Published August 22, 2013
ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Brady Hoke is an inventor, a genius, a creator. This season at Michigan, he's going to unveil something you don't see in college football:
An offense that involves running ... OVER ... people. Or, through them, either way.
"It's what I believe in,'' Hoke, in his third year as Michigan's coach, told me the other day after the final two-a-day practice of the summer. "It's part of who we are.''
College football is going to the hurry-up, spread offense. It always seemed like a gimmick at first - to spread out defenses and keep them from bullying lesser teams' offenses. There was no way it would work against the best teams. But now, people are getting desperate for a way to hang with Alabama and the SEC.
Now it's mainstream. Texas is going to it this year. Northwestern has been in it for a decade now, using it to climb from the regular spot at the bottom of the Big Ten. Oregon, of course.
Michigan is going the other way. It is switching from the spread to a pro-style set. Hoke ran a spread last year behind quarterback Denard Robinson. Heaven forbid: Fullbacks will hit linebackers now.
"We're physical, and even at the wide receiver position we play smashmouth football,'' receiver Joe Reynolds said.
"People think receivers just look pretty and catch passes,'' Reynolds said. "We're expected to get knockdowns every game.''
So I said that Hoke is an innovator, going to an offense that was theoretically going out of style. But the other possibility is that he's a dinosaur.
And that's the big question here. It's about identity. Not Hoke's so much as Michigan's.
To my own tastes, it feels that he has the right idea. But that might be because I'm a Midwesterner, and smashmouth is sort of a way of life here. That, of course, is illogical. But it's also part of why Michigan fans have been wanting to bring back the old.
Hoke seems like an everyman and has turned on fans at Michigan again by bringing back the Michigan Way. He talks like a regular guy, and plays football the way Michigan fans were used to in the old days, when going to a Wolverines game gave you a certain feel.
What is Michigan football now? Is it still as good as Ohio State? Because it seems to me that the Big Ten is now Ohio State on top, and then a group of teams led by Michigan. But even that's better than things were when Hoke took over. The thing is, Ohio State was dirty, cheated, threw out its coach and even its president. It went on probation.
And how far did it fall? Not far. Urban Meyer led the Buckeyes to an undefeated season last year, on probation. This year, with the freedom to go to a bowl game, the Buckeyes are a very real threat already to win the national championship.
Meyer is chasing Alabama and the SEC. Hoke is forced to chase off the hard feelings left by former coach Rich Rodriguez.
Rodriguez, by the way, is the inventor of the up-tempo spread. Michigan never accepted him, as he wasn't a Michigan guy doing things in a Michigan way.
It's an old story now that Hoke was a longtime assistant at Michigan under Lloyd Carr. He has basically said every right thing since he came back, calling The Ohio State University "Ohio'' and saying that Notre Dame was chickening out of their rivalry.
And he means it, too. He took Michigan to the Sugar Bowl in his first year, and his recruiting class this past season was probably the best in the nation at bringing in offensive linemen.
The problem with the story is that while Michigan celebrates having its own way back, the team was 8-5 last year and got drilled by Alabama (not the biggest sin).
And the uncomfortable thing is in why Hoke was still in the spread at all last year.
"Because we had Denard,'' he said.
Hoke then recited some of Robinson's impressive stats. But I always felt that Robinson was the most over-rated player in America last year. Despite what everyone thinks, this year's quarterback, Devin Gardner is going to be a step up.
Robinson had no accuracy as a passer. Gardner does.
And you get the feeling that Robinson was just forced down Hoke's throat by fans and media who had fallen for him.
That's not a good sign. But Hoke came into a program with a PR mess, and did have to find some amount of giving the fans what they want while rebuilding things his way.
It was a tough balance.
Now, the team is fully back to being what Michigan was. Other than, say, competing for a national championship. That needs to be Hoke's next stop. Two Michigan players told me the team is already as good as, or better than, Ohio State.
Things are still going the right way under Hoke, and this team is going to be better. It might need another year to be fully where Hoke wants it.
But better than Ohio State already? I didn't really want to tell these guys what I thought of that. It seemed like that if I did, they would run me over.