Tales from the Deuce: My 2012 Michigan Preview

Head Coach: Brady Hoke; 58-52 (11-2 at Michigan)

2011 Record: 11-2 (6-2 conference)

Returning Starters: 15 (6 offense, 7 defense, P, K)

Overview: What a difference a year makes. Just think about it. This time last year, many Michigan fans wondered whether then-newly installed head football coach Brady Hoke would be up to the task of returning the Wolverines to prominence. On the one hand, Hoke had built a reputation as a program builder with stops at Ball State and San Diego State, respectively. However, this was Michigan; a bigger stage with brighter lights. Could Hoke really do it? Or was he destined to suffer the same fate as his predecessor, Rich Rodriguez? Thankfully things turned out well for the Wolverines in 2011. And it started the day Hoke was named head coach.  After all, he looked like the head football coach at Michigan; heck he even talked like the head football coach at Michigan, saying all the right things. The next 11 months or so proved to be no different.

For starters, Hoke made arguably, the best coaching hire in all of college football last year by luring Greg Mattison away from the Baltimore Ravens of the National Football League. He then proceeded to assemble the 7th ranked recruiting class (according to Rivals.com) in the nation. Then, to top things off, he led Michigan to an 11-win season, culminating with Michigan’s first BCS bowl win in over a decade. So what then, does Hoke have in store for an encore? Good question. The schedule is brutal and they lose key players on the defensive front. Still, the offense should be better, so let’s start there.

Offense: Michigan’s offense will once again be led by senior quarterback Denard Robinson. Although Robinson isn’t the most polished passer to ever wear the maize & blue, he is certainly one of the most electrifying. Indeed, Robinson’s accomplishments have been the stuff of legend. As the Wolverines’ starting quarterback, Robinson has shattered nearly every team, conference or NCAA rushing record for quarterbacks. In addition, observers and coaches alike have remarked that Robinson has continued to improve his skills as a passer, which should improve the efficiency of the offense. He will have help from an experienced offensive line led by junior left tackle Taylor Lewan. Also, expect Michael Schofield to make an impact up front as he moves to a more natural position at the other tackle spot. Tailback Fitzgerald Toussaint returns as Michigan’s leading rusher from 2011, but he may have to sit out a game due to disciplinary reasons. In his stead will be sophomore Thomas Rawls, who- if you believe everything running back coach Fred Jackson says- is the second coming of Tshimanga Biakabutuka.

Where Michigan will struggle is at receiver. Junior Jeremy Gallon, and senior Roy Roundtree return as starters, but neither have the big-play capability that the departed Junior Hemingway brought to the offense. One possible solution to this problem may be the much-ballyhooed conversion of quarterback Devin Gardner to wide receiver. While the internets have been abuzz with Gardner’s progress, it is still an open question as to whether Gardner can provide the deep threat the offense will need in order to punch their ticket to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Title game. Grade: B+

Defense: The coaching change in Ann Arbor had no greater impact on the team than on defense. It is hardly news that Michigan’s defenses under the previous regime were historically dreadful. Thankfully Greg Mattison’s return to Ann Arbor resulted in the Wolverines jumping from 101st to 8th nationally in scoring defense. This year, sophomore linebackers Jake Ryan and Desmond Morgan return, as does sophomore cornerback Blake Countess. Rounding out the back seven are seniors Kenny Demens (ILB) Jordan Kovacs (S), who were 1st and 2nd, respectively, on the team in tackling.

Quite honestly, the only thing stopping the Wolverines from having one of the best defenses in the country is the lack of depth on the defensive line. Without question, the absence of tackles Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen will prove to be problematic all season long. Left to fill the void will be senior defensive linemen Will Campbell and Quinton Washington. Combined, these two players have started one game, and they will be replacing two guys that started over 50; not what I would call a recipe for success. Grade: B

Special Teams: This area just might prove to be a strength for the Wolverines. Gone are the days of going for it on 4th & 5 inside the opponent’s 20-yard line due to a well-placed fear that our kicker couldn’t make a 30+yard field goal. Brendan Gibbons made sure of that when he hit a 37-yard field goal to win the Sugar Bowl last January. While Gibbons won’t ever be confused with Ali Haji-Sheikh, he has proved to be reliable. The punting situation is a bit murkier with Hoke recently announcing an open competition between junior Will Hagerup and sophomore Matt Wile. However, Hoke has recently stated that Hagerup will handle punting, so that is a positive. Receiver Gallon will handle punt returns, while sophomore Josh Furman (S) is listed as the kick returner. Expect speedy true freshman Dennis Norfleet to push them both. Grade: B

Final Analysis: It is quite possible that the Wolverines will have a better overall team this year and still have a worse record. For the first time since the Carr era, the Wolverines will field a team with talent, senior leadership at key positions, and continuity in the coaching staff. Unfortunately the schedule is brutal. Last year, the Wolverines’ first five games were at home. This year the Wolverines will begin the season in Dallas against the reigning national champion, Alabama Crimson Tide. And it doesn’t get any easier with road games against Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State. Nevertheless, success for the Wolverines will turn on three things:

  1. Whether Denard Robinson can take the next step as a passer.
  2. Whether the back 7 can compensate for the severe lack of depth and experience on the defensive line.
  3. Whether Devin Gardner can provide some game-breaking ability at wideout.

Prediction: 9-3 (6-2 conference; 2nd place in the legends division) with losses against Alabama, Nebraska and Ohio State.

Tales from the Deuce [My Michigan Football Preview]

2011 Michigan Football Preview

Head Coach: Brady Hoke: 47-50 lifetime; (0-0 at Michigan)

2010 Record: 7-6 (3-5 Conference)

Returning Starters: 16 (8 offense, 8 defense)

The Team, the team, the team . . . so said legendary head football coach Bo Schembechler, whose coaching philosophy was rooted in a belief that success on the football field required selflessness, discipline, toughness, and above all else, a dedication to “the team.” Though Schembechler’s rugged and tough team-first approach to coaching endured within the Michigan program, long after Schembechler last patrolled the sidelines, many believe that Michigan lost sight of this identity under most recent head coach Rich Rodriguez. Don’t worry, this isn’t a re-hashing of those brief and tumultuous years under Rodriguez; I’ve already done that. Rather, this is a look forward. Thankfully, the events of the last few months lead me to believe that newly installed head coach Brady Hoke has things looking up in Ann Arbor. Whether the fruits of Hoke’s labor are fully realized in year one is another matter.

Offense: Michigan returns 8 starters from a juggernaut offense that ranked 6th in the nation. With junior quarterback/superhuman freak/Sonic the Hedgehog clone Denard Robinson at the helm, no doubts exist as to the explosiveness of the offense. What lies in doubt is how quickly the offense, or more importantly Robinson, will adapt to the system installed by new offensive coordinator Al Borges. Doubt exists solely because Hoke prefers to run MANBALL, which is a pedestrian way of saying that Hoke wants to run a more physical pro-style offense. Despite Hoke’s preference, all indications are that we’ll see more spread than expected this year. A more gradual transition to MANBALL should help Denard, who is affected the most by this change in offensive philosophy.

While early returns on Denard’s adjustment to the new offense (e.g. the spring game) were less than encouraging, all indications are that he has improved dramatically since that time. Besides, ole’ Shoelace won’t have to do it alone. He’ll be aided by an experienced offensive line led by senior David Molk who is on the Rimington Watch List as the nation’s top collegiate center. There is also a lot of experience at the skill positions. Senior wide receiver Darryl Stonum’s speed will be missed on the outside, but junior Roy Roundtree and senior Junior Hemingway should help pick up the slack. On the ground, no player has emerged as the clear-cut leader. As of today, Mike Shaw and Fitzgerald Toussaint are vying for the top spot, with Shaw leading by a nose. Regardless, the lack of a clear leader at tailback is troubling; thankfully we have Denard. Last, but certainly not least is senior tight end and captain Kevin Koger, who is talented and figures to play a prominent role in Borges’ offense. Grade: B+

Defense: Before the announcement of Greg Mattison as the defensive coordinator, the best thing that I could say about the defense was that it couldn’t get any worse. With Mattison calling the shots on D, I expect marked improvement. For the first time in 3 years, Michigan will have a coherent strategy on defense. Gone is the much-maligned 3-3-5 alignment. In its place is the 4-3 that Michigan ran for years pre-Rodriguez. Once again, the defense will be led by superhuman senior defensive tackle Mike Martin, who should be less encumbered playing in a 4-man front. Other defensive standouts include senior corner Troy Woolfolk, who returns after missing all of last season due to a broken ankle, and middle linebacker Kenny Demens. Question marks abound on defense though. Will Craig Roh break through as the pass rusher Michigan needs? Is this the year Will Campbell makes his mark? Are we playing the right guys at the WILL and SAM linebacker positions? And finally, is JT Floyd the guy at the other corner spot? He’ll be pushed by freshman Blake Countess and sophomore Courtney Avery, but he should stick at that spot.  In any event, these are all tough questions to answer, but critical questions nonetheless. Grade: C

Special Teams: Michigan’s special teams units were a mixed bag last year. On one hand, punter Will Hagerup really came on last year as the punter many expected when he was recruited. On the other hand, kickers Seth Broekhuizen and Brandon Gibbons were so horrendous at times, that it severely limited what options Rodriguez had inside the 20. Fast forward to this year, and the picture is still hazy. Hagerup has since been suspended for the non-conference portion of the schedule for undisclosed reasons, leaving freshman stud Matt Wile (a kicker) as his replacement. Wile will also challenge at kicker where Gibbons appears to be the incumbent.  Questions also persist in the return game. Sophomore Jeremy Gallon again figures to play a prominent role as the return man, but that should give any fan pause, as he constantly struggled last year in the same capacity.  Grade: C-

Final Analysis: Michigan’s success turns on three issues: (1) how well Denard & company adapt to Borges’ tweaked offense; (2) whether guys like Cam Gordon, Craig Roh, Tom Gordon, and JT Floyd/Courtney Avery can take that next step as players; and (3) how healthy Michigan remains all year as that was a major issue last year. The resolution of these three issues will likely dictate how far Hoke can take these guys this year. Especially since the schedule is not very friendly. By my count, 5 games (WMU, EMU, SDSU, Minn., & Purdue) can be safely considered wins. I think 3 (MSU, Neb, Iowa) will be close, but probably losses.  That leaves 4 (Illinois, Northwestern, OSU and Notre Dame) up in the air.

Prediction: 8-4; we beat ND, Illinois, and OSU, only because we’re better than Illinois, and we play ND and OSU at home. OSU will be a tougher game than some think, but the coaches have placed a laser-like focus on the school down south, which will pay off in the end.

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. Continue reading