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Sunday, June 12, 2005

mgoblog likes a game against an overmatched MAC opponent early in the year because it gives me an opportunity to not freak out about the possibility of the world ending and focus on some players I've been hearing a lot about but haven't seen. I pick out a few guys and watch their play obsessively, trying to determine who's Mike Hart and who's Grady Brooks.

These players are usually new guys who I haven't seen play much. I have a pretty good idea what Michigan's going to get out of Jason Avant or Lamarr Woodley, so I don't need to obsess over their performances. They're also usually at areas of significant concern. I'm excited to see someone like Grady show up, but since I know that Hart has a grip on the running back job like Bobby Brown does on Whitney Houston's neck (oh no he di'in't!), the future of the team does not rest heavily on his shoulders.

Yes, almost everyone on this list is a defender.

Here's my top five this year:

1. WLB Chris Graham, Sophomore: The Graham hype machine got cranked up the day he showed up on campus and after one year of playing headhunter on special teams Graham's won the weakside linebacker job. In the process he shoved five-star Prescott Burgess over to the strong side and senior Scott McClintock to the bench*.

Graham's buzz makes him out to be Ian Gold after you punched his mom: short, fast, and angry. Yes, please. He's listed at 5'11", 225. I buy the 225. Five-eleven? Not so much. He's 5'11" like Hart is 5'9". He has a nickname--"The Brick"--positively turgid with practice stories that involve a lot of people exhaling long, slow, sliding whistles like rubberneckers passing a particularly bad car wreck.** I envision him roaming through traffic, his helmet sticking up like a fin. He fends off a pathetic attempt to block him and emerges into the hole.

There is a brief moment of incredible violence.

When the mind's eye recovers from the carnage, there is just the open water and a strange, incongruous stick with a big number on it. The number is "4."

*(while David Harris is the new middle linebacker, McClintock is the weakside backup.)
**(sliding whistle imagery lifted from "The Great LaRouche Toad-Frog Massacre" by Berke Breathed. I realized it after penning that and patting myself on the back because I AM A GRATE WRITOR. Damn. Credit where due. PS: if you read it, and you should, it would behoove you to know that the story is written as an "excerpt" from Binkley's memoirs.)

2. DE Tim Jamison, R. Freshman: Jamison got sidelined early last year with a mysterious injury that mgoblog sincerely hopes was something major enough to make a redshirt year sensible but not so bad that there is a possibility of lingering damage, because the general consensus was that Jamison was bad, bad man who relied heavily on an explosive first step. If the injury was something lingering (pleasenoACLpleasenoACL) Jamison won't be striking the fear of Zoltan into quarterbacks like he should.

I fully expect Lamarr Woodley to be deployed exclusively at defensive end and make opponents focus heavily on him. The other defensive end spot will see a ton of single-blocking, especially with Gabe Watson eating people. If Jamison can translate his high school pass rushing acumen (twenty sacks and an ovation-worthy performance in the Army All-American Bowl) to the collegiate level, quarterbacks will flee wildly from Woodley directly into Jamison's arms instead of the end zone. He'll have to fight tooth and nail with Pierre Woods, Jeremy Van Alstyne, and Shawn Crable to get playing time--if he earns it I will be giddy with anticipation.

3. CB Johnny Sears, Freshman: There is very little experience past the two starting cornerbacks, one of whom is a senior. Finding some additional DBs will be critical for both this year and next. Why Sears instead of Morgan Trent, Charles Stewart, or Brandon Harrison? Because the way he performs tells us a lot about two people: Sears and defensive backs coach Ron English.

Sears transferred after his sophomore year and was thus ineligible to play varsity football as a junior (he played JV). By the time he actually stepped on the field to start his varsity career, Sears was already a Michigan commitment. He'd never set foot on Michigan's campus. It's safe to say that Sears is a significant risk. He is also a freaky-deaky athlete, though, with the proverbial 'upside' in spades and clubs and hearts, etc. He's 6'1" and ran an electronically timed 4.39 forty yard dash at USC's camp--part of a performance that netted him a Trojan offer.

English found Sears, recruited him, and now will coach him. If Sears gets up to speed and becomes a significant contributor as a freshman he is a likely on his way to stardom, and English will have proven that he can sneak into the West Coast and snap up under-the-radar athletes.

4. DT Alan Branch, Sophomore: Branch wanted to redshirt last year but the coaches didn't let him. Thumbs up. He played in every game for Michigan, collecting five tackles and two sacks and generally looking very big and agile. He's listed at 323 but is probably closer to 350. mgoblog is counting on him to be Gabe Watson when Gabe is too tired to be himself. Defensive tackles these days don't have the endurance to play at 100 percent the entire game. They're just too big and cheeseburger-laden to do so. A team with three or four tackles that can all thump people is at a major advantage over its opponents; Branch is the leading candidate to be the first thumper off the bench.

The defensive line has the potential to be the country's best but to do so it will need at least two backup defensive tackles who can spell the starters effectively. Branch has all the physical skills needed to be another Watson, minus the motor issues.

5. RB Kevin Grady, Freshman: As you will see when the Michigan preview gets posted in a couple months, mgoblog thinks Mike Hart is still heinously underrated despite averaging 5.1 yards per carry last year. The 5'8" Hart led the entire country in carries despite hardly playing at all in Michigan's first two games of the season, a remarkable accomplishment that I do not want to see repeated. mgoblog wants to see Kevin Grady rumble, because I love freakily-proportioned football players, the kind of guys who just don't make sense when you see their height, weight, and position on a roster. Grady is certainly that at (cough) 5'9", 230. Cliches fail to describe him; calling Grady's legs "tree trunks" leaves one unsatisfied; calling him a "bowling ball" is fundamentally accurate but not powerful enough. Many backs have had those descriptions applied to them, but Grady's limbs are more wide and mossy than those who came before. He can be a deadly counterpart to Hart.

If Grady gets carries it won't be because the coaching staff is reluctant to overwork a tailback. They've shown a willingness with both Hart and Chris Perry--remember those 51 (and it should have been 52) carries against MSU?--to hand it to guys until they collapse and have to get put down Old Yeller style. If Kevin Grady gets meaningful carries it'll be because he gives Michigan something that Mike Hart doesn't. That will be the ability to drag vast armies of linebackers into the endzone, unperturbed.

Honorable Mentions: P Zoltan Mesko (Fr, Inconceivable!), DT Will Johnson (RFr coming off a senior-year ACL injury; junior year was off the charts enough for him to get recruit hype), WR Mario Manningham(Fr, tantalizing possibility of four years of obscure Super Mario jokes), WR Antonio Bass(Fr, quote on him: "like a bigger Breaston." !!!), DT Terrance Taylor(Fr, three-time state powerlifting champion, state champion wrestler, could probably deadlift Michigan Stadium), OG Alex Mitchell (R. Fr, LG is the only thing I'm worried about on offense).