An early look at Nussmeier's offense

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By Alexa Dettelbach, Daily Sports Editor
Published April 5, 2014

Michigan football’s biggest story this spring, sans the offensive line, has been the rebuilding of its offense. The chief signing this offseason wasn’t the No. 3 overall prospect in defensive back Jabrill Peppers, but it was former Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier.

So, when Michigan held its Spring Game on Saturday, fans and media alike came to watch the offense, and whatever magic Nussmeier could bring from Tuscaloosa.

“All I can say is (Nussmeier’s) done an excellent job in teaching (the new offense),” said Michigan coach Brady Hoke. “Obviously, he’s here because we think he’s an awfully good football coach in all areas. … (But) room for improvement? Oh my gosh, there’s no question, we need a lot of improvement — but the way it’s being taught has been real positive.”

As Hoke has been saying since practice began a few weeks ago, only remedial plays would be unveiled to the public this spring. And the fourth-year coach was telling the truth, as most of what the Wolverines showed Saturday was “vanilla,” as quarterback Devin Gardner called it.

The “vanilla” offense kicked off with a less-than-inspiring pass from Gardner, who was looking for freshman receiver Freddy Canteen on a fly route but was intercepted by sophomore Jourdan Lewis. It was Gardner’s first pass in front of fans since the Ohio State game last November.

Before the scrimmage began, though, all eyes were on the offensive line and running back drills. Freshman Mason Cole practiced with the first team at the starting left tackle position, and redshirt junior Jack Miller started at center, but both could be bumped once redshirt sophomore Erik Magnuson and redshirt junior Graham Glasgow return from injury and suspension, respectively. Cole did an admirable job against Frank Clark, and only a few members of the line gave up would-be sacks — a vast improvement from last season.

But even during preliminary drills, the running backs struggled to break through the line. The only time they were able to consistently generate positive yardage was when the defensive line was replaced with a plastic strip.

And once the team began scrimmaging an hour into the event, the defensive line consistently stuffed the backs. The longest run of the afternoon came from sophomore Derrick Green, and it was for just eight yards. The backs had the most success when they ran to the outside, avoiding work between the tackles — illustrating once again the line will need more addressing this summer.

“Obviously we’re missing some pieces (on the line), but I feel like they’re playing well,” Gardner said. “It’s hard to continue to stop a great defensive line, and we have a great defensive of line going against you for 15 straight days (because) everyone is learning each other. And coming into the Spring Game, it’s going to be bland — you can’t show too much.”

Entering the spring, Green was the presumed starter, but Saturday shed light on sophomore De’Veon Smith as a challenger for the spot. Redshirt junior Justice Hayes is slotted to be third, but all three had their struggles breaking through.

Smith and Cole weren’t the only surprising starters for the Wolverines on offense. Nussmeier also had Canteen starting out wide opposite junior Devin Funchess, and the first-year player has shown potential early. The biggest crowd pleaser of the day came on a 45-yard play action catch and run from Gardner to Canteen down the left sideline.

When sophomore quarterback Shane Morris took over the second unit, he too looked for Canteen out wide.

“He’s earned his respect out here (with) 14, 15 practices now,” Gardner said. “He’s played well, made plays and he’s developed a trust with all the quarterbacks. We trust him and it’s great he came in as a big surprise.”

Added Funchess: “Freddy came in, and I haven’t seen a blazer in a while (like him) besides (junior Dennis Norfleet). He came in, and I enjoy watching him play.”

With Funchess officially deemed a wide receiver, junior A.J. Williams is slotted as the starting tight end, a position where the Wolverines are very thin after Jake Butt’s ACL injury. Recently converted tight end Keith Heitzman also caught a few passes. The former defensive end played tight end in high school, but predominately as a blocker, so Nussmeier has been trying out his hands in practice.

With the Spring Game behind it, Michigan sets its sights on fall camp, where the rest of the offense will be installed and the entire freshman class will be on campus. It’s only then that Nussmeier’s offense can truly be judged. But one thing is perfectly clear: There is work to do.