BY TIM ROHAN
Daily Sports Writer
Published March 1, 2009
INDIANAPOLIS – The Michigan football team and San Jose State had an equal number of invitees at this year's NFL Combine.
In years past, Wolverines could impress NFL scouts by school and name recognition alone. But this year, they had to stand out by working hard at their NFL job interview.
The NFL Combine took place February 18-24 at the Indianapolis Colts’ Lucas Oil Stadium. The players who are deemed the most likely to be drafted are invited to the event each year.
After finishing the 2008 season with a 3-9 record, Michigan sent just four seniors to the combine: defensive tackle Terrence Taylor, cornerback Morgan Trent, defensive end Tim Jamison and long snapper Sean Griffin.
Despite the small number of athletes, the maize-and-blue contingent certainly made its presence known.
Michigan’s strengths and weaknesses
Taylor, Michigan’s run-stuffing defensive tackle, saw his production fall in his senior season. Jamison is caught between being too small to play defensive end in a 4-3 NFL defense and not being athletic enough to play the outside linebacker position in a 3-4, according to analysts. Trent’s ability to cover and his tackling were both questioned. And, well, Griffin is just a long snapper.
NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said the Wolverines’ tough season, especially on defense, could hurt any prospect’s stock. But that just gave Taylor and Jamison motivation to prove the critics wrong.
“I want to show my power, my explosiveness and my strength,” Taylor said Saturday before he worked out. “One of the things I wanted to show as a defensive tackle (is) how I can get up the field fast … how fast I can cut and get up field. Those are key things for an interior defensive lineman.”
Taylor, weighing in at six feet and 300-plus pounds, said his decrease in production had a lot to do with his position change. As a junior, Taylor played on the strong side of the defense. He faced a lot of running plays, and as a result, tallied a high number of tackles. He moved to the weak side his senior season.
On the other hand, Jamison wanted to simply do well in the defensive line drills. Along with that, he tried to improve his overall consistency and patience.
Experts weigh in on Michigan before workouts
Mayock and ESPN draft expert Todd McShay weren’t very impressed by any of the Wolverines before they worked out at the Combine.
“(Taylor is) quicker for a wide-body defensive tackle,” McShay said. “And when he plays 100 percent, when he gives a great effort and when he’s fresh, he can be disruptive. He’s inconsistent. … A lot of his weaknesses are coachable, but there are so many busts at that position because of just that – the inconsistent motor.”
McShay saw Taylor as more of a 4-3 traditional defensive tackle and he didn’t think Taylor’s “style” would be conducive to taking on blockers in the 3-4. Mayock saw Taylor’s role as completely different and pegged him as a 3-4 defensive tackle.
The experts also had questions about Jamison.
“(Jamison’s) a little bit of a tweener between defensive tackle and defensive end,” Mayock said. “And he’s going to have to show somebody he can play on the outside.”
Added McShay: “I think he’s better suited at D-end, probably in a 4-3. … (He’s) tough versus the run, he’s going to do a good job. He’s kind of the opposite of Taylor. He plays hard every down, (he’s) disciplined, does all the little things. But he’s limited athletically. Not a great speed rusher.”
McShay also said that, while he was watching tape, he noticed junior Brandon Graham really stood out and that the talent level between him and Jamison was “noticeably different.” Graham decided to stay in Ann Arbor next season.
Trent received the highest praise of the Wolverine group.
“Trent’s a long, lean corner,” Mayock said. “He’s going to run well. He’s a smart kid. He’s not real physical. But he can play in the league for a while.”
Michigan’s combine results
Thought of as mid-to-late round selections, the four Michigan players turned some heads when the defensive linemen worked out Monday and defensive backs had their turn Tuesday.
Taylor took charge by leading all defensive linemen at the combine with 37 reps at 225 pounds on the bench press. He was second among all players, behind just Texas Tech offensive lineman Louis Vasquez, who had 39 reps. Taylor ran the 40-yard dash in 5.27 seconds.
But Trent was the real star for Michigan, finishing among the top 10 for cornerbacks in five events. He had the best time for his position in the 60-yard shuttle, completing the drill in 11.07 seconds. Trent was also in the top 10 for the bench press, the vertical jump, the broad jump and the 20-yard shuttle. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.54 seconds.
Jamison didn’t finish as a top performer in any category. His draft stock might have been hurt when he ran the forty-yard dash in 5.03 seconds. Considering he checked in at 6-foot-2 and a light 256 pounds, his 40-yard dash time was expected to be faster.
Checking up at Combine – Michigan players in the NFL
Taylor and Jamison both said they received advice from Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker and former Wolverine LaMarr Woodley before the draft. Cornerback Leon Hall of the Cincinnati Bengals and linebacker David Harris of the New York Jets also provided guidance.
Helped by the seven Wolverines in this year's Super Bowl, Michigan's impact in the NFL is becoming increasingly evident.
“It felt good,” Taylor said of watching the Super Bowl. “You have (wide reciever Steve) Breaston out there. You have Woodley, you have (linebacker) Larry Foote … It felt good to see guys that you actually played with out there living their dream, and I was excited. I felt like a kid again watching the Super Bowl.”
Arizona Cardinals coach Ken Wisenhunt said that few former Wolverines that made a big impact en route to his team's trip to the Super Bowl.
“Steve (Breaston) made great strides for us this year,” Wisenhunt said. “Obviously, when Aquan (Boldin) missed a couple of (games), he stepped up and was a big part of the reason that we had success."
Breaston finished the regular season with 77 catches, 1,006 yards and three touchdowns. He had six catches for 71 yards in the Super Bowl on Feb. 1.
Woodley, who also played in the Super Bowl, tallied the Steelers’ only two sacks in the contest and forced a fumble.
Wisenhunt also discussed former Michigan defensive tackles and current Cardinals Gabe Watson and Alan Branch.
“They’re both good, young players,” Wisenhunt said. “And that’s going to be the issue for us, is their ability to take it to the next level. And hopefully they’ll have a good offseason like Breaston did and it’ll translate to a good season.”
Another player who starred at Michigan but who has struggled to make an immediate impact in the NFL is New York Giants wide receiver Mario Manningham. And Giants general manager Jerry Reese had a lot to say about last year’s rookie.
“(Mannigham) really has some nice skills,” Reese said. “But he just has to learn the pro football game. I think he’s going to be a good player. They jury is still out on him, but he’s flashed some things that we really like. I think our coaching staff likes him, so it’s going to be a big year for him.”
Having alumni that are successful at the next level is something that Taylor said he has paid attention to.
“You play with guys that are at the top of their positions,” Taylor said. “You play with All-Americans all the time. You practice with All-Americans all the time. You have the best coaches in all of the conference in the Big Ten.
“That prepares you for when you come (to the Combine) and you pay attention to detail … it prepares you. I’m out here now and I feel like I’ve been here.”
Lloyd Carr’s departure and Rich Rodriguez’s impacts of NFL prospects
When Lloyd Carr stepped down as Michigan football coach before last season, Rich Rodriguez brought his spread offense to Ann Arbor. That transition is already affecting the crop of Wolverines heading for the NFL.
Jamison downplayed the transition, citing the fact that the defense still played a 4-3 formation. Both Jamison and McShay said they believe Rodriguez could turn around the program.
Taylor was a little bit more candid about the coaching change.
“It affects us in so many ways,” Taylor said. “With Coach Carr, you’re familiar with him. You know what to expect. It makes everything so much easier. You’re not stressed about things and (have) less to think about. All you are worrying about is performing on the field and school.
“New coach comes in your senior year. This is your last year. … You’ve got to practice a different way. So much new, (thrown) on you in your last year and you’ve got to pick it up so fast.”
A popular topic at the NFL Combine was the increasing amount of schools in the NCAA playing the spread offense. Many coaches and front-office officials weighed in on how the NFL would have to adjust to evaluating the talent developed in the new style of offense.
“It’s a transition,” McShay said. “I think the NFL’s adjusting because it has to. The NFL’s developmental league is college football. … Tweaking some schemes to get guys in comfort zones, especially playing early in their career — it’s a necessity. And it doesn’t translate completely.
“You’re not going to see guys running the zone read and all that stuff because of the speed."
McShay cited last year's AFC Championship between Baltimore and Pittsburgh game as an example.
"(The Baltimore Ravens) ran the inside handoff off the shotgun a couple times in the first half," McShay said. "Second half, (Ravens' quarterback Joe Flacco) plucks it and turns the corner, looks like he’s going for 10, 15 yards. (Steelers safety Troy) Polamalu shoots out of a rocket and takes him for a three-yard loss. That’s why you can’t run those things consistently in the NFL.”
McShay also talked about how wide receivers won’t have as much space to work with as they do in the spread offense. He also said the lack of high grades for quarterbacks who played in a spread offense formation shows that most spread players struggle with the transition to the NFL. In the pros, receivers are pressed and forced to read routes — things that don’t happen when a receiver plays in the spread offense.
But some things about Michigan will never change — particularly the intangibles.
“Everything about Michigan is professional,” Taylor said. “We don’t take shortcuts. We don’t need to cheat our way. We put up hard work. We play in front of the most people in the world. Michigan is always in the spotlight.
“You’ve already been through it. You’ve already been inside the fans that love their football teams. You’ve been a part of dealing with the media every day. You play the top level at Michigan. So it’s an easy transition (to the NFL).”
The Michigan players tried to impress NFL scouts and executives at the NFL Combine and the Wolverines' draft futures are not largely out of their hands. But it is up to the players whether they excel at the next level.
The advice Carr used to give Taylor and the rest of the Wolverines reigns true now more than ever: “control the controllables.” Presumably, the rest will now take care of itself.