MGoBlog has moved. The new site can be found at

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

All video links are courtesy the indispensable IBFC.

The Story

It was, simply, The Year of Infinite Pain. No doubt the vast majority who read this remember it in every garment-rending detail from the first Garrett Wolfe scamper to the last colossal Tyler Ecker error. Games weren't just lost in quantities heretofore unknown east of Lansing, they were wrenched away by an angry God, an Old Testament God.

Let us count the plagues:
  • Chad Henne fumbles on a quarterback sneak from the one yard line in a 17-10 loss to Notre Dame; on the previous, unreviewed play the entire top half of his body was in the endzone.
  • Brian Calhoun of Wisconsin slices the Michigan defense to shreds on their last-gasp fourth quarter drive for the win.
  • Facing third and ten from deep in their own half, Minnesota concedes overtime and hands off to Gary Russell, who blows past the Michigan defense en route to 61 yards and a game-winning Gopher field goal.
  • Michigan blows a two-score lead against Ohio State after punting on fourth and four with a chance to salt the game away.
  • A late turnover and constant buggering at the hands of incompetent Sun Belt refs are almost overcome by the most improbable play since Stanford-Cal, but Tyler Ecker plows into two defenders instead of pitching it to Steve Freakin' Breaston.
Yea, woe came upon them, and they looked unto Job and said "you think you've got problems? Our second leading tackler is a cornerback."

It would be easy to dismiss the above as plain bad luck if Michigan didn't scrape past the teams it did manage to beat. The Iowa and Michigan State games were won in overtime; Penn State was defeated at literally the last second. Even games against Northwestern and Northern Illinois were not cakewalks. Without huge, momentum swinging turnovers in both games they would likely have gone down to the wire. No, Michigan 2005 largely deserved the ugly record they collected with their play on the field. They could neither run nor stop the run. They could not pass. They elected to not block the punt gunners. Twenty-seven-yard game-winning field goals were to be missed by the fat little kicker. Opportunities to put the game away by converting on fourth down were eschewed in favor of fifteen yard punts. The defense was incapable of stopping opponents on first drives or last ones. Were it not for the magic of the wide receiver screen, Michigan may have set records for offensive futility. By the end of it, all Michigan fans had left was the basketball team's run to its first NCAA tournament since... what? They lost to Minnesota?

It was not a good year to, say, write a book called "A Season in the Big House: An Unscripted, Insider Look at the Marvel of Michigan Football". Other books in this series:
  • "San Francisco is Faultess," copyright 1906
  • "Britney Spears: Just Getting Started," copyright any time before she became a swamp monster
  • "Return to Glory: Inside Tyrone Willingham's Amazing First Season at Notre Dame"
It was clear that changes needed to be made. Offensive coordinator Terry Malone -- who this blog has long argued was given a raw deal -- was the first to go, accepting a position as the tight ends coach of the Saints. It seemed that defensive coordinator Jim Herrmann was next, clearing the way for defensive backs coach Ron English to inject some life into a flaccid Michigan defense. When English apparently lost the power-struggle between sanity and continued six-deep zones by accepting a position as defensive backs coach of the Chicago Bears, depression turned to outright panic. Ann Arbor Torch & Pitchfork sold out of everything. A citizen brigade prepared to march on Schembechler hall. A nation waited with bated breath.

Tensions were defused when English before abruptly reversed course and returned to Michigan as defensive coordinator. Herrmann was replaced in his capacity as linebackers coach by longtime NFL assistant Steve Szabo. Former Wisconsin secondary coach Ron Lee was brought in to coach the cornerbacks. Shockingly, English is the dean of the defensive staff with only three years as a Wolverine. This is not be your father's Michigan defense. It may not be your four-year-old daughter's.

Relieved of the oppressive mustache, hope burgeons once again. Only six starters depart from last year's team, three of those substandard by any measure. The others have capable replacements lined up. In Herrmann's place is a dynamic young coach who seems ready to overthrow years of stodgy, dated theory and assume his place next to Charlie Weis, Charlie Weis, and Charlie Weis on the new Mount Rushmore of football. Mike Hart and Jake Long are fully healed.

So, yeah: there's a chance.

Unit By Unit

Rating: 3.5.

Chad Henne
Jason Forcier
David Cone

There's no sugarcoating Henne's sophomore year: it was bad. You can show me the numbers and make comparisons to John Navarre's pace and point out a nice touchdown-to-interception ratio, but I will tell you that I watched the games, all the games, three times and categorized every pass he threw a year ago and that you are wrong. The numbers lie. They lie in these ways:
  • A large number of "passing" yards that aren't. For much of the year Michigan's main passing weapon was the wide receiver screen. Henne probably threw ten a game, most of which were completed to little shifty buggers like Breaston and Manningham. The yards gained on these plays were critical but demanded little from Henne aside from a short, catchable throw. These screens are not tenable in the long run -- Ohio State jumped almost every one -- and can't be used with as much frequency this year now that they've been extensively scouted.
  • A failure to take strength of opponent into account. Last year was the year of terrible defense in the Big Ten. Michigan took advantage of precisely zero of these defenses and pissed away opportunities to win games against Notre Dame, Wisconsin, and Minnesota largely because Henne was incapable of hitting a receiver downfield.
Here's a game-by-game review of Henne's performance against pulse-bearing opponents snipped from the UFRs:
  • ND: OMG HENNE SUX. [note that this is fictional-combative-question-guy, not me -ed]

    He actually didn't in the first half until late where you see two instances of unnecessary rollouts because he's lost faith in his blitz pickups. In the second half ... Henne went on tilt. ... You've gone from 23/33 in the "good" category to 22/44 plus a couple sacks and the goal-line fumble. Some of that was due to pressure but the two huge, touchdown-stealing mistakes were totally unforced.
  • Wisconsin: Goats?

    #1, #2, #3: Henne. Simply put, if he makes any one of six to eight relatively easy throws we probably win this game.
  • Michigan State: ...when you try to pass 37 times and get four execution errors from your quarterback, you are in the business, as they say.

    Michigan only went deep twice and neither throw was perfect, but one was a 45 yard touchdown and the other was placed so that Avant had a chance but no one else did. The 15 yard outs and little zone stops were all thrown accurately. There were a couple instances of miscommunication on option routes, but, man... 36 throws. One inaccurate. That's night and day.
  • Minnesota: Henne didn't have a great game. It wasn't as bad as the Wisconsin performance but it wasn't very efficient, either... Henne seemed to throw late or sit in the pocket unable to find an open receiver too often against a weak Minnesota secondary. ...
    Four of Henne's five inaccurate passes were thrown towards an open Avant in the endzone. Michigan scored on one of those drives, got a field goal on another, and crapped out on the other two. Two of the throws were relatively deep downfield (20-30 yards), the other two were a fade launched into the crowd and a badly overthrown slant.
  • Penn State: Given the preponderance of screens and long handoffs (12 in total, 1 IN, one BA), Henne had a really bad day. On downfield throws he was acceptable or better on 14 of them and had 16 instances where he either missed, threw the ball away because no one was open, or messed up his read. Penn State is a good defense but when Michigan dropped back to pass the ball didn't even get in a place where it could possibly be caught more than 50% of the time, and several of the instances in which it did were little checkdowns.
  • Iowa: I'm torn. On the one hand he rifled a fair quantity of balls directly into the hands of Michigan wide receivers. On the other, he rifled a few critical third downs into the crowd without an Iowa player within three yards of him. ... Strangely enough, Henne seemed to be inaccurate on a lot of short stop routes that should be easy for any quarterback (and certainly were for Tate). ... Still, this was probably his best performance of the year considering the level of competition. Those seven DOs were all nice throws that were either far downfield or that led receivers for big chunks of YAC.
  • Northwestern: The best thing about Henne this year is that he throws a mean WR screen. That's only partially sarcastic -- those throws are tougher than they appear and Henne has put every one on the money this year -- but, yeah, it's sarcastic. I mean, dude went approximately 1/3rd of the game without completing anything other than some screens and a three yard dumpoff to Tabb on third and nine. It's nice that we had a semblance of an offense in spite of that, but it's not going to fly against OSU.
  • Ohio State: In a word, magnificent. ... you have two instances of bad play: the Ecker overthrow in the endzone and the throw to Ecker at the end of the game (not enough time to check down, there, just risk the INT). ... This was Henne's best performance of his career... to be that effective against that defense and with that revolving door of grimly futile interior blockers is incredible.

    If the guy who showed up against OSU had played all year, Michigan beats both UW and Minnesota with ease and probably beats Notre Dame, Jason Avant is a Belitnikoff finalist, and Joey isn't planning on hanging himself.
[In a fit of pique I did not UFR the Alamo Bowl, something which I regret now. I remember Henne being good and his numbers (21/43, 270, 3 TD/1 INT) support that but I feel naked trying to comment on a UFR-less game. -ed]

In total: five bad performances (NW, Wisconsin, ND, Minnesota, Penn State), one okay one (Iowa), one good one (MSU), and one completely inexplicable masterpiece (OSU). That is not the profile of a great quarterback or even an average one.

Henne is granted a stay of execution as the mitigating factors flew fast and furious. He was often under duress as Matt Lentz, Leo Henige, and Rueben Riley played revolving door at various times during the year. When opponents blitzed, freshman Kevin Grady often blew pickups that Mike Hart would likely have made. When Henne managed to hit receivers downfield, particularly Breaston, they were unable to catch the ball. Hart's absence and the impotent run game that it caused also put him in a large number of obvious passing downs (like, say, first and ten versus OSU) during which the defense could exploit the shaky offensive line. Henne's '05 environment was not a good place to do anything but fail. This, by in large, he did.

But if John Stocco teaches us anything, it's that quarterbacks are not static year-to-year. The great fear of Michigan fans going into last year -- that a cocky Henne spent the summer of '05 offseason drinking and playing Tecmo Bowl -- is now our great hope. Newly chastened and studious, we envision Henne playing like the Henne of our dreams: the one who was nigh-perfect against Ohio State. The one who barked at Carr until he went for a fourth and inches on his side of midfield. The one who beat OSU until Herrmann herrmanned it away.

There's no way to tell if we'll get that Henne or the Mr. Hyde who rifled the Wisconsin game into the stands. If history is any indication he will improve, especially if the new guards deign to block opponents and Hart remains healthy. On this five-point ranking scale he could end up anywhere from a 2 to a 5 and anyone who tries to tell you exactly where he'll fall is guessing.

Running Back
Rating: 5.

Mike HartJr.Obi OluigboSr.*
Kevin Grady
So.Will PaulJr.*
Carlos BrownFr.Brian ThompsonSr.*
Jerome JacksonSr.*Andre Criswell

Mike Hart's maddening 2005 season was largely spent on the cusp of the game (in pads, on the sideline, waiting) instead of greatness. A series of ankle and hamstring injuries sidelined the magic midget for most of the season and hampered him when he did play. When he was healthy, he showed the talent that had Michigan fans salivating after his freshman year. He passed 100 yards in every game he completed, including 148 via air and land against Penn State's imposing defense. What struggles he had were due more to the historically inept run blocking than any particular deficiency on his part, though he did conclusively prove that he doesn't have breakaway speed on two runs versus MSU. He also proved that his vision, cutting, drive, and leadership are indispensable to the Michigan offense. Hart can do this:

There you go: vision, change of direction, and an ability to drag more weight than a pickup truck. Hart is also an able receiver out of the backfield and capable pass blocker. I am incapable of being remotely unbiased about him, but in my opinion he's one of the best running backs in the country.

Backup Kevin Grady played like a freshman last year, harsh reality for Michigan fans suddenly used to short guys rolling off the street and dominating the league. He showed the occasional burst of power (there was a memorable HULK SMASH touchdown against Indiana, though you extrapolate from Hoosier games at your peril) but the difference between Hart and Grady was stark. Used to slower high school defenders, Grady would often make cuts that turned eight yard gains into two. He didn't show much of his much-hyped power and was limited to a few simple plays, foremost among them the toss sweep. Having seen one erroneous cut too many, midway through the Iowa game Carr lifted him in favor of little-used junior Jerome Jackson. Grady returns for his sophomore year fifteen pounds lighter, vowing to improve his performance. Once he gets adapted to the college game he probably will, but two hard-charging freshmen will put his backup job under threat this year.

One of those incoming freshman, Carlos Brown, was a shock commitment from Georgia -- he had already publicly eliminated Michigan when he committed -- who inherited Antonio Bass' role as the Totally Surprising QB Draw Guy when Bass' knee exploded just before spring practice. A high school quarterback, Brown will have to learn blitz pickups and receiving from scratch. He's not likely to see much time early but he is without question the fastest Michigan tailback and can fill a role resting Hart or running a Totally Surprising QB Draw here and there. The other new face is Brandon Minor, who was less hyped by the gurus but more hyped by coaches and players who have seen him grind forward like a spastic glacier all of fall camp. Carr guarantees he'll play, so he must be talented.

Also seeing the occasional snap will be Mister Simpson and Jackson.

Wide Receivers & Tight Ends
Rating: 4.

Depth Chart

Mario ManninghamSo.Steve Breaston
Sr.*Tyler EckerSr.*
Adrian Arrington
So.*LaTerryal Savoy
Fr.*Mike MasseySo.*
Doug DutchSo.*Carl Tabb
Sr.*Carson Butler
Alijah Bradley
Greg Mathews
Fr.Quintin Woods

Steve Breaston did not live up to the hype offered here and elsewhere, suffering through a series of nagging injuries it seems he may never shake and dropping the long passes that found his way to, and then through, his hands. He did have his moments -- Michigan's first kickoff return for a touchdown since the paleolithic era against Minnesota and a 52-yard slip-screen touchdown against Iowa -- but his season totals were paltry: 36 offensive touches for under 400 yards. At this point Breaston's near-constant nagging leg, arm, torso, head, and aura injuries seem unlikely to ever recede to the point where he can replicate his form as a redshirt freshman which got the hype train rolling in the first place. Michigan might be better off with Breaston as a starter in name only, deploying him as a slot receiver against overmatched nickel backs and linebackers. He will no doubt turn in several !!! plays this year, but they'll be too infrequent to erase the "what if?" looming over the end of his career here.

Sophomore Mario Manningham had the best season by a Michigan freshman receiver since some guy named AC. You may remember him from such highlights as "Yet Another Touchdown Versus Jaren Hayes," "Justin King Should Have Come To Michigan," and "The Only Good Thing About Last Season." You may not remember that Manningham spent a large portion of the year on the bench, confused. Even though Michigan was breaking him in easy, the confusion often leaked on to the field. His touchdown against Notre Dame would not have happened had Erik Campbell not screamed at him to tighten up his split pre-snap. A critical Chad Henne interception against Iowa came when Manningham failed to break off his route. And yet when the year was over he had a nickname and the attention of Big Ten fans across the Midwest. Assuming that Manningham has the playbook down, fireworks pend. With a full year of experience and a first collegiate offseason, a non-confused version of Super Mario will actually play most of the time, establishing himself as Henne's go-to guy and emerging as Michigan's dreaded receiver du jour after a one-year hiatus.

The depth is unproven but potential-laden. Adrian Arrington, LaTerryal Savoy, and Greg Mathews will all vie to replace Avant's steady over-the-middle production. Arrington looks to have the inside track: he was chosen to receive frustrating, redshirt-burning time as a freshman in order to prepare him to contribute sooner and generated a ton of practice buzz last summer before severely injuring his ankle in the fall and missing last year entirely. As a prep he was highly touted, featuring on both Scout and Rivals' top 100 lists despite playing in buzz-free Iowa. Carr has repeatedly mentioned him third after Breaston and Manningham when questioned about wide receivers. Savoy and Matthews are bulkier types who compare best to Avant since they're both supposed to have less than ideal speed. In fact, Savoy was labeled "Avant 2.0" by this very site a long, long time ago; Mathews was tagged "Marquise Walker". Savoy was a three-star type out of Louisiana who excelled on both sides of the ball. He caught a touchdown in the spring "game". Mathews' profile increased throughout the year until he found himself on the tail end of the Rivals 100 despite having an implausibly ugly 4.79 listed as his 40 time.

Doug Dutch and Carl Tabb are smaller receivers who figure to be on the outside looking in this year. That's unfortunate for Tabb, who's done yeoman work as the safety on kick returns for three years and has performed acceptably when called upon. This is his last year and despite his speed he looks destined to be the Jermaine Gonzales of 2006. Dutch still has a couple of cracks after this year, but to contribute he's going to have to learn how to catch. Also slumming it down here is fifth-year walk-on Alijah Bradley, whose counter draw for nine yards against OSU was Michigan's longest run of that game. The coaches have been talking Bradley up for some time and flipped him out to flanker in an effort to get him on the field. He'll probably find himself on the end of a few screens this year.

Antonio Bass has an exploded knee and will redshirt.

Tight end Tyler Ecker was most notable for a clutch catch in the 2003 Ohio State game before last year, when two one-score games died with the ball in Ecker's hands after he had done something stupid. His error against Ohio State was annoying but probably moot, as Michigan would have had something like twelve seconds to drive seventy yards, but against Nebraska Michigan was one pitch away from a play that would live in college football history -- Ecker had Steve Freakin' Breaston cruising two yards behind him -- when he decided that getting tackled at the twenty was a better idea. As a result Michigan fans are a little peeved at the senior despite his play, which has been above average for a long time now. Ecker is a big target with soft hands and the speed to hit the seam against most teams. He's not a crushing, Spaethian blocker but is a reliable midrange option who wouldn't be a bad replacement for a good hunk of Avant's catches.

Backing up Ecker will be redshirt sophomore Mike Massey, much-maligned Pat's brother, and redshirt freshman Carson Butler. Massey saw some time last year when Tim Massaquoi broke his hand, displaying good hands but questionable blocking skills. Butler is a sleeper recruit in the true sense of the word. In high school he focused on basketball until his senior year, when he terrorized Detroit Public School league cornerbacks as a hilariously oversized wide receiver. After a year of honing, Michigan thinks they've found a future star. Butler is supposed to be Braylon at tight end, a man who cannot be covered by man nor beast. He has promise but is still raw even after a redshirt year. Expect him to tantalize on erratic snaps much like Tim Jamison did a year ago.

Offensive Line
Rating: 3.
Depth Chart

Jake LongJr.*Adam Kraus
Jr.*Mark BihlSr.*Alex Mitchell
So.*Rueben Riley
Mark OrtmannFr.*Jeremy Ciulla
Justin Boren
Fr.Justin SchifanoFr.*Cory Zirbel
Tim MacAvoy
Fr.*Dave Moosman
Grant DeBenedictis
Fr.*Brett Gallimore
Steve SchillingFr.

(note: every Michigan lineman since the beginning of time has redshirted. Just assume "redshirt" in front of all years unless "true" is specifically appended.)

There is an exceptional amount of panicking going on about a Michigan line that will probably play four upperclassmen with starting experience, and with good reason. Jake Long and Adam Kraus have switched positions. Mark Bihl has been given the opportunity to start at center the past two years but was yanked both times. Rueben Riley did a terrifying impression of Courtney Morgan when forced to play right tackle last year. The frightening condition that held Mike Kolodziej out most of last year has apparently relapsed and ended his career.

Great things were expected of left tackle Jake Long, then on the right side of the line, going into his sophomore season after a standout freshman campaign, but when Gabe Watson falls on your ankle it tends to put a damper on your season. Long was thought to be out for the year but rehabbed like a madman, returning for the Iowa game. He performed adequately but not thrillingly the remainder of the year, still affected by the gimpy ankle. This year he switches to Henne's blindside. Fully healthy, he should be the line's best player and an All Big Ten performer.

Junior Adam Kraus was the lone bright spot in the interior of last year's line. Once Mark Bihl proved unable to lock down the center position, Kraus came off the bench and performed admirably for a first-year starter, showing good mobility in Michigan's screen game and competent blocking elsewhere. Practice buzz holds that Kraus has taken a notable step forward from last year's competency; he should be a major upgrade over the game but nigh-crippled Leo Henige.

Senior Mark Bihl is going to begin the year as Michigan's starting center, but the last two years he's lost his role during the first couple games of the season. Confidence is not running at an all time high. Though true freshman Justin Boren is listed second on the above depth chart, if Bihl is found wanting Michigan will move Adam Kraus over to center and someone -- probably sophomore Jeremy Cuilla -- will draw in at guard.

Alex Mitchell is the least experienced member of the line. A redshirt sophomore, he saw sporadic time last year in blowouts and when the injuries on the line were at their deepest, but not enough to draw any conclusions about his play. Last year he was the subject of a fair amount of practice buzz as clearly the top player in his line class. In spring, however, he struggled to keep his weight down. Despite that he's drawn praise from the coaches, who insist he's earned his starting role.

Rueben Riley will be the focal point of concern for most Michigan fans after an up and down 2004. Once Long and Kolodziej went down Riley, then at guard, was thrust into the spotlight at right tackle despite having acquired two broken thumbs in mysterious circumstances. (Seriously: how does one break both thumbs? And how in the hell did Michigan end up starting not one but two players, Chris Graham being the other, with a pair of broken thumbs? What are the odds?) He struggled, allowing an EMU defensive end with a defiantly French-Canadian last name to crush the quarterback several times during Michigan's walkover of the Eagles and getting dominated by Minnesota freshman Steve Davis. Phasers were set on "panic" when Tamba Hali rolled into town, but Riley did all right against him. Not great, but all right. Riley was sent to the bench when Riley returned.

Past the starters there is a vast sea of inexperience. For the first time in recent history, Michigan is preparing to play two true freshmen on the offensive line. Both C/G Justin Boren and RT Steve Schilling have been mentioned by Carr as definite contributors. To me that sends a clear signal: they have more potential than anyone else on the line and are being groomed for '07. If they play extensively this year Michigan is going to be in trouble -- particularly if it's Schilling, who never pass-blocked in high school.

If Michigan is forced to make a switch this year Mark Ortmann and Jeremy Ciulla will probably be the first options off the bench at tackle and guard, respectively.

How good will this line be? The "3" above is fairly tenuous. Long and Kraus appear to be a solid duo on the left, but Bihl-Mitchell-Riley is scary. Riley has been practicing at tackle for a while now, has more experience and (presumably) two healthy thumbs and thus is unlikely to be a liability Michigan has to structure its offense around mitigating, but he is a guard playing out of position. That will be fine in the run game -- Riley is an excellent drive blocker -- but expect to see at least a few drives end when opposing speed rushers rip around Riley and implant their helmets into Henne's chest. People around the program are making all the right noises about Mitchell, but as a sophomore and first year starter it could be rough for him at the beginning. I'll believe Bihl can stick as a starter when I see it.

Five Questions and Five Answers

Which Henne is it, then?

Not the guy from the Wisconsin game but unfortunately not the guy from the OSU game, either. Henne's accuracy will trouble me until he proves me drastically wrong. He made a lot of mental errors a year ago; those should gradually subside as he becomes more and more experienced. The tendency to hurl the ball to Tacopants, Jason Avant's imaginary 11-foot tall friend, will not be resolved with the simple passage of time. Henne's accuracy waxed and waned last season -- a debacle like the UW game stands in marked contrast to the MSU or OSU games. What that says to me is that Loeffler spent last season trying to adjust Henne's mechanics on a regular basis. The adjustment would stick for a while, but when Henne was pressured or busy trying to find a receiver his bad habits would re-emerge.

If Loeffler can hammer correct mechanics into his head over the offseason -- if that OSU game was an indicator of the future -- the sky's the limit. But in my opinion, Henne will be slightly more accurate, slightly more intelligent, and slightly disappointing. It'll look like he's doing much better because the rest of the offense should improve and we'll get a ton of articles ripping on Michigan fans that speciously cite last year's stats, but in reality his improvement will be more incremental than revolutionary.

How will the offensive line hold up?

Okay? Riley at tackle is only a concern in the passing game, really. As a run-blocking unit Michigan should improve drastically with Long around and the Lentz-Henige duo gone. Bihl is iffy, but my coachspeak spidey-sense (admittedly largely baseless) says Mitchell will be capable. Hart and a more experienced Grady should be better in blitz pickups.

Michigan has a clear weakness -- Riley's pass blocking -- and a couple question marks that make it improbable that Michigan has a great line, but a line as deficient as last year's is equally improbable.

How much will the offense change?

The hot rumor around the Internets is that Michigan will be incorporating a lot of zone blocking into their running game. For those unfamiliar with the idea, think Iowa when they featured Fred Russel. I find this terribly exciting:
  • Mike Hart is the perfect back for it. His outstanding vision and I-scoff-at-your-dimes cutting ability seem custom-molded to slash upfield at the tiniest hole.
  • The dreaded fullback shuffle is gone, and with it goes most of Michigan's predictability. You can't anticipate where the hole is going to be when there is no designated hole.
  • And hell the fullback may just be plain gone anyway. Minus Dudley, last year's fullback spot was manned by a motley crew of confused squat guys more likely to whiff entirely than crush a linebacker into a white-hot furrow of snapped limbs and smoke. Those guys return to the delight of few; each play they get is one less for someone like Arrington, Breaston, or new hotness Carson Butler. If Iowa's zone game is any indication fullbacks could be few and far between, opening up more time for second tight ends and third wideouts.
The gotcha is the offensive line, all of whom have been schooled in traditional man-blocking for the past three or four years. One offseason to drop weight and pick up an entirely different scheme is one or two too few for true comfort. Still, my favorite running play for Hart to run is the draw -- which Michigan deployed to shocking effect against PSU -- as it allows holes to open up and Hart to find them, and a running game that emphasizes all of Hart's positives but doesn't fall prey to steadily diminishing returns if overused is a hell of an idea.

Of course, Michigan fans have heard about shocking changes every preseason since 1998 and have seen very little on the field. Is this legit? On the one hand, there's a ton of message-board smoke and circumstantial evidence (in the form of newly svelte offensive linemen); on the other, the coaches have been strenuously disavowing the major changes which Michigan has been historically loathe to make. Also, Mike Hart and Lloyd Carr are talking up senior fullback Obi Oluigbo.

Survey says... a little bit country, a little bit rock and roll. One thing Michigan coaches will not stand is a ninth place running game and they're more likely to make the changes required to fix that deficiency than one anywhere else on the team. The fullback will feature, though, and he may even shuffle some. Sorry.

How much can we expect from Breaston?

It depends entirely on his health. I still BELIEVE(!) in his ability. You'd have to be blind not to, but anyone who BELIEVES(!) in his ability to not have six nagging injuries by week two is also a little bit fuzzy. If healthy he'll return kicks and be tackled by unblocked gunners on punts, catch a bunch of passes and screens which he turns into five or six more yards than he has any right to, and enjoy a couple of long reverses. But the bulk of Avant's catches will be distributed to Ecker, Manningham, and Arrington, IMO, and Breaston will remain a complementary weapon.

And adding it all up, you get...?

Last year's Michigan offense was the Michigan team writ small. They were slightly below average in everything and had a tendency to kill drives collectively. An offensive lineman would whiff a block. Henne would throw an inaccurate pass. A wide receiver would drop the conversion attempt on third and long, or catch it five yards short of the first down line. Presto, Ross Ryan. A drive was the equivalent of playing ten really close games with no margin for error: you were bound to screw up sooner or later and then it was over.

The good news is that the only position group that could possibly be worse is the wide receivers, but even there Jason Avant is replaceable in a way that Braylon Edwards wasn't. With everyone else returning and a potentially healthy Breaston, even the WRs figure to improve. The offensive line may not shine but it figures to move towards the median.

So even though the only position group that will be drastically improved is the running backs, if everyone is a little better the offense as a whole could be way better than last year, though you should take into account my opinion that last year's offense was way worse than the general populace does. This year's preview will not feature bold predictions of a top-10 finish or fate-tempting assertions that Michigan is nigh-invulnerable to injury. A year of being completely and utterly wrong tends to mellow one's prognosticory zeal. But...

Even if the changes in the running game are more subtle than drastic Michigan should improve significantly from their 9th place performance in conference. Reasons one through around 300 are Mike Hart. Past that there is the departure of the two guards and a projected improvement from virtually anyone, the return of a fully healthy Jake Long, a year of experience for the fullbacks, and an offseason of freaking out by Carr and company. The loss of Jason Avant's superb downfield blocking and the replacement of Tim Massaquoi with one of two probably-dodgy blockers at the second tight end spot will serve as minor drags.

The passing game will also be better. Henne will be under less pressure, more intelligent, and more accurate. Manningham will get ridiculous at people. It still won't be great.

Stupid Predictions

  • Manningham is the leading receiver. Arrington, Breaston, and Ecker are in a dead heat for second.
  • Breaston has three return touchdowns.
  • I Heart Hart t-shirts are hot sellers by the ND game.
  • Bihl is replaced early on; Boren moves into the starting lineup by the end of the season.
  • Michigan is 26th in total offense.
  • Michigan fans huddle in January, hash it out, and decide to give the unit a B+ grade when all is said and done.

Part II: the defense, beckons.