Tuesday, June 23, 2009
Michigan Football: Players Poised for Breakout in 2009
It's interesting that there are probably many more questions today of the 2009 Michigan football team than there ever this time one year ago.
For the quarterback position alone there remains some trepidation among UM fans. This is because the message from the cockpit (head coach Rich Rodriguez) is that this time around an 18 year old kid (Tate Forcier or Denard Robinson) both be handling take off and landing of the complicated spread option offense for the Wolverines this fall. So yeah, there may be one, two or more kamikaze nose dives before the season concludes.
On the defensive side, Michigan lost a slew of experienced playmakers along the front defensive line and secondary. The returning defensive players of the 2008 squad must adjust to another defensive coordinator and a new strategic approach for the fourth time in five years.
I have already outlined a fairly optimistic prediction of what college football fans can expect of the Wolverine football team in 2009.
Now I’d like to consider those few Michigan players that appear to be poised for a break out year this fall. Fortunately, there appear to be quite a few.
Let me first say that while there are a number of star and veteran players on the Michigan football team for 2009, this Wolverine team is comparatively young in the Big Ten conference right now. This team youth is the product of many factors, including a high-level of recruiting class injuries and flame outs (e.g. see UM’s 2005-2006 recruiting classes), considerable player attrition under Rich Rodriguez’s regimen, and considerable player outflow from senior graduation.
The numbers will gradually move upward again with the available scholarships at Rodriguez disposal, as well as the establishment of a new walk-on program at Michigan over the coming years, which should improve Michigan's ability to redshirt more players.
I summarize below several key Michgan players who I consider poised to have a “break out” season in 2009. By "break out" I mean that they will make a substantial impact. These are not necessarily the best players on the team. But they are the ones I feel will contribute significantly to Michigan's gridiron success in 2009:
Tailback Brandon Minor
Brandon Minor led the Wolverines in rushing in 2008 with 533 yards in just 103 carries, for a 5.2 yard per carry average and 9 TDs. Minor’s career yardage at Michigan does not look very impressive at first glance. He was in second position both his freshman and sophomore years behind then starting tailback Mike Hart. A nagging wrist injury really hampered Minor’s performance in 2008, though he did come unhinged in road games versus Penn State and Purdue with 110+ yards rushing and 2 and 3 touchdowns scored in each game respectively. Minor’s running style is somewhat unorthodox. In the open field, he runs with shoulders back and knees high, reminiscent to me of the great USC tailback Charles White. But unlike White, Minor is particularly fast, nor a fancy dancer. Between the tackles, Brandon Minor is a punisher. During many plays last year, with linebackers approaching at angle to tackle him, we witnessed Minor frequently selecting confrontation over escape. Minor appears to relish the idea of dishing out just as he receives. Unfortunately, this approach has not productive for yardage nor points over the long-term. It has instead led to frequent injuries. The spread option offense takes good advantage of Minor’s pass catching ability out of the backfield, as he snared two TD catches in 2008. With Michigan’s offensive line expected to improve significantly in 2009, and an almost certain focus by Rodriguez on the power running game this season, Minor is uniquely positioned to have a “break out” year in 2009 for the Wolverines given his skills and experience. A 1,000 yard season rushing is certainly within reach. Opposing defenses cannot underestimate the danger of Minor as a receiver either. The only things standing in Minor’s way to greatness in 2009 appear to be the question of his overall durability, and, of course, a rather long and talented list of Wolverine tailbacks behind him. These reserves may take away some of the carries this year that under the Carr/Debord regime would have been Minor’s alone.
Center Dave Molk
A year ago, Dave Molk was a rather unknown and inexperienced sophomore offensive lineman. It's kind of interesting that for 2009 the 6-2, 280lbs junior center may be one of the best at his position in entire the Big Ten this fall. Molk is already on the Dave Rimington Award watchlist for 2009. Molk’s achievements at Michigan have already been somewhat overlooked by the media. Molk was a 4-star, No. 3 ranked center in the country in 2007 for Lemont Township High School in Illinois. At Michigan, Molk had to adjust his play from a pro-set, direct quarterback exchange to a no huddle spread option shotgun attack and to entirely new faces at quarterback. The offensive linemen tend to be the guts of any college football team, and usually receive most of the blame and little of the credit. This year should be quite different as all eyes will be on the new Michigan quarterback and offensive line in 2009.
Slot Receiver Martavious Odoms
Martavious Odoms is not big. In fact, he’s only 5-8 and 171 lbs. But Odoms possesses all the attributes coach Rodriguez looks for in the slot receiver position: speed, elusiveness in the open field, and good hands. Odoms barely led the Wolverines in reception yardage last year with 49 catches and 449 yards. Interestingly, Odoms did not catch any touchdown passes last fall. That stat is sure to change this year. Odoms also led the team in return yardage, averaging 23 yards per kickoff return and 13 yards per punt return. Given the high level of competition among Michigan’s corps of receivers including senior Greg Mathews, sophomore Darryl Stonum, junior JR Hemingway, junior James Rodgers, and RS freshman Terrance Robinson, Odoms should improve his game significantly in 2009. If the offensive line protection holds, and the QB throwing accuracy improves ever so slightly as anticipated, Michigan passing numbers should rise and lift all boats - including those that drive the Scarab-variety like Mr. Odoms.
Punter Zoltan Mesko
There was one guy in all of Division I college football who punted more than Michigan’s Zoltan Mesko. His name was Blake Clingan, who played for Central Florida and punted 88 times in 2008. Wolverine punter Zoltan Mesko punted only 80 times last fall – itself a pretty damning indictment on Calvin Magee’s play calling in 2008, as well as Michigan’s overall offensive ineptitude. Zoltan played his role and took out the team’s collective anger on the pigskin, punting for an amazing 3,436 yards (1.95 miles!) and a 43 yard per kick average. Mesko is expected to rule the Big Ten in punting stats again (hopefully in average yardage per punt only). He has the coolest name since Harlan Huckleby to ever bless the Michigan team roster. And, oh yeah, he’s a Ray Guy Award finalist again for 2009.
Tight End Kevin Koger
So you’re thinking: “Wait a second Markus. Michigan runs a spread option offense! Just what in the hell are you doing naming a freaking tight end as being poised for a “break out” season in 2009 for Michigan?” Well, normally I wouldn’t suggest that a tight end playing (or not playing) in spread option offense is poised for a “break out” year. But that off-season coaching clinic provided to Michigan’s offensive oaching staff by Oklahoma’s offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson has me thinking that Rodriguez might change his evil ways to some degree with respect to how they’ll line up and make better use of the TE position. The no huddle offense should be faster and more effective this year, but the Wolverines could be showing some more single back formations and even more I-formation that would include one or even two tight ends. Koger is young and only a sophomore. He caught only 3 passes for 93 yards and 1 touchdown. Most readers are expecting me to write down “Greg Mathews” here. But I believe that the tight ends, specifically Kevin Koger and Martell Webb, will have a much larger role in 2009 than most expect. Koger is a big, welcoming target for whoever becomes the new Wolverine signal caller. At 6-4, 245 lbs. Koger is strong, has good hands, and considerable speed. His excellent blocking ability has already been mentioned a number of times by coaches as well. In my view, Kevin Koger is poised for a break out season.
Fullback Mark Moundros
Michigan conditioning coach Mike Barwis calls out players on occasion that have shown strong dedication to the new conditioning program. Fullback Mark Moundros is one of those players frequently mentioned as the team “gym rat”. It should start to pay dividends for Moundros in the form of playing time again this year. With Kevin Grady’s off-field issues, Moundros has all but solidified his position as lead Power Back in goal line, short yardage and even regular I-formation situations. Moundros is 6-1 and 212 lbs and a proven blocker. He also carried the ball well but only 3 times for 14 yards (4.7 average), rushed for 1 TD, and caught another TD pass. I expect Moundros, now a senior, to play a much bigger role in Michigan’s offensive attack in 2009 with far more opportunities to make bone-crushing blocks, catch many more passes, and help the Wolverine offense move the chains.
Tailback Carlos Brown
Carlos Brown has been bouncing in and out of the shadows of the Michigan football program ever since he arrived in 2006. That first freshman year, as Michigan’s No. 5 tailback in the rotation, Brown carried the ball 16 times for only 41 yards and no scores. In 2007, Brown was No. 3 on the rotation, carried the ball 75 times for 382 yards, with a 5.1 yard per carry average, and 4 touchdowns. Prior to kickoff in 2008 there were many college football nerds out there like me nerding out in my nerdery about the possibility of Carlos Brown playing some quarterback, or Wildback in some Wildcat formation, or other bullshit. Well none of that ridiculousness happened. Instead Brown proceeded to shred his hand up pretty badly in summer practice and would miss a good portion of the 2008 season. The lone bright spot was a 125 total yard performance versus Northwestern. Brown is big and fast at 6-0 and 206 lbs. He enjoyed a great spring practice session, and is reportedly in the best shape of his career. Opponents simply didn’t have to worry about Carlos Brown last year because his cleats rarely grazed the playing surface on game day.
Unless there’s another freak injury this summer (knock on wood), Wolverine opponents must learn to cope with far more than just an improved offensive line, a mobile QB that can hit at least the broad side of a barn, and a bruising tailback named Brandon Minor. In 2009 Carlos Brown assumes shotgun position in the Tailback Tandem from Hell lineup that should jam Rich Rodriguez’s spread option attack into a much higher gear. Prepare yourselves for maximum property damage.
Quarterback Tate Forcier
Since 1970 Michigan has started freshman quarterbacks in season openers on two occasions: Rick Leach in 1975 versus Wisconsin (W 23-6) and Chad Henne versus Miami (OH) (W43-10). Both quarterbacks proceeded to destroy multiple school passing, scoring and total yardage records in their respective careers. With the transfer of returning quarterback Steven Threet, the stars appear to be perfectly aligned for early enrollee and freshman quarterback Tate Forcier of Scripps Ranch, California to take up the reins and drive the UM offense. Forcier operated a spread offense in high school as a junior and senior, leading Scripps Ranch to consecutive successful seasons and tournament participation. His rushing and passing statistics were impressive given the level of California state competition that Scripps H.S. faced both years, and considering Forcier’s size at 6-1, 190 lbs. Preliminary indication is that Forcier had a very good spring, is a quick learner of the complicated Rodriguez/Magee playbook, and has started to spend more time in the weight room. Last year Michigan had the worst performance at quarterback since 1987. Anything better than 2008's numbers will be considered a “break out” season. The good news for Forcier is that he appears to be arriving at just the right time, with a more experienced offensive line, a deep stable of capable backs and slot receivers to throw to. Forcier will be pushed hard in practice all year long by incoming freshman Denard Robinson, who badly wants the starting job for himself.
Barring injury, Forcier’s first year at Michigan should be a memorable one.
Linebacker Jonas Mouton
I might as well play the role of Captain Obvious here and state that 2009 is going to be rough year for Michigan defensively. All scientific observations point to this fact, as well as the one that says Michigan DE Brandon Graham will be double-teamed like a mad dog all season long. Brandon Graham is Brandon Graham. He’s going to bust some heads on national television from time to time. We all know that. But he’s grabbing way too much attention this off season. They know he’s coming. That’s why I like to spend inordinate amounts of times thinking about more obscure players that they don't or won’t see coming. To me Jonas Mouton is one such player. Mouton is a 6-2, 217 lbs linebacker and one of four very high talented recruits out of California on the Wolverine roster. Mouton is a senior this fall. He led the Wolverines with 36 solo tackles 40+ assists and 1 registered sack. The pressure on Michigan’s linebackers will be much higher this year given the departure of 3 starting defensive lineman from a year ago. Combining this aspect with more blitzing schemes by new DC Greg Robinson, more double-teams of Brandon Graham at DE, Jonas Mouton appears uniquely positioned to have a break out season for the Wolverines.
Defensive Tackle Mike Martin
Mike Martin was a freshman last year for Michigan and earned significant playing time at defensive tackle while competing against seniors Will Johnson and Terrance Taylor. This was valuable experience for young Mr. Martin. He racked up well over 20 tackles and 2 sacks in 2008. Martin is a big guy at 6-2, 291 lbs with good confrontation skills and nice footwork. He was a very highly recruited talent for the Wolverines in 2008: a 4-star, 12th ranked DT in the country in 2008. With Martin’s nice size and significant game experience, he’s the obvious choice to start for Michigan as one of the two defensive tackles in the 4-3 formation this fall. He’ll be pushed very hard by converted fullback Vince Helmuth, as well as upper classmen Adam Patterson and Renaldo Sagesse. The incoming frosh, William Campbell and Anthony Lalota will also challenge Martin every week in practice for playing time. With Michigan opponents likely paying significant attention to defensive end Brandon Graham, opportunities will arise for Mr. Martin to uncork his own brand of havoc along the defensive front.
Cornerback Donovan Warren
Many UM fans may have forgotten that Donovan Warren was one of the best cornerbacks in the state of California in 2007. He was a 5-star, No. 4 ranked CB out of storied Orange County high school program Long Beach Poly. Warren started for Michigan as a freshman in 2007 during several games and played some safety and cornerback. Michigan’s pass defense took a serious dive in 2008, finishing 9th in the Big Ten in yards allowed passing (230 per game) and 9th in interceptions all year (only 9). With the loss of seniors defensive backs Brandon Harrison, Morgan Trent and Charles Stewarts, it’s hard to imagine that Michigan’s pass defense number might actually improve a year later. But they will. The reason is because far more talented players are getting their window of opportunity to start. Warren is 6-0 and 175 lbs. and extremely quick in the open field. A second full year of game experience has improved his coverage and tackling skills. He enters 2009 the most experienced defensive back on the field for Michigan, and will be the natural leader of the Wolverine secondary. I expect Warren’s tackle numbers and INT numbers to increase during his final season with the Wolverines.
Safety/Cornerback Michael Williams
Michael Williams was recruited by Michigan in 2007. He enters 2009 as a junior with a good level of game experience in the secondary and special teams. Williams was very highly touted coming out of high school, ranked the No. 5 cornerback in the country and a 4-star recruit from Camarillo, California. Williams had 18 tackles and 1 sack in 2008. With the more aggressive defensive style under new DC Greg Robinson, I expect Williams tackles and INT numbers to improve. I believe Williams will earn a starting spot at safety in 2009, but he will need to work extremely hard in practice and during games to keep that spot. Extremely fast and talented incoming freshmen will be challenging him every step of the way, including Troy Woolfolk, Vlad Emilien, Brandon Smith and Justin Turner.
Defensive End Ryan van Bergen
What I really like about Ryan Van Bergen is that he plays exactly the way he looks – mean. Except Van Bergen is big AND mean, and quick, at 6-5, 260 lbs. Did I mention that he’s only a junior? Van Bergen gained a good level of playing time last fall as a sophomore. Entering 2009, Van Bergen is the logical choice to take the other open DE spot replacing the graduated Tim Jamison. Unfortunately, there's not much competition behind Van Bergen other than converted tight end junior Steve Watson and true freshman DE Craig Roh. Van Bergen will be under considerable pressure to make plays this fall, as most opponents will run to his side and break his contain. For this reason, I expect UM fans and opponents to become well-acquainted with Van Bergen's name and talents in 2009.
The Michigan Secondary
On the question of the Michigan secondary in 2009, all eyes should be (and must be) on Assistant Head Coach/Secondary Coach Tony Gibson. Gibson has already proven to be an outstanding recruiter for the Wolverines. However, Gibson will need to quickly coach up this entire group of youngsters in the secondary. The thin depth chart here tell us something we all probably don't want to consider. We're going to see more freshmen playing in the secondary this year. I’m perhaps insanely optimistic about this secondary group over the longer haul. While extremely young in age and experience, this is without question the fastest group of players at Michigan in decades. Defensive Coordinator Greg Robinson has helped coach some fantastic defensive backs in his day at both UCLA and in the NFL. This experience will hopefully rub off positively on Gibson and the Wolverine players over time.
While many rightly expect the Michigan offense to take positive steps forward in 2009, it is not unreasonable to expect Michigan’s defense (assuming it can stay healthy all season long) to improve as well, coming closer to the 2007 performance level in yards allowed and points allowed.