This just in: Michigan was not the most talented team in the
nation last fall. The national champion Wolverines were a
collection of good players--and one great one, Heisman Trophy
winner Charles Woodson--who grew tired of hearing that their
program had fallen into mediocrity after four straight four-loss
seasons. Embracing the tired old concepts of teamwork and
camaraderie, they blossomed into a monster unit that won the
school's first national title in 50 years. Michigan therefore
became a buzzword in football offices around the country, as in
"we're looking to establish great chemistry this year, like
Michigan had last year," which is what LSU coach Gerry DiNardo
said this summer.
A year ago Schembechler Hall was a wellspring of motivational
gadgets, from the row of ice axes, each inscribed with the name
of a beaten opponent, that lined the floor of coach Lloyd Carr's
office (emblematic of his "climbing Everest" metaphor) to the
fresh rose--as in Bowl--that lay in a box in the defensive
meeting room, where players could gaze upon it. Even now the
serendipitousness of the season amazes the man who plotted its
turns. "If my daughter hadn't given me Into Thin Air for
Father's Day," Carr says, "that whole theme would never have
happened." Yet as quickly as other teams sought to replicate
Michigan's synergy, the Wolverines just as vigorously began
distancing themselves from 1997.
In a team meeting two weeks after their Rose Bowl victory over
Washington State, which led to the shared national title with
Nebraska, Carr stood in front of his players and said,
"Congratulations...for the last time." Defensive coordinator Jim
Herrmann, who in his first year crafted a voracious defense that
allowed the fewest points and yards of any team in the country,
put together a 20-play tape for his returning players, a Texas
Chainsaw Massacre of blown coverages, missed assignments and
other mental errors. "We were good last year," Herrmann says.
"But we wanted the players to see just how much better we could
have been." In short, this year's theme is, Forget last year.
Opponents won't. At the outset of last season, the Wolverines
were, of all things, upstarts, devoid of whatever scary mystique
the Maize and Blue once held. "Everybody we played
underestimated us," says fourth-year junior nosetackle Rob
Renes. No more. Michigan will again get every opponent's
attention and its best punch. "Everybody will be gunning for
us," says senior linebacker Sam Sword. The Wolverines' total of
15 returning starters (including nine on defense) looks nice in
print, but those lost include not only cornerback Woodson but
also defensive end Glen Steele, the team's best pass rusher a
year ago, and quarterback Brian Griese, who in one season went
from workaday grinder to Rose Bowl MVP and third-round NFL draft
choice. The holes they leave are huge, in skill and in spirit.
Woodson's departure leaves Andre Weathers at the wide corner,
and Herrmann predicts that the senior will immediately be
regarded as "one of the best defensive backs in the country."
That means Weathers won't see many balls, and the burden of
making Michigan's blitzing scheme work will fall to sophomores
James Whitley and William Peterson, both of whom will play often
at the short corner. Senior safety Marcus Ray will be expected
to back up his prodigious woofing with Woodson-sized leadership.
Junior Tom Brady won the starting quarterback job in the spring.
At 6'5", 223 pounds, he's bigger than Griese and throws a
prettier ball, all of which is fool's gold. Griese drove
Michigan to the national title with his cojones. "I believe
Tommy has that same warrior mentality," says senior running back
Clarence Williams. Brady's first sports memory is of sitting in
Candlestick Park as a four-year-old during the 1981 NFC
Championship Game and watching Dwight Clark make the Catch on a
Joe Montana pass en route to the 49ers' first NFL title. If
Brady doesn't perform, he'll be spectator to many other plays,
because behind him is freshman Drew Henson of Brighton, Mich., a
high school All-America in two sports who in mid-July signed a
five-year contract with the New York Yankees, which included a
$2 million signing bonus. The third base prospect, whom Carr
admits has "tremendous ability" on the football field, played 10
games for the Yankees' rookie league team in Tampa (hitting .316
in 38 at bats) before reporting to Michigan on Aug. 11.
In his search for the best means to defend the national crown,
Carr spoke with both Bill Walsh and Bill Parcells during the
off-season. Walsh told Carr that it was crucial for him to
identify those members of his program who had lost their passion
as a result of winning once, versus those who still had the
fire. Parcells told Carr that winning a title would only make
him thirst more for another. No surprise there. "We want to
defend the championship," says Carr. "We won't shrink from
that." Quick, somebody buy that man a book.
COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT S. ECCKER Stepping up? Ray, who replaces Woodson as the leader in the secondary, will have to prove that his bite is as bad as his bark. [Marcus Ray with football in game]
COLOR PHOTO: DONNA TEREK Brady [Tom Brady]
1997 record: 12-0 (8-0, 1st in Big Ten)
Final ranking: No. 1 AP, No. 2 coaches' poll
Rushing Passing Total
1997 Averages Scoring Yards Yards Yards
OFFENSE 27.4 187.3 201.2 388.5
DEFENSE 8.9 91.0 115.9 206.9
Coach: Lloyd Carr
Fourth year at Michigan (29-8); career Division I-A record: 29-8
WR Tai Streets Sr. '97 Biletnikoff Award nominee
LT Jeff Backus So. Second-team All-Big Ten
LG David Brandt[*] So. Academic All-Big Ten
C Steve Hutchinson So. Started every '97 game at LG
RG Chris Ziemann Jr. Rose Bowl was 9th start of year
RT Jon Jansen Sr. Has started 34 straight games
TE Jerame Tuman Sr. All-America has 10 career TDs
WR Marcus Knight[*] Jr. 4 rec. for 70 yds. in two years
QB Tom Brady[*] Jr. 75% career passer (15 of 20)
RB Anthony Thomas[*] So. '97 Big Ten freshman of the year
FB Ray Jackson[*] So. 11 rushes for 41 yds.
K Kraig Baker Sr. Groza Award semifinalist
LE Juaquin Feazell[*] Sr. 24 tackles as a reserve
NT Rob Renes Jr. Team's '97 top student
DT Josh Williams Jr. 10 tackles for losses
RE James Hall Jr. Pass-rush specialist
OLB Clint Copenhaver Sr. Started 8 games
ILB Sam Sword Sr. Led D with 91 tackles
ILB Dhani Jones So. 80 tackles, 4 sacks, 1 int.
CB Andre Weathers Sr. 42 tackles, 2 int.
SS Marcus Ray Sr. 66 tackles, 5 int.
FS Tommy Hendricks Jr. 53 tackles, 2 int.
CB James Whitley[*] So. Strong summer earns job
P Jason Vinson Sr. 38.9 avg. on 52 punts
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are from 1997 season.
Fourth-year junior quarterback Tom Brady has thrown just 20
passes in his college career and has never taken a snap with a
game in doubt. Waiting in the wings is freshman
football-baseball phenom Drew Henson.... The Wolverines are
always deep at running back, but the outside-inside combination
of bruising 229-pound sophomore Anthony Thomas (529 yards last
year) and senior Clarence Williams, who rushed for 778 yards as
a sophomore but slipped to 264 last season while missing parts
of four games with a hamstring injury, must help ease Brady's
load and not force the Wolverines to play undersized (185-pound)
freshman Justin Fargas too much too soon.... The leader in the
secondary will be fifth-year senior Marcus Ray, an
all-conference selection by the coaches and media last
season.... Sophomore corners William Peterson and James Whitley
will have to develop quickly into solid cover men; both played
in every game last year, but neither intercepted a pass.
Schedule strength: 13th of 112
Sept. 5 at Notre Dame It's always risky to take an untested
quarterback on the road to begin his career--especially to South
Bend--and the Irish are overdue to win a big game.
Sept. 26 vs. Michigan State An earlier-than-usual matchup with
the hated Spartans, who were stung by last year's 23-7
embarrassment in East Lansing.
Nov. 21 at Ohio State Payback has built to epic proportions for
the Buckeyes, who are 1-8-1 against the Wolverines since 1988
and have lost two recent national title shots to Michigan ('95
The X Factor
The Wolverines' undefeated season reaped benefits in recruiting:
Among the 19 freshmen are seven USA Today All-Americas,
including Fargas and blue-chip wideouts Marquis Walker and David
The Bottom Line
Michigan's first national championship in 50 years was the
product of great motivation and spectacular team chemistry, both
of which will be very difficult to re-create.