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Friday, August 31, 2007

The offense, if you missed it. Also I'm not even going to pretend this got finished at a reasonable hour. It goes up now because otherwise it goes up at noon.

Defensive Line
Rating: 4.

Depth Chart
Tim JamisonJr.*Terrance TaylorJr.Will JohnsonJr.*Brandon GrahamSo.
Adam Patterson
So.John Ferrara
Fr.*Marques SlocumFr.
Greg Banks
Renaldo Sagesse
Fr.Jason KatesFr.*Ryan Van Bergen

Last year's theory:
If Jamison lives up to the hype perpetrated by... well... me, this Michigan line will own.
Jamison did not; the line did. Unfortunately, three-quarters of said line is now in the NFL. But things here look good enough, albeit somewhat shallow.

Terrance Taylor
Plowing Central
Shooting the gap
More penetration
Defensive tackle Terrance Taylor is the lone returner. I feel like I'm repeating myself, but whatever: a squat, immensely powerful fireplug of a defensive tackle, Taylor was a top 100 recruit of out Muskegon who saw immediate time as a freshman and drew into the starting lineup as a sophomore. While he was clearly a step behind Branch and Woodley, he was by no means out of place. Difficult to block due to his low pad level and preposterous strength, he is likely headed for All Big Ten this year.

One concern: Taylor entered Michigan a three-time Michigan state powerlifting champion and saw the field quickly because he was physically ready to, but his stature may place a limit on his ability to continue improving. He is closer to his ceiling than most players his age, and those expecting another Branch will probably be disappointed. Still: a very good player.

Will Johnson
ND third and one dies
Snuffing a draw
Will Johnson draws into the starting lineup to replace that Branch guy. He is unlikely to replace the production of a man who was possibly the best defensive tackle in the program's history, but he did flashed serious ability as a redshirt sophomore. Those interested in statistics may have to just trust me here: the two plays at left were two of but seven tackles. There were other fine plays scattered throughout the year that did not result in video highlights. It's telling that Alan Branch was lifted for Johnson on an important third and one in the Notre Dame game. The coaching staff believes in him. This offseason he's drawn nonstop praise; everyone expects that he will be immediately one of the better defensive tackles in the Big Ten. They're probably right.

Lamarr Woodley is gone but Brandon Graham is about as close to Woodley as you're going to get in a true sophomore. Both were five star in-state prospects who were tentatively linebackers in high school but found themselves on the defensive line by the time the oranges were passed out at the first practice. Graham actually saw most of his time as a freshman as a defensive tackle in the 3-3-5 Michigan deployed against spread offenses. This was because he was pushing 290 pounds; he is now down to 262 and ready to fill Woodley's shoes. Or maybe not exactly "ready," but possibly capable maybe? Graham didn't bust into the starting lineup in his freshman season. Then again, Lamarr Woodley wasn't exactly competing against a senior version of himself. This should play out like Steve Schilling at right tackle: some confusion due to a lack of experience early, competence by midseason, and good to very good by the end of the year.

Tim Jamison is finally the weakside defensive end after three years of nonstop hype interrupted by injury and Rondell Biggs. It is time to step up, as they say. Jamison's featured as a pass rush specialist for the last few years and has done well. Last year five of his thirteen tackles were sacks. Given the constant torrent of practice hype, Jamison's recruiting rankings, and his evident ability in small doses, Jamison should also be an instant star. (And oh, everyone thinks this is rank homerism. Just wait until we get to the corners.) Double digit sacks are probable. He won't be nearly as good against the run as Biggs -- he's smaller and I bet he spends some time rushing headlong upfield when he should be paying attention to his assignments -- but he should be a major plus.
Tim Jamison
ND sack
Easy PSU sack
Indiana sack

Depth is, er, shallow. Eugene Germany got booted off the team; James McKinney transferred to Louisville after an undisclosed medical issue. At defensive end there is highly touted recruit Adam Patterson, who frustratingly blew a redshirt last year for no reason whatsoever, moderately touted freshman Ryan Van Bergen, and untouted Coloradan Greg Banks. Only Patterson has seen field time, and that was erratic garbage snaps. It's redshirt freshman Banks who is leading the pack; any serious injury to the starters will be a major dropoff.

Things are similar but less iffy on the inside. Marques Slocum is finally eligible after a two-year odyssey in pursuit of academic eligibility and amorous big cats. A totally shirtless recruit from the 2005 class who dominated that year's Army All-Star game much like Justin Boren and Ryan Mallett did, Slocum has all the potential in the world. As a 20-year-old he's more physically developed than your average freshman, but he's played no football since enrolling at Michigan after prepping for a semester at Milford Academy. Plus the whole amorous big cat thing -- which is totally my fault for linking Slocum's colorful description of a shoulder injury and exposing it to the world at large, sorry Marques -- maybe kind of got him suspended for the opener? In any case, production early will probably be limited, but he's got serious upside.

Meanwhile, redshirt freshmen John Ferrara and Jason Kates will also step into the rotation. Ferrara was a limited-upside middling recruit who is actually drawing a lot of praise for his work ethic and technique. He could project to be a Bowman or a Heuer. Kates was a guy the recruiting services disagreed upon wildly. Scout rated him a two-star because his senior year was slovenly and spent pushing 400 pounds; Rivals saw a guy with an outstanding strength/speed combination and rated him a solid four-star. After a year at Michigan he's dropped from a listed 358(!!!), to a plausible 318; probably a year or two from serious time. Incoming freshman Renaldo Sagesse is Canadian and will redshirt.


Rating: 3.
Depth Chart
Chris GrahamSr.Johnny ThompsonJr.*Shawn CrableSr.*
Jonas Mouton
Fr.*Obi Ezeh
Fr.*Marell Evans
Brandon Logan
Jr.Austin Panter
Jr.Brandon Herron

The questions run deeper and more disturbing at linebacker in the absence of Prescott Burgess -- arrrrrgh wasted redshirt -- and David Harris, the best Michigan linebacker of the past decade. There's plenty of experience with two seniors and a fourth-year junior, but how much of it is any good?
Shawn Crable
Vandy stunt
Kill Nickson
Swing speed
Shedding a Gopher
State TFL
PSU sack
Is he a DT?

If this blog was obsessed with Norse mythology instead of The Big Lebowski, Shawn Crable would be Loki. Last year Crable had the luxury of being a freelance sower of chaos next to Burgess and Harris and in front of that line. His responsibilities against the run were limited; he spent most of his time screaming up towards quarterbacks. This is evident in his statistics: despite racking up only 37 tackles he managed 4.5 sacks and 10.5 TFLs. Fully 28% of his tackles were behind the line of scrimmage, a number more in line with a defensive end than a linebacker.

Part of the reason for this is that Crable was often deployed as a de facto defensive end in the 3-3-5 Michigan used extensively against spread offenses. When in this formation Crable would move from outside linebacker to defensive end to an odd stand-up defensive tackle, sometimes moving between these spots pre-snap. This was an effective response to spread teams, especially those with ideas about running the ball. Even when teams occasionally caught Crable as a DT, he managed to knife past guards used to dealing with wider, slower players and make plays in the backfield. While that's not a tenable strategy in the long run it does demonstrate just how hard Crable can be to block. He's a pure attacker.

This has a downside. As a 6'6" linebacker with chicken legs and a high center of gravity, he's not the sort to defeat a block and close out a hole. He doesn't make tackles three yards downfield. It's either in the backfield or after long pursuit.

Chris Graham gets one final shot as a weakside linebacker. The story going around is that Graham had won the job last year, but then lost it when he picked up a nagging injury early in the season and by the time he got back Burgess had a death grip on the job. This is dubious. Though Burgess would indeed have been hard to displace given his level of play last year, Graham was a major problem during the Year of Infinite Pain and his main contribution last year was incredibly ineffective pass defense against Ohio State. (To be fair, what was he supposed to do against Anthony Gonzalez? Let him score a touchdown? Oh, okay.) If he was truly pushing Burgess he would have at least gotten meaningful time in a platoon.

So that line of reasoning's out. We're left with his performance from his sophomore year, which was awful. Two years on he figures to be better, but how much? He remains a wall of muscle, but a short one with stubby, tackle-missing arms. His speed seems overrated and he's never figured out that whole linebacker thing. Skepticism reigns, though a Bennie Joppru-like senior renaissance is not out of the question. It is, however, unlikely.

Johnny Thompson and Obi Ezeh will carry the middle linebacker battle into the season; at the moment Thompson is the tenuous leader. Thompson's one brief run came as a weakside linebacker during the 2005 Iowa game, when the ineffectiveness of Graham became too much to bear. A number of plays and near-plays in the second half got Michigan fans clamoring for more of the man teammates nicknamed "baby Ray Lewis," but a closer look revealed some flaws:
John Thompson made a good debut as a first-string linebacker but it wasn't as good as it appeared watching it live. Thompson missed a few tackles, overran a play or two, and was in for a lot more productive rushes against than it initially seemed. However, he clearly has a knack for showing up around the ball and with some more experience should start making those plays he barely missed against Iowa. He also seems like kind of a yappy, trash-talking guy, and we need one of those.
The first half was full of indecision and error; the second half he made a significant contribution to the win... in the run game. When he was asked to defend the pass, he overran plays and got clunkily out of position. Then he disappeared into the mists of time, stuck behind David "Worf" Harris. That's understandable given the asskicking Harris dealt out in his two years at Michigan, but he'll be a major dropoff. The best comparable here is probably Sam Sword, a hard-nosed MLB who has to come off the field on passing downs.

Nobody's seen redshirt freshman Ezeh in the flesh yet, but the indicators on him are good. For one, he is David Harris: a nothing running back recruit out of Grand Rapids who Michigan unearthed and brought in as a linebacker. He even took the newly hallowed #45 once Harris graduated. In the fall he was moved to middle linebacker to compete with Thompson and Panter so he wouldn't spend his year idling behind Crable. Whenever people try to get you on the field, that's a good sign. He'll platoon with Thompson, probably seeing most obvious passing downs if the above Sam Sword comparable holds true.

Jonas Mouton, a highly touted recruit who moved from safety midway through last year, is the backup option at weakside linebacker and, with Ezeh's move to the middle, probably on the strongside as well. Reports were very high on him throughout last fall and spring, but no one's said much recently. Another year to learn the position before serious time would be preferable. JUCO transfer Austin Panter looked fine in the spring game but by all accounts is struggling to pick up the playbook and adjust to a higher level of play. He may redshirt. Junior Brandon Logan is a forgotten man at this point; he seems destined for an Anton Campbell career of kick coverage.

Freshmen Marell Evans and Brandon Herron are unlikely to play. Evans, a high school teammate of Brandon Minor, was the first two-star recruit Michigan brought in since Andre Criswell. He reportedly got his offer on the advice on Minor, who told the coaching staff Evans worked even harder than he did. Herron, a high school teammate of fellow freshman Troy Woolfolk, is raw but very athletic.

Defensive Backs

Rating: 2.

Depth Chart
Morgan Trent
Jr.*Steve Brown
So.Jamar Adams
Sr.Johnny SearsSo.*
Donovan Warren
Fr.Charles Stewart
Jr.*Brandent EngelmonSr.*Brandon Harrison
Troy Woolfolk
Fr.Artis Chambers
Fr.Michael WilliamsFr.Doug Dutch

Oh! The depth chart of fear! Let's start with safety. We can be relatively calm about safety.

Jamar Adams
The lone sack
Screen read
Covering Beckum
Unwise pick
Overruns a screen
Senior Jamar Adams returns for his third year as a starter without much to his credit or detriment. Though he was the third-leading tackler on last year's team, there just weren't that many tackles to go around unless you were David Harris. He finished with 47, three of those behind the line. There was also an interception (an unwise one on fourth down that cost Michigan 35 yards of field position) and six pass breakups. Pretty meh numbers, but he was not a major culprit for any of the long touchdowns Michigan has ceded over the past couple years. (Aside from maybe the Chris Wells spinorama, but that's would be a somewhat harsh assessment.) He should improve marginally, but a steadying influence is about all Michigan should expect.

Stevie Brown fended off a challenge from former cornerback Charles Stewart to claim the free safety job vacated by Ryan Mundy. Cynics will say that Ryan Mundy vacated this job as soon as he got it; I am one of those cynics. From OSU UFR:
Ryan Mundy is a 50 yard touchdown waiting to happen. He was out of position on the Wells touchdown, blazed by Pittman on his long run, and -- most egregiously -- came up hard on what was a second-and-inches fake dive, robbing Leon Hall of safety help he expected and needed. I don't pretend to understand the intricacies of safety play, but I don't think I need to when we give up a million long run in 2004 with Mundy the starting FS, one in the first half of 2005's first game that's obviously his fault, none the rest of the year with Mundy out injured, and none in all of 2006 until Mundy is pressed into heavy duty with Barringer out and Englemon inexplicably benched.
It's usually silly to expect a new starter to outperform a departed one, but in this case it would be nearly impossible for Brown not to. Ryan Mundy was the worst safety I have ever seen in a Michigan uniform. Cato June, you're off the hook. Good luck with him, West Virginia.

Anyway. A highly touted recruit, Brown has gotten more practice buzz than any other new defender on the team. He's supposed to be a lightning fast playmaker who will leap in and excel from day one. This is something any Michigan fan has to see to believe after a decade of appalling safety play, but if we set aside primal fears borne of experience the indicators on Brown are very good. Now we wait for Angry Michigan Safety Hating God to strike him down.

The aforementioned Charles Stewart will see time spotting the starters and possibly in the nickel. Though Stewart was overwhelmed a year ago...
It doesn't take obsessive tape review to see that Charles Stewart wasn't particularly good. He was beaten for both Minnesota touchdowns, had an unnecessary pass interference call, and didn't exactly display the fierce run support that was rumored to be his calling card. His momentary presence as a starter in name only now looks like a motivational ploy aimed at Morgan Trent more than a reflection of reality. It could just be one rough game, but I was skeptical about his contribution in the offseason and am more skeptical now.
...he was just a redshirt freshman and shouldn't be written off entirely. Even when he was at cornerback he was regarded a physical tackle with questions about his speed: a safety. With Brown the projected starter at that position from the day he stepped on campus, there's no particular reason Brown would need to be pumped up; he's probably doing as well as the rumblings suggest.

Fifth-year senior
Brandent Englemon
WTF Central?
Saving a PSU TD
Brandent Englemon also backs up both spots. A sporadic starter during his career, Englemon is limited physically but has usually been in the right place when called upon, inexplicable Vandy screwup at right nonwithstanding. It would not be a devastating blow should injury force him onto the field.

So that's safety. A third-year starter, an OMG shirtless recruit on a stardom track, and two solid backups. Not bad. Probably not outstanding, but okay.

Yeah... corner. Corner can be summarized with one terrifying statistic: Leon Hall had 15 pass breakups a year ago. All other Michigan corners had five between them. BONUS! One of those got kicked off the team along with Chris Richards and two more moved to safety with Charles Stewart. Mmmm..... Brewing disaster.

Remember when we all liked Morgan Trent? He beat Ted Ginn in a race in high school. He was the nickelback as a freshman and did okay. His sophomore season started well, blanketing Notre Dame's Rhema McKnight and only getting beaten on a dubious bomb that probably should have been offensive pass interference. When he missed the Minnesota game and Charles Stewart drew into the lineup, the dropoff was immense. Oh, we'd better have Trent back soon, we all said. Yay Morgan.

That all changed the second half of the season, culminating on a grass slip-n-slide in Columbus where he was the primary (though far from the only) Troy Smith exploitee waving helplessly at Ginn and Gonzalez and guys named Brian. In the cold light of the offseason, some things became clear: Trent was ranked as a wide receiver by the recruiting gurus for a reason. His lanky form and long stride makes it difficult for him to change direction as fast as corners have to. When receivers cut hard, they get open. Not once last year did Trent break on a ball to break it up or intercept it.

It wasn't all bad. When Michigan lined him up nose to nose with receivers and they tried to beat him deep, he was there every time. He does have elite speed. He made several nice plays in the run game, too -- and underrated skill for corners. He'll improve as most players do. But he's exploitable and I believe he'll remain so.

Meanwhile, it's hard to have much faith in sophomore Johnny Sears when the lasting image of him is a Ball State receiver streaking by him into the endzone, but there are reasons to believe he is capable of rapid and significant improvement. Sears has always possessed outstanding athleticism -- Michigan recruitniks know that he was offered tape unseen by Ron English after taking in one of his practices -- but has a remarkable paucity of experience. A transfer robbed him of his junior year in high school, then he redshirted and saw only sporadic snaps his first year on the field. He's not done developing.

The buzz from coaches this offseason has been both very positive and very public, which introduces a new dynamic. A large portion of the "coaches say" and "buzz" stuff comes from various locations around the internet underground and occasional helpful emailers. Little of it is actually said to the public. Though it can be wrong because a coach is wrong or the telephone trickle-down distorts the message, it's usually someone's honest opinion. Publicly broadcasting encouraging comments can have an ulterior motive: to boost the recipient's morale. This is a long way of saying I'm also a bit skeptical here. I want to believe as badly as Mulder does, but um... this is a prove-it situation.

Johnny Sears
Poor coverage
But there is another. He is Donovan Warren, a five star corner recruit from legendary California power Long Beach Poly. Warren started for three years at Poly, a distinction shared by few people, most of whom had long NFL careers: Mark Carrier, Willie McGinest, Marcedes Lewis. As you might imagine, Warren is reputed to be the most polished cornerback entering college football this year. Practice reports praise his speed and ability but also note he's small and something of an iffy tackler.

Junior Brandon Harrison has moved from safety to corner to safety to corner etc., etc., etc. Technically, he's a corner now but the distinction is one of little import. Last year he was the nickelback and spent his time overrunning the quarterback on blitzes and missing tackles on crossing routes. He could be all right as he improves, but a 5'8" guy who's not clearly something otherworldly in terms of athleticism and technique is not likely to star. As a dimeback, okay.

Freshman Troy Woolfolk is a track star and the son of legendary Michigan tailback Butch Woolfolk. He'll also play, but meaningful snaps will be few.

Five Questions and Five Answers

Am I crazy?

Um... should/could we run a 3-4 this year? If you look at the personnel, we have a classic 3-4 NT in Taylor, a guy who should be a very good 3-4 DE in Johnson, two 3-4 OLBs that would excel in Jamison and Crable, and then a couple of MLBs who could stuff the run and get lifted on third downs. Brandon Graham might not be ideal, but he did spend parts of last year carrying a lot of weight and playing DT. It seems a good fit for our personnel.

This will not so much happen, but I would not be surprised to see scads and scads of the 3-3-5 not just against spread teams but in any passing situation. Though the defensive tackles both look stout against the run, neither is likely to replicate Alan Branch's superior pass rush (you can't look at the stats for this -- Branch had only two sacks -- but the UFRs tell a tale of a guy who put a lot of pressure on opposing QBs). Lifting one in favor of a blitzing Crable seems an obvious move.

Actually, blitzing lots looks like the order of the day in general. If the linebackers are fast but can't cover, may as well send them across the line to harass the noob quarterbacks that dot Michigan's schedule from La Jolla to Leo Carrillo and up to Pismo.

Is Steve Szabo some sort of golden god or something?

It is possible. The one-year turnarounds of Crable and Burgess were remarkable as was the continued development of Harris into a thumping, screen-wrecking Klingon of destruction. It thrills and amazes after the same three players were hideously ineffective during the Year of Infinite Pain. And, hey, after getting knocked for not doing much in recruiting he's spearheaded Michigan's most successful foray into New Jersey in the modern era of recruiting, wresting four-star linebackers Marcus Witherspoon and JB Fitzgerald from Rutgers and Florida and putting us in the lead for top 100 safety Brandon Smith. I kind of wish he was 35.

Szabo's rep as a linebacker guru will be put to the test this year, though. If he can wrangle Chris Graham into an effective player and figure out a way to get decent production out of the middle linebacker spot, I am going to make a tasteful Szabo shrine next to my Mike Hart one.

What about cornerbacks not named Leon Hall?

Yeah... this is a repeat of last year's "What about cornerbacks not named Leon Hall?" only this time around Leon Hall is a Cincinnati Bengal and the hives I get when I think about this are softball sized.

The coaches have talked up both Morgan Trent and Johnny Sears in the fall, but does that mean anything? As mentioned, there is a certain genre of preseason praise designed to calm and steady nervous starters because they are the only alternatives, and the cynical -- aren't we all these days -- can clearly fit any positives about Trent and Sears into these categories. Both should improve naturally

And then there's Warren. He will play and play often; if he follows the typical M corner shutdown track he'll be in the starting lineup by midseason. Honestly, though, that would probably not be a good thing for the 2007 team. Though Jackson and Hall were vaguely acceptable as freshmen, they were not actually good. Only Woodson, praise be his name, can make that claim. It's not out of the question Warren can replicate that -- he is reportedly very polished -- but banking on that is unwise.

I hope for average here. One possible positive: the return of Vance Bedford to his role as Michigan's secondary coach. To say former UW DBs coach Ron Lee did not work out is an understatement. Bedford is the proverbial Michigan Man and should fit in just fine with the rest of the group.

How much of a dropoff will the defensive line have?

Well. No. That's not a good question. "Lots" covers so much ground.

Can this defensive line still be the best in the conference?

Probably not. I made this assertion in HTTV 2007 but that was before looking around the conference. Iowa returns four starters and the ends are very good; Wisconsin has a hole at end by the rest of the line looks excellent; I could be wrong about the OSU defensive tackles. Michigan starts two juniors and two sophomores and has one returning starter. Probably asking a bit too much for them to be the best in the Big Ten.

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

Not last year's defense but not 2005's either. Both defensive tackles should be good to very good. It's reasonable to expect Johnny Thompson to play like he did in the Iowa game with significantly fewer mental mistakes, which would be excellent against the run. Crable is a unique weapon that will greatly help against spread attacks and inexperienced quarterbacks. The defensive ends should be pretty good, and the John Beilein-Ryan Mundy trade will go down as one of the all-time great heists in coach-fifth-year-safety-who-sucks fictional trades. It's not that grim. Except at corner, and depth, and linebackers covering guys, and there's that whole Chris Graham issue that I feel very uncomfortable about. That's all pretty grim.

Other than those totally insignificant issues, things are great. This should be a very tough defense to run against, say 15th or 20th or so. Passing... well. The truest herald of joy is the inexperience of every quarterback on the roster save three iffy starters prone to bad decisions and poor play: Dennis Dixon, Curtis Painter, and Anthony Morelli. The rest will be green. I have no illusions the secondary will be dominant or even particularly good, but given the offense on the opposite side of the field the goal is to just be okay. Anything better than Todd Howard's "Suspects" will suffice, and there's enough at safety to prevent that. Survey says: good enough.

One thing to watch for: tight ends. If our linebackers are garbage in coverage, they'll benefit extensively. Sadly, there are many good ones on the schedule -- John Carlson, Travis Beckum, Dustin Keller, Anthony Moeaki -- and this potential weakness looks ripe for exploiting. Third and medium could be a problem; third and short and third and long will look good.

Stupid Predictions

  • Jamison equals Woodley's sack numbers but is much worse against the run.
  • Aw, hell: Brown has a great debut and gets everyone totally excited about his potential. The safeties are good.
  • Run defense remains resilient, finishing second to Wisconsin in the league
  • Tight ends do very well against us all season.
  • The 3-3-5 is way more frequent than a conventional nickel.
  • 23rd in scoring defense.
Side note! These were last year's 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. [way different than this year's prediction! -ed]
  • Projected postseason grade: yeeeesh. Fully acknowledging that the above assumptions may be trashed by the second quarter of the ND game... B+.
Holy crap! I mean... seriously. That's badass.