Sunday, August 19, 2012

2012 Seniors Must Make the Most Out of Their Final Season

It's an age old story. We hear it over and over again. Though this time, it somehow feels different.

That's because it is. Expectations are high. Brady Hoke will tell you they always have been, but let's be realistic. No one outside of the Michigan coaching staff expected the Wolverines to go 11-2 and win the Sugar Bowl, not after the epic failure of the Rich Rodriguez years where the Maize and Blue won 3, 5, and 7 games in three years, respectively, and then proceeded to be blown out 52-14 by Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl. No, for most of the Michigan faithful, expectations were pretty low: just improve the defense, don't implode as a program (again), and hopefully beat the rivals.

The seniors during those years each faced the same story. In 2009 and 2010 it was really all the seniors talked about. They wanted to be the ones who made a difference. They would leave Michigan disappointed and, in many cases, forgotten. (It wasn't their fault; they were the victims of an inept coaching staff.)

Then the 2011 seniors of David Molk, Junior Hemingway, Ryan Van Bergen, Kevin Koger, and Mike Martin did what all those previous seniors had always wanted to do. Their season was the difference. They bought in to Brady Hoke's staff, who are legitimately good coaches, and they worked hard, keeping the team together when it could easily have broken apart. Thus the ending to their careers is vastly different from previous seniors' of the three years prior. With the help of Michigan's coaches, they made the most of their final season.

That's the task set before Michigan's seniors in 2012, a.k.a. Team 133. Can the seniors step up the way Molk and the others did in 2011? It's a question that will determine the fate of the season, the perception of Michigan going forward, and how these seniors look back on their careers as Michigan Men.

Seniors anchor the positions of need this year. On the offensive line, Ricky Barnum has moved from guard to center in an attempt to fill the gap left by Rimmington Award winner David Molk. Barnum hasn't played the position since high school, but he did take reps with Denard Robinson in 2009 when the two were further down on the depth chart. Understandably, his lack of experience gives some Michigan fans pause.

However, the 2012 Michigan football preview issue of The Wolverine is not too worried. In an interview with Kurt Anderson, who also served as Michigan's center for one year, The Wolverine discovered that Michigan had a history of similar movements from guard to center, including David Moosman in 2009, David Baas in 2004, and Zach Adami in 1997 (the year Michigan won a national championship under Lloyd Carr), all of which played guard for the majority of their careers and spent their last year at center. So the switch is not that uncommon.

"I spent three years playing left guard and backing up Steve Hutchinson," Anderson told The Wolverine in the interview concerning Barnum's switch to center. "My transition didn't happen until spring ball [of his last year]. I was playing left guard, and we were having issues. Coach Terry Malone, our O-line coach, was having issues with getting the snaps up. I was ticked off that it was ruining the flow of practice ... I said, 'Well, hell, let me do it.' It went from there. I took all the snaps with the ones after that."

For what it's worth, Ricky Barnum says he feels comfortable at the position, and that he and Denard Robinson "have been snapping since [their] freshman years together." And anyone who watched Michigan's performance in the spring game could see that he was a good fit. "Ricky has got a natural skill set for center," offensive line coach Darrell Funk told John Borton of The Wolverine. "He played quite a bit in practice last year. Every day, I have five centers start practice with quarterbacks, doing exchange. Ricky took 1,000 snaps last year, the gun snaps and all that. I don't worry about that part."

Barnum anchors the offensive line along with fifth-year senior guards Patrick Omameh (a part-time starter) and Elliot Mealer, a career backup. How they perform this year will have a large part on Michigan's offensive success. Mealer personally hopes that his consistency means he will be a key part of the offensive line as a reliable starter. "Coach [Darrell] Funk focuses on consistency in his starters," Mealer said in the Michigan athletic department's Countdown to Kickoff series. "It has to be 'We can trust Elliot, he's doing his job, he does it all the time, we can trust to put him in there.'"

On the other side of the ball, there are huge question marks following the graduations of starters Ryan Van Bergen, Will Heininger, and Mike Martin on the defensive line. Replacing them will be Jibreel Black (who served as backup for both Martin and Van Bergen), Will Campbell, and Craig Roh. Roh and Campbell are both seniors, fully aware that this is their last chance to make a real impact. Roh switched positions from weakside defensive end to outside linebacker back to weakside defensive end, and has bulked up in preparation for assuming the role of strongside defensive end, the position held by Ryan Van Bergen in 2011.

There's no easy to way to cut it about Will Campbell, however. A five-star defensive tackle coming out of high school from Detriot, MI, Campbell has largely failed to live up to his potential, and everyone knows it. Under Rich Rodriguez he was moved to offensive line where he naturally struggled, but fortunately Hoke had the foresight to move him back to the defensive line where he belongs. Campbell has a nasty streak to him that rivals Mike Martin's, but some believe that he hasn't lived up to his potential because the five-star status and courtship from major college football programs (obviously including Michigan) made him feel entitled. Unless he wants to be remembered as Michigan's biggest bust of a recruit in the last ten years, and if he wants any shot at the NFL, he'll have to be productive in the way he's never been.

Then, of course, there is the spotlight under center. Quarterback Denard Robinson wowed the Michigan fan base with his spectacular play-making ability in his first collegiate snap against Western Michigan, where his first impromptu scramble went all the way for a touchdown. Then when he took the job from presumed starter Tate Forcier, Denard lit up the college football world in games against Connecticut and Notre Dame, where he shattered school and NCAA records for most yards rushed in a game by a quarterback, and at the end of 2010 he was the first quarterback in NCAA history to rush and pass for over 1,000 yards each.

So why exactly hasn't Denard won the Heisman yet? Well, some think that it has a lot to do with the fact that Michigan simply didn't win enough in 2010. They were very good offensively, at least against terrible teams, but their defense and special teams were so bad that overall the Wolverines looked barely mediocre. These days most Heisman-winners don't come from 7-6 teams.

Denard's interception rate has largely held him back too. He was the only quarterback in the nation to throw 15 interceptions with fewer than 260 attempts. By contrast, Heisman trophy-winner Robert Griffin III threw only 6 interceptions in 2011 out of 409 attempts.

Fortunately for Denard, he's being coached by an offensive coordinator (Al Borges) who has a history of quarterbacks that took huge steps forward in their second years under his tutelage. Examples of this include Ryan Lindley at San Diego State, Jason Campbell at Auburn, and Cade McNown at UCLA. They all blossomed under Borges's coaching, and with each of them, the most important change was the lack of interceptions. Like them, Denard will have his eye on the pros if he can mature into a complete quarterback.

The seniors of 2011 faced great adversity over the course of their tenures--from Lloyd Carr's retirement to Rich Rodriguez's termination. The expectation when Brady Hoke came in, though he may have told them otherwise, was not steep, considering where the program had been. It's a little different for the seniors of 2012, who are a part of a unit that is one of the most deep, talented, and experienced in the Big Ten.

Earlier this year, Hoke hoped that by taking the seniors to a Navy SEAL three-day training camp, it would help them develop the leadership abilities that the previous seniors had, and ultimately help them reach their potential. Admittedly, after the great success of the 2011 season, the seniors have a lot of expectations weighing down on them, but they have the experience and the support needed to meet those expectations.

"You maximize the time you spend here," senior defensive end Craig Roh said in Countdown to Kickoff, when asked about how he feels about his final year at Michigan. "This is my last period of my fifth practice. This is my last first full-padded day of practice. It's something that you just look at the opportunities and you [say] I have to take full advantage of every opportunity that I have, from here on out."

"This is Michigan," senior center Ricky Barnum added, echoing Brady Hoke's trademark phrase. "One man drops the rifle, another man picks it up and keeps marching."

If they can do that, they should be able to maintain the level of success Michigan had in 2011, and carve out legacies for themselves along the way.

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