Michigan Spring Game: Hoke Springs Eternal

This Saturday, the University of Michigan football team plays its annual spring game. As the days draw closer, reports abound regarding which players have had a great spring, which ones have not, and how each unit looks. As in almost every other year, most reports will be positive. As such, the hope for a successful football season in the fall will likely be at its highest peak around this time of year. All of this despite the fact that the team hasn’t faced any real competition. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll be just as glued to the TV Saturday (Big Ten Network, noon EST) as the next guy. I’m just saying be careful not to read too much into what you see. With all of that said, here’s what I’ll be watching for this weekend, listed by priority.

Denard Robinson Under Center: all reports are that ole’ Shoelace has looked comfortable under center. As he should, considering he’s superhuman and he played under center all throughout high school. Still, he’s been operating under a completely different offense for the past few years, and he was hardly the second coming of Drew Henson as a prep. The other thing to keep in mind is that operating under center will definitely change sight lines, so it will be interesting to see how that affects his decision making. One last item of note: don’t be surprised if you see some of the zone read on Saturday. The practice clips I’ve watched have them running it a few times, which tells me that the coaching staff gets it a lot more than some would suggest.

The Defensive Line/Will Campbell: Junior DT Will Campbell was probably the most celebrated recruit Michigan had signed in a few years when he enrolled early out of Cass Tech. Unfortunately his talent has not yet materialized into success at Michigan. In fact, under the previous regime, Campbell made the move to offensive tackle because he was buried on the defensive depth chart. Thankfully, the new coaches wasted no time in switching him back; especially since defensive tackle is a position of need. Since the switch back, the coaches – and Hoke in particular – have taken it upon themselves to make Campbell their pet project. Campbell will play the three-technique position alongside Mike Martin. Given how thin we are there, it’s especially important that he works out, because there isn’t much behind him with Quinton Washington backing Martin.

Safety: I go back and forth on which defensive unit was worse last year. Was it the linebacking corps or was it the secondary? Does it matter? Probably not considering the defense featured several hybrid players (spur & bandit). Nevertheless, I’ll be curious to see whether Marvin Robinson is able to seize the strong safety spot away from Jordan Kovacs. While I appreciate Kovacs’ grit and the fact that he was one of the few players last year that actually knew how to tackle, the defense will ultimately fare better if someone better suited for the position can play there. Kovacs is a sure tackler, but he’s not very athletic and he’s pretty small. I’m also eager to see Carvin Johnson play. Reports out of camp are that he’s ready to make a big jump. I’ll also be looking to see how Thomas Gordon has matured since last year.

Running Back: Michigan has had a running back problem since Mike Hart stepped foot on campus for the last time 3 years ago. Brandon Minor played admirably as the #1 tailback, but he was often injured. Last year Vincent Smith was the tailback that ran for the most yards, but Denard was essentially our running game. That made for a lot of excitement, but it also left Denard susceptible to injuries. If we could get a solid back to come in to take the heat off of Denard, our offense would improve dramatically in terms of efficiency. Hoke all but anointed sophomore Stephen Hopkins as the #1 guy, but don’t be surprised if either Fitzgerald Toussaint or Mike Cox emerge in that top spot.

Linebacker: As I said before, our linebackers (save Kenny Demens) did not play at the level necessary to have even a competent defense. Youth played a role in our weaknesses on defense, but so did injuries. Mike Jones is back, after missing most of last year with a leg injury. While he is a bit undersized, he did offer some promise. I’m also eager to see how Cam Gordon plays at the SAM linebacker spot. Last year he got moved around quite a bit, but the new coaching staff has settled on one position for Gordon. From what I’ve heard, he’s played well, even though he too is a bit undersized.

Fundamentals: Our youth on defense might have been the biggest reason why were so bad. But it wasn’t just that. Fundamentally our defense was awful at not only tackling but also pursuit angles. Reports are that the new coaching staff has taken a cooler approach emphasizing teaching over intensity. Hhaving a cagey veteran like Mattison at the helm defensively, should also help in the development of our players. I’ll feel more comfortable with our team if the defensive unit can keep the big plays down to a minimum on Saturday; Shoelace notwithstanding.

At the end of the day, it’s always tough to glean a whole lot from exhibition games. But I think some of the things I’ve mentioned might give us a glimpse of what we’re dealing with next year as a football team.

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