Did the Spring Provide Answers for U-M?

With the spring game upon us, GBW takes a look at some of the key issues that faced the Wolverines this spring. While it is true that Ron English has a major rebuilding effort in front of him after the departure of seven starters, the less than stellar showing by the offensive unit in the Rose Bowl left some key questions on that side of the ball as well.

1.) Has the Rose Bowl loss caused any strategic modifications on offense?

Michigan went into last season clearly determined to be a better running team.  Newly appointed offensive coordinator Mike DeBord, who was actually in his second stint at that post, was in charge reestablishing that identity.  Heading into the Rose Bowl there were clear signs of success.  The team had improved from 3.9 yards per carry and 161.6 yards per contest in 2005 to 4.5 yards per carry and 189.2 yards per contest heading into the match-up with USC.  Unfortunately, all that success came to a screeching halt when the Wolverines faced the Trojans attacking defense. Michigan was held to a paltry 12 yards rushing on 27 attempts and had its aerial attack rendered moot by an intense pass rush that registered six sacks and even more knockdowns.

"Our coaches put together a great gameplan," said USC defensive end Lawrence Jackson.  "All week long the scout team had been doing a great job against us, putting us in tough situations. Michigan did exactly what the coaches thought they were going to do. We knew that when they changed the play and (motioned) over their head (to audible), it was a large amount of pass.  (The rushing game) was really basic… run left, run right, draw.  Our coaches just put us in a great position and we executed. Part of our scheme was to play a version of the 3-4 that we played all year long and hopefully we could get them out of running the ball.  When they have to pass the ball, that's when they are in trouble and it worked out well for us."

The Wolverines did attempt to slow down the pass rush with a few screen plays, but the lack of quicker hitting pass plays allowed the Trojans to tee off.  Frequent blitzes on first down coupled with aggressive coverage behind them left Chad Henne with a defender in his face and few open receivers on almost every play.  Will one of the changes this spring be the advent of more slants and fades into the rotation for time like that?  Will more deception be introduced?

The Wolverines made significant progress on offense last offseason.  If they make similar stride this year, their title hopes will be helped tremendously.

2.) How did the offensive line shake out?

In Michigan's first season utilizing the zone blocking scheme, the running game benefited greatly.  As was mentioned previously, the rushing stats showed tangible improvement.  Furthermore, Jake Long's switch from right tackle to left was a rousing success, Adam Kraus proved to be steady at his left guard slot, and Alex Mitchell was solid for most of the season in his first extended playing time at right guard.  That said, this unit, and particularly its right side had its problems in the Rose Bowl.

"We knew they were a great group, but it's not like they were invincible all season," said Jackson.  "They'd been beat up physically up front.  Some other teams didn't know how to finish.  They got to the Rose Bowl, but they had areas on their team that showed weakness.  We knew that if we came to play and we were where we were supposed to be we could dominate the front seven."

The most visible issue was Michigan's inability to handle the blitz.  In year two of the zone blocking scheme, the Wolverines should do a better job because of their increased comfort in the system.  Still, there are number of key questions facing this unit this spring.  How has Justin Boren's transition to the center position gone?  Has Mitchell improved his quickness by trimming down more?  Has redshirt freshman Steve Schilling fully recovered from shoulder surgery?  If the answer to those questions is yes, the Maize & Blue will field a more athletic line in 2007.  Justin Boren and Schilling add more power and agility to the lineup… traits that should translate into better blocking for the run and for the pass.

3.) Who will fill the hole at Middle Linebacker?

David Harris was Michigan's most consistent player on defense in 2006 and leaves a void in the middle that won't be easily filled.  The team MVP, first team All-Big Ten player, and second team All American led Michigan with a career-best 103 tackles and was second on the squad with a career-best 15 tackles for loss.  The coaching staff will be looking to pick up a fraction of that productivity from either Johnny Thompson or incoming junior college transfer Austin Panter.

Thompson has shown flashes of his physical style against the run over the past two years, with his brightest moment coming against Iowa in 2005.  In that contest he had with eight tackles and led the team with three tackles for loss.  His struggles in pass coverage coupled with Harris' dominance kept him off the field last year, but the door is now wide open for him to show that he has improved and that he can handle the job.

Panter's presence as a JUCO transfer illustrates just how big of a loss Harris is and how there is no heir apparent heading into the spring.  The 6-2 235 pounder has the speed to track plays from sideline to sideline or get back in coverage.  The question is how quickly will he adapt to the level of football played in the Big 10? Johnny Thompson appears to have won out because of his experience and aggression. This will be a postion group to watch today and throughout the summer.

4.) Who will take over at fullback?

The Michigan fullbacks in recent years haven't gotten as much press as B.J. Askew did when he manned that post five years ago.  However, that doesn't mean they haven't played an important role in what the Maize and Blue likes to do. 

With Obi Oluigbo, Will Paul, and Brian Thompson all lost to graduation, the Wolverines are left without any experience at fullback.  Redshirt freshman Andre Criswell looked to have the best chance at the job due to his experience in the program, but his move to tight end at the beginning of the spring left the fullback position wide open.  True frosh Vince Helmuth gave himself a good shot at field time by enrolling early.  The former Saline star could re-introduce the non-blocking aspect of the position back into the equation because of his ability runner.  As is the case with all freshmen, whether he plays will be largely dependant upon how quickly he adds size and strength and how easily he picks up the playbook.  Former linebacker Quintin Patilla saw an opportunity at fullback at made the move at the beginning of the spring.  He was a big play threat a fullback at Flint Carman Ainsworth, and while he isn't quite as big as Helmuth, he is a bit bigger and faster.  If neither player emerges as a consistent performer, you could see Criswell back at the position in the fall.

5.) Who will be the back-up runningback?

The race to become the #2 ball carrier looked like it was going to be the fiercest battle of the spring.  Now the man with that distinction is a forgone conclusion. After getting off to a great start this spring, Kevin Grady tore his anterior cruciate ligament in a scrimmage last week, sidelining him for the 2007 season.  That leaves the backup duties to sophomore-to-be Brandon Minor, who was exciting in his limited field action in 2006.  The former Richmond Varina star finished second on the team in rushing with 42 carries for 238 yards (5.7 avg.) and two touchdowns, both of which were scored from forty yards out.  Carlos Brown could add depth here if he indeed decides to stay.

6.) What will happen with Carlos Brown?

When the Georgia speedster entered Michigan a semester early and wowed fans with his big play ability at last year's spring game, many thought he'd fit immediately into the runningback rotation when the season rolled around.  However, injury, the need for him at quarterback, and the presence of fellow freshman Brandon Minor running back stymied those plans.  The decision not to redshirt is somewhat puzzling in retrospect, and it makes the decision on which direction to go in his playing career a little more pressing. 

Brown was also a standout defensive back in high school and made the switch to corner to start the spring.  The move doesn't appear to have gone as well as anticipated since he expressed his intention to transfer shortly after the start of practice.  The good news folks in Ann Arbor seemed to have convinced him to stay (according to a report in yesterday's Detroit News).  With a clear need for him at running back, this may be the opportunity he has been waiting for.

7.) Is Stevie Brown ready to take over at free safety?

This Columbus, Indiana native was a playmaking safety in high school and was rated one of the top prospects at his position after his junior season.  Early in his final year as a prep he suffered a broken ankle and wasn't 100% until shortly before he began his career as a Wolverine.  It obviously took some time for him to get reacclimated to game action after being out for so long, but he still managed to make a visible impact on special teams as a freshman.  The coaching staff clearly has high hopes for his sophomore campaign and his performance in the spring will be an early indicator of whether or not he is ready.  If he is, he will add a speed element to the position that hasn't been present in well over a decade.  If he is not ready, the staff has an insurance policy in senior Brandent Englemon.

8.) Has the current crop of cornerbacks show improvement in the spring?

With the departure of Leon Hall to the professional ranks, this group is left without a proven playmaker for the first time in quite a while.  Morgan Trent was the starter opposite Hall in most games last season, but his last two games versus Ohio State and USC seemed to have shaken his confidence.  The former wide receiver has all of the physical tools like height and speed, but the onus is upon him as the unit's elder-statesman to step up the mental aspects.  Particularly important will be his ability to have a short memory, cut down his coverage busts, and play with confidence/swagger. 

Another player that has been monitored closely for signs of the same kind of improvement is sophomore Johnny Sears.  He already had the no-fear type of mentality that corners need to be successful, but the California native had to improve his technique strength, and speed.  He will return home this summer to work out with professionals like Chicago Bears corner Ricky Manning in hopes of honing his skills.  However, he needs to not only have shown progress during the spring, he will need to continue to show it over the summer as well if he plans to be starter over the likes of Trent and/or Donovan Warren in the fall.

9.) Has Ryan Mallett emerged as the back-up quarterback?

Lloyd Carr made it clear on signing day that his star freshman will definitely see the field in 2007.  Jason Forcier functioned as the backup last year, but Mallet's outstanding talent, experience in a sophisticated passing attack, and decision to enroll early make him the odds on favorite to win that post this season.

"I think we'll try to play him some if he is the backup quarterback and it may not be a lot," Carr said in reference to whether on not Mallet would redshirt in 2007.  "You never can predict that.  The great thing about not redshirting him is that every single week, he's going to prepare like he's going to play, because he may. So mentally, the pressure is on him."
"I think his dreams are to be the starting quarterback here for three years," Carr continued.  "I think in three years, at the end of that time you might say, 'well, we should have redshirted him.' But he may not have stayed anyway, so there are no guarantees."

10.) What position group will newly hired DB coach Vance Bedford coach?

The Wolverines hit a home run when they rehired the man that molded Michigan's 97 defensive backfield into one of the best in the country.  After leaving Michigan, Bedford went on to coach the defensive backs unit for the Chicago Bears, before eventually accepting the defensive coordinator's position at Oklahoma State.  His track record for success afforded Michigan the luxury of having him coach safeties, corners, or maybe even both.  At this point it appears that he will be in charge of both, freeing Ron English up to spend time with all of the position groups.

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