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

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