- Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- As Denard Robinson adjusts to his new role as an offensive weapon playing a little bit of everywhere in Jacksonville, Michigan officially will begin its A.D. era as camp opens this weekend.
While Robinson’s replacement at quarterback, Devin Gardner, is set, much around him will be new or contested. Michigan will unveil a more fine-tuned version of the pro-style offense it ran last season with new linemen, new wide receivers and possibly a new running back to go with it.
The defense will be playing for the first time in the Brady Hoke era without Kenny Demens at middle linebacker and Jordan Kovacs at safety as the defensive anchors.
So here’s at some things to pay attention to over the next three weeks as Michigan prepares for its opener against Central Michigan on Aug. 31.
Top position battles
Running back: One of four positions on the Wolverines with no clear hierarchy entering camp, as any one of five players could potentially win the job. Redshirt senior Fitzgerald Toussaint is the incumbent, but is coming off a broken leg which ended his junior season. Freshmen Derrick Green and Deveon Smith could both see playing time and will likely compete with Toussaint for the majority of the carries. Junior Thomas Rawls, who has yet to show a true burst in two seasons, is another possibility if he has improved. The wild card here might be redshirt freshman Drake Johnson, who has track speed -- he was an elite high school hurdler -- and a good frame. He likely won’t win the job but could end up stealing carries.
Strong side defensive end: Keith Heitzman is likely entering camp as the leader here, but that’s a very tenuous lead at best. He has the most experience of the players competing at end, but the youth behind him will likely at least win a share of playing time. Chris Wormley, who, like senior Jibreel Black, could play both inside and outside, is a candidate here. Wormley was a player who many thought could have played as a true freshman last year before tearing his ACL. Two other redshirt freshmen, Matt Godin and Tom Strobel, are also candidates here. Much like what could happen at rush end with Frank Clark, Mario Ojemudia and Taco Charlton, you could end up seeing a three-man rotation here unless someone stands out heavily.
Defensive tackle: Quinton Washington is set at one position. The other, like the strong side end, is wide open. Like at end, Wormley and Black could make big moves here -- and Black might be the presumptive starter entering camp. Watch for Willie Henry to make a move. The redshirt freshman impressed last season’s seniors and he has the size to be a large complement to Washington. When Michigan goes jumbo, sophomore Ondre Pipkins, who will likely be in a rotation with Washington, could see time next to him.
Five reasons for concern
The interior of the offensive line: Michigan has three new starters there this year -- and that’s about the 100th time I’ve typed that since January. The talent level will be there, as both Ben Braden (left guard) and Kyle Kalis (right guard) will likely be future anchors of the line. But with Notre Dame and its dynamic defensive front looming in the second game, this group will need to be better than expected earlier than expected to keep Gardner upright.
Quarterback depth: If Gardner is injured for any length of time -- especially once conference play hits -- Michigan is in major trouble. Gardner’s backups have yet to take a significant college snap and only one, freshman Shane Morris, is on scholarship. This is the biggest issue for Michigan this season.
No defensive pressure: As good as the back seven is -- more on this below -- the front four is a giant question mark. Can Washington be a double-team commanding defensive tackle? Will Clark, who has more preseason hype than any other Michigan player, actually become more than an inconsistent rush end? Who wins the other two jobs? Can they get actual pressure, leaving Greg Mattison to be able to use all of his exotic packages and play calls in the back seven, or will they be a very average group which forces Mattison to adjust?
What happens if/when teams take Jeremy Gallon away: After Gallon, there is not much production among Gardner’s targets. Either sophomore Amara Darboh or redshirt freshman Jehu Chesson will likely start opposite Gallon. There is also tight end Devin Funchess and slot receiver Drew Dileo, who has the best hands on the team. But other than Dileo, none have made big plays in critical situations, which Michigan will need as it transitions to the pro-style system Al Borges wants.
Making the pro-style transition: Michigan had a glimpse of it last season after Denard Robinson’s injury and have had an entire offseason to implement the offense, but with questions at running back, offensive line and receiver, how those players adjust to the offense and how smoothly everything runs could be an issue early on. This offense will be more complicated than what Michigan ran the past two seasons and should have more elements to it. In theory it will be more dangerous, but also has more cause for error.
Five reasons for optimism
Devin Gardner: Entering his first full season as a starter, the junior has earned accolades from every camp he has attended this summer. Add to that his performance over the final five games of the season, and Gardner is looking at a potential breakout season. He has the size, speed and arm strength to play on the next level and excel on this one. Decision-making is still in question, but if he improves that and stays healthy, he could have a huge season.
Favorable scheduling: As rough as Michigan’s schedule was a season ago, it now has a fairly favorable one. Get past Notre Dame on Sept. 7 and things could set up for the Wolverines to be undefeated entering November. There’s a backload there with Michigan State, Northwestern, Nebraska and Ohio State all in the final month, but some of Michigan’s questions above could be solved by then.
No worries at tackle: For all the questions on the interior of the offensive line, Michigan’s tackles are two of the best in the Big Ten. Taylor Lewan is a future first-round NFL draft pick protecting Gardner’s blind side. Michael Schofield would receive a lot more attention if not for Lewan and could end up as a late-round pick himself. They bring experience and should be able to help the younger players learning at guard.
Strong back seven: This group would be even better had Jake Ryan not torn his ACL, but there is a mix of experience (Desmond Morgan at linebacker, Thomas Gordon at safety), young talent and depth that make both the linebackers and defensive backs strengths for Michigan. Considering the relative inexperience up front, this could cover for a lot of mistakes early.
Greg Mattison: Yes, this could be here every season and never be wrong. Mattison is one of the best defensive minds in the game and consistently can turn average overall talent into an impressive overall unit (evidence? Look at Michigan’s defensive roster the past two seasons). Mattison and Michigan’s defensive talent are probably a year or two away from being a complete match, but if he is able to coach the defensive line to be decent, it could be one of the top units in the league and give the Wolverines a shot to win every game in conference.