Rating = 6 - Too many questions to rate it higher, despite some potentially outstanding talent.
The Defensive Ends were just not the productive unit that they were expected
to be last season. Outside linebacker Victor Hobson had as many sacks with 6
as any of the defensive ends, and his 17 tackles for a loss dwarfed any numbers
posted by the Defensive Ends, with Shantee Orr having 10 and Larry Stevens 9.
The graduation of Dan Rumishek and Shantee Orr’s decision to leave early
have left Larry Stevens and Alain Kashama as the frontrunners for the starting
end positions. Stevens with 45 tackles last season (9 for a loss and 4 sacks)
was the most consistent of the defensive ends last year. He should turn in another
solid performance this year. Kashama showed flashes late in the season in 2002
of an explosiveness that allowed him to pressure teams and disrupt their offenses.
Kashama has always had the reputation of tremendous athleticism and speed for
his size, but late in 2002 was the first time we had ever witnessed him asserting
himself in a game. Depth will come from Patrick Massey, who played primarily
defensive tackle last season, but was rumored to have looked very good playing
some defensive end this past Spring. With his experience battling on the interior,
Massey should certainly be strong enough to physically dominate at an end position,
and he is said to have good speed. He could even challenge Kashama for a starting
end position. His 6’8” frame and massive wingspan has also created
a few problems for opposing quarterbacks in the past, as they struggle to get
the ball overtop of him. That won’t be as big of a factor on the end,
but he should have an interesting ability to reach around players’ blocks
to make plays. Alex Olifi is another player that can play either the defensive
end or tackle position. Alex hasn’t gotten a lot of opportunities to showcase
his talents yet, but reports from practice and the spring have always described
him as a player, who will make an impact on Michigan’s defensive line
in the near future. Rondell Biggs is a redshirt freshman that could figure in
the depth chart. A player that had considerably more expectations attached to
his recruitment that could make an impact on the defensive end position is Jeremy
Van Alstyne. The redshirt freshman has had a number of accolades made about
him by teammates, who talk about his great speed and aggressiveness. Until he
sees a snap in a game, though, it is tough to consider him to be ready to make
a huge impact at this time.
Similarly, the State of Michigan’s top high school player last season, LaMarr Woodley, would seem well suited to playing as a rushing end on obvious passing downs. David Bowens and Larry Foote played as designated rushers during their freshman campaigns, and many who have seen him play extensively in high school, including the Michigan coaches, have stated that he is physically ready to make an impact as a freshman. Bo Schembechler is probably tracking me down in order to give me a first class chastising for even mentioning a freshman, but rushing the passer is one of the areas where freshman have excelled in the past. In addition to Woodley, incoming freshman Will Paul was a highly regarded player that will likely start out at defensive end. It may not be all that likely that he plays as a freshman, but it isn’t impossible. While some will disagree with me and rate this position higher, expecting more pressure than last season, I really can’t foresee any huge improvement over last season until I see Massey, Olifi and Woodley on the field in a competitive game.
Rating = 7 - Younger Players Must Prove They Are Ready
Last season, when super recruit Gabe Watson came onto the field at 6’4”, 358 plus pounds, it was hard to tell if he was seriously going to play defensive end or was destined to move to offensive tackle. Against Illinois, he did show that he could move pretty well in pursuit, but he just did not appear to be in shape to consistently be the dominating defensive lineman that Michigan coaches and fans had expected. Spring reports had him trimming down to 330 pounds, and he and 320 pound Larry Harrison present quite a physically imposing pair of defensive tackles. Watson and Harrison will have to be ready to play for the defensive tackle position to be effective this season. Norman Heuer is the senior leader of the unit, and a solid but not always the most effective defensive tackle. He did miss 3 games to injury, though, and injuries likely kept him from playing as well as he is capable. He needs to have a healthy season for Michigan’s defensive line to excel. He also needs to pick up the tackles for a loss (5) and sacks (3) this season. Grant Bowman had similar statistics (8 tackles for a loss, 4 sacks) for 12 games. Grant Bowman is one of the players that I love to watch play, because he always seems to be trying to make something happen and never stops battling. His unassisted tackles for the 12 games that he appeared was 15, which was the same as Heuer’s total for 10 games, and Grant really needs to pick it up and at least match the 25 unassisted tackles that Shawn Lazarus posted last year. Norm Heuer and Grant Bowman also have to stay healthy. Patrick Massey and Alex Olifi can also play defensive tackle, but the key to the success of this position is having the two monstrous youngsters, Gabe Watson and Larry Harrison, make an impact this season. This should keep Heuer and Bowman rested and healthy, and will keep opponents from wearing down Michigan’s defensive line.
Rating = 7 - Lightening Can’t Strike Twice, Can It?
The devastation that hit the Michigan linebacking position last season was the worst I had seen since the 1986 season, when four starting linebackers were lost for the season before the first snap. Roy Manning appeared in only one game in 2002 and Lawrence Reid only appeared in 5. Zach Kaufman was then lost after 10 games, and Carl Diggs was lost early against OSU. Fortunately, it looks as though Roy Manning and Lawrence Reid will return at full speed. Scott McClintock really stepped up his play, being asked to switch inside positions during the season because of the mounting injuries, and Joey Sarantos moved from the outside to the inside for the final few games. Pierre Woods was asked to move to Outside Linebacker and performed so well in bowl practices that he has become the established starter there. The linebacking position could have been a complete disaster last season, if not for the incredible senior season of Victor Hobson with 99 tackles, 17 tackles for a loss, 6 sacks and 2 interceptions. No linebacker on the 2003 squad is going to equal that performance, but the positions as a whole could form a stronger unit than last season. In fact the speed and athleticism of Woods, Manning, Reid, and McClintock could actually be a major upgrade for the position, as compared to last season. However, those players must stay healthy and they must establish that they can effectively read the play and fight through blocks to make the play. True Freshman Shawn Crable could also play, if necessary. Just eliminating the majority of serious injuries should make this unit far more effective than last year, and if Woods, Manning, Reid and McClintock can get to the ball, it will be one of the strengths of the team.
Rating = 6 - There is no such thing as addition by subtraction
Given the struggles that the Michigan safeties had in pass coverage last season, many Michigan fans have been looking forward to some faster, more athletic safeties. However, none of the safeties on the Michigan roster have yet established that they can make the reads and make the play on the ball. The only experienced safety returning to the team is Jon Shaw. Shaw played well last season, when he was asked to, and turned in a solid performance starting against Purdue. Ernest Shazor, though, has the potential to be the best safety I have seen since Tripp Wellbourne. Shazor has incredible size for a safety (6’4”), and has the speed and physical force to dominate a game from the safety position. He showed just a glimmer of this unbelievable ability against MSU, when he read a quarterback option to the opposite side of the field and raced forward from his safety spot and across the width of the field so quickly that he beat MSU’s quarterback, Dowdell, to the sideline and tackled him for a loss. Michigan fans also remember a brutal hit that he put on a walkon receiver in the 02 Spring game, where the Michigan fans expected the receiver to break in half from the force of the hit. Shazor, though, has yet to establish that he can be an effective safety on every down. Wills Barringer is a name that Michigan fans should look for this season. He has a growing reputation as a safety with great intelligence in getting to the ball and making plays. He is pushing for playing time at safety. Jakob Stewart is another young player on the depth chart. The two highly acclaimed freshman, Ryan Mundy and Prescott Burgess, may also have an impact at safety this season. Mundy plays safety, but has the ability to play tight one on one coverage. Burgess has linebacker size, but a safety’s instincts for getting to the ball and making a big hit. This position is rated as a 6, but the potential is there for an 8 or a 9, if more than one of Shazor, Barringer, Mundy and Burgess emerges as the player Michigan fans expect him to be.
Rating = 9 - Marlin
Marlin Jackson is the best cornerback in the country. Jeremy Lesueur is a very good cornerback and did appear to be much more effective late in the season. The questions at this position are whether Marlin can overcome the minor injuries that he seems to acquire during the season, as a result of the extremely physical hits he likes to make, and whether Markus Curry can step up his level of play. The answer to the last question appears to be yes, as there has been talk of Curry showing tremendous improvement. If Michigan can field two quality cornerbacks in addition to a great corner like Marlin Jackson, the corners can shut down a huge portion of any team’s offense. Teams will not be able to simply throw away from Marlin and exploit the youth or limitations of another player. Additionally, Michigan may get some quality play out of freshman Leon Hall or Quinton McCoy. Both Hall and McCoy have major speed and Hall was reported to be the top coverage corner on the West coast. Brett Englemon is another freshman cornerback that could earn playing time. This position is the strength of the defense, because players of Marlin Jackson’s abilities are rare, and Lesueur and Curry should be very good.
Rating = 7 - The talent is there, but it is not proven yet.
This defense might very well have the athletic ability to be a very good defense, but such prognostications are based upon recruiting reputations and player’s testing numbers. Until the players establish that they aren’t just great athletes but are great players at their position, this may not be the defense that the coaches and Michigan fans are hoping it will be. Some fans will certainly feel that I underrated this defense given the strength of the cornerbacks and incredible speed, athleticism and potential of the linebackers and safeties. I am hoping these fans are right, but we have heard claims about the potential of young players before.
Rating = 7 - Special Teams will win games for the Maize and Blue.
Adam Finley should continue as Michigan’s punter with a 42 yard average. Adam is also the most likely player to handle the field goal kicking duties The field goal kicking team may have pulled through against Washington last season, but it was a liability in every game last season. Phil Brabbs and Troy Nienberg struggled last season, to put it very, very mildly, but Finley was looking almost respectable at the end of the season. I expect continued improvement from Findley. The field turf should eliminate some of the kicking frustrations, as the slick field had created some problems for the kickers. However, the kicking game for most of the season was atrocious on any field. Incoming freshman Garrett Rivas has trained with Jay Feeley, and will get every opportunity to establish himself as Michigan’s go to guy for game winning field goals. The Field Goal kicking team should be a major improvement. Phil Brabbs does a solid job on kickoffs
The return positions could really be exciting, as Steve Breaston looks to take over the punt return duties and could be on the kickoff return team as well. Breaston is the most dangerous return man we have had on punts since Desmond Howard. His presence on the Kickoff return team should also make our returns dangerous again.
With the level of athleticism and speed that is coming in with the 03 class, along with the increasing level of speed and athleticism of the youngsters on the defense, I really expect the level of the coverage and blocking teams to improve dramatically. There had been a big fall off in the blocking teams, since Marquise Walker’s graduation. I really see Michigan renewing their emphasis on these units and that emphasis having an impact upon games.
The schedule is definitely one of the most favorable Michigan has had in many
years. PSU and Wisconsin
are off the schedule, and in their place Michigan picks up Northwestern and Indiana. Michigan State has traditionally been a tough environment for Michigan
to win, but I just don’t think they have the defense to challenge Michigan
right now. Minnesota will not be an easy victory on the road, and Oregon is
the toughest place to win at on the West coast, and Michigan hasn’t performed
that well on the road against Pac 10 teams in recent history. However, I seriously
believe that all of those games are winnable, because of Michigan’s powerful
and deep offensive line, and because Michigan has seniors at Quarterback and
Tailback. I also believe that Michigan should beat Illinois in Michigan Stadium.
I am really hoping for a showdown between undefeated Michigan and Ohio State
teams in Michigan Stadium in November. My concern is that Notre Dame, Iowa,
Purdue and Ohio State are all going to try to run right at Michigan’s
defense. The defensive line has got to win control of the line of scrimmage,
and the linebackers and safeties have to make plays. I am far less concerned
about teams beating Michigan in the air, as they have in past years, and far
more concerned about the play right up the middle of Michigan’s defense.
The defensive players must stay healthy and shut down teams at the line of scrimmage.
If Michigan’s defense can shut down the running attacks, I’m confident
that Lesueur and Jackson will prevent teams from beating Michigan in the air.
It is tough to pick Michigan to win all of the games on its schedule, where
Michigan fans just can not yet be completely confident that the defensive line,
linebackers and safeties will emerge as the players they are expected to be.
I forsee M possibly losing one of the games prior to OSU, and finishing 11-1.