ANN ARBOR — Doug Nussmeier won the Walter Payton Award in 1993 as the nation’s top Division I-AA football player while playing quarterback at the University of Idaho. He embarked on a coaching career that began in 1998 with the Canadian Football League, then moved through the college ranks and to the NFL.
Nussmeier groomed Michigan State quarterbacks Jeff Smoker and Drew Stanton, and helped shape Marc Bulger into an NFL-ready quarterback with the St. Louis Rams. He molded Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron into an integral piece of two BCS championship teams.
Now, with the heat on not only Michigan coach Brady Hoke but on the Wolverines as a whole, will Nussmeier be able to work the same wizardry at Michigan?
As one of the nation’s highest-paid offensive coordinators, does he feel a certain pressure to succeed?
“It’s all how you look at it,” said Nussmeier, who will earn $830,000 in his first season at UM. “There’s always excitement and pressure that you put on yourself. For me, the expectation at Michigan is extremely high, and that’s the way you want it.”
At the start of fall camp, Nussmeier outlined his vision for his offense at Michigan into a physical, explosive unit. Nussmeier, 43, acknowledged there are intangibles that also need to be defined, subjective characteristics that are discussed on a daily basis.
Players said they could grasp an understanding of Nussmeier’s system, one that takes into consideration every possible issue that could arise on the field, and craft a response from that.
But Nussmeier’s players acknowledge this: in a new, high-tempo system that emphasizes attention to detail, there’s no margin for error.
“He’s very, very stout in his ways,” running back Drake Johnson said. “He’s very solid. He wants things perfect. He wants things done right every time. That’s good for us. We need that. We need solidarity. We need people to push us. He’s definitely the coach for that.”
Added sophomore quarterback Shane Morris, “You’d better do it his way or you’re not going to be doing it for very long. He’s very intense. He wants things done right.”
In replacing former offensive coordinator Al Borges, Nussmeier faces a challenge not just in taking a new job, but in re-tooling UM’s offense and molding it into his vision of being strong on the pass and balanced on the run. Nussmeier has an experienced quarterback in Devin Gardner, who returns from a broken left foot and torn ligaments that kept him on crutches for four months, and has a deep receiving corps that includes Devin Funchess.
On the flip side, Nussmeier also oversees three inexperienced running backs — Derrick Green (83 carries for 270 yards, two touchdowns in 2013), De’Veon Smith (26 carries for 117 yards in 2013), and Johnson, who missed last season with a knee injury — and an offensive line that lost its starting tackles to the NFL and went through well-publicized growing pains last season.
"Getting Doug Nussmeier as an offensive coordinator will help them," ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit said. "I know they had a three-year run there with Rich [Rodriguez], and it changed the DNA and philosophy in recruiting. I know it's taken Brady [Hoke] time to recruit the players to help get him back to that pro-style offense.“
What helps Michigan’s cause, Herbstreit said, is sheer depth.
"That's going to help them become more dominant up front,” Herbstreit said. “Nussmeier comes in at the right time. Michigan's going to try to run the football downhill.”
When the season opens on Saturday against Appalachian State, neither Gardner nor Nussmeier will be judged by progression. They’ll be judged by results. After a lackluster 2013, so will Michigan.
“That’s why you coach at Michigan,” Nussmeier said. “That’s why you play at Michigan. You embrace it. There’s a lot of guys who’ve played in this program and who’ve coached in this program that have set a standard. You want to be a part of that.”
■ Aug. 30: Appalachian St., noon
■ Sep. 6: at Notre Dame, 7:30
■ Sep. 13: Miami (Ohio), 3:30
■ Sep. 20: Utah, TBA
■ Sep. 27: Minnesota, TBA
■ Oct. 4: at Rutgers, 7
■ Oct. 11: Penn State, 7
■ Oct. 25: at Michigan State, TBA
■ Nov. 1: Indiana, 3:30
■ Nov. 8: at Northwestern, TBA
■ Nov. 22: Maryland, TBA
■ Nov. 29: at Ohio State, TBA
WHAT OTHERS ARE SAYING
■ “They have a great defensive coordinator [Greg Mattison] but the defense is designed to stop the run and it’s become more of a passing league in some ways. … I think they were very meager running the football. The statistical things you evaluate — offensive line, rushing yards, yards per carry — they were pretty poor in those areas.” — Unnamed opposing coach to Athlon Sports
■ “For Michigan to get back to the Bo Schembechler-, Lloyd Carr-type of Michigan, to me, it’s about getting their defense to being a physical, athletic defense. Time will tell us if Greg Mattison has a bunch who can do that. On paper, there’s a lot to like there. We’ll find out if some of these freshmen are as good as we’re hearing.” — Kirk Herbstreit, ESPN
■ “UM’s defense, with my No. 1 LBs and No. 1 DBs in the Big Ten, will more resemble the 2012 unit. If [Doug] Nussmeier can develop the OL, they should be able to top last year’s wins but by playing both Michigan State and Ohio State on the road, they will have a tough time winning the East.” — Phil Steele