Michigan coach Lloyd Carr is “fired up.”
While he readily admitted that his excitement regarding the 2003-04 football season is no different than in any other year, Carr has plenty to be fired up about.
The Wolverines participated in the first of 15 spring practices Saturday morning, and for the first time since spring practice of 1989, they return their top passer (John Navarre), top rusher (Chris Perry) and top receiver (Braylon Edwards).
The Wolverines also boast an experienced, proven offensive line for the first time since the graduation of Michigan’s NFL-caliber line of 2000-01, as seven linemen with significant playing experience return. All-Big Ten performers Tony Pape and David Baas, along with young stalwarts Matt Lentz and Adam Stenavich, should give the Wolverines a solid base to build around.
But who will be the featured back when offensive coordinator Terry Malone calls the fullback screen? Who will Navarre count on when confronted with a tough third-down conversion? Without B.J. Askew and Bennie Joppru, these are questions the Wolverines must begin to answer during spring practice.
The incumbent at fullback entering spring practice is junior Sean Sanderson, but Carr continued to be non-committal about whether Sanderson is his guy.
Former blue-chip wide receiver Tim Massaquoi, who made the switch to tight end last season, should be Carr’s best option at tight end. While Massaquoi’s 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame is smaller than a traditional tight end, his speed (4.5 second 40-yard dash) and added agility will contribute to a Michigan offense that has the ability to stretch the field. Carr said that his first priority with Massaquoi will be helping him learn the tight end position, but once Massaquoi is comfortable, Carr would consider using him as a fullback or “H-back,” much like former fullback Aaron Shea.
There aren’t many holes in Michigan’s first-string skill positions, but finding some dependable depth is a huge concern for Carr and his staff. Juniors David Underwood and Tim Bracken will have first dibs on the back-up positions behind Perry, but Carr is planning to take a long look at redshirt freshmen Pierre Rembert and Darnell Hood.
Edwards has established himself as the No. 1 receiving option, and as of Saturday, he has the jersey to back it up. Edwards asked for the No. 1 jersey, and Carr rewarded the junior accordingly. But who will be Navarre’s No. 2 option? Sophomore Jason Avant has a good chance at winning the starting role, but seniors Tyrece Butler and Calvin Bell, junior Jermaine Gonzales and redshirt freshmen Steve Breaston and Carl Tabb will all have a chance to earn playing time at receiver.
A youth movement: Michigan senior linebackers Carl Diggs and Zach Kaufman will not participate in spring practice due to nagging knee injuries. Carr said that neither injuries should be career-threatening and that both should be ready for fall practice.
While the two returning starters from last season will sit out, sophomore Lawrence Reid and junior Roy Manning, who missed all of last season, will get a great chance to get back in the swing of things.
But the main question at linebacker is how will sophomore Pierre Woods, formerly a defensive end, adjust to his move to the SAM linebacker position? Woods, one of the best athletes on the team, was one of the Wolverines’ top special teamers last season. Michigan defensive coordinator Jim Hermann said after the Outback Bowl that he and his staff would have to make an effort to get Woods on the field, and it looks like Woods will have every chance to earn a starting role next season.
Safety first: The Wolverines lost three safeties (Cato June, Charles Drake and Julius Curry) to graduation, making the competition at safety one of the most important things to watch at spring practice.
New defensive backs’ coach Ron English will be counting on sophomore Ernest Shazor to take control at one spot, while the second spot will be up for grabs between senior Jon Shaw, sophomore Jacob Stewart and redshirt freshman Willis Barringer.
Carr indicated that the pecking order at safety could change once freshmen blue-chippers Ryan Mundy, who was watching practice Saturday, and Prescott Burgess arrive on campus in the fall.