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You Know, Because We Can't Ever Feel Too Good for Too Long

Were you starting to feel a little better about Michigan football thanks to a suddenly exciting recruiting prognosis? Well, shame on you. The internets speaketh: LaMarr Woodley is rumored to be going pro. That's teh sux0r for Michigan (duh) and likely teh bad thing for LaMarr in the short term.

Let's be honest about Woodley: Despite the obvious potential and the fairly consistent high-level play when healthy, he never emerged as the dominating lineman of the southern-football-factory variety that many thought he would be. I suspect that Woodley, much like Cato June and several others, will be drafted in April at a point in this year's draft that, in three years, will, in retrospect, seem foolishly or even ridiculously low. In between now and then, he'll lay low, earn his spot in a rotation, and get his body to the point where it would have been had Woodley not been getting advice from the leading strength-and-conditioning Luddite in the country, Woodsman Mike Gittleson.

For Michigan, this is bad, bad news. The 2006 defensive line is suddenly an ominous problem. In 2005, with Woodley and Gabe Watson--two all-American-caliber talents--Michigan was still just the 41st best run defense, surrendering 137 yards per game and giving any premier or semi-premier back his hundred yards. Of course, rushing yards per game is not a conclusive measure of a defensive line's worth because rush defense is also about scheme and linebacker play and all that. At Michigan, the LBs and schemes often leave a lot to be desired. But at the same time, anyone who saw the Michigan defense in 2005 saw a unit that already had trouble controlling the outside due to shoddy linebacker positioning and reactions; and trouble keeping RBs and mobile QBs from getting the yards that they needed in crunch time. I think it's fair to surmise that removing the two best defensive linemen from that unit is likely going to cause some problems.

On Signing Day 2005, many rushed to internets message boards to fantasize about the coming dominance of the Michigan defensive line. Woodley and Watson would be all-Americans; seniors like Pat Massey would be steady if not spectacular; and young players in the pipeline were going to be rotated in and grow into a fearsome amalgam of toughness, explosiveness, and Buckeye-killing nastiness. On top of that, MLB David Harris was coming back from injury, practice Jesus LB Chris Graham was going to be starting, and theretofore underwhelming LB Prescott Burgess was going to read all of the press clippings that accompanied his matriculation choice and become Lawrence Taylor with better coverage skills.

Fast forward to the winter of 2006. The LBs? Harris is very good; Graham is like one of those hopped-up dogs that will chase anything that thinks about moving; and Burgess is usually a step too late or a lane too confused. As for the d-line, this is what you're looking at heading into the fall:

DE: Alan Branch, Tim Jamison, Shawn Crable, Rondell Biggs, Carson Butler, Eugene Germany, Jeremy Van Alstyne, Greg Banks*, John Ferrara*

DT: Terrance Taylor, Will Johnson, James McKinney, Marques Walton, Marques Slocum**

One asterisk means that the kid is a recruit expected to be on the team in the fall. Two asterisks means that the kid will be on the team in the fall if he can get a qualifying SAT or ACT score. I think it's fair to say that while Slocum may be ready to contribute in the fall, he will not be a star, and the other two probably won't play.

That leaves Michigan with the on-the-verge-of-stardom Branch as the only defensive lineman who is likely to inspire much optimism when wondering if the Michigan defensive line will be an actual weapon, as opposed to a neutral factor or even a liability. I don't want to disparage the players, but many are long on talent and short on meaningful minutes. At DE: Jamison has yet to demonstrate that he can stay healthy and play against the run; Crable is a pass-rush specialist; Biggs has been fair in all aspects; Butler is an unknown who may play tight end; Germany is inexperienced; and Van Alstyne lives his life on the disabled list. DT? Well: Taylor is just a sophomore who seems to still be learning what to do; Johnson's ceiling is supposedly artificially low; McKinney is an unknown since he didn't get minutes; and Walton is sleeper rumored to have great potential if he is in shape and concentrating.

So back to Woodley. Would his presence have made such a difference? In some ways, no. While UM has a lot of depth at the DE position, it also has all of those unknown entities, and Woodley doesn't change that. But a 3-4 defensive line composed of Branch, Taylor, and Woodley; or one composed of Biggs, Branch, and Woodley and supplemented by an extra linebacker (John Thompson?) seems like a better lineup against the run than some combination of those players without Woodley, primarily because the next best athletes--Jamison and Crable--are not especially heavy or stout.

I'd be a lot less nervous about this defensive line if Michigan had ever demonstrated that it understood just how important defensive line play is. In modern college football, a dominant defensive line seems like a crucial component for national-title contenders, because it can be so thoroughly disruptive. Even non-contenders, like Florida State, grasp this concept and are still able to go to BCS bowls because a ferocious line is better than a Jeff Bowden at least eight times a season. At FSU, at LSU, at the Joke of a University, and at other football peers, the defensive line development is systematic and consistent. Players leave, but the expectation is for the position, and the coaches make sure that expectations are met.

At Michigan? Well, the fan base has been conditioned to think that a good defensive line can be expected about as frequently as a presidential election or a Virginia Tech team devoid of scandal. And last I checked, the Wolverines had to bring in a new d-line coach last season so that its players could stop using "high-school techniques," as said coach, Steve Stripling, famously remarked. Let that demonstrate to you how important line play has been to the Wolverines.

As is the sad case on offense, too, Michigan has long considered itself a school that excels at something despite ample evidence to the contrary. It's a power-running team with a mediocre rushing attack and a middling offensive line; a strong defensive team that can't stop anyone in crunch time and can't rely on its linebackers. Sometimes, in Ann Arbor, you wonder if the emperor is wearing clothes. Maybe LaMarr just got tired of being cold and embarrassed and needs money for a new tailor.