Mason NEEDS this, Pistons, after all you've put him through
Part eleven of the all-singing all-dancing season preview. Previously: The Story, 2009, quarterbacks, tailbacks, receivers, offensive line, secondary, linebackers, defensive line, special teams, offensive overview and predictions.
Note: video from last year is lightboxed; previous years will take you off the page.
(The picture at right was snapped by MVictors after the Utah game and will be forever lodged in my mind as the definitive image of Shafer's brief tenure as Michigan's defensive coordinator. Its got pathos in spades.)
The second thing that leapt out at me after "Brandon Graham is re-damn-donkulous" when I went back over the defensive UFRs is just how much bitching about Scott Shafer was contained therein. (We'll ignore the Purdue game since that didn't appear to be his decison.) GSimmons forgive me—or at least don't Blount me—but here goes.
It started during the Miami UFR, when I noted Michigan's bizarre insistence on the 4-3 against spread formations when they had a perfectly good senior nickelback available. And don't get me started on three-man lines featuring a true freshman when your best players on D are your senior defensive tackles. Too late:
… Michigan can't hold up against the run against a poor MAC team in this alignment, and it's pretty obvious why: you're lifting Terrance Taylor and Will Johnson, seniors and the best position group on your offense, for a safety and a freshman who, while promising, remains a freshman. You are then backing him up with Michigan's pretty crappy linebacking corps.
So I would like to know this: WTF is Michigan doing with a three man line on the field on a critical third and one late? And why are they using it at all on things that aren't obvious passing downs? … I am in no way ready to render a verdict on Scott Shafer or even give him the internet equivalent of the evil eye, but I have to admit my opinion of the hire is slipping.
Shafer didn't learn his lesson by the Penn State game, either:
Said 3-3-5 has not been effective at rushing the passer and has been a complete disaster against the run, but it got rolled out on third and one last week and second and six this week, with predictable results.
I just don't get it, man. You cannot put five guys in the box on a potential running down, especially when two of them are defensive ends, two of them poor linebackers, and the other a freshman NT. And yet.
After Illinois I bemoaned Michigan's inability to play assignment football ("They did not stay in their lanes; they did not stay with their man. They attacked the ball, only to find the "ballcarrier" bereft when they got there.") In fact, the only half-decent defensive performances came after Shafer was (apparently frozen out) and common freakin' sense won out. The Minnesota UFR:
So what in the hell happened?
In the postgame players and coaches said that Shafer dumped anything resembling complexity and went with a completely basic nickel cover two scheme. The Okie made an appearance on passing downs, but other than that there were a grand total of two snaps in anything other than a 4-2-5 nickel. (One of these was a 30 yard run, natch.) There was almost no substitution. …
Does this sound suspiciously close to what you were complaining for earlier in the season?
Um, not to get all high and mighty, but… yes? I've always hated the lack of flexibility engendered by playing a 4-3 against the spread, especially when the third linebacker is a ponderous run-stuffer like Johnny Thompson. And I never understood the idea behind yanking one of Michigan's best defenders (pick a starting DT) off the field except on passing downs.
So Michigan goes to a nickel. Harrison's lack of size is not a factor in the run game, he plays well against the pass, and everyone can go back to the way they played much of last year. Confusion removed, Michigan dominates.
The picture painted by the above is, in retrospect, one of huge incompetence. Last year Michigan regularly removed functional veteran players in favor of crappy ones that made no sense given the down and distance situations or the offense on the field, and those things only got fixed (-ish) once Shafer was removed from the decision-making process. It's not like the position guys covered themselves in glory with that 3-3-5 against Purdue but at least they pulled their heads out of their butts afterwards and put in the defense Michigan should have been running from day one against spread teams.
Also, I've heard from folks closer to the program than I that the stuff about Greg Robinson teaching them how to tackle seems like more than standard new defensive coordinator hype. This comes paired with dark assertions about eyerolling and "tackling" education that consisted of "run up to them really fast and give them a shoulder block." That's strange given that the buzz in preseason was that the position coaches were just yellers and it was Shafer who was an educator.
So, no, Shafer wasn't just a scapegoat. His schemes may be awesome but his playcalling, roster management, and ability to identify third wide receivers were beyond poor.
Well, I don't know. I was on record about being very on edge, man, about hiring a guy with one season that wasn't reason to cover your eyes to his credit in the past ten years, but Robinson wasn't working with much talent at Syracuse or Kansas City and his track record with more respectable outfits is a good one. Michigan certainly counts as a more respectable outfit than Syracuse, but that doesn't extend to that excellent Texas defense Robinson coordinated. Michigan hovers in-between.
Still, the opinion on the hire at the time doesn't seem insane from this distance:
Robinson walked into a good situation at Texas* and managed not to screw that up, then went to Syracuse, where he had an average defense on a horrid team (1-10), which he then proceeded to crater for the next three years. Before his brief, star-making turn at Texas—again, for doing nothing more than treading water—he presided over one of the worst defenses in the NFL, getting fired after three years. The last actual success you can plausibly attribute to Greg Robinson came during his tenure as the Denver Broncos' DC, when his defenses were top ten in the NFL and a significant aid in Denver's back-to-back championships. Since then it's been abject failure save the one year in Texas.
It's not like Robinson's never had success, but it's also not like he's shown much ability to take crap and shine it up even a little bit. From my perch as Google Master, I have really limited information, though, and when I went through Robinson's history, association with Pete Carroll, defensive philosophies, and all that stuff for Hail To The Victors 2009 I came out a bit more impressed. Robinson's move to these hybrids also seems like a forward-thinking move in an era of spread madness, something Michigan will now be more prepared for than just about any team in the country.
Rodriguez made the bed, and now we get to lie in it. I don't think it'll be as big of a deal as I did back then.
*(Obama drop not intended to express any approval or disapproval of current president; intended only to get the picture at right wider dissemination. Unicorn drop intended to express full approval of unicorns.)
Can Michigan sustain an injury anywhere without imploding?
Maybe one of the two interior linebackers can get hurt without a huge dropoff. JB Fitzgerald has some experience, practice buzz, and recruiting hype and should be okay if thrust into the lineup. And possibly a Ryan Van Bergen could be solved by sliding Martin over and sticking Campbell into the starting lineup. Neither would be good, but Michigan could probably live with it. Also, losing Mike Williams would probably be okay since he was battling with Emilien all year; that dropoff might not be huge.
Anyone else, though, and it's panic time. It is thin, thin, thin.
Okay, well, what if a couple freshmen come through?
Yes, there is the possibility Michigan's young bucks are of sufficient quality to stave off a defensive apocalypse. Roh, Campbell, Turner, and Emilien will all see plenty of playing time and are getting hype from all corners; by midseason if all pan out Michigan could be sporting reasonable depth at all positions not named Brandon Graham. Injuries early would be more harmful than injuries late, and God willing Michigan will be able to shelve the starters and blood the n00bs relatively early against Eastern, Indiana, and possibly Western in preparation for the Big Ten slog. The schedule sets up relatively well, I suppose.
This one I don't know about. I've been making the point for a while that Michigan's defense can run in place and look a lot better this fall just because it won't be on the blunt end of the country's 109th-ranked offense and 104th-best turnover margin. Michigan was 17 spots worse in scoring defense than it was in yardage defense last year, which ranked 15th nationally. This year an average offense, average turnover margin, and Zoltan point them towards finishing on the plus side of that metric this year. That seems something we can take for granted.
HOWEVA, that only gets Michigan to 67th nationally, their rank in total defense last year, and that's extremely kind given that two games were played in a monsoon, another was against a third-string quarterback at Purdue who had been moved to running back earlier in the season, and significant chunks of the season were spent with opposing offenses shutting up shop because the only way they could manage to blow the game would be to turn it over.
So a position-by-position eval:
- New Brandon Graham > Brandon Graham
- New Obi Ezeh > Obi Ezeh
- New Jonas Mouton > Jonas Mouton
- Stevie Brown, LB > Johnny Thompson, LB – probably by a lot
- New, Healthy Donovan Warren > Donovan Warren
- Troy Woolfolk > Stevie Brown, S
- Mike Martin = Terrance Taylor
- Boubacar Cissoko = Morgan Trent
- Charles Stewart = Mike Williams
- RVB < Will Johnson
- Brandon Herron < Tim Jamison
Those are big drops in the worse category and only incremental leaps in the better category, but I guess IME the starting talent on this year's defense is better than it was last year. That's not too hard to believe. Add in something less than total incompetence, insurrection, and chaos in the coaching staff and this should also be a step forward unless injuries strike Michigan down.
So… yeah. Michigan's defense improves in real, non-running-in-place terms. Maybe not much. But given the schedule they should claw their way to slightly above average, just like the offense.
Note: video from last year is lightboxed; previous years will take you off the page.
Was Tate Forcier immaculately conceived or what?
a chorus of seraphim, a light from above
It's not analysis to state that the Tate Forcier's ability to function as an honest-to-god Big Ten quarterback, or lack thereof, will have more impact on Michigan's 2009 season than anything else. It's just obvious.
Many bits have already given their lives to bring you thousands upon thousands of words about Forcier's quarterback boot-camp background, Michigan's quarterback situation last year, Rodriguez's offense vis-a-vis young starting quarterbacks, and then all of that stuff again in triplicate. If you've been paying attention even a little bit you know all this: shaped by homeschooling, his father, and Marv Marinovich, Forcier enters a veritable wunderkind in technique, accuracy, and—unfortunately—size. He's pretty shifty but not a human bolt of lightning. He occasionally tries to do too much. And so on.
The things I think:
- Forcier's high school career and spring game indicate great proficiency in many things Michigan lacked last year. The ability to throw a bubble screen and a seam. The consistent ability to exploit that step on a guy Michigan's offense is designed to create. A fairly decent running ability.
- Rodriguez's offense is as n00b friendly as these things get. Reading coverages is somewhat replaced with reading the defensive end or, in the case of a scrape exchange, the linebacker. There are a lot of short throws that don't require reads, either, and Rodriguez's previous young quarterbacks have been something between functional and quality.
- Forcier will get his head taken off and make some comical facepalm errors. He does scramble around too much and I can see the odd 20-yard sack in his future. Plus, the senior-year interception spike may be wholly attributable to a wretched offensive line but it also suggests that Forcier's more likely to Favre it than take a minimal loss and live to fight again. This will probably cost Michigan one close game they're in.
Forcier will be above-average for a freshman quarterback. This won't make him good, exactly, but it'll seem fantastic.
Which run offense is the real run offense?
One last time: Michigan's run offense over the second half of the season was above-average in five of six games, significantly so in three, and 25% better than you would expect from a hypothetical average team. Extrapolated over the course of a season, that would see Michigan rank #30 in rushing offense.
Is that a realistic picture going forward? I think it's more realistic than what preceded it, when Sam McGuffie was the primary back and the offensive line was in total disarray. With every lineman and the vast bulk of the carries over the second half of the season returning, you'd expect Michigan to at least tread water. More functional quarterbacking, both by land and air, should keep defenses less focused on the tailbacks. And Rodriguez, of course, has a history of mondo rush offenses. You'd expect the increase in proficiency to be greater than normal going from year one to year two.
This is going to sound hugely improbable, but you can see the hazy outline of a top 20 or even top 10 rushing offense in last year's numbers and the returning personnel. And though that sounds ridiculously optimistic, I can't find any factors arguing against the production Michigan found over the second half of the season other than the tendency of Brandon Minor and Carlos Brown to injure themselves in ways conventional and improbable.
Do I think that will happen? Not top ten. But there should be a major leap forward from last year's 59th. If you need any more evidence that Rodriguez knows what he's doing, this is by far the most remarkable stat in the last decade of Michigan football. Here's Michigan's yards per carry for every year available in the NCAA's online archive:
Last year's Michigan rush offense was above average given the dataset. Not much above average, but far from last and almost on par with the 2007 offense. This system works.
Will anyone emerge as a bonafide star amongst the mass of pass-receiving targets?
Michigan has a lot of options at receiver, with three or four guys on the outside, three in the slot, and two tight ends. All have the potential to contribute, but none seem likely to emerge into the death ninja deep threat that's seemed Michigan's birthright since Desmond Howard's time.
There are two guys on the roster with the sort of recruiting accolades and offers that would lead one to think they could be that guy, and both of them are sophomores: Junior Hemingway and Darryl Stonum. Stonum's been disappointing so far, though, and his freshman year was marked by a lot of balls that might not have been outright drops but were catchable incompletions. Hemingway's shown promise when not afflicted by injury, which was rarely. Both had a ton of offers and considerable recruiting hype (before Hemingway was dropped last second, anyway).
I think the answer here is "no." But the nice thing is that Rodriguez's offense has gotten along just fine without deep threats since it's so explosive on the ground. With Brown, Shaw, and Robinson all capable of turning in long touchdowns, Michigan can get its share of big plays even without the deep ball.
Not that it wouldn't be helpful. See Chris Henry's brief and trouble-strewn career, which was also paired with a remarkably high yards per catch.
Why did the offense fail so spectacularly in second halves? Could Barwis be something other than God?
I've guessed at the answer to this vexing question a couple times before, but it's worth reiterating:
Michigan is getting shut down because their offense is not diverse enough. They add in a new package of stuff, like the wheels against ND and the MINOR RAGE against Penn State, and it works for a while because it's new; then the opponent adjusts and that's gone; Michigan isn't consistent enough at any one part of their offense to force teams into uncomfortable situations as they try to defend it. This was the hope of Minor Rage after the Penn State game. It did not work out.
Michigan was able to catch opponents off guard with new packages several times. But they had such limited capabilities that they couldn't consistently make opponents pay for cheating to their new packages. Threet couldn't throw bubble screens and Sheridan couldn't throw much of anything. The receivers and quarterbacks couldn't make secondaries pay for coming up against the run. By missing second-level blocks, the offensive line did not make opponents pay when excellent play calls saw gaping holes open. It was easy to adjust to Michigan because everything they did was a variation on the one thing they could do.
This shouldn't be the case this year, at least not so severely. Michigan might be limited because they're forced to deploy a freshman quarterback but he's polished, came in for spring, and has a backup that gets the kind of MS Paint tribute you see at right. (MGoBlog: the home of all your MS paint fan art needs.)
I think we'll look back at Michigan's second-half offensive ineptitude as an aberration after the year.
It's a given that the offense will bounce up after finishing last year 109th in total offense and 99th in scoring offense. How far and how fast is yet to be determined.
The OMG top 20 rush offense hypothesized above is probably out of reach. I have zero good reasons for asserting this except maybe the vague idea that instead of getting aggressive against the run, 2008 opponents saw Michigan's clown car offense and decided to sit back and watch Michigan shoot itself in the foot. That happens to be total speculation I never bothered to write down in any of last year's UFRs and seems way less valid than "excellent second half performance from which literally everyone returns." I guess I'm asserting something in the 25-30 range. I guess.
The other half of the equation is far murkier. I'm leery about the pass protection, especially at tackle. There's no obvious go-to receiver and only one and a half plausible options for that role. Everyone except Greg Mathews and a couple of tailbacks is young, young, young. It'll be better, obviously, but the passing offense could finish anywhere from 70th to 30th and I'd be able to retroactively justify that finish.
I don't know… add it all together and this looks like a considerably above-average BCS offense with a true freshman at quarterback. So let's ding them and slot them in from 40th to 50th.
Last Year's Stupid Predictions
- CALL IT A PUSH: People are very excited about Martavious Odoms going into 2009, like Steve Breaston excited.
- OH GOD WHY IS THIS RIGHT: Sheridan starts off the starting quarterback, is replaced at some point, but ends the season as the guy.
- SET ASIDE: Junior Hemingway establishes himself a starter midseason.
- PUSH: The running back situation involves a mess of players; Minor, Brown, McGuffie, and Shaw all see 100 carries. Brown has the best YPC.
- WRONG: Michigan has a better offense in-conference than they did last year. (Ninth.)
- WRONG: Ricky Barnum ends up starting five or six games.
- REALLY REALLY WRONG: Michigan is around 50th in yardage.
This Year's Stupid Predictions
- Minor misses two games with injury [note: chalk!].
- People expect Vincent Smith to be the 2010 starter.
- Junior Hemingway is your leading downfield receiver (ie: Odoms is in the running but we aren't counting screens).
- Denard runs for 450 yards and throws about ten times.
- Michigan uses a huge multiplicity of formations on offense, debuting new stuff frequently and ending the year with a huge (hur) package.
- A two-back three-WR set is most common, though sometimes that third WR will be a tight end in the slot.
- As noted, Michigan finishes somewhere between 40th and 50th in total yardage.
Note: video from last year is lightboxed; previous years will take you off the page.
Overall rating: 4.
|Zoltan Mesko||Sr.*||Jason Olesnavage||Sr.*||Martavious Odoms||So.||Boubacar Cissoko||So.|
|Bryan Wright||Jr.*||Brendan Gibbons||Fr.||Greg Mathews||Sr.||Martavious Odoms||So.|
|--||-||Bryan Wright||Jr.*||Terrance Robinson||Fr.*||Carlos Brown||Sr.|
One of my slides when I went out to New York to talk to the alumni club there was titled "I Love Rugby Punting And So Do You," and this command now extends to the entire readership. Michigan's punt game in 2007 and 2008:
|Awesome Highstepping Fakes||0||2|
Michigan increased the average distance of their punts and still managed to reduce returns by 40%. Across the 83 (ugh) punts Michigan launched last year, the increase in average was worth 282 yards. That's a huge source of hidden yards. And also awesome highstepping fakes.
And though the average doesn't actually show it, I'm of the opinion that the rugby punting significantly reduced the chances of an opponent breaking a big return. The delay allowed by the rollout coupled with the spread formation allows players to get free releases once the punt is off instead of worrying about blocking a guy and then releasing. Guys get downfield quicker, and there more of them.
All this resulted in Michigan's punt game finishing #5 nationally. Zoltan returns and should at least replicate last year's feats, perhaps with a side of curing cancer. If he does, this blog is going to try to get him a Heisman vote. Just one.
Projecting kickers you've never seen before is a rube's game, so this will be brief. But I have some disquiet for these reasons:
- Olesnavage couldn't beat out the walk-ons who preceded him; Kickin' Competency Lopata was pretty erratic last year.
- Olesnavage was the guy in the spring game; the kicking demonstration early was sort of a fiasco.
- I'd rather see the touted freshman win the job because I assume he's got higher upside than the fifth-year walkon.
Jason Olesnavage is the first one out of the gate right now. He has kicked pretty well, pretty consistent. Some days have been better than others. Brendan Gibbons, Bryan Wright and Kris Pauloski are the other three in camp and they’ve all had their moments. That’s an area that again none of them have kicked in a game quality kicks yet. We are going to try and put them under pressure the next few days and see if there is anybody else emerges or who kind of takes control of it.”
I'm slightly mollified by the idea that if Olesnavage is about equal with Gibbons, you might as well redshirt your freshman.
I don't know what happens here; I'll be happy with consistency from 40 and in.
HOLD ON TO THE GODDAMN BALL
End preview section.
No, not really. Okay. Okay, so if you ignore the 800-pound gorilla in the room, Michigan's returns last year were okay. Both units finished in the middle of the pack nationally and Martavious Odoms ripped off a punt return touchdown. Both primary returners—Cissoko took control of the kick returns by midseason—were freshmen and return, so you'd expect some improvement there, primarily in their effort to
HOLD ON TO THE GODDAMN BALL
One concern: Michigan's operating considerably shorthanded this year, which might cause the special teams to get filled out with walk-ons and whatnot instead of backup scholarship players. This might be a slight drag on Michigan's ability to block dudes.
Another note: Michigan's a lot deeper in little dodgy guys this year and so if Odoms can't
HOLD ON TO THE GODDAMN BALL
he'll get a quick hook, at which point it sounds like you might see Terrance Robinson:
On punt returns, Donovan Warren, Terrence Robinson, Martavious Odoms and Greg Mathews all worked on returns. In semi-live punt returning, Robinson made a couple of tough reads and catches. Granted, it's a small, small subset of what really goes on, but he seems to be separating himself a little bit.
I'd like to avoid whatever small possibility there is that Donovan Warren gets pwned on a return. It would be one thing if he'd shown any ability to actually return a punt; he hasn't. Throwing an average returner out there who happens to be one of your most critical players on a thin, thin defense doesn't make much sense.
I do assume that the fumbles will come down to a reasonable level; Michigan projects to be average here.
Note: video from last year is lightboxed; previous years will take you off the page.
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.
|Brandon Herron||So.*||Mike Martin||So.||Ryan Van Bergen||So.*||Brandon Graham||Sr.|
|Craig Roh||Fr.||Renaldo Sagesse||Jr.||Greg Banks||Jr.*||Adam Patterson||Jr.*|
|Steve Watson||Fr.*||Will Campbell||Fr.||--||--||Anthony LaLota||Fr.|
Three starters depart but the big guy is back: Brandon Graham returns as Michigan's best player and a serious candidate for post-season honors. Joining him is a wildly unbalanced collection of players. At nose tackle there are two hugely promising underclassmen. At defensive tackle there's a potentially solid starter and then Some Guy. And at a new position no one knows what to call, what it does, or who plays there there's virtually nothing.
With the changes, this preview is going to treat the defensive ends as separate entities. Defensive tackles remain bunched.
|Sam-owns against UW|
|Saves UW game|
|"Big time from frosh"|
Last year, Mike Martin had the luxury of playing behind two productive veterans. In his limited time, he impressed. Everyone expects he will be the breakout star on defense this year; expectations are higher for him than they are for even Mouton. But… well. Here's a bunch of praise and some trepidation wrapped into one package. It's from the Wisconsin game:
Man, Mike Martin is kind of sweet.
Yeah, man, he's kind of great as an interior pass-rusher already. I'm a little leery that he's going to be a true sophomore starter on the line next year just because he came in so in-shape that he's probably not going to improve drastically, and therefore his sophomore year will seem disappointing, but the kid should be gangbusters (yea, see?) as an upperclassman. Now about the other guys at DT…
Martin might slightly disappoint people who expect him to be 100% awesome right now, but people pegging him at 80% are probably going to see their expectations met.
As a recruit, Mike Martin was a slightly smaller version of immovable fireplug Terrance Taylor. Both were state champions in wrestling and powerlifting. Both were in-state. Both were defensive tackles at or near the tail end of top 100 lists. HOWEVA, on the field the two played very differently. Taylor is a bull of a defensive tackle who will get under your pads and shove you backwards; Martin is more of a penetrator. His high school highlights often saw him slice through the line and tackle like a linebacker, and last year much of his deployment was as part of Michigan's three-man line pass rush Okie package. You can see the penetration in the highlights at right, and that sort of activity was the reason Martin picked up a steady stream of 3-0-3 lines in UFR.
This is why I'm a mite concerned, though:
|Penn State||1.5||4||-2.5||A lot of negatives late when he was in as a 4-3 DT; unsurprising he took a beating from Shipley & Co; he's just a freshman.|
That was Martin's longest exposure as a true 4-3 DT and he suffered at the hands of Penn State's excellent, veteran line. This could be a blip that has no impact going forward. Martin was, after all, a freshman going up against fifth-year seniors, and good ones. And there could be considerable difference between the role he was asked to play in that game—absorb two blocks—and the one he'll be asked to play in the light, quick, slashing defense Greg Robinson has apparently installed.
This year, Martin will be the only true defensive tackle in the lineup and is backed up by a to-date anonymous Canadian and a true freshman. Even if that true freshman may be enormous and highly touted, Martin's responsibility takes a more severe uptick than anyone else's this year. He might struggle a bit early; by the end of the year he should be very good.
At the other spot, redshirt sophomore Ryan Van Bergen enters the starting lineup. Van Bergen was a moderately shirtless recruit—he was ranked at about the same level Will Johnson was—who spent his first couple years backing up Brandon Graham at strongside defensive end. Michigan's moved him to their three-technique defensive tackle, a position that's traditionally been occupied by the nimble penetrating sort of defensive tackle instead of lumbering goo-beasts.
So he might to be too out of position at his new spot; he was something of a DE/DT tweener as a recruit. He still is at 6'5", 275. And he'll be one on the field: multiple people from the coaches who pop up from time to time on this site to the Michigan coaches to Van Bergen himself have noted that RVB will flare out from time to time and act as a five-tech defensive end, either on passing downs or when Michigan flips the deathbacker to Brandon Graham's side of the field.
There's not a whole lot of data on RVB to be had, unfortunately, and he seems a little tall and light for the spot he's at. With few reasonable backups, chances are production here isn't much better than okay.
Backups and Whatnot
Unlike… uh… everywhere else on the defensive line, there are a couple reasonable backups here. True freshman Will Campbell is the one with the recruiting hype, and lord almighty:
Dude put in work after enrolling early. His rep is enormous, agile, and strong—he's not a five star for nothing—but deficient in technique in all the ways that 350-pound men who can hurl high school offensive linemen into low Earth orbit usually are. In short: he needs to learn how to play low. He'll get that opportunity, as he should rotate in for Martin frequently with an eye on maybe starting when Michigan goes bulky for games against ground-pounders like Michigan State and Wisconsin. (The assumption in this case is that Martin slides over to DT and Michigan goes with a more conventional 4-3 look.) His recruiting profile also exists if you want to hear an awful lot about a large man.
Campbell will probably have a freshman year much like Mike Martin's, where he rotates in frequently and mostly does well with the occasional "yep, that's a freshman" play mixed in.
Meanwhile, junior Renaldo Sagesse remains a mysterious entity locked on the bench his first few years after coming to Michigan out of Quebec. Yes, that Quebec. In Canada. He probably doesn't have much upside but there's no shame in behind behind Taylor, Johnson, and Martin and should provide functional depth.
Redshirt junior Greg Banks backs up Van Bergen; Banks has seen the occasional snap as part of the rotation but hasn't done much with them. If he can give RVB breathers without drawing attention to himself, that's a win.
Strongside Defensive End
|Snuffing a draw|
|Sack wsgs Mouton, Brown|
|Beats double to sack|
|Sack wsg Mouton|
|frowns: not infallible|
|Sack +3 Pressure +2|
The most striking thing from my tour of last year's defensive UFR was how preposterous Brandon Graham was. Here's his Big Ten season minus Ohio State (which did not get UFRed for obvious reasons):
|Wisconsin||10.5||1||9.5||+6 of this comes from two sacks late when he got to the QB on three-man rushes, killing one drive and damaging another.|
|Illinois||7||4||3||More effective in the run game than others, but was exploited a couple times.|
|Penn State||9||4.5||4.5||Best player on defense without question.|
|Michigan State||12||1||11||He backed up his prediction as much as he could.|
|Purdue||9.5||2||7.5||Would have had some sacks if anyone was ever covered.|
The note above points out that defensive linemen tend to do better than the back seven in UFR ratings but once you start getting into the 7.5, 8, 9.5, 10.5, 11(!) range that is elite, elite production. Graham's impressive statistics—10 sacks, 20 TFLs—back that up. Graham is an unquestioned star, a lock for All Big Ten, a probable first round NFL draft pick, and the team's best player.
What's more, Graham's production took a major step forward last year. As a sophomore, Graham was impressive but mostly as a pass rusher. He had 8.5 sacks but just one other tackle for loss and 15 tackles outside of that. Last year a newly slimmed Graham added 36 tackles on people other than the quarterback, fully ten of them behind the line of scrimmage.
The best way to see Graham's transformation into a complete terror is to compare Michigan State games. In '07 Michigan State turned its run game around by attacking a tired Graham in the second half, 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.
In '08 Graham unwisely guaranteed victory and then went about attempting to make that happen singlehandedly. An abridged run-game-only Michigan State UFR:
Graham crashes inside in an attempt to jam the play up and force it to bounce outside but ends up shoved past the play, opening up a small hole Ringer can squeeze through. … Graham(-1) needs to shoot inside on this to take out the pulling guard and the fullback, which would delay Ringer and force him to bounce it into unblocked players; instead he stays outside and the resulting carry goes for six yards.
That's it in a game where Javon Ringer ran 37 times. The rest of the UFR that isn't "oh look it's another mass of bodies play for 2-4 yards" is Michigan State running at Tim Jamison over and over and over and over. Michigan State had seen the film, and they didn't even bother with that side of the line.
As far as the passing game, just look at the numbers and the highlights to your right. Brandon Graham is a bad man.
Backups and Whatnot
There are none. The opening depth chart has walk-on Will Heininger actually ahead of redshirt junior Adam Patterson, which… wow. Patterson was a top 100 recruit in this day and is currently behind a walk-on who's younger than him. Michigan acquired an injury redshirt for Patterson after he missed most of last year, but will they actually offer a fifth year to him?
When that's the relevant question instead of "can he reasonably replace the best player on the team?" it's time to light a candle for Graham's various ligaments, tendons, bones, and so forth and so on.
|Ryan Van Bergen|
|Easy PSU sack|
AKA "quick" or "elephant" or any number of other things, the deathbacker and what he is has been discussed ad nauseum throughout the offseason. One final recap: the deathbacker is half man, half machine, half defensive end, half linebacker, and 200% awesome. Robinson's defense has the flexibility to flip him from weakside—where he operates as an out-wide dispenser of havoc with a practiced sack dance—to the strong, where he becomes a human shield for an undersized strong-side linebacker and general threat to penetrate into a running play. In spring practice, Michigan mostly used him as the latter in order to better single up terror defensive end Brandon Graham.
Your one and only option at this spot is redshirt sophomore Brandon Herron, who has not been heard nor seen from except on special teams so far. Herron was only a middling recruit—Nebraska was his best other offer—and wandered around a man without a position his first couple years. He, along with linebacker Marell Evans and tight end Steve Watson, were thrown in at the position during spring practice. Evans transferred and Watson's initial buzz gave way to the sort of radio silence that sees you drop behind a true freshman, about whom more later, leaving Herron the starter by default.
As you can tell by the decidedly non-action photo above, Herron hasn't seen much time on the field. The only pictures in Mike DeSimone's insanely comprehensive Michigan picture database that feature Herron on the field are fuzzy shots of the field goal block team. So… yeah. I've never seen the player in question play. I've never seen Michigan deploy the position in question. There's considerable debate as to what, exactly, this position is even going to entail when it hits the field. Any projection here is the purest guesswork.
Here's my guesswork: Herron hasn't seen action despite Michigan's paper-thin depth chart at linebacker the last couple years and has the position by virtual default. He wasn't a big recruit. He's getting talked up, but that talk has the distinct whiff of Johnny Sears. Remember that brief window before The Horror when Only Reasonable Corner Option Johnny Sears was getting talked up left and right? Yeah… about that.
Herron does have one thing going for him: his teammates were throwing around ridiculous numbers about weights lifted and pounds (235) and 40 times (4.4). You take FAKE physical attributes at your peril, though.
Backups and Whatnot
Good thing this positional preview is the last one to drop: this site's message board has an unconfirmed report that true freshman Craig Roh is actually going to get the start tomorrow. This would be bad, as it would thrust a true freshman who's been called "wiry" so many times that he bristled at it when someone dropped it at Media Day into the starting lineup, but it might not be that bad. Roh was a big-time recruit who picked Michigan over USC and many others, and I was ape about him when it came time to hit up his recruiting profile:
He should get immediate use as a situational pass rusher and could move into the starting line up by midseason. It might take longer but I don't think Evans, Watson, or Herron is going to keep him off the field for much more than a year.
Craig Roh DE (Michigan)
Straight baller that showed a Dwight Freeney spin on Kelley for a sack and sacked/tackled Russel Shepard in space. Had a handful of QB pressures over the course of the game. Rich Rod got himself a good one.
When Rodriguez started talking about how Roh will play immediately upon his arrival, the general tone of it was "…as a situational pass rusher." That's definitely in the cards, but I've been advocating the idea Roh will end up something more, and soon… I wouldn't be surprised if the unconfirmed report was true.
There is also redshirt freshman Steve Watson, who moved from tight end after it became clear his lack of athleticism would see him permanently buried behind Koger, Webb, and Moore on offense at a position that's strictly optional in the spread 'n' shred. As mentioned, there were some positive notes coming out of spring practice about him, but Roh quickly passed him. Watson's career arc looks like Coner on defense.
This is simultaneously not even worth posting and a huge relief:
-- University of Michigan football coach Rich Rodriguez announced tonight (Thursday, Sept. 3) during the Inside Michigan Football Radio Show that true freshman Tate Forcier (San Diego, Calif./Scripps Ranch HS) would take the first snap at quarterback against Western Michigan on Saturday (Sept. 5) at Michigan Stadium.
Brown will start at tailback, Olesnavage at kicker. Minor is "expected to play."
We're back with another attempt at casting pods into the nether reaches of space. This week we talk with Alan Rucker of Over The Pylon, a national college football blog with a Ball State bent, about Western Michigan and Stan Parrish's conversion from fusty grinder to spread acolyte. (Western Michigan blogs do not appear to exist.) Alan, happily, thinks the Broncos will get pounded.
This is the part where I might write some more stuff here, but I'm still attempting to finish the old season preview and the season starts in like two seconds. So I won't. One note: we had some audio issues so this one checks in at 16 minutes.