Two exciting things
Only two? Okay, three.
1. MGoblog’s new format, which includes the diary feature
2. Scott Shafer
3. First post-fort training camp
As for number one, I couldn’t let another day pass without starting my MGoBlog football diary. So what if so nothing is happening in the UM football world to the point that this entry is going to be hopelessly rambling and offer nothing of substance or value? I’ve got stray enthusiasm to burn off.
Thoughts on the upcoming season vacillate rapidly between curiosity, anticipation, and tempered enthusiasm/dread. Rich Rod and his offense are the central players, with the offense in particular blowing the doors off of UM’s football identity. For a program whose identity is somehow almost separate and distinct from its accomplishments, and somehow equally important in the minds of those obsessed with it, the off-season was like having an arm chopped off and wondering if it will grow back. Its near impossible to parse out and dissect the tangible, the reason I frequent this site.
That’s why every time I read another blurb on Carlos Brown missing spring practice and the impact on his snaps under center, I sigh, and think about Scot Shafer. Watching UM’s offense this year will be interesting. Watching the defensive side of the ball is truly glimpsing the dawn of our new era. A solid half of the entire Rich Rod experiment rides on the shoulders of a man we know almost nothing about as a coach. I don’t claim to know the inner workings of Rod’s coaching circle, but I don’t think its too far off base to suggest that the entire defense has been more or less handed over to Shafer.
For all the dower pre-season prognostications, its easy to forget that UM is returning a terrific amount of talent and a decent amount of production from last season’s defense. Most commenting on the subject seem content to lazily write UM’s defense off as a total question mark in the same vein as the offense. I’m not on board with that assessment.
We’ll all have to wait and see on the long term and team-wide Barwis effect, but I don’t think anyone would dispute the statement that UM’s defensive players will be in the best shape of their lives once the season rolls around. Motivation should be at a peak where no player’s job is safe or guaranteed, if not to prove the doubters wrong, make up for last season, etc. The talent and experience is largely there. The schemes themselves do not need to be re-learned, although to some extent, probably re-taught. In my opinion, the pieces are in place for UM to have a top 3 defense in the conference. What will be extremely exciting to watch is how Shafer moves those pieces, and if he can take this defense to an even higher level.
As Brian pointed out in his typically excellent post on Shafer’s previous coaching results prior to UM, getting any sort of handle on what this guy is about/capable of is difficult except for one area, he is going to place a shit-ton of emphasis and focus on getting pressure. You can say this with certainty based on results. In 2005 and 2006 coaching at Western, Shafer’s defense ranked #23, and #1 respectively in the nation in sacks. His lone year at Stanford he brought the Cardinal from #111, to #11. He chopped an entire "1" off. I don’t care how you want to factor in and weigh the variables, 1) it clearly shows that pressure is a massive priority 2) its pretty freakin’ impressive.
Jamison and Graham were as highly regarded recruits as UM has anywhere on their roster, and both have battled consistency problems that could be largely attributed to conditioning issues (and in Jamison’s case some injury problems) and pizza, which we expect to be removed. Trent has the physical tools and has shown me enough gradual improvement after his position switch, and mental toughness after bouncing back from the 2006 season ending debacles to post a mostly impressive 2007 campaign. Warren probably grades out as UM’s player with the most pro potential. Those four guys in some order represent the 4 best players on the defense, and likely play the 4 most crucial positions to Shafer’s defense. I don’t know what he’s going to run, but I know that pressure defenses are most easily built around ends who can rush and corners who can cover. So two cornerstones are in place. When pundits talk about the question marks on defense, they largely fail to note that the defense is the exact opposite of the offense in that it appears Shafer inherited very good and experienced players in key areas.
Its college football, so every team is going to have unknowns on both sides of the ball. For UM’s D, its at safety and linebacker. But where Stevie Brown is being talked about as the most talented defensive back the new defensive backs coach has coached, and Ezeh is talked about as one of the most talented players on the defense in general, what UM lacks at those two positions should not be enough to prevent Shafer from putting his full stamp on this defense.
I guess the question is, what exactly is that stamp? A lot of folks around here have been looking at old WVU games for glimpses of what to expect out of Rich, despite the fact that UM’s personal will make it impossible for the 2008 O to appear anything like his offenses of the past. Is anyone out there pulling old NIU tapes to see how Shafer gets his wicked pressure? Is he a Tenuta-esque crazy ass blitzer, or a guy who mixes and matches pressure from the front 7? Is he playing aggressively behind the front or trying to minimize damage? Seeing what Shafer does with a caliber of athlete he’s never sniffed before should be worth the price of admission for ‘08. Hopefully his play calling and the performance of the defense as a whole is not impacted by the offense to the point of rendering ‘08 a poisoned sample.
Which brings me to my final thought, our first training camp without the Fort. How will the mainstream media react to the opportunity to write substantive articles on a regular basis? Are they going to step up to the plate or will it be the typical stream of regurgitated spring practice quotes and fluff? What will the access be for non-traditional media? So far, it seems that there has been enough during spring and camp periods to keep a steady and informative flow from bloggers and ex-coaches turned posters. Will the assistant coaches grant the interviews Rich allows, and if they do, how much is a guy like Shafer willing to discuss in terms of schemes, philosophy and personnel?
Whatever the outcome there, coverage is going to be a hell of a lot better than what we’ve had to deal with in our entire lifetime as UM fans. And we’re getting close.