Michigan Wolverines: Akron Zips

Eleventh-ranked Michigan’s matchup with Akron isn’t quite as highly anticipated as was last week’s showdown with Notre Dame. But college football is fun, folks. And if you aren’t convinced of it, here are five reasons why Saturday’s game against the Zips will be one to watch.

1. Devin Gardner and the offense

We’ve seen flashes of what they can do, but against a lesser defense we’re going to see even more of this potential. Through two games Akron has given up 49 first downs, 974 yards and 71 points. So what will we see? Impressive passes? Yep. Long runs? You betcha. Hook and ladder? I wouldn’t count it out. Michigan unloaded some sneaky plays in the first two games of the season, but expect them to throw more fuel on the fire -- especially with this being the thickest Al Borges’ playbook has been at Michigan. Might as well start giving Big Ten coaches shivers about what they’ll have to plan against.

2. Zippers. Everyone has them. But have you seen them on a football field?

Akron’s mascot is the Zip -- short for Zippers (officially shortened in 1950). In 1927 the University of Akron held a campus-wide contest to come up with a mascot for its athletic department and Margaret Hamlin came up with Zippers. Why? Because Akron was the home of B.F. Goodrich Co.’s rubber overshoe. And who doesn’t want to be named after a shoe? And only to entangle the story more, in 1953 the school came up with a physical mascot that was a Kangaroo named Zippy. And if you still aren’t sold, in 2007 Zippy won the Capital One Mascot of the Year Challenge. I don’t know what that entails, but I’ll leave it to you and Google to find out.

3. Youth movement

One of the biggest cheers for any player entering the field so far this season was when true freshman running back Derrick Green took the field against Central Michigan. Akron has lost 27 in a row on the road and if the Wolverines can get out to a big lead, it’ll be a good chance to see what the future has in store for Michigan. Players like Jake Butt and Green have seen quite a bit of playing time, but there’s a good chance we’ll see more into the two- and three-deep on Saturday.

4. Dennis Norfleet

The sophomore has gotten dangerously close to breaking a return for a touchdown. Could this be the game it happens? His longest kick return (39 yards) and punt return (42 yards) could be eclipsed in this game with some well-timed blocks by his teammates and a few strong reads by himself.

5. Jehu Chesson is going for a four-man block this game

Just kidding, he never said that. But, after one of his blocks -- which took out three Irish defenders and sprung Jeremy Gallon for a touchdown -- gained him some acclaim in the Michigan locker room (though, not with the offensive linemen who, as Kyle Kalis explained, “We do that every day”), he’ll be a guy to watch. Michigan takes pride in its wide receivers blocking ability and if this isn’t something you normally cue in on during a game, take some time to watch the 5-foot-8 Gallon pancake a guy or Chesson completely level three.

Baker cooking up something great 

September, 5, 2013
A year ago, Jerome Baker Jr. (Cleveland/Benedictine) toiled in obscurity.

Now, the 6-foot-1, 202-pound junior can’t move an inch without someone asking about him.

Such is the life of an ESPN Junior 300 standout that has burst onto the scene as a can’t-miss prospect in the 2015 class.

Nonconference primer: Michigan

August, 26, 2013
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- It has been about nine months since the Wolverines played a game in Michigan Stadium. This weekend, the Wolverines will hit the field against Central Michigan and begin their month of nonconference opponents that they hope will prepare them for the Big Ten slate.

The Wolverines’ schedule this season is favorable for a chance to get to the Big Ten title game, but before they can even get to conference play, they need to answer a few questions.

1. Will Michigan actually be challenged?

I’m not going to say that they won’t be challenged by any of these teams. Notre Dame is always a challenge, and that’s an opportunity for one of those signature wins that teams look for in the nonconference schedule. Michigan might not be challenged hugely by the other three teams (at least, not like it was against Alabama last season), but, the Wolverines will be challenged by themselves. These games allow the Wolverines to iron out the kinks in their offense and defense while building depth at positions. Michigan’s interior offensive line will be entirely new and their defensive front has a new look, too. The Wolverines’ secondary features new faces and guys at entirely new positions (here’s looking at you, free safety Courtney Avery). So while Central Michigan, Akron and Connecticut might not provide the drama or build-up (hello, MACtion), it will help Michigan prepare for the Big Ten season as it develops an identity.

2. Can the defensive line get a four-man rush?

This was a question that was consistently asked last season. According to Greg Mattison the defensive line is vastly improved and is getting to the quarterback. Frank Clark has been heralded as a top rush end, but can he be a Brandon Graham-like game changer? Three of the four teams Michigan faces in the nonconference schedule feature transitioning O-lines, which will obviously aid Michigan in looking like it has a solid four-man rush. CMU lost tackle Eric Fisher, the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft. Notre Dame and Akron are both replacing two starters on their offensive lines. UConn actually returns all five of its starters on the offensive line, but last season the Huskies only averaged 318 yards of offense per game, so how effective that experience will be remains up in the air. But if the Wolverines are going to be successful in the Big Ten, their defensive front must be stout. With the absence of linebacker Jake Ryan until at least October, Michigan will be better off if it doesn’t have to blitz every other play in order to make opposing quarterbacks uncomfortable in the pocket.

3. How tricky is Al Borges going to get?

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesMichigan's Devin Gardner finally gets to put away the noncontact jersey this Saturday, although don't expect him to run too much in the nonconference season.
Don’t expect Borges to unload his playbook, but I do think we’ll see a few wrinkles in the season opener just to make sure Brian Kelly and Notre Dame are on their toes coming in to the Big House the following weekend. Borges and the rest of the offense will probably have a bit of a chip on their shoulders after their performance last season against the Irish. But the Wolverines will probably use their games against Akron and Connecticut to shore up the aspects of their offense not firing on all cylinders at that time. For example, they might run more toward Michael Schofield and Kyle Kalis’ side as Taylor Lewan doesn’t need quite as much work, or maybe Joe Reynolds or younger receivers will be targeted more. And without Denard Robinson, how does Borges’ level of trickery and wrinkles change with Devin Gardner?

That brings us to our next question…

4. How good is Gardner?

Gardner stepped in last season and finished out the season in an impressive fashion. With spring ball and the full offseason to gain chemistry with receivers and the offensive line, he should show major strides. Obviously, losing sophomore wide receiver Amara Darboh for the season is a blow, but Gardner can use the nonconference schedule (and the lack of elite defensive backs he’ll face) to build chemistry with other guys. Brady Hoke said Reynolds, Jehu Chesson and Jeremy Jackson were the three receivers stepping forward in Darboh’s absence.

Assuming Michigan can be effective in the run game, it should open up things in the air for Gardner. He was recruited as a dual-threat QB, and he has those skills. but Michigan might be a bit more conservative with him -- especially in the nonconference schedule -- just because if he goes down, the Wolverines are looking at a true freshman and then a walk-on, which doesn’t exactly inspire confidence for a championship season. But with Gardner being Gardner, don’t be too surprised if he tests the waters a bit. He’s not afraid to run, and if the opportunity presents itself, he’ll be looking to make plays by any means necessary.

5. Can Michigan stay healthy heading into the Big Ten schedule?

It’s no secret that Michigan is not deep at a few key positions at this point. If Gardner goes down, Michigan will scramble. If Fitzgerald Toussaint goes down, will Michigan will turn to Thomas Rawls? Justice Hayes? Drake Johnson? Derrick Green? Green came in highly touted but hasn’t impressed in fall camp the way most thought he would. Darboh’s injury leaves snaps open for wide receivers, but with any more injuries, the Wolverines could be working with a third-string receiver.

Defensively, Michigan is in a better place with depth, considering a lot of young players got experience last season, and Mattison has built depth at each position through recruiting. Jibreel Black missed some time during fall camp, which is likely why Frank Clark played some at three-technique. But having D-linemen with experience at multiple positions will only help. These four games can help Michigan to build that kind of experience.
Don’t expect a jump into the commitment pool from Joe Henderson (Shaker Heights, Ohio/Shaker Heights) any time soon.

The ESPN Watch List defensive end has been a student of the recruiting game and watched how former teammate Donovan Munger went through the paces before committing to Ohio State in December.

With more than 10 offers now and more soon to come, the 6-foot-3, 205-pound Henderson will wait things out before finding that perfect fit.

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The next big name out of Cleveland Glenville (Ohio) could be real big.

Tarblooders offensive coordinator Tony Overton swears he’s special. The name is Marshon Lattimore and if the name is foggy now, it might not be by the end of the season.

The 6-foot, 185-pound junior passes the eye test, as Ohio State and Toledo already know. Both have offered the wide receiver, while Michigan, Illinois and Akron have shown interest.

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Nolan Jackson-Daniel (Shaker Heights, Ohio/Shaker Heights) has interest from Akron, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Northwestern and Ohio State.

The 2014 wide receiver is far from making a decision, but he did hint at liking a few of the Big Ten schools.

While Iowa is near the top of the list, so are Ohio State and Michigan.

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Akron (Ohio) Firestone receiver Kevin Gladney is keeping his options open, but one school is beginning to stand out -- even if by the slightest of margins.

“I’m going to stay open and show every school respect. I want to say I like Michigan a little. I’m liking their school,” Gladney said. “Michigan being your first offer is real big.”

The standout receiver is also a star on the basketball court, averaging 22 points per game. Firestone will play in a district semifinal Wednesday night, but the Michigan coaches already know all about that.

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