4 Michigan

With young, gamebreaking players at quarterback, running back and wideout, the Wolverines are an offensive juggernaut
August 14, 2005

Though he grew up in North Braddock, Pa., and lives in Ann Arbor, Mich., Steve Breaston remains intensely interested in the fictional municipalities of Metropolis and Gotham City. A comic-book fanatic as a kid, the Wolverines' junior wide receiver is now a budding slam poet who often alludes to superheroes from DC and Marvel comics in his verse. Take this excerpt from a recent composition: See, whenever I was young, I spent a dollar twenty-five/On a book that had inside/Men who could fly/Who wore mind-grabbing costumes/ And these men couldn't die.

"You write what you know," says the soft-spoken Breaston. "My experiences here will allow me to write about more things."

As he showed when he was a freshman All-America kick returner and a receiver in 2003, Breaston is capable of near superhuman feats on the field. But as a sophomore it seemed at times as if he were playing with kryptonite. In the summer of 2004 he suffered a stress fracture in his right foot, had surgery and missed part of August camp. The lingering pain limited his ability to cut, and through the first nine games he caught only 22 passes for 148 yards and one touchdown. He also badly broke his left ring finger on Sept. 25 during Michigan's win over Iowa. "There are things you just can't control," says Breaston. "We still had a great year, and I enjoyed every bit of it."

He should like this season even more, for his gamebreaking talent bolsters a team with national championship potential. Michigan has a pair of sophomore Heisman Trophy candidates in quarterback Chad Henne and running back Mike Hart, as well as All--Big Ten tight end Tim Massaquoi. Though Biletnikoff Award--winning wideout Braylon Edwards is gone, he'll be ably replaced by senior Jason Avant and a healthy Breaston, whose performance in the Wolverines' Rose Bowl loss to Texas reminded everyone of what he's capable of when he is healthy. Breaston returned six kickoffs for a bowl-record 221 yards, ran the ball three times for 15 yards and caught three passes for 77 yards and a touchdown. "He's so versatile," says receivers coach Erik Campbell, noting that Breaston even lined up at quarterback and ran an option keeper for a score against Ohio State two years ago. "His accolades are going to come."

If coach Lloyd Carr has his way, there will be huzzahs for the entire offense. Though Henne was a freshman last year, he displayed great maturity, completing 60.2% of his passes for 2,743 yards, 25 touchdowns and only 12 interceptions. He'll have even more targets this fall: Avant was the team's second-leading receiver last year (38 catches, 447 yards, three touchdowns), the 6'4", 248-pound Massaquoi had 18 catches and backup Tyler Ecker pulled in another 17. Complementing all those pass catchers is the 5'9", 192-pound Hart, who ran for 1,455 yards and nine touchdowns in '04 and won raves from Carr this spring for his receiving ability. "We have a lot of guys who can catch the football," Carr says. "That's going to help us get the ball to Steve in one-on-one situations."

While his game is big, the 6'1", 179-pound Breaston is not, and the last thing Carr wants is a repeat of Breaston's injury-plagued 2004. "We don't want to get him into positions where he's going to get beat up," says the coach. "We want him in situations where he's in single coverage. He's a great deep threat, but we'll get the ball to him on reverses and, of course, as a kick returner. We expect people to devise ways to keep him from getting the ball, so by moving him around, we'll hopefully make it difficult for them to know where he's going to be all the time."

What might hold back the Wolverines is a defense that didn't rank among the nation's top 30 in any major defensive category. What troubled Carr and defensive coordinator Jim Herrmann was the inability to contain mobile quarterbacks. In the final two games last season, both losses, the Wolverines gave up a combined 337 rushing yards to Ohio State's Troy Smith and Texas's Vince Young.

This fall in Ann Arbor it might just turn out that the best defense is an unstoppable offense. If that's the case, Breaston could be in for a season worthy of one of his comic-book superheroes. "A lot of people are looking for me to step up, but what I'm looking for is for all of us to step up," he says. "We have a lot of talent at receiver, but if you see me in man coverage, you should be happy." --Mark Beech

FAST FACTS

2004 RECORD 9--3 (7--1, T1 in Big Ten)

FINAL AP RANK 14 RETURNING STARTERS 17

KEY RETURNEES (2004 stats)

RB Mike Hart (Soph.) All--Big Ten first team and freshman of the year

QB Chad Henne (Soph.) Tied Elvis Grbac's school record of 25 TD passes

WR Jason Avant (Sr.) Thirty of his 38 catches earned first downs

DT Pat Massey (Sr.) Nine career sacks the most of any returnee

TELLING NUMBER

308

Total touches (282 rushes, 26 catches) with only one fumble by Mike Hart, who didn't lose the ball the last 230 times he had it.

GAMEBREAKER

Fast and athletic, 6'5", 247-pound Pierre Woods is one of the Big Ten's most effective pass rushers. As an outside linebacker two years ago, he led Michigan with seven sacks and 14 tackles for loss. After being limited to three starts in '04 because of injury, he's ready to wreak havoc again--but from defensive end.

SCHEDULE

Sept. 3 NORTHERN ILLINOIS

10 NOTRE DAME

17 EASTERN MICHIGAN

24 at Wisconsin

Oct. 1 at Michigan State

8 MINNESOTA

15 PENN STATE

22 at Iowa

29 at Northwestern

Nov. 12 INDIANA

19 OHIO STATE

COLOR PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYER THRILLER Emerging from the shadow of the school's alltime top receiver, Breaston will have more chances to flash his skills. COLOR PHOTOCHRIS BERNACCHI/SPORTPICSHENNE

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)