Will the misery end for Michigan?
The Wolverines lost a school-record nine games in his debut season, flopped to a 5-7 finish last year, including only one Big Ten victory, then acknowledged the football program broke major NCAA rules for the first time.
Rodriguez can’t change history, but he knows how to make the present more pleasant.
“Winning cures a lot of things,” Rodriguez said after the team’s first practice.
If Michigan keeps losing, though, Rodriguez might face more scrutiny than any coach in college football.
New athletic director Dave Brandon has said repeatedly that Rodriguez will be the school’s coach this season, while making it clear he expects better results.
Rodriguez insisted he doesn’t feel more pressure now than he did last year or before any season, dating back to his first job as a head coach at Glenville State three decades ago.
“I feel the sense of urgency every day,” he said.
Michigan’s highly anticipated season opens Sept. 4 against Connecticut in the new-look Big House, where luxury suites and club seats loom along both sidelines. The second game is at Notre Dame.
The Wolverines host Michigan State on Oct. 9, trying to avoid their first three-game skid in the rivalry since the 1960s. They close the regular season at Ohio State, which has won six straight in The Game’s most dominant stretch in nearly a century.
Rodriguez and at least some of his players sound convinced brighter days are ahead.
“We’ve got enough to win with,” Rodriguez said.
Stephen Schilling—the offensive lineman who has been around long enough to remember beating the Tim Tebow-led Florida Gators in the 2008 Capital One Bowl in Lloyd Carr’s finale—agrees.
“I definitely think that this could be our year,” Schilling said. “As seniors, we want to be the team that says we got Michigan back on track.”
Quarterback Tate Forcier started every game last year as a freshman and is trying to hold off speedy sophomore Denard Robinson and freshman Devin Gardner. Rodriguez said they all took the first snap—during a drill—and said he’d keep details a “secret” on the three-man race to be the No. 1 QB.
“You can see Tate and Denard have some experience,” Rodriguez said. “But Devin’s a real competitive guy. The hard part for us is to limit their contact. We don’t want to get them beat up in August, but we want to get them ready to play.”
Rodriguez also has to identify his best running backs to replace Brandon Minor and Carlos Brown in camp this month. Vincent Smith, coming off knee surgery, Michael Cox and Fitzgerald Toussaint are the leading candidates to get handoffs. Roy Roundtree, Martavious Odoms and Junior Hemingway will likely be the go-to receivers.
The Schilling-led line already has made a favorable impression.
“I like the way we looked physically up front,” Rodriguez said. “Our young guys on the O-linemen look like they’ve grown up. We’ll be a deeper team up front on both sides of the ball.”
On defense, Michigan desperately needs to get better.
The Wolverines gave up nearly four touchdowns a game last season and have to cope with the losses of defensive end Brandon Graham, cornerback Donovan Warren and linebacker Stevie Brown. Defensive coordinator Greg Robinson is back despite the problems last season, giving the players some consistency.
“The familiarity, not just schemes, but also personality really helps,” said Rodriguez, who calls plays on offense and delegates most decisions on defense.
Linebackers Obi Ezeh and Jonas Mouton, holdovers from Carr’s last team, will get a chance to lead a unit that needs Ryan Van Bergen and Craig Roh to rush the passer to help a shaky secondary.
Michigan’s kicking game might be a problem with an unproven kicker—Brendan Gibbons or Seth Broekhuizen—freshman punter Will Hagerup and without a returner with a successful track record.
Rodriguez will create a lot of competitive situations in camp, and he had to take a break during the first week of practice, flying to Seattle last Friday for an NCAA hearing.
The NCAA outlined five major rules violations, all related to practices and workouts, in a notice of allegations sent to the school in February. The only one the school strongly disagrees with was the one that charged Rodriguez with a failure to promote an atmosphere of compliance in his program.
Rodriguez insisted the NCAA hearing will not be a distraction for his players.
“All that other stuff, I told them, ‘Let me handle it,’ ” Rodriguez said.
But he also better handle things in the win column, or else…