Rodriguez talks about the defense's recent struggles

Clif Reeder/Daily
Rich Rodriguez on the sidelines during Michigan's loss to Illinois on 10-31-09. Buy this photo

BY MICHAEL EISENSTEIN
Daily Sports Editor
Published November 3, 2009

In the original version of this story, Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez was misquoted about the team's lack of talent. The Michigan Daily was contacted by a member of the Michigan Athletic Department who clarified that Rodriguez was in fact talking about the team's lack of depth behind the current starters.

With four consecutive conference losses — the most recent an embarrassing loss to a terrible Illinois team — the Wolverines are unraveling during the season's most critical stretch.

Everyone wants an answer: What is wrong with the Michigan football team?

Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez said the team's struggles stem from several issues, including lack of execution on the field, and a lack of experienced depth behind the starters. But changing schematics and moving around personnel are short-term Band-Aids.

He knows success is still far away and the team's lack of long-term solutions — improving talent and depth — is what frustrates him the most.

"Some of our issues did not occur overnight and will not be solved overnight," Rodriguez said Monday. "Sometimes it takes a little longer than I would like or any of you like. I am less patient than any of you or any fans that we have."

It is easy to point a finger at the massive adjustments needed to run Rodriguez's spread-option offense as the culprit for the Wolverines' struggles. But the coach doesn't think that the offensive systems itself is the root of Michigan's woes. After all, schemes will often change under one coach, sometimes as frequently as week-to-week during a season.

"The transition, more than anything, is going from not playing to being on the scout team, to being a second-or third-team guy, then all of a sudden being a starter and playing 70, 80 plays a game," Rodriguez said Tuesday.

Rodriguez didn't foresee that type of transition before he came to Ann Arbor. When asked Monday if he thought success would come sooner, he had just a five-word answer:

"Not after I got here."

Rodriguez said that was because 20 defensive recruits from the last five classes have left the program, and just four of those departures were due to graduation. A moderate level of attrition is natural after a coaching transition. But when over 40 percent of players leave on one side of the ball, it is particularly difficult for Rodriguez to develop the depth he wants — three guys at every position he feels comfortable with.

What he saw in personnel led him to start two defensive walk-ons against Illinois.

It isn't necessarily an issue if one walk-on is playing regularly — the player simply could have been underrated in high school — but it's usually a bad sign when two defensive starters are current or former walk-ons. Especially when one, redshirt sophomore linebacker Kevin Leach, grades out the highest of any defensive player against Illinois after replacing Michigan's active leader in career tackles, redshirt junior Obi Ezeh.

"If we do the right job recruiting and developing, three or four years from now we won't have as many true freshmen coming in as playing, particularly in key roles," Rodriguez said. "If you've been there for a while and developed a program through the right guys, you're not going to have nine, 10, 11 true freshmen suiting up and playing. That's just a difference in age.

"That's not an excuse, that's just kind of where we're at. As coaches we've got to figure out, 'Okay, how do we make sure that this issue and that issue is not an issue two, three years from now.' "

A quick fix to this problem would usually be looking to junior college players. With a couple years of playing experience, those players can transfer to a FBS team and make a more immediate impact than a freshman.

But with Michigan's academic policies, that isn't really an option. A lot of the junior-college credits simply won't transfer, according to Rodriguez.

That means there is no short-term solution to the bigger issues at work in the program.

If Michigan makes a bowl game, which it can qualify for with one more win, then the Wolverines get 15 extra practices — a small way to boost the team's experience.

"It's almost like an extra spring practice (which also lasts 15 sessions)," Rodriguez said. "And you get a chance to develop those young guys."

But for Rodriguez, turning around Michigan's recent fate still comes down to restoring depth. And that takes time.

"We are not good enough to play poorly and win — we're not at that point experience-wise and talent-wise," Rodriguez said. "It goes back to, if you ask this guy to do this, maybe he's not capable of doing that. So we've gone through all those issues.

"My defensive staff and my offensive staff, they have a lot of experience in dealing with this, and they've been in similar situations. So they're all coming together and thinking about it and doing the best we can with it."