Michigan Wolverines: College Football

Notebook: IMG 7v7 Championship 

June, 23, 2014
BRADENTON, Fla. -- The IMG 7v7 National Championship held at IMG Academy over the weekend featured some of the top 7-on-7 teams from all over the country and even a few teams from Canada. The event, which included 12 prospects ranked in the top 50 of the ESPN 300, showcased some of the best talent you will find in a single tournament. Led by Alabama verbal commits Calvin Ridley and Shawn Burgess-Becker, the Florida Fire from South Florida defeated Tampa’s Unsigned Preps 20-18 in the championship game to take home the title.

Quarterbacks shine

There were several high-profile quarterbacks in attendance, and they lived up to the hype for the most part. Deondre Francois, who recently transferred to IMG Academy, made numerous impressive throws. The 6-foot-2, 188-pound signal-caller has a top three of Oregon, Auburn and Florida State and is planning to make his decision at the end of July.

States of strength: Florida athletes 

May, 14, 2014

The state of Florida has always been known for producing some of the top athletes in the country. The term "athlete" is sometimes looked at as a negative term, but it really means our scouts believe these talented prospects could play more than one position in college. Here is a closer look at some of the top athletes from the Sunshine State in the 2015 class.

ESPN 300 athletes from Florida

No. 8 Torrance Gibson: Gibson is a skilled athlete who can make plays on offense. The five-star athlete led his high school, Plantation American Heritage, to the state championship game. In the game, he had a touchdown run of 80 yards and also a long touchdown pass that was among the "SportsCenter" Top 10 plays. He wants to play quarterback on the next level, but he’s the most talented wide receiver on his South Florida Express 7-on-7 team. Whatever position he chooses, Gibson has a bright future ahead of him.

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The spring game is a preview for the season and with so many early enrollees this year, it is going to give fans and the media a pretty good look at what next season could hold for the Wolverines. So leading up to the scrimmage, we’re going to look a few stats that really matter for next season for Michigan if the Wolverines want to make the Big Ten championship game.

Stat: Michigan defense against the run

2013 review: The Wolverines struggled against the run last season. Brady Hoke and Greg Mattison were in charge of the defensive line, but Michigan never reached any level of consistency with a four-man rush, and pressuring the quarterback was no easy task last season.

The Wolverines allowed 140.2 rushing yards per game last season and 3.8 yards per rush, which put Michigan in the top 40 nationally in both of those categories. But it’s hard to compare the Wolverines’ total allowed rushing yards on a national scale, considering the difference in spread vs. pro-style teams and the effect that has on passing and rushing yardage.

However, comparing Michigan to other Big Ten teams provides a better look at where the Wolverines fell and where they could improve. Michigan finished fifth in the conference in rushing yards allowed per game, behind Michigan State (86.3), Wisconsin (102.5), Ohio State (109.4) and Iowa (128.3).

[+] EnlargeGreg Mattison
Lon Horwedel/Icon SMIMichigan's run defense under Greg Mattison ranked in the middle of the pack of the Big Ten in 2013.
Though the Wolverines did allow big rushing yards last season, they didn’t allow big rushing scores. Opponents only scored 14 rushing touchdowns on 478 rushes. That means that opposing teams only scored on 3.1 percent of its rush attempts, putting the Wolverines in the top 20 nationally in that statistic.

While the Wolverines kept rushers out of the end zone, they didn’t stop them from picking up yardage, however. Michigan struggled stopping the run in critical situations. On third downs when opponents chose to rush the ball, they converted 47.8 percent of the time. The national average was 49.3, but the Wolverines finished seventh in the Big Ten in that statistic.

And it only got worse when it came to fourth-down rushing conversions, as opponents moved the chains on 71.4 percent of their attempts. That ranked 11th in the Big Ten, only ahead of Ohio State (81.8 percent), and it put Michigan about 10 percent below the national average of 60.8 percent.

Opponents were able to convert on that percentage of third and fourth downs because the Wolverines allowed opposing offenses to pick up too many yards on first and second down. Michigan didn’t pressure opposing quarterbacks enough and get into the backfield nearly enough to wreak havoc. The Wolverines kept 109 rushes from getting past the line of scrimmage, but that was only 22.8 percent of the total rushes.

And once opponents did cross the line of scrimmage, they had relatively good success picking up solid gains. Of the 478 times opponents ran the ball against Michigan, they gained at least five yards on 171 attempts and at least 10 yards on 64 attempts. That means that, on average, at least one in three runs against Michigan got past the defensive line as well as some second-level defenders.

2014 preview: The defensive coaches have shuffled around and Hoke hopes that the combination of Mark Smith on the defensive line and Mattison coordinating the linebackers will allow Michigan to make strides next season.

But, what exactly would those strides be from a statistical standpoint? Here’s a look at the rushing stats allowed by teams that played in BCS bowl games last season and how they compare to Michigan in those same categories. Again, with some of these statistics you face the same issue of schedule and scheme, and that yielding 150 rushing yards to Auburn is a very different statistic than yielding 150 rushing yards to Purdue. But by looking at BCS bowl teams, it does give a general idea of numbers to aim for.

Yards per rush:
Michigan defense: 3.8
BCS bowl team average: 3.6

Touchdowns per rush:
Michigan defense: 3.1 percent
BCS bowl team average: 3.1

Third-down conversion percentage:
Michigan defense: 47.8 percent
BCS bowl team average: 45.1

Fourth-down conversion percentage:
Michigan defense: 71.4 percent
BCS bowl team average: 51.5

Percentage of rushes stopped before the line of scrimmage:
Michigan defense: 22.8 percent
BCS bowl team average: 27.7

Percentage of rushes going for five-plus yards:
Michigan defense: 35.8 percent
BCS bowl team average: 34.4

What these numbers show is that if the Wolverines rushing defense can step up in certain areas, they’ll be pretty similar to that of rushing defenses that played in the biggest games of the 2013-14 season. Obviously there are other parts of the game that need more growth, and the run defense is only a part of the defense as a whole.

Another thing to note about those numbers: Those defensive stats were being put up by teams that typically had much stronger offenses. When an offense is putting up 100 more yards and 14 more points per game and giving up the same amount of yardage as the Wolverines, there’s going to still be a big difference, even if some of the numbers are similar.
The spring game is a preview for the season and with so many early enrollees this year, it really is going to give fans and the media a pretty good look at what next year could hold for the Wolverines. So, leading up to the scrimmage, we’re going to look a few stats that really matter for next season for Michigan if the Wolverines want to make the Big Ten championship game.

Stat: Michigan’s passing percentages

2013 review: Devin Gardner had an up-and-down season for the Wolverines. In the final stretch, he finally displayed the consistency and grit that the coaches had lauded him for, and was a big-time player for the Wolverines.

The stats certainly say that. Though most of the Wolverines’ passing statistics were below average, there are a few categories in which Michigan had a very good showing -- some very clutch categories. On third-down passing conversions, completions gaining a first down or touchdown and percentage of passing completions gaining 10-plus yards, the Wolverines were impressive.

Third-down passing conversions:
  • Michigan: 36.1 percent
  • National average: 34.7 percent
  • Big Ten leader: Indiana, 40.3 percent
  • National leader: Louisville, 52.2 percent
Completions gaining a first down or touchdown:
  • Michigan: 65.4 percent
  • National average: 56.5 percent
  • Big Ten leader: Minnesota, 69.3 percent
  • National leader: LSU, 73.7 percent
Percentage of 10-plus yard completions:
  • Michigan: 53.6
  • National average: 47.1
  • Big Ten leader: Minnesota, 63.5
  • National leader: Georgia Tech, 67.4
[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarAfter Devin Gardner shook off some interception issues early in the season, Michigan's offense showed improvement statistically.
Of those three statistics, the third-down passing conversions number could use some improvement most at Michigan, but in a passing game that struggled last season, the fact that it finished above the national average and not too far from some of its rivals (Ohio State: 36.4, Michigan State: 38.1) is impressive.

Keep in mind that those latter two statistics skew toward teams that run more of a downfield passing game, as many teams run a variation of the spread with passes designed for a short gain. The latter two stats are impressive, though. The Wolverines' percentage of completions gaining a first down or touchdown was 12th-best in the nation last season and their percentage of completions that went for 10-plus yards was No. 21 in the nation.

However, many other passing stats fell far below the national average.

When it came to completion percentage (60 percent) and touchdowns per passing attempt (5.3 percent), Michigan was only in the top 60. When it came to completions per game (18.2) and touchdown-to-interception ratio, Michigan was only in the top 80.

If Michigan wants to find itself in a favorable postseason game in 2014, the Wolverines will need to improve their consistency in the passing game. Because if Michigan can convert well in clutch, high-pressure situations such as third and fourth down, then it should also be able to do it on first and second down.

2014 preview: With Michigan in the middle of its spring ball and a QB “battle,” it’s hard to say what exactly will happen down the road. If Gardner can stay healthy, it seems as though the job is his to lose, but crazier things have happened. So instead of discussing the possibility of what could, would or should happen, let’s look at what we do know.

Essentially, what are the statistics for successful teams that have good quarterbacks? If Michigan wants to be at an elite level, what exactly is that level from a statistics standpoint? What should the Wolverines be shooting for in 2014?

Here’s a breakdown of what Michigan could aim for in 2014 based on what the top teams did this past season.

Completion percentage:
  • Michigan: 60 percent
  • BCS bowl teams average: 63.3 percent (low of 60.7 percent, Auburn)
Touchdowns to interceptions ratio:
  • Michigan: 1.62
  • BCS bowl teams average: 3.3 (low of 2.1, Stanford)
Interceptions per attempt:
  • Michigan: 3.3 percent
  • BCS bowl teams average: 2.4 percent (high of 3.2, Stanford)
First downs per passing attempt:
  • Michigan: 37.7 percent
  • BCS bowl teams average: 35.9 percent (low of 27.7 percent, Oklahoma)

Michigan wasn’t too far away for some of these numbers -- it was close to the completion percentage and was better than the BCS bowl team average for first downs per passing attempt.

When it comes to completion percentage, the big difference between Michigan and Auburn is the run game. The Tigers didn’t need to complete as high of a percentage of their passes when they were putting up a nation-best 328.3 rushing yards per game. It’s all a balancing act and with how much the Michigan run game struggled last season, the Wolverines needed to be closer to that BCS average if they wanted to find success.

But the most glaring differential between Michigan and the teams that played in BCS bowl games were the statistics that involved interceptions. If Gardner hadn’t been so prone to interceptions early in the season, these numbers would be dramatically improved. But a lot of things would’ve been different if the Wolverines had played their whole season the way they did their final few games.

However, the interception statistics were also pretty close to Stanford’s, which is interesting. But, in the same vein as the Auburn comparison, Stanford had other parts of its game that made up for its deficits, while Michigan did not. Stanford averaged 207.4 rushing yards per game (as opposed to Michigan’s 125.7). And when a team has a defense like Stanford -- the Cardinals allowed just 31 touchdowns all season -- it gives the offense a bit of a cushion to underachieve at times.

These statistics just reinforce the fact that taking care of the ball needs to be an even bigger focus for the Wolverines in 2014. If they can limit their mistakes offensively and produce a stronger running game, they can put themselves in a good spot in the conference.

Other stats that matter in 2014:

The spring game is a preview for the season and with so many early enrollees this year, it really is going to give fans and the media a pretty good look at what next year could hold for the Wolverines. So leading up to the scrimmage, we’re going to look a few stats that really matter for next season for Michigan if the Wolverines want to make the Big Ten Championship game.

Stat: Net yards per kickoff returns and punt returns.

2013 review: We’ll stick with the theme of special teams as we move along in our statistical look at what must improve for Michigan in 2014. On Monday, we dove into kickoff returns and on Tuesday we looked at punt returns. Now, we flip the script and look at Michigan’s punting and kicking game as well as how they do against return teams.
  • Punting
[+] EnlargeWill Hagerup
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesWill Hagerup will return to a crowded battle for Michigan's punting duties.
In 2013 Michigan averaged 40.8 yards per punt (67th nationally) on 62 punts. Like punt returns, this is a reflection of more than just special teams considering the offense stalled out enough to have to punt 62 times. However, the bright part was that the Wolverines allowed just 6.4 yards per punt return (40th nationally).

On average, this put Michigan opponents starting field position just over 69 yards from the goal line after the Wolverines punted. The ideal would be for every punt to either end up 99 yards from the goal line (or a touchback or fair catch would do, too). However, that was far from the case for the Wolverines in 2013 as opponents returned nearly half of Michigan’s punts (45.2 percent). There were only seven teams nationally that had higher percentages of their punts returned.

The Wolverines only recorded two touchbacks and 13 fair catches all season and 57 percent of the punts that were returned went at least five yards. None of those numbers put the Michigan special teams in the upper echelon of college football teams.
  • Kicking

Michigan averaged 59.2 yards per kickoff but registered a touchback on nearly half its kicks (48.1 percent). That percentage put the Wolverines at 25th best in the country. However, when the Wolverines did have to take down a returner, they struggled.

On average, opponents lined up 71.7 yards from the goal line following their return of a Michigan kick. Only 11 times all season (on 77 kicks) did opponents start inside their 25-yard line. Ohio State led the nation in that category, with their special teams pinning opponents inside their 25-yard line 49 times (on 108 kickoffs).

That means Michigan gave up 23.3 yards per return and on more than one-fifth of returns, the Wolverines gave up returns of 30-plus yards. That percentage of high returns (20.6 percent) puts Michigan in the bottom 25 of FBS teams in that regard.

2014 preview: Will Hagerup will be back for the 2014 season and is expected to battle Matt Wile and Kenny Allen for the starting spot at punter. Wile punted 61 times last season for the Wolverines while Allen punted just once. Wile also kicked off all 76 times for the Wolverines during the 2013 season so assuming he has continued to progress and no one else has come on too strong, he should be the starter.

Wile’s average of 40.6 yards per punt as a junior in 2013 wasn’t quite as impressive as Hagerup’s the previous season (45 yards per punt), but with Hagerup’s struggles in remaining eligible, this is certainly a position that the Wolverines would like to have some depth.

If each of those players can make improvements from last season (or in Hagerup’s case, the 2012-13 season) Michigan will be on the right track. But the place the Wolverines need make the biggest strides is in stopping opponents’ returners. Whether it’s more time in the weight room, better focus in film study or improving each individual's technique, the Wolverines need to show progress in this facet of the game in order to help their defense and give them the best chance to get off the field quickly.
The spring game is a preview for the season and with so many early enrollees this year, it really is going to give fans and the media a pretty good look at what next year could hold for the Wolverines. So leading up to the scrimmage, we’re going to look a few stats that really matter for next season for Michigan if the Wolverines want to make the Big Ten championship game.

Stat: Average distance from the goal line after punt returns.

2013 review: We looked at this quite in depth yesterday when examining the Wolverines’ kickoff returns of 2013. The general conclusion is that while a yard here and there on a kickoff return doesn’t seem like a lot, it really is, and the same is true with punt returns.

[+] EnlargeDennis Norfleet
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsReturn man Dennis Norfleet could be pushed for playing time by freshmen.
Michigan returned 18 punts last season at an average of 6.3 yards per punt return (89th nationally). Neither one of those numbers are very encouraging, however both are areas in which different facets of the team must improve in 2014. The number of punts is a reflection of the defense, which was up and down all season. Other Big Ten teams forced opponents to punt far more often (Michigan State: 36, Ohio State: 30, Wisconsin: 28). The return is a reflection of the special teams, which is the focus today.

The punt return is an opportunity to gain great field position. North Carolina led the nation with an average punt return of 18.1 yards. Iowa led the Big Ten in the same category with 14.0 yards per punt return. The national average was 8.7 yards, meaning the Wolverines were more than two yards behind the national average.

Only twice all season did Michigan break off a return of 20 or more yards (Utah, North Texas and Duke led the FBS with eight apiece). Now, Michigan played some pretty tough teams when it came to punt returns. Michigan State’s special teams gave up just 6.7 yards per punt return while Iowa gave up just 4.9 yards per punt return, so the Wolverines’ 6.3 yards per return doesn’t look too bad in either of those categories. However, punt returns are a part of the game in which Michigan could (and should) take a step forward in 2014.

2014 preview: Like kickoff returns, this will likely be Dennis Norfleet's job, though there should be an opening for anyone else who makes a name for themselves this spring or during fall camp. Jabrill Peppers would be an obvious candidate if the coaches allow him to play outside of the secondary considering his athleticism and nose for finding holes in defenses.

Norfleet is another year older and wiser, so in the perfect world he’d be harder to stop in 2014 than he was in 2013 (read: not hard to stop). There isn’t a concrete statistic that Michigan needs to hit in punt returns, but the 10 teams that played in BCS bowl games averaged 10.4 yards per return during the 2013-14 season. In that group there were outliers each way with Alabama and Oklahoma both averaging 14.2 yards per return while Stanford and Ohio State averaging 8.2 and 8.1 yards per return, respectively.

So in that general statistical look, the Wolverines would want to boost their yards per punt return by at least 2.5 yards per return in order to be in that same general range. Whether another year of experience can boost Norfleet’s production by nearly 40 percent will be tough to say until 2014. However, if he can make that kind of a jump it would be a huge help to Michigan’s field position.
The spring game is a preview for the season and with so many early enrollees this year, it really is going to give fans and the media a pretty good look at what next year could hold for the Wolverines. So leading up to the scrimmage, we’re going to look a few stats that really matter for next season for Michigan if the Wolverines want to make the Big Ten Championship game.

Stat: Average distance from goal after kickoff returns (tomorrow, we’ll look at punt returns).

[+] EnlargeDennis Norfleet
AP Photo/Ross D. FranklinThe Wolverines don't need to turn their return game upside down, but Dennis Norfleet's success on kickoff returns has a big effect on the offense's success.
2013 review: Coach Brady Hoke has made it very clear that he sees the special teams as the third facet of his team. Sometimes coaches focus on offense and defense and barely give a second thought to special teams. However, Hoke has personally worked with the kickers, given scholarships to long snappers and put emphasis on the return game.

But in 2013, the return game was a big issue for the Wolverines. On average, Michigan was 73.6 yards from the goal line after kick returns (80th nationally). With the Wolverines averaging 5.4 yards per play, that means that it would take 14 plays to reach to the end zone if they met that average. However, the Wolverines only had 22 drives this season (of their 167) that were at least 10 plays. That means most drives ended in Michigan not reaching the goal line. Of Michigan’s 167 drives last season, only 40 gained for 60 yards or more, and only 11 gained 80 yards or more.

From an efficiency standpoint, there’s a general stat in football that every offense wants -- to have more drives that end in a touchdown than drives that end without a touchdown or first down. Michigan didn’t achieve that last season. Of their 167 drives, 54 ended without a first down/touchdown and 48 ended in a touchdown. By comparison, Florida State, which had 176 drives, had 84 of its drives end in a touchdown and only 38 end without a first down/touchdown. Obviously not all of these drives begin after a kickoff return, but improvement certainly can be made in the return game.

On 15.7 percent of kickoff returns, the Wolverines gained at least 30 yards (eight of the 51 returns). TCU led the nation in this statistic, returning one-third of its 39 returns at least 30 yards. Future Big Ten member Maryland finished in the top 10 nationally, returning 23.5 percent of its returns at least 30 yards. Ohio State finished 34th nationally (17.2 percent) and Nebraska finished 35th nationally (17.1 percent).

Only 43 teams this season scored on a kickoff return. Michigan wasn’t one of them. The Wolverines averaged 22.1 yards per kickoff return (49th nationally). Wisconsin led the Big Ten in kickoff returns at 23.1 yards per return.

On the surface, one yard isn’t a lot of difference, but wouldn’t that one extra yard have been nice against Ohio State this season? Or where would the Wolverines have been in the past few seasons against Notre Dame if they were moved back a yard on certain drives?

2014 outlook: Dennis Norfleet is back and will be looked to in these situations. But he’s going to need to be much more productive than he was last season. As a whole, the Wolverines weren’t super efficient in this category. Norfleet didn’t break many tackles and never found the open field in the return game.

This is certainly an area in which Jabrill Peppers could make an impact if the coaches allow him to play something other than defense this season. Other candidates include Jourdan Lewis or Da'Mario Jones, quick-footed receivers who could make an impact. Field position is so crucial, and this is where it starts.

• Most of the teams that started at or fewer than 70 yards from the end zone were teams that did well last season: Stanford, Florida State, Alabama, Oklahoma, UCLA. So what does Michigan need to do to get to that 70-yard mark? Averaging 22.1 yards per return isn’t going to do it. If the Wolverines can improve that by one yard, they’d be in the top 30 nationally. If they could improve it by two yards, they’d be in the top 15. That’s the difference between a player holding a block for half a second longer or the returner falling forward. Little things make a big difference. A block here, a yard here and a step there can be the difference between a touchdown and a punt.
There’s quite a bit we’ve already learned about Michigan through this 2014 spring season, and the April 5 scrimmage will reveal even more. However, this spring really only matters because it’s a launching point for what happens next season, and it’s important to keep that in mind with everything that’s talked about this spring. So, to look forward to the fall, here are five predictions for Michigan football in 2014.

No. 1: Michigan will win handily at Notre Dame.

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsMichigan quarterback Devin Gardner should find some areas to attack in his last shot at Notre Dame.
Why: It will be Sept. 6, just the second week of the season, but Michigan will be looking to make a statement … and where better than in the final scheduled matchup between these old rivals? A victory over Appalachian State in the opener would ease the minds of many Michigan fans, but a solid and convincing win in South Bend, Ind., is what the Wolverines will need early in the season to help people start getting over the disappointments of 2013.

That kind of emotion would be huge for a team that will have a lot of veterans (who have experienced a lot of ups and downs) in 2014. Quarterback Devin Gardner will be leading the way and, as he showed last season, you can expect him to put up a good performance in a rivalry game. For the most part, with the exception of the Michigan State game in 2013, he has exceeded expectations in rivalry games.

Stats to know: This could be all about the matchups. This early in the season, the offenses should be further along than the defenses, and when you look at the areas in which Michigan is replacing players and the areas in which Notre Dame is replacing players, that’s a very good thing for the Wolverines.

To start, Notre Dame's weaknesses are aligned pretty closely with Michigan’s strengths. The Fighting Irish are thin on the defensive line and at linebacker. With the Wolverines returning running backs Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith, the young duo should be able to find holes in a struggling Notre Dame defense and Gardner, who passed for 294 yards and rushed for 82 yards in 2013, can be expected to be even better prepared for the matchup this season. And considering he won’t be running at Stephon Tuitt, this could be a 100-yard rushing game for Gardner.

The Fighting Irish allowed 168 rushing yards per game and 4.2 yards per rush last season. Between Green, Smith and Gardner returning and the Fighting Irish losing talent on the first two levels of their defense, Michigan should be able to account for more than 200 rushing yards and at least 4.5 yards per rush.

Another weakness in Notre Dame -- and it’s a weakness in experience, not talent -- is at wide receiver. The Michigan secondary certainly isn’t a brick wall of any sorts, but against young talent early in the season, the scale will tip toward a Blake Countess-led secondary.

Then, looking at the Fighting Irish’s strengths, they also happen to line up well with Michigan strengths. Notre Dame should be good at quarterback with Everett Golson, and look for sophomore running backs Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant to break out, but unlike Michigan’s young running backs and talented quarterback, Notre Dame’s group will have to run against one of the stoutest linebacker groups in the conference, as well as Frank Clark on the defensive line.

The Wolverines allowed 140.2 rushing yards per game as well as 3.8 yards per rush, but with much of the front seven returning and the shift in defensive coaching, those numbers are expected to improve.

One place to watch will be the secondary, where Notre Dame returns talent. Michigan lost its top receiver in Jeremy Gallon, and though Devin Funchess should be able to create some mismatches against Irish linebackers or smaller defensive backs, he won’t be able to do it alone. However, if Smith, Gardner and Green can open up the passing lanes by stuffing the ball down Notre Dame’s throat, some good things could happen and Notre Dame secondary’s advantage might not be quite as obvious.

Other fall predictions:
There’s quite a bit we’ve already learned about Michigan through this 2014 spring season, and the scrimmage will reveal even more. However, this spring really only matters because it’s a launching point for what happens next season. So, to look forward to next fall, here are five predictions for Michigan football in 2014.

Prediction No. 2: Jabrill Peppers will be starting by the conference opener

Why: The Wolverines secondary struggled in 2013. Blake Countess returned from injury to play the way he did as a freshman, which was impressive, and he was probably the most consistent defensive back Michigan put on the field. He’ll return and lead the secondary, both on and off the field, but the Wolverines will need to replace Courtney Avery and Thomas Gordon.

As Channing Stribling and Jourdan Lewis both got looks at cornerback last season, they’ll likely be the ones competing for the starting spot opposite Countess this spring, but there's no reason why Peppers wouldn't be included in that conversation starting this fall. Dymonte Thomas and Jarrod Wilson seem to be the front-runners for the starting safety spots this spring, but Peppers could force his way into that competition as well.

[+] EnlargeJabrill Peppers
Miller Safrit/ESPNJabrill Peppers will get a chance to show he's worthy of that five-star ranking early at Michigan.
With the change in the coaching staff (Curt Mallory now just coaches the safeties; Roy Manning moved from linebackers to cornerbacks), you can also expect that the players will have a bit of changeup. The Wolverines will likely play more nickel than they did last year, especially because Greg Mattison said he plans to play more over defense this upcoming year, which means the Wolverines will need to feature a talented nickel. Peppers could play there as well.

Realistically, Peppers is the kind of talent who could really play anywhere in the secondary (also at wide receiver, returner... heck, put him on the basketball team next season, too). But with a defense that is looking to build depth, Mattison can’t put all his eggs in Peppers’ basket. They'll likely give him one spot (though that still seems up in the air right now), and by giving him one position to focus on, he can excel there and the coaches can add more to his plate as he grows more accustomed to college football.

Stats to know: The Wolverines’ secondary struggled last season. Statistically, it was the worst that it has been under Brady Hoke. Michigan allowed 231.3 passing yards per game (No. 7 in the Big Ten, No. 66 in the nation). That number was more than 60 yards worse than the previous season and 40 yards worse than the 2011 season.

The Wolverines allowed 42 completions of 20-plus yards (69th in the nation) and 23 passing touchdowns (tied for 83rd in the nation). Nearly half of opponent's completions gained at least 10 yards (49.8 percent, 87th in the nation).

One of the few bright spots of the secondary was the number of turnovers forced and the number of near turnovers the Wolverines accounted for -- Stribling, Lewis and Taylor were close on quite a few and though football doesn’t give “almost” points, it still means something when we’re breaking down a position group.

There isn’t an easy fix. However, there is a way to make quarterbacks hesitate on longer or more difficult throws: Put in a playmaker. The Wolverines really haven’t had one in quite a few years. And though it’s not realistic to say that Peppers is definitely going to be that guy for Michigan (he’s not even on campus yet, folks), he certainly has the potential.

Don’t expect Peppers to be the MVP next season. Don’t expect him to singlehandedly make Michigan the best defense in the nation. Don’t expect him to be Superman. But he might show shades of that every now and again, and that will give fans something to be excited about. And, based on how much the secondary struggled last season and knowing how serious Peppers is about wanting to contribute early, expect him to be a starter by Sept. 27, when Michigan opens the Big Ten season against Minnesota.

Other fall predictions:
There’s quite a bit we’ve already learned about Michigan through this 2014 spring season and the scrimmage will reveal even more. However, this spring really only matters because it’s a launching point for what happens next season, and it’s important to keep that in mind with everything that’s talked about this spring. So, to look forward to next fall, here are five predictions for Michigan football in 2014.

No. 3: Michigan will lose (in close games) to both Michigan State and Ohio State.

Why: We didn’t say every prediction was going to be a thrilling one, so here’s the first reality check of the fall predictions. It’s not an easy pill to swallow, losing to both of a team’s biggest rivals in a single season. But it’s a prediction that seems quite likely. The Michigan State game shouldn’t be quite as lopsided as it was in 2013 and the Ohio State game will likely be another shootout, but they both appear likely to end in defeat.

For starters, the Wolverines are on the road in both of these games. Brady Hoke has yet to win in either of those venues during his tenure. Last season, Michigan lost in East Lansing 29-6. In 2012, the Wolverines traveled to Columbus and lost 26-21. And in Hoke’s first season, Michigan lost at Spartan Stadium 28-14.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
AP Photo/Tony DingIn three starts against Michigan, Ohio State's Braxton Miller has five touchdown passes and four rushing TDs.
Playing away from home is tough, especially for Michigan under Hoke, as the Wolverines are 7-13 away from Ann Arbor since 2011. Playing in a rival’s stadium is even tougher. Playing in a rivals’ stadium when both are coming off conference title game appearances makes it even tougher.

The Wolverines will also be facing teams that return most of their talent. Yes, Ohio State lost its top three in tackles from that game: linebacker Ryan Shazier and defensive backs C.J. Barnett and Bradley Roby. But the Buckeyes' defensive line is deep and returns a lot of talent. Michigan’s biggest problem this season was getting past the line of scrimmage, and opponents proved that heavy pressure up front was generally too much for the Wolverines to handle.

Offensively, the Buckeyes lose leading rusher Carlos Hyde, but Braxton Miller comes back, and he's the main threat. Because of what Miller does and the lanes he can open for others, even an average runner can put up better than average numbers. And the Buckeyes are replacing talent with talent in Ezekiel Elliott.

Michigan State lost some crucial talent in Darqueze Dennard, Isaiah Lewis, Denicos Allen and Max Bullough. But the reigning Big Ten defensive lineman of the year, Shilique Calhoun, will return and defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi seems to have Hoke’s number after last season. With a new offensive coordinator at Michigan, maybe things will change. On offense, the Spartans return quarterback Connor Cook and running back Jeremy Langford, as well as receiver weapons and most of its offensive line.

Timing is another factor. Michigan has a bye week before visiting the Spartans on Oct, 25, but that really will be the Wolverines’ first benchmark game of the season, other than the Notre Dame game in Week 2. The Spartans will have a road game at Oregon in Week 2, so they’ll have a marquee game under their belts.

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook, Brennen Beyer
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesMichigan State's Connor Cook got better as he gained experience last season.
Previous schedules matter slightly less when it comes to the Michigan-Ohio State game, as it's always the final game on the regular season schedule and theoretically, both teams should be playing to their potential by then. At that time in the season, the bigger factor is health. If both teams can remain healthy and if certain guys (such as Jake Butt) can return at full strength from injuries by then, that will be a big factor.

Statistically, let’s look at the areas in both of those games where the Wolverines struggled the most.

Michigan State
  • The Wolverines couldn’t move the ball and the Spartans consistently got to Devin Gardner. Calhoun is back and is a guy who will require double-teams, but that opens things up for other talented Spartans defensive linemen like Marcus Rush and linebackers Taiwan Jones and Ed Davis. Those four combined for 16 tackles (including seven for losses) and five sacks against Michigan.
  • Michigan didn’t disrupt Cook enough. Yes, he only completed 18 of 33 passes and threw one interception to his one touchdown, but remember that was his first big game as a starter. He has improved since then. Don’t doubt the difference that a Big Ten championship, Big Ten title game MVP and Rose Bowl championship can make in a quarterback’s confidence.
Ohio State
  • This was kind of a strange game. The Wolverines offense, after a season of struggles, managed to pull it together against a defense that had been quite stout. But then the Michigan defense was a total sieve and allowed the Buckeyes to rack up yards in every way possible. This game will likely be another shootout of sorts, with both teams returning offensive weapons. If Gardner can put up a similar performance, that would bode well for the Wolverines, and the same can be said of Miller and the Buckeyes. But at the end of the day, if this is a shootout, I’d put my money with the QB who’s more likely to be in the Heisman Trophy conversation at the end of the year: Miller.
Michigan 2014 predictions:
There’s quite a bit we’ve already learned about Michigan through this 2014 spring season and the scrimmage will reveal even more. However, this spring really only matters because it’s a launching point for what happens next season.. So, to look forward to next fall, here are five predictions for Michigan football in 2014.

No. 4: Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith will account for at least 150 yards in eight games in 2014.

Why: Offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier believes in a running back by committee game plan, which was a huge change from the featured back days of Al Borges.

Nussmeier said that he likes to spread the carries around so that it’s not just one guy taking the pounding on every down, which means he intends for his running backs to run. That wasn’t always the case last season. Likely, the two backs carrying the most load will be Green and Smith.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Green
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhDerrick Green is expected to share the rushing load with De'Veon Smith this season.
Both showed promise last season and with another year under their belts of training and conditioning, they should be able to come into the fall more prepared for the daily grind. Green had 83 carries for 270 yards (3.3 yards) while Smith had 26 carries for 117 yards (4.5 yards).

What’s impressive about those numbers is how little negative yardage the two had as freshmen. Green accounted for a loss of 20 yards, which means he accounted for one loss of a yard for every 13.5 yards he gained. Smith accounted for a loss of 2 yards, which means he accounted for a loss for every 58.5 yards gained. Fitzgerald Toussaint, the Wolverines’ featured back last season, accounted for a loss of 78 yards while gaining just 648 yards meaning he accounted for one yard of loss for every 8.3 yards he gained.

Toussaint carried the ball so much more frequently than either Green or Smith. But it does show that when given the opportunity, both Green and Smith were more productive -- in limited action -- than Toussaint.

But, like last season, that won’t matter quite as much as the offensive line. If 2013 taught Michigan fans anything it was that a subpar O-line can railroad a team that has weapons. The Wolverines had two great tackles, but the interior of the line was in constant state of change and because of that the offensive didn’t really get going until November.

Because of injuries, there’s a decent chance the Wolverines won’t actually be able to put their best five offensive linemen on the field together until fall camp. But even if they manage to do that, they’ll be ahead of where they were last year. If and when the O-line pulls it together, Green and Smith can get to work.

Stats to know: Looking at how many rushing yards opponents allowed is a good gauge, but it’s all on a sliding scale. If a team allowed 250 passing yards a game then teams might not have rushed against them as much because there was little reason. However, a team might’ve been stout in the secondary and porous on the defensive line.

So with that in mind, here are the rushing yards per game as well as the yards per rush (which give a better idea of exactly how well teams defended the run). But again, since opponents differ, Miami (Ohio) giving up 5.1 yards per rush last year -- mostly to MAC teams -- is quite different that Indiana giving up 5.4 yards per rush mostly in the Big Ten.
  • Appalachian State: 220 rushing yards per game | 4.9 yards per rush
  • Notre Dame: 168 rushing yards per game | 4.2 yards per rush
  • Miami (Ohio): 223 rushing yards per game | 5.1 yards per rush
  • Utah: 130 rushing yards per game | 3.5 yards per rush
  • Minnesota: 158 rushing yards per game | 4.5 yards per rush
  • Rutgers: 101 rushing yards per game | 3.1 yards per rush
  • Penn State: 144 rushing yards per game | 3.9 yards per rush
  • Michigan State: 86 rushing yards per game | 2.8 yards per rush
  • Indiana: 238 rushing yards per game | 5.4 yards per rush
  • Northwestern: 167 rushing yards per game | 4.2 yards per rush
  • Maryland: 149 rushing yards per game | 3.7 yards per rush
  • Ohio State: 109 rushing yards per game | 3.3 yards per rush
Just by looking at those numbers, it’s pretty obvious that Smith and Green will have a harder time against Utah, Michigan State and Ohio State. There’s a greater chance that the duo won’t hit 150 in those games and since they are young, it’s likely that there’ll be another game where they miss that mark as well .

Another important number to consider when looking at rushing stats is how many times defenses held offenses to no gain or negative rushes. Again, no surprise here that Michigan State leads the Wolverines’ 2014 opponents in that category.

In 2013, the Spartans stopped opposing offenses at the line of scrimmage, or behind it, 131 times. What some people might find surprising is that Maryland did the same. The Terrapin defense accounted for 131 stops like that. Teams like Indiana (101), Northwestern (106) and Notre Dame (107) weren’t as strong in that category.

By looking at yards per rush as well as how often defenses stopped offenses at the line of scrimmage, there’s a pretty good indicator of the games when Smith and Green could go off for major yardage -- Indiana, Miami (Ohio), Northwestern.

The countdown:
Michigan’s spring game is less than a month away, so we’re going to try our best to look into the future and make five predictions for the next few weeks and what we might or might not see in the scrimmage.

Prediction No. 3: The linebackers will be the strongest position group by far -- offense and defense -- in the spring game.

[+] EnlargeJake Ryan
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesMichigan linebacker Jake Ryan is moving to the middle for his senior season.
It was the deepest position group in the 2013 season and everyone returns, so this prediction isn’t far-fetched. But with position shifts happening, each player is going to need to learn the nuances and how they fit into the group.

With any position group, it would be hard to say that you could shake up the positions and still have them come out, guns blazing, ready to lead a team. However, behind two-year captain Jake Ryan, this will be the group making the most ridiculous plays (again, offensively and defensively) for the Wolverines this spring game, and likely next fall.

By putting Ryan in the middle of the field, the coaches are allowing him better access to whatever play is unfolding on the other side of the field. And with the relationship between Ryan and Greg Mattison, the rising senior likely will be given a lot of freedom to make whatever kind of calls he believes are best for the defense, the linebackers and himself.

Looking forward to the fall, it wouldn't be shocking if at least half of the top plays at the end of the season come from the linebackers. Desmond Morgan and James Ross III have enough experience that they should be able to adapt just as quickly with Ryan.

Plus, all these guys are going to be with Mattison day in and day out. They’ll be in his meeting room and watching film with him. Mattison switched which position group he coaches so that he can direct the defense from the middle of the field. It would be shocking if these players don’t back up that decision with highlight-reel plays, starting with this spring game.

Other predictions:
Michigan’s spring game is less than a month away, so we’re going to try our best to look into the future and make five predictions for the next few weeks and what we might or might not see in the scrimmage.

Prediction No. 1: The offensive line isn’t going to be quite as far along as some would like.

The offensive line is the position group that must improve the most between 2013 and 2014 if the Wolverines want to be better offensively. As good as Devin Gardner, Derrick Green, De'Veon Smith or Amara Darboh might be, it won’t matter too much if the offensive line struggles like (or for as long a stretch) it did in 2013.

What is often thought of as a prototypical Michigan offensive line is one that is stacked with juniors and seniors, guys who have paid their dues, learned from upperclassmen and are physically and mentally ready to step in. However, that wasn’t the case last season and, as much experience as some players might have gained in 2013, it won’t be the case this fall.

[+] Enlarge Kyle Kalis
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesKyle Kalis and Michigan's offensive line should be expected to make strides this spring, but perhaps just small ones.
The offensive line will still be very, very young. The projected starters on the interior are a sophomore (Kyle Bosch) at left guard, a junior (Graham Glasgow) at center and another sophomore (Kyle Kalis) at right guard. Glasgow also has experience at left guard. Between the three, they only combine for 20 career starts at their respective positions.

The trio also doesn't have experience as a starting combo. Kalis appeared in Bosch’s three starts (against Michigan State, Nebraska and Northwestern) but didn’t start. But they have played together before, which is more than could be said for the group last season.

So while it’s still a very young group, there could and should be some gains made in the interior of the offensive line. So the problem flip-flops from what it was last season to what it is this season -- the tackles, the strength of the line last season. In 2014, those two positions will likely be filled by two redshirt sophomores who have limited experience.

Ben Braden, who appeared in just two games, is taking reps with the top group this spring and Erik Magnuson, who started seven games and appeared in 12 games last season, is the likely leader for the spot at left tackle. Both have the physical attributes to be excellent tackles: height, weight and long arms. But last season showed what talent without experience looks like, and the idea of some of that inexperience protecting Gardner’s blind side is a bit worrisome.

On top of that, Magnuson underwent shoulder surgery this winter and isn't participating in spring practices. Redshirt freshman David Dawson is taking his snaps at left tackle, just continuing the revolving door of youth on the offensive line.

Last year the competition for the positions went on for weeks throughout the season. In the perfect world, coaches would at least be able to see the two-deep throughout the spring. That certainly won’t be the case as Magnuson is out and reserve players such as Chris Bryant and Joey Burzynski -- who have game experience -- are unavailable this spring.

Because fixing the offensive line is at such a premium for the Wolverines and because fans have taken such notice to it, expectations are high. But those expectations still need to be tempered, especially through this spring. If people show up to the spring game expecting to see the 1997 Michigan offensive line out there, then they probably want to stay home and try to watch replays. This group will make strides, but those strides aren’t going to be massive this spring.
The Michigan football team is off for spring break but will return for practices next week. The mailbag doesn’t take time off, though. Not for spring break (seriously, this is polar vortex break; let’s not joke). Not for nada. So let’s get to it.

Chris from Tecumseh writes: What’s the biggest difference we’re going to notice moving to a Doug Nussmeier offense?

A: Look for a running back-by-committee system rather than a featured back, and for multiple reasons. First of all, you will notice that Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith and Drake Johnson will all play. There will be multiple names and numbers taking multiple snaps, and that will be a systematic difference from the years of Al Borges. But it will also be more evident because the running backs, as a whole, should be more productive. With the interior offensive line possibly figured out already (Kyle Bosch, Graham Glasgow, Kyle Kalis), that means running between the tackles might be a little easier than it was last year. And the more productive the offensive line is, the more productive the running backs can be, the more you’ll know those rushing stats and names.

Ron from Battle Creek writes: Are there any position groups that won’t be figured out this spring? Any “battles” that just aren’t worth watching?

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarErik Magnuson and Devin Gardner will try to avenge last season's loss to Penn State at home on Oct. 11.
A: The offensive line will be an interesting one. With Erik Magnuson out this spring, you just have to believe that they know the real competition for the left tackle spot won’t begin until the fall. Could David Dawson really take that position? I suppose. But he’s 2 inches shorter than Magnuson and his wingspan is likely shorter as well. On that left side, you’ll certainly have inexperience, but you hope that guy with less experience is one with more height and longer arms. The secondary is another interesting place to watch just because the coaches have been so unspecific as to how they’re going to use Jabrill Peppers. He’s going to see the field early. And he could likely be the most versatile player in that secondary as a true freshman. So will the coaches see where Michigan is the weakest after this spring and just move him into that spot to upgrade the secondary as a whole? Possibly. But he could battle any starter on that list for his spot. So while the defensive backs might be able to get some reps this spring, and there will be a projected two-deep emerging in the next month, just realize how much one name can shake that up.

George from Wixom writes: What Big Ten lower-tier team could beat Michigan next year?

A: I’m going to consider “lower-tier” right now to mean anything other than Michigan State and Ohio State. So there are a few options. Minnesota will be an interesting matchup because it’s earlier in the season, so the possibility of a shootout similar to Indiana-Michigan last season is a possibility. This is a time when both offenses will be further along than the defenses, and if neither defense really shows up then this could be an interesting matchup. The Gophers return quarterback Mitch Leidner and they’ll have an offensive weapon with freshman running back Jeff Jones. If the Wolverines don’t protect against the run better, Jones could have a field day. Michigan had interest in him late, but Jones stuck with his in-state commitment and could see this game as a personal test. Another possibility (and possibly the more likely one) would be Penn State. Neither the Gophers nor the Nittany Lions were on Mark Schlabach’s Post-Signing Day Way Too Early Top 25, so I think most fans would consider those as upsets if they can beat Michigan. But the Nittany Lions return quarterback Christian Hackenberg who, in his second season, is now transitioning into a new offense, which is always tough. However, James Franklin will likely keep with the things that Hackenberg does well, since so much of the team's success will be on Hackenberg’s shoulders. They’ll need to replace receiver Allen Robinson, but Penn State has a group of tight ends who can step up and catch passes, as well as some younger receiving threats. On top of that, the Nittany Lions return all three of their top running backs from last season, so again, if Michigan can’t get pressure up front, the Lions could have enough offensive weapons to make it a shootout in the Big House.
The Wolverines are two practices into their spring season and already the coaches have announced some major changes that fans will see in the spring game in a month. This week, with the players on spring break, we’ll examine some of the changes to expect in 2014.

For the past three seasons the Wolverines were constantly in search of the elusive featured back, which never really materialized. But with a new offensive coordinator comes offensive change and one of the most notable might be getting rid of that featured back notion.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Green
David Banks/USA TODAY SportsDerrick Green has a chance to lead a deep, but somewhat inexperienced running back group next season.
“You’d like to use multiple backs,” offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said. “You look at the pounding the running backs take these days and how physical the game is. One back carrying the load all the time makes it awful difficult to stay healthy and sustain success over a season where I think you can accomplish the same things as an offense and get more guys touches.”

In Nussmeier’s two seasons at Alabama his offense featured two main rushers in both seasons, none of whom were quarterbacks. In 2013, T.J. Yeldon led the Crimson Tide rushers with 1,235 yards (6 yards per carry) while Kenyan Drake added 694 rushing yards (7.5 yards per carry). The previous season Alabama had two 1,000-yard rushers in Eddie Lacy (1,322 yards, 6.5 yards per carry) and Yeldon (1,108 yards, 6.3 yards per carry).

Though those numbers are impressive, and Nussmeier has proved it can be done, that doesn’t mean it will be done at Michigan, especially not next season. But the shift in ideologies isn’t a bad idea considering how poorly the primary back plan has gone the past few seasons. In fact, with each year at Michigan, the “featured back” position did worse and worse.

In Year 1 of the Brady Hoke era, that concept remained a bit hazy, as the team’s leading rusher was also its leading passer, Denard Robinson. The coaches spoke of the featured back but most times it was Robinson taking off down the field rather than handing it off. The team’s second-leading rusher was then-sophomore Fitzgerald Toussaint, who through 12 games averaged 87 yards per game (just four yards less than Robinson).

During the 2012-13 season, again, Robinson was the leading rusher. But this time it wasn’t just a few yards difference between his and Toussaint’s numbers. Robinson averaged 115 yards per game while Toussaint averaged less than half of that at just 51 yards per game.

This past season, in Year 3 of Hoke’s tenure, it seemed as though the Wolverines might finally have found that elusive featured back that Al Borges always wanted. With Devin Gardner in the pocket, a dual-threat QB but not in the way Robinson was, there was room was the Wolverines to really work a running back into its game plan. And, in some senses, there finally was a featured back. The team’s leading rusher was, for the first time in the Hoke era, a running back. But the problem was that Toussaint averaged just 54 yards per game -- a far cry from what would be expected from a power-running team. During those three seasons Toussaint’s average per rush dropped by more than two yards per carry (5.6 in 2011, 4.0 in 2012, 3.5 in 2013).

In most instances when a three-year starter left there would be panic. However, with the running backs and the shift into an offense that uses more than one back, there actually seems to be a lot of depth at the position, though not necessarily much experience.

“When you look at the group as a whole, I don’t think we’ve established a runner,” Nussmeier said. “There’s a group of running backs and that’ll be an interesting competition to watch develop. I think those guys have worked extremely hard, they’re learning the system.”

Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith, who both had experience last season, will be in the thick of the competition for quality running back snaps. Hoke also said that he was impressed with Justice Hayes near the end of last season and the recovery of Drake Johnson, as well. And to build even more depth, they’ve moved some guys around -- Ross Douglas, who early enrolled as a defensive back last year, will be taking RB snaps this season as will Wyatt Shallman, a fullback.

“I think I feel more comfortable about the depth we have there,” Hoke said.

Depth is one thing, and it will certainly create competition, but the question of whether this shift in how the Michigan offense uses running backs will be effective remains to be seen. It will be a big change when Michigan takes the field in the spring game and next fall, but it could be one that could finally show off the running back talent the Wolverines have in their arsenal.


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