Monday, May 25, 2009

The Magic of Rodriguez in Year 2?

Spring practice concluded several weeks ago. Michigan Wolverine football players will be participating in the so called "voluntary summary workouts".

The Michigan football team returns 10 offensive starters and just 5 defensive starters for the 2009 campaign. Pundits love to refer frequently to Rich Rodriguez's supposed "magic" in Year 2 of his coaching stints, and about how such magic might rub off on Michigan this fall:

1991: Glenville State 4-5-1 as HC (GVSU was 1-7-1 in 1990)

1998: Tulane 12-0 as OC (Tulane was 7-4 in 1997)

2000: Clemson 9-3 as OC (Clemson was 6-6 in 1999)

2002: West Virginia 9-4 as HC (West Virginia was 3-8 in 2001)

2009: Michigan ?

Let's quickly review Rodriguez most recent coaching assignment at West Virginia.

2001 - Year 1
In 2001, West Virginia was coming off a 7-5 season under Don Nehlen and a Music City bowl win over Mississippi. Offensively, outgoing coach Nehlen did not leave the cupboard entirely bare:

Sports Illustrated's prediction:

WVU went out and found themselves a former player and graduate as the new head coach. Not only that but Rich Rodriguez comes from a Clemson program where he was the offensive coordinator of a system that broke over 35 offensive school records. Morgantown shows all the promises of a fireworks display come fall Saturdays. The only problem in that equation for this fall is that the entire front wall has disappeared completely.

OFFENSE: 4 Starters
West Virginia lost star WR Kory Ivy, and the entire offensive line save one.
Returning starting players included QBs Brad Lewis and Scott McBrien (eventual transfer to Maryland), tailback Avon Cobourne, WR Antonio Brown and a senior guard named Brad Nell. Rodriguez did have the benefit of a veteran crew of wideouts, however, including Shawn Terry, AJ Nastasi, Phil Braxton and Mike Page.

DEFENSE: 9 Starters
Chris Edmonds and David Carter graduated, but all others came back.
This was the perhaps the most encouraging sign for the 2001 season for West Virginia.
If the offense sucked, at least the defense could hold the team together long enough (UM football fans might find that concept eerily familiar). West Virginia college football prognosticators stated in the preseason: "the defense alone is going to win some ballgames."

In the end, the offense moved the ball inconsistently all season and threw a starting number of turnovers (19 INTs!). The WVU defense was one of the best defensive teams in the land against the pass, but was godawful against the run.

West Virginia finished 3-8 in 2001.

2002 - Year 2
A year later, in 2002, West Virginia was no where near the Top 25 or even Top 50 teams in the country. There were few reasons to pay any close attention to the Mountaineers following a 3-8 season and unknown Rich Rodriguez at the helm.

But something strange happened in this second year of the new system.

Sports Illustrated's preseason prediction:

He ran for over 1000 yards every season since entering the program, even during the dry spell. Senior to be Avon Cobourne may not receive the recognition most athletes at high level universities receive, but his stats are undeniably one of the reasons WVU is a legit running threat. In a wide spread operation under the control of Head Coach Rich Rodriguez, Avon has the ability to catch the pigskin as well. He represents the total package, excelling at running, catching, and blocking. The spring showed more use of the power formation, locating a big fullback could really help and Moe Fofana just might be that guy. With new quarterbacks lining up for 2002, Avon's legs are going to need to carry some weight. To run this complex offensive system, the man at the helm has to be athletic and a quick thinker. Enter Rasheed Marshall, a ball player that maintains excellent speed and the ability to make decisions without hesitation. Brad Lewis was a better than descent pick for playing QB, but his game just never seemed to take hold last fall.

OFFENSE: 7 starters
Key offensive losses included Brad Lewis-QB, Cooper Rego-SB, Antonio Brown-WR, Shawn Terry-WR, Shawn Swindall-WR (backup), Brad Knell-OG, Brenden Rauh-K, Derek Jones-QB (backup- transferred). In 2002 The QB position would be precarious: Sophomore Rasheed Marshall with 4 games experienced prior to breaking his wrist and unknown freshman Danny Embick. The running game would not be deep, but would be talented and experienced with Avon Cobourne and Quincy Wilson. The OL which had 1 returning starter in 2001, would have everyone back in 2002 except OG Brad Nell. Jeff Berk would replace Nell. With a QB of questionable arm strength and throwing accuracy, and no proven wideout to cash deep balls, Rodriguez would throw most of the weight of his playbook behind the now indoctrinated offensive line and the crazy legs of Rasheed Marshall, Avon Cobourne, Quincy Wilson.

DEFENSE: 6 starters
Graduation losses were evenly distributed accross the DL (2), LB corps (1) and secondary (2), but this group would retain a lot of experience and talent. In 2002, Rodriguez changed the defense from a 4-4 to the infamous 3-3-5 with Grant Wiley the most damaging-inflicting tackler. Ironically, RR new focus would be on stopping the run and hoping his experienced secondary, now in a 5-man configuration would be good enough to match the previous year's passing defense numbers.

Rodriguez's adjustments in year 2 worked remarkably well both offensively and defensively . The Mountaineers quite literally shredded the opposition on the ground finishing 2nd in the nation in rushing yards (and 108th in passing yards). Tailback Avon Cobourne had a coming out party rushing for over 1,000 and crossing the goal line 17 times alone. In fact, West Virginia found itself in the end zone 38 times in 2002. Is that number significant? Well, yes. That's a lot of rushing touchdowns. But the delta is what makes this number most interesting in that one year before RichRod's grew rushed for only 16 touchdowns. The 2002 adjustments (year 2) led the Mountaineers to 22 more rushing TDs!

Is past performance always indicative of future results? No. Not always.
But we may be observing some interesting parallels between Rodriguez's earlier coaching jobs, the adjustment of moving from a pro-set, multiple I-formation offense and even 4-4 defenses to the spread offense and 3-3-5 defense. There also appear to be a number of striking similarities between the 2001-2002 seasons at West Virginia and Michigan's 2008-2009 football seasons, although Rodriguez and the young Wolverine team have all their disclosures to make this coming September.

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