Spring provides fresh start for Michigan offense

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

After making history for all the wrong reasons last fall at Michigan, Rich Rodriguez enters spring practice with history back on his side.

As Michigan returns to the practice field Saturday, Rodriguez can fall back on a track record of producing better offenses in Year 2 than Year 1 during his various coaching stops.

  • Tulane went 7-4 in Rodriguez's first year as offensive coordinator (1997) but surged the next fall, going 12-0 behind a dynamic offense. The Green Wave was the only FBS team to average more than 300 passing yards and 200 rushing yards. They finished second nationally in scoring (45.4 ppg) and fourth in total offense (507.1 ypg).

  • Clemson went from 6-6 to 9-3 in Rodriguez's second season as offensive coordinator (2000), and the offense improved from 36th in total offense and 44th in rushing to 10th nationally in both categories.

  • After West Virginia went 3-8 in Rodriguez's first season as head coach, the Mountaineers rallied in 2002, going 9-4. The offense improved from 80th nationally in total yards and 89th in scoring to 18th in total yards and 33rd in scoring.

Could Michigan make a similar jump in Rodriguez's second season?

"We hope," Rodriguez said, "but there's a lot of things that have to go right."

Almost nothing went right for the Wolverines and their head coach last fall.

There's no need to rehash the entire list of lows, but Rodriguez's offense finished 109th nationally in yards (290.8 ypg) and 99th in scoring (20.3 ppg). Playing with mostly novices struggling to adapt to the spread system, Michigan mustered 21 points or fewer in eight games and eclipsed 29 points only once.

But spring ball brings new hope to a unit that returns full- or part-time starters at every position. Michigan is still young, but players who looked utterly lost last season have had time to ripen.

"They'll be able to recognize things a little bit faster," Rodriguez said. "Not only from what we're doing, but also a recognition from a defensive standpoint. That, in itself, will allow them to be fundamentally better because they won't have to fake as much.

"First-time system, you're thinking a lot and you're not able to play to your capabilities because you're thinking too much. Hopefully, with some of that experience coming back, you'll be able to see [progress]."

Experience continues to be in short supply at the most important position on the field.

Steven Threet's decision to transfer last month leaves Michigan with only one quarterback -- former walk-on Nick Sheridan -- boasting legitimate game experience. And while both Sheridan and David Cone have spent several years in the program, true freshman Tate Forcier enters spring ball as the early favorite to win the starting job.

Forcier's classmate, Denard Robinson, arrives this summer.

The 6-foot-1, 187-pound Forcier ran the spread offense in high school and appears well suited for Rodriguez's scheme, which Threet and Sheridan bungled most of last season.

"I know everything is coming fast to him and we've got to remember at this time, most of his peers in are high school," Rodriguez said. "But he's a smart, competitive guy and he's a talented guy. We're going to have some quality [at quarterback]. We just don't have a lot of experience other than Nick."

Rodriguez has frequently spotted Forcier in the film room since the freshman arrived on campus in January.

"He was well coached in high school, so he comes in with a good base and a good knowledge of how to play quarterback," Rodriguez said. "Now playing quarterback in a system and also learning about defense -- what this coverage does and that coverage does -- that's a lot for a guy to come in and learn. But he's eager to learn. He's kind of a gym rat."

Michigan might be starting from scratch again at quarterback, but unlike last season, when Threet and Sheridan were surrounded by players in the same boat, the team's next starter will be helped by teammates paddling a little farther upstream.

The running backs will provide a boost, even after the transfer of No. 2 rusher Sam McGuffie.

Senior Brandon Minor headlines the group after averaging 89.4 rush yards in his final five games last fall. Sophomore Michael Shaw will miss spring ball but return in the summer following hernia surgery, and senior Carlos Brown is also back after missing a chunk of last season with a foot injury.

"If we stay healthy, that could be one of our deepest positions," Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez feels the same way about the offensive line, which returns all five starters but perhaps more importantly, adds six redshirt freshmen to the mix this spring.

A lack of competition at certain positions was Rodriguez's biggest complaint with the program he inherited at Michigan. While he admits the competition isn't nearly where he wants it to be in several years, things should be more heated this spring, especially up front.

"That's the group where we have the most experience returning, whereas last year, we had very little of it," Rodriguez said. "And not only do they have some experience, we've seen a difference in them from the work they put in in the weight room.

"Our goal was always to find seven or eight guys we can rely on up front. I'm hoping at the end of the spring, we can find 10."

Rodriguez also has higher expectations for a wide receiving corps that retains top targets Martavious Odoms, Greg Mathews and Darryl Stonum and brings back Junior Hemingway, who received a medical redshirt last year after battling mono.

With so many holdovers and a manageable schedule, could Michigan become Rodriguez's latest Year 2 turnaround?

"You have to stay healthy, you've got to have a little luck," Rodriguez said. "We're optimistic certainly that we're going to be better. We expect to be better. Now, do we make that complete leap like we did a few years back? It's yet to be seen, but I like the progress so far."

Rodriguez remains realistic, pointing to the large number of young players who once again will log significant field time this fall. But after the worst season in team history, it shouldn't take much to take a step forward -- and maybe more.

"I can sense a renewed type of commitment from our players in th
e last couple months," Rodriguez said. "Everybody wants to do well. The expectations are always going to be high here, and they should be."