2008 Michigan Football- The Undiscovered Country

 

Every offseason I spend time watching and re-watching games from the past Michigan football season.

 

While preparing for the Capital One Bowl, the realization hit me that none of what I was watching has any bearing on the future of Michigan football.

 

Every coach except for one is gone next season.

 

On offense, it should come as no surprise that receivers Mario Manningham and Adrian Arrington have departed for the NFL.  QB Chad Henne, RB Mike Hart, and OL Jake Long have exhausted their eligibility.  QB heir apparent Ryan Mallett, who filled in this season when Henne was injured, has decided to transfer rather than try and fit his skills into the spread offense.

 

It is completely possible that along with a new offensive philosophy we may see different starters at every position the next time a Wolverine QB snaps the ball.

 

And while I’m excited about the potential of the spread offense,  Michigan fans are facing the great unknown.

 

Even Michigan Stadium will be vastly different as the largest renovation in its history has begun.

 

Ground has been broken on the new indoor practice facility and football weight room has been cleared out in preparation for new equipment.

 

Forget everything you’ve come to know about Michigan football.

 

Between the coaching change and facility upgrades we are oberving on the greatest periods of change in the history of Michigan football.

 

Are you ready?

2007 Michigan Football- Henne and Hart- Invincible?

 

Recently I watched the movie Invicible, which tells the true story of a Vince Papale, a 30 year old bartender who becomes an NFL player after being discovered at an open tryout.  In the movie, Papale freezes and blows a play during his first NFL game against the Dallas Cowboys.  As he leaves the field the head coach screams at him, “I stuck my neck out for you!”

 

The message was clear- it didn’t matter that Papale was a folk hero to the team’s fans, or that the coach personally liked him- if he couldn’t do his job and help the team win he wouldn’t play.

 

I thought about this scene in the movie as I watched QB Chad Henne and RB Mike Hart struggle against Ohio State Saturday.

 

 

It would have been a great story to have them return from injury and lead the Wolverines to victory over the Buckeyes.  It would have awesome to have Lloyd’s loyalty to his seniors validated with a victory in his final game at Michigan Stadium.

 

 

But it didn’t turn out that way.

 

The Michigan mantra is supposed to be “The Team, The Team, The Team” but on Saturday I’m not sure if the best interests of the team were served.

Michigan Football- Cupid Interferes

The University of Michigan Football team has to return to its winning ways to prove to itself, its fans, its enemies, and the college football world in general that it is a program on the upswing again, and capable of recruiting, competing, and winning against the likes of the Irish and the loudmouthed, and always only so slightly soiled Buckeyes of the world.

That the Wolverines have several new Assistant Coaches this year is well known.  It is hoped they will instill a new enthusiasm (Coach English has referred to it as increased defensive violence within the rules) in the Wolverine program..

The offense seems to be the major work.  The dismal offensive production last year led to the appointment of long time Assistant and onetime Offensive Coordinator, Mike DeBord as Offensive Coordinator again, replacing the well liked Terry Malone, who had replaced Mike as OC earlier.

Many have cited Mike’s record as Head Coach of the Central Michigan Chippewas as one reason he should not have assumed that post, that he is the beneficial recipient of cronyism since he and Carr are friends, and others decry his style, which in the past has stressed the run, and has favored play action, the TEs, and sometimes the waggle.  His first half calls in the 2000 Orange Bowl are also cited.  The Wolverines persisted with a non productive running attack during the entire first half against a great Alabama defense, but after the break they let Tom Brady light it up, and they squeaked by with a victory.

Can Mike D. elevate the dismal offensive performance of last year to something approaching an elite Big Ten level?  I think he can, but before we injure ourselves leaping to conclusions, we await the proof.

Occasionally, a sports team can leap from the nether regions to the top offensively, statistically and otherwise.  Penn State was a stunning example of that last year.  In other sports, those long time bottom feeding Detroit Tigers are floating to the top.  Even I am regaining interest in them.  It can’t be predicted that Michigan has the ability to do that this year.  I won’t believe it until I see it.

Obviously, Coach DeBord and the other coaching additions  have  to prove themselves. As importantly, it is time for Chad Henne to step up.  It is time for him to lead his team to victory against the Irish and Ohio State. It is time for him to lead his team to a major bowl victory. He has a ton of experience, with plenty of highs (overtime wins against Michigan State, that laser to Manningham with a second left to skewer  PSU etc)., and plenty of lows (interception at Notre Dame, poor ball security, batted balls and so on). It is time for Chad Henne to take  his long anticipated place among the elite QBs in the Big Ten.  Hopefully he can challenge the Green and White’s Drew Stanton who is as of now annointed the Big Ten’s best by most.  Do you think Drew remembers that Woodley hit that put him out of the game a couple of years ago?  Their fans, poor babies, are still upset by that little extra Woodley twist.  Not me. Clean play. No flag.

If there is to be an offensive resurgence, Chad will have to lead it by producing in the red zone and moving the ball at crunch time.  He will have to prove he is an improved QB.  It appears he has the talent to achieve the level of play that he wants, but I’ll believe it when I see it.

Last year I seriously over rated the quality of the offensive line when healthy, and worse they were dinged most of the year. Senior offensive Linemen Matt Lentz, Adam Stenevich,  and Leo Henige didn’t get drafted by the pros.  That fact speaks for itself.  Big Leo was running around on “wheels” too often repaired, which of course reduced his mobility, so his effectiveness did not match his courage.  You have to credit him with the guts just to play. I appreciate that line’s contributions and they were and are good Michigan men.  We expected too much of them because we credited it with more talent than it proved to have. Certainly we expected more production than we got.

It is hoped improved mobility is the key to OL improvement. It has been indicated that certain linemen such as Jake Long are slimmed up (or should I say slimmed down) this year, maybe quicker if not faster.  For Michigan to suceed this year, Jake has to have an all Big Ten year. Mark Bihl has to finally break through and establish himself as THE offensive center, BEYOND ALL DOUBT, so the rising Adam Kraus can play elsewhere. Will they suddenly become a good run blocking line after last year’s discouragement?  I think DeBord will make them play tougher, but again we shall have to wait until they prove it before we anticipate great success.  Some newer blood, like Alex Mitchell, has to develop, and it would be nice if Reuben Riley could work at guard instead of tackle as it seems to be his position of choice.  Fortunately, he is good enough to play where the team needs him.

It is easy to anticipate Mike Hart having an outstanding year.  You have to respect this kid’s attitude, toughness, vision, desire, strength, competitiveness, and ability to avoid contact, and to gain yards after contact.  He is the complete package, especially when healthy, even if some question his top end.  It is easy to predict lots of carries and lots of yards, and a great season if he remains healthy, but I am not ready to anticipate him gaining 1,400 yards at this point in time as some would have it.

It seems the better situation would be sharing some of the wear and tear with Kevin Grady.  Grady had an outstanding spring and is leaner this year.  There is plenty of talent at the running back position.  Mister Simson proved a hard runner in the spring, Alijah Bradley can move it, Jerome Jackson may be back, and hyper talented newcomer Carlos Brown, an unusual combination of speed, power and agility may help us endure the loss of Antonio Bass to injury.  He has the break-away speed that some say Mike Hart lacks. Brown’s highly regarded classmate, Brandon Minor could contribute. At about 210 he has some size. Obi Oluigbo, had a fine spring at full back.

Michigan’s receivers aren’t getting a lot of love from the preseason magazines, but I am very confident Mario Manningham is the real McCoy.  Steve Breaston has to have a better season as a pass receiver than he has enjoyed previously.  Don’t hesitate in predicting an outstanding special teams season for him as a punt and kick return specialist.  The quality of his effort in those endeavors is already proven and without question, and is extraordinary. We do not have to wait and see on this one.  What is in question is his ability as a down field pass receiver. He will have to demonstrate that he can do that in order for the Wolverines to shine and for us to believe in him as a receiver.

Will Zoltan Mesko take over the punting duties?  It would be better than a kick in the pants if he could.  A better punt game would benefit both the offense and defense.

It seems that Michigan should be able to play some offense in the red zone this year, with a  QB of better than average talent.with a ton of experience.  While the effectiveness of the OL is still an unproven concern, there are enough good backs with a variety of skills, and a corps of talented receivers, including tight ends, to move up in the Big Ten offensive standing in total offense.  Mike D. should be able to spread our offense out some, but how can we be assured Michigan’s red zone woes are over until we see the TD proof?

Then there is the schedule.  Notre Dame is the home of homer calls.  Penn State is in Happy Valley at night.  The game against THE Ohio State University, in the land of security checks for opposing players and in the house shaped like a toilet seat, is always a challenge.

To say that Michigan has not prospered away from the friendly confines of the Big House lately is not a stretch especially when you add in their bowl losses each of the last three years (USC, Texas, Nebraska).  Of the three losses, the one that festers most is the loss to the Huskers, the worst of those three bowl adversaries. Michigan simply did not rise to the occasion and unfortunately Nebraska did.

We do get those pesky Spartans at home. Each year Michigan has better recruiting classes and ranking than the Spartans.  And most years the Spartans give them trouble.  Football is after all a game of emotions.  This year, offensively the Spartans will put up points, but will the Sparty defense show up, especially  the secondary.  Overall the Wolverines look superior again as they have looked on paper the past two years, during which time they have played a total of four overtime periods with the Green Meanies.  Fortunately, the Wolverines won both, but it has been razor close, and Smith needs a win over Michigan.  Badly.  Many of the Spartys that I talk to (there is no avoiding it)  think his hire was a mistake.  That negative opinion would change instantly with a win over Michigan.

All of these games have a propensity to be hotly contested and close.  All could be losses.  All could be wins. Based on recent past history, it is only rational to fear several losses. On the hopeful side of the ledger, both Penn State and Ohio State lose a significant number of their talented defensive players.

Michigan could field a better team this year and improve their record only slightly.

An oddity in the schedule is that in November we get a visit from Brady Hoke and his Ball State minions.  It is a strange time of year  to play what is essentially an exhibition game.  We will be going to A squared in the cold, perhaps to see guys we haven’t seen play much.  I hope this isn’t one in which we only run, run, run, to hold the score down on a friend. This is the extra money game the NCAA has instituted beginning this year, thus bringing the total to 12 games instead of 11.

By now you have probably noticed that we have only talked offense, and not defense. We’ll catch the defense later.  Statistically the defense had a much better year as a unit than did the offense so it is reasonable to be less skeptical regarding defensive improvement than offensive improvement.

Michigan’s outstanding and annual football camp for high schoolers is over now and we got as couple of commitments, including Troy Woolfolk, whose Dad Butch was an outstanding back at Michigan .  I mention Troy because it is nice to recall his father’s accomplishments in Maize and Blue.  Butch and the Wolverines opened the 1981 season at Wisconsin, with the Wolverines ranked number one in the country, if I recall correctly.  That honor did not last long as they fell to the Badgers, but I have always fondly remembered the way Butch played football.  He had TD runs of 92 and 89 yards, longest and third longest TD runs in Michigan football history at the time..  Not too highly touted, DB Troy has blazing speed.  A team can’t have too much of that, and I wish him luck.

My grandson attended the Michigan camp for a couple of years and  both enjoyed and learned from it .Among other things, they learn how hot South and West Quads can be in the summer.  Some great High School Coaches staff the camp, players get to measure themselves against players they have heard about but have not seen, and so on.  Lloyd Carr does not get enough credit for this outstanding, well run, and very sizable operation.

“Okay, Grandpa, you’ve strung us along far enough.  What’s your prediction for the upcoming season, now that you have decided to write this kind of article.  Cut to the chase.  I thought you were going to write about Bill Martin’s visit to the Lansing Alumni Club where he was scheduled to talk proposed stadium improvements.  What happened?”

“You are quite right, Josh.  I thought that would be a most interesting article; but it was skewered by Cupid’s arrows.”

“Cupid’s arrows?”

“Yes, Mr. Martin canceled because of a relative’s wedding plans.  I was going to hear what was happening directly from the horse’s mouth, but Cupid intervened.”

“Grandpa, there are rumors that you get your information from the other end of the horse. But that’s another matter.  Michigan’s record for the 2006 season will be?”

“Well, right now I would predict a nine and three regular season.  I think they will win one of their three key away games and they may lose an additional game by upset.  That makes three losses. With a bowl victory, they could end up ten and three, but lately they have not won bowl games.  We ought to wait until after the Notre Dame game for these predictions. Michigan will play no bigger game this year as it could start some momentum, or kill momentum.  It will be a measure of what we can expect looking forward.  There is a lot at stake for the Michigan program this year, and Lloyd Carr’s legacy is now being formed.  Is this program going up or down?  You know what I hope…..”

In any case, let us hear your email opinion and thanks for reading this far and most of all…

Go Blue!

Henne and Hart: Michigan’s Dynamic Duo

Will Chad Henne or Mike Hart have a more vital role in Michigan?s 2006 offense? Both had surprising and astounding freshman seasons for the Wolverines. Both struggled in their sophomore years. Both will be expected to perform at a high level in order for Michigan to have a successful season. But one must step up to the plate to fix what drastically hurt the Wolverines? offense last year.   

Both of the ?Fabulous Freshman?, Chad Henne and Mike Hart, blossomed in their first year wearing the maize and blue. Chad Henne, who was appointed starting quarterback after Matt Gutierrez suffered a shoulder injury, threw for over 2,500 yards and 25 touchdowns. He completed 60% of his passes and threw only 12 interceptions. He also was the first freshman quarterback to lead his team to the Rose Bowl and only the second freshman in Michigan history to start in the opening game. Mike Hart, on the other hand, had to wait a few games until the starting role was given to him. He tallied only 37 yards in his first two games against Miami (OH) and Notre Dame while Lloyd Carr and the coaching staff shuffled around with other backs.

Hart was handed the starting role before the 3rd game and finished the season with an impressive 1,455 rushing yards. Needless to say, Hart and Henne were poised for excellent sophomore seasons, andMichigan fans across the country got excited about this highly touted duo.

2005 was a wake-up call for the then ?Super Sophs?. Both started off well in their season opener against Northern Illinoisbut a nauseating performance followed against hated rival, Notre Dame. Chad Henne struggled along with the entire Michigan offense. Against the Irish, Michiganwent 0-3 in the red zone with multiple turnovers. It didn?t help causes that Mike Hart went down with a leg injury late in the first quarter. “It wasn’t his best performance,” Carr said of Henne. Carr was right. The Wolverines, behind a disastrous offensive showing, went on to lose to the Fighting Irish, 17-10. The season finished with a loss to most hated rival, OhioState, and a ho-hum Alamo Bowl berth which resulted in another defeat.

Chad Henne and Mike Hart now play vital roles in Michigan?s 2006 run. Which one will have the more crucial part in the Wolverine offense? First of all, Chad Henne has played quite well in crucial games including against OhioState and in the Bowl Games. In Henne?s two OhioState match-ups and the Rose and Alamo Bowl performances, he has thrown for 1,048 yards, 10 touchdowns, and only 3 interceptions. Henne has played well in most crucial games, but a better outing against Notre Dame, the Wolverines? first road match of 2006, is much needed if Michigan wants to pull out of South Bend with a W.

In the five 2005 losses, Henne threw for 1,133 yards, 7 touchdowns, and only 3 interceptions which leads us to believe that a good running game may have propelled the Wolverines to more wins. A significant factor in Michigan?s offensive decline in 2005 was the rushing game. Not only Mike Hart, but the entire running back corps only averaged roughly 162 yards per game. Granted, Mike Hart was in and out due to injuries along the way but his numbers declined from 1,455 yards in his freshman campaign to 662 yards in his sophomore year. The Michigan offense was successful in 2004 because both components of a potent offense, rushing and passing, were there. Last season, the rushing game was not.

So, whose performance is most critical? Henne?s solid performances cannot carry the entire burden. If Mike Hart leads the Michigan backs, Kevin Grady, Jerome Jackson, Carlos Brown and others, to a powerful rushing attack, we will come out with fewer L?s on our schedule and more W?s including against Notre Dame, OhioState, and the Bowl Game. Henne must continue to perform at a high level, but Hart?s health and his ability to stimulate an effective rushing game will be most crucial to offensive success.

You gotta have Hart.