Exiting last season I think it was understood that Michigan would experience a bit of a quarterback controversy going into the 2010 Season. Freshman Quarterback Tate Forcier had started all 12 games in 2009, but after leading Michigan to a 5-1 start the wheels seemed to come off for the talented freshman. In hind sight we have the benefit of knowing that Tate played every game after the win over Indiana with a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder. We also now realize just how important David Molk was to that Offensive Line, and realize just how much that affected Tate's performance. Those were things out of his control.
But the things within his control will determine where he starts the 2010 season and how he will finish it. Many of us were surprised when we saw some of the comments that came out of Big Ten Media days regarding Tate's commitment to off season conditioning. It wasn't so much that they occurred, but that it was in some way confirmation about rumors that had been rumbling around the message boards and the program over the summer. In response Tate has wisely decided to let his performance answer any questions people have about his commitment to the program, rather than address it in print.
In a lot of ways this whole process may be a good thing for the program as a whole. To bring the above quote into context, Coach Rodriguez was asked to address Troy Woolfolk's comments at Big Ten Media Days with regard to Tate. Coach Rodriguez responded thusly:
"First off, I didn't ask his opinion. Second, I'm glad our seniors are taking some ownership and leadership in this team," Rodriguez said. "They want everybody to work as hard as they have, and are going to. I don't blame them for that.
"Tate has a lot of work to do to prove himself, and not just on the field but off the field. I think he's a very competitive guy and he's willing to do that. The rest of that stuff is all internal. Our guys? We've got a pretty close team, and we'll get even closer in the next few weeks."
If you're a pro team and Terrell Owens is the one talking out loud about your veteran quarterback, that's one thing. If you're a 5-7 team looking to return to a bowl game and one of your senior leaders is calling on an underclassman, an important underclassman, to show a commitment to the team it's another.
Rodriguez has rightfully seized upon this as a learning experience for everyone on the roster. Lesson one: Leaders need to lead in their own way. Looking at last season, Michigan was blessed with three outstanding seniors in Stevie Brown, Brandon Graham and Zoltan Mesko. All three were quiet leaders, leaders who led by example and effort. Troy Woolkfolk is simply not that kind of guy. Troy is loquacious. He is loud. He is direct. And he is a very different leader than Michigan fans might be used to. Troy doesn't just lead via example. He's not afraid to challenge someone whom he feels may need a kick in the butt. Most importantly, Troy hasn't just taken "ownership" of this team team as a senior, he's taken this season personally. This season means a great deal to him and he is going to make sure that everyone is on the same page as the senior leadership group. If he has to be the bad cop, so beit. This is important to him and his teammates and if he needs to say something, he's going to.
Lesson Two: Your teammates should and will hold you accountable. Another wonderful thing to come out of this is the fact that Rodriguez can depend on his players to police themselves. Winning teams have that attitude, an us against the world attitude that permeates everything they do and say. But that attitude only goes so far unless the players behind it actually buy into it. Talking with Stephen Schilling, Mark Moundrosand Troy Woolfolk it was easy to see in their eyes that there was no doubt or uncertainty in this team or this coaching staff. They know and believe that as a unit, this team can achieve great things. But they also know they will have to be vigilant to achieve those goals. Judging from their comments at media days and from Rodriguez reaction, this team will be accountable to each other. And that's a huge step in the right direction.
Lesson Three: No one can take a starting position for granted. One of the worst things that can happen to a young team is to become complacent. Forcier by all rights shouldbe the starter this season. He started 12 games and played pretty well, especially for a freshman. But Rodriguez made it crystal clear in his statement, I'm challenging you to be better than you were last year and better than you think you are now. He's also making clear that it's not just football where he expects his players to excel. Rodriguez said he expects a lot out of his players athletically and academically, and that he will never stop challenging those players to be better at both. On top of that, Rodriguez has said that he will let everyone, and he means everyone, compete for a starting position. If he feels you can help this team win, you will see the field (e.g., Jordan Kovacs). He's told his starting quarterback in person and in print that he is being challenged not just by his coach, but by his teammates. He's also told his quarterback that it's up to you to respond.
Lesson Four: How you respond to adversity and challenges you face will define you, and as a whole will define, this team. This team is no stranger to things going wrong. As Schilling indicated at Media Days, the teams hit the mid point in the 2009 season like it was quicksand and never managed to pull itself out of it. And that defined the season, not the hot start. While Rodriguez' comments may have mentioned Tate directly, they may as well have been directed at everyone on this team. Rodriguez not only didn't chasten Woolfolk for talking with the press, he flat out supported him for having the stones to speak his mind if he thought it would help the team.
They [the seniors] want everybody to work as hard as they have, and are going to. I don't blame them for that.
These seniors will be defined by how they run this team and face the adversity ahead of them. Rodriguez made sure that everyone on the team knows that he is behind them, and that he supports how they view this season.
The take away from this is actually fairly encouraging from a Michigan fan perspective. There are seniors that care about this program and this team. When a leader perceives there are areas of improvement that need to be addressed, they will be. This team will police itself. This coach will support his senior leaders. The best players on this team will be pushed to be even better. There is no special treatment on this team.
Perhaps most importantly, this team understands how important each person is to their team goals.