Read them or don't, but it'll be your loss if it's the latter.
At some point in the increasingly distant past, my inbox became a triage center where the easily taken care of were quickly dispatched and the things that required some time sat, slumbering, until I made the effort to hack through the underbrush. As emails age they tend to keel over unaddressed, leaving a small but dedicated band of old-timers I guiltily survey whenever I accidentally hit the "home" key.
Right now the teetering old man of the inbox is an in-depth post about corrections and additions I should make to the UFR FAQ from last September. Number two came in two months later at five in the morning on November 20th, 2009—the day before Michigan lost to Ohio State for the eighth time in nine tries, two weeks after Notre Dame lost to Navy for the second time in three. It was a weird email and I feel very, very guilty for letting it molder so long:
state of the schwatevs...
Let's pretend for a second that you aren't, you know, a dork. That you haven't read 'Song of Fire and Ice' (such as it is thus far) and that you don't know what Order of the Stick means and that you never made a joke involving the fact that Comparative Literature is listed as 'clit' and that memes aren't bigger than just memes and John Updike's death wasn't something you immediately had to form an opinion about. Let's pretend none of that is true. Pretend now you haven't got rhetoric and no awful conception of your own brightness, and that you're just into sports like urrybody else is. Then, after that, tell me why do you care about football? Really why. It's important that you answer this question, I think. I mean, it might help me figure out what to do with my life. And you could tell people you once helped a drunk pre-med Notre Dame fan who got in to Notre Dame and turned it down to do Pure Philosophy at Trinity College Dublin, effectively killing his father.
But how do you reply to that, especially when I haven't actually read Song of Fire and Ice, don't know what the Order of the Stick means, and haven't actually made any jokes about comparative literature? I did immediately envision all the unpleasant ways in which John Updike would liked to have described his death since there's no question in my mind that his morbidity fantasies involved barbarously sexing at least one but preferably several nubile innocents, so guilty as charged there. Even so, attempting to bridge the gap between this urrybody version of my mind and a drunk Notre Dame fan/philosophy major at Trinity College who makes it very unclear if he means the bit about killing his father figuratively or literally was not something I could do on MGoBlog D-Day, and not something I was inclined to in the malaise after.
Even as I try to summon up the answer now, the reason this email is still in the geriatric ward is clear. I don't really know.
I am 31 now, a dozen years removed from sitting in my girlfriend's parents' house during the '98 Rose Bowl, seething at how the people around me didn't care nearly enough. It's strange to me that I spent a lot of fall Saturdays in high school going to quiz bowl tournaments instead of being terrified about the outcome of a football game. I completely missed the Kordell Stewart Hail Mary and remember sitting in a car the following year, sick to my stomach as Colorado tried to reprise the feat. How could I feel that bad about a football game and not watch it? When did this start happening?
I have two prehistoric memories of football. In the first, I was very young and Michigan was playing Michigan State. I privately decided to root for Michigan State because everyone else wanted them to lose and this seemed unfair. That was sometime in elementary school. In the second, I fell asleep for the middle bit of the 1991 Rose Bowl. When I woke up Michigan was way behind and my dad was pissed off. I felt guilty. The next year I was trying to figure out some way an 8-0-3 Michigan team could leapfrog a bunch of teams for a national title and pretty pissed off when it didn't happen after Tyrone Wheatley gutted Washington. It happened then. Why? "I turned 12" seems insufficient.
Football came to me as something that was important long ago, so long that if its importance was ever external to the thing itself distance has obscured that. In the wash of items my mind has pruned out of memory must be the reactions of tall people who could do anything they wanted even after eight PM. They thought it was important, and now so do I. I could think up a dozen reasons I haven't forgotten, but they would be post-hoc justifications for something that already was. Football has migrated from reason to the reptilian part of my brain. Now it lives in my throat and has the power to close it at will. This is a terrible answer.
I can say that most of the time I like that I find football important. It gives life a rhythm. I think my favorite part happens on the first day of the new year, when I file into the stadium an hour early. It's still mostly empty then. You can spread out in the sun. In my mental picture of this my seats are high up in the corner so I can take in the whole vast breadth of the stadium. Perched there, looking down and across, the future stretches out across the horizon. Anything seems possible, and the wait is over.
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.
So. Last year I suggested this would head towards average; it totally did not. It somehow conspired to get worse. One major reason for this is the blindingly obvious one: freshman quarterbacks. They accounted for the uptick in interceptions and a large number of Michigan's fumbles. With another year of experience it's reasonable to suggest Michigan's turnovers lost will decline from the 28 given away last year, tied with a few other teams (including Georgia) for 99th nationally. This blog's theory about QB experience and pressure should work in Michigan's favor this year. Finally.
There should be good news on defense, too. Michigan's five fumbles recovered is a very low number, tied for fifth worst nationally with LSU and Tulane (your national "leader" in not getting fumbles: Georgia), and fumbles are so much more fluky than interceptions that Michigan can expect a +5/6 improvement in that metric just by virtue of not being on the death end of fate. Maybe. If they aren't this year, you know.
So… yeah, one more time: this should get way closer to even than it was last year. More fumbles recovered, marginally less awful defense, sophomore quarterbacks. Just ending the year at zero would be worth a couple wins, and while that's optimistic with still-young quarterbacks and that secondary they should see themselves pull way closer to the center. If they don't it's curtains for Rodriguez.
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.
Mark Moundros moves from fullback to MLB and will start or is basically as good as the starter.
Cam Gordon moves from WR to FS and will start.
Martavious Odoms moves from slot to outside WR and will start.
Ryan Van Bergen moves from DT to DE and will start. Mitigating factor: last year RVB moved from DE to DT.
Mark Huyge moves from RG/RT to LT and will probably start unless Lewan eats him.
Craig Roh is something or other that is not quite what he was before.
Offensive moves are basically eh, but the topmost defensive moves are major red flags.
An Embarrassing Prediction, No Doubt
If only they were playing last year's schedule again. If they were, I could say "is the offense going to be better? 100% yes! Is the defense going to be worse? 90% no!" At that point I cold throw out a 6-6 worst case and be confident. Unfortunately, Eastern Michigan is replaced by UConn and things are complicated. They won't go 0-fer on the teams outside the bottom of the schedule, but a crappy defense and a lot of shootouts that go the wrong way could see them hit 5-7 again, and then the bricks.
I don't see much upside in the D, but it is possible that teams without good quarterbacks won't be able to take advantage of it, leaving the offense to Leap its way past the middling bits of the schedule. It's fairly easy to see how they win against UConn, Penn State, maybe Notre Dame, and maybe Purdue on this basis; throw in a home split against MSU and Iowa and 9-3 is hypothetically in reach. Hypothetically.
The offense will undergo Leap II: This Time It's Obvious, becoming legitimately scary to opponents across the league. They will find at least two tailbacks to go with the Denard experience; the line will improve considerably; the turnovers should finally (finally) come down to reasonable levels. This is what Rodriguez has based his career on and if it doesn't happen that career will probably be continuing somewhere else.
Defense? Last year again with less confusion and very long stupid easy touchdowns, shredded by experienced, good quarterbacks (of which there are 4 or 5 on the schedule), considerably better against the run, slightly better overall, still prone to major breakdowns.
Leans to win
@ Notre Dame
Leans to loss
Leans to loss
@ Penn State
Leans to loss
@ Ohio State
There are the two gimmes in the nonconference and two games against Big Ten teams that should be terrible, as Indiana and Illinois were wracked by graduation losses and weren't good to begin with. The opener against UConn is a game Michigan his maybe 60-70% to win; who knows about Notre Dame and Purdue. From there Michigan will probably get five or six wins. The seventh, or sixth will be picking off one of MSU, Iowa, or Penn State. 7-5 is still the call, but with the secondary attrition 6-6 is more likely than 8-4; before I thought the reverse.
How have some of the guys responded to the new 3-3-5? “It is not a true 3-3-5. Again, there is as much as we were doing last year as there is new stuff from the spring. We’ve tried to keep things a little simpler, added a few new things simply because of the youth on defense and we need to play a little faster. ”
…with views of the defense in spring and fall in which Craig Roh hardly ever plays with his hand down. A quick review of Devin Gardner's time in the spring game—which I picked since it was mostly against the first team defense shows 17 snaps on which there's a three man line (a couple of these do have Roh as a standup DE, FWIW) and just six on which he is in a three-point stance, two of those plays where the offense is backed up on their own goal line and the D is expecting a run. In more open play the ratio is a striking 17/21. It certainly looks like Craig Roh is a linebacker who moonlights at defensive end a la Shawn Crable. It looks like a 3-3-5.
Maybe that's an artifact of playing a spread offense and in games against beefy, power-heavy teams Michigan will go to more of a traditional look, but I don't think that'll happen either. Michigan deployed a formation USC calls "Double Eagle" more and more as the year wore on, debuting it against Iowa and deploying it extensively against Ohio State:
This was responsible for Michigan's excellent interior run defense when Ohio State did it's usual DAVE SMASH plays. It was also fundamentally unsound when OSU went unbalanced, but hopefully they fixed that. Either way, only Ohio State has the ability to run it down your throat and switch to a spread n shred—the other beef machine teams in the Big Ten feature pocket passing QBs.
With Ryan Van Bergen and the Sagesse/Banks platoon at defensive end, Michigan's line is four guys who would or could be 4-3 defensive tackles. It seems natural to tuck people inside and and run this thing you've clearly been installing for over a year.
The verdict: it's a 3-3-5 base with four-man lines a "multiple" look Michigan will run for a curveball. The coaches can say it's not a "true" 3-3-5, but to everyone but a football coach it will look like one. Craig Roh is a linebacker, mostly, and Jordan Kovacs is a tiny linebacker. I expect three-man lines to be present on 60-70% of Michigan's snaps this year.
…last year was very thin – one or two guys recruited at each level. All told, 11 recruits, meaning if everybody played up to their hype (which never ever happens), we would have had an upperclassman team with some really good players and some really mediocre players. This year, there's a little more play but it's not all that different. Specifically, the tradeoff in upperclass talent is a likely Brandon Graham (6.1) and Renaldo Sagesse (5.6) for two likely Ryan Van Bergens (5.8) and an Obi Ezeh (5.5).
Straight-up, it's probably not a difference, meaning the performance level that Michigan's defense gets from its upperclassmen in 2010 will probably be about what it got from its upperclassmen in 2009. It is still well below that of Ohio State, and like last year, is drawing from a significantly smaller but significantly more talented pool than Michigan State.
Comparing Michigan's defensive upperclassmen not only to Ohio State, Penn State, and Notre Dame, but to the rest of the conference as well...
Ohio State - 22 Northwestern - 21 Indiana - 19 Illinois - 19 Michigan State - 19 Penn State - 19 Iowa - 18 Wisconsin - 18 Minnesota - 17 Purdue - 15 Notre Dame - 15 Michigan - 12
The rest of the Big Ten averages 50% more upperclassmen on defense. We are dead last in the conference by a wide margin in terms of experienced defensive players.
Michigan's number in 2010 was scheduled to be a still really crappy 14 before Brandon Smith transferred (and subsequently washed out at Temple), Donovan Warren entered the draft, and Troy Woolfolk exploded. Michigan is down to 11 upperclass defenders, 12 if you count James Rogers, 13 if you count Steve Watson. They've gone nowhere.
The sudden fall attrition has hurt matters, especially since it's been concentrated at the position at which Michigan was most vulnerable, but this was always going to happen.
3. Is there any way the secondary is not a giant flaming disaster area?
operates both as solace and a thousand words on the position
The solitary hope is that Michigan was so bad at safety last year that even though they've lost two competent cornerbacks and replaced them with green players they will improve simply by playing bend-don't-break and forcing opponents to put together touchdown drives instead of touchdown plays. That could make the secondary a rickety cart balanced on the edge of a volcano, which sounds pretty good right about now.
How realistic is that? Somewhat, actually. After last season, Jon Chait had a post at the Wolverine with evidence the Woolfolk move backfired badly:
Michigan played six games with Woolfolk at safety -- Western Michigan, Notre Dame, Eastern Michigan, Indiana, Michigan State, and Ohio State. (I'm ignoring the Delaware State game because the competition level was so abnormal.) Michigan played five games with Woolfolk at cornerback, which forced Michael Williams into the starting lineup and Jordan Kovacs to move out of his more comfortable position. In those five games, Michigan played Iowa, Penn State, Purdue, Illinois and Wisconsin.
You can probably figure out where I'm going with this. In the six Woolfolk-at-safety games, Michigan's opponents gained 380 yards per game. Those six opponents averaged 374 yards on the season overall, which means that Michigan allowed its opponents to gain just a bit more than they did against the remainder of their schedule. This is a poor result, though not an absolutely horrendous one.
But in the five Woolfolk-at-corner games, Michigan gave up 445 yards per game, against opponents who gained 382 yards per game on the season overall. That is a horrendous result. That is a sieve of a defense.
The scoring numbers are even more stark: Michigan went from giving up 23 points a game to 37. Is it really possible that bringing in Mike Williams and moving Jordan Kovacs deep resulted in two extra touchdowns ceded per game?
Well… not quite. The Woolfolk-at-safety games include two MAC opponents, three approximately .500 teams, and Ohio State. The Woolfolk-elsewhere games are much tougher on average because the bulk of the MAC stats were racked up against other MAC teams. If you hack those out this is what it looks like:
[Note: MSU's overtime period was removed to keep everything even.]
Against teams that didn't play a segregated, much easier schedule Michigan was about 20 yards worse than average in yardage and even on scoring. So moving Woolfolk only cost Michigan about 40 yards and nine points a game. That still overstates the effect since MSU did score a touchdown in their overtime period and Ohio State was Tresselballin' it like a mofo, only putting Pryor in the shotgun once Michigan became vaguely threatening. So let's knock our estimate down to 30 yards a game.
What's thirty yards a game in terms of national averages? Kind of a big deal. Michigan would have leapt from 82nd in total defense to 57th—basically average—if they'd just maintained their Woolfolk-at-safety pace.
Plugging the enormous hole at safety would be great, but even if you make the reasonable assumption that Gordon/Kovacs/Robinson is going to be way better than Williams/Kovacs, the massive downgrade at corner means you're probably just treading water. Treading horrible, polluted, razor-blade-filled, despair-laden water.
4. GERG: Brilliant? Terrible? What's Going On?
THAT WAY GO THAT WAY OH GOD OH GOD
Punt. Punt punt punt. I have a tendency to get bitchy about coordinators doing things I see as strategically weird and slammed Scott Shafer over the course of the '08 UFRs for transparently nonsensical decisions like hardly ever playing senior nickelback Brandon Harrison (even against spread teams! In favor of Johnny Thompson!) and pulling one of his senior defensive tackles on downs like third and one. The end result:
The picture painted by the above is, in retrospect, one of huge incompetence. Last year Michigan regularly removed functional veteran players in favor of crappy ones that made no sense given the down and distance situations or the offense on the field, and those things only got fixed (-ish) once Shafer was removed from the decision-making process. It's not like the position guys covered themselves in glory with that 3-3-5 against Purdue but at least they pulled their heads out of their butts afterwards and put in the defense Michigan should have been running from day one against spread teams.
I didn't find that kind of complaining much when I went back over the UFRs for '09. The worst thing I found was after the Penn State game:
Why are you such a grump? Iowa put up 30 points and 367 yards of offense to Penn State's 35 and 396 , and Michigan managed to escape that game with way better numbers.
I think it was that all the stuff Penn State was doing came so easy. The Zug touchdowns, the Quarless touchdown, all the long handoffs: all of those plays required nothing more than Penn State not screwing up with wide open receivers. To Clark's credit, he hit all those guys. He then laughed about the primitive defense that Michigan was running, and on review I totally agree: Michigan telegraphed their now-predictable third and long redzone blitzes and got killed. They showed the long handoff was there and got killed. They put Obi Ezeh in man coverage on the edge against Evan Royster and got killed.
That's what the big minus in RPS is there for: I think Robinson got owned by Penn State's offensive brain trust (which is Galen Hall, not Jaypa). This game was slightly reminiscent of the Purdue game a year ago where Michigan switched to a new system and got their brains beaten in by it.
This was mitigated by the situation, obviously:
I don't know. I am sort of mad at Robinson for making it easy by not breaking tendencies with two weeks to prepare. But when you've got Kovacs as your deep safety, what can you do? Kid's smart and can be an effective player in the box but obviously lacks the athleticism to be a deep safety in the Big Ten.
Tactical complaining is absent in other UFRs, though if I'd actually manned up and done the Ohio State one I would have cited the Buckeye Football Analysis link above, in which the guy said he was surprised at how fundamentally unsound Michigan's scheme was, as another negative.
On the other hand, I've been pumping up GERG's work with Roh and Brown constantly and citing his move to linebackers coach as an indication the rest of the staff thinks he's the best option to undo the damage wrought over the past couple years. And, really, what can you do when you're handed the material he was given last year? This has been documented incessantly: given the personnel situation it is totally unsurprising Michigan's defense cratered last year.
So I punt. I'll be looking at the development of Roh and Mouton and seeing if the defense can get off the mat somewhat despite facing down a personnel situation that isn't much better, if it's better at all, than last year's. We'll have a much better idea about Greg Robinson in November.
There were many complaints when I started the preview series off with the secondary and linebackers. People were depressed. They found me depressing. Someone posted something on the message board wondering if I was okay. People of Earth: it is not my fault the back seven on defense is depressing. It just is.
Is there hope? Is there anything resembling it? Maybe. After the Iowa game this is how I diagnosed the D:
On the podcast this week I called the defense "competition-invariant": they have talent and do well when they use it but when they make an error it is so huge that even Indiana can exploit it ruthlessly, so the defense kind of plays the same against everyone.
Maybe GERG can reduce that tendency. Maybe Cam Gordon will 1-0-1 the season. Maybe the linebackers will get less frustrating, and maybe Michigan will give up an annoying number of long drives but not so many awful, really short ones. But here's the greater-thans and less-thans:
Junior Mike Martin > Mike Martin
Sophomore Craig Roh >> freshman Craig Roh
Senior Jonas Mouton with competent coaching > Junior Jonas Mouton with headless chicken tendencies.
1. Can you answer the same quarterback question everyone's been answering since the spring game?
Sweet hot pickle John The Baptist, the fictional questioners are just as persistent as the real ones. One last time: I expect Denard Robinson to get the start against UConn. Rumor has it the team has already been informed.
The premium sites are engaged in a war of information about the #2. Scout is claiming Gardner has haxored the offense and will plug into the matrix sooner rather than later; Rivals says Forcier's come on like gangbusters of late and is hinting he'll end up starting sooner rather than later. Both of their mumbles are of the "I'm just saying" variety where blame can't be assigned retroactively but credit sure can; both are seriously hedging on Denard Robinson.
I don't buy either much, but I buy the latter way more than the former. My personal obsevations are in line with UMGoBlog's assessment of the spring performances of each. Gardner:
@ the :24 mark: here you can see the game moving really fast around him. His feet slow down because his brain is working overtime to process all the info available. Finally, he leans back away from the contact on his delivery, which will normally cause the ball to sail, or fall well short.
@ the :38 mark: this may be his "can't teach that" moment. With Tate and DR, we have to roll the QB one way or the other to attack the middle. They cannot see over the line. Here, DG confidently steps into the pocket and throws a nice, although low, pass in a deep in route. As he continues to develop, he physical stature may end up being a large advantage for him in the QB race.
@ the 1:15 mark: we see some of the TF-like play making ability. He escapes the rush, but works back INTO the pocket to keep all his options alive down the field. Very good poise for the young guy in his first spring.
@ the 1:55 mark: this is not the first example on this film, but the ball HAS to come out quicker here. Giving the LB/DB time to read this play is a huge mistake and really hung the RB out to dry. Again, no doubt understandable with DG's inexperience, but this is a HUGE thing that must improve before I will call him "Game Ready".
@ the 2:23 mark: SHEESH! Protect the ball above all else, especially at your own goal line. As soon as he felt the hands around him, that ball should have been thrown to the Off. Coord. on the sideline. Live to fight another play.
It keeps going like that, promise alternating with the freshman mistakes we've gotten all too accustomed to the past couple years. Reports from the fall scrimmage, which was all of two weeks ago, are similar. Downplaying the one horrible interception is "a mistake but…" neglects Gardner's tendency to just chuck things when he got pressure. It didn't happen often, but when it did he responded—all together now—like a freshman. I'm done with this true freshman stuff. We've seen the chart, right? Michigan ran out a drilled-from-birth prodigy last year, got significantly above average performance from him, and still had a creaky offense. Devin Gardner is not that good yet. I have every confidence he will be that good in time, but not yet.
Forcier remains Forcier, hopefully minus many of the crippling turnovers. Denard, well;
@ the :59 mark: he is rolling left and fires a strike over the middle. I cannot overstate the difficulty of this throw. Very Impressive.
@ the 1:30 mark: he cannot find a target and tucks and runs. It will be beneficial at some point for him to learn to 1)identify targets earlier 2)throw it away 3)get out of bounds and avoid unnecessary hits.
@ the 1:40 mark: he makes a perfect read on the option. Watch the DE on the O's left side completely bite down on the run. Other Big Ten teams will not bite this hard. They know DR is the bigger threat. He will have to hand off more this year.
@ the 2:20 mark: he hits Roundtree for the 98 yarder. Beautiful touch on this pass! However, his throws out to the slots and RB's on the bubble screens and hitches need to be this accurate. They aren't yet.
Denard is ridiculous. He will be given the first shot because of this, and it will be up to him to keep it. No one can take it away from him; he'll have to give it away. If I had to put numbers on it, there's a 65% chance Denard is the primary quarterback, a 30% chance Tate is, and a 5% chance Devin is.
2. Why should I be excited at all when the "Rodriguez leap" amounted to finishing ninth in total and scoring offense in conference play?
Last year around about the Notre Dame game some very excitable people were proclaiming things about the Rodriguez Leap, something Doctor Saturday identified as a strong trend in Rodriguez-coached offenses to blow up in year two. Michigan's was coming from so far back and running in place when it came to quarterback experience, so that initial prowess ended up being a mirage. Michigan was way, way better, but still pretty meh. So the above conference stats exist.
While those may be literally true, they don't exactly feel right, do they? Michigan's offense did fall off considerably after a scorching start, but whenever that stat gets brought up it seems wrong. Michigan had the misfortune of missing two below-average defensive teams in Northwestern and Minnesota, after all.
That is more intuitively correct than raw things like points or yards per game and, since it is conference-only, sidesteps the Baby Seal U issue. Michigan's offense was seventh, a hair away from fifth. That's not good but it is a major step forward after they were last by a mile in '08.
Besides, it's possible they actually made the RR leap. Seriously. The problem is how far back they were coming from. As last year's preview noted:
…even if Rodriguez makes a leap similar to that turned in by his 2002 West Virginia team—probably the most comparable since they were coming from so far back—Michigan will only improve to 68th in total offense.
Sans BSU, Michigan would have finished 78th. With BSU they finished 59th, and since all the other teams that played super tomato cans didn't have them stripped out by when I say they would have finished 78th, splitting the difference seems reasonable. We're back to 68th in total offense again.
The best RR leaps to date were virtually identical improvements at Tulane and West Virginia where year two saw yardage output increase by 21%. If you discount BSU, Michigan went from 290 yards of total offense to 353. That's a 22% increase. While it's a lot easier to go from godawful to bad than go from bad to average or average to great, at previous stops Rodriguez had the luxury of installing an experienced quarterback in year two. With Michigan's chaos there (and Rodriguez's inability to get a viable quarterback in his first recruiting class), they did not have that luxury.
And here's the thing: with the quarterbacks going from freshmen to sophomores and some number of starters back ranging between seven and ten—depending on how you assess players like Roy Roundtree, Martavious Odoms, Patrick Omameh, Mark Huyge, Perry Dorrestein, and a couple others—isn't it plausible to expect another leap in year three? Tacking on 17%—the average yardage increase in previous RR leaps, discounting last year at Michigan—to Michigan's BSU-free yardage yields 414 yards per game for Michigan, which would be good for 32nd nationally.
There was a leap,
It was hard to find because they were coming from so far back, and
There should be another leap this year.
This could be worth a small "woo," or something.
3. Can the running game take a… well… can it improve a… aw, hell, can it make a leap? The leap?
Last year Michigan obliterated their best YPC mark since the turn of the century, posting a 4.52 well clear of 2006's previous high water mark of 4.27. All right, yes, Michigan's demolition of Baby Seal U (54 carries, 461 yards) is heavily distorting, and if you pull it out Michigan's season YPC drops a half-yard. That drops it to third, as you can see at right. Since most of the seasons there had a nonconference cupcake that wasn't good but also wasn't quite as distorting (in 2006, for example, Michigan put up 246 yards on 51 carries against Vanderbilt in addition to their two MAC snacks), that sells '09 a short.
So. Despite missing their best and most critical lineman for most of the year, suffering a number of bad snaps that ended up looking like –20 yard carries as a result of that, and spending most of the year down at least one of their senior tailbacks, and running out freshman quarterbacks. Michigan posted one of the better YPC numbers of the last decade of Michigan football. They were solidly third. I'm throwing this on the pile of evidence that Rodriguez's approach to the ground game is just plain better than Carr's.
Meanwhile, I'm not too concerned about the lost personnel on the line. Omameh should be better than the Moosman/Huyge/frosh Omameh combo over the course of the year. Molk was clearly better than Moosman as a center, something that was addressed in the Illinois game:
Moosman is not as good as Molk on tough reach blocks. Lot of cutbacks against Illinois because the playside DT did not get sealed. Cutbacks are tougher sledding, usually.
Here's a successful run from Brown on which Moosman does not seal his guy and Brown has to hit it up behind Moosman in front of Schilling:
From what I've seen, Molk is more likely to actually get that block on the frontside. He won't do it all the time and the cutback can be effective but then you're relying on the backside block, which is often a tough one.
Ortmann to Huyge/Lewan probably won't matter much; tackles aren't that important in the spread 'n' shred run game. The only other losses are at tailback, where Minor managed just 96 carries a year ago. His average YPC was 5.2, only slightly better than the team average in I-A games. Brown, meanwhile, finished the above run like this:
It's not like either of the lost guys was 1) that great, 2) ever healthy, or 3) irreplaceable. Here's a preview of a stupid prediction: Michigan 2010 tops that YPC table.
4. What about the tackles?
Yeah… that's the thing. Michigan has depth and talent at the skill positions and the interior line. The quarterbacks have been discussed ad nauseum—while they won't be great the best of the three options available will be at least average and possibly (probably?) good. Michigan can take some hits and still expect good things to happen… except at tackle.
There Michigan has two guys who did not play well last year and two redshirt freshmen. Though Taylor Lewan has a boatload of hype he's just one guy, and a freshman at that. Meanwhile, Mark Huyge and Perry Dorrestein took turns playing Slight Hindrance To Guy Forcing Forcier Out Of The Pocket; both were benched for the other at some point. It's clearly the weak spot.
There are reasons to hope:
Experience helps out offensive linemen more than other position groups.
Huyge was undersized but is no longer.
Dorrestein was struggling with a back injury most of this year.
Frey's coaching saw Ortmann improve substantially in his final season.
Lewan does have a boatload of hype and provides a viable third option if one of the starters struggle.
A step forward is likely. Even so, at the end of the year the thing that will have held the offense back from great heights will probably be an inability to keep defensive ends away from the quarterback.
This rocket has two stages, the second of which should kick in this year. There's more experience everywhere, plenty of talent to go around, multiple options at quarterback, some of whom are scholarship non-freshmen: Michigan's offense will be much better in 2010. Now for the greater-than-less-thans!
Sophomore Tate/Denard >>> Freshman Tate/Denard
David Molk >> David Moosman
Senior Schilling > Junior Schilling
Patrick Omameh >> Moosman/Huyge/Omameh chaos
Stonum in HD > Stonum in black and white
Roundtree/Grady > Odoms/Roundtree/Grady
Tight ends > younger versions of themselves
Five-headed running back monster == constantly injured seniors with younger versions of running back monster.
Martavious Odoms == Greg Mathews
Perry Dorrestein == The better of Dorrestein/Huyge
Mark Huyge < Mark Ortmann
As stated above, RR Leap 2 would hop Michigan up to 32nd nationally in yardage even without the benefit of a tomato can I-AA game. Put that back in and Michigan should find itself in the bottom third of the nation's top 25 offenses.
Things that can make this not happen: tackles are bad and or injured. Quarterbacks do not progress like they should. The tailback situation is a muddled heap of mediocrity. Things that can make this pessimistic: Stonum blows up. Toussaint or Cox blows up. Denard really is that good.
Last Year's Stupid Predictions
ESSENTIALLY CORRECT IF SLIGHTLY OPTIMISITIC: Minor misses two games with injury [note: chalk!]. [Minor missed Western and Ohio State; he also sat out against DSU, if that matters, and was seriously limited for much of the rest of the season.]
RIGHT DESPITE INJURY: People expect Vincent Smith to be the 2010 starter.
WRONG BECAUSE OF INJURY: Junior Hemingway is your leading downfield receiver (ie: Odoms is in the running but we aren't counting screens). [Roundtree blew up late; Hemingway finished well behind Mathews amongst outside WRs.]
PRETTY CLOSE: Denard runs for 450 yards and throws about ten times. [350 yards and 31 attempts.]
NOT PARTICULARLY ACCURATE: Michigan uses a huge multiplicity of formations on offense, debuting new stuff frequently and ending the year with a huge (hur) package. [Michigan never busted out
WRONG: A two-back three-WR set is most common, though sometimes that third WR will be a tight end in the slot. [Michigan went 3 WR, 1 TE, 1 RB most often.]
OPTIMISTIC EVEN COUNTING BABY SEAL U: As noted, Michigan finishes somewhere between 40th and 50th in total yardage. [59th.]
This Year's Stupid Predictions
Michigan 2010 finishes atop the rush YPC chart above without considering the UMass game and by a considerable margin.
Gardner ends up burning his redshirt in very, very frustrating fashion, because…
…Denard is pretty much your starting quarterback all year, but…
…Forcier plays in every game, bailing Michigan out in one critical fourth quarter.
Vincent Smith gets the most touches amongst the running backs. Second: Shaw. Third: Toussaint. Fourth: Hopkins.
Robinson is Michigan's leading rusher.
Darryl Stonum does not exactly go Chris Henry on the planet but does greatly increase production via a series of big plays: 30 catches, 650 yards, 6 touchdowns.
Michigan breaks out the triple option with regularity, using Hopkins as the dive back and Shaw/Smith the pitch guy. They also dig out those WVU formations where the slot motions into the backfield, with Grady the man beneficiary.
You are feeling a sudden sense of well-being relative to two years ago.
If I had to summarize the thousands of words poured out into this space previewing the 2009 Michigan quarterbacks in a single sentence, it would be "they are going to be much better but probably still suck":
The upshot: freshman quarterbacks suck, but on average they suck far less than Michigan's two-headed monster of yesteryear. An average-for-a-freshman performance from Forcier will be a huge step forward for the offense.
And lo: Michigan's quarterbacks combined to throw 14 interceptions against just 15 touchdowns, fumbled probably a dozen more times, averaged a meh 7.2 yards per attempt, and singlehandedly sabotaged a surprisingly winnable 2009 edition of The Game. This was vast, vast improvement—the 2008 QBs combined to average 5.1(!!!) yards per attempt—and also pretty much sucked.
A tick behind Chad Henne isn't bad. And since Henne's receivers were current NFLers Braylon Edwards, Jason Avant, and Steve Breaston while Forcier's top target was a redshirt freshman who only started playing extensively at the tail end of the year—the senior "star" went undrafted—you could plausibly argue that the main difference between the freshman years of NFL starter Chad Henne and current sophomore Tate Forcier was the quality on the other end of the pass, especially since Forcier's YPA was superior. (Save your Baby Seal U protests: Forcier threw two passes in that game.)
To put the suck of '08 in perspective: '09 sucked but only because of the turnovers. The YPA average in I-A last year was 7.2, exactly what Michigan managed. A standard deviation was a yard. Michigan improved two standard deviations with a true freshman under center.
So of course everyone expects the guy who threw four interceptions in 31 attempts last year to start. This is Michigan, where things don't seem weird until the melting clocks drip PCP-tripping Gary Busey homunculi into swimming pools full of ham. We've seen stranger. Have you heard the one about the field goal that one of Michigan's players unblocked?
The Starter Right This Instant
Yeah: Denard Robinson. This is the part of the preview where I ignore the the guy with 281 attempts and 118 rushes in favor of the guy with the 31 attempts and 69 rushes because of an impressive spring performance, a bunch of practice reports, and some inflammatory comments from Troy Woolfolk. For the record, here they are again:
"Denard has been out there through the thick and thin and been out there all the time regardless if he's hurting," Woolfolk said. "And Tate, he tries to come out, but he's not as consistent as Denard is. And that's allowed Denard to jump a little bit ahead of Tate and I think that Tate's going to have to do a lot of work to catch back up to Denard in camp this year."
With Rodriguez and Steve Schilling essentially backing those up a couple days later and the general tenor coming out of spring practice, it seems clear that Forcier did not think his job was under threat, slacked off a bit, and has paid for it with his starting job. (Forcier: "I felt like I was working with the team, just not as much as I should have. Part of that is maturity." Rod Smith: "He didn’t come back in shape, and he’s competed as hard as any of the other guys.")
By now (and for now) this is assured. When Bruce Feldman was attempting to justify($) his out-there pick of Michigan as #25 on his preseason ballot, he deployed this conversation he'd had with Rodriguez:
Rodriguez is so fired up by the development of QB Denard Robinson, who is so dynamic he evokes memories of WVU great Pat White. Rodriguez says Robinson's presence and personality are similar to White's, and that Robinson is actually bigger than White was at the same stage. He doesn't quite play as fast as White did, but he will.
"Pat was so decisive," Rodriguez said. "He knew what he was doing. Pat was a fast player who played fast. Denard is a fast player who didn't play fast all the time, but I know he will play faster this year. He'll play faster and faster. He'll become more relaxed and calm executing the offense. There is a lot to learn, but at the same time, he is eager to learn it. And as he plays faster and his teammates play faster, we'll get a lot better."
Rodriguez added that the other two QBs Tate Forcier and Devin Gardner are very gifted too and will push Robinson, and if they overtake him, well, then the Wolverines offense should be in good shape.
We were at the point where the other two quarterbacks are "pushing" Robinson even before the fall scrimmage reports ("clear starter," "will absolutely start," "will be the starter") started rolling in. Perhaps more telling even than those rapturous reports was the substitution pattern: like David Molk, Mike Martin, and select other players too important to risk, Robinson saw his snaps limited. His time wasn't nearly as limited as that of the aforementioned duo—he had time to establish himself obviously the man before Forcier and Gardner mopped up during the last bit of the scrimmage—but the sign was clear. The competition is chasing.
I guess this is plausible. I mean, there's this:
Since that was done against the 1972 Pittsburgh Steelers it's pretty impressive. Yes, they had a 5'7" defensive tackle too.
So what does Michigan have in this guy? Anyone who attempts to tell you is having a moment of foolish arrogance. The guy who did this…
…and was such an incredible neophyte that he never once ran the zone read despite its status as Rich Rodriguez's calling card and Robinson's ability to do that first thing above. Any program not digging out from a 100-year flood would have taken one look at the kid in fall practice and put so many redshirts on him that he'd be peeling the last one off right now. Michigan couldn't because its other quarterbacks were walk-ons or injury-prone freshmen.
The results were occasionally brilliant, sometimes promising, and frequently facepalm-worthy. In lieu of a full UFR passing chart here are all of Robinson's infrequent attempts rolled into one pretend game with around 30 attempts:
That's three inaccurate screens and an 8/18 downfield success rate, which rivals Mallett's insane freshman performances, without even considering that four of those passes were terrible interceptions. This will not be news to anyone who saw Robinson play last year: he was in vastly over his head.
A guy that raw with that much speed has the ability to make a stunning improvement in a single offseason. And the above-linked spring highlights at least suggest that Robinson's improvement has indeed been stunning, especially since he followed that up with a similarly impressive performance in fall. He's added a non-insubstantial eight pounds to reach 193, and the offseason has come with a heavy focus on ending all the fumbling. Rodriguez:
“He looks to me physically bigger, and maturing physically,” said Rodriguez. “Mentally, he understands some of the concepts a lot better, which he should. I see his confidence continuing to grow. And he’s so eager to please and do well that he’s taking steps every day."
“There were a couple times today with ball security … even though they didn’t fumble, it wasn’t as good as we’d like,” Rodriguez said. “But you could see they were making a conscious effort to take care of the ball. Decision making, the same thing… they’re not just trying to force something in there."
This is the bit where I evaluate the player's strengths and weaknesses and offer up a projection for season stats and the like, but here the former is obvious and the latter a mystery. Robinson's radical improvement has come against Michigan's second and third strings, which are so thin as to hardly exist. How will he react when those seams are covered? How will he react when he gets pressure? Can he hold onto the ball when he's not playing two-hand touch? Run around, run around, don't know.
Let's take a wild-ass guess and ballpark it as Pat White, freshman edition. White was a redshirt freshman who split time with a pocket passer—Robinson is essentially the same thing. In 2005, White rushed for 952 yards at 7.3 a pop and completed 57% of his passes for 7.3 YPA, 8 TD, and 5 INT. Downgrade those YPA numbers 10-20% to take into account Michigan's presence in the Big Ten and that's your random guess.
Until about a week ago, virtually every scrap of talk about Tate Forcier this offseason had been negative. A quick scan of any Michigan message board will turn up a thread or four that someone in the Forcier family will screenshot and throw into the section of their personal site once embarrassingly named the "Hall of Shame" and subsequently nerfed to something less ambiguously bitchy and more clearly intended as motivation. The charges: Forcier is a douchebag. He's going to transfer. He's not going to get any better. He hasn't been going to workouts. He will pout when and if he doesn't play, destroying team chemistry. Etc. I've unpublished a couple around here.
Forcier's waning effectiveness as teams figured out they had to keep him in the pocket,
Forcier's waning effectiveness after his shoulder was bruised/dislocated/LABRUM'D,
five turnovers, many of them blithering, against Ohio State, and
Let's Get Denarded in spring.
Still, the numbers on the above chart are just off future star status, especially when you knock Pryor and Griffin out for being athletic freakshows whose stats were inflated by the rarity of their throws.
Forcier didn't get a ton of help from his offensive line or receivers, either, which made a couple of his performances better than they looked. Michigan State provides a typical example:
You wouldn't know it because of all the pressure and the drops killing his stats, but Forcier had a spectacular day. His downfield success rate* was 71%, which is up there with Chad Henne's best game. Chad Henne's best games didn't come with game-killing overtime interceptions, sure. He made three and a half terrible decisions throwing the ball (with the half being the bomb to Koger) and some additional ones in the ground game.
But does anyone remember the "Sheridan Might Start!" meme? Will anyone own up to actually advancing that point of view? No? No.
After the great start (post ND: "two games in it looks like Tate Forcier has 99th percentile skill in accuracy on the run, pocket awareness, and (yep) moxie"), Forcier had a mid-season swoon with an implosion against Iowa in which his DSR fell to a bleah 50% that didn't take into account how "disastrous" some of the bad reads; the following week Forcier duplicated the 50% DSR performance against Penn State. He picked it up afterwards with a "decent" Illinois game and had "one of his best games" against Purdue before turning in a "good day" against a very good Wisconsin defense; though Ohio State didn't get charted I can tell you that his performance in that game was plain great except for the four awful interceptions, which is a weird thing to say but there it is.
So. By the numbers, both official and blogger-generated, his freshman season was promising. Unfortunately, the numbers aren't everything. Forcier made a ton of bad reads on the zone read and Michigan's rare option plays, one of which Burgeoning Wolverine Stardocumented in detail. Part of the reason he looked so ineffective on the zone last year was because he pulled the ball out too much.
Worse, the numbers capture Forcier's interceptions but not his massive fumble issues. Everyone remembers Tate gifting Ohio State the first touchdown of last year's game with a basically unforced fumble, and that was a problem all year. Illinois:
The fumbling issue remains a problem, though: Forcier was irresponsible with the ball and coughed it up twice, once on a QB draw he made a poor read on. Michigan lost one, causing everyone to turn the TV off. Hopefully this is a major point of emphasis in the offseason; Forcier can't be as careless with the ball going forward or the offense is never going to get off the ground.
The big downer was the fumble, which was a huge error on Forcier's part but also an understandable one since Purdue blitzed right into the option and Forcier was not prepared to deal with the corner there. He should have eaten the ball and taken the loss.
Robinson chipped in his share of mind-bending fumbles but Forcier, more than anyone else, was responsible for Michigan's crippling 13 fumbles lost.
But as training camp progressed, the Forcier vibe got better. Rodriguez:
“I’ve had quite a few talks with Tate and some of the other guys and said if you’re a true competitor, you’ll respond to it,” Rodriguez said. “So far he has. He’s responded … he’s not sulking and laying back. He’s working his way back and trying to prove himself.”
"Obviously he went through some adversity there with Troy's comments and the wings and all that stuff you guys know about." He's worked hard to prove himself, and show that he wants to be the team's quarterback. "I'm definitely gaining a lot of respect back for Tate," as are a lot of others.
With transfer and ineligibility rumors quashed and fitness levels approaching something the coaches consider reasonable, Forcier has bounced back and finds himself in position to play. Rivals has taken to using its insiders to talk him up like whoah, and while I don't share the point of view on offer there*, especially the lack of confidence in Robinson, it seems like his time with the third team is at an end. As I've asserted a thousand times before, the two sophomores are so different that Michigan has reason to play both, and can reasonably hope the platoon is greater than the sum of its parts.
What can we expect from Forcier's sophomore year? Beware linear projections. Way back in December, Ace took a look at a subset of those true freshman starters in the chart above and compared their sophomore performance to their freshman years. He found that sophomores improved their average yards per attempt by a full yard, completion percentage 5.5 points, and touchdowns by five. If you take those improvements and apply them to Forcier's freshman year you get ridiculous results: 65% completions, 8.5 yards per attempt, 20 touchdowns, 10 interceptions, and the #12 passer efficiency rating in the country.
That's totally not going to happen. Ace took a bunch of really terrible QBs who became decent to good and applied that transition to a decent quarterback, resulting in a projection that says Forcier will be the greatest sophomore QB of the past ten years, and by some margin: only Chris Leak's sophomore year rating of 145 is anywhere close to Forcier's projected 151. More realistically, the hope is for Forcier to cut down on the crippling turnovers by a third, add some more touchdowns, merely maintain his YPA—only Chris Leak significantly exceeded Forcier's freshman YPA as a sophomore—and add a point or two to completion percentage. Forcier doesn't have a long way to go to be a good quarterback, but that means his improvement in all things other than holding on to the damn ball will be incremental.
*(Chances there's some serious fuddy-duddy-ism going on there: high.)
And then after all that there's Devin Gardner. Gardner just came in for an extensive recruiting profile last week, so I won't rehash that when virtually nothing has changed in the interim. The executive summary: massive upside, raw, needs serious work on his throwing motion. I've also made my opinion on the redshirt issue clear:
Should have the luxury of redshirting with Denard's emergence into a viable option. Given Rodriguez's statements on the matter…
There is also freshman Devin Gardner, but Rodriguez said he wouldn't burn Gardner's redshirt if it was for a couple of plays a game.
…you'll probably see him on the bench unless both sophomores struggle. After that it's kind of hard to see him unseating an established junior, but they'll mix him in when given the opportunity; a lot of people have claimed he's going to be the starter as early as 2011, but I think he'll have to wait until he's a redshirt junior, at which point he should be Awesome Devin through and through.
Rich Rodriguez is not of a similar mind. He told the media Monday that Gardner was on the depth chart and would play. I'm still hoping that the two sophomores play well enough to keep him on the bench, if not immediately then by the time the Big Ten season rolls around, at which point Gardner can come down with a strained whatever and get that year of eligibility back.
The situation here is similar to tailback, where Michigan doesn't exactly have a proven star but they do have a ton of options. Outside, Darryl Stonum could blow up, Junior Hemingway could stay healthy, and Martavious Odoms could be a quick blockin' bugger that springs other guys to big gains. In the slot, Roy Roundtree will act as team safety blanket and any of the three guys behind him could provide the woop-gone YAC Darius Reynaud gave West Virginia. At tight end, if Kevin Koger can catch the easy ones he'll be a lethal complement to the zone read.
The bottom here isn't bad, as it consists of a ton of throws to Roundtree and decent contributions all around. The top is enticing, with silly yards per catch possible on the outside and chain-moving consistency on the inside.
Greg Mathews has graduated, a couple kids left the program over the past couple years, and Junior Hemingway is destined to be hit by a meteor in week three, so Michigan's getting creative at outside receiver by moving slot-sized slot Martavious Odoms outside. Despite Odoms' diminutive stature, this makes sense given the situation. Below you can see Odoms doing some catching and all that, but you can also see him chop much bigger guys to the ground time and again. When my Florida recruiting source said Odoms was a "tough SOB" he was not kidding:
Last year everyone was down on Odoms despite his productive freshman year (he was Michigan's leading receiver) because of a series of fumbles late, when it was cold and he was wondering how many limbs he had because he certainly couldn't feel more than two. There was a pretty terrible diary around these parts that met with a strong response. People got strained. Futures were question. It was tense.
For my part, I was "skeptical any slot would beat him out" and "bet on a lot of hurried backtracking" after the year; one half out of two ain't bad. Odoms didn't exactly get beat out but no one's wresting Roy Roundtree's job from him after he blew up in the last third of the year, and while people claiming Odoms sucks are thin on the ground these days any backtracking was steady, possibly even languorous. Fumbles were reduced but not erased as Odoms lost his punt return job to Junior Hemingway. He faded into Bolivian at the end of the year.
So he's at a crossroads. The question is how effective will Odoms be on the outside. No one really knows since all we have to go on are some vanilla scrimmages from spring and fall during which deep passes were anomalies. Things we do know:
Odoms was 16/17 on easy catches last year (presumably these were a lot of bubble screens), 4/6 on moderately tough ones, and 1/3 on very tough ones.
He was a receiver for five(!) years at Pahokee after signing up in eighth grade and has played inside and out since.
He is really short.
We don't have a lot of information about his routes, but he did smoke Indiana safety Nick Polk on that game-winning touchdown. Limited touches after were probably not his fault. He certainly had decent enough hands, though a double-clutch here and there led to frustrating incompletions on the wheel routes he ran frequently.
By moving outside, Odoms has ceded most of the screens to Kelvin Grady and Roy Roundtree and will see his per-game production drop. He'll still be involved, though how much depends more on Roundtree, Stonum, the tight ends, and the tailbacks, all of whom seem to offer either more big-play ability or reliability than a 5'8" outside receiver. Odoms is likely to finish in the middle of the Michigan receiver pack with between 20 and 30 catches.
Darryl Stonum has been something of a disappointment his first couple years. Last year the conversation in re: Stonum was largely about pages and the benefits of getting on the same one with the coaches. When it wasn't, it was about dropped balls. When the season rolled around Stonum started every game but came up with such a paucity of highlights that I've got more on Patrick Omameh, an offensive lineman who played in three games, than him. HIs stats boggle the mind: 13 catches for 199 yards, one fewer catch than he managed as a freshman. End of stats.
As a result, Stonum came up for repeated psychoanalysis in UFR, most of it focusing on his inability to adjust to balls thrown downfield. Against Eastern this happened:
This occasioned a long section about how Forcier left this short but this was the week after ND, when 1) Stonum turned a very makeable deep catch into something almost impossible by turning inside when he had five yards of room to the sideline and 2) Mike Floyd turned Michigan cornerbacks into roadkill. The resulting consternation:
I'm grabbing this just so people can maybe talk about Stonum's adjustment to this. I think it's poor. He misjudges the ball and doesn't slow up enough and turn, which would probably have led to the DB running him over and a PI call. Mike Floyd [or Braylon Edwards] catches this, right?
This persisted; after the Wisconsin game I launched the "same old complaint" when Stonum failed to adjust to a poorly-thrown deep ball and allowed it to get intercepted when he really should have been able to at least bat it down.
Receivers often take time to break out, but the really amazing ones often get there their sophomore years (Braylon, Manningham, and Howard all blew up in year two), so expectations were busily being scaled back when… my gawd, that's Rick Vaughn's music!
Yes, for the second consecutive year Michigan has discovered one of their wideout needs glasses. You'd think that after the coaches discovered one of their wideouts was secretly blind as a bat they would have declared mandatory eye exams for all, but they didn't, so the above clips happened and everyone was very sad. Now? Well, Stonum's reportedly had an outstanding fall camp:
"This is the most consistent we've had Darryl on a day-to-day basis. He's going to be a big factor for us. He's a very talented guy that has a renewed sense of hunger."
As his recruiting profile suggested and kick returns showed, he has electric speed. The coaches seem to be on the same page with him. The quarterbacks are not going to be freshmen. He can now see the damn ball. He could totally blow up, or he could rack up 20 catches and have a version of that year Steve Breaston had after Edwards graduated where it became clear to all that he just didn't have it downfield. I have no idea what it will be, which makes Stonum the offense's #1 X factor going into the season. He can swing games by himself if he lives up to the chatter. A real live deep threat in an offense helmed by Denard Robinson can be preposterous: Chris Henry averaged 25 yards a catch(!!!) his freshman year at West Virginia.
That's Stonum's best case: not that many catches, but a lot of long ones and some game-swinging touchdowns. The worst case is more of the same.
Odoms's move outside pushes Angry Michigan BLANK Hating God's favorite target to the bench, at least nominally. After Junior Hemingway missed spring ball to go along with missing most of 2008 and spending 2009 at half-speed with an array of Minor-like injuries that were just tolerable enough for him to play, it seems like the Michigan coaches finally decided they couldn't rely on him to be around long term and placed him on the bench. Since receiver's a spot at which rotation is incessant he'll get his share of time, leaving the move mostly symbolic, but it is a symbol.
Surprisingly for a guy who barely outpaced Stonum last year with 16 catches, he's got a substantial highlight reel you can see at right. He was also named "first among equals" after the Western game. It's mostly deep stuff: burning Western Michigan, exploiting Illinois over-reacting to a play, burning Illinois and then getting caught from behind, etc. As recruit his rep was an explosive leaper who lacked top-end speed—I compared him to Marquise Walker—and that has been borne out. It's tough to tell if his meh career to date is underperformance or just three years of terrible luck. If he can stay on the field he should be a solid, useful addition to the receiving corps. He's 225 pounds, which makes him a slant threat not duplicated elsewhere on the roster, and last year he was 10/10 on easy catches and 2/3 on moderate ones. His hands are good.
He should have a role and improve on his 16 catches of a year ago, although possibly not by much.
The single other outside wide receiver with any experience is sophomore Je'Ron Stokes, a six-foot guy with excellent athleticism who could have played in the slot if that wasn't already being fought over by four or five guys. Stokes was just outside of top 100 lists as a recruit. Michigan snatched him away from Tennessee after their coach implosion. The takeaway from the recruiting profile:
An electrifying game breaker with excellent speed, Stokes could use more size on his current 6’1” and 180 pound frame. He has great hands, knows how to get open, makes a lot of acrobatic catches and is terrific after the catch.
He's got a bit more size now, checking in at 193 at last report. He was another guy who blew his redshirt last year; his single highlight last year was digging out a low ball dubbed CONESTRAVAGANZA I in the late stages of the Baby Seal U game. He was injured in the spring and only came on late, but he was also pretty much absent from the fall scrimmage; another year mostly on the bench seems likely.
The third string is all freshmen. The only one to appear on the official fall depth chart was Jeremy Jackson (profile), the "lumbering" son of running backs coach Fred Jackson. Lumbering he may be but he's also the son of a coach and has the route running skills and hands you'd expect from such a gritty gritterson of a player. He'll play, likely sparingly. That should mean that classmates Ricardo Miller (profile) and Jerald Robinson (profile) are headed for redshirts.
Roy Roundtree's second catch as a Michigan Wolverine was a game-tying touchdown in the pouring rain against Michigan State. This was a good omen. Over the next few games his playing time increased, though his catches remained infrequent because he was seemingly targeted only when it was a terrible idea to do so. Then Odoms got injured. Roundtree announced his presence with that 77-yard catch-and-run against Illinois about which we will speak no more, then showed Purdue the true power of snake oil:
A good day from the receivers, and by "receivers" we mean "Roy Roundtree." The one drop didn't hurt much since it was on a screen that was going to get blown up anyway. Minor could have helped out by pulling in a low throw by Forcier, too. Other than that: Roundtree, Roundtree, Roundtree. The 1 he pulled in prevented an interception on Michigan's first drive of the day, converted a first down, and lead to a touchdown.
Plus he did this:
Martavious Odoms just saw his job come under howitzer fire. Odoms has been valuable, too, so he won't just go away, but Kelvin Grady's time just got eaten up and I think Roundtree is the starter even when Odoms is healthy. This might also presage some dual-slot formations that have been absent so far in Rodriguez's tenure at Michigan. Kid's pretty good, and quicker than you'd think given the Hawthorne incident last week.
Did I mention that Roundtree was last year's Rick Vaughn? All hail occasionally checking your receivers' vision. Someone check Denard Robinson right freakin' now.
Roundtree continued his rampage over the last two weeks of the season against Wisconsin and Ohio State, yielding this season breakdown:
First eight games: two catches, 44 yards.
Last four games: 30 catches, 390 yards.
Project the last four games over the course of a season and you get 90 catches, 1200 yards, and a season second only to Braylon Edwards's 2004 campaign in the annals of Michigan lore. So… yeah. That's probably not going to happen. But it would be pretty cool i it did, huh? More realistically, Roundtree should double his output from last year, ending up Michigan's leading receiver with 700-800 yards.
For the record, last year Roundtree was 16/16 on easy catches, 4/8 on moderately difficult ones, and brought in his only super-tough attempt of the year by wresting away a sure interception from a Purdue linebacker. He's not that big. He's pretty fast but not that fast. He's not that shifty after the catch. But he's open and he's where he's supposed to be, which is right in front of the quarterback, and he'll catch the ball. So they throw it, and he catches it, and yeah he's basically the apotheosis of the Purdue receiver.
EXCESSIVELY DRAMATIC KELVIN GRADY WALLPAPER FTW
Basketball refugee Kelvin Grady's found himself in an impressive position on the depth chart by warranting an OR with Roundtree. This represents progress; Grady's 2009 was cut short by frequent dropped balls. By Iowa one was enough to yank him or the game. Late in the year UFR noted that nine of the twelve flat drops on the year had been turned in by the tight ends and Grady. After the Illinois game, Roundtree was contrasted with Grady because when Roundtree "is thrown a ball that hits him in the hands it does not fall to the ground." You get the idea: hands not so good.
That's perhaps understandable after Grady thought he'd left football behind for good when he signed up to play point guard for Tommy Amaker. After two years on the basketball team he found himself behind walk-on, read the writing on the wall, and picked up the cleats again. The rust was evident.
But Grady just keeps making plays in practice. That was the reason he was given the opportunity to drop those balls early in the year even with Odoms in front of him and Roundtree nipping at his heels, and the reason he's listed as a co-starter on the depth chart despite Roundtree's stunning end of year breakout. He featured in more "Countdown to Kickoff" highlights than any other non-quarterback; in the fall scrimmage he certainly looked like a top-level option, once taking a reverse from Robinson to score on a one-play, 30-yard drive. A review of his high school highlights reveals the sort of explosive agility that Michigan's other slots seem to lack:
As a bonus, since he was a high school running back he'll be better suited to those spread 'n' shred plays where a slot receiver motions into the backfield to become a second running back. It's hard to imagine Roy Roundtree doing that, so adding Grady to the rotation adds pages to the playbook. He'll see time, and could even supplant Roundtree as the preferred destination for quick screens… if the hands come around.
The backup story remains the same, except older. Terrence Robinson's first two seasons at Michigan have resulted in an injury redshirt and one catch for 13 yards against Baby Seal U. He was fairly prominent in spring and fall, though not nearly as much as Grady was, and is in competition for the punt return job. His problem has always been hands—he was mostly a QB/RB in high school—and that's prevented him from seeing the field. With two guys in front of him it seems like it will be another season spent watching. He'll probably get some real playing time when Grady is tired and Michigan is looking for their slot to be one of those RB/WR flex guys in the mold of Dorrell Jalloh.
Freshman Jeremy Gallon (profile) took a redshirt last year after arriving late because of some academic issues. He should find the field some this year but reports from practice suggest that Gallon did not put in the same sort work some of the other wideouts did and that this will hamper his playing time. Also an issue is a foot issue that isn't severe enough to keep him out of practice but does warrant walking around campus in a boot.
Gallon was a (figuratively) big recruit from a couple years ago, a one-time member of the Rivals 100 and solid performer at the Army Bowl who is by far the most guru-approved of any Michigan slot receiver. With two older and more established options in front of him, his best chance for playing time will be taking return duties away from Odoms.
Kevin Koger started the year off in Braylon Edwards fashion by reeling in 3/4 passes rated 2 (difficult but makeable) and 3/4 rated 1 (great googly moogly). He then finished the year off in Braylon Edwards fashion by dropping every routine ball that came his way. The result was schizophrenic: by the end of the year Koger was 7/10 on tough catches… and 7/11 on easy ones. Matters came to a head against Penn State:
Koger's great start came to a clunky halt with an 0/3 day, and no one really helped out except for the running backs. Forcier's day wasn't good, but it wasn't as bad as the numbers suggest.
He added another "bad drop" against Illinois. That and backup Martell Webb's similarly frustrating hands is part of the reason Roy Roundtree blew up in the last three games.
Koger did not exactly bounce back from this over the offseason, dropping a couple passes in the fall scrimmage and being conspicuously absent from offseason chatter both above- and underground. With depth at slot looking healthy, the entire tight end position could see itself minimized if they don't perform.
There's a good chance they will, though, with all three players returning. Koger himself is entering his true junior season; as a highly sought recruit with a year and a half of starting experience under his belt he should improve considerably. The downers from last season do consist of four dropped passes, after all. Two fewer and everyone's talking about how it will be pick your poison underneath. Small sample size disclaimers apply. When you look at the stuff at right it's hard to envision a guy with that much talent finding himself minimized, especially when Denard-related freakouts see him hand-wavingly wide open frequently.
Senior Martell Webb has seen the most playing time to date. He was an infrequent target a year ago. The quarterbacks threw him six passes, one of which was uncatchable and the rest routine. He was only 3/5 on those routine balls, possibly explaining why he wasn't targeted on them more often. He put on 12 pounds from last fall to spring, then took a couple off during the summer and is now a solid 255.
Koger's blocking has been iffy, and while Webb didn't stick out in my memory as a crusher all but one of the clips at left are positive run blocks: he's likely to be the choice when Michigan goes to its I package. Unless he has an epiphany about having the ball in his hands (and Koger doesn't) his receiving stats are going to look a lot like they did last year. Throwing it to him is plan G when you've got three receivers, guys like Vincent Smith coming out of the backfield, and a considerably more dynamic starter at tight end. Webb's a fullback, basically.
The third and final scholarship tight end on the roster is redshirt sophomore Brandon Moore. He was a highly touted recruit with loads of offers when he committed to Michigan early in the hybrid Carr/Rodriguez class, but then dropped off with an indifferent senior year. Since his arrival he's been locked behind Koger and Webb—the only clip I have of him is a catch against Baby Seal U. Without any buzz otherwise, that will likely continue this year.
No one actually thinks the above depth chart means anything. With zero established performers, a wide array of talents, and an offense that can use two or three backs at a time even when one is Steve Slaton, Michigan figures to deploy four or even all five of scholarship tailbacks above in some capacity. You could make a reasonable argument that any of the five will end the year with the most carries. Rodriguez says "three or four" will play in the opener, and if (when) injury or whatever strikes some member of that group down you'll see the fifth guy hit the field.
It may seem generous to hand this position a 4 when no one in contention for the job has established themselves a star and only Shaw came to Michigan with significant recruiting hype (the only other four star issued to the group is the one Rivals, and only Rivals, gave Toussaint), but the sheer number of options and the diversity they bring means the overall production from this group should be more than acceptable.
The Technical Starter
…is probably Vincent Smith, who seems completely healthy despite tearing his ACL in the Ohio State game in November. During the fall scrimmage he was the guy who started out with the #1 offensive line and Denard Robinson, and in a derby this confused that's as good of an indication as any that he's the man with a slight edge.
We also have the tail end of last year as corroboration. When Carlos Brown and Brandon Minor came down with their entirely predictable injury extravaganzas, it was Smith, not Shaw or Cox, who got the bulk of the work. By the end of the year I was pretty enthused about the little guy. Baby Seal U impressions:
Vincent Smith showed top-end shiftiness and looks like he'll be a solid back. I compared him to Mike Hart on Monday, and think that remains a pretty good comparison. He's also got a little Noel Devine in him; the way he darts through crevices and effortlessly shifts around traffic is reminiscent of the WVU star. He appears to lack Devine's fifth—or eighth—gear, but he's delivered more pop to defenders in one game than Devine has in three years. He'll be something less than a star but he can be very productive.
What can I say? You listen to Fred Jackson long enough and that stuff starts rubbing off. As long as we're on the topic, Jackson on Smith after last year's spring game:
“Small guy, but a big back. He plays big. The way he blocks you and the way he’ll run over you. I’m going to bet that he’s 170 pounds, I don’t know exactly. But I’m going to say he’s 170 pounds and he runs like he’s 200 pounds.”
He was 168, actually, and now he's 180 after a productive summer. And while Jackson's hype above was based on air and mine essentially air, when forced into the lineup against Wisconsin he was productive out of the backfield. What went down on the ground was not his fault:
Yeah, pretty much. The last time I broke out the Vincent Smith praise a commenter said he's not Mike Hart, but he might kind of be Mike Hart:
How many times did Hart do exactly that against Wisconsin to turn a three yard loss into a moderate gain? It seems like a thousand times. He will not grind piles forward like Hart did but I don't recall Hart having this sort of instant acceleration:
I will not be dissuaded on this: Smith performed pretty well in his first two quasi-starts against Wisconsin and Ohio State, scoring receiving touchdowns in each game and grinding out respectable YPC numbers against two of the country's best rushing defenses. He is probably going to start next year and he is going to be good.
Tangent: I think the threat of Smith on these screens and wheels may have had some impact on the line's ability to pass block. When there's a guy out there who can punish you for getting too far upfield, you adjust so that you are not useless when they screen it out.
Smith's ability out of he backfield was one of the team's major weapons against the Badgers, as he was targeted eight(!) times, six of them as something other than a safety valve. Despite playing sparingly, by the end of the year he'd been targeted more than any other Michigan running back, finishing with 10 catches for 82 yards in the final two games alone, and he left the Ohio State game in the first half with the ACL tear. With Michigan focused on the short passing game, he could get 30, 40, maybe 50 catches this year.
The ACL does remain a worry. Rodriguez proclaimed him 100% as early as the opening of fall camp and he seemed fine in the scrimmage, but the conventional wisdom on knee surgery is that while you can be "back" within 6-9 months, it takes twice as long to be truly comfortable doing all the things you used to do. That and Smith's general lack of size will probably put a cap on his touches this season even if he is a crazy hybrid of Mike Hart and Noel Devine, which seems somewhat optimistic.
If you're going to slot Smith into a role, it's third down back for his ability out of the backfield and his blocking—Smith's first playing time last year came when the starters were too banged up to spend their snaps on obvious pass blocking situations, so he drew into the lineup. Pahokee, man.
Extremely Nominal Backups
Judging on the same standard we judged Smith—prominence in the spring and fall plus random quotes that may not mean much—junior Michael Shaw is going to be the first guy off the bench. He looked lethal when Michigan emptied the bench against Eastern Michigan:
Farther down the road, Michigan looks in excellent shape next year at tailback, where all three backups performed well. Shaw was especially impressive; you could tell that all the stuff about being slowed by a sports hernia was no BS. Guy looked Brown fast. Maybe even faster.
Like Denard Robinson, Shaw has track cred to back that up. As a senior in high school he won the 200 at the Penn Relays and anchored the winning 4x100 and 4x200 relays. He's fast; memories of Shaw getting tracked down from behind by a Minnesota defender as a freshman should come with a reminder that he was suffering through a sports hernia—ew—and saw his own mortality afterwards:
"I broke a long run and got dragged from behind. It was then that I was like, 'I'm really hurting. I've never not been able to run, not been able to explode.' "
So he's fast. This is established. His problem has been with everything else so far. Shaw's been fumble- and mistake-prone for the duration of his Michigan career, which allowed Smith to pass him late. He and Smith were the only backs to cough up fumbles in the fall scrimmage. If he hadn't narrowly escaped academic ineligibility it would have kind of been typical.
On the other hand, he was just as effective as Brandon Minor in 2008 and considerably better than Sam McGuffie and Carlos Brown. Whereas Brown tended to fall over if whispered upon, Shaw's balance has caused me to say he "falls over weird" three or four times. During these weird falls he picks up some extra yards. Beyond the obvious, Huyge thinks he's got some plowhorse in him…
“Very quick guy. He’ll run hard. I don’t know how much he weighs, but it doesn’t matter. He’ll still put his head down and try to run through people, too. He’s real shifty. But that’s how our running backs are. He’s shifty and at the same time, he can turn it up and try to run someone over.”
…but that's not something I've seen. If Michigan's going to run inside it seems they've got several better options. Shaw's role: guy who you put in the game in case he runs 80 yards, a la Carlos Brown. He's a first down kind of guy.
Redshirt sophomore Michael Cox is a much heftier runner than Shaw but has most of his speed…and probably even more frustration to him. His physical prowess has been noted far and wide. Here's Fitzgerald Toussaint on Cox:
“He got the ability over everybody. You never know what he is going to hit you with.”
Over everyone at the position?
“Over everyone at the position, Mike Cox.”
Steve Schilling is also positive about his physical attributes:
“He’s fun to watch. He’s a big guy, so he’s powerful, but he’s also one of the quickest we have. So some of these jump cuts he’s able to make and the balance he has is pretty crazy. It’s pretty exciting to see him run. One play that could get stuck in the backfield turns into a 40-yard run for him.”
Cox flashed impressive balance in his limited attempts last year, and while they were against the dregs of the schedule Cox's impressive combination of size and speed to go with that balance invites questions about why he hardly saw the field last year and is seemingly third string this year. A hint was on offer during the fall scrimmage:
Mike Cox continued to show that he might be the best athlete amongst the running backs, but on two separate instances he caused Rodriguez to "lose it" by cutting way back against the grain, turning a modest gain into nothing by dancing at the line of scrimmage. On one "there was a gap on the frontside but he cut all the way behind the backside tackle," losing yardage and causing RR to chew him out; on the second "RR just dropped his headset in disgust."
The story was much the same in spring, when Cox alternated impressive days that lent themselves to a thirteen-year-old's idea of the perfect headline with more of that stuff. Cox is the opposite of Mike Hart right now, a guy who has a ton of physical gifts but little idea how to use them. Michigan will have to put him on the field to see if he can use that upside. Whether or not he takes advantage is a mystery. His career could go like Chris Perry—a frustrating waste of obvious physical gifts until the light goes on and then BAM. Or it could just never go on. Cox is the Darryl Stonum of the running back corps; the difference here is that Michigan has a bevy of options instead of just the one potential deep threat. His role is crazy frustrating guy.
We've been hedging on roles so far, but Stephen Hopkins has an obvious one: angry mooseback. He was one of the stories of the spring after enrolling early and breaking out the truck stick on anyone with the temerity to get in front of him. His late-breaking recruiting profile encompasses the spring hype. Blockquote ahoy:
The guy is just a freaking monster and he breaks tackles. Now, I can’t say he can block, or knows the offense or can catch the ball. Plus, he fumbled twice (once he was hit at the handoff, on the other instance it might have been the QB’s issue). But man is he a tough tackle on the belly if he can get (even) a yard of momentum.
Hopkins continued to gather hype to himself in fall after losing 10 pounds and that distinct aura of cheese curds:
Hopkins was the name on everyone's tongue after a day spent running through arm tackles and showing surprising shiftiness. He "hit the holes and was a load to take down." Trusted Observer said he had a hard time picking out Hopkins before the scrimmage, as he looked like PJ Hill in the spring but after losing ten pounds and reshaping maybe a dozen others into muscle "now looks like a tailback" instead of a moonlighting fullback.
Rodriguez hardly needed to say that when Michigan needs two yards that Hopkins will be placed in front of a fullback and directed to run over anyone in his way, but he has, repeatedly. At a minimum Hopkins will be the short yardage back; once he learns the offense sufficiently he'll be great to pair with Smith or Shaw so Michigan can run the option with a dangerous downhill threat.
And finally there's redshirt freshman Fitzgerald Toussaint. Toussaint came in with a ton of yards, a reasonable amount of recruiting hype, and an 0.8 McGuffie highlight reel, then promptly broke his shoulder (how does that even happen?) in fall camp last year and sat out the season. This year he's been ruled out of the UConn game with an ankle injury and established local insider FormerWolve says his return for Notre Dame is a "MAYBE," which sounds like a "probably not" to these ears. For his part Toussaint says it's "feeling good" and "working out real well," so hopefully this isn't a Minor type situation where it lingers on and on.
FormerWolve also says he is the "clear #1" here, and while I doubt anything's particularly clear in this five-way shootout, Fred Jackson did call him Mike Hart… but fast! No, seriously:
"Michael Hart ability with speed. The kind of guy that can do Michael's cuts, he can sit down, sink his hips and explode by making steps. He's faster than Mike and a very, very tough guy, like Mike was. He's very similar to Mike. He's not the type of inside runner Mike was -- but he's going to get there."
"He's got great feet, acceleration, strength, power," Jackson said. "I can compare him to somebody -- he's like a fast Chris Perry. He's going to be very good."
Fred Jackson has puffed up a lot of guys in his twenty years at Michigan, but I think Fitzgerald Toussaint is the new king of the hill. It's interesting that Schilling's quote on Toussaint is pretty Hart-like:
“He’s a tough runner. He’s a guy that hits it up in there. He’s not afraid to go up the middle and get the extra yards, make a 4-yard run into a 6- or-7-yard run and makes some easier down-and-distance for us.”
If that's true, FormerWolve's assertion that he's the #1 guy becomes almost certain, because he was a high school track star (his 60 meter dash is about a tenth slower than Denard's)—the "fast" bit of Fred Jackson's fever dreams has been established by stopwatches. If either of the first parts are accurate… hello, nurse.
But wait! There's more! Teric Jones came in as a slot receiver/running back and was immediately thrown to the wolves at corner. His only playing time in '09 came against Delaware State, where he was repeatedly victimized on out routes late. In the aftermath he came in for a mention:
Teric Jones got torn up by DSU, which isn't a surprise since he's a true freshman who was a tailback in high school and never saw a snap on defense. I'm shocked he's not redshirting.
He moved to safety, and then back to corner, and is now on offense. That and the state of Michigan' secondary should tell you all you need to know about his potential on defense. On offense his claim to fame is simple: speed. As a junior he turned in a 4.37 40 at the Army All-American combine, and while that's pretty FAKE it was the best time turned in by anyone in attendance at the most star-laden combine in the country. He showed a glimpse of that during the spring game when he didn't quite catch Roy Roundtree despite his ten-yard head start but came awfully close (and dusted Vlad Emilien in the process).
With the positional confusion and five viable options in front of him, Jones will probably take a redshirt year, but he's down here, waiting.
With Moundros's switch to defense, John McColgan should find himself inheriting the job here. A couple years ago I suggested Moundros could see his role in the offense grow to Owen Schmitt levels, but that never happened. He was targeted on some passes out of the backfield, never got a carry, and saw opportunity elsewhere. McColgan won't be much more of a factor, especially with Stephen Hopkins claiming the RAGE as an alternative to Mike-Hart-but-fast carries.
But: that same arrival makes I-form short yardage pounding a highly viable strategy and Michigan will deploy McColgan when the downs get late and the field compressed. He's currently 230, up five pounds from last year.
Last year the big stat was Michigan's rushing game over the second half of the season, which went from turrible to solidly above average and hypothetically would have been 30th nationally if they hadn't been flailing around the first half of the season. A 3.5 was offered here after the previous seasons oh-so-warranted 1, and that seemed slightly pessimistic as Michigan firebombed its first four opponents on the ground (sacks, kneeldowns, and bad snaps obscured a 222 yard day against Indiana in game four).
Unfortunately, once the opposition got serious the loss of David Molk for all but three snaps of the Big Ten schedule could not be overcome. The right side of the line resembled Drew Palmisano during the Epic Karma series (hey-o!), David Moosman was not as agile as Molk and had a nasty tendency to chuck snaps anywhere but the quarterback's chest, and snap counts got predictable enough for Michigan State players to commit what seemed like five or so uncalled offsides penalties.
The result was a gradual decline, probably an extra loss or two—it's not hard to see Molk's presence swing at least one of the Iowa, Purdue, or Michigan State games, especially since half of Michigan's negatives in the MSU game were attributed to his absence—and the team's failure to lock down this blog's giddy projections of Michigan's BEST RUSH OFFENSE EVER (since 2000) after the first third of the schedule. The resulting absence from a bowl game has us where we are now, on a rickety boat approaching Niagara Falls.
But, hey, silver lining: Molk's absence last year means everyone this year started at least three games and could be regarded a returning starter if you want to squint at it. Sure, the two guys who tried right tackle last year were wonky enough to provide a redshirt freshman his starts, but… hey… like… whatever. Compared to last year, there's a ton of depth and experience. Compared to 2008, there is a Weisload. (Miss you, big guy xoxo.) Ask Rodriguez:
“Two years ago, it’s not even close,” Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez said. “… Now, we have four or five guys that have started, guys that have redshirted in (Taylor) Lewan and (Michael) Schofield and Quinton Washington that are now ready to play.
“We still have not as quite as talented in the ones and twos as we’d like to be, but we’ll have seven or eight guys when we’re done with camp in a week or two that we’ll feel comfortable playing.”
The interior line looks killer if Patrick Omameh can live up to the cascades of hype he's receiving, and the tackles… well… like… whatever?
Rating: 3 of 5.
After a spring in which already-hyped Taylor Lewan found himself starting at left tackle thanks to Perry Dorrestein's back injury—thus picking up an extra, even shinier layer of hype—you couldn't find a Michigan fan who would have projected him to start the year on the bench. But that's apparently the case, as the two veterans who made the right side such a mess last year have held onto their starting spots by the skin of their teeth. Rodriguez says this is due to considerable improvement…
“Yeah, the upper classman are battling to keep it. (Mark) Huyge and (Perry) Dorrestein have really done a good job in camp. The two young tackles (Michael) Schofield and (Taylor) Lewan have been pretty solid. They’re bigger, stronger and I think that competition has been pretty good. I’ve been really pleased they way Perry and Mark have responded to the challenge and really have their best camps since I’ve been here the last two years."
…but it is hard to imagine him saying anything else. I believe him, but like a lot of spots on the team the returning starters have a long way to go.
Your tentative starting left tackle is redshirt junior Mark Huyge. His issues in pass protection started as early as the Notre Dame game, when a Moosman injury forced Michigan to shuffle him inside. He picked up –6 points after being "driven back on multiple plays" on Forcier's game-winning drive and was so shaky against Michigan State that he was pulled for third-stringer John Ferrara; Ferrara "immediately gave up a crushing sack." This caused "So the right side of the line just can't block?" to become a UFR question and kicked off a stretch of ugly protection numbers that would span most of the rest of the season, with Illinois and Wisconsin standing out as late, hopeful exceptions.
By the Purdue game, Huyge's pass protection issues were "the usual" as he racked up a –5 on a day when the offensive line pulled a very poor 14/29 in the protection metric. He did manage to avoid any minuses on an "extremely shaky" performance against Penn State (Dorrestein got a –2). The clips at right are mixed, but since twenty-yard runs always get clipped and zero-yard runs are only taken out when they are important or seem emblematic of something, a 50-50 mix is not a great ratio.
So he wasn't very good last year. There's reason to expect a significant step forward, though. He enters the year at tackle and won't get bounced back and forth between different positions. He, along with the rest of the offensive line, got swoll in the offseason. After going into 2009 at 288, Huyge is now a strapping 306 pounds, and as a who-dat recruit on the offensive line you can expect a bigger leap forward between redshirt sophomore and junior years than, say, a tailback. And perhaps most importantly, he's held off the charging Lewan.
Perry Dorrestein: GOOD AT HUGZ
Right tackle Perry Dorrestein, meanwhile, started the year off as Huyge's backup and only drew into the lineup when injury forced him to, first temporarily against ND and then permanently for the Big Ten schedule. His first extended action came against Indiana and their surprisingly talented defensive ends. He did not fare well:
PROTECTION METRIC: 22/32, Koger –1, Brown –2, Team –2, Dorrestein –5.
That is not good. That is bad, and all of it save the "team" category came when Indiana defensive ends pwned the opposition. That might be understandable when you're a pass-catching tight end or a tailback, but Dorrestein was responsible for a lot of the Forcier chaos and didn't do much to justify Mark Huyge's move inside. Huyge's struggled in pass protection himself; unless Patrick Omameh surges into the starting position he lost in spring—not likely at this point—it's going to be those guys the rest of the way and the protection will be dodgy.
He picked up a –4 in the ugly Michigan State game, coming in for the same "right side of OL? More like the right side of oh noes!" criticism Huyge did. He was strictly a tackle, never moving inside.
Dorrestein, like Huyge, threw on a bunch of weight in the offseason, but since he's going from 306 to 321 that's less obviously positive. He wasn't the guy struggling at the back of the OL group in the fall scrimmage—that would be Quinton Washington—but 321 seems a little hefty for Rodriguez's offensive style. It's not nearly as important for tackles to have the crazy agility the interior line needs, but those backside DTs need to be chopped down by backside tackles if cutback lanes are going to open up. I thought this might signal an end to the tackle competition before it began, but this is obviously not the case.
For what it's worth, the tackles had good days against Illinois and Wisconsin, the latter against an intimidating defensive line. This was a significant factor in Forcier's excellent passing day against the Badgers; it could have been better but Forcier still had to "get used to the idea" that the pass protection could be, like, good. It was hard to tell who was at fault in the Iowa game, when Iowa stunts consistently fooled the Michigan OL.
So that's all kind of scary, but it's worth noting that last year I was full of consternation about Mark Ortmann, whose junior year saw stuff like this go down in a single game…
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].
…and left me asserting "I'd be surprised to see Ortmann keep his job." Ortmann not only hung on to it, he played well the whole year, hitting the preview's projected upside of Adam Stenavich. If Michigan had been good and stuff he might have made an all-conference team (second team, but still). The moral is that linemen can develop at any point and that old ones are usually good ideas.
This year will be a big test for Greg Frey, who's generally well-regarded by the fanbase and can now show his mettle by improving the returning veterans in the same way he turned Ortmann into a pretty good Big Ten player.
Lewan left, Schofield right
Taylor Lewan is currently a backup but it wouldn't be surprising to see him supplant someone for one of the starting tackle jobs during the season. He's one of those guys who had an avalanche of recruiting hype actually followed up by at-practice hype—far from a given for offensive linemen—and, as mentioned above, he was sufficiently impressive in spring for visions of freshman starter Jake Long to dance in Michigan fans' heads. This site's take from spring;
On the outside there's been some shuffling with Dorrestein and Huyge flopping left to right at times. This may be due to Taylor Lewan's (right) quick emergence. He's been called an "obvious future star" and "reminiscent of Jake Long." Reports are still conflicting on his readiness but all agree that his upside is as rapturous as the recruiting gurus promised; it seems like it's matter of time before he claims the left tackle spot. That timeframe may be September or it may be next year. The most recent move suggests the move may come sooner rather than later. Flipping Huyge to the right seems to be an effort to get Michigan's best five on the field. If I had to bet, I'd go with Lewan as the starting LT against UConn.
The timeline is going to be at least a little less aggressive than that, but he's also got Jibreel Black's vote:
“The best pass blocker I went against is probably Taylor Lewan, most definitely. Running wise, I would have to say (Steve) Schilling.
Lewan's recruiting profile constantly references Jake Long—constantly sees other people reference Jake Long, that is—and sooner or later it seems likely he'll be a star. Since he isn't actually Jake Long a more realistic timeframe may be the Omameh one where the redshirt freshman year sees some sporadic playing time and starts when needed due to veterans getting injured or not performing, leaving the breakout for next year.
Lewan's classmate Michael Schofield is the backup right tackle (though either tackle going down will see Lewan enter the lineup). A well-regarded and athletic but relatively slight four-star prospect coming out of high school, Schofield's put on 25 pounds over the last year and now stands at 293—his father posts enthusiastically on Scout about how none of his clothes fit any more. Despite that gain, Schofield is probably another year or two away from playing time. In the fall scrimmage he was one of the few linemen to draw Rodriguez's ire (pad level, naturally).
Somewhat frighteningly, there are no other scholarship backups, not even true freshmen. In the event Angry Michigan Secondary-Hating God gets bored and starts picking off tackles like it's going out of style, the last-ditch option is either moving Omameh outside or bringing in Ricky Barnum, who's practiced everywhere his first two years at Michigan.
Steve Schilling, now a candidate for the Brooks Bollinger Memorial Eighth-Year Senior Award, returns for a fourth year as a starter. Unfortunately, none of those years have been super awesome. Persistent pass-protection issues at right tackle (perhaps understandable since Schilling's high school team almost literally never threw the ball) forced him to move inside last year, where his pass-protection issues were mitigated… but not exactly quashed. He came in for some worry after the Purdue game:
… man, the pass protection issues are not letting up and the second-most vulnerable guy other than whoever the right tackle is has been Schilling, which isn't good. You can sort of understand why a two-star sophomore who had only MAC offers is struggling at tackle. Schilling's at an easier spot and is a five-star junior. At this point he's probably not going to live up to the hype. That's not to say he's bad, but pass protection breakdowns from the LG spot are really frustrating, especially when there are many incidents where Schilling doesn't lose his guy but gets shoved so far back in the pocket that Forcier has nowhere to go when someone comes tearing around the right tackle.
Schilling did do well in Genuinely Sarcastic's run charting last year and get Black's vote for best run blocker, so he's not exactly bad. He's just not what people expected when he was the hotness picking Michigan over USC out of Bellvue, Washington.
He should take another step forward as a senior, obviously, and finish out his career a solid player. Reasonable expectations are being able to hold up against bull-rushes better and pick up more stunts, though that latter issue could be due to the problems at center once Molk went down.
David Molk didn't play in spring and had a green jersey through part of fall camp, so the question foremost in your mind is about his health. The good news is that he's basically Mike Martin when it comes to holding a guy out:
Is David Molk healthy now? Coach Rodriguez: “Yeah. He scrimmaged yesterday a little bit. We didn’t have him go the whole time for precautionary reasons, but he got a few good series in and did pretty well.”
Hallelujah. Since he missed most of last year there's not a lot more to go on than this site's assessment of his redshirt freshman season, which was rapturous after the Penn State game:
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.
As far as last year goes, he did pick up a couple of holding penalties against Western, resulting in a small cluck. The response of Rodriguez, who called him "one of the team's best players," and the offense when he went out with an injury indicates just how important he was to the team.
Healthy, back in shape, and ten pounds heavier than he was going into last year—twenty pounds heavier than he was the last time he got a lot of playing time against quality opponents—Molk should be the team's best lineman and in the conversation for All Big Ten at the end of the season, with a Rimington finalist kind of year his max upside.
Last but probably not least when it comes to the starters, redshirt sophomore Patrick Omameh is set to bust out. He was the Lewan of last year, the recipient of a torrent of practice hype who fans were surprised to see on the bench, even more surprised to see him still on the bench when Molk went out, and further surprised still when he danced his way into the starting lineup as a guard when he'd been hyped up as the next great Michigan tackle for going on two years. As late as February I was saying things like "Omameh has always been regarded a left tackle prospect."
But following weeks of pats on the back from his coaches, Omameh, in part of a widespread shift along the line, got the start at right guard in UM's third-to-final game of the year. Not only was it his first game action at the position, Omameh had never even worked at right guard in practice.
Why would Michigan make such a weird move? And then why would they stick with it? Well:
Yuck. Is there any hope for the OL going forward?
Well, Omameh had a very good day, and not just for a redshirt freshman. His agility is as advertised:
He was sealing DTs with Moosman all day; he seemed to have a grasp on pass protection, too. He was so obviously good that he's now your starter at RG, no questions asked, as Huyge and Dorrestein fight it out at right tackle. That's an important step forward for him. If he's languished on the bench as Ferrara got the start the hype on him would be heading towards Grady Brooks territory; as it is he's beaten out some more experienced options and played well as a redshirt freshman. You can now put him in pen somewhere on next year's line.
In Michigan's offense the guys who can get 15 yards downfield and put a hat on a guy need to be guards. I can't tell you how many times I've UFRed a play where Michigan has creased the opponent's line and looks set up for a big play only for the guard releasing downfield to do an ole and for Michigan to get three yards. (Here's a Picture Pages from '08 that provides an example.) Last year when Huyge was forced inside his strike rate was iffy, as you can see in his "downfield no" section. Omameh and Schilling provide the potential for Michigan to have two guys who can get blocks downfield, sometimes way downfield, and turn those 3, 4, and 5 yard runs into 10, 15, 20, or more. That's why Omameh's inside.
There he's been getting buckets and buckets of hype, from here and anywhere else you want to look. Like most of the other guys on the line he's packed on the muscle, now checking in at 299 after last year's 276. The thing I remember most from the spring game was Omameh not only sealing but pancaking Renaldo Sagesse, a senior and decent Big Ten player, on one particular zone stretch. If this is true…
"The only way I can tell I'm heavier is by stepping on the scale," Omameh said. "I still feel like, and move like, the way I did when I came in. The strength is evident when I play."
This will be fairly brief since no one on the interior has seen game time. At center the primary backup is Rocko Khoury, a middling three-star recruit who was passed over last year in favor of the crazy shuffling. Since he was a redshirt freshman that's not a huge black mark. The ease with which Mike Martin was crushing him in the fall practice is slightly concerning, but hopefully Martin will be doing that to all manner of opponents.
At guard, redshirt sophomores Ricky Barnum and Elliott Mealer plus redshirt freshman Quinton Washington are the primary backups, with Barnum and Washington the top two guys on the depth chart. All came in fairly highly touted and have enough experience that seeing one on the field—probably Barnum—won't be cause for too much alarm.
Senior John Ferrara has fallen to third-string and will probably be limited to special teams; solitary freshman Christian Pace is guaranteed to redshirt.
[Editor's note: "F/+" is an advanced metric put together by Football Outsiders that combines a drive-centered efficiency metric with a play-centered one, adjusts for schedule strength, and comes up with a number that seems more accurate than just yards. For example, Big Ten offenses and defenses last year:
That seems more right than a measure of offensive efficiency that had Michigan's offense 9th in the league last year because they didn't play two below-average defensive teams. More about this later. The numbers below will differ from the numbers above slightly since the scatterplot is just Big Ten play and the below numbers take nonconference games (but not I-AA ones) into account.
The story on offense for Ohio State this season starts and ends with Terrelle Pryor. If he can take the next step as a quarterback, the skill players around him, including wideouts DeVier Posey and Dane Sanzenbacher and running backs Dan "Boom" Herron and Brandon Saine, will see him to put up big numbers. Returning five offensive linemen from the conference's third-best rush offense should help pave the way and keep Pryor's jersey clean.
All of this depends on Pryor's continued development as a passer, and a willingness from Jim Tressel to open the playbook for his star. Pryor's "breakout performance" in the Rose Bowl was much more a product of the latter, as Terrelle's 37 pass attempts was by far the most of his season, and while his efficiency was above his season average, it would have ranked 44th in the nation - behind many player's without Pryor's threat of running (or supporting cast).
On the other side of the ball, the Buckeyes lost a quartet of defenders to the NFL - though that hasn't stopped them from reloading in the past. Along the front line, defensive end Thaddeus Gibson took off for The League a year early and Doug Worthington graduated from OSU. All-Big Ten candidate Cameron Heyward (a first-team selection last year) will be relied upon more heavily; noted workout warrior John Simon will step into the middle. The Buckeyes lose linebacker Austin Spitler, but Ross Homan heads a talented group that shouldn't see too much dropoff. Despite losing Kurt Coleman, the Bucks should start three seniors in the secondary.
Iowa at a Glance
2009 Offense Rank
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Like the Buckeyes, Iowa has an enigmatic quarterback who is looking to make everything come together. Ricky Stanzi was a pick-6 machine last year, though he was a killer in crunch time. His supporting cast won't be nearly as strong as Pryor's, with four offensive linemen shuffling out of Iowa City, including first-rounder Bryan Bulaga. Stanzi's main options in the passing game are Darrell Johnson-Koulianos and converted QB Marvin McNutt. Tight end Allen Reisner replaces Tony "oft-injured but routinely open by 25 yards against Michael Williams" Moeaki.
A strong D is responsible for the Hawkeyes' optimism going into 2010. Defensive end Adrian Clayborn was a terrorbeast in the Orange Bowl, and he returns along with tackles Karl Klug and Christian Ballard, with sophomore LeBron Daniel manning the other end. The linebacker corps takes a major hit with the losses of Pat Angerer and AJ Edds, and the secondary lost Amari Spievey early to the NFL. Aside from the defensive front, this unit could be looking at a step back after finishing first in conference play a year ago.
Wisconsin at a Glance
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The Badgers return the Big Ten's best rushing threat and last year's offensive player of the year in John Clay, Clay's entire offensive line from 2009, and one of the conference's most efficient passers in Scott Tolzien. Tolzien's efficiency may have been a product of being a mere complement to a dominating rush game, but with the Badgers are looking to repeat last year's gameplan he can do that again no problem. Deep threat Nick Toon headlines a good receiving corps, though tight end Garrett Graham has moved on to the next level. The offense, as per usual, will rely on enough play-action passing to keep defenses honest but the majority of Wisconsin's yardage will come on the ground.
The Badgers' defense was decent last year and possibly underrated. Wisconsin held Ohio State's offense to just 10 points last year, but lost thanks to three non-offensive touchdowns from the Buckeyes. Defensive End O'Brien Schofield and tackle Jeff Stehle are the big losses up front for Wisconsin, and linebacker Jaevery McFadden is gone after leading UW in tackles each of the past two years. The rest of the D is mostly intact, including last year's Big Ten Freshman of the Year in linebacker Chris Borland, and safety Jay Valai, who seems like he's been around forever. It's the consistency in personnel that has many people projecting the Badgers to finish near the top of the conference, and that's the spoils of returning 19-ish starters from last year's Champs Sports Bowl winners.
Northwestern at a Glance
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Mike Kafka quietly led the conference in total yardage last year, so losing him to the NFL(-ish) is a big deal. However, this isn't the Northwestern of old. The Wildcats can plug in Dan Persa, a redshirt junior with some experience under his belt. The run game is a much bigger question mark, as the Wildcats struggled on the ground last year. Kafka was the only player with more than 100 attempts, and leading rusher Arby Fields finished with just 302 yards on 3.6 yards per carry. What should help the running game this year is more experience. A green offensive line last year has grown up, which should also mean the Cats don't finish second-to-last in the Big Ten in sacks allowed this year.
Though Northwestern has become a program somewhat capable of reloading, replacing two NFL draft picks on defense is not something they're used to. Defensive end Corey Wootton and corner Sherrick McManus have left big shoes to fill, and safeties Brad Phillips and Brendan Smith have also graduated. That leaves linebackers Quentin Davie and Nate Williams and corner Jordan Mabin to be the stars of the show. I think they'll have trouble living up to last year's experienced defense, which was already in the bottom half of the conference by most measures.
Penn State at a Glance
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Quarterbacks continue to be a theme among Big Ten teams, as Penn State will have to choose between an unimpressive sophomore, a walkon, or a true freshman to lead their team this fall. Nittany Lion fans are denying it's a Threet/Sheridan situation, but I'll believe PSU has a competent signal-caller when I see him. Of course, the supporting cast will be much better than Michigan's was in 2008, with Evan Royster willing to carry a big portion of the offense. The offensive line has plenty of talent and gained experience last year. Stefen Wisniewski is the headliner there, moving from center to guard. Tight end Andrew Quarless is the only significant departure from the receiving corps, though with a young quarterback, having no security blanket (backup Mickey Shuler has also moved on to the NFL) could be an issue. Penn State is also starting a 6'3" converted guard at left tackle.
The other side of the ball sees serious losses, including a first-rounder in defensive tackle Jared Odrick, and all three starting linebackers. Despite those, Penn State will still be able to field an experienced unit as the new linebackers are all seniors, as are three defensive linemen and both safeties. Even in Penn State's dark years, the defense was good, and that should be the case again.
Michigan State at a Glance
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The Spartan offense went from heavily run-biased in 2008 to pass-biased in 2009. With Larry Caper and Edwin Baker coming of age, there's bound to be more balance this year - which should only help Kirk Cousins continue his prolific passing. A couple starters on the the offensive line need to be replaced, along with leading receiver (by a country mile) Blair White, so I'm not willing to predict that the Spartans will be the top offense in the Big Ten, but they should be good or better. Former QB Keith Nichol will try to fill the "white wideout" void, and some people are projecting an All-Big Ten season from him... on the basis of two career catches. Still, there's a lot to work with in East Lansing, and Cousins is the lynchpin of this unit.
The Spartans will be led defensively by linebacker Greg Jones, who rejected an early entry to the NFL Draft to win a Big Ten Championship in East Lansing (or go to the Insight Bowl, either one). The Spartans' second-best defensive player last year, end Trevor Anderson, is off to the NFL, so the Spartans may have trouble replicating the pressure they put on opposing QBs last year. That's unfortunate, seeing as how MSU's secondary was - are you sitting down? - worse than Michigan's last year! Competent aerial attacks should shred the Spartans once more.
Purdue at a Glance
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Robert Marve is sure getting a lot of hype for a guy who finished just inside the top 100 nationally in pass efficiency last time he played a live down. There's nothing (aside from the four stars next to his name in 2008) that suggests he'll be better than Joey Elliott was last year. Running back Ralph Bolden has a torn ACL, causing him to miss at least part of the season, and his backup, Al-Terek McBurse, has been dinged up during camp as well. The Boilermakers return top receiver Keith Smith, along with a couple other key pieces in the receiving game. They do, however, lose a couple offensive linemen from a mediocre unit, which could mean a step back.
The defensive leaders for Purdue will be a pair of seniors in defensive end Ryan Kerrigan and linebacker Jason Werner. The linebackers should be the same as last year, with Joe Holland filling one of the spots, and Chris Calrino and Dwayne Beckford battling for the final position. The secondary is almost entirely new, as Torri Williams, David Pender, Brandon King, and Dwight McLean are gone. The defense should be a serious weakness of the Boilermakers.
Minnesota at a Glance
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Adam Weber has had one of the more bizarre career arcs as a starting quarterback you'll ever see, with strong seasons as a freshman and sophomore followed by a disappointing 2009 (last in the conference in passing efficiency) and the threat of being replaced by a freshman in 2010. His struggles over the past couple years coincide with a number of coordinator and philosophy changes on offense for the Gophers, and if they return to more of a spread don't be surprised if Weber is replaced by MarQuies Gray. Running the ball, Duane Bennett should be better than he was last year, as he's had more time to improve from a 2008 knee injury. The top two receivers, Eric Decker and tight end Nick Tow-Arnett, are both gone. Gray might see time split wide when he's not behind center.
The Gophers' defense was middle-of-the-pack last year, and now the three starting linebackers are out the door (with one of the candidates to replace them, Sam Maresh, at a junior college instead of in St. Paul). The defensive backs should be a strength though, with Kim Royston, Kyle Theret, and Marcus Sherels all seniors, though Royston has had health issues with one of his legs. The defensive line was poor last year, and losing Eric Small and Cedric McKinley won't improve that. This defense should be awful.
Indiana at a Glance
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The pistol offense has worked out in Bloomington (sorta), as the Hoosiers finished fourth in the conference in passing offense—but they couldn't run the ball at all. Quarterback Ben Chappell and running back Darius Willis both return, forming a solid nucleus, though Willis's top two backups are gone. Wide receivers should be led by Damarlo Belcher and Terrance Turner until Tandon Doss returns from a groin injury. On the offensive line, a terrible unit running the ball loses an NFL second-rounder, and the Hoosiers aren't likely to replace Roger Saffold with an equally-talented player. A few other linemen depart, though not all starters. The offensive line should be the downfall of this offense.
On the other side of the ball, the Hoosiers lose two players to the NFL in seventh-rounders Jammie Kirlew and Ray Fisher at defensive end and corner, respectively. For a unit that finished second-to-last in both scoring and total defense last year, that's not a good sign, as the Hoosiers aren't exactly pumping out draft picks. Also departing are linebackers Matt Mayberry, Justin Carrington, and Will Patterson, along with defensive lineman Greg Middleton. This unit could be historically bad, unless there's a lot of talent that should have been on the field last year.
Illinois at a Glance
2009 Offense Rank
Offensive Starters Lost
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Defensive Starters Lost
Out goes the Juice Williams era, and in comes... Nathan Scheelhasse? The Illini brought in Paul Petrino to be offensive coordinator, so look for a QB-centric, pass-heavy offense. Juniors Mikel LeShoure and Jason Ford should do most of the rushing, but there's little proven talent in the receiving corps. Arrelious Benn, Chris Duvalt, Jeff Cumberland, and Michael Hoomanawanui are all gone, leaving behind little experience—and these aren't the talented prospects Zook was bringing in at the start of his tenure in Champaign. The Illini also lose an NFL pick on the offensive line in guard Jon Asamoah, along with aptly-named fellow starter Eric Block. They gave up a lot of sacks last year, and without the mobile threat of Juice (and with a move toward a downfield passing game), you can probably expect more of the same in 2010.
Defensive lineman Doug Pilcher is gone, as are defensive backs Donsay Hardeman and Dere Hicks, but the rest off Illinois's defense returns mostly intact. Of course, when that defense was dead last in the Big Ten in total, scoring, and pass efficiency defense, there's a legitimate question as to whether that is a good thing. Losing starting DBs off a horrible pass defense means more of the same is probably in order unless the Illini can do a better job getting to the quarterback. Unfortunately, they were - you guessed it - last in the conference in sacks last year. They have talent in the system, and if those players can grow up, there may be room for improvement (along with a return from Martez Wilson). However, there's a long way to go to even reach competency.