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Joe Stapleton: Feeling sorry for Rich Rodriguez

Jake Fromm/Daily
Michigan safety Jordan Kovacs (32) and Michigan linebacker Kenny Demens (25) against Wisconsin in the last home game of the season on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2010. Michigan lost the game 48-28. Buy this photo

BY JOE STAPLETON
Daily Sports Editor
Published November 20, 2010

Poor Rich Rodriguez.

Standing at the podium after the Michigan football team's 48-28 loss to Wisconsin on senior day, the coach was struggling to answer pointed questions about his team's defense, or lack thereof.

Well, that's not right — the coach wasn't struggling to answer the questions. He knew the answer. Really, he's known it all season. He had an inkling of it after JT Turner and Vlad Emilien left the team this summer, and after senior cornerback Troy Woolfolk went down with an ankle injury, it became a little clearer.

But lately, it's been getting ridiculous.

"It's just one of those crazy years," Rodriguez said. "I've never had a year where I've had this many guys at key positions and certain spots (get injured)."

The injuries and departures in the defensive backfield have been well documented. Freshmen like cornerback Courtney Avery, safety Ray Vinopal and cornerback Terrence Talbott have fought hard and played to the best of their abilities, but they're still 18- and 19-year-old kids. Under normal circumstances, these guys wouldn't be touching the field with a 39.5-foot pole. This year, they're starting.

So, when Rodriguez is asked about why his defense has struggled so mightily this year, he knows the answer: they're young. They're injured. There's no depth. Sure, they're learning but in the Big Ten there's no time to learn. If you're on the field, you should know.

The answer presents a dilemma for the coach — it sounds a lot like an excuse. But at some point, an excuse becomes too valid to disregard.

"I'm not making excuses. People will say, 'Ah, he's making excuses,' but it's not — it's reality," Rodriguez said at the podium, getting a little animated. "I've never coached and had five true freshmen playing Division I. Are you kidding me? I mean, think about that. Again, those guys are playing their tails off, and they're going to be better hopefully next year because of it. But you guys are pretty smart, go find a school that has five or six true freshmen playing significant time on defense."

It's an excuse and reality. As much as I would like to say it, the biggest problem with the defense isn't the abjectly awful coaching of defensive coordinator Greg Robinson (Though it certainly doesn't help — as gaudy as Wisconsin's offensive numbers were, they could have been a lot worse if the Badgers would've taken advantage of the WIDE-open middle of the field through the air). It's the youth in the secondary.

Some say, without thinking, that this is Rodriguez's fault. He should've recruited more (and better) defensive backs. Here's the thing: he had defensive backs. They all just kinda ... left. That, or they got injured.

JT Turner, Donovan Warren, Vlad Emilien, Boubacar Cissoko, Troy Woolfolk, JT Floyd — even Demar Dorsey's failure to qualify all contributed to the secondary's woes this year.

There are still those who will say — again, without thinking — that it's Rodriguez's fault all those players left. But that's stupid. It's each player's own individual decision. Look, a football coach is supposed to be mean; he's supposed to upset you; he's supposed to yell and scream and get up in your face so close you can feel the spit hit your cheeks. If a player comes to camp and can't handle not being treated the same way he was when he was being recruited, then he should leave. And the family values thing? That still just makes me laugh.

The fact is, much of what's wrong with the defense is out of Rodriguez's — or even Robinson's — control. The Badgers moved the ball at will against Michigan, gaining 357 yards on the ground. It was like watching grown men play against boys. You know why? Because that's exactly what it was.

It's impossible for the defense to get much better from now until next weekend, when the Wolverines play Ohio State. It sucks, but that's just the way it is. All Michigan fans can do is look forward to having a defensive backfield loaded with valuable, albeit painful, experience next year.

So yeah, I feel for Rodriguez. He's stuck with an extraordinarily young defense full of tough, hard-working players who desperately want to win but keep finding that will is no match for experience and strength.

Michigan running backs coach Fred Jackson said it better than I could: "They fought hard, and it's a testament to them — shows the character that these kids have. To me, that's what this program has always been about. Tough kids with a lot of character. I think they showed it to you today — they tried."