Head coach Lloyd Carr and the Wolverines were cruising in 2006 to a possible BCS National Championship game appearance until two slipups at the end of the year. Michigan, led all season long by their defense, lost 42-39 at Ohio State to end any title hopes. Then, the Wolverines were thoroughly outplayed in the second half and lost to USC in the Rose Bowl 32-18. Ten starters return to try to get this bad taste out of their mouths. Michigan catches a break with the schedule. The Wolverines first four games, vs. Appalachian State, Oregon, Notre Dame and Penn State, are all at the Big House.
"Michigan seems to struggle every year with their first big road game of the year," said Tom Beaver, publisher of Go Blue Wolverine magazine. "They've lost games at Oregon, Washington and UCLA, in addition to Notre Dame. Having the first few games at home helps a lot. In fact, Michigan fans think that with the way the schedule is laid out, things can look fairly good. If Michigan can get past Notre Dame, good things can happen."
Chad Henne and Michael Hart are back for their senior seasons after propelling the Wolverines to a 11-2 mark in 2006. Henne threw for over 2,500 yards and 22 touchdowns to eight interceptions while completing 61 percent of his passes. Hart rushed for 1,562 yards and 14 touchdowns while averaging 4.9 yards per carry. No matter how big the stats, though, one glaring hole is in each of their resumes: 0-3 to Ohio State and 0-3 in bowl games. Henne is about to wrap up a productive four-year career in Ann Arbor. Hart needs only 794 yards to break Anthony Thomas' all-time career rushing yard mark. Another defeat to the Buckeyes or in a bowl game could blur all the accolades.
"Michigan's standards, like Notre Dame, are high," Beaver said. "They expect to be 10-1 every year heading into the Ohio State, or 11-1. The last two games of the season define the year for Michigan. Even though Mike Hart has had a great career at Michigan, he or Chad Henne has not led them to the big win over Ohio State or in a BCS Bowl game. In a lot of Michigan fans' eyes, how these two play this year will define their careers at Michigan."
Hart is the unquestioned starter at running back. Behind the senior, there's not as much quality depth as there used to be. Kevin Grady injured himself in the spring and Beaver doesn't expect Michigan fans to see Grady on the field in 2007. That leaves the backup role to sophomore Brandon Minor, who rushed for 238 yards and two scores last season in addition to 5.7 yards per carry.
"It's going to be Michael Hart getting most of the carries," Beaver said. "He proved he could be a durable back last year. Brandon Minor should be the guy to spell Mike. Brandon has shown glimpses of being an excellent back for Michigan. It's going to be those two guys with Hart getting most of the major carries."
Up front, the news that OT Jake Long would return for this senior season made for smiles in the Ann Arbor area. Long, who stands at 6-7, 313 pounds, is one of the best linemen in the nation. The senior isn't the only stud along the line. LG Adam Kraus and RG Alex Mitchell return while there are high hopes for sophomore center Justin Boren. Last year, the Wolverines were second to Texas A&M in time of possession and the boys up front were a big part of the success. The only concern at offensive line might be depth. A healthy bunch in 2007 should translate into another big year for Hart.
"Michigan expects to have a good line this year from right to left," Beaver said. "They think Adam Kraus at guard will be an NFL pick. They expect Justin Boren to go to the NFL someday as a high pick. It isn't just Jake Long. The line isn't deep and there's not a lot of quality depth. But the starting five guys, they think, will match up against anyone in the country."
At wide receiver, Mario Manningham is the next in the line of great Michigan wideouts. Manningham, who stands at 6-0, 186, put on a clinic early in the 2006 season, including three touchdowns in the victory over Notre Dame. The star wide receiver finished with nine touchdowns and 703 yards on 38 receptions. The only problem was health. Manningham got injured in the Michigan State game and did not return until five contests later in the loss at Ohio State. With his injury went the offensive explosiveness and a legitimate deep threat to provide balance with Hart and the ground attack. If Manningham and his 18.5 yard per catch average from last year can stay healthy, the Wolverine offense will be able to put a lot of points up on the board.
"The Manningham injury changed everything last year," Beaver said. "He got hurt in the Michigan State game and that changed the whole offense. They never got back that deep threat they showed against Notre Dame. They didn't get it back for the rest of the year, not even in the Rose Bowl. Even when Mario came back against Ohio State and USC, he wasn't 100 percent. With Mario back, it makes the Michigan attack a multi-dimensional offense. Without Mario, they don't have the deep threat. He is the key to the offense this year."
At the second wide receiver position, Adrian Arrington appears to be working himself back into the good graces of Carr and the coaching staff. Arrington was suspended from spring ball for disciplinary reasons after catching 40 balls for 544 yards and eight touchdowns in 2006. If Arrington wasn't cleared to play in 2007, sophomores Greg Matthews and LaTerryal Savoy, who have seven career receptions between them, would have had to step up to fill the void. Apparently, Arrington is back on track to be in the starting lineup for the opener against Appalachian State on September 1st.
"It's going to be Adrian," Beaver said. "We've heard Adrian has seen the light. He's not a bad kid. Sometimes kids maturity level will get them into situations that are over their head. It just happens. Adrian didn't get into serious trouble and it was typical kid stuff going on. But Adrian has been hanging out with Mike Hart and Mike Hart is a leader and a mature guy. Adrian is going to be fine. For Michigan, he's going to remind people of Tai Streets in that he can go over the middle or go deep. He's an excellent No. 2 target opposite Mario."
The big questions for Michigan in 2007 lie on the defensive side of the football. Four starters are back from a group that was 1st in the nation against the run, 10th in total defense and 15th in scoring defense last season. But gone are Leon Hall, David Harris, Alan Branch and LaMarr Woodley, all picked in the top-50 in last April's NFL Draft. If this wasn't enough, the Wolverines have had to suffer all off-season with the downright bad defensive performances in the losses to Ohio State and USC. Michigan allowed over 900 yards of combined offense and 74 points in the two defeats. Defensive coordinator Ron English, now in his second year, will have his work cut out for himself.
"Ron English had a great first season at Michigan," Beaver said. "Now, without those four guys that were top-50 picks in the NFL on defense, what is it going to look like this year? This is the season that will start to define Ron English in his tenure as defensive coordinator at Michigan."
Up front, three starters will have to be replaced. Alan Branch was a huge presence in the middle of the line. DT Terrance Taylor (6-0, 310) is back after totaling 23 tackles in 2006, including five for losses. Opposite him will be junior Will Johnson. On the ends, sophomore Brandon Graham will be on one side while junior Tim Jamison will man the opposite. Even with the losses up front, Beaver believes that this Michigan defensive line has a chance to be a productive group.
"Michigan thinks they may have a better defensive line this year than last year," Beaver said. "People are expecting Terrance Taylor to be All-Big Ten in the middle. Will Johnson is also in the middle and had a serious knee injury when he got to Michigan. It took him almost three years to get over it and he's ready to go. Johnson can bench press more than any linemen Michigan has ever had. Tim Jamison was a top-20 high school player and is considered a speed end. It took him a few years to get over an injury he had. Jamison is ready to go. Shawn Crable is going to play a hybrid position of defensive end/outside linebacker. Michigan thinks they are ready to go on the defensive line and they think that's the unit that has to lead the defense, just like last year."
Speaking of Crable, the senior strong side linebacker is the leading returner in the front seven with 37 tackles, including 10.5 for losses and 4.5 sacks. Beaver thinks Crable and Jamison will provide most of the pressure in passing situations. Last season, the Wolverines were 4th nationally in sacks. Two more spots must be filled in the linebacker core next to Crable. Junior John Thompson and senior Chris Graham are two candidates to start in these positions. Graham had 25 tackles last year while Thompson added six.
"They think their front seven is more athletic this year than last year," Beaver said. "Michigan's front seven is starting to defend against the pass a little more and against the run a little less because that's how the Big Ten is evolving these days. "
The secondary was a problem last year. Michigan ranked 89th against the pass in 2006 and CB Leon Hall is gone to the pros. Some Wolverine fans can still see Troy Smith dissecting the Michigan secondary to pieces and USC wide receiver Dwayne Jarrett running wild in the Rose Bowl. The strength of the group is at safety. Senior Jamar Adams registered 47 tackles last season, good for third on the team. Opposite Adams will be either sophomore Stevie Brown or senior Brandent Englemon, who totaled 29 tackles last year.
With Hall gone, the major question mark is at cornerback. Morgan Trent returns after totaling 45 tackles and intercepting one pass in 2006. At the other spot, true freshman Donovan Warren or sophomore Johnny Sears is primed to assume a starting role. The Wolverines got to the quarterback a lot last season. In 2007, the Michigan cornerbacks might have to cover receivers for a few extra seconds. But if the defensive line can perform and put pressure on the offenses, the secondary should get some extra help.
"There's no question, in particular the cornerbacks, are untested for Michigan," Beaver said. "All that being said, Michigan wants to stuff the run, play a lot of nickel and dime and put a lot of guys back there. I think that's the strategy you're going to see with the defense."
There are a few holes to fill in this unit. Steve Breaston made a huge presence in the return game, averaging 11 yards per punt return and 22 yards per kickoff return to set up good field position for the offense. Garrett Rivas was 17-of-20 in field goals last year, including 14-of-15 from inside 40-yards. Sophomore Bryan Wright will take over for Rivas while some Michigan fans want to put the most electrifying offensive player back in the return game.
"Special teams don't get talked about a lot," Beaver said. "That can be a scary thing for Michigan. They've got a new guy in Bryan Wright as a kicker. He's got a big leg, bigger than Rivas. Rivas wasn't a NFL kicker but he was very reliable from 40 yards and in. Replacing Steve Breaston is big. Michigan fans want to see Mario back there but we'll see if they gamble and do put him there on special teams."
OVERALLSeptember 15th is big for both Michigan and Notre Dame. The Irish could be 1-2 or 2-1 heading out of Ann Arbor. If the Wolverines, a pre-season top-10 pick, can get past Oregon on September 8th and Notre Dame, it gives the team a boatload of confidence heading into a September 22nd meeting at home against Penn State. Irish head coach Charlie Weis is surely going to use last season's drubbing in South Bend and the underdog role as a motivating factors. Can Carr beat Notre Dame in back-to-back seasons? Will the Irish have enough for the upset?