Fans who visited Michigan Stadium this weekend for Photo Day noticed something that has been absent from the Big House for a long time – a green football field.
Along with the unveiling of this year’s squad came the first public showing of the newly installed FieldTurf, the artificial surface that Michigan will play on this season. Made up of crushed tires and sand and covered with synthetic grass, FieldTurf is quickly becoming one of the newest fads to hit football stadiums across the country. Michigan coach Lloyd Carr gave it his stamp of approval in his address to the media on Saturday.
“We did have an opportunity to practice on the field, (and) I think it’s going to be a great surface,” Carr said. “I think it’s going to be tremendous for guys who play in the stadium.”
After Michigan’s 27-24 overtime win against Penn State last season, in which the grass was coming up in large clumps, Carr commented that he thought it was time for a switch in playing surface. At the end of the season it was determined that the natural grass surface that had been in Michigan Stadium for over 10 years was less than satisfactory for game situations. The Wolverines decided on the FieldTurf surface because the team has already had experience playing on it in Oosterbaan Field House, Michigan’s indoor practice facility.
“We’re used to it from the standpoint that we have an indoor building,” Carr said. “The one noticeable difference is the heat that’s probably 10 to 15 degrees hotter out there than it would be if it were grass.”
Fighting for position: Although many players seem to be locks to start at their respective positions, Carr remained adamant that nothing is for sure.
“This is my take on competition – earn it,” Carr said. “When you earn something, that doesn’t mean the competition is over, because somebody else wants that job. So I think that if you can develop that mentality, as a coach, as a player, in anything you do, you have to fight that sense of entitlement that, ‘Once I earn it, I own it’. That’s not true.”
The competition will be heated at several positions this year as Michigan has some holes to patch. Among those positions is the Wolverines’ placekicking unit, which struggled for much of last year before junior Adam Finley stepped in and made seven of 10 field goals during the latter part of the season.
Finley’s hold on the job is by no means a strong one. Incoming freshman Garret Rivas, a Tampa, Fla. native, was ranked by many recruiting services as one of the top kickers in the nation last year.
“Rivas has created quite a stir in our training camp the first four days because he’s one of those kids who has a great leg,” Carr said. “When the ball comes off his foot, the ball explodes.”
The departure of seniors Bennie Joppru (at tight end) and B.J. Askew (at fullback) – who were drafted by the Houston Texans and the New York Jets respectively in the NFL Draft – creates two big pairs of shoes to fill. Besides being two of John Navarre’s main targets, both players displayed stellar blocking ability.
The competition seems to be a two-man race between fifth-year senior Andy Mignery and sophomore Tim Massaquoi at tight end. In addition, sophomores Tyler Ecker and Kevin Murphy could also vye for time as backups.
“Our tight end position, we don’t have much experience there, but we do have very good talent there,” Carr said.
At fullback, Michigan was hoping to have Sean Sanderson assume the role, but Carr suspended Sanderson for off-the-field problems. That leaves a tight battle between Kevin Dudley, Brian Thompson and incoming freshman Jim Presley, who has been having knee trouble.
“(Presley) is behind a little bit,” Carr said. “He’s been able to practice. The knee doesn’t seem to bother him, and I think he’s going to get better every single day. Kevin Dudley’s an underrated football player. He’s a blue-collar football player, a guy who is willing to go in there and do the tough dirty jobs. Brian Thompson I think has tremendous upside. He’s 230 pounds now, he can run, he’s very athletic – an outstanding pass catcher.”
Injury update: A few key players still remain beat up from last season, especially at linebacker. Senior Zach Kaufman is coming off a lingering knee injury suffered last season, and the healing process has been slow.
“Zach Kaufman has struggled – they held him out this morning,” Carr said. “His knee is swollen and we’ll back off of him a couple of days.”
In addition, fellow senior Carl Diggs, and juniors Lawerence Reid and Roy Manning have all been hampered by injury. Despite these setbacks, Diggs said that he has high expectations for the linebacking corps.
“I think we have been coming together really well as a group,” Diggs said. “Zach and I went down at the beginning of the (2002) season, the young guys got a chance to get in there in the spring and learn a lot.”