Thanksgiving Food for Thought; Michigan Football 2009 (Part II: The Offense)

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Thanksgiving Food for Thought; Michigan Football 2009 (Part II: The Offense)
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With another losing season in the books, the Michigan football program appears to be in disarray to many outsiders, as well as a fraction of the Michigan fan base.

But is everything doom and gloom for this squad, or is there help on the way? Is head coach Rich Rodriguez in over his head in the Big Ten, or has he already laid the groundwork for success?

On this Thanksgiving Day, as we visit with loved ones, stuff our faces with turkey and pumpkin pie, and watch the Cowboys and Lions, let’s take an early look at what the 2010 version of Michigan football will look like.

Certainly a lot of questions have to be answered, and I believe it starts with the players Rodriguez already has in the program.

Freshman quarterback Tate Forcier played the entire season and at times looked like a confident veteran, but at times looked every bit the 18-year old freshman he was.

He enrolled early at Michigan last January, a move that greatly helped earn him the starting job over last year’s returning starter, walk-on junior Nick Sheridan.

Forcier led comeback wins over Notre Dame and Indiana, brought the team back from 14 points down to force overtime at Michigan State, and performed well in late-season conference games against Illinois, Purdue, and Wisconsin.

But he was also prone to throwing the ball up for grabs, not securing the ball when scrambling, and making the wrong reads on zone option running plays.

These mistakes speak more toward his youth and inexperience than his true talent level. His solid performances showed he has the talent to be Michigan’s quarterback for the next three years.

The good thing is that the mistakes are correctable and will be cured by more time spent on the practice field, in the film room, and in the weight room. In short, we have a bright future ahead at the quarterback position.

Another off-season under strength and conditioning coach Mike Barwis will help Forcier add muscle to his slight frame and help avoid injuries.

Many forget that Forcier played most of the season with a sprained AC join in his shoulder, the same injury Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford suffered, albeit to a lesser degree.

As Forcier gets more practice time and learns more of the playbook, his understanding of Rodriguez’s complicated “spread-n-shred” offense will grow.

Many of those misreads when he kept the ball instead of handing it off, or when he handed it off and should have kept it, will be fixed next year and in the years that follow.

In addition, he will improve with his passing reads, as he gets more comfortable in the system. This season, he tended to pull it down and scramble the instant he sniffed pressure.

His creativity and ability to throw on the run covered up some of these problems, but it also led to turnovers or a failure to throw the ball away.

You can’t fault the kid for trying too hard. Some of the ill-advised throws were a result of just trying to make something happen, but will be fixed with experience.

Some of the plays he made in the comeback against Notre Dame were the same type of plays that resulted in turnovers down the stretch, as was glaringly evident against the great defense of Ohio State.

Forcier’s background leads me to believe he’ll be a fantastic quarterback. He was groomed to play the position, trained under Marv Marinovich, and has two older brothers that play quarterback as well.

The mechanics are there, as is the quarterback mentality. Now, he just needs to develop in Rodriguez’s offense and he’ll be fine.

Michigan’s other quarterback, fellow freshman Denard Robinson has a lot further to go in his development, but is also a great fit for Rodriguez’s offense.

Robinson didn’t enroll early, so he had only about a month of practice prior to Michigan’s opening game against Western Michigan. The majority of the action Robinson saw was designed runs to utilize his athletic ability.

Early in the season it worked. He scored four rushing touchdowns in Michigan’s first seven games.

As the season progressed and the meat of the schedule was reached, opposing defenses caught on and stacked up to stop the run whenever he entered the game.

It was frustrating at times to see Robinson come in, knowing he was going to run, and get stuffed for little gain.

Yet, we have to remember that he had very little practice time and doesn’t yet possess the passing ability needed to be a quarterback for a major Division 1 quarterback.

Unlike Forcier, who already possesses the mechanical skills, Robinson will take more work to develop. But his upside is his athletic ability, which is much greater than Forcier’s.

His touchdown run against Western Michigan left Michigan fans salivating for him to be used in a Percy Harvin-type role.

Late in the season we saw more plays in which Robinson lined up in the backfield next to Forcier or spread out wide running a fly pattern. Against Ohio State, he was thrown to deep a couple of times, although neither was completed, and one was intercepted.

I think we were all a bit impatient throughout the season, assuming that it would be easy to thrust him into plays at running back or receiver.

However, with the dire need of quarterback depth in case of a Forcier injury, and merely the fact that Robinson was a true freshman, time spent practicing plays at other positions meant time spent not developing at quarterback.

In the future, when Rodriguez adds to the quarterback depth, he will have more flexibility in using Robinson in other roles. But during the course of this season, I think we overlooked the need to keep him where he was.

Next year, that depth will be improved with the addition of Inkster, Mich., quarterback Devin Gardner. The dual-threat quarterback fits the mold of Rodriguez’s ideal quarterback perfectly and his arrival in Ann Arbor is highly anticipated.

In his senior season at Inkster High School, Gardner has thrown for 1,472 yards and 14 touchdowns to just three interceptions, and rushed for over 700 yards and 15 touchdowns. He has led his team to the state championship game against Lowell on Friday.

Scouts compare him to Penn State’s Darryl Clark and former Auburn (and current Washington Redskins) quarterback Jason Campbell. They are high on his size and strength, as well as his arm strength and running ability.

An ideal situation would be to redshirt him next season and allow him to develop and learn the system until Forcier and Robinson graduate and then take over for his junior and senior seasons.

But with his talent, will he be patient enough to wait in the wings for three years? In order for Rodriguez’s system to succeed, I hope he’s unselfish enough to do so.

Granted, there’s always the possibility of Gardner coming in and beating out Forcier and Robinson for the starting job next season or the year after, and if that’s the case, then by all means, the guy who gives Michigan the best chance to win should play.

Whatever the case, the centerpiece of Rodriguez’s system is in place and the future looks bright at the quarterback position.

The backfield is where Michigan loses the most talent, but due to the nature of Rodriguez’s system and the injuries that Michigan suffered this season, the stable is not empty.

Seniors Brandon Minor and Carlos Brown will be big losses, and certainly their absences in many of the games hurt Michigan’s chances for success, but it also allowed young guys to gain experience.

The most impressive runner late in the season was freshman Vincent Smith. His performance in Michigan’s spring game last April gave Michigan fans a glimpse of what he is capable of, but he didn’t see much action through the first half of the season.

But in Michigan’s final two games, against Wisconsin and Ohio State, Smith emerged as Michigan’s go-to back, displaying quickness and pass-catching ability.

He figures to enter 2010 as Michigan’s starting tailback.

Sophomore Michael Shaw has also shown some ability and as his vision for the field improves, could develop into a nice complement to Smith.

His main problem has been that he doesn’t cut through the gaps quick enough, instead always relying on getting around the outside.

Redshirt freshman Michael Cox got some playing time as Michigan’s fifth running back and still has some time to grow. He’ll certainly get a chance to prove himself and earn some more playing time with the graduation of Minor and Brown.

True freshman Fitzgerald Toussaint is a guy that many Michigan fans were excited about coming out of high school. He redshirted this season and will also get a chance in the off-season to earn a role in the offense.

Incoming freshmen Tony Drake, Stephen Hopkins, and Austin White (all three-stars) should give Michigan plenty of options in the backfield.

Receiver is a position that Michigan certainly isn’t lacking talent. A go-to guy emerged in the second half of the season, in redshirt freshman Roy Roundtree. He caught 30 passes for 390 yards and two touchdowns in the final four games of the season.

Though he lacks elite speed, Roundtree showed great hands and a willingness to go across the middle. He should enter 2010 as Michigan’s No. 1 receiver, but it will be interesting to see if he stays in the slot or moves to the outside to replace senior Greg Mathews.

By the time next season rolls around, Michigan will have a lot of experience with sophomore Martavious Odoms in the slot. Odoms started as a true freshman in 2008 and was one of Michigan’s lone bright spots, leading the team in receiving with 49 catches for 443 yards.

Injuries forced him to miss a couple of games late in the season this year, but that could be a blessing in disguise as it opened the door for Roundtree’s emergence.

Also in the slot, sophomore Kelvin Grady showed good speed early in the season, but dropped balls caused him to lose playing time.

The former Michigan basketball player definitely has the athleticism to be effective; he just needs to work on catching the ball and he could develop into a weapon in the next couple of years.

A freshman that redshirted this season, Jeremy Gallon could factor into the equation as well. He was highly regarded coming out of high school last year, and a year learning the system should allow him to see some playing time next season.

A wild card in the slot could be incoming freshman Drew Dileo. A 5’9” 170 pound white guy, Dileo committed to Michigan over Tulane, Stanford, and Rice.

I mention “white guy” only because of the inevitable Wes Welker comparison. If he can fit that mold, Michigan has itself a steal, but if his low rankings hold true, he could get lost in the mix.

On the outside, redshirt sophomore Junior Hemingway and sophomore Darryl Stonum bring a couple years of experience to the table and have at times shown considerable promise.

Hemingway started 2008 with a bang, catching a 33-yard touchdown pass in Michigan’s game against Utah, but an injury caused him to miss the remainder of the season.

This season, he came out hot again, catching five passes for 103 yards and two touchdowns in the season opener against Western Michigan.

But he didn’t catch a touchdown pass the rest of the season, and barely matched the yardage output in the rest of the games combined, finishing with just 16 catches for 268 yards.

Stonum started 10 games as a freshman in 2008 and had his best game against Purdue, scoring on a 51-yard catch and run.

This season, he hauled in only 13 receptions for 199 yards and a touchdown, though the touchdown was a thrilling 60-yard play to ignite Michigan’s comeback in the fourth quarter against Michigan State.

Je’Ron Stokes is a freshman that played primarily on special teams this season and could have an impact in 2010.

The 6-0, 181-pound speedster out of Philadelphia was a top-100 recruit and was rated the eighth-best wide receiver in the nation last season according to Scouts, Inc.

Stokes caught two passes for 16 yards against Delaware State in the only real action he saw this season.

Four-star receivers Ricardo Miller and Jerald Robinson and three-stars Jeremy Jackson and D.J. Williamson make up a solid group of incoming freshmen will help bolster the ranks of what should be the deepest position on the team.

On the offensive line, Michigan returns nearly everybody and should get a big boost from a group of redshirt freshmen that fit Rodriguez’s system.

Left tackle Mark Ortmann and right guard-turned center David Moosman both graduate, but neither is a huge loss. Ortmann was serviceable and Moosman was a solid guard, but struggled at the center position when David Molk went down with an injury.

Getting Molk back next season will provide Michigan a solid, experienced center who started every game in his redshirt freshman season in 2008 and would have this season if not for a broken foot. He was rated the No. 1 center in the nation coming out of high school.

Redshirt junior Steven Schilling will probably be Michigan’s best offensive lineman in 2010. Schilling was ranked as the second-best guard in the nation coming out of high school and has started for three seasons, counting this one.

Perhaps the most surprising player is redshirt freshman Patrick Omameh, who earned a starting spot towards the end of the season and played pretty well.

Omameh is a Rodriguez recruit who was just a two-star, mostly due to a lack of size compared to the typical offensive line recruit.

His performance has earned him strong consideration to start next season, probably at either right guard or right tackle.

Redshirt sophomore Mark Huyge started much of the season at right guard and figures to start next season either there or right tackle.

True freshman and highly regarded recruit Taylor Lewan is perfect for Rodriguez’s offense, rated as one of the most athletic and versatile linemen in the nation as a senior. He should get a chance to start at left tackle next season.

Another freshman that could get some action next season is Quinton Washington. He was a four-star recruit and the sixth-rated offensive guard as a senior.

Redshirt junior Perry Dorrestein, who has seen some action, should battle for the left tackle spot, while redshirt freshmen Ricky Barnum and Elliott Mealer will have a chance to earn a spot as well.

Incoming freshmen won’t help next season, as offensive line is a position in which recruits need time in a college strength and conditioning program to develop, but the future looks pretty good with last year’s haul.

Only one offensive line commitment is secured for this year’s class unless Rodriguez is able to snag the nation’s top recruit, Seantrel Henderson, but that seems unlikely at this point.

At tight end, Michigan is stacked with experience in sophomores Kevin Koger and Martell Webb.

Koger finished fifth on the team in receiving this season, catching 16 passes for 220 yards and two touchdowns. He caught an important touchdown pass against Notre Dame, but had some problems with drops midway through the season and didn’t see as many balls thrown his way in the last few games.

Webb caught just four passes for 44 yards and a touchdown, but got a lot of playing time and was a fairly effective run blocker.

Webb was a junior this season and Koger just a sophomore, so the tight end position should be a strength for Michigan next season.

Overall, the Michigan offense made some strides this year, averaging nine more points per game and 95 more yards of total offense per game than last season.

In addition, the offense showed that it could sustain drives this year, and although turnovers were a problem, those are mistakes that are fixable.

We didn’t see all the negative yardage plays that we saw last year when the offense just completely bogged down.

Next year we can expect even more improvement as the Rodriguez system enters its third year.

The losses of Minor, Brown, Mathews, Ortmann, and Moosman should not slow this team down very much, since their replacements all got a lot of experience this year.

Most importantly, the core is in place, and there won’t be fresh blood needing to play a crucial role, as there was this season.

So on this Thanksgiving, let’s be thankful for the seniors that stuck out the coaching change and put forth their best efforts.

Let’s also be thankful for the young guys that got their feet wet this year and will pioneer our maize and blue back to prominence in the years to come.

And let's be thankful for an offensive innovator as our head coach: someone who is a proven winner and cares as much about getting the Michigan football program back on track as anyone else does.

He will take Michigan to a place far beyond what we have seen if we afford him the time to do so.

The offense is certainly on track. Stay tuned for my defensive preview in the next few days.

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