When Brady Hoke was introduced as Michigan's new football coach two-and-a-half years ago, he was clear in his vision of what Michigan football would be under his watch. Stressing toughness, physicality and strength at the point of attack, Hoke spoke passionately about the type of power football team that Michigan would become. At the time, however, Michigan was ill-suited to play such a brand of football. Inheriting a roster light on hulking offensive linemen and heavy on smaller, quicker players, Hoke would have to almost entirely remake Michigan's roster, a task that would not come quickly. Since taking over, Hoke has systematically set about rebuilding the Wolverines, and by stockpiling the offensive and defensive lines with young talent, Hoke has positioned the Wolverines for future success. As the 2013 season approaches, Michigan is still a team in transition, but in Hoke's third year at the helm, not only will the Wolverines have more depth than they've had in recent years, but they should begin to look like Hoke's vision of Michigan football.
No player illustrates the transition from Rich Rodriguez's spread option attack to Hoke's pro-style offense better than new starting quarterback Devin Gardner. And not because Gardner performed well subbing for an injured Denard Robinson last year, completing nearly 60% of his passes while throwing for 1,219 yards and 11 touchdowns during his five game stint as starting quarterback, but because he more closely fits the mold of the pro-style quarterback favored by Offensive Coordinator Al Borges. Borges never really figured out how to best utilize Robinson, and as a result, Michigan's offense never really got on track. This shouldn't be as much of an issue with Gardner, who despite being athletic and presenting a running threat, is a passing quarterback who can run, not the other way around. The hope in Ann Arbor is that with a quarterback whose style is more to his liking, Borges will have the offense running more efficiently this season.
But while Gardner's play (and health) is critical to Michigan's success, he alone won't determine the Wolverines' fate. Michigan has other issues that it needs to address, among them an offense that finds itself in the unfamiliar position of trying to establish a running game and a defense that has to adjust to losing its most important player to graduation and its best player to an off-season injury. Simply put, while there is plenty of optimism in Ann Arbor, there are plenty of questions, as well.
What we've learned so far:
If Gardner was the only cause for concern, the Wolverines would have few worries. Despite a resume that includes just five games as a starting quarterback, Gardner has not only displayed a strong and accurate arm, but has looked comfortable running the offense, something that was not always the case earlier in his career. With a full off-season as the number one quarterback (rather than running routes), Gardner should look even more comfortable in the pocket this year. In fact, providing he stays healthy, look for Gardner to emerge as one of the conference's top quarterbacks.
It helps that Gardner will have a number of talented, if somewhat unproven, weapons at his disposal. Jeremy Gallon enters the season as the presumptive number one receiver, and if last year is any indication, Gallon should be in for a big season. With Gardner at quarterback, Gardner excelled, catching 31 passes for 511 yards over the season's final five games. Gallon is joined by Devin Funchess, who showed flashes of brilliance in his freshman season, and Drew Dileo, giving Gardner additional experienced receiving options.
With a more traditional, pro-style offense this season, there will be in increased importance on the running game, and in particular, on the running backs. So one of the biggest questions heading into the season is who will emerge as Michigan's primary ball carrier. Fitzgerald Toussaint returns from injury and will be given every opportunity to reclaim his starting spot. But Toussaint returns as part of a crowded backfield, and even if Toussaint ends up atop of the depth chart, expect other backs to get carries. Many expect freshman Derrick Green to be one of those backs, but look for the coaching staff to ease Green into action, expanding his role as the season progresses.
The key to Michigan's season, however, is not who emerges from a crowded stable of running backs, but rather how the offensive line plays. The offensive line was the most disappointing aspect of last year's team, as Michigan's tailbacks rushed for only 3.8 yards per carry and a record low 73 yards per game. If Michigan expects to improve upon its 8-5 record of last year, it will need better play out of its offensive line.
The prospects of that happening improved significantly when All-American and reigning Big Ten Lineman of the Year Taylor Lewan announced he was returning to Ann Arbor for a final season. With Lewan and fellow fifth-year senior Michael Schofield manning the tackle positions, the Wolverines have one of the conference's, if not the country's, most experienced and talented tackle tandems. The interior of the offensive line is another story, at least in terms of experience.
The strength of Hoke's early recruiting efforts has been the offensive line, where he's put together successive classes loaded with top-flight talent. The fruits of these recruiting labors will begin to be seen this year, as redshirt freshmen Kyle Kalis and Ben Braden are expected to join redshirt sophomore Jack Miller as first-year starters. Kalis was the jewel of Hoke's first recruiting class, and while not as highly regarded coming out of high school, the 6'5", 325 pound Braden is getting rave reviews from coaches and teammates. But even if Kalis and Braden develop into dominant linemen, don't expect that to be the case this year. History tells us that even great offensive linemen take a few years to reach an elite level. But that's not to say that the running game will struggle as much as it did last season. With Lewan and Schofield anchoring the line, the overall play of the line should improve. Just how much may determine the Wolverines' success this season.
Fortunately for Michigan, even when its offense struggled last season, its defense has shown that it has the ability to keep Michigan in games. The defense has improved each season under Defensive Coordinator Greg Mattison, and with increasing number of talented young players at his disposal, that improvement should continue. Not that is will be easy, as the defense lost its most underrated, if not most important player, with the graduation of defensive captain and team MVP (that's right, team MVP) Jordan Kovacs and its best player, Jake Ryan, to injury (for part of the season, at least). But it's not as if the cupboard is bare or that there is nowhere to turn to replace Kovacs, Ryan and others. Not only do the Wolverines return several key performers from last season, but they also have more depth on the defensive side of the ball than they've had in years.
Upperclassmen Quinton Washington, Jibreel Black and Desmond Morgan all return, as does cornerback Blake Countess, who missed all but a few plays of last season due to an ACL injury. But there are also a number of young players capable of playing significant roles (Michigan hasn't only been recruiting offensive linemen), most notably the freakishly athletic defensive lineman Frank Clark and sophomore linebacker James Ross III. Both Clark and Ross impressed in spurts last year, and with another year of seasoning and more consistency in their games, both could become special players. But Clark and Ross aren't alone, as a number of young players are vying for playing time. A good defense the past two seasons, Michigan is on the verge of becoming a great defense.
Excitement is high in Ann Arbor, as Wolverine fans look forward not only the beginning of the Devin Gardner era at quarterback, but also the debut of last year's top rated high school running back Derrick Green and an ever-improving defense. There are plenty of reasons to believe it will be a successful season. But the bottom line is, while the offensive line should improve, it likely will not yet be dominant, so the Wolverines certainly won't roll through the season unchallenged. Michigan is still too young and its competition is too good. Not just Ohio State, but Nebraska, Michigan State and Northwestern (who should be the Legends Division favorite) will all be tough this season. If Gardner plays well - and stays healthy - and the offensive line is able to generate a consistent running attack - something it couldn't do last year - Michigan should be in the mix for the conference championship. But it's a year or two too early to call them the favorite.
How the OTE staff sees it
Collectively, the OTE staff has Michigan going 9-3 overall and 5-3 in conference, good for second place in the Legends division behind Nebraska. Aaron, Cory & Jesse are the most bullish, while Chad sees a payback loss to Northwestern paving the way to a .500 conference record. And almost everyone sees a victory over the Irish under the lights in Ann Arbor. Let's hope the majority is right on that one.
Aaron: 10-2 (6-2)
Cory: 10-2 (6-2)
Jesse: 10-2 (6-2)
Brian: 9-3 (6-2)
Mike: 9-3 (6-2)
Chris: 9-3 (5-3)
Graham: 9-3 (5-3)
Hilary: 9-3 (5-3)
Jeff: 9-3 (5-3)
Jon: 9-3 (5-3)
Ted: 9-3 (5-3)
Chad: 8-4 (4-4)