Michigan football...is relatively "back" thanks to a huge year, increased fanbase unity, monster recruits...Basically every aspect of the program seems to be on the rise (even the damn basketball team). Or is that just all afterglow of an 11-2 season?
No matter. In conjunction with this Ann Arbor rise, SBN's Michigan blog Maize and Brew has a new editor/leader, Zach Travis. Zach has instantly began providing really really good basketball and football analysis. Also, he's decided to answer all my questions. Our thanks for the extended interview on Zach's favorite indi music band, improved Michigan recruiting, and whether the Michigan program is still exceptional.
Q- Zach, tell the OTE readers about yourself, about your background, your favorite Indi music band, your favorite Michigan athlete of all time...
A- I'm a Michigan local (born and raised in the Flint area) that grew up loving Michigan because of my father who completed his M.A. at UMFlint while working and helping my mom raise my sister and I. I started really getting into Michigan football in high school when I started to play football (before that it was all basketball), and by the time it came to apply for college there was only one place I applied (thank God I got accepted).
I started at Michigan in 2003, went to every home game except one (Illinois in '03 thanks to a bout of mono that also cost me my good academic standing as a freshman). I ended up getting my B.A. in both history and philosophy because I naively thought two worthless liberal arts degrees would endear me to employers more than one. I stuck it out for Braylonfest in '04, I watched Manningham crush Penn State's undefeated dreams in '05, I went to the 2007 Rose Bowl, and I was in the stands for The Horror.
I started blogging during a jobless period a couple years ago because I figured if I was going to devote that much time a day to Michigan football I might as well create something. That led to my old site Dreaded Judgement and then me getting picked up by MnB Dave to write for Maize n Brew. Last fall I got hired to write Big Ten football content for Bleacher Report (which was, well, an experience) and as my contract ended I got the opportunity to take over for Dave at MnB --- something I was thrilled to do.
When it comes to indie music its either Wilco, Pavement, Man Man, or LCD Soundsystem. Mostly I just listen to R&B or soul anymore --- it doesn't get any better than Otis Redding (Editor Note: Otis, my man!), Sam Cooke, or Aretha Franklin. My favorite Michigan player of all-time was Mike Hart until a couple years ago, but Denard has stolen my heart. I don't think he will be giving it back for a while.
Q - Now that you're running Maize and Brew, what is your goal as the lead Michigan blogger for SBN?
A - I just want to build a great Michigan site. I was a reader at MnB long before I was a writer, and I am still close with MnB Dave so I really just want to continue to build on all the great work he did. The first thing I did when I got offered the position running MnB was think, "what writers would I like to read," then I went out and offered them the chance to come on board and write the kinds of things they are interested in. A site is only as good as the people writing for it. I really believe that there is a substantial audience out there for Michigan content and I think MnB can grow to be one of the premier SBN college sites if we keep providing great content.
Q - Have you read the controversial John U. Bacon book about the Rich Rod years? Do you think the book exposes anything about the Michigan fans and program that we didn't know before. Do you think the Michigan program is still "Exceptional" in any way, as Michigan fans have claimed for years...or is it just another heartless college football program?
A - I read it about a month after it came out and finished it in about three days. It was simultaneously hard to put down and painful to keep reading. As someone who studied history and loves Michigan football it was right in my wheelhouse. I think it exposes something we as a fan base didn't want to admit more than something we didn't already know. Success isn't given. If you get complacent in anything you do, you are prone to slip. I think the Michigan football program at the end of the Carr years was directionless and the transition to Rich Rodriguez opened up a schism between two groups that had different ideals of how Michigan should play. This would have been fine if there was a strong presence to lead the program (say, if Bo were still around) or if there was immediate success, but neither of these things happened and in the end everyone was dissatisfied with something which led to a lot of pointless bickering.
I do still think the Michigan program is exceptional. You don't lose years of history, Heisman winners, and national championships just because of a rough patch. Michigan is one of the biggest national brands in college football, has one of the most iconic stadiums in the country, and a massive fan base that isn't just national but global. That being said, being exceptional doesn't win football games and it doesn't guarantee success (cough, Notre Dame, cough). You still have to earn it. That is why I like Brady Hoke so much. He believes "this is Michigan, fergodsakes" but he is never satisfied and always wants the entire program to work harder and get better.
Q - Michigan football in 2012. Give me your five talking points like we're on Bleacher Report.
A - You'll have to accept this answer in paragraph form since I couldn't find the button for "Slideshow." (Editor note: hahahahahahahha that's the answer of the year. Kudos, Zach, kudos.)
First, what Denard Robinson will Michigan get? Robinson has been all over the map in his three years at Michigan and while he has proven that he can win the big game, he still hasn't proven that he can put together an entire season. I think this is the year he finally does it. The last half of 2011 looked completely different from the first half, and if he can stay healthy I think he has a chance to put together a huge senior season.
Second, can the defensive line reload? I am terrified of the depth along the d-line next year. Not only does it hurt losing Martin and Van Bergen, but Heininger turned into an above-average starter by the end of the season. I have a lot of faith in the coaching staff to mold defensive line talent, but there are going to be a lot of new names on the inside next year. The biggest keys will be 1) if Will Campbell finally flips the switch and 2) if Ondre Pipkins can be an instant impact player. If both those questions are definitively "yes" then I think Michigan's defense will be as good as the 2011 unit. If not the back seven had better make some serious strides because they are going to be put in a few bad positions.
Third, does Michigan avoid the injury bug? The team is still building quality depth after attrition ravaged the Rodriguez era recruiting classes. If the offensive line or defensive line suffers any significant injuries it could throw the team into a tailspin. Michigan avoided costly injuries last year, but previous years (Woolfolk '10, Molk '09, Minor '08, '09) have cost this team a lot.
Fourth, how will Borges structure the offense? As the season wore on two things became clear: 1) Al Borges desperately wanted to run I-form and other pro sets around half the time and 2) Those things just simply didn't work. I think that the emergence of Toussaint as a true feature running back helped Borges see the light, but I worry that the first few games next year could end up with him trying to make something work out of the I-form instead of running this offense out of the shotgun where it is most dangerous. You can experiment against Western Mich, Eastern Mich, and SDSU. You better bring your A game when you play Alabama. Does Borges bring his A game early?
Fifth, can Michigan overcome a loaded schedule? Road games against Notre Dame, Ohio State, and Nebraska, a home game vs. a very good MSU team, and a neutral site opener against Alabama could easily all be losses. Add in a tough visit from Air Force and games against the rest of the Legends division and you have a situation where Michigan must find a way to win on the road (2-2 last year) or the team could see a major regression in record despite being as good as the 2011 squad.
Honorable mention: Who plays wide receiver? Is life after Molk as painful as I imagine it will be? Does Hoke continue to be a game-theory wiz? Will I ever trust the secondary again? How many true-freshman start?
A - I work with Denard on throwing deep. Not just reading defenses and throwing motion, but setting himself up to throw with his entire body, not just winging it off his back foot Favre-style. If you watch some of his worst throws they all came when he was throwing with his upper body not his whole body. He won't ever be the kind of quarterback that can bomb defenses on 40-yard go routes and 15-yard outs to the wide side of the field, but with the threat of the run he doesn't have to. Things will be open, he just needs to concentrate on getting the ball to his receiver in the right place. Also, if I planned on running the speed option ever again I would actually teach him how to run the speed option.
As for Gardner, I would utilize him as a backup quarterback. He is a backup quarterback. I don't think there is any advantage to running him out for a play or two every other series. It kills the offense's momentum and tips the offenses's hand. Let him prepare to lead if he is forced to take over. Other than that he should be getting ready for 2013 when the offense will really need him.
Q - Michigan recruiting. Is there something specific that caused this recent uptick in recruiting, both in football and basketball? Do you expect John Belein to stick to his offensive system with all these individual talents coming in?
Football recruiting has drastically improved because the program is stable and Hoke has a staff full of very good recruiters selling Michigan itself and focusing heavily on the Midwest. I think the product on the field has helped to an extent (mostly because taking Rodriguez's horrible defense and turning it into a very good unit proves the staff can get the most out of its players) but in the end I think it is just Michigan getting back to recruiting the way Michigan has always recruited. Some schools have an easier time bringing in top classes and Michigan is one of them.
As for basketball I think it is a combination of three things: 1) a renewed commitment to the program in terms of facility upgrades and a new PDC, 2) success on the court helping improve Michigan's national reputation, and 3) Beilein's ability to spot talent early. I really think that the last one is very important. Look at some of the best players of the last few years. Zack Novak and Stu Douglass were hardly recruited, Jordan Morgan got no interest from anyone, Tim Hardaway Jr. was a top-100 player to just one site (and even then I think he was 99th) and Trey Burke was a three-star recruit. Now look at the three players coming in: Michigan got in on Mitch McGary early before his recruitment took off. Ditto for the now five-star Glenn Robinson III. Finally Nick Stauskas was a middling three-star when he committed. Beilein has shown himself to be one of the best coaches in the conference at identifying talent early and it has paid off with a team that is in position to win a share of the Big Ten title despite starting a bunch of guys nobody else wanted.
Q - OTE readers love their individual schools, but love a little intra-conference discussion also. Why should they come to M&B for their Michigan coverage? How is M&B different than MGoBlog?
A - I hope people come to Maize n Brew because of the quality of the writing, analysis, and discussion. There is no bigger fan of MGoBlog than me, I can assure you. But MGoBlog is dominated by one voice --- although Ace does a phenomenal job covering recruiting for the site --- and while Brian is an incredibly talented writer and things like the UFRs aren't available anywhere else on the internet, there is much more out there to be written about Michigan than just what Brian has time to write (he is prolific but he is still only one man). I will always read MGoBlog, but I will also always read Touch the Banner, Burgeoning Wolverine Star, Maize Pages, UMHoops, Holdin' the Rope, Tremendous, and Wolverine Liberation Army. Michigan has a huge online presence, and if you write something interesting about Michigan sports someone will find it. I should know, I spend way too much time reading everything I can get my hands on.
I hope that with the group of writers we have at Maize n Brew that we can produce a large amount of interesting content about Michigan and the rest of the Big Ten that you can't find anywhere else.