Ann Arbor — This was a step forward, because there’s no turning back now. And this will work, because failure’s not an option.
Michigan soon will reclaim its place among college football’s elite because, well … as they sang in “The Wizard of Oz,” a movie set in the time of Fielding Yost, “because, because, because, because, because.”
“Because we’re Michigan,” insisted Dave Brandon, Michigan’s athletic director, the man behind the maize-and-blue curtain these days.
They pulled that curtain back Friday just long enough to reveal their new whiz of an offensive coordinator, Doug Nussmeier, an accomplished fellow fresh off a two-year stint with the nation’s top program at Alabama.
And while it’s hard to argue that’s not a positive step for Brady Hoke and the Wolverines, bringing in the 43-year-old Nussmeier — a bright, energetic guy who was a finalist for Washington’s recent head-coaching vacancy — is a lot like that first half-step the offensive linemen take in all those inside-zone plays he ran with the Crimson Tide.
That first step is the easy part, even at Michigan, where admitting problems is institutionally frowned upon. Finishing the play is the hard part.
It’s one thing to have a vision, but it’s another to make it a reality. Just as it’s one thing to collect a bunch of four- and five-star recruits, and another to stumble to a 7-6 record with the 86th-ranked offense in the country.
I’ll forgive Nussmeier for trotting out that silly “We were 11 points away from being 11-1” line Friday. (Bonus points for all the first-person plural pronouns, but I’m guessing he first heard that 11-point plan from someone else who’d already established residency in Ann Arbor.) And instead, I’ll reiterate what his boss’s boss said shortly after, because that better explains why Nussmeier is here now and Al Borges isn’t.
“None of us are happy — and that parade is led by Brady Hoke — with this last season,” Brandon said. “Being close isn’t good enough. You’ve gotta win those games. And you’ve got to be in position to win those games.”
'We needed change'
And too often this past season, Michigan simply wasn’t, as the offense struggled to find not just an identity but also positive yardage some weeks.
The Wolverines rushed for just 125.7 yards per game in 2013, the third-worst total in the last half-century of Michigan football. Twice, they posted negative rushing totals for a game. And they led the nation by allowing 114 tackles for loss.
As best I could figure, Michigan ran three or four different offenses over the course of last season, confusing themselves — and particularly the young interior of that offensive line — as much as they did their fan base.
“We needed change, we needed energy, we needed a new direction, we needed an offense that was building and gaining confidence,” Brandon said. “And I really believe with Doug being here we have a high probability of moving this offense quickly to a new level.”
So now it’s up to Nussmeier to do what his predecessor couldn’t: Show, don’t tell.
“We have a vision, we know what that is, and that’s why Doug is here today,” Hoke said.
If you were looking for some insight into just how he plans to do it, schematically or otherwise, Friday’s introductory press conference was neither the time nor the place for that, however. It also wasn’t the place for Hoke to field questions from the media, apparently, which seemed a bit awkward — and misguided.
Nussmeier’s task falls somewhere in the middle of the massive rebuilding project he helped engineer at Washington and the mountaintop vista he enjoyed at Alabama.
Talent needs developing
Preaching to the choir Friday, he promised a “tough, physical, explosive” offense that’ll “put points on the board” and “force the defense to defend all different elements of the game.” He talked about the “need to run the football” as well as limiting sacks and pre-snap penalties.
“As long as the ball is moving forward and we’re ending every series in a (point-after) kick, we’ll have a chance,” he said. “That’s where we want to start.”
Beyond that, though, he’d rather wait to actually break down film and meet the players he’s inheriting before he starts making promises he’ll have to keep.
Devin Gardner was in attendance — on crutches — and so was the rest of the Michigan coaching staff. But Nussmeier wasn’t about to weigh in on any debate about his starting quarterback, or what to do with that beleaguered offensive line.
“There is young talent on this team,” he said. “We’ve got to develop it.”
That’s a message that Brandon certainly echoed Friday, noting, “You see the momentum this program has in terms of the talent that’s being brought in.”
But talent only gets you so far in this game. Name recognition doesn’t mean what it used to in college football.
“We’re Michigan,” Brandon said.
What does that mean, exactly?
In some ways, it’ll be up to the newest member of the family to remind us all.