PASADENA, Calif. — When Lloyd Carr finally sits down to figure out exactly how to revamp the defense (with or without defensive coordinator Jim Herrmann), he ought to keep in mind the way he and his assistants have revolutionized the offense.

Sharad Mattu

Think “revolutionized” is going too far? Well, think back to the beginning of the season when the Wolverines were supposed to go as far as their defense would take them. That’s when they were still trying to find a running back and true freshman quarterback Chad Henne was just settling in. Back then, the defense even managed to exceed expectations.

But then each unit took a drastic turn.

The Wolverines allowed mobile quarterbacks such as Michigan State’s Drew Stanton and Ohio State’s Troy Smith to pick them apart. Then, with nearly a month to prepare, they allowed Texas’s Vince Young to do the same.

While the defense stumbled, the offense developed into a balanced and explosive unit. It gutted out wins over Minnesota and Purdue with late scores, exploded late for an epic overtime victory under the lights against Michigan State and capped the season by scoring 37 points against an excellent Longhorns defense.

The Wolverines are going to lose one of their best players ever in receiver Braylon Edwards and other valuable offensive players in center David Baas and fullback Kevin Dudley, but they still could be an offensive juggernaut next year. Henne and Mike Hart have just begun their careers, and receivers Jason Avant and Steve Breaston have shown over the course of the season that, when healthy, they can step up and be stars.

But Michigan’s offense didn’t become great this year solely because it has great players; in fact, its defense has just as much talent. No, the reason one unit was peaking and the other was reeling is coaching.

Once known for their grind-it-out running game, the Wolverines are now known for sending quarterback after quarterback to the NFL and having perhaps the best receiving corps in the nation.

And these changes didn’t happen on their own. Although assistant coaches rarely speak to the media and little is known about them, it’s clear that, on offense, Michigan has some of the best. It’s why — even if the talent on next year’s team doesn’t quite stack up with this year’s — the offense will likely continue to put up points.

There’s quarterbacks coach Scot Loeffler, who Henne said is one of the biggest reasons he came to Ann Arbor and who John Navarre credits for much of his development while at Michigan.

Loeffler made Henne’s transition to college football smoother than ever seemed possible. In Pasadena, the young quarterback was composed and spread the ball around like the veteran that he isn’t. His final numbers for the season — 25 touchdowns to just 12 interceptions and a completion percentage over 60 — are stellar, but he wasn’t headed to these kind of numbers five games into the season. That rapid improvement can be credited, in large part, to Loeffler.

In offensive coordinator Terry Malone and running backs coach Fred Jackson, Michigan has two more coaches who have made sure that its offense is all that it can be.

This season, the coaches started freshmen at quarterback and running back, something that is completely unheard of at Michigan. They were willing to open the offense up and put four receivers on the field and pass the ball on nearly every down if they thought it would work.

Up just three points in the fourth quarter against Texas, the Wolverines attempted a flea-flicker, something that seems very unlike them but really isn’t.

As well as the offense played late this season, it’s possible that, with three more years of Henne and Hart, the best is yet to come. And with offensive coaches that are as bold and daring as any Michigan team has ever had, there’s an excellent chance the offense will reach its potential.

If we can say the same about the defense one year from now, then we may be talking about a third straight Rose Bowl, in which case Michigan would be playing for the national championship.

 

Sharad Mattu can be reached at smattu@umich.edu.

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