Contrary to the marathon session that was Monday's opening to the Big Ten's Football Media Kickoff, Tuesday's round table discussions were more of a sprint to get the information you needed. After a full day o fun on Monday, you only got two hours to talk to the coaches and players on Tuesday. Before I launch into the details, I would like to thank the Big Ten Media Department and the Michigan Athletic Department for granting me access to this event. It was a unique experience for me and hopefully I can convey some of what I gathered back to my readers.
Day Two of the Kick Off was just what it promised to be, round table discussions. Each individual player or coach had a table to themselves, and sat there taking volley after volley of questions (most of them repetitive) from the reporters. The reporters themselves were amiable people. But watching them swoop in an out of discussions and tables reminded me of watching seagulls feed when the fishing boats come in.
The room itself was gigantic in terms of square footage, but appeared a little small due to the (relatively) low ceilings, evenly spaced support columns, and sterile taupe coloring (they say taupe is very soothing). But in those spaces stood 44 round tables, each with a 21-22 year old kid or a grizzled out coach waiting there to politely (and sometimes abruptly) answer your questions.
Who was there:
Michigan brought Zoltan Mesko, Mark Ortmann, and Stevie Brown as their representatives to the conference. First, I have to say that Rich Rodriguez selected three outstanding young men to represent the team. All three were gentlemen, attentive, and most importantly, possessed a sense of humor. While these three young men certainly stood out from the crowd, the unquestioned king of the Michigan side of the conference was Rich Rodriguez. Having met Rodriguez when the microphone is off on several occassions, I can confirm he is the exact same person when the cameras are off as when they are on. If you ask him a direct question, he'll give you a direct answer. If you ask him something he will not answer, he'll tell you so. Michigan is lucky to have him.
I had the chance to sit down and talk with all four about their Michigan experience, their expectations for the year, and the changes in the program since Rodriguez arrived in Ann Arbor two summers ago.
Due to time constraints I'll give you the run down of my talk with Mark Ortmann now, and try to get you my Rich Rodriguez, Zoltan Mesko and Stevie Brown wrap ups later this week.
After sitting down with Mark Ortmann, if you don't come away extremely impressed with this young man, well, you you've got problems. Ortmann truly fits the Michigan mold as an Offenisve Lineman. First, he's giantic. How he sat on that toothpick like chair without collapsing it is beyong me. Second, he's extremely conversant and happy to engage anyone in a conversation about football. Third, he's a smart and serious guy. Honestly, it's hard not to be excited about the Offensive line's prospects for 2009 after talking with him.
(More after the jump...)
The overarching theme of Ortmann's portion of the presser was "no excuses." After a series of questions regarding the missteps last year and the expecations for this year, Ortmann was adamant that he and his teammates expected to operate the offense as it was designed. In year two, he indicated, no one is going to buy the "transition" excuse and they're not going to make it.
While the setbacks the team experienced were a surprise to everyone, Ortmann told us there were signs that Michigan was turning the corner last year. According to Ortmann, he felt the offensive line gelled around the sixth or seventh game of last season. Specifically citing the play of then redshirt freshman Center David Molk, Ortmann said the whole line came together as Molk took command of the line. As the Center, Ortmann described Molk as the captain of the Offensive Line, dictating the assignments and directing the play. While it's hard to fathom, Molk as freshman turned into a very vocal leader on the line. The result has been a very tight unit and group of guys. Ortmann described the Offensive line as always hanging out together, always working with one another. Thus, in year two, he thinks this familiarity with one another and with the system, should lead to big things.
Along those lines, Ortmann stated were times last season where the offense was "one play away" from putting it all together. Ortmann made clear he wasn't implying Michigan was a play away from winning every game. Instead, he told us that the offense last year was still learning its system, and offensive plays would come within one block or one assignment from working as they were designed. Those mistakes and misses occurred where 10 of 11 guys would be in the right spot, but one player would get crossed up and go to the wrong assignment. Ortmann stated that on film, those mistakes were more common than they would like for everyone last season. But Ortmann said it emphasized just how close Michigan was to executing the offense. One guy rather than five. One miss rather than six. And as the season progressed, Ortmann pointed out that the line gelled and they were able to open holes and truly sustain a ground game. With those improvements, you started to see those "all 11" plays that eluded Michigan early in the season. As a result, Ortmann told us to expect big things from Molk this season, as well as the rest of the line as a whole.
One of the reasons for this is Michigan returns seven players with starting Offensive line experience in 2009. Ortmann indicated that the depth issues that plagued the line last year, have been resolved. He told us to watch out for Ricky Barnum and Patrick Omameh as young players to be excited about on the line. He also cited the great strides of Rocko Khoury and Elliott Mealer, who have gotten bigger, stronger and have a firm grasp on the system now. All four of these players should see plenty of playing time in addition to the top seven from last year.
Ortmann didn't beat around the bush. Anything less than a bowl would be a disappointment. He told me one of the hardest things last season was to watch the seniors and fifth year players exit the program after such a down season and without a Bowl game. As a Unit and as a team, Ortmann felt those players deserved better. That is one of the things that drives the line today.
That drive has resulted in some serious increase in the intensity and analysis of practice from last season. Ortmann remarked about the great advantage he has going up against Brandon Graham on a daily basis. And it's not just banging heads. It's practice followed by film and breakdown of the matchups between the players. He hold me that he and Graham share information, comment on technique, what worked, what didn't work. Ortmann has seen first hand the improvement on both sides of the ball, but letting us know of interaction with the Defensive Line was a nice thing to learn. It's apparent this internal competition and the resulting communication between these two groups will be a tremendous asset going into the season.
The result is a very confident group of players. Ortmann acknowledged it took the line a substantial amoun t of time last season to come together, and even then, took the offense more time to gell. Even so, Ortmann told me that while he anticipates some cobwebs in the first game, if the offense isn't at full throttle by kick off against Notre Dame at the latest, he's going to be disappointed. In speaking with him you definitely get the impression he expects the offense to be going full bore by first quarter against Western Michigan.
The key to that full bore offense will clearly be quarterback play. Ortmann admitted to some initial trepidation about the youth at quarterback, but Tate Forcier's play in early practice and in the spring game dispelled those concerns. What struck me about Ortmann's comments about Forcier, was how mature Tate seems to be. There haven't been any issues regarding cockiness or entitlement. Forcier isn't afraid to admit a mistake, ask a question, or talk to someone when signals get crossed. As a result, the freshman has earned the respect of the Line and the Offense and has taken on a leadership role far earlier than even the most optimistic fan could have hoped for.
Forcier and newly arrived Denard Robinson's abilities haven't escaped the line. When asked what it's like to have a mobile guy like Forcier or Robinson behind him, Ortmann remarked "It's fun, because you know he's going to give it everything he's got." Asking Ortman what he thought of Robinson, he responded with a grin "he's fast." Forcier's mobility also seems to have emboldened the line in the passing game. Ortmann stressed that even though Forcier has the wheels to pick up a first down, he's always got his eyes downfield. This seems to have also thrilled the receivers. Ortmann indicated the receivers looking to create oppotunities when the play breaks down because of Forcier's ability to throw on the run. All that said, Rodriguez' offense requires a running quarterback, without question. On this subject, Ortmann remarked Forcier has a deceptive speed and quickness that really suits the offense. "It may not look like it, but he's fast."
Ortmann was even more bullish on Michigan's other skill positions. Emphasizing the leadership role that Brandon Minor has taken on, Ortmann was very enthusiastic about the team's stable of running backs. When asked about Maize n Favorite Carlos Brown, Ortmann praised Brown's speed and mental toughness. Carlos and Brandon, at least in talking with Mark, seem to be those players that everyone on the Offensive line wants to give that extra second of time to, so they can break some huge. Especially with Brown, whose electric speed had Ortmann saying "I'd like to see a lot more of those 80 yard touchdown runs." Having both Brown and Minor healthy and in the backfield this season will "very exciting." You really get the feeling from talking with Mark, and the way he describes the running backs, that these guys truly care about one another. It's an exciting thing to see, becuase you're a lot more likely to give that extra effort when you're blocking for your friends.
I also asked Mark about freshman internet sensation Vincent Smith. I was surprised to see Ortmann try to describe Smith, and come up with the exact reaction I had to his you tube video ("seriously, how do you describe this guy?"). Not only blazingly fast, Ortmann remarked that Smith's incredible balance sets him apart. It allows the freshman to find ways out of seemingly impossible piles. When asked, Ortmann responded that he definitely saw Smith contributing this year.
Ortmann also gave us a little insight into how the 2 and 3 receiver slots behind Greg Mathews may break down. Ortmann told me that Junior Hemingway seems to be coming into his own this year. While we saw flashes of what the youngster was capable of last year, injuries held him back. This year he appears more than capable of stepping into that No.2/No.3 slot. Ortmann also mentioned Darryl Stonum's outstanding performance in the Spring game, but told me it could be any number of Michigan's talented wideouts who could step in that position.
Speaking with Mark you get a very different sense of what the line is capable of this year compared to last year. This year a great deal of the communication problems seem resolved. All the players are in year two of the system not just understand their roles, but are secure enough to ask questions and offer their own insights. No one will offer excuses this season and no one will accept less than those "all 11" plays every down. Most importantly, you get the sense that this team has come together, even after one of the most timultuous seasons in anyone's memory. With guys like Ortmann on the line, Michigan fans should be proud of the players that wear Michigan's uniform and look forward to a very exciting season.