ANN ARBOR, Mich. ? All spring long Michigan football coach Lloyd Carr has preached that the Wolverines must improve their running game, and on the final day of spring practice he wasn't about to change that message.
"We've got to run the football more effectively and we have to do better in two-man defense," Carr said after Saturday's scrimmage at Michigan Stadium. "We were ninth in the Big Ten in rushing offense. That's how you lose five games."
Four months later, last season's uncharacteristic 7-5 record obviously still stings.
On the surface, the running game didn't appear so lame. The Wolverines averaged a respectable 161.6 rushing yards per game. However, that misleading figure was enhanced with strong games against overmatched directional opponents like Northern Illinois, Eastern Michigan and Northwestern.
The Wolverines managed just 114 rushing yards against Notre Dame. They ran for 143 against Wisconsin and only 94 against Minnesota. Ohio State held them to 32 yards rushing. Nebraska allowed just 130. Not surprisingly, those were the five losses.
"There's a fine margin between great seasons and bad seasons," Carr said. "If you look across the country you'll see it's a small margin. We're trying to find what will give us the edge. We need to have our team understand ? or expect ? most games are settled in the last two or three minutes."
Injuries in the offensive line and to running back Michael Hart and receiver Steve Breaston were undoubtedly a factor in Michigan's struggles last season, but only the most fortunate teams avoid injuries. Carr sought out other reasons to explain last season's subpar showing and decided it was time to ? quite literally ? trim the fat.
In order to win, he felt they must lose, so Carr encouraged several offensive linemen to lose weight.
"It's a matter of quickness," he said. "The game has evolved to quickness, toughness and the ability to sustain effort. Too much weight has a fatigue effect for an individual game and the season. That was one of the factors that did not enable us to be as successful last season as we wanted."
An Inside Look
Old reliable: Quarterback. The school that brought you Elvis Grbac, Brian Griese, Jim
Harbaugh and Tom Brady now offers an experienced, mature Chad Henne, who was really good when still wet behind the ears. He threw for
5,269 yards and 48 touchdowns as a freshman and sophomore and should be better as a junior.
Promising newcomer: Terrance Taylor did play as a true freshman and managed one
solo tackle. However, next season the 6-foot, 300-pounder may emerge as a dominant defensive tackle. "Terrance Taylor is a man-child," junior
defensive tackle Alan Branch said. "He's strong as an ox and he's been working hard. He just had to get used to the speed of the game."
Solid unit: Running backs. Michael Hart did not participate in Saturday's
scrimmage, but he's healthy and that's all that matters. Sophomore Kevin Grady is a productive alternative, and freshman Carlos Brown showed some flash with a 60-yard touchdown run in a pre-scrimmage drill.
Unit that needs work: Injuries ravaged the offensive line last season, but Jake Long is a nice cornerstone at left tackle and Rueben Riley moves on the right side. But right guard remained a point of concern as
spring practice closed. "We're unsettled there because it's going to be a young player," coach Lloyd Carr said.
Fired up, not fed up: In his new role as defensive coordinator Ron English has
made a big impression on his players. "He brings a little different coaching style," defensive end LaMarr Woodley said. "He's really
into it. He's fired up every day. He's fired up at the training table. There's not one time he's not been fired up."
Senior All-American candidate Jake Long was asked to drop weight and responded by losing 20 pounds to 315.
"We didn't reach our potential (last season)," Long said. "Weight could have been a part of it. All the coaches wanted us to drop weight and get stronger and quicker. I started eating less and working out more. I got stronger and quicker. I think it will help us."
Other linemen also lost weight. Some didn't.
The Wolverines came out of the spring with Long entrenched at left tackle and Rueben Riley (6-4, 303), who has played every position in the line, settling in at right tackle. Mark Bihl (6-5, 297) is at center and Adam Kraus (6-6, 295) moved from center to left guard.
Right guard remains unsettled, though, junior Alex Mitchell (6-5, 311) might have an edge.
"Mitchell has made some strides, but he needs to lose weight," Carr said.
Whether the Wolverines are significantly better up front remains to be seen. Spring practices were closed and none of the likely starters participated in Saturday's spring game, which was really just a 30-play scrimmage of primarily backup players.
Although optimism runs deep in April, some players insist they've seen significant progress in the offensive line over the 15 practices of spring.
"I think I've got a huge grasp of how much they've improved with their schemes and how they offense has been blocking," defensive tackle Alan Branch said. "They've done a great job and they're only going to get better."
"I think our offense is coming along," he said. "We're getting yards running the ball. We're pretty balanced now."
Notes from the Big House:
? Defensive tackle James McKinney was helped from the field during Saturday's scrimmage with some kind of injury to his right leg, which he did not put weight on.
? Freshman running back Carlos Brown was particularly
busy in the scrimmage. In one series he took five consecutive direct snaps. "That's mostly a spread period for the defense," quarterback Henne said.
"We give the defense a look for the spread teams we face next year."
? Tough afternoon for Johnny Sears, who fumbled a punt
and a kickoff. It won't have an effect, though. Steve Breaston probably will handle the return duties.
? Backup quarterback Jason Forcier completed 7 of 10
passes in the scrimmage, but had another for which he did not get credit. He completed it to himself. As Forcier was releasing a pass, defensive end Eugene Germany deflected the ball out of his hand. The ball bounced off an offensive lineman's back and into the hands of Forcier, who started running, but the play was called dead.
Making the Grade
Henne's previous seasons merit a high rating. Put a better offensive line in front of him and give him a healthy Michael Hart and
Steve Breaston and his rating could climb higher.
Running back: 8.0
Hart showed what he could do when healthy by rushing for 1,455 yards as a freshman, and Kevin Grady rushed for 483 yards last season.
Wide receiver: 8.0
Injuries limited Steve Breaston to 26 catches last season, but he's now recovered. Mario Manningham had 27 catches as a
freshman, so they should form one of the best duos in the Big Ten. A knee injury suffered by Antonio Bass last week is a major setback.
Tight end: 7.0
A fifth-year senior, Tyler Ecker is coming off a 21-catch season as a backup and figures to be at least that productive as a starter.
Offensive line: 6.0
Spring practices were closed and no starters played in Saturday's scrimmage, so we'll have to take their word for any progress they've made.
We'll have to wait and see.
Defensive line: 8.5
The strength of the team with Woodley and Branch anchoring the line. Sophomore Terrance Taylor and junior Tim Jamison have
been especially impressive this spring. The Wolverines don't hope to pressure the passer, they expect to.
Carr has lauded 6-foot-5, 245-pound senior Shawn Crable for his play this spring, but didn't cite anyone else. Prescott Burgess had a couple of strong plays in the scrimmage, but that was against the second-team offense. Carr said some incoming freshmen would
have a chance to play next fall.
Defensive back: 8.0 Leon Hall is one of the best cornerbacks in the country, and Willis Barringer started nine games at free safety last season.
Jamar Adams has impressed coaches with his play this spring, and Ryan Mundy is back from a nerve injury that forced him out of
almost all of last season.
Special teams: 8.5 Garrett Rivas kicked 19 field goals last season, and Ross Ryan averaged 38.3 yards per punt. But the big key to the special
teams is Steve Breaston's health, which makes their return units especially dangerous.