Coach Brady Hoke's first season at Michigan put some recent bad times in the past. And all of a sudden, the Wolverines' future looks bright.
After three consecutive seasons of at least six losses, the Wolverines went 11-2 in 2011, including the school's first BCS victory (over Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl) since the 1999 season.
This season, Hokes and his staff have 13 starters returning, including most of the skill-position components from a potent offense. The defense, though, has to rebuild up front. 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.
Last season: 11-2 overall, 6-2 in Big Ten (2nd in Big Ten Legends)
Coach: Brady Hoke (11-2, 2nd season at Michigan; 58-52, 10th season overall)
Returning starters (minimum 7 starts last season): Offense (6) – T Taylor Lewan, G Patrick Omameh, QB Denard Robinson, WR Ray Roundtree, G Michael Schofield (moved to T), 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.
Fast fact: Last season was just the third time the Wolverines lost fewer than three games since they won a portion of the national title in 1997.
Michigan's 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, and Robinson wasn't as dangerous as he had been. Still, he ran for 1,176 yards (5.3 yards per carry) and 16 touchdowns, and also threw for 2,173 yards and 20 scores. Coordinator Al Borges kept some spread elements in the offense and that must continue. Robinson is at his best when he can freelance; he is not a dropback passer.
Junior TB Fitzgerald Toussaint proved to be a solid complement for Robinson, running for 1,041 yards and nine TDs. He was especially strong down the stretch, rushing for 708 yards and five touchdowns in the final six games. But he has been indefinitely suspended after a DUI arrest and seems likely to miss a game or two. Sophomore Thomas Rawls, who rushed 13 times for 79 yards as a true freshman last season, is Toussaint's backup. He is a physical runner with some speed. Senior Vincent Smith also will see time; he is both a good pass blocker and an effective receiver.
The receiving corps has some issues. Michigan didn't throw the ball all that well last season, and leading receiver Junior Hemingway is gone. A return to form by senior Roy Roundtree is vital; he caught 72 passes as a sophomore in 2010 but dropped to just 19 receptions last season. He is not going to catch 72 again, but he needs to be in the 50s this season if Michigan's passing attack is going to scare anyone. Juniors Jeremy Gallon and Jeremy Jackson, sophomore Jerald Robinson and true freshmen Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson are the top candidates to be the complementary receivers.
Tight end is another question. Fifth-year senior Brandon Moore, who has two career catches, is the likely starter, and there is no proven depth.
The line lost two starters, including star C David Molk. But junior T Taylor Lewan is good enough to contend for All-America notice. The other starting tackle will be junior Michael Schofield, who started at guard last season. Senior G Patrick Omameh is the other returning starter up front and should contend for all-league mention.
Senior Ricky Barnum is the new starting center after playing guard earlier in his career; he played in four games last season, starting three, before being injured. The other new starter, at Schofield's vacated guard spot, will be sophomore walk-on Joey Burzynski, senior Elliott Mealer, who has played in 34 games the past three seasons, or true freshman Kyle Kalis, a five-star recruit who was the No. 22 recruit nationally in the 2012 signing class. A lack of depth is an issue across the line.
The Wolverines return six starters in the back seven, but the line is a big question.
Roh, who is going to be a four-year starter, is the only returning starter up front. He was an outside linebacker early in his career, but has started 18 consecutive games at end. Roh, who is steady but not necessarily a star, has some pass-rush ability. The other end spot is a potential problem. The starter will be Frank Clark, who has been indefinitely suspended, or Brennen Beyer, who moved from linebacker during spring drills; the duo combined for 21 tackles last season.
The tackle spots will be filled by upperclassmen – but upperclassmen who haven't done all that much. Senior William Campbell, a former five-star recruit, has 19 career tackles. Junior Jibrell Black, who moved from end in spring practice, has 25 career tackles. At 279 pounds, there are concerns about whether he can hold up in the middle of the line. Depth is a concern in the interior, and true freshman Ondre Pipkins seems certain to see playing time. Pipkins was a five-star signee who was the No. 14 player nationally.
All three starting linebackers return: Kenny Demens, Desmond Morgan and Jake Ryan. Demens, a senior,thrived in coordinator Greg Mattison's new scheme, leading the Wolverines with 94 tackles. He had three games with double-digit tackles and has a shot at all-league honors this season. Morgan exceeded expectations as a true freshman last season, finishing with 63 tackles and three tackles for loss. Ryan has gained 15 pounds and is up to 245 in an attempt to be more physical against the run. Depth is good at linebacker and to make it even better, Michigan signed a big-time group of linebackers in February and two or three should play.
Coaches mixed-and-matched in the secondary last season, and that should help this season. Three starters are back, including both safeties. SS Jordan Kovacs and FS Thomas Gordon are a steady pair who combined for 142 tackles and two interceptions. CB J.T. Floyd is heading into his third season as a starter; he had two interceptions and eight pass breakups last season. Blake Countess, who started six games last season as a true freshman, should be the full-time starter at the other cornerback spot. There is good depth in the secondary, and true freshman Jarrod Wilson, who enrolled in January, adds even more talent at safety.
Brendan Gibbons is a competent kicker (13-of-17) but lacks a big leg; his longest conversion last season was a 43-yarder. Michigan returns both punters who saw time last season, junior Will Hagerup and sophomore Matt Wile. Hagerup had a solid freshman season in 2010 but slumped last season, and Wile could beat him out during summer camp.
Gallon is a good punt returner, but the Wolverines need a new kick returner. The Wolverines also need better coverage units; both were mediocre last season.
Michigan gets its biggest test of the season right out of the chute, facing Alabama in Arlington, Texas, on Sept. 1. There also are tough non-conference games against Air Force (preparing for the Falcons' offense can be problematic) and Notre Dame.
The Wolverines' division title hopes likely will be determined by what happens in back-to-back games against Michigan State on Oct. 20 in Ann Arbor and Nebraska on Oct. 27 in Lincoln. The Wolverines also get league foes Illinois, Northwestern and Iowa at home, and they finish up the regular season at Ohio State.
Good news: Wisconsin is not on the schedule.
The defense made huge strides last season, helping the Wolverines wipe out some of the memories of the ill-fated Rodriguez regime. But not that much was expected of the Wolverines last season, and if there ever was a Michigan team that flew under the radar, it was last season's.
Things are different in 2012. There are high expectations again, but the Wolverines seem ready to deliver. While the opener is a monster, every other game is winnable. To expect an 11-1 record might be stretching things. But a division title – and even a conference title – is a legitimate goal.
The recruiting side
Average recruiting ranking for past five years: 13th nationally
The buzz: Hoke signed the Big Ten's second-best class and the seventh-best nationally in his first full recruiting cycle with the Wolverines. Michigan's strategy was to start early, and the staff had 20 commitments on their list before starting the 2011 season. Kalis and Pipkins lead the class, and four-star LB Joe Bolden is another who could make an early impact. He enrolled early and made a strong impression during spring practice. – Josh Helmholdt, Rivals.com
C Ricky Barnum. Barnum, a fifth-year senior who was a four-star prospect out of high school in Lakeland, Fla., has been plagued by injuries and/or buried on the depth chart since his arrival. He earned the starting job at left guard last season, only to suffer a leg injury after four games. He never fully recovered, paving the way for Schofield's emergence. Now, though, Barnum is in a position in which he has to produce. Losing Molk left a void at center, one the coaches asked Barnum to fill in the spring. He did an admirable job, learning quickly and showing the toughness and desire needed at the position. Hoke has said Barnum has the body and the skills necessary to be an outstanding center, and he'll need to be if the Wolverines hope to repeat last season's success. – Chris Balas, TheWolverine.com
For more on Michigan throughout the season, check out TheWolverine.com
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