Coaches' timeouts are worse. Basketball teams should get one, full stop.
Steve Breaston may have disappointed in many ways last year but this was not one of them. A sure way to constrict your throat at any time is to watch his critical return with under a minute left against PSU that set Michigan up near the 50 and enabled the Manningham magic to come. Breaston finished 8th in the country in kickoff returns and 18th in punt returns despite battling injuries and unblocked gunners all year. He is the real deal in this facet of the game, at the very least.
Michigan fans thought he was capable of much more had the coaching staff played punts for something other than fakes. Michigan's tendency to cover gunners like they were wide receivers and provide only a token punt rush removed much of the threat from Michigan's return game without assistance from the other team. Despite that, Breaston still excelled.
Rating: 4. Many are down on Garrett Rivas after some irritating, short misses in critical spots last year but he was 19 of 26 a year ago. 73.1% is light years from awful, though misses from 34 versus Minnesota, 27 against MSU and 25 against Nebraska show that he's not exactly Huston. Rivas will provide more of the same: reliable short-range kicking with sporadic, hair-pulling misses. There are worse fates.
Freshman kicker Bryan Wright will redshirt unless Rivas really struggles.
Houston, we are reading an unidentified
Senior punter Ross Ryan was ugly but effective a year ago, consistently kicking dying quails that made it 35 or 40 yards at maximum but were nearly unreturnable: only 17 of his 52 were run back and those for a paltry total of 85 yards. By contrast, Michigan had 423 punt return yards. His job has come under threat from redshirt freshman and space emperor Zoltan Mesko, who occasionally kicks balls into orbit but also occasionally shanks them for 15 yards. Carr has talked of a punting rotation. Presumably Zoltan would get punts from relatively deep in Michigan's territory where his leg can be used to full destructive effect while Ryan takes punts near midfield that he's less likely to bomb through the endzone.
Ryan's kickoffs almost always reached the endzone and many were touchbacks a year ago. The new, lower tee will reduce his touchback rate but he remains an excellent kickoff guy.
Special Teams in Summary
Should be a strength. Rivas is all right; the punting duo should be collectively above average; Breaston is kind of good at returning things. Rivas' iffy range -- 47, 48 and that's pushing it -- and tendency to miss two or three really stupid field goals to miss a season will irritate, but Michigan is in good shape here.
Vanderbilt is the opener. Without Jay Cutler the Commodores pose little threat.
CMU isn't playing Michigan State and will therefore lose. Pass-rushing demon Dan Bazuin will provide a stiff test for Michigan tackles and an indication of how prepared they are for...
@ Notre Dame, a small Catholic school of no importance in northern Indiana.
The Big Ten schedule opens up at home versus Wisconsin, who has no returning anything on offense aside from John Stocco. Their defense appears to be stiff against the run but still dodgy in the passing game. If Henne is on it should be a non-terrifying Michigan victory.
Michigan ends up @ Minnesota next, where Michigan's run defense will be thoroughly tested no matter how many running backs the Gophers lose in the meantime. The offense should not be nearly as tested, thought it would be nice if Rueben Riley blocked Steve Davis this year.
A pissed-off Drew Stanton, who is rumoured to have teammates, rolls into town next. Stanton is a major trap game for Michigan, as he should be able to score on anyone. Tense moments.
Michigan then must venture @ Penn State to face approximately 110,000 people who would drink Lloyd Carr's blood from a chalice made out of the skull of a Big Ten referee if given half a chance. If Penn State's offensive line comes together by this point in the year, this will be a knock-down, drag-out affair. Otherwise it will be Anthony Morelli eating grass.
Iowa frightens me.
Northwestern's Fun 'n' Run offense is next; unfortunately for the Wildcats their defense must accompany them.
Ball State and @ Indiana are also schools of no importance in Indiana, though Ball State did produce David Letterman.
@ Ohio State is The Game.
An Embarassing Prediction, No Doubt
What, with road games at ND, OSU, PSU, and dangerous games versus MSU and Iowa? December suicide. AKA: 7-5.
This happens if:
- Henne throws away a couple games.
- The OL stagnates.
- The outside linebackers remain static.
- The cornerback not named Hall gets nicknamed "toast" by the ND game.
- God wasn't joking around last year and really has a deep personal enmity for me.
I believe! 12-0. Hypothetically!
This happens if:
- Henne plays like he did over the last three or four games.
- Riley or whoever the right tackle is manages to perform adequately.
- One of Manningham or Breaston emerges as #1 in spirit.
- Jamison kicks it.
- Graham and Crable adequate it.
- A cornerback and a half are found.
Four of six should do it. Or Hart could just Vince Young us to an undefeated record.
To recap: everything should be better and I have totally reasonable reasons for thinking so. Everyone we liked except Avant, Stenavich, and about a third of Watson returns, plus we get our best two players back and healthy. Incremental improvement from many plus wild improvement from a few -- my bets are Manningham, Crable, and Jamar Adams -- should see Michigan re-assert itself. On the other hand, this team is flawed on the offensive line, at linebacker, and in corner depth.
...but you know and I know that the key to the season wears #7 and has a goofy haircut. If he plays like he did last year, we have a season similar to last year but slightly better. From 8-4 to 9-3. If he plays like he did at the tail end of last year, um, yeah. There's a chance.
Wins: Vandy, CMU, Ball State, @Indiana, Northwestern
Probable Wins: @ Minnesota, Drew Stanton, @ PSU, Wisconsin
Tossups: @ ND, @ OSU, Iowa
Split the difference: 10-2.
You can read my collected... er... wisdom(?) on the upcoming Big Ten season here in approximate projected order of finish:
No headliners remain on the Iowa defense after two years in which graduation has taken Matt Roth, Jonathan Babineaux, Abdul Hodge, and Chad Greenway to the NFL, but the Hawkeyes have star power on the other side of the ball in Drew Tate (the flingingest quarterback this side of the Pecos), Albert Young, and Albert Young's cadaverous ACL. The offensive line is either experienced or OMG shirtless. The defensive line looks poised to resume the terror of the Roth-Babineaux days. The defensive back seven? Well, you can't have everything. There are indeed ominous holes at corner and linebacker.
Despite that, viewers should be prepared for a faceful of Tate this year.
I guess it's somewhat logical that when Texas loses that Vince Young guy and OSU returns that Troy Smith guy you put OSU #1 to start the season, but, uh... nine defensive starters, one reliable kicker, and two first round draft picks on offense depart and that doesn't bother anyone? Ohio State -- Ohio freakin' State -- is starting a senior walk-on who has never played a down on defense at cornerback and this raises not an eyebrow? ... The Buckeyes have many alluring qualities that nearly offset that walkon-at-corner thing.
But not quite.
Relieved of the oppressive mustache, hope burgeons once again. Only six starters depart from last year's team, three of those substandard by any measure. The others have capable replacements lined up. In Herrmann's place is a dynamic young coach who seems ready to overthrow years of stodgy, dated theory and assume his place next to Charlie Weis, Charlie Weis, and Charlie Weis on the new Mount Rushmore of football. Mike Hart and Jake Long are fully healed.
So, yeah: there's a chance.
Trying To Go To Whatever That Bowl Is Called This Year
If Purdue is to return to the hallowed ground of the Music City or Sun or whatever their equally anonymous replacements are after the offseason bowl shuffle it'll be on the backs of their offensive line, which returns four starters from a good '05 unit, and the wide receivers, deeper than at any point in Tiller's tenure. Add in Kory Sheets and new quarterback Curtis Painter has a lot of ammunition at his disposal. He'll need it, as the defense is in chaos.
There's life in '05's corpse yet with Derrick Williams, Levi Brown, and the three-headed Cerberus at linebacker. If Anthony Morelli has a Flowers-for-Algernon leap forward, if the offensive line is stunningly competent, and if any sort of pass rush materializes Penn State could do it again.
If they do, though, you'll find me wandering the streets, muttering about bad frog.
So what will happen? I abdicate. I've spent hours combing stories, previews, player profiles, statistics, tarot cards, &c and have come up with nothing definitive. The OL could be great! It could be awful. The WRs could be great! They could be awful. The defense should rebound! Or maybe not. You'll get nothing definitive out of me on this team ready for mocking at season's end. Wisconsin will either be good or bad. If they are not, they will be average. Bold!
On a micro level MSU is completely unpredictable week-to-week. On a macro level it's always Same Old Spartans. ... Is there anything that could upset the natural balance of things? Yes. He wears number 5, but he can't kick or play defense.
Next Year Has A Nice Ring
Strides towards competency are probable, but there's a long, long way from last year's Travelling Bye Week extravaganza and respectability.
This is all terribly unfortunate for one of college football's most likeable programs. Northwestern churns out a steady supply of moxie-filled quarterbacks, glass-eating linebackers, and dramatic instant classics full of last-second twists M. Night Shyamalan would dismiss as implausible. But the facts are the facts, cruel as they may be; one can only hope that this year is the opening act in a tale of redemption that culminates in the two years Northwestern is off Michigan's schedule.
Here it is in its entirety:
James Hardy is tall, but Indiana is still bad at football.
Part I is here.
|Tim Jamison||So.*||Terrance Taylor||So.||Alan Branch||Jr.||Lamarr Woodley||Sr.|
|Rondell Biggs||Sr.*||Will Johnson||So.*||Marques Walton||So.*||Jeremy Van Alstyne||Sr.*|
|Brandon Graham||Fr.||John Ferrara||Fr.||Jason Kates||Fr.||Eugene Germany||Fr.*|
Lamarr Woodley and the Question Marks return to cut a second and final album this year. The situation going into the fall is a carbon-copy of the situation last year at this time: we know Woodley is going to play and play well, though he seems to have topped out at merely very good instead of dominant. He "won" the nonexistent UFR award for best +/- on the team a year ago with outstanding performances versus Wisconsin, Minnesota (RIP Brian Cupito), and Michigan State before a hairline fracture deadened his arm and forced him out of the late-season games. He returned for Ohio State and was quiet except for a sack/strip on Troy Smith that Michigan recovered. Woodley is just short of great against both run and pass, one of the most complete defensive ends in the country, and the best player on Michigan's defense.
The other end is something of a mystery. If fans and cantakerous bloggers had their druthers, that man would be sophomore Tim Jamison. Jamison only saw scattered plays throughout the year but had a higher density of disruptive plays than anyone on the defense outside of Woodley and Branch. Jamison flashed his tremendous potential most extensively against Northwestern; check out these quotes from that game's UFR:
I really like Jamison; guy seems to burst into offensive linemen, knocking them onto their heels, upon which point he owns them. ... Jamison(+2) comes screaming around the tackle and would likely have had himself a killer sack if not held. Basanez is forced to scramble futilely. ... On this play he engages with the OT and then just blows him up. He's about six inches from an impressive sack as Bas[anez] is rolling to his side of the field. ... Top marks go to Jamison, though. He's a freak.
Granted, that's against Northwestern, but he forced me to break the "no freak/stud" rule as a freshman. He's yet to prove that he can maintain that level of performance against a higher level of competition and he might prove vulnerable to the run when pressed into service as an every-down player, but the early returns are encouraging.
Since fans and cantankerous bloggers are not (yet) in charge of the defensive line expect to see quite a bit of senior Rondell Biggs, a big body who's strong against the run but not much of a pass rusher. He started a few games last year before a chop-block from an MSU defensive lineman knocked him out. His performance against Notre Dame was adequate after a rough time on the opening drive. He's functional and tough but not dynamic.
Biggs and Jamison will rotate situationally opposite Woodley. Also seeing time will be senior Jeremy Van Alstyne, if he ever gets healthy, redshirt freshman Eugene Germany, and true freshman Brandon Graham.
Junior defensive tackle Alan Branch is the other sure thing on the line. Branch started in man-mountain Gabe Watson's place when Watson headed to the doghouse early in the year, then bounced out to end when injuries to Van Alstyne and Biggs forced Michigan to scramble. He was excellent in both spots, finishing second only to Woodley in cumulative UFR +/- a year ago. As an end he lacks the speed to get an effective edge rush (he is persistent, though); on the interior he is crafty and effective. Witness his performance against Wisconsin, when Branch racked up a mind-boggling +12 from his DT spot:
Alan Branch was a monster, blowing up run plays, getting held twice, and getting a superior pass rush with regularity. He could be our best defensive player right now. And that's despite the fact that Woodley turned in another very good game and is one of the best defensive linemen in recent Michigan history.
Michigan's main concern with Branch will be whether or not they'll get to enjoy his senior year.
The starting job next to Branch is likely to be a ceremonial title only. Sophomores Terrance Taylor and Will Johnson will both see plenty of time. Taylor performed marginally better a year ago and thus is projected as the starter, but neither was exactly a playmaker. That's to be expected from a pair of freshmen (Johnson redshirted in order to fully rehab a massive ACL tear suffered his senior year of high school), but with Massey and Watson gone one will have to take a major step forward to prevent a repeat of last year's fiasco when teams seemed to gameplan around the idea that Watson/Branch would drive blockers upfield while Massey moonwalked downfield, leaving a cavernous gap to run through.
Three players for a spot where most teams like to have four or five men rotating is tenuous. Behind Taylor and Johnson is redshirt sophomore Marques Walton, a little regarded recruit out of Chicago. Three more freshmen are unlikely to play: James McKinney is out for the year with a knee injury; John Ferrara and Jason Kates are virtual locks to redshirt.
Depth at defensive tackle is something of a concern, but few teams in the country have the sort of 1-2 punch Michigan does with Woodley and Branch. If Jamison lives up to the hype perpetrated by... well... me, this Michigan line will own.
|Chris Graham||Jr.||David Harris||Sr.*||Shawn Crable||Jr.*|
|Brandon Logan||So.||John Thompson||So.*||Prescott Burgess||Sr.|
|Quintin Patilla||Fr.||Cobrani Mixon||Fr.||Obi Ezeh||Fr.|
2005 was the nadir of Michigan linebackers in recent memory. Middle linebacker David Harris was a surprise star, but the outside linebackers went beyond ineffective straight into the realm of liability. Time and again opposing running backs would bounce outside into acres of space partially because the secondary was busy backpedaling 20 yards downfield but largely because Graham, Crable, and Burgess were wildly out of position. Just check the tackle counts last year: starting cornerbacks Grant Mason and Leon Hall combined for 23 more tackles than the starting OLBs. That's unbelievable.
Harris(45) and Burgess(6) converge.
Harris was a player. He led the team in tackles, making a fair number of them near or behind the line of scrimmage. He was tasked with spying Drew Stanton during the Michigan State game and flashed his speed against Penn State when he tracked down Derrick F-ing Williams on an end around. His UFR number was +8 that game, a monster. Though Harris tailed off towards the end of the year, he's established himself as one of the Big Ten's better linebackers and certainly the best Michigan has.
Weakside linebacker Chris Graham had ten tackles in his debut against Northern Illinois but disappeared thereafter. He was most noticeable by his absence in the Iowa game. When freshman Johnny Thompson -- not even a WLB -- came in and attacked Albert Young somewhat near the line of scrimmage, Michigan fans sat up and said "oh, that's what outside linebackers are supposed to do." Despite having tremendous speed, Graham played slow because he was never sure where he was supposed to go. By the time he decided he was being blocked. Lacking size, he struggled to shed those blocks and spent the year flailing helplessly at passing ballcarriers. Hurray linebackers!
Fellow goat Prescott Burgess was more noticeable, alternating great plays with inept ones on a frustratingly regular basis. Don't be fooled by his occasional bursts into the backfield or thunderous hits; they were offset by confusion far too often. Burgess packed on weight over the course of his first three years at Michigan, transforming himself from a high school safety into a lumbering 245-pound linebacker incapable of closing on the very avatar of "lumbering" in the Big Ten, Iowa tight end Scott Chandler, on one notable play versus Iowa. Chastened and in search of a starting job anywhere, Burgess dropped ten pounds in an effort to regain his lost speed. He spent the spring competing against Chris Graham for the weakside job.
Strongside linebacker Shawn Crable wrested the job from Burgess' feeble grip in the spring and has continued to assert his authorita in the fall, drawing praise from Carr and Szabo on a regular basis. In 2005 he was a part of the problem, blowing outside containment on a more regular basis than either starter. He was quickly removed from all such responsibility, finding a bizarre role as a a stunting DT on passing downs. Crable executed his stunts to good effect and even stopped a couple runs aimed at his ungainly 6'6" frame. Hell, he even kept containment once. Crable is a much faster player than Burgess and a highly competent pass rusher; his status as a starter may presage a more aggressive defense. Or it may just mean that Burgess continues to be dazed and confused.
Redshirt sophomore Johnny Thompson flashed big talent and a big mouth -- his nickname is "Baby Ray Lewis" -- when the Michigan coaches finally had enough of Graham's ineffectiveness in that Iowa game, then disappeared for the rest of the year. He'll be the fifth linebacker on the field and is the heir apparent to David Harris' starting spot. Sophomore Brandon Logan saw a little time a year ago. He's fast but undersized and probably isn't ready yet. Past him there are only freshmen.
If the damage done by Herrmann can be undone over the course of one offseason this unit could be very good. Harris is an All Big Ten-type performer and the starters on the outside have garnered positive reviews from both recruiting gurus and the Michigan coaches. But... that's a stretch. Last year, Crable was confused, Burgess inconsistent, and Graham invisible. Even if the rumored simplification comes to fruition, chances are that the outside linebackers will remain tainted by ill-teachings past.
|Leon Hall||Sr.||Brandent Engelmon||Jr.*||Jamar Adams||Jr.||Charles Stewart||So.*|
|Johnny Sears||Fr.*||Ryan Mundy||Jr.*||Willis Barringer||Sr.*||Morgan Trent||So.*|
|Brandon Harrison||So.||Steve Brown||Fr.||Jonas Mouton||Fr.||Chris Richards||Fr.*|
Magazines and Mel Kiper tell us that Leon Hall is an excellent player worthy of accolades, though he doesn't seem like Marlin Jackson to me. He enters his third year as a full-time starter on All-American lists and NFL mock drafts as the top corner in the country, which is something of a surprise since he's never exactly dominated. Perhaps that's because Michigan spent most of last year in passive zones; when given rare opportunities to play man he often came through. If Michigan up the aggression, he'll find himself on an island more often -- and NFL scouts say he'll do just fine. I hope they're right.
Three men battle for the corner position opposite Hall:
- Charles Stewart, a four star recruit out of Michigan three years ago who seemed on the fast train to nowhere until spring practice.
- Redshirt freshman Johnny Sears, a sleeper recruit out of California who is reputed to be fast fast fast(!).
- Redshirt sophomore Morgan Trent, who had the edge going into the spring after a year as Michigan's nickelback.
The story goes that Trent -- get this -- struggles in man coverage and thus is unsuitable for English's schemes, which is unfortunate for the young man but thrilling for Michigan fans hoping to see a corner within fifteen yards of the line of scrimmage presnap. Stewart has a year, a ton of experience, and the first spot on the depth chart over Sears and is thus the favorite to start against Vanderbilt but Sears' physical gifts may see him barge his way into the starting lineup by midseason. Whoever starts is going to be Michigan's main question mark on defense. When the coaches discuss Stewart, they invariably talk about his "physicality" and able run support, things that seem like nice bonuses in a corner but cause for alarm when framed as primary assets. Visions of Todd Howard dance in the skeptical Wolverine fan's head.
Also competing at corner is tiny sophomore Brandon Harrison, a safety a year ago who displayed wild speed and a certain lack of polish. He was victimized for long gains against Michigan State (he misread a screen at the LOS, allowing Kerry Reed to score a 50-some yard touchdown) and Penn State (he took a poor angle on Tony Hunt's one long run on the day). Harrison should be a capable nickel corner once he gets re-adjusted to his new position but has clear physical limitations that make an ascension into the starting lineup unlikely, especially given English's predilection for big corners.
Redshirt freshman Chris Richards is still very young and very small; it's another year on the bench for him.
Englemon: a security blanket in pa
On the surface, Michigan's safety play improved by leaps and bounds a year ago. When preferred starters Brandent Englemon and Willis Barringer were healthy, big plays charged to the safeties were limited to one blown Barringer coverage against Northwestern, light years different from '04's Shazor-Mundy comedy of errors. However, in retrospect that may have been a mirage. A review of the UFRs shows that Barringer usually ended up +1/-0/+1 or thereabouts, making one good play and cleaning up messes eight yards downfield. Englemon was better but still not anything like an impact player. Backups Jamar Adams and Harrison were usually +2/-4/-2 collectively, making the occasional nice play but also busting with frequency and giving up big chunks of yards. The working theory is that the defensive coaches freaked out after the disaster year and turned their safeties into timid players who start 20 yards off the ball and take two steps back on the snap. On those occasions when they found themselves in a position to make plays, they usually did, but pressed into more aggressive service there's a fair chance we'll see more plays like Harrison's gaffes or the Barringer bust.
Englemon and Adams are the projected starters going into the year, and that's the way I like it. Barringer has a ceiling that tops out at competent while Mundy's '04 inspired a new stat, Yards After Mundy, which racked up an impressive 72 yards in one game against NIU before the injury ended his year. Watching him come up in run support is a nerve-wracking experience. Englemon was utterly reliable, a player who was always where he was supposed to be. I'll take games filled with boredom from the last line of defense. Adams, on the other hand, was up-and-down. He's huge -- I often confuse him with Burgess -- and athletic, a player who was marked for stardom the moment he arrived on campus. He'll be the primary starter for the first time this year. Barringer and Mundy will rotate in at times. Mundy, who was temporarily a corner as a freshman, is good in coverage and should replace one safety or the other in nickel and dime packages.
Five Questions and Five Answers
Tim Jamison isn't going to get stuck behind Rondell Biggs, is he?
Somewhat. The coaches have been talking up Biggs quite a bit and he slides neatly into that great-guy/senior/hard-worker archetype Carr finds so very hard to bench. He has some clear advantages over Jamison in run support and might find himself on the field quite a bit versus Minnesota or Wisconsin.
But Jamison should be the starter. English's highest praise this offseason has been reserved for him, and he clearly has much more disruptive potential than anyone else competing for the spot. Normally you might regard the practice buzz with a good deal of skepticism -- remember Chris Graham last year? -- but Jamison has a number of impressive plays in actual games backing the coaches up.
If he's not the starter the canary in this particular coalmine has died, and all the stuff you're about to read about increased aggression goes out the window.
Is the run defense going to improve?
It should. Anyone who's read this blog for more than ten seconds knows my opinion on Pat Massey's performance last year. The only thing that held back a similar torrent of cranky discontent in regards to the outside linebacking was a clear lack of alternatives at the position. Shawn Crable was obviously worse and Johnny Thompson couldn't see the field against the spread looks Michigan faced after the Iowa game. Add in non-existent run support from a backed-off secondary and you have a potent recipe for run ineptness.
Swapping out Watson for the Will Johnson/Terrance Taylor combination should be a net wash. Watson missed large portions of the season either in the doghouse or just plain tired, and while he outperformed his two replacements they were both freshman who figure to improve greatly over the offseason. Replacing Massey with Alan Branch? Uh. Yeah... probably a good move. Replacing Branch with Biggs/Jamison is probably a net decline but it's dwarfed in magnitude by the Massey-Branch swap. Woodley will be about the same. The linebackers should be better with all four players of significance returning. "Better" does not necessarily mean "good," but for the first time in a decade Michigan has a dedicated linebackers coach. That should help as well. A more aggressive secondary should also help. All signs point to '05 as an unfortunate blip in the run D.
What about cornerbacks not named Leon Hall?
Torn. I thought Morgan Trent's performance as a redshirt freshman was a pretty good one and without an injury or obvious cause for regression, Stewart and Sears bolting past him on the depth chart would based on their improvement and therefore a good thing. But those quotes on Stewart's physicality and rumored lack of speed give me the heebie-jeebies. I suppose Hall will line up against the Wheelwrights and Ginns of the Big Ten, but teams with able second receivers might find the pickings easy opposite him.
I do like Harrison a lot in a particular role. The guy is wicked fast and his errors a year ago are easily explainable since he had never played safety before. Tasked with one-on-one coverage against a smallish-wide receiver I think he'll do very well. Slot guys don't bother me, it's more big, strong guys who live and die by the slant -- but maybe that's where Stewart's physicality comes in.
...and when you add it up you get?
Impossible to answer without making some assumptions. These are said assumptions:
- Herrmann was at least partially responsible for the defensive theory but not entirely. Lloyd Carr, a former defensive coordinator, often dictated passive strategy to Herrmann.
- Herrmann was largely responsible for the steadily declining play of the linebackers, the irritating focus on defensive linemen who hold up blockers, excessive complexity, and the clear lack of any esprit de corps on last year's D.
- Carr would prefer to not change, but English brief career as a Chicago Bear puts him in a position to demand it. He did not come back to watch games waste away on the vine.
Given these things, English's much-rumored preference for attacking, and the personnel available, I think the changes on defense are going to be obvious to all. The Michigan defensive line has three players who are their best when penetrating and only one traditional lane-clogger. Shawn Crable, Prescott Burgess, and Chris Graham are all speedy linebackers who struggle when forced to read and react. Leon Hall is the kind of corner you can leave on an island.
All this adds up to: attack. Normally this would be where the disclaimer about Michigan being set in its ways would go, but not this year. There are no old-school Michigan folks left other than Carr, who English has by the short hairs. Without the weight of history holding him back, English should take a look at his personnel and determine that they're best when forcing the offense to react, not the other way around.
This will lead to more big plays against. Whoever isn't Leon Hall is going to get picked on; missed tackles by the still-iffy linebackers will lead to bigger gains; deep passes will find themselves against single coverage more often. But Michigan is liable to punch people off the field after three downs, something they did exceedingly rarely last year.
There will be screwups, probably from the outside linebackers and whoever isn't Leon Hall at corner, that prevent this from being a truly great defense, but it will improve statistically. Moreover, its aggression may mask how much it really has improved. Witness the Iowa and Northwestern games last year: in regulation, Michigan gave up 420 yards and 17 points to both teams, b
ut Northwestern had five extra drives with which they did nothing. Michigan will feature a lot more short drives this year. Most will end with punts; a few will be three-play, 80 yard touchdown marches.
- The run defense improves radically.
- Chris Graham is replaced by Prescott Burgess a few games into the season.
- Woodley turns in a year essentially identical to his '05: very good but a tiny bit disappointing.
- Brandon Harrison sees an awful lot of time.
- Johnny Sears does not.
- Michigan finishes 23rd in total defense.
- Projected postseason grade: yeeeesh. Fully acknowledging that the above assumptions may be trashed by the second quarter of the ND game... B+.
Okay, nevermind. It lives. It'll be a little thinner and more infrequent, but it lives.
Fanhouse stuff: Once the Michigan section gets broken out on its own, RSS subscribers will be able to get a specific feed for that. As of now you'll have to make due. I'll try to keep you updated semi-regularly on the posts that are up:
- Exposition on the Carr-Crable transfer shootout.
- Trev Alberts ruins our season.
- When did Leon Hall become awesome?
Previews You'll Actually Read Most Of: Mark Hasty's Pickin' On The Big Ten tackles week one; I feel mixture of pride and shame when this passage makes perfect sense to me:
This marks the first time in the recent history of POTBT (what, there's ancient history of POTBT?â€“Ed.) that two teams whose names are also titles on John Linnell's 1999 album State Songs have met in a non-conference matchup. There, now don't you feel smarter?
(Yes. Also, revisit the lyrics to "Michigan":
Don't hold us back, don't hold us back
We must eat Michigan's brain
Now grow back, Michigan
We miss you again
The unmistakable handiwork of JoePa, I say! So does House Rock Built's JoePa shirt!)
SMQB gazes deep into the crystal ball and comes back with one certainty:
Michigan State will suffer a debilitating setback that will wreck its season.
Aaaand The OZone predicts Michigan to go 11-1 with its one loss coming against OSU, natch. I declare shenanigans: clearly this is a weird reverse-jinx.
Content! The Illini Report (yes, there is a blog that covers Illini football. Pray for them) asks a bunch of different people where the toughest place to play in the Big Ten is. Somebody says Michigan Stadium...
MICHIGAN-- just always seems like such a madhouse; being situated in one of the ultimate college towns doesn't hurt.
...but it's USC blogger Kyle Bunch so nevermind all that. The consensus appears to be Value City Stadium.
Meanwhile, Maize 'n' Brew re-mascots the Big Ten. Except for Minnesota, because obviously.
All video links are courtesy the indispensable IBFC.
It was, simply, The Year of Infinite Pain. No doubt the vast majority who read this remember it in every garment-rending detail from the first Garrett Wolfe scamper to the last colossal Tyler Ecker error. Games weren't just lost in quantities heretofore unknown east of Lansing, they were wrenched away by an angry God, an Old Testament God.
Let us count the plagues:
- Chad Henne fumbles on a quarterback sneak from the one yard line in a 17-10 loss to Notre Dame; on the previous, unreviewed play the entire top half of his body was in the endzone.
- Brian Calhoun of Wisconsin slices the Michigan defense to shreds on their last-gasp fourth quarter drive for the win.
- Facing third and ten from deep in their own half, Minnesota concedes overtime and hands off to Gary Russell, who blows past the Michigan defense en route to 61 yards and a game-winning Gopher field goal.
- Michigan blows a two-score lead against Ohio State after punting on fourth and four with a chance to salt the game away.
- A late turnover and constant buggering at the hands of incompetent Sun Belt refs are almost overcome by the most improbable play since Stanford-Cal, but Tyler Ecker plows into two defenders instead of pitching it to Steve Freakin' Breaston.
Yea, woe came upon them, and they looked unto Job and said "you think you've got problems? Our second leading tackler is a cornerback."
It would be easy to dismiss the above as plain bad luck if Michigan didn't scrape past the teams it did manage to beat. The Iowa and Michigan State games were won in overtime; Penn State was defeated at literally the last second. Even games against Northwestern and Northern Illinois were not cakewalks. Without huge, momentum swinging turnovers in both games they would likely have gone down to the wire. No, Michigan 2005 largely deserved the ugly record they collected with their play on the field. They could neither run nor stop the run. They could not pass. They elected to not block the punt gunners. Twenty-seven-yard game-winning field goals were to be missed by the fat little kicker. Opportunities to put the game away by converting on fourth down were eschewed in favor of fifteen yard punts. The defense was incapable of stopping opponents on first drives or last ones. Were it not for the magic of the wide receiver screen, Michigan may have set records for offensive futility. By the end of it, all Michigan fans had left was the basketball team's run to its first NCAA tournament since... what? They lost to Minnesota?
It was not a good year to, say, write a book called "A Season in the Big House: An Unscripted, Insider Look at the Marvel of Michigan Football". Other books in this series:
- "San Francisco is Faultess," copyright 1906
- "Britney Spears: Just Getting Started," copyright any time before she became a swamp monster
- "Return to Glory: Inside Tyrone Willingham's Amazing First Season at Notre Dame"
It was clear that changes needed to be made. Offensive coordinator Terry Malone -- who this blog has long argued was given a raw deal -- was the first to go, accepting a position as the tight ends coach of the Saints. It seemed that defensive coordinator Jim Herrmann was next, clearing the way for defensive backs coach Ron English to inject some life into a flaccid Michigan defense. When English apparently lost the power-struggle between sanity and continued six-deep zones by accepting a position as defensive backs coach of the Chicago Bears, depression turned to outright panic. Ann Arbor Torch & Pitchfork sold out of everything. A citizen brigade prepared to march on Schembechler hall. A nation waited with bated breath.
Tensions were defused when English before abruptly reversed course and returned to Michigan as defensive coordinator. Herrmann was replaced in his capacity as linebackers coach by longtime NFL assistant Steve Szabo. Former Wisconsin secondary coach Ron Lee was brought in to coach the cornerbacks. Shockingly, English is the dean of the defensive staff with only three years as a Wolverine. This is not be your father's Michigan defense. It may not be your four-year-old daughter's.
Relieved of the oppressive mustache, hope burgeons once again. Only six starters depart from last year's team, three of those substandard by any measure. The others have capable replacements lined up. In Herrmann's place is a dynamic young coach who seems ready to overthrow years of stodgy, dated theory and assume his place next to Charlie Weis, Charlie Weis, and Charlie Weis on the new Mount Rushmore of football. Mike Hart and Jake Long are fully healed.
So, yeah: there's a chance.
Unit By Unit
There's no sugarcoating Henne's sophomore year: it was bad. You can show me the numbers and make comparisons to John Navarre's pace and point out a nice touchdown-to-interception ratio, but I will tell you that I watched the games, all the games, three times and categorized every pass he threw a year ago and that you are wrong. The numbers lie. They lie in these ways:
- A large number of "passing" yards that aren't. For much of the year Michigan's main passing weapon was the wide receiver screen. Henne probably threw ten a game, most of which were completed to little shifty buggers like Breaston and Manningham. The yards gained on these plays were critical but demanded little from Henne aside from a short, catchable throw. These screens are not tenable in the long run -- Ohio State jumped almost every one -- and can't be used with as much frequency this year now that they've been extensively scouted.
- A failure to take strength of opponent into account. Last year was the year of terrible defense in the Big Ten. Michigan took advantage of precisely zero of these defenses and pissed away opportunities to win games against Notre Dame, Wisconsin, and Minnesota largely because Henne was incapable of hitting a receiver downfield.
Here's a game-by-game review of Henne's performance against pulse-bearing opponents snipped from the UFRs:
- ND: OMG HENNE SUX. [note that this is fictional-combative-question-guy, not me -ed]
He actually didn't in the first half until late where you see two instances of unnecessary rollouts because he's lost faith in his blitz pickups. In the second half ... Henne went on tilt. ... You've gone from 23/33 in the "good" category to 22/44 plus a couple sacks and the goal-line fumble. Some of that was due to pressure but the two huge, touchdown-stealing mistakes were totally unforced.
#1, #2, #3: Henne. Simply put, if he makes any one of six to eight relatively e
asy throws we probably win this game.
Michigan only went deep twice and neither throw was perfect, but one was a 45 yard touchdown and the other was placed so that Avant had a chance but no one else did. The 15 yard outs and little zone stops were all thrown accurately. There were a couple instances of miscommunication on option routes, but, man... 36 throws. One inaccurate. That's night and day.
Four of Henne's five inaccurate passes were thrown towards an open Avant in the endzone. Michigan scored on one of those drives, got a field goal on another, and crapped out on the other two. Two of the throws were relatively deep downfield (20-30 yards), the other two were a fade launched into the crowd and a badly overthrown slant.
If the guy who showed up against OSU had played all year, Michigan beats both UW and Minnesota with ease and probably beats Notre Dame, Jason Avant is a Belitnikoff finalist, and Joey isn't planning on hanging himself.
[In a fit of pique I did not UFR the Alamo Bowl, something which I regret now. I remember Henne being good and his numbers (21/43, 270, 3 TD/1 INT) support that but I feel naked trying to comment on a UFR-less game. -ed]
In total: five bad performances (NW, Wisconsin, ND, Minnesota, Penn State), one okay one (Iowa), one good one (MSU), and one completely inexplicable masterpiece (OSU). That is not the profile of a great quarterback or even an average one.
Henne is granted a stay of execution as the mitigating factors flew fast and furious. He was often under duress as Matt Lentz, Leo Henige, and Rueben Riley played revolving door at various times during the year. When opponents blitzed, freshman Kevin Grady often blew pickups that Mike Hart would likely have made. When Henne managed to hit receivers downfield, particularly Breaston, they were unable to catch the ball. Hart's absence and the impotent run game that it caused also put him in a large number of obvious passing downs (like, say, first and ten versus OSU) during which the defense could exploit the shaky offensive line. Henne's '05 environment was not a good place to do anything but fail. This, by in large, he did.
But if John Stocco teaches us anything, it's that quarterbacks are not static year-to-year. The great fear of Michigan fans going into last year -- that a cocky Henne spent the summer of '05 offseason drinking and playing Tecmo Bowl -- is now our great hope. Newly chastened and studious, we envision Henne playing like the Henne of our dreams: the one who was nigh-perfect against Ohio State. The one who barked at Carr until he went for a fourth and inches on his side of midfield. The one who beat OSU until Herrmann herrmanned it away.
There's no way to tell if we'll get that Henne or the Mr. Hyde who rifled the Wisconsin game into the stands. If history is any indication he will improve, especially if the new guards deign to block opponents and Hart remains healthy. On this five-point ranking scale he could end up anywhere from a 2 to a 5 and anyone who tries to tell you exactly where he'll fall is guessing.
|Mike Hart||Jr.||Obi Oluigbo||Sr.*|
|Kevin Grady||So.||Will Paul||Jr.*|
|Carlos Brown||Fr.||Brian Thompson||Sr.*|
|Jerome Jackson||Sr.*||Andre Criswell||Fr.*|
Mike Hart's maddening 2005 season was largely spent on the cusp of the game (in pads, on the sideline, waiting) instead of greatness. A series of ankle and hamstring injuries sidelined the magic midget for most of the season and hampered him when he did play. When he was healthy, he showed the talent that had Michigan fans salivating after his freshman year. He passed 100 yards in every game he completed, including 148 via air and land against Penn State's imposing defense. What struggles he had were due more to the historically inept run blocking than any particular deficiency on his part, though he did conclusively prove that he doesn't have breakaway speed on two runs versus MSU. He also proved that his vision, cutting, drive, and leadership are indispensable to the Michigan offense. Hart can do this:
There you go: vision, change of direction, and an ability to drag more weight than a pickup truck. Hart is also an able receiver out of the backfield and capable pass blocker. I am incapable of being remotely unbiased about him, but in my opinion he's one of the best running backs in the country.
Backup Kevin Grady played like a freshman last year, harsh reality for Michigan fans suddenly used to short guys rolling off the street and dominating the league. He showed the occasional burst of power (there was a memorable HULK SMASH touchdown against Indiana, though you extrapolate from Hoosier games at your peril) but the difference between Hart and Grady was stark. Used to slower high school defenders, Grady would often make cuts that turned eight yard gains into two. He didn't show much of his much-hyped power and was limited to a few simple plays, foremost among them the toss sweep. Having seen one erroneous cut too many, midway through the Iowa game Carr lifted him in favor of little-used junior Jerome Jackson. Grady returns for his sophomore year fifteen pounds lighter, vowing to improve his performance. Once he gets adapted to the college game he probably will, but two hard-charging freshmen will put his backup job under threat this year.
One of those incoming freshman, Carlos Brown, was a shock commitment from Georgia -- he had already publicly eliminated Michigan when he committed -- who inherited Antonio Bass' role as the Totally Surprising QB Draw Guy when Bass' knee exploded just before spring practice. A high school quarterback, Brown will have to learn blitz pickups and receiving from scratch. He's not likely to see much time early but he is without question the fastest Michigan tailback and can fill a role resting Hart or running a Totally Surprising QB Draw here and there. The other new face is Brandon Minor, who was less hyped by the gurus but more hyped by coaches and players who have seen him grind forward like a spastic glacier all of fall camp. Carr guarantees he'll play, so he must be talented.
Also seeing the occasional snap will be Mister Simpson and Jackson.
Wide Receivers & Tight Ends
|Mario Manningham||So.||Steve Breaston||Sr.*||Tyler Ecker||Sr.*|
|Adrian Arrington||So.*||LaTerryal Savoy||Fr.*||Mike Massey||So.*|
|Doug Dutch||So.*||Carl Tabb||Sr.*||Carson Butler||Fr.*|
|Alijah Bradley||Sr.*||Greg Mathews||Fr.||Quintin Woods||Fr.|
Steve Breaston did not live up to the hype offered here and elsewhere, suffering through a series of nagging injuries it seems he may never shake and dropping the long passes that found his way to, and then through, his hands. He did have his moments -- Michigan's first kickoff return for a touchdown since the paleolithic era against Minnesota and a 52-yard slip-screen touchdown against Iowa -- but his season totals were paltry: 36 offensive touches for under 400 yards. At this point Breaston's near-constant nagging leg, arm, torso, head, and aura injuries seem unlikely to ever recede to the point where he can replicate his form as a redshirt freshman which got the hype train rolling in the first place. Michigan might be better off with Breaston as a starter in name only, deploying him as a slot receiver against overmatched nickel backs and linebackers. He will no doubt turn in several !!! plays this year, but they'll be too infrequent to erase the "what if?" looming over the end of his career here.
Sophomore Mario Manningham had the best season by a Michigan freshman receiver since some guy named AC. You may remember him from such highlights as "Yet Another Touchdown Versus Jaren Hayes," "Justin King Should Have Come To Michigan," and "The Only Good Thing About Last Season." You may not remember that Manningham spent a large portion of the year on the bench, confused. Even though Michigan was breaking him in easy, the confusion often leaked on to the field. His touchdown against Notre Dame would not have happened had Erik Campbell not screamed at him to tighten up his split pre-snap. A critical Chad Henne interception against Iowa came when Manningham failed to break off his route. And yet when the year was over he had a nickname and the attention of Big Ten fans across the Midwest. Assuming that Manningham has the playbook down, fireworks pend. With a full year of experience and a first collegiate offseason, a non-confused version of Super Mario will actually play most of the time, establishing himself as Henne's go-to guy and emerging as Michigan's dreaded receiver du jour after a one-year hiatus.
The depth is unproven but potential-laden. Adrian Arrington, LaTerryal Savoy, and Greg Mathews will all vie to replace Avant's steady over-the-middle production. Arrington looks to have the inside track: he was chosen to receive frustrating, redshirt-burning time as a freshman in order to prepare him to contribute sooner and generated a ton of practice buzz last summer before severely injuring his ankle in the fall and missing last year entirely. As a prep he was highly touted, featuring on both Scout and Rivals' top 100 lists despite playing in buzz-free Iowa. Carr has repeatedly mentioned him third after Breaston and Manningham when questioned about wide receivers. Savoy and Matthews are bulkier types who compare best to Avant since they're both supposed to have less than ideal speed. In fact, Savoy was labeled "Avant 2.0" by this very site a long, long time ago; Mathews was tagged "Marquise Walker". Savoy was a three-star type out of Louisiana who excelled on both sides of the ball. He caught a touchdown in the spring "game". Mathews' profile increased throughout the year until he found himself on the tail end of the Rivals 100 despite having an implausibly ugly 4.79 listed as his 40 time.
Doug Dutch and Carl Tabb are smaller receivers who figure to be on the outside looking in this year. That's unfortunate for Tabb, who's done yeoman work as the safety on kick returns for three years and has performed acceptably when called upon. This is his last year and despite his speed he looks destined to be the Jermaine Gonzales of 2006. Dutch still has a couple of cracks after this year, but to contribute he's going to have to learn how to catch. Also slumming it down here is fifth-year walk-on Alijah Bradley, whose counter draw for nine yards against OSU was Michigan's longest run of that game. The coaches have been talking Bradley up for some time and flipped him out to flanker in an effort to get him on the field. He'll probably f
ind himself on the end of a few screens this year.
Antonio Bass has an exploded knee and will redshirt.
Tight end Tyler Ecker was most notable for a clutch catch in the 2003 Ohio State game before last year, when two one-score games died with the ball in Ecker's hands after he had done something stupid. His error against Ohio State was annoying but probably moot, as Michigan would have had something like twelve seconds to drive seventy yards, but against Nebraska Michigan was one pitch away from a play that would live in college football history -- Ecker had Steve Freakin' Breaston cruising two yards behind him -- when he decided that getting tackled at the twenty was a better idea. As a result Michigan fans are a little peeved at the senior despite his play, which has been above average for a long time now. Ecker is a big target with soft hands and the speed to hit the seam against most teams. He's not a crushing, Spaethian blocker but is a reliable midrange option who wouldn't be a bad replacement for a good hunk of Avant's catches.
Backing up Ecker will be redshirt sophomore Mike Massey, much-maligned Pat's brother, and redshirt freshman Carson Butler. Massey saw some time last year when Tim Massaquoi broke his hand, displaying good hands but questionable blocking skills. Butler is a sleeper recruit in the true sense of the word. In high school he focused on basketball until his senior year, when he terrorized Detroit Public School league cornerbacks as a hilariously oversized wide receiver. After a year of honing, Michigan thinks they've found a future star. Butler is supposed to be Braylon at tight end, a man who cannot be covered by man nor beast. He has promise but is still raw even after a redshirt year. Expect him to tantalize on erratic snaps much like Tim Jamison did a year ago.
|Jake Long||Jr.*||Adam Kraus||Jr.*||Mark Bihl||Sr.*||Alex Mitchell||So.*||Rueben Riley||Sr.*|
|Mark Ortmann||Fr.*||Jeremy Ciulla||So.*||Justin Boren||Fr.||Justin Schifano||Fr.*||Cory Zirbel||Fr.*|
|Tim MacAvoy||Fr.*||Dave Moosman||Fr||Grant DeBenedictis||Fr.*||Brett Gallimore||So.*||Steve Schilling||Fr.|
(note: every Michigan lineman since the beginning of time has redshirted. Just assume "redshirt" in front of all years unless "true" is specifically appended.)
There is an exceptional amount of panicking going on about a Michigan line that will probably play four upperclassmen with starting experience, and with good reason. Jake Long and Adam Kraus have switched positions. Mark Bihl has been given the opportunity to start at center the past two years but was yanked both times. Rueben Riley did a terrifying impression of Courtney Morgan when forced to play right tackle last year. The frightening condition that held Mike Kolodziej out most of last year has apparently relapsed and ended his career.
Great things were expected of left tackle Jake Long, then on the right side of the line, going into his sophomore season after a standout freshman campaign, but when Gabe Watson falls on your ankle it tends to put a damper on your season. Long was thought to be out for the year but rehabbed like a madman, returning for the Iowa game. He performed adequately but not thrillingly the remainder of the year, still affected by the gimpy ankle. This year he switches to Henne's blindside. Fully healthy, he should be the line's best player and an All Big Ten performer.
Junior Adam Kraus was the lone bright spot in the interior of last year's line. Once Mark Bihl proved unable to lock down the center position, Kraus came off the bench and performed admirably for a first-year starter, showing good mobility in Michigan's screen game and competent blocking elsewhere. Practice buzz holds that Kraus has taken a notable step forward from last year's competency; he should be a major upgrade over the game but nigh-crippled Leo Henige.
Senior Mark Bihl is going to begin the year as Michigan's starting center, but the last two years he's lost his role during the first couple games of the season. Confidence is not running at an all time high. Though true freshman Justin Boren is listed second on the above depth chart, if Bihl is found wanting Michigan will move Adam Kraus over to center and someone -- probably sophomore Jeremy Cuilla -- will draw in at guard.
Alex Mitchell is the least experienced member of the line. A redshirt sophomore, he saw sporadic time last year in blowouts and when the injuries on the line were at their deepest, but not enough to draw any conclusions about his play. Last year he was the subject of a fair amount of practice buzz as clearly the top player in his line class. In spring, however, he struggled to keep his weight down. Despite that he's drawn praise from the coaches, who insist he's earned his starting role.
Rueben Riley will be the focal point of concern for most Michigan fans after an up and down 2004. Once Long and Kolodziej went down Riley, then at guard, was thrust into the spotlight at right tackle despite having acquired two broken thumbs in mysterious circumstances. (Seriously: how does one break both thumbs? And how in the hell did Michigan end up starting not one but two players, Chris Graham being the other, with a pair of broken thumbs? What are the odds?) He struggled, allowing an EMU defensive end with a defiantly French-Canadian last name to crush the quarterback several times during Michigan's walkover of the Eagles and getting dominated by Minnesota freshman Steve Davis. Phasers were set on "panic" when Tamba Hali rolled into town, but Riley did all right against him. Not great, but all right. Riley was sent to the bench when Riley returned.
Past the starters there is a vast sea of inexperience. For the first time in recent history, Michigan is preparing to play two true freshmen on the offensive line. Both C/G Justin Boren and RT Steve Schilling have been mentioned by Carr as definite contributors. To me that sends a clear signal: they have more potential than anyone else on the line and are being groomed for '07. If they play extensively this year Michigan is going to be in trouble -- particularly if it's Schilling, who never pass-blocked in high school.
If Michigan is forced to make a switch this year Mark Ortmann and Jeremy Ciulla will probably be the first options off the bench at tackle and guard, respectively.
How good will this line be? The "3" above is fairly tenuous. Long and Kraus appear to be a solid duo on the left, but Bihl-Mitchell-Riley is scary. Riley has been practicing at tackle for a while now, has more experience and (presumably) two healthy thumbs and thus is unlikely to be a liability Michigan has to structure its offense around mitigating, but he is a guard playing out of position. That will be fine in the run game -- Riley is an excellent drive blocker -- but expect to see at least a few drives end when opposing speed rushers rip around Riley and implant their helmets into Henne's chest. People around the program are making all the right noises about Mitchell, but as a sophomore and first year starter it could be rough for him at the beginning. I'll believe Bih
l can stick as a starter when I see it.
Five Questions and Five Answers
Which Henne is it, then?
Not the guy from the Wisconsin game but unfortunately not the guy from the OSU game, either. Henne's accuracy will trouble me until he proves me drastically wrong. He made a lot of mental errors a year ago; those should gradually subside as he becomes more and more experienced. The tendency to hurl the ball to Tacopants, Jason Avant's imaginary 11-foot tall friend, will not be resolved with the simple passage of time. Henne's accuracy waxed and waned last season -- a debacle like the UW game stands in marked contrast to the MSU or OSU games. What that says to me is that Loeffler spent last season trying to adjust Henne's mechanics on a regular basis. The adjustment would stick for a while, but when Henne was pressured or busy trying to find a receiver his bad habits would re-emerge.
If Loeffler can hammer correct mechanics into his head over the offseason -- if that OSU game was an indicator of the future -- the sky's the limit. But in my opinion, Henne will be slightly more accurate, slightly more intelligent, and slightly disappointing. It'll look like he's doing much better because the rest of the offense should improve and we'll get a ton of articles ripping on Michigan fans that speciously cite last year's stats, but in reality his improvement will be more incremental than revolutionary.
How will the offensive line hold up?
Okay? Riley at tackle is only a concern in the passing game, really. As a run-blocking unit Michigan should improve drastically with Long around and the Lentz-Henige duo gone. Bihl is iffy, but my coachspeak spidey-sense (admittedly largely baseless) says Mitchell will be capable. Hart and a more experienced Grady should be better in blitz pickups.
Michigan has a clear weakness -- Riley's pass blocking -- and a couple question marks that make it improbable that Michigan has a great line, but a line as deficient as last year's is equally improbable.
How much will the offense change?
The hot rumor around the Internets is that Michigan will be incorporating a lot of zone blocking into their running game. For those unfamiliar with the idea, think Iowa when they featured Fred Russel. I find this terribly exciting:
- Mike Hart is the perfect back for it. His outstanding vision and I-scoff-at-your-dimes cutting ability seem custom-molded to slash upfield at the tiniest hole.
- The dreaded fullback shuffle is gone, and with it goes most of Michigan's predictability. You can't anticipate where the hole is going to be when there is no designated hole.
- And hell the fullback may just be plain gone anyway. Minus Dudley, last year's fullback spot was manned by a motley crew of confused squat guys more likely to whiff entirely than crush a linebacker into a white-hot furrow of snapped limbs and smoke. Those guys return to the delight of few; each play they get is one less for someone like Arrington, Breaston, or new hotness Carson Butler. If Iowa's zone game is any indication fullbacks could be few and far between, opening up more time for second tight ends and third wideouts.
The gotcha is the offensive line, all of whom have been schooled in traditional man-blocking for the past three or four years. One offseason to drop weight and pick up an entirely different scheme is one or two too few for true comfort. Still, my favorite running play for Hart to run is the draw -- which Michigan deployed to shocking effect against PSU -- as it allows holes to open up and Hart to find them, and a running game that emphasizes all of Hart's positives but doesn't fall prey to steadily diminishing returns if overused is a hell of an idea.
Of course, Michigan fans have heard about shocking changes every preseason since 1998 and have seen very little on the field. Is this legit? On the one hand, there's a ton of message-board smoke and circumstantial evidence (in the form of newly svelte offensive linemen); on the other, the coaches have been strenuously disavowing the major changes which Michigan has been historically loathe to make. Also, Mike Hart and Lloyd Carr are talking up senior fullback Obi Oluigbo.
Survey says... a little bit country, a little bit rock and roll. One thing Michigan coaches will not stand is a ninth place running game and they're more likely to make the changes required to fix that deficiency than one anywhere else on the team. The fullback will feature, though, and he may even shuffle some. Sorry.
How much can we expect from Breaston?
It depends entirely on his health. I still BELIEVE(!) in his ability. You'd have to be blind not to, but anyone who BELIEVES(!) in his ability to not have six nagging injuries by week two is also a little bit fuzzy. If healthy he'll return kicks and be tackled by unblocked gunners on punts, catch a bunch of passes and screens which he turns into five or six more yards than he has any right to, and enjoy a couple of long reverses. But the bulk of Avant's catches will be distributed to Ecker, Manningham, and Arrington, IMO, and Breaston will remain a complementary weapon.
And adding it all up, you get...?
Last year's Michigan offense was the Michigan team writ small. They were slightly below average in everything and had a tendency to kill drives collectively. An offensive lineman would whiff a block. Henne would throw an inaccurate pass. A wide receiver would drop the conversion attempt on third and long, or catch it five yards short of the first down line. Presto, Ross Ryan. A drive was the equivalent of playing ten really close games with no margin for error: you were bound to screw up sooner or later and then it was over.
The good news is that the only position group that could possibly be worse is the wide receivers, but even there Jason Avant is replaceable in a way that Braylon Edwards wasn't. With everyone else returning and a potentially healthy Breaston, even the WRs figure to improve. The offensive line may not shine but it figures to move towards the median.
So even though the only position group that will be drastically improved is the running backs, if everyone is a little better the offense as a whole could be way better than last year, though you should take into account my opinion that last year's offense was way worse than the general populace does. This year's preview will not feature bold predictions of a top-10 finish or fate-tempting assertions that Michigan is nigh-invulnerable to injury. A year of being completely and utterly wrong tends to mellow one's prognosticory zeal. But...
Even if the changes in the running game are more subtle than drastic Michigan should improve significantly from their 9th place performance in conference. Reasons one through around 300 are Mike Hart. Past that there is the departure of the two guards and a projected improvement from virtually anyone, the return of a fully healthy Jake Long, a year of experience for the fullbacks, and an offseason of freaking out by Carr and company. The loss of Jason Avant's superb downfield blocking and the replacement of Tim Massaquoi with one of two probably-dodgy blockers at the second tight end spot will serve as minor drags.
The passing game will also be better. Henne will be under less pressure, more intelligent, and more accurate. Manningham will get ridiculous at people. It still won't be great.
- Manningham is the leading receiver. Arrington, Breaston, and Ecker are in a dead heat for second.
- Breaston has three return touchdowns.
- I Heart H
art t-shirts are hot sellers by the ND game.
- Bihl is replaced early on; Boren moves into the starting lineup by the end of the season.
- Michigan is 26th in total offense.
- Michigan fans huddle in January, hash it out, and decide to give the unit a B+ grade when all is said and done.
Part II: the defense, beckons.
Jeremy Luchau, one of the moderators at CVHSPreps.com, was kind enough to answer a few questions on new Michigan commitment Avery Horn:
What are his particular strengths and weaknesses?
Avery is a quick (4.4, 4.5 range) and is pretty strong, too. Great breakaway
type back and has the ability to run defenders over. Not really shifty and
not a slashing type back. He has the speed for it, but prefers the straight
ahead style. I once saw him on a KOR break tackles up the sideline, speed by
the rest of the coverage and turn and back pedal the last 20-30 yards or so.
It was pretty amazing.
Are there any D-I or NFL backs that you can compare his running style
I would say he fits into the Denver RB mold, much like [Terrell] Davis.
Is there some potential for him to play defensive backfield or return
He hasn't played much defense in high school. But he is a threat on KOR, the
best that I've seen. I want to say he returned four for a TD last year and
two or three from his soph season.
Thanks again to Jeremy and CVHSPreps.com.
"Worst State Ever" comes in a few additional flavors. There's a blue and white shirt for PSU fans, a maize shirt for those wishing to fit in with the Maize Out, and a special edition for those who really wish to flash their Internet bonafides:
Women's shirts were requested, but the only color available even close to yellow is something called "banana". Close enough? If there's interest I'll whip some up.
Also: today is the last day of the 15% Summer Sale. Just enter "SUMMERSALE06" in the coupon code area when you check out.