The least you should know about the 2011 Wolverines. Part of Big Ten Week.
• Life is timing. It sounds like sour grapes when Rich Rodriguez says in interviews that he finally had Michigan in position to win this fall, if only he'd been given one more chance after the worst three-year stretch in Ann Arbor in 40 years. Frankly, though, on paper, it's hard to argue with him: Before Rodriguez was fired in January, his spread offense had just taken hold in a big way, he was preparing to bring back a truly veteran lineup in 2011 for the first time and was probably a new defensive coordinator away from turning the corner.
Instead, RichRod is out, Brady Hoke is in, and a "Michigan Man" gets to oversee the final stages of the journey from the tumbleweed-strewn locker room that greeted Rodriguez back in 2008. Only he's going to do it with tradition.
By pure coincidence, Hoke's arrival also coincides with the ongoing disintegration to the south, where Ohio State continues to succumb to the glare of NCAA violations and the consequences on the recruiting trail. The Buckeyes will roll into Ann Arbor on Nov. 26 without either of Rodriguez's chief tormenters, Jim Tressel and Terrelle Pryor, and possibly with far less to play for if the NCAA is still feeling particularly vindictive. If the emergency coach and/or quarterback transfer in Columbus doesn't take, OSU's eight-year winning streak in the rivalry is in jeopardy for the first time since well before anyone on Michigan's current roster set foot on campus.
• If it ain't broke... The philosophical shift on offense is a double-edged sword. On one hand, the offense gets back the Big Ten's reigning offensive player of the year at quarterback, four starting offensive linemen and virtually everyone who touched the ball for the No. 1 total offense in the conference. On the other, Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges seem determined to begin shifting the offense away from the shotgun/spread system in which all that returning talent came up as underclassmen and ultimately flourished.
Of course, no one flourished more than electron-quick quarterback Denard Robinson, but that was at least in part because almost no one else had the chance: "Shoelace" kept the ball himself or passed on more than 58 percent of the Wolverines' offensive snaps for the year, accounting for more than two-thirds of the team's total yards. As a runner, he averaged almost 20 carries per game, and had at least 17 carries in all but two — and at a little under 200 pounds, also had to leave five different games for an extended period due to assorted injuries.
If there's an obvious advantage to the takeover by Borges it's his commitment to keeping Robinson healthy and in the lineup by reducing the number of hits he takes on any given weekend. Obviously, that means reducing his opportunities to run in favor of a gaggle of backs that haven't proven themselves to be a fraction of the home run threat their quarterback is. According to Borges' math, the yards Robinson yields to remain upright will be more than accounted for by his improved production as a passer. But can he force defenses to respect his arm without paralyzing them with the ever-present threat of his legs?
• Fix it. Please fix it. Like Borges, new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison inherits a lot of vets — eight guys are back with significant starting experience, all of them beginning their third or fourth year on campus — but he only wishes he was confronted with how to handle a proven game-changer. Not surprisingly given their wretched numbers, the Wolverine D was shut out by league coaches when it came to first-team All-Big Ten voting, and only put one player (defensive tackle Mike Martin) on the second team.
Aside from Robinson, the defensive line looks like the strength of the team, mostly thanks to Martin and defensive end Craig Roh. But a big part of its success in improving its rock-bottom numbers against the run will also hinge on William Campbell, a 6-foot-5, 330-pound behemoth who's getting one more chance to justify the five-star hype at defensive tackle after two years on the bench. Campbell was so uninspiring in his initial go-round on defense that the old staff converted him to offense, but woeful depth on the D-line doesn't give the new staff much choice. If he can hold down the role of the wide-bodied run-stuffer in the middle, it will allow Martin to play to his strengths as a quick, slashing rusher and finally give the linebackers a chance to get to ball carriers before they're engulfed by blockers at the second level.
• Plugging the leaks. As bad as the defenses were — and man, they were bad — Rodriguez was equally undone by the classic measures of bad teams: Turnovers and special teams. Michigan finished dead last in the Big Ten in turnover margin all three years of Rodriguez's tenure (an incredible feat, considering that turnovers tend to be fairly random over time), and was so hopelessly inept on field goals in 2010 that the offense was basically resigned to going for it from anywhere more than 25 yards out.
Again, the combination of experience on offense and the law of averages suggests the turnover margin should radically improve. And while neither experience nor the law of average will help the dismal placekicking situation, incoming freshman Matt Wille may have a shot. If so, the offense should be able to capitalize on enough scoring opportunities to keep output in the 30-points-per-game range, even if the total yardage takes a hit.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.