Michigan 2007, Part I: Offense
I stole all these pictures from RBUAS. What can I say? The man finds some damn pictures.
I decided I would go to Football Armageddon, or at least what seemed like Football Armageddon at the time. (One compensation for this offseason's nonstop torrent of SEC triumphalism in the aftermath of Ohio State's national title game pantsing is that last year's Michigan-Ohio State game now seems vastly less important than it did at the time. The comforts of a Michigan fan are small these days.)
Anyway, four of us rolled out of Michigan early in the morning: myself, a friend, and two people I didn't know, one a friend of my friend, the other his coworker. The coworker, who we'll call "Skeeter" for no reason whatsoever, cracked open a beer as we hit the highway. At 8 AM. It will turn out that Skeeter is a very, very stupid man. Friend of Friend, who is an exec type and I believe Skeeter's boss, has a posh house and a wife who made us all buttons.* Encased in plastic that would occasionally pop open and expose its contents to the wind were pictures of Bo Schembechler culled from that morning's Detroit News. I pocketed one. And we drove.
So four hours in a car in the early morning driving to Columbus pass, and then there's cars and parking's all full and there's chaos and I'm antsy because the scalpers are all asking for lots of money. When we finally managed to find parking -- an arduous process -- Skeeter took the opportunity to relieve himself by the side of the car, in plain site of portajohns. Oh, Skeeter.
I managed to locate a callous scalper and acquire a decent enough endzone ticket 30 rows up for a few hundred dollars; then we experienced authentic Ohio State-style tailgating, which involved waiting in line to get beer from a convenience store, then watching others drink that beer in a dingy, crammed, and depressing parking lot as an Ohio State fan attempted to convince me that fan behavior was just as bad at Michigan mere moments after describing High Street paved in beer cans. (For the record, 2006 was a huge step forward from 2002, which was probably the nadir; this isn't really about OSU fan behavior, it's about this irritating rat-faced guy I was talking to.) Eventually I decided to go into the game preposterously early because it was better than waiting around not drinking beer.
I entered. When I crested the threshold of my section and looked up... students. I was in the student section. I was going to die. I wore my Bo pin, stood stiff and unmoving, and made no eye contact. I managed to not break down during the pregame tribute, sat down several times so I would not die, and then when kickoff finally came watched Michigan rip off an opening touchdown drive that was a thing of beauty. When I inadvertently let a "go, Mario, go" slip out after the first play of the game an ornery looking Ohio State fan would turn around and glare, then complain to his friends I was going to ruin the game. I didn't say anything afterward, even when Michigan punched it in.
When I felt a tremor, I looked down at my hands. They were shaking uncontrollably. We were a third of the way to enough points to win the game. We were going to win. The Year of Infinite Pain was but the first act of a remarkable redemption story.
Then we kicked off.
It turns out 2006 was not the second act of a two-act play, or at least not one with any message other than "God has it in for you, specifically, for no real reason." No Michigan fan needs to be reminded of what happened from then on. It was a dour finish to a year that had been a triumphant return to... er... glory for a program in need of some. In my particular case, the agony of the Ohio State game was magnified tenfold when Skeeter, who had gone down to Columbus fully expecting to not go to the game because of its cost, failed to show at our agreed-upon meeting point after the game. Cell-phone reception being what it is after a major sporting event (nonexistent), the next hour -- I kid you not -- was spent in front of the same convenience store I had been lectured next to by the rat-faced man from hours before, watching Ohio State fans go "WOOOOOOOO" and wanting to die. Eventually we decided to walk back to the car and get something to eat at a local chain restaurant; Skeeter finally showed up hours and hours later, drunk and with some new buddies from the bar. It was 10 PM by the time we finally left; by that hour my rage had bubbled and re-bubbled and boiled over and erupted in little spasmodic fits for hours and hours and hours. When we got in the car, Skeeter cracked another beer.
And it is because of this that I can tell you that no matter how mad I get, I will never choke a man to death with his own intestines and then drink warm Bud Light out of his skull.. If it was going to happen, it would have happened. One of the great regrets of my life is going to be not leaving that twat in Columbus, preferably after stealing his wallet and all forms of identification. And his pants.
So, yeah, that's the end of last year.
This year the stakes are simple: send out Mike Hart, Chad Henne, Jake Long, (very probably) Mario Manningham, and (very probably) Lloyd Carr as triumphant victors completing a three act play, or it's Skeeter time. No pressure.
*(Skeeter and FOF being cordial enough to go to a football game in Ohio together was surprising, on reflection.)
Unit By Unit
In the course of three years Chad Henne has gone from wonder boy to whipping boy to quarterback... uh... man. Or something. Quarterback man, quarterback man, doin' the things a quarterback can. I have wandered off topic.
Anyway: as a sophomore, Henne was bad. This was covered in last year's preview, but a brief recap: Henne propped up his numbers by throwing a ton of read-free wide receiver screens and were further supported by a year in which every Big Ten secondary may as well have been Michigan State's; when he went downfield he was highly inaccurate, the primary culprit in Michigan's loss to Wisconsin and possibly those against Minnesota and Notre Dame. Though there were many valid excuses (no real deep threat, horrible offensive line play, no Mike Hart, general bloody-mindedness of the universe in general and Angry Michigan Safety Hating God in particular), this remains an apt summary of his 2005:
Henne's '05 environment was not a good place to do anything but fail. This, by in large, he did.
Things were much different in 2006. A brief tour through Henne's season via the magic of UFR (Ball State and the Rose Bowl did not get UFRed):
Not particularly good... not particularly Henne's fault, though. He attempted to throw 27 times; approximately 7 of those times were either screens or three-step rhythm throws. 25% of the time when Henne attempted to throw something longer than a screen or short west coast pattern he had Vandy players in his face, usually unblocked after a stunt or a missed blitz pickup. Late in the game, he started expecting and fearing pressure, forgot his mechanics, and started short-hopping balls. It was reminiscent of last year's Notre Dame game ... Henne was fine at first. He was excellent on the opening drive, and at least good through much of the game. The stats don't show it because of the drops.
However, when he lost faith in his protection late he started scrambling unnecessarily, misfiring on simple passes, and generally reverting to the bad old days at the beginning of last season. Notre Dame has no doubt noticed this -- the first hint of it was against them, after all -- and will blitz and stunt extensively, hoping to get him rattled.
There wasn't much evidence to go on, but he came through when he was asked to throw. I do have some concerns about his tendency to check down when he has a lot of time, but with the umbrella CMU was putting around the deep receivers it's understandable. He should have some opportunities to go deep against Notre Dame. [boy, was I right about that. -ed.]
Manningham's getting all the accolades but his three touchdowns were all inch-perfect throws by Henne and tough ones. (Maybe the first one wasn't so tough, but Henne laid it right in Manningham's chest anyway.) ... yow. Five passes in the negative categories, 16 in the positive ones. Last year Henne's numbers were propped up with a copious number of screens of all varieties, but remove the five he threw in this game (4 CA, 1 IN) and you still get 12-4, a 75% "good" rate. Last year he often hovered around 50%.
Another fine performance... At this point I think it's safe to declare Henne's accuracy vastly improved. He still makes the occasional Morelli-esque throw into a Mongol horde of defenders, but he's performing more like the Henne from last year's OSU game than last year's Wisconsin game.
Commenters questioned whether or not that was the best performance of Henne's career and waited for chart to decide. Chart says? Probably, and it would say "almost definitely" if it could accurately reflect how ridiculous every one of those DOs was and remind you that one of the INs was another bomb.
The delightful thing is: it's not all that different from his performances over the past three weeks. He had a rough game against Vandy, but since then he's been insane. It would be one thing if the Minnesota game was an aberration, but Henne's been laying it in between his WR's numbers for three weeks now. The deep ball has gone from a high-risk maneuver to a staple of the offense.
Not to be one of those people, but Henne seemed kinda off, right?
Yes. ... he only had six good passes downfield. The sample size isn't exactly vast, but this was Henne's iffiest performance since Vandy.
Obviously, Henne threw a lot more in this game than he has in any other this year, and he did it in a difficult environment against a good defense. It's reasonable to expect the numbers to be a little uglier. And that they are, with a full 15 attempts in the negative categories compared to but 19 in the positive ones. You may remember that at his nadir last year, Henne hovered just below the 50% mark, but that was after we stripped out batted passes and pressure. With four deflected balls -- none of which were truly Henne's fault -- and one Alford-induced scramble removed, Henne's ratio is 19:10. That's not bad at all.
Still, I wish that his accuracy was better. He had Arrington open a few times and either missed him entirely or forced him into a tough catch. He missed an open Butler a few times and winged a sure first down over Breaston's head. He turns two of those inaccurate passes into completions and I'm raving... but his accuracy left a little to be desired.
On the other hand: do you know who he reminds me of right at this minute? John Navarre midway through his junior year. That's when Navarre started doing things like moving up in the pocket to buy himself time and make the correct audibles and look safeties off before firing critical third-down lasers. And that's when you, the fan, sat back and thought "is this really John Navarre? Really really?" The Arrington touchdown and the scrambling Breaston completion are things he would not have done a year ago. He's gone from staring down receivers to teleporting safeties with his eyes. He's making second and third reads with regularity. He's getting there, and fast. The best evidence of this: the one timeout Michigan took on offense was because DeBord never got the call in, and Henne spent the entire game calling two plays and checking at the line in front of 110,000 people who hate him. He's come a long way.
Henne was generally accurate but not inspiring.
One issue: a high number of BRs. Only one was a dangerous throw into coverage -- the interception on the seam route -- but a total of four is high. Henne started the game doing that scramble-into-danger thing when the pocket was holding, essentially sacking himself. That hesitancy has crept into his game in recent weeks; hopefully it's more a function of no Manningham than anything else.
Par for the course for Henne. Was victimized by three drops, each of which would have turned a punt into at least a field goal attempt in all probability. He's getting better at finding guys on the run, but I still think he's a little too jumpy in the pocket.
A weird game from Henne where he was either doing something really bad (interception, misthrowing a screen, winging it wide to Manningham) or throwing lasers twenty-to-forty yards downfield. The lasers outweighed the errors, say the numbers, and I agree. That's partially an artifact of playing Saturday's red-clad men that claim they are a secondary, but a 62-yard bomb placed delicately between the 1 and the 5 on Breaston's jersey is a 62-yard bomb placed delicately between the 1 and the 5 on Breaston's jersey. Henne was also aided by a couple plays where Indiana rushers didn't come within five yards of him.
(Henne had only 15 attempts, BTW.)
Smith hardly ever had things filed "PR" because even when get got "PR-ed" he usually got off a short hitch to Gonzalez or Hall or Ginn or whoever because we couldn't cover long enough for unblocked blitzers to be useful. Henne, on the other hand, got swamped by linemen:
/55. Kraus -4, Ecker -1, Riley -7, Long -2, Mitchell -3, Bihl -1, assorted miscellaneous.
Some of that was just the scheme: Michigan's routes need time to develop. Primary reads on each play are long gainers and our little checkdown routes are slow-developing crosses. Henne spent vastly more time with the ball in his hand than Smith did. Some of that was just bad play. some of that was no doubt Henne-caused, as there were a few more instances of run-around-uselessly theater (though, like Navarre, Henne has started to indicate that he's getting better at this late in his junior season: see the Ecker touchdown). ... Chad Henne was deployed fully for the first time since the Notre Dame game and turned in an impressive performance. He has total command of his reads and routes. His accuracy is greatly improved. His pocket awareness... needs work but is improving.
How come we never throw over the middle?
What, are you stuck in 2005? This time-tested complaint should be shelved until 2008. Henne is now probing the middle of the field on digs, crosses, seams, and posts with frequency and success. Yes, this is a reminder for the first game of 2007, when we run a really boring offense against a MAC school and everyone freaks out.
(I want credit for that last bit this year, okay?)
|"oh, wide open"|
|Arm strength stop|
|Flag of perfection|
A few themes emerge: Henne is at his wicked best when dropping bombs on opponents' heads. His pocket awareness leaves something to be desired. His accuracy was vastly improved. He has full command of the offense. He was not used extensively. The overall picture: very good. Not great.
But it is the rare junior who is "great," especially at the most mentally demanding position on the field. The upside is there. Henne can make all the throws, from wide receiver screens to slants to fifteen-yard outs to posts to parabolic, feathery deep balls that nestle themselves between the 8 and the 6 on Mario Manningham's jersey. It might be nice if he was a little taller, but in all other ways he is a prototypical NFL quarterback. What holds him back is the flash of hesitancy, the indecision in the moment of the chase, the little uncertainties that crop up when an offense's well-laid plans crumble to dust.
You can see the problems he had last year ebb as the impressions roll by, with minor upticks when Henne ran across top defenses in the roiling hatred of State College and Columbus. And... um... Michigan State at home. Every Michigan quarterback has progressed; every senior has been in full command of the offense and let loose to do what he will. What doubts exist here seem to be unreasonable paranoia given past history. Henne should excel.
The backup situation is touchy with Jason Forcier's transfer. Ryan Mallett, the brobdingnagian freshman who can throw a ball through three Nazis, Last Crusade style, is the backup quarterback and heir apparent. Though he's undoubted the greatest quarterback ever ever, should he be pressed into service as a true freshman Michigan's offense will take a serious hit.
|Mike Hart||Sr.||Mark Moundros||So.*|
|Brandon Minor||So.||Vince Helmuth||Fr.|
|Carlos Brown||So.||Quintin Patilla||Fr.*|
|Avery Horn||Fr.||Andre Criswell||So.*|
Mike Hart's various joints and limbs cooperated with the rest of Michigan's miniature dynamo, and how. Last year Michigan rode Hart to an extent almost unparalleled across the country. His 318 carries were exceeded only by those of Rutgers' Ray Rice; PJ Hill and Garrett Wolfe were the only other backs to crack 300. Anyone who seriously trots out Hart durability issues amongst Michigan's concerns this year is living in the 90s, man.
|Wind the clock|
|Typical Minny play|
|Five yards of awesome|
|Gold, Jerry, Gold!|
On those 318 carries, Hart picked up 1562 yards at 4.9 yards per carry. Though these are respectable numbers, they are by no means great. Part of this is Hart's lack of breakaway speed, but part of it was Michigan's dogged effort to plow virtually all its opponents into bonemeal no matter the situation. Against Wisconsin, Michigan ran
on first down 20 of 26 times. Across the entire year, Michigan ran 57 percent of the time. When you run so often and so predictably, yards per carry become depressed unless you are an NFL first round sort.
Hart isn't. We all know who he is by now. He will get run down by safeties. He is not Darren McFadden or Steve Slaton. But he doesn't fumble, picks his way through line-of-scrimmage traffic like no one else, and is capable of banging out the greatest eight yard runs ever:
He is the engine; the afterburners belong to others.
|State's too easy|
The backup situation verged on dangerously thin when Kevin Grady blew out an ACL in spring practice and Carlos Brown first tried out at corner then flirted with a transfer. Brown eventually decided against the transfer, easing worries, then broke his hand. The injury is minor and shouldn't hold him out of more than the opener, but it has hampered his practice time. He'll get a long look as a punt and kick returner, but it'll probably be next year before serious carries are a possibility.
Thus Brandon Minor will be Hart's primary backup. As a freshman, Minor alternated bursts through the secondary with uninspiring three-yard gains. He's a slashing, high-stepping runner with a turn of speed that defies the recruiting analysts, who rated him as a fullback. It remains to be seen whether he can pick his way through traffic like Hart can -- rephrase: it remains to be seen just how much worse he is at picking his way through traffic than Hart is. His freshman year gave some indication that without an obvious hole he just runs up into a linebacker or one of his offensive linemen. Vision can develop -- see Chris Perry -- but he's not necessarily the heir apparent.
Freshman Avery Horn is fast as hell but has no idea what he's doing. If he doesn't get drafted to return kickoffs he'll redshirt.
Wide Receivers & Tight Ends
|Mario Manningham||Jr.||Adrian Arrington||Jr.*||Greg Mathews||So.||Mike Massey||Jr.*|
|Toney Clemons||Fr.||LaTerryal Savoy||So.*||Junior Hemingway||Fr.||Carson Butler||So.*|
|Zion Babb||Fr.||Martell Webb||Fr.||Andre Criswell (TE)||So.*||Steve Watson||Fr.|
Mario Manningham missed five games with a torn meniscus, only caught 38 passes, and finished 36th in receiving yards nationally. But, yeah...
...he's kind of good. Manningham exploded onto the nation's consciousness during the FBD against Notre Dame and continued torching secondaries until felled by injury against Michigan State. Across that four-week span, Manningham caught 19 balls for an incredible 456 yards -- 24 yards per catch -- and eight long touchdowns. Every team in the
|State's too easy|
country has a player they think can be the proverbial deep threat, but Mario Manningham is Chuck Norris in the Marinas Trench. Armed with an arsenal of double moves that can sucker in the weak and strong alike (Wisconsin, beaten for two touchdowns, was the #1 pass efficiency D in the country last year; Manningham duped Buckeye cornerback Malcolm Jenkins into an "oh wide open" during Football Armageddon that Henne overthrew badly), Manningham requires safety attention at all times. Every time you leave him without a bracket you risk a precision smart bomb from Henne. Other than maybe Desean Jackson there is no better receiver in college football.
One brief exemplar of Manningham's significance to the Michigan offense can be found at right; I don't think this qualifies as cherry picking, as among the opponents in the five game "no Manningham" section are Northwestern, Ball State, and Indiana.
|Minnesota seam TD|
|Minnesota post TD|
|State circus catch|
|Penn State post #1|
|Penn State post #2|
|Another tough dig|
Meanwhile, Adrian Arrington finally emerged as an onfield contributor after two years of blocking, malfeasance, and injury, and then he went and nearly malfeased his way right off the team. Two solid months of 6AM stairs got him back in Carr's good graces; in him Michigan has the makings of another All Big Ten wide receiver. You can call him a more athletic Jason Avant or a less athletic Braylon Edwards, but the comparison foremost in my mind is David Terrell: good but not great speed, a lanky stride and the ability to go up and get a fade. When Manningham was out, it was Arrington who became the primary threat, catching a couple of tough posts that yielded ten of Michigan's points against Penn State. One was Michigan's only passing touchdown of the day:
He has not shown the big play ability Manningham has (or Terrell had), but did catch a deep seam against Minnesota for a touchdown and is obviously tough enough to go get those posts. As a number two wide receiver he's an excellent option.
True sophomore Greg Mathews spent most of last year blocking but also picked up eight catches in sporadic time. A recruit who edged into the end of top 100 lists towards the end of his high school career, his stride, power, and hands are reminiscent of Jason Avant, though that comparison is obviously tenuous at this point given his limited utilization. He will be a possession complement to the deep and intermediate threats.
Behind Mathews there are but freshmen. Toney Clemons, another fringe top 100 guy, has been the most impressive in fall camp and will be the fourth receiver. Enjoy your blocking, kid! Junior Hemingway will also play; Zion Babb will probably redshirt.
Antonio Bass's knee is still severely damaged. He remains on the team but most say that's a technicality and he will be a medical casualty after the year. He will not play.
|Iowa cross #2|
At tight end, it's probably wrong to compare a kid who nearly got booted off a football team to Jesus, so lets just call Carson Butler Lazarus. Raw, kind of dense (the kid must have gone offsides a half dozen times last year), and wildly athletic, Butler tantalized during a redshirt freshman year in which he became the team's leading tight end. Then came a wild sequence of events: he was placed on double-secret probation along with Eugene Germany (gone) and Adrian Arrington (back) for undisclosed violations of team rules rumored to be inopportunely timed weed, arrested for playing a role in the St. Patrick's Day Nerd Massacre, kicked off the team because of the SPDNM arrest, acquitted of all charges in the SPDNM, and finally let back on the team a couple weeks ago. He's still deep in the doghouse -- not listed on the initial depth chart -- but should emerge within a few games if we make the potentially large assumption he keeps his head down and joins a church choir or something. So... a quasi-starter with big potential.
The other quasi-starter is redshirt junior Mike Massey, who saw extensive playing time a year ago but didn't do much with it. He was this close to making a couple superb catches, one a wheel route against Wisconsin, the other a potential touchdown against Penn State, but in both cases the ball just eluded his fingertips. He's been talked up in the spring, but doubts still remain about his blocking and overall upside.
Chris McLaurin and Andre Criswell back up Massey and Butler; both looked awful in the spring game. Criswell was shifted from fullback in the spring when Butler got himself in trouble; McLaurin was a linebacker who swapped units last year because of a chronic shoulder injury (... or something; it's not entirely clear). If either sees the field this year, it's probably to block. Freshman Steve Watson is the son of a former Denver Broncos receiver/coach by the same name and should be college ready; he may also see time. Martell Webb, at 6'5", 215, is headed for a redshirt.
|Jake Long||Sr.*||Adam Kraus||Sr.*||Justin Boren||So.||Alex Mitchell||Jr.*||Steve Schilling||Fr.*|
|Mark Ortmann||So.*||Dave Molk||Fr.||David Moosman||Fr.*||Jeremy Cuilla||So.*||Perry Dorrestein||Fr.*|
|Mark Huyge||Fr.||Tim MacAvoy||So.*||Grant DeBenedictis||So.*||Brett Gallimore||Jr.*||Cory Zirbel||So.*|
(note: every Michigan lineman since the beginning of time has redshirted. Just assume "redshirt" in front of all years unless "true" is specifically appended.)
Three starters return to the Michigan line, including the two best players on 2006's adequate, but not great, unit.
Left tackle Jake Long passed on an opportunity to be a top-ten selection in the NFL draft to play his senior year. That should suffice as an indicator of his talent, which is immense. He's the best offensive lineman in the conference and possibly the nation.
Fellow senior Adam Kraus enters his third year as a starter. Though he was prone to the occasional missed read in the zone game, when he was on the right page he was effective. Capable of getting out to the second level and an above-average pass blocker, Kraus is short of great but is probably headed for first-team All Big Ten at year's end.
Sophomore (true sophomore!) Justin Boren is on a stardom track. The first Michigan lineman in forever to forgo a redshirt, Boren started one game a year ago at guard and rotated in several times during the year. Michigan was grooming him for the center spot from day one. Every indicator on him is positive: he was a highly hyped recruit, he was one of the dominant player in that year's Army All-Star game, he saw the field immediately, and he won a starting role as a true sophomore. There might be some issues at first -- Boren has never played center before -- but by midseason he will probably be an upgrade over the departed Mark Bihl.
Alex Mitchell's job came under fire in the fall even before he picked up a minor injury that will hold him out of the Appalachian State game and maybe Oregon as well. Reports have consistently mentioned Mitchell's issues with his weight; some darkly hint at potential motivation issues. At times last year he was overrun, especially on stunts and blitzes that he and Rueben Riley did always handle well. As a first year starter and a sophomore there are some mitigating factors, but there has been a constant undercurrent of discontent with his play and conditioning this offseason. Even healthy he may watch from the sidelines.
Steve Schilling, like Boren, is marked for stardom. Practice-field rumors had him running neck-and-neck with Rueben Riley, a fifth year senior and multiple-year starter (albeit one who often seemed like an out of position guard), the instant he stepped on campus despite running a wing-T in high school and not knowing how to pass block. An ill-timed case of mono knocked him out of contention in 2006 and forced a redshirt, and shoulder surgery caused him to miss spring practice. Despite all that he's beaten out Cory Zirbel and Mark Ortmann for the right tackle job.
The question with Schilling is how fast can he get up and going? All the injury downtime and the wing-T thing could lead to some dodgy moments in pass protection early. If he's shaky during the Oregon and Penn State games, Michigan's offense could sputter in an inopportune fashion.
Key backups on the line: Mark Ortmann, a redshirt sophomore who will be the first tackle on the field if either Long or Schilling goes down. He's supposed to be more of a finesse, pass-blocking type. Jeremy Cuilla is the first option at guard. A junior who's seen a start here and there and had significant snaps when other players go down injured, he has a modicum of experience but no hype. He will replace Mitchell for Appalachian State. Dave Moosman was well-regarded as a center and is probably in line to start next year (Boren would slide out to guard); this year might be a bit early. The backup situation, in general, is not good.
Five Questions and Five Answers
What could possibly go wrong?
A look back at last year's questions is a blast from the horrible, horrible past: does Henne suck ass? Does the offensive line suck ass? Does Breaston suck ass? Are we going to die? If so, how painful will it be? Will the muscles be flayed from our bodies as we watch in helpless agony? Could you describe the pain on the Schmidt scale? Are we talking yellowjacket pain...
2.0 Yellowjacket: Hot and smoky, almost irreverent. Imagine WC Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue.
...or is it bullet ant time...
4.0+ Bullet ant: Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch nail in your heel.
I tried to answer these things in a somewhat reassuring manner -- No, sort of, sort of, maybe, probably pretty painful, yeesh no, probably yellowjacket if you pushed me -- but my impression of the fanbase's zeitgeist has flipped 180 degrees from last year. Now nothing at all questions the offense. But... NSFMF!
These are the ways in which the offense could fail to live up to its potential:
- Short yardage remains problematic. Michigan sucked in many ways during the Year of Infinite Pain, but one area in which they most certainly did not was in short yardage. Michigan converted at an almost 90% clip on third and one. Last year that number dropped under 60%. I have covered this before, but to re-iterate: the zone game was a disaster in short yardage situations, sabotaging a dozen or more drives when the slow developing stretch got overwhelmed by penetration. Michigan's out-talent and out-execute approach to football has always been at its best when the odds are stacked in their favor, like on third and not much. The stretch moves us away from that. More on this later.
- Steve Schilling and Justin Boren play like n00bs. This wouldn't be totally surprising, since they are n00bs, but a large portion of the optimism rests on the assumption there will be little dropoff from Mark Bihl and Rueben Riley to either new starter. A portion of it rests on the assumption that the new guys will actually be better than the outgoing seniors by midseason.
- Carson Butler and Adrian Arrington look at someone funny. Both are hanging by threads; without them the situation at receiver is basically Manningham, Massey, and a bunch of unproven sketch. Guys: stay home and play XBox.
- Key injuries. Obvs. Henne, Hart, Long, and Manningham cannot be replaced.
- Michigan gets cocky. More on this later.
- Henne remains very good, but does not improve. Also more on this later.
Will Michigan t
ake full advantage of its weapons?
AKA "Michigan gets cocky." I hate that this has to be asked, but it does. Michigan had very little in the way of creative, attacking offense except against Notre Dame and Ohio State. (I believe they would like to have been creative and attacking against USC but Michigan's inability to block anyone prevented that. Shotgun grumbing goes here.) This was most bothersome during the Wisconsin game, when Michigan ran on first down 80% of the time and 74% of the time before the game was salted away. Michigan could not have gone into that game with the idea they would plow over the Badgers, so that looks like a conscious decision to sacrifice effectiveness for safety.
For the most part I was fine with this. Michigan was in a unique situation last year because of their defense, which was so dominant it made sense to trade points for risk. (And when their defense was not dominant Michigan was obviously in full Scoring Offense mode, even if that whole blocking thing prevented the actual scoring against USC.) Against most teams Michigan was simply not going to lose unless there was somewhere between one to three disastrous turnovers; limit those and limit your ability to lose. This is the same strategy Michigan rode to the 1997 national title, and the same one Jim Tressel uses with great success when his quarterback is not a Heisman winner. It makes sense when you have a slavering, vicious defense.
It does not make sense when you do not, and Michigan looks like it won't this year. I don't think the defense is going to be 2005-level bad, but it won't be the sort of thing where a team can get the ball back down seven late and I feel no panic whatsoever. A one score lead is no longer a large one except in certain special years; hopefully Michigan won't coach like this is one of them.
So... I can't answer this. I think Michigan's conservative tendencies both exist and are overstated; I think Carr has become more aggressive in recent years; I fear he will coach this year like he has last year's defense.
Can we fix short yardage?
I don't know. I do know that every time Michigan runs a stretch from a three-wide on third and one this year, God will kill a kitten. Also I will swear so fiercely that evil-looking little imps will spontaneously generate and flit away, probably to play cornerback for Purdue. I'm pessimistic this will change because it seems like such a spectacularly stubborn and stupid approach to third and one. It's not like it takes an offseason to review and fix the problem; it was obvious and something I was complaining about it as early as the Notre Dame game.
And yet they were still pulling out the Third-And-Punt maneuver during the Ohio State game. It seems that if they thought this was a problem they would have picked up on it earlier. They will try to execute better. They might with an extra year of experience, but chances are it will be average at best, especially with two new fullbacks, no Grady, and iffy-blocking tight ends.
(On the assumption some actual journalists read this thing... the Daily guys must, at least: could someone ask about this? Here is the question: Are you concerned that third and one conversion dropped 30 percentage points last year and does that have any connection to the zone running game? Do you plan on incorporating more isos in these situations? If not, why do you hate kittens? It's no "What do you make of your schedule that features eight home games?" but it might be worth asking.)
Will Henne make another leap?
He was very good a year ago, and even if he plateaus Michigan's offense should be better with development from the line, a full season from Manningham, and the continued improvement of the players around him. But there were moments in most games that Henne showed some flaws, either by winging balls a la 2005 or, more often, reacting to pressure poorly. If he reduces these instances he can be great.
Will he? Initial returns are good. When he visited the Elite 11 Camp as a counselor he drew praise from everyone who stopped by as the guy there. When rumblings come from within the bowels of Fort Schembechler they indicate Henne has stepped up a further notch. The validity of those rumors will probably mean the difference between a nice BCS bowl and a national championship game appearance (in which we'll get dismantled by USC, natch). Since his problems seem to resided chiefly in the realm of the mental -- missed reads, some timing issues, pocket awareness -- a smooth natural progression is likely. The inaccuracy went way down a year ago, so whatever mechanics issues he had seem repaired. Henne should take another step forward.
And adding it all up, you get...?
If there is ever going to be a year Michigan spends headbutting foes by final scores of 42-10, this is going to be it. I suppose depth could be better all over the place, but Michigan has a top five quarterback, top five running back, top five wide receiver, and top five left tackle. Carson Butler and Adrian Arrington are both outstanding targets. The only things to fret over even a little are fullback and the right side of the offensive line, which features a returning starter (once Mitchell gets back, which is apparently for Oregon) and the two most hyped offensive line recruits since Jake Long.
I think it will be a little disappointing in games here and there. Early games against Oregon and Penn State worry -- though I don't have a handle on Oregon's defense yet -- as the new offensive linemen could self-destruct frequently enough to severely limit Michigan's effectiveness. One small comfort: Penn State's defensive line is about as green as the Boren/Mitchell/Schilling trio and projected DT starter Abe Koroma is likely to miss the game.
But even with those concerns I go back to that little box in the wide receivers category that showed production with and without Manningham. The "with" Manningham number, a seven game stretch featuring three of the top twenty scoring defenses nationwide: 36.8, which would have been good for fifth in the country last year. That's a realistic goal. I believe! Praise-ah his name-ah! Yes-ah!
- Brandon Minor gets 20% of the available carries.
- Alex Mitchell manages to fend off challengers for his job.
- Henne is invited to New York for the Heisman thingy, but does not win.
- Massey spends most of the year in front of Butler on the depth chart but Butler ends up with more catches and is the defacto starter by Wisconsin.
- Manningham: 1340, 15 TD.
- Michigan is 15th in total offense; 12th in scoring.
* Brandon Minor gets 20% of the available carries.
* Alex Mitchell manages to fend off challengers for his job.
* Henne is invited to New York for the Heisman thingy, but does not win.
* Massey spends most of the year in front of Butler on the depth chart but Butler ends up with more catches and is the defacto starter by Wisconsin.
* Manningham: 1340, 15 TD.
* Michigan is 15th in total offense; 12th in scoring.