Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Season Preview, part 3 - The Defense and Special Teams

Holy crap, it's been a week already! Sheesh, what kind of "blogger" am I? Not much of one, apparently, but then again I already knew that. I shower, I hold a real job, I have children and semi-regular nookie...that puts me in the top 1%. Ha! I kid because I love.

Anyway, the defense.

Defensive Line:

Yes, we lost some fabulous players. Alan Branch did his best Warren Sapp impersonation, tying up two or three linemen per play and disrupting entire offenses. Lamarr Woodley finally fulfilled his promise, rattling / dismembering quarterbacks constantly and giving a soft secondary blessedly little time to have to cover. They will be missed. A LOT.

But this is not a dire situation, at least up front. Terrance Taylor gave every indication that he will be as good as Branch - he's not as tall, but he's SPECTACULARLY strong, quick-footed and uses his hands very well. And come on - he's still over 300 pounds. He's not the Ticonderoga-class tackle in vogue in the NFL, but he's a tremendous talent. Another potential All-American. The other tackle is Will Johnson, who has drawn copious praise from the coaching staff and was on the field for some key plays last season, but has had little in the way of highlights. A solid player, but not a star.

At end, however, Tim Jamison IS a star-in-the-making. When healthy (the big bugaboo), he's big, strong, fast, and has a nice knack for getting to the quarterback. Pencil him in as All-Big Ten. Brandon Graham is presumably in the same mold - very highly regarded coming in, he used his redshirt season (aaargh, redshirt burned, aaargh) in spot duty but showed flashes. He's still raw, but (again) immensely talented - figure flashes of brilliance alternated with out-of-position aaargh-ness early in the season but competence later.

Depth is a serious concern - at tackle, there's Marques Slocum, finally in the fold after solving academic issues...he was as OMG Shirtless as anyone coming in but hasn't played in a while. He's a total wildcard - could be a huge star or a huge bust. There are also a couple of midlevel backups and Renaldo Sagesse, an Alain Kashama type. At end, there's huge recruit Adam Patterson (aaarg, redshirt burned, aaargh) and Greg Banks, who has improved enough to merit the Wolverine's "don't forget about this guy, although we probably will" feature in this season's glossy preview issue. Ryan VanBergen will be very good, but probably not yet.

Bottom line - there's a lot of frontline talent, but a major injury to a starter could be disastrous. Or not - backup talent is very good, but it's generally unproven.


A mixed bag.

Crable is fun to watch, yes, and it's been a pleasure to watch him a) mature and b) prove Lemming wrong (Lemming, you may recall, called Crable vastly overrated, or something to that effect). He's an incredible specimen, capable of making eye-popping plays when he's allowed to freelance. Ah, but there's the rub. When accompanied by David Harris / Alan Branch et al, his run-game responsibilities were limited, and his sheer athleticism helped him make lots of 'wow' plays rushing the passer. Other than that...well, he was good but not great. Perhaps he'll respond to his additional workload this year and become a more complete player. A terrific player, and critical to this season, but he's not capable of putting the defense on his back, a la Woodley / Branch / Hall / Harris.

On the other side, Chris Graham is...well, less solid. He was utterly outmanned when thrust into duty in 2005, and didn't seem to see the field much last season. This is the scariest spot on the field for this team (kicker excluded), and the backups don't offer much hope. Not yet, anyway - Jonas Mouton switched here from safety and may eventually be good, but significant playing / starting time would be more of an indication of Graham's ineptitude than Mouton's good play.

In the middle, I'm less worried than most - part of that is the presence of Obi Ezeh, a hometown favorite of mine. Ezeh was a dominating player at Grand Rapids Catholic, and only lousy coaching kept him from winning state championships and getting more publicity on the east side of the state. I described him the exact same way as I described David Harris (also a Grand Rapids product) coming out of high school - "that guy is just a Football Player." Perhaps I'm reading too much into the similarities with Harris (who after all was a great, great player but not immediately) - Grand Rapids kid, not a huge recruit, tough, strong, a man among boys in high school - but I don't think so. He's going to be a STAR.

And he's not necessarily the starter - John Thompson is a Detoit version of Harris. A middling recruit, tougher than hell, a huge hitter, not a great pass defender. Thompson is apparently the leader, but expect Ezeh to see the field a lot early. Austin Panter is the third man in the mix, a JUCO stud who got rave reviews early but has not stayed with the frontrunners. Again, if he's playing it will be because of injuries or failures by both Thompson and Ezeh unless he makes a huge leap, and soon.

In sum - put me down for very confident in the middle, confident but guarded at rush linebacker, and terrified at the weakside.


Ah, yes, the secondary. The usual source of pain. The reason we're never comfortable with a 14-point lead. The...Chuck Winters! Todd Howard! aaaack!

First of all, I'm a homer. I'm always (ALWAYS!) optimistic and probably over-confident. But...well, I'm worried about a couple things this year, and the secondary is one of them, but I'm not terrified. Does that make me a pollyanna? Probably.

At the safeties: Jamar Adams is fine, a good but not great player who doesn't kill us. I have no idea how he got on the Thorpe watch list (I guess it must be a down year for DB's), as he's simply not an elite player, but he's not usually out of position, makes plays in pass coverage and is a sure tackler. I don't brag about him as I would about, say, Sean Taylor, but I don't see the back of his jersey in my nightmares, either (Chuck Winters! Aaaack!)

At the other spot, Stevie Brown has apparently won the job over Charles Stewart. I seem to recall Brown being brutal in the Ball State game last season, but he's gotten great props from the coaching staff thus far and should be a HUGE improvement over functional DNP Ryan Mundy, who took his terrible angles, poor tackling, and 'oh my god is he OPEN's to West Virginia (see you, Ryan! good luck!). He was a five-star recruit, ostensibly lightning fast and a big hitter. Stewart is perfectly suited to the dime back role - a converted cornerback with some experience.

At the corners...

Wait...deep breaths...

At the be honest, I'm not as worried as some people are (how many times have I said that here?). But let's be honest here - Morgan Trent struggled at times last year, especially against OSU and USC. I think there are reasons for this. First, and most obviously, he's still learning the position after converting from wide receiver. Secondly, the presence of Leon Hall on the other side necessarily forced teams to go his way. This is something of a specious, chicken / egg argument (I mean come on - USC picked on him because they COULD, not because they had to), but if you were an offensive coordinator, where would you throw? I'm thinking toward Trent and away from Leon Hall. Duh. When teams were serious about it, they hurt us.

But - and this is just a combination of gut feeling and wishful thinking - I think the guy is ready to make the leap. He's big, he's fast, he hits, he's smart, and has a knack for being around the ball. He's never going to make the NFL - he's just too mechanical and lacks any real ability to break on the ball - but I think he'll be much better this season.

At the other corner, Johnny Sears - he of the helpless waving during the Ball State game - will start, but expect to see Donovan Warren starting by midseason. Warren was an uber-recruit, supposedly the most polished corner in the country, and has apparently lived up to the hype in camp. The comparisons to Woodson / Jackson / Hall are obvious, but perhaps overly done - Woodson was an immediate star, yes, but Jackson and Hall were merely serviceable as freshman - they turned out to be great, but they could have just as easily become Marion Body. I overstate...I think Warren is a future All-American, but to expect him to make a huge impact right out of camp is probably expecting too much. Late in the year, perhaps, but maybe not before then. When that happens, Sears may become the perfect nickel. For his part, Sears will probably be okay until Warren takes over - he was also a highly-regarded recruit and another year of experience will probably help a lot. He wasn't ready last season, however.


Zoltan has given every indication that he's the real deal and is the one special team spot with no worries whatsoever. He appears to be fairly consistent and is capable of the occasional 70-yarder.


Yikes. Bryan Wright supposedly has a strong leg, but extra points and field goals might be scary. Who the hell knows?


Lloyd has talked of "dependable" and "consistent" being his greatest desire here, which is a huge comedown from the Steve Breaston years of "explosive" and "exciting." This will probably be the biggest dropoff from 2006 - early talk of Greg Matthews taking over brought back memories of...yes, Chuck Winters (and Charles Woodson - who despite the big return vs. Ohio State was simply not very productive as a returner), but Johnny Sears has apparently won the punt return job and Brandon Minor the kick return job. Both are very fast but unproven - I expect middle-of-the-pack production, which will probably be okay with this offense.


Not as good as 2006, but not as bad as 2005 or 2000, either. There's a lot (a LOT) of talent here, but much of it's young and often unproven. The difference between those seasons and this one will be the presence of Ron English, who in 2006 showed a willingness to release the hounds and not handcuff his players. Expect some mistakes, but also expect some big plays and nearly-constant improvement throughout the season - it would be as surprise if we slipped to the lower half of the Big Ten

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Season Preview, part 2 - Offensive Line

I've held off on writing this portion of the preview for one simple reason...I don't know that I have any real insight or perspective to add. I know, I know - the offensive line is absolutely critical to any offense, particularly in the case of a team that likes to run the ball. That's absolutely true and (probably) provable in any number of ways...but most of those ways involve the breaking down of film, Ron Jaworski style, and I just ain't gonna do it. I make a point to watch the line during a game, but I'm not rabid about it, and it certainly doesn't extend to the level of watching each player on each play. It's more of a general sense and the occasional "wow, Jake Long really buried the end on that one" comment, or being able to tell when and how a play really gets blown up by a missed block.

With all of that said, I can read the previews and coach comments as well as anyone else, so here goes. Once again using my patented Sesame Street Terror Alert Scale:

Left Tackle - Jake Long

Obviously, I'm not adding anything new here - he's the best player on the team, perhaps in the Big Ten. I'm already missing him.

Left Guard - Adam Kraus

Also a terrific player, but a notch below his partner on the left side.

Center - Justin Boren

I think that if you graphed my level of worry / confidence level across the line from left to right you'd get a straight line. Long is the high point, Kraus a little bit lower, Boren a little bit lower, and...we'll get to the other two. None of which is a knock on Boren, of course. That he played and started (albeit as an injury replacement) as a true freshman at Michigan is very, very impressive. That he didn't look totally overwhelmed is even more so. A future All-American, but he's not there yet.

Right Guard - Alex Mitchell

...continuing down the line and down the trend, Mitchell was generally okay last year, although next to Ruben Riley anyone would have looked generally okay. He's a serviceable guy, probably not in any danger of making All-Conference or playing in the NFL unless he takes a huge step forward. Ciulla may work in here as well.

Right Tackle - Steve Schilling

This one is the real unknown, in my opinion. Schilling was OMG Shirtless coming out of high school, so there's that, and the buzz this summer has been very good. I suspect that he'll be okay and potentially an All-American, but until there's proof, it's the one worry on the offense...except for:

Offensive Coaching - Mike DeBord et al

Look, this team is absolutely loaded offensively, and there's really no reason they shouldn't be able to blow people off the turf. Not only that, but they've shown an ability to do so, when they take the shackles off and attack. But they just don't think that way here. Offensively, we think the way we thought about defense two years ago - that talent will out. And it will, most of the time - but why not PLAY that way? Like we're actually more talented than the other guys? If Michigan loses any games at all this season, I guarantee you - we'll look back at the games and ask why we didn't attack more offensively. That's going to be the case as long as Debord and Lloyd are in charge.

Don't misunderstand me - I love Lloyd, and I have NEVER been one of "those" guys. And I never will. I want him to stay as long as he wants. But let's be serious here - some of the most painful losses under his tenure have been due to conservative offensive game planning. We've gotten beaten a few times by superior teams - USC in 2004, Texas in 2005, Tennessee in 2002 - but come on. Nebraska in 2006? Ohio State, several times? Most of the 2005 season? I'll go to my grave knowing we were better but couldn't get out of our own way.

UPDATE: Several nuggets from the Tuesday press conference impact ratings above - Mitchell's injury might move the right guard position into "Ernie" territory until things more info comes available, and the nearly constant Schilling love - even partnered with the "it's wide open" comments - eases my mind a lot and might push right tackle into "Cookie Monster." I'm leaving things as is for now.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Stay tuned...

...for more of my left-wing hackery!

Blog Action Day is October 15.

This week's sign of the feminist apocalypse.

Just to be up-front about this, I am:
  • a liberal ("card-carrying," as they say),
  • a democrat, and
  • a feminist.
So it was with some disgust that I read this weekend's AP story about Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary's new Bachelor of Arts in Humanities with a concentration in homemaking.

I'm sorry, I need a moment. There, that's better.

I should say - I read the story in the Grand Rapids Press, and I thought it was about one of the myriad local private religious "colleges." I was disappointed that it wasn't - Grand Rapids is a lovely town, it really is, but it would be nice to be home to the hotel with a women-only floor AND a degree program in homemaking. Maybe we can institute some sort of skirts-above-the-knee law for non-white people or some such thing, and get back into first place in the "Most Conservative Town in America" competition. But I digress.

That the Baptist church in general, and SWBTS (I can't continue to type that whole thing out) specifically, is male-dominated can be taken as read. But the overt subjugation of women in this case is a little startling.

Putting aside the obvious implication that women are most capable to be "homemakers," and the "a woman's highest calling" crapola, there's some fairly sneaky suppression going on within the program - not only are women unfit to hold positions of leadership in the church or the college (they are currently fighting a wrongful termination lawsuit from a female former professor), they are also unfit to minister to men specifically. According to the "college" website, the degree program prepares a woman to "be an evangelist and apologist focused upon reaching women, children and families for Christ." See how it works? Men minister to everyone, women minister to...other women. Oh, and children. It's all very scary - perhaps none more than the word "apologist." I'm not even sure HOW to react to that one.

Grrrr. Look, I'm Catholic, and the continued suppression of women in my church is depressing and disgusting. But this is beyond the pale - the notion that women must continue to fulfill some sort of outmoded "role" and not even strive to find their own place in the world...well, it's sad and pitiable, really.

We have SO much work to do.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Season Preview - Offense, pt. 1

As we head into another year, it’s helpful to…ah, fuck that. I just want to make predictions that I can actually keep track of. And maybe get a spot in the Blogpoll. Using the ever-so-official Sesame Street Terror Alert Level scale:


Believe the Heisman hype. Henne won’t win the Heisman, and there are some legitimate weaknesses in his game, but he’s as good a quarterback as Michigan has had in the last fifteen years. He’s consistent, makes plays and allows the talent around him to make plays, is able to make both the short and long throws, and is a clear leader on the field. The only real question is the lack of a proven backup – ‘proven’ being the operative word here, as Ryan Mallett is OMG Shirtless (ht: Brian - a little under halfway down) but a true freshman. Then again, so was Henne. A short-term injury might not be catastrophic, and in any case, Lloyd may try to get him some meaningful snaps as a prep for ’08.

Running Backs:

The most critical spot on the offense – as Michael Hart, so goes Michigan. When he was healthy in ’04 and ’06, the Michigan offense was, if not devastating, at least semi-efficient in the framework of a, you know, antique game plan. But in the never-ending and best forgotten 2005 season, when Hart spent long stretches on the sidelines, in uniform but looking pissed off, the offense had a difficult time finding any rhythm at all. Just like Henne, Hart is the real deal – identifiable weaknesses (he’s not a home-run threat) but a plus in just about every aspect of his game – he’s a plus blocking (absolutely critical for a Michigan back), a plus catching balls out of the backfield, NEVER fumbles, and gets every yard plus a bit more. He always seems to fall forward.

The depth is not great – losing Kevin Grady hurts a bit, losing Carlos Brown hurts not one bit, but Brandon Minor showed flashes of being the long-lost breakaway threat in 2006. Another thing keeping Michigan from Oscar is fullback - Michigan loves running the iso over the guard, and that takes a bruiser at fullback. Maybe Vince Helmuth or Quintin Patilla can do it, but…well, we’ll see.


Home to perhaps the best pair of wideouts in the country, but it’s hard to rate this group much higher right now because of depth and questions at the tight end.

As the feature wideout, Mario Manningham is on the verge of a Desmond Howard or Braylon Edwards-type season, but enjoy it while you can, because he’s gone after this year. Adrian Arrington stepped up ably in 2006 when Manningham was nicked up and isn’t the deep threat Manningham is, but he’s got great hands and is willing to go over the middle. Think Jason Avant with a little more speed. The group beyond the top two is unsettled but talented – LaTerryal Savoy was much lauded coming in but has sabotaged his shot at the third spot with some off-field crap. Greg Mathews IS Jason Avant, also highly regarded but yet to make a significant mark. The door is wide open for another Freshman (Zion Babb, most likely, but Toney Clemons? Junior Hemingway?) to step in at the third / fourth spot.

Tight End is a huge problem. Mike Massey is currently listed as the starter and is a fine blocker, but he’s nothing resembling a serious offensive threat. Carson Butler – should he return from still more off-field issues – is a much better target. But he is deep, deep in Lloyd’s doghouse at this point.

More intervenes.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Review - "Stardust"

During a book conversation a few years ago, a coworker of mine asked if I’d read any of Neil Gaiman’s books. I was familiar with the “Sandman” series, but they hadn’t grabbed me in the way that, say, “Watchmen,” or “Maus” had. Good, but not obsession-inducing. But I dutifully read “American Gods,” and was absolutely blown away. Funny, dark, and scary, it was one of those ‘landmark’ books to me. It opened a whole world to me – I quickly moved to Terry Pratchett (who I found had some cursory similarities to Douglas Adams, who I already loved deeply), and I was hooked for a while. I moved on to Gaiman’s “Stardust,” and my man-crush only grew stronger. It was, again, dark and funny and suspenseful.

All that said, it was with a great deal of trepidation that I walked into the theater to see Matthew Vaughn’s film adaptation. Yes, I liked "L4yer Cake" quite a lot. Yes, the casting seemed quite good…Michelle Pfeiffer has just the right amount of untamed wildness to play Lamia, and Claire Danes bringing her innate placid loveliness to Yvaine sounded perfect. But Sienna Miller? She's an empty dress. DeNiro is always a blast to watch. Beyond that…well, we’ve been here before, haven’t we? Despite uniformly excellent casting, Chris Columbus brought his typical hackery, cement hands and absolutely no magic to Harry Potter. I could see the same thing happening here. Reviews of the film were not encouraging to me – the nearly constant references to “The Princess Bride” didn't help. I LOVE that movie, but I remembered "Stardust" the novel being darker and more sinister.

As it turns out, I shouldn't have worried. Once I got past my usual initial "wait, what about the scene with (insert plot point here)," Stardust is one terrific movie.

Casting, as expected, is uniformly excellent, but in an unexpected way - Pfeiffer is perfect, beautiful and scary, and DeNiro chews the scenery as he does in most comedic roles - but the real revelation is Claire Danes. Her role - a star fallen from the heavens - could have been a cipher, played only for prettiness. And she's absolutely gorgeous (a surprise to me in itself - she's never done much for me lookswise), but she brings a subtle edge to her performance. Her scenes with Charlie Cox as Tristan (also a nice surprise) have a grace and humor that are enchanting to watch. To tar the movie with a terrible label, on some level this is romantic comedy, but somehow the two leads manage to keep things unpredictable and lively in every scene.

The direction is nimble and light, with a welcome lack of reliance on special effects - in a day where using the word "fantasy" when describing a film dooms you to a slog through a 2-hour tour through the server room at Industrial Light and Magic, Vaughn uses his effects ONLY to advance the story, and even passes up opportunities to push them to the forefront (the first transformation scene with Lamia is wonderfully undersold). At the same time, there's no sense of cheapness or corners cut, only a story first and a spectacle second. Photography is wonderful - the are many long pans of landscape with brave horsemen and a swelling soundtrack are well done and mesmerizing to see.

Overall, the review is: delightful and enchanting. 4.5 / 5 stars.

Review - "The Memory of Running," by Ron McLarty

Ron McLarty is, in the parlance of Bill Simmons, a “that guy.” He’s an actor, middle aged, been around a long time, mildly recognizable as a supporting player, typically on television. He has a number of credits as “Papa Bear” on The Berenstain Bears.

I picked up “The Memory of Running” at the library a few days ago during one of my typical get-six-books-and-see-what-sticks trips. It was in the “book clubs are reading these books” shelf, face out, and I run, so seeing the word “running” in the title grabbed my attention. I was also struck by the cover, featuring an old-style bike under a starry sky. Nice.

So I brought it with me on a camping trip this past weekend with my kids, and was grabbed by it, almost immediately.

It’s the story of Smithson Ide, a hapless, friendless, sexless, heavy-drinking 279-pound man in his forties whose parents are suddenly (is there any other way?) killed in a car accident. He tries to self-medicate his way through it, but as he’s going through their papers, he finds a letter to his father from the LA County Coroner’s Office – his older sister Bethany, a model-beautiful woman with schizophrenia who disappeared a few days after marrying years earlier – had been identified from dental records, and could someone claim her body?

On reading this, Ide goes to the garage, gets out his old Raleigh bicycle and starts pedaling to LA from home in Providence Rhode Island. From this fulcrum, the book slides into a rapid chapter-by-chapter rhythm, alternating from his journey West to reminiscence of the events leading to his sister’s disappearance. Bethany had a hard, hard life, and some of the incidents in her half of the story are harrowing (“the voice” that she hears and sometimes expresses is quite disturbing) and often gruesome. Her family desperately tries to keep her anchored and healthy, but the inexorable march of her schizophrenia is terrifying to see and ultimately heartbreaking. But the structure of the book allows McLarty to change the mood and go back to Ide’s bike ride, which, if not completely trouble-free, is at least obviously pointing toward some sort of successful conclusion.

Which is the major problem with the book, I suppose. It’s not the most subtle and unpredictable read. Ide encounters problems on the way, yes, and Bethany experiences some periods of happiness and relative mental health, but it’s pretty clear early on where this is all going. She’s going to completely disintegrate, and he’s going to make it from Providence to LA on a bicycle, and he’s going to end up with the neighbor girl who’s loved him since he was ten and she was six. No spoilers here, clearly. And some of the things that happen to him on his trip are, frankly, a little far-fetched and seem forced.

But using the phrase “major problem” is overstating it – it’s a quibble. Far-fetched and forced or predictable are both okay, if the structure around it is sound, and in this case it is. Characters are believably drawn, the dialogue is a bit flat but prose is simple and clean, and McLarty keeps things moving at a good pace.

4 / 5 stars. A nice, satisfying effort.

Next up: Mindless Eating,” by Brian Wansink, a food researcher and psychologist from the Cornell Food and Brand Lab. Apparently, it’s been called the “Freakonomics of Food” and featured on Oprah and other outlets, although I’ve somehow missed the hype. I eat. Mindlessly and endlessly.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007


I used to read a lot of Bill James. One year, he was writing about the Toronto Blue Jays, who were in the process of putting together a terrific team not long after expansion. His point was that the Jays hadn't had the benefit of making mistakes and learning from them. As he wrote, "the problem, of course, is that you first must acquire a past."

It's such a casual decision, to "start blogging," and yet the simple statement "I think I'll start writing," invests the endeavor with such...weight. What if I lose momentum and it dies a whimpering death? Worse, what if it's, you know, crap? Then what?

And so I sit here at my Blogger "New Post" page, waiting for some divine insight, some inspiration that will result in a hardened jewel of perfection. A veritable masterpiece that will get me "Dugg" or "" or whatevered to eternal fame, glory, and financial independence.

But Anne Lamott had it right in "Bird by Bird:"

Now, practically even better news than that of short assignments is the idea of shitty first drafts. All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.

She goes on from there, of course. The passage is typical Lamott - elegant and funny as hell - and the nugget of insight at the center is blinding. Get it out of you and refine it from there. That insight is true of any artistic endeavor, be it writing, music, architecture...get it out, refine. And then refine some more.

So I'm getting it out of me. I have no idea where this is going, or for that matter what's the point. But we'll see. I guess.