Head Coach: Brady Hoke: 47-50 lifetime; (0-0 at Michigan)
2010 Record: 7-6 (3-5 Conference)
Returning Starters: 16 (8 offense, 8 defense)
The Team, the team, the team . . . so said legendary head football coach Bo Schembechler, whose coaching philosophy was rooted in a belief that success on the football field required selflessness, discipline, toughness, and above all else, a dedication to “the team.” Though Schembechler’s rugged and tough team-first approach to coaching endured within the Michigan program, long after Schembechler last patrolled the sidelines, many believe that Michigan lost sight of this identity under most recent head coach Rich Rodriguez. Don’t worry, this isn’t a re-hashing of those brief and tumultuous years under Rodriguez; I’ve already done that. Rather, this is a look forward. Thankfully, the events of the last few months lead me to believe that newly installed head coach Brady Hoke has things looking up in Ann Arbor. Whether the fruits of Hoke’s labor are fully realized in year one is another matter.
Offense: Michigan returns 8 starters from a juggernaut offense that ranked 6th in the nation. With junior quarterback/superhuman freak/Sonic the Hedgehog clone Denard Robinson at the helm, no doubts exist as to the explosiveness of the offense. What lies in doubt is how quickly the offense, or more importantly Robinson, will adapt to the system installed by new offensive coordinator Al Borges. Doubt exists solely because Hoke prefers to run MANBALL, which is a pedestrian way of saying that Hoke wants to run a more physical pro-style offense. Despite Hoke’s preference, all indications are that we’ll see more spread than expected this year. A more gradual transition to MANBALL should help Denard, who is affected the most by this change in offensive philosophy.
While early returns on Denard’s adjustment to the new offense (e.g. the spring game) were less than encouraging, all indications are that he has improved dramatically since that time. Besides, ole’ Shoelace won’t have to do it alone. He’ll be aided by an experienced offensive line led by senior David Molk who is on the Rimington Watch List as the nation’s top collegiate center. There is also a lot of experience at the skill positions. Senior wide receiver Darryl Stonum’s speed will be missed on the outside, but junior Roy Roundtree and senior Junior Hemingway should help pick up the slack. On the ground, no player has emerged as the clear-cut leader. As of today, Mike Shaw and Fitzgerald Toussaint are vying for the top spot, with Shaw leading by a nose. Regardless, the lack of a clear leader at tailback is troubling; thankfully we have Denard. Last, but certainly not least is senior tight end and captain Kevin Koger, who is talented and figures to play a prominent role in Borges’ offense. Grade: B+
Defense: Before the announcement of Greg Mattison as the defensive coordinator, the best thing that I could say about the defense was that it couldn’t get any worse. With Mattison calling the shots on D, I expect marked improvement. For the first time in 3 years, Michigan will have a coherent strategy on defense. Gone is the much-maligned 3-3-5 alignment. In its place is the 4-3 that Michigan ran for years pre-Rodriguez. Once again, the defense will be led by superhuman senior defensive tackle Mike Martin, who should be less encumbered playing in a 4-man front. Other defensive standouts include senior corner Troy Woolfolk, who returns after missing all of last season due to a broken ankle, and middle linebacker Kenny Demens. Question marks abound on defense though. Will Craig Roh break through as the pass rusher Michigan needs? Is this the year Will Campbell makes his mark? Are we playing the right guys at the WILL and SAM linebacker positions? And finally, is JT Floyd the guy at the other corner spot? He’ll be pushed by freshman Blake Countess and sophomore Courtney Avery, but he should stick at that spot. In any event, these are all tough questions to answer, but critical questions nonetheless. Grade: C
Special Teams: Michigan’s special teams units were a mixed bag last year. On one hand, punter Will Hagerup really came on last year as the punter many expected when he was recruited. On the other hand, kickers Seth Broekhuizen and Brandon Gibbons were so horrendous at times, that it severely limited what options Rodriguez had inside the 20. Fast forward to this year, and the picture is still hazy. Hagerup has since been suspended for the non-conference portion of the schedule for undisclosed reasons, leaving freshman stud Matt Wile (a kicker) as his replacement. Wile will also challenge at kicker where Gibbons appears to be the incumbent. Questions also persist in the return game. Sophomore Jeremy Gallon again figures to play a prominent role as the return man, but that should give any fan pause, as he constantly struggled last year in the same capacity. Grade: C-
Final Analysis: Michigan’s success turns on three issues: (1) how well Denard & company adapt to Borges’ tweaked offense; (2) whether guys like Cam Gordon, Craig Roh, Tom Gordon, and JT Floyd/Courtney Avery can take that next step as players; and (3) how healthy Michigan remains all year as that was a major issue last year. The resolution of these three issues will likely dictate how far Hoke can take these guys this year. Especially since the schedule is not very friendly. By my count, 5 games (WMU, EMU, SDSU, Minn., & Purdue) can be safely considered wins. I think 3 (MSU, Neb, Iowa) will be close, but probably losses. That leaves 4 (Illinois, Northwestern, OSU and Notre Dame) up in the air.
Prediction: 8-4; we beat ND, Illinois, and OSU, only because we’re better than Illinois, and we play ND and OSU at home. OSU will be a tougher game than some think, but the coaches have placed a laser-like focus on the school down south, which will pay off in the end.