College Football 2011: Big Ten Legends Division Preview, Michigan Wolverines
Part 2 of the however many Big Ten team previews stays in the Legends division, where we feature a team that yet again started strong but crawled to the finish.
No longer does anyone in the conference fear the Michigan Wolverines, nor do they fear going into the Big House and taking a win away from the Maize and Blue.
That's what will be conveyed to the 2011 Wolverines as they move forward with former San Diego State head coach and former Michigan coordinator Brady Hoke.
The Rich Rodriguez era is thankfully over in Ann Arbor and that means there's a feeling of optimism going into the new era of Michigan football, which is now being run under a "Michigan man."
Looking Back - 2010
2010 kicked off with a bang for Michigan, with five straight wins in high-flying offensive fashion. After the win on the road at Indiana which saw Denard Robinson throw for 277 yards, rush for 217 yards, and account for 5 of Michigan's 6 TD's, there was reason to believe the young Sophomore could indeed make a case for the Heisman Trophy.
Although Robinson went through a few injury scares throughout the season, the blazer of a quarterback still finished fourth in the country in rushing yards per game and second in the nation in total offense. To say that Robinson was in dominant form would be putting it lightly.
But outside of Robinson, Michigan had difficulties finding any sort of rushing game or excitement on offense. Vincent Smith and Michael Show showed a few flashes of brilliance, and Stephen Hopkins gave a glimpse of what could be in store for the future bruising back.
The receiving corps showcased standout stars Roy Roundtree and Darryl Stonum, who both put up big numbers in their coming-out parties of 2010.
Yet again though, it was the defense that set the Wolverines back tremendously last year.
No player had more than five sacks, Jordan Kovacs and Jonas Mouton were the leading tacklers (never a good thing to see a safety in that discussion), plus the Wolverines ranked in the bottom half of the Big Ten in every major statistical defensive category.
Let me put it this way, Michigan gave up 20 points or more in 11 of their 13 games, with 8 of those 11 being more than 30 points. Scoring points is fun to watch, but when you can't stop anyone, that becomes your team identity.
We could go on and on all day about how horrible the defense was last season, but there's plenty of reason to be excited about an improving defense going into 2011 with a new leader at the helm.
2011 - What Lies Ahead
Returning Starters: 10 offense, 8 defense
Most will say there's only one way to go but up in this instance for Michigan, but there's definitely an uneasy feeling that Michigan can go down with a new coach and coaching staff.
Obviously, 18 of 22 starters returning is a huge plus for a brand new coach. And the new head man has a strong history in rebuilding dilapidated programs.
When Brady Hoke took over Ball State back in 2002, the program hadn't seen a winning season in almost a decade. In four years, Hoke had the Cardinals back up above .500 and playing above their expectations. In 2007, Hoke and the Cards nearly upset Nebraska in Lincoln and in 2008 they dominated Indiana in Bloomington.
Hoke then moved on to San Diego State, where he rebounded the Aztecs from a 4-8 record in 2009 to a 9-4 mark in 2010, plus a victory over Navy in the Poinsettia Bowl.
Prior to the 2010 season, SDSU hadn't won nine games in a season in almost 40 years and hadn't played in a bowl game in more than a decade.
All of those accolades show that Hoke can be successful at Michigan, and it also doesn't hurt that the former Wolverine coordinator has an extensive background in defense.
That does mean there are MAJOR questions going into 2011 on how the offense will be addressed with the defense needing so much attention. That leads us into the outlooks of both sides of the ball.
2011 - Offensive Outlook
As mentioned previously, offense was a bit of a strong suit last season you could say. Eighth in the country in total offense and first in the conference showed Michigan wanted to outscore opponents rather than trying to stop them. Just look to that three-overtime bonanza against Illinois which saw more than 130 points scored.
2011 will be centered around the offense undergoing big time changes in every area. While the whole notion of "If it isn't broke, don't fix it" comes into play, Brady Hoke isn't a guy that wants to see his teams put up 50 points and give up 40 to win a game.
Luckily, Hoke won't have to worry about trying to keep Tate Forcier quiet about his playing time or starting duties. Although it is funny to see that Forcier wants to play "closer to home" and he's looking into Auburn (Forcier is from San Diego. Yeah, you can't make this stuff up).
Anyway, just getting a little off track there, the new offensive coordinator Al Borges will still be favored to use returning Heisman hopeful Denard Robinson as a runner, and he won't be depended upon nearly as much to throw the ball down the field.
The new system will be much like the ones run at Ball State and San Diego State: slants, outs, short routes, getting the ball out of the QB's hands quickly. That will favor the speedy Robinson greatly.
Along with the West Coast offense being implemented in Ann Arbor, the rushing attack has quite a few formidable thrashers as well in between the tackles.
Junior Vincent Smith and senior Michael Shaw are both back as well as junior Michael Cox and sophomore Stephen Hopkins. That's a bevy of bruisers you can throw at opposing defenses, but none of the 4 are penciled in to get the starting nod as of now.
While all 4 bring a different element to the table, Hoke is more in favor of a power rushing attack and thus would be more likely to go with Michael Shaw than the leading rusher from last season in Vincent Smith. Shaw is a blend of power and speed, while Cox and Hopkins are your pure bruising backs in short yardage situations.
Roundtree, Hemingway, Odoms, Jackson, and Terrence Robinson are all back and are excellent targets for a West Coast system. All five are speedy, quick, and precise route runners who specialize in short bursts and catching the football.
Throw in the fact that Stephen Schilling is the only loss on the O-Line (granted, it's quite a big loss) and goodness what is there to worry about on the offensive side of the ball? All the pieces appear to be in place for a "pick up where you left off" season scoring points right?
While that may be the case, it's still a new system and a new coaching staff the players will be getting used to and that will take time getting used to. There's no reason to think Michigan can score 25-30 points per game still under new tutelage.
2011 - Defensive Outlook
Addition by subtraction: that will be the theme going into 2011 on the defensive side of the ball.
Obi Ezeh and Jonas Mouton have both departed from the linebacking corps along with corner James Rogers and lineman Greg Banks. Although all four started at one point during last season, there's no doubt it will be a huge boost to have new coaching and new players in those positions.
Hoke brings in former Ravens coordinator Greg Mattison to handle the defensive duties, which will DEFINITELY make things better, but not back to the way things used to be.
Michigan will go back to its roots with the 4-3 scheme (although Rich Rodriguez favored a more 3-3-5 look at times like he did at West Virginia) and that tends to favor the Wolverines going into the new campaign.
The four on the line will be anchored by 2010 All-Big Ten tackle Mike Martin. Dude was a beast at times last season and at other times got lost in the fray.
This season, he'll have help lined up next to him with 6'5" 325 behemoth William Campbell. Although Campbell didn't see much action on defense, his presence will surely be felt this upcoming season.
Ryan Van Bergen returns on one end, while the other will more than likely be converted linebacker Craig Roh, who is more suited to have his hand in the ground anyway.
The linebacking corps should be the area of improvement for 2011 with the losses of Obi Ezeh and Jonas Mouton. While both put up big numbers in terms of tackles, neither were suited to play linebacker in the Big Ten with their size. With their departures come experience and excitement.
Kenny Demens was a pleasant surprise from a year ago, checking in at third on the team in tackles. Throw in experience from hybrid linebacker Cam Gordon and J.B. Fitzgerald, and there is quite a bit of depth on linebacker.
Also don't be surprised if freshmen Kellen Jones or Antonio Poole see the field at one time or another during their first season on campus. Both are wicked fast and excellent pass rushers as linebackers.
The secondary was obviously a sore spot last season, as teams past over, around, through, behind, and any other way you could possibly think of. Top corner James Rogers is gone, but leading tackler Jordan Kovacs is back at safety.
Along with the junior is corner J.T. Floyd, who became another dependent tackler last season. Troy Woolfolk is back after a season that was decimated by injury, which will make the corner positions a strong area of experience. Don't be surprised if freshman Blake Countess gets a shot at a nickel spot either. He's been raved about for his abilities as a physical, cover corner.
Along with Kovacs sophomore Carvin Johnson looks to be manning the other safety position. He had a couple cracks at the hybrid linebacker as well last season, but he's more suited to be in the secondary.
Which goes into another area that must be addressed for 2011: physicality on defense. Michigan was WAY too soft on defense and got out physical-ed by stronger teams such as Wisconsin and Ohio State.
Brady Hoke will take the toughest guys to be on defense and you can best believe they won't lose the fight in the trenches too often any more.
Reason To Be Excited: Returning Experience
Having so many returning starters back on both sides of the ball is going to be a huge deal when instituting a new head coach in Ann Arbor. And with the mindset that new coach Brady Hoke brings to the defensive side of the ball, there's reason to believe this team can put it together on both sides of the ball.
The strongest unit of the team just may be the wide receiving corps, and that's a huge plus for a West Coast offense like Michigan will begin to use in 2011. Robinson has taken well to the short passes in the new game plan, and that's always an excellent sign for a relatively new quarterback.
The offensive line also has four of five starters back, and was numero uno in the Big Ten in sacks allowed. While some of that is contributed to the fact that Robinson is darn near impossible to bring down behind the line of scrimmage, it does help the notion that this O-Line can block for the run game as well.
Reason To Worry: Brady Hoke's First Season
Of the two previous head coaching jobs taken by Brady Hoke at Ball State and San Diego State, he took over losing programs and came through with a losing record in the first season.
This time is of course a different scenario, but it does serve to reason that there's a possibility it may take time to implement Hoke's changes in the Michigan program.
For the Wolverines, winning is ingrained in the culture but lately it's been trying to keep their head above water and avoid any suspensions or investigations from the NCAA. That will change with Hoke, but it may take some time to do so.
Again, it is appropriate to mention this team that's returning has a ton of experience back, but it will take time to change the culture that has developed thanks to Rich Rodriguez.
2011 Overall Outlook
Best-Case Scenario: Denard Robinson flourishes under the West Coast offense, and the defense is able to get back to keeping teams under 30 points for more than half of their games. The Wolverines take advantage of the first five home games to begin the season and use that momentum to finish towards the top of the Legends division. Record (9-3)
Worst-Case Scenario: Robinson has problems learning the new offense, and loses his abilities to find open receivers on short routes. The rushing game falters without a No. 1 back, and the defense reveals it hasn't improved much under the new coaching staff. Record (5-7)
The Wolverines should hover around the 5- to 9-win mark but do have the opportunity to go to 10 if they can somehow take down Nebraska and Ohio State to end the regular season. It does help tremendously that their first five games are at home in the Big House, but the Big Ten schedule is treacherous.
The last four are against Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska and Ohio State: all of which expect to compete in division play for the Big Ten Championship.
In the end, if Michigan finishes 1-11 in Hoke's first year and that lone victory is at the end of the season to Ohio State, Wolverine fans would be ecstatic to end a terrible run of play against the Buckeyes.
Expectations are still high as ever in Ann Arbor, which will only increase as Hoke goes into 2012.
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