No. 18: Michigan
By Paul Myerberg // Aug 16, 2012
How was your first season? It’s not easy, I know. Did you reverse a losing culture? Nice. Did you lay the groundwork? Phew. Did you set the foundation? They’re not the same. Did you establish the running game, control the line of scrimmage, play 60 minutes, force turnovers, play hard? Good work. But did you rebuild? No? Why not? Because you’re Michigan, period? Hey, your words, not mine. Let me guess: You reversed a losing culture, laid the groundwork, set the foundation, establish the running game, controlled the line of scrimmage, played 60 minutes, forced turnovers, played hard and didn’t rebuild, because you’re Michigan. Oh, and you won 11 games, reached a B.C.S. bowl, won a B.C.S. bowl. But did you beat Ohio? Well, what didn’t you do?
Big Ten, Legends
Ann Arbor, Mich.
12 (5 offense, 7 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Sept. 1
vs. Alabama (in Arlington, Tex.)
- Sept. 8
- Sept. 15
- Sept. 22
at Notre Dame
- Oct. 6
- Oct. 13
- Oct. 20
- Oct. 27
- Nov. 3
- Nov. 10
- Nov. 17
- Nov. 24
at Ohio St.
Last year’s prediction
Hoke, Borges, Mattison and company provide a spark, a new set of standards and a breath of fresh air for the Michigan program. It’s fine to be excited. There are issues to address on both sides of the ball, but we are going to see a vastly improved on-field product from the Wolverines in 2011. Will Michigan make a drastic leap in the national defensive rankings? The Wolverines won’t turn in a top 25 effort, but I think the defense will move from abysmal to the middle of the pack. What about the schedule? U.M. gets eight games at home, including Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State. You really couldn’t ask for anything better than that in Hoke’s first season. So, the bottom line: eight wins, if not nine, a far better product, impassioned play, hope for the future.
In a nutshell Michigan started strong, but that in itself wasn’t surprising; the Wolverines won five straight games to open Rich Rodriguez’s final season only to take a massive tumble over the year’s second half. What made last season different wasn’t just the way U.M. was winning game – one could say with substance, not merely style – but also how these Wolverines carried themselves as win followed win followed win. You could say that there was confidence, but that’s not entirely accurate: Michigan not only believed it could win every Saturday but that it should, which in turn helped the Wolverines pull out a last-second win against Notre Dame, absolutely manhandle Nebraska and then, on Nov. 26, drop Ohio State in Ann Arbor. If not a special team – I wouldn’t say that U.M. was elite in any sense – it was a memorable team, and one that certainly answered any questions over Brady Hoke’s ability to lead U.M. back into contention. Last year did raise one question, however: What can Hoke and the Wolverines do for an encore?
High point The 40-34 win over the Buckeyes to cap the regular season. To see how this team reacted, you would have thought that U.M. hadn’t topped O.S.U. in, oh, 3,000 days or so. With that win coming on the heels of a 45-17 victory over Nebraska, few teams went into bowl play with more confidence.
Low point Another loss to Michigan State, the Wolverines’ fourth straight in the series. This one came by double digits, as have three of the four losses, but U.M. was well within striking distance before a late interception provided the final margin of defeat.
Tidbit Michigan was the only bowl team last fall to play 10 fellow bowl teams during the regular season – every team but Eastern Michigan and Minnesota, in the Wolverines’ case, and the Gophers were the only opponent on last year’s regular season schedule not to reach bowl eligibility. Michigan beat eight bowl teams during the regular season, tying L.S.U. and Oklahoma State for the most such wins in the country.
Tidbit (strong play edition) There was improvement where it counts: Michigan went from 7-6 to 11-2, which is all that matters. But how did the Wolverines go from the lower rung of the Big Ten to a B.C.S. bowl? By making enormous strides in the four areas where nearly all good teams excel: on third down, in turnover margin, in the running game and in overall discipline. U.M. improved to 15th nationally in third down offense, converting 47.0 percent of its attempts; on defense, U.M. went from allowing opponents to convert on 43.3 of their tries to only 36.4 percent – moving from 95th in the F.B.S. to 36th. The Wolverines were plus-seven in turnover margin, up from minus-10 in Rodriguez’s final season. The running game continued to click, as it did in 2010, while Michigan’s run defense allowed 57.2 fewer yards per game. Finally, U.M. ranked fifth in the country in both penalties and penalty yards per game.
Tidbit (nice start edition) Last fall, Hoke became the sixth first-year head coach in Michigan’s modern era – the sixth of eight total first-year coaches since 1936 – to beat Ohio State, joining Fritz Crisler (1938), Bennie Oosterbaan (1949), Bo Schembechler (1969), Gary Moeller (1990) and Lloyd Carr (1995). He was also the fifth to win at least eight games, joining Oosterbaan, Schembechler, Moeller and Carr, and the third to win more than 81.2 percent of his games, joining Crisler and Oosterbaan.
Former players in the N.F.L.
32 WR Adrian Arrington (New Orleans), WR Jason Avant (Philadelphia), C David Baas (New York Giants), OT Jeff Backus (Detroit), QB Tom Brady (New England), DT Alan Branch (Seattle), WR Steve Breaston (Kansas City), S Stevie Brown (New York Giants), WR Braylon Edwards (Seattle), K Jay Feely (Arizona), LB Larry Foote (Pittsburgh), OG Jonathan Goodwin (San Francisco), DE Brandon Graham (Philadelphia), CB Leon Hall (Cincinnati), LB David Harris (New York Jets), WR Junior Hemingway (Kansas City), QB Chad Henne (Jacksonville), OG Steve Hutchinson (Tennessee), DE Tim Jamison (Houston), OT Jake Long (Miami), WR Mario Manningham (San Francisco), DT Mike Martin (Tennessee), P Zoltan Mesko (New England), C David Molk (San Diego), LB Jonas Mouton (San Diego), CB James Rogers (Tampa Bay), OT Stephen Schilling (San Diego), CB Morgan Trent (Washington), DE Ryan Van Bergen (Carolina), TE Martell Webb (Arizona), LB LaMarr Woodley (Pittsburgh), CB Charles Woodson (Green Bay).
Arbitrary top five list
First seasons by a Big Ten head coach (1975-2011)
1. Earle Bruce, Ohio State (1979).
2. Brady Hoke, Michigan (2011).
3. Joe Tiller, Purdue (1997).
4. Bret Bielema, Wisconsin (2006).
5. John Mackovic, Illinois (1988).
Brady Hoke (Ball State ’82), 11-2 after his first season. In winning 11 games, Hoke equaled Michigan’s single-season high since 1997, nearly matched Rich Rodriguez’s total over his last two seasons combined and led Michigan to its first B.C.S. bowl since 2006, all while breaking down and rebuilding a roster accustomed to Rodriguez’s more wide-open system. Hoke also beat Ohio State, snapping the Buckeyes’ seven-game winning streak in the rivalry. He was hired after winning 13 games over two years at San Diego State, leading the Aztecs from Chuck Long to nine wins, a bowl berth and the outskirts of a national ranking in 2010. Hoke arrived in San Diego after a six-year stint at his alma mater (2003-8), where he increased his win total in each of his last five seasons. This rebuilding job culminated in Ball State’s tremendous 12-win regular season in 2008 – they had won 12 in the previous two seasons combined – one soured only by a loss to Buffalo in the MAC title game. Prior to that defeat, Ball State joined Utah and Boise State as the only undefeated non-B.C.S. conference teams in the country. Hoke’s ties to Michigan are what first connected his name to the opening: Hoke spent eight years as the defensive line coach under Lloyd Carr at Michigan (1995-2002), adding the title of associate head coach for his final season in Ann Arbor. Hoke was even mentioned in connection with the open Michigan job after the end of 2007 season, but the involvement between Hoke and the university never moved beyond a preliminary phase — if it even got that far. When the job became available again last winer, Michigan went through the usual suspects before focusing on Hoke, who was more than ready to return to Ann Arbor. That this represented a homecoming for Hoke underlines his knowledge of the program, the university, the fan base and all that winning at Michigan entails. He’s off to a resounding start.
Players to watch
U.M. reshuffled up front to replace center David Molk and right tackle Mark Huyge, moving junior Michael Schofield over to the strong side and senior Ricky Barnum into the middle. What this does is get the Wolverines’ best five on the field – or the five most-experienced linemen, at the very least. That center spot is a concern, as you might expect: Molk was a three-year starter, a multiple-time all-conference pick and the Rimington Award winner as a senior, so even by reshuffling U.M. is going to have a hard time matching the steady production he brought to the table. Schofield will do fine at right tackle, however. He spent much of last season playing behind Huyge, though Schofield rarely moved away from his starting spot at left guard.
It’s status quo at left tackle, with junior Taylor Lewan back for another turn on the blind side, and at right guard, where senior Patrick Omameh took well to Michigan’s more physical blocking scheme. Lewan’s a keeper, an all-conference lock who continues to develop into one of the elite left tackles in the country – I’m a bit hesitant to put him in that top group just yet, though the sky is the limit. One thing the reshuffling has done is rob U.M. of its two left guard, making that a position of concern heading into September. While senior Elliott Mealer should be considered the favorite, U.M. could also turn to sophomore Joel Burzynski, a former walk-on, or even true freshman Kyle Kallis, should the rookie prove himself unworthy of a redshirt.
Junior Fitzgerald Toussaint (1,041 yards) will have to regain his starting job at running back after being arrested in July on drunk-driving charges, but that shouldn’t be too hard – not because the Wolverines lack other options, but because Toussaint is far too valuable a cog in this offense to fill a secondary role. You saw his impact once U.M. handed Toussaint 20-plus carries; he averaged 135.6 yards per game over the last five games of the regular season, including a season-high 192 yards against Illinois and another 120 in the win over the Buckeyes. That performance had to feel good: Toussaint, a Youngstown product, did not land an O.S.U. offer coming out of high school.
My only question with Toussaint doesn’t revolve around his production – he’s going to have a big year if U.M. feeds him 15-20 carries per game – but about his availability. He was suspended in July, returned to the field this week and faces arraignment on his charges later this month; while unsafe to assume anything, I do wonder if Hoke will have no recourse but to keep Toussaint out of the game against Alabama – again, just a hypothetical. If he can’t go, or when U.M. needs some backup help, the offense will turn to senior Vincent Smith (298 yards) and sophomore Thomas Rawls, the latter a back who would have played a bigger role last fall had he not suffered an early-season injury. Given his tougher running style, I think Rawls could be a great change-of-pace alternative to Toussaint’s shiftiness. Junior Stephen Hopkins will again blaze a trail at fullback.
When he’s on, there are few better. When he’s not, he’s still better than most. Some of the misgivings over Denard Robinson’s ability to fit into offensive coordinator Al Borges’ system proved correct: he was still uneven as a passer, still prone to turnovers, still prone to the same head-scratching decisions that remain as much a part of his repertoire as the untied shoes and ankle-breaking runs. But credit U.M. for tailoring this West Coast offense to fit Robinson’s skill set, especially in the early going – and once Robinson felt more comfortable, adding a more balanced running game to the senior’s unbelievable physical gifts. You can take the engine out of a Ferrari to make sure it doesn’t exceed the speed limit, just as you can pigeonhole Robinson into a pro-style scheme, but what’s the point in that?
Michigan has accepted Robinson’s faults – his turnovers, mediocre passing – as the cost of embracing his assets, which include the ability to take every snap, every broken play, and turn it into six points. With Robert Griffin III and LaMichael James out of the picture, there are not many players in college football who can match his ability to break the will of opposing defenses in the span of a single down. That’s where Robinson excels, in his ability to make the sublime possible, and that’s why his Heisman candidacy is based in reality, not manufactured credibility.
Improvement as a passer will come with added experience in this system, though Robinson does need help from Michigan’s receiver corps. Is Robinson ever going to slide into the program’s elite group of pocket passers? Of course not. And in a way, what causes Robinson to toss 15 interceptions, as he did last fall, is also what makes him so outstanding – he’s unable to ratchet it back, whether in the pocket or outside the tackles, which leads to both interceptions in bunches and 80-yard touchdown runs. Look for some subtle progression, particularly when it comes to Robinson’s patience in the pocket, but don’t look for some floor-to-ceiling statistical growth. He’s a Heisman favorite because of the entire package, not as a thrower.
I’m beginning to wonder when defensive coordinator Greg Mattison will be satisfied – or if he’s able to be satisfied. Last year’s growth, the play of a defense left for dead then rejuvenated under his close and careful watch? Not good enough. The steady progress of his returning starters? Not good enough. The play of the returning contributors either moving into starting roles or looking at increased playing time? You know that Mattison isn’t happy about that. I get the impression that nothing related to this defense satisfies Mattison, which explains why last year’s group was so improved. It’s clear that Michigan, as run by Mattison, will settle for nothing less than perfection on the defensive side of the ball.
Whether U.M. can take another step forward in 2012 hinges on Mattison’s ability to rebuild up front, where the Wolverines must replace Mike Martin, Ryan Van Bergen and Will Heininger – you know the first two, especially Martin, but Heininger gave U.M. some solid play at tackle after Van Bergen moved outside in late September. In order to replace Van Bergen, senior Craig Roh (32 tackles, 4.0) added about 20 pounds to handle the rigor of playing on the strong side. But it’s about more than just size; Roh must also match Van Bergen’s effort level while supplying steady leadership to a reworked defensive front.
Roh’s old spot on the weak side will be filled by sophomore Brennen Beyer, a converted linebacker who has undergone a physical transformation of his own – once a 225-pound backup on the strong side, Beyer is up to about 250 pounds heading into September. While raw, Beyer’s speed and athleticism could help U.M. get more pressure from its front four. Depth at end comes from sophomore Frank Clark, who had his moments as a rookie, and former walk-on Nathan Brink, a junior. Michigan also added a pair of ends in February, Tom Strobel and Chris Wormley, but Wormely will miss this coming season with a knee injury. Strobel looks like a nice prospect at strong side end.
Another beefed-up linemen: junior Jibreel Black (18 tackles). Roh’s backup on the weak side last fall, Black has added 20 pounds of his own to work inside, replacing Heininger. As with Molk at center, replacing Martin is about more than just production; it’s also about his leadership, not to mention his ability to occupy blockers at nose tackle. It’s time for Will Campbell (14 tackles, 2.0 sacks) to live up to his potential. It’s his job to lose at nose tackle; no one doubts his ability, but Campbell has never given U.M. what it expected when the former five-star recruit enrolled four years ago – he’s underperformed, to put it lightly. One true freshman who will see the field early is Ondre Pipkins, who will join sophomore Richard Ash as Campbell’s primary backups.
This secondary will give you the seven-yard out. What Mattison will not allow, however – or what he has no patience for, at least – is the big play, which explains why U.M. ranked 40th nationally in allowing passing plays of 10 or more yards but 11th nationally in passes of 20 or more yards. Put another feather in Mattison’s cap: Michigan’s make-you-drink defense in 2010 ranked among the nation’s worst when it came to limiting the big play. Senior cornerback J.T. Floyd (48 tackles, 2 interceptions) seems to encapsulate this secondary nicely: Floyd isn’t overly athletic, isn’t going to leap out at you, but he’s steady, and he’ll err on the side of caution rather than gamble and potentially give up a big play.
Floyd’s back at boundary cornerback, where his size comes in handy, while sophomore Blake Countess (44 tackles) is back on the other side. Countess is the more physical gifted, but Floyd’s the stopper; until Countess matches technique and consistency with his gifts, Floyd will be given the task of running with most teams’ top receiver. Depth comes from junior Courtney Avery (26 tackles), a two-game starter last fall, and underclassmen like Raymon Taylor, Delonte Hollowell and Terry Richardson. With Troy Woolfolk gone, U.M. will hand junior Thomas Gordon (67 tackles) the unquestioned starting job at free safety. He’ll be joined by senior strong safety Jordan Kovacs (75 tackles, 4.0 sacks), another steady upperclassmen. Remember when Floyd and Kovacs were among the primary offenders on some of the worst defenses in school history? Both have come a long way — with some help from the staff.
The only position untouched by graduation is linebacker, where U.M. lost only one player who held a meaningful role in last year’s rotation. It’ll be the same story: Kenny Demens (94 tackles, 5.0 for loss) in the middle, flanked by junior Jake Ryan (37 tackles, 11.0 for loss) on the strong side and sophomore Desmond Morgan (63 tackles) on the weak side. After leading the team in tackles last fall, look for Demens to be better in 2012 – he was slowed a bit in 2011 by a hamstring injury. Likewise with Morgan and Ryan, now entering their second seasons in the starting lineup. Hoke and this staff also hit the recruiting trail hard this winter, looking for linebackers, and came up with four prospects who will add depth this fall before moving into larger roles down the road.
Despite the returning experience, you can see why Mattison wants more from this defense. The Wolverines are not particularly strong in the pass rush, especially without Van Bergen on the edge and Martin demanding pressure in the middle – Ryan and Morgan need to help in this area. The secondary does a nice job limiting big plays, but Michigan can’t rely solely on fumbles when it comes to forcing turnovers; eventually, the ball will stop bouncing the Wolverines’ way. More improvement is needed both on a team-wide level and when it comes to individual players – Campbell most of all.
Michigan was much better on defense and more consistent on offense yet there was little to no improvement on special teams. The return game was putrid, especially on kickoffs. Punting was terrible. One area where U.M. did take a step forward was on field goals, where junior Brendan Gibbons hit on 13 of his 17 tries after U.M. as a team made 4 of 14 field goals in 2012 – though Gibbons made only two kicks beyond 40 yards, so he’s not going to give the Wolverines anything from long distance. Having remade this program on offense and defense, Hoke and this staff now need to make a distinct effort at rebuilding the special teams. There’s no reason for Michigan to be this bad in such a key area.
Position battle(s) to watch
Wide receiver Michigan lost Junior Hemingway, last year’s leading receiver, would-be senior Darryl Stonum, a likely starter who transferred to Baylor, and its top two tight ends. While the cupboard isn’t entirely bare — though not full — the Wolverines could be in trouble at receiver and in the slot if senior Roy Roundtree (19 catches for 355 yards) or junior Jeremy Gallon (31 for 453) miss any extended time due to injuries. That’s your starting pair, with juniors Jeremy Jackson and Drew Dileo (9 for 121) backing up Roundtree and Gallon, respectively – and this quartet encompass all of Michigan’s experience at the position. The lack of experience helps explain Hoke’s decision to try junior Devin Gardner out wide, in addition to the fact that Gardner would otherwise not hold much of a role in this offense.
Gardner’s athletic ability is enough for him to fit somewhere in the rotation, but this isn’t Michigan’s dream scenario. The Wolverines would rather have sophomore Jerald Robinson play up to his ability, pushing Roundtree for the starting role and giving the offense quality snaps on the second level. You could breathe easier if you knew that both Robinson and Jackson could make plays if called upon, but they need to prove themselves in September. If we’re talking about dream scenarios, U.M. would love to have Robinson join Roundtree on the outside, allowing Gallon to work in the slot. That’s a dream.
You hope that U.M. can cobble together enough support for Robinson to keep this offense balanced. With the defenses on this schedule – Alabama, Michigan State, Nebraska and Ohio State – the Wolverines will be put in a tough spot if the passing game doesn’t contribute its fair share. Adding Gardner and a pair of true freshmen into the mix helps, but U.M. must land steady play from its top five returning targets.
Game(s) to watch
You can slide into the regular season with a MAC team, a Sun Belt foe or an opponent off the F.C.S. ranks, or you can start with Alabama. The reverberation from that game should be felt throughout the regular season, especially if Michigan nets the win; that would not only move U.M. into the top two or three nationally but also give the Wolverines some wiggle room when it comes to a second straight B.C.S. bid – not to mention give this team a ridiculously high amount of confidence. It’s one of four very tough non-home games, joining Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State, and one of four games against teams with B.C.S. hopes of their own: Michigan State hops into the group while Ohio State, ineligible for the postseason, drops out.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell This is a better team that won’t win as many games. To look at the Wolverines’ personnel issues ignores the biggest reason why you’ll see improvement: Michigan is now familiar with Hoke, this staff and all that entails, and that fact alone is going to lead to a more consistent level of play on offense, defense and special teams – yes, even special teams. The offense, headlined by Robinson, is the only one in the Big Ten capable of scoring at will – at any point on the field, at any time, in one play. With Mattison running the show, the defense should be no worse than it was a year ago. I’m confident that Hoke will do whatever it takes to improve his team’s play on special teams.
But before moving to this schedule, a few concerns. One is a reworked offensive line. It’s going be extremely difficult for U.M. to replace Molk in the middle; not impossible, but you can already see how shifting Barnum and Schofield has led to some depth issues along the interior. As of now, the Wolverines are cautiously optimistic about their depth at receiver. But you can see where this position could be a concern, especially if Jackson and Jerald Robinson don’t give U.M. the sort of production the offense needs behind Roundtree and Gallon. When it comes to this defense, the Wolverines are counting on Campbell to replace Martin, Roh to keep his form on the strong side and Black to handle the pressure inside. Can this defense survive without a stronger pass rush? These aren’t overwhelming concerns, but they do separate U.M. from the nation’s elite.
And Michigan still needs to prove itself on the road. Last year’s team played only five non-home games, losing two; this team gets Alabama, Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State away from home, not to mention Michigan State at home, and that’s going to leave U.M. with at least one additional loss during the regular season. In a Legends division race that will come down to tiebreakers, I think U.M. comes up just shy of a Big Ten title game berth. What did last season prove, however? That it doesn’t pay to underestimate what Hoke, Mattison, Borges and Michigan can accomplish when this team gets pointed in the right direction.
Dream season Up, up and away: Michigan goes from 10-2 in the regular season to 12-0, earning a spot against Wisconsin the Big Ten title game.
Nightmare season The Wolverines lose each of the five tough games: Alabama, Notre Dame, Michigan State, Nebraska and Ohio State. While Michigan gets back into bowl play, that’s a disappointing slide.
In case you were wondering
Where do Michigan fans congregate? Michigan fans talk all Wolverine sports at UMGoBlue.com, The Wolverine, Go Blue Wolverine and Michigan Tremendous. The top site for Michigan coverage, of course, is MGoBlog, with Maize ‘n Brew another great option. A few new additions: Touch the Banner, UMGoBlue and MVictors. As always, if you feel there’s another site warranting mention, let me know below.
Michigan’s all-name nominee CB Blake Countess.
Through 107 teams 436,668.
Who is No. 17? You can also find the last name of tomorrow’s program’s head coach on his own team’s roster.
Tags: Al Borges, Big Ten, Blake Countess, Brady Hoke, Brendan Gibbons, Brennen Beyer, Craig Roh, Denard Robinson, Desmond Morgan, Devin Gardner, Drew Dileo, Fitzgerald Toussaint, Greg Mattison, J.T. Floyd, Jake Ryan, Jerald Robinson, Jeremy Gallon, Jordan Kovacs, Kenny Demens, Michael Schofield, Michigan, Ondre Pipkins, Patrick Omameh, Roy Roundtree, Taylor Lewen, Thomas Gordon, Thomas Rawls, Will Campbell
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