Big Ten spring practice preview: Michigan

Michigan Wolverines
2009: 5-7 (1-7)

Head coach Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines begin spring practice on Tuesday in Ann Arbor ready to put behind all the drama surrounding the program and focus on getting ready for 2010.

As Rodriguez enters his third season, most of the focus will center on the quarterback position. But the Wolverines have no chance of reaching a bowl game next year if they don’t shore up the defense. The team was woeful defensively in 2009, ranking 82nd in the nation in total defense, 90th in rushing defense and 77th in scoring defense — and the squad loses its two best defensive players in All-America defensive end Brandon Graham and cornerback Donovan Warren. Poor recruiting by former coach Lloyd Carr and defections after Rodriguez’ arrival really crippled the defense — more so than anyone could have expected. All three units on that side of the ball must significantly improve, and it’ll help to have big contributions from the 2010 recruiting class, particularly Demar Dorsey, although he won’t arrive until the summer. It’ll be crucial for improvement to start with a strong spring work ethic from the entire unit.

Defensive coordinator Greg Robinson is back for a second season, and Rodriguez is hopeful the players’ familiarity with Robinson will help in year two.

“Greg and the defensive staff have met quite extensively and come up with a good plan for the spring,” Rodriguez said in a radio interview with 1130-AM WDFN on Friday. “I think last year, a lot of times we had to evaluate, 'Okay, who are we going to be ready to play with?' And I think our guys have a great understanding of who we have right now on the roster…I think Greg and them have a good plan to be able to fit our guys in the right spot because we’re going to have to come out of the gate strong.”

While competition essentially will occur at all 11 spots on defense, the most intrigue lies in the secondary as the team prepares for its annual spring game on April 17 at Michigan Stadium.

J.T. Turner, the No. 2-ranked recruit from 2009, should get most of his reps at cornerback this spring, but he’s also capable of playing safety. At 6-2 and nearly 200 pounds, he should be a force no matter where he plays in the secondary. Where he plays could be determined by where the Wolverines line up Troy Woolfolk, who played five games at safety but finished the year at corner. Woolfolk is the only full-time starter returning in the secondary. Coaches have praised J.T. Floyd, who started two games at corner last season, but he’ll find competition from incoming freshmen Dorsey, Cullen Christian, Courtney Avery and Terrence Talbott.

Older players such as defensive tackle Ryan Van Bergen and linebackers Craig Roh, Jonas Mouton and Obi Ezeh will be looked upon as leaders, particularly throughout offseason workouts and into the fall when all recruits have made their way onto campus. Having seven true freshmen from the ’10 class already on campus, however, definitely will serve as a bonus as Rodriguez constructs his initial depth charts.

“Certainly, I think we can play at a higher level defensively this fall because we’re going to have more numbers there,” Rodriguez said. “Now, we’re going to be young. Some of those freshmen and sophomores are going to have to play and play at a high level for us. But at the same time we’re going to have some bodies there that are competing, and I think our guys are anxious to prove themselves.”

Of course, Rich Rod needs a quarterback to run his famed offense, and there are varying opinions about who will ultimately line up under center for the opener against Connecticut. Devin Gardner is the name everyone is talking about because he enrolled early, and Rodriguez will not hesitate to start him if he picks up the offense and is deemed ready. I still have a hard time believing that Tate Forcier won’t initially win the job, with Denard Robinson in more of the “energizer” role. But unless Forcier makes strides this offseason or Robinson has a better understanding of the offense, Gardner may get his chance at some point in 2010. At the very least, his early enrollment will push Forcier and Robinson, which is a great thing for the Wolverines, as they both showed flashes last season that they could emerge as offensive leaders — particularly Forcier early in the year.

At running back, Michigan loses Carlos Brown and Brandon Minor, but the team should be in good shape with its depth. Diminutive Vincent Smith is coming off knee surgery and will miss spring ball, but he averaged 5.8 yards per carry last season. Michael Shaw and Fitzgerald Toussaint will get plenty of reps this spring, with Shaw likely to gain the upper hand.

Rodriguez has stated that he’s “obsessed” with turning around the Michigan program and has promised that brighter days are ahead for the Wolverines and their fans.

“We know the last two seasons haven’t gone the way any of us would like, but at the same time, we’ve made some progress,” he said. “We’ve kind of put the foundation down and now we’re ready to start getting going with more wins.”

Rich Rod better hope that more wins are in the future for his club, otherwise the calls for new athletic director David Brandon to reach out to Stanford head coach and “Michigan Man” Jim Harbaugh will reach deafening levels.

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