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August 28, 2006

Previewing Michigan

After 125 years of unrivaled success, Michigan expected year No. 126 to be just as successful. That's not what happened in 2005, however. Injuries to starting tailback Mike Hart and offensive tackle Jake Long handicapped the offense a great deal, while the defense showed an inability to shut teams down late in games, allowing eight opponents to score on their final possession of regulation.

No fourth-quarter collapse was more disturbing to Michigan fans than its meltdown in the season finale against Ohio State. The Wolverines held a 21-12 lead with just 7:49 to play and the home crowd roaring. The Buckeyes, though, managed to score twice, using just 1:09 to go 67 yards, before taking the clock down to 24 seconds with a 12-play, 88-yard drive that consumed 3:54. With the loss, U-M has now fallen victim to its biggest rival in three of the last four outings and in four of the last five.

The Maize and Blue are also just 1-3 in their last four against non-conference nemesis Notre Dame, after falling 17-10 to the Irish, at home, in the second game of the season.

Things got worse for Michigan in a 32-28 loss to Nebraska in the Alamo Bowl. Seeking revenge for its 'shared' national title in 1997, U-M blew another lead, surrendering 15 fourth-quarter points. The way the game ended, with almost as many laterals as the infamous Cal-Stanford contest, and as the Cornhuskers rushed the field prematurely (somehow no penalties were called) served further proof that the 2005 season was unlike any Michigan or its fans could remember.

That type of season brought new scrutiny to the Michigan program, as fans demanded changes. They got them, sort of. Head coach Lloyd Carr promoted special teams coach Mike DeBord to offensive coordinator after Terry Malone took a job with the New Orleans Saints. Defensively, secondary coach Ron English moved up a notch when coordinator Jim Herrmann accepted an offer with the New York Jets.

No one outside of Schembechler Hall (Michigan's football offices) fully knows what to expect this fall, in terms of offensive and defensive game planning. However, with a nasty chip on their shoulder, prolonged losing streaks to rivals Notre Dame and Ohio State and talk nationally that the program is no longer amongst the elite in college football, the Wolverines, incensed, cannot wait to get started this fall.

Hart's health key to offensive success

Hart, the Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2004 after he rushed for a conference-leading 1,455 yards, missed four full games last season, large portions of two others, and was really only healthy in one - the season opener. As a result, he rushed for 800 fewer yards on 130 fewer carries. Without Hart, the offense failed to pick up yards on the ground consistently, and the passing attack, under the direction of quarterback Chad Henne, struggled.

This fall, Hart is back at 100 percent, putting Henne - who always seems to play better when his classmate is in the huddle - in position for a stellar junior campaign. Hart's presence should open up the offense as he draws seven and eight defenders closer to the line of scrimmage. Even then, the diminutive 5-9, 198-pound tailback has shown he can penetrate defenses with even the smallest opening, and will not be taken down by just one defender.

Henne will have a plethora of receivers to throw to, though with the graduation of Jason Avant there is not a proven go-to wideout in the lineup. Fifth-year senior Steve Breaston, who ranks 1-2 (or 2-1 depending who you ask) as the most dangerous athlete in the league with Ohio State's Ted Ginn, is the most likely first choice for Henne, but sophomore Mario Manningham (27 receptions for 433 yards and six touchdowns) and redshirt sophomore Adrian Arrington are also top receiving options.

The offensive line is anchored by redshirt juniors Long and Adam Kraus at left tackle and guard, respectively. Fifth-year senior Mark Bihl starts at center, with redshirt sophomore Alex Mitchell at right guard and fifth-year senior Rueben Riley at right tackle. Mitchell will be the only first-time starter. Combined, the other four have made 46 career starts.

In the offseason, Carr asked each of his linemen, on both sides of the ball, to lose weight, conditioning to be quicker athletes with more stamina. Long led the way amongst offensive linemen, dropping more than 15 pounds off of last year's frame. With the leaner physiques, the offensive line will employ more zone-blocking schemes this fall - a radical approach from years past.

Captain LaMarr Woodley set to terrorize quarterbacks

A senior defensive end, LaMarr Woodley could be the most dangerous pass rusher in the Big Ten. A year ago, he finished with seven sacks despite missing three games. He is currently Michigan's leader in career tackles for loss with 36, among them 12 sacks, and he's done all of this while facing double-teams virtually his entire career.

This fall, the expectations have risen for Woodley, and for the defensive line. Second-year line coach Steve Stripling has more playmakers than any U-M team since 1997, with Woodley, All-American candidate Alan Branch at tackle, and redshirt sophomore end Tim Jamison opposite Woodley.

Both Jamison and Branch are threats to knock more than a few quarterbacks on their rears. At first, the attention will focus on Woodley, allowing his linemates to do so. Down the line, Woodley could be the one drawing single matchups and there is no offensive tackle, in the past, he hasn't been able to beat.

As a whole, Michigan's defense should be far more aggressive than the past few years. Though he was noted for his tactical intelligence, Herrmann often asked his defenses to do too much, slowing their reaction time with more thinking. Herrmann also preferred to play straight up, allowing offenses to come to his defense.

English has simplified the defensive game plan, unleashing Michigan's defensive players, who still rank among the best in the nation in terms of speed, strength and play-making ability. Those who have seen U-M practice this fall expect to see a defense much more on the attack, with linebackers and defensive backs blitzing with regularity.

The Wolverines should be able to get away with it because they boast a secondary with three returning starters, including all-conference cornerback Leon Hall. In early August, Carr said Hall had the potential to be the best cornerback all time at Michigan - high praise for a school with alumni that include Ty Law and Charles Woodson.

In the preseason magazines, Hall has routinely been ranked amongst the top three cornerbacks nationally. Last fall he was rarely beaten one-on-one while making a team-best four interceptions. This year, Hall figures to establish his dominance quickly, which might preclude quarterbacks from even throwing in his direction.

Breaking in the coordinators

As in any new season, the first game can be a time to work out the kinks of the summer. Perhaps no program nationally might have as many to work out as Michigan, which will be breaking in a pair of new coordinators.

DeBord isn't new to the job. He first served the role of offensive coordinator at Michigan from 1997-99, engineering U-M's run to a national championship in his first season. He left the institution to become head coach at Central Michigan, but has since returned alongside best friend Carr. DeBord likes to run the football, and he will establish the run game each weekend, but he understands the game has changed since he was last in charge and expects to feature a vertical passing game this fall in addition to a powerful ground game.

English is a first-time coordinator after spending the past 10 years coaching secondary units at San Diego State, Arizona State and Michigan. A young guy, at 38, English might not have great experience, but his enthusiasm and fresh ideas have energized the Maize and Blue. Already his players have expressed their excitement over playing 'English-brand defense.'

Final analysis

With a meeting at rival Notre Dame two weeks away, Michigan won't likely show much against Vanderbilt. Even then, fans expect their Wolverines to clobber VU. Commodores quarterback Chris Nickson has the type of athletic ability to burn the Wolverines - in the past athletic quarterbacks have done just that - but this is a different defense, under a different coordinator. U-M will attack, attack, attack.

In most years, Michigan might be looking at this game as simply preparation for bigger things, but after last season's 7-5 disappointment there are many Wolverine players and coaches salivating at the thought of absolutely destroying someone. The score may not reflect that at the end, but Michigan is looking to make someone hurt, and Vanderbilt is unfortunately the first team U-M will play this year.


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