Michigan has a very highly thought of starting quarterback in Chad Henne. Last year, Henne passed for 2,526 yards and 23 touchdowns and many Michigan fans were disappointed. That means that the pressure will be on Henne to have a major breakout season in 2006. Michigan will go into the season with an untested backup quarterback. Senior Matt Gutierrez decided to transfer to Division 1-AA Idaho State in an effort to get a starting job and a season long audition for NFL scouts rather than remain in Ann Arbor as Henne's backup. That leaves redshirt freshman Jason Forcier as the favorite to be the number two quarterback heading into fall drills.
Henne's top target from last year, Jason Avant, has moved on to the NFL, taking his 82 catches for 1,007 yards and eight touchdowns with him. But Michigan will still have a well stocked stable of wideouts for Henne to throw to. Mario Manningham returns after a fine freshman season that saw him catch 27 passes for 433 yards and six touchdowns. Senior-to-be Steve Breaston didn't make the impact many expected him to as a receiver in 2005, catching only 26 passes for 291 yards and scoring only twice. A player with Breaston's explosiveness should be expected to score more touchdowns and average more than 11.2 yards per reception. Breaston did have a good spring, though, and the hope is that he will have a big year in 2006. LaTerryal Savoy, Adrian Arrington, Carl Tabb, Doug Dutch, Antonio Bass and incoming freshman Greg Matthews all will provide depth and possibly vie for playing time in 2006. Tyler Ecker will be one of the Big 10 Conference's better tight ends.
At running back, Michael Hart suffered through an injury plagued season in 2005 that saw him rush for only 662 yards. That gave Kevin Grady a chance to get significant playing time as a freshman and he contributed 483 yards and five touchdowns. However, for Michigan's offense to be truly top flight, both players will need to improve their yards per carry average (4.4 for Hart and 4.0 for Grady). If healthy, Hart is likely to be the starter once the season rolls around. But Grady is bigger, faster and more explosive and will definitely get his share of playing time even with a healthy Hart in the lineup. Either Brian Thompson or Obi Oluigbo will be the fullback, which is mainly used for blocking and occasional receiving in the Wolverine offense.
Michigan needs to replace three full/part time starters on the offensive line in 2006. Jake Long will be the anchor of the line at tackle and a likely candidate for post season honors. Mike Kolodziej is likely to start across from Long. Adam Kraus was solid last season and has the versatility to play both guard and center. As fall practice opens, Krause will man one of the starting guard spots and senior Mark Bihl will be the center. Carr will look for Rueben Riley and Alex Mitchell to battle for the other starting guard spot, though they will definitely face competition. Riley could also fall into the mix at tackle. Even with the possibility of some inexperience on the interior of the line and the likelihood of some position changes among the starters, there is no reason to expect Michigan's line to be anything but solid.
Defensively it is important that Michigan improve in certain areas in 2006. Carr and newly crowned defensive coordinator Ron English would like to double their 2005 sack total of 18. English has promised a much more aggressive defensive scheme for 2006. Defensive end LaMarr Woodley returns as the Wolverines top pass rusher. Many people believe that 2006 will be a breakout year for end Tim Jamison, an explosive pass rusher in his own right. He will battle senior Rondell Biggs to start opposite Woodley. Sophomore Terrance Taylor and massive senior Alan Branch will enter fall camp as the starters at tackle. Depth comes from sophomores Marques Walton and Will Johnson. Michigan is deep and talented on the defensive front. Experience, especially inside, will be a concern early in the season.
Experience and talent abound at linebacker for Michigan. Senior Prescott Burgess is the main playmaker and will be joined by Chris Graham and Dave Harris as starters. Junior Shawn Crable is the most talented of all the current Michigan linebackers and could force his way into the lineup after a good spring. Also, five-star recruit Brandon Graham will be hard to keep off the field when he arrives on campus next month. He was rated the third best linebacker in the country by Scout.com and Carr will definitely allow him a chance for early playing time.
The secondary returns standout cornerback Leon Hall along with safeties Brandent Englemon and Willis Barringer from 2005. Hall led the team with four interceptions last year and is clearly the best player Michigan has in the secondary. Prospects for the other starting CB spot are Morgan Trent, Charles Stewart and Darnell Hood. Barringer played well last year but is in a fight for his job with former Notre Dame recruit Brandon Harrison. Harrison had a breakout spring and has drawn comparisons with his size (5 foot 8, 205 pounds) and aggressiveness to Indianapolis Colts star Bobby Sanders. Jamar Adams and Ryan Mundy are expected to push Englemon for his starting spot.
Breaston will again man the main punt/kick return duties. His lack of explosiveness as a receiver carried over somewhat into his return game as well. While he did average an impressive twenty eight yards on kick returns, he scored only once. He did not score on a punt return last season and averaged a rather pedestrian 12.3 yards per return. Garrett Rivas returns as the kicker. He scored 90 points last season but still missed 14 kicks and needs to be more consistent.
Carr cannot be accused of standing pat after a hugely disappointing 7-5 record last year. The coaching staff has undergone a number of changes. Besides English taking over as defensive coordinator after Jim Hermann left for the NFL, Carr also has a new offensive coordinator in former special teams coach Mike DeBord. DeBord is a former head coach at Central Michigan and takes over for Terry Malone, who also moved to the NFL. Most Michigan fans don't view the losses of Malone and Hermann as too costly.
Michigan is a talented team year in and year out. Carr is starting to feel a little heat and needs to have a big year to solidify his job standing. The good news for Michigan fans is that the Wolverines are talented enough to get on a roll, win the Big 10 title and garner a berth in the BCS.
Next preview: Michigan State.