Disjointed thoughts not guaranteed to last more than two days follow. May take these back after film review.
OMG Defense! I sat next to a fairly crabby Vandy fan who said the Commodores returned basically everyone on offense save Cutler and a wide receiver, so that was not a green offensive line we utterly obliterated. Aside from the trick play and a few first downs at the end of the game, Michigan gave up approximately 120 yards. Damn!
Most encouraging was that it was for the most part Michigan making plays. Woodley had three consecutive sacks (although one may have been ruled a run, I haven't looked at the box score yet). Crable was effective attacking the line; Taylor was good; Biggs was a revelation. In the secondary we were active and around the ball, attempting to make plays on the ball.
It was night and day. Herrmann really was that bad.
Jamison what? Didn't play a snap. Stood on the sidelines, in pads, the whole game. Violation of team rules? Sure didn't seem like an injury, and I sincerely doubt that he'd go from the announced starter to sitting on the bench all game without reason.
Crable! I'm still concerned about him against traditional power-running teams, but he's a really interesting and effective player against the spread. He has the ability to fend off offensive linemen who aren't drive blocking until he determines which side the play is going to, at which point his unique combination of frame and speed allow him to make a play. There was an instance of this last year against Northwestern and he made a couple of similar plays today, notably against a couple of the zone reads Vandy ran.
Er... offense. There can't be many complaints about the run game. 242 yards with good showings from Hart, Grady, and Minor, minus Grady's fumble. The much-rumored zone blocking was legit and seemed fairly effective. There was but one fullback shuffle.
But... yeah... the passing game. Some of the problems were fairly innocuous execution errors: Massey's drop on the wheel route (that was a fairly tough catch, but still) and Breaston's drop on that slant. But the only downfield pass we attempted all day was the pass to Manningham. Partially that's DeBord: his tight end fetish was on full display today. But part of that was a really disturbing lack of pass blocking. Henne was buried when Jake Long whiffed a block; Riley was iffy all day; blitzes from the outside were unblocked all day. Henne did very well to buy time and scramble for the occasional first down, but his accuracy left much to be desired.
Where were the slants, outs, and stop routes? Henne threw literally nothing over the middle of the field all day. Bleah.
Goddamn I love Mike Hart. That is all. Oh: and where were the screens? We attempted one old-fashioned running back screen, IIRC.
Speaking of screens: We can't run any wide receiver screens until game six. They aren't going to work.
Overall? The booing at the end of the first half was a little goofy too me, since we were crushing them everywhere but the scoreboard. I'm disappointed in the passing game, too, but there was a lot of good to take out of that. That was a dominant defensive performance and a hell of a running game, and since Lloyd Carr coaches like he has a dominant defense and a hell of a running game no matter what the facts on the ground are, that's important.
Oh, yeah: Zoltan!
I did this last year, too: thinking it was best to save the Michigan preview until the week before the season and erroneously believing that said preview as far more complete than it actually was, I find myself short on a Vanderbilt preview. I have little knowledge about the Commodores and nothing prepared. Since Vandy sans Cutler projects to be a walkover, I don't feel that bad about it.
Instead, a listing of things I'll be looking for as indicators of what the season holds.
Henne's accuracy. It's not a big deal if his downfield attempts are a bit off, but I dearly want to see his outs, slants, stops, and the like on the money.
Riley's pass blocking. I'll be watching the offensive line extensively but I probably won't be able to tell whether or not Bihl or Mitchell are performing adequately without the aid of tape. Everyone will know if Riley's whiffing regularly.
Manningham in command. No screaming from the sidelines, no missed routes, six catches and a touchdown. Or something like that.
Carson Butler. Manbearfreak.
Steve Breaston. A number of short catches he turns into six yards he shouldn't be able to, one ridiculous event, and no limping.
Run game. Obviously, but a run game that's nothing like Hart's 200 yard miracle against MSU, but one in which he's making first contact with tackles four, five, eight yards downfield. I'll be looking to see whether or not Obi Oluigbo can lock down the fullback spot and for any evidence of the rumored zone running.
The elimination of those run-on-run-off substitution patterns. Herrmann came up with these after one of those Purdue games when Tiller had fifteen guys in the huddle, then ran four off before the snap and stuck with it long after that had disappeared. It came to symbolize all the extra garbage Herrmann heaped on the players brains, which made bodies slow and fans grumpy. Hopefully they'll abandon this for well-defined substitution patterns.
Something other than obvious base-formation zone against three wides. Without question the most irritating thing about last year was Jamar Adams or Prescott Burgess hovering in the general area of a slot receiver before the snap on almost every play that featured three wides. Herrmann gave away the defensive call on that side of the field in every instance.
Varied coverage in the secondary. Pressing every play is about as smart as deep-zoning every play.
Tim Jamison. Obvs.
Chris Graham doing something. Anything.
Shawn Crable looking smart.
Cornerbacks other than Leon Hall. A potentially fatal weakness, but at least Michigan has four options. One should be adequate.
- Brian Kelly is *!ing crazy.
- Buckeyes Introduce Crimin-Os (cereal name shamelessly stolen from MNB)
- A lame excuse to put "The Run" on AOL.
- Bret Bielema Comes to You For Help.
Warren St. John has spent a lot of time staring at Ann Geddes calendars lately, if his latest endearingly creepy post is any indication:
The fact is, if you want baby to be the hit of the tailgate party -- and to perfectly compliment that grill and keg emblazoned with your team's logo -- you're pretty much obligated to get them a little mascot suit. But where to begin?
Um... at RJYH?
Mike D'Andrea is done. His knees say his career is over; Buckeye linebacker depth takes a small hit, though I don't know how much they were counting on him. The article makes it sound like this announcement was a mere formality.
I can't let you do that, Dave Wannstedt. OMG.
A startup venture, EndGame Technologies, has designed novel computer modeling software to assist National Football League coaches with critical play-calling decisions--the kind that often determine the outcome of the game. Should a team punt on fourth down--or go for it? Or attempt a two-point conversion after a touchdown?
The startup faces a minor issue: the NFL doesn't allow computational aids to be used during the game. And I can tell you what it's going to say, anyway: GO FOR IT, LLOYD.
Bennie Joppru caught a preseason touchdown last night. He's not dead yet.
Las Vegas screwed my system up something fierce. Since the World Series of Poker had nearly nine thousand entrants this year, play on the first couple days was scheduled to go to two or three AM Pacific time. It was 7AM in Michigan when I finally collapsed into bed after day one. I maintained that schedule during the downtime in an attempt to be as alert as possible for day two. When I got back, my sleep schedule was completely trashed.
I gradually recovered, but even in the best of times I'm something of a late riser. And by "something of" I mean "am completelly and shamefully". Eleven... noon... one. Thereabouts. (This is extremely irritating if I haven't prepared something for the blog the night before, as I am forced to scramble.) Sometimes the Man holding you down is useful, because he makes you get up at a respectable hour and prevents the minor bursts of shame that come from a weekday PM rising time.
A funny thing happened this week: I wake up, check the clock, and it says "9:02" or "9:27". No alarms. No early bedtimes. Just a mysterious sea change in my circadian rhythms apropos of apparently nothing. I was puzzled. But no longer: football, tomorrow. When I arise the clock will say "9:02" or "9:27," I will head out to the family tailgate and read way, way too much into Michigan's opener. Subconsciously I have prepared myself. Good job, subconscious.
EDSBS called yesterday "Football Christmas" and that's exactly right. These days Christmas Eve is mostly a reminder of lost childhood magic. I go to bed wishing that I could not go to bed, wishing that I was straining to hear reindeer hooves on the roof. Today I've got that old feeling, even though the threat of coal is far less abstract in this particular venture. But if you were a child who had suffered through a series of disappointing Christmases -- socks, socks, an apple, socks -- and one horrible one, one that put you off the idea of Christmas for months -- show us on this doll, Josh -- then you might really appreciate it when the skies opened up and hosannahs rained from the heavens as Christ personally descended and bestowed all five Dinobots upon you. And you might not think so badly of those past Christmases after all.
Go, extended metaphors! Go Blue.
Extremely helpful reader Jeremy took this moment of crabbing...
Hasn't someone stitched together the four catches from the end of the '04 MSU game and set it to the world's worst emo? Can we get on this? I would watch that in a loop if it was a TV show. Could I be more like Bill Simmons right now? Billy Zabka! Ian Ziering! Humiliating self at WSOP!
...and went above and beyond the call of duty. Behold:
Best ever! FOOTBALL!
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+.