Speculation on Jim Herrmann’s demise, M defense’s return to dominance
SALINE, MICHIGAN SEPTEMBER 23, 2006 Late in the second half, Tim Jamison came off the left end and had a free run at Wisconsin quarterback John Stocco. It was another sack for the Wolverines, who effectively brought a halt to the entire Badger offensive on Saturday leading to Michigan’s redemption of the famed Little Oaken Axe of Rosedale trophy. Michigan’s front four is flat out dominating play right now, bringing pressure to the QB and making the backs change direction.
While it is still early in the season, Michigan has the #1 rushing defense in the country with teams netting just 18.5 yards/game. And while the Blue have yielded a moderate amount of passing yards, much of that was in garbage time at the end of the game. Ron English, after quickly resigning from the Chicago Bears this season after being offered the defensive coordinator job, has now transformed Michigan into a dominant bunch.
So what happened to the man and his defense that once was the toast of the college football world, leading the Wolverines to the 1997 National Championship?
Displaced defensive coordinator Jim Herrmann had a great team in 1997, led by an incredible group of linebackers and one of the greatest college football players of all-time in Charles Woodson. Did he suddenly become a bad coach over the years?
I don’t think so. Rather, I think he evolved into a bad coach based upon a series of factors, which ultimately led Herrmann to tweak and tinker with talent that didn’t need it. The result was an group of players that simply had too much to read and respond to, instead of just reacting. Here are a few factors that led Hermann to feel the need to add complexity to the defense:
– Pressure of 1997. After the ridiculous performance of the ’97 defense, Herrmann had all eyes on him including the eyes of opposing defenses and a few eyes from the NFL. You have to feel Herrmann was challenged to become a ‘better’ coach, by understanding and implementing different schemes and packages.
– Navarre. Certainly the ability of an offense to control the ball makes kings of defensive coordinators. Having an offense led for four years by Navarre at the helm of a lackluster offense put major pressure on Herrmann, again, forcing him steer the defense to do more. Instead of simplifying, Herrmann added new layers of complexity, more technical zone schemes, more reads, different blitz packages leading to overall more things to think about for the defensive players.
– The Spread. The biggest impact on Herrmann’s demise? The need to resolve the new offenses offered up by the likes of less talented teams such as Northwestern and Purdue. The turning point was the offensive explosion on November 4, 2000 in Evanston against the Wildcats. I remember it well, Lew and I were there and witnessed one of the craziest games. Northwestern, on the way to its 54-51 victory tallied six hundred and fifty four yards (654!) in the game. 332 of that came on the ground. To put things in perspective, at the current pace the 2006 bunch would yield that many yards after 18 games. The result? Herrmann went to the drawing board and added more complexity. Once again, he added some special schemes to the base defense to stop offenses like Northwestern’s Mad Logicians.
Herrmann steered the M defense into a state of mediocrity after years of adjustments and tweaks, trying to bob and weave as opposing offenses changed and his mix of players changed, and as the Wolverine offensive puttered along. Was it good enough? Sure, Michigan had success but overall the answer is no. Last season’s second half breakdowns that resulted in five losses was the final straw.
The net of all this tinkering was confusion. The defense had too much to learn and remember after the snap of the ball. Instead of the physical, athletic players reacting, they were thinking. If thoughts weren’t clear they were hesitating. The cost of hesitance or indecision in the Big Ten can mean 6, even with Northwestern. Look at that ridiculous 61-yard run by Gary Russell that gave Michigan the 3 point win in the final second last season.
The irony here is that it looks like Herrmann actually solved the problem: Michigan has been great against the spread over the past couple years. But the cost of stopping the spread was a series of kinks in the rest of Michigan’s armor. Not good enough.
Ron English has brought the one thing that the talented Michigan players needed: simplicity. They’ve been let loose to do what they do best. After 4 games in 2006 they now have something else they lost over the Herrmann years: a swagger.