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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 29: Michigan

Arrogance is unhealthy, but there’s nothing wrong with confidence. It was the latter, not the former, that sparked Brady Hoke’s incredulous response to a question about rebuilding during the recent Big Ten media days: “I don’t think we’re rebuilding. Period. I mean, we’re Michigan.” We’re Michigan — not “I truly want to be a Michigan man,” but we’re Michigan. We. Are. Michigan. Three words that say much about Hoke, and his disbelief about even being posed such a ridiculous question about rebuilding speaks volumes about where this program stands today and where Hoke believes this program should stand today, yesterday, every day. Because Michigan is Michigan, and say what you will, but the Wolverines should never be rebuilding. Hoke gets it, which is a good start.

Conference
Big Ten, Legends

Location
Ann Arbor, Mich.

Nickname
Wolverines

Returning starters
18 (9 offense, 9 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 37

2010 record
(7-6, 3-5)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 53

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    W. Michigan
  • Sept. 10
    Notre Dame
  • Sept. 17
    E.M.U.
  • Sept. 24
    San Diego St.
  • Oct. 1
    Minnesota
  • Oct. 8
    at Northwestern
  • Oct. 15
    at Michigan St.
  • Oct. 29
    Purdue
  • Nov. 5
    at Iowa
  • Nov. 12
    at Illinois
  • Nov. 19
    Nebraska
  • Nov. 26
    Ohio St.

Last year’s prediction

This is by far the deepest team of the Rodriguez era, the first that nears the 85-scholarship limit. Team speed is improved. Altogether, the defense should be improved; still, we’ve entered a phase where the defense must prove itself on the field before earning our trust. It will all come down to consistency for these Wolverines. Put together extended periods of stellar play, as it did last September, and this is an eight-win team. Don’t, and U.M. is staring at another difficult season. When all is said and done, I’m intrigued by this team’s potential, confident in its ability to turn things around, and excited — yes, still excited — about what the program is capable of achieving when Rodriguez has the tools to run this ship at full bore.

2010 recap

In a nutshell I suppose everything that follows the above paragraph projecting Michigan in 2010 should be taken with a grain of salt, as I did think the Wolverines would hit their stride in Rodriguez’s third season. My only solace comes from the fact that I wasn’t alone, that countless others joined me in professing the belief that two years of buffoonery would lead U.M. into the hunt for a national ranking. I’m not getting much solace from that fact, I have to admit. Where few erred was in projecting firepower from the Wolverines: the offense didn’t fail in this regard, scoring 426 points — the ninth-most in program history and the third-most since 1977. Scoring points matter little when your defense can’t do the little things, like tackle, for instance. Constantly out of position, consistently humiliating, the defense was Rodriguez’s downfall. Onwards and upwards go the Wolverines. You can’t erase three years from the record books — though U.S.C., and perhaps Ohio State, gave it a good shot — but you can turn the page and look ahead, which is what U.M. is doing with Hoke and the new staff.

High point A 5-0 start, highlighted by a 28-24 win at Notre Dame. That game probably would not have gone Michigan’s way in November. But it was Michigan’s finest win on the year, ahead of a 30-10 win over Connecticut to open the season and the overtime after overtime after overtime affair with Illinois. I don’t want to continue to rain on Rodriguez, particularly after I showed myself full onboard heading into 2010, but the day he was relieved of his duties is probably the high point of the year.

Low point Back-to-back home losses to Michigan State and Iowa. Giving up 41 points to offensively-challenged Penn State. Giving up 52 points in an embarrassing bowl loss to Mississippi State, sealing Rodriguez’s fate. And another loss to Ohio State, this one by 30 points. More on that in a moment.

Tidbit It has been 2,813 days since Michigan last beat Ohio State. That’s seven years, eight months and 14 days. If a child was born on Nov. 23, 2003, the day after the Wolverines beat the Buckeyes in Ann Arbor, he or she would have learned how to walk, talk and tie his or her shoes; would have taken his or her first communion; would have graduated from kindergarten and the first grade; would have basic addition and subtraction skills; would be able to identify the difference between left and right fairly consistently; would have a vocabulary of several thousand words; and would know nothing but Ohio State dominance in one of the great rivalries in college sports.

Tidbit (defense edition) Last fall, Michigan gained at least 342 yards in all 13 games, at least 423 yards nine times, at least 522 yards six times and at least 676 yards twice. Defensively, the Wolverines allowed at least 343 yards in 11 games, at least 435 yards nine times, at least 485 yards six times and at least 535 yards five times. Defense wins football games.

Former players in the N.F.L.

36 S Jamar Adams (Philadelphia), WR Adrian Arrington (New Orleans), WR Jason Avant (Philadelphia), OG David Baas (New York Giants), OT Jeff Backus (Detroit), QB Tom Brady (New England), DT Alan Branch (Seattle), WR Steve Breaston (Kansas City), S Stevie Brown (Oakland), LB Prescott Burgess (Baltimore), TE Carson Butler (New England), LB Obi Ezeh (Washington), K Jay Feely (Arizona), LB Larry Foote (Pittsburgh), DE Brandon Graham (Philadelphia), DE James Hall (St. Louis), CB Leon Hall (Cincinnati), LB David Harris (New York Jets), QB Chad Henne (Miami), OG Steve Hutchinson (Minnesota), S Marlin Jackson (Philadelphia), DE Tim Jamison (Houston), OT Jake Long (Miami), WR Mario Manningham (New York Giants), WR Greg Matthews (St. Louis), P Zoltan Mesko (New England), RB Brandon Minor (Denver), LB Jonas Mouton (San Diego), OG Stephen Schilling (San Diego), CB Morgan Trent (Cincinnati), CB Donovan Warren (Pittsburgh), DT Gabe Watson (New York Giants), TE Martell Webb (Philadelphia), LB LaMarr Woodley (Pittsburgh), LB Pierre Wood (Buffalo), CB Charles Woodson (Green Bay).

Arbitrary top five list

Realistic landing spots for Rich Rodriguez in 2012
1. U.N.C.
2. Clemson.
3. U.A.B.
4. Florida Atlantic.
5. Memphis.

Coaching

Brady Hoke (Ball State ’82), entering his first season. Hoke won 13 games over two years at San Diego State, leading the Aztecs from Chuck Long to nine wins, a bowl berth and the outskirts of a national ranking a season ago. Hoke arrived in San Diego after a six-year stint at his alma mater (2003-8), where he increased his win total in each of his last five seasons. This rebuilding job culminated in Ball State’s tremendous 12-win regular season in 2008 – they had won 12 in the previous two seasons combined – one soured only by a loss to Buffalo in the MAC title game. Prior to that defeat, Ball State joined Utah and Boise State as the only undefeated non-B.C.S. conference teams in the country. It was somewhat surprising, therefore, to see Hoke leave Muncie for the West Coast and yet another rebuilding project, though everything came up roses in the end. Hoke’s ties to Michigan are what first connected his name to the opening: Hoke spent eight years as the defensive line coach under Lloyd Carr at Michigan (1995-2002), adding the title of associate head coach for his final season in Ann Arbor. Hoke was even mentioned in connection with the open Michigan job after the end of 2007 season, but the involvement between Hoke and the university never moved beyond a preliminary phase — if it even got that far. When the job became available again earlier this year, Michigan went through the usual suspects — Les Miles, again — before focusing on Hoke, who was more than ready to return to Ann Arbor. That this represents a homecoming for Hoke underlines his knowledge of the program, the university, the fan base and all that winning at Michigan entails. Flashy? No. A big name? Not really. Ready for the opportunity? I think so. It’s an exciting move.

Tidbit (coaching edition) Fred Jackson is the lone holdover from last year’s staff, which is no surprise. Jackson’s been coaching at Michigan since 1992, spanning three different coaches, and knows a thing or two about running backs. Hoke took five of his San Diego State assistants along for the ride: offensive coordinator Al Borges, special teams coach Dan Ferrigno, offensive line coach Darrell Funk, linebackers coach Mark Smith and wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator Jeff Hecklinski. I’m sure we all remember Borges for his additional work at U.C.L.A., California and Auburn. The new faces: defensive coordinator Greg Mattison comes over from the Baltimore Ravens, defensive backs coach Curt Mallory from Akron and defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery from Wyoming. Is this a staff full of stars? Not exactly. But there’s built-in familiarity, which is good, and a proven pair of coordinators.

Players to watch

No, Denard Robinson isn’t going to spend all his time in the pocket in this new offense; the rest of the Big Ten, Notre Dame and the non-conference slate might wish this would be the case, but don’t hold your breath. Yes, there will be a learning curve for Robinson in this pro-style system, from the basic, like taking snaps under center, to the more advanced aspects of the position expected from the starter in this pro-style system. And yes, lost at times in his breathtakingly athletic showing last fall were some head-scratching moments as a passer. So that part of his game needs work, and Robinson will need to do the work needed to become a more complete quarterback. He has the tutor he needs in Borges, whose track record of work with quarterbacks leaves little doubt as whether Robinson will develop into the player U.M. needs him to be.

Robinson’s transition from athlete to quarterback is one of the most intriguing storylines of the 2011 season. We know that there isn’t a better athlete playing the position in college football: last fall, Robinson set a new F.B.S. quarterback record by rushing for 1,702 yards, shattering the previous mark, and became the first quarterback in history to rush for 1,500 yards and pass for another 2,500. Dynamic, explosive, dangerous, one of the nation’s true threats to score every time he touches the ball; imagine if Robinson could avoid the nicks and bruises that cost him a series or two every game.

What about as a passer? Again, it’s a part of his game that’s under a microscope in the new offense. One could even say that sophomore Devin Gardner is a better fit for what Borges wants to achieve, but I digress. Robinson really needs a complete overhaul as a passer, not merely physically but most of all mentally, cleaning up his pre-snap and in-play decision making. He has several factors in his favor: experience, Borges and a smooth start to the schedule, not to mention his overall ability. Regardless of the learning curve, Robinson’s one of the nation’s best, a Heisman contender and the player who dictates Michigan’s tempo. Gardner’s a nice reserve and the future at the position — a future that might commence in 2012.

There is some doubt as to whether Darryl Stonum (49 catches for 633 yards) will be reinstated to the program prior to the start of the season. Some doubt: I can’t imagine Hoke won’t reinstate the senior receiver should he fulfill the steps placed before him following the second alcohol-related transgression of his college career. A starter last fall, Stonum would again serve as one of Michigan’s leading receivers should he regain his eligibility. The receiver corps seems deeper than any other grouping on the team, with Stonum, Junior Hemingway (32 for 593), Roy Roundtree (72 for 935, 7 scores), Martavious Odoms and Kelvin Grady all back in the fold. Roundtree quietly put together a strong 2010 season, developing a rapport with Robinson and taking advantage of the mismatches lent his way in the slot. Hemingway has big-play ability but must stay healthy; the same could be said for Odoms. Keep an eye out for the unproven members of the receiver corps, like Drew Dileo — the new staff has singled out his strong play — Je’Ron Stokes and Jerald Robinson. After taking a step forward last fall, the receiver corps has the weapons, depth and experience to have success in this offense.

Four starters return up front, led by all-American candidate David Molk at center. Molk stayed healthy last fall, starting all 13 games after injuries defined his 2009 season; the result was a first-team all-conference selection and heavy consideration for the Rimington Trophy. Some things change, others don’t: there’s a new system, but Molk remains as vital as ever. Junior right guard Patrick Omameh has the strength and physicality to be a huge factor in Michigan’s running game. Taylor Lewen, a sophomore, and Michael Huyge will bookend the line. Lewen’s a rising star, one who did a fine job on the blind side as a freshman and should develop into a multiple-year all-conference selection with added experience. The lone position breaking in a new face is left guard, though junior Ricky Barnum has enough experience to prevent any major decline following Stephen Schilling’s departure.

The defensive line has the talent to make a drastic improvement against the run. You know what will help? Making senior Ryan Van Bergen (37 tackles, 8.5 for loss, 4 sacks) a true end, not some sort of end-playing-tackle in the old 3-3-5 system. Putting Craig Roh (43 tackles, 5.5 for loss) at end after standing him up at outside linebacker a year ago. Having talented sophomore William Campbell focus on playing defensive tackle, not moving him around from tackle to the offensive line, back to tackle and so forth. Just doing those three simple steps, along with returning all-American candidate Mike Martin (37 tackles, 6 for loss) at nose tackle, will find U.M. greatly improved against the run.

Martin’s numbers don’t stand out, but that he produced at all when hobbled by lower-body injuries while facing consistent double-teams speaks to his mental and physical fortitude. You can’t avoid injuries, but perhaps Campbell can draw blockers away from Martin. That depends on Campbell’s conditioning, which has been an issue. There isn’t much proven depth behind the starting quartet, but there is plenty of highly-regarded talent. Quinton Washington will be key as Martin’s backup, and look for sophomore Jibreel Black to be the first end off the bench. If the youngsters provide depth, we may see a night-and-day improvement.

Two starters are gone at linebacker, but I don’t think Michigan is losing sleep over the holes on the outside. Kenny Demens (82 tackles) is back in the middle, and he was the defense’s most consistent linebacker a year ago. So who joins him in the starting lineup? Cameron Gordon’s bounced around quite a bit — offense, defense, safety, receiver — but is penciled in on the strong side. His lack of prototypical weight for that spot is a big troubling, raising concerns over his ability to take on blocks. But he has speed, which may offset his lack of size. If he recovers from last season’s leg injury, sophomore Mike Jones will get the call on the weak side.

The big story in the secondary is the return of Troy Woolfolk, who missed all of last season with an ankle injury. With his injury went any chance of Michigan putting together a competent pass defense: the Wolverines ranked 112th nationally against the pass last fall, allowing quarterbacks to complete nearly 64 percent of their attempts. If he can make a full recovery, Woolfolk will step in as Michigan’s top cornerback; even if he is 100 percent recovered, however, it should take Woolfolk some time to regain the form that made him Michigan’s most vital defensive back in 2009.

With Woolfolk back in the fold, junior J.T. Floyd (66 tackles, 1 interception) and sophomore Courtney Avery (36 tackles) will fight it out to start on the opposite side. Floyd started a year ago while Avery earned valuable snaps as one of the first cornerbacks off the bench. The Wolverines also return another sophomore in Terry Talbott, a senior in Tony Anderson and a handful of true and redshirt freshmen. Is the cornerback position where U.M. needs it to be? Not really. But just having a healthy Woolfolk back in action should yield an improvement against the pass.

In a perfect world, junior safety Jordan Kovacs would make a few less tackles. Not to say that Kovacs (116 tackles, 2 interceptions) can’t stick his nose in the mix — and then some — when needed; just that it would be better if he didn’t have to stick his nose into the mix so often, with the onus falling on the front seven to stand taller against the run. But U.M. can feel comfortable in his ability to lend support when needed. As the last line of defense against the pass? The Wolverines could do better in this regard at free safety, but Kovacs, a former walk-on, is the choice for now. Sophomore safeties Thomas Gordon and Carvin Johnson are the favorites to join him in the starting lineup.

Position battle(s) to watch

Running back Borges wants to run downhill, which does lead one to think that the smaller backs, like Vincent Smith (601 yards), might not be a great fit for this offense. Smith will still have a role, as will Michael Shaw (402 yards, 9 touchdowns), but the future at the position lies in the Michigan backs of old: 6’0, 220 pounds, between the tackles, and no, I won’t… say… it.. three yards and a cloud of dust. Sorry. Again, Shaw and Smith will play, especially Shaw; he was very good when healthy last fall, leading the team in scores and averaging 5.4 yards per carry. But if you’re looking for a lead back — and Michigan’s still looking — you should consider sophomore Stephen Hopkins, Michigan’s best short-yardage option a year ago. A lack of big-play burst and some fumbling issues may hold Hopkins back, but if Borges and Hoke want to turn back the clock in the running game, Hopkins’ size and strength give him an edge. He’s one of a few bigger backs on the depth chart, joining junior Michael Cox, sophomore Fitzgerald Toussaint and incoming freshman Thomas Rawls, a local product. Here’s the long and short of it: Michigan has spread-style backs and bigger backs, and look for the Wolverines to balance the two while locating an identity on the ground. Well, U.M. already has an identity: Borges just doesn’t know if he has any backs who can get it done. If I had to guess, I’d say that Hopkins starts, with Shaw and Cox right on his heels; I think Smith will continue to do his thing, just in smaller doses; and Rawls, according to some, could push for major carries as he grows more familiar with the offense. If nothing else, it’ll be nice to see Michigan running a more traditional ground attack.

Game(s) to watch

Notre Dame is going to be pretty good, so that’s a big early test for Hoke and the Wolverines. There’s also a game with his old Aztecs; I’d say a trip to San Diego would provide a better storyline, but I can’t see U.M. ever playing at San Diego State. The Wolverines play only four road games all year and not one until the second Saturday of October. Nebraska comes to Ann Arbor, as does Ohio State.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Here we go. No more Rodriguez, Greg Robinson and company; Hoke, Borges, Mattison and company provide a spark, a new set of standards and a breath of fresh air for the Michigan program. It’s fine to be excited. There are issues to address on both sides of the ball, but we are going to see a vastly improved on-field product from the Wolverines in 2011. Offensively: the transition from pro-style to spread is far more difficult than the move back. Most of the attention has been paid to Robinson’s transition, but whether he’ll produce shouldn’t even be a question. If U.M. can find an answer at running back the offense should remain productive enough to lead the Wolverines back to bowl play on its own, as it did a year ago. Defensively: the slight personnel changes should yield immediate dividends. The reworked defensive line will be better against the run and in getting to the quarterback, which will have a domino-like effect for the defense at large. Will Michigan make a drastic leap in the national defensive rankings? The Wolverines won’t turn in a top 25 effort, but I think the defense will move from abysmal to the middle of the pack. For now, the secondary will continue be the defense’s Achilles heel. What about the schedule? U.M. gets eight games at home, including Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State. You really couldn’t ask for anything better than that in Hoke’s first season. So, the bottom line: eight wins, if not nine, a far better product, impassioned play, hope for the future.

Dream season Michigan beats Notre Dame, Michigan State, Nebraska and yes, Ohio State, to finish the regular season 11-1 and atop the Legends division.

Nightmare season There’s a step back offensively and the same story defensively. That spells trouble, not to mention 4-8.

In case you were wondering

Where do Michigan fans congregate? Michigan fans talk all Wolverine sports at UMGoBlue.comThe Wolverine and Go Blue Wolverine. The top site for Michigan coverage, of course, is MGoBlog, with Maize ‘n Brew another great option. A new additions: Touch the Banner, UMGoBlue and MVictors. As always, if you feel there’s another site warranting mention, let me know below.

Word Count

Through 92 teams 282,887.

Up Next

Who is No. 28? The abbreviation for the state housing tomorrow’s university is also the abbreviation for a European county where it is believed the term used to define the act of “abstaining or preventing dealings with as a form of intimidation” was first coined.

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Comments

  1. Mendenhall4Pres says:

    Missouri is next – this one was too easy

  2. Rookierookie says:

    Michigan’s defense last year was all-American compared to its kicking. Oh my god may I never see that abomination again. I have never seen a team kick field goals so poorly, and I swear that Michigan’s cheerleaders could probably kick better than the duffers competing for the job last year.

  3. I’d be happy with 8-4 for now and less turnovers per game. The kicking will be done by Matt Wille the incoming freshman. Things are gonna calm down this year and there be ALOT more optimism in the following years. The way Hoke is recruiting, UM will be back to being UM shortly.

  4. DJS says:

    You could probably compress the dream/nightmare spread: 9-3 and Hoke will have a sandwich named for him at Zingermans; 6-6 and the Rich Rod apologists — in retreat whilst Hoke spent the offseason not only out-recruiting Sparty in-state, but doing the same to “that school in Ohio” (as Hoke calls it) in Ohio — set the blogosphere on fire.

    A humble request though: could someone explain how Michigan fits the clues offered at the end of yesterday’s profile? For one, Hole never assisted at an FCS school. — but maybe I’ve read it incorrectly.

  5. Wes says:

    The word “boycott” was invented in Mayo, Ireland, county code MO. Tigers are next.

  6. AMF says:

    “Offensively: the transition from pro-style to spread is far more difficult than the move back.”

    Not sure that is true. Look at Texas and Florida (two schools with a lot of talent) last year and their attempts to go from the spread to a pro-style attack.

  7. Matt Rob says:

    The B1G. Its hubris is only exceeded by its chutzpah.

    Legends division. What a dumb name.

  8. KDRLAX says:

    Missouri before Texas? Hmmmm….
    Wow, okay. This’ll be interesting.

  9. Patrick says:

    “I don’t think we’re rebuilding. Period. I mean, we’re Michigan.”

    Pride comes before the fall, Brady.

  10. Geoff says:

    @Patrick: the fall’s already happened, Dantonio was right about that. You should be worried about recruiting (which isn’t going so well for you coming off a split of the Big Ten amazingly), and the play on the field. It is the rise from the ashes you should ponder, before trotting out that ridiculous quote.

    3 years of improved football does not, in fact, equal 35 of excellence. Remember that.

  11. Chippewayne says:

    Great tidbit on the time between wins over OSU — pretty much the timeline of my 8-year-old.

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