ANN ARBOR, Mich. – There are a lot of new things in Ann Arbor these days.
There's a new indoor football practice facility, a new weight room and new additions to Michigan Stadium. There's a new football coach, a new offensive system and a new hope of some day ending Ohio State's dominance in the Big Ten.
Still, the Wolverines' success in 2008 may depend on an old approach. Coach Rich Rodriguez's version of the spread offense has been potent, but extending the school's streak of 33 consecutive bowl appearances likely will require a return to the Schembechler way: strong defense, sound kicking and a solid running game.
For a team that lost four starting offensive linemen and the school's leading career rusher, a solid running game cannot be taken for granted. Neither can it be assumed that the running game – even in Rodriguez's system, which has employed game-breaking quarterbacks and jitterbug-type running backs – is absolutely necessary to win. Still, if last Saturday's spring game at nearby Saline High School is any indication – and Rodriguez insisted it wasn't – the offense clearly could have problems this fall.
Quarterbacks Steven Threet and Nick Sheridan combined to throw four interceptions, and it could have been more had the football not slipped through defenders' fingers on a cold and rainy afternoon. A couple of awkward option pitches also resulted in fumbles. Most of the Michigan running backs looked more suited for a power running game, which, of course, is the system for which they were recruited.
"It's hard to tell if we were slow on offense or real fast on defense," Rodriguez said. "We have to get faster. If we're going to have any success, we have to recruit faster and get faster, and we've done that.
"We have some talented freshmen coming in, and we'll probably play more young guys around here than they've seen in a long time."
Rodriguez and his staff assembled a recruiting class ranked among the nation's top 10, but a top class typically won't pay dividends fast enough. Besides, true freshmen - no matter how talented - can't replace all that Michigan lost.
Tackle Jake Long is a sure first-round selection in the NFL Draft, and quarterback Chad Henne could be. Wide receiver Mario Manningham likely will be taken on the first day of the draft, too. The Wolverines also lost leading career rusher Mike Hart, All-Big Ten guard Adam Kraus and starting wide receiver Adrian Arrington.
In addition, backup quarterback Ryan Mallett transferred to Arkansas and three linemen quit the team - including projected starter Justin Boren, who complained that Rodriguez's arrival led to the exit of Michigan's "family values."
Boren might have been offended by the new coaches' screaming and demands of increased running, which has resulted in the Wolverines' linemen already appearing leaner than they were last season.
Still, the Michigan faithful are firmly behind Rodriguez as he changes the offense from a traditional pro-style set to the wide-open spread. On some campuses, such changes are met with resistance. For example, Nebraska fans never seemed sold when former coach Bill Callahan junked the Huskers' power option for the West Coast offense. But Rodriguez and his version of the spread are being embraced in Ann Arbor. Six losses to Ohio State in seven years will invite a climate of change.
LIKE OLD TIMES
Bo Schembechler reigned in Ann Arbor from 1969-89, and in those 21 seasons, the Wolverines allowed seven or fewer points in 101 of their 194 victories.
In this age of wide-open offenses, duplicating that kind of dominance is doubtful. Still, seven starters – including the entire line – return from a Michigan defense that ranked 24th in the nation in 2007. Defense should be the strength of the team - even an old quarterback can see that.
Michigan's Rich Rodriguez is one of 18 new coaches for the 2008 season:
Rick Leach, who played quarterback for Schembechler from 1975-78, made the 40-mile drive from his home in the Detroit suburb of Farmington Hills to watch the Wolverines' spring game. Like most Michigan fans, Leach is intrigued by Rodriguez's offense, which last season averaged 39.1 points per game at West Virginia. But Leach believes a good defense will be vital this fall.
"Obviously, there's a culture shock of a whole different offense with the spread versus a conventional system, but it's really been exciting," Leach said. "I think defensively this year we'll really have to step up and carry the load while they adjust and put in the (offensive) system. The defense is the key to me."
Former defensive coordinator Ron English, who moved to Louisville after Rodriguez was hired to replace the retired Lloyd Carr, preached a "fast and physical" defense, so not too much figures to change there.
"We're playing fast and physical," senior cornerback Morgan Trent said. "The scheme is about the same. There's just a few different coverages here and there."
But sophomore cornerback Donovan Warren, a freshman All-American last season, said there is a not-too-subtle difference. "Last year, it was, 'Get to the ball,' " he said. "Now we're running a 40(-yard dash) to the ball on every play. We're getting after it."
They'd better. Michigan's defensive players have heard the talk about how they probably will have to carry the team if the Wolverines are to avoid a disappointing season. Just because they've heard that talk doesn't mean they agree with it, though.
"People will talk about how the defense will have to be leaders," Warren said. "You always want to be the leaders of the team and making plays, but there's no telling what our offense can do. We're not worried. We'll let them do their thing and we'll do our thing."
Added Trent: "The offense is going to be fine. They will be better than people think."
PERCEPTIONS AND MISCONCEPTIONS
Much of the doubt about Michigan's offense is based on quarterback concerns. At West Virginia, Rodriguez had Pat White, a scintillating runner who can score from anywhere on the field. As offensive coordinator at Clemson, he had the similarly talented Woodrow Dantzler.
The best Michigan quarterback for that role might be Leach, who was an exceptional runner back in the day.
"This offense would have been tailor-made for me," Leach said. "You look around the country and everyone has some version of the spread. Almost everyone has a mobile quarterback who can make plays when a play breaks down. Michigan has gotten the tall 6-foot-2, 230-pound passer, and sometimes that's been detrimental to us.
"If you don't have a mobile quarterback that can make plays, the defense will come at you at every angle. You need a quarterback with quickness and athletic ability who can juke or duck down, and then make plays because nobody's there. To me, the best quarterbacks in the country are mobile and athletic."
Neither Threet, a redshirt freshman transfer from Georgia Tech, nor sophomore Nick Sheridan, a former walk-on, are breakaway threats. Rodriguez said they don't have to be.
"If we have that (breakaway runner), we'll utilize him," Rodriguez said. "If we have a more drop-back thrower, we'll utilize those skills. We'll always take whatever they do well and try to enhance those skills."
Michigan's quarterbacks are counting on that.
"West Virginia ran with the quarterback a lot," Threet said. "You look at us and we throw a lot. That's not saying West Virginia can't throw or that we can't run. It's just whatever works best. (Rodriguez) is not going to put us in a bad position."
Rodriguez was an assistant at Tulane when Shaun King passed for 2,567 yards in 1997 and 3,232 yards in '98. Before White arrived at West Virginia, the Mountaineers were led from 2002-04 by Rasheed Marshall, an athletic quarterback who didn't have the breakaway skills that White possesses.
"The offense is very adaptable," said offensive coordinator Calvin Magee, who came with Rodriguez from WVU. "There are a lot of ways to utilize our strengths and what we do well.
"There is always that perception (of needing a breakaway quarterback), but that's not always the way it has been. We've had other quarterbacks that were not like Patrick White in the system, but we had the packages to utilize their skills."
Whose skills will be utilized is another matter. Although Threet, who was slowed this spring by a deep thigh bruise, performed better in the spring game, Rodriguez said neither quarterback has as advantage yet. Freshman Justin Feagin, who figures to be the most dangerous runner among the quarterbacks, arrives this fall. Rodriguez may end up using more than one quarterback.
Junior running back Brandon Minor may also take some snaps at quarterback in special formations.
Minor, Carlos Brown, who missed spring practice after breaking a finger in a weight-room accident, and Kevin Grady - who missed last season with a knee injury - give Rodriguez several options at running back. Redshirt freshman Avery Horn, who had a couple of 20-yard runs in the spring game, demonstrated the speed and shiftiness that might enable him to flourish in Rodriguez's system.
Rodriguez and his staff also signed three fast freshmen who fit the profile of successful running backs in his system, and perhaps at least one can make a significant impact immediately.
If they don't and the offense struggles?
Well, they can always rely on the defense.
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.