Spring practice kicks off in Ann Arbor on Saturday as Michigan begins preparations for its second season under head coach Brady Hoke, who guided the squad to the Sugar Bowl in his first season.
Let's take a look at some of the storylines that will play out over 15 practices as the Wolverines prepare for their spring game on Saturday, April 14.
2011 Record: 11-2, 6-2 Big Ten
Strength at the second level
Last season, coordinator Greg Mattison was able to rely on a stout defensive line to serve as the backbone of the defense. But with Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen departing, the strength of the unit will be at linebacker, where every player that started last season returns, including Desmond Morgan at the weakside position, Kenny Demens in the middle and Jake Ryan at the strongside position. But the exciting aspect for Mattison is that the program was able to bring in some good talent this past February to compete for reps. Demens has become a rock in the middle, while Ryan played so well as a redshirt freshman that backup Brennen Beyer reportedly has moved to help out the defensive line. Morgan played well last year as well, so it will be interesting to see what kind of an impact that Royce Jenkins-Stone, the state's top recruit, is able to make early on as he looks for reps. Fellow freshmen Kaleb Ringer and Joe Bolden are also in Ann Arbor as early enrollees. The one potential issue for this group is adjusting to not having the stellar Martin, Van Bergen and Will Heininger being so sound up front, which allowed the 'backers more room to make plays in 2011.
How good is the secondary?
Can Jordan Kovacs and the rest of the secondary bounce back from a rough closing stretch in 2011?
Michigan returns all four starters to its secondary, a unit that improved its pass defense from 111th nationally in 2010 to 16th in 2011. Safeties Jordan Kovacs and Thomas Gordon as well as corners J.T. Floyd and Blake Countess led a revived defensive backfield that was woeful during the Rich Rodriguez era. However, the secondary did not play well in its final two games against Ohio State and Virginia Tech. With the former walk-on Kovacs as the leader, he needs to help get this group back to its strong play that it produced for the first 11 games of 2011. The unit was good at preventing big plays and forcing turnovers, and the spotlight will be on them even more if the revamped defensive line can't get to the quarterback as often as it did last fall. It will be interesting to see if Mattison relies more on a variety of blitzes until the D-Line gets more comfortable.
The "Shoelace" quandary
Denard Robinson will enter his final season in Ann Arbor with a year of this Al Borges offense under his belt. “Shoelace” is unquestionably a rare talent, a player who can carry a team when an offense is stifled. But 15 interceptions cannot happen again if this team wants to return to a BCS game. Borges expects Robinson to improve as a passer, especially his completion percentage and his footwork, but he also expects him to still run when the opportunities arise. Striking a healthy balance is always the challenge. And when "Shoelace" isn't running, the Wolverines will rely on Fitzgerald Toussaint, who emerged as the lead back and rushed for 1,041 yards and nine touchdowns on 187 carries in 2011.
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- Greg Mattison