The prospects for the 2005 Michigan offense are seemingly as high as they have ever been. Despite the loss of former All-American receiver Braylon Edwards, many feel that the talent the Wolverines have returning will prevent the unit from missing a beat. That much was evident in the preseason polls, including the AP rankings, which currently list the Maize and Blue fourth. As good is it may feel to be thought of so highly, Michigan coach Lloyd Carr has stressed to his players that they keep all of the positive press and lofty external expectations in perspective.
"I tell them, don't worry about all the expectations except the ones in this room," Carr said earlier today. "That's the way that anybody has to approach a situation where they're going to be under such scrutiny. You can't be worried about all those people that say 'you can't do this' or 'you can't do that,' and 'somebody else should be playing.' The test is to be able to concentrate at a high level, at a consistent level day-in and day-out so that your performance can improve weekly. I think that we've talked about dealing with pressure and that's all part of it. On a day-to-day basis, it's all about being focused on what your goals are, what the goals of our team are, understanding that this is a team game and it means to be successful everyone needs to play the role that they're asked to play."
Some of the highest expectations have been thrust upon second year quarterback Chad Henne. After turning in an outstanding freshman campaign in which he threw for 2,743 yards and tied the school record for touchdown passes in a season with 25, the key for him is to not become content with his current standing. That is a message Carr has sent to all of his players, but one that is particularly pertinent to Henne and fellow sophomore phenom Mike Hart.
"What I try to tell them is that playing here is a double-edged sword," Carr said. "The great thing is the pressure, the stress, and the expectations. If you don't want that, then you're in the wrong place. There are ways to handle it. It's a lot more fun when they're saying good things and writing nice things. Even then, you have to fight the complacency and this idea that you've arrived and that this is going to be easy because that's what happens when you have success."
Henne seems to have internalized his coach's words of wisdom. As good as he was last year, the Pennsylvania native made it clear that he understands that he can get better. "There are always things to improve on, both mentally and physically," Henne said. "It's pretty easy to improve from year to year because you can capitalize on all the mistakes you made in the past that next year. You always want the pressure on your shoulders because that's when you perform the best. You always want to play your best, and being in those situations can only help you along the way."
Like Henne, Hart indicated that he also thrives on the pressure that comes with being a Wolverine. "High expectations are what you come to Michigan for," said Hart. "You want to be the best. To do that you have to beat everybody and take all the praise and criticism that comes with that. We are looking forward to defending the Big Ten Championship."
After Hart's rousing success last year, defenses will probably key on him a lot more in 2005. That said, the burden of handling all of the tailback duties should be lessened this season thanks to the contributions of a couple of other talented backs. As was mentioned by Carr last week in Chicago, sophomore Max Martin and true freshman Kevin Grady both turned in strong springs. That, however, does not mean that he is heading into the season with set plans for each of them to get a certain number of touches. How many carries they get will be determined by how effective they are in practice and by what's best for the team.
Lloyd Carr and Kevin Grady
The wealth of talent in the backfield is almost certainly welcomed problem after last year's early season rushing woes. A problem that is unwelcome, though, is the present state of his center situation. "I think there is one thing that would help me sleep better than anything else, and that's to know who our starting center is going to be," Carr said. "I go back to 1997 when I had the same problem. We moved a guy named Zach Adami in there to center and he had a great year and was a great leader. I think that's the issue. Rueben Riley, I think will have a great year. I think he came out of nowhere in what he did the last part of that season. He's a big, powerful, competitive guy. The question is whether he can stay at guard, which is what I would prefer, or if we're going to have to move him to center. That's going to be some time here into training camp before we decide."
Riley's versatility will hopefully give the Wolverines the same sort of flexibility David Baas did last year. Much like his predecessor, Riley is much more concerned with helping the team than he is with where he lines up. "I just prefer to be on the field," Riley said regarding what position he would like to play. "If they want me to kick the ball, I'll learn how to do that. I want to be playing. That's the bottom line. No matter where. Coach Carr told me to be ready to play both left guard and center. I'll go into camp doing that and I'll let the coaches decide coaches where to put me. It looks great. We definitely miss #75 (Baas), but the line looks great. I'm real optimistic about this season."
Look for much more from media day in the hours and days to come.