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And We're Back

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I don't know; been busy.

My mellow Peter over at Burnt Orange Nation recently asked Brian and me to help provide an early preview of Michigan football in 2006. Our answers are likely not revolutionary, but it makes for a nice read. Check it out here. My answers are copied below, as well.

1) Lloyd Carr seems to have floated into territory we're very familiar with at Texas: that is, he's built an undeniably strong program, rocks the recruiting, and (usually) fields a Top 10 team; and yet, there's an undeniable feeling that things aren't going well. How do you, and how should we, evaluate Lloyd Carr?

Lloyd Carr is wonderful at being good enough, and that's the nicest way I can fully capture the dude's coaching essence. As we all know, there are three primary, intertwined components to being a college football coach: there's the winning, there's the recruiting, and there's the everything else. Lloyd is among the best in the nation at the everything else. His program is relatively clean, the occasional head rudely smashing into someone's beer bottle excepted; his players graduate enough (although at not nearly the rate that a school like the University of Michigan should demand); he's honest; he's generally fair; he serves as an admirable role model for his players; parents love him; etc. As a human being, Lloyd Carr is someone of whom we Wolverines can be proud.

When it comes to recruiting, Lloyd is even better. He was not always a world-class recruiter, but in this century, the man has done as well as anyone can reasonably expect. Though it is easy to be critical of some failures and miscalculations (e.g., handing Brian Cushing over to USC despite an obvious need for competent linebackers; routinely failing to land top-level speed at RB, Carlos Brown excluded; perhaps not seizing upon John Clay early enough this season, although it's still early; etc.), his oeuvre is impressive. Michigan has routinely landed top-ten recruiting classes despite not winning BCS bowl games, not having a flavor-of-the-month coach, not being particularly concerned with cooperating with that guerilla fighting force of doom called "the media," and most importantly, NOT BEING SITUATED IN A TOP-LEVEL HOMEGROWN TALENT STATE.

That last part is in all caps because it's amazing that Michigan remains competitive. USC, Georgia, Texas, Miami, Florida, Florida State, Alabama, LSU, Auburn, Penn State, Virginia, Virginia Tech, and Ohio State are all located in states that produce more talent, each year, than Michigan. Oklahoma and Tennessee are within great proximity to talent-rich states. I suppose Michigan is close to Pennsylvania and Ohio, but oh by the way, IT'S FREEZING in Michigan from November through April. (No joke: it seems to always snow in mid-April.) Year in and year out, though, Michigan is one of the five schools mentioned most by recruits across the country, buoyed by its rich history and the earnest, honest efforts of Carr and his staff. Only Notre Dame can claim similar success despite analogous inherent disadvantages, although: a) that school was down for a while; b) the media works for Notre Dame, a major asset that no other school enjoys decade to decade.

Sadly, though, Lloyd's exceptional ability in these first two areas of core coaching competency has not led to adequate results in the most important category: winning. And ironically, the things that make Lloyd so good at so many other parts of his job--his consistency, his loyalty, his honesty, his genial nature, his adherence to what has worked before--hurt his team's performance. Before we go on, let's be clear on something--Charles Woodson won the 1997 national championship (and he would have kicked sniveling, whining Scott Frost's ass in a fist fight, a race, or anything else that could have been used to settle the outcome of that season). Yeah, Lloyd was the coach and had done that nifty thing where he read "Into Thin Air," but those were Gary Moeller's players and they were led by the greatest player in the history of the program, and probably the best guy to ever play his position in college. Lloyd may be listed as a "national championship coach," but can anyone really assess his catalogue of work and conclude that it's a fair distinction?

In 11 seasons, he has lost three games or more nine times. Lloyd's game plans are conservative, his adjustments are inadequate, his teams are usually scared in big games, and his decision making leaves a lot to be desired (stop punting in the 4th quarter so much!). His strength and conditioning program is horrible, his media relations skills are horrible, his staff decisions are usually horrible. He is loyal to his coaches to a fault; he is resistant to change to a fault. He never seizes the proverbial moment, he coaches not to lose, and he can't adequately motivate his players. Michigan was a disaster last season, but it could have been worse earlier. Lloyd Carr no longer knows how to win at the highest levels in college football. He gets out x-and-o'ed by nearly every credible coach, he combats things like the spread by shoving his head in the sand, and he has yet to find a tendency of his that he thinks he should change. The results speak for themselves: his teams lose road openers like clockwork, they're out of the national title hunt by October, and as 1997 recedes further and further into history, all we're left with is this endless string of borrowed time and broken hearts.

2) What's the biggest story of the spring for Michigan this year?

I guess that the biggest story of the spring is really the biggest story of the winter. Michigan rid itself of offensive coordinator Terry Malone and defensive coordinator/linebacker coach Jim Herrmann. In their stead, former special teams coordinator Mike DeBord will run the offense (with, we're told, a lot of input from QB guru Scot Loeffler), former defensive backs coach and almost-Bears DB coach Ron English will run the defense and coach the safeties, Wisconsin's Ron Lee will coach up the cornerbacks, and grizzled veteran from nearly all football ports, Steve Szabo, will run the linebackers, hopefully imparting in them the pirate-like attitude I have baselessly attributed to him.

On the field, the biggest story is the offensive line. It has undergone the annual springtime routine that is found all over the country--the much ballyhooed re-shuffling--and the results are inauspicious. The right tackle is playing left tackle; the center is a talented weakling who can't stay healthy; the right guard is green; the right tackle should be the right guard; and the right tackle stunk it up. What does this mean? Well, the optimists think that it means that with indefatigable Mike Hart, indefa-somethingable Kevin Grady, and indefa-catchable Carlos Brown all running the ball, Michigan will be killing teams on the ground. The pessimists think that it means that Chad Henne will simply be able to see his inevitable sackers coming, as they won't be hitting him from his blindside.

I think it means 9-3 at best.

3) How good is Chad Henne? He didn't take the big step forward last year that many thought he might following his strong finish in 2004-05. Will he this year?

It is entirely up to Chad Henne to figure out how good he is. As a freshman, he did what he had to do, getting the ball to Braylon Edwards and generally not sucking. In the offseason between 2004 and 2005, he didn't do much: he didn't lead workouts, he didn't shorten his delivery, he didn't work with his receivers, and he didn't grow into a leader. As a result, he didn't do much in 2005 when Edwards was gone. In 2006, he had better do something, because his team needs him. The early returns are positive: in spring practice, Henne is said to have looked sharp, with a greater command of the offense, a greater presence in the huddle, and a shorter release that is less like a baseball pitch. He needs to continue to improve over the summer, though. His release still must be crisper; he must learn how to throw the timing patterns over the middle better; and he must develop a greater rapport with his receivers, many of whom are struggling due to injury, youth, attitude, or some combination of the three.

In a larger sense, Henne has the potential to be quite good. His arm strength is excellent, he takes hits fairly well, and though not Vince Young, he actually moves better than what he showed as a freshman. Like a lot of QBs, his struggle is mental. Honestly, he seems kind of dumb. When he plays poorly, he doesn't seem capable of adjusting and instead seems content to fail at doing what he's been instructed rather than taking any initiative. He's rumored to have been resistant to making the delivery changes suggested by Loeffler, who has only put all of his QBs in the NFL. And he has this horribly vacant look on his face most of the time.

I am optimistic that this kid, only 20, can turn it around. But like I said, it's all up to him.

4) And what about Mike Hart? Is this -his- year to take a leap forward?

Mike Hart took a leap forward before he came to Michigan. As a freshman, he excelled in every way, from blocking to catching passes to breaking tackles to "toting the rock" as some like to say. Last year, he was hurt and his offense line was mediocre only on its best days. Assuming that Hart stays healthy throughout the year and that the right side of the line doesn't functionally resign Michigan to only playing three up front, Hart should be like the Hart of 2004, only with a little more speed.

5) Fearless prediction: Michigan will finish ____ in the Big 10, will (beat/lose to) Ohio State, and (will/will not) make a BCS Bowl.

Michigan will finish tied for third in the Big Ten, will not beat Ohio State, and will not go to a BCS bowl. Also: Lloyd Carr will announce that 2007 will be his last year and that Mike DeBord is going to be his successor. And also: Upon hearing the second piece of news, I will die. Literally.