The University of Michigan started freshmen at quarterback and tailback last season and still won the Big Ten Conference championship and played in the Rose Bowl for the second season in a row. Yet, Wolverines Coach Lloyd Carr must have felt like a coach on the hot seat during the offseason, as he and his assistants were shredded more than their defense last season.
In three losses last season, Michigan's defense gave up a total of 103 points. In season-ending losses to Ohio State and Texas (in the Rose Bowl), the Wolverines allowed 890 yards offense, including 469 rushing. So even with quarterback Chad Henne and tailback Mike Hart coming back from record-setting freshman seasons, the biggest question surrounding college football's winningest program is: Will the defense be any better?
"The biggest question mark across the country about Michigan," Carr said, "is our defense."
Carr took steps to make sure the Wolverines are better on defense this season. He hired defensive line coach Steve Stripling from rival Michigan State to improve the pass rush after Michigan finished with only 21 sacks last season. The Wolverines will play multiple defensive fronts, but will use a 4-3 scheme more often than last season, when they played mostly a 3-4. Carr resisted pressure to fire defensive coordinator Jim Herrmann, who begins his 20th season at Michigan.
"We'd like to tackle the quarterback," Carr said. "Traditionally here, we've taken great pride in the way we played defense. Like every other program in the country, the spread offense creates problems. I've said this because when you use the quarterback, really in many instances like a tailback, and yet you have four wide receivers and you spread the defense out, you're going to give up some yardage, you're going to give up some points. I think that's fundamental."
But the Wolverines gave up too many big plays and too many points last season. The Michigan defense blew a 21-point lead in the fourth quarter of a 28-20 loss at Notre Dame. In their 45-37, triple-overtime victory over Michigan State, the Wolverines gave up 368 rushing yards and 535 yards overall. Texas quarterback Vince Young ran for 192 yards and four touchdowns in the Rose Bowl.
"I think people are breaking it down too much," Michigan defensive tackle Patrick Massey said. "People are trying to look at the schemes, whether it was 3-4 or 4-3, and they're saying, 'You didn't do this. You didn't blitz enough. You didn't do that.' Bottom line is, Coach Herrmann put us in a position to succeed and, as players, we just didn't execute. That had mostly to do with fundamentals, and guys missing tackles, taking bad pursuit angles. I don't think it should matter what defense we're playing."
Carr hopes his defense is better even after losing two starting linebackers and three defensive backs, including all-American cornerback Marlin Jackson, a first-round draft pick by the Indianapolis Colts.
At least the Wolverines know they'll have plenty of firepower on offense. Henne is back after throwing for 2,743 yards and 25 touchdowns last season. He tied Elvis Grbac's school record for touchdown passes in a season and became the first freshman quarterback to lead his team to a Big Ten Conference championship. Henne, who was pressed into the starting job when Matt Gutierrez hurt his shoulder in the week before last season's opener, was the first Michigan freshman to start at quarterback since Rick Leach in 1975.
"He's not in the same world that he was a year ago," Carr said. "We had some issues in early games particularly where we didn't get into the right play, we didn't get into the right formation, we didn't get into the right check all because of his youth. That's not going to be a problem right now. I mean, we're not going to have to worry about just getting up to the line of scrimmage and getting the ball snapped before the 25-second clock expires. This is a complicated game from that standpoint at that position, at least on our offense."
Carr expects similar improvement from Hart, who led the Big Ten in rushing with 1,455 yards last season, becoming only the third freshman to accomplish that feat. He had back-to-back 200-yard games against Illinois and Purdue and didn't fumble in his last 230 touches.
"They're both much more confident, much more comfortable," Carr said. "By the same token, there's more pressure because everybody expects more. But both of them have had a great attitude, a great approach, and I think they'll equip themselves very well."
Henne won't have the luxury of having wide receiver Braylon Edwards, who was the third overall choice by the Cleveland Browns in the NFL draft. Edwards had 97 catches for 1,330 yards and scored 15 touchdowns last season. The Wolverines also must replace center David Baas, another all-American who was taken in the NFL draft.
It's up to Michigan's defense to keep the Wolverines in games.
"I think they have something to prove," Hart said. "Last year, they didn't have anything to prove because we had a lot of all-Americans on defense. This year, they're young and they're ready to come out and prove they're a top defense."