Thursday, May 11, 2006

Some early summer thoughts on Michigan Football

First up, the offense:

QB: Chad Henne is entering his 3rd year as starter for Michigan. He came out like gangbusters as a freshman, though he was aided by throwing to Biletnikoff winner Braylon Edwards who caught everything in sight. Last year, some considered it a bit of a sophomore slump even though his numbers were roughly the same as his freshman year. Well, I'm expecting big things out of Chad this year. He should have a much improved ground game backing him up, as well as a plethora of talented receivers to air it out to. Not much depth here, however, as RS Frosh Jason Forcier is the backup after Matt Gutierrez transferred to Idaho State.

RB: Mike Hart is still the man. He missed a ton of time last year with all sorts of injuries, but he is back to 100% healthy and looking to explode back on to the national scene. When he's getting carries, he's a threat to go for 150+ in every game and he's had a number of 200 yard games as well. He also catches the ball well out of the backfield. He is simply one of my favorite running backs of all time with his non stop effort and his ability to break tackles by much bigger and stronger players. But as good as Hart is, depth is where Michigan really excels at RB. Kevin Grady has slimmed down and added some speed because he was a bit too much of a bruiser last year. Watch for him to hit the holes even faster and cut quicker this year adding a very nice change of pace from Hart. And then when you want to throw in a speedy scat back? Take your pick from senior Alijah Bradley or true freshman Carlos Brown. Bradley is very smart and has great vision. Brown is the burner that is a threat to go the distance when he gets loose. What it all adds up to is a very deep and dangerous group of backs that is probably amongst the best in the nation.

WR/TE: Mario Manningham. Just write that name down and pull it out at the end of the year when All Big Ten teams are named. He's that good. Braylon Edwards, David Terrell, Desmond Howard, Derrick Alexander, Marquise Walker, etc. have all come through Ann Arbor in recent years, but none can touch when Super Mario did as a freshman. The kid just knows how to get open and how to catch the ball. With Jason Avant gone this year, look for Manningham to get a lot of balls thrown his way. 75+ catches and 1200 yards are not out of the question as he looks to continue the long line for dominant receivers at Michigan. Who else will be fighting for catches? Steve Breaston is the obvious choice for #2, but his career as a WR has been filled with question marks (as opposed to his career as a return man). Last year, he was given the shot at becoming the deep threat to replace Braylon but he showed a horrible ability to adjust to the ball in the air and misplayed numerous deep passes. He still excels when catching the ball in the open field and using his return skills to make people look silly (see his 50+ yd TD against Iowa last year). I expect the Michigan coaches to do a better job of using him in his final year and just letting him do what he does best. Adrian Arrington (the tall skinny guy) and LaTerryal Savoy (the tall strong guy) are both vying for the 3rd receiver spot and a chance to be a big target in the redzone. Should be an interesting battle but I like Savoy. Antonio Bass was slated to be a jack-of-all-trades again this year, but he is out for the season with a serious knee injury suffered this spring. Hopefully he can get healthy and be ready to fly next year. At TE, Tyler Ecker is the returning semi-starter who split time with Tim Massaquoi last year. I really like his skills as a receiver, but I cannot get the images of him ending the OSU game and the Nebraska game last year with bone-headed decisions. Carson Butler will be a RS-freshman this year and has immense talent. He's out of the Antonio Gates "I was a power forward, but now I'm a TE" school for having a huge body and great athleticism. He will definitely create some mismatches this year as there likely aren't many LBs that can cover him 25 yards down field and there definitely aren't any DBs that can match his size and strength.

OL: always the most important position on offense, and it has plenty of question marks. LT is the most important spot, however, and roadgrading Jake Long has been moved there from RT to guard Henne's blind side. Long is a beast and if he remains healthy is likely a lock for all conference with a chance at being all american. The rest of the line is filled with question marks, however. I don't feel qualified to speak on the relative strengths/weaknesses of guys like Kolodziej or Mooseman, but they all have something to prove. Hopefully we get some nice surprises on the OL this year.


And now we have the defense...

DL: Wow. That's all I can say. Easily the most talented DL to call Michigan Stadium home since 1996 or 1997. LaMarr Woodley and Alan Branch are both dominant players. Woodley is a phenomenal edge rusher that makes plays all over the field. Branch is a massive man with quick feet and good hands that can play inside or out. After that, there are lots of other solid players. Tim Jamison is an undersized speed rusher in the mold of Kabeer Gbaja Biamila. He won't be holding up against power rushing plays, but he can knife past a lot of blockers to make plays in the backfield. Terrance Taylor is a former powerlifting state champ that should be a formidable NT/DT.

LB: David Harris was a very pleasant surprise last year at MLB as he showed a great knack for beating blocks and making tackles. Prescott Burgess and Chris Graham and Shawn Crable have excellent ability, but each has been up and down (some more than others). Crable figures to have a big impact this year if Ron English goes with the attacking style that fans are hoping for. He's freakishly big and quick and can be very difficult to block. Brandon Graham is a stud true freshman that might push for PT but I think it will be hard for him to see much and he might redshirt. John Thompson and Brandon Logan will also be in the mix.

DB: Well, the safety spot is loaded with guys with starting experience and the CB position isn't. Leon Hall is a lock at one corner and one of the better CBs in the country. He's got decent size, good speed, and a knack for making plays. The other spot? Toss up between speedster Morgan Trent, bigger (but slower) Charles Stewart, and supremely talented by short on experience Johnny Sears. I'm hoping Sears wins the spot because that would likely mean he is starting to live up to his talent. At safety? Take your pick from guys like Ryan Mundy, Willis Barringer, Brandent Engelmon, and Brandon Harrison. I think Mundy and Harrison might be the 2 most talented but they are both free safeties. Heck, don't forget about true soph Jamar Adams who could put himself in the mix at SS.


What do I expect this year? Last year was absolutely brutal going 7-5 with horrible losses to OSU, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. All woulda/coulda/shoulda been wins. Then again, we coulda/woulda/shoulda lost to Iowa and Penn State. This year, I expect a much more dominant Michigan team. Every game will not be a nail biter. Part of this will be due to a more consistent offense (mostly due to a great rushing attack) and part of it will be due to more of a playmaking defense instead of the "sit back and watch the other team march down the field" gameplan of Jim Hermann. I'll be disappointed with anything less than 10 wins next year (including bowl game) and I still consider us co-favs in the Big Ten along with Ohio State. The schedule doesn't do us any favors with roadies at South Bend, Happy Valley, and Columbus, but I really don't care. I expect this team to display a little bit of attitude and swagger next year on the field.

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