Filling In The Blanks
Preseason Countdown ---- Number 3
"Hail to the Victors" is one of the most famous fight songs in college football. The familiar refrain can be heard bellowing through the stands of Michigan Stadium on crisp autumn afternoons. This season "Hail to the Victors" might be heard well into January, as the Michigan Wolverines, loaded on offense, make a run at a conference and national title.
Michigan ended the 2006 season with losses to Ohio State and USC, stumbling to an 11-2 record. The Wolverines have had a tough time beating Ohio State and winning bowl games in recent years. In fact the seniors on the team are a combined 0-6 versus Ohio State and in bowl games. This is a trend that Michigan hopes to change this season and they just might have the personnel to just do that.
The men from Ann Arbor are stacked on offense. The backfield features a pair of three-year starters and preseason All-American candidates in quarterback Chad Henne and tailback Mike Hart and the offensive line returns four starters, including another three-year starter in All-American left tackle Jake Long.
Henne is one of the top quarterbacks in the nation and should break all of the Michigan passing records by the time he leaves Ann Arbor. Last year Henne completed 61.9% of his passes for 2,508 yards and 22 touchdowns, while throwing only eight interceptions.
There is no reason to believe those numbers will shrink in 2007, with preseason All-American candidate Mario Manningham and junior Adrian Arrington providing reliable and dangerous targets from their wide receiving positions. Manningham, despite missing several games with a knee injury in 2006, caught 38 passes for 703 yards and nine touchdowns. He has blazing speed and is a true home run threat that opposing defenses must account for. On the other side, Arrington, at 6-3, 200 pounds, provides Henne with a reliable option should Manningham receive double coverage. Arrington caught 40 passes for 544 yards in his first year as starter and gained the confidence and experience that should give the Wolverines one of the best wide receiving tandems in the Big Ten. Greg Matthews, a sophomore, and Toney Clemons, a true freshman, will provide the depth.
Making Henne's job easier is tailback Mike Hart. Hart, after suffering through an injury-plagued sophomore season, was back in form last year, rushing for 1,562 yards and 14 touchdowns. Hart will not scare you with his speed, but he is as tough and reliable as they come. He is a complete back, that can run, pick up the blitz, catch the ball out of the backfield and rarely turns it over. He, too, is likely to break all of the Michigan rushing records by the time he leaves. Hart was recently named a team captain and is one of the vocal leaders of the team.
The offensive line should be among the best in all of the land, providing solid protection for Henne and running lanes for Hart to exploit. The line will be anchored by the 6-7, 313 pound, Long. Long would have likely been a top 10 pick in last year's NFL Draft, but decided to return for his senior season in hopes of winning a Big Ten and national title. He will be joined on the offensive line by senior preseason All-Big Ten guard and two-year starter Adam Kraus, sophomore center Justin Boren, senior right guard Alex Mitchell and redshirt freshman right tackle Steve Schilling.
Michigan's defense was the best in the nation against the run last season, but returns only five starters. Anchoring the defensive front is junior nose tackle Terrance Taylor and junior defensive end Tim Jamison, but the Wolverines must replace second team All-American Alan Branch and Lombardi Award Winner Lamar Woodley. Filling those big shoes will be junior defensive tackle Will Johnson and sophomore defensive end Brandon Graham. Graham saw a lot of action as a true freshman last year and is a talented defender with a very high ceiling. Johnson isn't flashy, but is solid against the run and should make the middle of the Michigan defense formidable once again. There is quality depth along the line, too, which should be one of the strengths of the Wolverine defense.
Shawn Crable, who recorded 37 tackles, broke up three passes, made 10.5 tackles for a loss and sacked the quarterback 4.5 times a year ago is the only starting linebacker on the roster. Gone are NFL draft picks David Harris and Prescott Burgess. Harris led the team with 103 tackles in 2006, while Burgess was in on 50 tackles. Harris was a second-round draft choice of the New York Jets and Burgess was drafted by Baltimore in the sixth round. Replacing the two will be Chris Grahm, a senior and junior John Thompson. Grahm has extensive experience and had five starts in 2005, while Thompson led the team in tackles in his only start two years ago. They will have to hold off two talented redshirt freshmen in Jonas Mouton and Obi Ezeh, both of whom are making positive impressions and should provide quality depth to the linebacking corps.
The secondary lost first round draft choice Leon Hall, but returns junior corner Morgan Trent and senior safeties Brandent Englemon and Jamar Adams, a second team All-Big Ten selection. Though the secondary was torched in the losses to Ohio State and USC, they have experience and talented youth that Michigan is counting on to improve their pass defense. Englemon has been passed on the depth chart by talented sophomore Steve Brown, while sophomore Johnny Sears and true freshman Donovan Warren battle for the starting corner opposite Trent.
Michigan lost four-year starting place kicker Garrett Rivas, but returns punter Zoltan Mesko who averaged 41.6 yards per punt a year ago. Also lost was Steve Breaston, one of the premier kick return specialists in the nation. Michigan might miss Rivas and Breaston, but will likely be solid, if not spectacular, on special teams in 2007.
The Wolverines have to prove they can replace the talent lost on defense, shore up the kicking game, survive a tough September schedule that sees Oregon, Notre Dame and Penn State visiting the "Big House," and also a tough November that includes a road game in Wisconsin and the annual battle with Ohio State. Those are some big "ifs," but Michigan certainly has the talent, especially on the offensive side of the ball, to not only battle for the Big Ten title but a national championship as well.