When Brady Hoke was introduced as Michigan's new head coach, the question among the Michigan faithful wasn't whether Hoke would lead the Wolverines back national prominence, but rather how long it would take him to do so. After a fractious three-year period under Rich Rodriguez, during which there seemed to be as much conflict off the field as there was disappointing play on it, the prospect of a head coach who had not only turned around two programs, but famously didn't have to learn the words to Michigan's fight song was well received to say the least. Hoke spoke of competing for conference championships and playing in Rose Bowls, and doing so returning to a pro-style offense, heavily reliant on a power running game. Hoke's early recruiting efforts suggested he was in the process of doing just that. More than simply bringing highly ranked classes to Michigan, Hoke was building from the inside out, focusing on the offensive line and defensive front. It was simply a matter of time, or so the thought was in Ann Arbor, before the Wolverines would once again be contending for conference championships. But a funny thing happened on the way to Pasadena, after a better-than-expected 11-win inaugural season in 2011, the Wolverines have slipped, both in record and play, struggling to a 15-11 record in the two years since. As Michigan heads into its fourth season under Hoke, there are many questions surrounding the Wolverines, the most fundamental of which being, "What direction is Michigan headed?"
A rocky transition shouldn't have been unexpected, given that Michigan had to overhaul its roster from the one assembled to run Rodriguez's spread option attack. Rodriguez left the Wolverines long on playmakers but short on size and depth, both necessities to run the kind of offense that Hoke envisioned. Growing pains were expected, or at least they should have been, particularly along the offensive line, where Michigan was woefully thin. Last season Michigan returned two senior tackles, but had to replace the entire interior of its line - and had to replace it with first and second year players. The results, not surprisingly, were not good, as the Wolverines spent much of the season trying to find their way back to the line of scrimmage.
But there were no such concerns on defense, or so it was thought. With Defensive Coordinator Greg Mattison at the helm and a multitude of talented, young defenders at his disposal, the Michigan defense looked as if it was ready to make the leap from good to great. But anyone who watched Michigan play last season knows that didn't happen. True, the Wolverines lost their best playmaker in Jake Ryan for much of the season, but the strength of Michigan's defense was thought to be its abundance of young talent, especially along the front seven. Yet that is where the Wolverines struggled most. The story of Michigan's defense was not being able to control the line of scrimmage and failing to make big stops. As poorly as the defense played at times, it was still a fourth quarter stop away from salvaging games against Penn State, Iowa and Nebraska. As much as anything, it was the inability to make clutch, third down stops that defined last season's defense.
Not surprisingly, a season in which both the offense and defense disappointed finished with a disappointing 7-5 record. Also not surprising, a second consecutive disappointing season did not pass without casualties. While Michigan enters this season with the majority of its coaching staff intact, there is one notable change, as embattled Offensive Coordinator Al Borges is replaced by Doug Nussmeier. With Michigan having intentions of playing the same style of smashmouth football that Alabama seems to have perfected, getting the Tide's offensive coordinator has created a lot of excitement in Ann Arbor. Michigan fans are expecting better play calling, but they're hoping for more than that. Nussmeier comes to Ann Arbor with the reputation of developing quarterbacks and is known to prefer less complicated blocking schemes, so there's as much hope that he'll coax better play out of his offensive line as there is that he'll help Gardner improve his play - something that would go a long way toward helping the Wolverines turn the page from last season.
What we've learned so far:
There are plenty of storylines heading in to the season, including: Who among Derrick Green, De'Veon Smith or even Drake Johnson will emerge from a crowded backfield? Will Amara Darboh or Freddy Canteen back up their pre-season hype and develop into a reliable receiving option opposite Devin Funchess? Will Jake Ryan return to the form showed before tearing his ACL? And is the year that Frank Clark becomes a consistent force on the defensive line? But as much as people might be tired of hearing about it, just as Michigan's offensive line play defined its 2013 season, so too will it define this season. And any discussions about Michigan's skill position players or its defense pale in comparison to the simple question of whether the offensive line will be able to do what it didn't do a lot of last season - block.
Statistics don't do last season's performance justice. Sure, Michigan finished the season ranked 102nd in rushing offense, 105th in sacks allowed and 121st in tackles-for-loss allowed, but unless you actually watched Michigan play, it's difficult to understand just how poor its offensive line play was. If one series summed up the entire season, it was one that occurred late in the Nebraska game. A tight affair in which neither offense really got on track, the game appeared to swing in Michigan's favor when Nebraska's Jordan Westerkamp muffed a fourth quarter punt. However, after taking over on Nebraska's 25-yard line, rather than forge ahead for the game-deciding touchdown, Michigan managed only three yards on three carries, settling for a field goal and a short-lived lead.
Many theories have been offered to explain last year's offensive line difficulties, with youth, injuries, poor coaching and overrated talent most often cited. New Offensive Coordinator Doug Nussmeier's simpler blocking schemes are expected to help Michigan's young line, and so too will it help if there is more cohesion this season, as injuries seemingly forced Michigan to start a different line every week last season. But the real reason for the ineffectual play last season is the obvious one - youth. That's not to say that Michigan's troupe of heralded offensive linemen are destined for All-American careers, but it's also too early to say they won't develop into quality starters. UCLA and Auburn had success last season with young offensive lines, but their success was the exception, not the rule. History shows that most offensive linemen don't peak until late in their career, often not until their fourth or fifth seasons. Yet, as young and inexperienced as Michigan's offensive line was last year, it will be younger and less experienced this season, as Michigan replaces two fifth year senior tackles with, you guessed, two underclassmen. So how much improvement can really be expected?
It's not as if Michigan is lacking in talent or is destined for a .500 season. For starters, Devin Gardner returns for his senior season where he will once again serve as Michigan's best offensive weapon. And while on the subject of quarterbacks, let's be clear about one thing: As much as some are trying to create one, there is no quarterback controversy at Michigan. Devin Gardener is the starting quarterback, period. And he should be. With Gardner under center, Michigan will be in most of its games. One need look no further than last season's showdown against Ohio State, when Gardner virtually single-handedly kept Michigan in the game. But as the Michigan State game showed, he can't do it all himself. And that help has to come from up front.
Simply put, if Michigan is to have a successful season, it is going to have to get better play from its offensive line. And while it's unrealistic to expect a significant leap in performance, it is not unrealistic to expect some improvement. Not only will many of those thrown into action last year be a year older, but there seems to be more cohesion among the linemates this season. But that leap isn't guaranteed. If there was one takeaway from the open scrimmage Michigan held over the weekend, it was that the offensive line continued to struggle. Michigan fans should hope that performance is not indicative of the line's development over the offseason. If Michigan can generate even a marginal running game and if it can do a better job of keeping Gardner on his feet and moving the chains, the Wolverines will not only enjoy more success in 2014, but as importantly, Wolverine followers can feel better about the future. If not, it will be another long season in Ann Arbor.
How the OTE Staff Sees it
The consensus seems to be an 8-4 season. Hard to argue.
|Aaron Yorke||8-4 (5-3)|
|Aaron Rench||8-4 (5-3)|
|Green Akers||8-4 (5-3)|
|Brian Gillis||8-4 (5-3)|
|Ray Ransom||7-5 (4-4)|
|DJ Carver||7-5 (4-4)|
|MC ClapYoHandz||9-3 (6-2)|
|Candystripes for Breakfast||9-3 (6-2)|
|Eric Schulman||8-4 (5-3)|
|Graham Filler||8-4 (4-4)|
|Jesse Collins||8-4 (4-4)|
|Mike Jones||7-5 (4-4)|