Big Ten Football Previews – Part X
Editor's Note: This is the tenth in a series of my annual summer Big Ten football previews. Check back weekly (approximately) to see who’s next...
Team: Michigan Wolverines
Tidbits … Michigan is 860-282-36 with a .745 winning percentage all-time – the winningest program in college football history. U-M has 42 conference titles to its credit, 18 of them outright, and 10 of them shared with Ohio State. The last losing season in Ann Arbor was 1967. The last time the maize and blue failed to go bowling was 1975.
2006 Prediction/actual: 9-3, 6-2 (T-3rd), Outback / 11-2, 7-1 (T-2nd), Rose
2005 Prediction / actual: 9-2, 6-2 (T-1st), BCS / 7-5, 5-3 (T-3rd), Alamo
2004 Prediction / actual: 10-1, 7-1 (T-1st), BCS / 9-3, 7-1 (T-1st), Rose
2003 Prediction / actual: 10-2, 6-2 (T-2nd) / 10-3, 7-1 (1st)
2002 Prediction / actual: 8-4, 5-3 (T-4th) / 10-3, 6-2 (3rd)
2001 Prediction / actual: 8-3, 6-2 (T-1st) / 8-4, 6-2 (2nd)
Returning Starters: 6 offense, 4 defense, 1 kicker
Key Returnees: QB Chad Henne, WR Mario Manningham, RB Mike Hart, LT Jake Long, LG Adam Kraus, DT Terrance Taylor, LB Shawn Crable, S Jamar Adams
Key Losses: RT Rueben Riley, WR/KR Steve Breaston, DT Alan Branch, DE LaMarr Woodley, LB David Harris, LB Prescott Burgess, CB Leon Hall, K Garrett Rivas
Looking Back ... The 2006 season was yet another very successful one for the nation’s best college football program. Sure, by Michigan fan’s standards it didn’t live up to expectations, but the Wolverines jumped out to an 11-0 start, played in a highly anticipated and memorable 1 vs. 2 battle with arch-rival Ohio State and returned to Pasadena for what seemed like the hundredth time in history. Yes, the season wound up 11-2 and the two losses were the last two games played (OSU and USC) but there are at least 100 other programs in D1 football that would kill to have the sustained success that the maize and blue have enjoyed.
Aside from the two tough losses on the field, Michigan lost an icon when Bo Schembechler passed away just before the game in Columbus. Those “three” losses aside, it was another solid season in Ann Arbor. The defense was tough, the offense explosive at times and all other rivals (Notre Dame, Michigan State & Penn State) were beaten and battered by the boys in blue. A great measuring stick for how good a season played out, or more appropriately how well a program develops its players is the NFL draft. Michigan landed seven draftees in April, including four in the first two rounds. Another solid indicator of Michigan’s success in 2006. We know the success has been sustained for decades, the question heading into fall camp – can it be built upon this go around?
Outlook - Offense ... If I asked you to jog your memory and tell me if Michigan had resounding success on offense last season, I bet the majority of you would say yes. Well, you’re both right and wrong. The star power was there for certain. So was the scoring (second in the conference at 29.2 ppg). The rushing attack was vintage Michigan, with Mike Hart churning out 1,562 yards and leading the Wolverines to a league best 2,282 yards for the season. However, despite the passing weapons in the cache, the aerial attack struggled at times. Michigan was just middle of the pack in total offense and maybe not as balanced as one would hope for. That could, more likely - should change this year with the key pieces coming back hungry to be atop every category this fall…
Michigan is the only legitimate title contender in the Big Ten this year (aside from maybe Penn State) that brings a starting quarterback back into the fold. And not just any starter. A three-year starter. Chad Henne was pressed into duty as a true freshman and has led Michigan to two Rose Bowls, a share of one Big Ten title and a second place finish (last year). He has the total package and appears destined to be an early pick in the 2008 NFL draft. But back to the here and now, Henne’s legacy as one of the best quarterbacks to don the winged helmet will only come to fruition if he leads this team to college football’s promised land – the BCS championship game.
Henne had a moderately successful junior campaign, by Michigan standards anyway. He completed 61.9-percent of his passes for 22 scores, eight interceptions and 2,508 yards. That would turn heads every where else, but remember, we’re talking about the best program in college football history and expectations are always sky high. He should have no trouble moving closer to 2006 Troy Smith-like numbers (30 TDs, 5 picks) because he has all of his key weapons back. Even if he produces like 2006, that should be good enough to lead Michigan a long way this season. If Henne gets hurt, the ball goes to true freshman Ryan Mallett. At a towering 6-6 and a solid 245-pounds, Mallett is the next star quarterback for the Wolverines. Ideally he can watch and maybe even redshirt this fall, but he’s an injury away from becoming the next Chad Henne. Beyond Mallett there is little experience to fill the number three role, but don’t expect to see anyone other than Henne for the majority of the snaps this fall.
It might be hard to fathom, but Mike Hart is arguably the most underrated tailback in college football. Maybe it’s because he’s on the small side. Perhaps it’s because this is Michigan and the maize and blue always field a 1,000 yard rusher – i.e. it’s the system not the player. But trust me, it’s different with Hart. The guy is a winner. He came out of high school as an amazing producer and has done nothing but churn out yards and scores in his career at Michigan as well. What he means to this offense can best be summed up in how the Wolverines struggled as he battled injury as a sophomore. The 5-9, 196-pound back is poised to capture top honors in a league that has a bevy of nice backs. A season ago he rushed for just seven yards and one score less than leader PJ Hill (Wisconsin). This year he may take a back seat statistically if only because Michigan might work to bring even more balance to the attack. Either way, he’s my preseason All Big Ten tailback and a player that could contend for Offensive Player of the Year honors.
One of the great luxuries U-M has is depth at positions like tailback. And we’re not just talking bodies. We’re talking guys who would start most anywhere in the nation. That might take a slight hit this year, as Kevin Grady is still working through a major knee injury. However, right on cue, there are guys like Brandon Minor – last season’s second leading rusher – a big but lightning fast sophomore and Carlos Brown. Brown, who was moved to the defensive secondary in the spring pending the status of Grady, may stay at tailback for the foreseeable future.
The Wolverines must replace the lead blocker from a season ago, Obi Oluigbo. The fullback is often the most overlooked, unheralded player on the field, but don’t sleep on the position in terms of its importance in the Michigan running attack. Oluigbo was good, but replacing him won’t be too difficult. There are only three fullbacks listed on the roster, but Michigan won’t need to go much deeper than sophomore Mark Moundros. As he develops, he’ll see more time and hopefully offer a nice safety valve on passing downs on top of good run and pass blocking. Freshman Vince Helmuth and sophomore Quintin Patilla are the backups. Put it all together and you have one of the top ground games in a conference with some nice attacks.
In this look at Michigan, the maize and blue are two for two in terms of returning star power. Make that three for three as we delve into the receiving corps. Gone is Steve Breaston, but he was always a bigger threat to take one to the house on special teams than at wide receiver. Back in the mix and hoping to stay healthy all season long is one of the best receivers in college football – Mario Manningham. The junior might have been the best player over the first half of last season, and then suffered a knee injury that slowed him a bit. Now that he’s back and ready to go, look out. He provides a highly reliable first option for Henne all wrapped up in a game breaking package. What will help Manningham and the Michigan passing game is the return of Adrian Arrington from off-field troubles that had him suspended during spring ball. Arrington is a big target and was the second leading receiver last season. His absence in the spring allowed Greg Mathews to step up and shine. Now the two are locked in a battle to see who will join Manningham in the starting lineup. Another player to watch, though one who also got into some hot water in the spring, is LaTerryal Savoy, a former superstar recruit who could finally turn some heads this fall.
At tight end, Michigan must replace co-starters Tyler Ecker and Carson Butler. The heir apparent is senior Mike Massey. Massey isn’t your typical big, bruising tight end (6-4, 229) but has decent hands and has been a nice performer on special teams. Massey’s backups are probably better blockers respectively but not the threats to make things happen in the passing game. Juniors Chris McLaurin and Andre Criswell have a bit more size but will need to get better in the pitch and catch game to see the field in key situations. Overall, Michigan might be a bit light on depth at receiver compared to past seasons, but the talent is fantastic as usual and poised to lead the Wolverines from the middle of the pack (in passing offense) to the top.
Rounding out one heck of an offensive unit is a front five that might boast the best left side in the game. Henne-Hart-Manningham is arguably the best combo of QB-RB-WR in college football. What gives them a huge edge is the offensive front. There is plenty of time for Henne to drop back and find Manningham. The line opens up holes galore for the shifty Hart to find, dart through and break big gains. While replacing two-fifths of the starters is never a fun task, the Wolverines found ample, if not better replacements for center Mark Bihl and right tackle Rueben Riley. Justin Boren is a 6-3, 310-pound sophomore who could be one of the best centers to suit up for the maize and blue. He has versatility to play guard as well. Fellow sophomore Mark Ortmann fills Riley’s position with great athleticism and measurables. Where the bread is buttered is in the three that return. Left tackle Jake Long could have gone pro early and his return might pay huge NFL dividends as he’ll be spotlighted all year long. Adam Kraus is versatile and can play center but will start along side Long. The pair should be playing well into the future, but for now give Michigan an imposing left side. Junior Alex Mitchell rounds out the playing group. The 6-5, 317-pound right guard can also play outside adding to the overall adaptability of the starting group.
Again, part of Michigan’s success as a program is its strength in numbers. Some programs are lucky to field a first string and half of a second string. Not Michigan. Players who could start most anywhere else will go to Michigan and toil among the second and third stringers just to be a part of the program. We all know that it really comes in handy with the offensive line, however, to have plenty of talented depth. Injuries and the need for a breather take their toll over the course of a twelve game regular season and that spells opportunities for guys like Steve Schilling (right tackle), Cory Zirbel (tackle), Jeremy Ciulla (guard), Tim McAvoy (center) and David Moosman (center). If McAvoy or Moosman were to emerge as a solid option at center, it might mean that Boren can move to guard and Mitchell to the outside. A nice problem to have – where to put all the bodies. Any way you slice it, Michigan is stacked on the offensive line again this fall and the group will be the number one factor in the success of the skill players all season long.
I think it is fair to put Michigan in the same league as last year’s returning offense in Columbus. Henne is bigger albeit less mobile than Smith but is a more prototypical passer. Manningham has wheels and hands to be the Ginn or Gonzalez of that offense and Hart is a better back than Pittman. Toss in the front line and positions like tight end and fullback and it isn’t out of the question to expect the same explosiveness in all facets of the game that led the hated rival to the BCS title game last season. Even an injury here or there should not derail this team. It all comes down to not getting complacent and continually pushing to be better than ever…
Outlook - Defense ... If there is anything that may hold Michigan back a touch this year it will be the defense. After taking a huge step forward last season under the tutelage of Ron English, the Wolverines will again aim to do what rival OSU did a season ago – replace a load of starters with speedy, athletic playmakers and develop into a defensive force. SO why might they step back and who dare says that with English in charge? Well, I’m not saying, I’m just saying. If, IF there is a weakness heading into the season, it is probably the defense. Not because there aren’t playmakers, just because seven such players have taken their game to the next level.
The biggest task is up front, where three of four starters have moved on. Tackle Alan Branch and ends LaMarr Woodley and Rondell Biggs are honing their skills for Sunday’s. Only big tackle Terrance Taylor is back, but let me tell you, he’s a great returnee to build around. He is big, strong, and quick and should be the next draft pick off the line. Will Johnson is a quick, athletic tackle tasked with filling the shoes of Branch. It may take him awhile to make folks forget about Branch, but Johnson has all the tools to do so. Filling the void at the ends are senior Tim Jamison and sophomore Brandon Graham. Jamison is a senior with experience at linebacker and end and will need to step up with consistency. Graham is a freak of nature. He has wideout speed with great size and might be the next great linebacker to end convert – a la Woodley.
Along with replacing three starters, the depth chart is a little bit in question up front. The biggest issue that presents itself is inexperience. There isn’t a ton of proven production stepping up but as I’ve said before, it’s Michigan. There is no rebuilding, just reloading. Speaking of the depth, the players to keep a close eye on are sophomore end Adam Patterson and 6-3, 318-pound sophomore tackle Jason Kates. The pair is of course relatively untested – Kates has yet to see any mentionable action – but will have to step right in to help the big blue defense. Several others are in the mix to see the field and you can expect to see a big rotation early in the season as the status of games allows. One thing is for sure, the group will be far better at the end of the season than it is heading into the season, and even then, it really is pretty good already here in August…
I should have led in that the defense really needs to replace a boatload in the entire front seven, not just on the line. Prescott Burgess and David Harris are gone and the pair led the team in tackles last season. The loss of Harris might be the biggest one facing the coaching staff this fall. The man in the middle was all over the field, it seemed, and will be missed. The candidates to replace him are senior John Thompson or the second JUCO transfer of the Lloyd Carr era – Austin Panter. Neither has tremendous size for a middle linebacker, both are solid tacklers with good speed.
The leader of the group, assuming he stays at the strongside and doesn’t move to the defensive line, is Shawn Crable. Crable is quick, athletic and able to be a key stopper on the U-M defense this fall. Burgess’ spot belongs to Chris Graham, a spot starter that has great wheels. Another name to watch is Obi Ezeh. The big sophomore is primed to be a great linebacker even if he is still a little raw (and in some hot water for an off season DUI). Brandon Logan and Max Pollock are two more players who should get some time this season on what will, like the line, start a little slow and end with a bang.
The strength of the Michigan defense, despite the need to plug two holes, is the secondary. Leon Hall took his game to the first round of the NFL draft. Willis Barringer was a steady starter at free safety. But, Michigan brings two back that have a chance to be as good, if not better in senior Morgan Trent and senior Jamar Adams. Trent is a big, rangy corner with good tackling skills but sometimes questionable cover skills. He was used like a rented mule in the last two games of the season – both Michigan losses. He didn’t necessarily improve over the spring, but he still have the potential to be a lock-down cover man. Adams hits like a heavyweight fighter, is tough, smart, fast and possesses great ball skills. He is the leader of the secondary, maybe the defense.
Replacing Hall is a tall task, and one that looks to fall to Johnny Sears. Sears has blazing speed but limited experience and will be fighting Brandon Harrison and Carlos Brown as well as Doug Dutch for his time. This trio gives Michigan depth to go with the talent that resides, always a good thing in the smash-mouth Big Ten. Filling Barringer's shoes at the free safety spot will be Stevie Brown or Brandent Englemon. Brown is fast and physical and had a solid spring. Englemon was a disappointment last season but has one more go around to get it right. Rounding out the playing group will be Charles Stewart, a versatile senior who can also play some corner. There you have it, the most depth, the most returning starters, the best unit of the defense…
The need to replace seven starters is a little concerning to this outsider. I keep harping on the fact that this is Michigan, but even Appalachian State is no cakewalk, and then Oregon, Notre Dame and Penn State come to town on successive weeks. This new bunch of players needs to step up fast and step up big. The good news is that Michigan has an offense that will allow for some growing pains and then in the end, the Wolverines should look very much like rival OSU did a year ago – chock full of new, game-changing players hungry to get Michigan to the national title game.
Outlook - Special Teams ... Michigan has it nailed at two of the three areas on special teams. The return game should be excellent, as usual with speed to burn all over the place. The key will be for someone to be as elusive as Breaston was the past four years. The second strong point will be the punting game. Zoltan Mesko has a cool first name and a big leg. He’s a big kid with the ability to pin teams deep and with accuracy. The question is who will replace Garrett Rivas, who seemed to be there forever and made 17 of 20 field goals a season ago. It looks to be a three-way battle between Jason Gingell, K.C. Lapata and Bryan Wright. Gingell and Lapata are seniors, Wright a sophomore and whoever is most consistent in fall camp will get first crack at it. Regardless of who it is, it’ll be a tall task to replace the consistency of Rivas.
9/1 – APPALACHIAN STATE
9/8 – OREGON
9/15 – NOTRE DAME
9/22 – PENN STATE
9/29 – at Northwestern
10/6 – EASTERN MICHIGAN
10/13 – PURDUE
10/20 – at Illinois
10/27 – MINNESOTA
11/3 – at Michigan State
11/10 – at Wisconsin
11/17 – OHIO STATE
Key Games: 9/8 – Oregon, 9/15 – Notre Dame, 9/22 – Penn State, 11/3 – at Michigan State, 11/10 – at Wisconsin, 11/17 – Ohio State
Prediction ... Michigan has an impressive schedule this year. Despite missing Iowa and Indiana, the Wolverines have one of the top all-around slates in the conference. It starts with Appalachian State, a 1-AA foe that is at the top of its division. Oregon and Notre Dame come to town in successive weeks giving a tough start to the season, albeit at home. There are four games circles on the Big Ten calendar – Penn State and Ohio State at the beginning and end of league play and roadies at MSU and Wisconsin deep into the slate. An undefeated campaign is not out of the question, but that game in Madison looms large. Payback will come against the Buckeyes, but only after a lone slip up in Mad-town en route to another BCS bowl berth.
B10: 7-1 (loss at Wisconsin)
Overall: 11-1, T-1st in the conference, BCS Bowl berth