Charts and Chalk: 2013 Minnesota Football Spring Game

Scott Halleran

Feel the need to overanalyze the Spring Game? Me too!

You've read the recaps, watched the highlights and delved into the quotes embedded within fish wrap analysis of the Gophers 2013 Spring Game. And yet, if you're anything like me, this wasn't enough for your insatiable football appetite. You want even more, perhaps more analysis than a 2,000 calorie FDA suggested daily maximum recommends.

I hear your plea, gridiron glutton, for I am of like mind.

Here's how this is going to work: I'm going to display some Spring Game data in infographic form, then I'll share my observations and I'll conclude with a breakdown of some interesting schematic stuff from the game that may or may not be relevant for the upcoming season. Yeah, charts and chalk.

If all goes well, this will serve as a model for my in-season game reviews this fall. Improved upon, of course.

Before we begin

Some matchup related thoughts I jotted down before I actually reviewed the DVR. First, full disclosure, I watched the YouTube highlights and built out the database for the game already, so I generally had an idea about what to expect. Still, any good review of data needs the qualitative in addition to quantitative to form a complete picture, so that's why I even bothered watching in exhaustive detail.

Anyway, interesting matchups on paper. First team defensive tackles Cameron Botticelli and Scott Ekpe are squaring off against the second team interior lineup of Tommy Olson, 4th string center Ernie Heifort and Caleb Bak. Olson and Bak each have multi year starting experience, while I fully expect the latter to re-emerge as the #1 RG at the conclusion of fall camp unless something whacky happens. Since your center is rarely blocking a dude 1-on-1 (unless a slide protection is called on a passing play), I'd rate the talent/experience levels of this particular matchup relatively equal. OPrime would have the upper hand here but he ain't playing.

On the flip side, Zac Epping, Jon Christenson and redshirt freshman Joe Bjorklund are pitted against a pair of 270 lbs. tackles who didn't play a down last year. Advantages are clearly with the 1's here.

Alex Keith and Theiren Cockran should dominate their second and third string tackle opponents if they're ready to emerge as starting caliber defensive ends.

I don't have a good handle on the linebackers prior to watching the game, so this is an area of emphasis.

In the secondary, if Derrick Engel is squared off against Jeremy Baltazar, Philip Nelson should look his way. A lot. With the #1 DBs, very curious to see how Eric Murray and Briean Boddy look, considering both are competing for the starting job opposite Derrick Wells (and not Martez Shabazz).

Charts

Infographic statistical summarization using standard stuff, like yards per play and yards per rush, plus Football Outsiders advanced (i.e. derived) statistics. Refer to Football Study Hall for a full glossary of terms, though here's my one sentence quickie reference guide for the charts below:

S&P: A stat that reflects a team's play-by-play explosiveness and efficiency. Think OPS, for football. Applies for overall, running and passing plays.

Leverage rate: Ratio of "standard" or non-obvious passing downs out of total plays.

Dropbacks: Passing attempts plus sacks.

2013sg-infographic_medium

Observations

- One of the running threads I've read from the hivemind after the Spring Game center around a general feeling of letdown with the first team offensive line. I noted as much myself in the notebook, specifically writing:

I am a little underwhelmed by the first team OL's run blocking right now, though this could be a product of better LB than I was expecting. Still, they should be able to get a huge surge and the push has been adequate so far, notwithstanding a few huge runs and TD plunges.

Even looking at adjusted line yards was inconclusive at getting to the truth: the unadjusted national average for 2012 was 2.41 per, a figure bested in the 1st quarter by nearly a yard (3.25, to be exact) while the 2nd quarter was almost a yard short of the national averages (1.5).

Still, I've annotated the infographic with my best interpretation of the data. When you only run the ball 4 times in a quarter, including 2 attempts within the 3 yard line, yards averages will suffer from less yardage available. That's where S&P sheds more light on the "value" produce from said rushes; scoring a touchdown on the ground and grinding out half the necessary yards at any particular distance on first and second downs half the time will show up as a successful attack -- as they should.

Lastly, when discussing the offensive line's performance --specifically the first team OL-- one has to consider that Campion and Epping sat the entire second half, bumping up Foster Bush to RT#1, Joe Bjorklund to LG#1 and giving Isaac Hayes a run with the first teamers at RG. Really, the first half is our only reference point for the projected starters.

Ultimately, the point from my halftime notes and the cloud commentary have merit. The #1 OL did a pretty good job on the aggregate, though considering who they were matched up against, it could have been more emphatic. Disclaimer, however, is that this is a spring game and the objective is not to go balls deep in Maryland-I, getting everyone on your team hurt.

- Mixed thoughts on Joe Bjorklund as the starting right guard or first team caliber linemen in general. He moves really well for a taller linemen and had good feed. He finished his pulls by locating his defender in space most of the time and played with adequate pad level the majority of snaps I saw. However, a few things stood out, not the least of which was how often shorter tackles like Jordan Hinojosa got underneath his pads and were able to out-leverage him into the backfield. He's also a better right guard than a left guard at this point, though right guard has a more linear path to playing time than on the left side (Epping isn't giving up his spot until he graduates). On balance, his extended playing time with the 1's this spring has more to do with Bak missing nearly all of the practices on weekdays and not that Joe simply out-played him.

Out of your redshirt freshmen crop, Ben Lauer looked the part in pass protection while Isaac Hayes is a more athletic Epping with quicker feet. I won't steal Howard Griffith's #TAKE that Hayes will start moving up in the OL rotation rather quickly (as in this season), though I do concur Chef is the type of guard you want to build a power running game behind.

- Linebackers are still up in the air for me. I like what Damien Wilson and Jack Lynn bring to the table in the middle. Both are instinctive players who can shed blocks -- a novel concept for a linebacker. Wilson in particular has those Mike LB superlatives you look for, though his top end and sideline-to-sideline speed is only average. One thing I noticed with Wilson is how aggressive and physical he is when he takes on blockers; when he engages linemen in the gaps, he "fits" in the middle of the lane which forces a back to either side rather than straight through. Lynn still appears on the lighter side for a Mike LB but that has more to do with his taller frame than truly tipping the scales on the low end of ideal.

Beyond those two, things are less clear.

Aaron Hill is Aaron Hill: a guy who worked himself into a starting caliber LB over the last two years and fairly good in pass coverage but lacking the ideal athletic characteristics (not to mention run read instincts) that you'd want out of an OLB. He's the most consistent out of the bunch on the outside, though that doesn't say much. Lamonte and Manuel have the opposite problem: athleticism in spades, excellent speed but miss as many plays as they make. Nick Rallis has better instincts than his older brother did (especially at this stage in their development) and plays tough albeit undersized (duh).

We're staring down the barrel of a fall camp battle at OLB between De'Vondre Campbell, one of the incoming true freshmen and Manuel/Lamonte. That's a scary thought considering improving the run defense with the front seven is the single biggest to-do on Claeys' list for this upcoming season.

- Defensive line may have yielded the best collection of surprises from the game. As I noted above, if Cockran and Keith are ready to make the jump as legit BCS caliber sack artists, they would absolutely destroy the second team's offensive tackles and tight ends. Destroy was an understatement. The pair finished with 5.5 TFLs and 3 sacks, with a highlight reel blasting of Leidner from TC, who amazingly slowed down near impact to avoid injuring Mitch where he stood. If their collective speed rush capabilities put on display during the spring game are any sort of preview for the season, we won't have to wonder who will step up and replace D.L. Wilhite. In fact, these two plus Michael Amaefula and a locked in OPrime may be even better pass rushers than the 2012 group.

Another surprise was Harold Legania, a forgotten man in the DT rotation for the last 2 years but didn't look out of place at all during the spring game. He grabbed half a TFL and an uncredited PBU, showing that he may be ready to step into playing time with RoJo still recovering from ACL surgery. Botticelli was Botticelli, your quintessential hustle and motor guy that still plays with less than ideal gap discipline for my liking. Scott Ekpe had zero stats from the Spring Game, which is indicative of nothing and everything at the same time.

Hinojosa and Timms round out the list of unexpected contributions. Both used their low center of gravity and quickness to out-leverage taller offensive guards, making quite a few plays in the backfield each and getting penetration with regularity. While I think it's a little early to declare either or both will receive heavy PT this fall, they're worth keeping an eye on down the road as they gain more bulk (each are listed in the 270's, too small to play consistently in the B1G). Hank Ekpe, on the other hand, needs more seasoning. On two separate occasions (as indicated by Coach Limegrover via the in-game radio broadcast), Ekpe lost backside contain on double reverses to Fruechte in which he was the targeted defender on the play.

- Secondary played about to the level I expected. Murray and Boddy weren't tested all that much down field and when they were, coverage was tight. I can see why the staff is so high on Murray: he's a tall, long armed and quick corner with good hip flexibility to turn and mirror receivers. Boddy has excellent speed that should come in handy on boundary blitzes, as he put on display at the Spring Game with a sack. Antonio Johnson is a physical player in the alleys, though some of his fits coming down were off (more on this in a bit).

I find it a bit interesting that Travis got the starting nod with the Maroons over Johnson, especially since Johnson was the #1 nickel safety against TTU. Johnson and Travis were also the second leading tacklers for their respective teams, if that's supposed to mean anything. Levine played very well and may have put himself in the conversation at safety, though that group is deep with Thompson, Vereen and the two sophs.

Lastly, some not unexpected but still negative outcomes of the SG. First, there was some sort of coverage breakdown on Leidner's TD pass to Hutton, since he was left all alone on the goal line without a defender within 10 yards. It appears as though Murray released the WR to safety help over the top, though without direct knowledge of the secondary call, I can't say for certain. Baltazar? Um yeah. JB was torched on consecutive passing plays by Engel/Nelson, reminiscent of something I noticed from extended review of the MCC Bowl -- namely, Baltazar has pretty stiff hips and gets beat on cuts with regularity. He's a strong tackler from the boundary spot, so he has value as a spare defender against running teams, though he can be a liability out there in 1-on-1 coverage. There's a reason why Wells, Murray, Boddy and Shabazz are ahead of him on the depth chart.

- On to offense, the performance of the wide receivers/tight ends made me breathe a little easier. Engel looked like the de facto #1 WR, much like he did towards the end of 2012 after a dude who won't be mentioned quit the team. Jamel Harbison needs a call up to the first team, like immediately. His route running, especially the sharp yet fluid cuts, plus an ability to make adjustments in stride to poorly thrown passes is superb. He is the most natural receiver the Gophers have and he may have the best hands of any WR on the roster as well. HarBROson and Maye form a nice 1-2 punch at slot receiver, though you can tell Maye is still raw and Jamel has that "it" factor (on both of Maye's drops, I grumbled to myself "grrrrrrr Jamel would have caught that mumble mumble").

I get the distinct sense the coaches are waiting for Fruechte and/or DCT (and maybe McDonald, if he comes back in the fall) to break out and become a legitimate flanker. The issue, however, is 2 of those dudes didn't even play in the Spring Game, while the other has simply not elevated his game to that level yet. It's a good thing Nelson has diversified receiving options like Engel, Harbison, Maye and his tight ends, since Fruechte only had 2 targets the entire game.

Speaking of tight ends, Maxx Williams looked good. Really good. As in best receiving TE the Gophers have had in a while good. There's a few things he needs to work on to improve his overall game (namely, some improved lower body flexibility to correct an awkward looking gait and better blocking fundamentals) but Maxx does provide an extra dimension to the passing game that the Gophers haven't had the past two seasons. Add in a player like Goodger who traditionally lines up on the line but can sneak out on routes and there are suddenly options available to the Minnesota quarterbacks.

That said, Williams' ability to see the field this fall is largely dependent on how quickly he can improve his blocking technique, since his presence is a strong tell that the pass is coming.

- Nelson was very sharp during the Spring Game, looking much more comfortable with the offense than at any point last season. A perfect 10/10 in the first half will grab most of the attention, though even more important to me was the placing of his passes exactly where they needed to be. He just as easily could have finished 15/17 had Maye caught two passes that hit him in the hands, while his other two passes were broken up on good plays by defensive backs. He was ruthlessly efficient, leaving no doubt about who's the top dog at quarterback.

Just about everyone was impressed with Leidner's running ability, and so was I. That said, he has a long way to go before I'd be comfortable with him as my starting quarterback, and his post mid-range accuracy to date leaves me a little nervous about calling him in for relief duty should anything happen to Mankato Jesus. Streveler's mind is mush at the moment, which is not at all unexpected since he should still be in high school. He's exactly where Nelson and Leidner were a year ago.

Chalk

- Remember Nelson's zone read scamper for 20 yards? Yeah, that thing was filthy.

2013gophersgnelsonzr-o

What made this particular ZR variant even more filthy was how Limegrover and Nelson set it up with heavy doses of Power before hand. Everyone and their brother knows the Gophers love to run Power; pulling guards are a staple of the Limegrover offensive line. With that in mind, opposing defenses traditionally "key" on where guards are pulling to determine the direction of the play. In fact, there's an old adage for this: "guards never lie."

Well, guards do lie, and do so quite often. Since linebackers and safeties are so focused on flowing in the direction of the pulling guards to get their proper run fits, it can potentially leave them vulnerable to misdirection. Hence, the set up with Nelson's successful ZR.

2013sg-zr_medium

The real key to this particular play was how close Johnson moves towards the LOS, giving him a poor pursuit angle as Nelson spills to the open field. With Engel chasing off the CB, there's no defender within range to tackle Nelson before he goes out of bounds.

This was really a well drawn-up zone read, and more in line with what I expect out of this section of the playbook going forward. It was so good, in fact, that I almost wish the staff hadn't put it on film.

- Sticking with the theme of pulling guards, Limegrover threw another interesting wrinkle into the running game repertoire. Rather than having your guard pull into the A/B gaps 20 times a game, he had them do the opposite: pull outward to the C/D gaps. This offtackle gap attack help spring Nugget on his 29 yard jaunt, setting up the first Maroon touchdown.

2013sg-nuggetrun_medium

At first, I thought this was simply a method of adding a little variety/deception into the running game to avoid becoming stale from a heavy dose of Power/inside zone plays. It also has the potential to put running backs into the open field without the need to run a slower developing draw or sweep.

Then, it dawned on me: this is 1/3rd of the way to a pin and pull block. Of course.

- When Cole Banham was in the game with the second team offense, there was heavy (and by that, I mean frequent) use of what I'll refer to as a "Power draw." The action of the linemen is to drop back as if to signal pass, only to lead with a pulling guard and attack between the tackles on a delayed hand off. What this suggests, to me at least, is the staff has additional tricks up their sleeves to get running backs with speed to the second level. Moreover, I feel this type of designed run is perfect for a guy like Berkley Edwards; Of the current running backs on the roster, Banham's size and speed most closely resembles the incoming Berkley's.

- Limegrover showed off two different types of wide receiver running plays: the fake option reverse and the jet sweep. It should be a tautology but the goal of each play is very different. With the sweep, the aim is to get your wide receiver into the boundary or field quickly. With a reverse, the offense is attempting to isolate the backside defensive end and hope he breaks contain to chase the option (which Hank Ekpe did twice).

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