Michigan coach Lloyd Carr let the media into the opening spring practice Saturday morning. It was a non-padded affair in which we were able to observe the players going through drills, practice plays, and work on timing. However, Coach Carr made sure to point out that it was not really a session in which evaluations could be made.
"It's way too early," Carr said of making assessments based on performances in the opening practice. "That's not really what we're trying to get done here. This is a non-padded practice. The NCAA rules mandate that three of the fifteen practices this spring are non-padded, which means just basically helmets. We'll practice again tomorrow (Sunday) because our players' academic schedules on Mondays would cause too many guys to miss practice. I don't like to practice on Sunday, but our schedules dictate that. What we're trying to do here is get some of the fundamentals, the techniques, the assignments, and installing is a big part of the first two practices. We'll be installing the basic running game, our basic formations, our basic passes, and defensively the same things. Then we worked on some of the kicking game. You really are not evaluating players at this juncture. What you're trying to do is make sure that as we get ready to get into the pads on Tuesday that they have learned some things. Then you begin to evaluate on a daily basis their performance based on what they have been taught and based on the way they play."
Coach Carr looks over the plays
Because of the nature of the practice session, one couldn't draw drawing any definitive conclusions on the line positions. However, we did observe a number of different lineups that saw each player on the front working out at multiple positions. The first string group always consisted of Adam Stenavich (who flip-flopped between right tackle and left tackle), Mike Kolodziej (who did the same), Matt Lentz at right guard, and Reuben Riley (who flip-flopped between center and left guard). Redshirt freshman Jeremy Ciulla, who is much more trim than he was when first arrived on campus, also got a number of reps with the number ones at left guard and center.
Jeremy Ciulla (left) and Reuben Riley (right)
In the second group we saw Mark Bihl get time at guard and center, Brett Gallimore get time at right tackle, Alex Mitchell get time at left tackle, and Grant DeBenedictis get time at guard and center. The year of strength and conditioning did all of the young linemen a lot of good. That was particularly noticeable in Mitchell and Gallimore, who were each more svelte than when they first showed up on campus last fall.
As was the case with the offensive line, one really couldn't draw any conclusions on the running back position. The one facet of their play that we were able to gauge a bit was their ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. They got a lot of work on both that and working on protections. In our first time seeing Kevin Grady in action while dawning a Michigan uniform, the freshman phenom (who was the third running back to rotate in) looked right at home catching the swing pass out of the backfield. That, however, was not and is not going to be his most difficult task this spring.
Kevin Grady catches the pass out of the backfield
"Kevin is going to have a great advantage over any freshman we've had," Coach Carr said. "He has already has been in meetings. One of the biggest differences in football at this level is you meet everyday in a classroom situation. I start the meetings everyday. Then we go into special teams. We try to teach all of those young kids a role there. Then you go into the offensive or defensive meetings. Then you break down in position meetings. So he has been in all of those meetings. He understands the way that it is going to be taught. He understands how to work all of our video technology, so if he gets a chance to come in on an off day to come in and watch film …maybe watch himself before the meeting with the coach… he already knows some of the things. So just that is great preparation…something he doesn't have to learn. He already knows some of the drills that he ran today because he has already done them. He has already run the plays. He knows a lot of the terminology. The most difficult thing for a running back in our offense is to learn the protections. What's the call? Which side am I going to protect first? Who am I looking at? Who is my key? Which linebacker is my assignment? Those are breakdowns that during the season could get a quarterback hurt. Those are the things that we are trying to get done."
Moving on to the quarterbacks ... Chad Henne was Chad Henne. He did what everyone would expect a kid of his talent (and now experience) to do. The real surprise was how good Matt Gutierrez looked. The original prognosis a few months back called for him to participate lightly in spring drills while not really throwing to receivers in scrimmage situations. He certainly looked further along than that (as Coach Carr alluded to in his Thursday presser). He was fairly accurate and threw crisp passes despite not having his full velocity. "We'll count every throw he makes," Carr said. "As I think I mentioned the other day, he is way ahead of schedule. I think he is going to get a lot out of this spring. Just the mental part of it…of going up taking some snaps and reading his keys. I thought his timing was very good in terms of when he released the ball. He doesn't have full velocity, but I think he is way ahead. I'm excited about where he is because it allows him to continue his development."
The one time on offense that we were really able to see something tangible was when watching the pass catchers. Tim Massaquoi and Tyler Ecker looked like they hadn't missed a beat. Massaquoi, though, looked particularly good this year getting out in his patterns and catching the ball. He looks prepared to pick up right where he left off.
Behind those two were Kevin Murphy and redshirt freshman Mike Massey. Murphy still looks to be the biggest of the tight ends, but still moves fairly well. Massey almost looks like a wide receiver. If he isn't the fastest of the tight ends, Massaquoi isn't beating him by much.
Kevin Murphy with the block
Moving further away from the trenches, the wide receivers really were a treat to watch. Jason Avant and Steve Breaston were outstanding! They ran precise routes, were explosive out of breaks, and showed the surest hands on the field. Breaston ran like he did at the end of last year. Also noticeable was Avant's leadership. He made it a point to tutor Adrian Arrington on the pros and cons of youngster's route running. He saw the need to help out after Arrington rounded off a few. At one point he took a young receiver to the side after he didn't run a route with the proper number of steps and explained to him how something that might seem small can mess up the entire drill. "You can't do that," Avant said. "When you do that you throw off all of our timing."
Steve Breaston prepares to haul in the pass
Carl Tabb and Adrian Arrington came in behind Avant and Breaston, and each looks to be progressing. Tabb matched up with Darnell Hood a number of times on the afternoon, and got the better of his counterpart on a number of occasions. He flashed his long speed as well, getting deep on one pattern. Outside of juggling a few passes, he looked healthy and ready to go. However, the receiver that really stuck out (after Avant and Breaston) was Doug Dutch. He showed good hands, excellent burst, and the ability to make a move after the catch. He shook one defensive back out of his socks on a short pass play, before streaking down the field for what would have been six toward the end of the day. He had a very fluid performance and looked to be the third best receiver on the field on the day.
Doug Dutch eludes another defender
Check back later for the defensive recap.