- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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So if the newcomers and Julius Caesar Watts mature quickly, Oklahoma will be O.K. Maybe A.O.K., because the schedule includes such weak non-conference opponents as Iowa, Tulsa and Rice. The toughies will be against Texas in October, and the last two against Missouri and Nebraska. All three of those teams have losing records against Switzer-coached squads, so you can be sure they will come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
In recent years, Michigan has seemingly had about as much personnel turnover as the Pittsburgh Steelers. You can almost hear the litany: Rick Leach fakes a handoff to Russell Davis and gives to Harlan Huckleby, who goes for four up the middle. With that familiar cast, the Wolverines had the nation's ninth-best ground game and its fourth-highest scoring attack in 1978. They shared the Big Ten title with Michigan State and lost in the Rose Bowl for the third straight time. But Coach Bo Schembechler has finally been forced to issue a casting call, and until his almost totally new offensive unit gets settled in, Michigan will be just another contender—for the Big Ten title, a Rose Bowl berth and a Top 20 ranking.
It is the defense that will keep the Wolverines in the race for those distinctions. Just about everybody who matters is back from the 1978 crew that was the country's second most difficult to score on, having allowed just eight points a game. In fact, during the past decade, a period that coincides exactly with Schembechler's term as coach, Michigan has been the No. 1 team in the nation in total yardage defense and in allowing the fewest points.
Even if Michigan had no offensive players, its defenders might just be able to keep most games close and maybe win a few. Last season the Wolverine defenders yielded a total of only nine points to Illinois, Duke, Wisconsin, Iowa, Purdue and Ohio State. Returning are Curtis Greer, Mike Trgovak and Dale Keitz, the down linemen in the Wolverines' 3-4. While Greer is known for his 425-pound bench presses, Keitz' fame comes from lighter lifts—Woody Hayes' trash cans during a summer-vacation stint as a garbage collector several years ago. Linebacker Ron Simpkins, Safety Mike Harden and Halfback Mike Jolly were selected to the All-Big Ten team last year. All Simpkins did last season to earn the honor was to make more unassisted tackles (118) than the entire starting line.
The offensive line, all but dismantled by graduation, has been further buffeted by injuries. Michigan had planned to start seniors John Powers, the only starting lineman back from last January's Rose Bowl, and John Arbeznik, a 1978 All-Big Ten guard despite a late-season ankle injury. Bubba Paris, a 6'7", 275-pound sophomore, was to move in at strong tackle. But no. In spring practice, Powers, Arbeznik, Paris and a defensive back went down with knee injuries. All but Arbeznik had to undergo surgery, and it will be a "bonus" for the Wolverines if they play at all, according to Schembechler.
The backfield, even without injuries, is unusually thin. Lawrence Reid is the only experienced fullback, and Schembechler says he never has enough tailbacks. Still, Reid and Tailback Butch Woolfolk gained almost as many yards per carry last season—4.2 and 4.7, respectively—as the departed Huckleby and Davis.
The big problem is replacing Leach, a four-year starter at quarterback. B. J. Dickey gets first call, having completed eight of 19 passes for 115 yards and two touchdowns as Leach's backup. "I don't feel as desperate as I did four years ago when we only had Leach," says Schembechler. "Actually, I've got five candidates, and I'd feel comfortable with any of them." He will feel better than that if one of them can consistently get the ball to Ralph Clayton, the wingback who last season caught 25 passes for 546 yards and a Wolverine record-tying eight touchdowns.
Two of those promising quarterbacks are freshmen Rich Hewlett of Plymouth, Mich. and Steve O'Donnell of Madison, N.J. One thing's for sure: Bo didn't recruit them with the idea of converting them into defensive players.
12. N.C. State