Michigan Wolverines: Courtney Avery
2. Figure out the offensive line. Michigan’s tackles have done well, and generally speaking, so has right guard Kyle Kalis. However, left guard Graham Glasgow and center Jack Miller have looked in over their heads way too often for Michigan to feel confident about it’s O-line going forward. If the interior line can get its act together that will only help Gardner. It will also help the Wolverines' run game, so really, this might be the biggest issue Michigan needs to fix this week. Fans can’t expect Gardner to work miracles when there’s no consistent run game and no protection in front of him. It was hinted at that a few guys were banged up and since we really haven’t seen much rotation on the offensive line, we can likely assume that a few of those guys are offensive linemen. Maybe with two weeks to get better, they can compete better for spots in the interior line.
3. Shore up its secondary. Senior captain Courtney Avery returned to the starting lineup in Michigan’s game against UConn, but he really didn’t add that much to an already struggling secondary. The defensive backs' motto is to keep everything “inside and in front,” but they haven’t done that so far. The Wolverines have played pretty soft coverage so far this season and Michigan doesn’t really seem to have a very good reason for that. It has allowed big-play potential for opponents. Through four games, Michigan has allowed 15 plays of 20 or more yards, including three of 40 or more yards. And all 15 of those plays were passing plays. Michigan defensive backs need to defend those receivers better, but also, the defensive line needs to get a better pass rush to help out its defensive backs.
Well, he’ll have to wait a bit longer than usual as the Wolverines have the 8 p.m. primetime spot on Saturday night against UConn. Here’s what we’ll be watching for as Gardner and the Wolverines take the field one week removed from one of the most unimpressive performances under Brady Hoke in a 28-24 win over Akron:
Shake up in the secondary. Hoke is never fully committed to any one starter on the team. If a player practices poorly, he will not start. And if another guy steps up, he will play. That was on full display last weekend as James Ross -- who finished the day against Akron as the Wolverines’ leading tackler -- didn’t start because he had poor performances in practice. The secondary is a place we could see a few new faces this weekend. Courtney Avery has been limited because of arthroscopic surgery, but expect him to return and start in the secondary, possibly at corner across from Blake Countess. I think we’ll still see Jarrod Wilson and Thomas Gordon as the starting safeties, but Avery should see plenty of action on Saturday.
Devin Gardner’s response. He described his play against the Zips as possibly the worst of his career. The way he allowed mistakes to compile and compound has been well-documented, but he faces a new test this weekend: competing on a big stage after having struggled mightily the week before. In his eight starts, Gardner hasn’t quite faced adversity like that, and it’ll be interesting to see how and if he responds against UConn. He is a confident person and a skilled player, but we’ve now seen the good Gardner and the bad Gardner. We know the good is very good and the bad is very bad. Which one shows up on Saturday?
The defensive line getting pressure. Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison has vowed that this team will be able to send a four-man rush and pressure opposing quarterbacks. However, I also remember him saying that the past two seasons. Ever since Mike Martin and Ryan VanBergen left, it hasn’t really been the case. We’ll likely see the same starters and depth, as Mattison has liked his players, just not their productivity.
Michigan’s first test on the road. Michigan might be 17-0 at home under Hoke, but the Wolverines have struggled (read: crashed and burned) on the road, turning the ball over far more often than they ever do at home. Hoke didn’t really have any kind of explanation for it, but the Wolverines better figure out how to get their act together early and often, because the road isn’t going to get any kinder from here on out for Michigan.
Offensive line change ups. Akron tore apart Michigan’s offensive line. As a result, Gardner was a turnover king and the Wolverines never really got a run game (or any kind of momentum) going. Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges have always said that the offensive line starters are written in pencil, not permanent marker. I think this week could be a time when we see some different faces in the lineup. Obviously, Taylor Lewan’s job at left tackle is secure (assuming he plays despite not practicing at times this week), and I think the same is true for right tackle Michael Schofield and right guard Kyle Kalis. The interesting spots will be center and left guard. I believe we’ll see the same starting lineup against UConn, but don’t be too surprised if Graham Glasgow moved to center and Chris Bryant took some major snaps at left guard as the Wolverines try out a few new line options.
Both teams enter the game with a big win over a smaller opponent in week one, and week two should offer higher competition.
Up front, Notre Dame’s talented defensive line, anchored by the 340-pound Louis Nix III, should present a challenge for the Wolverines offensive line, which features three interior linemen who saw their first starts last week. All-American Taylor Lewan will have his hands full with Stephon Tuitt as the two battle in front of what will likely be countless NFL scouts.
Alternatively, the Michigan defensive line will also be able to measure itself up against a stout Notre Dame offensive front. In a 59-9 win over Central Michigan, the Wolverines’ defensive front looked vastly improved with not only its four-man rush but also with more blitz schemes -- expect defensive coordinator Greg Mattison to get creative with what he throws at Notre Dame QB Tommy Rees.
Rees will be facing a Michigan secondary which didn’t play either starting safety against Central Michigan. However, strong safety Thomas Gordon returns from his one-game suspension and free safety Courtney Avery returns after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery two weeks ago.
Devin Gardner's challenge on offense doesn’t get any easier with Notre Dame’s stout front seven and its talented secondary. But in front of a home crowd that could likely surpass the stadium’s record (set two years ago at this same game -- 114,804), Gardner will have plenty of support.
The two teams face off at 8 p.m. and the game will be televised on ESPN.
- Minnesota is pulling out all the stops to get students in the stands for tomorrow night's game against UNLV. The Gophers have a four-way competition at punter still going. Some injury news on the eve of Minnesota's opener.
- It's bowl or bust for Indiana, Bob Kravitz writes. The Hoosiers are adding more to their gameday experience (subscription required).
- Michigan State's quarterback battle is just beginning, Graham Couch writes. Receivers have to emerge to help Andrew Maxwell. Jeremy Langford will start at running back, but the Spartans expect to play four others there, too.
- Wisconsin's Gary Andersen is looking for ways to get his best athletes on the field, including possibly using Tanner McEvoy on defense. Ryan Groy feels comfortable in his move back to left guard after being asked to play left tackle. The Badgers haven't settled on a starting center or right guard yet.
- Devin Gardner takes the reins with confidence at Michigan. The Wolverines plan to go three deep across the defensive line. Greg Mattison looks for Jarrod Wilson and others to step up with Courtney Avery out. Watch Michigan recruit Jabrill Peppers' unbelievable touchdown run.
- Taylor Martinez has become comfortable with life in the fishbowl. Nebraska is looking to rotate more players in and out of its secondary this season. The Big Red defensive depth chart is clearing up, with Vincent Valentine claiming a starting tackle job thanks to improved conditioning.
- Bill Cubit gives Illinois' offense an identity, but he has a lot of reloading to do. It's all about finding a comfort level for the Illini and Nathan Scheelhaase.
- In a change for Iowa, Kirk Ferentz seems more optimistic about his team than the fans do. Beating Northern Illinois is a must for the Hawkeyes, Rick Brown writes. Jake Rudock views his debut Saturday as "just the beginning."
- Outside perceptions are finally matching Northwestern's own expectations. Some Wildcats practice notes.
- Purdue's offensive line bonded by going canoeing. Both the Boilermakers and Cincinnati present mysteries to one another.
- Ohio State chose eight captains -- does that mean the Buckeyes have a lot of leaders or not enough? Urban Meyer is confident in his young defense, though he says the jury is still out. Breaking down the Buckeyes' depth chart.
- Like Penn State, Syracuse is keeping people guessing about who will start at QB on Saturday. Allen Robinson has been quite a catch for the Nittany Lions. A freshman defensive back left the team.
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?
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.
Senior offensive tackle Taylor Lewan, senior linebacker Cam Gordon, senior defensive back Courtney Avery and redshirt junior linebacker Jake Ryan were voted as team captains, according to a school press release.
“I think all of our seniors have done a great job of leading since we started the season in January, and the team did a great job of voting four guys who are extremely deserving of being named captains of Team 134,” coach Brady Hoke said in a press release. “They all are great examples of team leaders.”
So recruiting rules this week's Mailbag, comprised of your questions. Have questions for the mailbag? Send them to @chanteljennings on Twitter or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Now on to this week's questions:
KobeFan45 from The Den: With the basketball team reaching the national title game last season, what are the chances Michigan signs a five-star recruit?
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These, though, aren’t so bad.
Michigan has significant depth -- albeit some inexperience -- at every spot on its defense. This allows the Wolverines to come closer to reaching defensive coordinator Greg Mattison’s goal of being able to rotate players at both defensive line and linebacker to keep them fresh for later in games and later on in the season.
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What are the main things you're looking for this spring?
Brady Hoke: Well, you know, we've got a lot of open spaces. Some guys graduated, some guys aren't with the program anymore and we've got a lot of young guys. I think we only have 11 starters back on both sides of the ball, so there's going to be a lot of great competition, which is exciting. I think the leadership of our seniors, they've done a nice job of holding everybody accountable. But when you get out there with the pads on, it's a little different than just running around in shorts.
BH: Well, I think the interior of both lines, there's going to be a lot of competition. We've got to find a center, and that's between [Jack] Miller and [Graham] Glasgow, and Joey Burzynski will try to figure that out a little bit, too. At the guard positions, Ben Braden is going to move down inside and start out at the left guard, but he'll have a lot of competition because Burzynski is back and so is Blake Bars. Kyle Kalis will move into the right side, and it will be interesting again with [Kyle] Bosch and some of the guys who have been here a little bit. I think it will be a really good competition at all three of those inside positions.
Having Taylor [Lewan] back is huge. I think it's great for him and great for Michigan. Mike Schofield has had a really good winter. He had some real bright spots during the course of last season, and I think his development is going to be something special.
You mentioned the defensive line, where you also lost a couple of veterans. How does that shape up?
BH: I think inside, we get Jibreel Black for another year and Quinton Washington. But once you get through that, there are a lot of young guys ... Willie Henry, Ondre Pipkins, Ryan Glasgow, Richard Ash and Chris Wormley are all guys who can either play the inside tackle or the strongside end. We'll find out the guys who are competitive. Tommy Strobel is another guy we think had a real good winter, and Keith Heitzman. So it's going to be fun to see them compete.
Does having so many young guys in key spots on the line make you nervous? Or do you have a lot of confidence in them because you recruited most of them?
BH: I think it makes you nervous if you think you may have recruited the wrong guys. But we like the work ethic. We like how they've come in to learn and with a lot of enthusiasm. I think there's some competitiveness that we need to keep pushing as a program. You know, we lost five games on the road. We've played pretty well at home but we've got to do better on the road and that's a mindset, a mentality that you have to compete through everything, on every down.
Devin Gardner goes into spring practice as your starting quarterback. How has he developed as a leader?
BH: I have been really excited about the progress he's made. I'm seeing that maturity that it takes and the leadership it takes and the competitiveness it takes to be the quarterback at Michigan. I think that's a real big part of how he's grown, and I think he's done a nice job with it. I'm liking the direction he's going, and hopefully he can just keep going and keep growing.
What about your running back position this spring, with Fitz Toussaint hurt and Derrick Green not there yet?
BH: You know, Fitz has come along pretty well. I don't think he'll do a lot of contact or anything like that, but I think he'll be cleared for a lot more drill work. That's gone real well. We've moved [Dennis] Norfleet back to running back and we're going to give him an opportunity. Dennis, he's a smaller guy, but he's a very competitive, very tough young man. Drake Johnson is a guy we redshirted a year ago, and we really liked the way he competed in scout situations. In the bowl practices, we did some scrimmages and gave him a lot of carries, and we're very excited about what he has to offer.
Thomas Rawls is coming back, and I think he learned a lot last year about the vision he needs to play with, and I like how he's competed through the [winter]. And Justice Hayes is a guy who gives you a little bit different look because of how he can get on the perimeter. He did some things in a couple of games last year, but now I think he'll have a big stage to prove himself more this spring. And he's a bigger guy now, he's 190-something pounds, so he's a little bigger.
BH: Yeah, I think so. First of all, I think the leadership with Gallon and Drew Dileo, they've done a really nice job being leaders at that position. They're not big guys, but they have a real spirit for the game and really do a nice job of working and leading. We have Amara Darboh, who played a little last year, and Jehu Chesson, who we redshirted a year ago. And I think Jeremy Jackson has had a very good winter; we're very excited about some of the progress he's made. Joe Reynolds is a guy who walked on here, and he's done a very nice job. And Bo Dever, his dad played here and he walked on. I think that during the course of the spring, we'll be in pretty good shape there. I think as we keep going, we'll keep improving at that position.
Linebacker was a strength for you last year and looks to be so again. Do you see some good competition there this spring, particularly at the weakside spot?
BH: Yeah, I think with Desmond Morgan and James Ross, there's going to be great competition. Joe Bolden and Royce Jenkins-Stone and Mike Jones are all guys who are very competitive, and I think the three young guys coming in are going to be guys who will give us a lot of good competition and a lot of good depth. Kaleb Ringer is coming back from injury, so we'll see what he can give us. At the sam linebacker, Jake [Ryan] is coming back, and we really like what Cam Gordon has done during the winter. So I think we feel a little stronger at that position.
How do you replace what Jordan Kovacs gave you in the secondary?
BH: I don't know if you ever replace that kind of leadership, but I really think Thomas Gordon, he's played a lot of football here, and it's time for him to demonstrate the leadership. And he's doing that. Because of the number of snaps and everything he's done, he's really fallen into his own a little bit. Courtney Avery has played a lot of football, and whether he's a corner a nickel or wherever, he's got to give us great leadership and great reps. Blake Countess is getting healthier; he'll do some things during the spring. Josh Furman, I think, has come on.
We've got to see where Terry Richardson is and where Marvin Robinson is. Both those guys have played a number of snaps. We've got Raymon Taylor back, who I think started every game for us last year, we're excited about his development. Dymonte Thomas is a guy who's going to compete, and he'll pressure some guys. Jarrod Wilson is another guy who played some last year for us. Ross Douglas is here early. Jeremy Clark is a 6-foot-4, 210-pound safety we redshirted a year ago, and it's going to be a big spring for him to make some moves.
So I think we may have more personnel back there. And even more in the fall when Channing Stribling gets in, and Reon Dawson gets in and Jourdan Lewis. I think it's going to add something to our secondary.
Finally, what has your message been to the team this offseason after last year's 8-5 season?
BH: Well, our message has been, we haven't met the expectations at Michigan. That's something that as a football community… that we really feel that we have to do a much better job in all areas, from the coaching aspect of it, from learning and playing with the competitiveness we want to have, from every player at every position playing with the intensity we want to play with. It's about having a mindset and a mentality of how we want to play the game. We make no excuses, but at the same time, we know we have a lot we can do to play better football.
This was considered a position of strength entering last season, with two experienced corners getting ready to man their positions and have breakout years. It didn’t really take place as Blake Countess missed all but one game of the season with an injury and J.T. Floyd was consistent but didn’t make the next leap.
Now, entering next season, Michigan is in the same position. It has two starting cornerbacks ready to jump up a talent level and a bunch of guys behind them who are talented but don’t have much experience at all.
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Not Tuesday. Not in the Outback Bowl against South Carolina, when the Gamecocks scored with 11 seconds left to give them a 33-28 win over Michigan, sending Denard Robinson out with a loss and the Wolverines with bookend defeats to the SEC this season.
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Then there’s recruiting, Signing Day and the No. 2 basketball team in the country to chat about. Our staff takes a look at the Outback Bowl -- and a little bit of basketball -- in the final Roundtable of 2012.
1. So, who wins the Outback Bowl and why?
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Now Michigan has to face South Carolina with sophomore Raymon Taylor and junior Courtney Avery as the starting cornerbacks. Taylor has proved he can play well against topflight opponents this season, but Avery has rarely been in a position to be an every-down player throughout his career.
“We talked about it for a while,” coach Brady Hoke said. “Just to get another good athlete on the field.”
It is an athleticism Norfleet showed a multitude of times this season returning kickoffs, which is a role he will still play. It is there where the 5-foot-7 freshman made the most impact, gaining 795 yards and coming within one cut of breaking long returns a handful of times this season. He also showed promise returning punts, averaging 26.5 yards in his two punt returns.
As for his switch, Hoke said the move wasn’t made due to depth at either spot, although Michigan now has two healthy, scholarship running backs in sophomore Thomas Rawls and redshirt freshman Justice Hayes. The Wolverines have a little more depth at cornerback with senior J.T. Floyd, junior Courtney Avery, sophomores Raymon Taylor and Delonte Hollowell and freshman Terry Richardson.