Chad Henne looked like a freshman his first two games, but he single-handedly saved the Wolverines from dropping their third game of the year against Northwestern when he returned from injury. Still, his inconsistency is something almost no one would have expected from a fourth-year starter. Backup Ryan Mallett got some unexpected experience early on, which is extremely valuable for future Wolverine teams, but he was far from struggle-free in relief of Henne. While the future may be bright at this position, the present has underachieved, and a second-half turnaround is a must if Michigan wants to make a run for the Big Ten Championship.
Heisman candidate Mike Hart has been this teams’s pulse – at times, the only indication the Wolverines are still alive. Not only has he rushed for 976 yards and 10 touchdowns just six games into the season, not only did he become Michigan’s all-time leading rusher in the process, not only is he the nation’s current all-time leading rusher, but he’s also the unquestioned leader of the team. It doesn’t matter whether his Notre Dame guarantee is what galvanized the team; there’s no doubt that as Hart goes, so does this team. Backups Brandon Minor and Carlos Brown have been disappointing though. Minor sat out the Eastern Michigan game for undisclosed reasons.
Just like the rest of the Michigan defense, it took a while before a new group of linebackers could settle into its role. Inexperience and execution were the biggest factor in the first two losses, when outside linebackers like Chris Graham had to cover slot receivers (a clear mismatch) and senior captain Shawn Crable moved into a three-point stance on the defensive line. Injuries have slowed Graham and emerging middle linebacker John Thompson the last two weeks, but backups Obi Ezeh and Brandon Logan have made the most of their chance to play.
This unit came into the season with the most questions and has already seen the most turnover from its original starting lineup. Opening-day starter Johnny Sears is off the team, and safety Stevie Brown plays exclusively on special teams. So it’s safe to say the secondary got off on the wrong foot. But the group has come around in the last few weeks, albeit slowly. Freshman Donovan Warren has settled in opposite Morgan Trent at cornerback, and Brandent Englemon has brought passion and experience to the defensive backfield.
Wide receivers/tight ends
Though this group has dealt with the most off-field issues in the past year – Mario Manningham, Adrian Arrington, Greg Mathews and Carson Butler all faced disciplinary action in the past six months – it has been one of the most consistent performers on the field. Arrington has put himself on the map this season, making his partnership with Mario Manningham more of an option 1A and 1B than one and two. Mathews has become Henne’s go-to option on third downs. After tight end Mike Massey had season-ending surgery last week, Butler regained the starter job most assumed he’d have before being dismissed from the team in the offseason.
Led by All-American left tackle Jake Long and senior left guard Adam Kraus, the offensive line has done a fine job opening holes for running back Mike Hart. With the front’s help, Hart is on pace to set nearly every single-season rushing record in Wolverine history. And, at times, the pass protection has been just as good, such as in quarterback Chad Henne’s return against Northwestern. But injuries at right guard have hurt Michigan, and it has already played six different players at the position. This has led to some lapses in key situations, with sacks turning potential Michigan touchdowns into field goals, and sometimes, worse.
Two weeks into the season, everyone thought Michigan coach Lloyd Carr was on the hotseat. While that was never really true, the coaching staff needed to pick it up after a dismal start. Defensive coordinator Ron English has made adjustments against spread teams, and while the Wolverines are still vulnerable against the spread, there has been some progress. Progress doesn’t seem to apply to offensive playcalling, though. Offensive coordinator Mike DeBord seems set on keeping it on the ground. And while Mike Hart may be the nation’s leading rusher, the high-powered offensive attack many hoped for going into the season hasn’t shown up yet.
The most consistent defensive unit, the front four has played pretty well following the Appalachian State debacle. Defensive end Brandon Graham has become a pass-rushing force, and defensive tackle Terrance Taylor plays like the run-stuffer everybody expected him to be on almost every play. Defensive tackle Will Johnson has stepped in nicely to replace the departed Alan Branch, and defensive end Tim Jamison has contributed at least one nice play in almost every game. The depth along the line has been impressive. After losing half of last season’s starting four linemen to the NFL, there hasn’t been too much of a dropoff this season.
Six games into the season and this unit is far from settled. From mental mistakes to inconsistency, Michigan has done a fine job providing instructional videos on what not to do on special teams. Starting kicker Jason Gingell went 3-for-9 in his first five games before Michigan coach Lloyd Carr replaced him. Five different players have served as kick returners, and none has stood out. The unit is even finding new ways to screw up, such as when it allowed Eastern Michigan to return a blocked extra-point attempt for a two-point conversion. If not for some extra credit turned in by punter Zoltan Mesko, the unit would certainly be failing.