ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- As he starts his third season directing one of the most historic and successful football programs in the nation, Michigan coach Brady Hoke has to know that this is the time when his legacy will really be built.
Although clearly not one to push into the spotlight or even feign a certain level of comfort while standing there, Hoke is aware that the Wolverines are now more his team than ever before. After stocking the shelves with three recruiting classes, and sorting through the personnel he inherited from former head coach Rich Rodriguez, Hoke is now looking at what is essentially his team.
The depth is clearly better, there is the stability gained from three years of work under the same head coach and coordinators, and the comfort level involved with entering the season with a proven entity at quarterback, in junior Devin Gardner.
The Wolverines also have the security of knowing that while they must replace three starters on the offensive line, one of the players back is likely one of the most dominant blockers in the nation, OT Taylor Lewan. He's good enough to be the top pick in the next NFL draft.
There is some stepping-up work to do on the defensive front, as well, where there appears to be more than enough talent and ability on hand, but game experience is a bit thin. Michigan's title fortunes could rest on the performance of this unit in answering one of the major questions confronting the team heading into the season.
Michigan is also very anxious to see what could develop with Gardner now that the uncomfortable shadow of exceptionally talented athlete masquerading as a quarterback Denard Robinson is gone. Gardner took over for an ailing Robinson late last season, and his solid performances had many scratching their heads and wondering if maybe Hoke had been playing the wrong guy prior to that.
As the Wolverines worked through fall camp, the competition at running back grew more and more intense, since there was a lot of sorting out to do. Hoke has always contended that the foundation of his offensive approach is a power rushing attack, and Michigan entered camp uncertain if veteran RB Fitzgerald Toussaint would be the main piston pushing that engine.
Toussaint suffered a nasty ankle fracture late last season and needed surgery to repair the injury. At the time he went down, the Ohio native had accumulated more than 1,600 rushing yards and scored 17 touchdowns as a Wolverine.
Now Toussaint is battling much-ballyhooed RB recruit Derrick Green, and veterans Thomas Rawls and Justice Hayes, while trying to win his old job back, and prove that his injury is not hindering his performance.
A confident Toussaint is saying all the right things, declaring early in camp that he will be the starter when Michigan opens the 2013 season against Mid-American Conference neighbor Central Michigan. Now, he just needs to go out and back up the bravado, and erase one major question mark for this team that has hopes of challenging for a Big Ten title.
SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: The Wolverines have a first month that holds just one legitimate test, and that will come at home in Michigan Stadium in the second game when the Wolverines host Notre Dame. Michigan opens with Central Michigan from the Mid-American Conference, the first of three straight at home to start the season. After the Fighting Irish comes a visit from another MAC school, bottom feeder Akron, a 1-11 team last season. Michigan closes the September portion of its schedule with a trip to East Hartford to face UConn, a team that struggled to a 5-7 mark in 2012, but had wins over both Louisville and Pitt in the final month. The Wolverines take a breather at that point, with the first of two bye weeks on the 2013 schedule.
KEYS TO SUCCESS: There is little doubt that QB Devin Gardner will perform -- over the final month of 2012 he gave Michigan plenty of reasons to look forward to a full season with him at the helm. The area that might be a bit foggy, however, is the running back slot, where senior RB Fitzgerald Toussaint enters this season with a wealth of experience, but the questions about his recovery from a gruesome leg injury linger. This team will not be successful, or be the team that coach Brady Hoke needs to challenge for a Big Ten championship, unless it has a potent running attack that has opposing defenses preoccupied with stopping it.
AREAS OF CONCERN: Michigan entered spring ball and fall camp with a top priority of settling on its offensive line, where it is replacing three starters. Tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield return and offer a real sense of security, but the critical center position remained unsettled as fall camp progressed. Jack Miller and Graham Glasgow have been battling it out, but the clear winner has not yet emerged. The starter at right guard will be either Kyle Bosch or Kyle Kalis, while Ben Braden, Blake Bars and Joey Burzynski are engaged in a fight to gain the start at left guard.