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Big Ten Media Days 2014: Brady Hoke, Michigan move forward w/ inside zone scheme

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After moving on from ex-offensive coordinator Al Borges in the off-season, Michigan turned heads by hiring ex-Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. What does that mean for Michigan's playbook and style?

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Let's take a trip down memory lane, back to the 2013 BCS National Championship Game between Notre Dame and Alabama. Heading into the game, one of the key battles being talked about was Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier's inside zone scheme and their experienced offensive line versus Notre Dame's mammoth, run-stopping front seven.

A key match-up that Coach Nussmeier needed to examine on the first drive was his 2012 Rimington Award winning center, Barrett Jones versus Notre Dame's gigantic nose guard, Louis Nix III. Nix was nearly unblockable 1-on-1 all season and for the inside zone scheme to work properly, Jones would need to handle Nix without a double team early for them to be able to run their offense properly. To beat Notre Dame's 3-4 defense with the inside zone, the center needs to be able to block the nose guard 1-on-1, to allow the guards to go up and block the inside linebackers. Once Jones or McCarron make the "Mike call," which means that he is identifying the middle linebacker (more difficult than it seems) it then gets the offensive line on the same page to make the correct block.

Here is a basic example of how the Crimson Tide planned on blocking the Fighting Irish 3-4 defense:

Inside zone 3-4

Basic inside zone read blocking concept vs the 3-4 - Al.com

Nussmeier scripted the first series no differently than he did all season: Rush, play-action, rush, rush, rushing touchdown. It took the Alabama offense 5-plays and 82-yards for Nussmeier's inside/outside zone scheme to march down the field on the hyped Notre Dame front seven and effectively end the game only 2:57 into the first quarter.

Here are a couple of plays from the first drive that show the basics of Nussmeier's offense:

Play 1: This was the first play of the game and it was actually one of the few times where the offensive line was not on the same page.

Here, they are running counter versus Notre Dame's basic 3-4 front. The left tackle should be blocking the defensive end, as he is in his zone.

We're not sure if there was a mix up on who the mike linebacker was on the play but the left tackle stepped inside and showed very poor footwork on the play. The safety also blitzed which could have screwed up the tackle.

This play shows the importance of being on the same page and using proper footwork when running the inside zone. If one player misses an assignment, the play will be blown up. Luckily for Alabama, this was one of the few times all night that there was such a major mistake on the offensive line.

Play 2: After seeing how aggressive Notre Dame's defense was against the run on the first play of the game, Nussmeier decided it would be a good time to hit them with play-action out of a typical run formation.

This is a simple, two man route combination, with Amari Cooper (bottom) running a crossing pattern and Kevin Norwood running a corner pattern; Notre Dame is in cover 3.

The field corner (top) bites on play-action and stops his feet, allowing Norwood to gain a few steps on him.

With the field corner already beaten, the safety cannot make it to the sideline while McCarron throws a perfect pass to hit Norwood for the big gain. Alabama's running game opens up play-action and Nussmeier keeps it very simple for his quarterback and receivers.

Play 3: This is the fourth running play and the fifth play of the opening drive. Nussmeier is still feeling out Notre Dame's defense to see how his offensive line will fare against the run-stopping Notre Dame front seven. This is classic Nussmeier inside zone.

After Jones calls out the mike linebacker, the offensive line is set to block their zone. The run is supposed to go through the front side B gap but the inside zone allows monster cut-back lanes for a running back to use his instincts to make plays. The footwork by the offensive linemen needs to be perfect in this scheme.

The left guard was supposed to get up field to the linebacker but the running back pressed the hole, forcing the linebacker to get stuck behind his defensive end and the running back cut-back into a huge running lane for an easy touchdown. This is textbook inside zone and it is the perfect example of what Nussmeier can bring to Michigan's offense.

★★★

With a very young offensive line (they return 36 total starts) it is unfair to expect Michigan to gel like the 2012 Alabama offensive line that had over 130 combined starts heading into the Notre Dame game. Nussmeier installs the inside zone on the first day of spring practice and its success is based on repetition, repetition and repetition. Hoke knows that kind of pedigree that Nussmeier comes from, and knows how how important it is to build that into his squad. Hoke said at Big Ten Media Days that Doug Nussmeier had done a "great job". He mentioned him joining the program with great pedigree, and was living up to it.

Hoke also specifically spoke to Nussmeier's ability and track record in molding quarterbacks.

Former Alabama center William Vlachos described it like this: "It’s a scheme. It’s a concept. You can have play-action off the inside zone. You can line up in the same exact formation and run the outside zone." He then went on to say, "That’s kind of what everything else in the playbook evolves from. They get a lot of reps every single day. When it comes to those crucial moments when it’s something to lean on, those guys are very well prepared to execute it, no matter how good the front seven is or how big the nose guard is. They repeat it and take a lot of pride in it. There’s certainly an asterisk on it in Tuscaloosa."

This scheme can't work unless the offensive line makes the right reads and plays consistently, something that was an issue for Michigan last season. Will there be radical changes on the depth chart? Hoke added at Media Days that the offensive line would start with one unit that was at the top of the depth chart at the end of spring ball, but that near daily change could be on the horizon.

Nussmeier is going to bring simplicity to the Michigan offense, something they lacked under former offensive coordinator Al Borges and the offense will set the tone with a power running game. It may not look pretty year one but once the offensive line grows together and becomes an experienced unit, it has the potential to look like the 2012 Alabama unit. This should also help the development of Devin Gardner, by keeping the passing game simple and working play-action.

If that doesn't happen, Hoke may have to again retreat to the press conference tactic for Big Ten coaches under a lot of pressure. "Why do you coach?," Hoke said. He then proceeded to list the team's graduation numbers and said that the only pressure he feels is "to prepare players academically."