Michigan football team started fall practice today for the 2009 season in Ann Arbor. For Wolverine football fans everywhere, the new college football season could not come fast enough.
Last year I remember that it seemed like everyone was biting their fingernails down to the nubs about the new head coach (But he's not a Michigan Man!!), the Michigan quarterback situation (Oh My God! No More Chad Henne!), the inexperienced offensive line (Ahh! No more Jake Long!), and the new read spread option offense of Rich Rodriguez (Ho'Jeeze, No Pat White On Our Roster!!).
"It's different for Michigan," junior tailback Carlos Brown says. "You're going to see the winged helmet running out of the spread. It's crazy."
Right on Carlos! At that time (August 2008) many Wolverine football fans like me latched onto every fiber of irrational exuberance we could find floating in the the air or on the internets; from the mythological web reports of the new Sack-tastic defensive coordinator, Scott Shafer, to the nail-chewing, weight room exploits of the new Michigan strength and conditioning coach and Jedi Master, Mike Barwis.
For a time it kept us sedated.
Fast forward just 9 months from the 42-7 drubbing at the hands of Ohio State in Columbus and things for Michigan look quite different. Hopeful. Confident. Again.
The 2009 quarterback question is certainly there for UM, but somehow we find ourselves less neurotic with worry about it. We know that quarterbacks coach Rod Smith has a proven track record over the longer term, particularly when coaching more athletic and less statuesque signal callers. Unlike last fall, Smith is going to have two to three guys ready to play. With an increased level of competition week after week for this key position, Forcier, Robinson and Sheridan are going to learn an awful lot about Rodriguez's green spiral notebook of plays in a very short time. They'll learn even more from one other.
There appears to be good depth and experience along the offensive line, at running back, and my goodness, at the receiver positions as well. This might be head-to-toe one of the youngest, fastest and most talented receiver corps at Michigan in a very long time. Yes, there was the famous cast of greatness from 2006 that included Steve Breaston, Mario Manningham, Adrian Arrington, Carl Tabb and Greg Mathews. They wore the Maize and Blue only three years ago, with Chad Henne under center throwing lightening bolts at them. This new crew of Wolverine receivers have a lot of speed and talent that was never really showcased in 2008. You place that kind of speed and elusiveness on the football pitch alongside a mobile quarterback driving opposing DC's nuts, and some very unexpected, cool, Michael Bishop-kind-of-stuff starts falling from the sky. There's also the important and less glorified duty of down field blocking by these receivers which will determine whether 4 and 6 yard runs by Brandon Minor turn into 15 and 30 yard bursts. I believe that these receivers are going to surprise the pundits in 2009 to significant degree. Mathews, Stonum, Odoms, Robinson, Rogers, Gallon, Roundtree and Hemingway and the tight ends Koger and Webb, have an awful lot to prove this autumn.
This year the main concern has to be about durability and maintaining team health over all 12 games. If the team can survive the hitting that's about to ensue over the next 2 to 3 weeks of fall practice, it will be an encouraging sign. To be sure, Michigan has a rather disappointing history of incurring a ridiculous amount of battle damage during spring and fall football scrimmages. I'm reasonably sure that some rotating chocolate teapot in space, or a flying spaghetti monster from Iron Mountain will someday reveal itself and admit full responsibility for it all.
Defensively, three of the front four players along the defensive line will need to grow up mighty quick. Right now Michigan has senior Brandon Graham, sophomore Mike Martin, junior Ryan Van Bergen and probably freshman phenom Will Campbell and junior Adam Patterson in the starting DL rotation. As Graham is the most talented and threatening piece of machinery here, significant pressure will be on the younger and less experienced three to bust through the line and start mixing alkali metals with water in the opposing backfield. Mike Martin played quite well in limited action last year at defensive tackle, which is a good sign.
These questions about how permiable the Wolverine defensive line will be this fall diverts only more attention to yet another area of concern from last fall - Michigan's linebacker play is either going stand out like a horrific train wreck, or blind us like a polished gem. There is probably not going much in-between-ness at this position. And the Michigan secondary has 2 juniors (Warren and Williams), no seniors, and a bucket load of talented, but completely inexperienced, freshmen clawing away at possible playing time. The difference between a 4 win and a 7 win season for Michigan in 2009 may very well hinge upon the "Michigan Middle" and how quickly it asserts itself as the dependable bulwark against the run, forcing opponents to pass. As great as Brandon Graham is at defensive end, the Michigan linebacker corps of Ezeh, Mouton, Herron, S. Brown and Fitzgerald must set the tone early and, for lack of greater eloquence, start tearing people's heads off.
Better Now - Collective Soul
Oh I'm newly calibrated
All shiny and clean
I'm your recent adaptation
Time to redefine me
Let the word out I've got to get out
Oh I'm feeling better now
Break the news out I've got to get out
Oh I'm feeling better now