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Published: Sunday, 3/16/2008

Jitters mark start of UM spring practice

BY JOE VARDON
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

ANN ARBOR - The Michigan quarterbacks and running backs were trying to execute the same play over and over again.

Quarterback in the shotgun, running back standing next to him. Quarterback hands to running back, then carries out the fake in the opposite direction.

It's the most basic play in Wolverine coach Rich Rodriguez's spread-option offense, and the first day of spring practice for the Wolverines yesterday was definitely a time for covering the basics.

Rodriguez and his coaches are teaching an entirely different offense than the pro-style attack of former coach Lloyd Carr. To add to the challenge, they are trying to install the spread-option scheme with a roster devoid of experience in executing the offense Rodriguez ran at West Virginia with so much success.

During the portion of yesterday's practice open to the media, held inside the school's indoor practice facility, Rodriguez cajoled, yelled, and occasionally ripped off his hat in disgust.

Asked by a UM media relations official if he wanted some orange juice before he spoke with reporters after the workout, Rodriguez said: "No, just some water and Tylenol."

"I was expecting the worst and it wasn't all that bad," Rodriguez said.

"The first one is always the toughest."

Rodriguez said his task was made more difficult by the lack of experience on offense, as only four starters return while big names such as Jake Long, Chad Henne, Mike Hart, Adam Kraus, Mario Manningham, and Adrian Arrington are trying to continue their careers in the NFL.

UM is particularly green at quarterback, where the three players vying for the job have thrown one pass. Rodriguez said he didn't ask any of his quarterbacks if they have ever run any version of an option offense before.

"I almost have like a blank canvas with all the guys," Rodriguez said. "We watched a little film from last year so we know about some of the guys who have played, but none of the quarterbacks played, so it's wide open there."

Rodriguez said there is no depth chart right now, but sophomore Nick Sheridan was the first quarterback to take the field in team drills. He was followed by Adrian High graduate and freshman Steve Threet, who transferred from Georgia Tech before the start of last season. The third Wolverine quarterback competing for time, sophomore David Cone, completed the only pass he threw last year.

The players didn't wear pads for yesterday's workout.

Once they do put the pads on, Rodriguez said there will be times this spring when the offense won't gain a first down during scrimmages because of the unfamiliarity with the scheme.

"It was ugly today," said junior offensive lineman Justin Boren, one of UM's returning starters. "It's one thing to know it and learn it in the meeting room, and it's another thing when you get out on the field and you've got 11 guys on defense moving around and blitzing. It's a lot harder."

Morgan Trent, a fifth-year cornerback who is one of the Wolverines' seven returning starters on defense, said the offense deserved more credit than it received.

"The offense looked good to me, honestly," Trent said.

"I was surprised with what they did for the first day. I don't worry about it. Come game time, they're going to have it all together."

Trent said Rodriguez's expertise with the spread offense will rub off quickly on the players. He also said the new coach has tried to create as much cohesion between players and coaches in the short time he has been on campus.

Trent said each of the coaches drafted a "team" of Wolverines to compete in various athletic and academic endeavors. During a recent three-day event, the teams competed in activities ranging from relay races to egg-eating contests.

"Coach Rodriguez is doing a great job getting everybody to know each other," Trent said. "It's a little different on the field when it comes to football, but we're doing pretty well with getting to know each other."

The Wolverines' spring practices are supposed to conclude with an intra-squad game on April 12, but logistics are getting in the way of that game. Michigan Stadium is off limits because of ongoing construction, and university officials said Ford Field in Detroit and Eastern Michigan's stadium in Ypsilanti were also unavailable around that date.

Rodriguez said he will still try to hold a spring game, likely at an Ann Arbor-area high school.

Asked if UM would consider holding its spring game at the University of Toledo, Rodriguez said: "No. What state is that in?"

SIDELINED: Tight end Mike Massey and running back Kevin Grady were among those held out of practice yesterday with minor injuries, and Rodriguez said Massey will be limited all spring. Both are expected to be key contributors this fall. Rodriguez said freshman tight end Steve Watson will not practice at all this spring.

Contact Joe Vardon at:

jvardon@theblade.com

or 419-410-5055.



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