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Early Spring Football Preview: Michigan Wolverines

Our extraordinarily early look at the 2006 football season continues with some expert commentary from two of the finest Michigan bloggers around. Two of the best bloggers around on any topic, really. Brian from MGoBlog and Joey from Schembechler Hall (as well as Straight Bangin) join us to break down Lloyd Carr, Chad Henne, Mike Hart, and the 2006 Wolverines. If you're not reading these guys regularly anyway, shame on you, and here's your introduction. Special thanks to Brian and Joey for their thoughts.

(Because they were both so thorough and thoughtful, you'll need to click through the Read More link to see the interviews in their entirety.)

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

Brian: He's a B+ coach with a tendency to drive one crazy with his stubborn refusal to learn about probability and stuff. You can argue all you want about the inherent advantages of coaching at Michigan, but the man's won-loss record is amongst the best in the country. It overstates his proficiency because he didn't have those three years a Frank Beamer did when VaTech was going around impersonating Rutgers, but it's also not an accident. I think a major reason Carr is generally disdained is because he's boringly gone 9-3, 9-3, 9-3 all these years instead of a Tressell pattern where he's alternated garbage with gold. Up until last year you couldn't chose between the two save on head-to-head.

He's not great, but people who don't do anything more than skim the surface -- CFN, I'm looking at you -- just  go "boring" and move on. He deserves better than that, unless he goes 7-5 again in which case he deserves to be dumped in Iraq wearing a sign that says "Interested In Turning Your Women Into Harlots? ASK ME."

[Editor's Note, by HornsFan] (The one-liner of the year contest is now officially closed. We have a winner!)

Joey: 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.

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

Brian We never really know, since Carr keeps practices on lockdown. The most terrifying position battle is taking place at right tackle. Incumbent Jake Long was flipped over to the left side and presumptive starter Mike Kolodziej has apparently not impressed. A motley crew of redshirt freshmen and converted guards are now vying for the job. The front-runner appears to be the converted guard, Rueben Riley, who was the third-string RT a year ago and did not perform particularly well when pressed into service, except against probable first-round pick Tamba Hali -- go figure.

...but in terms of a "story" it has to be the proverbial new attitude on defense. Longtime defensive coordinator/whipping boy Jim Herrmann shuffled off to the Jets; in his place is defensive backs coach Ron English, who is reputed to favor a defensive philosophy diametrically opposed to the soft zone Michigan featured almost exclusively last year. Observant Michigan fans will be scanning the cushions given by Michigan corners during the spring and into the fall, hoping that sophomore lightning bolt Tim Jamison wins the open DE battle over plodding seniors Rondell Biggs and Jeremy Van Alstyne, and reading way too much into our performances against Vandy and whatever MAC team we've got lined up to sacrifice.

Joey: 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.

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?

Brian Chad Henne could be awesome. One doesn't wander into Michigan from high school and start without major potential (and good fortune). Unfortunately, he wasn't last year despite fairly impressive numbers. He was too inaccurate, too inconsistent, to willing to let pressure get to his head. I think we all got a little too excited about his freshman year performance, but not because of Braylon Edwards. It was the offensive line that gave Henne oodles of time to throw -- pay scant attention to the sack numbers, as a large proportion of those were inflicted on Henne by himself -- and prevented him from having to make decisions as quickly as you expect a big time college quarterback to do. That's a limitation he has to overcome; he also has to get more accurate.

Will he do it? I have no idea. All the rumblings out of spring practice are downright effusive, but they were last year. We'll find out against Notre Dame and no sooner.

Joey: 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 throwing 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.

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

Brian I'll take a leap back to his freshman year performance, which had Michigan fans feeling faint and eyeing Adrian Peterson like he was, in fact, not no thing. I mean, the guy had almost 1,700 total yards despite hardly playing the first two games because he was this tiny freshman from upstate New York.

And it's not like Hart really took a step back last year on his own account. While Henne's problems were mostly of his own making, Hart was betrayed by his ankle. That nasty, stupid joint kept Hart on the sideline for most of the year and severely reduced his effectiveness when he managed to stay in the games. When he was healthy, which was for only two games against non-tomato cans, he excelled, cracking 200 yards against Michigan State and going for 120+ against Penn State -- one of the best defenses in the country. If I can crib from another Michigan blog, IBFC lifted a particular highlight that illuminates Mike Hart exceedingly well. It's here. I'll wait. No... I'll watch it. Goddamn that's some Big Ten football.

Right, so that was an eight yard run, but it was a hell of an eight yard run. And the thing about Hart is that he does that all the time! Not to that extent, but he's some sort of freaky genius when it comes to eking out every inch he can given the fact that he's pretty small and pretty slow. If he's healthy, he'll do more of that. He's already at maximum effectiveness. The only thing that can hold him back is (more) crappy blocking.

Joey: 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.

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

Brian Aw, hell, I don't know. On the one hand, Michigan looks like it's floundering -- 7-5, dismal recent records against OSU and ND -- but on the other they'd be the least surprising "surprise" team of the past ten years if they were to turn it around and start throttling fools. Michigan's down inconsistently dominant DT Gabe Watson, possession receiver par excellence Jason Avant, and no one else I'll miss even a little bit. That's two(!) important starters. Plus they get back Mike Hart and Jake Long. All told, even if you did not take into account the year-to-year improvement that keeps college football from devolving into Pop Warner, I like Michigan's talent level as it stands now better than it did last year.

There's just too many variables to make any kind of prediction: Henne's performance, the new defensive philosophy, the offensive line situation. Michigan could win the Big Ten with the talent they have, and it seems as likely an outcome as any other, so I'll just predict what makes me happy: 1st, beat Ohio State 45-2, in the BCS. No doubt that's the opposite of Joey's stance.

Joey: 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.