Reclamation project (cont.)
Posted: Thursday April 3, 2008 12:25PM; Updated: Friday April 4, 2008 5:41PM
The most identifiable facet of Rodriguez's West Virginia program was his offense, which, led by stars Pat White and Steve Slaton, ranked in the top-four nationally in rushing offense each of the past three seasons (during which the Mountaineers went 33-5). Equally important, but not as visible to the public, was the impact of highly regarded strength coach Mike Barwis.
Barwis, like most of the Mountaineers' staff, followed Rodriguez to Ann Arbor, where he has become a cult figure among Wolverines fans due to a video (warning: contains explicit language) showcasing his sometimes frightening intensity. Adding to his legend is the recent revelation that Barwis was once an ultimate fighter.
One of the first things Rodriguez did upon his arrival was ask for, and receive, a "blank check" from Martin to replace nearly all the machines in the Wolverines' weight room with the type of "Olympic"-style equipment preferred by Barwis. In a 10-minute conversation last week, the strength coach described his conditioning program in vivid detail (complete with demonstrations). Admittedly, I didn't understand 90 percent of what he said, but he made it clear the new staff puts great emphasis on speed and agility (the Wolverines lift three days a week but run four out of five days).
"Conditioning is invaluable for this football team because we don't take rests," said Barwis. "When we spot the ball, they've got to be ready to play.
"Our conditioning is hell, it's ruthless, but we can't have fat, overweight linemen, because they have to be able to get right up and jog to the line of scrimmage."
Michigan's players have been adjusting to the "ruthless" conditioning since January. At the time of my visit, however, they'd only held six actual practices under the new staff -- and it showed, particularly on offense.
Already dealt an extremely inexperienced unit, one that returns just three starters and must replace veteran standouts Chad Henne, Mike Hart, Jake Long, Manningham and Arrington, Rodriguez is attempting to implement his no-huddle spread offense with personnel recruited for Michigan's old, pro-style system. In addition to a dearth of linemen, Rodriguez lacks enough quality receivers to run his preferred four- and five-wide sets, often using multiple tight ends instead. (As a result of the shortage, Michigan is not holding a traditional spring game.)
Then there's quarterback, where the departure of Henne and Mallet left the Wolverines with no game-tested signal-callers (making matters worse, celebrated recruit Terrelle Pryor opted to sign with Ohio State). Redshirt freshman Steven Threet, a former Georgia Tech signee, and sophomore walk-on Nick Sheridan, the son of New York Giants linebackers coach (and former Carr assistant) Bill Sheridan, are sharing first-team reps.
At first glance, the more mobile, 6-foot-1 Sheridan seems the better fit for Rodriguez's offense due to his relatively strong arm and ability to throw on the run, but in "live" action, his accuracy was spotty. The 6-6, 230-pound Threet looks more like a traditional Michigan QB (he even wears Tom Brady's old No. 10 jersey) and possesses more command in the pocket.
Both face a steep learning curve, however. In a rare move, Rodriguez recently removed their green "non-contact" jerseys because "we've got to teach them to get rid of the ball quicker, so they're getting hit some. It's tough on them because the O-line is still learning some of the protection schemes."
If the Wolverines have one strength on offense, it's at tailback, where veterans Brandon Minor, Carlos Brown and Kevin Grady all return, but the offensive line will have to improve considerably for any of them to be effective. Rodriguez is counting on touted incoming freshmen like 6-8, 291-pound tackle Dann O'Neill to contribute immediately.
Asked if the implementation of the offense has been similar to that of his first spring in Morgantown, Rodriguez said, "Yeah -- painfully so. I don't know why I would have expected any different. I signed up for it, so I knew the transition would be difficult at times.
"Every first spring we've put this offense in has been as ugly an offensive football as you'd want to see. It's a struggle to get a first down against air, nevertheless when you put 11 guys on defense out there."
The good news for the Wolverines is that those 11 guys on defense are far more experienced. Led up front by veterans Tim Jamison, Terrance Taylor, Will Johnson and Brandon Graham, and with both Trent and freshman All-America Donovan Warren (by far the most impressive player in practice) at cornerback, a dominant defense will likely be Michigan's best hope for a respectable transition season. Rodriguez hired Stanford coordinator Scott Shafer, 41, a native Ohioan and former coordinator at Northern Illinois and Western Michigan, to lead the unit.
"To me, there are no wins that are ugly," said Rodriguez. "If the score is 7-6, and Michigan wins, then I'm going to be a happy camper."
For his sake, Rodriguez better hope there are more of those W's this season than his first year at West Virginia, when the Mountaineers slipped from 7-5 to 3-8. Most Wolverines fans were excited when the school hired Rodriguez and have been generally accepting of the reality that the offensive transition won't happen overnight.
There is also a segment of Maize and Blue traditionalists, however, who may be leery of the new coach in light of all the negative headlines that have followed him from Morgantown to Ann Arbor, capped off by Boren's comments, and will not hesitate to pounce at the first sign of on-the-field troubles. Several local radio hosts and columnists already have.
"You expect [a coaching change] to be difficult, but this has been a lot more than I would have imagined," said Rodriguez. "There's nothing in Coaching 101 that could prepare you for what's gone on in the past three months."
All he can do is prepare his players for the long months ahead.
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