B1G 2013 // Michigan Cocktail Party Preview

Rick Osentoski-US PRESSWIRE

Michigan heads into the 2013 season with new quarterback - and plenty of questions.

To call Michigan's 2012 season a failure is a bit extreme. After all, the Wolverines won eight games, came within a game of winning the Legends division of the Big Ten and played in a New Year's Day bowl game. But that's not to say it wasn't a disappointing season, particularly with expectations high coming off an 11-win season in 2011. The fact that Michigan slipped record-wise, however, should not be seen as an indication of the program's regression. In fact, far from it. Under Brady Hoke's stewardship, Michigan is on the ascent. Since taking over two years ago, Hoke has been single-minded in his approach to transforming the Wolverines into his kind of team, one that plays physical, power football. Now in his third year at the helm, Hoke is beginning to stockpile the kind of talent and depth necessary to play that brand of football. But while the Wolverines are on their way to becoming the team that Hoke envisions, they weren't there yet in 2012. Nor will they quite be there in 2013. But how close are they? And will their record more closely resemble their 11-win season of 2011 or their five-loss season last year?

On Last Season

The Good News

Despite missing much of the second half of the season with a nerve injury to his throwing elbow, Denard Robinson capped a spectacular career, one that saw him set a number of Michigan, Big Ten and NCAA records while delivering too many highlight-worthy plays to remember. In an ironic twist, Robinson's injury opened the door for his heir-apparent, Devin Gardner, who in limited action looked every bit the highly rated recruit he was coming out of high school. On the other side of the ball, Greg Mattison's charges continued to show improvement, finishing in the top 15 in the nation in total defense. While Michigan's was a defense in which its whole was greater than the sum of its parts, Jake Ryan nonetheless emerged as a star, leading the Wolverines in tackles, tackles-for-loss and sacks in a breakout season.

The Bad News

While Robinson finished his career as the NCAA's all-time leading rusher among quarterbacks, it was not the way he, or any Michigan fan, hoped his senior season would play out. As popular a player as any to have ever donned the maize and blue, Robinson missed two games entirely and was limited to essentially playing tailback in three more. But Robinson wasn't the only offensive star to have his season cut short by injury. Fitzgerald Toussaint suffered a devastating leg injury that not only ended his 2012 season, but also put his 2013 season in jeopardy. But injuries aside, the biggest disappointment for Michigan was its struggling offense, and in particular, the play of its offensive line. Sure, Taylor Lewan earned All-American honors at left tackle, but while the offensive line protected Michigan quarterbacks reasonably well, allowing only 18 sacks on the season, the running game never got on track, as Michigan averaged fewer than 185 yards per game on the ground.

2013: On Offense

The Good News

Much of the excitement heading into 2013 centers around new starting quarterback Devin Gardner. How well did Gardner perform in relief of Robinson last year? Well enough to have many believe that even after losing Robinson, who often appeared to be Michigan's entire offense, Michigan's offense could actually improve in 2013. In limited action last year, Gardner displayed athleticism, a strong arm and poise that belied the fact that he spent the first half of the season at wide receiver. The hope in Ann Arbor is that with a full off-season under center (and not catching passes) Gardner will look even more comfortable running the offense this fall.

If there is one player as important to the Wolverines' success as Gardner is, it is reigning Big Ten lineman of the year Taylor Lewan, who turned down the NFL to return to Ann Arbor for a final season. Lewan's return is critical, because even with Lewan and fellow senior Michael Schofield manning the tackle positions, the entire interior of Michigan's offensive line will be new in 2013. Lewan and company will not only have to protect Gardner, but run block well enough to take some pressure off the passing game.

Michigan's running game, woeful in 2012, will get a lift with the return of Toussaint and the arrival of incoming freshman tailback Derrick Green. Toussaint is recovering well from last year's leg injury and is expected to be ready for the season opener, and providing that Green acclimates himself to the speed and nuances of the college game, the 6'0", 220-pounder should also contribute.

The Bad News

While there may not be a lot of bad news on offense, there are a lot of questions. In addition to an inexperienced offensive line, the Wolverines also have, for the most part, an unproven receiving corps. Jeremy Gallon returns, as does tight end Devin Funchess, but beyond that, it's unclear who will play significant roles in the passing game. But if there is any truly bad news, it's that back-up quarterback Russell Bellomy is lost for the year with a torn ACL. This may seem rather inconsequential to those who remember Bellomy's struggles when pressed into action last year against Nebraska, but other than Gardner, Bellomy is the only experienced quarterback on Michigan's roster. If Gardner goes down, in Bellomy's absence Michigan will likely be forced to turn to true freshman Shane Morris, something it would desperately like to avoid.

2013: On Defense

The Good News

The best news on the defensive side of the ball is that Defensive Coordinator Greg Mattison is back. Michigan's defense has improved each of the past two seasons under Mattison and that trend should continue this year, as Michigan is starting to stockpile talent along its defensive front. Quinton Washington returns to anchor the defensive line where he'll be joined by junior Frank Clark, an extremely athletic 6'2," 275-pounder, who many in Ann Arbor think can have a special season. Michigan also welcomes the return of Blake Countess. A starter at cornerback as a true freshman in 2011, Countess's 2012 season ended almost before it began when he suffered an ACL tear in the season opener against Alabama. A healthy Countess will provide a boost to Michigan's young secondary.

The Bad News

The bad news on defense couldn't be much worse, as linebacker Jake Ryan will start the season on the sidelines with a torn ACL of his own. Hoke has said that he expects Ryan back in time for the Ohio State game, if not sooner, and while the Wolverines are hopeful for Ryan's return, they are preparing for life without their top playmaker. Michigan's depth at linebacker will help ease the impact of losing Ryan, however, as Desmond Morgan returns to lead the linebacking corps and sophomore James Ross III looks to expand his role.

2013: On Special Teams

The Good News

Michigan's special teams appear to be in good hands, as most of its key performers return. Dennis Norfleet looks to return as Michigan's kick returner, where he averaged 24 yards a return last year, good for third best in the conference. While Norfleet never reached the end zone, he seemed to be on the verge of doing so nearly every time he touched the ball. And would anyone have guessed that part of the placekicking tandem that made only four of 14 field goals in Rich Rodriguez's final season would be poised to break the Michigan record for consecutive successful field goals? Yet that's where Brendan Gibbons is. Gibbons has developed into a reliable kicker who's not only made several game-winning kicks over the past two years, but also brings a streak of 13 consecutive successful field goals into this season.

The Bad News

Michigan will have to do without reigning Big Ten Punter of the Year, Will Hagerup, who will miss the entire season due to suspension. Hagerup has an NFL leg, averaging 45 yards per punt last year, but sophomore Matt Wile is a capable punter, so there shouldn't be a tremendous drop-off in the punting game.

2013: On the Schedule

The Good News

The Wolverines face a much friendlier road schedule than they did last year, when they traveled to play Alabama, Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State away from home.

The Bad News

While Michigan gets Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State at home, it still faces a tough road stretch in November, traveling to Michigan State, Iowa and Northwestern in a four-week period.

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