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Monday, April 03, 2006

We are all susceptible to offseason glazomania, even kids who are too cool for conventional sportswriting-school like moi. At least this one will be backed by paragraphs instead of inane one-sentence trash-talking.

The Criteria: Massive year-to-year roster turnover, somewhere between 30 and 40 major contributors per team, and the every-game-a-playoff regular season conspire to make the beginning of a college football season a uniquely stressful event for the fan. Across the nation, the mental well-being of slightly unbalanced folk depends on an array of unknown players like That Guy Wearing #21, Wait, That's Not Jason Avant, and Number 65 Is A Bit Of A Fatty, Isn't He(?). Every team has an set of unseen players suddenly thrust into the spotlight due to the graduation (or, in the case of Tennessee, arrest) of seniors that have gone before them. Some have more thrust upon them than others.

What follows are the five guys who I will identify via the program during warmups before the Vanderbilt game and watch intently, scanning for signs of future greatness, hoping that one day I'll repeat this process, thinking to myself "Wait, That's Not That Guy Who Wasn't Jason Avant." Or something. If you got through that sentence without a double-take I owe you a cookie.

In general, these players are

  • young,
  • at a position of need either this year or next,
  • inexperienced, and
  • hyped up by either recruiting services or the offseason insider brigade.
This isn't really a list of future stars in a predictive sense -- I make no guarantees, having seen about as much of the following players as you have -- but it is one in a hopeful sense. The overall tenor here is captured well by the pictures below: Taylor and Jamison are featured crushing the offensive linemen of... Eastern Michigan.

Anyway, on with the show:

5. DT Terrance Taylor, sophomore

Will probably play mini-Gabe Watson this year as the Michigan defensive tackles go from rather deep to rather thin. Alan Branch is a lock to start, then come Taylor and fellow sophomore Will Johnson. After that is your proverbial question mark.

Taylor and Johnson will probably see almost equal amounts of time; what gives Taylor the nod here are the Buynanesque tall tales that follow in his wake. He was a three-time state powerlifting champ. He was the best heavyweight wrestler in the state. There are 1,291 objects in this room that Taylor can digest, including the room. &c. He'll have to take a major step forward from his freshman season, in which he occasionally held the point of attack admirably but made no plays behind the line, to become an impact player, but first offseason in a college program, Steve Stripling is a coaching God, Alan Branch, etc.: he's got a shot.

4. WR Adrian Arrington, redshirt sophomore

This probably would have been Antonio Bass were it not for Bass's severe knee injury. Bass was a tantalizing novelty act a year ago who looked to get involved as an actual wide receiver in '06. Unfortunately, he's shelved indefinitely with some sort of nasty knee injury.

As such the spotlight shifts to redshirt sophomore Adrian Arrington, a willow-thin recruit from Iowa who spent much of last year either hurt or suspended (he did not make the bowl trip). Before his injury Arrington was on the fast track, seeing token time as Michigan's traditional Future Star Wideout Wasting His Redshirt Year in '04 and generating extensive practice buzz before his nasty ankle sprain on the eve of the '05 season. Arrington has resumed his buzz-generating ways this spring, at times looking like the defacto #1 wide receiver. He certainly has the rep as a Rivals 100 selection from an oft-ignored slice of the country. With Avant gone and Breaston looking unlikely to ever become a primary weapon, the opportunity is there.

3. DE Tim Jamison, redshirt sophomore

Dios mio, man.
The 2006 equivalent of Pat Massey playing over Branch or Watson would be Rondell Biggs or Jeremy Van Alstyne -- hell, anyone -- usurping Tim Jamison's position opposite Lamarr Woodley. No offense to Biggs or Van Alstyne, but Jamison proved last year that he is a wild talent capable of bending space and time to suit his violently disruptive needs.

...okay, he proved exactly none of that. That's how hype trains get out of control. Jamison was a bit player who was probably down the depth chart for a good reason (though the Massey thing does throw the decision-making ability of those in charge of defensive personnel into question, granted). A sure thing he is not. But he turned in enough plays to make one wonder who that #91 dude was, and those plays seem more sustainable than those turned in by Shawn Crable from the standup DT spot. More than once the seemingly undersized Jamison burst into offensive tackles so quickly they were on their heels before they knew exactly what hit them and why it was trying to gnaw their face off.

The knock on Jamison is consistent play against the run, but he did not seem out of place a year ago when run at; chances are he starts.

2. TE Carson Butler, redshirt freshman

Antonio Gates created a new in-crowd for tight ends: undersized-but-athletic power forwards. Butler was an undersized-but-athletic power forward at Detroit Renaissance who didn't play football until his senior year of high school. When he did he ended up a hilariously oversized (6'6", 240) wide receiver crushing terrified 5'8" white guys in Detroit's PSL.

We've heard this story before: late-offered, raw as hell instate sleeper with ridiculous athleticism. Take Braylon Edwards, add two inches and 30 pounds, and move him to tight end. That's Carson Butler, except this Braylon is the one who walked onto the field as a sophomore, untested but damn impressive lookin'. Whether that translates into production is anyone's guess. Butler is still sushi-grade raw and had a rep for slacking in high school. With Tyler Ecker and Mike Massey in front of him, Butler may not see a ton of time, but he has a higher ceiling than just about anyone on the team.

1. CB Johnny Sears, redshirt freshman

Another OMG sleeper from the class of 2004, Sears was a Michigan commitment before playing a single varsity football game for Fresno Edison in California. (A junior-year transfer forced him to play JV.) Then-defensive backs coach Ron English stumbled upon him whilst recruiting in California, saw him practice, and offered on the spot. We are, indeed, talking about practice. Sears accepted soon after, but was largely an afterthought as Michigan chased highly-touted recruits like Justin King and Victor Harris. King went to Penn State just in time to get ownzored by Mario Manningham. Harris stayed home and went to VT. Okay, no problem, we'll just recruit Darrin Walls and Jai Eugene in... er. Right.

Walls went to ND; Eugene committed but then made a last-second switch to LSU. As a result, visions of Todd Howard now dance in the heads of forward-looking, paranoid Michigan fans. Michigan's total failure to recruit a cornerback last year leaves the defensive backfield looking like so past projected starters Leon Hall and Morgan Trent:
  • Redshirt sophomore Charles Stewart, a low-four star recruit from 2003 who saw not one meaningful snap a year ago despite Michigan clearly requiring more DB depth than the starters plus nickel-back Trent.
  • Redshirt freshman Chris Richards, who may or may not weigh more than Alyssa Milano.
  • Sears.
Yikes. With Hall a senior, Michigan is going to start one of those three or a true freshman in '07. Stewart's lack of playing time is an indicator that he is not likely to contribute outside of special teams*. Richards is a project. What's left is Sears, who is reputed to be a freaky stud freak.

So he's it for now: invisible but jet-fast Sears is going to be the most critical new face you see next year. He will see much time against the suddenly spread-happy Big Ten, and if he does not perform, Michigan's secondary will be an achilles heel in Henne and Hart's senior year. That would not be good eats.

*(This may no longer be true, as helpful email indicates Stewart may be able to hack it at corner. I'm still suspicious.)

Omissions: Zoltan Mesko (Ross Ryan has the punting on lockdown, IMO), Mario Manningham (has already demonstrated his talent), Justin Boren, Steve Schilling, and Alex Mitchell (maybe next year), Carlos Brown (third string at best this year), John Thompson (tough one, but Taylor has a clearer path to PT), Brandon Graham (ditto).

Next year's projected top five:

5. Zoltan Mesko
4. Ron Johnson/Dionte Allen (that's good, Brian, start anticipating the play of uncommitted recruits. Extreme sanity there. No need for pills of some sort. No way. Nope.)
3. Justin Boren
2. Antonio Bass
1. Brandon Graham