Wednesday - August 13, 2008
The season is close enough that we can actually start putting some stock in the various practice reports that are floating around (after we set aside 30 seconds to take in the fact that it seems like, with this new regime, everyone except for me has an open invitation to visit practice whenever they feel like it).
It Sounds Like
Quarterbacks: Not where we expected, and our expectations weren't realistic. Yes, Threet was a 4* QB coming out of high school and we should expect him to be a productive quarterback. Some day. He is a sophomore who has never played a down of college football, and he is in effectively his 3rd offensive system since leaving high school (Georgia Tech for a semester, Lloyd Carr's pro-style attack and now the spread). That he's struggling with his timing, that he's having difficulty with pressure and having trouble keeping up his confidence is not surprising. Sheridan catching him is either bad news (that Threet didn't seperate) or good news (that Sheridan's improving), depending on how you look at it. There's been lots of talk that Sheridan has an edge on Threet because he is a bigger threat running the ball, something that Rodriguez's offense is almost built around, but equally important is how quickly the QB can set his feet and deliver the ball. The Rodriguez offense features a lot of quick timing passes, and a QB who takes his time getting set will struggle. Edge Sheridan, and it may not be ephemeral. But no matter who starts, all we can realistically ask of the QB position this fall is that it not cost us games. If either QB proves capable of actively winning us games, that would be an unexpected bonus.
Runningbacks: Right where we expected, and our expectations were optimistic. For all the recruiting hype and flashes of excellence shown by our top three returning backs, Grady has had a disappointing career to date and Minor has never had a good game against a good team. And fans were expecting a lot out of two true freshman in Sam McGuffie and Michael Shaw. And so far, of those 5 backs mentioned, 4 have delivered what the optimistic fans expected. The only exception is Carlos Brown, who hasn't shown much due to injury, but who is also (in a way, at least) the most proven of the backs. Look for all five to play, as they give Rodriguez the ability to present lots of different threats to the opponent. Look for us to feature 2-HB formations (and not just with Grady or Minor lining up at FB). Look for McGuffie, Shaw and maybe Brown to move all around the lineup.
Wide Receivers: Right where we expected, and our expectations were optimistic. Mathews is what he should be, on his path to being Jason Avant, perhaps. Hemingway has been dinged up and Clemons has been cross-training at various positions, but the news has been the freshman. Stonum lit up the spring practices and continues to do so, way ahead of schedule for a true freshman. The very early returns on Robinson and Odoms are exactly what one would expect, that they explosive and elusive, though a bit inconsistent. Roundtree's name has yet to surface much, but we'll see. Verdict? We should easily have 4 credible WRs ready to go (Mathews, Hemingway, Clemons, Stonum), with the only problem being that none of them is truly the speedy midget-slot that Rodriguez seems to like, which is why the progress of Odoms and Robinson merits watching. If they aren't consistent enough, Clemons will have to make use of those hours at the slot position.
Tight Ends: Better than we expected, maybe even. Better in two ways. We expected Butler to be a freak, and he appears to be freaking as expected. But Massey has apparently worked his way into a 2-man TE rotation, and maybe just as importantly, it appears that Rodriguez was very serious about modifying his offense to incorporate a TE if he can find a mismatch to exploit. Butler can certainly provide a mismatch.
Offensive Line: Who knows? There are some very positive reports, but those reports may be a reaction to some pretty modest expectations. When you say your LT (Ortmann) is looking good and your LG (Zirbel) has had a breakthrough off-season, but both still need work in pass protection, that's a bit of a mixed signal. We also seem to have a couple of promising, steady centers who would both rather be playing guard (Molk and Moosman). Schilling is the one all-around given on the line. And those who were down on his play last year, please keep in mind he was in his first year starting, being asked to play two positions, and playing tackle at times next to a rotating guard corps. Not easy. Oh, and none of the guys I mentioned can afford to get hurt. We have 1 or 2 backups ready for meaningful snaps (Molk and maybe Dorrenstein) but after that it's true freshman offensive linemen, and that's scary.
Defensive Line: Better than expected and our expectations were optimistic. Every projected starter on the line has drawn raves for some time now. The only question mark in spring was whether Taylor would buy into the workout routines, and he has done so entirely. Graham and Jamison are noticably fitter and Jamison looks exceptionally quick in the little footage we have seen. Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen have impressed in backup roles, and if Jason Kates keeps up with the routine, he could answer the one question that had him rated as a 2* recruit at one site and a 4* at the other. Quality starters, any of which could be All Big 10, and some quality depth. Can't ask for more.
Linebackers: A bit better than our modest expectations. Better in that Austin Panter, who was the star of spring, is still fighting for a spot, and not becaue he's regressed. Better in that Ezeh has the makings of a star and Evans is way ahead of schedule. A bit behind in that many were hoping Mouton would be an early contributor and a star, and he may not factor that much if he can't beat out Evans. In the end, all we are asking of the LBs is that they be steady and good, not great and not the heart of the defense (that will be the D-line), and they look up to it.
Cornerbacks: Better than expected, and we expected a lot. Warren and Trent are right where they shoudl be, and Cissoko is as expected. The nice bonus is that Troy Woolfolk appears to be ahead of schedule, not at all the track star project that some thought he might be. We have two very good corners, a potentially good nickelback (Woolfolk) and depth (Cissoko). Along with d-line, this should be the strength of the defense.
Safery: I don't know. I have not heard, read or seen much about the safeties. Little scraps ... that Steve Brown is on target, that Harrison looks quick and has taken to the defense. But not much, good or bad.
Position by position, we are ahead of where we (the consensus as I read it) expected us to be, but that has to be taken with a grain of salt. Replacing basically the entire starting offense, both safeties and much of the LB corps, we were expecting many of the players to struggle, and for Rodriguez to be the guy to figure out how to win despite that. And the faith in Rodriguez to get that done was probably unrealistic. If the OL really struggles in the way 4 new starters often do, and if the QB position performs the way first year QBs often do, the offense will be poor with or without any schematic advantage Rodriguez brings. Rodriguez can only do so much; the players need to do the rest, and so far it sounds like they are ahead of schedule there.