- Chantel Jennings, ESPN Staff Writer
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There’s quite a bit we’ve already learned about Michigan through the spring, and the scrimmage will reveal even more. However, these few weeks are a launching point for what happens next season, and it’s important to keep that in mind. So to looking ahead to the fall, here are five predictions for Michigan football in 2014.
No. 5: TE Devin Funchess will be the Wolverines’ leading receiver
Why: Expect Funchess to become a Jeremy Gallon-like security blanket for quarterback Devin Gardner. Gallon accounted for 1,373 yards and 89 receptions last season, and his production will need to be filled by someone. It won’t be filled only by Funchess, but expect a lot of those passes, especially jump-ball throws, to be sent in Funchess’ direction in 2014.
It would be somewhat surprising if Funchess hits the 1,000-yard receiving mark as a junior (however, he has the best shot among all of Michigan’s receivers). But as a sophomore, he showed that he could put up big numbers. Whether he can do that consistently remains to be seen and will be the next step in his personal development.
However, it’s also important to remember that Funchess was productive last season because Gallon was so good, and Gallon was highly productive because Funchess was such a threat. Funchess didn’t tear defenses apart in every game, but the fact that defensive coordinators thought he was capable of doing so was enough to draw attention.
This season, without Gallon -- or any returning, consistent threat -- Funchess will need someone else to step up if he wants to play up to his potential. Amara Darboh could be that player. He had a terrific spring in 2013 before his injury, and at 6-foot-2, 214 pounds, he’s big enough to catch those jump balls. His size, coupled with his track speed, could make him dangerous. If he shows his talent early on, defensive coordinators will need to make sure they know when he’s on the field, which could clear some things up for Funchess.
It’s also likely that Funchess will be the Wolverines' leading receiver because he and Gardner have the most-established chemistry of anyone on the roster. Last season, if Gardner got through his reads and all things were equal between Gallon and a second receiver, the ball was almost always going Gallon’s way. Gardner and Gallon had the benefit of four years of working together. But Funchess was only targeted in the pass game starting last season so Gardner and Funchess only have about a year of experience heading into the fall. The fact Gardner missed so much of winter workouts doesn't help from a chemistry standpoint.
Funchess probably won’t be a 1,000-yard receiver in 2014, (unless he has huge numbers against nonconference opponents), but he will likely be the Wolverines’ top go-to guy in the passing game.
Stats to know: For each of the predictions, we’ll break down a stat (or multiple stats) that will be crucial in whether predictions comes true. The most basic fact to look at will be how teams did against the pass last season. Teams gain and lose the players from season to season and schedules do differ, but it’s a baseline to at least consider.
Appalachian State: 180 passing yards per game
Notre Dame: 198 passing yards per game
Miami (Ohio): 261 passing yards per game
Utah: 267 passing yards per game
Minnesota: 215 passing yards per game
Rutgers: 312 passing yards per game
Penn State: 237 passing yards per game
Michigan State: 166 passing yards per game
Indiana: 290 passing yards per game
Northwestern: 256 passing yards per game
Maryland: 225 passing yards per game
Ohio State: 268 passing yards per game
New offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier will experiment with Funchess a lot, but it’s obviously an advantage to put him in situations where he’s up against smaller defensive backs. That would allow him to go up and over those players. And now that Gallon is gone, he might be the most athletic player on the team.
And in that regard, it's important to look at opposing defenses and know which teams allow the most passes of 10 yards or more. For example, in 2013, Rutgers and Indiana both allowed 51 percent of their opponents' completions to go for at least 10 yards. That means they surrendered some deep passes, or they struggled against the run after the catch was made. In either situation, Funchess is better than average so he should be well-equipped to handle those situations.
But that could be deceiving because teams may have given up fewer yards and completions in the pass because opponents were able to run the ball well on every down. It’s also important to look at how teams did against the pass on a typical passing down like third-and-long.
It should come as no surprise that Michigan State will be the best third-down passing defense the Wolverines face in 2014. Last season, the Spartans allowed completions on just 30.6 percent of passes on third downs. Teams like Minnesota (34.3 percent) and Notre Dame (35.1 percent) weren’t too far behind, while Indiana (41 percent) and Penn State (41.9 percent) struggled heavily in that regard.
There’s quite a bit we’ve already learned about Michigan through the spring, and the scrimmage will reveal even more. However, these few weeks are a launching point for what happens next season, and it’s important to keep that in mind.