Monday, August 31, 2009

Michigan Football Preview - Special Teams/Overall

Last year was a trying year (to say the least) for Michigan football fans. Among the litany of problems: horrible QB play, young offensive line, turnovers, confusion with the new system, poor tackling, bad pursuit angles, etc. Believe me, I could go on. And on. Anyway, 2009 is a new year, and with it comes renewed optimism. Last year I predicted a 9-3 season. I was correct with the numbers, but I had them in the wrong order. My prediction for this year is at the end of this hastily assembled post.

Since writer/director John Hughes passed away recently, I thought I'd use some quotes from some of his best films (as a writer and director) to help me preview this year's Michigan Wolverine football team. Earlier I previewed the offense and defense. Today, special teams and the overall outlook:

Punt Team/Kickoff Teams
"Breakfast Club"
Richard Vernon: You ought to spend a little more time trying to make something of yourself and a little less time trying to impress people.

Well, we all know about the awesomely named Zoltan Mesko. He is already on the watch list for the Ray Guy Award, given annually to the best collegiate punter. Suffice to say, I think this is the only single position on the entire team that I have complete confidence in - rightly or wrongly. Zoltan will boot the ball downfield. I think RichRod should be able to find enough athletes to sufficiently cover his massive mortar shots into enemy territory. The return game is another matter. As Michigan fans, we have been pretty spoiled the last few years. Steve Breaston was steady, and at times spectacular. He was always a threat to take a punt for a TD. We've also had the likes of Charles Woodson, Leon Hall, and Desmond Howard back there in the recent past, so I think our expectations are pretty high. Last year shattered those expectations to the point that I was happy if the return man held onto the ball. I don't want to look at the exact numbers because it's too depressing, but we fumbled lots of punts last hear. Martavious Odoms (he did return one for a TD) probably was the most dangerous, but also had butterfingers. So RR put Greg Matthews, our most sure-handed receiver, back there. And then he fumbled. So did Donovan Warren when he gave it a shot. No one distinguished themselves as a reliable option as a return specialist, so my hopes for this year is for someone to catch the ball and hold onto it like it's his last dollar. The potential return men this year are Odoms, Warren, Matthews, Kelvin Grady, Cissoko, and all of the shifty little slot receivers and RBs (V. Smith, Gallon, T. Robinson, Roundtree, T. Jones, etc.). Just hold onto the damn ball.

For the kickoff team, Bryan Wright is the incumbent, and will probably hold onto the kickoff specialist job he performed pretty well last year. As for return men, see above. Hold onto the damn ball. It ain't gonna bite ya.

Quick Zoltan facts:
- He graduated this spring with a degree in finance and marketing
- Is currently working on his master's degree in sports management
- Was a Playboy All-American last season

"Ferris Bueller's Day Off"
Ferris: Don't worry about it, I don't even have a piece of shit. I have to envy yours.

This is a real mystery position. After KC Lopata (who made 10 of 15 tries) used up the last of his eligibility, we have a severe case of inexperience in the placekicking duties. There are seven (SEVEN!) kickers listed on the roster, and that is one position where you can realistically expect that a walk-on might be able to win a job. With that being said, I still expect Brendan Gibbons or Wright to win the job. However, for some of you the name Eddie Murray might ring a bell. The Wolverines have a "preferred walk-on" kicker by that name this year, but he is no relation to the former Detroit Lions kicker. He has a strong leg and might manage to take the kickoff duties from Wright. I would be satisfied to have a kicker with the success rate of Lopata last year. Worst case: the 2002 season (post-Epstein, pre-Rivas) was the year that started with Phil Brabbs (3-for-9) and Troy Neinberg (2-for-5), and ended with punter Adam Finley (7-for-10) taking over. If that is in the cards for this year, just shoot me now and get it over with. That Washington game almost gave me a heart attack.

"Ferris Bueller's Day Off"
Ed Rooney: I did not achieve this position in life by having some snot-nosed punk leave my cheese out in the wind.

Wow. Where to begin. Personally, I have a great deal of confidence in the head coach, Rich Rodriguez. He has a proven track record of turning around programs. The big leap typically occurs in year two. So, here we are in year two of the RichRod era. I expect big things. However, I understand why others have not embraced him: he's not a "Michigan man" (although his mentor, Don Nehlen, was); he's too nice to the media (many of the same people complained that Carr was too surly toward the media); etc. Some people are now pointing to the ridiculous "non-scandal" regarding offseason workouts - which will ultimately amount to nothing but a footnote at the end of a successful season. After a year in which the defense was a huge disappointment, RichRod made a bold move and hired Greg Robinson to coordinate the defense. Robinson has a proven track record of his own as a D-coordinator, despite his failings as the head man at Syracuse. I think Michigan has a coaching staff that will help them win games, this year and in the future.

Overall Outlook
"Breakfast Club"
John Bender: You know what I got for Christmas this year? It was a banner fuckin' year at the old Bender family. I got a carton of cigarettes. The old man grabbed me and said "Hey. Smoke up Johnny."

Okay, now for my prediction. I am pretty confident in the offense. With a new QB who is able to throw a reasonably accurate pass, an experienced offensive line that should have a grasp of the blocking schemes, and a deep stable of running backs, this offense could really be something to behold by midseason. The defense worries me, but bolstered by the addition of new defensive coordinator Greg Robinson, should show improvement in most areas, despite being somewhat young and inexperienced. The punting game is solid. The return game is questionable at best. The kicking is a mystery. The Big Ten conference is weak. They'll probably lose a couple they shouldn't, and win a couple they shouldn't. The team will take these new allegations of NCAA violations and band together and adopt an "us-against-the-world" mentality that has served so many teams so well over the years. I see a 9-3 season.

And just one last quote from "Planes,Trains, and Automobiles," because I couldn't fit it in anywhere else ("that's what she said"):

Del: If they told you wolverines would make good house pets, would you believe them?

Monday, August 17, 2009

Michigan Football Preview - Defense

Last year was a trying year (to say the least) for Michigan football fans. Among the litany of problems: horrible QB play, young offensive line, turnovers, confusion with the new system, poor tackling, bad pursuit angles, etc. Believe me, I could go on. And on. Anyway, 2009 is a new year, and with it comes renewed optimism. Last year I predicted a 9-3 season. I was correct with the numbers, but I had them in the wrong order. My prediction for this year will come later.

Since writer/director John Hughes passed away recently, I thought I'd use some quotes from some of his best films (as a writer and director) to help me preview this year's Michigan Wolverine football team. Earlier, I previewed the offense. Today, the defense:

Defensive Line
"The Breakfast Club"
Andrew Clark: If I lose my temper you're totaled, man.
John Bender: Totally?
Andrew Clark: Totally.

Brandon Graham is widely regarded as one of the top defensive linemen in the Big Ten. That's a good thing. He's the only returning starter on the defensive line. That's a bad thing. However, the cuboard is not exactly bare. Mike Martin played significant snaps last year - and played pretty well. He brings a year of backup experience to the line. It's hard to tell how they're going to line up - in a 3-man or 4-man line. If it's a 3-man line, the other starter will probably be Ryan Van Bergen. If it's a 4-man line, you might see freshman Will Campbell. After that, there's not a whole lot of depth. For some reason, I'm not too worried, because having Graham there makes it seem okay. Don't make him angry - you wouldn't like him when he's angry.

"Breakfast Club"
Andrew: Why do you have to insult everybody?
John Bender: I'm being honest, asshole. I would expect you to know the difference.

Ever since the departure of David Harris a couple years ago, linebacker has been, at least for me, a sore spot. Harris could go from sideline to sideline, he was a sure tackler, and he could hold his own in coverage. We got spoiled. Since then, we've been saddled with the likes of Chris Graham, John Thompson, Shawn Crable, and Obi Ezeh - who have all been inconsistent at best. Sure, Ezeh makes some plays, but he also misses tackles and doesn't seem to be proficient at shedding blockers. The MLB makes the defense go, and if Ezeh does not make significant improvement this year, the defense is doomed to another season of head-scratching mediocrity.The other LBs are intriguing. Jonas Mouton showed promise last year, his first as a starter. Stevie Brown will try his hand at LB after what could only be described as a horrible season at safety. Others who could contribute this season - sophomores Brandon Herron, Kenny Demens, and JB Fitzgerald, and freshman Craig Roh. While I remain optimistic in the overall defensive improvement, I am in a "wait-and-see" mode for the linebacking corps. Best case: Ezeh makes a huge Harris-like leap to all-conference level play, Stevie Brown finds his true position, and one playmaker emerges from the rest of the linebackers. Worst case: Ezeh does not improve, Brown proves once and for all that he's not a good football player, and no one else does anything of note.

"Mr. Mom"
Joan: Can I give you a hand?
Jack Butler: You can give me two. I don't know what the hell I'm doing.

This may not be the weakest position on the defensive side of the ball, but it's definitely the position with the least depth. The starters will probably be Donovan Warren and Boubacar Cissoko ("It's the Donnie and Boobie Show!"), but with all the spread offenses and three WR sets that every team runs, all teams need at least three starter-quality CBs, or else they'll get shredded. The third CB will either be RS frosh JT Floyd or true frosh JT Turner. Teric Jones just moved over to CB from RB, and could help out as well. Any injuries at this position will further expose the lack of depth. However, after a semi-injured off-year, Warren is poised to fulfill his promise and to start becoming the shutdown corner he is capable of being. Hopefully, the front seven can get some pressure on the QBs and take some pressure off the thin defensive backfield.

"Weird Science"
Chet: [to Wyatt] Boy, I wouldn't give a squirt of piss for your ass right now.

Two years ago, the Michigan safeties were outrageously horrible. The opening game against that one Div. 1-AA team that we lost to? Lots of coverage problems. Last year? More of the same - coverage problems, bad pursuit angles, horrible tackling. This year, it's a clean slate, with two new starters in the safety spots. It looks like it might be Troy Woolfolk in one slot, and it's possible that true freshman Vlad Emilien might start in the other slot. No matter who starts, it will be two players who have never started a college football game. Due to the safety problems the last couple years, I am not terribly confident in the safety situation, to say the least. Other than Woolfolk and Vlad, others who could contribute this year include Michael Williams and Thomas Gordon. Hold your breath and cover your eyes - it could be ugly.

"National Lampoon's Vacation"
Clark: I think you're all fucked in the head. We're ten hours from the fucking fun park and you want to bail out. Well I'll tell you something. This is no longer a vacation. It's a quest. It's a quest for fun. I'm gonna have fun and you're gonna have fun. We're all gonna have so much fucking fun we'll need plastic surgeory to remove our god damn smiles. You'll be whistling 'Zip-A-Dee Doo-Dah' out of you're assholes! I gotta be crazy! I'm on a pilgrimage to see a moose. Praise Marty Moose! Holy Shit!

If you read all the stuff I wrote up above, you might find my overview rather perplexing. Despite the less-than-rave reviews within the position groups, I am pretty confident that the defense will make significant improvements over last year. First of all, I think Greg Robinson, the new defensive coordinator, knows what he's doing. Sure he had a horrible team at Syracuse the last couple years, but all that tells you is that he was a bad head coach. He's been successful assistant in the NFL and at Texas, so I think he will have a positive effect on the defense. Secondly, the improvement in the offense has to help the defense. I can't count the number of times that the offense went 3-and-out and the defense had to get right back on the field again. Or how many times the kick return man fumbled the kick right back to the opponent. They had to be tired. Last year's defense gave up an average of almost 29 points per game. I expect it will be closer to 20 this year.

Next time: Special Teams, and overall season prediction

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Michigan Football Preview - Offense

Last year was a trying year (to say the least) for Michigan football fans. Among the litany of problems: horrible QB play, young offensive line, turnovers, confusion with the new system, poor tackling, bad pursuit angles, etc. Believe me, I could go on. And on. Anyway, 2009 is a new year, and with it comes renewed optimism. Last year I predicted a 9-3 season. I was correct with the numbers, but I had them in the wrong order. My prediction for this year will come later.

Since writer/director John Hughes passed away recently, I thought I'd use some quotes from some of his best films to help me preview this year's Michigan Wolverine football team. Today, the offense:

"Sixteen Candles"
Samantha: This is Farmer Fred.
The Geek: Ted.
Samantha: Oh, I'm sorry, Farmer Ted.
The Geek: I'm not really a farmer. I'm a freshman.

Barring injuries, the QB position will most likely be manned by two freshmen this season - Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson. Since he enrolled in January, Forcier will probably start the season as the QB, but expect Robinson to see plenty of snaps in running situations. There is no way, even though they are freshmen, that these two will not be able to be better than last year's tandem of Sheridan and Threet, who were historically awful. The final numbers for the Michigan QBs last year: 165-for-338 (49%) with 12 INTs and 11 TDs. I expect a much higher completion percentage on fewer passes this year (180-for-300). And I also expect a lot more than the 345 yards rushing from the QB position (maybe 600 yards). While I wouldn't exactly say that QB will be a position of strength this season, I also think that it won't be a glaring weakness.

"Sixteen Candles"
The Geek: Relax, would you? We have seventy dollars and a pair of girls underpants. We're safe as kittens.

The Michigan stable of running backs is pretty stacked this year. The only significant loss from last year is Sam McGuffie, who after a promising start to last year was laid out by a concussion and was never the same in the second half of the season. He transferred to Rice shortly after the season ended. Returning are seniors Brandon Minor and Carlos Brown (and I almost forgot Kevin Grady). I suspect that Minor will see the majority of the carries, but Brown has shown flashes of greatness when he's been able to stay healthy. Grady will probably continue to be the short yardage battering ram. Also returning is sophomore Mike Shaw, who had some great runs last year, and RS freshman Mike Cox. In addition, there are several freshman who could make some waves as well (notable nano-bots Vincent Smith and Fitzgerald Toussaint). Much like last year, I feel that running back should be a position of strength and depth.

"National Lampoon's Vacation"
Clark Griswold: O God, ease our suffering in this, our moment of great despair. Yea, admit this kind and decent woman into thy arms of thine heavenly area, up there. And Moab, he lay us upon the band of the Canaanites, and yea, though the Hindus speak of karma, I implore you: give her a break.

The offensive line situation at the start of the 2008 season could best be described as "desperate." There was only one returning starter (Steve Schilling), and one of the guards (Tim McAvoy) was so bad that he was replaced part way thru the season by a former defensive tackle (John Ferrara). Many times during the first half of the season, McGuffie and the QBs were treated like tackling dummies. However, the line seemed to gel a bit in the second half of the year and it began to open some holes for Brandon Minor. The line went from cover-your-eyes-awful to competent. This season, I expect the line to make another leap forward from competent to good. The linemen have one more year in the spread system, and there is much better depth than last year. This year's line will return last year's starters Schilling, Molk, Ortmann, Moosman, Ferrara, Dorrestein, and some these guys may be replaced by RS sophomore Huyge or RS freshmen Omameh, Khoury, and Barnum. So unlike last year, there is depth and more talent and experience. Along with QB, this will be the most improved unit on the offense.

"Sixteen Candles"
The Geek: Yeah, but the thing is, I'm kinda like the leader. Kinda like the king of the dipshits.
Samantha: Well, that's pretty cool. Hey, but a lot can happen over a year. I mean, you could come back next fall as a completely normal person.

The wide receivers/slot receivers were a perplexing bunch last year. There seemed to be a lot of talent, but it was hard to get a feel for how good they were when they were constantly being thrown uncatchable balls. When the Wolverines ran the bubble screen last year, it worked when the throws were on the mark - which was rare. That is a pass, more than just about any other, that has to be thrown to the receiver in stride so that he can continue upfield. It's essentially a long handoff, and our QBs were not good at it last year. Henne used to throw that pass perfectly all the time to Breaston, Manningham, etc. This is coming off as QB-bashing in the WR section of the preview, but the point of this is that it was hard to tell how good the WRs were last year when the throws to them were so bad. This year, all the receivers return, and new ones are arriving. I wish I could say with confidence that the receivers are going to be great and no on will ever fumble again, but until we see how they perform when passes hit them where they are designed to, it will be a mystery. I am optimistic that Forcier/Robinson will be much more accurate than Sheridan/Threet, so I expect better things from the receivers, but who knows. At WR, Mathews is a steady and dependable guy, and I expect big things from Stonum and Hemingway. At SR, Odoms showed flashes of brilliance (but he fumbled too much), and the incoming guys could be very exciting (Teric Jones, Jeremy Gallon, Roy Roundtree, Terrence Robinson). It would be great if Kelvin Grady (former M Hoops player and Kevin's bro) could add something to the offense as well.

"The Breakfast Club"
John Bender: So it's sorta social, demented and sad, but social. Right?

The tight end and fullback spots are an enigma in the spread offense. At WVU, RR used his fullback (Owen Schmitt) a lot, but that's because he was good. I'm not sure if Moundros is that good. The TE is another strange position in the spread. They could use the TE in the slot against a little 5'-8" CB and have a significant mismatch, as all the Michigan TEs are 6'-4" taller. I don't expect the Michigan TEs to have more than 25 catches between them, but I'll betcha they'll have 5 or more TDs.

"Planes, Trains, and Automobiles"
Neal: As much fun as I've had on this little journey, I'm sure one day I'll look back on it and laugh.
Del: [giggles] Are you sure?
Neal: [starts chuckling] Oh God. I'm laughing already

Next year at this time, we'll all be wondering what all the angst and hand-wringing was all about. It may take a couple games to get the freshmen all on the same page as the upperclassmen, but by midseason the offense will be running like a well-oiled machine. Personally, I think this offense is the NCAA offense of the present and the future. It's malleable enough that the mix of running and passing can be tailored to fit the strengths of the team. This year's strength will be the running game. I expect that we'll see around 65-70% running plays, and the team will rush for well over 2000 yards. The strength of the running game will open up passing lanes and make it easier to complete short passes to the talented but unproven slot receivers. By the end of the year, OSU will be very worried about how to stop the Wolverine attack.

Next time: Defense