The 2008 football season is just under ten weeks away, and the Wolverines are feeling, talking—and as we saw in a rainy, sloppy spring game—looking different. Most Michigan faithful couldn’t be happier to see the many differences.
As we all know, gone are the days of lining up in the I-formation and running the ball into the shifts of 4-4 defenses. Here are the days of the Rich Rod, it-could-be-a-70-yard-touchdown-if-the-safeties-suck read option.
Gone are the days of beating teams just because, well, “we’re Michigan, damn it!”
Here are the days of, as Rodriguez himself noted, deserving to win—as opposed to just expecting to have the win gift-wrapped and bound by little maize and blue ribbons with a tag dangling off a string, reading “Your Stadium is Too Scary for Us.”
But the change has not been limited to the coaches and mindset alone.
The players Michigan has relied on for the last three, and in some cases four, years have moved on to greener pastures in the NFL. Veteran quarterback Chad Henne is in Miami with first overall pick, tackle Jake Long.
Linebacker Shawn Crable is a Pat, Mike Hart has reunited with former Wolverine Marlin Jackson in Indianapolis, and game-breaking receiver Mario Manningham decided that the degree he was talking about after the bowl wasn’t quite as important as a big NFL paycheck (or a third round selection, for that matter).
So not only does the new staff have to change the typical structure of Wolverine football—the nauseatingly platitudinal “Michigan way”—they also have to replace a record-setting generation of football players.
Did you sit down to watch the highlights from the spring game, only to realize that you didn’t recognize any of the offensive players’ numbers? “Who is this Avery Horn dude? Boy I wish we still had Mike Har—holy crap that kid is fast…”
Yeah. Get used it.
There are lots of new faces on this football team, but most of the unknowns are on the offensive side of the ball. The defense has much more talent returning than the offense and figures to be the more veteran unit.
Because I don’t want you to be overly confused when some guy named Hemingway catches a pass, when a puny 5'8" cornerback lines up across from a wide receiver, or when a white guy wearing Woodson’s number No. 2 takes a handoff, here are some of the newest Wolverines to take leadership roles, to start to play regularly, and to even strap on the winged helmet for the first time.
Part One: Offense
After the turncoat actions of Justin Boren made Benedict Arnold look like Nathan Hale, the Michigan offense is returning just two starters from last season—fullback Mark Moundrous (who could very likely lose his job to sophomore Vince Helmuth) and right tackle Stephen Schilling.
The situation becomes bleaker when one considers that Moundros had, truth be told, very little impact last season, while Schilling had an impact of the bad variety.
To see Schilling’s handiwork in action, go here or here (he’s number 52 on the right, and as much as I concede Vernon Gholston’s monster status in that particular game, his success speaks more of Schilling’s ineptitude than Gholston’s dominance).
Starters aside, only three other new starters saw regular playing time last season—wide receiver Greg Mathews, running back Brandon Minor, and tight end Carson Butler.
Unless you closely follow recruiting, you probably haven’t heard of the other new players on offense, mostly offensive linemen. Mark Orttman, Tim McAvoy, David Moosman, and Corey Zirbil are all brand new linemen who figure to start this season.
If you are at all familiar with football, you know that the combination of the words brand new and offensive linemen usually leads to very bad things for the offense. But for better or for worse, offensive line coach Greg Frey (also a new guy who followed Rodriguez from West Virginia) has a brand new batch of Big Uglies.
Offensively, there will be new leaders to replace the voids vacated by Chad Henne, Mike Hart, and Jake Long. Running back Brandon Minor is entering his third season as a contributor at Michigan, and Rodriguez mentioned that he was impressed with Minor’s leadership during Spring Practice.
Greg Mathews, also a junior and the third wideout last season, has emerged as the Wolverine quarterback’s go-to option with the evacuation of Mario Manningham and Adrian Arrington.
Of course, the quarterback is always a leader in one way or another, so Steve Threet or Nick Sheridan, depending on who wins the job, will try to replace Chad Henne’s leadership at the very least, if not his production.
Put your money on Threet, by the way, as he was a four-star product out of high school who is clearly more talented than the walk-on Sheridan.
Production-wise, look for running back Carlos Brown to have a big season under the new speed-emphasized running attack. The junior speed demon, who ran for a 93-yard touchdown last season (yeah, it was against Minnesota—so what?), has been praised by his coaches for his big-play potential.
“If he gets past the linebackers and the safety takes a poor angle, he’s going for a touchdown,” running backs coach Fred Jackson said during the spring.
Redshirt freshman Avery Horn looked impressive and fast in the spring game, but it is definitely possible that an incoming freshman will assume the fast back responsibilities.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Kevin Grady as an option at running back, though the former five-star prospect has underwhelmed in his Michigan career and is recovering from a torn ACL that forced him to take a medical redshirt last fall.
He has reportedly responded well to new Strength and Conditioning coach Mike Barwis’ new workouts, and he has said that he will try to take a leadership role on the team—but with all due respect to Grady, it is rather difficult to lead from the sidelines.
With the incoming class (which we will talk about in a moment), Michigan is very deep at running back, and it is unlikely that a power runner like Grady will play a huge role in the Rodriguez offense.
Because of the severe lack of numbers on offense, not to mention lack of experience, the Wolverines will likely play a rather large number of freshmen. Highly-touted wide receiver Darryl Stonum will play significantly this fall for a number of reasons.
First, Michigan has precious few Big Ten-caliber wide receivers. Only Mathews, Hemingway, sophomore Toney Clemons, junior LaTerryal Savoy, and freshman Zion Babb (who was moved to defensive back last season and may or may not switch back to receiver under Rich Rod) are playable non-true freshman wideouts on the Michigan roster.
With the four- and five-wide sets that Rodriguez often deploys, five wide receivers just isn’t going to cut it. They will need some serious freshman help, and Stonum will be the first ’08 recruit on the field.
Second, Stonum is really an all-around package at wideout. He was rated the second-best wide receiver after the catch by Rivals, and he has the hands, size, and route-running ability to be a legitimate star at the college level.
Third, Stonum was the only incoming freshman to enroll early at Michigan, so he went through all the spring drills and practices that the other players did, including the Spring Game. With the new system Rodriguez brought in, the other wide receivers that are on the roster are not much further ahead of him.
Therefore Stonum—who was the seventh-ranked wide receiver and the 41st-ranked player overall on Rivals.com—will get plenty of playing time as an outside receiver.
But just about every receiver on the roster is an outside guy, so Rodriguez will likely look to little speedy-bugger recruits Terrence Robinson, Martavious Odoms, and possibly running back-athlete Michael Shaw to pull the load as Darius Reynaud-type slot receivers.
To get a sense of what types of athletes these guys are, think Steve Breaston—who was inexplicably misused after his freshman year by the Carr regime.
Robinson and Odoms will vie for the return job, as well as bubble-screen/reverse duties. They have a chance to be real game-breakers as inside receivers in this offense. The prospect that Michigan actually has a coaching staff willing to play to these guys’ strengths is exciting for Wolverine fans, to say the least.
Rich Rodriguez did everything he could to get super-recruit quarterback Terrelle Pryor, but he simply entered the game too late, and Pryor went to Ohio State. With the current quarterback situation, that really hurt. But Rodriguez was able to nab one running quarterback—two-star prospect Justin Feagin.
Feagin is extremely athletic and will certainly see some playing time next season, and depending on how quickly he learns, maybe a little more than some. But his throwing arm is suspect, and many recruiting gurus aren’t sold on his ability to be a quarterback at all.
One way or the other, it will be a wait-it-out season for Michigan, as they look to next season to bring in the dual-threat quarterback this system needs.
Until then, when Michigan commits Kevin Newsome and Shavodrick Beaver duke it out for the position and Feagin likely moves to receiver, Justin Feagin will be the only dual-threat option available to Rodriguez and Offensive Coordinator Calvin McGee.
On the offensive line, Michigan—as noted before—is rather thin and extremely untested. As such, it is possible that freshmen Rocko Khory and Ricky Barnum will get a shot at starting, while the 6'7", 300-pound Dann O’Neill will certainly have a chance to nail down one of the tackle spots.
Finally, we come to the running back position. Although the receivers could dispute this point, this is the most likely position to feel some major freshman influence.
YouTube sensation Sam McGuffie is not your typical running back recruit. He’s small, he’s not overly powerful, and he’s white. But his highlight reels against some of the toughest competition in Texas remind many of Noel Devine, who Rodriguez recruited to West Virginia last season.
Rodriguez is certain to use him in many different ways next season if he comes as advertised. Trotwood-Madison product Michael Shaw is also a speedster at running back, and he may see some time along with McGuffie.
Rodriguez’s offense is versatile with its skill players, so expect the fast players like McGuffie, Shaw, and Robinson to be used in many different ways—not all that different from the way Urban Meyer uses Percy Harvin or how Les Miles uses Trindon Holliday.
Regardless of what happens or how they are used, it will definitely be interesting and exciting for Michigan fans to watch.
The 2008 Michigan offense will look very, very different from last year’s attack. With the new personnel and the new system, many expect Michigan’s offense to struggle mightily.
While I don’t dispute that possibility, it is unlikely that they will perform much worse than the 27 points per game from last season, or the measly 28 points per game from 2005.
During Rich Rodriguez’s entire tenure at West Virginia, the Mountaineers dipped below 29 points per game just once—his first year in 2001. In the same time frame, the Wolverines scored less than 29 points per game four times—in 2001, 2002, 2005, and 2007.
No one expects Michigan to produce the 3-8 record with 21 points per game that the 2001 West Virginia team did—in fact, all “experts” concede that Michigan has significantly more talent right now than West Virginia ever did, even with all the star players leaving after last season.
In addition, the 2001 Big East, with both Miami and Virginia Tech still in the conference, was significantly more difficult than the 2008 Big Ten will be (outside of Ohio State).
The point is that although Michigan’s offense will not be 35 points per game dominant, they will also probably not be all that much worse than the 27 points per game output from last season—which, by the way, includes a 38-point outburst against a terrible Notre Dame team and a 41-point game against Florida in the bowl.
With an improved defense (which I will discuss in the second article of this two-column series), a healthier team, and better coaching, Michigan’s record may not be as bad as most pundits are foreseeing.
Rich Rod’s first year may not quite be the learning curve everyone (including me) expects.