In years past, Michigan’s nonconference schedule has been a fair to good indication of how the team will play in the Big Ten season. So far this time around it seems like every player at every position and every coach in maize and blue is saying that some things needs to improve. So as the Wolverines prepare to step into the exciting and often unpredictable world of Big Ten football, it’s time to look at what’s worked – Marlin Jackson, for instance – and what hasn’t – like field goals.
Special Teams: It is among the most pressing issue facing the Michigan coaching staff. Why can’t placekicker Phil Brabbs knock them through the uprights on Saturdays the way he does in practice? His coaches and teammates say they have faith, although coach Lloyd Carr has hinted at moving punter Adam Finley (who, incidentally, has been more than reliable in his punting duties) to the position.
“I wish I had an answer,” Carr said. “You have to remember that there are a couple of ways to look at this. Philip Brabbs has kicked two game-winning field goals here. Is he kicking as well as we would like? No, but you just have to have faith and confidence that it will get better.”
Brabbs’ game-winner against Washington, and solid (and fumble-free) punt and kickoff returns from Julius Curry and Jeremy LeSueur, respectfully, keep the special teams unit afloat. The only aspect of special teams that can improve is its field goal kicking, but it requires serious and immediate improvement.
Quarterback: John Navarre, up until last weekend against Utah, probably deserved an A. All the old criticisms of Navarre – his inability to check off his receivers, his lack of pocket presence, his tendency to overthrow receivers – seemed to have been silenced in the first three games.
Navarre even showed some mobility, scrambling out of the pocket against Notre Dame and Utah. But his most recent outing was by far his worst. Granted, Navarre has had little help from his receivers (who are dropping passes with unfortunate frequency), but his paltry 186 yards passing and difficulty in keeping the offense moving downfield is cause for concern. Navarre has looked increasingly worse as past seasons have progressed; if he can play like he did in the first three games for the next eight, the Michigan offense will be all right.
Dropping passes “is the big thing that we have to fix and it is an easy thing to fix,” Navarre said. “That is what we have to do going into the Big Ten season where teams get a lot better.”
Running Back: Chris Perry has looked good, carrying the balls 82 times and rushing for an average of 101.8 yards per game. But the fumbles! Perry was benched temporarily after coughing up the ball on the goalline in the first quarter against Utah, and knows that he has something to prove to his teammates and to coach Carr. If he can keep running the way he’s been running and also keep the ball tucked away safely, his grade in the Big Ten season will improve.
Wide Receiver/Tight End: Braylon Edwards is as explosive a receiver as Michigan has seen this season, earning comparisons to David Terrell and Marquis Walker. His game-breaking abilities were no more apparent than in the Utah game, when a 44-yard bomb from Navarre set up a 12-yard touchdown reception – Michigan’s only touchdown.
All the Michigan receivers need to keep from dropping the ball, and Navarre sometimes needs to do a better job finding his second and third option. Bennie Joppru has shown the ability to be the offense’s wild card.
OFFENSIVE LINE: The line has done what is asked of them. The Michigan style of play that wears down opposing defensive lines over the course of a game has worked well, evident by Chris Perry’s seven and eleven yard runs late in the Utah game. They have given Navarre decent protection, although that can improve. They are getting better than average push in the trenches.
“I think we are playing really well,” junior Tony Pape said. “We are running the ball well but we need to protect John (Navarre) a little better. We have allowed too many hurries and I think we need to give him more time back there.”
DEFENSIVE LINE: The run? What run? The line has held, and is getting to opposing quarterbacks with satisfactory frequency (17 sacks in the four games). Opponents are rushing just 81.8 yards per game, and 2.5 yards per carry.
LINEBACKERS: “I think we need to be more consistent as a group,” senior captain Victor Hobson said. “We have the talent to do it and we have the experience. We just need to come out and be more consistent.”
Every team has been able to pick apart Michigan’s zone pass defense and march down the field, and the linebackers are a big part of that. Further, the entirety of the Michigan defense has had a tough time making tackles, and the linebackers are going to be the first to incur the wrath of the coaching staff if the trend continues.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Marlin Jackson has emerged as the preeminent cover corner in the Big Ten, and is among the best in the country. Quarterbacks are not only avoiding his side of the field, but readily admitting as much (Utah quarterback Lance Rice said their game plan was altered because of Jackson’s presence). That being said, the team has allowed over 230 yards per game in the air, and the defensive backs, like the linebackers, are having a difficult time tackling. Jackson gets an A+. The defensive backs as a unit is not yet that good.
OVERALL: A lot of these concerns are ones that Michigan has had for years. The likelihood is that they will all be addressed – the question is whether they can be remedied and then kept in place over the rest of the season.