Thursday, July 31, 2008

Michigan Football Roundtable: Breakout Player

Another new feature around here in anticipation of the Michigan football season. The Michigan Football Roundtable will feature me and a few friends (including new Ace of Sports bloggers Joe and Webstarr) talking about our expectations for this upcoming season. And yes, I do rock at Photoshop, thank you.

Today's question: Which returning player will have a breakout season this year?

Joe: I’m employing the Dubya strategy here and going with my gut instead of my brain to make an important decision. My breakout player is Kevin Grady. I know he’s coming off a knee injury and I know he is the consensus third choice for the starting tailback spot behind Brandon Minor and Carlos Brown, but I still think he can do it.

Here is where I try to rationalize my irrational decision: This guy was still a five-star recruit, and he’s only three years removed from that. Everybody is sleeping on him after his injury, but he appears to be fine and any lingering effects can only be mental. Also, I think his DUI earlier this summer was a big wake-up call for him and he might be looking to prove that he’s no screw-up. I’ve got no numbers, no facts, just a feeling. I think there is a place in this offense for a back like him, people just haven’t realized how big it is yet. Call it a hunch.

By the way, Kevin’s brother Kelvin Grady, who as we all know is a PG on the basketball team, was hitting on my girlfriend over Facebook. Just wanted to put that out there. (ed. Sorry Joe, good luck in the hunt for a new girlfriend.)

Webstarr: Brandon Graham.

Last year, he was virtually absent the first two games of the season. That's all I will say about the first two games of last season. The next week, he comes back to the tune of 3.5 sacks and a forced fumble in our 38-0 shellacking of an admittedly atrocious Notre Dame team. Graham finished the season with 8.5 sacks. That was last year.

Mike Barwis stated in an interview with ESPN's Adam Rittenberg that Brandon Graham came into the season weighing 287 and benching 315. Barwis continues, "We cut him all the way down to [a weight of] 250 and then brought him back up to 269. At 269 today, he did 475 for two (repetitions) on the bench. That's pretty good."

I don't know what's more exciting about that statement; that B.G. can bench 475 pounds, or that such on achievement is only "pretty good" to Mike Barwis. If he's that much stronger, and that much lighter, there is no way he won?t also be quicker and more explosive.

In high school, B.G. was a 5 star inside linebacker whose Scout profile showed literally no weaknesses. As the player evaluation on said profile reads, Graham "always arrives to the football in a nasty mood." While that is certainly a great sign for his potential as an elite collegiate defensive end, it should be noted that in person he is extremely friendly (ed. Webstarr is a bartender at a popular student bar, and is in contact with a lot of players, so he's not just pulling this out of his ass). Some say he's cocky, but as Jadakiss once said, "I'm not cocky, I'm confident. So when you tell me I'm the best it's a compliment." That couldn't be more true about B.G.. He is confident, but the type of guy who doesn't take it for granted. Positivity off the field + Intensity on the field (in the presence of Mike Barwis) = one hell of a football player.

As far as making the biggest impact, if Brandon Graham can reach his true potential, he will command a lot of attention. That will resonate throughout the rest of our D-line, and thus through the rest of our defense. If our 2006 defense taught me anything, it's that a good defense starts with a disruptive pass rush. The fact that B.G. has such a positive attitude, as is evident in this video, and clearly the work ethic to match (as evidenced by his ability to control his weight and increase his strength) means that as long as he stays healthy, he will be a major factor. I look for him to have an absolutely monstrous year, and to be the guy people are talking about as our difference maker.

BG on the prowl (photo courtesy of the Michigan Daily)

Sam (aka Sweegor the Magnificent): Which returning player will have a breakout season next year?

As when discussing potentially influential freshmen, opportunity matters as much as ability. Several young players worth watching who are currently not receiving much attention (Ryan Van Bergen, Avery Horn, Troy Woolfolk) are unlikely candidates to start regardless of the strength of their summer camps, simply because they are behind more experienced players. Moreover, it's hard for me to be optimistic about any one offensive player's individual season given the complete lack of experience everywhere. I have some confidence in the combination of the scheme and the overall talent level, but very little in any individual except for the usual suspects (Greg Mathews, Brandon Minor).

The defense is where Michigan should be scary, at least a little bit. With two outstanding cornerbacks and four talented veterans returning on the defensive line, new defensive coordinator Scott Shafer should be able to let the safeties be aggressive. Examining Shafer's track record, this seems very likely. In 2006, under Shafer, Western Michigan led the nation in both sacks and interceptions. In 2007, under his tutelage, Stanford ranked 7th nationally in sacks, playing against teams far above their talent level (and even occasionally beating them, as they did to USC in the biggest upset of the 2007 season, intra-Division I or otherwise...OK, I'm still not over it.) These are only the latest indications that the defense under Shafer will be in permanent attack mode.

Quotes from Shafer upon his hiring:
"The philosophy of our defense is attack-oriented, attack and react. We want to be a defense that is multiple, that is always putting pressure and forcing the hand of the offense. We want to be a penetrating defense."

"We don't want to be a defense that sits back. We want to be a defense that creates turnovers and scores touchdowns. Lead the conference in sacks, interceptions and defensive scores. That's how it's always been everywhere I've coached and how it will be at Michigan."
If Michigan is going to be making plays, the free safety should be making his fair share. Steve Brown was born to play the role. A stud recruit and phenomenal athlete, Brown was arguably Michigan's best defensive player in Spring 2007. After disastrous performances against Appalachian State and Oregon, Brown was permanently benched in favor of less talented but more reliable veterans Brandent Englemon and Jamar Adams. Safety, like quarterback, its offensive equivalent, is the rare position which relies more on a vague sense of instinct than simple decision making between a small number of options. You can only learn by being on the field and young safeties tend to take their lumps, and take them hard. Well, Brown has already taken his lumps, is reportedly very pissed of about it, and once again has excelled in practice, causing one defensive coach to call him the best defensive back he has ever coached. This year, Steve Brown will be giving the lumps.

Ace: Carson Butler can be counted among the faction of players (also including Stevie Brown, Sam McGuffie, our entire defensive line, and all wide receivers under 64 pounds) that should be pleased with the regime change the Michigan program underwent this offseason. Butler, one of the perpetrators of the St. Patrick's Day Nerd Massacre, was in and out of Lloyd's doghouse during his first three seasons (including a post-massacre stint off the team). Now, he will be given a clean sheet with a new coaching staff, and will play in a new offensive system that should fit him perfectly.

"Hold your horses," you must be thinking. "West Virginia didn't throw a single pass to a tight end last year! How can Carson Butler possibly break out this season?"

First, you are a very educated reader. That is quite a good question, which just so happens to perfectly set up the rest of my post. Thank you. The answer comes from Rich Rodriguez, via MGoBlog's Brian Cook, who got this quote from RichRod at the Big Ten Media Day:
"You want to look for mismatches part of what we're experimenting with that with the tight ends. If they can prove to be a mismatch on the field we'll use them; if they can't, they won't."
Carson Butler is a 6'4", 247 pound mismatch waiting to happen. He will most likely end up spending most of his time in the slot, which frees him up from his greatest weakness: blocking (and we can all praise our own particular deity for that; Carson Butler cannot block a soul). The question for opposing defenses now is how to guard Butler. Put a linebacker on him, and Butler will have a field day running right by the poor sap on repeated 15-25 yard post routes. Safeties and corners, on the other hand, will have a rough time trying to match up with Butler's combination of size and speed.

Another thing going in Butler's favor (although not Michigan's) is the inexperience of the Wolverine quarterbacks. Young QB's tend to look for a big, consistent target and go to him a lot. Is Steven Threet going to be comfortable enough in the new offense to sit in the pocket, make three reads, and then hit Toney Clemons on a long-developing out route? Or will he just take a quick look to see if his first option is wide open and then look for the 6'4" guy wearing 85 in the winged helmet? My guess is the latter. If Justin Feagin is getting snaps, this effect should be even greater, as he'll have even less of an understanding of the offense and less confidence in his ability to make quality throws downfield.

Look for Butler to be massacring defensive backfields next season, instead of innocent Michigan students wandering through West Quad.


Mikey said...

I didn't really pay attention to WVU last year except when they destroyed OU in the bowl game....but How did Rich Rod utilize Owen Schmitt? From what a i remembered Schmitt was a key factor in the offense and was used a lot from what I remember and what I caught on Sportscenter. Hopefully Carson BUtler will have some sort of same impact espescially with his speed as a TE if he's not in the mean time whipping some kids' ass. Oh and the comment on Brandon Graham is reassuring as well showing and how insane Barwis' S&C program and how he eats kids souls for breakfast. Brandon Graham has always been a monster so its going to be sweet to see him have potentially monster x10 season.

Ace said...

Schmitt, as far as I saw, was much more of a fullback/change-of-pace back than a tight end. They mostly just gave him the ball up the middle and let him kill people. I doubt we'll be lining Butler up in the backfield...we'll see him a lot more in the slot.

Ace said...

Also, whoever wrote Schmitts wikipedia page is somewhat delusional: "Schmitt rushed for 351 yards (321 m) and seven touchdowns on the season, also totaling a receiving score. Slaton rushed for 1,744 yards (1,595 m), due mainly to Schmitt's blocking."

Um, I think Slaton's 1,744 yards were mainly due to...Slaton.