Preview: Michigan

The good news for the 2008 Michigan football team is that as it transitions to the spread offense, Michigan has one of the attack's architects in Rich Rodriguez there to do it. The bad news is that even Rodriguez has needed some time to implement the offense. The best debut Rodriguez has had, either as a coordinator or head coach, was a 7-4 season with Tulane in 1997.

The other bad news for the Wolverines is that Rodriguez's offense revolves around the quarterback and that is exactly where Michigan's biggest question marks lie. With the graduation of quarterback Chad Henne and transfer of Ryan Mallett, the Wolverines enter 2008 with a total of one career pass attempt.

Redshirt freshman Steven Threet ran with the first-string offense in the spring and is the front-runner to win the position over junior Nick Sheridan and sophomore David Cone. The 6-foot-5, 228-pound Threet, from Adrian (MI), was an early-enrollee in Georgia Tech's 2007 recruiting class, but decided to transfer back home after going through just spring ball.

In an effort to locate toughness at the position, Rodriguez left the quarterbacks live during many drills this spring. Threet was hurt a few times, so there are some questions about whether he will be able to withstand the punishment on a college level, but he has picked himself up each time.

Threet was ranked as the Scout's 13th quarterback in the Class of 2007, behind Jimmy Clausen and Mallett, who transferred to Arkansas after Rodriguez's hiring. Threet did run some spread during his senior year at Adrian, but it's his arm strength that has atop the depth chart and with mid-4.7 speed, don't expect Rodriguez to treat him like Pat White.

But Rodriguez has shown the ability to adapt his offense to the talents of his quarterback in the past. As Tulane's offensive coordinator in 1997 and 1998, he ran a balanced form of the spread with 942 running plays versus 741 passes (a 56-44 ratio). In 1999, his first year as coordinator at Clemson, Rodriguez called 486 runs against 422 passes (a 54-46 ratio) for quarterback Brandon Streeter.

But Rodriguez is best known for his ability to take advantage of the talents of dual-threat quarterbacks like Woody Dantzler, Rasheed Marshall and White. If Rodriguez wants to have a run-pass option behind center in 2008, he does have some players that he can take a look at.

Junior running back Carlos Brown has some speed and played quarterback in high school. The 6-0, 213-pounder did practice with the quarterbacks as a freshman before moving to cornerback and eventually running back. Many assumed Brown would at least get some snaps in a formation similar to the "Wildcat" that Arkansas ran last year with Darren McFadden. But Brown suffered a broken finger early in the spring, before anyone got a chance to see it.

Michigan lost out on top prospect Tyrelle Pryor, but the Wolverines did sign 6-1, 195-pound Justin Feagin out of Florida. Feagin threw for 1,420 yards and rushed for 1,313 as a senior and led American Heritage to a Class 1A state title. Feagin could also help at slot receiver or in the secondary, but will start out at quarterback.

Even if Rodriguez stays with a dropback passer like Threet, don't expect him to rely on the passing game to score points. In the last five seasons, Rodriguez's offenses have run the ball at least 70% of the time in every year except one – 2004, when the Mountaineers ran it 69%.

Next to quarterback, running back is the other position with the most uncertainty on the Michigan roster. Junior Brandon Minor (6-0, 213) is currently listed ahead of Brown on those-in-the-know's depth charts, but his 4.7 speed may not be the ideal fit for Rodriguez's offense. Minor rushed for 385 yards on 90 carries in 2007.

Brown gained 382 yards and had four touchdowns on 75 attempts last year. Brown is currently in front of redshirt junior Kevin Grady, who missed all of 2007 with a knee injury. Grady gained 670 yards and scored eight times on 176 carries during his first two seasons in Ann Arbor, but a recent arrest for driving while impaired won't help his case to get back on the field. Rodriguez has some speed coming in with freshmen Sam McGuffie, Michael Shaw and Terrence Robinson.

The 6-0, 188-pound McGuffie became an internet sensation by highlight films that showed his ability to go airborne. McGuffie has home run speed and appears to be a great fit for the new offense, but speed won't keep Shaw off the field.

Shaw (6-0, 187) took home three gold medals from last month's Nike Outdoor Nationals, including the 200 with a blazing-fast time of 21.19 seconds. And the speedy Robinson (5-9, 170) has the fastest reported 40 time of any of them with a 4.33.

If the freshmen runners don't get playing time in the backfield, expect some them to see the field at slot receiver, which is another position that Rodriguez will have to restock to fit his offense. Along with the freshmen backs, look for first-year receiver Martavious Odoms to have a chance to play in the slot. Tony Clemons (6-2, 205) played slot during spring ball, but the sophomore is looking more like a tight end at this point.

Michigan should get solid play from their split ends, led by junior Greg Mathews (6-3, 207) and sophomore Junior Hemingway (6-2, 205). Mathews had 39 catches for 366 yards and three scores in 2007. Freshman Darryl Stonum (6-2, 185) enrolled early and had an impressive spring. Stonum can stretch the field and those close to the program think he could be starting before the end of the season.

Junior Carson Butler (6-4, 247) is the currently the team's top tight end ahead of senior Mike Massey (6-4, 229). Butler started six games last year and had 20 catches and two touchdowns.

Up front the Wolverines return just one starter along the offensive line, but it could still be a position of strength for the offense. Jake Long was the top pick in the entire NFL Draft while senior Adam Kraus played both center and guard and earned First Team Big Ten honors.

Former starters Alex Mitchell and Jeremy Ciulla decided to not return for their fifth years after Rodriguez's hiring and national headlines were made when their top returning lineman, Justin Boren, transferred to rival Ohio State.

Still, Michigan brings back 6-5, 297-pound sophomore Stephen Schilling at right tackle. Schilling started all 13 games in 2007 and was named to The Sporting News Freshman All-American second team. Schilling will anchor a group that will be thinner and faster under the new regime. Junior Cory Zirbel (6-5, 296) is expected to line up next to Schilling at right guard.

Redshirt junior David Moosman (6-5, 292) is the front-runner for the center job with redshirt junior guard Tim McAvoy (6-5, 289) and redshirt junior tackle Mark Ortmann (6-6, 297) holding down the right side. Ortmann and McAvoy were both tight ends in high school and represent the athletic, quick type of lineman that the spread demands.

Few know what to expect out of the Michigan offense in 2008, but it will certainly feature the no-huddle, and will be played at a fast break pace. Look for the offense to line up and to get a read on the opposition before turning back to the sidelines for the play. The hurry-up offense will limit defensive substitutions, so whoever is on the field better be ready to go.

The Wolverines have home games against Utah and Miami (OH) before their trip to South Bend, so they may have to lay it all out for everyone - including the Irish coaches - to see.

The question mark for the defense won't be on the field, where the Wolverines return eight starters, but on the sidelines and in the booth. Rodriguez replaced the entire defensive coaching staff, including highly regarded coordinator Ron English.

English served two years as defensive coordinator under Lloyd Carr and stressed a simple, aggressive defense. Rodriguez brought in Scott Shafer from Stanford to replace English and implement an even simpler and more aggressive style.

Michigan wants to pressure offenses and have the defensive linemen and the cornerbacks to do it.

The front four returns all four starters from 2007, including senior nose tackle Terrance Taylor and senior defensive end Tim Jamison. Taylor (6-0, 319) will start for his third year after earning All-Big Ten second team honors as a junior. Jamison (6-3, 263) has played in 38 career games and is Michigan's active leader in sacks (14.5).

Taylor and Jamison will be joined by senior tackle Will Johnson (6-5, 291) and junior end Brandon Graham (6-2, 276). Johnson has appeared in 35 career games while Graham led the team in sacks in 2007 with 8.5. Notre Dame made a late push last recruiting season for defensive tackle Mike Martin, but he stayed with the Wolverines and could give them a more athletic option at defensive tackle.

Michigan has the corners to play press man-to-man coverage which will allow Shafer to be aggressive with the front seven. 5th-year senior Morgan Trent (6-1, 189) will be in his third year as a starter and provides experience while sophomore Donovan Warren (6-0, 175) may be the most talented player on the entire roster. Warren started 11 games as freshman and was named Defensive Freshman of the Year by The Sporting News.

Sophomore Troy Woolfolk (6-1, 180) is the third corner while incoming five-star Boubacar Cissoko could be good enough to play early.

Senior Brandon Harrison (5-8, 195) has played in 38 career games and is back at strong safety with corner cover skills. Junior Stevie Brown (6-0, 209) has played in all 26 games over two years, but will now get the chance to start at free safety.

Senior Charles Stewart (6-1, 205) will backup Harrison, while incoming freshman Brandon Smith has the speed and physique to play right away.

The position on defense with the most concern is linebacker. Michigan is in good shape numbers-wise - especially with a pair of four-star freshmen coming in - but positions are not completely locked in. Michigan will have to replace Shawn Crable and Chris Graham, who combined for 180 tackles in 2007.

Redshirt sophomore Obi Ezeh (6-2, 247) is the sole returning starter of the unit and is the team's top returning tackler (68). 2007 junior college transfer Austin Panter (6-3, 231) looks like the next best bet to be in the lineup after Ezeh while sophomores Jonas Mouton (6-2, 230) and Marell Evans (6-3, 230) will compete for the other spot.

Michigan returns K.C. Lopata for a fifth season at kicker while junior Zoltan Mesko figures to be the punter, although he is not the rugby-style punter that Rodriguez prefers. The kick and punt returners have yet to named, but with questions on offense look for Michigan to put some speed back there and try to score.

The Wolverines undoubtedly will suffer some growing pains early on offense, but they will be stout defensively and after gaining just 79 yards in total offense against Michigan in 2007, the Notre Dame offense will get a chance to show just how much it has improved. Top Stories