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Friday, March 03, 2006

Sorry that this is late, but Blogger was weird all day yesterday, and I have one to three colds running through my system. If only I had ChickenSoupPal set up...

(BTW: The Reader Interaction Day stuff has been delayed to Monday.)


Defensive Line

I said:
If the defensive ends formed a post-punk band with an ironically retro name they'd be called Woodley and The Question Marks.
Woodley, obviously, is the frontman and was described as such:
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.

... 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.
Well, not quite. Despite racking up seven sacks in about three quarters of a season, Woodley's pass rush was somewhat disappointing. He ended up an intermittent terror instead of a constant one. He was one of the consistent bright spots on the run defense and rumors of an early entry into the NFL draft made me go blind for five minutes earlier this year. Woodley was very good, but not great.

I threw two names out for the spot opposite Woodley, Jeremy Van Alstyne and Tim Jamison. Both struggled through injuries, opening the door for Rondell Biggs until he got injured. Alan Branch was eventually forced to move outside, where he performed admirably.

Jamison's continued absence is a mystery to me, since during my pantingly obsessive game reviews it seemed like more often than not when he was in the game he was teleporting past (or through in a couple of impressive cases) confused linemen and laying waste to the well-laid plans of opposing offenses. His production was not limited to pass rush, either: I distinctly remember instances where Jamison disrupted running plays against Iowa and Michigan State. He's not a beefy strongside end who will hold the corner against lumbering tackles, but he makes the proverbial things proverbially happen. Jamison is the official Ron English canary in a coalmine: if he starts over steady, lumbering Biggs and Van Alstyne, the defense is shedding the bellbottoms and buying itself an iPod.

The defensive tackles, projected to be "deep and talented," were among the biggest disappointments on the team. Gabe Watson was accurately projected, if somewhat overrated:
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. ... 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.
Yes, I went with the old spelling of "Neandertal"--sue me. Watson was indeed one of the best DTs in the country... for about 20% of each game. Stunningly, Watson ate bench for awhile at the beginning of the year as Carr attempted to turn him into something other than a giant, talented nice guy. Still, Watson's probably going to be a first rounder in the NFL draft and made his share of plays during the year. It's just that he's top 30 instead of top 5.

Unfortunately, my defensive tackle accuracy stops there. Pat Massey was not labeled "vastly out of position":
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.
Turns out that the dogging was totally justified and then some. Moving from defensive end in the 3-4 to a 4-3 defensive tackle was a disaster for Massey, who may as well have been named "Crumpled" by the end of the year. We should have seen it coming--when was the last time you saw a 6'8", 285-pound defensive tackle? When is the next time? I'm guessing "never" and "never again." Massey was a total nonfactor. He had one sack that came off of pursuit after Lamarr Woodley blew through two and a half blockers against Michigan State, but no other TFLs. I can't recall even one play where Massey forced his man into the backfield. He was a liability.

Not a liability: Alan Branch. Branch, plugged considerably...
The most likely [new face] 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.
... in the preview, went from promising to critical in about four games. Despite bouncing from tackle to end when Van Alstyne and Biggs went down, he was effective every game. He was excellent against the run, though many of the plays he strung out beautifully went for major gains when linebackers and defensive backs arrived late or not at all. He finished second on the team with five sacks. He was a true sophomore. Cue Mr. Burns' steepled fingers and diabolical "exxxxcelent."

What we learned: Pat Massey should have played OT. Gabe Watson is going to piss off whoever drafts him. Woodley and Branch are OMG freak studs. Whoever was determining the playing time alottments on the defensive line either was or should be stoned.

Next year? Michigan starts with two excellent players and and a bunch of potential. Lamarr Woodley teetered on the edge of stardom despite missing about a quarter of 2005 (Indiana, Iowa, and large swathes of the OSU game). If he had been healthy he would likely have been Michigan's first double-digit sacker since ... David Bowens? He's very good... but Alan Branch was named the team's best defensive lineman at the football bust, and he deserved it.

Past the two locks, you have Jamison, Biggs, and Van Alstyne competing at DE. My position was made clear above: it's Jamison time. The two backup defensive tackles from a year ago, Terrance Taylor and Will Johnson, will split time and rotate with Branch extensively. A three-man rotation is fine, but past that there's not much--unheralded, transfer-berumored rising junior Marques Walton, may-not-qualify freshman Marques Slocum, and then guys who are not likely to be ready. Michigan will be vulnerable to injury on the interior.


I said: This unit featured three new starters, only one of whom had seen appreciable action. Thus this section was buckets of hand-waving. I tagged them a 2, which turned out to be about right. David Harris showed himself to be a player, but the run defense's disintegration had much to do with the chronic inability of Chris Graham and Prescott Burgess to prevent running backs from breaking containment.

Graham was regarded warily:
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,
All right! Perspicacity at last! Comma? What is this comma you talk about?
but mgoblog is buying this particular variety.
Dammit. The hype was unwarranted. After a strong start during the panic-inducing Northern Illinois game, Graham became a ghost. He couldn't shed or avoid blocks and never found himself in position to make a tackle that wasn't of the damage-control variety. When redshirt freshman Johnny Thompson came off the bench during the second half of the Iowa game the run defense improved noticeably (why Thompson returned to the bench for the rest of the year remains a mystery). The stats are fairly damning: Graham was out-tackled by four members of the secondary. Harris and Burgess each broke 80; Graham had 42. At least I said this:
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.
Ding ding ding, save for the "good" bit. It was more "unnoticed and bad."

Burgess was the focus of whatever hope I held out for this unit:
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.
He remains an object of hope only. He alternated plays that demonstrated said superior athleticism with boneheadery reminiscent of Ernest Shazor. We'll go into next year saying the same things we said this year--"if Burgess can only put it together"--and hope that some NFL team doesn't say the same thing around this time next year.

The good bit: David Harris was a revelation at middle linebacker. He was one of the few players to receive less credit than he deserved:
Harris pushing him [McClintock] 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.
The instant Harris shook off that minor injury, he stapled McClintock to the bench and started thumping people far and wide. Though he faded somewhat late, Harris was a solid tackler who had surprising range for such a big dude. He was consistent and intelligent. He made plays in zone coverage. He was the best player on the defense not named "Branch" or "Woodley." Not bad for an in-state sleeper recruit.

What we learned: Linebackers aren't built in a day unless you're David Harris. Jim Herrmann is too smart for his own good; he confuses the hell out of his position group. And me. John Thompson is going to press for time sooner rather than later.

Next year? Everyone's back. Is that good or bad? The card says "nominally good." Harris will be on my preseason All Big Ten team. Burgess... well... if he can put it together. Graham should improve. They should be better, especially with Thompson and four true freshmen pressing them for time. The wildcard will be new linebackers coach Steve Szabo, who brings a wealth of experience. For the first time since Herrmann became defensive coordinators this position group has someone focused exclusively on their behavior.

Defensive Backs

I said they weren't going to be very good.
Michigan has one proven quantity in the secondary, junior Leon Hall.
I rated them a two after the Shazor/"Yards After" Mundy debacle in 2004, fretted openly about the second corner...
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.
...and read fear into the tea-leaves of Brandon Harrison's position switch...
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.
... I expected something just short of a disaster. That did not come to pass, though it seemed like the reason it didn't was that the coaches were just as petrified as I was and responded by unveiling the revolutionary "eleven deep zone."
If anyone got a picture of a presnap alignment with any member of the secondary within ten yards of the line of scrimmage, slap it on one of those "I WANT TO BELIEVE" posters and open up an e-store--you'll hit high double digits by the end of the year.

Michigan went with all soft zone a year ago, which seemed to work well enough if you just look at the stats but undoubtedly had something to do with their near perfect record of late-game collapses. When the going got tough and Michigan was facing a cornered, desperate opponent, they folded every time. In a way, it was much like the offense's problems down the stretch: opponent's figured out Michigan's one trick, and after they had adapted to it they had nothing else to try.

Anyway, player-by-player. Leon Hall was nailed:
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.
Essentially accurate. Hall was by no means a lockdown corner--and it's difficult to tell how well someone is playing in a zone--but he was above average. He turned in big plays on occasion--an interception that should have sealed the Penn State game, a pass breakup in overtime against Michigan State--didn't get burned, and tackled well enough when he found himself in position. That he did not find himself in said position often was more on the shoulders of the men who kept him at bay all year, not Hall.

Opposite Hall we were left with a big "who knows." I threw out some names and left it at that. I pegged Charles Stewart as the up-and-comer instead of Morgan Trent; I did not express major concerns about Grant Mason and the concept of tackling.

I obliterated Ryan Mundy in the safety preview:
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.
That turned out to be beside the point, as Mundy's year (and possibly his career) were cut short by a shoulder injury, but not before he managed to rack up 76 YAM on one carry against Northern Illinois. I'm just sayin'.

I feel fairly good about the other safeties, described as such:
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.
Adams remained an imposing physical presence that just didn't seem to click for whatever reason--personally I'd like to see him try WLB in Graham's stead--while Englemon won the hearts and minds of Michigan fans everywhere just by not screwing up.

What we learned: Almost nothing except how to pick apart a soft zone.

Next year? Only Mason is gone, but that leaves Michigan shorthanded at corner. As Charles Stewart saw no time a year ago when Michigan featured three corners, one of whom was wide receiver mere months before, I personally doubt he ever contributes. That leaves Hall and Trent backed up by the two undercover brothers from California, Johnny Sears and Chris Richards. Then there's... um. Zilch. Michigan is counting one of those two coming through, preferably both.

There is a sudden profusion of safeties. Willis Barringer, Brandent Englemon, Brandon Harrison, and Jamar Adams all started at various points last year; all return. Worry is low here, though the generally solid performance from a year ago could be a mirage based on passive play. We'll see.

Special Teams

I said:
Should actually be a net strength, a gasp-worthy assertion given the disasters of 2003.
And it was. Michigan averaged 11.8 yards a punt return; their opponents averaged 5. Michigan returned over 50% of their opponents punts; their opponents only returned 30%. Steve Breaston had a kickoff return touchdown and a series of long punt returns.

Garrett Rivas, who "[established] himself as a reliable kicker with slightly less than desirable range" as a sophomore, was a bit less reliable in his junior year... but not much. Yes, he missed critical attempts against Minnesota and Michigan State that were not particularly difficult. But the final line reads 19 for 26, which is north of 75%. You people remember Brabbs/Neinberg/Finley, don't you? Don't you?

Punter Ross Ryan was the very definition of quietly effective, meriting only passing mention in the preview. He won the job from Romanian superhero Zoltan "The Inconceivable" Mesko and proceeded to launch a series of ugly, short punts that had the important side benefit of being totally unreturnable. He also used some sort of Jedi mind trick to make Ted Ginn forget how to field said punts, which was extremely helpful for a time during the Ohio State game. Ryan also sent most of his kickoffs well into the endzone. As a result, Michigan's gross punting average declined but its net increased, opposing returners were neutralized wholesale, and that ulcerous feeling you got whenever the punt team staggered on to the field disappeared (and a good thing, too, because it got heavy use what with the offensive implosion).

A salute to you, Ross Ryan! Steady, unimpressive, and boring but reassuring nonetheless, you are Lloyd Carr incarnated as a punter.

What we learned: Short punts are okay; Garrett Rivas will never win the hearts and minds of the faithful; Breaston is oooookay; GUNNERS SHOULD BE BLOCKED. BLOCKED, I SAY.

Next year? MOTS, most likely, and that's a good thing. Everyone relevant returns. Hopefully our punt return strategy will prioritize something other than preventing fakes that never come.