Michigan Wolverines: Denard Robinson

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
AP Photo/Tony DingBraxton Miller was fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting as a sophomore in 2012 and was ninth in 2013.
Braxton Miller has a chance to make Big Ten history this season by winning his third straight conference player-of-the-year award and by earning Heisman votes for the third consecutive season.

Of course, he’s not the only Big Ten player to ever enter his senior year with big expectations. In the past 20 years, six other conference players earned Heisman votes before their final seasons and were preseason candidates a season later. (Thirteen non-seniors in all earned votes, but seven left early for the NFL draft. Another, Northwestern's Damien Anderson, played in just eight games the season after and isn't listed below.)

Although it’s still anyone’s guess exactly how Miller will fare this season, here’s a look at players who found themselves in similar positions and how they performed in the season after receiving Heisman votes:




Wisconsin RB Montee Ball, 2011, junior

Heisman votes as a junior: 22 first-place votes; finished fourth overall. Led the nation with 1,923 rushing yards (6.3 yards per carry) and also finished with an NCAA-best 33 rushing TDs.

How he fared the next year: Without quarterback Russell Wilson, some experts predicted Ball would struggle to equal the numbers from his junior campaign. Sure enough, with a rotating quarterback carousel, that’s exactly what happened. The Badgers threw just 289 times that season and Ball finished with a career-high 356 carries. Ball’s importance and talent were still undeniable but, as defenses zeroed in against him, he watched his yards-per-carry average fall by more than a yard.

How the team fared: Wisconsin leaned on Ball heavily -- just take a look at this box score against Utah State -- and fared well when it counted. The Badgers won the Big Ten championship, embarrassing Nebraska in a 70-31 blowout, and earned a spot in the Rose Bowl. They finished 8-6.




Michigan QB Denard Robinson, 2010, sophomore

Heisman votes as a sophomore: Six first-place votes; finished sixth overall. Went 182-of-291 passing (62.5 percent) for 2,570 yards, 18 TDs and 11 INTs; rushed for 1,702 yards (6.6 ypc) and 14 TDs.

How he fared the next year: Speculation swirled on whether Robinson would transfer before the season because the firing of Rich Rodriguez meant he had to deal a new coaching staff and some offensive changes. But Robinson stayed and performed well – even if his numbers decreased across the board. Running back Fitzgerald Toussaint was able to take some pressure off Robinson, and the change in statistics wasn’t dramatic. After all, Robinson still rushed for more than 1,000 yards and passed for more than 2,000. It wasn’t as impressive as 2010, but Robinson was still named team MVP and earned a spot on the All-Big Ten second team.

How the team fared: Michigan fans were just fine with Robinson’s drop-off because the team soared in Brady Hoke’s first season. Robinson guided the Wolverines to an 11-2 finish -- their best record in five years -- and helped Michigan win the Sugar Bowl.




Michigan RB Mike Hart, 2006, junior

Heisman votes as a junior: Five first-place votes; finished fifth overall. Finished second in the B1G with 1,562 yards (4.9 ypc) and had 14 rushing TDs

How he fared the next year: Hart became a team captain and turned in an even stronger performance. If it wasn’t for an ankle injury that sidelined him for three full games, Hart likely would’ve been in the Heisman race again. Through nine Michigan games, he led all BCS runners with 154 yards a game – and he was still a finalist for the Doak Walker Award and a consensus pick as first-team All-Big Ten. Overall, his importance was pretty difficult to ignore. After opening the season with two losses, Hart helped to shift the tone by guaranteeing a win against Notre Dame – Michigan won 38-0 –and then winning eight straight. He finished the year with 5.1 ypc and matched his 14-touchdown total despite carrying the ball 53 fewer times.

How the team fared: The Wolverines put an early end to their national title hopes by losing to Appalachian State in the opener. Michigan failed to repeat its Rose Bowl berth but rebounded after a slow start to go 9-4 and win the Capital One Bowl.




Purdue QB Drew Brees, 1999, junior

Heisman votes as a junior: Three first-place votes; finished fourth overall. Led the conference in every major passing category: passing yards (3,909), passing TDs (25), pass attempts (554) and pass completions (337) and threw 12 interceptions.

How he fared the next year: Brees’ consistency was pretty darn impressive, as all of his numbers were nearly identical even though Purdue didn't have much of a running game. He again led the Big Ten in those same statistical categories and improved his standing in the Heisman race -- he finished third as a senior with 69 first-place votes. Plus, he won the Maxwell Award and was named the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. Brees’ success is pretty well documented, but something fans might have forgotten: He rushed for 521 yards and 5.5 yards per carry as a senior. Brees really could do it all.

How the team fared: The Boilermakers shared the Big Ten title and improved their victory total from the year before, from 7-5 to 8-4. They earned a berth in the Rose Bowl.




Northwestern RB Darnell Autry, 1995, sophomore

Heisman votes as a sophomore: 87 first-place votes; finished fourth overall. Led the NCAA with 387 rushing attempts and had 1,785 yards (4.6 ypc) and 17 TDs; caught 27 passes for 168 yards and one score.

How he fared the next year: Autry fared a bit better in 1996, as Northwestern’s passing attack improved and defenses could no longer key on him. In 1995, he literally accounted for half of the offense’s total yards (1,953 of 3,916). In 1996, he carried the ball 107 fewer times – his 280 attempts were still the fourth-highest in the conference -- but he matched his 17 rushing TDs from the previous season and increased his average by more than a half-yard, up to 5.2 yards per carry. He dropped a bit in the Heisman voting, but that was mostly because his rushing yards dropped with a smaller workload. Autry still dominated.

How the team fared: Northwestern shared the Big Ten title and improved its record to 9-3 – but lost in the Citrus Bowl. Autry’s Wildcats shocked the B1G that October when they overcame a 16-0 deficit against Michigan by rallying in the fourth quarter.
Devin GardnerAP Photo/Tony DingDevin Gardner was red hot in the red zone after taking over at QB last season.
ESPN has a very cool new metric for evaluating college quarterbacks, the QBR, which is explained here. We'll use it a lot when sizing up Big Ten quarterbacks and how they match up with signal-callers around the country.

The QBR system measures college quarterbacks on a scale of 1-100, scoring all plays they're involved in that contribute to victories. It basically assesses how much a quarterback factors into wins.

  • Total QBR factors in such things as overthrows, underthrows, yards after the catch and more to accurately determine how much a QB contributes to each play. How critical a certain play is based on when it happens in a game is factored into the score.

Michigan's Denard Robinson actually was the Big Ten's top-rated player in QBR last season, coming in at No. 8 nationally with a rating of 80. Ohio State's Braxton Miller, the Big Ten offensive player of the year, actually ranked third in the league and 29th overall behind both Robinson and Nebraska's Taylor Martinez (No. 28).

Northwestern's Kain Colter finished 38th, while Penn State's Matt McGloin came in at No. 44.

Wisconsin's Russell Wilson led the FBS in total QBR -- by a wide margin -- in 2011, finishing with a 94.2 rating, well ahead of second-place Kellen Moore (85.1). It supports my theory that Wilson's season -- along with Montee Ball's -- was underappreciated nationally because the Badgers fell out of the BCS title race.

Michigan signal-caller Devin Gardner, who took over for the injured Robinson in November, didn't log enough plays to qualify for the 2012 list. But he had the highest opponent-adjusted total QBR (90.7) of any player with at least 175 action plays.

From the ESPN Stats & Information crew:
Gardner had such a high total QBR because of his play in the red zone and on third down. Michigan excelled in the red zone with Gardner at quarterback, scoring on all 18 trips, including 15 touchdowns. Gardner accounted for 13 of the Wolverines’ 15 red-zone touchdowns (six pass, seven rush) and did not have any turnovers. His touchdown percentage (40 percent) was third highest by any FBS player with at least 15 pass attempts.

Gardner had a total QBR of 98.3 on third down, second best among players with at least 25 action plays. All 15 of his completions on third down led to either a touchdown or a first down. He was responsible for 11 touchdowns on third down, tied for 10th most in the nation with Matt Barkley.

It will be interesting to see if Gardner can maintain his red-zone and third-down efficiency this season as he enters as Michigan's No. 1 quarterback.

Most to prove in the Big Ten

August, 28, 2013
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Every season, each Big Ten player, coach and team sets out to prove something. Maybe it's to prove last season was just a hiccup or that this season is the start of something special.

Whatever it is, some naturally have more to prove than others. So here's a look at 10 players, units and coaches in the Big Ten who have the most to prove:

[+] EnlargeAndrew Maxwell
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesAndrew Maxwell could be on a short leash in East Lansing, so he has plenty to prove.
1. Michigan State QB Andrew Maxwell. Despite starting every game last season, Maxwell was just named the 2013 starter on Tuesday. So it's not exactly a stretch to think he's on a short leash. Connor Cook will get some playing time Friday, Tyler O'Connor is "in the mix" and true freshman Damion Terry wowed the staff in a recent scrimmage. If Maxwell doesn't quickly prove he's the right man for the job, he'll be watching the right man from the bench.

2. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz/offensive coordinator Greg Davis. Are Ferentz's best years behind him? And was last year's passing offense the start of a trend for Davis? The Hawkeyes finished last season at 4-8, their worst record since 2000, and finished with the nation's No. 114 offense. There are plenty of questions surrounding both of these coaches right now, and quieting them would certainly go a long way in proving Iowa's winning tradition isn't gone for good.

3. Penn State special teams. The Nittany Lions ranked near the bottom statistically in nearly every special teams category in the Big Ten last year. They were tied for ninth in field goal percentage, 11th in punting average, last in kick return average and ninth in punt return average. Sam Ficken rebounded in the second half of the season after missing four field goals against Virginia, but he was sporadic again in the Blue-White Game. Alex Butterworth's hang time also needs to improve.

4. Purdue coach Darrell Hazell. He guided Kent State to an impressive 11-3 record last season, became the Mid-American Conference coach of the year and nearly earned a berth in the Rose Bowl. But that was the MAC and this is the Big Ten. There's a big difference, and he wants to show fans of the gold and black that kind of success can carry over.

5. Michigan QB Devin Gardner. He has big shoes to fill when it comes to replacing Denard Robinson, but expectations are already soaring for the player who has started just four career games at quarterback. Some sporting books have increased Gardner's odds at the Heisman to 25-to-1, which means increased confidence, and Michigan is expected to compete with Ohio State for the conference title this season. That's a lot of pressure and, by default, means Gardner has a lot to prove.

6. Wisconsin front seven. New coach Gary Andersen is hoping the new 3-4 defense can create some headaches for opposing offenses, and the front seven here are trying to show they're quick studies. Wisconsin will have to rely on these seven to win, and their adjustment to the new scheme will have a direct impact on the number of marks in the "W" column.

7. Ohio State defensive line. Having four new starters tends to mean there are question marks, and this young group will have to answer them. Noah Spence came in as the nation's No. 4 recruit back in 2012, and reports all seem to conclude he's living up to the hype. Depth here isn't great and neither is experience, but talent and health are the main things that matter.

8. Nebraska defense. There's no problem on the offensive side of the ball with players such as Taylor Martinez and Ameer Abdullah, but defense is what's preventing this team from being great. The Huskers' run defense ranked 90th in the nation last season -- allowing 653 yards, 498 yards, 640 yards and 589 yards in their four losses -- and they could be even worse this year. Three new linebackers will take the field, and Nebraska lost two of its top pass-rushers. A lot to prove? You bet.

9. Michigan RB Fitzgerald Toussaint. There's no way around it. You have to use the term "disappointment" when referring to Toussaint's 2012 season. Coming off a breakout 1,000-yard campaign in 2011, he struggled last season, averaging just four yards a carry and running inconsistently before breaking his leg against Iowa. He wants to show that 2012 was an aberration.

10. Badgers' receivers outside of Jared Abbrederis. If you're having difficulty naming a Wisconsin receiver other than Abbrederis, don't feel bad. Abbrederis caught 49 balls last season -- more than all of the other Wisconsin wideouts combined (48). Jordan Fredrick, Alex Erickson and Kenzel Doe will need to step up to make sure secondaries don't just focus on the fifth-year senior.

Michigan season preview

August, 19, 2013
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Can Michigan make the jump from the cusp to an actual Big Ten championship game? A look at the 2013 Wolverines:

MICHIGAN WOLVERINES

Coach: Brady Hoke (66-57, 19-7)

2012 record: 8-5

Key losses: QB/RB Denard Robinson; WR Roy Roundtree; RG Patrick Omameh; C Elliott Mealer; DE Craig Roh; DT Will Campbell; MLB Kenny Demens; CB J.T. Floyd; S Jordan Kovacs

[+] EnlargeDerrick Green
Tom Hauck for ESPN.comCould running back Derrick Green be the key to Michigan's season? The touted freshman is expected to compete for the starting job right away.
Key returnees: QB Devin Gardner; RB Fitzgerald Toussaint; WR Jeremy Gallon; TE Devin Funchess; LT Taylor Lewan; RT Michael Schofield; DT Quinton Washington; DE Frank Clark; LB Jake Ryan (injured); LB Desmond Morgan; CB Blake Countess; CB Raymon Taylor; S Thomas Gordon

Newcomer to watch: There are a couple of freshmen who could see major snaps for Michigan, but the most notable is running back Derrick Green. He will push Toussaint for the starting job immediately and could end up as the featured back by the end of the season. The other two freshmen who could see major time are early enrollees: defensive back Dymonte Thomas and tight end Jake Butt. Neither will likely start, but both will be key reserves or used in subpackages.

Biggest games in 2013: Michigan had all of its key games on the road last season. This year, the Wolverines will have their two toughest games at home: Notre Dame on Sept. 7, and Ohio State on Nov. 30 in the regular-season closer. The Buckeyes, though, cap a difficult month for the Wolverines, who have trips to Michigan State on Nov. 2 and Northwestern on Nov. 16.

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: Who will run the ball? As the Wolverines complete their transition to a pro-style offense, they need a capable running back lining up behind quarterback Gardner. Considering the importance of play-action in what they will try to do offensively, they will need a back to gain yards to keep the whole offense balanced and a defense confused. The main candidates are Toussaint and Green, with freshman De'Veon Smith, redshirt freshman Drake Johnson and junior Thomas Rawls also pushing for time.

Forecast: Good. Like most teams that are near the end of a rebuilding phase, depth at certain positions is questionable, which means anything written here would be for naught if Gardner, Gallon or Lewan were injured for any length of time. Provided those three offensive stalwarts stay healthy, the Wolverines have a strong shot at making a run to the Big Ten championship game.

Michigan’s season could come down to whether it can beat Michigan State and Northwestern on the road. It is entirely possible that by the time the Wolverines and Buckeyes play in the regular-season finale that both will have wrapped up divisional titles and Big Ten title game trips. The best news for Michigan in all of this is how the schedule breaks down. After Notre Dame in Week 2, the Wolverines have only one real challenge -- at Penn State -- until November. This will allow a young offensive line to gain confidence and chemistry, and a young defensive line a chance to figure out how to beat Big Ten linemen.

A road win at any of those three places could lift Michigan into a different level, because one of the major issues with coach Brady Hoke has been his inability to win a game of any significance away from Michigan Stadium, where he has yet to lose.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Every Michigan offensive play has a little bit of magic to it. Seriously. Not Criss Angel stuff. Something more intricate.

Try the sleight of route.

In his third year as Michigan’s wide receivers coach, Jeff Hecklinski teaches all of his receivers to leave the line of scrimmage the same no matter the play. Run? Pass? Doesn’t matter. Make like you are running a route.

Try, actually, to go deep. Be so precise, so similar, opposing corners and safeties are unsure of what is coming. Get them to start backpedaling or, better still, turn to cover a deep route.

Then, Michigan’s receivers know they have accomplished exactly what they needed.

[+] EnlargeDrew Dileo, Jeremy Gallon
Rick Osentoski/US PresswireMichigan wide receivers Drew Dileo (26) and Jeremy Gallon (10) are hoping more end-zone celebrations will result from blocking for each other this fall.
The importance of this will only increase for Michigan as its offensive philosophy shifts to a pro-style offense predicated on the success of play-action sells from the quarterback and receivers.

Opponents have noticed the blocking. Defensive backs understand facing Michigan’s receivers will be tougher. Not because of their skills, but because of what they do without the ball.

“They act as if they are more excited to block than they are to catch a pass,” Minnesota safety Brock Vereen said. “Sadly, I’m not even exaggerating.”

This starts in the preseason, when Hecklinski has 15 minutes daily to work with his receivers. Half of each session, his receivers will not touch a ball.

Instead, he will motion to the usual offensive linemen tool, the five-man sled. Most college receivers know how to catch. Many run crisp routes. At Michigan, blocking passes all of that.

Blocking at Michigan, Hecklinski explains, is the easiest path to playing.

“We’ll do some two-man sled work, do some five-man sleds, hit some bags,” Hecklinski said. “A lot of the same things the offensive line does. The offensive line, they train to block every day. We can incorporate those drills into the stuff we do.”

Hecklinski rarely sees live what he teaches accomplished in games. Perched in the coaches’ box, his in-game job is to watch the interior of the offensive line against the linebackers, so he only knows the exploits of his receivers when they tell him on the headset between series. They’ll celebrate pancaking a cornerback or hitting their general goal of combined double-digit knockdowns every game.

Hecklinski reviews receiver tape the next day. Based on what he watches -- and how beat up his players are -- he’ll taper the blocking work back to one session a week as long as the results are showing up in games.

By then, Hecklinski’s message reached his players.

“A lot of wide receivers won’t use all that energy,” Purdue cornerback Ricardo Allen said. “Like if it is a running play to the other side, why do I need to run full speed? Why do I need to go cut this safety off? People like Denard [Robinson] was probably very happy he had receivers like Roy Roundtree and [Jeremy] Gallon last year. He got 50- and 60-yard runs because the corners were never able to go in on the run.”

Hecklinski’s blocking mantra, always based on hitting hard, evolved as he moved with Brady Hoke from Ball State to San Diego State and then to Michigan. At Ball State, he said, he used to teach his receivers to cut block consistently.

Hecklinski removed cut blocking upon arrival at Michigan for two reasons. First, a shift in blocking rules in college football made cut blocking a riskier choice with penalties. The second dealt with the ability of the defensive backs his receivers faced.

This began at Ball State and became clearer when the staff put together in the MAC and Mountain West reached the Big Ten.

“They are like those Weeble Wobbles that you had growing up,” Hecklinski said. “You can throw a great cut and he’s right back up making a play and golly, that’s a great cut.

“You got him down, took his legs out and then he pops back up it’s a three-yard gain. So we took all cut blocking out of it.”

Now, he wants his players to act as boxers on the perimeter. He uses analogies to other sports but this is a favorite. He wants his receivers to treat each play as a mini-boxing match.

“I’m going to try and throw my right uppercut as hard as I can and we’re going for the knockout punch every time,” Hecklinski said. “I’m trying to Mike Tyson you in the first round.”

Start with an initial rope-a-dope. Hit as hard as you can. Try to run through the chest or shoulders of a defensive back. Blow him up. Knock him down.

It’s simple, really. If Michigan is successful, what starts at deception fast turns into big-play blocking devastation.
Fitzgerald ToussaintLon Horwedell/Icon SMIFitzgerald Toussaint has been Michigan's starting tailback the last two seasons. But a broken leg suffered last year, along with talented youngsters behind him, has him in a fight for his job.
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

(Read full post)

As Michigan’s preseason approaches at the end of this week, WolverineNation takes a look at the 10 players who are most indispensable for the Wolverines this season. This doesn’t mean the most talented players, but rather the players, if Michigan lost them, would be in the most trouble.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Devin Gardner’s future -- at Michigan, in football -- was an enigma a season ago. Would he be a quarterback? A wide receiver? Could he realistically transition from throwing passes to catching them and if he did, would he be the deep threat Michigan was missing.

He was, kind of. Gardner proved to be a capable wide receiver last season, but when Denard Robinson injured the ulnar nerve in his right arm, ending his time as a quarterback, Michigan and Gardner found the deep passing threat it had lacked since Brady Hoke and Al Borges took over at Michigan.
As Michigan’s preseason approaches at the end of this week, WolverineNation takes a look at the 10 players who are most indispensable for the Wolverines this season. This doesn’t mean the most talented players, but rather the players, if Michigan lost them, would be in the most trouble.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- When Devin Gardner was a freshman and a sophomore, he would often look for wide receivers to practice with him so he could keep sharp as he had to wait behind Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson for a chance to play.

Getting receivers to work with the backup wasn’t always easy, but one player would show up more than most, would help out more than most. So to understand why Gardner and Jeremy Gallon appear so comfortable with each other on the field is not happenstance.

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Most indispensable: No. 5 Gibbons 

July, 31, 2013
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- As Michigan’s preseason approaches at the end of this week, WolverineNation takes a look at the 10 players who are most indispensable for the Wolverines this season. This doesn’t mean the most talented players but rather the players who'd be the hardest for Michigan to replace if it lost them.

Kicker Brendan Gibbons went from struggling kicker to success story to thinking about brunettes all in his first few years at Michigan. He’s back for his redshirt senior year and has the spot on lockdown barring any kind of crazy happenings.


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As Michigan’s preseason approaches at the end of this week, WolverineNation takes a look at the 10 players who are most indispensable for the Wolverines this season. This doesn’t mean the most talented players, but rather the players that if Michigan lost them, the team would be in the most trouble.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- It is the position most in question entering the season, the one spot on Michigan’s roster without any sort of answer as to who will be the starter or what the rotation will be.

Yet Michigan’s starting running back will be one of the most important and critical players to the Wolverines success this season. It is the only one of these spots in which we won’t name an actual player, but the position.


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As Michigan’s preseason approaches at the end of this week, WolverineNation takes a look at the 10 players who are most indispensable for the Wolverines this season. This doesn’t mean the most talented players, but rather the players, if Michigan lost them, would be in the most trouble.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Though left tackle Taylor Lewan is the most well known tackle at Michigan at the moment, right tackle Michael Schofield is also a very integral part of everything the Wolverines will do on offense this season.


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CHICAGO -- The confidence Devin Gardner has, the understanding he possesses about being Michigan’s starting quarterback, began with an interception -- on the road, late in the season, in the first quarter of his first career start.

Minnesota picked him off, and the one-time wide receiver went to the sideline. As he stewed, his predecessor at the position, Denard Robinson, pulled him aside and gave him a quick talk. The message had a lasting influence, even now, as Gardner has become the point man of the Michigan offense.

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner, Denard Robinson
Lon Horwedel/Icon SMIDevin Gardner, left, didn't fully own the Michigan quarterback job until former teammate Denard Robinson told him to take over.
“He was the guy, and he told me this was my team during the Minnesota game,” Gardner said. “He told me to take over and treat it as such. Ever since then, that’s how I looked at it and beyond.”

Publicly, Gardner still insisted late last season that it was Robinson’s team, saying so when asked directly. Personally, Robinson’s conversation propelled Gardner to believe the offense was his own.

Gardner played like it, compiling a 3-2 record and completing 75 of 126 passes for 1,219 yards, 11 touchdowns and five interceptions.

More than numbers, how Gardner worked through games and progressions in passing displayed the talent his coach, Brady Hoke, knew he had. Hoke’s initial issue with Gardner was that the quarterback didn't understand how Hoke wanted him to handle himself, in workouts, in practice and in games.

“Early in Devin’s career, Devin’s biggest enemy was Devin,” Hoke said.

At one point, Hoke threatened Gardner, telling him he might want to find another place to play. Hoke didn’t see the work ethic he wanted, and there was a small personality clash between the gregarious Gardner and the straight-laced coach.

Combine it with Gardner as the clear backup, and there would be reason for frustration. When he did play, one mistake could force him into another, because his opportunities were limited.

“He wasn’t happy with the way I was leading and the way I was performing,” Gardner said. “That’s happened with plenty of players in a lot of different programs. But I was determined to change his mind and help them have a different outlook on me.

“It was a long time ago. He didn’t really know me.”

Quarterback and coach became more comfortable with each other. Both, in Hoke’s words, matured. It culminated in Gardner choosing to move to receiver last season so he could get on the field.

Hoke saw Gardner work as a receiver after playing quarterback his entire life. Gardner learned a different part of playing football by being the guy who had to run routes instead of the one throwing them.

After Robinson was hurt against Nebraska on Oct. 27, Gardner came in the next week with a different understanding of what he wanted and needed to do. The verbal support from Robinson helped.

Then Gardner, who was the No. 5 quarterback in his high school class, became the quarterback he once expected to be when he left Inkster High School in Detroit. He became a starter.

“He doesn’t have that pressure of sharing time or changing positions,” safety Thomas Gordon said. “I think he feels a whole lot more comfortable. He’s a little less erratic at times.”

His teammates noticed, as he now jokes about his time moonlighting as a receiver. It is obvious in the way he carries himself and how he answers questions from the media.

He impressed George Whitfield Jr., the quarterback guru he worked with during the summer. Gardner said both Peyton and Archie Manning told him they were impressed with him after he worked out and coached kids at the Manning Passing Academy. He also is quick to add that the team he coached scored 42 points in a game, and kids wanted to play on his team by the end of the camp.

Gardner, though, is realistic. He is aware that while he has shown improvement, there are still things he hasn’t proved or doesn’t know yet. He has, after all, only started five games at quarterback.

“It’s always going to be that question mark,” Gardner said. “I haven’t won the big game. I haven’t really done much.”

For a while, he didn’t have his opportunity. Now he does, as more than another quarterback at Michigan or in the Big Ten; rather, as a player who is turning into the well-spoken, sharp-dressed face of the Wolverines' program.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Michigan heads to Big Ten media days in Chicago this week and, like 11 other teams, the Wolverines have a bunch of optimism and are likely anticipating a lot of the questions they’ll get over two days.

Last season, Michigan heard a lot about following up a surprisingly strong first season under Brady Hoke and SEC speed, considering the Wolverines opened against Alabama in Arlington, Texas. Michigan was confident then.

A little over a month and a blowout later, Michigan’s chances at a national title were history.

There won’t be that type of talk this season -- either of the SEC or national championship variety -- over the next few days. But here are five questions that will likely be asked and probably not fully answered about Michigan.

1. Who will be Michigan’s running back?

[+] EnlargeMichigan's Fitz Toussaint
Rick Osentoski/US PRESSWIREThe health of Fitzgerald Toussaint and the depth chart at running back will be a certain topic of conversation at Big Ten media days.
The obvious answer is Michigan has no idea yet. It knows who the candidates are (Fitzgerald Toussaint, Derrick Green, Deveon Smith, Drake Johnson and Thomas Rawls) but considering two of the top candidates -- Toussaint and Green -- weren’t available in the spring, there is a still a big unknown. While Michigan has other questions across its team, this one could be the most important. Why? If Michigan can’t find a reliable running back, it would put more pressure on quarterback Devin Gardner and his receivers and tight ends to make plays. Plus, it would put Gardner and the passing offense in a situation where there would be a lot of second-and-long and third-and-long situations.

2. How will Michigan cope without Denard Robinson?

The Wolverines gave a peek at that answer the last third of last season when Robinson injured the ulnar nerve in his right arm. Still, what Gardner and offensive coordinator Al Borges ran over the final month of the regular season was still a very basic version of what Michigan could use now. Expect to see more play action, more running the ball and a more pro-style offense. Borges -- and Brady Hoke -- have always favored this. That’s the general answer. Exactly what Michigan’s offense will look like, including wrinkles specifically for Gardner, will be unveiled in the fall.

3. What happens if Devin Gardner gets hurt (or, who is Michigan’s backup quarterback)?

Again, the answer is somewhat known. The first answer, for Michigan, would be to have major concerns. Gardner is the only healthy quarterback on the roster who has any significant game experience. With Russell Bellomy sidelined with a torn ACL, his backup is either freshman Shane Morris or a pair of walk-ons, Alex Swieca or Brian Cleary. As Michigan did not secure a fifth-year graduate transfer or a junior college transfer, it will look to one of those inexperienced players if Gardner goes down. Of anything else that could happen to Michigan this season, this would be high on the list of concerns.

4. Who is pressuring the quarterback for Michigan’s defense?

Yet another viable question. Linebacker Jake Ryan, MIchigan’s leader in tackles for loss last season, is out indefinitely with a torn ACL. The school is hopeful he can return by midseason. Along the defensive line, inexperience remains. Tackle Quinton Washington is a fifth-year senior,\ but has never been the focal point of the line. Ends Frank Clark and Mario Ojemudia have talent, but have not put things together consistently. The rest of the options have barely played. Considering Michigan’s issues with its defensive front and quarterback pressure a season ago, more inexperience will remain a concern until proven differently, no earlier than Aug. 31 in the season opener against Central Michigan. Michigan, though, will likely say it likes its defensive line.

5. How often will Brady Hoke call Ohio State “Ohio?”

The answer is, well, every time. Entering his third year, the whole thing has worn a little thin. But the over/under here on how many questions he receives about Ohio State, Urban Meyer, Braxton Miller is around 30 throughout the two days. Add in rivalry questions and that’ll probably bump it up to 40. Apparently Hoke’s phrasing for Ohio State is catching on as Florida coach Will Muschamp called Ohio State “Ohio” at SEC media days last week.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The Game still might be more than four months away and the start of the season still more than a month from beginning to take shape, but both Michigan and Ohio State always have at least bit of their focus on, well, each other.

So will we. Without knowing how things will play out over the course of camp and in the season, here’s a quick look at what could be some strengths and weaknesses for the Wolverines at the end of November.

STRENGTHS

The back seven
[+] EnlargeJake Ryan
Sandra Dukes/US PresswireIf Jake Ryan is back to full speed in time for the Ohio State game, Michigan's back seven could make life difficult for Braxton Miller.
By the time Michigan faces Ohio State in the regular season finale, star linebacker Jake Ryan should be back from his ACL injury and actually in form, if he hits the October return timetable Brady Hoke continually has mentioned for him. Adding him to an experienced and talented secondary and a deep linebacking corps could prove problematic for Ohio State's offense, led by quarterback Braxton Miller. Miller played well as a freshman against Michigan and beat the Wolverines as a sophomore, so this could be the biggest matchup to watch.

Miller could end up as a Heisman Trophy candidate, and the Michigan back seven could have a large say whether or not he ends up taking home the stiff-armed trophy.

Gardner-to-Gallon
What is potential with some production now could become the league's best quarterback-to-receiver combination by the time these two teams play in the fall. Receiver Jeremy Gallon had six catches for 67 yards against Ohio State last season, and Devin Gardner was 11-of-20 for 171 yards, a touchdown and an interception. All of that was done with a somewhat odd game plan which had an injured Denard Robinson, unable to throw, lining up at quarterback intermittently.

Robinson is in the NFL, and while Michigan's receiving options other than Gallon are vast unknowns at this point, Gardner-to-Gallon should be as reliable as it can get in college football this season.

WEAKNESSES

Running game
While there is some reason for optimism in Michigan's run game by the end of the season between fifth-year senior Fitzgerald Toussaint and freshman Derrick Green, there are way too many issues here between the questions at running back and the interior of the offensive line, which will feature three new, yet talented, starters. If even one of those things doesn't go completely well, it could be some major issues for the Wolverines this season.

Why? Michigan long has said it would like to have a run-based, pro-style offensive game plan. Without a run game from a running back, well, Michigan tried that last season with varying levels of success.

Getting run over
This isn't a knock on the Michigan front four, just more of the same questions. Ohio State's offensive line might end up as the best in the Big Ten this season, led by a dominant left side with tackle Jack Mewhort and guard Andrew Norwell. Expect the Buckeyes, with Miller and Carlos Hyde, among others, to try and run toward the left side over and over again.

Again, Michigan has potential and youth on the line, but there is a question at essentially every spot on the front four. Can Quinton Washington turn into a leader and be productive when dealing with double teams? Will Frank Clark play to the hype from the spring during the actual season? Does Michigan find strong rotation players and starters at the strong side end and defensive tackle spots? Until these questions are answered, Ohio State could do well by running right at the Wolverines’ line.
After looking at my team in our All-Time Draft and seeing some obvious holes -- defense? running back? -- I immediately tried to rectify my decision by heading over to Ohio State to try and pilfer one of their players from one of their all-time rosters.

[+] EnlargeA.J. Hawk
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesFormer Ohio State linebacker A.J.Hawk is an instinctive playmaker who would bolster any defensive lineup.
While the obvious choice for a steal would be two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin, I feel decent enough about my running back/flex combination of Butch Woolfolk and Denard Robinson that I can try to bolster my defense. So the guy I would try to steal is linebacker A.J. Hawk.

Hawk might not have been the best linebacker in Ohio State history -- that was Chris Spielman -- but the former first-team All-American and 2005 Lombardi Award winner would fit well in the defensive scheme my coaches would devise. And the hair. You have to appreciate the hair.

In all seriousness, though, having covered Hawk during the 2006 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, when he played against his future brother-in-law Brady Quinn and Notre Dame, I saw first-hand what Hawk was able to do to an opposing offense. He sacked Quinn twice that day and changed much of what Notre Dame had tried to do.

His 394 tackles are fifth in school history, and his 41 tackles for loss are eighth. His 15 sacks are 13th. He led Ohio State in tackles for three consecutive years.

The final piece is that Hawk is a high-character guy. He is an intelligent playmaker with good instincts and can make plays from sideline-to-sideline. He would be the one player from Ohio State I’d steal.

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