After Kenny Demens' first start against Iowa this year, I was skeptical of the amount of praise being heaped upon him. What I saw was a raw young talent that showed some problems in pass coverage. One play in question was an Iowa touchdown that came because Demens failed to properly cover his zone, allowing a dragging receiver to run unabated into the endzone. The incriminating moment:
But against Illinois on Saturday, Demens showed that he's learned from his mistake and properly diagnosed a dragging receiver in what is a shockingly similar play--very likely designed by Illinois to exploit the same pass coverage problems Michigan's linebackers showed against Iowa.
There are a few subtle differences between the Illinois (bottom) and
Iowa (top) plays in pre-snap alignment. Against Iowa, Michigan showed a
four-man front, with four underneath defenders and cover-3. Iowa had
three receivers, a tight end to the left of Stanzi, and a running back
in the backfield, while taking the snap under center. Illinois had a
similar three-receiver setup, but took the snap in the shotgun with a
running back next to Nathan Scheelhaase. Iowa dragged its tight end
across the formation, running a mesh route with the weakside receiver.
Illinois runs a crossing pattern between the weakside, dragging
receiver and the tight end.
On the snap, Michigan rushes the three down linemen and drops eight players into coverage.
A moment later, there are two things to watch. First in the crossing
pattern by the tight end and receiver on the bottom of the screen. The
receiver is crossing under the tight end and beginning to drag across
the formation. The other thing to watch is Cam Goron on top of the
screen, who is charged with re-routing the slot receiver, much like
Avery was supposed to do in the same play against Iowa.
Gordon is still engaged with the slot receiver at the top of the screen. Demens is sitting in the middle of the field and looking into the backfield. But sometime between now and the next shot, Demens recognizes the weakside receiver dragging in front of him.
Here, Demens starts to run with the receiver before he's past him. This
means that Demens saw the play developing and was in position to react
at the right time. Gordon, meanwhile, has successfully re-routed the
slot receiver (look at the two receivers at the top of the screen:
they're within feet of one another because of Gordon's play). It's also
interesting to note his depth: Gordon has carried his receiver all the
way to the first down marker, much like Avery did against Iowa, which he
was widely chastised for in the blogosphere. But the thing that Gordon did that Avery
failed to, was turn the correct way back to the play. He's now looking
into the backfield and able to stop anything that's coming through that
A moment later and Demens is releasing the dragging receiver from
his zone because he has more help underneath. Unlike in the Iowa play,
Michigan has two defenders on either side of Demens, allowing him to
carry the receiver for less time. Demens is properly passing that
receiver off to Obi Ezeh.
Scheelhaase steps up into the pocket in an effort to scramble for a
few yards. Demens' momentum is carrying him past the play, but it's OK
because of the amount of help defense he has around him.
Demens is the Michigan player diving (and missing) for Scheelhaase
here, which is fine. As you can see, Scheelhaase is contained by four
different Michigan players in front of him. He'll eventually scramble
for 10 yards, just short of the first down, but the play will be called
back on a hold regardless.
The best part about this play is that it's obvious that Demens is learning, the lack of which was one of the biggest complaints about Ezeh's tenure as the starting middle linebacker. In the span of two games, Demens went from completely clueless to perfectly playing nearly identical plays. With continued playing time, this is evidence that we can likely expect Demens to progress in his pass coverage skills. Whether or not we encounter more crippling mistakes like Demens showed against Iowa in order to get to these moments is yet to be seen, but at least for now, we know his ability to recognize, diagnose, and execute plays is improving.
On an unrelated note, the play of Gordon here lends further credence to my belief that Courtney Avery might be a decent solution at corner, whether or not JT Floyd is healthy. Against Iowa, Avery made a bad play by turning his head away from the action, pulling him out of position on Demens' blown coverage. But it's clear that he correctly identified his assignment and executed it well, staying within his zone and properly re-routing the slot receiver. So while Michigan's defense is young, it appears as though there are promising prospects and, more importantly, they're actually learning from their mistakes, something we haven't seen in the Rich Rod era.