't translate to a less effective offense.
In fact, the last five games of last season gave a sneak preview of this year's move forward into the pro style, behind redshirt junior quarterback Devin Gardner. Four of Michigan's top-five passing efforts of the year occurred in those final five, including 341 yards through the air in the Outback Bowl against South Carolina.
U-M head coach Brady Hoke knew he inherited a different and, in some ways, difficult situation coming in. A pro-style coach, he was handed spread personnel, including a superstar running quarterback who suffered inconsistency throwing the ball.
The Wolverines won 19 football games in two years of transition, captured a Sugar Bowl victory, broke a long and ugly losing streak to Ohio State, and did the same with Michigan State. All the while, they retooled for what's coming this fall.
Hoke knows it hasn't always been pretty, or perfect. At the same time, he's not bothered by second-guessers.
"There are always going to be critics," Hoke said. "Most of them have no idea - so who cares? We've got to do what's best for Michigan and best for these kids. We did what was best for Michigan and best for these kids."
He'll continue to do so, he vows, and that means moving forward with an offense that can strike effectively on the ground and through the air. While he's a defensive-minded head coach, the fingerprints of his beliefs are all over Michigan's offense.
Channeled through offensive coordinator Al Borges, Hoke knows exactly what he wants. He hopes to see it play out in the coming season.
"It has to do with a comfort level with what you've run over a period of years," Hoke said. "Al has been doing this a long time. There's no bigger football junkie I've ever seen than Al Borges.
"He's got film from the 49ers in '82 or '83, and he'll go back and reference those from the two-back set, slot, split backs, just like he'll reference looking at the pistol and everything the 49ers use. From that point, there's nobody better in this country."
In general, Hoke knows the Wolverines have to run the football better through its tailbacks. The era of No. 16 taking the snap from center and taking off on an 80-yard touchdown run is long gone.
The era of Michigan big-play offense certainly is not. In fact, the Wolverines should be able to back more safeties away from the line of scrimmage, and if not, throw over the top of them. The more they back off, the more the Wolverines' tailbacks come into play.
"Obviously, I think we can get more production from the back end, the tailbacks," Hoke said. "Again, everything starts with the ball snap and starts up front. Within that, on the play-action and the big plays we might be able to gain better, because of how people have to support the run, play an eight-man box, whatever."
Hoke also sees a rise in the passing game, not only because of Gardner's arm but also due to the improvement of Michigan's receivers in working with him and on their techniques.
"Our receivers are probably improved," Hoke said. "Believe me, Junior [Hemingway] and Roy [Roundtree] and [Martavious] Odoms, who played really good the last five games of his senior year, they all were an important part of it. But there is probably more knowledge now, because they've been coached a little more in our system.
"You talk about route-running, getting off a bump, all of those things. The timing is a little better. But it still starts with whether or not we can run the football up front. That's the number one question that's going to be there."
Plus, Hoke noted, the offense can be more multi-dimensional.
"There are the personnel groups, where you look at the ability to have three tight ends in the game, and some of the offense that can be driven by that," he said. "Especially when you see we have some guys we think are going to be pretty good players for us there. [Devin] Funchess is one guy you'd like to have the ball in his hands as he continues to progress.
"There are still elements that will be spread, because of what Devin [Gardner] can do. It's a definite threat. But the power game with two backs, or a back and a tight end, the ability to run downhill from the tailback position, and the play-action game off of it will be big."
The bottom line involves scoring enough points to win football games, and Hoke likes his chances there.
"If these guys keep progressing, we feel good about that," he said. "It's going to be fun. We'll find out."
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