With most of the talent from last year's football team gone coupled with the drastic change in coaching philosophy, expectations are the lowest they have been in over a decade. Many are predicting a four or five win season which would mean the first time in over three decades that the Wolverines would not play in a bowl game. While most agree the defense should be pretty solid, most say the offense will be so lethargic that first downs will be rare let alone touchdowns.
Today's spring scrimmage from Saline High School, though, painted a picture a little brighter than the gray, gloomy picture that the fans above have been inclined to portray. Though the weather was cloudy, rainy, windy, and chilly, the football team, yes even the offense, provided flashes of sunlight to those who were there. The scrimmage was the traditional offense vs. defense with offense wearing the white and defense in blue. The first team would play one series from a certain starting point (own 30, 50, opp 30 etc.) and the second team and first team would rotate each series (both offense and defense).
The main question mark, of course, has been the quarterback position. While Head Coach Rich Rodriguez has maintained a competition between Steven Threet and Nick Sheridan, Threet took all the snaps with the first team (the ones, if you will, since the coaches maintain there is no "first team") with Sheridan confined to taking snaps with the second team. The others who typically lined up with the first team were running backs Brandon Minor and Kevin Grady, wide recievers Greg Matthews, Daryl Stonum, and Toney Clemons, tight end Carson Butler Jr., and offensive lineman (from LT to RT) Mark Ortmann, Tim McAvoy, Dave Moosman, Cory Zirbel, and Stephen Schilling.
On defense, there are not too many question marks as the defense returns 8 big time contributors. The defensive line was much deeper than I had anticipated although I did think it would be very good. Brandon Graham, Tim Jamison, Terrance Taylor, Will Johnson, Ryan VanBergen, John Ferrara, Marques Slocum, and Adam Patterson all saw time on the first team (order from most time to least time). As you can see that is 8 guys who were very adequate on the D-line. The linebacking corps was probably the biggest question on the defense and at that spot Jonas Mouton and Austin Panter were the two first team outside backers with Obi Ezeh at middle linebacker. The first team secondary, which should be very strong consisted of Morgan Trent and Donovan Warren at the corners and Stevie Brown and Charles Stewart at the safety spots.
Overall, the defense was certainly better than the offense, but that is how it should be. Rich Rodriguez even said after the scrimmage, "If the defense isn't beating the offense then something is seriously wrong," reasoning that the offensive still has alot to learn. Having said that it was not all bad for the offense. Overall it was clear that Threet is head and shoulders above Sheridan for the job, at least right now. The offense involved a lot of quick rollouts and passes to the outside to one of the wideouts, mostly the slot guy which Clemons was playing. Threet was surprisingly quick and effective in these plays which made up most of the offense. The offense ran no-huddle the entire day, not huddling once during a series. Threet seems to be getting a great grasp on the offense very quickly leading the team in this no huddle. Most of those quick passes to the outside picked up about five yards and some broke for more. While Threet played very well there are two big weaknesses in his game that probably cannot be fixed by next season. 1. He has about a 3/4 delivery which means alot of passes were and will be batted down at the line and 2. He, at least today, absolutely cannot throw the deepball. Now the weather might have effected his ability to do #2, but Michigan will probably be better off sticking to the quick passes outside. Still, he seems more than an adequate leader to run this offense. Perhaps the most impressive thing about him is his maturity and the way he carries himself off the field. After the scrimmage, he was signing autographs for kids when I approached him. He was joking around with the kids and they all loved him. When they finally left, I got to speak to him and he is the most well spoken quarterback Michigan has had in a long time. Threet has a great attitude and should improve very quickly due to how smart he is(27 on the ACT, not too shabby). Sheridan did not look terrible, but he certainly is behind Threet. He is only 6'1" which hurts and made some questionable decisions. He certainly is better than David Cone though who got some snaps with the third team, which consists of alot of walkons, and he was pretty bad to say the least even against the third team defense. Bottom line, Cone is just way way too slow to even compete in Rodriguez's system. When Justin Feagin comes in in the fall, I expect his speed and athleticism to catapult him to #2 on the depth chart ahead of Sheridan. If Feagin can pick up on the offensive scheme quickly, he could take about 20% of the snaps and be very dangerous as a runner in place of Threet.
This offense will really be helped out in that area by the freshman coming in such as Feagin and the slot wide receivers like Terrence Robinson. The quick freshman such as Robinson will have a great opportunity to contribute early and they can prove really effective. Clemons was the main slot guy today and was able to catch the short ones and sometimes break out for some big gains. Matthews, though and outside receiver, also came back on some short hitch and slant routes and broke through for big gains. Unless Threet dramatically improves on his ability to throw the long ball, these short routes will be Michigan's offense and the speedy freshmen will have a chance to get on the field.
The offensive line, at least the first team, did a pretty good job overall protecting Threet and opening up holes for the running backs. They proved quick enough to run the Rodriguez offense and really surprised me. They seemed to favor the left side in the running game a little bit (Ortmann and McAvoy), but were also effective on the right with Schilling. Moosman did a great job at center going without one bad or mishandled snap. Moosman, Schilling, and second team center David Molk recieved Spring awards for their play and work ethic. Of course at times, with Michigan's very talented defense, the defense was able to get to the quarterback, but overall the o-line did a surprisingly good job. As the game went on, however, the defense started to break through more so conditioning will be big for the o-linemen this summer. The depth on the O-line is also a concern as the second team was not very impressive. With the exception of Molk and Tackle Perry Dorrestein, I am not sure if the other second-teamers will be reliable guys on the depth chart. That means freshman will probably make their way onto the two-deep.
In the running game, Kevin Grady was really impressive while Brandon Minor won a Spring award for his work in the spring, overall. Grady, though, showed a burst that we haven't seen from him, in addition to his strength and power, which we did see from him freshman year. What we didn't see was a fumble! Yes I am serious. Grady provided a great change of pace with runs straight up the middle that gained close to ten yards. While Minor ran mostly to the outside, Grady was able to gain tough yards and show his explosiveness. Even on the second team, Avery Horn was impressive as the scrimmage went on showing great quickness and an extra burst in the open field. Carlos Brown was out for the Spring, but with the play from Grady, Horn, and Minor throughout spring practice, the running back spot should be deep in the Fall.
Grade for the Offense: If I was judging them from the low expectations everyone had I would give them a B or B- because they really showed promise. But I will judge as they are any other team.
Rodriguez's staff keeps stressing conditioning and getting faster. How they workout in the offseason will be key, especially conditioning. The no huddle will be able to wear teams down IF the offense has great stamina. If they work hard in the summer and are conditioned to where they can execute the no huddle in the second half, bump this up to a B-. The no huddle will be tough for Big Ten teams to handle and a well conditioned Michigan team could be the Big Ten's worst nightmare.
There is not much to report on the defensive side. We paid more attention to the offense since that is the question mark for this team. They played much as we expected with only pleasant surprises. As mentioned earlier the defensive line seems much deeper than anticipated. Brandon Graham showed explosiveness off the end along with Ryan Van Bergen (RS Fr) who surprisingly played quite a bit with the first team. While Michigan has big interior guys like Taylor, Slocum, and Paul, the coaching staff sometimes switched it up putting slimmer guys on the interior. Overall, the defensive line was deep and very talented.
The linebacking corps was the big question and the Mouton, Ezeh, and Panter are relatively inexperienced. Those three, however, played very well today and Mouton especially caught my eye. He was very speedy for a linebacker and also showed the ability to tackle well. Ezeh, of course the most experienced of the group, will play in the middle and Panter did a good job at the other outside spot. Again, I apologize, but most of my focus was on the offense, but from what I saw the linebackers also look surprisingly good.
The secondary has a chance to shine this year especially if the D-line is able to pressure opposing quarterbacks. Trent and Warren at the corner spots did a great job confining the receivers to the short routes. They had great downfield coverage on Stonum and Matthews. At safety, Stevie Brown got a pick and looked very good. He also brought home two spring awards for his efforts throughout spring practice. Brown could step up to be a leader in the secondary along with Trent. Charles Stewart, who has been here forever, played the other safety spot, and though I didn't watch him too closely, he was pretty effective too. Artis Chambers on the second team had two interceptions with one coming off a very athletic play on the ball jumping and catching it as high as he could. He could step into some playing time. Add Boubacar Cissoko and some more quick freshmen, this unit could be one of the best if not the best in the Big Ten.
Grade for the Defense: While they played very well, with the offense changing so drastically I expected them to be even more dominant than they were. The first team offense got into the endzone, I believe, three times. Therefore, I think the defense also needs to get into better condition this summer. If they do that they get an A-. For now:
The coaches had a lot of guys kicking field goals in warm ups. The main guys who got a chance during the scrimmage, however, were #1 K.C. Lopata, #2 Jason Gingell (yikes) #3. Bryan Wright, who should be #1 or 1b. Lopata hit a couple, but Wright undoubtedly has the strongest leg. I will be surprised if Wright doesn't win the job, but Lopata could be effective too. Please never any Gingell.
Wright also showed a leg punting, but this is definitely Zoltan's job. This should be a key to a Michigan offense that will go through some growing pains. There was a scary moment when they simulated actual defense against the offense punting when the punt rush caught Zoltan's leg and he fell down after the kick. Zoltan got up and was just fine though.
Speaking of the above puntrush, Michigan might actually finally block some punts next year. They were able to get to the punter in those simulations almost everytime and it appears as though they will bring pressure. This is a great breath of fresh air for Michigan fans.
They did not simulate kickoffs today.
Special Teams Grade: This unit will definitely improve alot. Still, until I see Wright in that #1 spot I can't give too high of a grade.
The scrimmage today was very encouraging for next season. The team seems to already be adapting well to the new system. The offense is not disastrous as I thought and Rodriguez seems to be adapting perfectly to build the offense around Threet's abilities. If the team does what the coaches are asking them to do in the summer, being in contention for the Big Ten title is definitely not out of the question. Only time will tell if this team can exceed the low expectations next year, but if you listen to our shows (Extra Points on Monday at 6 PM on 88.3 WCBN) you probably know I'm optimistic.