...says Denzel Valentine of Big Ten Tourney favorite MSU, which is 5-7 in its last 12 games. Cumong, man.
Yes, Michigan will miss Steve Breaston even if the team's maddening refusal to double the gunners limited his effectiveness. (Breaston's PR average dipped from 13.8 as a freshman to two years around 12.2 and finished at 11.4.) Why worry about Breaston making the third guy miss instead of the first? This is a preview, not a grumble-filled review. I should move on.
At punt returner, Johnny Sears sits atop the depth chart in Breaston's stead; Greg Mathews is behind him. No one knows what to expect from Sears -- he's never returned a punt -- but if that athleticism is for real he seems like as good a choice as any. Mathews, on the other hand, is an obviously safe choice, a guy who will not pull a Whitley but also will be happy to gain ten yards and get tackled. I would prefer someone with higher upside.
Brandon Minor is listed as the top kick returner, which might be okay. He showed quite a bit of speed as a freshman and might be suited for the north-south shallow cuts that seem most effective on kickoffs.
Carlos Brown is a wildcard. A top-50-ish speed back out of high school, one of the reasons Brown stuck around was the promise of a long look at both return positions. His ill-timed broken hand stripped him of the last couple weeks of camp and may hold him out of the Appalachian State game, but when he returns he'll be tried at both.
Everybody is nervous about kicker. Redshirt freshman Bryan Wright, a scholarship kid, has a big leg but struggled with his accuracy so much that walkons threatened and took his job. Jason Gingell is the new guy. KC Lopata and Sam Buckman are also kicking around. How will they perform? It is MGoBlog policy not to speculate on kickers, but... obviously this is uncomfortable.
One note: Wright did win the kickoffs job, which is significantly more important this year what with the kickoffs from the 30 and all. Michigan might get a couple extra yards of field position out of it if Wright's leg is as big as they say.
Zoltan The Inconceivable returns for a sophomore year of punting. Last year he alternated the boomers that will win him the Heisman and the Space Emperor-dom some day with meh liners and a Ross Ryan-esque effective duck. Though ZTI managed a respectable 38th in gross punting (41.6 per), the net was good for only 57th. Some of this has to do with Ross Ryan's 14 punts, which averaged only 33 yards. But while I'd like it to be clear that I'm not criticizing ZTI in any way, lest my pitiful unworthiness draw attention from his terrible visage, it should be clear that his choice to occasionally zing a liner did not help matters. Most of Ryan's punts weren't returned, and yet Michigan allowed 27 returns on 64 punts. Zoltan punts were returned at an approximately 50% clip; though AJ Trapasso is obviously an inferior punter not even worthy of Zoltan's spit he managed to keep that down to around 25%.
Clearly this was all a ploy to lure others into a false sense of security, but improvement would be helpful to Michigan's endeavors this year.
Special Teams in Summary
BLEAH. Returners like Breaston don't come around every day; a major step back is in the offing. Kicker terrifies. There are three of them! The last time there were three they were Brabbs, Neinberg, and Finley. I recently downloaded the 2002 Washington game from MGoVideo, which at this moment in time is the most unpleasant possible win to expose yourself to. I will pray to Zoltan for good fortune in this area.
Zoltan himself is flawless, but his punting remains erratic. Major upside here and the downside is MOTS, which was still pretty good. Punting remains in good (flawless!) hands.
Appalachian State is hot hot hot and maps and stuff.
Oregon scares the everloving crap out of me. I take heart in a run defense that was pretty bad last year and their quarterbacks' tendency to toss three interceptions a game, but when they aren't making errors they are rolling up yards like whoah. This game will be no joke.
Notre Dame, a small Catholic school of no importance in northern Indiana, is next. The same offense-defense matchup that ended last year's game before it started persists, except the one matchup that clearly favored Notre Dame (Abiamiri versus Riley) is kaput. Both teams turn over the other side of the ball extensively, but ND has no receivers and will have a QB in his third game (or less if they switch).
The Big Ten schedule opens up at home versus Penn State, which has a more experienced offensive line and a senior Anthony Morelli, but no Tony Hunt or, um, defensive line. (As time passes I get more leery about the PSU DL and sort of regret the optimism expressed in that preview.) A tough, losable game.
Michigan ends up @ Northwestern next. I didn't preview the Wildcats, but no losing here.
Eastern Michigan is worse than Appalachian State.
Purdue returns to the schedule after a two-year absence. This is not a gimme. Purdue is better suited to attack our secondary than anyone on the schedule save perhaps Oregon and returns a ton of starters. Their defense would have to improve vastly to stay in contact, though. Should be a comfortable win; could be dangerous.
Then it's @ Illinois. I dunno... will Juice Williams hit the ground in three tries? Can their defense stand up to Juggeroffense?
Minnesota will be a disaster area this year.
@ Michigan State. Decent offense, worst defense on the planet.
Playing Wisconsin @ Wisconsin looks to be the toughest test of the year. Though I believe the offense likely to founder, especially in the run game, the Wisconsin defense will be difficult to do anything against. I do think this is a spot we are fortunate to get them at, as they're a more veteran team and the season runup to this will help our highly touted but young players acclimate and get better. If Justin Boren and Steve Schilling had to deal with the Badger front seven in the Big Ten opener, serious concern would be had. As it is there is still concern but not overwhelming.
Ohio State is The Game.
The theory of turnover margin: it is nearly random. Teams that find themselves at one end or the other at the end of the year are highly likely to rebound towards the average. So teams towards the top will tend to be overrated and vice versa. Nonrandom factors to evaluate: quarterback experience, quarterback pressure applied and received, and odd running backs like Mike Hart who just don't fumble.
|2006||Int +||Fumb +||Sacks +||Int -||Fumb -||Sacks -|
|1.08 (4th)||12||14||3.23 (4th)||8||4||1.85 (52nd)|
Ut-oh? Maybe. There's no way you can reasonably expect Michigan to maintain that ridiculous turnover margin. Sacks will probably go down significantly, reducing the number of turnovers forced, and twelve giveaways in a season is not replicable. Michigan is marked as overrated in this category.
But!... there's reason to expect Michigan to
remain significantly above average. Mike Hart, who everyone will tell you hasn't lost a fumble since the Iowa game his freshman year*, will receive the vast bulk of the carries. Chad Henne's thrown only eight interceptions over the past two years. Some of this safety has come at the cost of more effective offense and Michigan will be more likely to risk danger with experienced hands all around, but if there's one team in the country that can be expected to keep its giveaways down, it's the one with four-year starters at running back and quarterback.
A step back is likely, but turnover margin will still be significantly positive at year's end.
*(this is a technicality. A Ball State defender punched the ball out and forced a first-half safety, but apparently that doesn't count.)
Position Switch Starters
Theory of position switches: if you are starting or considering starting a guy who was playing somewhere else a year ago, that position is in trouble. There are degrees of this. When Notre Dame moved Travis Thomas, a useful backup at tailback, to linebacker and then declared him a starter, there was no way that could end well. Wisconsin's flip of LB Travis Beckum to tight end was less ominous because Wisconsin had a solid linebacking corps and Beckum hadn't established himself on that side of the ball. Michigan flipping Prescott Burgess from SLB to WLB or PSU moving Dan Connor inside don't register here: we're talking major moves that indicate a serious lack somewhere.
None unless you want to count Justin Boren's shift from guard to center... which is pretty harsh by the standards of this category. There are also similarly minor moves from possible (but not probable) starters: Obi Ezeh moves inside from the strongside at linebacker and Charles Stewart goes from corner to safety. Generally corner to safety moves are given a pass; it's the safety to corner thing that raises red flags.
None of those is alarming. One that was until recently: Andre Criswell from fullback to tight end. Carson Butler's return pushes him down to third on the depth chart, but unless there's a major surprise Michigan goes two deep at TE for 2007.
Dumbest Thing In CFN Preview
Actually... there's nothing that egregious. Good job, CFN?
This is Sam's and I've posted it before (and put it in a book) but...
An Embarassing Prediction, No Doubt
Oregon is losable, so are Penn State and Wisconsin and Ohio State and Purdue. But realistically Michigan should win at least two of those games even in the cold-sweat nightmare scenario and go 9-3, because that's historical imperative.
Perhaps this is foolish, but I believe the Michigan offense will come fairly close to living up to all the hype. This is not likely to be reflected in the stats as Michigan will never go all Louisville on anyone and roll up a 73-10 victory, but in terms of meaningfully effective offense Michigan will be amongst the best in the country. This was the case in Brady's senior year and Navarre's senior year and Henne should be no different. You can even argue that Henne's got better talent surrounding him than either of those players. (This goes out the window if we meet USC, because evidently we have it in our Rose Bowl contract that Pete Carroll rushers are not to be blocked. But other than that.) Obviously this assumes full health. That 12-point difference between a healthy Mario and an injured Mario is highly encouraging... assuming Mario is healthy. But predicting injury is a rube's game (rubes I tell ya!) and so all these previews blithely assume everyone remains healthy, even if they mention a certain player being injury-prone. This one follows that model, but it's worth pointing out that Michigan has more to lose if Henne goes down than Wisconsin would or Minnesota would or Northwestern would.
The defense should be okay, difficult to run against and prone to getting opponents in third and long but frustratingly yielding improbable conversions. Big plays against will increase but not that much: no Mundy. The run defense will seem awful but only because of last year's dominant unit. A cornerback or two will prove decent. A return to the bad old days is not coming.
|9/1||Appalachian State||Functional DNP|
|9/15||Notre Dame||Probable Win|
|10/6||Eastern Michigan||Functional DNP|
|9/22||Penn State||Probable win|
|10/20||@ Illinois||Probable win|
|11/3||@ Michigan State||Auto-win|
|11/17||Ohio State||Probable win|
Sometimes the binomial distribution bothers me. Like here. If you assume Michigan has a 90% chance to win all games -- which is pessimistic for a few but wildly optimistic for others -- it says:
Chance to win 12 games: .90 ^ 12 = 28.2%
Chance to win 11 games: 12c11 * .90 ^ 11 * .1 = 37.6 %
With a 90% chance to win every week! The binomial distribution is mean. It basically says to everyone except USC "never predict an undefeated season." So I don't, even when I am vastly overrating a particular Big Ten team that will go down in flames (Hi, Iowa 2006 and Purdue 2005.)
And I won't here for various reasons both arcanely mathematical and more practical. Like the cornerbacks. And the kicker. And the general bloody-mindedness of the universe. (This latter may not be so much "practical" as the immense paranoia of the Michigan fan circa 2007 but you'll never convince me of that.) Honestly, if you take a team with Michigan's talent and put it up against this schedule and play it 10,000 times the median record is probably going to be 10-2. There are too many potential hurdles, too many losable games, too much youth in key positions and too much vulnerability should any one of a number of players go down. Life in college football is hard.
(How does one justify this while simultaneously ranking Michigan in the top five? Everyone else's median is even more likely to be 10-2 or 9-3 or worse. Anyone in the top five is set up to fail unless they are a true juggernaut like USC or have a Florida State-in-the-90s schedule with no conference threats whatsoever.)
But... whatever. This is the reality of every season. Predicting the top three teams in the Big Ten to go 10-2 every year would probably be more accurate in the long run but it would also be a soulless exercise... and if college football has anything, it's got soul. Official on the record offering: 11-1. You have my permission to round up a posse and hunt me down if the team
The offense, if you missed it. Also I'm not even going to pretend this got finished at a reasonable hour. It goes up now because otherwise it goes up at noon.
|Tim Jamison||Jr.*||Terrance Taylor||Jr.||Will Johnson||Jr.*||Brandon Graham||So.|
|Adam Patterson||So.||John Ferrara||Fr.*||Marques Slocum||Fr.||Greg Banks||Fr.*|
|Nobody||N/A||Renaldo Sagesse||Fr.||Jason Kates||Fr.*||Ryan Van Bergen||Fr.|
Last year's theory:
If Jamison lives up to the hype perpetrated by... well... me, this Michigan line will own.
Jamison did not; the line did. Unfortunately, three-quarters of said line is now in the NFL. But things here look good enough, albeit somewhat shallow.
|Shooting the gap|
Defensive tackle Terrance Taylor is the lone returner. I feel like I'm repeating myself, but whatever: a squat, immensely powerful fireplug of a defensive tackle, Taylor was a top 100 recruit of out Muskegon who saw immediate time as a freshman and drew into the starting lineup as a sophomore. While he was clearly a step behind Branch and Woodley, he was by no means out of place. Difficult to block due to his low pad level and preposterous strength, he is likely headed for All Big Ten this year.
One concern: Taylor entered Michigan a three-time Michigan state powerlifting champion and saw the field quickly because he was physically ready to, but his stature may place a limit on his ability to continue improving. He is closer to his ceiling than most players his age, and those expecting another Branch will probably be disappointed. Still: a very good player.
|ND third and one dies|
|Snuffing a draw|
Will Johnson draws into the starting lineup to replace that Branch guy. He is unlikely to replace the production of a man who was possibly the best defensive tackle in the program's history, but he did flashed serious ability as a redshirt sophomore. Those interested in statistics may have to just trust me here: the two plays at left were two of but seven tackles. There were other fine plays scattered throughout the year that did not result in video highlights. It's telling that Alan Branch was lifted for Johnson on an important third and one in the Notre Dame game. The coaching staff believes in him. This offseason he's drawn nonstop praise; everyone expects that he will be immediately one of the better defensive tackles in the Big Ten. They're probably right.
Lamarr Woodley is gone but Brandon Graham is about as close to Woodley as you're going to get in a true sophomore. Both were five star in-state prospects who were tentatively linebackers in high school but found themselves on the defensive line by the time the oranges were passed out at the first practice. Graham actually saw most of his time as a freshman as a defensive tackle in the 3-3-5 Michigan deployed against spread offenses. This was because he was pushing 290 pounds; he is now down to 262 and ready to fill Woodley's shoes. Or maybe not exactly "ready," but possibly capable maybe? Graham didn't bust into the starting lineup in his freshman season. Then again, Lamarr Woodley wasn't exactly competing against a senior version of himself. This should play out like Steve Schilling at right tackle: some confusion due to a lack of experience early, competence by midseason, and good to very good by the end of the year.
Tim Jamison is finally the weakside defensive end after three years of nonstop hype interrupted by injury and Rondell Biggs. It is time to step up, as they say. Jamison's featured as a pass rush specialist for the last few years and has done well. Last year five of his thirteen tackles were sacks. Given the constant torrent of practice hype, Jamison's recruiting rankings, and his evident ability in small doses, Jamison should also be an instant star. (And oh, everyone thinks this is rank homerism. Just wait until we get to the corners.) Double digit sacks are probable. He won't be nearly as good against the run as Biggs -- he's smaller and I bet he spends some time rushing headlong upfield when he should be paying attention to his assignments -- but he should be a major plus.
|Easy PSU sack|
Depth is, er, shallow. Eugene Germany got booted off the team; James McKinney transferred to Louisville after an undisclosed medical issue. At defensive end there is highly touted recruit Adam Patterson, who frustratingly blew a redshirt last year for no reason whatsoever, moderately touted freshman Ryan Van Bergen, and untouted Coloradan Greg Banks. Only Patterson has seen field time, and that was erratic garbage snaps. It's redshirt freshman Banks who is leading the pack; any serious injury to the starters will be a major dropoff.
Things are similar but less iffy on the inside. Marques Slocum is finally eligible after a two-year odyssey in pursuit of academic eligibility and amorous big cats. A totally shirtless recruit from the 2005 class who dominated that year's Army All-Star game much like Justin Boren and Ryan Mallett did, Slocum has all the potential in the wo
rld. As a 20-year-old he's more physically developed than your average freshman, but he's played no football since enrolling at Michigan after prepping for a semester at Milford Academy. Plus the whole amorous big cat thing -- which is totally my fault for linking Slocum's colorful description of a shoulder injury and exposing it to the world at large, sorry Marques -- maybe kind of got him suspended for the opener? In any case, production early will probably be limited, but he's got serious upside.
Meanwhile, redshirt freshmen John Ferrara and Jason Kates will also step into the rotation. Ferrara was a limited-upside middling recruit who is actually drawing a lot of praise for his work ethic and technique. He could project to be a Bowman or a Heuer. Kates was a guy the recruiting services disagreed upon wildly. Scout rated him a two-star because his senior year was slovenly and spent pushing 400 pounds; Rivals saw a guy with an outstanding strength/speed combination and rated him a solid four-star. After a year at Michigan he's dropped from a listed 358(!!!), to a plausible 318; probably a year or two from serious time. Incoming freshman Renaldo Sagesse is Canadian and will redshirt.
|Chris Graham||Sr.||Johnny Thompson||Jr.*||Shawn Crable||Sr.*|
|Jonas Mouton||Fr.*||Obi Ezeh||Fr.*||Marell Evans||Fr.|
|Brandon Logan||Jr.||Austin Panter||Jr.||Brandon Herron||Fr.|
The questions run deeper and more disturbing at linebacker in the absence of Prescott Burgess -- arrrrrgh wasted redshirt -- and David Harris, the best Michigan linebacker of the past decade. There's plenty of experience with two seniors and a fourth-year junior, but how much of it is any good?
|Shedding a Gopher|
|Is he a DT?|
If this blog was obsessed with Norse mythology instead of The Big Lebowski, Shawn Crable would be Loki. Last year Crable had the luxury of being a freelance sower of chaos next to Burgess and Harris and in front of that line. His responsibilities against the run were limited; he spent most of his time screaming up towards quarterbacks. This is evident in his statistics: despite racking up only 37 tackles he managed 4.5 sacks and 10.5 TFLs. Fully 28% of his tackles were behind the line of scrimmage, a number more in line with a defensive end than a linebacker.
Part of the reason for this is that Crable was often deployed as a de facto defensive end in the 3-3-5 Michigan used extensively against spread offenses. When in this formation Crable would move from outside linebacker to defensive end to an odd stand-up defensive tackle, sometimes moving between these spots pre-snap. This was an effective response to spread teams, especially those with ideas about running the ball. Even when teams occasionally caught Crable as a DT, he managed to knife past guards used to dealing with wider, slower players and make plays in the backfield. While that's not a tenable strategy in the long run it does demonstrate just how hard Crable can be to block. He's a pure attacker.
This has a downside. As a 6'6" linebacker with chicken legs and a high center of gravity, he's not the sort to defeat a block and close out a hole. He doesn't make tackles three yards downfield. It's either in the backfield or after long pursuit.
Chris Graham gets one final shot as a weakside linebacker. The story going around is that Graham had won the job last year, but then lost it when he picked up a nagging injury early in the season and by the time he got back Burgess had a death grip on the job. This is dubious. Though Burgess would indeed have been hard to displace given his level of play last year, Graham was a major problem during the Year of Infinite Pain and his main contribution last year was incredibly ineffective pass defense against Ohio State. (To be fair, what was he supposed to do against Anthony Gonzalez? Let him score a touchdown? Oh, okay.) If he was truly pushing Burgess he would have at least gotten meaningful time in a platoon.
So that line of reasoning's out. We're left with his performance from his sophomore year, which was awful. Two years on he figures to be better, but how much? He remains a wall of muscle, but a short one with stubby, tackle-missing arms. His speed seems overrated and he's never figured out that whole linebacker thing. Skepticism reigns, though a Bennie Joppru-like senior renaissance is not out of the question. It is, however, unlikely.
Johnny Thompson and Obi Ezeh will carry the middle linebacker battle into the season; at the moment Thompson is the tenuous leader. Thompson's one brief run came as a weakside linebacker during the 2005 Iowa game, when the ineffectiveness of Graham became too much to bear. A number of plays and near-plays in the second half got Michigan fans clamoring for more of the man teammates nicknamed "baby Ray Lewis," but a closer look revealed some flaws:
John Thompson made a good debut as a first-string linebacker but it wasn't as good as it appeared watching it live. Thompson missed a few tackles, overran a play or two, and was in for a lot more productive rushes against than it initially seemed. However, he clearly has a knack for showing up around the ball and with some more experience should start making those plays he barely missed against Iowa. He also seems like kind of a yappy, trash-talking guy, and we need one of those.
The first half was full of indecision and error; the second half he made a significant contribution to the win... in the run game. When he was asked to defend the pass, he overran plays and got clunkily out of position. Then he disappeared into the mists of time, stuck behind David "Worf" Harris. That's understandable given the asskicking Harris dealt out in his two years at Michigan, but he'll be a major dropoff. The best comparable here is probably Sam Sword, a hard-nosed MLB who has to come off the field on passing downs.
Nobody's seen redshirt freshman Ezeh in the flesh yet, but the indicators on him are good. For one, he is David Harris: a nothing running back recruit out of Grand Rapids who Michigan unearthed and brought in as a linebacker. He even took the newly hallowed #45 once Harris
graduated. In the fall he was moved to middle linebacker to compete with Thompson and Panter so he wouldn't spend his year idling behind Crable. Whenever people try to get you on the field, that's a good sign. He'll platoon with Thompson, probably seeing most obvious passing downs if the above Sam Sword comparable holds true.
Jonas Mouton, a highly touted recruit who moved from safety midway through last year, is the backup option at weakside linebacker and, with Ezeh's move to the middle, probably on the strongside as well. Reports were very high on him throughout last fall and spring, but no one's said much recently. Another year to learn the position before serious time would be preferable. JUCO transfer Austin Panter looked fine in the spring game but by all accounts is struggling to pick up the playbook and adjust to a higher level of play. He may redshirt. Junior Brandon Logan is a forgotten man at this point; he seems destined for an Anton Campbell career of kick coverage.
Freshmen Marell Evans and Brandon Herron are unlikely to play. Evans, a high school teammate of Brandon Minor, was the first two-star recruit Michigan brought in since Andre Criswell. He reportedly got his offer on the advice on Minor, who told the coaching staff Evans worked even harder than he did. Herron, a high school teammate of fellow freshman Troy Woolfolk, is raw but very athletic.
|Morgan Trent||Jr.*||Steve Brown||So.||Jamar Adams||Sr.||Johnny Sears||So.*|
|Donovan Warren||Fr.||Charles Stewart||Jr.*||Brandent Engelmon||Sr.*||Brandon Harrison||Jr.|
|Troy Woolfolk||Fr.||Artis Chambers||Fr.||Michael Williams||Fr.||Doug Dutch||Jr.*|
Oh! The depth chart of fear! Let's start with safety. We can be relatively calm about safety.
|The lone sack|
|Overruns a screen|
|NW FF LOL|
Senior Jamar Adams returns for his third year as a starter without much to his credit or detriment. Though he was the third-leading tackler on last year's team, there just weren't that many tackles to go around unless you were David Harris. He finished with 47, three of those behind the line. There was also an interception (an unwise one on fourth down that cost Michigan 35 yards of field position) and six pass breakups. Pretty meh numbers, but he was not a major culprit for any of the long touchdowns Michigan has ceded over the past couple years. (Aside from maybe the Chris Wells spinorama, but that's would be a somewhat harsh assessment.) He should improve marginally, but a steadying influence is about all Michigan should expect.
Stevie Brown fended off a challenge from former cornerback Charles Stewart to claim the free safety job vacated by Ryan Mundy. Cynics will say that Ryan Mundy vacated this job as soon as he got it; I am one of those cynics. From OSU UFR:
Ryan Mundy is a 50 yard touchdown waiting to happen. He was out of position on the Wells touchdown, blazed by Pittman on his long run, and -- most egregiously -- came up hard on what was a second-and-inches fake dive, robbing Leon Hall of safety help he expected and needed. I don't pretend to understand the intricacies of safety play, but I don't think I need to when we give up a million long run in 2004 with Mundy the starting FS, one in the first half of 2005's first game that's obviously his fault, none the rest of the year with Mundy out injured, and none in all of 2006 until Mundy is pressed into heavy duty with Barringer out and Englemon inexplicably benched.
It's usually silly to expect a new starter to outperform a departed one, but in this case it would be nearly impossible for Brown not to. Ryan Mundy was the worst safety I have ever seen in a Michigan uniform. Cato June, you're off the hook. Good luck with him, West Virginia.
Anyway. A highly touted recruit, Brown has gotten more practice buzz than any other new defender on the team. He's supposed to be a lightning fast playmaker who will leap in and excel from day one. This is something any Michigan fan has to see to believe after a decade of appalling safety play, but if we set aside primal fears borne of experience the indicators on Brown are very good. Now we wait for Angry Michigan Safety Hating God to strike him down.
The aforementioned Charles Stewart will see time spotting the starters and possibly in the nickel. Though Stewart was overwhelmed a year ago...
It doesn't take obsessive tape review to see that Charles Stewart wasn't particularly good. He was beaten for both Minnesota touchdowns, had an unnecessary pass interference call, and didn't exactly display the fierce run support that was rumored to be his calling card. His momentary presence as a starter in name only now looks like a motivational ploy aimed at Morgan Trent more than a reflection of reality. It could just be one rough game, but I was skeptical about his contribution in the offseason and am more skeptical now.
...he was just a redshirt freshman and shouldn't be written off entirely. Even when he was at cornerback he was regarded a physical tackle with questions about his speed: a safety. With Brown the projected starter at that position from the day he stepped on campus, there's no particular reason Brown would need to be pumped up; he's probably doing as well as the rumblings suggest.
|Saving a PSU TD|
Brandent Englemon also backs up both spots. A sporadic starter during his career, Englemon is limited physically but has usually been in the right place when called upon, inexplicable Vandy screwup at right nonwithstanding. It would not be a devastating blow should injury force him onto the field.
So that's safety. A third-year starter, an OMG shirtless recruit on a stardom track, and two solid backups. Not bad. Probably not outstanding, but okay.
Yeah... corner. Corner can be summarized with one terrifying statistic: Leon Hall had 15 pass breakups a year ago. All other Michigan corners had five between them. BONUS! One of those got kicked off the team along with Chris Richards and two more moved to safety with Charles Stewart. Mmmm..... Brewing disaster.
Remember when we all liked Morgan Trent? He beat Ted Ginn in a race in high school. He was the nickelback as a freshman and did okay. His sophomore season started well, blanketing Notre Dame's Rhema McKnight and only getting beaten on a dubious bomb that probably should have been offensive pass interference. When he missed the Minnesota game and Charles Stewart drew into the lineup, the dropoff was immense. Oh, we'd better have Trent back soon, we all said. Yay Morgan.
That all changed the second half of the season, culminating on a grass slip-n-slide in Columbus where he was the primary (though far from the only) Troy Smith exploitee waving helplessly at Ginn and Gonzalez and guys named Brian. In the cold light of the offseason, some things became clear: Trent was ranked as a wide receiver by the recruiting gurus for a reason. His lanky form and long stride makes it difficult for him to change direction as fast as corners have to. When receivers cut hard, they get open. Not once last year did Trent break on a ball to break it up or intercept it.
It wasn't all bad. When Michigan lined him up nose to nose with receivers and they tried to beat him deep, he was there every time. He does have elite speed. He made several nice plays in the run game, too -- and underrated skill for corners. He'll improve as most players do. But he's exploitable and I believe he'll remain so.
Meanwhile, it's hard to have much faith in sophomore Johnny Sears when the lasting image of him is a Ball State receiver streaking by him into the endzone, but there are reasons to believe he is capable of rapid and significant improvement. Sears has always possessed outstanding athleticism -- Michigan recruitniks know that he was offered tape unseen by Ron English after taking in one of his practices -- but has a remarkable paucity of experience. A transfer robbed him of his junior year in high school, then he redshirted and saw only sporadic snaps his first year on the field. He's not done developing.
The buzz from coaches this offseason has been both very positive and very public, which introduces a new dynamic. A large portion of the "coaches say" and "buzz" stuff comes from various locations around the internet underground and occasional helpful emailers. Little of it is actually said to the public. Though it can be wrong because a coach is wrong or the telephone trickle-down distorts the message, it's usually someone's honest opinion. Publicly broadcasting encouraging comments can have an ulterior motive: to boost the recipient's morale. This is a long way of saying I'm also a bit skeptical here. I want to believe as badly as Mulder does, but um... this is a prove-it situation.
But there is another. He is Donovan Warren, a five star corner recruit from legendary California power Long Beach Poly. Warren started for three years at Poly, a distinction shared by few people, most of whom had long NFL careers: Mark Carrier, Willie McGinest, Marcedes Lewis. As you might imagine, Warren is reputed to be the most polished cornerback entering college football this year. Practice reports praise his speed and ability but also note he's small and something of an iffy tackler.
Junior Brandon Harrison has moved from safety to corner to safety to corner etc., etc., etc. Technically, he's a corner now but the distinction is one of little import. Last year he was the nickelback and spent his time overrunning the quarterback on blitzes and missing tackles on crossing routes. He could be all right as he improves, but a 5'8" guy who's not clearly something otherworldly in terms of athleticism and technique is not likely to star. As a dimeback, okay.
Freshman Troy Woolfolk is a track star and the son of legendary Michigan tailback Butch Woolfolk. He'll also play, but meaningful snaps will be few.
Five Questions and Five Answers
Am I crazy?
Um... should/could we run a 3-4 this year? If you look at the personnel, we have a classic 3-4 NT in Taylor, a guy who should be a very good 3-4 DE in Johnson, two 3-4 OLBs that would excel in Jamison and Crable, and then a couple of MLBs who could stuff the run and get lifted on third downs. Brandon Graham might not be ideal, but he did spend parts of last year carrying a lot of weight and playing DT. It seems a good fit for our personnel.
This will not so much happen, but I would not be surprised to see scads and scads of the 3-3-5 not just against spread teams but in any passing situation. Though the defensive tackles both look stout against the run, neither is likely to replicate Alan Branch's superior pass rush (you can't look at the stats for this -- Branch had only two sacks -- but the UFRs tell a tale of a guy who put a lot of pressure on opposing QBs). Lifting one in favor of a blitzing Crable seems an obvious move.
Actually, blitzing lots looks like the order of the day in general. If the linebackers are fast but can't cover, may as well send them across the line to harass the noob quarterbacks that dot Michigan's schedule from La Jolla to Leo Carrillo and up to Pismo.
Is Steve Szabo some sort of golden god or something?
It is possible. The one-year turnarounds of Crable and Burgess were remarkable as was the continued development of Harris into a thumping, screen-wrecking Klingon of destruction. It thrills and amazes after the same three players were hideously ineffective during the Year of Infinite Pain. And, hey, after getting knocked for not doing much in recruiting he's spearheaded Michigan's most successful foray into New Jersey in the modern era of recruiting, wresting four-star linebackers Marcus Witherspoon and JB Fitzgerald from Rutgers and Florida and putting us in the lead for top 100 safety Brandon Smith. I kind of wish he was 35.
Szabo's rep as a linebacker guru will be put to the test this year, though. If he can wrangle Chris Graham into an effective player and figure out a way to get decent production out of the middle linebacker spot, I am going to make a tasteful Szabo shrine next to my Mike Hart one.
What about cornerbacks not named Leon Hall?
Yeah... this is a repeat of last year's "What about cornerbacks not named Leon Hall?" only this time around Leon Hall is a Cincinnati Bengal and
the hives I get when I think about this are softball sized.
The coaches have talked up both Morgan Trent and Johnny Sears in the fall, but does that mean anything? As mentioned, there is a certain genre of preseason praise designed to calm and steady nervous starters because they are the only alternatives, and the cynical -- aren't we all these days -- can clearly fit any positives about Trent and Sears into these categories. Both should improve naturally
And then there's Warren. He will play and play often; if he follows the typical M corner shutdown track he'll be in the starting lineup by midseason. Honestly, though, that would probably not be a good thing for the 2007 team. Though Jackson and Hall were vaguely acceptable as freshmen, they were not actually good. Only Woodson, praise be his name, can make that claim. It's not out of the question Warren can replicate that -- he is reportedly very polished -- but banking on that is unwise.
I hope for average here. One possible positive: the return of Vance Bedford to his role as Michigan's secondary coach. To say former UW DBs coach Ron Lee did not work out is an understatement. Bedford is the proverbial Michigan Man and should fit in just fine with the rest of the group.
How much of a dropoff will the defensive line have?
Well. No. That's not a good question. "Lots" covers so much ground.
Can this defensive line still be the best in the conference?
Probably not. I made this assertion in HTTV 2007 but that was before looking around the conference. Iowa returns four starters and the ends are very good; Wisconsin has a hole at end by the rest of the line looks excellent; I could be wrong about the OSU defensive tackles. Michigan starts two juniors and two sophomores and has one returning starter. Probably asking a bit too much for them to be the best in the Big Ten.
...and when you add it up you get?
Not last year's defense but not 2005's either. Both defensive tackles should be good to very good. It's reasonable to expect Johnny Thompson to play like he did in the Iowa game with significantly fewer mental mistakes, which would be excellent against the run. Crable is a unique weapon that will greatly help against spread attacks and inexperienced quarterbacks. The defensive ends should be pretty good, and the John Beilein-Ryan Mundy trade will go down as one of the all-time great heists in coach-fifth-year-safety-who-sucks fictional trades. It's not that grim. Except at corner, and depth, and linebackers covering guys, and there's that whole Chris Graham issue that I feel very uncomfortable about. That's all pretty grim.
Other than those totally insignificant issues, things are great. This should be a very tough defense to run against, say 15th or 20th or so. Passing... well. The truest herald of joy is the inexperience of every quarterback on the roster save three iffy starters prone to bad decisions and poor play: Dennis Dixon, Curtis Painter, and Anthony Morelli. The rest will be green. I have no illusions the secondary will be dominant or even particularly good, but given the offense on the opposite side of the field the goal is to just be okay. Anything better than Todd Howard's "Suspects" will suffice, and there's enough at safety to prevent that. Survey says: good enough.
One thing to watch for: tight ends. If our linebackers are garbage in coverage, they'll benefit extensively. Sadly, there are many good ones on the schedule -- John Carlson, Travis Beckum, Dustin Keller, Anthony Moeaki -- and this potential weakness looks ripe for exploiting. Third and medium could be a problem; third and short and third and long will look good.
- Jamison equals Woodley's sack numbers but is much worse against the run.
- Aw, hell: Brown has a great debut and gets everyone totally excited about his potential. The safeties are good.
- Run defense remains resilient, finishing second to Wisconsin in the league
- Tight ends do very well against us all season.
- The 3-3-5 is way more frequent than a conventional nickel.
- 23rd in scoring defense.
Side note! These were last year's stupid predictions:
- 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. [way different than this year's prediction! -ed]
- Projected postseason grade: yeeeesh. Fully acknowledging that the above assumptions may be trashed by the second quarter of the ND game... B+.
Holy crap! I mean... seriously. That's badass.
I stole all these pictures from RBUAS. What can I say? The man finds some damn pictures.
I decided I would go to Football Armageddon, or at least what seemed like Football Armageddon at the time. (One compensation for this offseason's nonstop torrent of SEC triumphalism in the aftermath of Ohio State's national title game pantsing is that last year's Michigan-Ohio State game now seems vastly less important than it did at the time. The comforts of a Michigan fan are small these days.)
Anyway, four of us rolled out of Michigan early in the morning: myself, a friend, and two people I didn't know, one a friend of my friend, the other his coworker. The coworker, who we'll call "Skeeter" for no reason whatsoever, cracked open a beer as we hit the highway. At 8 AM. It will turn out that Skeeter is a very, very stupid man. Friend of Friend, who is an exec type and I believe Skeeter's boss, has a posh house and a wife who made us all buttons.* Encased in plastic that would occasionally pop open and expose its contents to the wind were pictures of Bo Schembechler culled from that morning's Detroit News. I pocketed one. And we drove.
So four hours in a car in the early morning driving to Columbus pass, and then there's cars and parking's all full and there's chaos and I'm antsy because the scalpers are all asking for lots of money. When we finally managed to find parking -- an arduous process -- Skeeter took the opportunity to relieve himself by the side of the car, in plain site of portajohns. Oh, Skeeter.
I managed to locate a callous scalper and acquire a decent enough endzone ticket 30 rows up for a few hundred dollars; then we experienced authentic Ohio State-style tailgating, which involved waiting in line to get beer from a convenience store, then watching others drink that beer in a dingy, crammed, and depressing parking lot as an Ohio State fan attempted to convince me that fan behavior was just as bad at Michigan mere moments after describing High Street paved in beer cans. (For the record, 2006 was a huge step forward from 2002, which was probably the nadir; this isn't really about OSU fan behavior, it's about this irritating rat-faced guy I was talking to.) Eventually I decided to go into the game preposterously early because it was better than waiting around not drinking beer.
I entered. When I crested the threshold of my section and looked up... students. I was in the student section. I was going to die. I wore my Bo pin, stood stiff and unmoving, and made no eye contact. I managed to not break down during the pregame tribute, sat down several times so I would not die, and then when kickoff finally came watched Michigan rip off an opening touchdown drive that was a thing of beauty. When I inadvertently let a "go, Mario, go" slip out after the first play of the game an ornery looking Ohio State fan would turn around and glare, then complain to his friends I was going to ruin the game. I didn't say anything afterward, even when Michigan punched it in.
When I felt a tremor, I looked down at my hands. They were shaking uncontrollably. We were a third of the way to enough points to win the game. We were going to win. The Year of Infinite Pain was but the first act of a remarkable redemption story.
Then we kicked off.
It turns out 2006 was not the second act of a two-act play, or at least not one with any message other than "God has it in for you, specifically, for no real reason." No Michigan fan needs to be reminded of what happened from then on. It was a dour finish to a year that had been a triumphant return to... er... glory for a program in need of some. In my particular case, the agony of the Ohio State game was magnified tenfold when Skeeter, who had gone down to Columbus fully expecting to not go to the game because of its cost, failed to show at our agreed-upon meeting point after the game. Cell-phone reception being what it is after a major sporting event (nonexistent), the next hour -- I kid you not -- was spent in front of the same convenience store I had been lectured next to by the rat-faced man from hours before, watching Ohio State fans go "WOOOOOOOO" and wanting to die. Eventually we decided to walk back to the car and get something to eat at a local chain restaurant; Skeeter finally showed up hours and hours later, drunk and with some new buddies from the bar. It was 10 PM by the time we finally left; by that hour my rage had bubbled and re-bubbled and boiled over and erupted in little spasmodic fits for hours and hours and hours. When we got in the car, Skeeter cracked another beer.
And it is because of this that I can tell you that no matter how mad I get, I will never choke a man to death with his own intestines and then drink warm Bud Light out of his skull.. If it was going to happen, it would have happened. One of the great regrets of my life is going to be not leaving that twat in Columbus, preferably after stealing his wallet and all forms of identification. And his pants.
So, yeah, that's the end of last year.
This year the stakes are simple: send out Mike Hart, Chad Henne, Jake Long, (very probably) Mario Manningham, and (very probably) Lloyd Carr as triumphant victors completing a three act play, or it's Skeeter time. No pressure.
*(Skeeter and FOF being cordial enough to go to a football game in Ohio together was surprising, on reflection.)
Unit By Unit
In the course of three years Chad Henne has gone from wonder boy to whipping boy to quarterback... uh... man. Or something. Quarterback man, quarterback man, doin' the things a quarterback can. I have wandered off topic.
Anyway: as a sophomore, Henne was bad. This was covered in last year's preview, but a brief recap: Henne propped up his numbers by throwing a ton of read-free wide receiver screens and were further supported by a year in which every Big Ten secondary may as well have been Michigan State's; when he went downfield he was highly inaccurate, the primary culprit in Michigan's loss to Wisconsin and possibly those against Minnesota and Notre Dame. Though there were many valid excuses (no real deep threat, horrible offensive line play, no Mike Hart, general bloody-mindedness of the universe in general and Angry Michigan Safety Hating God in particular), this remains an apt summary of his 2005:
Henne's '05 environment was not a good place to do anything but fail. This, by in large, he did.
Things were much different in 2006. A brief tour through Henne's season via the magic of UFR (Ball State and the Rose Bowl did not get UFRed):
Not particularly good... not particularly Henne's fault, though. He attempted to throw 27 times; approximately 7 of those times were either screens or three-step rhythm throws. 25% of the time when Henne attempted to throw something longer than a screen or short west coast pattern he had Vandy players in his face, usually unblocked after a stunt or a missed blitz pickup. Late in the game, he started expecting and fearing pressure, forgot his mechanics, and started short-hopping balls. It was reminiscent of last year's Notre Dame game ... Henne was fine at first. He was excellent on the opening drive, and at least good through much of the game. The stats don't show it because of the drops.
However, when he lost faith in his protection late he started scrambling unnecessarily, misfiring on simple passes, and generally reverting to the bad old days at the beginning of last season. Notre Dame has no doubt noticed this -- the first hint of it was against them, after all -- and will blitz and stunt extensively, hoping to get him rattled.
There wasn't much evidence to go on, but he came through when he was asked to throw. I do have some concerns about his tendency to check down when he has a lot of time, but with the umbrella CMU was putting around the deep receivers it's understandable. He should have some opportunities to go deep against Notre Dame. [boy, was I right about that. -ed.]
Manningham's getting all the accolades but his three touchdowns were all inch-perfect throws by Henne and tough ones. (Maybe the first one wasn't so tough, but Henne laid it right in Manningham's chest anyway.) ... yow. Five passes in the negative categories, 16 in the positive ones. Last year Henne's numbers were propped up with a copious number of screens of all varieties, but remove the five he threw in this game (4 CA, 1 IN) and you still get 12-4, a 75% "good" rate. Last year he often hovered around 50%.
Another fine performance... At this point I think it's safe to declare Henne's accuracy vastly improved. He still makes the occasional Morelli-esque throw into a Mongol horde of defenders, but he's performing more like the Henne from last year's OSU game than last year's Wisconsin game.
Commenters questioned whether or not that was the best performance of Henne's career and waited for chart to decide. Chart says? Probably, and it would say "almost definitely" if it could accurately reflect how ridiculous every one of those DOs was and remind you that one of the INs was another bomb.
The delightful thing is: it's not all that different from his performances over the past three weeks. He had a rough game against Vandy, but since then he's been insane. It would be one thing if the Minnesota game was an aberration, but Henne's been laying it in between his WR's numbers for three weeks now. The deep ball has gone from a high-risk maneuver to a staple of the offense.
Not to be one of those people, but Henne seemed kinda off, right?
Yes. ... he only had six good passes downfield. The sample size isn't exactly vast, but this was Henne's iffiest performance since Vandy.
Obviously, Henne threw a lot more in this game than he has in any other this year, and he did it in a difficult environment against a good defense. It's reasonable to expect the numbers to be a little uglier. And that they are, with a full 15 attempts in the negative categories compared to but 19 in the positive ones. You may remember that at his nadir last year, Henne hovered just below the 50% mark, but that was after we stripped out batted passes and pressure. With four deflected balls -- none of which were truly Henne's fault -- and one Alford-induced scramble removed, Henne's ratio is 19:10. That's not bad at all.
Still, I wish that his accuracy was better. He had Arrington open a few times and either missed him entirely or forced him into a tough catch. He missed an open Butler a few times and winged a sure first down over Breaston's head. He turns two of those inaccurate passes into completions and I'm raving... but his accuracy left a little to be desired.
On the other hand: do you know who he reminds me of right at this minute? John Navarre midway through his junior year. That's when Navarre started doing things like moving up in the pocket to buy himself time and make the correct audibles and look safeties off before firing critical third-down lasers. And that's when you, the fan, sat back and thought "is this really John Navarre? Really really?" The Arrington touchdown and the scrambling Breaston completion are things he would not have done a year ago. He's gone from staring down receivers to teleporting safeties with his eyes. He's making second and third reads with regularity. He's getting there, and fast. The best evidence of this: the one timeout Michigan took on offense was because DeBord never got the call in, and Henne spent the entire game calling two plays and checking at the line in front of 110,000 people who hate him. He's come a long way.
Henne was generally accurate but not inspiring.
One issue: a high number of BRs. Only one was a dangerous throw into coverage -- the interception on the seam route -- but a total of four is high. Henne started the game doing that scramble-into-danger thing when the pocket was holding, essentially sacking himself. That hesitancy has crept into his game in recent weeks; hopefully it's more a function of no Manningham than anything else.
Par for the course for Henne. Was victimized by three drops, each of which would have turned a punt into at least a field goal attempt in all probability. He's getting better at finding guys on the run, but I still think he's a little too jumpy in the pocket.
A weird game from Henne where he was either doing something really bad (interception, misthrowing a screen, winging it wide to Manningham) or throwing lasers twenty-to-forty yards downfield. The lasers outweighed the errors, say the numbers, and I agree. That's partially an artifact of playing Saturday's red-clad men that claim they are a secondary, but a 62-yard bomb placed delicately between the 1 and the 5 on Breaston's jersey is a 62-yard bomb placed delicately between the 1 and the 5 on Breaston's jersey. Henne was also aided by a couple plays where Indiana rushers didn't come within five yards of him.
(Henne had only 15 attempts, BTW.)
Smith hardly ever had things filed "PR" because even when get got "PR-ed" he usually got off a short hitch to Gonzalez or Hall or Ginn or whoever because we couldn't cover long enough for unblocked blitzers to be useful. Henne, on the other hand, got swamped by linemen:
/55. Kraus -4, Ecker -1, Riley -7, Long -2, Mitchell -3, Bihl -1, assorted miscellaneous.
Some of that was just the scheme: Michigan's routes need time to develop. Primary reads on each play are long gainers and our little checkdown routes are slow-developing crosses. Henne spent vastly more time with the ball in his hand than Smith did. Some of that was just bad play. some of that was no doubt Henne-caused, as there were a few more instances of run-around-uselessly theater (though, like Navarre, Henne has started to indicate that he's getting better at this late in his junior season: see the Ecker touchdown). ... Chad Henne was deployed fully for the first time since the Notre Dame game and turned in an impressive performance. He has total command of his reads and routes. His accuracy is greatly improved. His pocket awareness... needs work but is improving.
How come we never throw over the middle?
What, are you stuck in 2005? This time-tested complaint should be shelved until 2008. Henne is now probing the middle of the field on digs, crosses, seams, and posts with frequency and success. Yes, this is a reminder for the first game of 2007, when we run a really boring offense against a MAC school and everyone freaks out.
(I want credit for that last bit this year, okay?)
|"oh, wide open"|
|Arm strength stop|
|Flag of perfection|
A few themes emerge: Henne is at his wicked best when dropping bombs on opponents' heads. His pocket awareness leaves something to be desired. His accuracy was vastly improved. He has full command of the offense. He was not used extensively. The overall picture: very good. Not great.
But it is the rare junior who is "great," especially at the most mentally demanding position on the field. The upside is there. Henne can make all the throws, from wide receiver screens to slants to fifteen-yard outs to posts to parabolic, feathery deep balls that nestle themselves between the 8 and the 6 on Mario Manningham's jersey. It might be nice if he was a little taller, but in all other ways he is a prototypical NFL quarterback. What holds him back is the flash of hesitancy, the indecision in the moment of the chase, the little uncertainties that crop up when an offense's well-laid plans crumble to dust.
You can see the problems he had last year ebb as the impressions roll by, with minor upticks when Henne ran across top defenses in the roiling hatred of State College and Columbus. And... um... Michigan State at home. Every Michigan quarterback has progressed; every senior has been in full command of the offense and let loose to do what he will. What doubts exist here seem to be unreasonable paranoia given past history. Henne should excel.
The backup situation is touchy with Jason Forcier's transfer. Ryan Mallett, the brobdingnagian freshman who can throw a ball through three Nazis, Last Crusade style, is the backup quarterback and heir apparent. Though he's undoubted the greatest quarterback ever ever, should he be pressed into service as a true freshman Michigan's offense will take a serious hit.
|Mike Hart||Sr.||Mark Moundros||So.*|
|Brandon Minor||So.||Vince Helmuth||Fr.|
|Carlos Brown||So.||Quintin Patilla||Fr.*|
|Avery Horn||Fr.||Andre Criswell||So.*|
Mike Hart's various joints and limbs cooperated with the rest of Michigan's miniature dynamo, and how. Last year Michigan rode Hart to an extent almost unparalleled across the country. His 318 carries were exceeded only by those of Rutgers' Ray Rice; PJ Hill and Garrett Wolfe were the only other backs to crack 300. Anyone who seriously trots out Hart durability issues amongst Michigan's concerns this year is living in the 90s, man.
|Wind the clock|
|Typical Minny play|
|Five yards of awesome|
|Gold, Jerry, Gold!|
On those 318 carries, Hart picked up 1562 yards at 4.9 yards per carry. Though these are respectable numbers, they are by no means great. Part of this is Hart's lack of breakaway speed, but part of it was Michigan's dogged effort to plow virtually all its opponents into bonemeal no matter the situation. Against Wisconsin, Michigan ran
on first down 20 of 26 times. Across the entire year, Michigan ran 57 percent of the time. When you run so often and so predictably, yards per carry become depressed unless you are an NFL first round sort.
Hart isn't. We all know who he is by now. He will get run down by safeties. He is not Darren McFadden or Steve Slaton. But he doesn't fumble, picks his way through line-of-scrimmage traffic like no one else, and is capable of banging out the greatest eight yard runs ever:
He is the engine; the afterburners belong to others.
|State's too easy|
The backup situation verged on dangerously thin when Kevin Grady blew out an ACL in spring practice and Carlos Brown first tried out at corner then flirted with a transfer. Brown eventually decided against the transfer, easing worries, then broke his hand. The injury is minor and shouldn't hold him out of more than the opener, but it has hampered his practice time. He'll get a long look as a punt and kick returner, but it'll probably be next year before serious carries are a possibility.
Thus Brandon Minor will be Hart's primary backup. As a freshman, Minor alternated bursts through the secondary with uninspiring three-yard gains. He's a slashing, high-stepping runner with a turn of speed that defies the recruiting analysts, who rated him as a fullback. It remains to be seen whether he can pick his way through traffic like Hart can -- rephrase: it remains to be seen just how much worse he is at picking his way through traffic than Hart is. His freshman year gave some indication that without an obvious hole he just runs up into a linebacker or one of his offensive linemen. Vision can develop -- see Chris Perry -- but he's not necessarily the heir apparent.
Freshman Avery Horn is fast as hell but has no idea what he's doing. If he doesn't get drafted to return kickoffs he'll redshirt.
Wide Receivers & Tight Ends
|Mario Manningham||Jr.||Adrian Arrington||Jr.*||Greg Mathews||So.||Mike Massey||Jr.*|
|Toney Clemons||Fr.||LaTerryal Savoy||So.*||Junior Hemingway||Fr.||Carson Butler||So.*|
|Zion Babb||Fr.||Martell Webb||Fr.||Andre Criswell (TE)||So.*||Steve Watson||Fr.|
Mario Manningham missed five games with a torn meniscus, only caught 38 passes, and finished 36th in receiving yards nationally. But, yeah...
...he's kind of good. Manningham exploded onto the nation's consciousness during the FBD against Notre Dame and continued torching secondaries until felled by injury against Michigan State. Across that four-week span, Manningham caught 19 balls for an incredible 456 yards -- 24 yards per catch -- and eight long touchdowns. Every team in the
|State's too easy|
country has a player they think can be the proverbial deep threat, but Mario Manningham is Chuck Norris in the Marinas Trench. Armed with an arsenal of double moves that can sucker in the weak and strong alike (Wisconsin, beaten for two touchdowns, was the #1 pass efficiency D in the country last year; Manningham duped Buckeye cornerback Malcolm Jenkins into an "oh wide open" during Football Armageddon that Henne overthrew badly), Manningham requires safety attention at all times. Every time you leave him without a bracket you risk a precision smart bomb from Henne. Other than maybe Desean Jackson there is no better receiver in college football.
One brief exemplar of Manningham's significance to the Michigan offense can be found at right; I don't think this qualifies as cherry picking, as among the opponents in the five game "no Manningham" section are Northwestern, Ball State, and Indiana.
|Minnesota seam TD|
|Minnesota post TD|
|State circus catch|
|Penn State post #1|
|Penn State post #2|
|Another tough dig|
Meanwhile, Adrian Arrington finally emerged as an onfield contributor after two years of blocking, malfeasance, and injury, and then he went and nearly malfeased his way right off the team. Two solid months of 6AM stairs got him back in Carr's good graces; in him Michigan has the makings of another All Big Ten wide receiver. You can call him a more athletic Jason Avant or a less athletic Braylon Edwards, but the comparison foremost in my mind is David Terrell: good but not great speed, a lanky stride and the ability to go up and get a fade. When Manningham was out, it was Arrington who became the primary threat, catching a couple of tough posts that yielded ten of Michigan's points against Penn State. One was Michigan's only passing touchdown of the day:
He has not shown the big play ability Manningham has (or Terrell had), but did catch a deep seam against Minnesota for a touchdown and is obviously tough enough to go get those posts. As a number two wide receiver he's an excellent option.
True sophomore Greg Mathews spent most of last year blocking but also picked up eight catches in sporadic time. A recruit who edged into the end of top 100 lists towards the end of his high school career, his stride, power, and hands are reminiscent of Jason Avant, though that comparison is obviously tenuous at this point given his limited utilization. He will be a possession complement to the deep and intermediate threats.
Behind Mathews there are but freshmen. Toney Clemons, another fringe top 100 guy, has been the most impressive in fall camp and will be the fourth receiver. Enjoy your blocking, kid! Junior Hemingway will also play; Zion Babb will probably redshirt.
Antonio Bass's knee is still severely damaged. He remains on the team but most say that's a technicality and he will be a medical casualty after the year. He will not play.
|Iowa cross #2|
At tight end, it's probably wrong to compare a kid who nearly got booted off a football team to Jesus, so lets just call Carson Butler Lazarus. Raw, kind of dense (the kid must have gone offsides a half dozen times last year), and wildly athletic, Butler tantalized during a redshirt freshman year in which he became the team's leading tight end. Then came a wild sequence of events: he was placed on double-secret probation along with Eugene Germany (gone) and Adrian Arrington (back) for undisclosed violations of team rules rumored to be inopportunely timed weed, arrested for playing a role in the St. Patrick's Day Nerd Massacre, kicked off the team because of the SPDNM arrest, acquitted of all charges in the SPDNM, and finally let back on the team a couple weeks ago. He's still deep in the doghouse -- not listed on the initial depth chart -- but should emerge within a few games if we make the potentially large assumption he keeps his head down and joins a church choir or something. So... a quasi-starter with big potential.
The other quasi-starter is redshirt junior Mike Massey, who saw extensive playing time a year ago but didn't do much with it. He was this close to making a couple superb catches, one a wheel route against Wisconsin, the other a potential touchdown against Penn State, but in both cases the ball just eluded his fingertips. He's been talked up in the spring, but doubts still remain about his blocking and overall upside.
Chris McLaurin and Andre Criswell back up Massey and Butler; both looked awful in the spring game. Criswell was shifted from fullback in the spring when Butler got himself in trouble; McLaurin was a linebacker who swapped units last year because of a chronic shoulder injury (... or something; it's not entirely clear). If either sees the field this year, it's probably to block. Freshman Steve Watson is the son of a former Denver Broncos receiver/coach by the same name and should be college ready; he may also see time. Martell Webb, at 6'5", 215, is headed for a redshirt.
|Jake Long||Sr.*||Adam Kraus||Sr.*||Justin Boren||So.||Alex Mitchell||Jr.*||Steve Schilling||Fr.*|
|Mark Ortmann||So.*||Dave Molk||Fr.||David Moosman||Fr.*||Jeremy Cuilla||So.*||Perry Dorrestein||Fr.*|
|Mark Huyge||Fr.||Tim MacAvoy||So.*||Grant DeBenedictis||So.*||Brett Gallimore||Jr.*||Cory Zirbel||So.*|
(note: every Michigan lineman since the beginning of time has redshirted. Just assume "redshirt" in front of all years unless "true" is specifically appended.)
Three starters return to the Michigan line, including the two best players on 2006's adequate, but not great, unit.
Left tackle Jake Long passed on an opportunity to be a top-ten selection in the NFL draft to play his senior year. That should suffice as an indicator of his talent, which is immense. He's the best offensive lineman in the conference and possibly the nation.
Fellow senior Adam Kraus enters his third year as a starter. Though he was prone to the occasional missed read in the zone game, when he was on the right page he was effective. Capable of getting out to the second level and an above-average pass blocker, Kraus is short of great but is probably headed for first-team All Big Ten at year's end.
Sophomore (true sophomore!) Justin Boren is on a stardom track. The first Michigan lineman in forever to forgo a redshirt, Boren started one game a year ago at guard and rotated in several times during the year. Michigan was grooming him for the center spot from day one. Every indicator on him is positive: he was a highly hyped recruit, he was one of the dominant player in that year's Army All-Star game, he saw the field immediately, and he won a starting role as a true sophomore. There might be some issues at first -- Boren has never played center before -- but by midseason he will probably be an upgrade over the departed Mark Bihl.
Alex Mitchell's job came under fire in the fall even before he picked up a minor injury that will hold him out of the Appalachian State game and maybe Oregon as well. Reports have consistently mentioned Mitchell's issues with his weight; some darkly hint at potential motivation issues. At times last year he was overrun, especially on stunts and blitzes that he and Rueben Riley did always handle well. As a first year starter and a sophomore there are some mitigating factors, but there has been a constant undercurrent of discontent with his play and conditioning this offseason. Even healthy he may watch from the sidelines.
Steve Schilling, like Boren, is marked for stardom. Practice-field rumors had him running neck-and-neck with Rueben Riley, a fifth year senior and multiple-year starter (albeit one who often seemed like an out of position guard), the instant he stepped on campus despite running a wing-T in high school and not knowing how to pass block. An ill-timed case of mono knocked him out of contention in 2006 and forced a redshirt, and shoulder surgery caused him to miss spring practice. Despite all that he's beaten out Cory Zirbel and Mark Ortmann for the right tackle job.
The question with Schilling is how fast can he get up and going? All the injury downtime and the wing-T thing could lead to some dodgy moments in pass protection early. If he's shaky during the Oregon and Penn State games, Michigan's offense could sputter in an inopportune fashion.
Key backups on the line: Mark Ortmann, a redshirt sophomore who will be the first tackle on the field if either Long or Schilling goes down. He's supposed to be more of a finesse, pass-blocking type. Jeremy Cuilla is the first option at guard. A junior who's seen a start here and there and had significant snaps when other players go down injured, he has a modicum of experience but no hype. He will replace Mitchell for Appalachian State. Dave Moosman was well-regarded as a center and is probably in line to start next year (Boren would slide out to guard); this year might be a bit early. The backup situation, in general, is not good.
Five Questions and Five Answers
What could possibly go wrong?
A look back at last year's questions is a blast from the horrible, horrible past: does Henne suck ass? Does the offensive line suck ass? Does Breaston suck ass? Are we going to die? If so, how painful will it be? Will the muscles be flayed from our bodies as we watch in helpless agony? Could you describe the pain on the Schmidt scale? Are we talking yellowjacket pain...
2.0 Yellowjacket: Hot and smoky, almost irreverent. Imagine WC Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue.
...or is it bullet ant time...
4.0+ Bullet ant: Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch nail in your heel.
I tried to answer these things in a somewhat reassuring manner -- No, sort of, sort of, maybe, probably pretty painful, yeesh no, probably yellowjacket if you pushed me -- but my impression of the fanbase's zeitgeist has flipped 180 degrees from last year. Now nothing at all questions the offense. But... NSFMF!
These are the ways in which the offense could fail to live up to its potential:
- Short yardage remains problematic. Michigan sucked in many ways during the Year of Infinite Pain, but one area in which they most certainly did not was in short yardage. Michigan converted at an almost 90% clip on third and one. Last year that number dropped under 60%. I have covered this before, but to re-iterate: the zone game was a disaster in short yardage situations, sabotaging a dozen or more drives when the slow developing stretch got overwhelmed by penetration. Michigan's out-talent and out-execute approach to football has always been at its best when the odds are stacked in their favor, like on third and not much. The stretch moves us away from that. More on this later.
- Steve Schilling and Justin Boren play like n00bs. This wouldn't be totally surprising, since they are n00bs, but a large portion of the optimism rests on the assumption there will be little dropoff from Mark Bihl and Rueben Riley to either new starter. A portion of it rests on the assumption that the new guys will actually be better than the outgoing seniors by midseason.
- Carson Butler and Adrian Arrington look at someone funny. Both are hanging by threads; without them the situation at receiver is basically Manningham, Massey, and a bunch of unproven sketch. Guys: stay home and play XBox.
- Key injuries. Obvs. Henne, Hart, Long, and Manningham cannot be replaced.
- Michigan gets cocky. More on this later.
- Henne remains very good, but does not improve. Also more on this later.
Will Michigan t
ake full advantage of its weapons?
AKA "Michigan gets cocky." I hate that this has to be asked, but it does. Michigan had very little in the way of creative, attacking offense except against Notre Dame and Ohio State. (I believe they would like to have been creative and attacking against USC but Michigan's inability to block anyone prevented that. Shotgun grumbing goes here.) This was most bothersome during the Wisconsin game, when Michigan ran on first down 80% of the time and 74% of the time before the game was salted away. Michigan could not have gone into that game with the idea they would plow over the Badgers, so that looks like a conscious decision to sacrifice effectiveness for safety.
For the most part I was fine with this. Michigan was in a unique situation last year because of their defense, which was so dominant it made sense to trade points for risk. (And when their defense was not dominant Michigan was obviously in full Scoring Offense mode, even if that whole blocking thing prevented the actual scoring against USC.) Against most teams Michigan was simply not going to lose unless there was somewhere between one to three disastrous turnovers; limit those and limit your ability to lose. This is the same strategy Michigan rode to the 1997 national title, and the same one Jim Tressel uses with great success when his quarterback is not a Heisman winner. It makes sense when you have a slavering, vicious defense.
It does not make sense when you do not, and Michigan looks like it won't this year. I don't think the defense is going to be 2005-level bad, but it won't be the sort of thing where a team can get the ball back down seven late and I feel no panic whatsoever. A one score lead is no longer a large one except in certain special years; hopefully Michigan won't coach like this is one of them.
So... I can't answer this. I think Michigan's conservative tendencies both exist and are overstated; I think Carr has become more aggressive in recent years; I fear he will coach this year like he has last year's defense.
Can we fix short yardage?
I don't know. I do know that every time Michigan runs a stretch from a three-wide on third and one this year, God will kill a kitten. Also I will swear so fiercely that evil-looking little imps will spontaneously generate and flit away, probably to play cornerback for Purdue. I'm pessimistic this will change because it seems like such a spectacularly stubborn and stupid approach to third and one. It's not like it takes an offseason to review and fix the problem; it was obvious and something I was complaining about it as early as the Notre Dame game.
And yet they were still pulling out the Third-And-Punt maneuver during the Ohio State game. It seems that if they thought this was a problem they would have picked up on it earlier. They will try to execute better. They might with an extra year of experience, but chances are it will be average at best, especially with two new fullbacks, no Grady, and iffy-blocking tight ends.
(On the assumption some actual journalists read this thing... the Daily guys must, at least: could someone ask about this? Here is the question: Are you concerned that third and one conversion dropped 30 percentage points last year and does that have any connection to the zone running game? Do you plan on incorporating more isos in these situations? If not, why do you hate kittens? It's no "What do you make of your schedule that features eight home games?" but it might be worth asking.)
Will Henne make another leap?
He was very good a year ago, and even if he plateaus Michigan's offense should be better with development from the line, a full season from Manningham, and the continued improvement of the players around him. But there were moments in most games that Henne showed some flaws, either by winging balls a la 2005 or, more often, reacting to pressure poorly. If he reduces these instances he can be great.
Will he? Initial returns are good. When he visited the Elite 11 Camp as a counselor he drew praise from everyone who stopped by as the guy there. When rumblings come from within the bowels of Fort Schembechler they indicate Henne has stepped up a further notch. The validity of those rumors will probably mean the difference between a nice BCS bowl and a national championship game appearance (in which we'll get dismantled by USC, natch). Since his problems seem to resided chiefly in the realm of the mental -- missed reads, some timing issues, pocket awareness -- a smooth natural progression is likely. The inaccuracy went way down a year ago, so whatever mechanics issues he had seem repaired. Henne should take another step forward.
And adding it all up, you get...?
If there is ever going to be a year Michigan spends headbutting foes by final scores of 42-10, this is going to be it. I suppose depth could be better all over the place, but Michigan has a top five quarterback, top five running back, top five wide receiver, and top five left tackle. Carson Butler and Adrian Arrington are both outstanding targets. The only things to fret over even a little are fullback and the right side of the offensive line, which features a returning starter (once Mitchell gets back, which is apparently for Oregon) and the two most hyped offensive line recruits since Jake Long.
I think it will be a little disappointing in games here and there. Early games against Oregon and Penn State worry -- though I don't have a handle on Oregon's defense yet -- as the new offensive linemen could self-destruct frequently enough to severely limit Michigan's effectiveness. One small comfort: Penn State's defensive line is about as green as the Boren/Mitchell/Schilling trio and projected DT starter Abe Koroma is likely to miss the game.
But even with those concerns I go back to that little box in the wide receivers category that showed production with and without Manningham. The "with" Manningham number, a seven game stretch featuring three of the top twenty scoring defenses nationwide: 36.8, which would have been good for fifth in the country last year. That's a realistic goal. I believe! Praise-ah his name-ah! Yes-ah!
- Brandon Minor gets 20% of the available carries.
- Alex Mitchell manages to fend off challengers for his job.
- Henne is invited to New York for the Heisman thingy, but does not win.
- Massey spends most of the year in front of Butler on the depth chart but Butler ends up with more catches and is the defacto starter by Wisconsin.
- Manningham: 1340, 15 TD.
- Michigan is 15th in total offense; 12th in scoring.