this week in unintentionally grim-sounding recruiting headlines
As soon as Steve Breaston took his talents to the NFL the return game imploded. Raise your hand if you’re surprised. Dammit—I have to raise my hand since I gave this a “3” last year, too.
Sure-handed, slow Greg Mathews was the primary punt returner with a little Donovan Warren mixed in; the duo was terrible, ending the year 79th. Mathews has been relieved of those duties this year and the job is tentatively Warren’s with slot electron Martavious Odoms pushing from behind. This should improve with two of the best athletes on the team taking up the reigns; hopefully the increased walk-on program will help fill in some gaps on special teams.
Kick returns were even worse. Michigan was 110th as Carlos Brown and Brandon Minor alternated runs directly into defenders. Freshman tailbacks Sam McGuffie and Michael Shaw have been mentioned as likely starters here, though it may take a game or two to blood them before they assume the roles. Shaw and McGuffie are fast as hell and there should be a rebound here, too.
After inexplicably sitting for a good portion of the season, Kickin’ Competency Lopata came on and hit 11 of 12. He’s basically Garrett Rivas, short on leg strength and dodgy outside 40 yards but a machine inside 40. This qualifies as a pretty good collegiate kicker.
I hate to say this about beloved Space Emperor, but Zoltan was quite conceivable in his second year as a starter. Though he was Michigan’s best player against Ohio State with 12(!) punts for 551(!!!) yards—almost 46 yards each—in his other outings he barely averaged 40 yards a kick. He was 53rd in average yardage and had almost 60% of his punts returned (that’s a lot). He was a Space Prince at best.
Here goes the standard “consistency” bit: if Zoltan can sustain the sort of performance he turned in against Ohio State he’s a Ray Guy candidate and likely winner. He’s always had ridiculous punter-get-drafted upside.
Special Teams in Summary
Kicker should remain static; the return game should improve, possibly significantly as Rodriguez continues to pack the roster with players like those guys named “Moss” who used to play for Miami. Zoltan should be at least average and if he can find consistency to be consistently consistent could be the Heisman winner. You heard it here first, Beanie: Zoltan The Inconceivable is coming for your trophy.
The theory of turnover margin: it is nearly random. Teams that find themselves at one end or the other at the end of the year are highly likely to rebound towards the average. So teams towards the top will tend to be overrated and vice versa. Nonrandom factors to evaluate: quarterback experience, quarterback pressure applied and received, and odd running backs like Mike Hart who just don't fumble.
|2007||Int +||Fumb +||Sacks +||Int -||Fumb -||Sacks -|
|0.15 (41st)||14||15||2.46(33rd)||14||13||2.17 (67th)|
In marked contrast to lat year’s TO margin heuristic—which foresaw a plunge from 4th nationally to something still positive but far less spectacular and may have presaged some of Michigan’s difficulties—there’s not much to see here. I expect this to be solidly negative this year what with the n00b quarterbacks and the line and the no Mike Hart, but Scott Shafer’s GOT what plants CRAVE so it could be around even again. Don’t think it will have a major impact.
Position Switch Starters
Theory of position switches: if you are starting or considering starting a guy who was playing somewhere else a year ago, that position is in trouble. There are degrees of this. When Notre Dame moved Travis Thomas, a useful backup at tailback, to linebacker and then declared him a starter, there was no way that could end well. Wisconsin's flip of LB Travis Beckum to tight end was less ominous because Wisconsin had a solid linebacking corps and Beckum hadn't established himself on that side of the ball. Michigan flipping Prescott Burgess from SLB to WLB or PSU moving Dan Connor inside don't register here: we're talking major moves that indicate a serious lack somewhere.
Two weeks ago John Ferrara was a backup defensive lineman. Today he’s pushing David Molk for a starting job on the line. Even if he doesn’t see the field the lack of confidence in Molk is apparent.
You could throw Brandon Harrison in here, as last year he was kind of a corner and this year he’s going to be the strong safety, but Harrison’s bounced to and from safety his entire career and will likely find himself in that familiar spot over the slot receiver. His responsibilities aren’t likely to change.
Toney Clemons is listed behind Martavious Odoms; his presence at slot receiver despite being way too tall for the Lollipop Guild—it is a guild!—indicates an obvious lack of depth there.
An Embarrassing Prediction, No Doubt
Rock bottom can be pretty low when you’re shoehorning a bunch of guys into a system they weren’t recruited for and you’ve had a ton of attrition at a couple key spots. Michigan is flirting with disaster on the offensive line and at quarterback. An injury or general suckage by one or more of the five new guys they’re counting on at those positions could send the offense into an epic tailspin.
The defense and some random plays from the exciting skill position players should keep Michigan afloat; games against the two MAC schools, Minnesota, Northwestern, Purdue, and Michigan State should all be at least reasonably winnable even in the worst case. 4-8 seems like the bottom-bottom.
There’s only one game that looks utterly unwinnable—Ohio State—at the moment. There’s no way the offense doesn’t blow two more, though. 9-3.
I am heartened by the idea that Rich Rodriguez’s offense doesn’t place much emphasis on 15 yard outs or deep bombs or seam routes. I am further heartened by the media’s near-exclusive focus on offense and players lost when compiling their preseason guesses. And I’m delighted by the idea Michigan beat actual football teams last year with Mike Debord calling plays for Ryan Mallett.
Not heartening is game against a Mountain West team that would be a pick-em on a neutral field, though the Vegas wiseguys initially set the line at M –7 before everyone bet it down. Nor is it heartening to miss Iowa and Indiana in a year that it would be really nice to dodge Wisconsin and Illinois. But that’s life.
For a glimpse at what this offense might be like I go back to the Year of Infinite Pain, 2005. With Jake Long injured the line was a patchwork assemblage of mediocre talent. Leo Henige had no knees and he started the whole year. The receiving corps was one sure-handed possession guy (Avant), one slot bastard par excellence (Breaston), and one zippy freshman (Manningham). This year those guys are Mathews, Odoms, and Stonum with potential bonus contributions from Clemons, Hemingway, Savoy, and Robinson. Mike Hart was out or limping most of the year; Kevin Grady and Max Martin took turns fumbling before Jerome Jackson finally took the reins.
The big advantage that team had was Chad Henne even though that was the year Tacopants reeled in something like 150 balls. Any illusions 2005 Chad Henne was a realistic ceiling for Michigan’s quarterbacks this year went out the window as I watched the turnover abortion that was the NC State-South Carolina game. We have no idea how bad it can get. Yet.
Still, 2008 wins by a significant margin at the skill positions, is close to a push on the OL, and has a significant advantage in playcalling, scheme, and proximity to Mike Barwis. I think a comparable season is realistic, and while that’s not good at all—55th total offense, 45th scoring—it’s not a disaster zone.
Meanwhile, the defense returns eight-ish starters from a defense statistically superior to 2005’s meh unit. They have also “enjoyed” their proximity to Mike Barwis. Scott Shafer seems a rising star in the defensive coordination business, a maniacal blitzer instinctively aware of the little game theory details that are the heart of gameday coaching.
It’s reasonable to expect improvement both statistically and actually, which would make this team better than 2005’s 7-5 record, especially because that Notre Dame team was 9-3 and this one won’t be and a bowl game against Nebraska is included in that record.
That’s the idea, anyway.
|9/6||Miami (OH)||Probable Win|
|9/13||@ Notre Dame||Tossup|
|10/18||@ Penn State||Probable loss|
|11/1||@ Purdue||Probable win|
|11/8||@ Minnesota||Probable win|
|11/22||Ohio State||Probable loss|
Take all the “probables” with a grain of salt except OSU, Minnesota, and the MAC schools. I didn’t want to write “tossup” eight times.
Really, the answer here is “hell if I know.” There are too many variables to predict anything at a level resembling confidence. I have enough faith in the defense and the little bastards carrying the ball to think the team will be towards the upper end of the reasonable range. 8-4 is the pick.
Let’s get it on.
What does this defense have to do to drive Michigan to wins?
The worst thing you can do in a defense that loves quarterback pressure is to allow the sort of consistent gashing up the middle that Michigan did last year. Any time the opponent had a decent interior line and a between-the-tackles runner it got ugly last year. Michigan State, Illinois, Oregon, Ohio State, and Wisconsin pounded Michigan up the middle.
Those were three losses, a miracle Robot Henne comeback, and a muffed-punt-trick-play victory over an Illinois team determined to give the game away. This is probably not a coincidence.
Meanwhile, the pass defense was excellent, about which more later.
The interior run defense was the third most obvious weakness on last year’s team behind Ryan Mallett’s center exchange and Steve Schilling; repairing that is going to be job one for Scott Shafer.
Can the interior run defense rebound?
Ask Obi. In this reporter’s opinion, Obi Ezeh is the most important player on this year’s team. The quarterbacks are going to be bad, the line tetchy even if Steve Schilling takes a quantum leap forward. Other positions have multiple options and any one player’s failure isn’t that devastating.
Linebacker, however, is short on options and has a potential breakout star. If Ezeh makes a great leap forward he can almost singlehandedly stiffen the entire defense. And he can make that leap forward. Most of his problems last year were mental. He was hesitant, slow to the ball, etc. He was stupid in the ways freshmen are stupid. This is the sort of thing that gets much better over time. He appears to have physical attributes similar to David Harris, blessed be his name. He’s getting the wide-eyed preseason praise that often precedes a big year but sometimes precedes Johnny Sears.
Devoid of onfield evidence, we just have to hope on Ezeh. The rest of it should get better what with the defensive line returning intact minus 20-30 pounds of flubber each and—not to be overly cruel—the replacement of Chris Graham.
So… I think so. All the key actors are back and better.
What can we expect from Scott Shafer?
This has been documented several times before, but to recap: all defensive coordinators, when hired, are reputed to be blitz demons with Brawndo—it’s got what plants crave!—flowing through their veins, all the better to WIN at AGGRESSION. No one has ever been hired and declared his intention to play a soft bend-don’t-break cover two.
But Scott Shafer backs it up. It’s hard to quantify this over the course of his career because the NCAA only started tracking sacks recently. Here’s the transition he wrought on defense (all numbers except turnovers are national ranks instead of raw yardage because of the evil distorting ‘06 clock changes):
In one year Shafer’s aggression shot the Cardinal from 111th in sacks to 11th; the near-doubling of turnovers acquired was obviously related. Quarterback pressure is the one thing that consistently produces turnovers. Shafer also famously turned Western Michigan into the top-sacking team in the NCAA and OLB Ameer Ismail, who no one will confuse with Lavar Arrington, into the nation’s leading sacker.
(I wouldn’t put much into the radical drop in pass defense; the 2006 Stanford rush defense was so unbelievably bad that opponents just plowed into the line for their 5 YPC. Despite playing in the pass-wacky Pac-10, Stanford opponents threw the ball 38% of the time.)
Expect Michigan to use their outside corners aggressively, pressing frequently and daring quarterbacks to try the difficult fade routes that Morgan Trent has been excellent on thus far in his career. On passing downs Shafer wants to deploy an “Okie” defense that’s a nominal 3-4 with safety/OLB types threatening blitz from all angles. The idea is to get opponents into unfavorable down and distance situations, then deny them the time to bail themselves out on third and long.
Steve Brown ack.
I mentioned this a bit in the D preview: people have a tendency to remember and overrate unusual events, especially if they’re traumatic. Steve Brown’s disastrous first foray as a safety was the most unusual and traumatic debut for a new player ever. So we remember the slipping and the falling and all that. That doesn’t necessarily represent his true ability.
What information we have on Brown, from his impressive debut on special teams to his recruiting rankings to the practice buzz, is encouraging. And he ceded the safety job to Brandent Englemon, who was totally functional. He wasn’t stuck behind someone who was struggling.
Brown’s ascension into the starting lineup isn’t cause for enormous concern, IMO, no more so than any new starter at a position where slip-ups mean long touchdowns.
Add it up and you get?
The striking thing about last year’s defense is their lack of suck. This would not be remarkable if Michigan hadn’t ceded 73 points in a disastrous opening two weeks. Look at the conference rankings: second in total defense, pass defense, and scoring defense. First in pass efficiency defense. Fifth in rushing defense. And Michigan missed the worst offense in the league (Iowa).
Some caveats do apply—Ohio State quit playing after getting their second touchdown—but a quick review of last year’s events also reveals two useless Purdue touchdowns, a useless Wisconsin touchdown, and a whole lot of awful Ryan Mallett play leaving opponents with short fields. Michigan was better than its eminently respectable numbers last year.
Now eight starters return (if you’re counting Brandon Harrison, which you should). Many of them are in clearly better shape. Obi Ezeh should be much better, and there’s not likely to be much dropoff from Chris Graham to whoever replaces him on the weakside. My accounting goes like this:
- Better: DT, DE, MLB, CB
- About the same: WLB, FS
- Worse: SLB, SS
That looks like a significantly better defense, especially since strongside linebacker is probably less relevant than nickelback these days. Replacing Crable’s 28.5 TFLs will be tough.
Anyway: I expect a significant bounce in the rush defense, even more sacks, and a defense that challenges OSU for the best in the conference.
BONUS: a quick review of last year’s stupid predictions. This is perhaps the most accurate thing I’ve ever pulled out of my ass:
- 23rd in scoring defense.
Michigan was exactly 23rd last year. But, uh:
- Aw, hell: Brown has a great debut and gets everyone totally excited about his potential. The safeties are good.
This could not have been more wrong, obviously.
On with the variably accurate show:
- Brandon Graham has monster year and departs for the NFL draft after it.
- Ezeh does get much, much better.
- The other linebackers are a persistent issue.
- Trent makes All Big Ten and goes in the second round of the draft.
- Michigan has a top 20 run defense and top 15 overall defense.
- Boubacar Cissoko is fun to say.
It’s the eve of football season, so what better time for a hockey complaint? The NCAA has announced four more regional sites for 2010 and 2011. They are:
- St. Paul
- Fort Wayne
- Green Bay
- St. Louis
There isn’t a D-I program within 500 miles of Saint Louis. As a result, there’s going to be yet another year the CCHA cannot possibly have a home crowd. This year Michigan and Miami were the top two seeds in the entire tournament and had to play hundreds of miles away from home because the West regional sites were in Colorado and Wisconsin.
Putting an NCAA regional in an NHL rink in St Louis is asking for four thousand fans in the seats. In conclusion: bite me, NCAA.
A note before we start: this preview relies heavily on the defensive UFRs of last year, even more so than the offense did, because 1) there are actual returning players and 2) there’s a convenient numerical system that does a decent job of summing up a defensive player’s contributions. One caveat: the system is generous to defensive linemen and harsh to defensive backs, especially cornerbacks. A +4 for a defensive end is just okay; for a cornerback it’s outstanding.
|Tim Jamison||Sr.*||Terrance Taylor||Sr.||Will Johnson||Sr.*||Brandon Graham||Jr.|
|Adam Patterson||Jr.||Renaldo Sagesse||So.||Mike Martin||Fr.||Ryan Van Bergen||Fr.*|
|Andre Criswell||Jr*||--||--||Jason Kates||So.*||Greg Banks||So.*|
With four starters returning, three of them seniors, defensive line should be the team's strong point. All are converts to the Church of Barwis. Terrance Taylor and Brandon Graham each dropped 30-some pounds; Will Johnson is lifting small cars for fun; Tim Jamison is noticeably less pudgy. They could be dominant. Let’s hope.
|Shooting the gap|
|Holds up to double|
|Cut to the ground|
Much was expected from fireplug nose tackle Terrance Taylor last year, but Taylor was just okay. He was bad against Appalachian State’s spread ‘n shred and ineffective against Oregon’s spread ‘n shred ‘n impossibly-easy long touchdown, a weakness that recurred later in the season against Illinois:
Taylor and Johnson weren't much more effective against the zone read than they were in the first week of the season. Taylor did make a couple plays, but +2 is a weak day for a DT playing against a lot of interior run plays.
There was also an ignominious –2 against Eastern Michigan.
On the other hand, when teams lined up and attempted to grind down Michigan all traditional-like, Taylor was pretty dang good.
|Penn State||5||1||4||Probably thinking "hallelujah, someone who will run straight at me."|
|Michigan State||8||3||5||A couple diving tackles that really helped out the befuddled linebackers.|
|Wisconsin||11||3||8||I thought he was great, but grant you that you might be skeptical. Nine tackles is a hell of a number for a DT, though.|
|Ohio State||6||4||2||Positive day, but a disappointing one nonetheless. Given his status as Michigan's most consistently disruptive DT and the steady diet of iso plays, he should have had a bigger impact.|
That’s three of four performances that were at least good; there were also big days against spread teams Purdue and Northwestern.
Michigan fans are banking on Taylor improving after his midseason conversion to the Church of Barwis. The gregarious fat man is now more gregarious and less fat after dropping 25 pounds over the summer. He claims his conditioning has improved:
"I'm going to be lean," he said, laughing, knowing what his 6-foot frame can handle. "I know doing that, being more flexible, doing the things they want and improving in the areas I can improve in, all working together, it's a blessing I stayed here and we got (strength coach) Mike Barwis."
Taylor’s ability to stay effective late in games will be extremely important with the loss of Marques Slocum and position switch of John Ferrara: the top backups are a freshman and a Canadian.
|ND third and one dies|
|Snuffing a draw|
|Causing a sack|
|Third down vs Illini|
|Slowing the zone read|
|Crushed by UW|
If Taylor was a bit disappointing, Will Johnson was more so. After battling through a severe knee injury that forced a redshirt and lingered on, Johnson debuted as a redshirt sophomore backup to unholy terror Alan Branch in 2006. In that role, he was good. Sometimes they’d lift Branch on third and short in favor of Johnson and, remarkably, that turned out pretty well.
Unfortunately, when Johnson was pressed into full-time duty the results were meh. Stats don’t always tell the tale at defensive tackle, but 2.5 TFLs and half a sack does not indicate an impact player. UFRs indicate a strong game against Penn State, a rollercoaster performance against Wisconsin, a good day against Minnesota (BFD, maybe), a clunker against Ohio State, and unremarkable days otherwise.
Johnson also has tales of Barwis:
"I think I'm stronger and more explosive than I've been in a while," senior defensive tackle Will Johnson said. "(Barwis') staff is really good. They're really on top of everything. They know what you need to do and how to get you there.
"I love (Barwis) to death so far. He's a good guy. He really gets after you and wants you to do your best."
He owns many of the weightlifting records for the current team and is a fifth year senior; now is the time. He should be better, but probably not All Big Ten level.
Freshman Mike Martin is the top backup at defensive tackle. Out of high school he’s a smaller version of Terrance Taylor, a shortish but stocky NT sort who was a state champion wrestler and powerlifter. A true freshman at DT would normally be cause for concern but Martin is reputed to be a gym rat much better prepared for the rigors of a college weight program than most. His highlight film is pretty impressive, as he shoots through the line and drags down ballcarriers like he’s a middle linebacker.
No one knew what to expect from Renaldo Sagesse, as he is from Quebec and played mostly against 150 pound guys who got much, much sorrier they didn’t make the hockey team as soon as he wandered on the field. He saw sporadic snaps last year, but they were too few to glean any impression from. Jason Kates stuck around and stuck it out under Barwis a year after dropping from a listed 358 pounds to 318; he will probably start rotating in this year.
|Snuffing a draw|
Brandon Graham was injured or suspended or something for Michigan’s first two games of 2007. You probably don’t remember this because it’s not like it’s been brought up every 15 seconds since, but Michigan gave up a lot of points in those games. When Graham returned against Notre Dame, he racked up 3.5 sacks and Michigan gave up no points. From then on the defense dragged itself from dead last to 24th nationally, finishing second in the Big Ten. This looks like an important player.
In truth, Graham wasn’t the all-crushing destroyer of worlds the events of last year may have made him out to be. He did pick up 8.5 sacks and would likely have cracked double digits without the missed time, but in marked contrast to Lamarr Woodley, Graham added just one non-sack TFL and 15 non-sack regular tackles. Tim Jamison, in contrast, had about triple those numbers. Woodley was on another level yet.
Michigan State turned its run game around by attacking a tired Graham, and he came in for some clucking:
He's got a -2 up there, by far his worst total of his career, and it was largely because he got booted out of the line by double teams frequently.
Michigan needs Graham to take the next step forward in the pass game and start wreaking similar havoc against the run.
I tentatively suggest this will happen. Barwis broke Brandon Graham into his component molecules, examined every one individually, and reassembled Graham into a 16-foot-tall fire-breathing dinosaur robot. Or something like that:
…at 287 pounds, Brandon Graham did 315 pounds on the bench press. We cut him all the way down to 250 and then brought him back up to 269. At 269 today, he did 475 for two (repetitions) on the bench.
This quote is amazing for obvious reasons—Graham can now lift Charlie Weis twice—and more subtle ones: we had a 290-pound defensive end last year? Jebus.
We have a player who was already one of the better defensive ends in the league whilst carrying around 20 pounds of Cottage Inn one year more experienced and several times better conditioned. Also there is the cockpit-mounted flamethrower. Survey says: really, really good.
After three years of nonstop hype and the occasional flash of brilliance in a backup role, Tim Jamison debuted as a starting defensive end and was… eh… a little better than okay. Late in the season he was wildly inconsistent. Against Wisconsin he was a measly +1 as the DL as a whole turned in a –8 in the important “pressure” metric, but against Ohio State he turned in a +7 and was the best player on the defense.
Other than that though, Jamison’s porridge was boringly average. Earlier it was meh-plus—+4, +4, +5, that kind of thing—as the pressure metric wandered around the acceptable range. His stats were similarly unremarkable: 5.5 sacks, 52 tackles, ten TFLs. A point in his favor: that’s a lot of tackles and a decent number behind the line; he wasn’t really the issue in the run game.
Jamison enters his final year an established starter who should take another step forward this year. How much depends on how realistic the Barwis hype is, how crazy Scott Shafer is, and how much potential is yet untapped. Jamison’s entering his fifth year in college instead of his third and is thus less likely than Graham to blow up, but he was a slightly plus player a year ago and will probably be an honorable mention All Big Ten sort, maybe second team.
|Easy PSU sack|
|He owns Penn State|
|Thumping a FB|
Behind the starters it’s thin. Ryan Van Bergen was a moderately shirtless recruit reputed to have a nonstop motor; he redshirted a year ago and appears to be the top option behind Graham on the strongside. At 6’5” he’s a bit taller than optimal height for a defensive end. Greg Banks was a meh recruit; he’s seen some time here and there but hasn’t done anything of note. Adam Patterson was a major recruit but has done less than Banks so far, as a junior he’s rapidly running out of time.
|Marell Evans||So.||Obi Ezeh||So.*||Austin Panter||Sr.|
|Jonas Mouton||So.*||Johnny Thompson||Sr.*||JB Fitzgerald||Fr.*|
|Kenny Demens||Fr.||Brandon Logan||Fr.||Brandon Herron||Fr.*|
Obi Ezeh returns; Chris Graham and Shawn Crable do not. Crable will be missed. Unfortunately, available options here are few.
Sophomore middle linebacker Obi Ezeh was the Steve Schilling of the defense in 2007: a redshirt freshman pressed into the starting lineup before his time, he was unprepared and often bad. Now he’s the “veteran” anchor of a shaky unit, counted upon to improve massively.
Though Ezeh doesn’t have the same plague of injuries to excuse his play, he was switched from strongside linebacker to the middle midway through fall camp and was significantly less touted as a recruit. There’s plenty of reason to believe he’ll get better.
He’ll have to. Michigan Sports Center put this video up to highlight Morgan Trent’s wicked speed but when I look at it all I see is horrible linebacker play:
This is a simple zone read handoff on which Ezeh is unblocked. Not only does Ezeh not read the play and the hole fast enough to make a tackle, he commits the cardinal sin of losing “leverage” on the ball by letting Harvin outside of him. The result is a big gainer.
This happened quite frequently last year, as Colin Johnston detailed in his piece on the differences between David Harris and Obi Ezeh for Hail To The Victors 2008. Ezeh was a freshman and he played like it, especially against Wisconsin when he turned in a –7.
That’s not to say there wasn’t good stuff mixed in there. Ezeh usually managed to stay on the positive side of the UFR ledger, which was more than Chris Graham could say. Ezeh is getting a lot of positive buzz, too. Here’s hoping it’s accurate.
|He slices up well|
Johnny Thompson backs up Ezeh. He’s a player damned by the shifting tides of football, a guy who could have been a starter back when second and eight was a running down. Our one glimpse of Thompson’s promise came during the 2005 Iowa game, when the ineptness of Chris Graham became too much to bear and he was inserted at weakside linebacker. I wrote this last year and it still holds true:
The first half was full of indecision and error; the second half he made a significant contribution to the win... in the run game. When he was asked to defend the pass, he overran plays and got clunkily out of position.
Though he did intercept Jimmah Clausen last year—raise your hand if you didn’t—put your hand down, Todd Howard—that limitation remains. He’s an outmoded player.
Thompson should see the field as a situation run-stopper on short yardage and goalline sets. If there’s a non-spread team on the schedule that really can’t throw you might see a lot of him in that particular game… maybe Wisconsin?
On the outside things are tetchy. Marell Evans has won the weakside job from presumed heir apparent Jonas Mouton. Neither has seen the field much so we’re reduced to recruiting rankings, extrapolation, and practice whispers.
Evans first: he was a legit nobody (to the recruiting sites, at least) out of Varina High in Virginia a couple years back. Varina also happens to be the school that produced Brandon Minor, and Michigan internet legend has it that a primary reason Evans got his offer was Minor’s recommendation. Minor told the staff “this guy works harder than I do,” and this was suitably impressive. At the time of his commitment, Evans’ other offers were from Buffalo, Temple, and Middle Tennessee. Now he’s a true sophomore slated to start at Michigan. Dude.
Mouton, on the other hand, was a mondo recruit out of California, ranked in or around the top 50 by both sites. He moved down from safety and redshirted his first year; last year an ankle injury lingered into the season, limiting his time early. Nothing limited his time late, however, and Chris Graham was still tres ineffective as the starting WLB. Like Mark Ortmann’s struggles behind an unprepared Schilling, this is a disturbing indicator for his future.
Evans doesn’t exactly have the profile of a future star what with that recruiting story—even if you don’t believe in star ratings, that offer list is less than ideal—but at least he’s beaten out a touted guy and has an encouraging career path to date. I won’t venture a guess as to how it will work out. Mouton remains the better athlete and may see some time as a madman blitzer in Scott Shafer’s madman blitzing schemes.
On the strongside, Austin Panter is the most unexpected starter on the defense, and that’s saying something given the science that was just dropped on Evans. Michigan’s first JUCO transfer since Russell Shaw, Panter arrived with a JUCO Defensive Player of the Year award and was immediately considered a total bust. He saw just enough time to rob him of a redshirt—yay—and seemed poised to languish in obscurity his final year. Exit Crable and enter Rodriguez and he’s a starter.
I have no idea what this portends. The only thing I’ve seen from Panter was a couple good plays in the 2007 spring game. Michigan never uses JUCOs so I don’t know if this is a reasonable thing to have happen. It seems like it might be since there’s a huge leap from some community college in Kansas to Michigan, but it also seems a little desperate. It’s not like this JUCO DPOY award has been a great predictor of I-A success: most of the guys who got it faded away into Bolivia without so much as a start.
This may work out; I lean towards not so good. It might not matter that much because Michigan will be in a nickel so often.
Brandon Logan exists but isn’t going to see time outside of special teams. A fleet of freshmen will probably rotate in at points. JB Fitzgerald has been the only freshman linebacker drawing direct praise from Rodriguez so far. He’s a middle linebacker by trade, though, so may get buried this year. Kenny Demens, Taylor Hill, and Brandon Herron have not drawn any mentions. Hill was the highest rated but was also a 210 pound DE. Marcus Witherspoon would probably have seen the field this year but a clearinghouse issue has him lingering around home. He certainly thinks he’s going to arrive; at this point a redshirt seems like a foregone conclusion.
|Morgan Trent||Sr.*||Steve Brown||Jr.||Brandon Harrison||Sr.||Donovan Warren||So.|
|Troy Woolfolk||So.||Charles Stewart||Sr.*||Artis Chambers||So.||Boubacar Cissoko||Fr.|
|JT Floyd||Fr.||Brandon Smith||Fr.||Michael Williams||Fr.*||Doug Dutch||Sr.*|
The one unit that was a pleasant surprise on last year’s team, the secondary returns about three starters depending on how you classify oft-deployed nickelback and new starting safety Brandon Harrison. The starting corners return and are backed up by some promising young talent; Steve Brown… well, he’s going to play and God willing last year’s contribution to the Horror was an anomaly.
|Jumping a slant|
Senior cornerback Morgan Trent underwent a remarkable transformation last year. He was torched time and again in the Football Armageddon ‘06 Ohio State game and was #1 on the fan whipping boy charts until Appalachian State’s first drive. He proceeded to turn in an excellent year, emerging into one of the better corners in the Big Ten. Defenses avoided him in favor of Johnny Sears and, later, Donovan Warren. That might not say much when those two guys are baked out of their gourd and freshman, respectively, but this does:
PASS DEF EFFICIENCY G Att Cmp Int Pct. Yds TD Effic -------------------------------------------------------------- 1. Michigan............ 8 252 134 8 53.2 1382 4 98.1 2. Ohio State.......... 8 276 145 6 52.5 1355 8 99.0 3. Purdue.............. 8 288 166 9 57.6 1783 10 114.9 4. Iowa................ 8 290 167 10 57.6 1933 10 118.1
Michigan missed Jake Christensen's unconvincing impersonation of a man with arms and was still the top pass efficiency D in the conference. Morgan Trent was the best player in that secondary.
This year, NFL scouts are saying Trent is the most draftable prospect on the team, even ahead of the defensive linemen. I could only turn up one highlight for Trent because teams avoided him so much—there was also a “look what I found” interception or two, but those weren’t exactly testaments to his ability. He’s headed for an excellent senior season and some postseason award consideration.
|Jumping a hitch|
|Too hesitant tackling|
|Batting it away|
|And the whiff|
Meanwhile, Donovan Warren is on the same stardom track followed by Jackson, Hall, and Woodson (praised be his name) before him: come in a highly touted recruit, start about half the year as a freshman, and blow up your sophomore year en route to the first round of the NFL draft. Warren actually has more recruiting accolades than anyone on that list—only Jackson was even close—and was a starter by the second half of The Horror.
As you might expect, Warren started off a little shaky. Though he was one of the few Wolverines to escape the Post Apocalyptic Oregon Game without a tongue-lashing, he was one of the “goats” against Penn State. (“Goats” is probably the wrong term when you give up nine points, but whatever.) He was also responsible for a coverage bust against Illinois that led to a touchdown. But as I review the UFRs he’s always at 0 or –1 or +1, which is pretty good for a freshman in a system that has a hard time crediting secondary players for the times they don’t screw up. Most of Warren’s mentions go like this:
Warren(+1) reacts to this quickly and just manages to not screw up the tackle. I'm still pretty leery about his tackling ability, and frankly, this play, but we are a results-based charting service. (Cover +1)
Tackling was his main issue a year ago. And indecision. Tackling and indecision and etc Spanish Inquisition, except that tackling and indecision were about it. Those things should melt away with more experience; the expectation here is that Warren will be very good.
Top backups at corner are true freshman Boubacar Cissoko, a highly-rated player from Cass Tech in Detroit, and Michigan legacy Troy Woolfolk. Cissoko was well regarded by the recruiting services despite the fact he can’t get on any of the rides at Cedar Point, and this hilariously-scored highlight package gives an indication as to why:
There’s only one Black Jesus and he’s Steve Breaston.
Anyway, Cissoko’s short but he’ll get in your grill and jam your ass to the ground. My go-to comparison for him is former Arkansas corner Chris Houston, who spent his college career lined up six inches from his man and rode them all the way downfield. Sometimes this worked out great; sometimes it did not it was spectacular to watch either way.
Woolfolk, meanwhile, was a high school track star and is the son of Michigan legend Butch Woolfolk. He’s physically reminiscent of Trent, a long, lanky guy who can go fast in a straight line but doesn’t have the change of direction a dwarf like Cissoko does.
|The Horror Begins|
In a way, I blame myself. Mostly I blame other people with a direct hand in it, but in a way I am culpable. There’s the “Functional DNP” thing and then Angry Michigan Safety Hating God saw this arrogance re: Steve Brown in last year’s preview and struck us all down:
It's usually silly to expect a new starter to outperform a departed one, but in this case it would be nearly impossible for Brown not to. Ryan Mundy was the worst safety I have ever seen in a Michigan uniform.
Mundy, of course, transmogrified into a safety decent enough to actually get drafted by an actual NFL team in the actual NFL draft. Meanwhile, Brown’s first start caused in mass chaos, tragedy, and this:
our safeties remain way downfield holding their penises, or, in Stevie Brown's case, trying very hard to grab his penis but falling down and watching it score a touchdown.
I was a little cranky.
Brown (right) was yanked halfway through The Horror and blameless Brandent Englemon occupied the starting job for the remainder of the year. Brown emerged from time to time when injury demanded it or just to spot a tired starter; in this time he made no big plays but neither did he give any up.
So now he’s the man, man, at free safety, and there are few other options available. (Maybe Artis Chambers is ready. Maybe not.) Brown’s still racking up the hype that caused such a sunny prediction in last year’s preview. He has full guru approval. He’s a junior now. He still scares the living daylights out of me.
This probably isn’t fair; I’m no doubt overrating two very bad plays from an inexperienced player in his first real action. If Brown had just sat behind a highly reliable Brandent Englemon, everyone would be terribly excited about him.
But, yeah, he didn’t.
|Blowing up screen|
|Taking down Benn|
Mighty mite Brandon Harrison has claimed the strong safety job. Though he’s technically not a returning starter, Harrison saw a ton of time last year as Michigan’s nickelback. From that spot he strung out options and attempted outside runs, provided underneath coverage, and blitzed quarterbacks. His proficiency at these things: excellent, average, and why don’t you run AT him instead of PAST him?
I’m a little disappointed Harrison will be giving up that spot as a quasi-linebacker, because he really was excellent at crushing outside runs last year. Three plays expound on a season:
Harrison(+2) jets in, fending of a blocker to chop this down in the backfield. Thompson(+1) also out there to help after a quick read. … Harrison(+2) reads and shoots into the backfield, making a huge TFL just as the ball arrives. … Harrison(-1) in unblocked but overruns the QB.
Those instincts will serve him well, though, and I expect he’ll be in that familiar spot over the slot receiver with frequency as Shafer brings another guy up to blitz.
Harrison’s coverage was been decent to good last year, though he missed an occasional tackle underneath; he should be acceptable to good in his final year.
Fifth-year senior Charles Stewart is the main backup at safety. His most extensive time on the field to date was as Morgan Trent’s ineffective replacement during the 2006 Minnesota game. After getting torched in a variety of ways there, he was buried on the bench and moved to safety. He’s been getting sporadic praise from the new regime and may see some time in nickel and time packages.
Artis Chambers was getting some time on special teams when the Big Ten dinged him for some eligibility snafu and forced him out for the remainder of the year. There are reports he’s playing some outside linebacker in a weird pass-down dime package. Whether that signals disaffection with the linebackers or a desire to get Chambers on the field is yet to be determined.
Brandon Smith is a high-rated true freshman who will see some time as he’s groomed to step in Harrison next year. He’s got wicked dreads.
Maybe I missed something in an earlier post, but I'm still a little confused on the TV deal.
I live in Florida. My local ABC just announced they are carrying USC/UVA at 3:30pm. Since Big Ten is not on Gameplan anymore, and Big Ten Network has "postgame Saturday" scheduled at 3:30pm... where will I see Utah/UM?
Go Blue, Scott
I think I’m going to answer this question every year for the rest of my life: if the Utah game isn’t on ABC in your region it will be on ESPN2. The Big Ten’s contract with ABC/ESPN has a “reverse mirroring” clause that guarantees every Big Ten game on ABC regional will be shown on ESPN or ESPN2 in areas that receive another ABC game.
If it’s not on ABC, it’s on ESPN2. Repeat 100x times.
On a similar note:
I am a recent UM grad currently working in Japan in desperate need of watching Wolverine football. What is the best option for watching the game over the internet? Is there a service I can pay to stream the game?
Also, do you know of any sports bars that show the game. I am about 5 hours from Tokyo which seems like the most viable option; however, this weekend I have plans to be in Nagoya (relatively large city) to try to find the game at 1 AM.
Do you have any insights into these viewing option?
Thanks for the expertise.
We’re probably a few years away from reputable live streaming on the internet, so your options are threefold:
- Try to figure out this sopcast thing and hope the guy streaming it doesn’t change the channel randomly. Probably no good.
- Get a buddy in the States to set up a Slingbox for you. (Wikipedia)
- Download the game from MGoVideo.
Sopcast is fraught with peril and I would avoid it if possible. The slingbox is immediate and reliable, but quality isn’t always top notch. MGoVideo is free and will have high quality copies of the game but you’ll have to wait a day or two before you can get your greasy mitts on it. If it’s that important to you, I’d just shell out the 200 bucks for the Slingbox.
As for Tokyo UM bars, I’ll throw that open to the peanut gallery. Any ideas?
So great - the BTN gets more money to Big Ten schools. Unfortunately I think the net result of this is actually problematic.
While the BTN may now be readily available to those within the conference footprint, our fans and (more importantly) recruits happen to live other places as well. Yes, I'm annoyed that living in Tampa means I still have to go to the bar and sit amongst the SEC d-bags to take in a BTN game. But what about recruiting? Does the extra million(s) that our school receives make up for the lack of national exposure to recruits? Even if the BTN does eventually become a national network, how many southern kids are actually going to tune in to watch it? They will instead be flipping back and forth between CBS & ESPN to catch all the SEC football their little mulleted hearts desire.
In the long term, the BTN could end up putting Michigan and other Big Ten schools at an even greater recruiting disadvantage than they are at already. And due to the fact that university presidents will continue to side with the BTN because of how much money they are receiving from it, the chances of this changing any time soon are slim.
Personally, I'd rather have less access if it means better recruiting for my team...better to watch a good team some of the time than a bad team all of the time.
Any effect like this is likely to be minor. The bulk of the Big Ten Network’s games are the kind of things that would have been on ESPN+ syndication before. Recruits outside the BTN footprint weren’t getting those games anyway.
There is an occasional hit for Michigan when the BTN has a second pick week and grabs a game like Purdue, but that’s going to be a once a year occurrence that will probably be offset by a Michigan game that would otherwise hit syndication being dragged onto ESPN because the BTN grabbed a different game.
Meanwhile, the extra money the network brings in will allow Michigan to install personal butler robots or whatever in the locker room. And everyone knows butler robots bring in the recruits.
Spurred by the recent AP preseason poll, from which Michigan is absent for the first time I could remember, I checked out historical AP pre- and post-season polls (appollarchive.com).
I am sure you and many of your readers already know the following, but it was eye-opening for me: Only twice before in the modern era (1969-present) has Michigan gone into the season unranked in the AP poll. The first was 1969( Bo's first year) and we all know how that turned out--a stunning turn around with Michigan finishing ranked 9th highlighted by a huge upset win over Ohio State. The second time Michigan entered a season unranked was 1985, a campaign that saw them go 10-1-1, winning the Big Ten, beating Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl and finishing ranked second.
So apparently Michigan has a grand history of defying the polls --underperforming when ranked highly and outperforming when unranked. My question is whether you think this year will follow the script? I firmly believe Michigan will finished ranked, but am I being utterly delusional when I daydream about a top ten finish, beating Ohio State and/or winning a bowl in the process?
Can't wait for Aug 30th!
~Jim in Kalamazoo
Excellent research there, but… uh, no, I don’t think that’ll follow the script. 1985 was an anomalous year because it came immediately after the 6-6 1984 season, but said 6-6 season was poor mostly because Jim Harbaugh was injured. Once that was no longer an issue, Michigan resumed its usual ways. And in 1969 Michigan wasn’t that great, going 8-3 in an era of college football more easily dominated by the big schools.
A lot more teams are serious nowadays and the team is significantly smaller due to scholarship restrictions and thus less able to absorb the sort of attrition that Bo and, to a lesser extent, Rodriguez unleashed. My advice is to keep your expectations manageable and be pleasantly surprised if they’re exceeded.
You might this interesting....this morning I typed into google "third holiest site judaism," and the first hit is Zingerman's in Ann Arbor.
(I was trying to find more information about Rachel's tomb)
Who are these guys?
No, seriously. What the hell is going on? Where's Henne? Hart? Long? Is that a running back taking snaps? Do they know you're allowed to take a snap from under center? Who stole my football team and replaced them with Valdosta State?
Exciting new kids in order of projected use this year:
- Martavious Odoms. He’s the only healthy slot receiver and is the Chad Henne of WRs: a starter from day one in high school. He’s ready-ish to play and will be counted on heavily; may return kicks.
- Darryl Stonum. Michigan needs someone to put the fear of God into opposing safeties and Stonum’s the guy with that rep. Early enrollment means he’s not as clueless as your average freshman; hell, he’s got just as much time in this system as anyone on the team.
- Michael Shaw. Slightly ahead of McGuffie because I think they’ll use him in th slot a bit.
- Sam McGuffie. Run, annoyed man. Run.
- Terrence Robinson. Injury sets him back, obviously, but once he’s back he’ll rotate into the slot.
It is possible this ends well. Michigan will surround Sheridan with a deep and varied set of receiving targets, and the spread ‘n shred can turn a wobbly-armed but heady passer into Zak Kustok or Bret Basanez. It doesn’t demand the precision howitzer Carr’s pro-style system did. The physical limitations (and senior year injury) that forced Sheridan to walk-on somewhere don’t have to be fatal.
But if we’re being honest with ourselves there’s little chance it starts well. The note of distress coming from practice observers and press conferences is clear, and the scary thing is a lot of the reported problems are things like “throws bubble screens backwards.” (Michigan fans are going to find out how spoiled Chad Henne’s unerring accuracy on screens made them.)
Though practice reports got less alarmed as fall camp progressed—there was even video evidence of Sheridan completing passes farther than six yards downfield—Michigan's best hope here is for something functional, a guy who can throw a bunch of screens and keep the offense moving.
This offensive line can’t be as bad as Notre Dame’s, can it?
This was going to be a “definitely not” until the Zirbel injury and John Ferrara’s move from defensive tackle to potential starter. Now it’s just “probably not.”
There’s a fair quantity of talent slated to start. Schilling, of course, was an OMG shirtless recruit waylaid by injury. He should be much better this year. Moosman and Molk were both four-star sorts. That’s three of your starters with guru approval, and the guys who didn’t get it are both redshirt juniors who’ve seen a series here and there.
Plenty of teams have gotten away with worse outfits. Georgia and Auburn both started multiple freshmen last year and that worked out pretty okay; just because the nearest and dearest line to go through a painful youth movement became Most Extreme Epic Disaster Challenge does not mean this is Michigan’s fate. Whenever it’s dark out and your thoughts turn to Notre Dame’s 2007 season replicated in winged helmets, just remember that Charlie Weis spent fall camp installing a spread option look for one game against Georgia Tech and neglected things like technique or pads. It was coaching malpractice on an unprecedented scale; Michigan won’t go down the same road.
HOWEVA, there are some major concerns. We know these things about Mark Ortmann:
- He was not a big time recruit.
- The coaching staff thought he was clearly worse than a guy (Schilling) who was not ready to play last year.
- He’s the starting left tackle virtually by default.
Unless we’re lacking some critical piece of information like an undisclosed, lingering injury or Ortmann’s sudden improvement, that looks a lot like a recipe for blindside hits galore assuming Michigan ever tries a pass longer than ten yards. Which they may not. But that’s another question.
And then there’s Zirbel injury, which puts Michigan one ligament away from starting a true freshman or a guy who was playing defensive tackle two weeks ago. Even if the line stays miraculously healthy, the lack of confidence in Molk is troubling.
If a couple of guys don’t pan out or, worse, get injured, darkness threatens to warsh over the dude at quarterback.
Will Rich Rodriguez and Calvin Magee be inherently better than Carr and Debord?
Michigan fans have complained for years on end about the predictability of Michigan’s offense. Whenever Michigan replaced its starting receivers, it was a guaranteed run. Whenever a tight end lined up at fullback, it was a guaranteed pass. Fullback shuffles were 90% runs to the side of the shuffle, and the few times it wasn’t didn’t justify the expense in yards and downs expended to launch the surprise.
This differentiates them from zero fanbases nationwide. Hell, West Virginia fans had a field day decrying the “predictable” offense Rich Rodriguez ran after his departure. Seriously:
“i will be glad whenever mcgee is officially gone. his 'i will only call 4 different plays' mentality can suck up in michigan right now for all i care.”
In a way, it was predictable: you run 70% of the time and a hefty chunk of the passes are bubble screens. In another way it obviously wasn’t. Touchdowns don’t score themselves.
Anyone who’s read this blog for a while knows my opinion, and it was best summed up in the aftermath of the Horror:
If every Michigan fan can tell you certain things obviously tip Michigan's plays, what are the chances opposing coaches don't know this? Zero. Everyone knows what Michigan is going to do. This is something we've heard every time a bowl opponent is asked about us for the past half-decade and probably longer. It's an arrogant waste of expectation because you expect that you won't need to fool the other team. It's like playing poker without ever bluffing.
This opinion is apparently shared by many, including current members of the team. This is perhaps the most damning quote I’ve ever read on the topic, and it comes from Brandon Graham:
“Everybody knew exactly what we were going to do. That was like the arrogance of being at Michigan. ‘Our players are better than yours.’ That’s how it was. That kind of got to (players) when it stopped working. The big games, like Ohio State, we would want to show them something we didn’t do during the season. But we’d go out there and do the same thing.”
This thinking is ancient, dating back to Bo and the days of unlimited scholarships. Michigan assumed it was inherently better than its opponents and every game was an exercise choking out the variance so that superiority could show.
It is also the complete antithesis of Rich Rodriguez. This was an opinion expressed earlier:
Rodriguez comes from a wholly different background than Carr, coming up through the ranks at NAIA schools and Tulane and Clemson and West Virginia. Until Pat White showed up he never had a significant talent advantage against the vast majority of opponents. He never, ever had the luxury of lying back and thinking to himself "if we out-execute the opponent we will win," and it shows. He invented a whole new offense and used it to exploit inefficiencies in recruiting. To seal the Sugar Bowl against Georgia he called a fake punt, exploiting inefficiencies in fourth-down playcalling. For the past seven years he has played Moneyball at West Virginia.
To me, the exciting thing about Rodriguez is not necessarily his system but his mindset. He's looking to squeeze out every ounce of expectation, make every resource stretch as far as he can, and now he's been provided resources few other coaches have.
This is the Coal Spoon theory, and it answers this question simply: yes.
You know, I get emails from time to time complaining about how negative I’m being, but not in a “you’re just incorrigible” way. They mostly complain about the depression induced.
What can I say? For the first time, Michigan is violating several of the preview heuristics: don’t switch a guy at the last second and give him playing time. Don’t completely change your system—not that the change is bad, but it will be painful in the short term. Don’t start a walk-on at quarterback. Have something other than crippled goats backing up your offensive line.
These things are nigh insurmountable obstacles in the quest for a non-ugly offense. There’s just too much that can go wrong (or already has) for the offense to function at an aesthetically pleasing level.
It shouldn’t get anywhere close to the radioactive mess Notre Dame was, or even be the worst offense in the league. The Rodriguez system doesn’t demand that much out of either of the shaky position groups. It does demand that the skill position players be able to beat their guys one-on-one in the open field, and Michigan should have the athletes to do this with regularity.
I think we’ll see an offensive of extremes this year: good or better against teams with shaky athleticism, bad or worse against A-level opponents. Scanning the schedule I see only three or four of those.
One major caveat: the situation at quarterback and on the offensive line is extremely fragile. If a guy goes down or just doesn’t pan out the dropoff as you go back is severe; there is a small chance a couple guys implode and the offense makes a short trip off a cliff.
- People are very excited about Martavious Odoms going into 2009, like Steve Breaston excited.
- Sheridan starts off the starting quarterback, is replaced at some point, but ends the season as the guy.
- Junior Hemingway establishes himself a starter midseason.
- The running back situation involves a mess of players; Minor, Brown, McGuffie, and Shaw all see 100 carries. Brown has the best YPC.
- Michigan has a better offense in-conference than they did last year. (Ninth.)
- Ricky Barnum ends up starting five or six games.
- Michigan is around 50th in yardage.