Just like last year, I had the chance to sit down and interview Michigan's three team representatives at Big Ten Media Days. I didn't have as much time with the players this year as I would've liked (generally around 15 minutes per table given my own time constraints), but they were all great young men and gave honest, funny answers to questions I'm sure they'd heard 1,000 times. I've already given you my general impressions. I'll give you the rundown of all three sitdowns individually, and finish up the series with the wrap up of what I came away with from Coach Rodriguez. First up, Michigan Football's Starting Right Guard, Stephen Schilling.
I have to start with this: Stephen Schilling is a big man. Sitting alone at a circular table designed to hold twelve people, Schilling easily took up a quarter of it on his own. I've often wondered how dudes like him find suits that fit. At 6'4 225, I'm no featherweight, but you would've needed to splice two of my suits together to fit Schilling. He's just a solid mass of humanity, and when you're talking about a four year starter at Michigan, and more importantly a four year starter on the Offensive Line, that's a good thing.
Schilling is a relatively soft spoken guy, but don't let it fool you. There's a definite intensity to him that probably won't show up in this synopsis. As a senior he realizes that this is not just his last chance to impress the pro scouts, but his last chance to win some games that have eluded him so far. You get the sense from Steve that he'll talk with a teammate one on one about the goals this team should have, and if he doesn't get the sense you're taking him seriously or listening all that closely, he'll remind you, ever so subtly, that he is large enough to crush a Volkswagen with his bare hands before placing one of those hands on your shoulder and discussing those goals with you again, confirming you understand them. As such, it's hard not to like the guy.
Steve was asked a number of very different questions and answered all of them as forthrightly as I can imagine. I've broken down the questions and his answers into some different headings for easy reading. Enjoy.
On all the "Drama" Surrounding Rodriguez and the Program
Schilling told those at the table that in some ways the outside negativity surrounding the program over the last few years has helped to bring the team closer together. The coaches have continually preached, don't worry about the outside stuff, just focus on getting better and everything will take care of itself. And that's helped the team realize that the only thing that matters in this situation is your team, your school and your coaches. As Schilling said:
"You can't worry about what anybody else is saying, that doesn't affect how you play on the field."
A great point that Schilling made was that the members of the Michigan Football team know Coach Rodriguez so much better than the people scrutinizing him. "We're all in for our coach." Schilling also responded to direct question about the strain of the situation on the Coach by saying he hasn't seen the "drama" wear on Rodriguez. Schilling emphasized that they trust him to do what's right. Schilling said that you can look at anyone and say so-and-so looks tired, but he's never seen his coach and thought to himself that something was getting to Rodriguez. Frankly, that's kind of a nice thing to hear.
With regard to dealing with the media, the seniors tell the young guys not to worry about what they see in the papers. Everyone watches Sportscenter, but when you read the papers you have to have a thick skin. As a senior, he's learned to brush things off and not pay attention to the negativity. As a young guy you're excited to see your name in the paper, but as you get older you learn not to worry about it.
On Playing for Rodriguez:
Schilling came right out and said he's enjoyed playing Rodriguez "a lot." Looking back on things Schilling said he had the honor to play for a Michigan coaching legend in Lloyd Carr, and expects that some day people will look back on Rodriguez the same way. Schilling said Rodriguez will probably be remembered as one of the Michigan's best coaches when he's done as well.
On His Favorite Place to Play in the Big Ten
From the loaded question department, one of the PSU beat reporters asked Schilling about his favorite place to play outside the Big House after talking about the "tradition" and "fan frenzy" at Beaver Stadium. Schilling, in true diplomatic fashion responded that he really liked playing at Penn State. In that same vein he said he liked playing at all the Big Ten stadiums, especially those that are brand new or have recently been renovated. He mentioned that he loves going to Illinois ("for some reason"), and that he likes the new construction there. Steve wasn't a big fan of the Metrodome, even if it was nice to get a win the last time they were there. He did say that the one stadium he wishes he could play in but won't be able to is the new TCF Bank stadium in Minneapolis. Damn the scheduling!
With all the stadium talk I had to follow up with a question about Iowa's notoriously pink locker rooms. Steve responded that he really doesn't mind the pink locker rooms at Iowa, frankly Iowa's visitor's facilities were nicer than a lot of other places he'd played. Even if they were pink. The one that stood out in terms of lack of creature comforts was the minuscule locker space at PSU.
On This Team's Leadership
Perhaps more so than last year, this year's seniors seem to be taking a very active role in how the season will shake out. Schilling told us that the seniors are getting together regularly for meetings to discuss things and had already had five or six seniors only meetings. Steve stressed that the seniors in this class want to make sure that they're all on the same page as they mentor the new and younger players. He said that they're all leading from same view point, making sure that there aren't 20 different guys telling the younger players 20 different things. Everyone is on the same page, and that's helped a lot already. Last year's start and finish were two different emotions. There seemed to be a snowball effect as things went downhill last year, and they weren't able to correct it. This year the seniors are meeting and will talk with the coaching staff to make sure that nothing like that happens again.
On The Quarterback Competition
Looking back at last year, Schilling said that when Denard Robinson got to school he was so far behind Tate Forcier in his understanding of the offense that Tate won the starting job pretty handily. As a result Denard was the understudy last year and also perhaps was able to fly under the radar. Was rough for tate at the end of last year. Being Michigan QB is a heavy load to carry. Tate probably had to take some time to settle down at the end of the season. Steve remarked that it was rough for the entire team. However, he also pointed out that it's one thing to be the incumbent starting quarterback at the University of Michigan, and to have to deal with all the pressures that it entails, and another to be the guy challenging for that position.
Taking a break from rundown for a second, I think Steve's last point is a critical one. It's often said that the most popular guy to fans on any mediocre or losing team is the backup quarterback. Look at the Lions for pete's sake. I think Denard is benefiting somewhat and Tate is being hindered somewhat by that perception. We look at Denard's speed and forget about his miserable passing statistics last year. We look the end of last season and forget just how good Tate was at the start of the year.
That said, Steve did say that Denard is definitely "going after the job."
On the Status of the Offensive Line
The offensive line will have a lot more depth this year based on all the competition that the last few recruiting classes have brought in. He told us that the coaches have said that if there are 10 or 12 guys that can play, they'll play 10-12 guys. My takeaway from that is that we should expect to see a lot of shuffling in and out of the line early in the season as the depth chart will probably still be a little bit up in the air. But this time it's because we've got people that are competing to start, not because it's a race to the bottom.
I asked Steve specifically about Michigan's depth at Center and he said this year's team definitely has more depth and experience at center than it had last year. David Molk being out gave Rocko Khoury a lot of snaps with the first team he wouldn't normally have had if Molk wasn't injured. It also gave Christian Pace, an early enrollee, some snaps as a pre-freshman. Playing time that he never would've gotten had he not enrolled early and had Molk been healthy. A nice note worth mentioning, Elliott Mealer also got some time at center this spring. Hopefully he'll find his way onto the field this season.
I also asked him about the two newest (potential) starters on the Offensive Line, Taylor Lewan and Patrick Omameh. With a laugh, Steve told us that it was appropriate I asked about them together because apparently they're the best of friends. Steve told us that Omameh is insanely tough, and doesn't seem care about throwing his body around. Lewan is just like him. They both love hitting people. Both are really athletic and seem to be a little on the raw side, but Schilling said they both make some "crazy" blocks (re: pancake blocks). Steve sounded genuinely excited when he talked about the two new members of the line.
When I asked, Steve also said first year freshman Christian Pace could be something special. He remarked that you can see that Pace could be a budding star in practice because he wants to be good. When Pace does something wrong or not up to his own internal standards he really gets on himself for not being perfect. Schilling told us that the first week Pace was doing a drill he'd never done before and he did it wrong. Schilling was surprised/shocked to see just how mad Pace got at himself. Schilling had to tell Pace that it was good he was taking it seriously, "but you've gotta chill a little bit." It's good though, because he's got that mentality that he wants to be great.
Starting the Season Off Well
Adam Rittenberg of ESPN gave Steve a great question that I wished I would've asked, "How important to get that first signature win?" Michigan has all kinds of chances with Iowa, Wisconsin, UConn, and OSU on the schedule, and Adam's two part question really got at what this team wants to accomplish. Steve said in response that he wants to win all of the signature games on the schedule; Iowa, Ohio State, he wants them all. He also said that the league is really strong this year, and it's going to be a tough year for every school, so the team that emerges from the pack with the most signature wins is likely going to be in a great place come January. He said it's tough to get through the losing seasons, but it's been a learning experience and they're hoping to turn things around this year.
Angelique Chengelis followed up on that by asking about the general mood on campus heading into the season opener. Steve responded honestly by saying the he thinks people might be a little more cautious going into this season after how well the season opener went last year, and the subsequent fall. He also said they can't worry about how people are perceiving the season or how invested they are in this year's team. Regardless of how well or poorly they are doing there are always going to be people hopping on and off the bandwagon. Steve reminded us all that they were booed at half time when they were down against Wisconsin, so they're happy to have support from the diehards but they're not goign to worry about currying favor from the more fickle parts of the fanbase.
Specific Opponent Matchups
Steve was asked about who was a tougher matchup, Adrian Clayborn or Cameron Heyward. Steve said he'd gotten to go against Heyward more, as Clayborn usually lined up outside. Both are tough players with NFL futures. Line meetings do have a point where they go over the star players. Steve remarked the didn't know who Clayborn was hat prior to last year's film study, and said "holy crap, how haven't I heard of this guy." He was quick to add that he meant no disrespect to Adrian, but that somehow his name hadn't made it's way into Steve's bubble until practice leading up to the game. He said he hadn't faced clayborn directly that much, but had a lot of respect for him from their brief head to head competitions. In closing he said both players were big strong guys and showed just how deep the Big Ten is.
The Experience Factor
Steve said that going into year three, practices are a much different story than they were in the past. Everyone seems to pick things up so much quicker. As a result, it allows the coaches to put more into practice and do more with the offense. He said he really thinks the extra playing time, playing as freshman, has helped him become a better player.
Wants to finish his career in a bowl. After sending out Carr on a high note, he wants to get back to a bowl to cap his career.
Sitting down with Schilling, you can't help but be impressed with this young man. He's soft-spoken, but possesses a quick wit and great sense of humor. He's definitely been humbled by the last two years, but looking at him and talking with him, you can feel a sense of quiet confidence about this season. He's pissed off that last year happened. He's pissed off that 2008 happened. And this is his last chance to right the ship. As a senior and as a leader, he's damn sure going to do everything within his power to ensure that everyone is on the same page and Michigan returns to a bowl game this year. Put simply, that's really bad news for anyone lining up across from him.