"Northwestern fans can be both heartened and disheartened by the loss to Minnesota just like how nineteenth-century resurrectionists were heartened when they pried a heart from a freshly-buried corpse and then disheartened it when they sold it to a disreputable anatomist."
Graduation Damage Amortization: Defense
DE Pierre Woods
In A Nutshell: Peaked as a sophomore, then killed Pope John Paul II during his junior year, earning himself a permanent spot in Carr's doghouse. Got off the bench late in the year when Lamarr Woodley injured his arm and provided several critical quarterback hurries/sacks in the Iowa game, but was largely neutralized against Ohio State. Undersized and suited only for the weakside spot dominated by Lamarr Woodley, he ended up a pass-rush specialist and a disappointment.
Replacing him... probably: As a DE: Redshirt sophomore Tim Jamison; hopefully Jamison replaces the Woods who was terrorizing Drew Tate and not the one who was watching Rondell Biggs and Jeremy Van Alstyne do very little. As an OLB/DE tweener: Shawn Crable.
Net effect: Should be an improvement. Jamison has been quite impressive in his limited time, though I fear that he'll be stuck behind Woodley. No offense to Biggs and Van Alstyne, but Jamison made more plays this year in his sparing time than those two have in their injury-plagued careers; even if it means moving Woodley over to the strongside DE spot an effort should be made to get Jamison on the field.
DTs Pat Massey and Gabe Watson
In A Nutshell: Pat Massey must be the best damn captain in the world, because he had very little business playing defensive tackle in the Big Ten. 6'8" and lanky, Massey was plowed backwards by every team he faced. This is probably the most effective summary of his career: though he started for three years he finished with exactly four TFLs that were not sacks. All four came as a sophomore, two against Houston and two against Indiana. As a senior he had 29 tackles, one for loss. That was a sack against Michigan State where Woodley crushed two blockers, forcing Stanton to scramble back into a trailing Massey. Whoever replaces him would have to try very hard indeed to do less.
Watson was something of a disappointment-- he was benched for portions of three games early in the year--but is still a much bigger loss than Massey. Watson was intermittently dominant, driving his man into the backfield with regularity. If Massey had ended any play within three yards of the line of scrimmage, Watson's penetration would have been the key component in a fierce run defense instead of a painfully ironic way for opponents to create gaping holes in the center of the line.
Replacing them... probably: Junior Alan Branch and some combination of Terrance Taylor, Will Johnson, and incoming freshman Marques Slocum. Branch started in Watson's place when he ended up in the doghouse and then moved over to defensive end when Biggs and Van Alstyne went down. He was extremely effective in both spots. Taylor and Johnson both played in relief of the starters with mixed results. They had a tendency to get blown off the ball, but let's review: Taylor and Johnson were freshman. Massey was a fifth year senior. Both of the youngsters have more prototypical DT bodies and are extremely strong already. Add in the penetrating Slocum--who looked an awful lot like Branch during last years Army All-American game--and Michigan should have a four-deep rotation of guys who can play.
Net effect: Almost has to improve simply because Massey is gone. Branch is a terrific player who was named Michigan's best defensive lineman at the football bust this year (though Lamarr Woodley's injury had something to do with that) and should adequately replace Watson as the guy you have to double. A capable starter next to Branch should emerge from the Taylor, Slocum, and Johnson trio.
LB Scott McClintock
In A Nutshell: Lost his job as soon as David Harris stepped on the field and was never heard from again.
Replacing him... probably: Er?
Net effect: Zero.
CB Grant Mason
Anyone who gets hurled into the endzone is all
right by me.
In A Nutshell: Would have been an excellent nickelback for any team but when pressed into a starting role had some obvious shortcomings. In one of the more bizarre statistical quirks I can remember, Mason finished second on the team in tackles to David Harris--not a good sign. Teams completed a lot of passes in front of Mason and he was a major part of Michigan's containment issues. On the bright side, he did make a couple of key interceptions against Wisconsin and Northwestern.
Replacing him... probably: Sophomore Morgan Trent, the nickelback a year ago. Trent has an impressive size/speed combination and adapted quickly to the position. He should do just fine, if not better. The greater question is "who replaces Morgan Trent?" Precisely zero cornerbacks other than Hall, Trent, and Mason saw any non-garbage time last year, also not a good sign. If Charles Stewart didn't see a single meaningful snap in a year when Michigan clearly was looking for conerback depth it's highly unlikely he ever contributes.
Thus Michigan's cornerback recruiting drought will come into stark relief next year unless California sleepers Johnny Sears and Chris Richards turn out to be players. Sears is reportedly an athlete par excellence, but he had only one year of varsity experience due to an unfortunately timed transfer in high school. He is the presumptive favorite in the race for third cornerback next year. Richards--DB coach Ron English's godson--is young and undersized but has some talent. Cal got him to decommit temporarily after he did very well against hyped FSU recruit Fred Rouse (last seen bemoaning his decision to spurn Florida) in a California-Florida All Star game that caught the Bears' attention. He could contribute.
Net effect: Mason was servicable, a solid player but not a star. Trent is clearly a better athlete and had an impressive debut season; he should mature into an All Big Ten corner. Depth, however, will be important and is a total question mark. I would not be surprised to see either recruit Steve Brown or sophomore Brandon Harrison, both safeties at the moment, shift over to corner if Sears and Richards don't impress.
The only departing player who will get a serious look from the NFL is Watson, and that will be based more on his enormous, er, everything than anything unbelievable he did last year. We'll miss him, but teams tended to run at the gaping hole next to him this year and that--combined with his entry into the doghouse early in the year--limited his effectiveness. In terms of personnel, Michigan should be better next year. Other than Watson, Michigan lost its worst starter, a third-down edge rusher, and an adequate corner. There are still questions (who is the nickelback (and dimeback, for that matter)? Can we find effective outside linebackers? Who starts on the DL next to Branch and Woodley?) but Michigan has good players at at least seven defensive positions. There should be no excuses next year.
Of course, there's that whole coaching thing. Michigan's soft zone got downright ephemeral after the year of safeties who were anything but. Michigan avoided man coverage like it was the clap, sacrificing any element of surprise in favor of keeping someone (or three someones) behind the play. The end result was a hair-pulling, garment-rending extravaganza not seen since erroneous reports of Joseph's death reached Jacob. (BLAM! Ten years of Sunday School!) This year forcibly disabused me of the notion that Jim Herrmann will change or Lloyd Carr will pull ineffective players who are really swell people, so Michigan's underacheivement relative to talent will probably contin
ue, but there will be more talent and more experience next year. That should count for something.