Michigan seniors looking to salvage Big Blue legacy, end on high note
The 12 tight-knit seniors have endured some of the lowest points in school history
Many defected when Rich Rodriguez took over, but those who stayed have bonded
As Rodriguez works to save job, seniors are working to spark program turnaround
Stephen Schilling, a five-star offensive line recruit from Bellevue, Wash., could have played college football just about anywhere. He chose Michigan, in part, because "they were good every single year."
Heading into his final season in Ann Arbor, Schilling has experienced more losses (20) than wins (17).
His first career start came in Michigan's infamous 2007 loss to Appalachian State. He got to enjoy one notable high -- the Wolverines' Capital One Bowl upset of Tim Tebow-led Florida -- but hasn't been back to a bowl game since, enduring an 8-16 record the past two seasons following the retirement of former coach Lloyd Carr and tenuous succession of Rich Rodriguez.
"None of us came here expecting seasons like that, not going to bowl games," said Schilling. "But the people that have stayed have bonded."
If Rodriguez hopes to save his job and restore Michigan's good name, he's going to need significant contributions from three classes of recruits, none more so than sophomore quarterbacks Tate Forcier and Denard "Shoelace" Robinson. At the Wolverines' core, however, is a tight-knit group of 12 seniors who have endured some of the lowest points in Michigan's 132-year football history. Now, they're determined to go out on a high note.
"We're in senior meetings all the time," said Schilling. "We've talked about the fact we can be remembered as the class that started the turnaround and got us back on track. That 2009 and 2008 were the down years for Michigan football, but the 2010 team turned it around."
Michigan's downfall the past two seasons has been indisputably ugly, from a home loss to Toledo to consecutive blowout defeats to archrival Ohio State. Pending NCAA sanctions over excess practice time and members of Rodriguez's support staff overstepping their bounds have further fueled negativity surrounding the program.
But the most jarring aspect of Michigan's misery is that it upended what was arguably the nation's most stable program. Prior to 2008, the Wolverines held the longest active bowl streak in the country (33) and hadn't suffered a losing season since 1967. In the last 10 years alone, fellow blue bloods USC, Alabama, Notre Dame, Penn State and Nebraska have suffered at least one sub-.500 season.
As the first Michigan head coach hired from outside the program since Bo Schembechler in 1969, Rodriguez's arrival stirred a flux of transfers who didn't take to the new staff's preferred spread offense and extreme conditioning program, or to the coaches themselves. Others were dismissed for disciplinary reasons. Only eight players remain from Carr's last class in 2007, which included star quarterback Ryan Mallett, now at Arkansas. Schilling's 2006 class produced a future All-Big Ten performer for another school (Ohio State guard Justin Boren).
There are no projected NFL stars in Michigan's 2010 senior class, but quite a few veteran starters -- Schilling, tackle Perry Dorrestein, fullback-turned-linebacker Mark Moundros, linebackers Jonas Mouton and Obi Ezeh -- who have taken more lumps than any Michigan players in 40-plus years.
"The small senior class we have has taken even more ownership in the program, which has helped," said Rodriguez. "You want those guys to be an extension of the staff in terms of helping get things right attitude-wise when the coaches aren't around."
Rodriguez made that comment while visiting with reporters at Big Ten Media Days in Chicago earlier this month. At nearly that very same moment, at a table just to the right of his coach, senior cornerback Troy Woolfolk was doing his part to "get things right attitude-wise."
Asked by a reporter about the quarterback race between sophomores Forcier and Robinson, Woolfolk called out last year's incumbent for "not being as consistent" as Robinson with his participation in offseason workouts. "That's allowed Denard to jump a little bit ahead of Tate, and I think that Tate's going to have to do a lot of work to catch back up to Denard in camp this year."
One might have thought Rodriguez would frown upon such public grievances by one of his players. Not so. "I'm glad our seniors are taking some ownership and leadership in this team, and they want everybody to work as hard as they have or are going to," he said. "I don't blame them for that."
Their ownership also included asking Rodriguez to reinstitute the practice of naming season-long captains. With the coach's blessing, Schilling and Moundros became the first Wolverines players to hold that distinction since Mike Hart, Jake Long and Shawn Crable in 2007.
But leadership only goes so far, and the question remains as to whether Michigan is actually talented enough to compete in the Big Ten, in which it won one game last season. After three years of recruiting the type of athletes with which he thrived at West Virginia, Rodriguez feels the Wolverines won't lack for playmakers. They start with Robinson, the fleet-footed quarterback who showed off improved passing ability in the spring. Running back Vincent Smith and receivers Roy Roundtree and Martavious Odoms will be expected to contribute more.
"We wanted to have a fast team that played fast," said Rodriguez. "It started with recruiting. Now we've got to get them playing fast all the time."
Still, there are obvious deficiencies in the roster, most notably in the secondary, where Michigan has lost an astounding six underclassmen or signees over the past year. In a crushing blow Tuesday, Woolfolk -- the outspoken senior and lone Wolverine defensive back with significant experience -- suffered a dislocated ankle and broken fibula in practice, ending his season before it began.
The Wolverines ranked 82nd nationally in total defense last season, and that was despite the presence of now-departed All-America defensive end Brandon Graham. Second-year coordinator Greg Robinson has made some schematic changes, switching from a 4-3 to a 3-3-5 defense, but there's no masking the lack of depth on that side of the ball; the primary backups at both cornerback spots will likely be true freshmen.
And Rodriguez, often too honest for his own good, didn't inspire much confidence after the first day of fall camp when he declared that, "We have quite a few guys in very good shape, a handful who are in OK shape and a small handful not ready to play Division I football."
They'd better get ready. In order to save their coach's job -- which will likely require winning eight or more games -- these Wolverines will need to overachieve. A program once known for its seemingly endless string of NFL exports will rely heavily on hungry veterans like Moundros, a former walk-on, and James Rogers, a career backup who switched from receiver to cornerback last spring and must now step in for Woolfolk.
"We have Coach Rod's back," said Moundros. "It's not something that we focus on every day, but we want him to have success at Michigan."
Before their Michigan careers end, Moundros and his fellow seniors would like to taste success, too.
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