Saturday, May 24, 2008

A New Hope

This post has been a long time coming. Sorry about that. I've been way too busy with work and personal life to spend much time on the net the last few months. Throw in that this is generally my blogging down time anyway and it's a recipe for a nonexistant blog.

Anyways, I'm starting to turn my attention towards college football once again. We aren't that far off from August and the clock is going to start ticking towards opening kickoff. I'm excited for Michigan football. Not excited in the sense that I get excited for Michigan football every year, but excited to watch something different. The last time there was this much change in Ann Arbor, Bo Schembechler had just been hired and brighter days were on the horizon.

What this post isn't going to be: bragging up Rich Rodriguez as the greatest coach ever, talking about Michigan being unbeatable, etc.

What is it about? Reasons for hope and excitement and enthusiasm. Reasons why Michigan might be on the brink of something special. I'm not talking about winning a national title this year. It isn't going happen. You don't lose Chad Henne and Mike Hart and Jake Long and Mario Manningham and Adrian Arrington and several other starters and completely change the offense and then when a national championship. It doesn't happen. Heck, I'm probably not even talking about winning a Big Ten championship this year.

What I am talking about is a change in the culture of Michigan football that will hopefully pay long term dividends and put Michigan back atop the Big Ten conference for the forseeable future and end Ohio State's run of Big Ten titles.

On to some specifics...

Michigan's offense had become stagnant. They basically ran the same offense for the past 10-15+ years without a whole lot of change. Some details came and went such as the HB screen and the zone blocking scheme. But in general, it was the exact same sets and the exact same play calls. Watching Mike Hart run behind Jake Long for the 250th time last year got to be a bit predictable considering he had already done it 700 other times in his career. I think in a lot of ways, the overall consistency from year to year made them easy for opponents to game plan for. You knew what you had to defend and even if Michigan had better players, you had a little bit better chance of slowing them down.

Some people like to think Rich Rodriguez runs some kind of funky run and shoot offense that won't sit well in the Big Ten and bad weather. But honestly, he likes to run the ball as much as anybody else. I refuse to drag up a bunch of stats for this post, but his rushing offense was always dominant at West Virginia despite having a bunch of 2 and 3 star recruits running it. Two things that I absolutely love about Rodriguez's offensive philosophy. For one, he's flexible. When he had Shaun King at Tulane, they lit it up through the air with a dynamic passing game. When he got stuck with Pat White who couldn't throw the ball more than 15 yards in a spiral, he ran the ball heavily. I also love the idea of spreading out the defense and forcing them to play in space. As far as I can tell, Rodriguez wants to have a boat load of fast and talented TBs and slot WRs and outside WRs and force the defense into bad matchups that they can't win. He'd rather run the ball against a 5 man box than an 8 man box. He'd rather throw a swing pass to a blazing fast smurf matched up with an OLB or SS than a swing pass to a fullback. He also doesn't huddle much, forcing the defense to not substitute and get winded. Which brings me to conditioning....

Michigan's strength and conditioning had gotten stale under Mike Gittleson. I guess that is bound to happen when one guy runs the show for 25 odd years. Mike Barwis is winning a lot of support from players claiming to already be in the best shape of their lives after a few weeks with him to former players and current pros beating down the door to come for voluntary offseason workouts. The somewhat realistic hope from all this is pretty simple. Michigan fans and foes will tell you that they can recruit with the best in the country and have for years. But now you will be seeing these players getting even faster and even stronger which should create an even bigger advantage on the field for Michigan.

I'm not going to lie. This year is going to be ugly at times on offense. Steven Threet is a very talented QB, but he isn't going to kill people running the zone read option. Rodriguez is going to have to get creative to consistently move the ball. He'll have a deep and talented group of backs and receivers to work with, but inexperience abounds on the offensive line and under center. It will be a little frustrating at times to watch them run the ball from the shotgun on 3rd and one with four wide receivers and get stuffed at the line. But it will be exciting to see them break the same play for a 50 yard touchdown other times.

But deep down, the idea of Michigan forcing opponents to try to match up with superior athletes across the field and spreading the ball to all of them is exciting.

Defensively, I really like the hire Rodriguez made with Scott Shafer. He has made quite the name for himself at previous stops with Stanford and Western Michigan for loving to create havoc in the backfield. Expect to see Michigan blitzing heavily this fall and relying on outstanding CBs to hold their own in man coverage. With a young offense, it will be up to them to force some turnovers and get some short fields to work with.

I could go on. I probably will at some point. But blogging will still be pretty light until college football season revs up again. Either that or if the Tigers get red hot and pique my interest. Until then, I'm watching the Red Wings.