RICH RODRIGUEZ WANTS EVERYTHING done fast. In practice his players sprint from one drill to the next. In games his offense rarely huddles. In the weight room his strength and conditioning coach emphasizes speed, explosion and endurance. In the courtroom he wouldn't have minded, of course, if the legal flap surrounding the buyout of his West Virginia contract had been settled a little faster too.
Despite this eternal quest for quickness, Rodriguez, who became Michigan's 18th head coach on Dec. 17, has a rebuilding job that may not be a quick fix. "I know the patience level of the fans isn't very high, but it's even less with coaches," Rodriguez said on the eve of the spring game while sitting in his office on the second floor of Schembechler Hall.
Entering the 2008 season, the Wolverines lose eight offensive starters from a team that went 9-4 and was 68th nationally in total offense (385.1 yards per game). Gone are 63.5% of their rushing yards (Mike Hart), 71.8% of their receiving yards ( Adrian Arrington and Mario Manningham) and 98.9% of their passing yards ( Chad Henne and Ryan Mallett). "Sometimes the perception is that we have a roster full of NFL first-rounders—we do, but they're all [graduating] seniors," Rodriguez said in the spring with a laugh. "I wonder if there's another team in college football that lost its best two linemen [ Jake Long and Adam Kraus], best two wideouts, best quarterback and the starting tailback. You're talking about our six best offensive players. I try not to think about it because I lose enough sleep as it is. We have to replenish the roster." A top 10 recruiting class headlined by 17 four-star players, including seven at offensive skill positions, will help overhaul the Wolverines in the renovated Big House. But Michigan may be a year or two from returning to college football's elite.
The reality for 2008 is that the offense has to improve its team speed in order to execute Rodriguez's spread scheme, a no-huddle, four-wide set that can equally feature a dominant ground game (a la West Virginia, 2002-07) or an explosive aerial attack (see Tulane, 1997-98). The lack of speed was evident after the defense clearly outplayed the offense in the Wolverines' spring game, which was held at Saline High. Standing in the south end zone at Saline after the game, Rodriguez reflected on the speed of his offense and recognized the long road ahead. "It's hard for me to tell if we're slow on offense or relatively fast on defense," he said. "But we've got to get faster. We've emphasized that in our off-season program, and for us to have any success we've got to recruit faster, our players have to get faster—and they have—but we've still got a ways to go."
There's a certain 4.4-running, 70-yard-throwing freshman quarterback taking up residence in Columbus, Ohio, whom Rodriguez would have loved to have in Ann Arbor. Instead, the front-runner for the job is redshirt freshman Steven Threet, a 6' 6", 230-pound, traditional pocket passer whom no one has ever been interested in seeing run. When asked during spring practice what his 40 time was as a high school recruit, Threet couldn't recall. "Coming out of high school, all colleges wanted me to do was throw the ball," he said after a zero-touchdown, one-interception performance in the spring game. "They weren't interested in my 40 time. They just wanted me to go out and sling it." Rivals.com's No. 9 quarterback recruit in the class of 2007, Threet has the size, arm strength and mental capacity to excel in the offense, but no one's expecting him to be Pat White, Rodriguez's fleet-footed wizard at West Virginia. "I don't think they expect us to break those 80-yard runs, but at the same time they may expect us to break open some 80-yard passes," Threet said of Michigan's quarterback corps, which also includes sophomore walk-on Nick Sheridan and freshman Justin Feagin, a dual-threat player from Florida. "There are different ways to run the offense. It's not a system that's set on only one type of quarterback."
And Threet knows offenses. The 19-year-old quarterback, who will wear the number 10 of his childhood idol, Tom Brady, has already been exposed to four college systems—two at Georgia Tech, where he originally enrolled in January '07, and now two at Michigan. He also played a simplified version of the spread during his senior season at Adrian ( Mich.) High. "It's more complex now, and the athletes we're playing now are obviously a bit superior," he said. "But there's a certain comfort."
The situation is slightly better at tailback where the candidates to replace Hart have significantly more experience. Juniors Brandon Minor and Carlos Brown each ran for more than 380 yards last season and had a 100-yard game against a Big Ten foe. Two freshmen from Texas could also have an impact in the ground game—Sam McGuffie of Cy-Fair High, whose "hurdle" highlight video has more than 1.4 million views on YouTube, and Terrence Robinson, a do-everything speedster from Klein Oak, who should fit nicely into the slot, often a running position in Rodriguez's offense.
The spread will take some time to adjust to, as will Rodriguez's fiery demeanor. "It's rough—practices, expectations and especially his demands of you," says Minor. "He's always saying he's not going to pat you on the butt, because you're going to crap in his hands. It's very seldom that you're going to get a compliment from him."
There are less heralded changes on defense where seven starters return. The entire front four, both corners and 2007 freshman All-America linebacker Obi Ezeh anchor a unit that struggled early in '07, especially against spread offenses, but improved over the course of the year. Michigan finished No. 3 in the Big Ten for total defense (335.7 yards) and No. 2 against the pass (178.8). The Wolverines can expect another stout defense provided they can find a playmaker to replace outside linebacker Shawn Crable, who had 7� sacks and 28� tackles for loss in '07. Defensive ends Brandon Graham (8� sacks) and Tim Jamison (5� sacks) are good places to start. New coordinator Scott Shafer will continue to employ the traditional 4-3 that Michigan is used to but has stressed increasing the aggressiveness. "We're still running a 4-3, but it's a little different style," says senior defensive tackle Will Johnson. "It's more of an attack defense than reading [the offense]. We play a lot more downhill."
The first year of the Coach Rod era in Ann Arbor begins with great excitement, though how quickly he will succeed remains to be seen. Still, safety Stevie Brown was incredulous to have been asked about Michigan's expectations for the season. "Expectations? It's Michigan. Expectations are always high," he said. "We don't worry about it at all. We're just out here trying to improve and meet those expectations. We're not sitting in the locker room saying we lost this and that or that we can't do this. It's Michigan. It's winged helmets, block m. We've got to come out there prepared, and we've got to win."