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A look inside the renovated Michigan Stadium

Zachary Meisner/Daily
A view from the new wood-paneled luxury suites. Buy this photo

BY COURTNEY RATKOWIAK AND RUTH LINCOLN
Daily Sports Editors
Published August 31, 2009

The Big House hasn’t yet gotten much bigger — but it sure is unrecognizable.

The progress made on the four-year, $226 million Michigan Stadium renovation project is obvious from the two navy blue skyboxes emerging from the east and west sides of the stadium. But inside, the foundation of new wood-paneled luxury suites and rows of covered club seats serve as proof that the look and feel of watching a game in Michigan Stadium will be much different — for some — next year at game time. (To view a slideshow of photos, click here.)

During the 2009 Stadium Expansion and Renovation Project Media Day on Wednesday afternoon, representatives from the Michigan Athletic Department and University of Michigan Architectural Engineering and Construction talked about the state of the renovation before giving a tour of the facility.

The stadium renovations are scheduled to be finished in June 2010, though the final stadium capacity will not be determined until 2013, when the widening of seats and aisles is completed. University of Michigan Architectural Engineering and Construction representatives estimate the capacity will be more than 108,000, a slight increase from the 107,501-seat Big House before renovations began in 2007.

Michigan Stadium’s capacity will stay at 106,201 this season, the same as last year, after the University removed seats in order to comply with ADA regulations. ADA-compliant bridges and pathways have been installed to ensure easier navigation of the stadium, and handicapped seating will be on the first row of the west concourse when it opens in 2010.

On the east side of the stadium, the first level of chairback club seats, designed to seat about 1,900, is currently situated just above the last row of bench seats. The second club seat level, designed to seat about 1,100, will have both indoor and outdoor seats. Both club levels will have connected restrooms, concessions and lounge facilities.

An advantage of creating club seating is that large groups have found it easier to buy tickets together. Though it is usually difficult to accommodate group requests of more than eight, a University of Michigan Architectural Engineering and Construction representative said that the Athletic Department has already booked three groups of 20 or more people in the club levels.

The upper-level concourses leading to the club seats are nearly as wide as those on the lower level, which will provide more room for people to easily move around the stadium and reduce pedestrian gridlock, associate athletic director Bruce Madej said during the stadium tour.

The 15-by-28-foot suites, which are above the club level on both the east and west sides of the stadium, feature seating for 16 and windows that can be open or shut to control crowd noise. Each commitment requires a $10,000 reservation deposit, and suite prices range from $55,000 to $85,000 per year, with a minimum three-year commitment.

Of the 82 suites, the Athletic Department has currently received 58 commitments. The club seats are also at about 70 percent capacity, according to the University of Michigan Architectural Engineering and Construction. Tours of the renovated areas will be offered this fall on Friday and Saturday of home football game weekends.

After this year’s Ohio State game, the existing press box will be taken down to make room for 704 chairback seats.

The new press box will be integrated into the west side of the stadium, on the same level as the west suites. Construction crews will also complete the interiors of the club and suite levels and the upper concourses.

Right tackle update: After last season’s lack of depth on the offensive line, Mark Huyge, Patrick Omameh and Perry Dorrestein are now all serious contenders for the starting right tackle spot. The new depth at the position has allowed Rodriguez to move veteran Steve Schilling back to guard, his natural position, instead of having the redshirt junior cover at tackle.

Huyge sprained his ankle during the second week of last season’s camp and was out for four weeks. The injury cost him a shot to compete for a spot on the line the 2008 campaign.

“I didn’t really recover to the point where I wanted to,” he said. “I started practicing again and after that, though, I didn’t perform like I should have.”

But he attracted attention as a surprise player to watch during this year’s spring camp and has been practicing with the first string during fall camp. He credits some of his progress to getting stronger, especially in hang clean and power clean weight training – he estimates he can now lift about 285 or 295 pounds, up from about 225.

“It translates to overall explosion, I believe,” Huyge said. “That’s what they tell us and I can feel it, too. Just coming
off the ball and have a lot more power.”

During Wednesday’s practice, Huyge and Omameh took reps at right tackle, while Dorrestein took reps on both the right and left side.

QB mystery: Looking for the top of Michigan football depth chart at quarterback?
Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez could give you three answers.

“All of them,” Rodriguez said succinctly before Wednesday’s practice.

Once again, Rodriguez kept the quarterback situation a mystery before Wednesday’s practice. True freshmen Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson and redshirt junior Nick Sheridan continue to take reps with the first-string offense.

“I've not sat down with them, because I really don't know exactly what we're going to do yet as far as the order,” Rodriguez said. “It may depend on the play; it may depend on the situation. But as coaches we've talked about it quite a bit, and we have an idea in mind as far as which plays each guy runs well, which ones they execute well. We'll go into the game plan with that in mind.”

Rodriguez said that could mean instituting different packages for each quarterback. Many expect Forcier to emerge as the frontrunner after a solid spring, where he impressed with his speed and accuracy. But fatigue may be creeping up on the true freshman, as he fell short on a few passes during Wednesday’s practice.

“I'm never going to put the quarterback in a situation where he always has to be worried about looking over his shoulder: 'If I don't play well on this play, I come out,’ ” Rodriguez said. “I don't think that's fair. It's not going to be pulling in and out based on just one play or how well they play on one play."

Placekicker battle: Fifth-year senior kicker Jason Olesnavage has never taken a kick in an actual game. But after a solid spring and the graduation of kicker K.C. Lopata, the walk-on has the chance of emerging as Michigan’s potential starter.

“Jason Olesnavage is the first one out of the gate right now,” Rodriguez said Wednesday before the team’s practice.
“He's kicked pretty well, pretty consistent. Some days have been better than others.”

Behind Olesnavage are true freshmen Brendan Gibbons and Kris Pauloski and redshirt junior Bryan Wright. Of the unit, Wright has the most game experience, having seen action at kickoff specialist in 17 games.

“That's an area where none of them have really kicked in a game, quality kicks yet,” Rodriguez said. “We're going to try to put them under pressure in the next few days, to see if anybody else emerges or who takes control of it.”
Gibbons enters Michigan as a highly touted kicker, but actually played linebacker in high school. During his sophomore year, the team’s kicker became injured and Gibbons filled in. The West Palm Beach, Fla. native capped off his high school success with a 35-yard field goal at the U.S. Army All-American game last January.

Though Rodriguez said Olesnavage is ahead, Gibbons and Olesnavage will likely battle for the starting spot throughout the season. During the rainy portion of Wednesday's practice, Gibbons and Olesnavage showed some range under the 85-foot ceiling of the new, kicker-friendly Al Glick Practice Facility. Gibbons later recalled the two making kicks in the upper 40-yard range.

Helping bring the kickers to the next level this week was former Michigan Kicker Brandon Kornbluee (1997-99). Kornblue visited the kickers last Monday and Tuesday and concentrated largely on film work.
Kornblue runs a well-known kicking school in Bonita Springs, Fla.

“He’s really big on the fundamentals, and that’s important to have someone notice it other than the rest of the guys,” Olesnavage said.