rundown of Michigan's riser
No road out of conference games! Zow!
Michigan opens against Northern Illinois, one of the better MAC teams but one breaking in a new quarterback and rather flimsy-looking on defense. Their grinding ground attack racked up 238 yards a game last year and they were narrowly nipped by BCS teams Maryland and Iowa State. A MAC-opening loss to Toldeo was their only other defeat last year. The Huskies are no joke but they appear ill-equipped to exploit Michigan's weaknesses on defense or even think about slowing down the offense. Michigan should win this going away.
It seemed like a good idea at the time.
Weis E. Coyote and his merry band of NCAA-approved ethnic stereotypes are next. Weird, evil things happened in South Bend last year when a bediapered Henne and a nonexistent Hart blew a 12-0 lead and lost after a series of improbable second-half turnovers. I don't know what to expect from the ND offense. Can Weis install an effective system in a few months? Is Brady Quinn any good? Can Weis transmogrify the brains of Stovall and McKnight and make them into good wide receivers? Chances are that there will be some anxious moments as our safeties and linebackers adjust to playing a non-MAC team, but I don't expect the Irish to go nuts. I do know that the Irish secondary will be wretched, its linebackers middling, and its line game and talented but thin and prone to wearing down. This should be a win, if only for Vijay's sanity.
Eastern Michigan sucks.
The road and Big Ten opener is at Camp Randall, at night. It's Barry Alvarez's last opportunity to not get pwned by the Wolverines, which causes some coach-skeptical souls to fear it, overlooking the fact that Wisconsin is singularly incapable of exploiting our defensive weaknesses and has only a couple proven offensive linemen, a questionable secondary, and John Stocco, who I think is no good at football. I doubt Wisconsin scores more than 14 without aid from turnovers, and Michigan should breach 20 easily. Road opener hex broken.
The Michigan State game is the most important of the year. It starts a set of four critical games for Michigan, the heart of the schedule. MSU was robbed of victory in Ann Arbor last year when Drew Stanton went down and Braylon Edwards went up in one of the best games in Michigan history. There will be bloodlust in East Lansing, a place where Michigan rarely plays well. This is the moment we'll find out if the mobile quarterback thing has been mitigated, but I don't expect that Michigan will need a last-gasp burst to crack ten points this year. The Spartans are coughing up defensive players left and right. They'll have one of the worst secondaries Michigan faces this year. Another shootout is coming.
Minnesota succumbed to a late game Michigan comeback for the second straight year despite being outgained vastly. Turnovers and costly defensive mistakes leading to 80-yard Maroney touchdowns kept the Gophers in it last year but they were badly outplayed overall. mgoblog is on record predicting a Gopher offensive explosion this year and thus I am somewhat apprehensive about the game. Minnesota has the tools to handle the defensive line (Eslinger and co), exploit the linebackers(Maroney), and make the safeties look foolish(Wheelwright and Ellerson). They will put in a much better offensive performance than they did a year ago. Fortunately, Minnesota's defense looks as flimsy as ever. Michigan should be able to crack 30 against them. There's an 80% chance that'll be enough.
The Penn State game will be a slugfest, but with the uncertainty at OL, RB, QB, WR, and, oh hell, FB for the Nittany Lions I don't think their offense is going to have a pulse. Michael Robinson is technically a mobile quarterback, yes, but he's more of a mobile wide receiver if you catch my drift. The losses of Lavon Chisley and Ed Johnson and questionable status of JB Paxon will probably put a dent into their formidable defense from a year ago. Michigan should win this one; the Big Ten referees WON'T LET THEM LOSE!!!
It's often said about Iowa that the Hawkeyes never beat themselves, but that's exactly what happened last year when they gifted Michigan five turnovers and found themselves in a 20 point hole by the third quarter. They probably won't be so kind this year, but I think that with an entirely new, entirely green Hawkeye defensive line Michigan is going to be able to run the ball effectively enough to win at Kinnick. It'll be heartstopping, though.
Northwestern may have been in a position to give Michigan a game before God decided to smite them. Now, down five starters, starting four new offensive linemen, and without its best player, Loren Howard, Northwestern is not going to challenge Michigan.
Ohio State is on the verge of putting the Cooper shoe on the other foot. They bottled up Hart last year and then there was that eye-clawing thing with the quarterback and the 150 yard scoring drives. A tossup largely dependent on the development of the two quarterbacks.
Keys To The Season
BAH GAWD! THE COBRA CLUTCH!
A Real American Hero.Who is Steve Stripling? He's an actual defensive line coach. Bill Sheridan coached the position until last year. Amazingly, before Sheridan's stint there at Michigan, he had never played or coached the defensive line. Stripling comes over from Michigan State and, before that, Louisville. In 2003 he cajoled a Spartan team with a line no one would confuse with the Steel Curtain to 45 sacks. 2004 was not so kind to Stripling's charges, but with Kevin Vickerson and Greg Taplin gone and Clifton Ryan battling injury Stripling had very little to work with.
This will not be the case at Michigan. He has two potential All-Americans in Lamarr Woodley and Gabe Watson, a second-team All Big Ten-type in Pat Massey, a lot of potential at the other DE spot, and an absolute ton of depth. If Stripling was the type of person prone to rubbing his hands together and cackling evilly when presented with an infallible plan for world domination, you'd be hearing (what I assume is) his deep, rumbling basso emanating from the very bowels of Fort Schembechler right now. Scattered practice reports have repeatedly mentioned Woodley's general impossibility, the major steps forward taken by Jeremy Van Alstyne, Will Johnson, and Alan Branch, and the fact that Watson is still fat and broke Jake Long. This unit has the potential to be the type of defensive line that covers up a lot of flaws in the defense behind it. It will have to do so for the Michigan defense to reclaim its lost glory. There are two returning starters in the back seven, one of which had a terrible 2004 and missed most of the fall with a possibly chronic shoulder injury (Mundy)--they need help.
Well, Steve Stripling knows how to provide help. And knowing is half the battle.
Not a monkey.
Henne power. Michigan has every tool you could want on offense. Hart is a terrific workhorse back. Grady will be very hard to stop in short yardage situations. Breaston is double-digit YAC waiting to happen. Avant is a possession receiver without par in the Big Ten. Three offensive linemen and the top two tight ends return
. But it is Chad Henne who must take these tools, stick them into the Big Ten anthill, and remove a delicious feast of touchdowns and field goals. Then he can rub his belly and contentedly go "ook ook ook."
What I am trying to say stripped of the weird metaphors is: Henne will have to improve for Michigan to be a serious national championship threat. At times last year he was indecisive, inaccurate, or incapable of making the right read. He'll have to spread Braylon Edwards' 97 catches around to four or five different players, develop better touch on screens and flares, and cut down on his interceptions. If he stagnates, Michigan's offense will as well and there will be a frustrating loss... or three.
Spy vs. Spy. I may as well write it since everyone else in the universe has: mobile quarterbacks must be stopped. We're talking deep need, like send a cyborg back in time to kill the first mobile quarterback need. And then send a second cyborg back to melt down the quarterback's equipment. And then something involving a girl cyborg I can't be bothered to watch. Michigan will be opposing at least four dual threat QBs--Stanton, Basanez, Smith, and Robinson. There should be at least some reason for hope. The breakdowns of last year were the absolute worst case scenario, the hurricane Katrina of Michigan defense. The new outside linebackers are extremely fast, capable of running down most quarterbacks if they can place themselves in the correct area code before all hell breaks loose. The safeties... er. Moving on.
The coaching staff has been incapable of fixing this massive hole in their defensive gameplanning for years, but never was the need to deal with the problem so desperate. Carr has shown that he can adapt, though the changes come slowly.
This all sounds like grasping at straws, because it is.
Worst Case: Henne's development stalls. He's still pretty good but continues to misread coverages and throw interceptions. Limited by Henne, the offense sputters a bit. The defensive backfield is a disaster and. Mobile quarterbacks continue to go nuts against Michigan and the Wolverines lose at East Lansing and Iowa City, drop to 1-4 against the Buckeyes, and manage to blow another game along the way in classic Michigan fashion to go 7-4. Pitchforks and torches sell out in Ann Arbor and an angry mob chases Lloyd Carr and Jim Herrmann out of town.
Best Case: Henne makes The Leap. Woodley and Tim Jamison go nuts rushing the passer and Graham and Burgess vastly improve Michigan's terrible linebacking play. The secondary is still a bit shaky but the defensive line doesn't allow anyone to exploit it. Michigan finally figures out how to stop mobile quarterbacks. Zoltan The Inconceivable averages 55 yards net punting, and Michigan heads the Rose Bowl for a third straight year, gunning for the national championship. 11-0, bitches!
mgoblog says... I consider Scott Loeffler the coaching equivalent of Anne Sullivan after he turned John Navarre from the worst Michigan starting quarterback since 1984 (no offense, John, but that sophomore year was not pretty) into an All Big Ten player and an actual NFL draft pick. Henne will advance. People will fear him. The offense has too much talent everywhere to not be one of the nation's finest as long as the somewhat precarious offensive tackle situation works itself out. Michigan hasn't been this loaded on offense in a long, long time.
The defense should be better. Last year Michigan's defense was the worst it has had in the Bo-Mo-Llo era by a wide, statistically implausible margin. This year there is a ton to prove and question marks everywhere, but one unit that can potentially cover up a lot of flaws: the defensive line. Lamar Woodley is defensive equivalent to Henne. If he turns into a double-digit sacker and Jeremy Van Alstyne performs like the coaches think he is capable, Michigan's defense won't be enough of a liability to keep Michigan's offense from winning games...
Except once. Could be MSU, could be Iowa, could be OSU, could be Minnesota or Penn State. There are too many potential landmines for Michigan to go undefeated, but too much talent to miss the BCS. 10-1, 7-1, 1st Big Ten.
Let's get it on!
"Upon Further Review" is my play-by play opinion of football games that people are way more impressed with than they should be; I have a DVR. It records things. It's cool; we're buds.
NIU Offense / NIU Defense
ND Offense / ND Defense
EMU Offense / EMU Defense
UW Offense / UW Defense
MSU Offense / MSU Defense
Minnesota Offense / Minnesota Defense
PSU Offense / PSU Defense
Iowa Offense / Iowa Defense
Northwestern Offense / Northwestern Defense
Indiana Offense / Indiana Defense [missing, lo siento]
OSU Offense / OSU Defense
[Alamo Bowl Redacted]
Vandy Offense / Defense
Central Offense / Defense
Notre Dame Offense / Defense
Wisconsin Offense / Defense
Minnesota Offense / Defense
Michigan State Offense / Defense
Penn State Offense / Defense
Iowa Offense /Defense
Northwestern Offense / Defense
Ball State -- No Tape (ESPNU)
Indiana Offense / Defense
Ohio State Offense / "Defense"
Update 9/1: Changed KY DT Corey Peters' status to reflect the fact that Auburn leads now. Added FL RB CJ Spiller, removed DE Byron Isom, WR Chris Bell, and WR John Maddox. Linked to another Peters article and a Toryan Smith article. Linked to Antwine Perez article that claims he is down to just USC and Michigan... no LSU. Removed Myron Rolle(FSU).
Editorial Opinion FSU? Um... okay. I'd like to reference my recruit-to-English translation guide:
"Academics are extremely important to me" - I don't care about academics in the slightest.
"No, seriously, the academic reputation of a school is critical in my decision making." - My mom is in the room.
Further proof that academic reputation means nearly zero to anyone looking at a potential NFL career--and that those it really means something to go to Stanford anyway. Not that Rolle is a bad guy or FSU is a bad place to go.
Perez is widely thought to be heavily favoring USC, by the way (and it's more just a random blog's assertion). Reminding myself of the cardinal rule: Don't panic.
Okay, this is half mea culpa, half debate. First the self-loathing: this post was unfair to Tom Orr, in retrospect. I picked out two sections of a season preview and dismissed the whole thing based on a few sentences, which I hate when people do it to me. Snark got the better of me and the whole thing was kind of an asshole move. Tom's regular column for the OZone is very good.
Tom pulls out Hart's game by game YPC, reproduced here with some additional data:
|San Diego State:||4.8||3.4||1.4|
Those average numbers don't quite measure what I want them to since they A) include sacks, making Hart look better than he was and B) include Hart's carries, making Hart look worse than he was (in general). A is a more powerful factor than B, so mentally revise the difference downward by a little bit. A quick calculation says that .2 is a good estimation.
I wouldn't place a whole lot of emphasis on the San Diego State numbers since most of them were garnered against weak competition.
Tom's contention was that Hart "disappeared" in the final couple games, which I don't think is fair. Focusing just on the rushing stats discounts a 39-yard reception against OSU that pushed Hart's total yards in that game to an even 100. In total over the last two games of the year Hart averaged 89 yards of total offense. He didn't crush the heads of either Texas or OSU, no, but he didn't drop off the face of the earth. Tom also asserts that Hart's performance against Iowa was "average," when it was statistically quite good relative to the other teams that attempted to oppose Iowa's #5 rush defense. In fact, the overall picture is one of consistent outperformance of backs nationwide save for a strange blip against Indiana and some tough sledding against OSU.
He then takes the numbers presented above and says the following things:
Really, I don't think you can say that Michigan consistently ripped off big running games against good defenses.
I guess that depends on your definition of good and your definition of big. Certainly the Purdue game was a huge game against a very good run defense (14th nationally). Northwestern was also a huge game against an okay-to-good run defense (47th nationally and only 0.1 YPC worse than OSU). Hart had 99 against #5 Iowa, as mentioned, and 163 against a not-awful Minnesota run D. Hart did not run well against OSU, but he was adequate against Texas. That seems like a good resume to me.
This would seem to suggest that the original statement "Hart disappeared against OSU and Texas" is significantly more accurate than Brian would have you believe. If you want to make it more accurate and change it to "Hart became a very average back against most good defenses," then I think the facts would support that as well.
I think the numbers above how that Hart was consistently and significantly above average against good run defenses.
Tom then totally demolishes my claim that Hart's carries were limited by the score of the OSU game. I got nothing to dispute that. Assertion totally retracted. One point I would like to make: it's entirely possible that Michigan saw what I did when I looked at OSU's stats last year, the fact that OSU could be had in the air, and adjusted their gameplan to more heavily emphasize passing. Henne finished with 54 passing attempts, triple Hart's 18 carries, and while that has something to do with the fact that OSU limited Hart's effectiveness, I think that was part of the gameplan. Michigan's opening drive featuring two runs, seven passes, and a touchdown seems indicative of a pattern that emerges from Tom's distribution.
He responds to my assertion that Henne didn't get sacked but got knocked down a lot without any numbers. Since I don't have any of my own and confirming or disconfirming our divergent opinions would require re-watching that game, something I'm not going to do unless threatened with castration, I'm just going to let it drop.
He then tries to buttress his point on Rivas:
He (as pointed out in the article) twice missed two field goals in a game. He's good, but far from automatic.
Yes, he missed four extra points last year, but in two years of kicking for Michigan he's hit 78% of his field goal attempts, which is close to great for a collegiate kicker. "Good but far from automatic" is a far cry from "every Michigan fan holds their breath when he trots on."
In summary, sorry for being a douche, Hart roolz but OSU controlled him very well, and Rivas isn't Nugent but there's a vast continuum between "Nugent" and "suck," Rivas being perhaps 80% of the way towards Nugent.
(This is Part II of the Michigan season preview. Part I can be found here.)
|Jeremy Van Alstyne||Jr.*||Gabe Watson||Sr.||Pat Massey||Sr.*||Lamarr Woodley||Jr.|
|Tim Jamison||Fr.*||Will Johnson||Fr.*||Alan Branch||So.||Pierre Woods||Sr.*|
|Eugene Germany||Fr.||Terrance Taylor||Fr.||Marques Walton||Fr.*||Rondell Biggs||Jr.*|
This unit must fulfill its vast potential this year for Michigan to be a serious national championship contender. Last year it was somewhere between great and spectacular against the run (Last four games hello what? -ed. Those were problems outside the defensive line's control. More later) but could only manage 15 sacks. There's no excuse for production that poor when you (probably) have multiple first round picks on your roster.
This is going to end badly for you, Indiana dude.
If the defensive ends formed a post-punk band with an ironically retro name they'd be called Woodley and The Question Marks. Metaphorical band frontman Lamarr Woodley should be on the verge of a monstrous season. He flipped from defensive end to outside linebacker for last year's switch to the 3-4 defense and was a terror against the run--16 TFLs last year and a series of huge plays that had mgoblog constructing a Jobu-like shrine to Woodley in secret--but strangely disappointing rushing the passer. Woodley had only four sacks, a number that I double check every week or so just to make sure that it isn't wrong. Maligned DT Pat Massey somehow exceeded his total.
Maybe that had something to do with the fact that (now former) defensive line coach Mike Sheridan had never played or coached on either line before his brief, unsuccessful run at Michigan. Sheridan now coaches linebackers for the Giants. Steve Stripling, who's been a DL coach forever, comes in from Michigan State and has started teaching large men to do mean things. If the enigmatic insider reports coming out of the Fort are to be believed, he's having an immediate effect. The practice buzz on Woodley coming into this year is unprecedented for a Michigan defensive lineman. If allowed to put his hand down and tear into the backfield at will, Woodley has serious All-American potential. Certain wise insiders doubt Michigan will be able to enjoy his senior season--disappointing for '06 but tantalizing for '05.
The Question Marks have the potential to turn in to exclamation points if they can remain healthy. Both redshirt junior Jeremy Van Alstyne and redshirt freshman Tim Jamison have had careers largely composed of sitting on the sidelines looking pissed off in various braces and slings. Van Alstyne tore his ACL before last year, rehabbed like a madman to make a miraculous, hampered recovery midway through the year, and then got knocked out of the Rose Bowl with a different leg injury. Jamison played in the first couple games of his Michigan career and then was knocked out permanently with an injury that is still undisclosed. He's already picked up his first sling of 2005, spraining a shoulder which will force him to miss the Northern Illinois game.
So, health is obviously a question. If healthy, though, Van Alstyne and Jamison will probably be somewhere between effective and excellent. Van Alstyne is a high motor guy reported to have great leverage, but he hasn't been able to stay on the field enough for me to have an independent opinion on him. For what it's worth, Van Alstyne appears to have the full confidence of both the coaches and the insiders. Jamison experienced a meteoric rise his senior year of high school, going from relatively unknown to a top-50 player after exploding for 20 sacks. By the time Jamison showed up at the Army All-American Bowl and dominated every offensive tackle lined up opposite him, he was the consensus second best recruit in Michigan's 2004 class behind one Chad Henne. That kid worked out okay. The pair will probably platoon next year with Jamsion taking the bulk of obvious passing downs and Van Alstyne getting the rest of the snaps.
They told me you had a pizza, Vince.
Michigan will have a deep and talented set of defensive tackles. The headliner is senior Gabe Watson, a mountain range in a helmet who demands a double team on every play. Watson isn't much of a pass rusher but he was the key component of Michigan's fabulous interior run defense. Even when he takes plays off he holds his ground against a blocker or two. He was accused of wearing down towards the end of the year, but I don't buy it. Watson was simply not as useful against the spread offenses and mobile quarterbacks of MSU, Northwestern, OSU, and Texas. He helped Michigan shut Cedric Benson off; that's his job. Asking him to track down Vince Young is like asking the Death Star to knit.
However, Watson does have intensity issues. He's not a motor-running wildman and he has an easygoing personality that Neanderthal-type fans find uncomfortable. It's probably true that a motivated, fiery Watson would be the nation's most dominant defensive tackle by a country mile, but that's not going to happen this year: Watson will probably underachieve relative to his talent. He'll still be one of the best DTs in the country.
The starter beside Woodley will be fifth year senior Pat Massey. Massey has been unfairly maligned by Michigan fans largely because he let Texas quarterback Vince Young escape from what looked to be a sure sack in the Rose Bowl. Young popped out of Massey's grasp and turned what would have been a fourth down field goal attempt into yet another frustrating touchdown run. Had he brought Young to the ground, Michigan probably wins the Rose Bowl, he finishes with six sacks from what's essentially an interior line position (DE in the 3-4), and he becomes something of a folk hero. He did not. Despite that, he does not deserve the dogging many Michigan fans have given him. Massey isn't a superhero but he was and is a useful player alongside Watson, honorable mention All-Big Ten a year ago.
Alan New Mexico
The situation behind the starters is much like that at wide receiver, where there is a lot of highly-regarded talent that hasn't gotten the opportunity to prove itself on the field yet. Some players will bust or disappoint, but there are enough talented bodies to assume that two or three will become stars. The most likely to achieve stardom is sophomore Alan Branch. Branch saw meaningful time as a true freshman last year and showed great power and athleticism. He's extraordinarily agile for his 330 pounds and registered two sacks in his limited time, as many a Watson had all year. He will probably see almost as many snaps as the two starters.
Three freshmen will rotate in behind Branch, Watson, and Massey. Will Johnson, who redshirted, is finally healthy after tearing his ACL right before his senior year of high school. He leapt directly onto the two-deep behind Watson after rece
iving a good bit of preseason buzz. He will contribute. Terrance Taylor is a 6'0", 290 pound fireplug who was a three time state champion powerlifter, a state champion in wrestling, and led Muskegon to the state title. It might take him a year to get his technique down, but he's probably the strongest player on the team already, and his relatively compact build should mean that he can get great leverage under the pads of taller offensive linemen. If all goes well, Taylor should develop into a penetrating terror a la Iowa's Jonathan Babineaux. The third freshman, Marques Walton, was lightly regarded in high school and may not be much more than a role player in the long run.
|Chris Graham||So.||David Harris||R.Jr.||Prescott Burgess||Jr.|
|Scott McClintock||R.Sr.||John Thompson||R.Fr.||Shawn Crable||R.So.|
This position group is the second biggest question mark on the team after the safeties. The three projected starters--all seniors--have fallen by the wayside. Pierre Woods fell off the face of the earth last year and was shifted back to defensive end. Lawrence Reid was forced to retire because of a degenerative neck injury. Scott McClintock just plain got beat out. In their place steps forward a group of players with a ton of athleticism and vanishingly little experience. Now Michigan has to teach them how to run around like chickens with their heads still attached.
Sophomore WLB Chris Graham has been generating hype since he stepped onto a Michigan practice field. It's always dangerous to buy into such hype, as about half the time the player in question fizzles away into nothing, but mgoblog is buying this particular variety. Consider: the hype on Graham started not because he was pressed into service a la David Underwood. Rather, it welled up naturally even though he appeared to be at least two years away from serious playing time. Michigan moved 5-star Prescott Burgess to the strong side because there wasn't any way he was going to beat out Graham. Those are two powerful indicators that Graham is a serious talent, "Ian Gold after you punched his momma," as I said before.
Graham doesn't have ideal size. He is listed at 5'11" but mgoblog thinks that's probably closer to 5'9". What he does have is speed, speed, speed, and the ability to lay a hammer blow on people when he arrives. His teammates have nicknamed him "The Brick" both for his chiseled physique and the fact that when he hits you, that's what you go down like. As a first year starter with wild speed, though, he is probably going to overpursue on a regular basis. Misdirection and play action, have long befuddled Michigan linebackers and there's no reason to think that Graham won't fall prey to the same disease. His first year starting will be a mix of good and bad.
Redshirt junior David Harris and fifth-year senior Scott McClintock will split time at middle linebacker. Harris had won the job two years ago but suffered an ACL tear before the start of the 2003 season. As a result, he' hardly played. You can look at Harris running neck and neck with McClintock as a positive or a negative. Personally, I think McClintock is all right. He's not a playmaker but he tackles well and seems to have a clue in zone coverage, which sets him apart from every other linebacker who took the field last year. Harris pushing him to the bench means that the coaching staff is willing to give a player who has little experience the nod over a senior who would normally have an unholy death grip on the position, which is not a vote of confidence in McClintock. The fact that neither player has asserted himself has to be a concern, especially since Harris is dinged up again. Average production from this spot would be great.
Two big recruits from the class of 2003 will split time at strongside linebacker. Converted safety Prescott Burgess, a junior, will probably get the bulk of the playing time. Burgess has waited in the wings for two years, adjusting to his new position. He and Lamarr Woodley were the only two Wolverines to have noticeably good games against Vince Young and Co. in the Rose Bowl. Burgess is a superior athlete and is the best hope for a breakout star on the defense (discounting Woodley, who is already well known). If he can maintain his level of play from the Rose Bowl this unit immediately looks much more solid.
And then there's the strange, sad story of senior Pierre Woods, second team All Big Ten two years ago and AWOL one year ago. Woods was expected to become the next star Michigan linebacker but a series of nagging injuries and undisclosed off-field issues combined to severely limit his playing time. The playing time he did receive was squandered. Woods rarely had an idea where he was going or what to do when he got there. He apparently has his head on straight this year, possibly sensing that he's got the NFL beckoning if he repeats his sophomore year performance. Carr has been talking him up, claiming that he's going to be a major contributor, but the DE and SAM spots are very crowded. It'll be tough for him to make a major impact and I doubt Carr will particularly relish the prospect of sending him out to combat mobile quarterbacks after last year's debacles. Obviously a return to form would be most welcome.
Redshirt sophomore Shawn Crable was another top-100 recruit who hasn't lived up to his clippings yet (sensing a theme?). At 6'6", 235, he's an OLB/DE tweener who will probably see time at both positions this year. Carr publicly stated he wanted to see more from Crable, which is usually a motivational ploy which indicates that a player is teetering close to doghouse status. Crable has to find a position before he sees a lot of playing time. SAM seems full up this year, but expect to see him as a blitzer or designated pass rusher on passing downs with some frequency.
John Thompson is an unheralded recruit from the decrepit Detroit Public School league who barely scraped past the NCAA clearinghouse last year. He's a year or two away from serious contribution but will start seeing special teams time this year. Freshman Brandon Logan will probably redshirt.
|Leon Hall||Jr.||Ryan Mundy||Jr.||Brandent Engelmon||So.*||Charles Stewart||Fr.*|
|Grant Mason||Sr.*||Willis Barringer||Jr.*||Jamar Adams||So.||Morgan Trent||Fr.*|
|Darnell Hood||Jr.*||Brandon Harrison||Fr.||Anton Campbell||Jr.*||Johnny Sears||Fr.|
Lather, rinse, DO NOT REPEAT
Much will be made about the departure of two All Americans from the Wolverine secondary, but many Michigan fans will only miss one, cornerback Marlin Jackson. Strong safety Ernest Shazor mad
e game-saving plays against Minnesota and Purdue but was a major reason why Michigan's defense imploded down the stretch. See right, multiply by six.
Michigan has one proven quantity in the secondary, junior Leon Hall. Hall, a lock to be Michigan's number one corner, is following Michigan's designated path to stardom at the position: emerge from nowhere as a freshman and act as a nickleback, wrest the starting job away from its holder as a sophomore, get everyone's hopes up, gather major media attention, and then mildly disappoint. Hall's not going to be an All-American but should press for All Big Ten Honors--he's probably on a level with Jeremy LeSeuer's senior year. Michigan's problem is that Hall may end up irrelevant as teams pepper the other side of the field, going after the other starter or the nickelback, whoever they might be. The leading candidates for those spots are senior Grant Mason and redshirt freshman Charles Stewart. Mason transferred from Stanford and served as the dime back a year ago. Stewart, obviously, hasn't seen the field.
You can repeat this one if you like.
Converted wide receiver Morgan Trent, also a redshirt freshman, is also going to see the field. Michigan fans cling to the fact that Trent beat Ted Ginn in a high school track meet, which proves he's much better than Ginn. Or maybe not. Trent is really fast, but it will take some time for him to adjust to CB. Freshmen Johnny Sears and Chris Richards need a year in college to get acclimated but due to the severe need at the position one of them will be forced to play.
Questions abound at safety, as they have since the departure of Marcus Ray in 1997. Michigan's safety play has been consistently bad ever since. Junior Ryan Mundy looked like a future star in his first couple games at free safety but as the year wore on it became clear that his angles and tackling were terrible. Many of the yards Michigan State racked up in the first half of the first, ominous defensive debacle last year were "yards after Mundy"--a term coined by an inventive Rivals poster and a stat mgoblog will be tracking this year. He has good size and range for a free safety but his mental game was lacking last year. It wasn't just Shazor that was responsible for the huge number of long touchdowns the Michigan defense gave up.
Mundy missed some practice this fall with a shoulder injury that nagged him last year, opening a door to junior Willis Barringer, who started a few games as a freshman when then-safety Marlin Jackson was injured but was reduced to an afterthought last year. He was listed as the starter on the first two deep released by the school this year, but will only see the field if Mundy can't go.
Sophomores Brandent Engelmon and Jamar Adams are battling to replace Shazor. Adams is a physically imposing safety who looks like he hits like a ton of bricks. Unfortunately, last year he was just a little off and whiffed like a ton of bricks. Sleeper Engelmon was snatched from Kentucky at the last minute two years ago and appears to have the inside track on the job. Small but smart is Englemon, and the Michigan coaches have seen out of position. They don't like out of position.
True freshman Brandon Harrison was moved from cornerback after a few fall practices, which is been regarded ominously in this space. Harrison is small (5'9") but a good hitter and frickin' fast. Moving him away from cornerback, an area of obvious need, in favor of safety implies that the coaching staff has some severe reservations about the quality of the players at the position.
Defense in Summary
Portions of the defense were very good last year but the lack of pass rush, the inability of the linebackers to correctly position themselves, and the tendency of the safeties to give up huge plays were problems all year. The four straight games at the end featuring mobile quarterbacks were a matchup nightmare for a defense that was somewhere between good and great against teams ill-equipped to exploit the inability of the linebackers and safeties to operate in space like Minnesota and Purdue. That's what passes as good news.
The bad news is that the book on beating the Michigan defense has been written and rewritten by now and seemingly every team outside of Minnesota and Wisconsin is moving to exploit that vulnerability. The linebacker and safeties are going to be tested with the same plays they failed to stop last year until they step up and say "no more." The linebackers have probably received a talent upgrade but Graham, Harris, Crable, and even Burgess are all very green. Mundy has to improve drastically, and the Harrison move implies bad things for the coaches' confidence in Engelmon. There are major concerns here.
Expect something similar to last year's rollercoaster. There are teams that Michigan is going to smash in the face and dominate. Attempting to run between the tackles is going to be futile. The corners will be decent to good and that combined with what should be a fierce pass rush will make dropback passers only sporadically effective. Play action and mistakes by the safeties may open up some big plays against but driving the length of the field with a conventional offense is going to be very difficult. Mobile quarterbacks will still be a major issue, but I believe they won't be pure nuclear holocaust like 2004. Graham and Burgess are very athletic, the kind of guys who can chase down the Smiths and Youngs of the world, and though Jim Herrmann is widely reviled by Michigan fans, he's not a gibbering moron: the staff has spent a huge chunk of its offseason preparation addressing the issue. There should be improvement. The season hinges on how significant that improvement is.
Fly, my pretties. Fly!
Rating: 5. Steve Breaston. What, you want more? Christ. Watch the Rose Bowl or any game during BJ's freshman year. He's up there next to Harmon for a reason.
There is the aforementioned injury concern with Breaston, but even if he goes down Michigan has a multitude of options behind him. Leon Hall returned a punt for a touchdown. Grant Mason nearly scored on a kick return. It's doubtful Michigan will risk any of its critical cornerbacks in situation that one of the million wide receivers could deal with. Expect to see Doug Dutch or Mario Manningham sub in for Breaston if needed.
Rating: 4. Junior Garrett Rivas quietly had an excellent year if you leave aside a strange early-season tendency to miss extra points (four in total). He made 19 of 24 field goal attempts after hitting 9 of 12 as a freshman, establishing himself as a reliable kicker with slightly less than desirable range--Rivas' maximum is around 47-48 yards. Anything over 42 seems to just squeeze over the bar. But over the bar they go.
Punter Adam Finley has graduated, paving the way for Zoltan "The Inconceivable" Mesko. Regular readers of this blog already know about the young man and his Heisman aspirations, but let us recount the tale. He committed at Michigan's camp after averaging 48 yards a kick with 4.5 seconds of hangtime, and then kicked the hell out of everything at the Army All-American bowl... practices. In the game he shanked one and boomed one. He's competing with two walkons, Ross Ryan (who will kick off) and Mark Spencer. Ryan is rumored to have won the job, which makes me look very dumb but probably implies that Mesko's huge leg is a bit of a loose cannon.
Bonus! Coverage Teams
Rating: 2. Michigan has long struggled to contain punt returns. That ugly Finley net is much indebted to Ted Ginn, Ryne Robinson, and their ilk's continued success against the fairly inept Michigan punt coverage units. Predicting improvement here goes against a lot of recent history, but there should be some hope. Brandon Harrison is going to be one of the gunners and he seems perfectly suited to the job, an agile guy who (reportedly) can wrap up returners and is fast Fast FAST. If he can beat the jam at the line, he could go a long way towards neutralizing punt returners. He can't look worse than Braylon Edwards did trying to tackle Ginn.
Last year's kick coverage was actually pretty good. There weren't many (if any, I can't remember off the top of my head) big returns. Opponents usually settled for the 20 or 25 yard line despite Michigan's inability to get any touchbacks off of kickoffs.
Special Teams in Summary
Should actually be a net strength, a gasp-worthy assertion given the disasters of 2003. A healthy Breaston is one of the country's finest returners. There is a multitude of good options behind him. Rivas is efficient and generally reliable, no Nugent, but one of the Big Ten's better kickers. Kickoff coverage was very good last year.
Punting could be a bit of an issue. Shockingly and depressingly, Zoltan The Inconceivable may not have won the starting job at punter. He's been very inconsistent in the various All-Star games he's been in and the Rivals clips show alternating 5-second hangtime boomers and shanks. All practice reports are glowing, but there's a major difference between sitting there and smashing one and repeating that process under duress. There might be some wobbly times here, especially given Michigan's historic tendency for punt coverage slapstick.
I still expect Michigan to significantly outperform their opponents in the return game as a whole and be on a par when it comes to field goals. Ted Ginn looms, though. Looms real good.
Continue to Part III.
As a former copy editor (a strictly amateur school type thing) I realize that by naming this thing mgoblog I've created a severe annoyance by creating a proper noun that's all lowercase and therefore confusing as hell. People are going to capitalize this, as is their right. However, if you care to get it "right," the way to do it is this: MGoBlog or Mgoblog. Whichever. I occasionally see "MGOblog" like MGO is an acronym of some sort. It isn't. It's "M Go Blog." "M Go Blue" is a common thing to see on signs, license plates, or official athletics sites around Michigan. It's a play on words.
Yes, this is totally, unbelievably anal. I abase myself.