Michigan Football Preview 2017

2017 Michigan Football Preview

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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Page 177 of 179

176 ■ THE WOLVERINE 2017 FOOTBALL PREVIEW T rust the coaches. That's been the fa- miliar refrain for Michigan fans over the last decade, whether it's on the recruiting trail or during the season. In many ways, it was less a leap of faith then of hope. There was plenty of optimism from the "program's stale — blow it up" crowd when Rich Rodriguez was hired in 2008, even when experts like Gary Danielson echoed the sentiments of many others, saying the change might be "too radical" for U-M. He was right, of course. People will argue about the reasons, but Rodriguez was simply the wrong man at the wrong time. In hindsight, the warning signs were there early, when he went after recruits that didn't seem worthy, for one reason or another. For every Denard Robinson, there were four others that didn't pan out … not exactly a winning formula. Fans, as they do, were blinded by hope and supportive until they could no longer be. Enter Brady Hoke, who said all the right things, recruited at an extremely high level from the get-go and appeared to be on his way to big success after an inaugural 11-2 season in 2011. But there still seemed to be something missing. Sketchy offensive line play was chalked up to Rodriguez's poor recruiting, though four of his O-line recruits spent time in the NFL (and three are still there). Trust these coaches lasted until year three, and most fans, jaded by five-plus years of mediocrity (at best), were looking for other ways to spend their Saturday afternoons. So here we are in 2017. The fans have their unicorn in head coach Jim Harbaugh, and the Wolverines are back on track. Almost. Harbaugh is still paying for his prede- cessor's mistakes in some ways, especially when it comes to balancing classes. When the program was humming along under Bo Schembechler, Gary Moeller and Lloyd Carr, experienced underclassmen would be waiting in the wings after two years to re- place All-Big Ten or All-American players, with the occasional outstanding underclass- man (redshirt freshmen Steve Hutchinson and Jeff Backus in 1997) sprinkled in. U-M's 2012 recruiting haul looked great on paper, and the 2013 group was highly rated. It seemed they were back on schedule. But Erik Magnuson, Ben Braden and Kyle Kalis were the only offensive line starters from the two groups. Five other four-star prospects never panned out, and another, fifth-year senior Pat Kugler, has played spar- ingly and is trying to save his best for last this season. Harbaugh and staff were still looking at graduate transfers to help this year on the O-line, bringing in Miami's Sunny Odogwu for a visit in April, and that speaks volumes. U-M sent 11 guys to the NFL via the draft, but none of them were offensive line- man. Those questioning how the Wolverines could lose three games with all that talent need to look no further than the front five. "Look at the fourth quarters of the games they lost the last few years," former All-Big Ten offensive lineman Doug Skene said. "Iowa and Ohio State last year, Michigan State the year before … if they get one or two more first downs down the stretch in any of those games, they've got three more wins. "As a Michigan lineman, it's your respon- sibility to put those games away. That hasn't been happening." Harbaugh has taken steps to ensure it will. For one, he's recruited the position hard, based on what he and his coaches see on film … not just off of lists. One man's three- star is often a great coach's All-American, as Harbaugh has proven repeatedly. Carolina Panthers perennial All-Pro line- backer Luke Kuechly, for example, was a consensus three-star prospect out of high school, but he was a priority for Harbaugh at Stanford, eventually ending up at Boston College. "I love the fact that he's looking for foot- ball players," former All-American line- backer Ron Simpkins said. "One thing that really hurt Michigan before Harbaugh got there was they lacked depth at a lot of posi- tions. With the depth they have now, they're switching guys to other positions. "What people don't realize is that people in high school played two or three different positions. He's giving guys opportunities to look at other positions, and to me, that shows that the vision he has in regards to these guys. "They're not one-dimensional, and these guys are embracing these changes and be- coming players." It's year three now, and many have said it's time for Harbaugh to win a title. This team, though, will only go as far as the line (and the quarterback behind it) take it, and that's still a question mark. If not this year, Harbaugh and staff will make it happen soon. Trust us — and them. ❏ INSIDE MICHIGAN CHRIS BALAS Chris Balas has been with The Wolverine since 1997. Contact him at cbalas@thewolverine.com and follow him on Twitter @Balas_Wolverine. The Wolverines have lacked impact talent along the offensive line in recent seasons, which contributed to their inability to close out games like the double-overtime loss at Ohio State last season. PHOTO BY PER KJELDSEN Still Building

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