Saturday, September 03, 2005

The Defense and Special Teams

Here is the final installment of my Michigan season preview, covering the defense and special teams.

Defensive Line (LaMarr Woodley DE, Gabe Watson DT, Pat Massey DE/DT)
Best Case: Woodley and Watson live up to their potential and are both consensus All-Americans, Massey provides another 4-6 sacks and Jeremy Van Alstyne bounces back from injury to give Michigan a pressure on the non-Woodley side. At this point it appears that Pierre Woods will be backing up Woodley at the rush linebacker/defensive end position. He could well revert to his '03 form and give Michigan a significant presence while Woodley is catching his breath. If this is the case, this group has a tremendous upside. Alan Branch has always impressed me, he will provide depth and energy in the middle. The rest of the crew consists mostly of talented freshman who could emerge as contributors.

Worst Case: Watson takes the year off, Woodley is over-hyped, Massey lets more quarterbacks get away and Van Alstyne doesn't return to form. This isn't going to happen, but I had to put something here.

Injury Case: If Watson isn't healthy, this is a seriously downgraded group. DE appears to be alright with Woods coming of the bench and Branch is more than adequate at DT. The real worry with injuries here is that any loss of depth will lead to too many snaps for the big fellas like Watson early and games and therefore limit their effectiveness late.

Best Guess: This group will ride the strong rush of Woodley, Van Alstyne, Massey and Woods and the pure mass of Watson to glory. There is an unbelievable amount of untapped talent here, and with Steve Stripling coming down from Sparty-town and actually teaching technique, the newly coordinated rush will be unstoppable.

Linebackers (not really any returning starters except Scott McClintock who isn't projected to start again)
Best Case: New starters Prescott Burgess (who was a freak in the Rose Bowl) and David Graham are both physically gifted linebackers who can put the fear of God into opposing running backs and running quarterbacks. I am not taken with David Harris and I hear that is already banged up so I am going to chose to project McClintock in the middle since I think that will some competent help he will tie down the starting spot. McClintock isn't particularly fast and last year it seemed to show as he was often caught in mismatches, however I believe that he has the best natural linebacker instincts on the whole team and will be able to use these to better effect this season. Harris and Shawn Crable will both be very important for depth reasons. In my dream world, McClintock (or Harris for that matter) work well with Watson and Massey to plug up the middle run and Graham and Burgess both use their skills to terrorize offenses and protect the defense from matchup issues.

Worst Case: Burgess doesn't pan out and this group lacks physicality again. Opposing offenses are able to exploit McClintock in man coverage and Harris's lack of experience shows.

Injury Case: Harris is already shaky and this unit is thin on experience if McClintock or Burgess get into injury trouble. While this isn't the thinnest position on the team, it is close and I would just assume not see Brandon Logan or John Thompson playing serious roles on this defense, no matter how much it would please Troy Smith or Drew Stanton.

Best Guess: This group went through a lot of upheaval a year ago, but look for Burgress and Graham to settle into important roles and for McClintock to be better than expected. The linebackers will hold their own this season and not negatively affect the team, but they won't help to cover up any other unit's weaknesses either.

Secondary (Leon Hall CB, Ryan Mundy S)
Best Case: Hall is good again, Mundy improves on the mental side of the game and remembers the fundamentals that went AWOL the last four games last year. The best to hope for at the other corner is either Grant Mason to step up and provide steady play or for either Morgan Trent or Charles Stewart to play above his experience level. Bradent Englemon will be the other safety and he might just be the first player since I've been a Michigan fan (~5 years) to play that position like it should be. (For the record, according to the now retired coach at Ovid-Elsie Allen Martin, "The safety should never let anybody deeper than him in coverage!", or something like that, I played defensive line and generally regarded the pretty boys back there with contempt.) Ultimately the ceiling for this group will be keeping the other team from making big plays.

Worst Case: Englemon and Mundy are as bad as Shazor/Mundy were late last season and Michigan can't find consistency at the other corner position. This unit certainly has the potential to be pretty bad if they can't stop the deep ball or contain the fast quarterbacks.

Injury Case: Both the corner and safety are pretty thin although Willis Barringer is livable behind Mundy and Jamar Adams almost beat out Englemon for that spot. If Leon Hall gets hurt, the season might well be over.

Best Guess: This will be the worst area of an otherwise very good football team. Leon Hall is a difference maker and Ryan Mundy is good when he wants to be. The rest of these guys are either talented or experienced, no one is both. I think that either Stewart or Trent will play well enough to keep Michigan in ball games and Englemon will be a pleasant surprise in the middle. Still, this area is an overall negative and will keep the team from competing for a national title as this group will not be good enough to stop Drew Tate in the game at Iowa.

Special Teams (Garrett Rivas K, Steve Breaston PR/KR)
Best Case: Breaston is once again the premier return man in the Big Ten (Ted Ginn who?) and Rivas shows improvement in his third season. The freshman punter Zoltan Mesko has a thunderous leg and I think that he will be the starter by the onset of the Big Ten season. This group is easily the best in the Midwest.

Worst Case: Mesko isn't ready, and Rivas is still shaky on extra points.

Injury Case: If Breaston gets banged up, Grant Mason and Leon Hall are both very good return men and there are plenty of speedy receivers to give it a go. I refuse to consider the possibility of an injury to Rivas, because doing so makes me remember the days of Phillip Brabbs and I don't want to think about more uncertainty in the kicking game.

Best Guess: Mark it down, this will be the best special teams unit in the country.

In Total

As for the season as a whole, Michigan will be very good against most of the teams that they play. I'm sure that they spent the offseason learning how to stop mobile QBs and working on the defensive line technique. Michigan will win close games at Michigan State and Wisconsin while blowing out Notre Dame at home. The Ohio State game will be closer, but Michigan will put it away shortly after halftime and weather the late Buckeye rush to secure another Big Ten Championship. The Northwestern game will be closer than expected, but the Wolverines will easily take care of Northern Illinois, Eastern Michigan, Minnesota, Penn State and Indiana. Unfortunately they will not beat Iowa. This totals to an 10-1 regular season and a third straight BCS bowl berth. Michigan will finish the season around 4th in the AP and Coaches Polls, but because the BCS always has to be contrary Michigan will be #2 in that conflagration and head back to the Rose Bowl for the third straight year to face off against USC.


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