Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Those Who Stay Will Be... Lonely | by Kevin

Continuing my ridiculously early spin through the '09 schedule, let's take a quick look at our second opponent this Fall, Michigan.

Rich Rodriguez's spread option is not exactly the unknown quantity the Nevada Pistol is; using the tried-and-true Carroll/Weineke Google Method For Proving a Statement, I found 69,600 hits for "spread option." That means you already know most everything about Michigan's offense, and I won't insult your intelligence with a detailed schematic overview. Here's the Cliff's Notes version: Michigan's spread ideally employs a mobile, quick-thinking quarterback capable of making pre- and immediately post-snap reads; one elusive and/or fast runner (formerly known as the McGuffieback); one bigger back; receivers who can either block or make plays in space; and quick, athletic linemen capable of covering the wider splits and getting up and across the field. Most coaches who use this scheme also prefer players who don't all leave for other programs.

As the offense continues to mature, Michigan will also need a much more stout defense than it fielded last year. Rodriguez may have taken a step in the right direction by hiring former Syracuse coach (and former University of Texas, Kansas City Chiefs, Denver Broncos, and New York Jets defensive coordinator) Greg Robinson. Some guys are head coach material, and some guys are coordinator material. That Robinson wasn't the former certainly doesn't mean he's not the latter, and he has two Super Bowl rings that suggest he's an excellent coordinator (something about this paragraph sounds familiar...). He'll need to be: the Michigan defense was sieve in many games last year. Michigan gave up 45 points to Illinois, 46 to Penn State, 48 to Purdue, and 35 in South Bend. As the last example suggests, these performances cannot be fully attributed to the defense -- turnovers, bad field position, and time of possession disadvantages did Michigan's D no favors. Further, as commenter bgr pointed out, against ND, the defense wasn't even on the field for one of the touchdowns (Brian Smith's grab and dash). But they still gave up over 365 yards per game, including a very un-Michigan 230 pass yards per contest.

Like ND and most other college football fans, Michigan fans plant the seeds of hope in the spring. This season, I don't think their harvest will match ours.

Quarterback. Two, maybe three options: walk-on, freshman, freshman. Walk-on Nick Sheridan played some last year and wasn't very effective. He does not possess the mobility that has fueled successful past Rodriguez offenses. Pat White could work his way through Nate Newton's truck and still spot Nick ten yards in a 40-yard dash. Early enrollee Tate Forcier seems to be the fan favorite, the still-at-Michigan version of Ryan Mallett or Sam McGuffie. He had an outstanding high school career, but he is not as muscular as most college football (or softball) players. Late commit Denard Robinson is the third guy in the competition, but he won't begin practicing with the team until the fall.

Running back. McGuffie flipped over a guy on his way out of Michigan, but he didn't leave an empty backfield. Brandon Minor (533 yards, 11 total touchdowns) returns, and he'll share time with dangerous sophomore Michael Shaw (over five yards per carry in limited action).

Wide Receiver. The loss of Mario Manningham and Adrian Arrington took its toll on the Michigan offense last year, but it did allow other receivers to gain playing experience. Slot receiver Martavious Odoms looked good at times, as did returning senior Greg Matthews. Junior Hemingway, Darryl Stonum and Toney Clemons also return. Redshirt freshman Terrance Robinson and highly recruited newcomers Ja'Ron Stokes, Jeremy Gallon, and Cameron Gordon round out the field.

Tight End. I don't know anything about their Tight Ends. Carson Butler was the starter last year, and he had 17 yards receiving. Kevin Koger should step in as Butler's replacement.

Offensive Line. In a story familiar to ND fans, Michigan's offensive line was a huge problem in 2008. They struggled to man a system they did not necessarily fit, and it showed. Another year of conditioning and familiarity should help. Then again, sometimes an old dog does learn new tricks, and sometimes you realize the dog is blind and it'll need to be put down before it stumbles into a coffee table, knocks over some red pop, and ruins the carpet.

Defensive Line. I really like the job Rodriguez has done so far with recruiting wide receivers and defensive linemen. Mike Martin was the subject of a late ND pursuit in 2008, but he stuck with the Wolverines and contributed right away. He's a former state champion wrestler, and it shows -- he uses his hands effectively, does a nice job keeping his legs under him (after all, that's where they belong), and he should be a very good player for years to come. Will Campbell, a five-star recruit from Detroit, jumped on board in the 2009 class. Will and Mike join Brandon Graham, Ryan Van Bergen, Steve Watson, Renaldo Sagesse, and others on a Terrance Taylor-less, but still good, defensive front.

Linebackers. Grand Rapids Catholic Central product Obi Ezeh (98 tackles) and non-Grand Rapids native Jonas Mouton anchor the middle three. Both are solid players who developed pretty nicely during 2008. Reports out of Michigan's spring practice indicate Brandin Hawthorne may move from safety over to a linebacker spot.

Defensive Backs. Michigan has a well-earned reputation as a cornerback factory, but this year's defensive backfield will be pretty young. Morgan Trent and Brandon Harrison are gone. Diminutive corner Boubacar Cissoko returns for his sophomore year, and he'll be joined by Donovan Warren, Troy Woolfolk, and maybe a newcomer or two. Stevie Brown will be back in some capacity -- hopefully one similar to that he held last season -- along with sophomore Michael Williams. The Wolverines may also turn to freshman help again, greeting highly touted safeties Justin Turner, Vladimir Emilien (not Russian) and Mike Jones.

I do not count myself among those who feel Rodriguez is doomed to failure at Michigan just because of a bad season. After all, ND was 3-9 two seasons ago, and I expect the Irish to be pretty good this year.

Rodriguez needed to do several things following his arrival: recruit a spread-friendly QB or two (check), lure some speed and quickness at WR and RB (some disappointments at RB, but strong at WR), revamp the offensive line (takes time), and maintain Michigan's typically tough defensive front and secondary. I think he might be on his way. Even so, they still have a few miles of rope yet to hold, and Notre Dame should prevail in the 2009 matchup.