Part five of the all-singing all-dancing season preview. Previously: The Story, 2009, quarterbacks, tailbacks, and receivers.
Note: video from last year is lightboxed; previous years will take you off the page.
Rating: 3.5 of 5.
Last year I grimaced at a two-deep that contained four freshmen, one of whom was slated to start, and one player (Steve Schilling) with an iota of starting experience and gave the sorry bunch the most well-deserved 1 rating since… well, 3000 words earlier when I slapped the dread number on the quarterbacks.
For six games this was painfully accurate. The Utah game was grim all around but perhaps grimmest on the offensive line:
Offensive line: their overall suck was obviously part of the gameplan in a huge way; I expect that will seriously impinge on Michigan’s attempts to forge an offense all year. Like 2005 except worse.
This persisted and persisted and we can skip the gory details but then something funny happened at about the same time Brandon Minor ascended to the starting tailback job: they got sort of competent. Let's hit this up one last time: over the last six games of the season Michigan outrushed a hypothetical average team by 25%. They didn't do this by piling on inordinate numbers of carries. If Michigan had extended that performance over the course of a full season they would have been 30th in rushing nationally.
This year, every single player who saw a snap last year is back. Intermittent starter Tim McAvoy has been booted to third-string, and Steve Schilling is no longer making a go of it at tackle, where he cannot pass block. Perhaps best of all, there are actual backups.
The line already took its quantum leap forward midway through last year and will be limited in certain spots, but further progress should see them end up… good? Yeah, maybe.
Rating: 3 of 5.
Fifth-year senior Mark Ortmann returns at left tackle. Jake Long he is not. Ortmann picked up his share of negatives in pass protection last year, most notably against Penn State when he was –5 on a day when Michigan only got to 21 total pass-pro points. The minuses came on two players where Ortmann was "beaten badly by [Maurice] Evans"; the latter resulted in a game-killing sack/fumble. The next week against Michigan State he picked up a –6:
Ortmann(-2) totally smoked by a blindside rusher… Ortmann(-2) took a poor angle downfield, though, and the MLB beats him, prompting Threet to pitch it despite a State LB having decent contain. … Ortmann and McAvoy just run by an MSU linebacker … A three-man rush; Ortmann's guy spins inside of him and dives at Threet's feet [to sack] … Ortmann(-2) beaten pretty badly [on a sack].
It wasn't all bad—there were a couple of good plays sprinkled in there—but the end result was "I'd be surprised to see Ortmann keep his job once Dorrestein is healthy." I was surprised, it turned out. Ortmann was an unquestioned starter through spring but it would be a Joppru-level breakthrough for him to become even an honorable-mention all conference sort.
Being functional and unremarkable is a good target for Ortmann this year; his upside is more Adam Stenavich than Long.
Right tackle, on the other hand, is a battle that promises to go until kickoff of the Western game and probably beyond. Redshirt freshman Patrick Omameh was everyone's heavy leader until a week before the spring game, when redshirt sophomore Mark Huyge was surprisingly inserted into the starting lineup. Until that point Huyge, a guy who was considering MAC offers before Michigan came along, had been an afterthought. Huyge got good reviews, albeit against undaunting competition, and is your tentative opening-day starter.
It's worth pointing out that Huyge, like stating center David Molk, was recruited by Michigan after they implemented Mike Debord's zone-heavy ground game and is thus more likely to fit in with the spread 'n' shred than guys in the classes above them. It's too bad that line class consisted of two-count-'em-two players.
Neither tackle is likely to be a standout—all Big Ten is not happening—but there are options and backups and they're entering year two of the Barwis program and year two of the same offensive scheme and we should see a considerable step forward from this position in the run game. Last year, Michigan's outsize zones never got outside because the tackles were getting pushed back, which led to a lot of plays where Moundros shot outside aimlessly as the player he was supposed to be blocking for was forced to cut it up. A large number of Slaton's big plays came from getting outside the tackle, and Michigan should see at least a few instances where they successfully spring Shaw or Brown outside this year.
Pass blocking might be more problematic. Ortmann struggled some last year and the right tackle will be a new starter. There will be some ugly sacks against top-flight defensive ends.
Rating: 4 of 5.
Steve Schilling's long-overdue move to guard promises to end the parade of ineffective LGs Michigan deployed last year. Last year they tried Tim McAvoy, John Ferrara, and even obvious tackle Mark Ortmann there before going with Schilling after the Illinois game. Schilling was needed at tackle soon after and moved back out. Ortmann's one-game experiment ended with a –6 in pass protection, an de- and impressively large number for an interior linemen. Ferrara was a defensive tackle weeks before the season. And McAvoy was the reason Ortmann and Ferrara were tried out. Anything that looks like a steady starter will be a massive upgrade.
Meanwhile, Schilling probably should have been a guard from day one. His two years starting at tackle featured plenty of pass protection struggles—he racked up a record –12 against Vernon Gholston as a freshman. By the Purdue game last year I'd just about given up on the idea of Schilling as a tackle:
I am leery of both tackles these days, BTW, and wouldn't be surprised to see some sort of reconfiguration that sees Schilling slide inside to guard next year.
Lo, it has come to pass. As a tackle, Schilling hasn't had the opportunity to display the athleticism that got him five stars at the fervent attention of USC when he was a recruit, but it still exists and after two years in Michigan's new-look strength and conditioning program he should be about as strong and agile as he'll get.
What Michigan needs from Schilling is pancaked linebackers, and while he hasn't proven he can do that quite yet, he is a guy entering his third year starting that has all the guru approval in the world (for what little that means for linemen). Signs point to above-average, with "meh" and All Big Ten the ends of the reasonable spectrum of expectations.
David Moosman returns at right guard. Like everyone at guard last year, he had some issues finding and taking out linebackers downfield—there's a Picture Pages with an example—but he wasn't obviously bad. This made him the line's best player early until the guy I am most unreasonably eeee about on the team came into his own. (That would be David Molk, about whom more next.)
The slightly problem is that Moosman didn't seem to improve much as the season wore on. He was just an okay player the whole year; in context that was a lot more impressive early than late. Another year like last, where he's functional but unremarkable, is on the docket.
Moosman is a really smart guy, for what it's worth, and not "for a football player."
This blog fell a little in love with center David Molk as the season progressed and Molk started anchoring better against defensive tackles 50 pounds heavier than he was. The affair started in the second game of the year when Molk successful impeded the progress of some MAC defensive tackles…
I thought David Molk was great a week after being hurled back into the ballcarrier more than once. Against Miami he consistently got across the face of the defensive tackle lined up to the playside, allowing the guard a free release into the second level where he would either whack a linebacker and someone would run for 20 yards or whiff that linebacker and Michigan would get zero.
…a week after getting Sam-owned against Utah:
The lingering fear is that this is more a function of the opponent than any great leap forward. In retrospect, against Utah Molk was getting the same excellent position on his man but after he got that position the DT picked him up and dropped him in the RB’s lap.
The next week against ND, Molk, Moosman, and McAvoy were named "heroes" for consistently blowing up the interior of the ND defense; the UFR section titled simply "McGuffie!" immediately shot credit to the guys on the inside:
Michigan had great success with the zone stretch and occasional dive because Molk and either McAvoy or Moosman spent the day crushing the playside DT downfield.
It wasn't to last, though. Wisconsin's veteran defensive tackles "murdered" the interior line against both pass and run. By that point there was a pattern: the Michigan interior line was good, even great, against substandard opponents but could not cope with big, veteran DTs. This held true until the Penn State game, when Michigan and Molk went up against one of the best defenses in the conference and at the end of it Molk ended up in the "heroes" list. He even got his own Picture Pages:
He got dinged later in the year for being small, but in a system like this where he's reach-blocking all day his agility is an asset. Time and again against Penn State he successful executed these blocks, springing people into the secondary. Against Notre Dame he did the same thing.
The issues are obvious, though: too many missed blocks, and too many blocks where he's just not strong enough to deal with his man. But he's a redshirt freshman; strength should come.
I like him. I like David Molk. I think he can be very good at football. Is this clear? Probably not. What Michigan needs from Molk this year is twenty more pounds, more familiarity with the offense, and that's it.
BONUS: I don't remember any bad snaps last year except maybe one or two in the Northwestern game, when it was eminently forgivable.
Backups And Whatnot
Oh praise Jesus: there are some. Last year when Ortmann got dinged up early in the year, Michigan actually unearthed walk-on Bryant Nowicki to play left tackle until they could tell Perry Dorrestein to play on the other side of the line the following week.
Dorrestein and the loser of the pitched Omameh-Huyge battle will be the primary backups at tackle. If Huyge's grip on the job remains solid, the bet here is that Omameh flips to left tackle by midseason in preparation for 2010 and Dorrestein returns to the right, where the coaches apparently prefer him.
On the interior, redshirt freshmen Ricky Barnum and Rocko Khoury have been praised regularly in practice reports and are the top options at guard and center, respectively, in the event of an injury to one of the starters. Barnum's position is less solid than Khoury, as he's been afflicted with frequent minor injuries thus far in his Michigan career and missed most of the spring with a wrist issue. Also Khoury's the only guy around who's been snapping consistently.
Your other non-freshman options are John Ferrara, the converted defensive tackle who the coaches are keeping on the offensive side of the ball despite some serious depth issues at DT, tragedy-stricken Elliot Mealer, and journeyman Tim McAvoy. Of the group, Ferrara is the most likely to make an appearance. The coaches tried everything in their power to remove McAvoy from the starting lineup last year and moved Schilling inside to finally solve that particular issue. Mealer spent all of last year rehabbing a shoulder injury and is probably a year away from seriously competing for a job.
There are indeed freshmen, but if Rodriguez managed to redshirt all six guys from last year's class despite the patchwork nature of last year's line it will take truly epic misfortune for any of the incoming kids to see the field this year.
One man's guess as to the second unit: Omameh, Ferrara, Khoury, Barnum, Dorrestein.