BY COURTNEY RATKOWIAK
Published March 15, 2009
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The shift in attitude was palpable.
After last year’s first spring football practice, Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez walked into his post-practice press conference almost an hour late because the team had to repeat so many drills. He was tired, sarcastic and exasperated. Almost every question revolved around how he was in charge of a team that was saddled with controversial attrition and players that weren’t suited to his offensive scheme.
"I'm having a hard enough time sleeping now at night," said Rodriguez on Mar. 15, 2008 when asked about all the offensive starters Michigan lost in the offseason. "You want me to think about that?"
Last year was about picking up the pieces from the post-Lloyd Carr exodus and trying to stitch them together the best way possible under a completely new brand of football. From the start of spring practice, the season was a mismatched mess — from the spring game at Saline High School that was closed to the public to then-junior left guard Justin Boren transferring to Ohio State after stating that "family values have eroded" under Rodriguez.
Last year, it was easy to believe Michigan football as we knew it was gone.
But this year’s the one to judge.
The stadium and the team are still under construction, but it was obvious even after the team’s first spring practice Saturday that this season will be different.
Just like last year, the Wolverines' starting quarterback situation is uncertain. But this time, it isn't as scary. Redshirt junior Nick Sheridan took the first snaps of the spring, but listening to Rodriguez’s glowing praise of early-enrollee Tate Forcier’s workouts and seeing the freshman’s smooth performance during the first part of spring practice, Forcier will probably be even with Sheridan in the starting race by the end of spring practice.
Forcier has been hyped as the quarterback Rodriguez was looking for all last season, and the coach didn’t bother to hide his excitement over Forcier and the team's six other early enrollees.
“The nice thing about it is I think they’ve really blended into our program,” Rodriguez said. “They’ve not tried to be out front and brag about themselves. They know they have to earn the respect, and I think they’ve tried to do it. I’m tickled to death the way they worked so far.”
But a quarterback can’t be good without a solid offensive line, which was one of the Wolverines' biggest issues last year. Rodriguez said Saturday he hopes to “at least to be able to pick up where we left off from” offensively. It already looks like they’ll be able to do that.
The offensive line has one more year of experience and last year's crop of redshirts are now ready for action. Rodriguez said Saturday he might have 10 potential offensive linemen — a drastic change from last year, when the line was constantly in flux with injuries and inexperienced players.
And the sunny, 40-degree weather meant the Wolverines held their first practice outdoors for the first time in recent history. Last year, the team didn't work outside until the last few spring practices. Practicing in the low-ceilinged Oosterbaan Fieldhouse made it difficult to work on special teams, and kick and punt returns were one of Michigan’s most embarrassing weaknesses last season.
This spring, Rodriguez said he thinks the Wolverines can hold outdoor practices for the first three or four sessions — and that up to half of practices may be spent working on special teams. In just the first half hour of Saturday’s practice, the Wolverines worked on kick returns, punt returns and blocking punts.
Last year, starting from that first spring practice, it often felt like Rodriguez and some of the other coaches were just putting on a happy face during press conferences. That quickly vanished during Michigan’s five-game midseason losing streak.
The difference this year is that it doesn’t already feel like a façade. Sure, not everything will be rosy this season. But it sure won’t be as painful, either.
-- Ratkowiak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.