-- Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez enters his third season in Ann Arbor with an unspoken "win or else" ultimatum dangling over his head. Two straight losing seasons, two years without bowl games, and some very unfamiliar suffering and humiliation has not set well with the folks at Michigan. Neither the rabid fans nor the pointy-headed academics expected this.
-- Rodriguez should be close to having the desired depth on his team for the first time in his three seasons, although in some areas that depth is provided by younger players. He is much closer to having "his" team, so that cranks up the pressure to produce.
-- The schedule is laid out in a fashion that could allow Michigan to get off to a very strong start, if things go well against Connecticut in the opener, and then in South Bend the following week. With Massachusetts, Bowling Green and Indiana to follow, the Wolverines could be flirting with 5-0, which would give Rodriguez some breathing room, and make a winning season and a bowl trip within reach.
-- A good start will also mean the world to Michigan in terms of stockpiling some confidence, and getting on a bit of a roll heading into the Big Ten. The obvious caveat here is that Michigan started 5-2 last season, and then lost its final five games to plunge to finish 5-7. The Wolverines, and Rodriguez, can not afford to repeat such a swoon.
-- The Wolverines open pre-season camp with questions abounding -- the endless quarterback contest, the pliable defense, the health of the offensive line -- but the bigger issue appears to be one of toughness, and resolve. This proud, tradition rich program has been everyone's punching bag for two years, and the Wolverines need to show that they won't allow that to continue.
--The Big House has been under renovation for more than two years, and Michigan unveils the finished product when it opens the season at home against UConn. With the now completed Michigan Stadium, the Wolverines again lay claim to the title of having the largest college football venue in the nation -- 109,901.
--Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Robinson has taken on expanded duty, and now works with the linebackers.
--The Wolverines have a date with the NCAA this month to make their case that the self-imposed punishment for a number of minor violations should be adequate. Michigan gave up practice time, went on probation, and its quality control staff was reduced after an internal investigation revealed Michigan had exceeded hourly thresholds for practice time, and members of the quality control staff had presided over offseason workouts.
SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: The Wolverines travel to South Bend in the second week of the season in what will likely be a watershed game for the 2010 campaign, and quite possible for the Rich Rodriguez era. A win here gives the Wolverines needed momentum and a jolt of confidence this group needs as it prepares for the Big Ten. A loss will likely have the hounds baying at the door, and potentially put Rodriguez in some serious trouble.
KEYS TO SUCCESS: The Wolverines need consistent play from the quarterback position, which has been absent the past two seasons. Head coach Rich Rodriguez opted to use a two-man rotation last year, with freshmen Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson taking their licks. If Michigan can't settle on one of them in preseason camp, the uncertainty will linger, and likely hurt the Wolverines' chances.
Michigan also desperately needs to see marked improvement in its second season under defensive coordinator Greg Robinson, whose NFL pedigree makes him well-respected. The offense will be better, but it will again buckle under the pressure if it has to try and outscore opponents because the Michigan defense is too porous.
AREAS OF CONCERN: The Wolverines replace the starting punter and a starting kicker, so special teams will gain a lot of attention in pre-season camp. The defense, a strength of this program for so much of its glory years, has been a distinct liability since Rodriguez arrived, and that is a red flag area in camp. This side of the ball will have depth issues once again -- Michigan started two walk-ons last season -- but the starters look sound pretty much across the board. The Wolverines will also need to reverse a trend that had them performing poorly on third down last season, when they surrendered too many big plays.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's wide-open. I hope it's answered who will be the starter by the first game, but it may take a couple of games before someone clearly separates themselves, if they do." -- Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez on the long-running quarterback competition between sophomores Denard Robinson and Tate Forcier.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
HEAD COACH: Rich Rodriguez, third year, 8-16.
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: QB Tate Forcier -- The Wolverines were impressed by his spunk as a true freshman who enrolled early and showed some flash in the 2009 spring game, but the feisty competitor from San Diego suffered through a difficult season last year. He appeared to lose his starting job over the spring. In 2009, Forcier beat up on the weaker teams like Eastern Michigan and Delaware State, but struggled significantly against the likes of Penn State, Iowa and Ohio State. For the Wolverines to advance this year, Forcier has to win his job back, display maturity, and be a more consistent performer who does not turn the ball over.
BREAKOUT STAR: S Cam Gordon -- After redshirting last year as a freshman who came to Michigan as a wide receiver, Gordon made the move to defense in the spring to rave reviews. The Detroit product displayed the size and power Rodriguez wants to see on the back side of his defense, and after Gordon fast-tracked his way through the learning process this spring, the Michigan brass were sold on the move. If he performs as advertised, Gordon should help this defense show substantial improvement.
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: CB Cullen Christian -- A true freshman from Pennsylvania considered a very physical player who likes to put a lick on opponents. His speed is adequate and his instincts sound. With a couple of personnel losses already in the secondary, Rodriguez won't hesitate to turn Christian loose and see if he can get the job done.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP:
Offense -- QB Denard Robinson, RB Mike Cox, WR Roy Roundtree, WR Junior Hemingway, WR Darryl Stonum, TE Kevin Koger, LT Taylor Lewan, LG Stephen Schilling, C David Molk, RG Patrick Omameh, RT Mark Huyge.
Defense -- DE Greg Banks, DT Mike Martin, DE Ryan Van Bergen, LB Craig Roh, LB Jonas Mouton, LB Obi Ezeh, LB Mike Williams, CB Troy Woolfolk, CB J.T. Floyd, SS Jordan Kovaks, SS Cam Gordon
--DB Demar Dorsey came to Michigan from Florida as one of the top recruits in the nation, bringing along a reputation as a ferocious hitter, and someone who frequently wandered over the line and was in trouble with the law. Michigan took a closer look at Dorsey's issues, and the admissions office denied Dorsey entry.
--LB Antonio Kinard, a prized recruit from Ohio, failed to meet the academic requirements and will not enroll at Michigan this fall.
--QB Conelius Jones, an athletic player from South Carolina and part of the 2010 recruiting class, failed to meet Michigan's academic admission requirements.
--RB Vincent Smith missed spring ball while rehabbing after knee surgery. Smith was a regular part of the offense a year ago, and is expected to work his way back into a quasi-starting role.
--C David Molk missed the contact work in the spring while rehabbing from injuries he sustained last season, but is expected to be back anchoring the offensive line in time for the 2010 opener.
--DT Mike Martin was injured and missed the contact work in the spring, but Michigan's defensive plans call for Martin to be a regular on the defensive line this season.
--DE Will Heininger tore his ACL in the spring and is expected to miss all of the 2010 season.
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