2009 Michigan Wolverines: What to Expect and Why

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2009 Michigan Wolverines: What to Expect and Why
(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)


Kickoff to the 2009 college football season is now 77 days away. Here are some things we should expect from the Michigan football team this fall:

Improved Quarterback Play
Just how bad was Michigan’s offense and quarterback situation last autumn? Oh let us count the ways:

1.)Michigan’s offense had a 3rd down success rate of 27.3%. The Wolverines finished 119th out of 120 Division I football teams in this category. Only Paul Wulff’s Washington State Cougars were worse on 3rd down in 2008 with 26.8% success rate. This also explains Zoltan Mesko’s sickening 80 punts and 3,436 yards in punting. Only Central Florida punted more times (88)than Michigan did (80).

2.)The Wolverines’ scoring offense was the least potent in the Big Ten, averaging 20.3 points per game. This constituted a national ranking of 98th among 120 teams.

3.)Michigan finished 109th in the nation in first downs per game with an average of 15.

4.)The Wolverines fielded the worst passing attack in the Big Ten, finishing dead last with 143 yards per game average.

5.)Wolverine passers had the worst passing accuracy in the conference with a completion percentage of 48%.

6.)Michigan finished seventh in the league in aerial touchdowns with only 11.

7.)Michigan suffered 12 interceptions on the year, 4th worst in the league.

The lone positive statistic from the Wolverine passing attack last year might have been sacks. Michigan suffered only 22 sacks in 2008. Yet when one considers Michigan’s offensive time of possession last season (10th worst in the league), this “22 sacks” number shed a somewhat different light on the truth. Had Michigan’s 3rd down success rate not been so pathetic, the offense would have surely played more downs, and likely more passing downs, and UM’s sack numbers would likely have been far higher as a relation.

Quarterback play should be an area of moderate to good improvement in 2009 because the Wolverines have two quick, accurate and mobile quarterbacks to choose from, Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson, to run Rich Rodriguez’s no-huddle spread option offense. Both are inexperienced at the college level and will no doubt make many freshman mistakes this coming season. But these young quarterbacks will have a strong supportive cast of playmakers around them.

Michigan’s corps of receivers is deep, experienced and talented, including senior Greg Mathews, Darryl Stonum, Roy Roundtree, JR Hemingway, Martavious Odoms, LaTerryal Savoy and Terrance Robinson. There are also freshmen WRs Je’Ron Stokes and Jeremy Gallon to contend with.

Following successful off-season coaching clinics at Oklahoma to study Kevin Wilson’s no huddle passing attack, it is a possibility that Michigan could employ more I-formation and single back sets that include one or both tight ends in 2009. Thankfully Michigan is blessed with very high talent at the TE position with Kevin Koger, Martell Webb and Brandon Moore.

The Michigan offensive line returns intact with five starters and improved depth.

The combination of these factors should ease some of the pressure off of the new Wolverine signal callers this fall. It is therefore reasonable to expect passing attempts, passing yardage and passing accuracy to improve in 2009 over 2008.
Quarterback rushing ability is also a critical component of Rich Rodriguez’s spread option offense effectiveness. Given both Forcier’s and Robinson’s past experience in a spread option offense, and considering their rushing statistics and foot speed, it will not be difficult for Michigan to improve its quarterback rushing numbers from the 355 total yards gained and 3 touchdowns scored in 2008. Improved QB rushing will have the added effect of relieving pressure off the offensive line as well as freeing up the other UM running backs and slot receivers to make plays. Opposing defenses will not be able to center their attention around any one group of skilled players as they did a year ago.

An Improved Running Game
As stated above, the entire Wolverine offensive line returns in 2009. No other Big Ten team enjoys this luxury. With a 3-9 record from 2008 in Michigan’s rear view mirror, it’s somewhat difficult to imagine the possibility that, of all Big Ten teams this fall, the core of Michigan’s offensive line might be one of the league’s better units.

The Wolverine offensive line is anchored by veteran offensive guard Stephan Schilling, center Dave Molk, and guard David Moosman. Offensive tackle was a problem area last year for Michigan with numerous player shifts. With Schilling’s moving to guard, 6-6 298 lbs behemoth Mark Ortmann will take over one tackle spot. At the other tackle position, 6-6 280 lbs Mark Huyge, a 2-star recruit, may have beaten out experienced junior Perry Dorrestein, while Patrick Omameh appears to be competing very hard for playing time at tackle as well.

Overall, the offensive line depth remains good, despite the recent departures of tackle Dann O’Neal and guard Kurt Wermers. Backup guards include John Ferrara, Ricky Barnum and Elliott Mealer. Backup tackles/lineman include Bryant Nowicki, and the freshmen duo of Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield. Tim McAvoy is a very experienced lineman who will back up Molk at center, but has started at guard in the past.

The Wolverine offensive backfield is also quite deep and experienced, but what challenges Michigan at this position is durability. Brandon Minor, Michigan’s leading rusher with 533 yards, 9 TDs and a 5.2 yard per carry average returns. Also returning are speedster tailbacks Carlos Brown and Michael Shaw. Minor and Brown are the most experienced Wolverine backs, but both have been injury prone throughout their careers. Michigan has two very good fullbacks in Mark Moundros and Kevin Grady.

Expect to see a number of freshmen backs carrying the pigskin for Michigan in 2009 - particularly freshmen tailback Vincent Smith from Pahokee, FL, who might be the shiftiest tailback on the entire team. Other highly touted freshmen backs include Fitzgerald Toussaint, Teric Jones, and Jeremy Gallon. Sophomores Jimmy Potempa and Michael Cox may also get some carries this fall.

Factoring in Michigan’s continued inexperience at quarterback, a more experienced offensive line, the return of a power back like Brandon Minor, and the improved running back depth, it is entirely reasonable to expect Rich Rodriguez to employ a similar strategy to that of his 2002 season (2nd year) at West Virginia, where the rushing attack and ball control was highly emphasized in the play calling over passing. This approach should become blatantly obvious at the beginning of the season as the quarterbacks master the playbook and slowly build confidence passing.
An Improved Defense
The Wolverine defense was supposed to be pretty good last year. It was not. 2008 was one of the worst years defensively in Michigan’s storied football program. Let us again recount the ways:

1.) Michigan finished 10th in the league in scoring defense, giving up 28 points per game.

2.) The Wolverines finished 9th in defensive yardage in the Big Ten, giving up 366 yards per game.

3.) Michigan’s gave up 19 passing touchdowns (only Indiana gave up more with 20) and registered only 9 interceptions all season long.

The sins of the Michigan defense might have easily been placed at the feet of the anemic offense. Michigan’s 3rd down success rate, unbelievable number of turnovers and overall low time of possession statistics often cancelled out any positive game momentum that might have been gained by the UM defense.

Heading into 2009, the situation on defense is tenuous. Wolverine football players will need to adjust yet again to their fourth defensive coordinator in 5 years as Greg Robinson takes over the reins. This fact just begs us to question whether any other team in the country not named Michigan or Baylor has suffered so many DC coaching changes?

What is perhaps most troubling for 2009 is that four out of the six leading tacklers for the Wolverines have all graduated. The linebacker positions will be a major area of concern. The leading tackler on the team last year, LB Jonas Mouton, does return, as well as fellow LB Obi Ezeh. J.B. Fitzgerald, Brandon Herron and converted safety Stevie Brown will rotate in at LB given the new 4-3 set implemented by new defensive coordinator Greg Robinson. However well or poorly this group performs, it should surprise no one that freshmen linebackers like Kenny Demens, Brandin Hawthorne, Isaiha Bell, Mike Jones or sophomore Marell Evans see some playing time for Michigan this fall.

The 2009 defensive line will be anchored by one of the finest defensive ends in the country in senior Brandon Graham. Graham was credited with 10 of Michigan’s 29 sacks last fall. The other DE will likely be Ryan Van Bergen who had 13 tackles last fall. The best down lineman is defensive tackle Mike Martin, who started last year as a freshman and played well, registering 20 tackles and 2 sacks. Converted fullback Vince Helmuth and freshmen William Campbell will get serious consideration for the other defensive tackle positions. Greg Banks, Adam Patterson, former TE Steve Watson and Renaldo Sagesse provide meager depth for the Wolverines along the defensive front.

Unfortunately, Michigan’s 2009 defensive line may become somewhat of a “project” in 2009, much like the offensive line was in 2008. We should expect numerous player try outs and position shifts during the course of the season. One injury on defense could cause big problems for Michigan. Two or more injuries could seriously derail Michigan’s entire football season. In such cases, freshmen defensive lineman Anthony LaLota and Craig Roh might also be called upon for an early tour of duty.

Michigan’s pass defense last year can only be described as abysmal. Michigan’s secondary was frequently torched for big gains and scores throughout the season, despite a veteran crew that included CBs Brandon Harrison and Morgan Trent, Charles Stewart, Donovan Warren and Stevie Brown. There will be a new crew of defensive backs in 2009. Stevie Brown moves to the LB position. Donovan Warren and Boubacar Cissoko will likely man the cornerback spots this fall, while the safety positions may be filled by Troy Woolfolk and Michael Williams.

Like the defensive line and linebacking corps, Michigan’s secondary is “wafer thin”. One injury could mean big trouble for this unit. It’s a little bit scary when one considers the possibility that Michigan’s 2009 freshmen defensive backs may be the best in the unit. Providing Michigan some measure of nail-biting depth are inexperienced RS freshman Brandon Smith, and true freshmen Vlad Emilien, Adrian Witty and Justin Turner.
Despite the numerous strikes against it including 4th DC in 5 years, lack of depth, moderate level of game experience, if we assume no injuries in 2009, this Wolverine defensive unit should be far better than the 2009 defensive squad! How can this be so?

A run-centric offense, fewer stupid turnovers, and improved time of possession results should be just enough to move the scales in the defense's favor. The other good news is that Greg Robinson may be one of the better defensive coordinator at Michigan since Bill McCartney.

Robinson certainly struggled as a head coach, but was a very successful defensive coordinator and DL coach in college at Texas and UCLA and in the NFL for Denver, KC and the NY Jets. He has coached some fantastic college defensive lineman and defensive backs during his career with impressive scoring defensive stats to back it up. With Michigan’s recruited talent, Robinson should turn be able to turn things around in short order.

The Most Important Thing in 2009

The most important thing for the Michigan football team in 2009, and therefore a recommended team motto must be:

“Score. Score again. And then score some more!”

Of course, scoring points is important in college football or any sport. But it will be critical for the Michigan football team in 2009.

Why?

The Michigan defense is incredibly fragile this season. The lack of depth at almost every position is very worrying. The new defensive schemes will take considerable time to master.

It will simply not be good enough for the UM offense to move the chains and gain first downs – as remarkable an achievement over 2008’s performance as that might be.

No. In 2009 Michigan’s offense must score early and frequently just to win football games this fall. To take this a step even further, Michigan must significantly increase its scoring in the first half of games by scoring more touchdowns, gaining the lead and building on it. Settling for field goals will not be enough.

For several reasons outlined above, Michigan’s offensive strategy will likely be more run-centric in 2009. If opponents get ahead early, this strategy will be counter productive as it will be difficult for Michigan’s offense to come from behind to win the game.

Unlike last season, the greatest burden lies on the Michigan offense, particularly the offensive line and running backs, to control the ball, eat clock and win football games. The Wolverine defense will take time to adjust and gel as a unit. However, just like last year’s offensive line, the UM defensive unit will likely struggle early in the season and undergo several personnel shifts, but show considerable improvement later in the season.

Some ridiculously bold predictions for 2009:

1.) Brandon Minor will rush for less than 1,000 yards in 2009. This will be less due to Minor’s ability or even durability, and more due to the higher number of rushing attempts that will go to other backs like Brown, Shaw, the true frosh, and the mobile quarterbacks.

2.) Tate Forcier will rush for 400+ yards and over 1,500 yards passing.

3.) Three Michigan running backs will have 500+ yards rushing on the season.

4.) Michigan will defeat 2 ranked opponents

5.) Michigan will lose to at least 1 unranked opponent.

6.) Michigan will finish 7-5 and receive a bowl invitation

7.) Michigan will again have a 1,000 yard receiver.

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