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Year 2 for Michigan’s Rodriguez

BY SCOTT MILLER | AUGUST 24, 2009 7:05 AM

If last year’s Michigan team was all about transitioning and overhauling schemes and finding better, faster, more athletic players, then this year’s version of the Wolverines is all about fine-tuning what’s already in Ann Arbor — at least that’s what those in the program will tell you.

Take, for instance, senior punter Zolan Mesko’s comments at Big Ten media days in Chicago:

“Besides improving everyone in his conditioning and running, and basically technique-wise and every fundamental aspect of the game, you really have this intangible-like feeling that we’re starting to gel better. Things are starting to run more smoothly in the offense and defense, and I really saw that in spring ball.”

It’s a sentiment that’s echoing loud and clear from the Big House as head coach Rich Rodriguez continues to mold his team 20 months after replacing Lloyd Carr on the Michigan sidelines. At almost all times last year, the Wolverines looked lost on offense as they moved from Carr’s pro-style offense to Rodriguez’s spread attack.

The result was a 3-9 campaign at a place intolerable of even the most minor setbacks. But now, if you choose to believe senior offensive tackle Mark Ortmann, the Wolverines are a year wiser — something they hope will be enough to at least make them relevant again in the Big Ten.

“Now, I think everyone last year was a little hesitant [in] the new system,” Ortmann said. “Last year was bad, but it was a learning experience. … You just [had] players questioning everything, every move the coaches [made]. … And that can be difficult, so it was a struggle, but I would say everyone has bought in now.”

Ortmann’s comments are critical, especially if Rodriguez gives the nod to a true freshman at quarterback. Currently, freshmen Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson are competing with junior Nick Sheridan, who has four career starts behind center.

Though Rodriguez still contends the job is up for grabs, Forcier became the favorite in the eyes of many after Steven Threet decided to transfer. The four-star recruit was on campus for all of spring practice, while Robinson was busy finishing up high school, and Sheridan was nursing a small fracture in his leg.

You get nervous as a coach when you talk about possibly playing true freshmen anywhere, particularly at quarterback,” Rodriguez said at media days.

Rodriguez said on Sunday he planned on playing all three signal callers in Michigan’s opener against Western Michigan.

While the quarterback situation is the one grabbing all the headlines, many contend the improvement of the defense will determine how much of a jump the Wolverines make in Year Two of the Rodriguez Regime.

After finishing 87th nationally in passing defense, 67th in total defense, and 84th in scoring defense, Rodriguez replaced former defensive coordinator Scott Shafer with former Syracuse head coach Greg Robinson and his 3-4 scheme.

“Greg [does] … a little different things scheme-wise than what Scott did defensively,” Rodriguez said. “But like everybody else, defensively nowadays you have to have a variety of packages because you may play a traditional I-formation team one week and a spread team the next week.”

The presence of multiple spread-style quarterbacks and the anticipation that the defense will be reinvigorated under Robinson has Rodriguez hopeful that a little bit of fine-tuning is all it will take to return Michigan to prominence.

“I don’t want to make any predictions, and I don’t think our players do either, but I do expect us to be a lot better,” Rodriguez said. “I think our players will expect us to be a lot better, and I think we’re on our way.”


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