With the first of 15 spring practices set for tomorrow, Michigan coach Lloyd Carr says he is eager to get to work.

“It’s really a new team, and that’s always an exciting time,” Carr said. “You’ve got to find replacements for the guys who left and do the things it takes to put another team together.”

The Wolverines return 15 starters from last year’s team, a squad that finished 9-3, shared the Big Ten championship with Iowa and lost the Rose Bowl to Texas on the game’s final play.

Many consider Michigan a preseason top-five team, but Carr readily admitted that there is plenty to work on between now and the spring game on April 16.

The most critical issue is the defense’s play against the spread offense and mobile quarterbacks, the emergence of which Carr called “the biggest change in college football since the wishbone.” After a solid start to the season, the Wolverines allowed 33 points per game in the season’s final four games.

Although Carr didn’t specifically say what he had learned from his evaluation of last season’s finish, he said that both the scheming and the performance of individual players — open-field tackling in particular — will be worked on.

“You have to tackle better, and that’s a challenge,” Carr said. “With everything spread out, players are asked to make tackles in the open field. It’s a much different game than 20 years ago.”

In the next month, Michigan will also spend time finding replacements for receiver Braylon Edwards, cornerback Marlin Jackson, offensive lineman David Baas and safety Ernest Shazor, all of whom were All-Americans last season.

Filling the void left by the four won’t be up to specific players, Carr said. To replace Edwards, who carried the Wolverines’ offense for stretches last season, Carr hopes projected starters Jason Avant and Steve Breaston will have their best seasons yet.

Carr is also looking forward to seeing how quarterback Chad Henne and running back Mike Hart progress during their first spring in Ann Arbor. Henne will receive the vast majority of snaps in the next month. Matt Gutierrez, who had shoulder surgery last fall, will not participate in contact drills and Clayton Richard is currently playing on Michigan’s baseball team.

The hope for Hart — the Big Ten’s leading rusher last fall — is that he will not have to be the workhorse he was last season. Carr said he is looking forward to seeing freshman Max Martin and Kevin Grady, who will be a freshman in the fall but is already enrolled in classes, during the next month’s practice sessions.

Aside from individual improvement, a priority for many Wolverines this spring will be simply to get healthy. Carr said he couldn’t remember having so many players either out or limited by injury, and, as a result, there will be less contact drills and tackling. Among those dealing with injuries are defensive linemen Jeremy Van Alstyne and Tim Jamison, as well as offensive linemen Jake Long and Leo Henige.

Because so many players are banged up, Carr had a message for fans contemplating making the trip to Michigan Stadium for the spring game on April 16th: “If you’re looking for tackling, come back on September 3.”


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