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Thursday, August 18, 2005

Your traditional "unresolved questions" column from an untraditional source:

Will the safeties play safe? The answer here is historically "no." Last year was an especially egregious year for the Michigan safeties. Ernest Shazor's rapid descent after the Purdue game has been hashed and rehashed here and elsewhere repeatedly, but Ryan Mundy also bears his share of blame for the problems. Mundy and Shazor (in occasional conspiracy with the linebackers) were largely responsible for the inordinate number of long plays the defense gave up last year. Shazor's now taken his million-dollar-body and ten-cent-head to the NFL. Mundy returns. Brandent Engelmon and Jamar Adams are competing for the vacant spot.

Michigan safety play has been horrendous since Marcus Ray got hammered for dealing with an agent. A parade of tackle-missing, angle-blowing, play-action-biting, mgoblog-anger-generating straight-up-lowdown hardcore wack injured guys playing out of position have been the personal bane of my existence for going on eight years now. Ron English has shown no indication that he's interested in changing this. Ryan Mundy probably played corner as a freshman for a reason. The guy opposite him is unknown at this late point in the preseason. I expect nothing but disaster. all I want are guys who I don't notice at all, guys who play deep zones effectively, tackle opponents who get into the secondary, and never, ever make a big play. Is that too much to ask?

Relative Confidence Level: Yes, it's too much to ask. DOA.

Who's the left guard? Or "who's the center," but probably left guard. Three of the five offensive line positions are set: LT Adam Stenavich, RG Matt Lentz, and RT Jake Long. Ruben Riley will start at either center or left guard. The other starter will come from this pool of players:

  • Fifth year senior Leo Henige, Jr. Henige has started on and off for a couple years now during the brief stretches of time that his knees allow him to. He was slightly injured late in the summer and had minor surgery.
  • Redshirt sophomore Adam Kraus. A converted tight end, Kraus would probably have locked the job up already if he had been healthy during spring practice. Unfortunately, that wasn't possible. Worth noting: if it's Kraus, Riley will probably remain at left guard and Kraus will step in at center.
  • Redshirt freshman Alex Mitchell. Mitchell is definitely the most advanced of the redshirt freshman and is probably in line for a starting job next year when Matt Lentz graduates.
It may take a few games to work the kinks out here, but with three strong candidates someone should step into the void vacated by David Baas. My bet is that it's Kraus, who has a year over Mitchell and is not a walking time bomb like Henige. Better to get Kraus significant experience going into the Big Ten season than stick a possibly-still-wounded Henige in there only to see him go down, thrusting a green player into a potentially tough situation. Be like Red: go with youth.

Relative Confidence Level: Very high.

Do we have any linebackers at all? If you had turned to a knowledgable Michigan fan during last year's season opener and asked him to name the 2005 starting linebacker corps he would have said "Lawrence Reid, Scott McClintock, and Pierre Woods" and been wrong, wrong, and wrong. Reid was forced to retire because of an injury. McClintock got beat out. Woods took the express train to Lloyd Carr's doghouse. The starters appear to be Chris Graham, David Harris, and Prescott Burgess.

The situation should improve. Last year was the low ebb of Michigan linebacker play in living memory; things can't be that bad again. Defensive ends were playing out of position. Actual linebackers were confused/out of their gourd/playing hurt. Dissent reigned. Burgess (but just Burgess) was very good in the Rose Bowl and Graham has been generating buzz for a solid year now. Woods may bounce back. On the other hand, that same guy who was coaching the disaster last year is still coaching them this year. He seems hell-bent on playing both the 3-4 and the 4-3, running people on and off the field uselessly, and generally confusing the hell out of his own players.

Relative Confidence Level: Surprisingly moderate.

Can the defensive line dominate? If it does, the pressure on the back seven will be greatly relieved. Three starters return: Watson, Massey, and Woodley. Woodley should see much more time at his more natural defensive end spot and has the power and speed to become a double-digit sacker under the tutelage of new defensive line coach Steve Stripling. Stripling, in marked contrast to former coach Mike Sheridan, has extensive experience coaching defensive lines and is regarded highly by all who know him. Though he couldn't do much with a severely hampered MSU line last year, in 2003 he coached a moderately talented line very well and helped the Spartans exceed expectations significantly.

The key to the line will be getting more production from the guys who aren't Watson and Woodley. Watson, being a Ticonderoga-class defensive tackle (HT: TMQ), can only be effective for so many plays a game. Backup DTs Alan Branch and Will Johnson will see playing time early and often. Both are the sort of jumbo athletes who move too fast than anyone their size has a right to, Branch in particular. If they can effectively spell Watson and Massey for stretches at a time, there will be some pissed off interior linemen being eaten in fourth quarters all season long. Someone will have to function as an effective pass rusher opposite Woodley. There are a lot of options here: natural DEs Jeremy Van Alstyne and Tim Jamison plus DE/OLB hybrids Pierre Woods and Shawn Crable. Van Alstyne will probably start the season as the all-purpose DE but Jamison, Woods, and Crable will all get cracks at the quarterback in passing situations.

There is much depth. The players on the line should improve naturally by aging and were already quite good a year ago. If Stripling has a noticeable effect on the line, well, the sky is the limit and all that jazz.

Relative Confidence Level: High, but not amazingly so. Michigan's never been a team for explosive pass rush. Fighting a lot of history.

Is Chad Henne the new Tom Brady? Chad Henne must improve. Last year bad reads, occasional wild throws, and a problem putting proper touch on short balls prevented him from being an efficient, consistent quarterback. The Braylon Edwards long ball was a major feature of the UM passing game that will not return in 2005. Henne will be blessed with an abundance of targets, but with YAC specialist Steve Breaston, possesion receiver par excellence Jason Avant, two capable tight ends, and Michigan's historic reliance on the screen and flare, it will be on Henne's shoulders to lead an effective short passing game by making quick, accurate reads and placing balls where they can be caught without breaking stride. Sort of like that Brady dude in New England.

It's a lot for a true sophomore to absorb. But let's review: statistically most proficient freshman quarterback in Big Ten history. Only freshman quarterback to ever start Rose Bowl. In said game threw four touchdowns and no interceptions. A freshman year almost identical to the year fifth year senior John Navarre had in 2003 throwing to essentially the same set of receivers. And about that Navarre guy: He was bad as a sophomore. Frighteningly bad. Single-handedly-lose-the-OSU-game bad. A year later he was the whole Michigan offense against Ohio State. In the Shoe, against a 12-0 team with a great defense, Michigan's offense went:
  • First down run, one yard gain.
  • Second down run, no gain.
  • Laser accurate pass from Navarre, first down.
The point? Scot Loeffler is even more of a supergenius than Charlie Weis. Navarre went from a no-hoper to an All Big Ten quarterback. Loeffler got everything he could out of him. This is why Henne will be better:
  • a year of experience
  • knowledge of the whole playbook
  • a whole slew of additional bowl practices and spring practices
  • Scot Loeffler
  • the return (or addition) of all this: Breaston, Breaston's explosiveness, Avant, Massaquoi, Ecker, Hart, Grady, Martin, Manningham, Dutch
this is why he'll be worse:
  • no Braylon
Y'all can think what you want. I know what I think.

Relative Confidence Level: I see your Ron Powlus and raise you six Heismans.