(Check the scoop on this here. This is Part I. Check Part II here.)
(Right. The wonderful thing about this whole blogging phenomenon is that bloggers are not beholden to the neutral strictures imposed by journalism. This is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness.
So. I am a Michigan fan from birth. I have two degrees from the school. In 1997 I wandered around the field after the OSU game, dumbstruck, childlike. If anyone I know gets married during the fall I will not only avoid the wedding, I will deliberately sabotage the marriage by any means necessary. Take what follows for what it's worth. Feel free to look upon this preview with a jaundiced eye. I have this pattern: "This is the year, man, 2003! AAAAARGH THE PAIN THE PAIN AAAAARGH. Ok. This is the year, man, 2004! It's the year! AAAAAAAARGH MY EYES ARE BLEEDING. This. Is. The Year. 2005."
But... this could be the year.)
The StoryMichigan fans are a remarkably pissed-off group considering
So when you're kerflanged and excorpiated it's hard to feel good about your 9-3 season that ended at the Rose Bowl, even if the team overachieved a bit. Even if Henne and Hart are the most exciting Pokemon-collecting talents to roll through this town, like, ever. Even if you were treated to the unlikeliest, most fantastic comeback, like, ever. Even if there's more concentrated offensive talent returning, like, ever. Because seriously. Seriously. If quarterbacks weren't allowed to cross the line of scrimmage, Jim Herrmann would be a genius. As it is people think he's a loser with a stupid mustache who needs to be fired.*
*(Projection that does not necessarily represent the opinion of mgoblog... but doesn't not represent it either. Just sort of wishy-washy about the whole thing.)
So everyone says it's a tale of two units for Michigan this year. The offense has a surfeit of talent. It comes out the ears. There is a three-headed running back of Doom--HartMartinGrady. There's no Braylon but Breaston and Avant will be just as good when the focus of the passing game shifts to them. Backing the starters up is a cavalcade of top-100 reinforcements of all shapes and sizes. Tim Massaquoi and Tyler Ecker are the top tight end tandem in the conference. The offensive line should still be somewhere above "good" despite the loss of Jake Long. And then there's that Chad Henne guy, the true freshman who completed 60% of his passes, threw for 2700 yards, and had 25 touchdowns to 12 interceptions while still tooling around campus on his Big Wheel.
Wither the defense, of course. Wither indeed. Amazing how in a span of four games the defense went from one of the best in the country to the worst in the Bo-Mo-Llo era of Michigan football. Amazing how Ernest Shazor went from The Man to an out of position malcontent who left for the NFL draft early and signed as an undrafted free agent... with the Cardinals. Amazing how any quarterback with designs on crossing the line of scrimmage with malicious intent was instantly turned into Michael Vick. Amazing how Jim Herrmann kept his job.
Except, um... reality check: the defense finished 33rd in total yards. The offense finished 46th. The defense finished ahead of the offense in every category they measure except one: scoring. Before the unprecedented season-ending implosion of 37, 20, 37, and 38 points yielded Michigan's defense was supposedly carrying the intermittently explosive but understandably inconsistent offense. The season's highlights were the Ernest Shazor show: Shazor blowing through the line and stapling Laurence Maroney in the backfield, Shazor returning a pick for a touchdown against Miami, Shazor feloniously assaulting Dorien Bryant. Michigan had yielded 28 points to Notre Dame but that was heavily aided by a blocked punt and a series of second-half turnovers that set the Irish up with short fields time and again. No one else cracked 25. Only Minnesota and San Diego State(?) cracked 20.
Then the roof caved in. Shazor and Mundy went into full-fledged meltdown. The linebackers... look, I don't even want to talk about the linebackers. Suffice it to say that it's probably no exaggeration that the last four games of last year were the worst four-game defensive stretch in the billion-year history of the program. Combine that with un festival de Braylon, a general nuking of Northwestern and Breaston and Henne's superlative performances against Texas and the college football world's perception has inverted itself.
The reality of the situation is this: Michigan had a defense that was very good against teams that did not have mobile quarterbacks. Attempting to run in a conventional fashion was nigh useless. The pass defense wasn't great but it was certainly above average. Conversely, the offense was only sporadically effective. Michigan trailed Illinois at the half, was tied with Indiana, and had all of ten points until very late in the MSU game. Things were neither as grim as people believed them to be defensively nor as sunny as people believed them to be offensively.
The good news is that it's extremely likely both units will improve. On offense, seven starters return (removing Jake Long from the equation). The electric Steve Breaston steps into Braylon's shoes. There are excellent options at both open slots on the offensive line. The other gap is fullback--if you're pointing at that hole as a major problem with the offense, you're grasping at straws. There might be some trouble early in the year as Michigan finds the right combination of offensive linemen, but once it finds its footing and Henne gets comfortable spreading the ball around to the multiplicitous options available to him, Michigan will be cooking with blowtorch.
If history is any indication, Michigan's defense absolutely has to improve. Vijay at IBFC has been tracking the performance of Michigan's defense relative to the scoring averages of its opponents for years, and the 2005 performance was the worst in the Bo-Mo-Llo era by, like, a statistically implausible margin. The '98 defense was no more likely to replicate the '97 defense's magnificence than the '05 defense is likely to replicate the '04 defense's collapse. A defensive line featuring a couple first round picks, good players at the other positions, and massive depth is now coached by Steve Stripling, an actual defensive line coach. If they fulfill their potential they can cover up some shakiness in the back seven. It's not going to be a great defense, but it might not need to be.
Just tackle the quarterback, as Carr suggests. Please.
Unit By Unit
The last true freshman to start at quarterback for Michigan was Rick Leach. He turned out all right. mgoblog's favorite crutch when discussing Chad Henne is the following statline:
Player.......Att-Cmp Yards Pct TD Int Avg
QB #1........270-456 3331 59.2 24 10 12.3
QB #2........240-399 2743 60.2 25 12 11.3
Quarterback #1 is fifth-year senior (and first-team All Big Ten) John Navarre throwing to Avant, Breaston, and Edwards. Quarterback #2 is true freshman Chad Henne throwing to Avant, Breaston, and Edwards. Gape in wonderment. No doubt Henne was aided by the further development of the three receivers and Mike Hart taking pressure off the passing game, but Chris Perry won the Doak Walker during Navarre's final year... and did I mention Henne was a true freshman?
The common refrain amongst people feebly attempting to justify why Michigan won't be particularly good this year always contains the following sentence or something like it:
Henne won't be very good without Edwards, all he did last year was throw it up to him and then he went and got it. This year we will see what a looser [sic] he is.This is what I am here to say: poppycock. Piffle. Trash. Garbage. It is true that Edwards was on the receiving end of quite a few bombs, and it's true that only Braylon Edwards could have caught about half of them. But on what planet did it all of a sudden become trivial to do this? (HT: IBFC)
The idea that the ability to toss those 'jump balls' to Edwards somehow doesn't count as a skill is ridiculous. When you throw the ball forty yards downfield and your receiver has an opportunity to catch it, that's a good throw. What Edwards provided was the ability to go to him even when he was covered, like in the Iowa game. He did not magically make Henne's throws more accurate. Where Braylon's loss will be felt will be in the frequency of those big plays. No one in Michigan history had his ability to catch the deep ball while covered, and no one on the team this year can replace that. But that's another section.
Good quarterback. Bad haircut.
He will very probably do this. Two Chad Hennes played last year. High School Chad made bad reads and winged balls up into double coverages or the arms of linebackers playing pretty conventional zone defense. High School Chad took a ton of sacks because he couldn't figure out what to do. He was responsible for Michigan's offense starting the season with a definite limp.
What we saw in the Rose Bowl was someone who started emerging earlier in the year. Call him Tom Brady Chad Henne--no, scratch that. In honor of departed Indiana running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, what we got towards the end of the year was TomChad Brady-Henne. (And don't try to sell me this Henson-not so good at Michigan stuff, I was a Brady zealot from the very beginning. Ask Warren about the Orange Bowl... or don't, because that wouldn't be very nice.) He wasn't there all the time, but he's coming. TCBH, on his way to a stadium near you.
I submit that the doubters are correct in this: Henne must improve for Michigan to be a national contender. I am mystified that they think this improvement will not occur. There's naturally going to be a huge jump in familiarity and comfort between a kid months removed from prom night and a sophomore with 40-50 extra practices, 12 games of experience, and trips to Notre Dame Stadium, the Horseshoe, and the Rose Bowl under his belt. Michigan, Terry Malone, and Scot Loeffler have a proven track record of consistently improving quarterbacks from year to year. Not one has stagnated. John Navarre was transformed from ugly duckling into Actually Paid By The NFL by Loeffler's fairy dust. Impartial observers declare Henne's ceiling to be NFL-first-round-easy high.
So why, exactly, would Chad Henne plateau?
|Mike Hart||So.||Will Paul||So.*|
|Kevin Grady||Fo.||Obi Oluigbo||Jr.*|
|Max Martin||So.||Brian Thompson||Jr.*|
mgoblog is prepared to argue that Mike Hart is the best running back in the country. I'm content to lose that argument to Oklahoma and Minnesota fans and possibly draw it with a few others, but arguments will be had before yielding. Hart is an inexplicable combination of Barry Sanders and Jerome Bettis, a 5'8" marvel who can leave you grasping at air and then drive your teammate five yards from the point of contact before he is finally tackled (disclaimer: not a direct value comparison between two hall of famers and Hart, just a style thing).
Mike Hart is my non-sexual man crush.
I will expound upon the topic of variance, expectation, and what statistics means for football strategy in general and Michigan in particular when I find the time to do so... probably the offseason. In brief: the more consistent a particular play is the better it is for the favored team. Mike Hart is an amazingly consistent back. He hardly ever lost yards--only 32 all year, and seven of those were the result of him getting buried by Matt Roth the instant he got a particular handoff. All of his yards coming on runs of 35 yards or less implies that Hart's median run was closer to the nation's leaders than his rushing average was. Hart also fumbled all of once last year, another low-variance tendency. He gets to the line and through it with consistency. He makes yards after contact on almost every carry. He never fumbles. He's the perfect back for Lloyd Carr, and if he just gets a teeny bit faster and turns one or two corners that he didn't last year, well, that 35 is going to be a distant, slightly humorous memory.
Even that lone fumble personified everything that is wonderful about him: he depantsed an Iowa defender and squirted ten yards downfield where he met Abdul Hodge at the Iowa seven yard line. Abdul Hodge, All American(-ish). Six yards later Hart was still on his feet, legs pumping against four Iowa defenders, when someone finally stripped the ball from him. Even though I am usually hugely pissed at turnovers of any sort in a game, all I could do there was shrug my shoulders and say "well, that was still pretty cool."
Michigan will rotate in sophomore Max Martin, a high-stepping Dickerson-ian runner and freshman Kevin "Event Horizon" Grady, one of the nation's top recruits a year ago. Martin is reported to be the best combination of size and speed in a Michigan uniform since Tyrone Wheatley and may get some Reggie Bush treatment this year, lining up in the backfield and then motioning out to pick up mismatches against linebackers. We'll see how much Martin's practice ability translates to the field. He has ball security issues, a major no no for any running back, and has heavy competition from the Lilliputians around him.
Grady is 5'8", 5'9" tops, just like Hart. Unlike Hart, he's 230 pounds of leg-driving, pounding power back. His low center of gravity and all around strength will make him one of the nation's toughest backs to stop in short yardage situations. Legend has it that in his first practice (Grady joined the team shortly before the Rose Bowl) he crushed all 11 defenders and went 140 yards carrying a half-dozen balls for the ever-rare sextuple-touchdown. He's reputed to be a blip to the hole and then a load once he's in it. He will play, and he'll smash some facemasks this year.
The one question mark in the backfield is at fullback. Kevin Dudley was the unsung hero of Hart's freshman explosion and Chris Perry's Doak Walker season and will be badly missed. Dudley pulverized linebackers. Compounding the difficulty here is the injury-forced retirement of Ryan Allison. Allison was getting buzz as a freshman but a nerve injury put an end to that and threw the fullback situation in disarray. Left over is a mishmash of players. Senior Brian Thompson split time with Dudley two seasons ago but was passed over by Dudley because his blocking is not up to par. He's a good receiver out of the backfield but Michigan figures to have plenty of receiving targets this year. Obi Oluigbo will probably enter the Northern Illinois game as the starter but the coaches moved redshirt sophomore defensive end Will Paul to fullback for a reason. The 264 pound Paul was a tight end in high school and certainly has the size to be an intimidating blocker. His move was announced officially just recently but he was rumored to be making the switch in the spring.
Wide Receivers & Tight Ends
|Jason Avant||Sr.||Steve Breaston||Jr.*||Tim Massaquoi||Sr.|
|Adrian Arrington||So.||Mario Manningham||Fr.||Tyler Ecker||Jr.*|
|Doug Dutch||Fr.*||Carl Tabb||Jr.*||Mike Massey||Fr.*|
Much will be made about Braylon Edwards and his record-setting abilities no longer being available to Chad Henne and the Wolverines, but the cupboard is far from bare. Michigan returns two receivers that would be national names already but for Edwards and his general impossibility.
Steve Breaston was nicknamed "Black Jesus" by funny but racially insensitive Michigan fans (I promise that it wasn't me) even before his '03 debut. The rumble coming out of spring practice that year was incessant: Breaston could not be caught by anyone. He was Anthony Carter playing in a pass-oriented offense. Nine times out of ten such practice buzz is wishful thinking, fanciful stuff spun out of the hopes and dreams of an expectant fanbase, but the Breaston hype was mostly justified. As a redshirt freshman the modest Pennslyvania native set a Michigan record for punt return yards in a season despite having three touchdowns called back on (maddeningly irrelevant) penalties. He also contributed scored rushing and receiving touchdowns, racking up 38 catches for 444 yards in the shadow of both Avant and Edwards.
The hype machine ratcheted up another notch for Breaston's sophomore season but a stress fracture in Black Jesus' foot brought an early halt to the festivities. Breaston still played, but the edge-of-your-seat magic had disappeared. Breaston looked ordinary, a Black John the Baptist at best. Until the Rose Bowl, that is, when a finally healed Breaston broke almost every kickoff he received to midfield and turned a twelve-yard crossing route into a sixty-yard touchdown, setting a Rose Bowl total yardage record of 315 in the process. You can call him a poor man's Ted Ginn if you want, but only because Ginn's probably been introduced to Mr. Such and Such.
The catch with Breaston is health. His electric freshman year was injury-free but a stress fracture in his foot, a broken finger, and various assorted leg issues severely hampered him in 2004. There are ominous reports of a "minor" hamstring issue that has held him out of some fall practices. Breaston is as vafer-theen as a chocolate mint and relies on his explosive cuts more than most wideouts--his health is both extremely precarious and vital for his effectiveness. The bottom line: if he's healthy he's going to blow up.
Yes, Virginia, this is a completion.
If you're one of those people who believes in clutch, well, Avant is clutch. The first two plays of Michigan's last-ditch touchdown drive against Minnesota were Henne-to-Avant bullets 15 yards downfield. On third and goal in the second overtime against Michigan State Avant leapt into the air, speared another Henne bullet, and managed to get a single foot in. I can't overstate how underrated he is. The nearest comparison I can make is to former Denver Bronco Ed McCaffery, who was totally unimpressive at all times but at the end of the year usually had 1,500 yards, a bunch of touchdowns, and like one dropped pass.
Past the two starters there is a cornucopia of untested talent. Four of the next five receivers on the depth chart were Rivals 100 selections. Sophomore Adrian Arrington, redshirt freshman Doug Dutch, and true freshman Mario Manningham are the leading candidates to be the #3 receiver. Arrington is tall and lanky, physically reminiscent of Tai Streets. Dutch and Manningham are smaller, dynamic players more in the mold of Breaston. Manningham, in particular, has built tremendous buzz following a pair of spectacular displays in Ohio All Star games over the summer. Each All-Star practice report from Buckeye partisans contained a muttered "we are going to regret losing Manningham." Junior Carl Tabb will also see playing time. Tabb is fast fast fast but apparently is struggling with the intricacies of route-running.
Antonio Bass didn't even make the above depth chart but was a top-50 recruit himself who Michigan insiders compare to--get this--"a bigger Breaston." Like a 6'2", 210 pound Breaston. Bass played quarterback in high school, like Breaston, so he'll probably take some time to learn the position. He also has some damage to his MCL. He may not play much but chances are he'll get his feet wet this year.
Mormon to the rescue.
|Adam Stenavich||Sr.*||Adam Kraus||So.*||Ruben Riley||Jr.*||Matt Lentz||Sr.*||Jake Long||So.*|
|Mike Kolodziej||Jr.*||Leo Henige||Sr.*||Mark Bihl||Jr.*||Alex Mitchell||Fr.*||Cory Zirbel||Fr.|
|Tim MacAvoy||Fr.||Brett Gallimore||Fr.*||Grant DeBenedictis||Fr.*||Jeremy Cuilla||Fr*||Mark Ortmann||Fr.|
(note: every Michigan lineman since the beginning of time has redshirted. Just assume "redshirt" in front of all years unless "true" is specifically appended.)
Jake Long's ankle injury harshes mgoblog's summer long offensive-line buzz in a major way, but the Michigan line still appears to be neck and neck with Minnesota's and Michigan State's at the top of the conference. The duration of Long's injury is unconfirmed, but it's likely he's out for most of the year or even all of it, a shame because he's a budding star. A huge, mauling right tackle as close to the reincarnation of Jon Runyan as you're going to get, Long will be missed.
Neither of you get hurt, ok?
Senior right guard Matt Lentz enters his third year as a starter. Lentz has some issues with pass protection but is an excellent run blocker.
Adam Stenavich,a candidate for the honorary Brooks Bollinger "Didn't You Graduate Eight Years Ago?" award, is the left tackle. Stenavich is entering his third year as a starter but isn't the All-American some people assume he is just because he's a longtime LT starter at Michigan. He's an above average run blocker but has major issues with high-end speed rush types like Matt Roth. Still, he's a second-team all-conference type, distinctly above average though besmirched with the one glaring weakness.
Left guard and center are still undecided. Junior Ruben Riley will definitely play one of the spots. Which one depends on who the other starter is. There are three candidates: senior Leo Henige, sophomore Adam Kraus, and freshman Alex Mitchell. Kraus is both a center and the leading candidate to win the open job. In that case Riley will remain at LG. If Henige or Mitchell wins the job, Riley will likely slide over to C. Henige has started on and off for the last few years when his fragile knees have allowed him to. Mitchell is the heir apparent to Matt Lentz but would probably be at least serviceable if pressed into service this year.
There are no experienced backup tackles but Riley was a RT until last year when he was shuffled into the starting lineup and couldn't be displaced. If another tackle injury occurs, it's likely that Riley will slide back to RT and Henige or Mitchell will draw into the lineup. Not the most comfortable situation in the world but Riley is a good player and should be all right.
Past those seven there's junior center Mark Bihl, who temporarily had the job last year before losing it in the Baas position switch. He's "competing" for the center job according to Carr and would probably be the third guy off the bench in a severe injury situation. It's anyone's guess who's after Bihl; hopefully we won't find out this year.
Offense in Summary
THERE IS NO OFFENSE LIKE THE DETROIT
OFFENSE BECAUSE THE DETROIT OFFENSE
IS PRONE TO MOVING WITH GREAT
CONSISTENCY AND NOT CEASING ITS
MOTION DESPITE ENCOURAGEMENT. BLEEP.
Of note should be Michigan's relative imperviousness to injury. Every position group has at least one capable backup except offensive tackle, and even there Michigan has a decent contingency plan in Ruben Riley. There shouldn't be a major dropoff in production from the starters unless there is a Wrath of God/Iowa Running Back situation at a particular position group. Whereas the defense looks painfully vulnerable to injures to certain key players, the offense looks as much like Robocop as is possible in college football, though Long's injury blew off a sizeable chunk of armor.
There's a real possibility Michigan's offense will reach Sophistication Juggernaut levels this year, though they've already used one get-out-of-jail free card by pulling Kolodziej into the starting lineup. There are three keys:
- Henne. As I've mentioned before, Henne has to improve to stand still. There's every reason to expect that improvement to come; we've already seen him get most of the way. He has to maintain the performance level he achieved towards the end of the season first. Then he must improve upon it.
- Offensive Line Cohesion. The OL must work itself out and the tackles need to stay healthy. Michigan's lost the ability to just crush people off the ball and they won't regain it this year without Long, but if they can pass-protect well enough to let Henne explore his options downfield, the draw-blocking they used to great effect last year should provide for a good run game. Adding Kevin Grady will probably make them look quite a bit better on third and short, too.
- Let it ride! Given the defensive disasters of yesteryear, Lloyd has to unleash the dogs on offense. Much has been made about Carr's tendency to shut down once he grabs a significant lead and let the opponent back into the game. People lambaste him for excessively conservative playcalling, a charge which has certainly been true in the past. But one thing it was in the past was logical, given the defense Carr usually had at his back. It isn't any longer. I believe that Carr realizes this and has moved to an offensive philosophy that is more open. Michigan no longer shows depressingly obvious down-and-distance tendencies. It uses a wide variety of formations and plays. It has increasingly become a passing offense. I feel a disturbance in the Force.
You are getting very sleepy,
Lloyd. You desire to drop a
hundred on Eastern, Lloyd.
Two out of three and we're blowing the doors off. This should be a top 20 offense nationally. Top 10 is not out of the question.
Continue to Part II here... if you dare!