The kids are in and the winter sports are slowly strangling whatever hopes you had, so the next major event you won't stare at a bottle of pills after is spring practice. Time for primers. Positions I'll be looking at hard in a month or two:
Fifth-year senior Mark Ortmann graduates. Ortmann was no Jake Long but by the end of his career at Michigan he was a solid pass protector and okay in the run game. If Michigan can get an equal performance from a freshman or sophomore that's a win.
The favorite is redshirt sophomore Patrick Omameh, who drew into the lineup late last year when David Molk went down with injury and the right guard spot became persistently unsettled after David Moosman slid over to center. Omameh made a few impressive plays downfield…
…and was generally functional. Though he ended up at guard last year that was an effort to get Michigan's best five linemen on the field more than anything else. Omameh has always been regarded a left tackle prospect.
Omameh's main competition will come from two redshirt freshman. Taylor Lewan was a late-blooming prospect from Arizona who got acres of hype—the Long comparisons were rife—and has an enormous ceiling. Omameh has experience on Lewan but if those two are far and away the top two candidates for starting jobs they might leave Omameh at guard and insert Lewan. Michael Schofield is another redshirt freshman who was well-regarded as a recruit and will have a shot at the job, but he may be better suited for right tackle.
Hoping for… Lewan. Jumping into the starting lineup as a freshman would be Long-like for a guy who has drawn Long comparisons, and it would presumably allow Omameh to slide over to right tackle to help lock down the area from which most of Tate Forcier's wild-ass scrambles were born.
Expecting… Omameh. With three starts to his name and no current starters a threat to move to left tackle, Omameh is a prohibitive favorite.
The aforementioned Moosman was Michigan's most consistent offensive lineman the last two years when not forced to play center due to Molk's injuries. Though he was consistent, he wasn't great; his prominence says more about the state of Michigan's line the last couple years than his future in the game. He wasn't invited to the NFL combine.
Since Moosman spent most of the year at center and his replacement was a combination of Huyge, Ferrara, and Omameh with the latter performing the best, Michigan should expect improved production here.
Assuming the tackles are not in such surplus that Michigan can toss them about the interior line willy-nilly, Michigan faces a choice between old and young. The old guy in the mix is fifth-year senior John Ferrara (right), a guy who was flipped from defensive tackle in Rodriguez's first year at Michigan and saw spot starts in 2008. He was supplanted last year by a couple of guys who displayed serious limitations, but he's more seasoned than the other options.
The other options are a pair of highly-touted southerners. Redshirt sophomore Ricky Barnum decommitted from Florida just before signing day and was actually the second-team left tackle last year. The assumption here is that Omameh was more ready to play and left tackle was not open, so the best backup lineman practiced at the most available spot—right guard after Molk went down—and the second best practiced at the toughest. That would be Barnum. He came highly touted and after two years prepping he's the most likely guy. If it's close, Michigan will probably go with the younger player.
The other prime candidates are Elliot Mealer, who saw a little time last year as a backup, and redshirt freshman Quinton Washington. The soft-spoken Washington picked Michigan over South Carolina late in last year's recruiting cycle and drew lavish praise from the coaches:
"To my understanding, he's their number one lineman they are going after in the nation. That's point blank what coach Rodriguez told me Friday night."
Washington is a rare combination of size and linebacker-erasing agility and could be a major star. His ceiling is very, very high. If he doesn't win a job this year he will be the heavy favorite to replace Steve Schilling in 2011.
Hoping for… Realistically, Barnum. He should be ahead of Washington at this point and Washington getting the nod over him would probably say more bad things about Barnum than good things about Washington. In fairy land where Michigan embarks on a four-year journey with Lewan as Jake Long 2.0 and Washington as Steve Hutchinson 2.0, Washington. No offense to Ferrara, but I'd take a starting spot for him as a very bad sign.
No one. Whoever's here this fall should be better, whether it's the same players with more experience or someone displacing them.
The reason this position is listed prominently is performance of the two semi-incumbents. Perry Dorrestein and Mark Huyge (right, holding the hell out of a Penn State lineman) were functional in the run game but revolving doors in pass protection. A not so random protection metric from last year:
PROTECTION METRIC: 14/29. Huyge –5, Schilling –3, Minor –2, Ortmann –1, Shaw –1, Koger –1, Moosman –1, Omameh –1.
That is by far the lowest percentage in UFR history. The culprits are the usual by now: Huyge on the edge, Schilling getting blasted back into the pocket, and several other folk having individual moments of struggle.
That happened to be a game that Huyge played right tackle; when Dorrestein got the start he was the guy leading the way with big minuses.
Michigan had little choice but to rotate those two last year. This year they have options. The aforementioned Lewan and Schofield come off redshirt years; Omameh will probably move back to tackle in spring, too. All these guys have been talked about already.
Hoping for… in the scenario where Lewan erupts, Omameh.
Expecting… early, a rotation similar to last year's. Huyge takes over late and his pass protection remains a major issue.
Brandon Minor and Carlos Brown were polar opposites in many ways but shared a knack for getting injured constantly. Despite having not one but two senior tailbacks, Michigan was forced to go to true freshman Vincent Smith late last year as both veterans looked on dourly from the sidelines holding various aching extremities.
Kevin Grady is also gone, though he was mostly a fullback last year.
Production should be about even; Brown and Minor were hardly at full speed last year.
They are diverse and sundry. With Vincent Smith out until fall with an ACL tear, five or six players will battle for carries. Mike Shaw is the one you've seen before. His freshman year was exciting, but his promise dipped as a sophomore. Shaw runs wildly. He's a zippy guy with the occasional fantastic move…
…but his vision is lacking and he's had fumble issues. This spring will be a turning point in his career. If he gets left in the wash by freshmen he's headed for kickoff return duties and not much else. Chances are he improves enough to be a part of the rotation; he has Brown-level speed.
Other folk are murkier. Mike Cox displayed impressive balance on a couple of garbage-time carries against weak opponents but has done nothing else so far and fell behind Smith almost as soon as he hit the practice field. He could find use as a short-yardage back or Soul Train extra. Cox is the only other player in the spring tailback derby to have seen a carry at Michigan.
The other three players are freshmen, be they redshirt or true. Fitzgerald Toussaint, the redshirt, is the most likely to have a breakout spring. He enrolled in fall—Smith got in early, giving us an early glimpse—and then broke his collarbone. That forced him out of a month of practice and relegated him to scout team duties, but before that he was a jump-cut maniac at Youngstown Liberty who racked up three or four 50+ yard touchdowns per game. When I profiled Toussaint prior to his enrollment, I was higher on him than Smith:
While I think Vincent Smith can be a good back in the Michigan offense, Toussaint has the bigger recruiting rep, better track numbers, and heart-stopping highlights; my bet is that he's the most successful tailback out of this class. I love the combination of moves, zone suitability, and flat-out speed cited by ESPN and demonstrated at track meets and football games.
And while Smith has outpaced even this site's positive take on him in year one, the main thing I'll be looking for this spring is Toussaint translating his sprinter's speed and audacious cuts to Michigan Stadium.
True freshmen Austin White and Stephen Hopkins have enrolled early and will get their shots as well. White is a slot/tailback who might be reminiscent of a Dorrell Jalloh or Darius Reynaud; he comes with less hype than Toussaint and I assume he will redshirt. Hopkins is the lowest-rated back of anyone on the roster but at 6-foot and 230-240 pounds there is a distinctly vacant role on the roster he might be the man to fill. Michigan needs a short-yardage moose.
Hoping for… Smith's healthy return and Toussaint living up to his crazy film.
Expecting… pretty much that, with Shaw factoring in as needed.
My assumption remains that Devin Gardner is headed for a redshirt. Still, getting a look at the future of Michigan's quarterback position will be a priority for many. Roy Roundtree and Martavious Odoms have a stranglehold on slot receiver, but an extended look at Jeremy Gallon with an eye towards "please God, send us a punt returner" will be welcome. On the outside, Junior Hemingway is a lock and it will take some doing to displace Darryl Stonum. With Ricardo Miller, Jeremy Jackson, and Jerald Robinson all in early there's a chance someone displays an ability to adjust to deep balls.
Finally, I wonder if any of the tight ends can catch now.