It's about thirty-six hours until game-time, and our best talent evaluator just showed up on our doorstep. Back from a six-month, successful infiltration in Ann Arbor, he brought back boxes and boxes of useful photos and crib notes from actual Michigan practice sessions. Since his return, we've been scrambling to assemble the info in as concise and detailed a report as possible. According to our man, much of the info was corroborated from a very good source...one of those "little birdies" that people often cite. This birdy, though, probably won't be singing much after Saturday's game.
Before you continue, keep in mind that all of this information was collected from watching Michigan practices during the spring, summer, and fall. In other words, some of it may be dated. Once Michigan started gameplanning for Vanderbilt, our man was forced to go into "hiding." Yet, that doesn't mean the information is inaccurate or frivolous; take for example our own practice session rumors. Several reports coming out of Notre Dame's fall camp centered on the senior-laden offensive line's inability to dominate the line of scrimmage, the linebackers' difficulties in shedding blocks, and the inconsistency of the placekickers. Two games into the 2006 season, those pre-season concerns haven't been assuaged.
Here's a few bullet points from the practice spy reports.
1. With Mike Hart in the backfield, the Michigan offense should steamroll most front sevens. However, against those stronger defenses, the pressure falls squarely upon the shoulders of Chad Henne. But for all the chatter of Henne's greatness coming out of high school, he hasn't considerably improved three years later. Some of his issues that continued throughout the offseason:
• Over-reliance on arm strength. Henne has a tendency to wait a little too long on mid-range timing patterns; he waits after the WR cuts and then tries to throw a bullet. Bad things can happen: the pocket may break down; the heat on his passes sometimes causes the pass to be too high; yards after catch is reduced because the receiver isn't hit in stride; and, the gameplan is affected by relying more on short passes where the ball must be thrown more quickly.
• Throwing to the left. When Henne throws left, he brings his left foot left and that opens opens his left shoulder. He has a huge tendency to over stride to the left by opening his shoulder too soon. This causes him to drop his arm into a different throwing slot, and his ball will sail. Over striding also occurs when Henne feels pressure and wants to gun the ball.
It's hard to find holes in the running back and wide receiver corps, but Michigan has been having some issues with their offensive line. In the spring under new offensive coordinator Mike DeBord, Michigan practiced zone blocking schemes and also ran more draws, shotgun runs, and misdirection plays.
2. Left tackle Jake Long is very strong, but he hasn't progressed as much as expected as a run-blocker. It's been said this problem is due to his stamina issues. Most of this is due to his injury and his inability to push off his ankle, although some of it is also his inconsistency in staying low; he simply stands up too much. That happens more frequently when he is tired. This trend continued into fall camp. For all the talk of how big Long is, his added weight makes it harder for him to stay low. As far as pass blocking, he seems to have adjusted well to the left side; he does a nice job handling speed rushes to outside. However, he struggles when ends go hard to the outside and then come back inside. It's a footwork issue.
3. Adam Kraus might be the most technically sound OL on Michigan's team. They ask him to do a lot of pulling, and his only weakness appears to be that he may not be physical enough at the point of impact and in short yardage situations. Ditto the center Mark Bihl. He might be the key to the Michigan OL, though, because he's so versatile and the depth behind him is a little scary.
4. At left guard, Alex Mitchell beat out former Irish recruit Jeremy Ciulla, although both struggled in pass blocking, and overall quickness is a concern. Over the summer, Mitchell lost some weight, but it also appeared that he lost some strength. In addition, there was some talk that Mitchell may have some issues regarding nervousness and confidence during game situations. Games against Vandy and CMU may have helped that.
5. Reuben Riley was moved from right guard to right tackle very late in spring practice because the hopefuls were struggling in run-blocking. Look for Michigan to help out their RT by cheating their TEs and RB to that side quite often. Their staff feels that it's a way they can protect a weaker pass blocker in Riley.
On the other side of the ball, the front four of Michigan present a difficult challenge for an Irish offensive line that has struggled to find consistency. Like the new-look Notre Dame defensive line, aggression is the key for Michigan's front four. There is no more OL-engagement; now it's all about shooting gaps and getting into the backfield. This is the Ron English way.
6. The improvement of defensive end LaMarr Woodley is noticeable but he still struggles on those plays run right at him. He has proven to be much more effective when he is free to run down backs. The staff has been telling Woodley this year, "Don’t worry about the run first; we need you to make plays." And through the Vandy and CMU games, he has taken this advice to heart.
7. Defensive tackle Alan Branch is huge, but teams can have success running right at him. This is an area where he is going to have to improve because the opposition knows this, and if you watch 2005 tape, you'll see that most times teams ran right at him. This didn't change much over the summer. Branch also tired quickly; he is one of the players who noticeably needs to get in better condition. Branch does well when asked to pass rush, but he needs to defend the run more consistently.
8. Alongside him in the trenches is Terrance Taylor, another player who needs to get in condition. Strength here is no problem, but his stamina has been questioned. Can he play effectively in long spurts or in 2nd half of games? Many times he starts out practice by getting great penetration as he's difficult to block. Then, as practice wears down, he seems to get easier to block and offense gets more effective running the ball. For all the hype, he's unproven. Getting in better shape might help a lot.
9. Rondell Biggs is probably the most underrated Wolverine defender. He has demonstrated that he is the best run-stopping defensive end on the Michigan roster. At the same time, his pass rushing ability is underrated.
These practice reports and the relative strengths and weaknesses of the Michigan players raise a few key points about how to approach this game against the Wolverines.
First off, there isn't an Irish fan around who doesn't believe that stopping Mike Hart is the key to this football game. The Irish will likely sell out to stop the run, but can they cause disruption along the enigmatic Michigan offensive line and get into the backfield? If they can, that'll slow Hart down.
As the Irish front is selling out, the Michigan wide receivers will likely be facing man coverage; can the same Irish front seven generate enough pressure on Henne by attacking the weak links in the Wolverine line? And can that pressure cause Henne to make the mechanical errors he has historically made?
Finally, judging from the first couple of games and the strategic focus given to the Wolverine defense throughout practice, Michigan is probably likely to adopt Georgia Tech's aggressive strategy against the Irish rather than Penn State's passive one. Can Notre Dame's offensive line protect Brady Quinn from Woodley and company?