Thursday April 19th, 2007

On paper, the Michigan Wolverines -- which return nearly every offensive star from a team that finished 11-2 last season -- have to be on the short list of national-championship contenders for 2007. That is, as long as you're willing to overlook those two defensive meltdowns to end last season.

Or the four departing members of that unit about to be picked very high in the NFL Draft.

Or the Wolverines' recent struggles against rival Ohio State (1-5 since 2001) and in bowl games (four straight losses).

With fourth-year starting quarterback Chad Henne, 1,500-yard rusher Mike Hart, elite receiver Mario Manningham and All-America tackle Jake Long all back, it's easy to see why Michigan has appeared as high as No. 2 in the country in various preseason prognostications.

Except that most of those polls were compiled before two potential starters got kicked off the team prior to spring practice.

And before Manningham's playmaking counterpart, Adrian Arrington, got suspended indefinitely.

And before No. 2 tailback Kevin Grady was lost for the season with a torn ACL.

While there's no such thing as a bad spring, at least in the minds of coaches, some of the headlines coming out of Ann Arbor lately have been less than ideal.

National observers have been drooling over the potential of this year's Michigan team since back before last year's Rose Bowl, but some seem to be taking a more cautious approach.

"With the guys we lost, we should probably be more in the 5 to 12 range [in the rankings]," said a person close to the program.

Of the guys Michigan has lost, some were expected. Others weren't.

Defensive end LaMarr Woodley, cornerback Leon Hall and linebacker David Harris -- all 2006 All-Americas -- were seniors who, along with junior defensive tackle Alan Branch (who declared for the draft), formed the core of a defense that was among the most dominant in the country last season through the first 11 games. The Wolverines finished the season with the nation's top-ranked rushing defense. USC flat-out gave up trying to run the ball against them in the second half of the Rose Bowl. (Unfortunately for Michigan, Trojans QB John David Booty was able to pass on them at will).

Michigan coach Lloyd Carr knew going into spring he'd have to do some rebuilding on defense. So it didn't help matters any when sophomore defensive end Eugene Germany, who would have contended for one of the two starting spots vacated by Woodley and senior Rondell Biggs, was charged with marijuana possession in February. On March 24, Carr announced that Germany, who last year pleaded guilty to two counts of resisting arrest, would not be returning to the team.

That same day, Carr also announced the departures of projected starting tight end Carson Butler, who started several games last season, and backup cornerback Chris Richard. The two were both charged with one count of aggravated assault and one count of assault and battery for allegedly attacking a fellow student on St. Patrick's Day.

Meanwhile, Arrington, whose eight touchdowns last season included a memorable 37-yard catch-and-go against Ohio State, was not allowed to practice this spring due to an undisclosed disciplinary issue. His absence might have been more noticeable if not for the fact that Hart, Manningham and Long missed all or most of the workouts due to injury. (Hart had surgery to repair a nagging shoulder injury.)

The good news is, the injuries and suspension gave Carr a chance to evaluate his younger offensive players, including highly touted freshman quarterback Ryan Mallett. With some of the younger receivers getting added work, sophomore Greg Matthews emerged as a breakout star. Whether or not Arrington returns, Matthews and fellow sophomore LaTerryal Savoy will be needed to step in for departed veteran Steve Breaston.

"[Mathews] has been outstanding," said Carr. "He's capable of being one of those guys that has a great career here. ... LaTerryal Savoy has really had a good spring, too."

On the downside, Michigan's defensive players did not get to test themselves against a full-strength offense -- and certainly some of them could have used the experience. "We have an inordinate amount of young players coming in to replace some great players we lost on defense," said Carr.

Among those youngsters is linebacker Austin Panter, the national junior college defensive player of the year last season at Butler (Kan.) Community College and the first juco player to sign with Michigan in over a decade. He drew Carr's praise during the spring, as did another linebacker, redshirt freshman Obinna Ezeh. The Wolverines do have two returning veterans at the position in standout Shawn Crable and part-time starter Chris Graham. Meanwhile, another Graham, sophomore defensive end Brandon, "had an extremely impressive spring," said Carr, and should alleviate the loss of Germany.

Of bigger concern is the secondary, which got torched by Ohio State and USC. Veteran safeties Jamar Adams and Brandent Englemon sat out the spring, and Carlos Brown, who was moved to cornerback at the beginning of spring, returned to tailback following the injury to Grady. The second cornerback spot opposite returning starter Morgan Trent remains up for grabs, and Carr is hoping incoming freshman Donovan Warren -- a five-star recruit out of Long Beach (Calif.) Poly who chose the Wolverines over USC -- will become a factor in the fall.

All told, there are suddenly a lot of questions surrounding a team that, only a few months ago, could seemingly do no wrong.

When it was revealed last winter that the university had recently re-worked some language in Carr's contract making it more financially practical for him if he were to retire after this season, many speculated whether the 61-year-old was plotting to go out on top with a team many figure will give him his best shot at a national championship since the Charles Woodson-led squad that split the title with Nebraska a decade ago. (Rumors of Carr's impending retirement have been circulating for several years now). If so, perhaps he did not realize at the time he would be dealing with this many headaches -- or perhaps he does not view them as headaches.

Some Michigan followers may see similarities between their team's current state and that of their hated rival this time a year ago. Last year's Buckeyes, much like this year's Wolverines, returned a star-studded offense but had to replace nine starters off a dominant 2005 defense. They did it well enough to reach the national championship game.

On the other hand, that Ohio State team had won the last seven games of its previous season and was coming in off a Fiesta Bowl rout of Notre Dame, not a Rose Bowl shellacking at the hands of USC -- the same team many expect to start atop the polls this summer. Nor did it have such a tumultuous spring.

"I don't ever remember being 100 percent as far as putting a team together in the spring," said Carr. "I like the attitude of this team. They've worked as hard as any team we've had. Practices have been very physical. I think we've made a lot of strides, but there's plenty of time for dramatic improvement at each position."

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