Without a bowl game to prepare for, Michigan football coach Rich Rodriguez will use the extra time this winter to recruit players and visit other coaches — and try to stay under the radar.
“Nothing on that little ESPN ticker, no statements on ‘he said, she said,’ no drama on lawsuits and accusations,” Rodriguez said. “(Last offseason) was absolutely ridiculous. … As coaches, we’re in the public life so we have to realize it. It’s a big boy’s world, so I understand that.”
Many of the Michigan assistant coaches are already on the road recruiting, and Rodriguez will leave Ann Arbor next week to visit potential commitments. He said the Wolverines will likely sign between 20 and 23 athletes in the spring.
In their free time, the Michigan coaches will travel to exchange ideas with other teams. While coaching at West Virginia, Rodriguez shared his offensive schemes with Ohio State coach Jim Tressel. And as the Clemson offensive coordinator in 1999, Rodriguez met with former Northwestern coach Randy Walker and offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson, not knowing the teams he helped would eventually become his conference foes.
Though Rodriguez didn’t have time to travel anywhere last spring after being introduced as the Michigan head coach, he said he and his staff will likely continue their annual meeting with Wilson, who is now the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma.
“We had some people visit (last spring), like our buddies at Oklahoma,” Rodriguez said. “They are averaging about 50 points a game, better than we were. We may make the return trip down there to see those guys. They took the no-huddle and did a lot better than we did with it.”
Rodriguez said he will still have to study other teams’ defensive and special teams schemes to see which ones could help Michigan improve next year.
Roster changes: Junior defensive end Brandon Graham will soon be making the decision to stay at Michigan or leave for the NFL.
Rodriguez said he thinks Graham will be back.
“Other coaches have (talked to Graham about his status),” Rodriguez said. “I think he’s planning on coming back — and he should.”
After Saturday’s loss to Ohio State, running backs coach Fred Jackson said Graham said he would be returning for his senior year.
Another player recently mentioned in attrition rumors was freshman running back Sam McGuffie, who was the team’s second-leading rusher this season. He pulled himself out of the Northwestern game on Nov. 15 minutes before kickoff, and Rodriguez said two days later McGuffie had a death in the family. He returned for Saturday’s game against Ohio State but suffered a concussion on his first kickoff return.
But Rodriguez said he talked to McGuffie last week about his family situation, and the Cypress, Texas native isn’t planning to leave.
“He has some tough issues and he’s a long way from home, trying to take care of his family,” Rodriguez said. “Here’s a young man trying to take care of his 16-year old brother and is a long way from home. … He had a pretty good freshman year, he got banged up a little bit at the end, but hopefully it will work out.”
Rodriguez confirmed sophomore safety Artis Chambers has been off the team since last week. He said a couple Wolverines didn’t attend Sunday’s team meeting because of “emergencies” and said “an underclassman … was not there that may be graduating.”
And redshirt junior guard Cory Zirbel, who suffered a season-ending knee injury before the start of the season, has most likely played his last game. Rodriguez said Zirbel’s injury is probably too severe for him to play next season, but he has talked to Zirbel about returning as a student assistant coach next season.
“We want him back as a student assistant coach, which he kind of did at the end of the year (with the scout team), and he was terrific,” Rodriguez said.
Getting a head start: Next year’s redshirt freshmen and true freshmen will likely be more prepared than this year’s class to make an immediate impact.
Rodriguez said he expects as many as eight recruits to enroll a semester early to get started with the Wolverines’ weight program in January and participate in spring practice.
“In a sense, it gives them an extra semester and a leg up on everybody else,” Rodriguez said. “I’ve never had that many, but it’s pretty exciting.”
Freshman wide receiver Darryl Stonum graduated early from high school and came to Ann Arbor last winter, a decision that Rodriguez said put him ahead of some of the other freshmen. Stonum had 176 receiving yards in 11 games this year.
Some of this year’s redshirts will also be poised to get immediate playing time next season. Rodriguez said freshman wide receiver Terrence Robinson “would have played this year” before he was sidelined with a knee injury and redshirted. Next year, Robinson will likely be used as a slot receiver and kick returner.
With just one returning starter going into this year (redshirt sophomore Stephen Schilling) and injuries to multiple linemen during the year, the offensive line was constantly in flux. Next year, Rodriguez will have at least three more solid contenders for playing time on the offensive line.
Freshmen Patrick Omameh, Rocko Khoury and Ricky Barnum were all redshirted this season, but all traveled with the team. Rodriguez said all three freshmen were almost ready to play.
Note: Eastern Michigan will join Western Michigan and Notre Dame on the Wolverines’ 2009 nonconference schedule, Rodriguez said Monday. In 2007, the last time the Eagles and Wolverines met, Michigan won 33-22 at the Big House. The 2-9 Eagles will come to Ann Arbor next year with a new coach — Eastern Michigan coach Jeff Genyk was fired yesterday morning. One open date remains on Michigan’s 2009 schedule: Oct. 17. The Athletic Department is working to schedule a non-conference home game.