The Sports Xchange Inside Slant: Michigan

The Sports Xchange takes a detailed look at the Michigan football program for 2009 and 2010 -- are better things ahead?

INSIDE SLANT

Apparently, when the University of Michigan announced its "All In For Michigan" promotional campaign in mid-August, not everyone signed on. As another disappointing football season came to a close, there were more signs that forces in and around the once-hallowed program are not only lacking the commitment to be considered "all in" but even tugging in the opposite direction.

In his postgame remarks following a 21-10 season-ending defeat by rival Ohio State, Michigan head coach Rich Rodriguez addressed publicly for the first time what had been a very active topic behind the shroud -- that people inside UM are hoping he fails.

Rodriguez is just 8-16 after two seasons, and went just 1-7 in the Big Ten this year. As he overhauls the program and converts Michigan to the dangerous spread offense he ran so well at West Virginia, inexperience, lack of depth, and not having the right players for the offense have hurt. What hurts more, Rodriguez said, is having to fight internal forces, as well as everything else.

"I just think there's a faction creating a negative type of environment that wants to create drama and wants to see people pointing fingers," Rodriguez said. "There's nobody in that locker room that's going to point any fingers. Everybody in that locker room is all in."

Well-placed sources have said repeatedly that some in Michigan's brie and burgundy crowd have never accepted the choice of Rodriguez to replace the popular and grandfatherly Lloyd Carr, saying Rodriguez was not "a Michigan man" and even sniping about his Appalachian accent.

Rodriguez, 5-7 this season, would not divulge specifics on the campaign of negativity, saying he gets "overtones" and messages from people about it. Senior punter and team captain Zoltan Mesko was not as diplomatic.

"There are people out there who don't want us to succeed or the coaching staff to succeed," Mesko said. "I could write a book about it. There are a lot of guys that don't see what goes on inside the program of how much love there is for the players. It's a shame they don't see how close we are to being one of the best programs in the nation."

Michigan moves on, into a recruiting season that will be vital to Rodriguez having success in his third season, and saving his job. But Wolverines fans are left to wonder if great recruiting and more hard work will be enough to overcome the powerful, nameless entities that are not "all in" and never will be.

NOTES, QUOTES

GAME OF THE YEAR: Michigan 38, Notre Dame 34 -- With only 11 seconds left on the clock, the Wolverines saw freshman QB Tate Forcier, in just his second start of his career, hit senior WR Greg Mathews with a five-yard touchdown pass to give Michigan the win.

The Wolverines ran up 430 yards of offense and improved to 2-0 with the win over No. 18 ranked Notre Dame. Michigan displayed its power running game with 190 rushing yards, led by senior RB Brandon Minor who carried 16 times for 106 yards. Forcier gave Michigan fans plenty of reasons to hope for a huge turnaround in 2009 after the disastrous 3-9 campaign the previous season.

The athletic and gutty young quarterback went 23-of-33 passing for 240 yards and scored three touchdowns -- two passing and one carrying the ball.

By beating a ranked team in dramatic, comeback fashion, the euphoria was back in Michigan football. The win over the Irish was part of a 4-0 start that had Ann Arbor awash in optimism.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: DE Brandon Graham -- The senior from Detroit was a standout performer who was unfortunately somewhat disguised on a weak unit. Graham finished the season with 10 sacks, and ranks second all-time at Michigan in tackles for loss with 53. At times, he was virtually un-blockable, and while the defense struggled as a unit, Graham made all-Big Ten plays with regularity.

FAST FORWARD: Michigan had 18 players make their final appearance in the maize and blue in the season-ending loss to rival Ohio State. Since they are all holdovers from the Lloyd Carr era, many of them do not fit the mold of the type of player needed for the style of play preferred by current UM head coach Rich Rodriguez, but several were major contributors this season.

Without question DE Brandon Graham and P Zoltan Mesko are headed for careers in the professional ranks and thus will leave big holes for Rodriguez to fill. Otherwise, the losses hit hardest along the offensive line, where David Moosman and Mark Ortmann depart.

With an NCAA investigation over alleged violations involving practice time still hanging over his head, Rodriguez pushes on, well aware that Year Three must be markedly different. He will need to improve the raw talent on hand, and recruit well to achieve a winning season and secure a bowl bid, which seem to be the minimum standards for hanging on to his job.

RECRUITING TRAIL: Michigan needs a lot, starting with more of the right parts for its spread offense, and a bunch of help on defense. The UM defense could not stop anyone this season, so the most-pressing need is there.

Rodriguez might have locked up defensive help in the best manner possible -- by stealing premier Ohio kids, and thus keeping them away from rival Ohio State. LB Antonio Kinard (6-4, 200) from Youngstown is a speedy and explosive tackler, while DB Courtney Avery (5-11, 170) from Lexington has sprinter's speed and solid coverage skills.

While Kinard and Avery are just two of the pieces needed to upgrade the UM defense, Michigan looks to diversify and strengthen its offense with homegrown QB Devin Gardner (6-4, 205), and a pair of fast receivers from Ohio -- Jerald Robinson (6-2, 180) and D.J. Williamson.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's a very, very competitive profession, but there's nobody on our staff, and I don't think there's anybody at the university, that is daunted by the challenge." -- Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

PLAYERS TO WATCH IN 2010:
QB Tate Forcier -- The freshman had a rough end to his baptismal season, throwing four interceptions against Ohio State, but he vowed to come back stronger and more prepared in 2010. Forcier started all 12 games for UM, passing for 2,050 yards and 13 touchdowns.

QB Denard Robinson -- The speedy second option for Michigan proved to be a valuable weapon running from the shotgun. Robinson had 351 rushing yards in a limited role, averaging over five yards per carry and scoring five touchdowns.

RB Vincent Smith -- Michigan has big plans for the Florida product, who was pressed into service in 2009 when injuries culled a couple of veterans from the lineup. Smith moves into the lead role at running back for 2010.

WR/KR Daryl Stonum -- The sophomore was one of Michigan's best field position weapons as he set the Michigan single-season records for kick returns (39) and kick-return yardage (1,001). Stonum takes on a bigger role in the passing game for 2010.

PRO PROSPECTS:
-- P Zoltan Mesko is a semifinalist for the Ray Guy award for a second straight year after leading the Big Ten in punting and ranking sixth nationally with a 45-yard average. Mesko has the distance and hang-time to excel in the pro game. He had 15 punts over 50 yards, 15 for fair catches and 13 downed inside the opposition's 20-yard line. He has punted 43 times for 1,934 yards, including a 66-yard season long punt against Western Michigan

-- DE Brandon Graham is projected to go in the first two rounds of the NFL draft, even though his future in the pro ranks might be as a rush linebacker instead of as a down lineman. Graham has the speed and quickness to be a major disruptive force and shed blockers. In his Michigan finale, he had four tackles for loss against Ohio State to end the year with a Big Ten best 25.

ROSTER REPORT:
-- OL David Molk missed most of the season due to injuries, with a knee injury doing the most damage. He is undergoing rehab and is expected to see limited contact in spring, but be ready at 100 percent for fall camp.

-- LB Jonas Mouton inherits the role as the leader of the UM defense, and his strong 11-tackle performance against Ohio State only enhances a solid resume.

-- QB Denard Robinson is surrounded by rumors that he might seek a transfer, since Robinson lost out to fellow freshman Tate Forcier in the duel for the starting job. Robinson might be the fastest player in college football, but his one-dimensional skills make it tough to find a regular role.

-- WR Roy Roundtree came on late in the season and posted two 100-yard receiving games, and will assume the role as Michigan's go-to guy on the outside. As the spread offense gets more and more tuned in, Michigan will find creative ways to get the ball in the hands of its best athletes, like Roundtree.


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