Sunday, August 19, 2007

2007 Season Preview

Another season is upon us in Ann Arbor and once again expectations are high, but for the first time in the four years of Henne and Hart a national championship is within reach. Jake Long, Chad Henne, and Mike Hart all decided to come back for one more go round. One more opportunity for a Big Ten Championship, one more shot at Ohio State, one more chance for a National Championship. All three could have declared for the NFL draft and all would have been drafted, Long probably would have been the first offensive linemen taken, but leaving without a victory over the Buckeyes drew them all back. With the players returning and the schedule set up the way it is this could end up being a very special year in Ann Arbor.

The Offense

All the publicity this off season has gone to the offense and with good reason. This unit returns nearly every starter from a year ago and with a senior quarterback, running back, and offensive tackle expectations are high. Chad Henne has stated every game since stepping on campus as a true freshmen and will break every passing record in the Michigan record book. Starting the season Henne is only two touchdown throws away from tying the all time record at 72 TDs, a record Henne might break in the very first game, and ranks only behind John Navarre in passing yards only 1477 yards away. While breaking the records is a great individual feat, having Henne back for another year gives this unit a proven winner and a guy who has been through every possible situation during his career, he is not going to get rattled. Mike DeBord has said he plans on using the shot-gun much more this season which will only make Henne better. It will allow Henne to have more time read defenses and allow his receivers to get open. The shot-gun would have helped Henne in the Rose Bowl when it seemed like Henne has Trojan defenders in his face as soon as he dropped back in the pocket. Unlike last year where Michigan had no one waiting in the wings if Henne got hurt this year super recruit Ryan Mallet will be number two on the depth chart. Mallet stands 6-6 and weighs in at 247 pounds, during the Spring Game Mallet made Henne look like a little kid when they stood next to each other. Mallet lacks experience but he enrolled at UM in January and was able to participate in spring drills. Mallet does not lack confidence as Mike Hart raved about Mallet and his leadership abilities already as a true freshmen. The Mallet era will have to wait a year, but expect Mallet to get playing time in mop up duty throughout the year.

The running back position is also solid lead my senior Mike Hart. Hart got his chance in his freshmen year when David Underwood struggled and Hart hasn't let the job go since. After battling through injuries during his sophomore year Hart rebounded with 1601 yards and 14 touchdowns his junior year and finished 5th in the Heisman Trophy voting. Like Henne, Hart's name is scattered across the record book including ranking 6th all time in rushing, only 793 yards behind all time leader Anthony Thomas. Hart is a workhorse who can carry the ball 30 times a game and has only lost a fumble one time in his entire Wolverine career. Nationally the media has Hart ranked behind Darren MacFadden of Arkansas and Steve Slaton of West Virginia but I wouldn't have any other back in the nation leading my offense. Hart makes Michigan go, he is a vocal leader and plays hard every single down, the man just refuses to go down and after working on his lower body power while nursing a shoulder injury in the off season he will be even harder to bring down. What Mike lacks in break away speed he makes up in, well, HEART. Brandon Minor will back up Hart and he showed flashes of brilliance in his freshmen year. Minor is a bigger back than Hart at 6-0 and 213 pounds Minor has a nice combination of speed and power that will be a nice change of pace with Hart exits a game. After Minor there isn't a whole lot on the depth chart, which wasn't the plan during the Spring. The running back position was suppose to be one of the deepest position on the team, however, injuries to both Kevin Grady, knee, and Carlos Brown, broken hand, have left the Wolverines only two deep at running back.

Perhaps the most talented group on the entire team are the wide receivers. Mario Manningham, Adrian Arrington, and Greg Mathews make up the best receiving not only in the Big Ten but in the country and with Henne slinging the ball around, all three should put up huge numbers. In his freshmen season Manningham should us glimpses of what he could be, last year he showed why he has earned the nick name Super Mario. Manningham was unleashed on an unsuspecting Notre Dame defense catching 4 passes for 137 yards and 3 touchdowns. Mario missed a few games due to a knee injury and was never the same afterwards, however, he is now fully recovered and ready to be Henne's number one target. Adrian Arrington is just happy to still be on the team after getting into some off the field trouble that put him in Lloyd Carr's dog house. After running steps at Michigan Stadium this summer Arrington was allowed back on the team. Arrington provides a big target that can go over the middle and take a hit or out jump corner backs for a ball in the end zone. Greg Mathews is a combination of Manningham and Arrington. Mathews posses Mario's speed and Adrian's size. After making an impact as a freshmen Mathews will be the third receiver on the team and provides yet another target for Henne.

The offensive line might be the best in the Big Ten. Jake Long, returns to protect Henne's blind side and Adam Kraus returns at guard where he excels at run blocking. At the other guard spot Alex Mitchell returns. Justin Boren looks to have wrapped up the starting center job replacing Mark Bihl. The only real question mark is who will replace Reuben Riley at right tackle. It seems to be a three man race with Mark Ortmann, Steve Schilling, and Cory Zirbel battling for the starting job. While Ortmann and Zirbel have the experience playing sparingly through their careers I believe that sophomore Steve Schilling will ultimately earn the starting job. Schilling was going to play last year when he came down with a bout of mono and was never able to recovery in time to play. With a year to recover and another year in the system I feel Schilling will get the start September 1st against App State. The line should be able to give Henne all the time he needs in order to find his receivers and Mike Hart should have no trouble as he marches on to the all time rushing record.

The Defense

Last year the defense carried the team, ranking second in the country in total defense. Now with Hall, Woodley, Branch, and Harris all playing on Sundays we are going to see if Ron English is really as good as he looked last year. The offense will put up enough points early on in the year for the defense to come around and mesh but early on it might be a little rough on the defense.

The defensive line lost two key players in Alan Branch and LaMarr Woodley but the line will once again be the strength on this defense. Replacing Woodley is Brandon Graham who is just as quick as Woodley and learned under him last year, watch for Graham to come around the corner to get to opposing quarterbacks. At the other end Tim Jamison will get the start and has played throughout his career but has never lived up to expectations. Last year he stepped up his game recording five sacks which ranked third on the team. Inside Terrance Taylor fills the hole left by Branch. Taylor who is a 310 pound junior who will demand the double teams that Branch took on every single game last year. Playing next to Taylor will be Will Johnson who will be a quicker player than Branch was, and will Taylor taking on double teams Johnson will be able to get into the backfield and disrupt opposing offenses.

At the linebacker position Prescott Burgess and David Harris will have to be replaced. Harris was the leading tackler last year and one of the most underrated defensive players in the country and he will be missed. John Thompson will try to fill the shoes of Harris and while he doesn't have the experience of Harris he is a tad bit quicker. Look for Chris Graham to take over for Burgess full time, last year Graham started four games including getting the start in the Rose Bowl against USC. Shawn Crable will have to step up his game and be the leader of this group which lacks experience. Crable has the size and the speed to be a great linebacker he just has to put it all together this year. While this year's linebackers will be a bit raw early on they will be quicker at every position which will serve them well when they play spread offenses.

The secondary was the weak link in last year's team and that was with Leon Hall. The secondary is not going to get better by losing their best cover man but the secondary might not be as bad as people are fearing. The safety positions will be the strength with Jamar Adams holding down the strong side. Adams is a big back at 6-2 and 212 pounds who hits like a freight train. There is some competition at the strong safety spot between Stevie Brown and Brandent Englemon but I feel that Brown will get the start because of his speed, are you noticing a trend with this year's defense? Speed. Right now Morgan Trent is the number one corner back, the last time Michigan fans saw Trent he was getting abused by USC's Dwayne Jarret. Trent is an excellent tackler recording 40 solo tackles and he has the speed but he still struggles with coverage. Hopefully the arrival of Vance Bedford who coached Charles Woodson and the 97 defense will be able to help develop Trent. On the other corner Johnny Sears will likely get the start Sears played in a handful of games last year and has blazing speed. Prized recruit Donovan Warren also plans to figure into the secondary this year, especially if Trent and Sears are struggling to stay with the receivers.

Special Teams

The punting game will be a strength with Zoltan Mesko back for his second season as the punter. Mesko has a monster leg and he can switch field position with one big swoop of his kicking leg. He averaged 41 yards a punt last season and with a young inexperienced defense pinning the opposition deep with be a big advantage for the Wolverines. Garret Rivas is no longer around to kick field goals for Michigan. While Rivas had some very focal critics throughout his career he was automatic in pressure situations with the game on the line. He left Michigan as the all time leader scorer. As of media day the field goal kicking job was still up in the air Bryan Wright has the biggest leg on the team and will handle kick off duties, but he has struggled some what with his accuracy. Jason Gingell has the accuracy but his leg is not near as strong as Wright's. I suspect this battle will continue into the season and we will see both in games until one emerges as the go to guy, until then Michigan fans may be pulling their hair out wishing for the days of Rivas.

The return game is also still up in the air with the Big Ten's all time leader in punt returns Steve Breaston graduating. At media day Carr listed Sears, Brown, and Mathews as possible return guys. With Brown out with a broken hand look for Mathews and Sears to handle kickoffs and Mathews to handle the punt returns. The most important thing Carr is looking for is someone who will not put the ball on the ground.


The schedule sets up perfectly for a title run. The Wolverines don't play outside Michigan Stadium until the last weekend in September when they travel to Northwestern, where half the crowd will be wearing Maize and Blue. Oregon and Penn State will offer an early test but those games are at The Big House and Michigan should break away from both in the second half. The next road game is at Illinois, a game some are picking as an upset, but I just don't see it happening. The tough part of the schedule happens in the last three games where Michigan will travel to Michigan State, where strange things always seem to happen in Spartan Stadium, then they travel to Wisconsin which might determine the Big Ten Championship. Then, if Michigan makes it through their first 12 games undefeated, which I think they will, they have Ohio State to deal with on November 17th. Sure there are some good teams Michigan plays but the fact is no one on the schedule is as talent as Michigan and the Wolverines will probably be favored in every single game. The Ohio State game provides one last chance for Henne, Hart, and Long to earn a victory over the Buckeyes, and with the game being played on the one year anniversary of Bo's passing the Big House will be rockin'. There are no excuses for not beating Sweater Vest this year.

This team looks an awful like the 2006 Buckeye team. An offense that will be hard to shut down with a defense that is young and inexperienced to start the season. We all know how well Ohio State faired last year, winning the Big Ten and playing for the National Championship. However a word of caution, this Michigan team also reminds me a lot of the 2000 version. A killer offense with Henson, Thomas, Terrel, and Walker, but a young defense that struggled and could not stop teams when the offense struggled. That team finished 9-3 in a tie for first place in the Big Ten. Now I don't see that happening but it is something to keep in mind. This team should run the table, win the Big Ten, and play for the National Championship. There is simply no team on the schedule with as much talent as Michigan and any loss will be considered an upset.

Hold on folks, this might be a very special season in Ann Arbor.

-Tony Bolton, WCBN Sports Director.

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