As is the nature of college sports, Michigan has found itself with many holes to fill this offseason. The Wolverines lost a handful of key players last year, and, with the season fast approaching, the Daily football writers wanted to ease your worries — or in some cases fuel the fire — by breaking down who is expected to fill those vacated spots.
Obviously, the most prominent player that won’t be returning to Michigan is No. 1 Braylon Edwards. But the Michigan receiving corps will not be totally depleted.
Senior Jason Avant and junior Steve Breaston will try to fill the void left by the future top-five NFL draft pick. Last season, Avant caught 38 balls for 447 yards and three touchdowns, and Breaston hauled in 34 passes for 291 yards and three touchdowns while also shouldering the punt and kick return duties. The two will certainly play an even bigger role in the offense this season, assuming they can avoid the injuries that plagued each of them at times last season.
Breaston was slow to recover from offseason surgery on his right foot last year and was also hampered by a broken finger. Still, he showed his elusiveness in the Rose Bowl when he broke O.J. Simpson’s record for all-purpose yards in the storied game.
Avant, on the other hand, was forced to sit out the Rose Bowl after undergoing surgery on his left knee. But he is focusing on suiting up for every one of the Wolverines’ games this season.
“My main goal this season is to be healthy the whole season,” Avant said. “Because I know if I’m healthy, and, if I play my hardest, everything else will work out.”
The third receiver spot is still up in the air. It will be filled by either the more experienced junior Carl Tabb, the speedy redshirt freshman Doug Dutch or the tall sophomore Adrian Arrington.
The Wolverines were hurt the most by departures in the secondary. Two All-America first-team selections — Marlin Jackson and Ernest Shazor — will test their skills in the NFL. As a senior cornerback, Jackson’s departure was expected, but strong safety Shazor decided to test the NFL waters with a year of eligibility remaining. Coach Lloyd Carr and many other Wolverines are confident that junior Leon Hall can step in where Jackson left off.
“I think Leon Hall has a chance to be one of the better corners we’ve had here,” Carr said. “I think he’s made dramatic improvement. He’s tough, he’s smart … and what he’s done this spring is impressive.”
Junior Ryan Mundy returns at free safety, but, with the graduation of Markus Curry, there are questions at the other cornerback position and at strong safety. Fifth-year senior Grant Mason will battle junior Darnell Hood for the job at cornerback, and sophomore Jamar Adams will try to beat out junior Brandent Englemon for the starting strong safety spot.
“We’re going to be young in the secondary, but I think Englemon has really had a good spring,” Carr said. “I think (Adams) will play an important role regardless of what happens.”
All the same, Carr acknowledged that — aside from offensive line and quarterback — safety might be the most difficult position to get a handle on because so many aspects of playing the position depend upon a slew of variables. The high level of skill required for proficiency in the deep secondary means that the Wolverines have their work cut out for them if they want to find consistent production from the position.
“I think one of the reasons that you see so many big plays in today’s football (is that other teams) shift, they motion, they line up with no backs in the backfield,” Carr said. “When the ball is snapped, if you’re one or two steps out of position, then you’re vulnerable. We just have to continue to improve this summer.”
Michigan is traditionally known as a run-first, pass-second team. To continue to run, Carr will need another overpowering offensive line. With the departure of All-America first-team selection David Baas, Chad Henne will have to forge a new center-quarterback relationship. Carr is hoping that junior Rueben Riley can anchor the middle of the line, even though he missed a lot of spring practice.
“We’re going to be unsettled at center until we get into training camp,” Carr said. “(But) Rueben certainly has the athletic ability.”
If Riley steps in and junior Mike Kolodziej can earn the left guard spot, then every starter on the offensive line will have started in at least one game last season. Baas, who is a probably an early round pick, will be a big loss, but maybe Michigan can survive without his massive 6-foot-5, 323-pound presence.
With the graduation of Roy Manning and the startling loss of Lawrence Reid due to atypical bone structure in his spinal cord, there will be some holes to fill at linebacker. Fifth-year senior Scott McClintock returns at inside linebacker, but the roles of junior Prescott Burgess and sophomores Shawn Crable and Chris Graham will increase dramatically next season, and junior David Harris will be a dark horse candidate for significant playing time. If the linebackers perform up to their capabilities, they could be one of the fastest linebacking corps in Michigan history.
“(Graham) is a guy that’s really had a great spring,” Carr said. “I think he’s going to be very difficult to keep out of the lineup. We’ve got good competition (at linebacker). Crable, particularly, is getting comfortable. He’s got really explosive speed. I think there’s a lot of things we can do with him that are going to give us the ability to be a much quicker, faster defense.”
He may not have been the most recognizable Michigan player, but how Michigan handles the loss of Kevin Dudley at fullback may dictate the success of Mike Hart and the rest of the offense. Last season, the 6-foot-1, 236-pound blocking back cleared holes twice the size of the diminutive Hart. Brian Thompson would be the obvious replacement for Dudley, but the junior missed all the spring practices because of a broken bone in his foot. If Thompson doesn’t heal in time for next season, Carr will call on either junior Obi Oluigbo or redshirt freshman Mike Massey to fill in.
“We missed Brian Thompson, but I think Obi really had a good spring,” Carr said. “To do the things we want to do at that position, he’s got to work hard this spring and summer on catching the football. … If you saw, another one of these young guys who made great strides today and throughout the spring is Mike Massey. So I think Massey is going to play an important role on this football team.”
It seems like Adam Finley has been punting for Michigan since the days of Bo Schembechler. But this season, Michigan will have to find a new punter to pin opponents deep in their own territory. Senior Mark Spencer and incoming freshman Zoltan Mesko are the leading candidates to replace Finley.
“The biggest question mark in our special teams, from a skill standpoint, is the punter,” Carr said. “We’ll have nobody that has game experience.”