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Monday, January 10, 2005

A note: I'm guessing UM returns to a more conventional 4-3 defense this year since the 3-4 basically failed. The defense's best player, Lamar Woodley, plays better with his hand down as a DE.

Defensive Ends
Departures: Larry Harrison? (lack of pants issues)
Depth Chart:

1. Lamar Woodley (Jr) /Jeremy Van Alstyne (R. Jr)
2. Rondell Biggs (R. Jr) /Tim Jamison (R. Fr)
3. Chris Rogers (R. Fr) / Chris McLaurin (Fr)

Outlook: Lamar Woodley was easily Michigan's best defensive player last year and will probably be the best next year unless Gabe Watson's stamina improves drastically. However, aside from him Michigan got almost no production out of the players listed on the above depth chart. This is partially due to injury, as promising freshman Tim Jamison and projected starter Jeremy Van Alstyne both suffered severe ones. Van Alstyne actually returned about halfway through the season but his effectiveness was limited.

Woodley led the team in TFLs with 12 but only had four sacks. If he doesn't reach double digits in the latter category this year he won't be living up to his potential.

Michigan has to find someone to go opposite Woodley. Hopefully that will be a heavy rotation of Van Alstyne and Jamison. Jamison exploded as a senior in high school and is chock full of potential if he makes a full recovery from his hush-hush injury, which I believe was a knee. Expect Van Alstyne to start the year out with Jamison filling in as a situational pass rusher.

Defensive Tackles
Departures: None
Depth Chart:

1. Gabe Watson (Sr) / Pat Massey (R. Sr)
2. Alan Branch (So) / Alex Ofili (R. Sr)
3. Will Paul (R. So) / Will Johnson (R. Fr)

Outlook: Gabe Watson finally showed everyone what the big deal was, making first-team All Big Ten in an absolutely loaded year for DL. He was the disruptive presence everyone expected when he showed up on campus, driving unfortunate centers, guards, and sometimes both centers and guards into the backfield with regularity. Some have asserted that Watson was a little overrated, but I disagree. Whatever failings Michigan's defense had this year, running up the gut usually resulting in second and nine for the opposing team.

Pat Massey will wake up thirty years from now screaming after seeing Vince Young escape from him in his dreams, but he was also an effective performer. He started at DE this year in the 3-4 but will likely move back inside if UM reverts to the 4-3. Massey's huge frame (he's 6'8") is somewhat problematic as it makes it hard for him to get under offensive linemen, but he is an effective pass rusher (five sacks from what was essentially an interior line position). If only he wrapped up a little better...

This should be a rock solid unit in '05. Beyond Watson and Massey there is a ton of depth with Alan Branch, who was effective as a true freshman, Alexi Ofili, the two Wills, and freshmen Terrance Taylor and (potentially) Marques Slocum. The backups should be able to keep Watson and Massey fresh deep into the game--Branch in particular is an exciting player, extremely fast and agile for his massive (345 lbs.) size.

Departures: Roy Manning
Depth Chart (WLB, MLB, SLB):

1. Pierre Woods(R. Sr) / Lawrence Reid (R. Sr) / Scott McClintock (Sr)
2. Chris Graham(So) / Prescott Burgess (Jr) / Shawn Crable (R. So)
3. David Harris (R. Jr) / Joey Sarantos (R. Sr) / John Thompson (R. Fr)

Outlook: Calling this position group a disaster area does a huge disservice to disasters everywhere. Michigan returned everyone except Carl Diggs from a solid unit, including second-team All-Big Ten performer Pierre Woods and honorable mention Lawrence Reid. The linebackers were so deep and awesome that UM decided to switch to a 3-4 defense that would drive opponents crazy, sending them back to the sidelines gibbering in disbelief at the myriad looks they were presented. Third string punters would enter games in the fourth quarter, nervously glancing over at the sight of their predecessors attempting to cool off their overheated kicking legs by dunking them in the Gatorade jugs. Charles Woodson and the '97 defense would be a distant, somewhat amusing memory.

This didn't exactly happen. Pierre Woods fell off the face of the earth, going from 68 tackles, 14 TFL, and 7 sacks to 22, 1, and 1, respectively. Rumors at the beginning of the season had poor Pierre injured but as time passed it became apparent that he was in the doghouse. Very in the doghouse. Statistically, Lawrence Reid had a similar season in '04 as he did in '03 but he didn't seem as effective or active as he did as a sophomore. Plays like the one in the Rose Bowl where he knifed through the line and tackled Vince Young for a loss were few and far between. McClintock was solid but unexciting. He'll make tackles and show up in the right place but he's not going to wow you.

This depth chart is a complete shot in the dark. No one should consider a starting job safe and everyone should push for time. There's no excuse for the Wolverine linebacking corps to not be one of the best in the nation. Four and five star athletes litter the depth chart.

Departures: Marlin Jackson, Marcus Curry
Depth Chart:

1. Leon Hall (Jr) / Grant Mason (Sr)
2. Darnell Hood (R. Jr) / Charles Stewart (R. Fr)
3. Brandon Harrison (Fr) / Johnny Sears (Fr)

Outlook: Frighteningly, that's every cornerback we have. Stewart's actually listed as a safety on but I'm pretty sure he's been practicing at corner. Hall has proven to be a good performer perhaps on a par with Jeremy Leseuer, but he isn't an All-American like Marlin Jackson. Mason saw significant time as the nickleback this year and performed decently. Hood played a bit in third and long. Not one other player on the roster has seen a snap at corner.

Justin King stared this depth chart in the face and decided he'd rather play for a team that lost a game 6-4 this year. Stupid letters.

There's no way someone doesn't get moved to corner. UM is not going to go into the year with this level of uncertainty without some extra numbers at the position. The wideky held assumption is it will be Morgan Trent or Doug Dutch, though Dutch seems adamant about remaining at WR.

Whoever earns the starting spot opposite Hall with either be a huge pleasant surprise or the new Official Fan Whipping Boy of 2005 (that's player division... Jim Herrmann has the coach division all locked up), because they are going to get picked on constantly. The only good thing I can say is that Herrmann seems to play the same horrible zone coverage no matter what kind of talent he has in the secondary.

Ernest Shazor (early NFL draft entry)
Depth Chart (SS/FS):

1. Jamar Adams (So) / Ryan Mundy (Jr)
2. Jacob Stewart (R. Jr) / Brandent Engelmon (R. So)
3. Anton Campbell (R. So) /Willis Barringer (Jr)

Outlook: Shazor was instrumental in a couple of close Michigan victories. He plowed through several Golden Gophers and made huge TFLs on consective plays against Minnesota when the Gophers were trying to run out the clock, forcing a punt. He also nearly ended Dorien Bryant's existence, forcing a critical fumble with under a minute to go against Purdue in one of the 2004 season's iconic plays.

But... but... but... I can't help but think that the Michigan defense's tendency to give up huge plays over and over again this year is at least partially traceable back to him and Ryan Mundy. It was Shazor who got out of position on Maroney's 80 yard touchdown run. It was Shazor who let Gonzales get behind him to open the scoring against OSU. Mundy whiffed on Cobb's first touchdown run against MSU, and on Stanton's QB draw touchdown. Shazor was easily exploited by misdirection. Mundy was a mess with his angles.

Do do you go with the huge good plays or the huge bad plays? I don't know. What I do know is this: Shazor should not have been a first-team All-American. He got that award because he plays a low-glitz position and he had a single monster play. He was the Braylon Edwards of the defense, alternating brilliance with head-shaking frustration.

Mundy will return next year, hopefully with a better understanding of geometry, and true sophomore-to-be Jamar Adams looks to be the heir apparent to Shazor's SS spot. Adams played sporadically during the year in passing situations and when either starter got dinged up. He just missed making several good plays but came up empty for the most part. The coaches are clearly excited about his potential, as he slid up the depth chart through a slew of more experienced players.

What can we expect? The sad fact is that Michigan has not gotten good safety play since Marcus Ray. While the Mundy/Shazor duo was not nearly as horrific as the Drake/Injured Julius Curry/June trio--when Shazor actually showed up in the right place he usually killed someone instead of playing drunken matador--they got owned all year by misdirection and play action. Is this going to change next year? Probably not. Mundy will have to make a quantum leap to become an impact player and someone with basically no experience is not going to replace Shazor, no matter how many plays he blew last year. This position is a major question mark, no doubt about it. At least the corner spot has one reliable performer returning.

Overall Outlook

2004 represented the final straw for Jim Herrman in the eyes of most Michigan fans, but he is likely to return as defensive coordinator anyway. Is there hope? There should be some. Carr has shown that he will address problem areas. The OC search was long and painful but looks to have settled in a good place. The special teams disasters of the past seem to be receding under Mike Debord. Carr will take a look at this team and realize that the only thing holding him back from national championship contention the next few years is getting the maximum performance out of the ridiculous athletes he has on defense. He may take a more hands-on approach with Herrmann. He will at least make it very clear that he expects the defense to improve this year.

Will it? It could. The front seven will feature a senior Gabe Watson gunning for a potential top-10 draft selection. Millions of dollars dancing in front of Watson's eyes will provide a further kick in the pants to a player who already dominated at times. It will also have Lamar Woodley, another potential first-rounder who is ready to make national noise next year. Senior Pat Massey won't be mistaken for a first round pick any time soon, but he's an above-average player. If a bookend for Woodley can be found, the line should be intimidating.

The linebackers have the potential to be good. Reid, McClintock, and Woods are all seniors with extensive experience. Sophomore Chris Graham is drawing comparisons to Ian Gold. Prescott Burgess has more talent than just about anyone in the country. If they can remove their collective heads from, uh, the ground, they can be great.

That said, they probably won't be unless something drastic happens. I don't know what that is. I don't know if it means changing the scheme, or getting them to tackle better, or getting them to read plays and understand their role better. I don't know if it's a coaching failure or just a case of these guys being big time athletes with no real head for the game. The amazingly frustrating thing about it is that they could go "a-ha!" and be a great unit. The potential is there. But it's extremely unlikely they will.

The secondary will be the weak point of the entire team. Leon Hall is a good Big Ten corner, but past that there is almost no experience except for Ryan Mundy, who struggled in his first year as a starter. Jackson and Shazor, for their faults, were first team All-Americans. There won't be any of those around next year. The only good thing I can say is that the pass defense was pretty mediocre with them or without them, so it's likely that JH's scheme failed to deploy their talents effectively and they may not be missed as badly as one might think.

I really don't know what to expect here. There is the potential for a dominating front seven, but can Herrmann finally harness it? I expect the conventional run defense to be very good. The defensive line was great against the run all year, and I think both Watson and Woodley will be even better next year. The failings came once the backs got past the dline and into the secondary, which far too often was not in position. Michigan will focus the entire offseason on preventing big run plays like Cobb's or Maroney's. This will improve.

The pass defense will not unless the defensive line lives up to its hype and then some. Woodley must be a monster rushing the quarterback and he will have to get help from all over, as the secondary is going to have to play much less aggressively this year to cut down on the big plays that plagued them in 2004. Pressure, or the lack thereof, will determine the UM defense's fate against the pass next year.

And then there is the elephant in the room: dealing with mobile quarterbacks. Jim Herrmann has never, ever figured out a way to even slightly slow mobile quarterbacks and UM will be facing its share next year. This is where the defense will live and die. I have no idea what'll happen. I don't expect it to be good. I know I'll be expecting to lose to MSU if Stanton is healthy.

The good news is that there is every reason to believe that the athletes on D can compose a good to very good defense. The bad news is that was true last year, too. The hope here lies in the front seven: if the linebackers bounce back and perform well and Woodley and Watson perform at an All-American level... we'll probably still lose to mobile quarterbacks. But everything else will be swell!

As far as statistics go, I expect a net improvement. I really do. Michigan has shown that when a problem presents itself, it will fix it. (Unfortunately, it seems like fixing one leak in the dike seems to cause another one to immediately spring to life.) The offense should be more consistent and methodical next year, improving Michigan's time of possession. The defense will not give up as many big plays next year. We will lose a game because of Herrmann's inability to adapt to mobile quarterbacks. We'll look back and mutter "what could have been" one more time. (Note: by August I will be predicting 12-0 with the nation's #1 O and #1 D.)


Anonymous said...

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Go Blue!!

Anonymous said...

Great job. For the most part, your posts are like I took the time to organize my thoughts, then added in some insight and rationale. Great job. BTW, I loved the comment about Nienberg (pop warner) I am going to miss seeing a kicker make so many tackes!