As soon as Steve Breaston took his talents to the NFL the return game imploded. Raise your hand if you’re surprised. Dammit—I have to raise my hand since I gave this a “3” last year, too.
Sure-handed, slow Greg Mathews was the primary punt returner with a little Donovan Warren mixed in; the duo was terrible, ending the year 79th. Mathews has been relieved of those duties this year and the job is tentatively Warren’s with slot electron Martavious Odoms pushing from behind. This should improve with two of the best athletes on the team taking up the reigns; hopefully the increased walk-on program will help fill in some gaps on special teams.
Kick returns were even worse. Michigan was 110th as Carlos Brown and Brandon Minor alternated runs directly into defenders. Freshman tailbacks Sam McGuffie and Michael Shaw have been mentioned as likely starters here, though it may take a game or two to blood them before they assume the roles. Shaw and McGuffie are fast as hell and there should be a rebound here, too.
After inexplicably sitting for a good portion of the season, Kickin’ Competency Lopata came on and hit 11 of 12. He’s basically Garrett Rivas, short on leg strength and dodgy outside 40 yards but a machine inside 40. This qualifies as a pretty good collegiate kicker.
I hate to say this about beloved Space Emperor, but Zoltan was quite conceivable in his second year as a starter. Though he was Michigan’s best player against Ohio State with 12(!) punts for 551(!!!) yards—almost 46 yards each—in his other outings he barely averaged 40 yards a kick. He was 53rd in average yardage and had almost 60% of his punts returned (that’s a lot). He was a Space Prince at best.
Here goes the standard “consistency” bit: if Zoltan can sustain the sort of performance he turned in against Ohio State he’s a Ray Guy candidate and likely winner. He’s always had ridiculous punter-get-drafted upside.
Special Teams in Summary
Kicker should remain static; the return game should improve, possibly significantly as Rodriguez continues to pack the roster with players like those guys named “Moss” who used to play for Miami. Zoltan should be at least average and if he can find consistency to be consistently consistent could be the Heisman winner. You heard it here first, Beanie: Zoltan The Inconceivable is coming for your trophy.
The theory of turnover margin: it is nearly random. Teams that find themselves at one end or the other at the end of the year are highly likely to rebound towards the average. So teams towards the top will tend to be overrated and vice versa. Nonrandom factors to evaluate: quarterback experience, quarterback pressure applied and received, and odd running backs like Mike Hart who just don't fumble.
In marked contrast to lat year’s TO margin heuristic—which foresaw a plunge from 4th nationally to something still positive but far less spectacular and may have presaged some of Michigan’s difficulties—there’s not much to see here. I expect this to be solidly negative this year what with the n00b quarterbacks and the line and the no Mike Hart, but Scott Shafer’s GOT what plants CRAVE so it could be around even again. Don’t think it will have a major impact.
Position Switch Starters
Theory of position switches: if you are starting or considering starting a guy who was playing somewhere else a year ago, that position is in trouble. There are degrees of this. When Notre Dame moved Travis Thomas, a useful backup at tailback, to linebacker and then declared him a starter, there was no way that could end well. Wisconsin's flip of LB Travis Beckum to tight end was less ominous because Wisconsin had a solid linebacking corps and Beckum hadn't established himself on that side of the ball. Michigan flipping Prescott Burgess from SLB to WLB or PSU moving Dan Connor inside don't register here: we're talking major moves that indicate a serious lack somewhere.
Two weeks ago John Ferrara was a backup defensive lineman. Today he’s pushing David Molk for a starting job on the line. Even if he doesn’t see the field the lack of confidence in Molk is apparent.
You could throw Brandon Harrison in here, as last year he was kind of a corner and this year he’s going to be the strong safety, but Harrison’s bounced to and from safety his entire career and will likely find himself in that familiar spot over the slot receiver. His responsibilities aren’t likely to change.
Toney Clemons is listed behind Martavious Odoms; his presence at slot receiver despite being way too tall for the Lollipop Guild—it is a guild!—indicates an obvious lack of depth there.
An Embarrassing Prediction, No Doubt
Rock bottom can be pretty low when you’re shoehorning a bunch of guys into a system they weren’t recruited for and you’ve had a ton of attrition at a couple key spots. Michigan is flirting with disaster on the offensive line and at quarterback. An injury or general suckage by one or more of the five new guys they’re counting on at those positions could send the offense into an epic tailspin.
The defense and some random plays from the exciting skill position players should keep Michigan afloat; games against the two MAC schools, Minnesota, Northwestern, Purdue, and Michigan State should all be at least reasonably winnable even in the worst case. 4-8 seems like the bottom-bottom.
There’s only one game that looks utterly unwinnable—Ohio State—at the moment. There’s no way the offense doesn’t blow two more, though. 9-3.
I am heartened by the idea that Rich Rodriguez’s offense doesn’t place much emphasis on 15 yard outs or deep bombs or seam routes. I am further heartened by the media’s near-exclusive focus on offense and players lost when compiling their preseason guesses. And I’m delighted by the idea Michigan beat actual football teams last year with Mike Debord calling plays for Ryan Mallett.
Not heartening is game against a Mountain West team that would be a pick-em on a neutral field, though the Vegas wiseguys initially set the line at M –7 before everyone bet it down. Nor is it heartening to miss Iowa and Indiana in a year that it would be really nice to dodge Wisconsin and Illinois. But that’s life.
For a glimpse at what this offense might be like I go back to the Year of Infinite Pain, 2005. With Jake Long injured the line was a patchwork assemblage of mediocre talent. Leo Henige had no knees and he started the whole year. The receiving corps was one sure-handed possession guy (Avant), one slot bastard par excellence (Breaston), and one zippy freshman (Manningham). This year those guys are Mathews, Odoms, and Stonum with potential bonus contributions from Clemons, Hemingway, Savoy, and Robinson. Mike Hart was out or limping most of the year; Kevin Grady and Max Martin took turns fumbling before Jerome Jackson finally took the reins.
The big advantage that team had was Chad Henne even though that was the year Tacopants reeled in something like 150 balls. Any illusions 2005 Chad Henne was a realistic ceiling for Michigan’s quarterbacks this year went out the window as I watched the turnover abortion that was the NC State-South Carolina game. We have no idea how bad it can get. Yet.
Still, 2008 wins by a significant margin at the skill positions, is close to a push on the OL, and has a significant advantage in playcalling, scheme, and proximity to Mike Barwis. I think a comparable season is realistic, and while that’s not good at all—55th total offense, 45th scoring—it’s not a disaster zone.
Meanwhile, the defense returns eight-ish starters from a defense statistically superior to 2005’s meh unit. They have also “enjoyed” their proximity to Mike Barwis. Scott Shafer seems a rising star in the defensive coordination business, a maniacal blitzer instinctively aware of the little game theory details that are the heart of gameday coaching.
It’s reasonable to expect improvement both statistically and actually, which would make this team better than 2005’s 7-5 record, especially because that Notre Dame team was 9-3 and this one won’t be and a bowl game against Nebraska is included in that record.
That’s the idea, anyway.
||@ Notre Dame
||@ Penn State
Take all the “probables” with a grain of salt except OSU, Minnesota, and the MAC schools. I didn’t want to write “tossup” eight times.
Really, the answer here is “hell if I know.” There are too many variables to predict anything at a level resembling confidence. I have enough faith in the defense and the little bastards carrying the ball to think the team will be towards the upper end of the reasonable range. 8-4 is the pick.
Let’s get it on.