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Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Part I is here.

Defensive Line
Rating: 5.

Depth Chart
Tim JamisonSo.*Terrance TaylorSo.Alan BranchJr.Lamarr WoodleySr.
Rondell BiggsSr.*Will JohnsonSo.*Marques Walton
So.*Jeremy Van AlstyneSr.*
Brandon Graham
Fr.John FerraraFr.Jason KatesFr.Eugene GermanyFr.*

Lamarr Woodley and the Question Marks return to cut a second and final album this year. The situation going into the fall is a carbon-copy of the situation last year at this time: we know Woodley is going to play and play well, though he seems to have topped out at merely very good instead of dominant. He "won" the nonexistent UFR award for best +/- on the team a year ago with outstanding performances versus Wisconsin, Minnesota (RIP Brian Cupito), and Michigan State before a hairline fracture deadened his arm and forced him out of the late-season games. He returned for Ohio State and was quiet except for a sack/strip on Troy Smith that Michigan recovered. Woodley is just short of great against both run and pass, one of the most complete defensive ends in the country, and the best player on Michigan's defense.

The other end is something of a mystery. If fans and cantakerous bloggers had their druthers, that man would be sophomore Tim Jamison. Jamison only saw scattered plays throughout the year but had a higher density of disruptive plays than anyone on the defense outside of Woodley and Branch. Jamison flashed his tremendous potential most extensively against Northwestern; check out these quotes from that game's UFR:
I really like Jamison; guy seems to burst into offensive linemen, knocking them onto their heels, upon which point he owns them. ... Jamison(+2) comes screaming around the tackle and would likely have had himself a killer sack if not held. Basanez is forced to scramble futilely. ... On this play he engages with the OT and then just blows him up. He's about six inches from an impressive sack as Bas[anez] is rolling to his side of the field. ... Top marks go to Jamison, though. He's a freak.
Granted, that's against Northwestern, but he forced me to break the "no freak/stud" rule as a freshman. He's yet to prove that he can maintain that level of performance against a higher level of competition and he might prove vulnerable to the run when pressed into service as an every-down player, but the early returns are encouraging.

Since fans and cantankerous bloggers are not (yet) in charge of the defensive line expect to see quite a bit of senior Rondell Biggs, a big body who's strong against the run but not much of a pass rusher. He started a few games last year before a chop-block from an MSU defensive lineman knocked him out. His performance against Notre Dame was adequate after a rough time on the opening drive. He's functional and tough but not dynamic.

Biggs and Jamison will rotate situationally opposite Woodley. Also seeing time will be senior Jeremy Van Alstyne, if he ever gets healthy, redshirt freshman Eugene Germany, and true freshman Brandon Graham.

Junior defensive tackle Alan Branch is the other sure thing on the line. Branch started in man-mountain Gabe Watson's place when Watson headed to the doghouse early in the year, then bounced out to end when injuries to Van Alstyne and Biggs forced Michigan to scramble. He was excellent in both spots, finishing second only to Woodley in cumulative UFR +/- a year ago. As an end he lacks the speed to get an effective edge rush (he is persistent, though); on the interior he is crafty and effective. Witness his performance against Wisconsin, when Branch racked up a mind-boggling +12 from his DT spot:
Alan Branch was a monster, blowing up run plays, getting held twice, and getting a superior pass rush with regularity. He could be our best defensive player right now. And that's despite the fact that Woodley turned in another very good game and is one of the best defensive linemen in recent Michigan history.
Michigan's main concern with Branch will be whether or not they'll get to enjoy his senior year.

The starting job next to Branch is likely to be a ceremonial title only. Sophomores Terrance Taylor and Will Johnson will both see plenty of time. Taylor performed marginally better a year ago and thus is projected as the starter, but neither was exactly a playmaker. That's to be expected from a pair of freshmen (Johnson redshirted in order to fully rehab a massive ACL tear suffered his senior year of high school), but with Massey and Watson gone one will have to take a major step forward to prevent a repeat of last year's fiasco when teams seemed to gameplan around the idea that Watson/Branch would drive blockers upfield while Massey moonwalked downfield, leaving a cavernous gap to run through.

Three players for a spot where most teams like to have four or five men rotating is tenuous. Behind Taylor and Johnson is redshirt sophomore Marques Walton, a little regarded recruit out of Chicago. Three more freshmen are unlikely to play: James McKinney is out for the year with a knee injury; John Ferrara and Jason Kates are virtual locks to redshirt.

Depth at defensive tackle is something of a concern, but few teams in the country have the sort of 1-2 punch Michigan does with Woodley and Branch. If Jamison lives up to the hype perpetrated by... well... me, this Michigan line will own.

Rating: 3.
Depth Chart
Chris GrahamJr.David HarrisSr.*Shawn CrableJr.*
Brandon LoganSo.John ThompsonSo.*Prescott Burgess
Quintin Patilla
Fr.Cobrani MixonFr.Obi EzehFr.

2005 was the nadir of Michigan linebackers in recent memory. Middle linebacker David Harris was a surprise star, but the outside linebackers went beyond ineffective straight into the realm of liability. Time and again opposing running backs would bounce outside into acres of space partially because the secondary was busy backpedaling 20 yards downfield but largely because Graham, Crable, and Burgess were wildly out of position. Just check the tackle counts last year: starting cornerbacks Grant Mason and Leon Hall combined for 23 more tackles than the starting OLBs. That's unbelievable.

Harris(45) and Burgess(6) converge.
Harris was a player. He led the team in tackles, making a fair number of them near or behind the line of scrimmage. He was tasked with spying Drew Stanton during the Michigan State game and flashed his speed against Penn State when he tracked down Derrick F-ing Williams on an end around. His UFR number was +8 that game, a monster. Though Harris tailed off towards the end of the year, he's established himself as one of the Big Ten's better linebackers and certainly the best Michigan has.

Weakside linebacker Chris Graham had ten tackles in his debut against Northern Illinois but disappeared thereafter. He was most noticeable by his absence in the Iowa game. When freshman Johnny Thompson -- not even a WLB -- came in and attacked Albert Young somewhat near the line of scrimmage, Michigan fans sat up and said "oh, that's what outside linebackers are supposed to do." Despite having tremendous speed, Graham played slow because he was never sure where he was supposed to go. By the time he decided he was being blocked. Lacking size, he struggled to shed those blocks and spent the year flailing helplessly at passing ballcarriers. Hurray linebackers!

Fellow goat Prescott Burgess was more noticeable, alternating great plays with inept ones on a frustratingly regular basis. Don't be fooled by his occasional bursts into the backfield or thunderous hits; they were offset by confusion far too often. Burgess packed on weight over the course of his first three years at Michigan, transforming himself from a high school safety into a lumbering 245-pound linebacker incapable of closing on the very avatar of "lumbering" in the Big Ten, Iowa tight end Scott Chandler, on one notable play versus Iowa. Chastened and in search of a starting job anywhere, Burgess dropped ten pounds in an effort to regain his lost speed. He spent the spring competing against Chris Graham for the weakside job.

Strongside linebacker Shawn Crable wrested the job from Burgess' feeble grip in the spring and has continued to assert his authorita in the fall, drawing praise from Carr and Szabo on a regular basis. In 2005 he was a part of the problem, blowing outside containment on a more regular basis than either starter. He was quickly removed from all such responsibility, finding a bizarre role as a a stunting DT on passing downs. Crable executed his stunts to good effect and even stopped a couple runs aimed at his ungainly 6'6" frame. Hell, he even kept containment once. Crable is a much faster player than Burgess and a highly competent pass rusher; his status as a starter may presage a more aggressive defense. Or it may just mean that Burgess continues to be dazed and confused.

Redshirt sophomore Johnny Thompson flashed big talent and a big mouth -- his nickname is "Baby Ray Lewis" -- when the Michigan coaches finally had enough of Graham's ineffectiveness in that Iowa game, then disappeared for the rest of the year. He'll be the fifth linebacker on the field and is the heir apparent to David Harris' starting spot. Sophomore Brandon Logan saw a little time a year ago. He's fast but undersized and probably isn't ready yet. Past him there are only freshmen.

If the damage done by Herrmann can be undone over the course of one offseason this unit could be very good. Harris is an All Big Ten-type performer and the starters on the outside have garnered positive reviews from both recruiting gurus and the Michigan coaches. But... that's a stretch. Last year, Crable was confused, Burgess inconsistent, and Graham invisible. Even if the rumored simplification comes to fruition, chances are that the outside linebackers will remain tainted by ill-teachings past.

Defensive Backs
Rating: 4.

Depth Chart
Leon Hall
Sr.Brandent Engelmon
Jr.*Jamar Adams
Jr.Charles StewartSo.*
Johnny Sears
Fr.*Ryan Mundy
Jr.*Willis BarringerSr.*Morgan Trent
Brandon Harrison
So.Steve Brown
Fr.Jonas MoutonFr.Chris Richards

Magazines and Mel Kiper tell us that Leon Hall is an excellent player worthy of accolades, though he doesn't seem like Marlin Jackson to me. He enters his third year as a full-time starter on All-American lists and NFL mock drafts as the top corner in the country, which is something of a surprise since he's never exactly dominated. Perhaps that's because Michigan spent most of last year in passive zones; when given rare opportunities to play man he often came through. If Michigan up the aggression, he'll find himself on an island more often -- and NFL scouts say he'll do just fine. I hope they're right.

Three men battle for the corner position opposite Hall:
  • Charles Stewart, a four star recruit out of Michigan three years ago who seemed on the fast train to nowhere until spring practice.
  • Redshirt freshman Johnny Sears, a sleeper recruit out of California who is reputed to be fast fast fast(!).
  • Redshirt sophomore Morgan Trent, who had the edge going into the spring after a year as Michigan's nickelback.
The story goes that Trent -- get this -- struggles in man coverage and thus is unsuitable for English's schemes, which is unfortunate for the young man but thrilling for Michigan fans hoping to see a corner within fifteen yards of the line of scrimmage presnap. Stewart has a year, a ton of experience, and the first spot on the depth chart over Sears and is thus the favorite to start against Vanderbilt but Sears' physical gifts may see him barge his way into the starting lineup by midseason. Whoever starts is going to be Michigan's main question mark on defense. When the coaches discuss Stewart, they invariably talk about his "physicality" and able run support, things that seem like nice bonuses in a corner but cause for alarm when framed as primary assets. Visions of Todd Howard dance in the skeptical Wolverine fan's head.

Also competing at corner is tiny sophomore Brandon Harrison, a safety a year ago who displayed wild speed and a certain lack of polish. He was victimized for long gains against Michigan State (he misread a screen at the LOS, allowing Kerry Reed to score a 50-some yard touchdown) and Penn State (he took a poor angle on Tony Hunt's one long run on the day). Harrison should be a capable nickel corner once he gets re-adjusted to his new position but has clear physical limitations that make an ascension into the starting lineup unlikely, especially given English's predilection for big corners.

Redshirt freshman Chris Richards is still very young and very small; it's another year on the bench for him.

Englemon: a security blanket in pads.
On the surface, Michigan's safety play improved by leaps and bounds a year ago. When preferred starters Brandent Englemon and Willis Barringer were healthy, big plays charged to the safeties were limited to one blown Barringer coverage against Northwestern, light years different from '04's Shazor-Mundy comedy of errors. However, in retrospect that may have been a mirage. A review of the UFRs shows that Barringer usually ended up +1/-0/+1 or thereabouts, making one good play and cleaning up messes eight yards downfield. Englemon was better but still not anything like an impact player. Backups Jamar Adams and Harrison were usually +2/-4/-2 collectively, making the occasional nice play but also busting with frequency and giving up big chunks of yards. The working theory is that the defensive coaches freaked out after the disaster year and turned their safeties into timid players who start 20 yards off the ball and take two steps back on the snap. On those occasions when they found themselves in a position to make plays, they usually did, but pressed into more aggressive service there's a fair chance we'll see more plays like Harrison's gaffes or the Barringer bust.

Englemon and Adams are the projected starters going into the year, and that's the way I like it. Barringer has a ceiling that tops out at competent while Mundy's '04 inspired a new stat, Yards After Mundy, which racked up an impressive 72 yards in one game against NIU before the injury ended his year. Watching him come up in run support is a nerve-wracking experience. Englemon was utterly reliable, a player who was always where he was supposed to be. I'll take games filled with boredom from the last line of defense. Adams, on the other hand, was up-and-down. He's huge -- I often confuse him with Burgess -- and athletic, a player who was marked for stardom the moment he arrived on campus. He'll be the primary starter for the first time this year. Barringer and Mundy will rotate in at times. Mundy, who was temporarily a corner as a freshman, is good in coverage and should replace one safety or the other in nickel and dime packages.

Five Questions and Five Answers

Tim Jamison isn't going to get stuck behind Rondell Biggs, is he?

Somewhat. The coaches have been talking up Biggs quite a bit and he slides neatly into that great-guy/senior/hard-worker archetype Carr finds so very hard to bench. He has some clear advantages over Jamison in run support and might find himself on the field quite a bit versus Minnesota or Wisconsin.

But Jamison should be the starter. English's highest praise this offseason has been reserved for him, and he clearly has much more disruptive potential than anyone else competing for the spot. Normally you might regard the practice buzz with a good deal of skepticism -- remember Chris Graham last year? -- but Jamison has a number of impressive plays in actual games backing the coaches up.

If he's not the starter the canary in this particular coalmine has died, and all the stuff you're about to read about increased aggression goes out the window.

Is the run defense going to improve?

It should. Anyone who's read this blog for more than ten seconds knows my opinion on Pat Massey's performance last year. The only thing that held back a similar torrent of cranky discontent in regards to the outside linebacking was a clear lack of alternatives at the position. Shawn Crable was obviously worse and Johnny Thompson couldn't see the field against the spread looks Michigan faced after the Iowa game. Add in non-existent run support from a backed-off secondary and you have a potent recipe for run ineptness.

Swapping out Watson for the Will Johnson/Terrance Taylor combination should be a net wash. Watson missed large portions of the season either in the doghouse or just plain tired, and while he outperformed his two replacements they were both freshman who figure to improve greatly over the offseason. Replacing Massey with Alan Branch? Uh. Yeah... probably a good move. Replacing Branch with Biggs/Jamison is probably a net decline but it's dwarfed in magnitude by the Massey-Branch swap. Woodley will be about the same. The linebackers should be better with all four players of significance returning. "Better" does not necessarily mean "good," but for the first time in a decade Michigan has a dedicated linebackers coach. That should help as well. A more aggressive secondary should also help. All signs point to '05 as an unfortunate blip in the run D.

What about cornerbacks not named Leon Hall?

Torn. I thought Morgan Trent's performance as a redshirt freshman was a pretty good one and without an injury or obvious cause for regression, Stewart and Sears bolting past him on the depth chart would based on their improvement and therefore a good thing. But those quotes on Stewart's physicality and rumored lack of speed give me the heebie-jeebies. I suppose Hall will line up against the Wheelwrights and Ginns of the Big Ten, but teams with able second receivers might find the pickings easy opposite him.

I do like Harrison a lot in a particular role. The guy is wicked fast and his errors a year ago are easily explainable since he had never played safety before. Tasked with one-on-one coverage against a smallish-wide receiver I think he'll do very well. Slot guys don't bother me, it's more big, strong guys who live and die by the slant -- but maybe that's where Stewart's physicality comes in.

...and when you add it up you get?

Impossible to answer without making some assumptions. These are said assumptions:
  • Herrmann was at least partially responsible for the defensive theory but not entirely. Lloyd Carr, a former defensive coordinator, often dictated passive strategy to Herrmann.
  • Herrmann was largely responsible for the steadily declining play of the linebackers, the irritating focus on defensive linemen who hold up blockers, excessive complexity, and the clear lack of any esprit de corps on last year's D.
  • Carr would prefer to not change, but English brief career as a Chicago Bear puts him in a position to demand it. He did not come back to watch games waste away on the vine.
Given these things, English's much-rumored preference for attacking, and the personnel available, I think the changes on defense are going to be obvious to all. The Michigan defensive line has three players who are their best when penetrating and only one traditional lane-clogger. Shawn Crable, Prescott Burgess, and Chris Graham are all speedy linebackers who struggle when forced to read and react. Leon Hall is the kind of corner you can leave on an island.

All this adds up to: attack. Normally this would be where the disclaimer about Michigan being set in its ways would go, but not this year. There are no old-school Michigan folks left other than Carr, who English has by the short hairs. Without the weight of history holding him back, English should take a look at his personnel and determine that they're best when forcing the offense to react, not the other way around.

This will lead to more big plays against. Whoever isn't Leon Hall is going to get picked on; missed tackles by the still-iffy linebackers will lead to bigger gains; deep passes will find themselves against single coverage more often. But Michigan is liable to punch people off the field after three downs, something they did exceedingly rarely last year.

There will be screwups, probably from the outside linebackers and whoever isn't Leon Hall at corner, that prevent this from being a truly great defense, but it will improve statistically. Moreover, its aggression may mask how much it really has improved. Witness the Iowa and Northwestern games last year: in regulation, Michigan gave up 420 yards and 17 points to both teams, but Northwestern had five extra drives with which they did nothing. Michigan will feature a lot more short drives this year. Most will end with punts; a few will be three-play, 80 yard touchdown marches.

Stupid Predictions

  • The run defense improves radically.
  • Chris Graham is replaced by Prescott Burgess a few games into the season.
  • Woodley turns in a year essentially identical to his '05: very good but a tiny bit disappointing.
  • Brandon Harrison sees an awful lot of time.
  • Johnny Sears does not.
  • Michigan finishes 23rd in total defense.
  • Projected postseason grade: yeeeesh. Fully acknowledging that the above assumptions may be trashed by the second quarter of the ND game... B+.