Keys to the 2006 season
Yes, it's a bit early but the keys to a successful 2006 campaign should not change much between now and September 2nd. That being said, the precursor to my 2006 keys is a quick review of the main problems in 2005. They are, in order:
1) Offensive momentum
My biggest gripe with the 2005 team was the offense, not the defense. I truly believe that if the offense would not have given the ball up so quickly (fumbles, 3-out's, etc) then we would've, at the very least, triumphed against Wisconsin, Minnesota and Nebraska. Even if the offense didn't score any more points the defense would have had 2 crucial advantages; rest and a more positive psychological momentum. Continually having to hop back on the field when your offense fumbles the ball or goes 3-out is a killer for defenses. If your defense is continually on the field your opponent is eventually going to score.
One of the biggest factors in Chad Henne's performance was the lack of a decent RT. Kolo and Riley both got beat by most DE's including Eastern Michigan DE's!!! If we don't shore up the RT spot this year it's going to be a long campaign. Early looks don't look good at all. I just can't see either Riley or Kolo doing a great job.
3) LB play
Michigan only had 1 good LB last year in David Harris. Whoever wins the starting SAM and WILL spot NEED to step up and a) contain contain contain and b) provide more pressure on the QB. Actually, maybe we need to throw in c) stop shooting up the wrong gap but that would mostly apply to Graham. Either way, the LB's need to shore up run support for the 2006 defense to be more than mediocre.
Thus, the keys to 2006 are:
Which Chad Henne will show up? Simply put, the success of the 2006 season rests in his hands. Period. If the Henne of early 2005 shows up the Wolverines are a 4-5 loss team. If the Henne that continued to improve near the end of 2006 shows up then we could go 9-3 with a bowl win or maybe even 10-2. If miracle of miracles happens and Henne single-handedly takes over a big game ala Vince Young style then we could go 11-1 or even 12-0. 'Big' games this year would be ND/PSU/OSU and possibly Iowa with ND/OSU being the biggest as both are in most folks pre-season top5.
Sure, all the offensive problems last year were not all Henne's fault. However, he is the biggest cog in the offense and he needs to step up and really run the show.
The 2005 o-line in general had a lot of problems and no, they can't all be blamed on injury. What happens if, god forbid, we loose Jake Long for the 2006 season? Is our front wall so weak that a single hole will cause everything to come crashing down? The left side of the 2006 season looks to be pretty strong with Long/Kraus holding thing down. Center is where things start to get dicey however Bihl has supposedly had a great spring. Unfortunately all talk about Bihl's performance can be summararily thrown out the window as his main problem is bringing that to Saturday. He was good in practice last year but that did not in any way translate to good game performance. RG will probably be Mitchell who is inexperienced and slow but is touted as being pretty good. RT is where things go to hell. If Kolo doesn't step up and win the spot we will most likely be stuck with Riley who is more than likely going to be beat by all good DE's. Folks mention that he did a good job against Tamba Hali but when you look at things he was beaten a number of times including giving up at least 1 sack to Hali. Corey Zirbel might be able to do a good job next year but I just can't see him being an effective RT this year. The same could be said for Ortmann.
My 2nd biggest hope for 2006 is that someone (anyone?) steps up and does a good job at RT.
3) LB play
Looking at the defense for 2006 the biggest concern is easily the LB spot. Barring a rash of injury the front 4 should be good. Woodley/Biggs/Jamison and even Germany should all see PT at DE. The only concern there might be bad coaching decisions to possibly play JVA more than they should (at all) or to limit Jamison's PT which would be a HUGE killer. At DT we've got Branch and Taylor who should be able to hold the middle of the line fairly well. I'm not sure how healthy Johnson is but Walton/Mckinney and possibly even Slocum should add to the 'at-least-2-deep' depth at DT. CB should be at least ok this year if not better than last year with Hall and then Stewart/Trent/Sears as the 2nd DB. As long as the practice hype for stewart/sears translates to the field we should be decent to good there including nickel/dime DB. SS looks to be all Adams this year with a good backup in Englemon if healthy. FS is a good question as my initial prediciton was Barringer but Mundy might be back and Harrison could even figure in there. Either way we've got at least 5 safety's with starting experience. This leaves the LB spot.
SAM looks to be between Burgess and Crable. Is Crable really good enough to take this spot? Sure, Burgess didn't seem to be all that impressive last year but I'm still skeptical about Crable. Either way it will come down to 1 of them. MIKE is a lock in David Harris with John Thompson providing a more than capable backup. WILL is Graham or Logan or even possibly Burgess. Burgess was a safety in HS so realistically as long as he's fast enough for pass coverage we might have Crable/Harris/Burgess on the field.
Either way all indications point to LB play as the biggest factor for the 2006 defense.