30-year flashback: 1977 position-by-position "preview"
The 1977 Wolverines returned many of the key players from the previous season's 10-2 team that won the Big Ten title, played in the Rose Bowl game and finished ranked #3 in the nation. However, Michigan did lose 1976 All-Americans Rob Lytle (RB), Jim Smith (Wingback) and Calvin O'Neal (LB) to graduation. The '77 team also had a new defensive coordinator in Coach Bill McCartney as Gary Moeller had left to become the Head Coach of the University of Illinois. Following is a position-by-position breakdown of the Wolverines as they looked heading into the 1977 season.
Rick Leach (junior) led Michigan to the Big Ten title as a super Sophmore and he was looking for even bigger and better things in the 1977 season. In 1976, Leach accounted for 23 touchdowns (13 passing; 10 rushing) and 1,611 yards of total offense (973 passing; 638 rushing). He started 23 of 24 games during his first two seasons and Michigan was 18-4-2 during that era. Leach was considered a contender for the '77 Heisman Trophy. It is a good thing that Leach was durable because his back-ups (John Wangler [So./Fr.] and B.J. Dickey [Fr.]) had zero experience.
In 1976, Rob Lytle (1,469 yards; 3rd in Heisman Trophy balloting) was the main man in the Michigan offense. Filling his shoes in 1977 was Tailback Harlan Huckleby (Jr.; 912 yds., 12 tds. in '76). Huckleby, from Cass Tech H.S. in Detroit, averaged an outstanding 5.9 yards per carry in 1976. Also carrying the load in the backfield in '77 was Fullback Russell Davis (Jr.; 596 yds., 5 tds. in '76). The back-up tailbacks were a couple of outstanding young players from Detroit-area high schools. Roosevelt Smith (So.) was from Cass Tech H.S. and Stanley Edwards (Fr.) was from Kettering H.S..
Big things were expected from super Sophmore Ralph Clayton (Redford H.S.) for the '77 season. Clayton looked to take over at the wingback position that had been occupied the previous season by All-American Jim Smith. Smith (26 rec., 714 yds., 27.5 avg., 6 tds. in '76) was Leach's favorite target in 1976 and thus it was imperative that Clayton step up big in '77 to fill the hole left by Smith's departure. On the other side of the formation, Richard White (Sr.) was expected to hold things down at the wide receiver position. Also expected to see playing time in '77 was Max Richardson (wingback) and possibly true freshman WR Alan Mitchell (Detroit Catholic Central H.S.).
Gene Johnson (Jr.) was second-team All-Big 10 as a sophmore in 1976. Johnson (6'3", 231 lbs.) graduated from Flint Southwestern H.S. with Rick Leach. Backing up Johnson were Mark Schmerge (Jr., 6'3 1/2", 229 lbs.), who was an excellent blocker, and Doug Marsh (So./Fr., 6'3", 229 lbs.).
The leading returner on the offensive line was All-American Guard Mark Donahue (LG). Also earning honors in 1976 and returning in '77 was All-Big 10 Center Walt Downing. Joining these two on the line were Mike Kenn at Left Tackle, Gerry Szara at Right Guard and John Powers (So., 6'3", 254 lbs.) at Right Tackle. Also expected to see playing time on the line in '77 were Guard Greg Bartnik (Sr./Jr., 6'2", 238 lbs.), Guard John Arbeznik (Jr./So., 6'3", 237 lbs.) and Tackle Jon Giesler (Jr.; 6'4 1/2, 253 lbs.).
The Wolverines had been very successful playing a 5-2 defense in 1976 under then-Defensive Coordinator Gary Moeller. However, Michigan planned to run a 3-4 defense in '77 under new Defensive Coordinator Bill McCartney. At Defensive Tackle, Michigan intended to rotate Dale Keitz (Jr./So., 6'1", 233 lbs.), Curtis Greer (Jr./So., 6'4", 222 lbs.) and Chris Godfrey (Jr., 6'4", 242 lbs.). Also fighting for playing time was William Jackson (Jr., 6'3", 222 lbs.). Keitz and Greer (Cass Tech H.S.) had both sat out the 1976 season but were back and primed to lead the defense in 1977. Playing between the defensive tackles was Middle Guard Steve Graves.
The linebacking corps was the most talented group of players on the team. The Outside Linebackers were Dominic Tedesco and John Anderson. The Inside Linebackers were Jerry Meter (Jr., 6'2 1/2", 206 lbs.) and super Sophmore Ron Simpkins (6'1", 215 lbs.). Despite the loss of 1976 All-American Calvin O'Neal, the linebacking corps looked to be the strength of the defense in 1977. Tedesco and Anderson were being converted to linebackers in the 3-4 scheme after having been used as defensive ends the prior season.
The secondary featured playmakers and hard-hitters. Leading the pack was weakside cornerback Mike Jolly (So., 6'3", 178 lbs.) from Southgate Aquinas High School. Also in the secondary was team co-Captain Dwight Hicks who converted to wolfman in '77 after having previously played safety. Joining them as starters in the secondary were ss cornerback Derek Howard and safety Jim Pickens. Also fighting for playing time was Michael Harden (So., 6'1", 179 lbs.) from Detroit Central High School.
The 1977 Wolverines looked formidable and were ranked #2 in the pre-season polls. Coach Schembechler believed this team could go all the way without a loss and win the Rose Bowl game. The first step was to beat his old friend (and former Defensive Coordinator) Gary Moeller who had taken the head coaching position at Illinois. Go Blue!