Are The Wolverines Rebuilding?

By: Associated Press
By: Associated Press

ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) -- Rich Rodriguez is not even sure what to expect in his first season at Michigan, where expectations are modest for a team in transition.
After building West Virginia into a national power and sharing a $4 million buyout with his new employer, Rodriguez has a tough task because he's without a lot of players who beat Florida on New Year's Day to cap Lloyd Carr's career.
Offensive tackle Jake Long -- the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft -- quarterback Chad Henne, running back Mike Hart, receivers Mario Manningham and Adrian Arrington along with a handful of significant players on defense are gone.
Backup QB Ryan Mallett transferred and starting offensive lineman Justin Boren bolted to Ohio State when Rodriguez arrived.
Massive construction projects at Michigan Stadium and next to Schembechler Hall, where the team practices, seem to signal a rebuilding season.
"The goal every year from here to eternity is to compete for a league championship," Rodriguez said in an interview with The Associated Press. "Will that be more difficult with inexperienced players? Yeah. But we're not going to concede anything.
"Two or three games into the season, I'll know what we've got to work with."
Michigan opens Aug. 30 at home against Utah and hosts Miami of Ohio before playing at Notre Dame.
The Big Ten season starts with four challenging games -- against Wisconsin and Illinois, at Penn State and versus Michigan State -- before closing on the road against the Buckeyes on Nov. 22, hoping to stun them like Bo Schembechler did in his debut season of 1969.
If Michigan has any chance of exceeding projects that put them in the middle of the conference race, its experienced defense will have to be dominant and some playmakers must emerge to execute Rodriguez's famed spread offense.
Four starters are back on the defensive line as are first-string cornerbacks Morgan Trent and Donovan Warren along with linebacker Obi Ezeh.
"We want it on our backs because it makes us work that much harder," said defensive end Brandon Graham, who had 8.5 sacks last season. "And once we get clicking on offense, nobody is going to stop us this year."
Michigan's inexperienced quarterbacks might.
Steve Threet, who transferred from Georgia Tech, and Nick Sheridan will likely share snaps.
"I keep reminding myself that these guys haven't played, so we have to be patient in some regards," Rodriguez said. "But we also have to be ready in two weeks."
With three and four receivers spreading the field and a signal caller running the option, several skill players will have to prove they can adjust from a drop-back prostyle offense to Rodriguez's scheme.
Greg Mathews leads the inexperienced group of receivers. Running backs Brandon Minor and Carlos Brown will get every opportunity to be college stars just as Steve Slaton became with the Mountaineers.
"I always liked West Virginia and Coach Rod's system, watching Slaton get a lot of touches in space," Brown said. "When I heard he was coming here, I couldn't wait to find out about his offense."
It will help, of course, if the offensive line can create holes even with only Steve Schilling returning as a starter.
Michigan will likely lean on its special teams, hoping kicker K.C. Lopata can take advantage of scoring opportunities and punter Zoltan Mesko can put the team out of trouble when the offense stalls.
Graham and the Wolverines are well aware of the fact that not much is expected of them, compared to previous years under Carr until he retired, but that hasn't hurt their confidence.
"We just say, 'We're going to shock the world,"' Graham said. "We want to be No. 1 and we're going to have to fight for it."
Rodriguez has pushed his players through grueling practices, deeming the offense or defense as the winner and loser of the day.
"We're finding out a little answer each day to a certain position or to players," he said. "We'll have a big scrimmage Saturday and that will answer a lot."
The answers will continue to come on Saturdays to follow as the marquee program is led by a non-Michigan man for the first time since the late Schembechler left his Ohio roots behind four decades ago to lead the team with winged helmets.
"The thing that makes this place special is we have a national brand name," Rodriguez said. "Everybody is going to be watching and hopefully sooner rather than later, they'll like what they see."


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