Mason NEEDS this, Pistons, after all you've put him through
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.
So it seems I've been hired by AOL to be the Big Ten's lead blogger for what will no doubt be the best website in the entire universe: The Fanhouse. This will necessitate some changes around these parts, but fear not. MGoBlog will soldier on. Worried? The Fanhouse is looking for short, digestible posts from 100-400 words. Does that describe anything on this blog? Not really. Unless they get a table fetish or a strange desire for 3,000 words on Purdue's season, all the stuff you love to skim over and largely ignore is staying right here, baby.
Making the move to AOL:
- Portions of Unverified Voracity. The links therein will be posted individually, as the AOL blog is going to be an uberblog you can filter by tags, so posting something about an injury to a Wisconsin player should be filed under "Wisconsin" instead of "Wisconsin / Angry Ravings Against ESPN / Stat Wonkery." Those bits of UV that aren't directly relevant to the AOL blog will appear here, also individually. I'll miss the name but look forward to posting stuff in more timely fashion.
- Any pressing news like injuries or commitments. Longer Googlestalking commit posts will appear here first.
- Fun YouTube stuff. The AOL blog is encouraging multimedia.
Staying are most things that are horrendously long, not directly relevant, or esoteric:
- Further excursions into stat-wonkery.
- The 3,000 word team previews.
- Basketball & hockey coverage.
- Calls for the head of Stephen A. Smith and his ilk.
Also, this marks a transition point. Selling out is going to occur. A few months ago my job and I agreed to not have each other any more, partially due to the fact that instead of doing "things" I was "supposed to be doing" I was "posting on my blog." In the subsequent months I've come to two conclusions:
- I like blogging.
- I don't like engineering.
So we're going to try this for funding. Some of it will come from AOL. The rest I hope can be provided by merchandising (buy a shirt!), affiliate program-ing, generous readers, and unobtrusive text link ads on the sidebar. I won't be adding any flashing invitations to punch the monkey, literally or metaphorically. If it works, it works and I'm terribly happy. If it doesn't I'll cut my hair and become an accountant or something. We'll give it a year or so and then evaluate it.
Practical Applications for You, The Reader: The NCAA Fanhouse is still a week or two away from launching and is in a weird limbo state where I can and should post to it but there's no Wolverine-specific area. There is a me-specific area that you can bookmark/subscribe to, though in the future it might contain the odd post on other teams that I'm picking up the slack on. This you might possibly survive.
My first post @ the Fanhouse is on the terribly interesting depth chart released today.
California running back Avery Horn committed over the weekend, choosing Michigan over a wide array of mid-level Pac-10 teams:
Hanford, Calif., Hanford High School running back Avery Horn had early offers from Fresno State and Nebraska, and with his latest offer from Washington now stands at seven. In between, Michigan, Oregon, Oregon State and Washington State all threw their respective hats into the ring.
Scout and Rivals both have him as a middle-of-the-road three star recruit. ESPN gives him a 78, though their scouting report($) on him is amazingly positive for a recruit they essentially said "meh" about:
He runs much bigger than his size would lead you to believe. Shows an aggressive style and runs with authority. Hits the hole with great burst and is capable of sneaking through tiny creases. Has good lower-body strength, hits the hole quickly and is a surprising between-the-tackles runner who excels at picking up yards after contact. Runs with good balance, flashes a powerful stiff arm and bounces off arm tackles.
It continues like this for a while longer before some minor concerns about size (he's 5'10", 180-ish) and cut fluidity are expressed. Maybe I'm wrong on the "meh," since on second thought 79s are at the tail end of the ESPN 150. I guess a 78 translates to a mid-four star ranking on Scout or Rivals.
Scout has a couple of quotes:
"He's got burst speed. He can really accelerate. He's a track man and ran a 10.5 (100m) twice last week."
That's his coach. Further:
Avery had a great season last year. He scored 24 touchdowns coming on rushing, punt returns and kick returns. Most of them are long runs and he is really jogging in the last 10 yards. He just has so much acceleration. He had 1,800+ yards rushing last year."
"He had one kick return last year that was over his head, caught it about an inch off of the goal line, and ran it back. That was a 99+ yard run back. That was a school record."
Central Valley messageboard CVHSPreps.com has slightly less outlandish numbers:
Horn rushing = 168-1345 (8.0) 19 touchdowns
Horn receiving = 7-157 (22.4) 1 touchdown
Horn passing = 0-2-0-0
Horn KOR = Four touchdowns
He started slow and didn't have a 100-yard game until the league opener against Redwood where he ran for 209 yards on 21 carries and scored three touchdowns including a 75 KOR. His other big game was at Lemoore when he tallied 202 yards on 24 carries.
Another poster echoes the speed theme from earlier:
Horn is similar in that he has something you cant teach... SPEED! Avery can flat fly and is one of the fastest in the state, which is what has improved his stock. The football camps and track meets in the off season have helped him more than his rushing stats. I would say right now he is being recruited as an athlete, because of his 100 times. Again, size and speed are the two things you cant teach, and with speed like Horn has, he could play several positions besides RB at the D1 level.
And, finally, a probably-irrelevant-but-fun story:
I wouldn't consider this guy the biggest hitter this year because he didn't really have the opportunity to hit that many people...but he laid down probably the biggest hit I saw this year....Avery Horn got to see some action at safety against Lemoore and absolutely blasted Lemoore's TE. The kids helmet busted off his head...a few pads inside ended up on the field...and the kid was bleeding from his face...don't remember him returning....last I saw he was sitting on the bench with a towel over his head....remember that one J??? He also had his fair share of punishing hits on tacklers when he was running the ball...the kid is built
Editorial Opinion: Horn's commitment might be disappointing for those holding out hope for Robert Hughes or John Clay, but neither of those players is likely to end up at Michigan and in Clay's case it's debateable how heavily Michigan pursued him in the first place. Those disheartened by the lack of a fourth star next to Horn's name on various recruiting websites should take heart in his relatively early offer -- he's had one for at least a couple months -- and decent offer list. Also, the main question about his future has to do more with his size than anything else, and all of a sudden I want Michigan running backs to be slightly larger than protons. Hmmm... wonder why?
Still, it's a comedown from the projected 1-2 OMG shirtless punch of Clay and Hughes when this recruiting year was fresh and therefore destined to be Teh Best Evah. Michigan might take one more wide reciever, but other than that is done with offensive skill position talent and has one guy who is unquestionably the man (Ryan Mallet). Maybe Hemingway if you believe ESPN over Scout and Rivals. That's a little disappointing. It does help that there's good reason to believe players like Helmuth, Webb, and Horn are underrated because they're small or under the radar or fullbacks. Won't somebody think of the fullbacks?
Probably an short-lived feature as the words "Lloyd Carr" and "hotseat" become inextricably intertwined over the next few weeks. First, Terry Hutchens of the Indianapolis Star:
1. Lloyd Carr, Michigan: Three or more losses in a season is unacceptable at Michigan, and that has happened to Carr in seven of the past eight seasons. Last year's 7-5 record, and a 1-4 career mark against Ohio State's Jim Tressel put Carr firmly on this list.
Exactly how unacceptable can three losses be if Carr is still around?
And this is just a bunch of Iowa students and thus shouldn't be taken particularly seriously:
A national title and five Big Ten championships would put a college football coach up for sainthood on most campuses.
In Ann Arbor, fans yawn at those accomplishments and scream for more.
After 12 seasons at the helm, Lloyd Carr's seat as head coach is hotter than a race track after Ricky Bobby shakes and bakes on it.
I always suspected that sports journalists had a requirement along the lines of "Lame Pop Culture References 101." Now we have proof.
Kolodziej weird-condition-type thing is AOK? Apparently:
"They were just checking up, everything's good," he said. "It wasn't much of a situation. I'm good to go."
Whether or not he'll play is a murkier issue, given Carr's previous statements on the offensive line that claim Alex Mitchell has worked his way into the starting lineup. If Bihl fails to impress once again, Michigan now has the option of sliding Riley back inside to guard and Kolo could draw in at RT, but he probably isn't going to be the first option at season's start.
Justin Boren's injury is progressing well and he should be ready to play in a week or two. This is relevant, since Carr said he'll play on the season preview edition of Michigan Replay. (Also mentioned as freshman contributors: WR Greg Mathews, RBs Carlos Brown and Brandon Minor (grumble grumble), DE Brandon Graham, and S Steve Brown.)
DE/OLB Chris McLaurin, a redshirt freshman, has moved to tight end after shoulder surgery:
Redshirt freshman Chris McLaurin, who underwent shoulder surgeries last spring, has moved from linebacker to tight end. He said coaches felt tight end would be better for his shoulders and knew he had played the position at Orchard Lake St. Mary's.
That's either a weak excuse or an ill omen for McLaurin's future.
(Note that this is the Free Press's Mark Snyder again breaking news.)
Pat Forde does not read MGoBlog. Lloyd Carr features in a really long article with this as its premise:
Used to be, a national title was the ultimate employment security blanket -- a veritable lifetime contract extension. These days, it might not even buy you a decade.
Despite backing this claim up with no data, he raises the stakes later, implying that it's do-or-die for the four coaches (Carr, Larry Coker, Phil Fulmer, and UK basketball coach Tubby Smith):
Now the wait is over, and prove-it time has arrived for the four embattled champions.
Too bad Forde didn't see this article, which features direct quotes from Bill Martin and Bo that directly contradict his thesis:
"Anybody that wants to get rid of him has to get rid of me first," Martin said. "He's not on the hot seat with me." That could be arranged at a lot of locales. But getting rid of Carr and Martin would mean taking on Bo Schembechler -- and that still seems like a scary proposition, even in Bo's near-dotage.
"There isn't one [critic] out there with guts enough to come up to me and say we need to change coaches," said Schembechler, who hired Carr decades ago. "I know there's some of that talk out there, but they don't tell me.
"The guy is quite a guy, so I don't mind standing in front of him. I'm not going to let those people do that to him, and I still do have some influence with some people up here. So he'll quit when he wants to."
Wait a minute... that's the same article. Pat Forde doesn't even read Pat Forde!
Elsewhere in Irritating-Carr-Hotseat stories, Dennis Dodd plays stopped clock by, oh, I dunno, listening to what the athletic department says and declaring Carr's job safe. Es miraculoso!
Seriously maladjusted recruitniks should start monitoring Jim__S's new blog; if that doesn't include you worry not. I've got it covered.
Someone today is going to be MGoBlog's millionth hit unless a statistical improbability strikes. I cannot be there in person for said millionth hit because I am attending a wedding (fear not, ladies, it is not that of MGoBlog; shrine destruction is not advised). To that person: congratulations! Thanks.
To all other visitors: plain old thanks. The reason words keep appearing in this space is because people continue reading them. I've never subscribed to the rock-band "f the consumers" approach: the reason I do this is because people seem to like it. Everyone who has stopped by and decided it was worth returning: thanks. Those who have left comments or sent emails: double thanks. For those fans of opposing teams who have weathered snarky, unfavorable projections in stride: triple thanks. This enterprise has been more rewarding than I could have ever guessed.
Changes are a comin' to this space but they're made in the hope that this thing can become something of a profession. Perhaps this is a foolish goal but damn if it doesn't sound romantic, at least to me. We -- and I do mean "we" -- are going to give this a go. As anyone who saw "Michigan" placed in the tossup category of the OSU preview knows, I'm something of a romantic and I hope that this is but the beginning.
Second star to the right and straight on 'till morning. Go Blue.
Now starting at WR for Wisconsin: not Marcus Randel-El. He's injured and out for the season. Also hitting the injury trail is projected NU starting QB CJ Bacher. Mike Kafka has been named starter for the opener.
(via Maize N Brew)
Mysterious hand signs can be found at The Realests. Braylon Edwards and Mike Hart are both seen flashing this mysterious symbol:
(If Braylon isn't wearing a pink shirt he wears NO SHIRT.)
What does it mean? I don't know. If it was four fingers then one, they'd obviously be flashing Zoltan Mesko's jersey number. But four plus two? It is the mystery.
blah blah blah hate Ohio State blah blah would like to see campus ejected into space blah blah can't possibly be worth reading due to extreme bias etc
Imagine a different world: Franklin County terrorists steal a nuke-u-lar weapon and threaten to deploy it unless Ohio State is permitted a rematch with Texas for possession of that purty glass football. You find yourself held hostage by these same terrorists (full of vim and vigor, these guys); they hold a gun to your head and say they will pull the trigger unless you correctly prognosticate the winner of the game. Who do you pick? Isn't this a hard question? (Leaving aside the fact they're liable to shoot you if you say "Texas.")
So 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? Okay then. I have a hunch that assumptions were made: the secondary will reload. The pass rush will continue. The linebackers will be equally fierce. Ted Ginn can be a primary threat as a receiver.
But I digress. If the media was replaced with a parallel-universe version of itself that senselessly overrated the defensive side of the ball and placed great emphasis on special teams and place OSU 15th or something this intro section would be all "but wait: Marcus Freeman, a mess of five defensive ends from which someone good will emerge, and a longstanding tradition of excellence on D." The Buckeyes have many alluring qualities that nearly offset that walkon-at-corner thing.
But not quite.
Last Year: Very good with the standard caveat about awful Big Ten defenses. Troy Smith threw, Antonio Pittman ran, and various persons caught.
Troy Smith can run past bad defense.
Troy "Virginia Slims" Smith has come a long way, baby. Entering the 2005 season he was one supernova against Michigan away from being Bellisari II. After it Maurice Clarett's then-outlandish claim that Smith was "the next Michael Vick" stands out as the one thing in Clarett's life impossible to mock.
But we're gonna try anyway. Smith had an odd set of opponents last year that were much like Asian women: they were either very, very good or very, very bad and there was no middle ground whatsoever. (Okay, that's not entirely true. Both Michigan and a girl in DC named Kelly are exceptions.) Against the bad defenses, Smith killed. Against the good ones he was killed. So what, exactly, does it mean? Smith did what almost any quarterback would have done against all those defenses. What we can extrapolate: when given time and space Smith is an accurate passer. He's got great mobility and uses it to scramble for both yards and time. When he was confronted by defenses with good, aggressive secondaries, however, he struggles. Against Texas and Penn State he was a nonfactor, averaging only 109 yards passing per game. The only other half-legitimate defense they played was Michigan, who Smith smashed for 300 yards on 27-37 passing. One thing the Wolverine secondary was not was "aggressive," though.
There is some potential for disappointment here, but even if Smith is not the quarterback his '05 numbers imply he might be this year just due to natural improvement. Teams that aren't able to get pressure from the front four will be faced with a nasty choice between sitting back, allowing Smith to pick the defense apart, and blitzing, opening up the possibility of long scrambles or single-covered Ginn.
Antonio Pittman can run away from bad defense.
Right: not impressed by Antonio Pittman, much to the amusement of Ohio State fans. It's hard to judge his '05 season because there wasn't much data to be had against good run defenses. It appeared to me that he was good at running through big holes and falling down when contacted but struggled to make extra yards. He's not terrible, but I don't think he's anything that, say, Jason Teague wasn't. Ohio State fans fresh off the Mo Hall era may be confusing competence for superstardom. But that's just me.
I wouldn't be totally surprised if Pittman's job came under serious threat at some point during the year. Recruit Chris Wells was the #1 running back in the country according to everyone. He is strong like bull at 6'1" and 220 pounds and may be the second coming of Eddie George if he lives up to the hype. Running back is a position in which a player can come straight out of high school and make an impact (see: Mike Hart, Tyrell Sutton, Javon Ringer, etc). Wells has an impressive package of size and speed; once he gets the blitz pickups down and gets used to the increased speed of the college game he'll at least contribute. Starting is another matter. Tressel doesn't seem like the type to yank a player proven functional for a freshman, no matter how hype-laden he is, unless he finds himself in a situation where the team is drastically underperforming expectations.
Wide Receivers & Tight Ends
Santonio Holmes takes his dapper dreads to the NFL, leaving behind Roy Hall, Anthony Gonzalez, and some guy named... uh... Ginn. Ginn was a disappointment a year ago until the moment Notre Dame decided that covering him on fly routes was optional. He managed to collect 800-some yards receiving but cracked 100 only against the Irish and Illinois; his good game against Michigan (9 catches and 89 yards, though about half of that was screens) was marred by a series of muffed punts that gave whole swaths of field away. What happened? Ginn hasn't developed into a receiver. His hands aren't great. Neither are his routes. (His Fiesta Bowl touchdown consisted of him running down the field real fast.) He just wasn't very useful against defenses that crowded him and threatened Troy Smith with pressure before he could run 50 yards downfield.
That figures to change. Quotes from Gonzalez to the effect of "Ted Ginn is the most improved player in practice" are odd and therefore likely true. His route cuts are doomed to be less explosive than one would expect -- his long, lanky body and similarly long-striding running style make it relatively easy to predict his direction* -- but that speed thing means you close your cushion at great peril. He's still not likely to end up with 80 catches unless OSU goes WR-screen mad, but he alternate between safety-paralyzing decoy and guy who catches long touchdowns.
Gonzalez, a solid route runner with excellent hands and a knack for finding the soft spot in zones, is the one who will his production shoot up with Holmes gone. He's no Ginn but don't let his lack of skin pigmentation fool you: the guy can run. Past the starters there's not much. Roy Hall hasn't proven anything in four years; backups Brian Robiske and Brian Hartline are green players who did not get much guru hype as recruits.
The projected starter at tight end, Marcel Frost, was suspended for the year after an unspecified violation of team rules and transferred to a I-AA (sorry: "Championship Division") school. Redshirt sophomore Rory Nichol returns from an injury that held him out last year to fill the starting spot.
Ack! Punts and kickoff returns, you say? There's a difference between a your typical return cut, usually slight-but-violent changes of direction designed to maintain momentum, and route cuts, which are often wholesale changes of direction. FTR, I also think this negatively impacts Steve Breaston's routes since he has the same long-striding style.)
Rating: 5. Sophomore left tackle Alex Boone is no longer drinking the GDP of Sri Lanka every weekend, so OSU has that going for them. Incidentally, he was uber-hyped as a recruit and not terrible as a true freshman. He's on a track to stardom. OSU hopes he's ready to play left tackle just two years out of high school. As a freshman, right tackle Kirk Barton impressively won the job from Datish and Schafer midway through the year. Last year he resumed his duties there until suffering an injury versus Penn State.
Assuming Tim Schaefer wins the left guard job, the interior of the line is all seniors. Center Doug Datish was a tackle last year (OSU edumacation: "has played and started all three interior line positions for the Buckeyes, including all 12 games last year at left tackle") and a guard the year before that. Right guard TJ Downing was functional a year ago.
Mangold's loss will be felt -- first round centers are exceedingly rare and Datish isn't likely to fill those shoes completely, but the line should be good. Exactly how good depends on just how Boone performs is right away. No doubt he's on a stardom track, but his starts last year came after Barton's injury. His placement at left tackle at a true sophomore is either a very good thing or a very bad thing. Veterans everywhere else and another probable star at right tackle should reassure worried Buckeye fans. Not that there are any.
Last Year: Holy pants. Ohio State played a wide array of the country's best offenses and crushed all of them, finishing fifth overall largely because running against Ohio State was an exercise in futility: teams averaged a whopping 73 yards per game. I do not wish to think about this any longer.
Rating: 4. Hey! Returning starters! Meet Quinn Pitcock and David Patterson, defensive tackles who featured on the aforementioned swarming defense. Datish describes Pitcock with the best quote I've seen in a long time:
"I've hated blocking Quinn since I got here," Datish said. "He's like a goat. I think his legs should be reversed because he's got that weird leverage thing to them. I don't know if there's anybody better in the country."
He's not much of a penetrator but he occupies blockers with the best of them. Patterson's numbers -- 7.5 TFLs and 4 sacks -- look good for a DT, but he played end last year. Three of those sacks came in the Michigan State game, when Stephon Wheeler went out and the Red Sea caved in on Drew Stanton. (On the fourth he bowled over Jake Long to sack Henne.) His move inside makes sense since he was oversized -- 285 pounds -- and not a threat to come around the edge at end. Inside he can use his push and technique to get into the backfield as others take the edge. He's sort of a poor man's Alan Branch.
The questions on defense begin with defensive end. Senior Jay Richardson has some experience on one side, starting 6 games as a sophomore before an injury forced him out of the starting lineup. He saw time in a rotation last year, but didn't do much with it: he has three sacks in his career. At this point he's a Buckeye version of Rondell Biggs, a hard worker and run stuffer who brings little playmaking to the field. The pass rush will have to come from elsewhere, probably Cass Tech alum Vernon Gholston. In '04 Gholston was a sleeper recruit described as incredibly athletic (I've seen this picture way too often -- some creepy guy at BuckeyePlanet used it as his sig) but equally raw. Two years later he's apparently progressed better than Alain Kashama did and fought his way into the starting lineup ahead of a couple highly touted recruits. OSU's proven that they can mold defensive linemen; with Gholston's evident natural ability he'll probably be good sooner or later.
Backing up the defensive ends are a trio of highly touted prospects: Lawrence Wilson, Robert Rose, and Doug Worthington. Wilson and Worthington are kind of bulky and have a redshirt year; at this point Rose is all edge-rushing terror that many need a year or two to reacclimate to college. All will see time as Ohio State tries to find the right combination.
This will be a good defensive line. Pitcock and Patterson will clog the middle ably, though neither has shown much of an inclination to penetrate and disrupt. A situational pass rusher will emerge from the defensive ends. Pressure on early downs may be an issue if Gholston does not live up to his practice buzz. OSU may have to blitz a lot on non-obvious passing downs lest their secondary get exposed.
Rating: 3. Hawk, Carpenter, and Schlegel are gone. Hurray! In their place are a highly touted recruit, a player who led his team in tackles as a freshman, and the son of Road Warrior Animal. Boo.
Strongside linebacker Marcus Freeman is the highly touted recruit. Rivals ranked him the #31 player in the country in '04; for comparison, the man Michigan fans believe to be a cross between Lawrence Taylor and Derrick Thomas, Tim Jamison, was #40. After a freshman year spent mostly on special teams he suffered a knee injury in OSU's opener and redshirted. I find it hard to believe that he "went into the season as a possible starter," as his official OSU bio claims, but everyone around the program is excited about him.
New weakside linebacker John Kerr is the former leading tackler. The catch is that Kerr's tackles came at Indiana, where he started at MLB as a freshman and racked up 114. He spent a full two years on the bench after his transfer, one mandated by the NCAA but the other due to "problems with transfer-related paperwork" according to the Columbus Dispatch, which may also be interested in this fantastic bridge I have to sell. Whatever happened, it's over now. Kerr spent last year on special teams, working his way up the depth chart. No one's seen him play linebacker since he was tackling away at Indiana.
How was work, Dad?
I bludgeoned someone with a chair.
The son of Road Warrior Animal is James Laurinatis, who you may remember from the Ohio State game last year. He entered on the second play of the game after Bobby Carpenter suffered a broken leg. After the linebacker shakeup he finds himself in the middle. He originally committed to Minnesota before switching to OSU. He wasn't a huge recruit -- three stars from both services -- and was low on the priority list of most schools, though he got December offers from UCLA and Notre Dame. Yes, yes: AJ Hawk three stars gurus useless San Dimas High Scool fooball rules. But in his two starts a year ago he got one tackle, that on Tyler Ecker's futile sojourn upfield with seconds remaining. He's a true sophomore; he won't be that good.
There's going to be a dropoff here or I'm taking my blog and going home. Freeman should be at least good, though he may be playing out of position due to shortcomings in the other two linebackers. Dispatch blogger Heath Schneider theorizes that the LB switch means Kerr is doomed and true freshman Ross Homan will end up starting once his hamstring injury is healed. Buckeye fans are salivating over Homan but the gurus were pretty meh about him and as a true freshman recovering from an injury if he starts it's a bad sign for this year.
Laurinatis obviously shows a lot of potential to start in front of highly touted JUCO recruit Larry Grant, but he's not AJ Hawk. If he is I'll cry. Kerr... who knows? I have my doubts about him. I think Grant's recruitment -- JUCOs are unusual at OSU -- speaks to question marks about the depth, especially outside, and there's a fair chance that this unit ends up disappointing. Freeman and the rep Tressel and OSU have earned keep this at a three, but it's not all roses and reloading here.
I can hear Corso now.
The early departures of Ashton Youbouty and Donte Whitner will be felt keenly. True sophomore Malcolm Jenkins "wants to be in contention for the Thorpe Award this year because it means he will be helping the Buckeyes win," which is nice but fanciful. He was a meh recruit two years ago thrust into action as the Buckeyes nickelback due to a severe lack of depth in the defensive backfield. His 37 tackles in limited time (three starts plus the aforementioned nickel duty) implies that he was picked on when he went into the game. That would be fine if he had fought back a bit, but two pass breakups and no interceptions does not count as fighting back. He was invisible during the games I saw. That's to be expected for a middling recruit pressed into service as a freshman but it also indicates that Jenkins has a way to go to replace the services of Youbouty. He'll improve, but to improve enough to be an impact corner would be a major leap forward.
Opposite Jenkins is a former walk-on, senior Antonio Smith. He's got all of six tackles to his name, he's short, he's a mechanical engineer, and he played entirely on special teams last year despite tragically short Buckeye secondary depth: these are not indicators of success. Behind him are redshirt freshmen Andre Amos and Donald Washington who, being freshmen, have just as much experience as Smith. To call cornerback a question mark is something of an understatement. Cornerback is more like "?!?!?!"
The situation at safety is similar though not so dire. Jamario O'Neal is the sophomore in the role of Jenkins. Last year he saw time on special teams; now he is thrust into the starting lineup maybe a year too early. O'Neal was much better regarded by the gurus -- top 100 by both -- but is something of a corner-safety tweener. Further hilarity from the OSU athletic department: "was moved to safety during two-a-days to take advantage of his speed."
The other safety is being battled out between little-used senior Brandon Mitchell and sophomore Nick Patterson neither has exactly stepped up; what little I can find that's not a softbatch profile consists of a random blogger on TSN saying "neither really excites me much."
This unit has the makings of a liability. If OSU doesn't get a pass rush it risks having an average (or even worse? Naw) defense, especially when nickel and dime packages are forced onto the field.
Kickers & Coverage
Rating: 3. I swear to God that if this Ryan Pretorius or Aaron Pettry kid is another Nugent or Huston I am going to flip out and kill stuff. It's MGoBlog policy not to speculate on unproven kickers, but seriously: flip out and kill stuff. You have been warned.
Punter AJ Trapasso is pretty good. Ted Ginn like returning things a long way and fumbling punts, but only sometimes. He's your proverbial weapon.
Non-Conference: Well, there's that trip to Texas you may have heard about. OSU also has a dangerous game against Northern Illinois and Garrett Wolfe to start the year. OSU should win, but NIU is liable to scare the hell out of them first. The other two games are against Bowling Green and Cincinatti.
Conference: OSU misses two probable bowl teams in Wisconsin and Purdue plus gets Michigan and Penn State at home. A trip to MSU could be dangerous; playing at Iowa after the Penn State deathmatch will be a major test.
We're Sure About
Well, very little, actually.
Troy Smith? Sure. I still have lingering doubts, but mostly because I have seizures when I try to remember his last two Michigan games.
We Have An Idea About
The secondary. A straight 1 to Purdue or Michigan State or Northwestern or whoever but bumped to a 2 simply on reputation... but OSU cannot be comfortable starting a walkon at corner and having him backed up by freshmen, especially when the other corner is a true sophomore.
The offensive line. Should be good, though a true sophomore at left tackle is a bit tetchy.
We Have No Clue About
Pass rush. Last year it came mostly from the linebackers, who often doubled as defensive ends on obvious passing downs. Those linebackers are gone and there's only one player on the line -- Gholston -- who looks like a consistent threat to the quarterback, and he's a redshirt sophomore with no experience at all.
Kicker. YOU WILL SUCK. YOU WILL MISS 25 YARD FIELD GOALS. THIS I COMMAND.
An Embarrassing Prediction, No Doubt
Well... I think it's highly doubtful OSU gets through the season undefeated. But I must concede that it's possible. 12-0.
With five apparently guaranteed wins on the schedule and a few of the "probable" wins below pretty tenuous, it's extremely unlikely that OSU drops more than three games this year. Ginn, offensive line, and Smith should combine with the probably-decent defense for another good season. 8-4 is the minimum.
Given the schedule the offense probably will be statistically explosive. Only four teams figure to have defenses that can even think of running with Ginn, Smith, et al. Given Tressel's tendency to play Lloydball in tight spots, though, the Bucks might not get all they might out of said really fast guys until the need to score is clear.
The defense is going to drop off significantly. This should not be a controversial statement when one of the most dominant Ds in recent college football memory loses nine starters and figures to start a secondary with almost no experience whatsoever. If Gholston does not produce, OSU is going to find itself exposing that secondary by blitzing or allowing itself to get picked apart. I find myself torn: it seems improbable that the OSU defense is going to be mediocre, but it seems equally improbable that patchwork secondary is going to be anything but.
Wins: Cincinnati, Bowling Green, Indiana, Illinois, Northwestern
Probable Wins: Northern Illinois, @ MSU, Minnesota (tenuous)
Tossups: @ Texas, Michigan, Penn State
Probable Losses: @ Iowa
No Chance: None
10-2, it says.