Monday, July 4, 2011

Will 2011 Be Michigan's Comeback Year?

There's plenty of reason for optimism regarding Michigan football this upcoming season, but some Michigan fans are still skeptical. The Wolverines look to snap the losing streaks against their two most hated rivals: one, against the Ohio State Buckeyes, for seven years which has been far too long, and the second, against the Michigan State Spartans, for three years which is unacceptable. However, fans tend to attribute the losses against MSU more to Rich Rodriguez than anything else, since he slipped up in-state recruiting and it is highly doubtful Lloyd Carr's Wolverines would have suffered the same set of losses.

Rodriguez's frequent losses in "red-letter games," as athletic director Dave Brandon called them, ultimately resulted in his firing, as he posted a 15-22 record, and failing to defeat anyone worthwhile in the Big Ten. (The victory in 2008 against Wisconsin, when the Wolverines finished 3-9, is a notable exception.) Brandon went out and found a "Michigan Man," someone who understood the traditions vastly better than Rodriguez seemingly ever could. That Michigan Man is Brady Hoke who, despite plenty of jokes, jabs, and skepticism from certain Michigan blogs, might actually be a good football coach.

Even for the most skeptical Michigan fan, however, it is difficult to say that Hoke is doing a bad job. On his first day, Hoke showed his passion for Michigan with his first press conference. "We're going to have a pride in who we are," he said. "Everyone who's going to touch this program and deal with these kids is going to have a fanatical love for the University of Michigan or they won't work in the football office, I can tell you that."

What's interesting is that Hoke's speech seems both improvised and rehearsed. Whether he knew exactly what to say can be debated. It is possible that Hoke's passion for Michigan was so intense that he had been preparing for that day (when he would give his first speech) for the greater part of his life. It is also possible that Hoke simply said what he felt and said it honestly, without having to rehearse. It could be fun for him, perhaps, to just talk about Michigan. This is in large part why Hoke has convinced so many Michigan fans that he is the right man for the job, because he has connected with them, because he showed them why he loves Michigan, when Rodriguez could not and did not. That's what you get when you hire a Michigan Man.

Then he went to work. Despite the uncertainty that comes with a coaching tradition, he managed to salvage Michigan's 2011 recruiting class and lined up Matt Wile, an incoming kicker, who is most certainly needed as Michigan's kicking game in 2010 was atrocious. Probably Hoke's biggest and best move as Michigan's new head coach was hiring Greg Mattison as the defensive coordinator. Mattison had previously coached Michigan's defense from 1995-1996 and was defensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens when Hoke called. Michigan's defense was perhaps its worst ever during Rodriguez's tenure, and Hoke's hiring of Mattison seemed to put a lot of uneasy fans at ease, and some are starting to give him a little credit.

Hoke continued to do well in recruiting and brought back the focus to the Midwestern states of Michigan and Ohio, each ripe with talent and considered pipeline states for U-M. In bringing back that focus, Hoke and his recruiting staff have landed several big-time commitments for the classes of 2012 and 2013, and has even managed to steal some recruits away from Michigan State's Mark Dantonio (who dominated the state of Michigan during the Rodriguez years) and Ohio State (whose coach, Jim Tressel, recently resigned because of NCAA rule violations). Among those noteworthy commits from the state of Michigan were defensive end Mario Ojemudia and tight end Devin Funchess, both from Farmington Hills Harrison, which is believed to be a "Spartan stronghold." Hoke's staff also landed James Ross from Orchard Lake St. Mary's Preparatory, another target of Dantonio's recruiting staff and, with his commitment to U-M, was another disappointment for Michigan State fans.

On the field, Michigan's 2011 spring game left plenty to be desired. The offense wasn't nearly as explosive as it had been a year previously, and perhaps that's a good thing. Perhaps the offense had been destroying the defense last year not because the offense was good but because the defense was just that bad. Many suspect that Rodriguez focused exclusively on offense and left the defense to be merely the offense's "sparring partner." However, in spring 2011, Hoke and Mattison were hard at work bringing the defense back to Michigan's standards (i.e. tough as a brick wall), and for the most part the defense dominated. It only gave up one really big play, when running back Mike Cox burst past the D-line and ran for a touchdown. These are all players from Rodriguez's time, and the difference in terms of success will likely be how well Hoke and his staff are able to coach the players, since he did not recruit them. We can never really know if the defense has substantially improved until the Wolverines begin their season in the fall.

Michigan certainly looks poised to do well. Its chief rival, Ohio State, will have to deal with the burden of NCAA sanctions for the mistakes of Jim Tressel, Terrelle Pryor, and a host of other Buckeyes. At least for 2012, Michigan State's recruiting has fallen behind Michigan's. All the signs are there for a Michigan football revival, which is exactly what the program needs. The years of losses under Rodriguez may have been well received by Michigan's rivals, but to the Wolverine faithful such a breakdown was unbearable. However, with Michigan going back to its roots, things are starting to look, sound, and feel like Michigan again, and that could mean great success in the making. Brian Christopherson, a writer for the Nebraska Cornhuskers, believes that Michigan's difficulties reflect in many ways those had by Nebraska in 2007, and since Nebraska pulled out of it, Michigan will too. "Such pitfalls are normally short-lived for the elite programs, especially if you find the right guy with the right vision," said Chistopherson. "Nebraska has cleaned off the muck of 2007 since Bo Pelini's arrival. And don't expect the Wolverines to be stuck in the middling pack long, either."

Because Rich Rodriguez ran the spread offense so extensively, there might be a fear in the Michigan fanbase that Denard Robinson, recruited by Rodriguez out of Florida and seemingly molded to fit the spread, might not fit with the pro-style offense that Hoke's offensive coordinator, Al Borges, is planning to coach. Robinson excited the Michigan fanbase because of his amazing abilities to run, as evidenced by the 2010 games against Connecticut and Notre Dame, where his speed was seemingly impossible to defend. (By the time Michigan reached the Big Ten conference part of their schedule, Robinson's running became less and less effective.) Such a use of his talent (i.e. a quarterback who runs) fits well in the spread because he is considered a dual-threat quarterback, and with so many options available the opposing defense cannot possibly cover all of it. However, Michigan's pro-style offense was effective with Anthony Thomas, Tom Brady, Chad Henne, and Mike Hart during their days on the team, and it stands to reason that it could be effective here too. After all, Robinson is not completely foreign to this type of offense; he did run some of it in high school.

Borges has said that Robinson's place in the offense will not be a square peg in a round hole. Despite saying that Robinson will move to under center (he spent most of his time in the shotgun for the spread), Borges also said that the offense will be fitted to Robinson's ability, under center or in the shotgun, and his running ability will still be utilized. "We're still going to have that stuff," Borges told reporters after the spring game. "I've been saying that all along. I think everybody when I came here was under the impression that we were going to line up under center for every play, but I haven't done that in years. And we will continue to keep and do some of the things that [Robinson] is good at, just adding our power game to it."

The main focus on Robinson: adding structure. The pro-style offense should bring enough of that, and should Robinson develop substantially as a passer, he will have more to rely on than his running, which also should mean that he'll be at less risk for injury. For right now, Borges and his offensive staff are assessing and re-assessing. They understand that they have to do it right in this first year, but they're still confident that Robinson is a talented enough quarterback to be successful and effective. All he needs to do is develop that ability. "Once he gets it down where he's comfortable, I think you'll see a pretty good quarterback," Borges added. "And we'll make it work for him. It's not going to be the stuff we like; it's going to be the stuff he can do."

Robinson himself isn't opposed to less injury or a heavier passing game. "I like throwing touchdowns, I'm not going to lie to you," he said. "I think I like throwing touchdowns more than me scoring." Of all the Michigan players, Robinson has been the most electrifying factor in the offense. He was a front-runner for the Heisman early on in 2010 and put up 329.9 yards per game of total offense. Now his focus will be shifted to passing more than running, but running will still be used, which could make for an interesting (if not exciting) season.

2010 was supposed to be the year that everything turned around. It was supposed to be the year that Rodriguez's system, with the players he recruited, was fully in place and the Big Ten would suffer the consequences of tangling with an explosive offense. Instead, Rodriguez and Michigan went a measly 7-5 that year, with humiliating losses to both rivals, and an utter blowout by Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl, after the Wolverines took a month to prepare. Rodriguez supporters argued and continue to argue that the man was never given enough of a chance, but to the rest of the Michigan faithful, three years was enough. No improvement before the bowl game alone was unacceptable.

There's a lot of the same skepticism and dread when it comes to Hoke, who does not have the same successful pedigree that Rodriguez did. Hoke's actions, however, have been the difference and may continue to be the difference. All he has to do now is prove himself on the field. He has won over several Michigan fans, called the alumni back home, and convinced high school kids to go to Michigan. It's practically impossible to say that Brady Hoke has not met the expectations that any Michigan fan could have. Rodriguez did not meet those expectations, and those who supported him often found themselves alone and against the masses, with little to use as ammunition other than "wait, it'll get better." The effect of Brady Hoke is already so much more tangible.

The comeback that Michigan should have had in 2010 may very well come this year. It's starting to look that way. At the very least, Hoke should have a decent year, and 2012 will be the one (since his recruits on defense will be coming in) that sees a huge, legitimate effect. He turned around San Diego State in two years. He already has the talent at Michigan, and throes of defensive players coming in next year, so perhaps it's time to get excited now.

Hoke has clocks in the locker room counting down to the games against Michigan State and Ohio State. The players will be watching them every day. Maybe we should too.

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