Michigan Wolverines (2000: 9-3)
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Coach and programLloyd Carr is so matter-of-fact at times that you would think he was working at a library. Say what you want. He gets results and has been the Big Ten’s most successful coach over the last four years. Last season, Carr became the first Wolverine coach to win four straight bowl games by beating Auburn, 31-28, in the Citrus Bowl.
Last season, Carr’s team earned a share of the league title with a 38-26 victory at Ohio State. The Wolverines lost three games by a total of seven points.
Michigan might have had the most talented offensive personnel in the league. It had three starters drafted in the NFL’s first round, two in the second. And arguably the most skilled athlete, quarterback Drew Henson, might have been the top overall pick in the 2002 draft if he hadn’t decided to play pro baseball instead.
But the offensive talent couldn’t make up for a leaky defense. Michigan ranked second in the league in points allowed, but that was misleading. Take away consecutive shutouts against lowly Indiana and Michigan State and that number balloons up to 25.4 points per game.
Despite the offensive losses and the defensive struggles, Carr sounded optimistic in the spring about the future. With his track record, who could blame him?
“I think we have made a lot of progress as a team,’’ he said. “I think the strength of the team has increased. We made some strides at developing team speed. I like the attitudes so far. I think the question that is always present is leadership. What type of leaders will this team have?"
OffenseHenson was an outstanding pro football prospect with talent and size. Last season, he was limited to nine games because of injury. But when he came back, he came back with a vengeance. Henson completed 61.6 percent of his passes for 2,146 yards and 18 touchdowns to just four interceptions.
Where does this leave the Wolverines?
With John Navarre (6-6, 242), probably. Navarre, a sophomore, is the favorite to start the season. That’s not exactly new territory for him. He started Michigan’s first four games as a redshirt freshman when Henson was out with a broken bone in his foot.
At 6-6, Navarre is an inch taller than Henson. Whether he can be as good remains to be seen. He won’t have the benefit of a veteran offensive line, a star tailback to hand off to, and a star wide receiver to throw to.
Anthony Thomas, the school’s all-time rushing leader, is now playing for a paycheck in the NFL. Sophomore Chris Perry (6-1, 228) is the heir apparent. He had 77 carries for 417 yards and five touchdowns.
One player to watch could be freshman Kelly Baraka (6-0, 180). He was a USA Today and Parade All-American after rushing for 1,624 yards and 26 touchdowns at Portage (Mich.) Northern High School despite missing two games.
David Terrell, a first round NFL draft pick of the Chicago Bears, is another player Michigan is going to miss a lot. The junior led the Big Ten in receiving yards (1,130) and touchdown catches (14).
You don’t replace a David Terrell. But senior Marquise Walker (6-3, 212) will try his best to be the go-to receiver. Walker started out in a big way last season. After never having more than 75 yards receiving, he had three 100-yard games.
Michigan has a major rebuilding project on its hands on the line. Four starters are gone; Steve Hutchinson (guard), Jeff Backus (tackle), David Brandt (center) and Maurice Williams (tackle). This cripples what was one of the best offensive lines, if not the best, in the Big Ten.
Sophomores Tony Pape (6-6, 299) and Demetrius Solomon (6-6, 280) are projected to start at the tackles. If Ben Mast (6-4, 298) is ready, he will be the starting center. The fifth-year senior can play any position on the line.
Defense and special teamsMichigan gave up 2,914 passing yards last year -- the highest mark since it surrendered 3,052 in 1982. The Wolverines had the third-worst pass defense in the Big Ten in terms of yards given up.
The healthy return of junior free safety June Cato (6-1, 213) should help. Cato missed the 2000 season after off-season knee surgery. In 1999, he played all 12 games and finished with 27 tackles and a sack.
Veteran senior cornerback Todd Howard (5-10, 183) led the team with six interceptions. He need just three passes broken up to surpass 1997 Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson’s record of 30 in a career.
The Wolverines could boast the best linebackers in the Big Ten. You would be hard-pressed to find a better threesome than senior Eric Brackins (6-2, 235), senior Larry Foote (6-1, 228) and junior Victor Hobson (6-1, 242). They do as good a job as any linebacking crew when it comes to plugging up the middle. They combined for 31 tackles for losses last season.
Hayden Epstein (6-2, 205) pulls double duty as a place kicker as well as a punter. The senior should be a Lou Groza candidate as a kicker. He finished third on the team in scoring with a career-best 50 points. Epstein converted 8-of-14 field goals and 26-of-28 PATs.
Bottom lineIf Henson had stuck with football, Michigan would have been considered a national championship contender. Without him, the Wolverines are going to scramble to have an offense as good as the one it had last season.
The biggest key of the season will be the defense. Before last season, Carr said he was worried about his defense and he turned out to be right. Conversely, he is now expressing optimism. With its star linebacker and a better effort from the defensive front, the Wolverines could make a quantum leap.
Michigan has never won fewer than five league games under Carr and is 27-5 in Big Ten play since 1997. Expect more of the same success.