"The University of Illinois is also in turmoil. The university sports an Interim Chancellor, an Interim Athletic Director, and an Interim Football Coach; the game will be played at Soldier Field, making this an Illini Interim Home Game."
Roh is certain. Everything else is chaos.
This is going to be extensive. It would be much, much quicker to rattle off a list of positions we know are set this fall:
- Craig Roh at quick defensive end.
That is literally all. We do know that a few other guys are guaranteed starters, but Ryan Van Bergen, Mike Martin, and Troy Woolfolk could all switch positions. I should have thought of that before I did the offense. Now I'm stuck with this format.
Anyway. On with show:
Not Brandon Graham
Three defensive line starters return, but the best defensive lineman in the country does not. Normally you'd be looking at Brandon Graham's platoon of ready-to-go backups for an inadequate but functional replacement. Since this is the 2009 Michigan defense we're talking about that platoon is walk-on Will Heininger. The other options at his spot are freshmen.
So it's time to get creative, maybe…
Count me amongst the chorus suggesting that Ryan Van Bergen might move outside. Dubbing this position "Not Brandon Graham" is a clever way to not write "Ryan Van Bergen might move" at three different spots.
Michigan has three veteran backups at defensive tackle in sophomore Will Campbell and seniors Renaldo Sagesse and Greg Banks. All played last year, the latter two decently. Campbell was raw as hell but was one of them OMG SHIRTLESS recruits and can be expected to make a major jump his sophomore year. Putting one of those guys in the starting lineup seems less likely to result in disaster than dropping an underweight freshman into the starting lineup. Craig Roh did okay last year, but Michigan isn't bringing in anyone as touted as Roh was this time around. Also, Mike Martin is more of a penetrating three-technique tackle than a leviathan space-eater and moving him to RVB's old spot figures to get more production out of him.
If RVB doesn't move, then you're going to choose from Heininger, redshirt junior Brandon Herron,—Roh's backup at quick last year—redshirt freshman Anthony LaLota, or true freshmen. Herron was a linebacker a year ago and is likely to still be undersized and LaLota showed up two inches and thirty pounds lighter than people expected him to. He probably needs another year.
The thing to watch for this spring is the RVB move. Past that, the developmental paths of Campbell, Roh, and LaLota are the main points of interest.
Hoping for… as the guy that is not Brandon Graham? Will Campbell. This assumes RVB ends up at DE and Martin moves over to RVBs spot. Moving RVB gets a bunch of veterans and a five-star sophomore more playing time. It puts Mike Martin in a position to be seriously disruptive. And it doesn't force a freshman into the starting lineup. So this is a hope for the move and a hope for Campbell to explode.
Expecting… RVB moves, Sagesse and Campbell platoon. I was puzzled by Michigan's periodic attempts to give Campbell playing time over Sagesse last year. Campbell got sealed on a number of successful runs against Iowa; Sagesse wasn't Alan Branch but usually ended up with a +1 in UFR. I assume Campbell will show considerable progress but I'm also betting that Sagesse is basically a co-starter.
Over the course of a year, Stevie Brown went from whipping boy to reliable outpost on a defense of chaos. Was it a position move? Greg Robinson's Just For Men magic?
They're young but they're not totally green. Michigan got both Brandin Hawthorne and Mike Jones in early last year and put them through their paces; by the UConn game next year they'll have been on campus for almost two years. Both saw special teams action only. Hawthorne will apply for a medical redshirt. Jones played too much for one. That's him burning his redshirt on the right.
Those two will be the main competitors in spring since I believe Isaiah Bell, who redshirted, is moving inside to ROL. This fall brings crazy athletic Josh Furman into the mix. He of the 4.3 electronic 40 is probably even faster than Brown and could press for playing time later in the season if Hawthorne and Jones aren't working out. He's unlikely to win the job outright immediately.
Hoping for… Hawthorne or Jones doesn't seem like it makes a difference since they have near-identical recruiting profiles and experience. I guess I'm pulling for Hawthorne since he's got a redshirt on him and I like the Pahokee kids.
Expecting… Again, Hawthorne and Jones have almost nothing separating them. One of those guys.
Regular Ol' Linebacker
These two positions are here despite featuring two fifth-year seniors returning for their third years of starting because both Obi Ezeh and Jonas Mouton were yanked for performance reasons late last season. Indecision ruled the day:
Mouton was pulled for JB Fitzgerald, a touted recruit entering his third year in the program. Ezeh was pulled for Kevin Leach, another walk-on. Both eventually won their jobs back when the replacements weren't much better.
Jay Hopson left to become the defensive coordinator at Memphis, and whether it was voluntary or not it's welcome. Ezeh went nowhere in two years under Hopson's tutelage and Mouton went backwards. If Greg Robinson can pull the same career revival magic he did with Stevie Brown on the two inside guys, he'll put to rest a large chunk of the skepticism at his hire and go a long way towards making the defense respectable again.
If he can't, then Fitzgerald and Leach will figure into the plans again, with potential assists from Kenny Demens and various freshmen. Demens hasn't gotten off special teams in his time at Michigan and got passed by a walk-on. That seems like a kiss of death there.
Ezeh and Mouton will be the main focus here.
Hoping for… I'd like Fitzgerald to emerge as a starter but in the place of Ezeh; last year the guy replacing Ezeh was Leach. Really I'd just like whoever plays at linebacker to look like he's got a clue. Obi-Wan Greg Robinson, you're our only hope.
Expecting… Ezeh and Mouton. They'll be better. Linebackers are the guys most screwed by Michigan's revolving door of defensive coordinators because they are almost always reading a play and executing a complicated assignment based on that. Also they've got a new coach who happens to be the defensive coordinator and thus knows exactly what he wants the guys to be doing.
Donovan Warren took his budding skills and five-star hype to the middle rounds of the NFL draft. Boubacar Cissoko couldn't keep it together off the field and is no longer on the team.
I'm assuming both spots are open because of the possibility Troy Woolfolk moves back to deep safety in spring. The defense started imploding for serious once he was moved to corner and Michigan's safety tandem became Kovacs and Williams
Outside of Woolfolk, the one guy with any experience is JT Floyd. Floyd was the guy the coaching staff turned to to replace Cissoko when he proved dreadful early in the year. He wasn't much better and Woolfolk eventually had to move despite the other options at safety being a freshman student-body walk-on and Mike Williams. In his brief time as a starter, Floyd played ten yards off wide receivers and looked totally overmatched. Maybe that's a mental thing, but he seemed just too slow for the Big Ten.
So… yeah. It's more freshmen, then. Super-hyped recruit Justin Turner got in late because of some difficulties with the Ohio Graduation Test and ended up out of shape and unprepared to play. He redshirted. Even if he came in looking like Will Campbell, if Turner couldn't play in that secondary by the end of the year people are right to be at least slightly concerned he may not pan out.
And then there's the flood of true freshmen. With Demar Dorsey starting out at corner, Michigan has four in the 2010 class: Dorsey, Courtney Avery, Cullen Christian, and Terry Talbott. None enrolled early—unfortunately, all of Michigan's early enrollees were on the offensive side of the ball—and they will be just rumors this spring.
We won't get a read on this position at all unless walk-on Floyd Simmons is ahead of someone on the depth chart. We will get a first look at Turner, the team's most important redshirt freshman.
Hoping for… Justin Turner and either Dorsey or Christian. No Woolfolk == considerably reduced panic at safety. One freshman is as good as any other at the other spot, I guess, but I'd rather have the higher-rated guys off to fast starts. No offense to Floyd, but he obviously wasn't ready last year and I'd be surprised if he was this year. Maybe 2011.
Expecting… Turner and Woolfolk.
Brandon Smith transferred to Temple.
It's clear that this is going to be another hybrid safety/LB type player. Early in the year, it was Mike Williams. A little later it was Jordan Kovacs. When Woolfolk moved to corner it was Williams again, and when Williams played poorly Michigan moved Brandon Smith and threw him in the starting lineup; Smith liked it so much he immediately transferred.
Of the two returners, Kovacs was by far the superior option despite being a walk-on. He's got the proverbial nose for the ball and was the only guy at the spot last year to turn in enough good plays to offset his poor ones. And he did this as a freshman walk-on. (He was technically a redshirt freshman but since he was not on the team last year he is much closer to a true freshman.) He showed himself way too slow to play deep safety, but the grit fantastic he is possession of should keep him in the mix despite a couple of athletes pushing him hard.
Athlete the first is incoming freshman Marvin Robinson, who everyone thinks is destined for linebacker except Robinson. At Michigan he may be a linebacker in spirit if not in name. This is a spot he's a superior fit for athletically but it may require some adjustment.
Athlete the second is hypothetical, but Rodriguez mentioned in a Signing Day press conference: they're looking at moving wide receiver Cam Gordon to defense, but to safety. [Update: YEAH THAT HAPPENED.] That's another indicator that Michigan's base set is going to be an eight-man front, as Gordon is a strapping 6'2" fellow who everyone expected would end up at… wait for it… linebacker. If Gordon makes the move it will give Kovacs and Williams some competition from an NFL-sized guy right away.
This is also where Carvin Johnson goes, but I'm guessing he'll redshirt.
Hoping for… I don't really know, actually. I guess I'd like Robinson to win the starting job, but a true freshman over Kovacs and Gordon could bode unwell for immediate production. Maybe Kovacs to start and eventually giving way to Robinson.
Expecting… I have no idea. Truly.
As discussed above, if this is Kovacs Michigan is at least kind of screwed. I mean no offense to the guy, but…
…he is not a deep safety*. In an ideal world, two of the young corners would establish themselves quickly enough for Michigan to boot Troy Woolfolk back here. That world is much easier to envision if any of those guys had enrolled early.
If Woolfolk doesn't make the move back, Michigan has a couple options not fresh off the turnip truck. Vlad Emilien and Thomas Gordon are redshirt freshmen who will be given a shot at the job. Emilien was more highly touted and actually held the starting free safety job in spring until late, when Woolfolk took over and he was relegated to backup duty. He saw some special teams time in fall but will apply for an injury redshirt. Gordon was primarily a high school quarterback at Cass Tech—he only started playing DB as a senior-year audition for a Michigan scholarship—and never threatened to see the field last year.
Freshman Ray Vinopal will reinforce in fall, but as the lowest-rated player in the class he will probably redshirt.
Hoping for… Woolfolk. I'd rather have the freshmen playing at corner, where Woolfolk can tackle their mistakes.
Expecting… Emilien. I'm a little hesitant about him since he enrolled early last year and still wasn't good enough to crack last year's secondary, but maybe he had a lingering injury issue.
*(RVB owned up to a botched line check on that touchdown but it was a lack of footspeed from Kovacs and, more disturbingly, Floyd, that turned that play from 20 yards into 90.)
What others? Apparently Teric Jones might stick on defense, apparently at box safety. I think I've mentioned every other scholarship defensive player on campus except Steve Watson and James Rogers.
- David Molk practiced in pads yesterday. He will start against Penn State on Saturday. David Moosman will move to right guard, with Perry Dorrestein and Mark Huyge competing for the right tackle spot.
- Tate Forcier and Carlos Brown should be fully recovered from all their injuries. Minor's injury is still nagging, but he should be healthy enough to play (as he has been despite the injury in the past couple weeks). The running back starter will depend on Minor's overall health (they'll know after tomorrow) and what play the coordinators want to start the game with. Minor's physical presence will be important against a team like Penn State.
- JT Floyd feels better, after he suffered through the flu last week. He should be able to play this week. Troy Woolfolk will remain at corner, where they like him better overall, unless there are injuries to the safeties (Jared Van Slyke and Vladimir Emilien are the primary backups at safety now). Boubacar Cissoko's suspension is still a day-to-day affair.
- The offensive line gave a good effort against Iowa, and Mark Ortmann is a leader of that group. They'll have another good challenge against Penn State.
- Renaldo Sagesse was not injured against Iowa, but he's a developing player who is getting the first serious playing time of his career, which takes some time to adjust to. Greg Banks is another solid backup on the defensive line. He's the first backup in, and has played as well as the starters at times.
- Bill Martin always said he would work at Michigan on a short-term basis, so it's surprising that he was the Athletic Director for a full 9 years. He did a lot of important things at Michigan, including improving facilities, balancing the department's budget, and making a lot of coaching hires.
- Rodriguez had some good times and some bad times with Bill Martin (no opportunities to go sailing though), and Rich will be sad to see him go. He'd like to provide a few more good moments in Martin's last 10 months on the job.
- He will be able to give some input in the search for a new director, and his priorities are in getting someone who loves Michigan, understands athletics, and knows how to address the needs of student-athletes.
- With so much responsibility on ADs today - from athletics, to finances and fundraising, to media - it's a tough job to do, and to find the right person. Mary Sue Coleman is one of the best university presidents in America, and she'll get the job done.
Editor's note: sorry this is late. I thought I'd published this around 11 AM, but evidently I didn't hit the button.
9/26/2009 – Michigan 36, Indiana 33 – 4-0, 1-0 Big Ten
Tate Forcier dropped back to throw and Martavious Odoms broke open and Forcier lofted it. I swear to you that on an overcast, steel-gray day a sliver of light slipped through the clouds to linger on the object's parabolic, causing its rain-slicked surface to glitter as it reached its apex. It started to come back down, and Odoms slowed fractionally, allowing the Indiana safety—
Aw, hell. Indiana? No offense to a program the evidently warranted more respect than Vegas or this here blog offered in the run-up to the game, but passages of soaring majesty get ruined when a Hoosier is mentioned. Since Wangler-to-Carter, when Indiana was 8-4, moments of glory against Indiana only come in one form: oh thank God we didn't lose to Indiana.*
So, yeah: thank God we didn't lose to Indiana.
Since we didn't, we should all just breathe a sigh of relief, recalibrate expectations back down a little bit, and move on. Michigan's not at a point where any win against any Big Ten team is one to freak out about. The freshmen quarterbacks remain freshmen and it's becoming clear that the defense has about the same raw talent level that last year's offense had. The only thing keeping them from plunging off a deep, dark cliff is the fact that no position on defense is as singularly important as quarterback is on offense.
A couple may be as undermanned, though. Indiana's potentially-crushing, one-play, 85-yard riposte to Tate Forcier's first attempt at fourth quarter heroics exposed the secondary's talent deficiency in a way even starker than Michigan fans were treated to against Notre Dame. At least when Michael Floyd and Golden Tate and Jimmy Clausen were running wild you could point to torched opponents past and recruiting rankings and drooling NFL scouts. Seeing an Indiana freshman zip past not only the walk-on safety gamely pretending he doesn't run a 4.8 but the scholarship, potentially-starting cornerback not named Donovan Warren was alarming. If JT Floyd is going to play corner in the Big Ten he's going to do it ten yards off the line of scrimmage.
This is how bad it is: I'm not even mad at Floyd when a player gets vastly open or he commits a silly, unnecessary pass interference penalty. I'm mad at Tyrone Willingham, metaphorically. It's inconceivable that Michigan would find itself in this situation. There is exactly one junior and no seniors at both safety and cornerback. The 2007 class provides three of the four starters and has lost Artis Chambers. 2006 saw the only two defensive back commitments (Brown and Mouton) move to linebacker. The 2005 class was Brandon Harrison (decent but did not redshirt), Johnny Sears, and Chris Richards. The recruiting malpractice everyone saw on the offensive line last year returned with a vengeance. Hell, even the 2008 class is looking like a disappointment: Brandon Smith is a linebacker; Cissoko and Floyd have been the weak link on a defense that's played three walk-ons extensively. Very little of that is Rodriguez's doing.**
The parallels between this year's secondary and last year's offensive line, on and off the field, are striking, and it's not like linebackers not named Stevie Brown are helping out much. Michigan's recruiting was wildly deficient in more than one area and will be an anchor going forward, basically until such time as the roster is full and the creaky last few Carr classes are no longer weighing down the top of the roster.
We should forestall complaining about Robinson and Tony Gibson and even Jay Hopson, who I've complained about personally, if somewhat obliquely, because there are excellent reasons why their units are performing poorly that have nothing to do with whether or not they can coach. Gibson was the guy who turned Ryan Mundy from a guy with an uncomplimentary stat (Yards After Mundy) named after him into an NFL draft pick. West Virginia's pass efficiency defense in the final few years of Rodriguez's time there: 28th, 63rd, 30th, 20th. There's plenty of evidence that Rodriguez isn't dealing with morons here, and plenty that suggests late-era Carr recruiting was. I'm stashing the torches and pitchforks away, hoping that the rest of the season follows a trajectory similar to that of the offense last year: baby steps towards respectability in the midst of crippling talent deficiency, followed by a second year of growth.
As always, this should be okay. It takes time to dig out from all the reasons 3-9 occurs.
*(The Hoosiers have had a few respectable teams in the intervening years, but Michigan either blew them out, lost to them (once), or missed them. Closest thing to a close win against a respectable team was '91, when Indiana was 7-4-1 and M won 24-16.)
**(Smith and Floyd did commit to Michigan after Rodriguez was named head coach but those players were widely considered locks for months before the coaching transition took place. And please note the criticism here is not necessarily of Smith (or Mouton or Brown) but the recruiting practices that failed to take their likely moves to linebacker into account. Floyd, for his part, might be a functional safety if he wasn't needed at corner.)
- You know, I was sort of coming around to the piped in music but no more. I should never have said anything negative about the band, I take it all back, I believe the piped-in music to be an abomination, and curse anyone who voted in favor of said abomination during this site's earlier poll. The end of the first half was close to my idea of hell, with the evil homunculus responsible for the ear-piercing noise pollution blasting something stupid in-between every play. During the video review, I found myself so enraged at the piped in music that I fruitlessly gave the bird to the idiot playing Bob Seger at painful volume. I went to a concert later that night and the volume level there was considerably less ear-damaging.
It's just unpleasant to hear a probably-terrible song at volume levels 130% of what the speaker system can actually handle. Turn it down. Turn it off. Stop alienating the people who really care about Michigan's traditions and stop catering to the folk who can't distinguish Michigan Stadium from an ECHL arena. It does not help anything.
In fact, it actively stops cheers. The students were chanting "Go Blue" at each other during one point and the evil homunculus played over it. The evil homunculus plays AC/DC over what used to be a bass drum pounding out a beat to which the stadium chanted "Let's Go Blue." It has gone from somewhat tolerable to Michigan State in four weeks, and must be destroyed. I'm disappointed but not entirely surprised that the marketing wing of the Michigan athletic department would be so deaf to tradition. Mostly, I'm appalled. Piped-in music is a disaster and should be stopped immediately. (Note: MVictors mentioned it too, though Greg's not as ready to draw and quarter people. That is because he is soft. I am the Dwead Piwate Woberts, I have come for your souls.)
- Didn't expect the official site to out a guy on the 85-yard Indiana touchdown but here you go:
On Indiana's 85-yard touchdown run to take the lead in the fourth quarter, defensive tackle Ryan Van Bergen came off the field distraught after a blown assignment. He was taken aside by defensive coordinator Greg Robinson and then sat on the team bench with his head sagging. "You flush it and you come back and play," Robinson yelled down the line. "You don't need to be a hero."
As I recall it I watched a 215 pound Indiana tailback outrun not only a walk-on safety (depressing that guy has to play but understandable) but a scholarship cornerback; if Van Bergen had problems he wasn't the only one. Also, Van Bergen was the backside defensive tackle… it's hard to imagine what his assignment was that could have prevented Indiana from running outside the other OT.
- Interception or not, why the hell did Indiana throw at Donovan Warren? Why the hell would anyone throw at Donovan Warren the rest of the year? Opponents have now lost two close games because they threw at Donovan Warren. Sooner or later they will stop doing this, I think.
After the game, Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Robinson confirmed that Cissoko’s absence was a coach’s decision. “Yeah, it was,” Robinson said. “I thought, J.T., at first, was a little nervous but as the game wore on he grew more and more comfortable and did a good job, really held his own.”
I thought that Cissoko had gotten pulled because he had picked up an injury. He did come out for a play or two earlier, and when an Indiana receiver ran straight past him without so much as a head fake I figured it was a hamstring pull or something. Apparently not. Er. That's not good. I'd rather there was some explanation for Cissoko getting smoked other than… well… you know. Not being good at football.
- Attn: Tate. Plz stop doing this plz:
It reminds me of Ryan Mallett and makes me want to die a little. Please continue all of your other activities except running around in the pocket too much.
Maize 'n' Brew has some Zapruder-quality "I took pictures of my TV" stills of the aforementioned Warren interception. They make a decent case the call was correct, if spectacularly close and improbable. I'm waiting for the HD video before I make any proclamation either way.
Doctor Saturday notes that Michigan and Notre Dame aren't exactly establishing themselves dominant powers in the wake of their entertaining week two matchup:
the question after Indiana's 467-yard, 33-point barrage Saturday is "Who isn't going to put up huge yards on the Wolverines?" The Hoosiers -- dead last in the Big Ten in every significant offensive aspect last year -- went on long marches and hit big plays alike (an 85-yard touchdown run and a 56-yard completion to set up another score) and might have been on their way to more points if the officials had seen Donovan Warren's clinching interception differently on IU's final drive. The Wolverines are 89th nationally in total defense and 92nd against the pass, slightly worse than last year's numbers for the year and significantly worse than their 2-2 start in September. There is no comparison between the offenses, but the progress of the Michigan D (or lack thereof) puts a real crimp in the prospective rise in the Big Ten. The fact is, resetting expectations after the first month, neither of these teams has put much separation between preseason expectations and their prospects for the season.
It's hard to dispute; even if Michigan's offense is ahead of preseason projections I don't think anyone had them giving up almost 500 yards to Indiana on defense. Michigan may be slightly ahead of what seemed like a universal 7-5 preseason consensus, but it's mostly because they've turned one coin-flip game in their favor and the Big Ten has looked slightly more moribund than even their recent standards.
Mike DiSimone has his weekly comprehensive picture roundup.
9/5/2009 – Michigan 31, Western Michigan 7 – 1-0
Melanie Maxwell, AnnArbor.com
Towards the end of the third quarter, a guy in the row behind me started grumbling about Michigan's offense being boringly ground-based. By the fourth, cramped quarters had given way to roominess. After it was over, I was disappointed that Michigan's first-half outburst gave way to a near-scoreless second half and thought Michigan should have given the kids a little more rope via which to test their skills.
In short, it was a typical game against a MAC opponent. At least it was for a given, thoroughly inaccurate definition of "typical." Michigan's seldom had an easy time of it against anyone since the Carr era started flagging. MAC or MAC-ish opponents since 2004:
|2008||Miami Of Ohio(NTMOO)||W 16-6|
|2006||Ball State||W 34-26|
|2005||Northern Illinois||W 31-17|
|2004||Miami Of Ohio(NTMOO)||W 43-10|
Over last five years, Michigan has been just as likely to be in an actual game (6) with a supposed tomato can as the expected blowout (6). (I am counting the '07 EMU game as an actual one, as it was 16-14 halfway through the third; the others need no justification.) Hell, even in 2006—when Michigan was a Crable helmet hit away from driving to the national championship game—Ball State had first and goal with an opportunity to tie late in the fourth quarter. In no way is a 31-0 halftime lead typical in the recent history of Michigan football except against Notre Dame.
It was just a MAC team, but think of how good those words sound rolling off your lips. Just a MAC team. Couldn't be expected to cope with our freakishly accurate quarterback or our freakishly speedy quarterback or the zippy skill position players who seemed bountiful and endless. Couldn't be expected to cope with Brandon Graham or Craig Roh or Mike Martin. No chance. Just a MAC team with a quarterback who might go in the first-round of the NFL draft and four-fifths of its offensive line back. No chance.
Yes, okay, there remain plenty of concerns. There were folks that the MAC team could cope with. These were the backup quarterback—and think about how good it sounds to have the identity of that person be utterly uncontroversial, no offense to said backup—and any cornerback not named Cissoko or Warren. Oh and any defensive end not named Graham or Roh. Or… well, you get the idea. The defense is paper-thin and can fall off a cliff with a single injury. So can the quarterback position until such time as Denard Robinson develops into something a more than a beautiful freakshow.
But today there is a thread about Michigan on every opponent message board across the internet where some guy says "looks like all that extra practice paid off lol."
Last year, the Utah game was an opportunity to radically reassess Michigan's immediate future. It was far uglier than the final score, and I remember going on WCBN—which BTW I will be on at around 5 today—and telling the assembled folk there that the Notre Dame game would be "critical for bowl eligibility," whereupon we mused ruefully about how far Michigan had fallen in such a short period of time without anyone coming close to realizing how optimistic we still were.
The one piece of good fortune coming from that game was the handy metaphor:
Every rational thought in your head suggests that the whole walk-on or freshman-the-coaches-are-panicked-about at quarterback, the line of baling wire and the occasional confused chicken, and freshmen everywhere at the skill positions will combine to yield an offense worthy of Yakety Sax, but until you actual see the damn thing in action you can hold out hope it will be otherwise.
We have seen it in action. It could have gone better. At least we have an incredibly direct metaphor all around us:
This program is under construction with a completion date around 2010.
This program is still under construction, and the completion date is still 2010. But those shabby exposed girders are now sheathed in brick and lightning, shiny in the afternoon sun. As the season goes on we'll undoubtedly see the unfinished parts within brought to the surface. There's no insulation, and if you peer into the windows you can still see the girders that were plain to all last year.
For now, for right now, it's reassuring to look up and see a modern version of Yost on the way. Through controversy and people with ill-considered protests Michigan comes, echoing the past with a back-to-the-future offense and West Virginians in charge and beautiful brick arcs and, Angry Michigan BLANK-Hating God willing, a point per minute.
- Man, JT Floyd looked like he'd have no chance of ever being a legit Big Ten corner on that bomb. I watched him go from two steps ahead to two steps behind the Western WR and immediately shivered at the safety depth. Maybe I'm leaping to too many conclusions from one play, but I see a safety move in his future.
- Also, and you are going to hear this thought a half-dozen times in this space over the next week, but: man, that Western touchdown was a bummer for a lot of reasons but none more foreboding than its extreme resemblance to the one-man-route Golden Tate touchdown from last year's Notre Dame game. Cissoko's health and Michigan's ability to ignore the Notre Dame ground game will be key.
- Brandon Graham must be livid he doesn't have a sack. Or three.
- How dumb does last year's "Rodriguez refuses to adjust his offense" meme look now? Michigan used a thousand different formations, including intermittent deployments of the I-form and a heavy dose of 2 TE ace sets. He's been presented with solutions and has gone in search of the problem.
- You know, if Michigan compliance is right and they can release a detailed report about offseason activities that results in zero and Michigan does pull out of its steep dive, it's possible the Free Press will be directly responsible for dissolving the gap between Michigan fans and Rich Rodriguez, which would have to go in the Alanis Morrissette Ironic Hall Of Fame. (Note on the linked article: claims that students chanted "keep united" after the game, which would have been awesome if it was true. It wasn't, though: it was "beat the Irish.")
- No, none of the things in that song are ironic, which makes the fact that the hall of fame is named after her ironic. Obvs.
- I think everyone needs to go back into that thread posted by that guy who said Craig Roh would start and posbang him like whoah. Also, I was backing two recruits out of proportion to all reason this year: Roh and Vincent Smith. Remember this when the predictions I make in the future are all hilariously off base.
- Wait just one more before we return to your regularly-scheduled wrongness: I'm telling you about Drew Tate, man. That first touchdown, where Forcier moxied his way away from a defender and then signaled Hemingway to go deep, was vintage Tate. Hopefully it will be vintage Tate again.
- Similarly, Sheridan's interception was a perfect demonstration of the difference between the two QBs. With the safety pulled up, Sheridan actually had plenty of room to hit Mathews in the back of the endzone if he floated it a bit; instead he attempted to rifle it and the ball was undercut.
- I twittered this but if you weren't around: I saw someone carrying around a sign that said "In Rich And Staff We Trust." This is banner fail.
This this was interesting from Touch the Banner:
In the second half, WMU quarterback Tim Hiller started getting rid of the ball quicker. He found a rhythm and started hitting underneath passes to his receivers. Greg Robinson might be served well by disguising coverages on the outside, changing the look from cover 2 man to a cover 2 zone. Suddenly, instead of driving the cornerback off with his initial burst, that cornerback is sitting underneath the quick hitch to the outside. A couple well orchestrated disguised coverages might be just enough to make Hiller think twice, which would give Brandon Graham, Mike Martin, and the rest of the defensive line enough time to get to the quarterback.
Michigan's defense in the opener seemed very simple. There was little rotation down-to-down. Michigan went the whole way in the same 3-4/4-3/4-2-5 hybrid thingy, occasionally rotating in a backup on the defensive line (this was done per series, so the series Graham was out he was just out except for a couple of third downs, IIRC) and yanking Cissoko for Floyd once things got out of hand. Everyone else played almost every snap. So it seemed like Michigan wanted to get their guys doing a limited number of things well; I assume they'll expand on that as the season goes on.
Also, by the time Hiller got going the game was out of hand and I can understand the impulse to shelve the exotics with Notre Dame coming in next week.
The Diag asks if Kelvin Grady has stolen Odoms' job, which probably not but he seems a viable option. I was surprised Roundtree was invisible—only came in with the Conescrubs at the end—after his spring game; even Laterryal Savoy and James Rogers got more run.
Note: video from last year is lightboxed; previous years will take you off the page.
|Boubacar Cissoko||So.||Troy Woolfolk||Jr.||Michael Williams||So.*||Donovan Warren||Jr.|
|JT Floyd||Fr.*||Jared Van Slyke||So*.||Vlad Emilien||Fr.||Justin Turner||Fr.|
Christ, just look at this. Seniors: zero. Freshman starter: check. Converted corner starting at safety: check. One player with more than returning starts: check. Two, maybe three viable backups, only one of whom has ever stepped on a collegiate field before: check.
I don't want to talk about it. Brightside: no Stevie Brown?
This is two guys who should be nasty in-your-face press corners, one 6'2" corner recruit hyped to the moon, and a deep pit of terror and dismay after it. Verifying the press nasty business first:
"Boubacar and Donovan are outstanding cover guys," Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez said. "Some corners don’t like to play press and get in your face. You want ones that want and relish that and want to get in and play some press one-on-one man coverage, be aggressive on the edge. And both those guys have that kind of mentality."
|Defending the edge|
|Snuffs a screen|
|UW buffalo stampede|
|BONUS: Incredulous Bielema|
|Tough press cover|
Second, the men who press nasty. Man the first is Donovan Warren, a true junior out of California whose hyped stardom track (be an awesome recruit, start as a freshman, blow up as a sophomore) fell prey to the injuries and schizophrenic coaching that befell virtually everyone on the defense last year. By the Penn State game I was actively hoping/speculating that Warren was laid up:
Donovan Warren. I really, really hope he's had one of those injuries that's just not quite bad enough to knock you out of the game, and I hope he's had that most of the year. Because he hasn't made a single play, and a lot of Penn State's success was going right at him.
This was the case. Warren had offseason surgery to remove bone chips and enters the fall healthier than he was at any point last year:
"Talking with trainers and Donovan, he's as good as he's ever felt," Gibson said this summer. "Nobody really knows it except (us what he endured). He wasn't healthy at all. There wasn't one game he was healthy. We had to sit him out of drills to get him healthy. We'd never get him right."
So Warren's plateau has a reason behind it and fans can again hope that the promise that got him rated five stars and saw him leap directly into the starting lineup will pay off. Even with the bone chips, Warren turned in most of the good plays the secondary deigned to provide Michigan last year, including a certain jumped slant that turned into a Johnny Thompson buffalo stampede and, eventually, one of Michigan's precious wins.
|Running a guy's route|
|Doing it again|
|FROWNS: losing leverage|
Sophomore Boubacar Cissoko is the other starter at corner. A highly rated recruit out of Cass Tech, Cissoko was reputed to be one of those feisty dwarf corners who just sits in your pocket all day and dares you to make a break. Gibson's impression of Cissoko heaven is 80 press man calls. And indeed, a couple of the highlights at right demonstrate his ability to run your route for you, thanks very much.
My go-to (and now rapidly aging) comparison was Arkansas corner Chris Houston, who I once saw battle the South Carolina star receiver before Kenny McKinley (his name escapes me) in a pitched Thursday night battle. Houston lined up two inches from his cover's grill and rode him into fades all night, some of which the opponent brought in spectacularly. That's life with feisty dwarves.
Cissoko got a start against Purdue because of Michigan's (insane!) shift to the 3-3-5 and struggled with it. Boubacar Cissoko, this is your abridged Purdue UFR:
This is just sickeningly open, with Cissoko(-1) offering an eight yard cushion and moving backward on the snap. He's nowhere near this, but is it bad play or is that just the coverage? (Cover -2) … Cissoko(-1) overruns the play and guys recover to tackle at the two. … Mouton(-1) gets too far inside and gives up the outside bounce, which Sheets takes. Good job by Cissoko(+1) to mitigate the damage. … Just to switch it up, this time it's Cissoko(-1) a couple yards off the wide receiver. Same technique as the earlier Trent thing. Purdue can run this route every damn down. … This guy is covered by Cissoko(+1) and he's got his head around looking for the ball … it looks like Orton is streaking for a touchdown until Cissoko(+1) makes it back to the ball, knocking it away. (Cover +1) Orton was open because he pulled Cissoko's facemask, FWIW. They call it; Michigan declines. … Cissoko(-1) is set up to tackle after two yards or whatever; Cissoko misses the tackle and Michigan ends up yielding six. … They're in man on this one but Cissoko gets lost, turning outside and leaving the initial hitch wide, wide open (-1, cover -2); the lateral isn't covered.
How much of this was actually his fault? Not much. Morgan Trent was doing the exact same "sickeningly" open bit on the other side, as noted above. It was clear the corners were doing what they were told, even when it made no goddamn sense.
Gibson, for his part says, Cissoko "has got to have a great year"—encouraging!—and that he loves his aggressiveness but "you kind of have to have him back up from that a little bit." It does sound as if the light has gone on a bit, if I can extrapolate:
We grade every rep that these kids take every day. The thing about him is that he is all over the field. We use him in the run game. He’s supporting the run, he’s playing man coverage. He’s playing zone coverage. You know just all those things and he’s getting them. That’s a relief for me. He’s figuring it all out and he’s feeling comfortable as he goes.”
That inexperience and aggression was the culprit on two of Michigan State's big gainers last year. In Cissoko Michigan is likely to find a source of big plays for and against; the balance will go a long way towards determining how good the team is. The prediction here: a rough start and strong finish.
Backups and Whatnot
This position was so thin in the spring that walk-on Floyd Simmons was on the two-deep, and there was nearly disastrous attrition from the reinforcements before they even arrived on campus. Both Adrian Witty and Justin Turner had clearinghouse issues; as of this writing, Witty is still in limbo after a test retake. Even if he makes it in at this point he's a guaranteed redshirt.
Turner, though, is in. And thank God for that. He was the #1 player in Ohio last year and a near five-star who showed up at the Army All-America game seeking to prove he could operate on the corner despite checking in at 6'2". Skeptics were converted and by the time he left Turner was ranked amongst the top corners in the nation. Turner's recruiting profile has his full dossier. Here's one of a half-dozen panting quotes in the aftermath of the Army Game:
“He played his way up the charts. We knew he was good. Everyone knew what a tremendous player he was before his senior year in high school, but he separated himself in the U.S. Army game. He was arguably the best player on the field, not just in the game, but in practices as well. ... It’s exciting to see how big he’s gonna be for the Wolverines."
The Clearinghouse troubles cost him a week of practice and he may start the year behind redshirt freshman JT Floyd, about whom more in a bit, but moon-hyped Michigan cornerbacks traditionally see the field after their first few games. Turner will be no exception given the crying lack of depth in the secondary. He's already started working in with the ones a bit. Tony Gibson:
He’s having a really good camp. He ran with the ones yesterday for a couple of series at the end and made some plays. I think he got 30 total plays in the scrimmage yesterday. … That’s the first time we’ve put him in there just to see what he would do. He did really well with them. We played him a lot of man coverage yesterday and that’s kind of his thing. He’s so long, he can get his arms on people and hands on people. I like the way he’s progressing.
Unlike OMG shirtless Michigan cornerbacks past, Turner has to contend with two players who have more experience and essentially equal recruiting hype. He is not likely to start, and with Stevie Brown's presence at linebacker dedicated nickel packages might be less frequent, but he's the best bet to come off the bench on passing downs.
JT Floyd, meanwhile, arrived at Michigan with little hype and redshirted. He was originally a Tennessee commit but it didn't seem like Fulmer & Co pursued him that hard when he started to look around. With Tennessee's recruiting class that year ranking amongst the country's most disappointing, that says something. What it says is that Floyd is physically deficient. Ask Gibson:
From a mental standpoint he is really good. Physically, he is a little behind, but he is faster now going through Coach Barwis’ strength and conditioning stuff. Mentally, he has it from day one but physically is where he has had to catch up and I think he is doing that.
If that sounds like a future safety to you, it does to me, too, but they moved Woolfolk instead so I don't know. Floyd's recruiting rankings and that Gibson quote peg him squarely in the realm of low-upside overachiever; with the hyped corners all around he'll probably be a career nickel/dime guy. Think maybe Grant Mason?
The last scholarship player before we get to the aforementioned Simmons—who this preview will not discuss due to a lack of information and desire to avoid contemplating a walk-on cornerback—is converted tailback/slot receiver Teric Jones, a true freshman from Cass Tech. His recruiting profile isn't particularly useful since it assumes Jones will play offense but it does point out that Jones ran the fastest 40 at the Army Junior Combine last year; if he can learn the position he's got the speed and agility to play it. Gibson says he's been one of the pleasant surprises of camp:
We got him the day before camp started. We had a staff meeting and talked about some guys that we could move over and he was the first guy we had mentioned. He’s been in the two deep the last couple of practices. He had a good day yesterday, had an interception. He’s playing well and learning the system. He still has a lot to learn obviously, but he’s getting better.
That's encouraging, but Jones didn't play a snap of defense in high school and if this isn't a redshirt year for him we'll be cursing Angry Michigan Cornerback-Hating God, because at least two corners will be laid up.
Stevie Brown and his reel of lowlights interspersed with good man coverage are off to the linebackers section, leaving Michigan's safety situation at the exact spot you would expect given that Brown was an unchallenged starter all last year despite stuff like this being a regular occurrence. But that's another show.
The remaining folk at this position are:
- a junior who was a cornerback halfway through fall practice
- a redshirt sophomore who did not challenge Brown or equally poor Charles Stewart for (much) playing time last year
- a true freshman who missed his senior year of high school with a knee injury
- a true freshman who was a quarterback until Michigan told him they'd offer if they saw him at safety as a senior
At least it can't get worse, right? I just checked all the defensive UFRs from last year and I can assure you that it cannot. Except that's what I said two years ago when Brown replaced Ryan Mundy, a guy with his own unflattering stat named after him and "the worst safety I have ever seen in a Michigan uniform." Brown was directly responsible for 14 points during The Horror and Mundy got drafted. By an NFL team.
Of course it can get worse. Do not doubt the power of Angry Michigan Safety-Hating God. Of all the gods that are randomly angered by various college football position groups only Angry Iowa Tailback-Hating God is as wroth.
Michigan was going with Mike Williams and Brandon Smith early in spring until their performance was clearly substandard. They moved Smith to linebacker, Troy Woolfolk to safety, and Vlad Emilien into the starting lineup.
Of the above options, one stands above the rest and it's the cornerback. Junior Troy Woolfolk, yes still the son of Butch Woolfolk and a man who will probably retain that status next year, has locked down a starting spot since he moved from corner just before the spring game.
Longtime readers of the blog will know this trips one of MGoBlog's heuristics for season prediction: any guy you swap from one position to another and then expect to start will be bad, and given that this guy moved and is your best option that probably goes for the whole unit as well. Now, this is considerably stronger when the player in question is flipping from one side of the ball to another or going from a position that's usually considered easier to play to one that's tougher. Last year's John Ferrara move from DT to guard was an obvious reason to groan at the state of the offensive line; a corner moving to safety is more likely to be a non-disaster. But it's still not good.
Maybe Woolfolk's history at the position—he played it his senior year of high school in an attempt to take advantage of his speed—will help out. Maybe the aforementioned speed, which is considerable, will. It won't take much to make Michigan fans, or Obi Ezeh, happy:
"Less so than last year is the play culminating in a 50-yard bomb, you know," linebacker Obi Ezeh said. "That's always a good thing when you don't have to worry about that."
What a remarkable quote. It says so many things. Some are about Stevie Brown. Some are about the recent history of Michigan safeties not named Jamar Adams. Some are about Troy Woolfolk. And some are abut life. There's never been a more appropriate spot to say this: so, yeah, we've got that going for us.
And for a throwaway quote with odd syntax it's pretty encouraging. Less so than last year is the 50 yard touchdown culmination. If we close our eyes and say it over and over again everything will be black and white and someone nice and matronly will be pressing a cold compress to our forehead as we detail the strange dream wherein our favorite football team went 3-9.
For his part, Woolfolk:
"You can be the fastest person in the world, but if you're not making the right keys, it can happen," Woolfolk said. "Like on playaction and not picking up the tight end, it's not only speed but also being smart and I'm working on the intelligence aspect of the game.
"But I think the speed will help as well."
I dunno. He could be okay. He's an upperclassman who put a death grip on the job as soon as he got it and safety is less physically demanding than cornerback. And though he's got the weight of history and heuristics against him, when I sat in for Sam Webb on WTKA both Craig Ross and AnnArbor.com's Michael Rothstein brought up their strange, unjustified confidence in Woolfolk based on their readings of practice tea leaves and the confidence both Woolfolk and his teammates had in him.
On Media Day, Tony Gibson called Woolfolk "his eraser"; if that's all he does this year he'll vastly improve Michigan's defense. It is too much to hope, and yet…
…there it is. Hope.
The player opposite Woolfolk is yet to be determined. True freshman Vlad Emilien, an early enroller who promises to have an MGoShirt (THE IMPALER!) sooner rather than later if he pans out, was the tentative leader at the spring game. He played opposite Woolfolk and didn't do anything particularly embarrassing. The other candidate is Mike Williams, the erstwhile leader before the spring switch and is the designated starter for Western; he's not big but has a reputation as a ferocious hitter. A ferocious, irresponsible hitter.
Emilien's been the presumed starter here and elsewhere but no one's really had much to go on since the spring position switch and there's at least one guy who's been taking in what practice he can who expects the (relatively) veteran player to get the nod. He's AnnArbor.com's Dave Birkett:
"I know I'm going to have a little jitters playing in front of 110,000," Emilien said. "But I’m looking forward to just showing my aggression, just getting out there and playing to my full potential." …
A January enrollee, Emilien is healthy now and has shown enough in spring practice and fall camp to crack the playing group at the thin safety position. Converted cornerback Troy Woolfolk and sophomore Mike Williams are the projected starters, with Emilien and Jared Van Slyke pushing for time as backups.
Here's something to shiver your spine: Van Slyke's one of them walk-on folk. Beatwriter depth-chart guessing is just above blogger deduction in terms of accuracy—not much to be found in either—but it's something at a murky, touchdown-scoring-shark infested position.
Back to people with scholarships: Emilien is a wild card after his senior year of high school was wiped out by a knee injury (recruiting profile for you). Before that he was on the verge of committing to Ohio State; after it Ohio State backed off and Emilien lost interest. When the Buckeyes came back in late, they were told to talk to the hand. This was the main factor in his decision:
"It meant a lot to me that U-M stayed loyal to me after I hurt my knee ... others stopped recruiting me at that time and that hurt. Michigan stayed with me; they showed me they will still be with me in tough times as well as good."
So Emilien's a risk because of injury and resultant inexperience but he's got four stars despite the senior-year injury and offers from Ohio State, which has a frustrating excellent safety factory right next to their frustrating excellent kicker factory, and a number of other high-profile schools. He arrived in spring and his knee is healthy. As a natural safety it's a matter of time before he sees the field in some capacity. There's reason for significant optimism for his career… but he remains a freshman. And never again shall I say "Player X couldn't possibly be worse than impossibly bad Safety Y."
Backups And Whatnot
What backups? It appears that Jared Van Slyke is on the two-deep for serious. Now, you can get away with the occasional walk-on safety—Jon Chait had the best zinger of a three-hour block on WTKA when he said Wisconsin had an "endowed chair" for walk-on safeties—but raise your hand if you're enthusiastic about that prospect given Michigan's safety play of late. Right: no one.
He's important enough to video but even Van Slyke admits he's "surprised" to be in a position to play before doing a 180 and declaring he's always expected it. I've got nothing on him other than what the coaches say, so Tony Gibson:
Jared has done a nice job. The deal with Jared, he was a quarterback at Southeast Missouri, transferred in here, was a wide receiver until right before spring ball and we moved Jared in right now. He’s battling obviously Troy for some playing time back there…. I kind of like my depth at safety. They’re young kids, but I like coaching them and they’re aggressive to learn and all that. I like what their doing.
That makes one of us, Tony Gibson.
He sat out last year in his redshirt year, but he’s been very active at safety for us. He’s a smart football player. He’s involved in a lot of the special teams. He’s going to get a chance to play next weekend.
I assume that's just on special teams. Also hope. BONUS biographical note: Van Slyke is the son of longtime baseball pro and Tigers assistant Andy Van Slyke.
The guy behind Slyke is true freshman Thomas Gordon, also from Cass Tech. (If Dior Mathis and 2011 CB Delonte Hollowell sign on, Michigan will be able to field an entire nickel package from one high school.) He was a high school quarterback who showed at summer camp, was told to play safety in the fall to get an offer, got one, and committed. So he's raw. He was also nicknamed "prison abs" by Rodriguez—causing several Free Press writers to faint—and therefore can be expected to have a good work ethic.
Like Jones, an appearance by Gordon this year means several players have been struck by lightning and bodes very unwell. A redshirt is best here, plz k thx. Here is Gordon's recruiting profile, by the way.
And that's it.