Program Saviors – Quarterback or a Strong Safety?

Written Ramblings by DJ

Stoops didn't revive the Oklahoma program with a 5 star quarterback ...

The Michigan – Notre Dame Game last Saturday night was an instant classic.  These are two storied programs trying to get back to the legendary status in college football.  The Fighting Irish haven’t won a bowl game in 15 years and the Wolverines won about four games in the Big Ten over the past three years.  The key personnel were hyped before the game:  Tommy Rees/Dayne Christ (ND QBs) and Denard Robinson (Michigan QB).  All eyes on the skill position players but no talk about defense.  This is the main reason behind the slow progress of these programs.

Everybody searches for the turning point or the “savior” during a rough patch for a football program.  These “saviors” can come in the form of a coach or a player.  The coach gets the brunt of the credit and blame but the fans usually scrutinize the skill position players.  During the offseason the Fighting Irish faithful were worried about Kelly’s offensive system and the quarterback: Christ or Rees.  The Michigan fans were concerned if Denard Robinson can stay healthy and continue to bust 70 yard touchdown runs.  But can a position player spark a program?  Brady Quinn/Golden Tate could only take Notre Dame to a certain level so why expect Tommy Rees/Michael Floyd to do any better?  Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson won the “September Heisman” over the last two seasons but the team could not sustain their success throughout the season. I don’t think the skill players can turn a program around by themselves.  The media and the fans are obsessed with them but this is not a good approach towards getting back into national title contention.  I am not talking about if these programs can come back to premier status again but how they can get there quickly.  If we look at the history of programs that rebound from tough patches, we notice that the saviors come in the form of Safeties or Linebackers … the names that you don’t hear or even remember over time.  Let’s examine such programs that have rebounded to become a consistent contender again.

Oklahoma wasn’t a national contender after Barry Schwitzer left for the National Football League (I think NFL would sue me if I don’t spell out the whole thing).  They hired Bob Stoops in the late 90s to revive the program and Oklahoma won the BCS championship in 2000.  They beat a stacked Florida State team with Heisman winner Chris Weinke and Peter Warrick (top five NFL pick).  Josh Huepel was their quarterback and he had half the talent of Rees or Christ.  But Roy Williams was an All American strong safety who led a defense that gave up less than 20 points the whole season.  University of Miami (The U) went through the probation period in the 90s and was itching for a comeback.  Butch Davis brought in a hard hitting attitude to the program before he left for a Sunday coaching job.  Larry Coker continued that group of players to appear in two BCS championship games with a quarter back who probably couldn’t bench more than his own weight – Ken Dorsey.  He was a “game manager” that overachieved but The U won the title by being a defensive menace.  The 2001 national championship team had Ed Reed (HOF safety), Philip Buchanan and Jonathan Vilma who ended up as first round NFL picks and enjoyed successful pro careers.  Nebraska could not cope up with the linebackers’ speed on the other side.  Their gimmicky option schemes were pointless.   Miami was part of a “dynasty” talk in 2002 but they lost to a surprising team in the BCS championship game – the Ohio State buckeyes.

OSU fired John Cooper in 2001 b/c he couldn’t beat Michigan and the Buckeyes weren’t really considered a national power. Jim Tressel turned it around in a couple years.  The program’s saviors weren’t quarterbacks or wide outs but once again, it was their linebackers and safeties.  Mike Doss (strong safety) and Matt Wilhelm (linebacker) surprised Miami with their speed and snuck up to win the title.  Their quarterback was Craig Krenzel who wanted to go to Medical school after graduation but had no interest in the NFL.  He would have been lucky to even get drafted.  Guess who dominated the BCS the next few years?  Another program that used a similar formula – South California!  USC couldn’t even win their rivalry games against UCLA in the 90s, let alone live up to national title expectations that they were accustomed to in the 80s.  A guy named Troy Polamalu headlined a ridiculous defense that shut down the likes of Oklahoma and Michigan to win titles in the early part of ‘00s.

A more recent example is Alabama who won their first national championship in about 20 years b/c they had defensive studs.  These players left the NFL scouts salivating.  You think their skill position players were their “saviors?”   In a fantasy draft with the college players, none of their offensive players (Greg McElroy, Julio Jones) would be drafted b/c they can’t give you consistent points.  I agree that the coach is a significant ingredient for change within a program especially one that is trying to make it back.  But the more important element is how that coach approaches the turnaround.  You can’t keep schools such as Michigan, USC, Alabama or Miami down for too long.  They can always recruit using their name but the type of players they recruit is the game changer.  Brian Kelly’s teams in Cincinnati were known for their offense.  Willingham and Weiss’ quarterbacks were under scrutiny, not their defensive group.  Rich Rod’s offensive schemes were analyzed, but not whether he can put up a defensive front that can stop the run against the rest of the Big Ten.  The fans worry about Denard’s ability to break a big run but he shouldn’t have to do that every game … not if Brady Hoke can recruit some linebackers to stop the run.  It shouldn’t matter if Rees is better than Christ; it matters if they can stop anybody in crunch time.

That is exactly what happened during Saturday’s game.  Neither team could stop each other during the 4th quarter which resulted in three touchdowns over the last two minutes.  Denard was a hero once again but there is NO WAY the offensive coordinator calls a pass play with eight seconds left against a top 30 ranked defense such as Ohio State or Wisconsin.  Bo Schembechler’s name came up repeatedly during Saturday night’s broadcast.  He didn’t care about the “spread offense” or if his quarterbacks could execute complicated plays.  Michigan was known for their vaunted defensive units during their best years.  I remember being at the Illinois – Michigan game in 2000 and was in awe of the Wolverines.   Victor Hobson, the middle linebacker looked like an Illinois defensive tackle and possessed a running back’s speed.  Illinois players looked like a high school team trying to run the ball against Michigan.  That kind of a defensive player is not there anymore.  The skill players will come but they should search for that defensive stud and more importantly, that tough mentality.  Hoke was a defensive coordinator at Michigan and hopefully he will install an intense system.  The Michigan and Notre Dame fans should stop worrying about their quarterbacks and worry about their team’s ability to tackle (ND’s issue) or cover the best receiver on the opposing team (Michigan’s glaring problem).  Program saviors don’t always come in the form of quarterbacks but a defense whose intensity is contagious.  This formula has worked in the past. Hoke and Kelly can ask Carroll, Saban and Stoops how they were able to win quickly despite the unrealistic expectations.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: