Devin Gardner and Michigan look to get back on track this fall after plugging some holes. Photo: USA Today Sports
Spring Practice Opens: March 16
Spring Game: April 13
Michigan is ready to go with a pro-style offense in 2013. If successful, the Wolverines could be making their way to Indianapolis for a shot to capture their first Big Ten title since the 2004 season. It is the longest stretch between Big Ten championships since a 13-year drought between Big Ten titles in 1950 and 1964. By Michigan standards, this is supposed to be unacceptable. But the stains of the Rich Rodriguez era are beginning to fade as Brady Hoke resurrects Michigan as a viable football power. As we saw last season, it is still a work in progress as Michigan truly reaches that elite level again but the level of optimism is high for the program heading in to the 2013 season as the pieces start to try and come together in Hoke's third season in Ann Arbor.
Hoke has had an impact in recruiting but as we all know, recruiting victories mean nothing if they cannot come together and produce actual wins on the field. After a disappointing 8-5 season, will this year's Wolverines find a way to find that winning formula?
Stability Factor (1 = Chaos, 5 = Rock Solid): 3.9
Michigan does los a good number of starters from the 2012 team, including Denard Robinson, Roy Roundtree and three offensive linemen as well as a few scattered starters on defense. But Michigan does look forward to Devin Gardner continuing to lead the offense after coming on strong at times in the second half of last season and giving a glimpse of the new offensive approach Michigan fans should expect to see. There are some holes to fill before too much can be expected but Michigan will be getting back to a more fundamental offensive system and that should play more in their favor once they get in sync. Running back Fitzgerald Toussaint may not be available for full contact drills for much of the spring (recovering from broken leg injury) so that should allow some younger backs a chance to get involved as well.
Under the Microscope: Devin Gardner, Quarterback
The post-Denard Robinson era is already underway with Devin Gardner taking control of the offense.Gardner took over the offense late last season and gave opposing defensive coordinators something extra to think about. Part of that came from the possibility of seeing Robinson line up at running back and wide receiver, but with Gardner taking snaps the Michigan offense took on a different flavor, one more suitable for Hoke and his staff. Gardner has some work to do in terms of protecting the football (11 touchdowns but five interceptions) but he will have an offensive coordinator in Al Borges who will know how to work with the passing game and his abilities. Gardner connected for nine touchdown passes inside the red zone, but his passing accuracy could use a boost after completing just 44.1 percent of his attempts inside the opponents' 20-yard line. Among those who qualified for the statistic around the nation, at least 100 quarterbacks completed at least 52.1 percent of their red zone passes.
Locked and Loaded: Running Back, maybe?
The truth seems to be that there is no position that is truly locked and loaded at Michigan this spring. You can make a case that quarterback and wide receiver may be in the best shape overall, but the running back position could be the key area to watch this spring.
Fitzgerald Toussaint will be limited at best this spring, not expected to participate in contact drills as he recovers from a broken leg suffered last season. Star recruit Derrick Green will not arrive in practices until the summer. Both are expected to lead the ground attack in Ann Arbor this fall, so this spring will be all about seeing which running back(s) takes advantage of the extra playing time and makes a case to be involved in the fall. Thomas Rawls rushed for an average of 4.25 yards per attempt last season as a sophomore and Justice Hayes averaged 4.61 yards per attempt, but the two combined for 327 rushing yards on 77 combined attempts. If nothing else, Michigan will find out just what kind of depth they will have in he backfield this spring, and if both perform well we could be saying that Michigan will be well-equipped at running back in the fall.
Jockeying for Position: Offensive Line
Michigan will start the spring feeling confident that the outside of the offensive line will be able to hold off pass rushers looking to apply pressure on Gardner. Michael Schofield and Taylor Lewan are solid, experienced starters that should be more than capable of holding off defenders more often than not. The key area Michigan needs to focus on this spring will come in the middle, where three starting jobs are supposedly up for grabs. Hoke has already tried switching things up in his search for new starters.
Kyle Kalis, a redshirt freshman once rated as a five-star recruit, is expected to win one of the available starting jobs and is being worked at right guard this spring. He will be competing with freshman Kyle Bosch. While neither player has an edge in experience on he field, Kalis is pegged the favorite for the job by the end of the spring. On the other side, at left guard, redshirt freshman Ben Braden will be in a tough competition for a starting job with Blake Bars (redshirt freshman) and Joey Burzynski (junior). Burzynski will also be competing for a starting job at center, with sophomore Jack Miller and sophomore walk-on Graham Glasgow. Look for the veteran Burzynski to pull ahead for the center responsibilities while the up-and-coming redshirt freshman fill in at the other two remaining vacancies. Regardless of who fills in at these three interior spots, they will bring zero starting experience at a key area of concern.
Fortunately for Michigan's offensive line, and running backs, there is no Jadeveon Clowney lining up on the other side in practices this spring.
NAME TO KNOW: Jibreel Black, Defensive Tackle
Michigan's defense obviously needs to get better if we are to take the Wolverines more seriously on a national level. With some starting jobs available this spring, look for defensive tackle Jibreel Black to make a serious case for a starting job in the middle of the defensive line. As a junior last season Black totaled 13 solo tackles in a largely reserve role, but with two starting defensive linemen heading to the NFL that should open up a spot for Black to see more playing time in the fall. If he continues to improve and show what he is capable of doing with a solid spring, then Black should come out on top of the depth chart at defensive tackle.
Spring will be a success if…: Michigan finds new receivers to count on
With the loss of Roy Roundtree, Michigan's second-leading receiver last season, Gardner will be looking for at least one new target this spring. The good news is Michigan still has their leading receiver from 2012 back in 2013 with Jeremy Gallon coming off a year with 49 receptions for 829 yards and four touchdowns. The tight end position should also be solid with Devin Funchess coming off a fine freshman debut, although Gardner and Funchess have some work to do to establish a connection.
So who will be the third option for Gardner in the fall? The most likely option will end up being Drew Dileo, who comes off a season with 331 receiving yards and two touchdowns to finish as Michigan's third-leading receiver. Once Gardner was installed as a regular under center, the combo of Gardner-Dileo helped spark Michigan's offense. That would give Michigan two decent receivers and a tight end to count on, but the battle for a third receiver should be tense. If Michigan is going to succeed with the pro-style offense this year, then finding another option to throw to will be necessary.