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Thursday, September 01, 2005

(This is Part II of the Michigan season preview. Part I can be found here.)

Defensive Line
Rating: 5.

Depth Chart
Jeremy Van AlstyneJr.*Gabe Watson
Sr.Pat MasseySr.*
Lamarr WoodleyJr.
Tim JamisonFr.*Will JohnsonFr.*Alan Branch
So.Pierre WoodsSr.*
Eugene GermanyFr.
Terrance Taylor
Fr.Marques Walton
Rondell Biggs

This unit must fulfill its vast potential this year for Michigan to be a serious national championship contender. Last year it was somewhere between great and spectacular against the run (Last four games hello what? -ed. Those were problems outside the defensive line's control. More later) but could only manage 15 sacks. There's no excuse for production that poor when you (probably) have multiple first round picks on your roster.

This is going to end badly for you, Indiana dude.
If the defensive ends formed a post-punk band with an ironically retro name they'd be called Woodley and The Question Marks. Metaphorical band frontman Lamarr Woodley should be on the verge of a monstrous season. He flipped from defensive end to outside linebacker for last year's switch to the 3-4 defense and was a terror against the run--16 TFLs last year and a series of huge plays that had mgoblog constructing a Jobu-like shrine to Woodley in secret--but strangely disappointing rushing the passer. Woodley had only four sacks, a number that I double check every week or so just to make sure that it isn't wrong. Maligned DT Pat Massey somehow exceeded his total.

Maybe that had something to do with the fact that (now former) defensive line coach Mike Sheridan had never played or coached on either line before his brief, unsuccessful run at Michigan. Sheridan now coaches linebackers for the Giants. Steve Stripling, who's been a DL coach forever, comes in from Michigan State and has started teaching large men to do mean things. If the enigmatic insider reports coming out of the Fort are to be believed, he's having an immediate effect. The practice buzz on Woodley coming into this year is unprecedented for a Michigan defensive lineman. If allowed to put his hand down and tear into the backfield at will, Woodley has serious All-American potential. Certain wise insiders doubt Michigan will be able to enjoy his senior season--disappointing for '06 but tantalizing for '05.

The Question Marks have the potential to turn in to exclamation points if they can remain healthy. Both redshirt junior Jeremy Van Alstyne and redshirt freshman Tim Jamison have had careers largely composed of sitting on the sidelines looking pissed off in various braces and slings. Van Alstyne tore his ACL before last year, rehabbed like a madman to make a miraculous, hampered recovery midway through the year, and then got knocked out of the Rose Bowl with a different leg injury. Jamison played in the first couple games of his Michigan career and then was knocked out permanently with an injury that is still undisclosed. He's already picked up his first sling of 2005, spraining a shoulder which will force him to miss the Northern Illinois game.

So, health is obviously a question. If healthy, though, Van Alstyne and Jamison will probably be somewhere between effective and excellent. Van Alstyne is a high motor guy reported to have great leverage, but he hasn't been able to stay on the field enough for me to have an independent opinion on him. For what it's worth, Van Alstyne appears to have the full confidence of both the coaches and the insiders. Jamison experienced a meteoric rise his senior year of high school, going from relatively unknown to a top-50 player after exploding for 20 sacks. By the time Jamison showed up at the Army All-American Bowl and dominated every offensive tackle lined up opposite him, he was the consensus second best recruit in Michigan's 2004 class behind one Chad Henne. That kid worked out okay. The pair will probably platoon next year with Jamsion taking the bulk of obvious passing downs and Van Alstyne getting the rest of the snaps.

They told me you had a pizza, Vince.
Michigan will have a deep and talented set of defensive tackles. The headliner is senior Gabe Watson, a mountain range in a helmet who demands a double team on every play. Watson isn't much of a pass rusher but he was the key component of Michigan's fabulous interior run defense. Even when he takes plays off he holds his ground against a blocker or two. He was accused of wearing down towards the end of the year, but I don't buy it. Watson was simply not as useful against the spread offenses and mobile quarterbacks of MSU, Northwestern, OSU, and Texas. He helped Michigan shut Cedric Benson off; that's his job. Asking him to track down Vince Young is like asking the Death Star to knit.

However, Watson does have intensity issues. He's not a motor-running wildman and he has an easygoing personality that Neanderthal-type fans find uncomfortable. It's probably true that a motivated, fiery Watson would be the nation's most dominant defensive tackle by a country mile, but that's not going to happen this year: Watson will probably underachieve relative to his talent. He'll still be one of the best DTs in the country.

The starter beside Woodley will be fifth year senior Pat Massey. Massey has been unfairly maligned by Michigan fans largely because he let Texas quarterback Vince Young escape from what looked to be a sure sack in the Rose Bowl. Young popped out of Massey's grasp and turned what would have been a fourth down field goal attempt into yet another frustrating touchdown run. Had he brought Young to the ground, Michigan probably wins the Rose Bowl, he finishes with six sacks from what's essentially an interior line position (DE in the 3-4), and he becomes something of a folk hero. He did not. Despite that, he does not deserve the dogging many Michigan fans have given him. Massey isn't a superhero but he was and is a useful player alongside Watson, honorable mention All-Big Ten a year ago.

Alan New Mexico
The situation behind the starters is much like that at wide receiver, where there is a lot of highly-regarded talent that hasn't gotten the opportunity to prove itself on the field yet. Some players will bust or disappoint, but there are enough talented bodies to assume that two or three will become stars. The most likely to achieve stardom is sophomore Alan Branch. Branch saw meaningful time as a true freshman last year and showed great power and athleticism. He's extraordinarily agile for his 330 pounds and registered two sacks in his limited time, as many a Watson had all year. He will probably see almost as many snaps as the two starters.

Three freshmen will rotate in behind Branch, Watson, and Massey. Will Johnson, who redshirted, is finally healthy after tearing his ACL right before his senior year of high school. He leapt directly onto the two-deep behind Watson after receiving a good bit of preseason buzz. He will contribute. Terrance Taylor is a 6'0", 290 pound fireplug who was a three time state champion powerlifter, a state champion in wrestling, and led Muskegon to the state title. It might take him a year to get his technique down, but he's probably the strongest player on the team already, and his relatively compact build should mean that he can get great leverage under the pads of taller offensive linemen. If all goes well, Taylor should develop into a penetrating terror a la Iowa's Jonathan Babineaux. The third freshman, Marques Walton, was lightly regarded in high school and may not be much more than a role player in the long run.

Rating: 2.
Depth Chart
Chris GrahamSo.David HarrisR.Jr.Prescott BurgessJr.
Scott McClintockR.Sr.John ThompsonR.Fr.Shawn CrableR.So.

This position group is the second biggest question mark on the team after the safeties. The three projected starters--all seniors--have fallen by the wayside. Pierre Woods fell off the face of the earth last year and was shifted back to defensive end. Lawrence Reid was forced to retire because of a degenerative neck injury. Scott McClintock just plain got beat out. In their place steps forward a group of players with a ton of athleticism and vanishingly little experience. Now Michigan has to teach them how to run around like chickens with their heads still attached.

Sophomore WLB Chris Graham has been generating hype since he stepped onto a Michigan practice field. It's always dangerous to buy into such hype, as about half the time the player in question fizzles away into nothing, but mgoblog is buying this particular variety. Consider: the hype on Graham started not because he was pressed into service a la David Underwood. Rather, it welled up naturally even though he appeared to be at least two years away from serious playing time. Michigan moved 5-star Prescott Burgess to the strong side because there wasn't any way he was going to beat out Graham. Those are two powerful indicators that Graham is a serious talent, "Ian Gold after you punched his momma," as I said before.

Graham doesn't have ideal size. He is listed at 5'11" but mgoblog thinks that's probably closer to 5'9". What he does have is speed, speed, speed, and the ability to lay a hammer blow on people when he arrives. His teammates have nicknamed him "The Brick" both for his chiseled physique and the fact that when he hits you, that's what you go down like. As a first year starter with wild speed, though, he is probably going to overpursue on a regular basis. Misdirection and play action, have long befuddled Michigan linebackers and there's no reason to think that Graham won't fall prey to the same disease. His first year starting will be a mix of good and bad.

Redshirt junior David Harris and fifth-year senior Scott McClintock will split time at middle linebacker. Harris had won the job two years ago but suffered an ACL tear before the start of the 2003 season. As a result, he' hardly played. You can look at Harris running neck and neck with McClintock as a positive or a negative. Personally, I think McClintock is all right. He's not a playmaker but he tackles well and seems to have a clue in zone coverage, which sets him apart from every other linebacker who took the field last year. Harris pushing him to the bench means that the coaching staff is willing to give a player who has little experience the nod over a senior who would normally have an unholy death grip on the position, which is not a vote of confidence in McClintock. The fact that neither player has asserted himself has to be a concern, especially since Harris is dinged up again. Average production from this spot would be great.

Two big recruits from the class of 2003 will split time at strongside linebacker. Converted safety Prescott Burgess, a junior, will probably get the bulk of the playing time. Burgess has waited in the wings for two years, adjusting to his new position. He and Lamarr Woodley were the only two Wolverines to have noticeably good games against Vince Young and Co. in the Rose Bowl. Burgess is a superior athlete and is the best hope for a breakout star on the defense (discounting Woodley, who is already well known). If he can maintain his level of play from the Rose Bowl this unit immediately looks much more solid.

And then there's the strange, sad story of senior Pierre Woods, second team All Big Ten two years ago and AWOL one year ago. Woods was expected to become the next star Michigan linebacker but a series of nagging injuries and undisclosed off-field issues combined to severely limit his playing time. The playing time he did receive was squandered. Woods rarely had an idea where he was going or what to do when he got there. He apparently has his head on straight this year, possibly sensing that he's got the NFL beckoning if he repeats his sophomore year performance. Carr has been talking him up, claiming that he's going to be a major contributor, but the DE and SAM spots are very crowded. It'll be tough for him to make a major impact and I doubt Carr will particularly relish the prospect of sending him out to combat mobile quarterbacks after last year's debacles. Obviously a return to form would be most welcome.

Redshirt sophomore Shawn Crable was another top-100 recruit who hasn't lived up to his clippings yet (sensing a theme?). At 6'6", 235, he's an OLB/DE tweener who will probably see time at both positions this year. Carr publicly stated he wanted to see more from Crable, which is usually a motivational ploy which indicates that a player is teetering close to doghouse status. Crable has to find a position before he sees a lot of playing time. SAM seems full up this year, but expect to see him as a blitzer or designated pass rusher on passing downs with some frequency.

John Thompson is an unheralded recruit from the decrepit Detroit Public School league who barely scraped past the NCAA clearinghouse last year. He's a year or two away from serious contribution but will start seeing special teams time this year. Freshman Brandon Logan will probably redshirt.

Defensive Backs
Rating: 2.

Depth Chart
Leon Hall
Jr.Ryan Mundy
Jr.Brandent Engelmon
So.*Charles StewartFr.*
Grant Mason
Sr.*Willis Barringer
Jr.*Jamar AdamsSo.Morgan Trent
Darnell HoodJr.*Brandon Harrison
Fr.Anton Campbell
Jr.*Johnny SearsFr.

Lather, rinse, DO NOT REPEAT
Much will be made about the departure of two All Americans from the Wolverine secondary, but many Michigan fans will only miss one, cornerback Marlin Jackson. Strong safety Ernest Shazor made game-saving plays against Minnesota and Purdue but was a major reason why Michigan's defense imploded down the stretch. See right, multiply by six.

Michigan has one proven quantity in the secondary, junior Leon Hall. Hall, a lock to be Michigan's number one corner, is following Michigan's designated path to stardom at the position: emerge from nowhere as a freshman and act as a nickleback, wrest the starting job away from its holder as a sophomore, get everyone's hopes up, gather major media attention, and then mildly disappoint. Hall's not going to be an All-American but should press for All Big Ten Honors--he's probably on a level with Jeremy LeSeuer's senior year. Michigan's problem is that Hall may end up irrelevant as teams pepper the other side of the field, going after the other starter or the nickelback, whoever they might be. The leading candidates for those spots are senior Grant Mason and redshirt freshman Charles Stewart. Mason transferred from Stanford and served as the dime back a year ago. Stewart, obviously, hasn't seen the field.

You can repeat this one if you like.
Converted wide receiver Morgan Trent, also a redshirt freshman, is also going to see the field. Michigan fans cling to the fact that Trent beat Ted Ginn in a high school track meet, which proves he's much better than Ginn. Or maybe not. Trent is really fast, but it will take some time for him to adjust to CB. Freshmen Johnny Sears and Chris Richards need a year in college to get acclimated but due to the severe need at the position one of them will be forced to play.

Questions abound at safety, as they have since the departure of Marcus Ray in 1997. Michigan's safety play has been consistently bad ever since. Junior Ryan Mundy looked like a future star in his first couple games at free safety but as the year wore on it became clear that his angles and tackling were terrible. Many of the yards Michigan State racked up in the first half of the first, ominous defensive debacle last year were "yards after Mundy"--a term coined by an inventive Rivals poster and a stat mgoblog will be tracking this year. He has good size and range for a free safety but his mental game was lacking last year. It wasn't just Shazor that was responsible for the huge number of long touchdowns the Michigan defense gave up.

Mundy missed some practice this fall with a shoulder injury that nagged him last year, opening a door to junior Willis Barringer, who started a few games as a freshman when then-safety Marlin Jackson was injured but was reduced to an afterthought last year. He was listed as the starter on the first two deep released by the school this year, but will only see the field if Mundy can't go.

Sophomores Brandent Engelmon and Jamar Adams are battling to replace Shazor. Adams is a physically imposing safety who looks like he hits like a ton of bricks. Unfortunately, last year he was just a little off and whiffed like a ton of bricks. Sleeper Engelmon was snatched from Kentucky at the last minute two years ago and appears to have the inside track on the job. Small but smart is Englemon, and the Michigan coaches have seen out of position. They don't like out of position.

True freshman Brandon Harrison was moved from cornerback after a few fall practices, which is been regarded ominously in this space. Harrison is small (5'9") but a good hitter and frickin' fast. Moving him away from cornerback, an area of obvious need, in favor of safety implies that the coaching staff has some severe reservations about the quality of the players at the position.

Defense in Summary
Portions of the defense were very good last year but the lack of pass rush, the inability of the linebackers to correctly position themselves, and the tendency of the safeties to give up huge plays were problems all year. The four straight games at the end featuring mobile quarterbacks were a matchup nightmare for a defense that was somewhere between good and great against teams ill-equipped to exploit the inability of the linebackers and safeties to operate in space like Minnesota and Purdue. That's what passes as good news.

The bad news is that the book on beating the Michigan defense has been written and rewritten by now and seemingly every team outside of Minnesota and Wisconsin is moving to exploit that vulnerability. The linebacker and safeties are going to be tested with the same plays they failed to stop last year until they step up and say "no more." The linebackers have probably received a talent upgrade but Graham, Harris, Crable, and even Burgess are all very green. Mundy has to improve drastically, and the Harrison move implies bad things for the coaches' confidence in Engelmon. There are major concerns here.

Expect something similar to last year's rollercoaster. There are teams that Michigan is going to smash in the face and dominate. Attempting to run between the tackles is going to be futile. The corners will be decent to good and that combined with what should be a fierce pass rush will make dropback passers only sporadically effective. Play action and mistakes by the safeties may open up some big plays against but driving the length of the field with a conventional offense is going to be very difficult. Mobile quarterbacks will still be a major issue, but I believe they won't be pure nuclear holocaust like 2004. Graham and Burgess are very athletic, the kind of guys who can chase down the Smiths and Youngs of the world, and though Jim Herrmann is widely reviled by Michigan fans, he's not a gibbering moron: the staff has spent a huge chunk of its offseason preparation addressing the issue. There should be improvement. The season hinges on how significant that improvement is.

Return Game

Fly, my pretties. Fly!
Rating: 5. Steve Breaston. What, you want more? Christ. Watch the Rose Bowl or any game during BJ's freshman year. He's up there next to Harmon for a reason.

There is the aforementioned injury concern with Breaston, but even if he goes down Michigan has a multitude of options behind him. Leon Hall returned a punt for a touchdown. Grant Mason nearly scored on a kick return. It's doubtful Michigan will risk any of its critical cornerbacks in situation that one of the million wide receivers could deal with. Expect to see Doug Dutch or Mario Manningham sub in for Breaston if needed.

Rating: 4. Junior Garrett Rivas quietly had an excellent year if you leave aside a strange early-season tendency to miss extra points (four in total). He made 19 of 24 field goal attempts after hitting 9 of 12 as a freshman, establishing himself as a reliable kicker with slightly less than desirable range--Rivas' maximum is around 47-48 yards. Anything over 42 seems to just squeeze over the bar. But over the bar they go.

Punter Adam Finley has graduated, paving the way for Zoltan "The Inconceivable" Mesko. Regular readers of this blog already know about the young man and his Heisman aspirations, but let us recount the tale. He committed at Michigan's camp after averaging 48 yards a kick with 4.5 seconds of hangtime, and then kicked the hell out of everything at the Army All-American bowl... practices. In the game he shanked one and boomed one. He's competing with two walkons, Ross Ryan (who will kick off) and Mark Spencer. Ryan is rumored to have won the job, which makes me look very dumb but probably implies that Mesko's huge leg is a bit of a loose cannon.

Bonus! Coverage Teams
Rating: 2. Michigan has long struggled to contain punt returns. That ugly Finley net is much indebted to Ted Ginn, Ryne Robinson, and their ilk's continued success against the fairly inept Michigan punt coverage units. Predicting improvement here goes against a lot of recent history, but there should be some hope. Brandon Harrison is going to be one of the gunners and he seems perfectly suited to the job, an agile guy who (reportedly) can wrap up returners and is fast Fast FAST. If he can beat the jam at the line, he could go a long way towards neutralizing punt returners. He can't look worse than Braylon Edwards did trying to tackle Ginn.

Last year's kick coverage was actually pretty good. There weren't many (if any, I can't remember off the top of my head) big returns. Opponents usually settled for the 20 or 25 yard line despite Michigan's inability to get any touchbacks off of kickoffs.

Special Teams in Summary
Should actually be a net strength, a gasp-worthy assertion given the disasters of 2003. A healthy Breaston is one of the country's finest returners. There is a multitude of good options behind him. Rivas is efficient and generally reliable, no Nugent, but one of the Big Ten's better kickers. Kickoff coverage was very good last year.

Punting could be a bit of an issue. Shockingly and depressingly, Zoltan The Inconceivable may not have won the starting job at punter. He's been very inconsistent in the various All-Star games he's been in and the Rivals clips show alternating 5-second hangtime boomers and shanks. All practice reports are glowing, but there's a major difference between sitting there and smashing one and repeating that process under duress. There might be some wobbly times here, especially given Michigan's historic tendency for punt coverage slapstick.

I still expect Michigan to significantly outperform their opponents in the return game as a whole and be on a par when it comes to field goals. Ted Ginn looms, though. Looms real good.

Continue to Part III.