Michigan Monday - Offensive Preview
By Tom Orr
Michigan enters the 2005 season ranked as the nation's fourth-best team. The big question is where exactly they will end it.
The last nine times the Wolverines started the year being touted as one of the nation's five best teams (2003, 1998, 1994, 1993, 1991, 1989, 1986, 1981 and 1977), they failed to finish that way.
They've also found a way to lose three games or more in each of the past five seasons, including their first road game in each of those years.
This year's edition is blessed with some exciting young playmakers on offense and some promising defenders, but is also dealing with a number of question marks on both sides of the ball. In other words, preseason predictions are nice, but Michigan is anything but a sure thing to win a share of their third straight conference title.
Quarterback: This time last year, the Wolverines' signal-callers were widely considered a big question mark, and a definite source of concern. This year, the quarterback is viewed as a position of strength.
Chad Henne returns for his sophomore season, after a superlative freshman campaign. One year removed from high school, Henne threw for 2,743 yards and 25 touchdowns against only 12 interceptions. That already puts him no. 10 in career passing touchdowns at UM, and tied Elvis Grbac’s school single-season record for scoring throws.
Michigan's coaches and receivers rave about Henne's arm strength and decision-making, and there's reason to think that both of those should be even better this year. You can pretty much pencil his name in under center for the next two or three years.
Redshirt junior Matt Gutierrez will back Henne up. Gutierrez was considered the heir-apparent to John Navarre a year ago, but injured his shoulder just before the season started. He was limited to working as the holder for special teams. This is his fourth season in the program, but he has thrown only 19 passes during that time.
Last year’s third-stringer, Clayton Richard, left the program to play baseball full-time.
That means true freshman Jason Forcier and junior Jeff Kastl (two career games, no passing attempts) are probably the next guys in line.
Tailback: This time last year, senior David Underwood was set to finally step in and carry the mail after waiting four years. Then he got hurt and Michigan went with an uninspiring tailback-by-committee for a while. Then some kid named Michael Hart took over.
Hart's yardage by game grew pretty consistently throughout the year (20 yards, 17, 121, 99, 79, 160, 234, 206, 224, 151) before he vanished against Ohio State and Texas (61 and 83 yards, respectively). Whether you want to attribute that to a freshman wearing down, piling up yards against so-so defenses, or anything else, it was still a heck of a season. He ended the year with 1,455 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground.
Just to put that in perspective, it was the seventh-highest rushing total for a Michigan player in any season, and with one more similar season, he will already rank among Michigan's top-10 in career rushing yardage. He already owns the school record for 200-plus yard games (3). Did I mention that he was just a true freshman?
Hart is going to get a little help from the rest of Michigan's kiddie corps runners. True freshman Kevin Grady was on campus for spring practice and is now second on the depth chart. He's a load at 5- foot-9, and 228 lbs., and could see time around the goal line.
Sophomore Max Martin is third in line. He played in eight games last fall, picking up 132 yards on 32 carries. He should remain a solid contributor.
Fullback: Kevin Dudley, a human battering-ram for the last couple years, has now graduated. He takes with him pretty much all of Michigan's experience at the position, as well as (hopefully) all the announcers who mentioned during every single goal line situation that he scored 12 million touchdowns in high school, but never at Michigan. (Think of it the same way the OSU radio guys treat the Buckeyes’ streak of consecutive games without a kickoff return for a touchdown.)
It’s a three-horse race to fill Dudley’s shoes. On the official depth chart for this weekend’s game, all three guys are listed as possible starters.
One is junior Obi Oluigbo (Impress your friends: it’s pronounced oh-LEE-bow), who is just begging for a creative nickname. He's a converted linebacker who saw a little action at fullback, as well as on special teams last year.
Junior Brian Thompson and sophomore William Paul are the other two candidates.
Thompson has the most experience of the three; he played fullback in all 13 games back in 2003, and caught 13 passes for 82 yards. He played sparingly last year (four games at fullback), and is best remembered for recovering an on-side kick during the Wolverines’ fourth-quarter comeback against MSU.
Paul switched to fullback this spring after playing on the defensive line last season.
Wide Receivers: First the good news-- they should be much better on 4th-and-1 situations. Now, the bad news-- Braylon Edwards and his 1,330 yards, 15 touchdowns, and single-handed win over Michigan State are now gone. He leaves as Michigan's record-holder for catches in a season, catches in a career, receiving yards in a season, receiving yards in a career, receiving touchdowns in a career, consecutive games with a reception and consecutive 100-yard receiving games.
How can the Wolverines replace him? By getting back a guy who was just a shell of himself last year.
It's easy to forget how terrifying it was to watch Steve Breaston carve up Big Ten defenses as a freshman in 2003. He ran back two punts for touchdowns that year, scored three more through the air, and even scored two rushing the ball (including one where he lined up at quarterback against Ohio State). He already owns the career punt return yardage record at UM.
This time last year, Michigan fans were talking about him in the same tone that Buckeye fans reserve for Ted Ginn. Then, Breaston got hurt. And he got hurt again. He was really not a factor for much of the season, finishing with just 34 catches for 291 yards and three touchdowns through the air, and 24 punt returns for 292 yards (12.2 per) and a touchdown. Not bad, but not even close to what Michigan fans were expecting.
This year, he's supposedly 100 percent again. If so, he gives Henne an electric playmaker on reverses and trick plays who also has the ability to stretch defenses vertically.
On the other side of the field, senior Jason Avant returns. He's not going to test many people deep (his long catch a year ago was just 21 yards), but he's a solid possession guy. If you're trying to remember who he is, think back a couple years to the Michigan receiver who made that spectacular one-handed diving touchdown catch against Northwestern. That's him. He also had a touchdown grab against Ohio State last November.
It's getting to "now or never" time for junior Carl Tabb. He caught 10 passes for more than 100 yards as a freshman, but didn't catch any passes last year. If he doesn't break through this fall, he'll get passed by an intriguing group of youngsters behind him.
Sophomore Adrian Arrington might be the most promising. He's just big enough (6-foot-3) and just fast enough (4.46 in the 40) to create some matchup problems. He caught only two balls for 12 yards last fall, but should see much more action this year.
You know how Michigan seems to churn out a never-ending procession of solid receivers (Edwards, Marquise Walker before him, David Terrell before him, Tai Streets, Amani Toomer, Derrick Alexander, Desmond Howard, etc.)? It wouldn’t surprise me if Arrington joined that list at some point.
There's a lot of buzz among Wolverine fans about redshirt freshman Doug Dutch, who stands only 5-foot-10.
True freshmen Mario Manningham (from Harding High School in Warren, OH) and Antonio Bass are not listed on the fall depth chart, making them possible redshirts.
Tight Ends: The usual suspects (Tim Massaquoi and Tyler Ecker) both return. Massaquoi caught only 18 balls for 184 yards last fall. Ecker had 17 catches for 157 yards and two scores, including an impressive 31-yard catch-and-run against Minnesota. Odds are that both should see the ball more this fall than last, since Henne won't be able to lock on to Braylon Edwards any more.
Mike Massey, the younger brother of UM defensive lineman Patrick Massey and former Buckeye offensive lineman Jim Massey, is the third option.
Offensive Line: Here's where things get a little sticky. First of all, everyone and their brother seems to love this unit, ranking it among the best in the Big Ten, if not the country. I'm just not sure why.
There are certain things that Michigan's offensive line does very well. They pull, they trap and they screen with the best in the nation. But when this team needed to line up and just ram the ball at people last year, they couldn't do it. Third-and-2 turned into 4th-and-2 with disturbing regularity last fall. When they played a team with a good front seven on defense (like, say, Ohio State) they got their butts kicked.
You can talk all you want about security dogs, home field advantage and freshmen playing on the road, but Michigan lost in Columbus last fall because they got destroyed in the trenches. Michael Hart had nowhere to run, Chad Henne got knocked down time after time and simply did not have time to throw on many plays.
This year, they lose their best (on paper, anyway) lineman, in David Baas. Baas played center last year and earned all-America honors, but was never quite as dominating as he was made out to be.
The best lineman on the team this fall might be redshirt sophomore Jake Long. A massive (6-foot-7, 338 lbs.) tackle, Long stepped in last fall as a solid starter, earning second team all-conference honors. However, Long injured his leg during practice earlier this month. Is it a break? Is a ligament thing? A tendon thing? Michigan has been beyond tight-lipped about his status-- speculation has ranged from Long missing a couple weeks to the entire season.
That injury threw another question mark into an already unsettled line situation. The official depth chart for week one varies significantly from what many Michigan fans thought they might see.
Starting in the middle, sophomore Adam Kraus and junior Mark Bihl are both listed as possible starters at center. Earlier this fall, the coaching staff considered moving Rueben Riley to center, but said they would prefer not to. Now, with Kraus and Bihl penciled in there, it looks like they’ll get their wish.
Kraus played in three games last year, but missed spring ball because of an injury. Bihl actually started a few games at center last year, but lost his job when the coaches moved Baas to center.
The guard spots are both likely to be manned by seniors. Matt Lentz was first-team all-conference last fall and is a definite starter. Leo Henige started a couple games in 2004, but got hurt against Indiana and missed the rest of the season. He’s listed first at the other guard spot.
Senior Adam Stenavich will hold down one of the tackle positions. He's a first-team all-conference performer, and was named to the Lombardi Award watch list.
On the other side, it now looks likely that Riley will take over for the injured Long. He and junior Mike Kolodziej are both listed as possible starters. Kolodziej saw action in all 12 games last fall, including three starts. Riley started seven games last year at guard.
(What follows is flagrant speculation—you’ve been warned.) Michigan’s coaching staff, which said earlier in the fall that they wanted to keep Riley at guard, rather than moving him to center, has now apparently shifted him to tackle. If they’re willing to move him away from guard in this case, that suggests to me that Long’s injury could be extremely serious, and that the staff is not comfortable with the idea of Kolodziej starting at tackle all year.
Of course, if Long’s injury is not as serious, they could just shift Riley back to center or guard later in the year. (End of flagrant speculation.)
A couple of redshirt freshmen (Jeremy Ciulla and Alex Mitchell) are also on the two-deep.
What to expect: It's Michigan. You're going to get a tailback (Hart) who gets 25-30 carries a game, you're going to see 6-8 screen passes every Saturday, when they really want to get crazy, they'll run an end-around or a reverse to Breaston or Carl Tabb, and they might even line Breaston up at quarterback once or twice. If the backup wide receivers are in the game, it’s almost certainly going to be a run.
They’re Michigan, they have tendencies that they never seem to get away from, but most teams aren’t going to stop them anyway.
Henne should have a solid season, although his numbers probably won't end up quite as strong as a year ago. Count on him for about 2,500 yards and 15-20 touchdowns. He's going to miss Braylon Edwards, but probably not as much as people think. Breaston (if he can stay healthy) should put up 800 yards receiving and 6-8 touchdowns, as well as running back a couple punts for scores. Jason Avant will make at least one opposing coach throw his arms up in the air in frustration with three consecutive third-down catches to move the sticks.
Tim Massaquoi and Tyler Ecker should both get a few more chances to catch the ball.
Is this a Big Ten championship-caliber offense? Probably. But only if the line gels, Breaston stays healthy and Hart lives up to his performances in the middle of the season, rather than his end-of-season struggles.
Teams that can control Michigan’s run game (and there aren't that many around) have a chance to keep this team in check.
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