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July 2, 2008
THE SCHEME: Get ready for a radical change, as new coach Rich Rodriguez has implemented his spread-option offense. While most spreads feature the pass, Rodriguez's version is heavy on the run. But the idea is the same: make opponents defend every inch of the field. The days of big, tall, stand-in-the-pocket quarterback are over at Michigan.
STAR POWER: Honestly, the star power on offense is dim. The guy who could have a huge year is junior tight end Carson Butler. Rodriguez's West Virginia offense typically never featured the tight end, but he says that won't be the case in Ann Arbor. Butler is a good one. He's big and fast, making him an inviting target in an offense that often may look to make the quick, short pass as it keeps things basic during a transition year.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Chad Henne, the school's leading career passer, is gone. Ditto former five-star star quarterback Ryan Mallett, who got one look at this offense and bolted for Arkansas. That vaulted redshirt freshman Steven Threet – who signed with Georgia Tech in 2007, enrolled early, then left after spring practice – to the top of the depth chart. He is smart and has a nice arm, but isn't as athletic as you'd want for this offense. Backup Nick Sheridan is better-suited athletically for the attack, but he can't pass. That opens the door for incoming freshman Justin Feagin. As a wild card, don't be shocked if running back Brandon Minor takes some snaps at quarterback on occasion as coaches search for a Pat White -type quarterback.
IT'S HIS TIME: Mario Manningham? Gone. Adrian Arrington? Gone. Now, junior Greg Mathews is poised to be the top receiver, though being a wide receiver at Michigan has lost some cachet in this offense. Still, Rodriguez says he is going to utilize the pass. Mathews, who snagged 39 passes last season as the No. 3 option, is poised to be the man. Getting pushed by standout incoming freshman Darryl Stonum should make Mathews better, too.
STRONGEST AREA: There is a nice collection of running backs with Minor, Kevin Grady and Carlos Brown. Grady is a bull who missed last season with a knee injury. Brown is a go-the-distance guy, while Minor is effective inside and outside. Incoming freshman Sam McGuffie also could play immediately. Rodriguez may use two tailbacks at the same time, so there should be plenty of work for these guys.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: The line is in shambles. Things were bad enough with three starters gone, including all-world left tackle Jake Long - who was the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft. But the issues grew larger when another returning starter – Justin Boren – left school in a huff in the spring and transferred to Ohio State. Boren departed Ann Arbor muttering about a lack of "family values." Whatever. Rodriguez and his staff are left trying to piece together a representative unit that must utilize its quickness in this scheme. Sophomore right tackle Stephen Schilling will be the cornerstone of a group that must develop quickly for the offense to have any hope for success. A modicum of good news: The four projected new starters are upperclassmen.
OVERVIEW: Rodriguez says he isn't going to ask his quarterback to do anything he's not capable of. It's the round-peg-in-a-square-hole philosophy. And he has run his spread option in the past with quarterbacks who weren't cut from a dynamic, athletic cloth. But everyone knows there's more giddy-up and glitz to this scheme when a quick signal-caller is running things. And that dimension looks as if it will be missing – unless a true freshman proves to be a revelation. Add a patchwork line to the uncertainty under center, and you have a prescription for an offense that appears destined to struggle.
THE SCHEME: This will be a 4-3 alignment that doesn't figure to have to blitz and stunt often, given the amount of talent and speed. But coordinator Scott Shafer will pick his spots to attack and bring pressure, even sending safeties and cornerbacks.
STAR POWER: It's all about cornerback Donovan Warren, who impressed as a freshman last season. This season, Warren looks to emerge as one of the nation's top shutdown corners. At 6 feet and 180 pounds, Warren has the size to support the run while matching up with big receivers. This guy could be special.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: It will be difficult for any newcomers to make much of an impact with this veteran unit. But a guy with a great opportunity is redshirt freshman end Ryan Van Bergen. He turned heads in the spring, catching the eye of coaches with a relentless work ethic. Van Bergen is the first guy to arrive at practice and a real student of the game. And Van Bergen can play any spot on the line, giving him a chance to crack a deep unit.
IT'S HIS TIME: Everyone in Ann Arbor is jacked about junior free safety Steve Brown. He endured a rocky 2007 but has shown signs he's ready to emerge as a playmaker from the back of the secondary. Brown has a great combination of size (6-0/209) and speed, and just needs to put it all together.
STRONGEST AREA: With three starters back, the line may be the best in the Big Ten. The anchor is tackle Terrance Taylor, who is a fireplug in the middle. Will Johnson is ready to emerge as a force next to Taylor inside. The end tandem of Brandon Graham and Tim Jamison may be fearsome; the duo combined for 14 sacks last season. The keys are keeping Jamison healthy and getting Graham to play hard every down.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: All eyes are on the linebackers. Obi Ezeh is back to start inside, but he'll be flanked by two new starters. If he can hold off a challenge from Marell Evans, Jonas Mouton is primed to break out on the weakside after an ankle injury ruined most of his 2007 season. Austin Panter has to show he's ready on the strongside after arriving from a junior college last season.
OVERVIEW: With seven starters back – including new strong safety Brandon Harrison, who started nine games at cornerback/nickelback last season – and loads of talent, defense will be the Wolverines' strong suit. At least it better be, because the unit likely will have to cover often for an offense that will be using training wheels most of the fall. The biggest fear: being on the field too often. And that could happen if the new offense sputters and endures a lot of three-and-outs.
The return jobs likely won't be sorted out until August, when a gaggle of athletic recruits comes to campus. At least the staff knows it has no worries in the kicking department. Zoltan Mesko may be one of the nation's top punters. Kicker K.C. Lopata is more steady than powerful, nailing 11 of 12 field-goal attempts in 2007. That should be enough to give him the edge over Bryan Wright, who has a stronger leg but lacks accuracy. Jason Gingell is back, too. He opened last season as the starter but faded.
No one will be more relieved finally to play a game than Rodriguez, who has been in the headlines all offseason since his messy departure from West Virginia. That's all history now. Rodriguez gets to unleash his innovative offense on the Big Ten. Rodriguez has proven to be one of the nation's brightest offensive minds, and he's also an underrated motivator. Offensive coordinator Calvin Magee followed Rodriguez to Ann Arbor. Magee is Rodriguez's right-hand man, a guy who knows how to teach and coach this offense. Magee is a head-coach-in-waiting. Rodriguez lured defensive coordinator Shafer from Stanford, where he coached just one year. Shafer – who coordinated Western Michigan's defense before going to Stanford – is a rising star who has earned a reputation for scheming. He may not have to draw up as many fancy Xs and Os now that he'll be playing with a deck loaded with talent.
Last year, Appalachian State shocked the world by dumping Michigan in Ann Arbor in the season-opener. This year, the Wolverines open the season at home vs. Utah. Uh-oh. That's right: Michigan could lose its opener for a second season in a row. While there isn't as much shame in losing to the Utes, it still would sting – and stink. If the Utah game isn't a cold glass of water in the face, the trip to revenge-minded Notre Dame could be in Game 3. And the Big Ten schedule opens with a rugged 1-2 punch: Wisconsin and Illinois. At least both are at home. After that, there are only two truly scary games: at Penn State and at Ohio State. If you're keeping track at home – and I know you are – the Wolverines are 1-6 vs. Jim Tressel and have lost the past three in Columbus.
The nation won't be able to take its eyes off this experiment, which features one of the nation's hottest and best coaches changing the culture at one of the nation's most storied and stuffiest programs. It's great theatre. Michigan has posted 40 consecutive winning seasons and been to a bowl 33 years in a row, current streaks no school can match. Those streaks should continue. But expect some rocky stretches that will result in a trip to a middling bowl. But be patient, Big Blue fans: Better days are ahead for Rodriguez.
Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.