Brady Hoke looks to build on his first-year success at Michigan during spring practice

Brady Hoke’s first season as Michigan’s coach was an unqualified success. Now he must build on that.

After three consecutive seasons of at least six losses, the Wolverines went 11-2 in 2011, including a BCS win (over Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl). That was Michigan’s first BCS victory since the 1999 season, when it beat Alabama in the Orange Bowl.

Thirteen starters return, including most of the skill-position components from a potent offense. The defense, though, has to rebuild up front, and the secondary also bears watching.

QB Denard Robinson led Michigan to a victory over Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl.
(US Presswire)
Michigan at-a-glance
Coach: Brady Hoke (2nd season)
Last season: 11-2 overall, 6-2 in Big Ten
Spring practice dates: March 17-April 14
Returning starters
(minimum 7 starts last season):
Offense (6): T Taylor Lewan, G Patrick Omameh, QB Denard Robinson, WR Ray Roundtree, G Michael Schofield, TB Fitzgerald Toussaint
Defense (7): LB Kenny Demens, CB J.T. Floyd, FS Thomas Gordon, SS Jordan Kovacs, LB Desmond Morgan, E Craig Roh, LB Jake Ryan
Special teams (2): K Brendan Gibbons, P Will Hagerup

The key returnee is senior QB Denard Robinson, who had been a perfect fit for previous coach Rich Rodriguez’s run-heavy version of the spread offense. Michigan went to more of a pro-style attack last season, but coordinator Al Borges still kept many spread elements in the offense. Look for that to continue; Robinson is at his best – and putting the most pressure on opposing defense – when he is not deployed as a dropback passer. TB Fitzgerald Toussaint proved to be a solid running buddy for Robinson last season, and the receiving corps looks fine, too.

The line lost two starters, including star C David Molk, and that unit is likely to get a lot of attention this spring.

Defensive line looks to be the biggest issue on the team. Michigan made dramatic defensive improvement last season, and one reason was that the line became stouter against the run. But E Craig Roh is the lone returning starter up front.

Linebacker play also improved, and the only issue there this spring is developing more depth.

Coaches mixed-and-matched in the secondary last season, and it would help Michigan’s cause if a playmaking corner emerges this spring.

Chris Balas of TheWolverine.com – a Rivals.com website that covers Michigan – provides a more in-depth look at spring practice.

The biggest problem: Center. Michigan lost David Molk, a four-year starter who was last season’s Rimington Award winner as the nation’s best center. Ideally, someone would be waiting in the wings, but the fact that fifth-year senior Ricky Barnum will be getting first crack indicates fellow fifth-year senior Rocko Khoury, last season’s backup, might not be ready. Redshirt freshman Jack Miller needs work. The Wolverines should be solid and experienced on the line, and they’re starting to build depth through recruiting. It might not show this season, though, if they don’t find a serviceable replacement in the middle.

On the spot: DT Will Campbell. Now a senior, Campbell was in a similar position last season before developing into a serviceable backup. Now he needs to prove he can be a starter; he has the ability. Though he only notched 14 tackles a year ago, including two sacks and 2.5 tackles for loss, Campbell has been at his best when his teammates needed him most, including the Sugar Bowl win over Virginia Tech when veteran Will Heininger went down with injury.

On the verge: LB Frank Clark. Clark, a 6-foot-2, 230-pounder, notched just 10 tackles as a freshman playing strongside ‘backer, but he’ll move to the rush linebacker position in the spring. He has the athleticism to become a ferocious pass rusher, and he showed off his ability with a key interception in the Sugar Bowl. He’ll battle with fellow sophomore Brennen Beyer this spring, with high expectations.

General overview: The Wolverines surprised with an 11-win season last season when most had them pegged with an eight-win ceiling because of their defense. This season, losses on the defensive line will hurt, but coordinator Greg Mattison has some tools to work with, and he’s one of the best in the game. Cutting down on interceptions will be the focus on offense. Senior Denard Robinson threw 15 a year ago, but also a career-best 20 touchdown passes. Offensive coordinator Al Borges will play more to Robinson’s strengths – specifically, the spread – to maximize Michigan’s offensive efficiency.

For in-depth coverage of Michigan athletics, go to TheWolverine.com

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