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Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Long dreaded by me but much anticipated by the occasional gadfly who wanders by, here it is: the Michigan preview review. Warning: if you harbor some sort of respect for my opinions about things, I urge you to stop reading now. It'll be better for everyone.

The best thing I can say? Well, hell, no one else saw that coming. And I did offer a disclaimer at the beginning:

Right. The wonderful thing about this whole blogging phenomenon is that bloggers are not beholden to the neutral strictures imposed by journalism. This is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness.

So. I am a Michigan fan from birth. I have two degrees from the school. In 1997 I wandered around the field after the OSU game, dumbstruck, childlike. If anyone I know gets married during the fall I will not only avoid the wedding, I will deliberately sabotage the marriage by any means necessary. Take what follows for what it's worth.
Feel free to look upon this preview with a jaundiced eye. I have this pattern: "This is the year, man, 2003! AAAAARGH THE PAIN THE PAIN AAAAARGH. Ok. This is the year, man, 2004! It's the year! AAAAAAAARGH MY EYES ARE BLEEDING. This. Is. The Year. 2005."

But... this could be the year.)
...I had to be so very right about the bleeding eyes, didn't I?


First: the raw material.


I said... May as well get the wrongest of the wrongy wrongness out of the way quick, eh? I rated this a 5 of 5, not entirely ridiculous when you consider Henne's unprecedented success as a true freshman. This, um, well...
The common refrain amongst people feebly attempting to justify why Michigan won't be particularly good this year always contains the following sentence or something like it:
Henne won't be very good without Edwards, all he did last year was throw it up to him and then he went and got it. This year we will see what a looser [sic] he is.
This is what I am here to say: poppycock. Piffle. Trash. Garbage.
Er... ridiculous, though to be fair Henne's deep ball was very good all year. It's just that there was no one to catch said deep balls--Avant was indeed a possession type guy and Breaston just couldn't catch them. While Manningham came on and showed he could be the guy to replace Braylon in the offense at some point in the future, he was a true freshman still attempting to learn the offense--not Braylon Edwards. Combine that with the injury ravaged offensive line, especially the turnstile interior, and the deep ball was largely excised from the playbook.

That gone, Michigan was forced to rely on Henne's accuracy on outs, crosses, slants, and the like, which turned out to be lacking. Many were the times when a flagrantly open Jason Avant watched a ball sail yards wide of him. Breaston's grab and go game never developed in large part because Henne couldn't be relied upon to place the ball where Breaston could catch it without breaking stride. He wasn't good.

What we learned: Henne still has a long way to go. Inaccuracy and poor reads doomed the offense from the get-go. Despite a bevy of wide receiver screens, Henne still ended up completing only 58% of his passes. This isn't the 70s. That's not good enough.

Next year? Unless you want an unheralded freshman taking over for Henne, we're going to sink or swim with him. Clearly he has a boatload of talent--one does not stroll in from a Pennsylvania high school and start at Michigan without one--but he was mediocre a year ago. Michigan's season again hinges on whether or not Henne can live up to the hype.

Running Back

The much-ballyhooed troika of doom in the backfield never materialized. Max Martin?
Martin is reported to be the best combination of size and speed in a Michigan uniform since Tyrone Wheatley and may get some Reggie Bush treatment this year, lining up in the backfield and then motioning out to pick up mismatches against linebackers. We'll see how much Martin's practice ability translates to the field. He has ball security issues, a major no no for any running back, and has heavy competition from the Lilliputians around him.
Well, that tendency to gently nestle the ball into the arms of opposing defenders and a major attitude problem submarined his career. At the end of the year he transferred to Alabama. The extent of the Reggie Bushificiation of Martin consisted of one wheel route that was almost completed against Wisconsin. The rest? Bupkis. Kevin Grady?
...230 pounds of leg-driving, pounding power back. His low center of gravity and all around strength will make him one of the nation's toughest backs to stop in short yardage situations. Legend has it that in his first practice (Grady joined the team shortly before the Rose Bowl) he crushed all 11 defenders and went 140 yards carrying a half-dozen balls for the ever-rare sextuple-touchdown.
Grady did not live up to his press clippings out of high school, too often making the wrong cut and featuring some fumble problems of his own. And Mike Hart... oh, Mike Hart...
mgoblog is prepared to argue that Mike Hart is the best running back in the country. I'm content to lose that argument to Oklahoma and Minnesota fans and possibly draw it with a few others, but arguments will be had before yielding. Hart is an inexplicable combination of Barry Sanders and Jerome Bettis, a 5'8" marvel who can leave you grasping at air and then drive your teammate five yards from the point of contact before he is finally tackled (disclaimer: not a direct value comparison between two hall of famers and Hart, just a style thing).
The sight of adorable little Mikey on the sideline trying to fire up his flaccid teammates broke this (mentally) crotchety old man's heart every time the television cameras decided now would be a good time to stab various Michigan fans in the eye with the harsh truth of injury. The only pleasant surprise was Jerome Jackson--totally unmentioned in the preview--who got off the bench and scored the winning touchdown in the Iowa game... then authored a supposedly offensive rap opus with two walkons.

So, yeah, about that.

Though the predictions of usefulness from the backups were off (credit for skepticism about Martin, please), I don't think I was wrong about Hart. When he was healthy, he was great. He had the most memorable eight yard run you've ever seen against Penn State (video courtesy IBFC) and torched Michigan State despite having almost nothing in the way of run blocking. This year conclusively proved that Hart does not have the breakaway speed to match a Laurence Maroney or Adrian Peterson, but he does have everything else. I plead "incomplete."

What we learned: Max Martin's arms secrete olive oil. Jerome Jackson's music career is not a good idea. Kevin Grady's ceiling probably isn't that high--I don't think running backs can develop vision. Mike Hart should never be injured again.

Next year? Well, Martin's gone and Jackson's going to have to play very nice to see the field as a senior. That leaves Hart, Grady, and three freshmen: Mister Simpson (redshirt), Carlos Brown, and Brandon Minor. Simpson's been the subject of never-gonna-play-gonna-transfer rumors and both the incoming freshmen come in with more hoopla than him; personally I'd be surprised if he doesn't get passed over. Minor's a thumper who many projected at fullback; Brown is a speed merchant who, like Antonio Bass, played quarterback in high school because not putting the ball in his hands on offense would be dumb.

Wide Receiver

I said...

Jason Avant:
a black hole of a wide receiver. ... Avant's hands are amazing, as any Spartan or Wildcat fan could tell you. He doesn't have the goodbye-foolish-mortal burst that Breaston does, but he's stronger than any cornerback he'll face this year and can dictate what routes he'll run. Avant will act as the possession alternative to Breaston and excel at his job. Period. There's no flash and dash with Avant, just relentless work, tough over-the-middle route running and those inconceivable hands. He is good.
I still think this. Avant ended up first team All Big Ten and that was with the aforementioned Henne "radio balls" (HT: electronic Kirk Herbstreit). If he wasn't consistently missed when wide open against Notre Dame and Wisconsin, he would probably have been a national name. He'll get drafted in the second round--not bad for a player without a top-level ceiling. Still... certain incidents linger in the mind. A dropped third down conversion against Wisconsin. A fumble against Nebraska. We had come to expect Avant to be perfectly reliable, something that turned out to be optimistic when he was pressed into the go-to role. The end result was mild disappointment, but he's still Jason Avant, and the next guy wearing number eight will be hard-pressed to make that his number.

I'll still battle to the death for Avant, but Breaston's assessment... eh... not so good:
You can call him a poor man's Ted Ginn if you want, but only because Ginn's probably been introduced to Mr. Such and Such.
Not that Ginn did anything in excess of Breaston's performance last year, but both were kicked around those mid- and end-of- season "biggest disappointment lists"--little to crow about there. To my credit, I did sound an alarm that was sadly relevant:
The catch with Breaston is health. .... Breaston is as vafer-theen as a chocolate mint and relies on his explosive cuts more than most wideouts--his health is both extremely precarious and vital for his effectiveness. The bottom line: if he's healthy he's going to blow up.
He wasn't really all that healthy for much of the year, missing the Michigan State game and seemingly absent his old magic for much of the time. But he was healthy enough to get yards open deep early in the year. Henne found him when he did; Breaston let sure touchdowns squeeze through his cradled elbows. Thus teams learned they need not respect the deep routes, closed down on his crosses, and severely reduced his effectiveness. Breaston did make some major contributions--the punt return that set up Mario Manningham's game winner against Penn State, a kickoff return touchdown against Minnesota, a slip-screen touchdown against Iowa--but he remained a complementary player. He did not blow up.

The rest of the preview touched briefly on the tight ends ("I personally don't think Massaquoi is the best tight end in the league (give me Minnesota's Matt Spaeth)") and the wide receiver depth ("Manningham, in particular, has built tremendous buzz following a pair of spectacular displays in Ohio All Star games over the summer."). Nothing was particularly wrong or right.

So what was off? The Breaston assessment, to be sure, but really the issue was that the throws that made Braylon so dangerous (bombs, mostly) were not nearly as effective with Breaston or Avant on the receiving end and Henne's accuracy on other routes was wanting at best. With a better quarterback more suited to short, accurate throws, the Michigan wide receiver corps would have merited the 5 I gave it, but my preview (and previews everywhere) failed to take into account the interaction between the strengths of the wideouts and the limitations of the quarterback and offensive line. Not that I fully understood what was going to happen with Henne anyway--but that's not the point. The point was that I never even considered it.

What we learned: That Steve Breaston kid can really return kicks; you do not replace Braylon Edwards; Jason Avant's hands are mortal--good, but mortal. Manningham and Bass are mmmm tasty.

Next year? It's Breaston, redshirt freshman Laterryal Savoy, and a cavalcade of sophomores: Mario Manningham, Antonio Bass, Doug Dutch, and Adrian Arrington. Manningham will probably go into the spring the presumptive number one; after him it's anyone's guess. Bass and Breaston will obviously see healthy amounts of time. Arrington and Savoy will compete to fill the possession receiver/designated fade guy role vacated by Avant. Dutch may end up the odd man out.

Offensive Line

I said...

Yeesh. At least I acknowledged that Henne needed to improve. This has no redeeming qualities:
the Michigan line [even sans Long] still appears to be neck and neck with Minnesota's and Michigan State's at the top of the conference.
Having never attempted to analyze an offensive line's performance before, the preview continues on with vague, largely incorrect assessments of the linemen. I did accurately peg Adam Stenavich a "second-team All-Conference type" (he was indeed voted to the second team by the coaches--first by the media, but who counts? Yes. The coaches). I did not declare Matt Lentz and Leo Henige to be berry, berry bad.

This was the root of all evil for the Michigan offense, though it's not all on the players and coaches. Michigan operated with guard Rueben Riley gamely attempting to play right tackle once Jake Long and Mike Kolodziej went out with injuries. Calling testicle-kneed Leo Henige "healthy" should probably never be done even when his limp is looking relatively lively. Adam Kraus missed about a third of the season. Given all that, the line's performance or lack thereof can be explained... somewhat. Not entirely.

I'm confused by the apparent disconnect between my perceptions of Matt Lentz and the world's. After reviewing all of Michigan's games this year, I thought he was a major liability and a key reason Michigan could not put together anything resembling an efficient offense. The coaches then went and named him second-team All Big Ten. The media put him on the first team. Current draft evaluations say stuff that's not entirely uncomplimentary($):
At the very least, though, Lentz should develop into a good backup at both OG positions in the NFL and he's the type of high-character, hard-working reserve that NFL teams should want on the bottom half of their roster. As such, Lentz is worth selecting as early as the fourth round in 2006.
Fourth round? In the NFL--not CFL--draft? Great galloping goulash! The chances that both Big Ten coaches and NFL scouts are totally wrong about Lentz are small (the media is another matter). He couldn't have been that bad, I suppose. The finger thus swings to Leo Henige, the Kraus/Bihl combination, and whoever happened to be playing right tackle.

Whatever the reasons--and the answer was probably a little something from each position, depending on the game--, Michigan's offensive line was bad. Henne got a case of the yips when blitzers were not picked up time and again against ND. A comic inability to get Lentz to pull anywhere without falling on his ass cost Michigan a touchdown and possibly a win against Wisconsin (in fairness to Lentz, that particular incident was caused by a backwards step by Kraus that ended up tripping him). Rueben Riley was obliterated by a freshman defensive end in the loss to Minnesota. Michigan blocked no one against Ohio State. All told, the line was a major disappointment.

What we learned: Yes, David Baas was that important.

Next year? The line looks like it could be pretty good. Left to right, it's Mike Kolodziej-Alex Mitchell-Adam Kraus-Rueben Riley-Jake Long. Only Mitchell is totally green. Kraus has started nine games; everyone else has more than a year's worth of games under their belt. Still, if Lentz was not actually the liability he appeared to be, we may need more than just out-with-the-old to see significant improvement. Depth is an issue, with no experience at all behind the starting five and the rising redshirt sophomore class appearing to be teetering on the edge of bust, Mitchell excepted.

Coming tomorrow... er... Thursday: the defense. Either Friday or sometime next week, special teams and a more general overview of the less position-specific aspects of the preview.