College football countdown: No. 8 Michigan

Tuesday, August 1st 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Rebuilt defense will be key for Michigan

Lloyd Carr knows his team's faults, and he knows the potential downfall that could keep the Michigan Wolverines from playing for the national championship this season.

"When you lose as many players as we did on defense, you are faced with a major rebuilding issue," said Carr, whose team was 10-2 last year and is picked by some to win the Big Ten this season.

Still, six defensive starters and 20 lettermen are gone. Of the first eight players in the defensive line depth chart, seven are freshmen or sophomores.

Tackle Eric Wilson (6-4, 285, Sr.) and linebacker Victor Hobson (6-1, 235, So.) must help five newcomers adjust quickly to life in one of the elite conferences in college football.

"As a fifth-year senior, I take it personally," Wilson said. "A lot of people don't have faith in this line, but I'm not worried."

Fortunately for Michigan, the going begins unusually easily. The Wolverines play host to Bowling Green and Rice in their first two games.

Though inexperienced, Michigan's defense has talent, which is why Big Ten media selected the Wolverines to win the conference ahead of Purdue and Wisconsin.

Carr did some spring cleaning with the defense, moving several players into new positions. What seems to be set is two redshirt freshmen in the starting lineup – nose tackle Grant Bowman (6-1, 267) and rush linebacker Shantee Orr (6-1, 226).

Offensively, Michigan stands a good chance to improve upon the Big Ten's worst rushing offense, which averaged 122 yards. Senior tailback Anthony Thomas (6-2, 225) has depth behind him – third-year sophomore Justin Fargas (6-1, 187), who broke his leg in 1998 and missed '99 because of complications from the injury, and redshirt freshman Ryan Beard (5-9, 207) have pushed junior Walter Cross out of the backup role.

Behind an offensive line that ranks among the nation's finest, these backs should get their yardage – something Michigan hasn't done in a while. The Wolverines have averaged less than four yards per carry the past four seasons.

The passing game is in the hands of Drew Henson, who has been in headlines this summer because of his trade from the Yankees to the Reds. The junior has been just average his first two years, but his trade to the Reds made him question his desire for baseball.

Henson hit .284 his first two seasons of minor league baseball.

Michigan Schedule- Sept 2 Bowling Green; Sept 9 Rice; Sept 16 at UCLA; Sept 23 at Illinois; Sept 30 Wisconsin; Oct 7 at purdue; Oct 14 Indiana; Oct 21 Michigan State; Nov 4 at Northwestern; Nov 11 Penn State; Nov 18 at Ohio State

Michigan Wolverines Capsule

COACH: Lloyd Carr (49-13 in five seasons at Michigan).

LAST YEAR: 10-2 (6-2 in Big Ten; beat Alabama in Orange Bowl).

OUT: September showdown against rival Notre Dame. Even if Irish are down, Bowling Green is a much less traumatic way to begin the season.

IN: One of the best offensive lines in the country to improve on last season's woeful 3.2 yards per carry.

BIG PLUS: Quarterback Drew Henson, a minor league baseball player, was traded from the Yankees to the Reds, possibly diminishing his love for that sport and increasing his focus on football.

BIG MINUS: Five of the front seven starters on defense must be replaced, and the secondary allowed 212 yards passing per game last year.

NATIONAL TITLE IF: This defense equals more than the sum of its parts. And winning all four road games is a must.

BOTTOM LINE: It is rare when Michigan's non-conference schedule is a breather, but a trip to UCLA is the only real test before Big Ten play begins. This gives Michigan a chance to focus on a select number of Saturdays that could lead to the Orange Bowl.

Top 25 So Far

25. Clemson
24. Mississippi
23. So. Miss.
22. Utah
21. Texas A&M
20. Penn State
19. Tennessee
18. Colorado
17. Oklahoma
16. Purdue
15. Illinois
14. Kansas State
13. Florida
12. Ohio State
11. TCU
10. USC
9. Wisconsin
8. Michigan