“The player development is the main thing I like (about Michigan),” Williams said. “You can see that they develop their players. They get them in the gym and they work them hard. And their hard work pays off.”
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.
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.
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.
The last time Michigan's quarterback situation appeared so dire it was 1995, Lloyd Carr's first year, and the quarterbacks were true freshman Scott Dreisbach and walk-on Brian Griese. Michigan was playing in the "Kickoff Classic" that year against Virginia. Michigan Stadium baked, Dreisbach started, and the team sucked. Down 17-0 at the half, Michigan looked lifeless.
One of the weirdly vivid memories of my life is listening to an affable Virginia fan tell us Michigan was not going to win the game if they kept letting that freshman throw the ball. We nodded in rueful agreement.
He would turn out to be wrong by one Mercury Hayes toe. Dreisbach finished with 374 yards on 52 attempts,* Michigan won, and all that quarterback stuff was quickly forgotten until the next week and the week after and especially when Dreisbach got injured and Brian Griese was called forth from obscurity and inserted into the starting lineup. This was good in the long term. In the short term, it was brutal:
Michigan quarterbacks combined for 16 touchdowns and 13 interceptions, completed about 53% of their passes, and struggled to crack seven yards per attempt with an All-Star cast of future NFL receivers: Amani Toomer, Jay Reimersma, Mercury Hayes.
So none of that was particularly good but the team didn’t exactly implode. Tim Biakabutuka ran and ran and ran and then ran some more in a 31-23 win over Ohio State and Michigan went 9-4. Not a nuclear waste site by any stretch of the imagination. So… there’s a chance.
This year, your nominal starter is the walk-on and the freshmen appear set to wait in line. Nick Sheridan (left) is the walk-on. He’s the son of Bill Sheridan, currently the linebackers coach for the Giants and for three years a defensive position coach under Lloyd Carr. He was honorable mention all conference in high school. He’s about six foot, maybe six one, supposedly more mobile than the competition but more limited in terms of arm strength. And that’s all anyone knows about him.
What limited intelligence we have from practice reports indicates Sheridan is a typical Northwestern quarterback, noodle-armed but bright and mobile-ish. He’s been more consistent than the competition, throws well on the run, and contrary to rumor can heave the ball farther than five yards, as this video of the “Beanie Bowl” indicates. He could be a non-liability who successfully keeps the heat off the other skill position players, and how’s that for Backhanded Compliment Of The Year?
Sheridan’s main competitor is redshirt freshman Steven Threet (right), who enrolled early at Georgia Tech only to bolt for Michigan when Jason Forcier saw the writing on the wall and transferred. In January the writing reformed itself to read “please come back Jason,” but what can you do? Hypothetical newspaper-bearing time travel guy should stop screwing with Michigan fans and tell Forcier to stick it out.
Threet is a classic dropback artillery piece in the Navarre/Mallett/Grbac mold, 6’5” and ponderous. He was a well-respected recruit, getting four stars from the gurus and landing in the top ten pro-style quarterbacks, but reports from practice have him tentative, erratic, and slow both mentally and physically. In the winter he was lauded as an emerging leader who the team actually liked, unlike that Mallett guy; this has not translated to the field. Sheridan’s likely to struggle at some point and Rodriguez keeps saying he wants “two guys he can win with,” so Threet will see the field at some point. He’s reputed to have a bigger arm and more big-play potential… for both teams.
Freshman Justin Feagin talks a great game. He’s got the meaningless puff quote down cold. See this on Pryor:
"What if he does go to Michigan? Shame on me if I sit back and think he's better than me. If he wants to play quarterback, we'll have to fight each other for the job. If I win the job, then I'll know I beat out the No. 1 quarterback in the nation."
He’s also a heck of an athlete, the small-school player of the year in Florida last year and third in their Mr. Football voting. LSU and Miami offered him as a WR/DB.
Unfortunately, he does not appear to be much of a quarterback at this point. Rodriguez claimed Feagin would “have to make an impression in the first two weeks” if he was going to be a serious candidate for playing time; a recent curtailment of his snaps indicates this impression has not been made. A week or so ago, Rodriguez made it clear he was not an option early: “He's not close to being ready.”
I do have some inside baseball indicating that the coaching staff expects to work him in at some point during the season just to see what he can do; the most likely outcome is a few drives here and there that end poorly and a position swap once Beaver and Newsome hit campus in January.
If David Cone sees the field something has gone very wrong.
Running Back & Fullback
|Brandon Minor||Jr.||Mark Moundros||Jr.*|
|Carlos Brown||Jr.||Vince Helmuth||So.|
|Sam McGuffie||Fr.||Kevin Grady||Jr.*|
Like quarterback, Michigan loses a four-year starter and program icon here. Unlike quarterback, there are six options of at least moderate viability and chances are some player or combination of players emerges into a strong Big Ten starter. Four players were listed as co-starters on the first depth chart; they’re discussed here.
|State's too easy|
|Zone during The Horror|
|ND’s too easy|
|MN is too easy|
Brandon Minor is your nominal starter. After a few exciting glimpses his freshman year, Minor proved to be just okay in the more extended audition granted by Hart's ankle problems. Minor was healthy during the spring while Brown was not and is reputed by all to be a demonic worker, so he is the first back in practice. For whatever reason, though, I remain skeptical of his ability. I went back and scoured the UFRs, finding these comments:
Minor is an obvious step down [from Mike Hart].
Brandon Minor missed an obvious read on one of the carries I charted above; I think the running back job is going to be wide open next year. Minor runs really upright and seems perpetually on the verge of getting his clock cleaned; he also clearly lacks Hart's ability to pick through traffic. The spin move on Zbikowski was sweet, though.
Both Brown and Minor showed some indication they will be decent to good Big Ten runners next year.
Minor, I thought, was the better of the backs, consistently running with power and picking up YAC.
That's not entirely helpful when I'm trying to make the case for someone else to start.
Numbers might be: he averaged 4.3 yards a carry, eight tenths of a yard off both Hart and Carlos Brown's 5.1. Even if you hack Brown's 85 yard touchdown against Minnesota down to Minor's long of 46 yards (also picked up against Minnesota), Brown holds a significant edge in YPC.
Minor runs too upright and stiff for my tastes. He's clearly slower than Brown and the fleet freshmen, has little wiggle, and tends to plow over and through defenders instead of trying to avoid them. Sometimes this ends with Minor spectacularly trucking someone; sometimes it ends with Minor taking a wicked shot from a headhunting linebacker or safety.
In the best case, Barwis gives Minor the half-step he needs to get the corner and he’s a poor man’s version of Darren McFadden. In the worst case he’s David Underwood. He must be physically dominant to be effective because he's not going to make people miss much and he doesn't have Hart's remarkable balance. IMO, he gets his fair share of carries throughout the year but is clearly less effective than at least one other tailback and possibly two.
|Loping vs Purdue|
|Tripping over Leman|
|Nice first down|
Carlos Brown has a knack for picking up annoying hand injuries. Last year Brown busted his hand in fall practice and missed the early portion of the season; in spring he cut or broke his finger or something in a “freak weightlifting accident.” I suspect Barwis bit it off and spent the summer growing a replacement in a jar.
He was also the more impressive non-Hart tailback in 2007, deploying his speed to good effect and, as noted, coming out of last season with a Hart-matching 5.1 YPC thanks to the exceptional generosity of Minnesota’s defense.
After his first extended action I summarized him like so:
He seems like the exact opposite of Hart: a guy with questionable vision and little in the way of moves who has the speed to jet into the endzone if you give him a crease (and he sees it). The questionable vision could be due to inexperience -- he spent the spring at defensive back, then broke his hand -- and might develop in the future; Hart-like moves are not likely to. His two slashing touchdown runs were encouraging and he seems much less likely to get decapitated by a charging safety than Minor; he'll have a shot at the job next year. We're likely to see a four- or even five-headed rotation early.
Brown's been moonlighting at quarterback in what must feel like a reprise of his high school career, when he was a quarterback in name only tasked with using his extraordinary athleticism to take Incredibly Surprising Quarterback Draws further than they had any right to go. If Brown does take live snaps at QB, it will be part of a Wildcat (or wild mustelidae) package; he's little threat to throw the ball except as a diversion.
Brown was a big recruit and has the sort of outside speed that Steve Slaton did; I think he’ll end up with the slight edge.
Sam McGuffie needs no introduction. Mixtape ho:
He flips over people for fun. People leap over him for fun. When he leaps over people for fun and there is no fun because people tackle him they post it on Youtube like it’s a big deal. He is an internet phenomenon. If you try to bring any of these things up to him he will scowl at you. His teammates call him “Vanilla Ice,” which no doubt also draws scowls.
I’m on record expecting McGuffie to kick ass:
I'm not one of those who scoffs at recruiting rankings, but their [Rivals’] continued skepticism about McGuffie is puzzling. He has the offers (Michigan, Florida, USC amongst a host of others), the stats at perhaps the highest level of competition available in high school football, and reel after reel of jaw-dropping highlights. He has the fourth-highest SPARQ rating in the history of whatever the hell a SPARQ rating is because he showed up at a combine before his junior year of high school and ripped off a 4.32 40, a 3.83 shuttle -- I'm not exactly sure if my calculations are correct, but I believe this means he finished the shuttle before he started it -- and a 41' vertical leap.
He's a little small, and his his disappointing senior season was injury-wracked to the point where his nationally televised showcase game saw him spinning 180 degrees before contacting tacklers and driving meekly at the feet of oncoming blitzers, but even the skeptical Rivals named him last year's best running back in space and publicly wondered why he was heading for Michigan instead of a school that would spread him all over the field like Wes Welker—white guy, natch—and take advantage of his crazy speed and cutting ability.
Uh, check. He’s nominally first on the depth chart already, and will see time all over the field. It begins.
A second freshman, Ohioan Michael Shaw (video), was listed as a wide receiver on the fall roster but features as a tailback on the depth chart. He was a running back in high school; he figures to spend quite a bit of time motioning to and from the slot.
The hype is building on Shaw because he chose the right time to juke a couple defenders and plow slot-sized freshman cornerback Boubacar Cissoko. The media was there doling out oohs and aahs as appropriate and a practice legend is born.
There’s more to Shaw than proficiency in the “Michigan drill,” though. He hovered just outside the recruiting sites’ top 100 lists and spent the spring tearing up the track until he was banned for transfer-related shenanigans. He is fast. And he is fast. And he is fast. At the Penn Relays, Shaw won the 200 meters and anchored his team’s winning 4x100 and 4x200 relays, causing his coach to break down in tears:
“I’ve been coaching since the ‘60’s,” Coach Waggoner said of his 46.4 anchor, Mike Shaw, “and I’ve coached a lot of guys, but he’s one of the best.”
He is fast.
He is also other things. McGuffie's not the only guy drawing superlative praise from Fred Jackson. Jackson on the nagging injuries picked up by the starters:
"Those two guys right there, I PROMISE you that you stay nicked up too long, it's going to hurt you tremendously,'' Jackson said.
Because Shaw and McGuffie can play right now, he said.
Shaw and McGuffie are two of the most exciting freshmen he has ever coached at Michigan, he continued.
They're Justin Fargas fast, but can cut better.
Fargas-who-can-cut is this program’s Loch Ness monster.
Avery Horn is fast as hell but redshirted last year because he wasn't ready to play in college. He ripped off a couple impressive runs in what passed for the spring game but has received little mention in the fall and seems far down the depth chart. Michigan picked freshman Mike Cox over top-100 instate back Jonas Gray when both attended the Michigan camp; he was a middling recruit with offers from Maryland and BC and will probably redshirt.
Both players who saw time return, but the position has changed significantly. Under Lloyd Carr the fullback was a thick-necked ogre tasked with smashing his face into linebackers. He was the target of maybe three or four passes a year and never, ever got to take a handoff (no, BJ Askew doesn’t count).
At West Virginia, Rodriguez deployed a thick-necked ogre who ripped off a 50-some yard touchdown against Oklahoma. Owen Schmitt was the hammer on option dives and an important outlet in the passing game; he touched the ball 59 times last year. Michigan fullbacks, as a unit, had three catches for eleven yards, all of them no doubt on third and long. This is why Rodriguez doesn’t actually have a “fullback.” Rather, he’s got an “MX” back, and he’s got to block and catch and run.
This is a projection based on some practice reports and common sense, but once Kevin Grady manages to process the copious amounts of alcohol no doubt still flowing through his veins, he might be the guy here. Grady doesn’t really fit in with the new offense except as a downhill runner and blocker and now that the "fullback" is a guy who is actually an important cog in the offense he might be amenable to a move, especially if/when it becomes clear that players quicker than he have a death grip on all the tailback carries.
Mark Moundros and Vince Helmuth are the more traditional options. You can find reasons either has an advantage over the other: Moundros is older and was the starter last year; Helmuth was more highly rated, should improve more quickly, and operated as a battering ram tailback at Saline High. I lean towards Helmuth.
Wide Receivers & Tight Ends
|Greg Mathews||Jr.||Toney Clemons||So.||Martavious Odoms||Fr.||Carson Butler||Jr.*|
|Junior Hemingway||So.||Darryl Stonum||Fr.||Terrence Robinson||Fr.||Mike Massey||Sr.*|
|James Rogers||So.||LaTerryal Savoy||Jr.*||Mike Shaw||Fr.||Kevin Koger||Fr.|
Despite the early departures of Mario Manningham and Adrian Arrington to the NFL, Michigan has stockpiled a considerable amount of talent at wide receiver and tight end and the dropoff shouldn’t be severe. There will be a dropoff, though, as no one on the roster save maybe Darryl Stonum can hope to replicate Manningham’s explosive deep routes, and Stonum is just a freshman.
|Easy ND score|
|Pride comes before the fall|
Junior Greg Mathews is the most experienced returning player. As a sophomore he was Michigan’s third receiver, catching 39 passes for 366 yards. A YPC under 10 always signals possession receiver and that’s Mathews’ rep going into his first year as Michigan’s primary target. The upside here is Jason Avant, a reliable guy on a variety of short routes with outstanding hands and the strength to get off a jam. (We haven't actually seen the outstanding hands, yet, as Mathews has been reliable but unspectacular in the catching-stuff category, but Avant's reliability was only a theory before Braylon left.)
Mathews is unlikely to be much of a vertical threat, however, and a credible deep threat will be important when it comes to keeping safeties from breathing down Sheridan's neck.
Past Mathews things are uncertain. Four or five players vie for one and a half spots. Sophomore Toney Clemons spent the spring working out of the slot because the only other alternative was walk-on Jim Potempa, a player so obscure that the Michigan Stadium public address announcer messed up his name more than once during his half-dozen garbage time carries last year. With the arrival of the impressive, tiny duo of Martavious Odoms and Terrence Robinson, Clemons is likely to move back to the outside where he belongs... eventually. Robinson's "tweaked" knee, about which more later, leaves Michigan with one credible slot option and that's a true freshman. Expect Clemons to move inside and out regularly; his long term home should be on the outside.
Junior Hemingway suffered a severe ankle sprain in the fall and remained limited by it throughout fall camp. Though recruiting guru opinions on him varied wildly, Hemingway had a ton of early offers from national powers and turned in a productive senior year. He seemed ahead of Clemons when the two were freshmen, but the new coaching staff hasn't seen him healthy. He may not make a contribution until midseason. The impression I got from the limited time he saw last year and all the recruiting info I gathered is that Hemingway was a version of Marquise Walker, a spectacular leaper and potential jump-ball threat that lacked something in top-end speed.
One player not lacking in top end speed, Darryl Stonum, was Michigan’s highest-rated recruit in the 2008 class. An NFL prototype wide receiver out of Houston, Stonum picked Michigan over USC, Florida, and everyone else. He’s a candidate for immediate playing time after enrolling early and participating in spring practices, and has a top-end ceiling on par with any of Michigan’s terror wide receivers from years past.
Normally the most optimistic projection for Stonum’s freshman year would be something similar to that turned in by Mario Manningham—27 catches, 433 yards, 6 touchdowns—but the early enrollment should help him see the field earlier and more frequently. Forty or even fifty catches is not out of the question.
Stonum’s listed as a co-starter at one outside receiver position with surprise LaTerryal Savoy, who’s seen almost no time in his three years in the program to date. Savoy was a sleeper out of Louisiana with no other major offers and seemed destined for a career of total obscurity until the moment the depth chart came out with his name atop the list. It’s doubtful Savoy’s suddenly become a much better receiver, so the bet here is that once Hemingway’s injury and Stonum’s inexperience subside so will Savoy’s prominence on the depth chart. He could be a Tyrece Butler sort who hauls in 10-12 catches.
Those five will be your main targets on the outside. If there is a severe need Michigan could strip the redshirt off freshman Roy Roundtree, the kid who decommitted from Purdue and set off the whole snake oil brouhaha. He’s gotten a few approving mentions from Rodriguez during his hourly press conferences, but Roundtree is about 6’3” and weighs as much as slot ninjas a half-foot shorter than him. A redshirt seems advisable.
Zion Babb and James Rogers are in hot competition for the title of most egregiously wasted redshirt of 2007; both bounced to and from the secondary, seeing meaningless snaps that did little to prepare them for roles they’re not going to have this year anyway. Neither was big recruit. Rogers was a high school running back plucked from obscurity at Michigan’s camp; Babb was a middling recruit out of California. Rodriguez hasn’t mentioned either of them this fall and playing time is likely to be sparing. Rogers is reputed to be ahead of Babb.
The arrival of Rich Rodriguez brings with it a smurfy new position: slot receiver. In the spread ‘n shred these guys are the targets of all manner of different things that aim to get a little electron-sized bastard in open space against a linebacker or safety: option pitches, bubble screens, reverses, etc. This is all terribly exciting, as Michigan now threatens to have four or five Steve Breastons on the roster at all times. This should be a great boon in the return game; in the context of the offense it provides a ton of YAC opportunities that reduce the burden placed on the quarterbacks.
Michigan had none of these guys on the roster, or even in the recruiting class, until Rodriguez came aboard, but in the brief time allotted him he filled the position with authority. Martavious Odoms is from small-school Florida powerhouse Pahokee. His recruitment was extremely strange. He picked up an early offer from Notre Dame, and some months later he had a truly impressive collection for a 5’8” guy: Iowa, Rutgers, South Carolina, LSU, Oregon, Alabama, Tennessee, Auburn, and Rodriguez’s then-home of West Virginia.
Odoms’ reaction to all this was to sit around doing nothing in particular as most of those schools filled up their classes. There was a cursory visit to Auburn, some discussion of USF and a grayshirt offer from Miami—by then so jammed with players they were trying to get Odoms to campus as a track athlete—and then signing day came and Odoms... did nothing. He ended up signing a few days later, and Michigan fans scrambled to find out just who the heck this kid was.
He's small to the point where he only exists on alternate Tuesdays but he's been playing on Pahokee's varsity since he was 14 (he was an eighth grader at the time) and was smoking guys in the state championship game by the time he was a sophomore. Unlike many guys Odoms' size, he's always been a receiver, and few players can claim to have the extensive in-game experience he has. Practice reports have been universally positive, praising his hands, toughness, silky-smooth moves and ability to make the first tackler miss. I go back to what a Floridian high school football veteran and Friend of Blog told me unprompted when Odoms committed:
He's a tough SOB. Small cat, really tough, will remind you of Steve Smith. Very, very fast. I'm a huge Martavious Odoms fan, you'll love him.
Watch out for him; this is one of those guys you see named “Moss” playing for Miami and think to yourself "goddamn why can't we ever have kids like that?" Practice reports are very encouraging; he sounds like a Steve Breaston if Breaston had been a natural-born receiver. He’s listed as the starter in the slot for Utah. You will see plenty of him.
Meanwhile, Terrence Robinson’s recruitment got off to a slow start because a junior-year transfer forced him to sit out 2006; when he saw the field for Klein Oak in 2007 he outrushed, outplayed, and outshone top-100 Texas commit DeShaun Hales. He also did this:
Odoms spent five years at Pahokee smoking opponents and winning state championships while Robinson sat out with a transfer and played quarterback and running back and such; even if Robinson hadn’t “tweaked” his knee Odoms would be the odds on favorite to start in the slot. Robinson will be out for a few weeks and then work his way into the lineup.
|Iowa cross #2|
|Very bad block|
Rich Rodriguez is going to have to use his tight ends a lot more than he did at West Virginia, because he’s got six of them and one has the potential to be ridiculously good as long as he’s not asked to block anyone ever. That fellow is Carson Butler, who came back from Lloyd Carr purgatory to claim the starting tight end spot after Mike Massey’s season-ending knee injury against Northwestern. Butler is the combination of freakish athletic gifts and frustrating mental errors that always gets dubbed “enigmatic” and this preview will be no exception: Carson Butler is one enigmatic mofo.
His promise is obvious. In the Citrus Bowl, he took a tight end screen and loped 65 yards downfield (skip to 2:00) with the bulk of the Florida secondary in pursuit; no one on the Florida team could make up ground and it took a safety with an angle to force him out inside the ten. That is a very fast man in an improperly large body. Properly deployed, he could be an All-American.
Butler’s drawbacks were equally severe, though. He false-starts with frustrating regularity. Asking him to block a pass rusher is asking for a helmet in your quarterback’s ribs. This outing against Michigan State was a typical performance:
Ugly, ugly, ugly, especially on the part of Butler, not only complete fail in pass protection but also the culprit on several run plays that went nowhere and the recipient of two critical penalties, one a stupid personal foul and the other a comically inept holding call on Michigan's final drive.
Is it much of a mismatch when your super-athletic tight end blocks like a 180 pound wide receiver? Not really. Evidently Rodriguez agrees since Butler is listed as an OR with not only Mike Massey but freshman Kevin Koger.
I have no idea what to expect out of Butler this year. He could be an All-American caliber performer (he’s unlikely to get enough catches to be an actual All-American) in a contract year for him. He could lose his job in week two.
Mike Massey, meanwhile, returns from that knee injury. In three years of sporadic onfield action, Massey hasn’t done much except almost make a couple of spectacular catches. He was the tentative starter last year until the injury in the Northwestern game. He seems totally average, a guy who will catch the balls he should and make most of the blocks he should but excel in no way whatsoever.
Freshman Kevin Koger picked Michigan over Ohio State and has been mentioned as someone who could see playing time this fall; he is the third co-starter on the depth chart. The most likely outcome is a smattering of snaps in preparation for a starting job next year.
Martell Webb was Butler’s backup once Massey went down and sometimes the temporary starter when Butler had seriously pissed off the coaching staff; he made no catches and drew no notice in UFRs. He did have an excellent block against Minnesota, for whatever that’s worth. Webb was a nobody recruit when he committed to Michigan, but ended up a four-star to both Scout and Rivals; he’s also that 6’5” basketball player that’s all the rage at TE. He could be pretty good if given the opportunity. Given the surfeit of tight ends on the roster and some reported issues with drops in practice he probably won’t get that opportunity until 2009.
Steve Watson redshirted last year and seems to be way down the depth chart. Sparing playing time at best for him; watch for a potential move to the OL. Brandon Moore has an imposing frame at 6’6” and had been offered by a who’s who of college football programs by the time he committed to Michigan, but has gone totally unremarked upon this fall and seems a likely redshirt. If he fills out like whoah a move to tackle might be a possibility, but in high school he was regarded as a no-block TE with excellent hands.
|Mark Ortmann||Jr.*||Tim McAvoy||Jr.*||David Molk||Fr.*||David Moosman||So.*||Steve Schilling||So.*|
|Perry Dorrestein||So.*||Ricky Barnum||Fr.*||Rocko Khoury||Fr.||John Ferrara||So.*||Dann O'Neill||Fr.|
Perhaps the saddest indicator of the potential looming tragedy that is the Michigan offensive line is this: last year this depth chart went three deep. There’s no one but freshmen unlisted this year and, uh… four freshmen in the actual two-deep as hypothesized above.
The line took a hit it could not afford to sustain when certain starter and once upon a time touted recruit Cory Zirbel went down with a knee injury, forcing either David Molk or hastily converted defensive lineman John Ferrara into the starting lineup. Michigan is now one injury away from serious issues indeed.
Steve Schilling is the only returning starter on the line. Unfortunately for Michigan, last year he was frankly bad. There are a ton of mitigating factors—a freshman-year bout with mononucleosis was followed by a shoulder injury that spring, so he was basically being thrown on the field as a true freshman—but bad is bad. Vernon Gholston shattered him into little bits in the OSU game, which saw Shilling rack up a record –12 in pass protection. After the Illinois game he came in for a bit of criticism:
The problems in pass protection have been matched with frequent issues in the run game. One sack and a dangerously batted pass were on him as he failed to contain Illinois DE Doug Pilcher. At the moment, the great hope of the 2007 offensive line, that Schilling and Boren would turn out to be better than the departed Bihl/Riley combo, has not come to fruition. It looks highly unlikely to get there any time this year.
There is the potential for massive improvement here. Practice observers have indicated that Schilling now looks like a bonafide collegiate lineman after being far too small last year. As a freshman starter and former five-star recruit the expectation is he takes a major leap forward. He’d better.
Mark Ortmann draws the unenviable task of attempting to replace the #1 pick in the NFL draft. This is his fourth year in the program and practice reports had him on the verge of starting for the last two seasons, but there was presumably a reason he was stuck behind the uninspiring Schilling last year. This year he’s Michigan’s starting left tackle virtually by default, as there is one other non-freshman tackle on the roster. He could be okay. He could be really bad. We have no indicators either way.
David Moosman slides into Zirbel’s spot at right guard. He’s not from Wisconsin despite this blog’s repeated insistence that he is. He’s from Illinois, and I have inside info that he’s very nice to his GSIs. Moosman was a four-star recruit who picked Michigan over Wisconsin and is entering his third year in a college program, so he could be good.
Dave Molk is a feisty, undersized center from Illinois who was one of only two offensive line recruits in Lloyd Carr’s final Michigan class. He fits much better in this system than Carr’s, as it emphasizes his mobility and places a much smaller premium on size, but Rodriguez made it clear he was battling John Ferrara for a starting job. Two weeks ago Ferrara was a defensive lineman. Crap.
Tim McAvoy saw sporadic time last year at both guard spots due to injury and general lethargy on the part of others. Like Ortmann, he nas stuck behind an extremely uninspiring starter (Alex Mitchell) and doesn’t have much in the way of recruiting hype to fall back on. He’s been a defacto starter since the departure of Mr. Plow; lord knows if he’s going to be any good.
There are virtually no backups as long as Cory Zirbel's knee injury persists, and the word from Rodriguez is that could be the entire season. Mark Huyge exists, I guess, but he’s a redshirt freshman Michigan snatched away from the MAC. He’s unlikely to be ready. He’s also got a high ankle sprain and will miss a chunk of the season. As mentioned, John Ferrara was whiling his time away at defensive tackle until the Zirbel injury forced a position switch. Ferrara’s never blocked in his life. He may start.
At tackle, Perry Dorrestein is most famous for having his one-point-something GPA outed by the Ann Arbor News; insider buzz has been totally silent on him. He was a decent recruit.
It’s down to true freshmen, then. Rodriguez has specifically said these guys are not ready to play but the situation might demand it of them. Guard Ricky Barnum is the least unprepared. He was a highly-rated Florida commit until Rodriguez wandered by with his snake oil cart and has gotten some public praise; he’s probably the second guy off the bench in the event of issues with the interior line. Rocko Khoury has been garnering praise as a center and will start the season in the two deep.
God willing, four other freshmen will redshirt. Tackle Dann O’Neill was a top-100 recruit and has great upside but is not prepared to play this year. Kurt Wermers and Patrick Omameh would never, ever see the field in a normal year but this is not a normal year and they could wander onto the field if things get dire. Elliot Mealer is out with a shoulder injury suffered in the tragic Christmas Eve crash that killed his father and girlfriend.
The thing about time machines is this: you show up with a copy of tomorrow’s newspaper, and the day after tomorrow’s. On day one, you loudly proclaim “I AM FROM THE FUTURE” and people laugh at you and you make bold proclamations about newsworthy events, holding up tomorrow’s paper. The next day you’ve gained some credibility but skeptics remain, so this time you show them the day after tomorrow’s paper, which just has one story on the front page. The headline, in “WAR”-sized caps: “HOLY CRAP, THIS GUY IS FROM THE FUTURE.”
Your credibility established beyond a doubt on day three—which is sometime in late August, 2007—you sit the Michigan fanbase down and carefully explain everything that is going to happen to them over the next twelve months, at which point they laugh at you again.
Travelers pursuing this course of action are strongly recommended to depart before September. Buy stock in Ann Arbor Torch And Pitchfork, Inc., before you go.
If you’re not out by now, you screwed up, Bakula
Right, so all that happened. We didn’t listen! We didn’t listen.
It all went down. The Horror. The Post-Apocalyptic Oregon Game. The resumption of normal service against Notre Dame and Penn State and a bunch of other teams before the Ryan Mallett Experience and Chad Henne’s traitorous shoulder submarined a promising(?!) season. Defeating the Tebow Child by scoring 41 points and deploying an all-shotgun spread offense that looked like it came from, well, the future.
Mike Hart fumbled twice inside the five in that game. Of course he did.
Then Lloyd Carr retired and things got weirder than the absolute weirdest things that had ever happened before. Kirk Ferentz was considered. Bill Martin was on a boat when Les Miles’ agent frantically attempted to reach him; Miles then theatrically signed a contract extension with his Damn Strong Team(tm). Greg Schiano chose Rutgers—Rutgers!—over Michigan. Brady Hoke was theorized.
A few days after the internet burned down, Michigan hired Rich Rodriguez, a man with a four million dollar buyout at his alma mater. Twelve months earlier he turned down six bazillion dollars from Alabama to stay at said alma mater, saying he planned “on being here a long time.” Michigan had acquired a former coal miner from Grant Town, West Virginia, running the swankiest offensive system this side of Urban Meyer. Mere hours before the news broke the most likely candidate seemed to be Hoke.
Michigan fans put the gun back in the drawer; the level of drinking remained constant but the intent shifted 180 degrees.
It was at this point the clocks started to melt. Some guy named Dave Hickman published a story in the West Virginia Daily Whatever claiming Rodriguez had somehow gained access to the Sacred Single Hard Copy Room where West Virginia kept the Sacred Single Hard Copies containing every piece of information WVU had about its football team. He then shredded all of it, laughing maniacally, as dozens of onlookers let Sacred Single Tears roll down their cheeks. The complete implausibility of it all was no obstacle to the story’s ascendance into fan lore; this blog started a series tracking the “West F-ing Jihad” as a nation got its clucking seriously in gear.
We could go over the events that followed, or we could just sum it up in video form:
Everything about this is perfect, from the impotent rage of the West Virginian to the skeezy hotness of the prize to the vaguely douchy New York frat vibe given off by the West Virginian’s target and eventual victor. Oh no he di’in’t, said everyone, and this blog attempted to slay all of them with the Power Of The Internet. It didn’t work.
Things reached their peak weirdness a week or two later, when Hickman – the guy who wrote the article that started the whole mess – wrote a column that actually contained this sentence: “Go ahead, name one thing WVU has done to antagonize anyone.” He followed it up with this defense of the article he wrote, which I remind you was written by him and was also authored by him and all other various sorts of things that involve choosing and ordering words to form sentences:
The shredding accusations, you say? Yes, WVU officials commented on it off the record, but the issue had festered for several days without a word from West Virginia until the media pressed the issue. [emphasis mine] At worst you can argue that was planted by WVU, but even if that were the case, the information about Rodriguez destroying files was true. [and, of course, by “true” he means “not true in any way whatsoever.” –ed]
I’m neither proud nor surprised that in the recesses of the old site there is a draft of a post titled “I want to fight Dave Hickman.” (On the other hand, I am a little surprised I had the sense to not publish it.)
Sample sentence: “Oh, I don't know, you stupid [redacted], maybe we could check the GODDAMN ARTICLE your GODDAMN IDIOT EDITORS APPROVED with YOUR GODDAMN IDIOT NAME ON IT and this GODDAMN IDIOT QUOTE IN IT:
“It’s unbelievable. Everything is gone, like it never existed,’’ said a source within the athletic department, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Good, bad or indifferent, we don’t have a record of anything that has happened.’’
Which is an outright lie that you gullibly printed.”
And so on and so forth for the entire irritating summer. Some offensive lineman transferred to Ohio State, blasting the “erosion of family values” as he went. By mid-August more words had been written about a football coach accepting his second job in seven years than Tom Zbikowski’s boxing, Brady Quinn’s sister, and Joe Paterno’s potential retirement combined.
Now we play the games and put this all behind us. Thank God.
So. Here we are. Which is… somewhere. The acquisition of Rodriguez is thrilling in the long term but extremely painful as far as the 2008 offense is concerned. Mallett, Manningham, Arrington, and Mr. Plow all lit out. Terrelle Pryor chose the wrong school. The leftovers at quarterback are a walk-on, a Lurch-sized redshirt freshman, and a true freshman very few thought was a quarterback. One starter returns on the line and the first guy off the bench could be a true freshman.
The outlook is grim. For the first time since 1985, Michigan was omitted from the AP top 25. The coaches deigned to include Michigan at #24, possibly because they weren’t supposed to vote for Duke any more.
And you know what? This seems like great fun. Michigan’s going to run out on the field and play like they’re one of those teams trying to make inferior talent work. They’re going to line up in the shotgun without a huddle. When whichever quarterback happens to be that play’s piñata raises his leg, the team will glance to the sideline and get the new play in. On average, this will be a run that goes for six yards.
At no point will they assume physical or mental superiority over their opponent. Their plan is to raid the endzone as best they can, which may be “not very well at all,” but by God they’re going to try on every snap.
It’s going to be a fiasco. It’s going to be ugly and tantalizing and dispiriting and awesome. I can’t wait.