What do you get when a program introduces a new coach, a new system, and loses not only their most prolific rusher and passer in school history, but the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft as well?
Ladies and gents, say hello to your 2008 Michigan Wolverines.
To label this past offseason as tumultuous for this Michigan program would be a vast understatement. Starting with a chaotic coaching search garnering harsh criticism from a number of former players—including a certain Heisman Trophy winner—to a returning starter not only transferring to hated rival Ohio State, but bashing the program’s “family values” on his way out the door—Michigan fans have had a lot to digest in the past months.
However, these off-field events were not enough to distract fans from the questions surrounding the upcoming season’s on-field product. Chad Henne, Mike Hart, Jake Long? They’re all gone. Throw in Biletnikoff finalist Mario Manningham, Capital One Bowl human highlight Adrian Arrington, and oft-maligned Ryan “Got a Case of the Fumbles” Mallett to those three departures, and those highly publicized concerns about this offense—yeah, they’ve been validated.
As bleak as it seems, all is not lost. The fact remains, Michigan is still Michigan, and though the talent pool may take a dip this season, Lloyd Carr and his staff consistently put together top-10 recruiting classes year after year, so the cupboard is far from bare. Last season both Brandon Minor and Carlos Brown flashed the ability to be solid contributors at running back, and Greg Mathews has proven to be a reliable receiving threat.
Coupled with the likes of incoming skill position freshmen Terrence Robinson, Sam McGuffie, Martavious Odoms, Michael Shaw, and early enrollee Darryl Stonum, what this team lacks in experience, it has the ability to make up for in explosiveness, giving Michigan fans a certain style of playmaker that they have rarely been accustomed to seeing don the Maize and Blue.
The defense should be the ultimate strength of this team, returning seven starters from last year’s squad. Returning both Morgan Trent and Donovan Warren at the corner spot is certainly encouraging, but the biggest questions on defense remain in the secondary, primarily with the safety position. Since the days of Ernest Shazor obliterating Dorien Bryant, Michigan has had a startling lack of consistency at safety, a problem made increasingly evident by their recent inability to prevent long TD scores by Ohio State running backs.
However, the biggest and most publicized problems facing this Wolverine squad are at quarterback and offensive line. With Justin Boren headed south, Michigan returns only Steven Schilling at right tackle, and after watching the last Ohio State game, that could be seen as either a good or bad thing. As of now I project the O-line to look something like this: Mark Ortmann and Steven Schilling at tackle, Tim McAvoy and Corey Zirbel at guard, and David Moosman anchoring the line.
Perhaps a bigger concern than the lack of experience is the lack of depth on this unit. With the defections of Alex Mitchell and Jeremy Ciulla along with Boren, Michigan returns only nine scholarship players on the O-Line. If injuries were to hit the O-Line come fall—and they inevitably do—don’t be surprised to see true freshman Dan O’Neill step in and see some playing time.
Under center, the situation gets even murkier. Do the names Nick Sheridan, Steven Threet, or David Cone strike fear into the hearts of opposing defenses? Didn’t think so. Once again, these fears are not because none of these players have talent, but the fact that none of them has thrown a collegiate pass is a legitimate concern. Time and time again we have seen inexperienced quarterbacks struggle when handed the reins to their teams.
Matthew Stafford? Mitch Mustain? Jimmy Clausen? All were ranked as top QBs the year they were recruited, and all struggled mightily. Even this past season, Michigan fans were clamoring for Ryan Mallett—until they all realized he wasn't playing at Terxakana High School anymore.
Though incoming freshman Justin Feagin could step in and be the opening day starter, it is highly unlikely. Though he would constitute the only true dual-threat quarterback on the roster, moving from Florida to Michigan, transitioning to the college game, and mastering an entire playbook in a matter of three months is just too much to ask of an 18 year old. When August 31 rolls around, I believe Threet will be entrenched as the starter, with Feagin playing a Tim Tebow-like role his freshman year. However, if Threet struggles as the year progresses, do not be surprised if Rodriguez throws Feagin into the fire.
Though the question marks are there—and they are numerous—I believe this team will be better than what most the prognosticators have projected. Most rumblings have Michigan as either a six or seven-win team, some even stating that the streak of 33 consecutive bowl games is at risk.
While that situation is a distinct possibility, I envision a minimum of seven victories, and if everything goes Michigan’s way next fall, I see this team with the potential to win eight, maybe even nine games, and make a return trip to the Capital One Bowl come New Year's Day.