When I began looking over the Michigan roster for the 2011 season, I came to the realization that certain current athletes would have to not only improve but excel on a consistent basis for the Michigan team to reach its’ full potential. The following players will have to make a tremendous impact if Michigan is to contend for a Big Ten title in 2011.
PASS TO SET UP THE RUN
Denard Robinson — the obvious choice — is not only the face of the team but also accounted for most of Michigan’s yards gained from scrimmage last season. His arm and legs directly contributed to the outcome of most, if not all, the games in 2010.
Brady Hoke and new offensive coordinator Al Borges have indicated they are planning for and are expecting that Denard Robinson will pass more than he’ll run in 2011. And if they stick to those plans, Denard’s role in the offense without question will have to evolve.
We all know Denard is fast and can contribute to the running game if given the opportunity. Yet, he must improve on his arm strength, awareness and accuracy to excel in the Hoke’s new “West Coast” I-formation based offense. If he improves his passing game and elevates his throwing skills to the level of his running ability, then Denard has chance to become not only one of the greatest Michigan players of all time, but also one of the best college football players of all time. It’s true!
This season and how Denard Robinson handles the offensive transition will show us all his true potential not only as a player but as a person and a leader. And as Denard goes, so goes the Wolverines.
WE MUST PROTECT THIS HOUSE
Elliott Mealer is another name on the roster that stands out to me.
If Elliott can step up and become a leader on the offensive line and if he plays up to what I believe is his potential, the offensive production will benefit greatly. The 6’5″ 313lbs redshirt junior Mealer needs to become the anchor and he carries much weight on his shoulders.
It will be imperative that the offensive line too plays up to its’ potential as a group and they adjust well to the new offensive philosophy.
For one, a strong, solid offensive line will give Denard more time to pass and allow him to develop more poise in the pocket to make better throwing decisions and allow him more time to watch the plays progress downfield before attempting to scramble for first downs.
Good blocking goes a long way in this game and will be vital for Michigan’s offensive productivity in 2011.
RUNNING AGAINST THE WIND
The running back position will be of crucial importance. I believe that the smaller Michigan running backs like Vincent Smith and Michael Shaw will be utilized in more of a flanker or wide-out type roll in the new offensive scheme and the big Texan Stephen Hopkins or Ohio native Fitzgerald Toussaint will carry the bulk of the running game workload.
Regardless of who is carrying the ball, the Michigan running game has some pretty big expectations placed upon it in the new scheme.
BEST OFFENSE IS THE BEST DEFENSE
When I started looking at the defense I didn’t know where to begin. Or for that matter, I could begin anywhere because any spot is a good spot to start.
The embarrassing and dismal defensive play over the past three seasons demands instant improvement on that side of the ball or no matter how good the offense is again, the team’s overall results won’t change if the defense does not excel.
Starting with the defensive line, a few names came to mind but one stands out most…Ryan Van Bergen. Van Bergen is a 6’6″ 283 lbs. defensive end out of Whitehall, MI. Being a senior, Ryan will need to step up and lead his fellow lineman in all aspects of the game. Especially since Brady Hoke is reaffirming his approach that Michigan will always be a senior led team.
The team’s strength, conditioning, performance and leadership will all be improved this year and no one should benefit more from the increased defensive-first focus than Van Bergen. He will need to be fast, elusive and a monster physically to compete this season. Blitzing better, reading the quarterback and picking up audibles will be among the tasks Ryan will need to improve upon and excel at. The Michigan defensive line will also rely on Van Bergen for mental encouragement and to help take slack off the defensive backfield and linebacker core.
As for the linebackers, I expect this group will need to be lead by the 6’5″ 251lbs junior out of Scottsdale, AZ Craig Roh.
Craig was one of the better players on the defensive side of the ball for the Michigan team in 2010. He will need to maintain that success and improve upon it. QB spy packages particularly gave him trouble last year. Being able to read the QB and the offense as it sets up and makes changes will be key to both his passing and rushing defense.
Roh will be required to call the appropriate set changes in the zone coverage packages and will need to know when it’s best to stay with a man to man coverage or when to go to a zone read. Getting acclimated to the new 4-3 defense will be difficult but will ultimately make the linebackers as a group better athletes and more successful football players.
The defensive backfield was probably – for many reasons including injury – the most frustrating position last season and the entire group will need to step up. The brightest player last year that will need to continue his improvement and step up as a leader is the six-foot-nothing, buck-ninety-five-pound redshirt junior Jordan Kovacs.
Kovacs stood out last season due to his dedication to each play and his drive to improve as an athlete was apparent. Those attributes will be needed to teach the younger defensive backs and lead them into battle with the Michael Floyds and Devier Poseys of college football.
Jordan is extremely talented even though his physical stature isn’t picturesque for a 4-3 defense. He will beef-up and continue to study film and get adjusted to the new defensive scheme and I believe he’ll be an integral part of our progression not only as a defense but into a successful team overall.
More-so than any defensive scheme change, it will be the players — I believe — that will be key in the success of the Michigan defense and the players will need to lead by example within the new 4-3 defensive formations. Greg Mattison will help mold and transform his returning players and true freshman alike into real athletes capable of competing at a high level in the Big Ten but the players play the game. And if the Michigan defense is to improve, that adage will hold true in 2011.
The Michigan Wolverines football team will have their work cut out for them. Yet, I trust this new staff is up to the task and as a group they are excited and ready to meet or exceed anyone’s expectations on and off the field.
Get ready to watch the restoration of the Michigan program back to their rightful status as an elite, winning, nationally recognized championship caliber program…and that all starts now.