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HE ARRIVED IN ANN ARBOR THREE YEARS AGO, HAILED AS THE savior. But time is running out for Rich Rodriguez. The former West Virginia coach, who is 8-16 in his two Michigan seasons, has yet to produce a bowl team, and the pressure is mounting for him to deliver a winner. Last fall things began brightly when the Wolverines started 4-0, but Michigan would win only once more, against lowly Delaware State. After that disappointment the program was further disgraced in May when the school admitted to NCAA violations under Rodriguez, leading to self-imposed sanctions that include two years of probation. (The NCAA has not yet made a decision on the case.) "We're ready to move forward," says Rodriguez. "The way the season ended was tough. We took steps forward last year, just not enough. We think we have things in place for us to do good things this year."
For the first time in Rodriguez's tenure, the Wolverines' spread offense won't be run by a first-year signal-caller. The offense, which ranked third in the conference with 29.5 points a game, brings back nine starters—including QB Tate Forcier. Rodriguez believes that in year three of his regime, his wide-open attack will start clicking with the players. "There were flashes last year, but we need to focus on being more consistent," he says. "The guys have a better grasp of the system, and that will help a lot."
The defense, though, has issues. Michigan has six starters back from a unit that was ninth in the conference in total defense and gave up 27.5 points per game. Against the run the Wolverines allowed 172 yards per game, second worst in the Big Ten. The good news is that for the first time in five years, Michigan's defensive coordinator returns: Greg Robinson will be running the unit for a second straight year and will employ a new 3-3-5 scheme. The key to the season may very well lie in how well the players make the adjustment to the new defense.
"We just have to get better fundamentally," says Rodriguez. "From getting off tackles to making plays." This spring Wolverines coaches stressed the importance of forcing turnovers: Last year their -12 turnover margin ranked 115th in the nation.
Michigan has much to improve on, but Rodriguez believes the turnaround is near. "I see progress day to day," he says.
COACH Rich Rodriguez (3rd year)
8-16 (3-13 in Big Ten)