As a die-hard University of Michigan football fan walking into The Big House this past weekend, I could not feel more excited. My team was going to start our year long shocking of the world by beating the University of Connecticut. The elation that I felt prior to the game would be easily eclipsed though, as for the next three and a half hours my squad would run all over the Huskies en route to a 30-10 victory under both a hot sun and dark clouds.
This entire off-season(if there is such a thing in college football) centered around one big constant: progress. Not only did we win in decisive fashion, we showed exactly what this spread offense looks like when progress has been made. The foundation for this team has been laid over these past two years and nothing is more satisfying than watching all the hard work come to fruition. There were many people that played a role in starting this season off right, but 8 of them stood out to me.
This may seem like a straightforward answer, but the team overall helped themselves by beating Connecticut on Saturday. The difference between coming out and showing a huge improvement and losing at home to start the season is a big one. Not only do our players have a sense of entitlement by beating an up and coming team, they have the mindset that once both sides of the ball start clicking, we can do amazing things on the field.
From the quarterback position all the way to the safeties, this team has put in a ton of work and it showed in a major way on opening day. We have young men that have gained 15-20 pounds in this off-season, all the while keeping their speed. Changes in size and comfort with the schemes were evident in the first game, where there weren't many times a player was caught out of position.
Heading into South Bend next week, our team has the confidence that we can execute and the talent to boss around a great team. I find it very interesting that we go from a hard to judge preseason ranking as low as 71st in the country to just outside of the top 25. Beating Notre Dame this upcoming weekend pretty much ensures a 4-0 start and a chance to crack the top 20 heading into the Big Ten schedule. Confidence is on our side and our team made a believer out of fans worldwide.
Rich Rodriguez helped himself out more than anyone involved with Michigan Football. Most teams schedule a cupcake right out of the gate to ensure that their players are comfortable, and besides, who wants to start with a blemish on the first week of the season? Connecticut was not ranked in the AP or Coaches preseason poll, but numerous websites had them as high as 20th in the country. Their running back, Jordan Todman, rushed for 14 touchdowns and 1188 yards a year ago. With their entire line-backing unit on the preseason Butkus award watch list, the Huskies were thought of as a potential upset for Michigan by some, and a favored team by others.
The media has warmed the hot seat for Rich, but those within the program, and the true fans of the sport, realize that this offense does indeed take time. You'd be hard pressed to find a broader transition in college football than that of a pro style offense moving to a spread offense. Rodriguez not only won his first game out of the gate, he did it against a tough opponent. More importantly, he did it with his offense carrying the load.
Here comes the next obvious choice. Coming out of high school 15 months ago, Denard Robinson was considered to be an athlete who could line up at wide receiver, running back or even quarterback. Rodriguez recruited Robinson to be exactly what he was Saturday: Pat White on steroids.
He threw 22 times, completing 19 of them for 186 yards and one touchdown. He then obliterated the previous rushing record for a quarterback at Michigan, held by Steve Smith when he rushed for 147 yards on four carries in 1983. Denard carried the ball 29 times for 197 yards and a touchdown.
He not only showcased talent and poise, he gave us a glimpse of what is to come. As ridiculous as his stats were against Connecticut, he only opened up the passing game a handful of times. The potential Robinson has shown should leave even the average fan hungry to see what else he can produce.
Dave Brandon is a through and through Michigan Man. He went to the University, he played football there and he now has the title of our Athletic Director. Brandon succeeded Bill Martin in early January coming off one of the worst seasons in U of M football history.
He came in right in the midst of an NCAA investigation as to whether or not our coaches were keeping our players on the field longer than they were allowed. He put his neck on the line for a program that had not seen problems like this before and now he is reaping the fruits of this teams labor.
I like to think of Brandon as a Robert Kraft type. He grew up a fan of his team, helped to take them over when they were going through rough times, helped turn them around and now enjoys great success. Dave Brandon saw an opportunity to help his program and, in return, he will be a part of many championship seasons.
Mike is not necessarily one that your mind would jump to right away when talking about a player helping himself. As a nose tackle, Martin is a space eater and is relied on to secure both tackles and two offensive lineman. He does much more than that as you will see him both in the backfield and chasing running backs to the outside.
The reason he is on this list is because he comes across to me as a niche when it comes to an NFL prospect. There are many defenses that have changed to the lucrative 3-4. Much like at Michigan, a large space eater takes the middle, with two big, fast end to complement him and the four linebackers. Martin is the definition of a 3-4 defensive end because of his size, speed and football brainpower. The transition to end would not be hard for a guy called on to play the middle because he will have much more space to deal with.
Already at 299 pounds, Mike fits the size quotient needed for the position. It can't hurt that he is a workout warrior and will have no problem throwing the 225 lbs around like a rag doll on the bench press come combine time. My guess is that he returns for his senior season next year and enters the 2012 NFL draft.
To say that Greg Robinson has had much success in his coaching career would be quite the understatement. He has coached on both of the big levels, with two Super Bowls in Denver to boot. The 2000 Baltimore Ravens aside, the offense of a team usually gets the majority of the attention. Many people have the opinion that a defensive coordinator can be plugged in and the talent will do the work.
Much like Rich Rodriguez's spread offense, switching to Robinson's complex 3-3-5 defense will take a bit of time. There were many time last season where we would find a player out of place, as the change from a standard 4-3 defense will take some time. There was good pressure on Saturday, but above all else, there was great tackling. This is a testament to both Robinson's defensive scheme and strength and conditioning coach Mike Barwis's help.
There were only a select few times guy were out of position and it was pretty much all in an injury riddled secondary. One thing is for sure and that's that once Robinson implements his system, the talent will follow.
If there's one unit that has gone through a complete transformation, it's the secondary. Our corners and safeties have been plagued by injuries, transfers and even a run in with the law. This has forced Greg Robinson's hand as he scrambles to figure out who will cover the talented wide outs the Big Ten and others have to offer.
Youth will play a large role in the secondary this season and one of the names out there for immediate playing time is red shirt freshman Cameron Gordon. Coming out of high school, Gordon was penciled in as an outside receiver. Due to both depth at the position and Cameron's talent on defense, he was switched over to safety, where he made his first career start Saturday.
He's big, strong and fast and was a sure tackler against the Huskies. He put a lick on a UConn wideout early in the game that stopped the receiver right in his tracks. He was arguably the most intimidating player in our secondary and when he gets completely comfortable in this defense, he will shine.
Ahhhh yes, the fans. The vast majority of those involved with U of M football stand on bleachers and sit on sofas. We have been very privileged to have such great teams over the years and these past few seasons have really left a bad taste in our mouths.
I, for one, work with a bunch of Spartan fans who couldn't name me six players on their entire team. To hear the banter is not that frustrating because we all know what the finished product will look like, but it sure does feel good to have validation on the field.
So go ahead and if you hadn't done it prior to Saturday, throw 8 to 10 wins around at your coworkers. The more and more weeks ahead of us will only further justify your prediction. Above all else, enjoy this time of year, you deserve it.