Big Ten Football Preview: Michigan

Story posted August 30, 2013 in Sports, CommRadio by Josiah Bates

The Michigan Wolverines are coming off of an up and down season, ultimately finishing 8-5 in Brady Hoke’s second season at the helm. With the team returning just thirteen of 22 starters, Hoke will look to start fresh with a highly touted recruiting class. Michigan’s 2013 coup was ranked No. 2, No. 6, and No. 6 by Scout, Rivals, and ESPN respectively. 

Offense

Quarterbacks

What may have been the brightest spot last year for Michigan was the emergence of Devin Gardner, who is expected to be the starting quarterback this season. The redshirt junior, who exhibited some flashes of superstardom in 2012, will be backed up by freshman Shane Morris, who possesses great athleticism and quickness for a quarterback. Sophomore Russell Bellomy will likely sit out the entire season with a torn ACL that he suffered in the spring. Redshirt freshman, Brian Cleary isn’t expected to play much but could see mop-up duty. The biggest question under center is the experience of those behind Gardner. If Gardner goes down that means Morris would need to step in, and even though he has loads of potential, he’ll need time to develop. If Gardner can stay healthy and Hoke can put his quarterbacks in a successful system, then the Wolverines may be very effective in replacing Denard Robinson.

Running Backs

Senior running back Fitzgerald Toussaint will look to bounce back this year after a somewhat disappointing season that ended with a leg injury. Even though Toussaint may be the go-to ball carrier to start the year, the real hype in the backfield centers around freshman Derrick Green, who adds speed and power to the position. With his talent, it would be no surprise if Green ends up with a bulk of the carries for the Wolverines. Sophomore Justice Hayes will also be an option, after putting up some decent numbers in his limited time last year. Drake Johnson will also be a backup. The redshirt freshman brings good size standing 6’0 and weighing 212 pounds. The fullback position isn’t expected to be used much, but if they do decide to employ it this year, expect sophomore Joe Kerridge to handle the duties. Kerridge brings a tremendous amount of size at 6’0, 241 pounds. Much like the running back, fullback features a freshman with terrific upside. Wyatt Shallman is regarded as the top fullback recruit coming out of high school. Whether he plays the fullback position or moves over to another spot on the field, he’ll find his way in the rotation sooner rather than later.  The coaching staff will have plenty of talent to work with and will make sure to find a way for their running game to be successful. Michigan could have done a lot worse in their running game after losing the dangerous Robinson.

Receivers

It’s clear that senior Jeremy Gallon will be the number one receiving option to start the season. Though he had some bumps in the road last year, with Gardner as the full-time quarterback, Gallon should be more consistent. The other primary receiver will be senior Drew Dileo, who must show improvement. He had 20 catches for 331 yards last season, and was able to become a factor as a punt and kick returner. While this position may not have has much hype as some others, there are some backups who will be fighting for playing time. Redshirt freshman Jehu Chesson is expected to be a solid backup. He’ll be joined by seniors Joe Reynolds, and Jeremy Jackson. Neither saw much playing time last season but will be available in certain packages. Another backup option is sophomore Amara Darboh who possesses great athleticism. The tight end position has some question marks but sophomore Devin Funchess has the potential to be a dangerous pass catcher based on his play last season (15 passes for 234 yards with 5 touchdowns). He’ll be backed up by sophomore A.J. Williams who is expected to be a viable option in a two tight end set. However if these two don’t work out as planned then Michigan may turn to their two incoming tight ends. Freshmen Jake Butt and Khalid Hill both bring athleticism and size to the group. The receivers may be the weakest position on the Michigan depth chart, but again Gardner is a different quarterback than Robinson. Michigan just needs these receivers adequate enough for Gardner to work with.

Offensive Line

The biggest break this Michigan team got all offseason was when senior left tackle Taylor Lewan decided to return this year. Lewan earned All-Big Ten and All-American honors in his junior campaign. He’ll be the star of this offensive line. Senior Michael Schofield will take over the right tackle after spending the beginning of his career as a left guard. At center, sophomore Jack Miller will most likely replace Elliot Mealer. Miller’s quick and athletic, and will be guided by some of the more seasoned offensive linemen. The guard position has a lot of excitement with redshirt freshman Ben Braden on the left side and junior Joey Burzynski on the right side. Braden has good size and won’t be easy to get around. As far as backups, senior Eric Gunderson will see some time behind Taylor Lewan. Redshirt freshman Kyle Kalis will also be a backup for the guard position and is definitely a future building piece for the program. The recruiting class for the offensive line this year is far from shabby. Patrick Kugler is one of the top guard prospects in this recruiting class. With Lewan leading the way it’ll be hard for the rest of the offensive line not to follow given their size and skill. The experience with this bunch is a question mark given how Michigan has struggled the past few seasons, but the talent in the upcoming class is too much to be ignored. The future looks bright.

Defense

Defensive Backs

The cornerbacks weren’t spectacular but they were solid last year and will look to be as trustworthy this season. Junior Raymond Taylor will be the left corner after a productive season last year with 45 tackles and two interceptions. Taylor will be backed up by junior Blake Countess who had worlds of hype and expectations surrounding him until he got hurt against Alabama. He’s expected to be ready to make a push for some playing time. Junior Courtney Avery, who tallied 19 tackles and a forced fumble in 2012, will be on the right side. Senior Thomas Gordon will return as the free safety. He was one of the best tacklers on the team last season with 81 tackles and has been a picture of consistency throughout his career. The strong safety, sophomore Jarrod Wilson, has the size at 6-2, 196 pounds to be a steady tackler alongside Gordon. His backup will be redshirt freshman Jeremy Clark who moves up after the transfer of Marvin Robinson. The freshman backs include Dymonte Thomas, Delano Hill, Jourdan Lewis, Ross Douglas, Reon Dawson, and Channing Stribling. Thomas particularly could see some time early on as a defensive back or maybe even a running back with his speed. Also look out for Hill as a possible corner in the near future. Like most of the positions the potential is there. The biggest weaknesses for the defensive backs is their playmaking ability. No one really picks the ball that often and though interceptions may be a little bit of a luxury, it would be nice if Michigan could enjoy that luxury a little more this season.

Linebackers  

The biggest blow this year for Michigan has to be Jake Ryan. Coming off a great season, he will most likely be out for most of this year after tearing his ACL in the offseason offseason. With Ryan out junior Brennen Beyer will look to assume the strong side linebacker reigns. He made 19 tackles last season and is quick for his 6-3, 254 pound size. Cam Gordon is also an option on the strong side after making 17 tackles last year in a reserve role. Junior Desmond Morgan will take over the middle linebacker spot and he’ll be supported by sophomore Joe Bolden. Morgan was very strong in his first two seasons and will look to continue his play this season. Sophomore James Ross had a very good freshman season making 36 tackles as a reserve. He’ll be on the weak side this year and will look for more production as a starter. His backup will be sophomore Royce Jenkins-Stone who was part of special teams last season. Though he didn’t prove a lot last season he’ll be a big part of the rotation this year. There wasn’t a whole lot of hype surrounding the linebacker recruits this year but Michigan definitely snagged two highly talented prospects. Ben Gedeon was a two-way player in high school and will be looked to be a starting quality linebacker in a few years. Mike McCray is the other recruit and could be used from the start due to his ability to play inside and out. The biggest bump to the linebackers is the loss of Ryan. He was that instrumental in their defense. How the replacements fare will go a long way in determining Michigan’s success on defense.

Defensive Line

Michigan wasn’t great last year in the pass rush and will need to improve. Expect junior Frank Clark and sophomore Keith Heitzman to be the starting defensive ends to begin the season.  Clark is fast for his 6-2 277 pound size and has progressed significantly since joining the team. Senior Quinton Washington will hold down as nose tackle. He made 32 tackles last season and added a sack. He’ll be backed up by sophomore Ondre Pipkins who had 7 tackles as a freshman last season. The other defensive tackle spot should go to senior Jibreel Black who had 20 tackles last season with 3 sacks. Backing him up will be redshirt freshman Willie Henry. The freshmen defensive linemen are Taco Charlton, Maurice Hurst Jr., and Henry Poggi. Charlton takes up a lot of space with his 6-6, 249 pound frame. Hurst and Poggi were two superb tackle prospects and have a great upside. Though the experience is lacking, the defensive line has the talent. The improvement again needs to come from the pass rushing in this rebuilding year for the line.

Special Teams

Senior kicker Brendan Gibbons has continued to improve, going 16-18 on field goals last season and is expected to continue his play. He’ll be backed up by junior Matt Wile, a player to watch out for next season. Senior Will Hagerup will be in charge of the punting, but don’t be surprised if Wile sees more action punting. Sophomore Dennis Norfleet averaged 23.6 yards per attempt as a kickoff returner and he’ll be back again this year. Jeremy Gallon will most likely man the punt returns and will look to have a better year after only averaging 5.5 yards per attempt last season. The kicking game is excellent, but the coverage wasn’t good last year after allowing almost 10 yards per punt return and 23.2 yards per kickoff return.

Overview

The only real question mark with Michigan appears to be their experience, but if that’s the biggest issue, then the ceiling could be high for this team. The Wolverines have the tools to be very good in a few years after bringing in so many talented recruits. It may take some time and no one is expecting this team to go 12-0, but given the pieces that Hoke and his staff have to work with a perfect season could be something attainable down the line. 2013 will depend greatly on how the new pieces will fit. Gardner showed star potential at times last season, but consistency is crucial at the most important position. The defense must do a better job in the pass rush. This team has the tools to be a Big Ten contender but they need to develop cohesiveness and given what Hoke has done in his first two seasons, that looks like a real possibility.

Josiah Bates is a junior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email jnb5278@psu.edu.