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Previewing the 2011 Michigan Wolverines

Throughout Rich Rodriguez's three year run at Michigan, we've repeatedly noted the similarities between Rodriguez and Bill Callahan's career at Nebraska. Granted, they were mirror images, taking teams in opposite directions philosophically, but the result was the same: square peg, round hole. Truth be told, I think RichRod, unlike Callahan, will inevitably get another head coaching job down the line. Michigan did show some signs of improvement last season, where Callahan's team imploded in spectacular fashion. With three implosions on Callahan's resume, his head coaching career is surely over. But not RichRod. Some people wonder if Michigan pulled the plug too soon of Rodriguez, as the Wolverines had bounced back to a winning record and a New Years' Day bowl berth.

But two losing seasons and the perception that he wasn't a "Michigan Man" was Rodriguez's undoing in the end. Getting blown out by Ohio State and then Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl was the final nail in the coffin. Oh, and there were those pesky NCAA violations as well. So out the door goes Rodriguez, and in comes Brady Hoke via San Diego State. Before that, Ball State. Remember that horrible 2007 season? Ball State stormed to take a nine point lead in the fourth quarter until Nebraska came back to take the lead late in the game. Yet Hoke's Cardinals wouldn't give up until a 55 yard field goal fell short in the closing seconds. We know Hoke's teams will be well coached, but how long will it take to undo Rodriguez's system?

Hoke's offensive coordinator is Al Borges, who'd much prefer to have a Chad Henne or Elvis Grbac on the roster to play quarterback. What they get is junior Denard Robinson, who rushed for 1702 yards and 14 touchdowns last season. In the early part of the season, he was even more exciting than Taylor Martinez rushing the ball. Robinson wasn't exactly a slouch throwing the ball either, completing over 62% of his passes for 2570 yards and 18 touchdowns. Those 11 interceptions were a problem, however. And down the stretch, Robinson broke down as he only rushed for two touchdowns in the final five games. On the season,Robinson missed parts of ten of thirteen games. Put it all together, and you have to expect that Robinson probably won't put up those same rushing numbers next season. It won't fit Borges style, and Robinson isn't much help when he's sidelined. But don't expect Robinson to become Tom Brady either. If Michigan is going to have any success this season, look for some sort of hybrid approach where Robinson is free to take off occasionally out of a more traditional pro-style offense. Because of Robinson's injury history, Michigan's backup takes added importance. Tate Forcier transferred to San Jose State, so the backup role goes to sophomore Devin Gardner. The 6'4" Gardner is probably a better passer than Robinson without giving up much running ability.

If Robinson isn't going to carry the ball that much this season, who will? That's a good question. Nobody really stood out last season for the Wolverines. Junior Vincent Smith was the leading rusher last season with 601 yards. Senior Michael Shaw started the first four games, and rushed for nine touchdowns. The speculation this offseason is that sophomore Stephen Hopkins is a little more likely to end up the #1 running back. But who knows? Borges probably will also have a third-down back to help with pass protection as well as catch passes. The leading candidates here are probably Shaw, Smith, or perhaps true freshman Justice Hayes. Whoever ends up playing will certainly see the ball much more than any of Michigan's backs did last season. But can anybody emerge out of this committee to be a difference maker? Seems unlikely.

Up until senior Darryl Stonum decided to go for a drive while intoxicated on May 6th, the entire corp of receivers were returning for this season. Stonum was suspended for the season and will redshirt. Junior Roy Roundtree, a second-team all-Big Ten pick last season, was Michigan's leading receiver last season, catching 72 passes for 935 yards and 7 touchdowns. He's not the biggest or fastest or the most consistent, but he's productive. If it wasn't for his drops last season, he'd probably have been on the first team. There's a long list of receivers with game experience to replace Stonum that while he'll be missed, it shouldn't be a concern. Keep an eye on senior tight end Kevin Koger, who probably is a better fit for the new Borges offense.

Up front, the offensive line is anchored by first team all-Big Ten senior center David Molk. He was a finalist for the Rimington Award last season, and barring injury, should be right up there again this season. Sophomore left tackle Taylor Lewan started nine games as a redshirt freshman last year; look for him to to earn some awards. Two other part time starters (junior right guard Patrick Omameh and senior right tackle Mark Huyge) are expected to move into full-time roles. Junior left guard Ricky Barnum will need to prove things under fire; he's only played in four games up to now.

Defense was the ultimate failing point for Bill Callahan at Nebraska, and defense probably was the failing point for Rich Rodriguez at Michigan. The Wolverines finished last in the Big Ten in scoring and total defense in 2010, and like Nebraska three years before, turned to a former defensive assistant coach to be the new head coach. The defensive line was just plain bad. The Wolverines hope that switching back to a 4-3 defense will match up better in the Big Ten. Senior defensive tackle Mike Martin battled through ankle injuries last season and will be counted on to take charge this season. Junior William Campbell is back at tackle after a failed experiment on offense last season. Some think that his 6'5", 333 pound frame has NFL potential, though he hasn't shown it yet.

Linebacker looks to be a position in flux, with sophomore hybrid strongside linebacker Cameron Gordon seemingly the only sure thing. As a freshman, the 6'3" 207 pound Gordon split his time between free safety and linebacker. He plays bigger than his size indicates, he accounted for 66 tackles, four pass breakups, and three interceptions. At middle linebacker, it appears that junior Kenny Demens is the leading candidate to start at middle linebacker after starting the final 7 games last season, totaling 82 tackles. But senior Marell Evans is back in Ann Arbor after transferring back from 1-AA Hampton. He started one game for Michigan in 2009 only to transfer after the first year of RichRod. Once RichRod was dismissed, Evans returned to the Wolverines, and might be part of the rotation in the middle. Sophomore Mike Jones is likely to start at weakside linebacker despite missing last season due to injury and only accounting for three tackles as a true freshman.

The porous secondary hopes that that senior cornerback Troy Woolfolk is fully recovered from an ankle injury that kept him out all of 2010. Prior to the injury, he was as close to a "shutdown" corner as the Wolverines had. Junior J.T. Floyd started eight games at corner last season with 55 tackles before a foot injury cut his season short. Junior strong safety Jordan Kovacs' earned second team all-Big Ten honors; not bad for a former walk-on. He cleaned up a lot of messes up front en route to 116 tackles last season.

It's hard to gauge just where Michigan will be by mid November when the Huskers return to the Big House for the first time since Bob Devaney's seminal 1962 upset. If the Wolverines find a defense, and if Denard Robinson proves to be effective (and less injury prone) in the new offensive scheme, the Wolverines could be quite a handful. Mobile quarterbacks usually have been the Achilles heel of the Blackshirts - especially when combined with a solid running back. But many experts think that Michigan is a year away from being a contender...and with the rivalry matchup with Ohio State the next week, Nebraska could actually be in the rare position of being overlooked on November 19th. Looking at the schedule, I can't help but think that this matchup probably will be Nebraska's second toughest road game.