Rating = 9 - Senior Quarterbacks win Championships at Michigan.
After the Ohio State and Citrus Bowl debacles of 2001, as well as a rather lackluster Spring game performance, there were very few John Navarre fans outside of Schembechler Hall and Cudhay, Wisconsin at the beginning of the 2002 season. "John Navarre will play on Sundays," came the familiar refrain from the coaching staff along with the all too rationale argument that John was maturing at the same pace as many former M quarterbacks, including Tom Brady and Brian Griese. Connecting on 248 of 447 passes for 2901 yards and 21 touchdowns in 2002 has converted most of John's critics to believers that 2003 can be a very special year for the Michigan football team. Yet the question remains as to whether John Navarre can step up, as the prior Michigan quarterbacks have, and lead the team to that outstanding senior season that Brian Griese had in capturing the National Title and the 1998 Rose Bowl Championship, and Tom Brady did in capturing a share of the Big Ten Title and in winning the 2000 Orange Bowl.
Few would question that John Navarre has the arm strength to lead the Wolverines to Pasadena or perhaps even New Orleans. The questions concern whether he will lead the team to victory during that final series in the fourth quarter with the Big Ten Championship on the line. That question for me was answered last November in the shoe shaped stadium in Columbus affectionately known by those that grew up listening to the voice of Michigan football, Bob Ufer, as the "snakepit." What I witnessed was a John Navarre that would not quit and led Michigan late in the game on drive after drive down the length of the field against what was undoubtedly the best defense in the country. Even when the game seemed over, after a sack and fumble and only seconds remained, Navarre led the team down the field before he hastily had to force one last play with the time clock expiring. 23 of 46 for 247 yards in the most hostile conditions imaginable was an impressive day for Navarre, and hostile does not even begin to describe the crowd I witnessed. The final score read 14-9 Buckeyes, but the 12 of 22 third down conversions against that defense under those conditions, and the 2 for 2 in fourth down conversions, were more than an impressive showing for Navarre. John followed his gutsy showing against the Buckeyes with a 21 of 36, 247 yard, 1 touchdown, 38-31 Outback Bowl victory over Florida. A Michigan team outscoring Florida in a nearly 70 point shootout, well it happened despite the perennial claims that Northern players aren't fast enough and will tire in the Florida heat.
Perhaps it is my usual pre-season, pro-Michigan optimism, but I truly believe that Senior quarterbacks at Michigan win Big Ten Titles. Further bolstering my belief is the Michigan schedule, which brings Notre Dame, Purdue and Ohio State to Michigan stadium and leaves Penn State University and Wisconsin off the schedule. A senior quarterback that completed nearly 60% of his passes at home last season and with the Irish, that stubborn Purdue defense and the Buckeyes playing in Michigan Stadium has been set up for success. There may have been some growing pains in getting there, but I believe a mature John Navarre will make the plays to win the Big Ten title for the Wolverines.
The Quarterback position is also strong because of a senior backup in Spencer Brinton. Spencer may not have many snaps behind center at Michigan, but he did start more than a few games at San Diego State University before he transferred to Michigan following a two-year religious mission. He also has had two full seasons working with the Michigan staff in a backup role and taking snaps in practice with the Michigan offense. In the event that he is ever needed to play, Spencer is well ahead of the curve of backup quarterbacks having been a starter himself and having had several years in the system preparing. Competing with Spencer is a player that never lost a game at the high school level. In fact, the legendary Concorde DeLaSalle High School program hasn't a lost a game since the State Championship final when a certain Amani Toomer was a high school senior. A major part of DeLasalle’s winning tradition was quarterback Matt Gutierrez. With a reputation as a mobile quarterback and an extremely accurate passer, Michigan fans are hoping to get a glimpse of the future when the redshirt freshman takes his first snap for the Wolverines. Hopefully, that snap will come early in the season, and Matt will be prepared should he be called upon to lead the Wolverines. One thing is for certain, Matt certainly has the confidence and understands what has to be done to win, because that is all that he has ever done. Also on the depth chart is true freshman Clayton Richard, who has one of the strongest arms to ever be suited in maize and blue.
Rating = 7 - Perry has to stay healthy and Underwood needs a big year.
Another senior that turned in some strong performances at the end of last season and should be ready to lead the Wolverines to the title is tailback Chris Perry. Perry's six catches for 108 yards receiving in the Outback Bowl combined with his 85 yards rushing were a glimpse of just how effective he can be, even against a quality opponent like Florida. Against Ohio State, it was a very tough 76 yards rushing. I believe that Perry will emerge this season, as every bit the warrior that Anthony Thomas was as a senior. The ability has always been there, but prior to the end of last season it just didn't seem that Perry had emerged as the running back he was expected to be. Perhaps that was due to injury or perhaps that was due to injuries on the offensive line, but the way that he finished last season should leave little doubt that Perry is ready to step up this season.
David Underwood should also step into a prominent role in the Michigan running game this season. He has shown glimpses of speed and power at times in the past, but the tentativeness that accompanies youth and inexperience has too often held him back. He just seems to lack that swagger that says that I am a star on the best college football team in America and you can not stop me. You don't impress a successful, veteran coach like Fred Jackson unless you truly have the ability, and this year is the opportunity for David Underwood to start knocking on that door of great Michigan running backs of the past. David should also be facing some tired defenses that have been physically brutalized by that powerful and massive Michigan line and a strong back like Chris Perry. David should be able to find that opportunity in each game when the defensive lineman and linebackers have lost a step and David can explode through a gap. Michigan doesn't need two players to rush for one thousand yards each this season, they just need someone who can be effective and ground out some first downs during two or three series in each game, while Perry gets a breather.
Tim Bracken was rumored to be the heir to Anthony Thomas two seasons ago, but a serious leg injury has set back his career. Said to be more of a slasher than the typical M power runner, Bracken has shown snippets of ability on a limited number of occasions when he has appeared. At one time, he was considered a serious contender to start, and there is no reason to believe that ability won't resurface should he ever regain that health and form that he had prior to his injury at the start of the 2001 season.
Pierre Rembert is the redshirt freshman on Michigan's depth chart. Rembert hails from the same hometown of Cudhay, Wisconsin as quarterback John Navarre. Also, possibly appearing for the Wolverines at tailback this season are Anton Campbell and Jerome Jackson. Anton Campbell has explosive speed with a reputation in high school for breaking big runs. One nationally renown recruiting journalist compared him to Gale Sayers, though we could only hope that he has that much potential. Campbell, though, also has a reputation as a tenacious defender, having started at safety in the Army All Star Game and possessing the speed to play corner, which means that he could end up on the defense. Jerome Jackson is the younger and obviously far wiser brother of Minnesota's star running back Terry Jackson. Pierre, Anton and Jerome all have reputations as tough runners.
Rating = 4 - Bueller, Bueller?
No player will be missed more on the 2003 Wolverine offense than B.J.Askew.
He was the workhorse of the Michigan offense for the past two seasons, moving
to fullback, back to tailback when Perry was injured in 2001, and then back
to fullback last season. What looked like a massive blow to the Michigan offense
could have been greatly mitigated if Sean Sanderson were to start. Whereas Askew
was often a "tweener", an undersized fullback that was a dangerous
runner in mid-field and an excellent receiver, Sanderson was just a classic
smashmouth fullback that was the equivalent of having a good sized offensive
guard in the backfield with just enough speed to get out in front of the play.
Sanderson had no problem physically overpowering linebackers and defensive ends.
Sanderson, though, was suspended during the Spring by the staff and his status
for the Fall is unknown.
The fullback position, thus, looks to be in the hands of Kevin Dudley. There have never been any huge expectations surrounding Kevin Dudley, but to be an effective fullback and help this team win he really only needs to block the linebackers coming through the gaps and keep anyone and everyone from pressuring John Navarre. Sounds simple, but the past few years we have seen teams increasingly blitzing a linebacker at the snap, hoping to catch our tailback behind the line of scrimmage and pressuring John Navarre with everything that they have. For a position that doesn't get to touch the ball that often, an effective blocking fullback could be a huge benefit for Michigan this fall.
The challenger for the fullback position is looking more and more like redshirt freshman Brian Thompson. Few will forget his older brother Shawn strolling into endzone capping Michigan's overtime victory over Alabama in the 2000 Orange Bowl. Much like Shawn, Brian is an unheralded recruit from Saginaw's tiny Nouvel Catholic that many are now beginning to say has big time potential. Moving from linebacker to fullback with a listed weight last year of only 212, there certainly are some skeptics about how soon Brain could make an impact at fullback. Lloyd Carr isn't one of them. With the fullback position apparently open to competition, Brain will certainly get a shot. He doesn't have to be a superstar by October, he just has to keep the linebackers off of Perry and Navarre.
Rating = 7 - Actually deeper than the position has been in quite awhile.
Nobody foresaw the amazing senior year that Bennie Joppru had last season. 15 receptions for 579 yards and 5 touchdowns is the type of season that Michigan fans expect from a tight end, or are at least are so spoiled by the incredible talent that has lined up there for the past few decades that they have gotten used to it. It certainly does not appear that there is any one player that is going to fill those shoes too quickly, but the tight end position at Michigan should have more than enough talent to help the Michigan offense. The production may not come from one player, but the unit should be deep and ready to play. Andy Mignery returns for his second season at tight end, having moved from the quarterback position. This is Andy's final season in the Maize and Blue, can he step it up? Tim Massaquoi also returns for his second season at tight end, after having moved for his redshirt freshman season. He adds a different dimension to the position, having moved from wide receiver, with a very quick first step off the line, good speed and great hands. Kevin Murphy is a redshirt freshman player next season that has been mentioned as a potential future star at the position, though he has struggled with an injury. Jim Fisher is another player that has struggled with injuries. Adam Kraus is a true freshman that may redshirt. Eyes, though, should be focused on Ty Ecker. One of the highest rated recruits of the 2000 recruiting class, he has size, strength, and good speed. He spent two years on a religious mission, and has returned to UM ready to stake his claim as the next great Michigan tight end in the recent lineage of Jeramie Tuman, Mark Campbell, Aaron Shea, and Bennie Joppru. This isn't a case of high expectations for a new face, Ecker was here before and is ready. Despite the loss of Joppru, tight end should be a very productive position for Michigan.
Rating = 8 - Edwards and Avant headline a group that could easily be a 9 if the seniors step it up.
Any discussion of Michigan wide receivers has to begin with Braylon Edwards. His totals for last season of 67 receptions for 1035 yards and 10 touchdowns is just the tip of the iceberg of what the junior star is capable of accomplishing. He has the size at 6'3", blazing speed, which he showcased in his 110 yards receiving against Florida, and now he has Michigan's legendary #1 jersey. He is the most talented returning receiver in the Big Ten and with a senior quarterback at the helm, he should have plenty of opportunities to prove it. I fully expect with a year of maturity that he will make every catchable play this season.
Another player that I am more than excited about seeing play this season is sophomore Jason Avant. Last season he showed a ferociousness and toughness in blocking that earned him playing time in 12 games, and, though he only made a couple of catches, he displayed at least one brilliant moment making an acrobatic catch that highlighted his incredible athleticism and great concentration. Because he is a tough, tenacious, physical receiver, he is a great complement to the sleeker, speedier Braylon Edwards. As teams focus their best secondary efforts on containing Braylon, Avant's opportunity to shine will come early.
Former quarterback Jermaine Gonzales only had 4 receptions last season, but seems to have completed the transition from quarterback to a possession receiver. He made some needed and tough catches late in the season. In addition to Gonzales, seniors Ty Butler and Calvin Bell return to the Michigan receiving attack. Ty Butler started the Michigan season in 2002 looking like he was an emerging star, having shown a glimpse of that ability the preceding year with his 77 yard touchdown against Iowa. He made 6 receptions for 85 yards against Washington and made a game saving recovery of a fumble to preserve possession in Michigan's final drive and last second victory over Washington. Bell also seems to occasional stand, and should be able to contribute significantly this season, despite a deep receiving corp.
Two redshirt freshman that everyone is anxious to see are local speed demon Carl Tabb and the electrifying Steve Breaston. Breaston was not only the Pennsylvania player of the year coming out of high school in 2002, but he exploded in the Big 33 All Star Game between Penn and Ohio All Stars by scoring touchdowns on Pennsylvania’s first two plays from scrimmage, scored a two point conversion on a reverse, and added 140 yards as a punt returner as well. It isn't just that he dominated a field of all stars, it was the Carter-esq way that he seems to glide down the field and around opponents. The combination of looking so smooth and yet so elusive makes him an incredibly exciting player to watch. Carl Tabb isn't just fast, he is faster than a first team all big ten receiver in Charles Rogers and a first team safety in Stuart Schweigart, having beaten both in the same Michigan High School State Championship track meet. He may be the fastest player on the Michigan football team. There are a lot of skills that young receivers have to learn before they become successful at Michigan, but the speed of Carl Tabb and the elusiveness of Steve Breaston are skills that can not be taught and could make them gamebreakers at Michigan someday.
Rating = 9 - Last season the starters emerged, this season there is depth.
If there is a unit on this Michigan team that is ready to step up and reclaim its place in Michigan football lore, it is the Michigan offensive line. It starts with senior Tony Pape. Pape follows in the great tradition of dominating Michigan offensive tackles. Despite all of the accolades that Pape is receiving this season, some will argue that Michigan's most effective lineman is left guard David Baas. Pape and Bass are as good as any two college offensive lineman on any offensive line in the country. Also returning as a starter is center Dave Pearson. Redshirt Freshman Adam Stenavich claimed the starting left tackle position last season and has as much, if not more, potential than any lineman on the team. The dropoff in the effectiveness of the Michigan line when Adam was injured last season was most noticeable to John Navarre, who paid the price in the Iowa game of missing his blindside anchor. Matt Lentz split time with Dave Petruziello at right guard last season and was extremely effective in each series that he played, and Leo Heinge has come on to challenge the experienced Lentz for that starting right guard position. Other young players pushing for playing time are Ruben Riley and Mike Kolodziej. Courtney Morgan is a veteran at nearly every position on the line, making his presence on the team invaluable, and Demetrius Soloman is a former starter that continues to battle for playing time. Jake Long is a name to remember, though he may redshirt this season.
I first became a huge fan of this line in the overtime win against Penn State University. Penn State's acclaimed defensive line did not hold up in the fourth quarter and in the overtime against the physically superior Michigan offensive line. The Michigan offensive line was also very successful in the first half of the OSU game, controlling the line of scrimmage, and in the second half held their own against the same Buckeye defensive line that hammered Miami. I expect this offensive line to be amongst the very best in the nation this year. Pape and Baas are as good as any collegiate offensive lineman in the nation, and Lentz and Stenavich, as just redshirt freshman, really stepped it up last year. Pearson was just learning the center position, having moved from the defensive line, and performed very well. He should perform even more superbly this year. Most importantly with Morgan, Soloman, Heinge, Riley, and Kolodziej, the offensive line really looks to have some decent depth.
OFFENSE, THE PROGNOSIS.
Rating = 8 - The strength of the Offensive Line, Quarterback and Receivers gives Michigan a formidable offense.
As much as Michigan fans can credit John Navarre and Chris Perry their dramatically
improved play at the end of last season, it is the strength and effectiveness
of the Michigan offensive line that led to the most drastic improvements in
this Michigan team last season. When the line struggled without Stenavich or
Lentz against Iowa, Navarre and Perry struggled as well, with Iowa players routinely
in the backfield disrupting the offense. B.J. Askew will be missed, but with
greater depth on the offensive line and great young players like Stenavich,
Lentz, Heinge and Riley coming on, this offensive line will give Navarre the
time and Perry the holes to score a lot of points. The senior leadership of
Navarre and Perry combined with a powerful offensive line and a gamebreaker
in Braylon Edwards are all of the ingredients needed for a Big Ten Championship