For the second straight spring, Chad Henne is entering the upcoming season as the consensus No. 1 quarterback for Michigan. But unlike last season, he doesn’t have a steady insurance policy behind him.
Now that last year’s backup, Matt Gutierrez, has transferred to Idaho State, a rather large void has been left at the No. 2 slot. Redshirt freshman Jason Forcier, whose top accomplishment according to the media guide is leading last year’s scout team, seems to be the backup as of now. Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said he looks for true freshman David Cone to compete for the spot as well next fall.
Carr has raved that this year’s backfield will be a lot deeper than last year’s, which saw then-sophomore Mike Hart battle injuries, then-freshman Kevin Grady make typical first-year mistakes and then-sophomore Max Martin suffer from fumblitis.
Now, Hart says he’s completely 100-percent, Grady has slimmed down significantly and has a year of experience under his belt, and Martin has transferred, leaving an opportunity for playing time for other emerging Wolverines.
True freshman Carlos Brown, who has enrolled in classes a semester early just like Grady did last year, has already wowed teammates with his breakaway speed. Senior Alijah Bradley and redshirt freshman Mister Simpson also hope to be in the ball carrier mix as the season progresses. Senior Jerome Jackson, who received a good deal of playing time last season, was held out of spring practice due to injury.
Wide Receiver/Tight End
Fifth-year senior Steve Breaston and sophomore Mario Manningham seem to have solidified themselves at the top two receiver positions. Still, neither grabbed more than 30 catches last year and will look to this season as a way of proving themselves as legitimate threats at wideout.
The graduation of Jason Avant has created an opening for a possession receiver to emerge. Breaston excels at the short routes, and Manningham is more of a deep threat, so Carr will be searching for someone to fill the possession role that Avant played so well last season. Candidates for that spot include sophomores Adrian Arrington and Doug Dutch, senior Carl Tabb and redshirt freshman LaTerryal Savoy.
At the tight end spot, senior Tyler Ecker looks to be the top dog with the graduation of Tim Massaquoi. Sophomore Mike Massey and redshirt freshman Carson Butler will compete for the backup slot.
Carr has stated that four of the five spots seem to be pretty well set, with the right guard position still open for competition. Junior Jake Long has moved from right tackle to left tackle, a spot more natural for the left-hander. Next to him at left guard will be junior Adam Kraus. The right tackle spot that Long played last year will be occupied by senior Rueben Riley, and fellow senior Mark Bihl, who started one game at center last year, will take over as the full-time starter at that position.
The lone spot that looks up for competition seems to be the right guard position, which senior Mike Kolodziej and sophomore Alex Mitchell are fighting for. Carr seemed impressed with Mitchell’s progress over the spring but said he must lose weight if he wants playing time.
The Wolverines have a big hole to fill in the middle of the line with the graduation of All-Big Ten nose tackle Gabe Watson. Junior Alan Branch spent most of last season switching back and forth between tackle and end. As it stands right now, it looks as if Branch will take Watson’s spot in the lineup. Sophomore Terrance Taylor seems to be the front runner to start alongside Branch. Junior Will Johnson saw significant time at tackle last season, but has missed time this spring with an injury. He should be in the mix come fall practice.
Senior LaMarr Woodley briefly considered leaving Michigan for the NFL Draft after his junior season, but he decided to come back for a final go-around. Woodley looks to be a lock to retain his job as starting rush linebacker. With his size and athleticism, junior Tim Jamison’s should also find his way onto the field. The starting spot on the other side of the line is a little harder to call. Injuries limited fifth-year senior Rondell Biggs’s time in the lineup last season, but his experience should give him the starting job this year. Carr has always spoken highly of fifth-year senior Jeremy Van Alstyne, who should see significant time off the bench.
Then-junior David Harris had a breakout year in 2005 and comes into the 2006 campaign as one of the top linebackers in the Big Ten. For his final season in Ann Arbor, Harris will anchor the Wolverines’ linebacking corps as their starter in the middle. Senior Prescott Burgess had an impressive junior year and should keep his starting spot on the outside.
The third starter is not as clear. Junior Chris Graham is the returning starter, but senior Shawn Crable saw his playing time increase as last season progressed. At the moment, it appears that Crable has worked his way into a starting lineup. As for the backups, junior John Thompson put in a stellar performance against Iowa. With Graham, Thompson and sophomore Brandon Logan in the mix, the Wolverines’ linebacking depth should be a strength.
The spot opposite senior Leon Hall could create the biggest competition in the offseason for a starting spot. Three people have been battling for the starting cornerback spot, and it’s anyone’s guess who will emerge as the second starter. Sophomore Morgan Trent is the candidate with the most experience. The converted wide receiver saw significant time at the corner last year and was the leading candidate for the starting job as the spring season began.
But both sophomore Charles Stewart and redshirt freshman Johnny Sears have come on strong this spring and have made the cornerback spot very tightly contested.
An injury bug struck Michigan’s safeties last season, which means the Wolverines return a number of experienced players at the position. Junior Jamar Adams is the leading candidate to start at strong safety, but senior Brandent Englemon, who has been out with an injury, will challenge him when he returns. At free safety, fifth-year senior Willis Barringer is the best guess to start, with sophomore Brandon Harrison using the experience he gained last year to be a solid No. 2 at the position.
Even though he missed a 22-yard field goal in the final spring practice, senior Garrett Rivas will assume the placekicker role for his fourth consecutive season. Senior Ross Ryan will be the team’s kickoff specialist once again. But Ryan’s second role from last year, starting punter, should be taken by redshirt freshman Zoltan Mesko. Mesko had multiple booming punts during Saturday’s spring practice, including one that carried over 60 yards in the air.
Breaston will be the focal point in both of the return games this year, both on the punt and kick return team. Joining him on kickoff returns could be Hall, Sears or Bradley, with Hall being the top candidate to return punts behind Breaston.