Looking at the calendar we're just barely over two months before the 2011 College Football season kicks off. While it may sound like an eternity, it's really not that far away. So, in an effort to get you ready for Michigan's 2011 football season, we're going to be taking a more indepth look at Michigan and Michigan's chances this season. And to start off, we're asking five key questions that will shape the 2011 season. On to the Questions:
Who Will Be Michigan's Primary Running Back?
This is Michigan's critical offensive question for the 2011 season. As everyone knows, Michigan's return to the pro-style one and two back system means that the Wolverines will actually have to employ a running back as a running back this season. This the Wolverine tailbacks won't be primarily used as a blocker for Denard Robinson, they'll be used to eat up yards. Michigan Offensive Coordinator Al Borges wants Michigan's primary ground gainers to be running backs, not his precious quarterback. And I'm all for that. But who's it going to be?
If I'm a betting man, I'm putting my money on Michael Shaw finally becoming the stud we thought the high school track star was when he signed with Michigan. Shaw looked tentative and indecisive in Rodriguez' offense, and the move back to a simple read running offense should do nothing but help the speedy Senior. His issue is staying healthy, but if he can, I think he'll have a monster season. Second on the list is Stephen Hopkins. The punishing freshman, now sophomore, seems perfect for Borges offense. He's a powerful, downhill runner who loves contact and has decent speed. I wouldn't be surprised to see Shaw and Hopkins in the same backfield quite a bit this fall.
The two wildcards are Mike Cox and Vincent Smith. Smith is a tiny back that seems better suited for the spread offense, and based on what I've seen from him, is better suited as a slot receiver. Still, prior to his ACL injury, he was a fast quick little bugger. This fall makes Smith a two years removed from ACL surgery. If he's back to full speed, which he wasn't last year, he could be a very dangerous change of pace back. I just don't see him being big enough to take the pounding of a feature back in this offense. But then again the only guy that's proven durable is... um... well... no one.
Second on this list is Mike Cox. The practice squad all-star. The Spring Game MVP-ish type substance. What do we make of him? Well. He's big. He's fast. He's a straight ahead runner. So yeah, he fits this offense to a tee. Rumors persisted that he was simply not a good fit for Rich Rodriguez offense (among other things) and the seemingly talented back vanguished on the bench. Carr really, really liked this kid. Liked him enough to offer him as a camper on the spot. Cox could shine in this offense, but who the hell knows.
I know people will suggest Fitzgerald Toussaint, Justice Hayes and Thomas Rawls as possible starters, but I don't see it. Toussaint is slow. I'm sorry, that's just a fact. The poor kid's been so banged up over his career and seen so little action that I just don't see that changing. As for the two freshmen, until I see them go Mike Hart on us, I'm just not going to believe two mid to highly rated recruits will step in and carry Michigan to a B1G Ten title.
My money's on Shaw and Hopkins carrying the load this season.
Will Michigan Have Functional Linebackers For The First Time Since 2006?
I'm guessing probably not. The linebacking corps at Michigan has been nothing short of a disaster since 2007. Obi Ezeh and Jonas Mouton. I think that sums it up. Four years of starting, four years of me pulling my hair out. Michigan, for some reason, was incapable of recruiting decent linebackers to fill the void and somehow even less capable of finding coaches on defense who could, you know, COACH!
/screams, shakes fist at sky/
Ahem. Anyway, I do think that Kenny Demens could really, really excel in this defense under Mattison and I like the move of Cameron Gordon to SLB. Jake Ryan, the redshirt freshman spring game standout, could also push for playing time at SLB and WLB. But there's still a gap at WLB. I'm guessing that Marell Evans will play a bit and that Mike Jones, if healed from his broken leg (which, OMG does that suck), should start the season strongly.
It's just too much to ask that this group suddenly become the focal point of the defense when you're starting two new players at two new positions and switching defenses. I think Michigan's linebackers will be better this year, but I don't think they're going to be good. GERG just did too much damage.
Will Denard be able to adapt to the pro-style offense?
Yes. Yes, he will. Will he be as effective, tho? I really think this is one of those terms of art type questions. You can point at overall numbers for last year's offense and suggest that it may be damn near impossible to find a better, more effective offense in Michigan's storied history. On overall numbers, you'd be right. But in terms of overall effectiveness I'd argue that I think Denard will be more effective over the course of the year in this offense.
more after the jump!
It's no secret that Denard was banged up as the year went on. He was missing series left and right, and was the focal point of every defense. As a result, Shoelace was running into a brick wall every play, and to his credit he did it to the tune of 5.5 a carry. Going forward, however, Robinson will no longer be the rushing focal point of the offense, and that's good news for his body and effectiveness. When a defense is forced to key on more than Denard it will make him more dangerous. More through less kind of concept.
The big issue will be in the passing game. Watching Denard's spring footage I have to admit I'm somewhat concerned about his mid-range passing game and his ability to put any air under the ball. Denard's got a cannon, but I have seen him put any touch on the ball with regularity. His downfield passes tend to be flat and hard as well. Still, he's had the whole summer to work on his passing and I'm confident that someone as dedicated and intelligent as denard will be able to make adjustments to his mechanics. I think you'll see some improved passing numbers and a more effective running game out of him in the latter stages on the season. But I also think he'll revert to some of his bad passing habits when he starts getting knocked around a bit. It's just human nature.
Will Michigan be able to get any pressure on the QB this season?
Last season Michigan managed just 18 sacks on the season. By way of comparison, during the miserable 2007 season when everyone was hurt and Michigan seemingly couldn't do anything right despite its talent and experience under Coach Carr, the Wolverines posted 32 sacks. That's almost double Michigan's 2010 production. Sadly, sack production has been in steady decline since 2006 when Michigan posted 42 sacks and almost killed three different quarterbacks. Picture of Morrelli? Of course.
I was confident last season that Michigan would have a good pass rush in 2010, and man was I wrong. Mike Martin remains one of the better defensive tackles in the country but he's not going be the guy getting a lot of sacks. Those have to come from the ends. Ryan Van Bergenmanaged four sacks, but because Michigan was playing that ridiculous 3-3-5 he had no weak side support. The only other defensive lineman to rack up a sack (two of them) was Greg Banks. That's friggin' horrible!
The move back to the 4-3 will be a godsend to players like Van Bergen, Craig Roh (who finally will be a DE again), and Jibreel Black. The move to the 4-3 will also help Mike Martin out because he'll be getting assistance from William Campbell (who hopefully is ready for primetime), Richard Ash, and Quinton Washington (who I really like at DT). Believe it or not, Michigan's defensive line actually has the makings of a unit with some depth!
Still, there's a lot of youth here. I think Michigan should improve past 18 sacks this season, but I doubt they'll reach their 29 sack total from the 2009 season.
Can Michigan prevent the late season slide for the third straight year?
Three game losing streaks defined Michigan last year. Despite rolling out to 5-0, Michigan lost three straight to MSU, Iowa, and Penn St; then they lost three straight to Wisconsin, OSU and Mississippi State to close the year. And frankly none of those games were competitive, I don't care what the second half numbers say. Part of the issue was Michigan caught some decent teams at the wrong time. Part of it was Michigan's inability to stop anyone from running all over them. But if Michigan is to top last season's 7 wins and not slide back into medicority in Hoke's first season, they're going to have to win some tough road games or their home schedule in the Big Ten will eat them alive.
With the B1G Ten schedule starting off with Minnesota at Home, Michigan travels to Northwestern and Michigan St. A bye is followed by a home date with Purdue (Homecoming) and trips to Iowa and Illinois. The last two are the big ones, Nebraska and Ohio State at home.
Looking at the calendar, it's fairly concevable that Michigan could again be 5-0 or 4-1 heading into it's B1G Ten road opener at Northwestern. And the Northwestern game will tell Michigan fans a lot about their team. The Cats return ten starters on offense, including their entire offensive line, RB and QB. So... yeah. The Cats also return 7 starters on defense, but it's the same defense that gave up 70 to Wisconsin and 48 to Illinois in the Wrigley game. With the returning firepower on offense, Michigan will have to show they've improved to the point of stopping one of the B1G Ten's most potent offenses and that they've adapted to the system well enough to bury one of its worst defenses.
I really think this is a barometer kind of game. If Michigan plays well enough to win, Michigan should be able to compete for a win in East Lansing. Get thumped, and those road trips to Iowa and Illinois look like the makings of a four game losing streak to end the season. I think Michigan's got the horses to pull out a win in Evanston (which is really as close to a home game as an opposing stadium can be [Come on Michigan Alumni, buy that place out!]), but it truly will tell us what this team is made of and whether they're going to be able to break away from their streaky past.
Well... That's five questions. Pose your own in the comments below and I'll try to put together another post on your thoughts.