Michigan Wolverines: Dennis Norfleet

Michigan spring wrap

April, 28, 2014
Apr 28
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The spring workouts are in the books and the long offseason has arrived. But before diving into summer and the painful wait for football to return, we're taking a look back at the developments from March and April and sneaking a peek at what to expect in the fall for Michigan.

Three things we learned in the spring

  • Front seven, front and center: The Wolverines didn't stand pat on defense this offseason. Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is now coaching the linebackers, while Mark Smith moved down to take over the defensive line. They also shuffled their linebackers, switching Jake Ryan to the middle and emerging star James Ross III to the strong side. The moves seemed to work out well this spring, with Ryan looking like his old playmaking self a year removed from ACL surgery. The defensive line could be one of the team's strengths, led by senior defensive ends Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer and improving youngsters Taco Charlton, Chris Wormley and Willie Henry. Mattison wants to blitz more this season and hopes the defensive line can get more pressure on its own.
  • Early enrollees, immediate impact: When players skip the final half of their high school senior years to enroll in college in January, the hope is that they will be more advanced than most freshmen. Wide receiver Freddy Canteen and offensive lineman Mason Cole exceeded those expectations. Both impressed the coaching staff right away, with Canteen drawing raves and Cole getting a lot of first-team reps at left tackle. Both were with the starting unit during the spring game and figure to have roles on the team this fall.
  • More QB clarity: Brady Hoke talked of a quarterback competition this spring, and Devin Gardner wasn't originally expected to do a whole lot while recovering from a broken foot. But Gardner surprised the coaches by fulling participating in all 15 spring practices and asserting his hold on the position. Hoke said Shane Morris closed the gap a bit on Gardner and that the competition would continue. But even though Gardner didn't play well in the spring game, it's pretty clear that this remains his team.
Three questions for the fall

  • Can O-line be less offensive?: New offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier has brought a simplified blocking scheme and a focus on running downhill. Players said there were times this spring when that was effective. But concerns about the youth and chemistry on the line remain, and not just because of another shaky performance in the spring game. When a mid-year enrollee (Cole) is starting at left tackle, that raises serious red flags. The return of Erik Magnuson and Joey Burzynski from injury and Graham Glasgow from his one-game suspension will help the experience and talent level. But for now, the line is full of young, unproven players who must find a way to raise their games between now and late August.
  • Skill position suspense: With Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo graduated, Devin Funchess is the only returning receiver with more than 15 career catches. Canteen's emergence provided another option at the position, but a lot of question marks remain at wideout. Michigan is hoping Jehu Chesson, Csont'e York, Da'Mario Jones and Dennis Norfleet step forward, Amara Darboh successfully returns from injury and freshman Drake Harris can contribute. But there are few sure things. At running back, the team is hopeful that Derrick Green breaks out as a sophomore and De'Veon Smith joins him for a powerful duo. Again, though, it's mostly optimism and little track record at this point.
  • Enough leadership? Hoke has suggested that he wasn't thrilled with the leadership during last season's 7-5 team. He and the players have said that the chemistry and accountability have been good this spring. The fact remains, however, that this team has only 12 seniors, and only seven of them are position players who see the field a lot. Leadership will also have to come from the junior class and elsewhere if Michigan wants to get over the hump of mediocrity.
One way-too-early prediction

Jabrill Peppers immediately becomes the team's best defensive back. That's a bold call, as Peppers isn't even on campus yet. But he was the No. 2 player in the 2014 ESPN 300 for a reason, and he should be the kind of physical, cover corner that Michigan has lacked. The Wolverines could try him in several different positions, but if he's the real deal, he can start quickly at cornerback. Program insiders believe his ceiling could be in the Charles Woodson neighborhood. No pressure, kid.
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.
We're taking snapshots of each position group with every Big Ten team entering the spring. The series wraps up with the specialists.

Illinois:The Illini might not be exceptional in the kicking game, but they're in better shape than they were when coach Tim Beckman arrived. Punter Justin DuVernois returns after a solid junior season, while Taylor Zalewski looks for a bit more consistency in his second full season as the placekicker. Zalewski made 12 of 17 field-goal attempts last fall. The return game is the real plus, as V'Angelo Bentley provides a major threat, especially on punt returns.

Indiana: Like Illinois, Indiana brings back a dynamic returner in Shane Wynn, who averaged 14 yards on punt run-backs despite limited work. Punter Erich Toth also is back for his third season as the starter. Toth placed 18 of 52 attempts inside the opponent's 20-yard line. IU suffers a big loss at kicker as Mitch Ewald, the team's career field goals and field-goal percentage leader, departs. Aaron Del Grosso and Griffin Oakes will compete at kicker, and Jake Shake (shake and bake!) could enter the mix this summer.

Iowa: Here's another Big Ten team that looks very strong on returns, as Iowa boasts the Big Ten's most dynamic tandem in Kevonte Martin-Manley (punts) and Jordan Cotton (kickoffs). Martin-Manley had two punt-return touchdowns in 2013. Punter Connor Kornbrath ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten in average, but placed 27 of 65 attempts inside the opponent's 20. Iowa loses kicker Mike Meyer, a four-year starter. Junior Marshall Koehn seems likely to step up, but could be pushed by incoming freshman Mick Ellis and others.

Maryland: Notice a theme so far? Most Big Ten teams are strong in the return game, and Maryland is no exception. If Stefon Diggs returns at full strength from his leg injury, he'll be a dangerous man with punts and kickoffs in his hands. Will Likely performed extremely well in Diggs' spot, averaging 26 yards on kickoff returns and 12.8 yards on punt returns. Maryland brings back an excellent kicker in Brad Craddock (21-for-25 on field goals last year), and punter Nathan Renfro enters his third season as the starter.

Michigan: Matt Wile has done a bit of everything for Michigan, but could settle into the starting placekicker role this fall. Wile handled kicking duties late last season and also served as Michigan's punter after Will Hagerup was suspended for the season. Hagerup, the Big Ten's punter of the year in 2012, will reclaim the role if he can avoid off-field problems that have surfaced throughout his career. Wile then could focus on kicking, as Kenny Allen is the only other option there. Michigan is still waiting for big things from kick returner Dennis Norfleet and must find someone to handle punts. Top recruit Jabrill Peppers could help.

Michigan State: Special teams once again should be a strength for MSU, which returns All-Big Ten punter Mike Sadler, a Ray Guy award semifinalist who will contend for All-America honors in 2014. Kicker Michael Geiger also is back after connecting on 15 of 16 field-goal attempts as a true freshman. Macgarrett Kings Jr. and Andre Sims Jr. both put up good numbers on punt returns. Michigan State had by far the fewest kick returns (18) in the Big Ten last year and will look for a boost from R.J. Shelton and others.

Minnesota: After an above-average year on special teams in 2013, Minnesota again should be good in the third phase. Punter Peter Mortell didn't get as many accolades as Sadler or Purdue's Cody Webster, but he had an excellent sophomore season, averaging 43.3 yards per attempt with 15 of 50 yards or longer. Marcus Jones is a major threat on returns after bringing back both a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns last fall. Redshirt freshman kickers Ryan Santoso and Andrew Harte will compete as the Gophers lose Chris Hawthorne.

Nebraska: The Huskers are looking for some upgrades on special teams, particularly on punt returns, as Nebraska ranked 123rd in the FBS last fall. Primary returner Jordan Westerkamp is back, but he'll face some competition. Nebraska brings back punter Sam Foltz, who had a solid freshman season, averaging 41.6 yards per boot. Mauro Bondi is set to step in at kicker as Pat Smith departs. If Bondi struggles, incoming freshman Kris Brown could get a look this summer. Kenny Bell, who led the Big Ten in kick return average (26.5 yards per return), is back.

Northwestern: The Wildcats lose a huge piece in Jeff Budzien, named the Big Ten's top kicker in each of his final two seasons. Hunter Niswander can handle both kickoffs and punts but seems likely to slide into Budzien's spot. Northwestern's punting was a mess in 2013, ranking 118th nationally in net average (33.2 ypp). Brandon Williams departs and Chris Gradone or Niswander will take over. The big news is Northwestern brings back Venric Mark , an All-America punt returner in 2012. Primary kick returner Matt Harris is back after a solid freshman season.

Ohio State: Aussie, Aussie, Aussie. Indeed, the Aussie is back at punter as Cameron Johnston returns after an excellent debut season (I refuse to call a 21-year-old a freshman). Ohio State hopes for similar results from another first-year specialist in kicker Sean Nuernberger, an early enrollee expected to step in for the departing Drew Basil. Sophomore Dontre Wilson will continue to have a big role on returns after handling kickoffs last year. Ohio State must replace Corey Brown on punt returns and could look to redshirt freshman Jalin Marshall or true freshmen Curtis Samuel and Johnnie Dixon.

Penn State: The kicking game continues to be an area of concern.Sam Ficken owns the team record for consecutive field goals (15) and started strong last season but ended with just 15 of 23 conversions, including four misses inside 40 yards. Penn State needs a new punter after losing Alex Butterworth, and will turn to Chris Gulla. Jesse Della Valle did a good job on punt returns, but Penn State needs a boost on kickoffs after finishing last in the league (19.1 yards per return). The Lions could stick with Geno Lewis or look for a newcomer such as De'Andre Thompkins to emerge. PSU also must shore up its coverage units.

Purdue: As if the Boilers didn't have enough to address on offense and defense, the kicking game needs attention. Punter Cody Webster finished his spectacular career with All-America honors, and the Boilers finished second nationally in net punting (41.7 yards per punt). Incoming freshman Austin McGehee will take over for Webster. Paul Griggs and Thomas Meadows continue to work at kicker, as Griggs made only 50 percent of his attempts (6 of 12) last season. The kick return game is strong with Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert, but Purdue must replace punt returner Ricardo Allen. B.J. Knauf could be a good fit there.

Rutgers: The kicking game historically is a strength for Rutgers, which has a knack for blocking kicks and pulling off fakes. Rutgers loses a productive piece in punter Nick Marsh, who also handled kickoffs. The Scarlet Knights will turn to Joseph Roth as their replacement. Kicker Kyle Federico finished the season well, particularly in the Pinstripe Bowl, and returns for his junior season. Rutgers has a major weapon on returns in Janarion Grant, who brought back both a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown during his freshman season.

Wisconsin: The kicking game has held back Wisconsin in the past, so it's definitely an area to watch during the offseason. Kicker Jack Russell converted 9 of 13 field-goal attempts after taking over for Kyle French. He'll try to hold off incoming freshman Rafael Gaglianone. Andrew Endicott, who handled kickoffs last fall, also returns. Wisconsin is looking for more from punter Drew Meyer, who averaged just 38.6 yards per attempt in 2013. Top returner Kenzel Doe is back and should handle both punts and kickoffs, although Wisconsin could look to others for help, such as newcomers Serge Trezy and Natrell Jamerson.

More position breakdowns
For the most part, Brady Hoke really doesn’t like recruiting surprises. The majority of his commitments at Michigan have come early in the recruiting cycle, and by the time signing day rolls around, there aren’t many spots left in Ann Arbor.

That’s largely the case again this season. Michigan had six early enrollees, so only 10 will sign Wednesday. The Wolverines are really waiting on only one possible signee -- in-state defensive lineman Malik McDowell. The 6-foot-6, 260-pound prospect out of Southfield, Mich,. will decide among Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Florida State.

Most later commits for the Wolverines have happened because Michigan offered a scholarship late in the process. However, the Wolverines have been in on McDowell for years. And on Wednesday, McDowell could join the very short list of Hoke’s signing day surprises. Here’s a look at those players from his first three classes.

2013 | Signing day: Feb. 1

RB Derrick Green | Jan. 26

[+] EnlargeDerrick Green
David Banks/USA TODAY SportsDerrick Green was a big signing for Brady Hoke at Michigan.
He was the last commitment in the 2013 class for the Wolverines and one of the freshmen who contributed the most this season. He chose Michigan over Auburn and Tennessee, who had both just gone through coaching changes. However, there was quite a bit of tension going into his decision day as to whether Hoke would be able to sign a player of Green’s caliber from outside the Midwest.

DB Reon Dawson | Jan. 14

Dawson changed his commitment from Illinois, the in-state school he had been committed to for nearly eight months. Michigan came in with a late offer, not until about a month before he committed to the Wolverines. However, Dawson attended high school with longtime commit Mike McCray, so he said he had heard plenty about Michigan.

OL Dan Samuelson | Jan. 12

Samuelson was a bit of a surprise for a few reasons. He had been committed to Nebraska for eight months (and before that, he had been committed to Pitt for less than a month). However, he decided he wanted to be closer to his Indiana home and Michigan was only three hours away. But the bigger surprise was that most observers believed the Wolverines' offensive line recruiting was pretty much completed, as Hoke had already secured five four-star linemen.

2012 | Signing day: Feb. 2

WR/KR/PR Dennis Norfleet | Feb. 1

He really has been the only game-time decision during Hoke’s tenure. The Wolverines were able to flip Norfleet’s commitment from Cincinnati in the final days. Hoke had offered a scholarship to Norfleet the week before signing day, but he didn’t decommit from Cincinnati until the night before.

DT Willie Henry | Jan. 31

Henry had taken his official visit to Michigan the weekend before signing day and then chose the Wolverines over MAC and Big East schools. Henry was an important late commit for the Wolverines because he kind of stopped the bleeding after several recruiting runner-up finishes for the Wolverines (TE Sam Grant, CB Armani Reeves, OL Alex Kozan, OL Josh Garnett).

2011 | Signing day: Feb. 3

The 2011 class as a whole was kind of a surprise class, as Hoke had less than two months to put it together. So there were a few guys, such as quarterback Russell Bellomy, offensive lineman Chris Bryant and linebacker Antonio Poole, who committed within two weeks of signing day. Today, that would seem like a lot of late commitments for Hoke, but for the 2011 class, it wasn’t that crazy. The Wolverines picked up three commitments in the few days leading up to Hoke’s first signing day at Michigan.

TE Chris Barnett | Feb. 2

Before Barnett got to signing day with Michigan, he attended four different high schools and broke commitments to Arkansas and Oklahoma. He ended up staying in Ann Arbor for only one season.

DE Frank Clark | Feb. 2

Clark was on campus for the first recruiting weekend of Hoke’s tenure. The late add of not only an Ohio kid, but a player from Cleveland Glenville -- an Ohio State pipeline school -- was impressive for Hoke in his first few months on the job.

RB Thomas Rawls | Feb. 1

Rawls had visited only Michigan and Central Michigan, so it wasn’t a huge surprise that he ended up choosing the Wolverines. However, in an interesting turn of events, Rawls was granted his release from Michigan following this season and will play for Central Michigan next season.
And we now we finish up our position-by-position breakdown with the good, the bad and the future of the special teams.

THE GOOD: Kicker Brendan Gibbons was clutch, for the most part, in 2013, nailing 44 of 44 extra points and hitting on 15 of 20 field goals. His five misses came from at least 30 yards. His most memorable game (in a bad way) was against Penn State when he missed a potential game-winner from 52 yards, had a 40-yarder blocked and then missed a 33-yarder. But his best moment of the season came when he hit the field goal to send the Michigan-Northwestern game into overtime. In other positive special teams news, the Wolverines continued their upward trend in kick returns under coach Brady Hoke. In the 2011 season, the Wolverines averaged 18.4 yards per return. Last season, that number improved to 22 yards per return, and this season, it saw an ever-so-slight increase to 22.1 yards per return. Sixteen percent of the Wolverines kickoff returns went for 30 or more yards, which ranked 45th nationally and third in the Big Ten.

THE BAD: While the statistics have gotten better for kick returns, punt returns are another story. In Hoke’s first season, the Wolverines averaged 9 yards per return. In 2012, that dropped to 8.8 yards per punt return, and this season, it dropped to 6.7 yards per return (89th nationally, 10th in the Big Ten). Only twice in 2013 did Michigan return a punt at least 20 yards (60th nationally, tied for sixth in the Big Ten). And when it came to punting, it was even worse. Matt Wile, who punted 61 times, averaged 40.6 yards per punt, which ranked 105th in the nation. Wile punted inside the opponents 10-yard line six times this season, which was only good enough for 59th nationally. By comparison, Michigan State’s Mike Sadler led the nation with 23 punts inside the 10-yard line, while second place wasn’t even close (Auburn’s Steven Clark with 15).

Punt and kickoff coverages weren't great, either. On average, opponents lined up at their own 31-yard line after punt returns (106th nationally, 10th in the Big Ten), and 57 percent of the time opponents returned punts at least 5 yards (91st nationally, ninth in the Big Ten). On kickoffs, opponents' average starting point was at their own 28 (93rd nationally, ninth in the Big Ten), and 21 percent of the time opponents returned kickoffs at least 30 yards (102nd nationally, 11th in the Big Ten). By comparison, Wisconsin led the Big Ten by allowing opponents to return kickoffs at least 30 yards on just three percent of kickoffs.

THE FUTURE: Wile should take over as the fulltime kicker and will continue punting duties most likely, though Michigan hopes to see vast improvements in that area. Down the road, this job will likely go to Kenny Allen, who will be the holder next season. Meanwhile, Dennis Norfleet will continue on returns and long snapper Scott Sypniewski will step in for three-year starter Jareth Glanda.

Previous posts:
Quarterback
Running backs
Wide receivers
Tight ends
Offensive line
Defensive line
Mike/Will linebackers
Sam linebackers
Defensive backs
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Spring practice has ended for Michigan and for the first time, the depth chart for the fall is beginning to take shape.

Yes, there will still be some big competitions on Michigan’s offense -- particularly at running back and wide receiver -- but there is now a better idea of who the Wolverines’ starting 11 will be in August when they open the season against Central Michigan.

WolverineNation takes a two-day look at what Michigan’s depth chart will be come fall, starting with the offense.

Quarterback
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Michigan’s spring practice has ended and now the long wait for the Wolverines begin.

Michigan has a little over four months until its first game of the 2013 season against Central Michigan, and while the Wolverines still have some issues to deal with between now and then -- backup quarterback and running back among them -- some things stood out from the final, and only public, scrimmage of the spring.

Here are five strong takeaways from the last spring practice that Michigan can look at with comfort or concern heading into the offseason.

Taylor Lewan
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY SportsTackle Taylor Lewan and the left side of Michigan's line stood out in the final spring scrimmage.
1.Michigan will be better than expected on the offensive line. The talent level was evident even before Saturday’s open practice, and there was never a concern they wouldn’t be good. And yes, there were points on Saturday where Michigan’s defensive linemen blew right by their offensive counterparts, especially the guards. But the core group of six linemen -- tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield, center Jack Miller and guards Kyle Kalis, Ben Braden and Graham Glasgow -- all had moments of looking like a cohesive unit by the fall. The left-side combination of Lewan and Braden specifically stood out, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Michigan run a lot toward its left side this season. Considering Michigan ran a fairly base offense ,and defenses are usually ahead of offenses in spring games, this is a good sign for the Wolverines entering this fall.

2.Fitzgerald Toussaint, Derrick Green or Deveon Smith will be the starter in the fall. Michigan’s running back group was OK, but not overly impressive Saturday -- echoing what coaches have said all spring when no one separated himself. Justice Hayes got the start and had a couple of decent runs, but was also crushed in the backfield a lot. Thomas Rawls scored a 14-yard touchdown on a run to the left side and again showed flashes of his potential, but he didn't look much different from last year’s spring game. Dennis Norfleet has potential, but his size is still a concern for being an every-down back. All this means is the initial thought that Michigan’s starter will come from the backs either returning or coming in during the summer remains the likely scenario.

(Read full post)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Michigan is in its first Sweet 16 since 1994. Football spring practice is nearing its halfway point and that means a ton of questions in this week’s WolverineNation mailbag.

Have questions for next week? Send them to Chantel at @chanteljennings or jenningsespn@gmail.com. Now, on to this week’s questions.

SEnferadi37 from The Den asks: I will preface this comment with the fact that I know very little about college basketball and Kansas in particular. What I do know, from reading this forum and ESPN articles, is that Michigan struggles with big teams. Outside of Ben McLemore and Jeff Withey, what does Michigan need to plan for in order to beat Kansas? I know they took the two-point-guard approach against VCU. Is that something they would try again, or does that not work well against KU? Also, is that performance (or something similar) out of Mitch McGary something we can expect regularly?


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ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Brady Hoke and Greg Mattison arrived at Michigan a little more than two years ago with a defensive plan in hand. They had both coached here before, knew each other well and had similar philosophies for how defenses should go.

Now, almost three years in, one of the many facets of the team they would like to put on the field is closer to being possible. Mattison and Hoke relish being able to rotate their defensive linemen and linebackers throughout games in an effort to get more players game reps and keep them fresher for both the fourth quarters of games and the back half of each season.

Yet for the first two seasons at Michigan, it didn’t always work as well. Lack of depth combined with a youth movement at both spots led to some rotation, but not as much as Hoke would prefer -- especially at Mike and Will linebacker.

[+] EnlargeMichigan/Notre Dame
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesDesmond Morgan (right) will slide from Will linebacker to Sam, but the rest of the Wolverines' LB setup is still iffy this spring, at best.
“That position, if you could have four you could rotate through and they are all quality, that would be great,” Hoke said. “We rotated a ton at San Diego State. We rotated every four plays.

“We’re getting a little more to where we would be able to do that.”

Herein lies the snag, something Michigan is hoping to figure out this summer at what could be its deepest position: The talent level is there. The experience level is not.

(Read full post)

Michigan begins spring practice on Saturday with both some question marks and some major returning talent. Brady Hoke says of his team: "We're very young. But these guys have a lot of fight to them." There will also be a lot of fighting for starting jobs, beginning in a few days. I recently caught up with the third-year Wolverines coach for his thoughts on the approach of spring ball:

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.

[+] EnlargeBrady Hoke
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsWith only 11 returning starters, Michigan coach Brady Hoke said he's excited about the competition this spring.
Some of that competition will be on the offensive line, where you've got three open jobs on the interior. How do you see those battles right now?


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.

[+] EnlargeDrew Dileo
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsMichigan coach Brady Hoke said that he's pleased by more than just the on-field success of WRs Drew Dileo and Jeremy Gallon.
You have Jeremy Gallon back at receiver, but you lost Roy Roundtree. You sounded excited about some of the younger guys there during bowl prep. Is spring their time to step up now?

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.

WolverineNation roundtable 

January, 31, 2013
1/31/13
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Michigan has its first No. 1 ranking in two decades, its biggest regular-season basketball game in years and football signing day a week away.

And Denard Robinson played his final game in a Michigan helmet last weekend, too. All of this is covered in this week’s WolverineNation roundtable.

1) With signing day less than a week away, does Michigan pull a last-second recruit out of this class to finish it up or does it stick with what it has?

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Over the next few weeks, WolverineNation will look at every position on the Michigan roster and give a depth chart analysis of each position on the roster heading into the offseason.

Over the past few seasons, it appears as if Michigan has spent more scholarships and time focused on its special teams -- and with good reason. Since Zoltan Mesko left the Wolverines after the 2009 season, there have been lingering questions about all of Michigan’s specialists.

And even when Mesko was in Ann Arbor, there were concerns, although not about their now-Pro Bowl punter.

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Signing day primer: Michigan 

January, 23, 2013
1/23/13
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Commitments: 26
ESPN 150 commitments: 9


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Raymon TaylorAP Photo/Michael ConroySophomore Raymon Taylor was thrust into a starting cornerback position when Blake Countess went out for the season due to injury, and his experience should help Michigan's secondary next season.
Over the next few weeks, WolverineNation will look at every position on the Michigan roster and give a depth chart analysis of each position on the roster heading into the offseason.

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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