Michigan Wolverines: Desmond Morgan

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Not long after he tore his ACL in spring practice last year, Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan cut off the long blonde locks that used to billow out of his helmet.

The hair had become his signature look and a sign of impending doom for ball carriers unlucky enough to see it up close during his destructive 2012 season. But the maintenance became too much.

[+] EnlargeJake Ryan
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesJake Ryan is looking forward to new challenges at middle linebacker.
“My showers were taking way too long,” Ryan said. “It was way too much to take care of that and the knee. You can’t have too much on your mind.”

Ryan made a rapid return to the field last season for the Wolverines. His 2013 debut came on Oct. 12 against Penn State, less than seven months after he tore the ligament in his right knee.

But something looked a little different about him, and it wasn’t just the short hair. That he managed to play in eight games, with five starts, qualified as a minor medical marvel. Yet Ryan did not record a sack or cause a turnover last year and produced just four tackles for loss. This came a season after he racked up 16 TFLs, 4.5 sacks and four forced fumbles as Michigan’s top defensive disrupter.

Like most players coming back from a major injury, Ryan said he was a bit tentative at times.

“It was more mental than anything, because you still never know what’s going to happen [with the knee],” he said. “The first couple of games, I was kind of shaky. I was starting to feel a lot better around the Ohio State game, getting back to 100 percent. Now, I’m there.”

Where Ryan is this spring is back at full strength, creating problems for the offense. Just at a different position.

Michigan shook up its linebacker lineup this spring in an effort to maximize its athleticism and playmaking. So Ryan moved to middle linebacker. James Ross III, who finished second on the team with 85 tackles last year as a sophomore, went from the weak side to Ryan’s old strongside slot. And Desmond Morgan shifted from the middle to the weak side.

“I think the coaches did a good job of analyzing where we best fit,” Ross said. “Now, we’ve got more athletic guys in space.”

That means Ryan is in a different space, one where he has a bit more responsibility. But so far, he says, the transition suits him.

“It’s been different, because now I’m blitzing up the middle,” he said. “And last year I was looking at the tight and now I’m reading the running back. But I like it a lot better because you’re in the mix of everything. It’s cool.”

Ross, at 225 pounds, will need to take on tight ends and says he has already had many spring battles with 265-pound Wolverines tight end A.J. Williams. Ross says he’s ready for the challenge.

“I’ve been able to hold my own through my whole career,” he said. “I’ve always been kind of a smaller guy, but I’m physical at the point of attack.”

Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is coaching the linebackers this season and will look to use them in a more aggressive, blitzing style. The Wolverines’ defense ranked eighth in the Big Ten in points allowed last year and had notable breakdowns at times, especially against Indiana and Ohio State.

Linebacker once again should be the best and deepest position on the defense, as the three veteran starters get support from juniors Joe Bolden and Royce Jenkins-Stone, sophomore Ben Gedeon and redshirt freshman Mike McCray.

Mattison wants to send his linebackers on pressures more in 2014, but they have to make sure they’re actually getting home on those calls. Only Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana and Purdue collected fewer sacks than Michigan during league play a year ago.

“He’s tried to stress the fact that when he calls a blitz, I need to be antsy -- grabbing that grass and being ready to go,” Ross said. “He said if I do my job, I could be hitting that quarterback pretty often.”

The same could go for Ryan, who likes some of the blitz packages from his new spot. So far, the early reviews from practice are encouraging.

“I see Jake being a real confident guy out there making plays all over,” Ross said. “He’s a real physical player. A big-time game-changer.”

The biggest boost for Michigan’s defense could be getting back the Jake Ryan from 2012. Minus the long hair, of course.
Michigan’s spring game is less than a month away, so we’re going to try our best to look into the future and make five predictions for the next few weeks and what we might or might not see in the scrimmage.

Prediction No. 3: The linebackers will be the strongest position group by far -- offense and defense -- in the spring game.

[+] EnlargeJake Ryan
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesMichigan linebacker Jake Ryan is moving to the middle for his senior season.
It was the deepest position group in the 2013 season and everyone returns, so this prediction isn’t far-fetched. But with position shifts happening, each player is going to need to learn the nuances and how they fit into the group.

With any position group, it would be hard to say that you could shake up the positions and still have them come out, guns blazing, ready to lead a team. However, behind two-year captain Jake Ryan, this will be the group making the most ridiculous plays (again, offensively and defensively) for the Wolverines this spring game, and likely next fall.

By putting Ryan in the middle of the field, the coaches are allowing him better access to whatever play is unfolding on the other side of the field. And with the relationship between Ryan and Greg Mattison, the rising senior likely will be given a lot of freedom to make whatever kind of calls he believes are best for the defense, the linebackers and himself.

Looking forward to the fall, it wouldn't be shocking if at least half of the top plays at the end of the season come from the linebackers. Desmond Morgan and James Ross III have enough experience that they should be able to adapt just as quickly with Ryan.

Plus, all these guys are going to be with Mattison day in and day out. They’ll be in his meeting room and watching film with him. Mattison switched which position group he coaches so that he can direct the defense from the middle of the field. It would be shocking if these players don’t back up that decision with highlight-reel plays, starting with this spring game.

Other predictions:
The Wolverines are two practices into their spring season and already the coaches have announced some big changes that fans will see in the spring game next month. This week, with the players on spring break, we’ll examine some of the changes to expect in 2014.

The linebackers were the most productive and deep group on the Wolverines' roster this season. Generally when something works, the last thing any coach would want to do is change it. However, with the Michigan coaches moving players around in position groups, the make up of the linebackers will see some changes as well.

Desmond Morgan will play weakside linebacker and James Ross III will move to the strongside. But the most interesting move is shifting Jake Ryan from strongside linebacker to middle linebacker.

[+] EnlargeJake Ryan
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarMichigan is hoping that moving Jake Ryan to middle linebacker will cause more celebratory reactions after big plays.
Ryan was the Wolverines’ best defensive player two seasons ago. Last year, after returning from an ACL injury, he showed flashes of being that same player, but he wasn’t able to display it consistently. Now, with another offseason of development coming up, much is expected of Ryan in his final season at Michigan.

The coaches believe that the move to inside linebacker will help Ryan play up to his potential and create more of the big plays that he was known for two seasons ago.

“From a playmaking standpoint, you’re putting him in the middle of the defense,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. “I think that’s an aspect that’s good.”

Ryan said he’s excited about the move and eager to do whatever the team needs in order to have a more successful season in 2014. One of the main differences is that Ryan will go from reading the tight end, as he did on the strongside, to reading the running back.

It’s a way to allow Ryan to become more involved throughout the course of a game. With defensive coordinator Greg Mattison becoming the linebackers coach, moving Ryan to middle linebacker presumably makes him the focal point of the defense.

Ryan should be able to disrupt to opposing running games while also being more involved in defending the passing game by dropping into coverage. Presumably, Mattison will try to use Ryan similarly to how he used Ray Lewis as a middle linebacker when he was with the Baltimore Ravens.

“My feeling on Jake is that he’s one of our best defensive players, and he has got to get to the football, and he’s a really good blitzer,” Mattison said. “The problem with our defense and the way offenses are going now is that [strongside linebacker] was always out in the flanks. If they’re not running at him, your best player is not as involved in the game as he should be. We felt that would be a good move so he would be right in the middle of everything.”

It’s a big move for a Michigan defense that needs to make major strides next season. The Wolverines gave up 371.5 yards per game this past season (No. 41 nationally, No. 5 in the Big Ten). Michigan allowed 3.8 yards per rush (No. 36 nationally, No. 6 in the Big Ten) and 6.93 yards per pass attempt (No. 54 nationally, No. 7 in the Big Ten).

By putting a team’s best playmaker in the middle of the defense, Ryan should be able to affect and help the Wolverines improve in all of those categories. His presence could also help the pass rush get to opposing quarterbacks with less difficulty. Last year Michigan recorded 25 sacks (tied for 65th nationally, No. 7 in the Big Ten), so that number is going to need to jump next season if the Wolverines want to have a more effective defense.

Mattison said that every year he evaluates who his consistent playmakers are and then tries to find a way to get them as involved as possible. That seemed to work for Ryan at the strongside position two seasons ago, but it didn’t work quite as well in 2013. Now, with the change happening before the spring season, the Wolverines will have a chance to see how Ryan looks playing in the middle of the defense. So far, that picture appears to be bright.
Michigan divides its linebackers in its meetings, so we’re doing the same here. Today, we’re looking at the middle linebackers and weakside linebackers. The unit was arguably the most consistent group of any -- on both sides of the ball --- this season for the Wolverines. For a team that went through a very up-and-down season, the linebackers were one of the few bright spots that remained bright (almost) all season.

[+] EnlargeJoe Bolden
Lon Horwedel/Icon SMIJoe Bolden and the rest of the Michigan linebackers have a bright future.
THE GOOD: Three of the Wolverines’ top five tacklers this season were Will and Mike linebackers -- James Ross III, Desmond Morgan and Joe Bolden. The three combined for 114 solo tackles and 14 tackles for a loss. They were the core of the defense and, behind a defensive line that didn’t get pressure consistently, they held their own. Freshman Ben Gedeon also got significant playing time late in the season and that experience will be huge for him moving forward. In his limited time he recorded 19 tackles and one sack and showed major potential. Additionally, this is a group that’ll have time to build chemistry during the spring and fall seasons as each member in the three-deep will return.

THE BAD: This isn’t completely the linebackers’ fault, but Michigan struggled against the run this season. The Wolverines’ 3.8 yards per rush allowed is actually the same as last season, and they allowed 10 rushing yards less per game in 2013 than in 2012. But it was the sixth best in the Big Ten behind Michigan State, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Iowa and Nebraska. And if the Wolverines want to be elite and compete for Big Ten titles, stopping the run is key. Michigan allowed 64 runs for 10 or more yards and 36 percent of opponents’ runs against it went for at least five yards. Michigan allowed five more rushing touchdowns this season than it did last season, and in clutch games against Ohio State (8.5 yards per rush) and Kansas State (4.1 yards per rush), the Wolverines struggled against the run. Obviously if the defensive line was able to get more pressure, the linebackers wouldn’t be called upon to make as many plays as they needed to this season. But stopping the run falls on the linebackers and they didn’t live up to the “expectation of the position.”

THE FUTURE: All significant contributors from 2013 return next season so the future looks bright. On top of that, Michael Ferns enrolled early and at 6-foot-3, 228 pounds, he’s a player who doesn’t have to go through a huge physical change before he’s able to start competing for time. The Wolverines also have a 2014 commitment from linebacker Noah Furbush (6-4, 235 pounds), another prospect who is a physical, hard nosed linebacker. This is a position at which the Wolverines have built very good depth and a position that will continue to have skilled players through the next few seasons.

Previous posts:
Quarterback
Running back
Wide receiver
Tight end
Offensive line
Defensive line
Even at 4-0, we've seen the best and worst out of Brady Hoke's team this season. With four games under the Wolverines' belt and eight (or nine ... or 10) more to go, here's what we've gathered, and have yet to gather, about this Michigan team.

What we know so far

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner, Jefferson Ashiru
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesDevin Gardner has been both a playmaker and an enigma through Michigan's first four games.
1. When Michigan is on, it's very, very pretty. The Wolverines rolled against Central Michigan and Notre Dame. Following those two games, Michigan was being talked of -- understandably so -- as a top-10 team, and quarterback Devin Gardner was in Heisman conversations. That has been derailed a bit since, but it was pretty apparent that when Michigan is kicking on all cylinders, it's a hard team to stop, and it fields a defense that can stop others, too. If the Wolverines can find that groove and keep it, they could head into the final weekend of November undefeated.

2. The linebackers might be the most solid position group on the team, even without Jake Ryan. Who would've thought that was possible? When Ryan went down with an ACL tear, for many Michigan fans it seemed as though their worlds were crashing down. But instead, Brennen Beyer has been a very good SAM linebacker, and Desmond Morgan and James Ross III both have been solid. Not to mention the depth behind those three in Cameron Gordon and Joe Bolden. With the expected return of Ryan sometime in October, it's pretty crazy to think how talented the linebackers will be and what exactly they'll do to distribute the wealth. Assuming Ryan is back in tip-top shape, the Wolverines could use Beyer on the both the D-line and at SAM ,as he has played both over the two years, or, Mattison could scheme completely differently.

3. The defense has bent but not broken -- under Greg Mattison this has seemed to be a trait of a Wolverine D. Whether it be because they lack depth at certain positions or the offense just keeps putting them in tough spots, the Michigan defense has found itself in a number of tight situations but been on the winning end nearly all the time. Between the quick-change situations because of turnovers or the quick scoring situations in other games, the Wolverines have found themselves trotting on the field just as quickly as they left it. In a lot of young teams, that kind of mental turnover can create mistakes, but Michigan hasn't been a victim of that too badly. The defense obviously needs work, but their focus and ability to respond hasn't gone unnoticed.

Lingering questions

1. Is there enough talent/depth to put together an offensive line? Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield seem to be safe. However, the interior three spots are written in pencil, as Hoke and Al Borges have said over and over again. But the interior line has struggled quite a bit, specifically the last two games. Lewan said that Graham Glasgow, Jack Miller and Kyle Kalis displayed a sense of urgency in the second half against UConn, but that was about six quarters too late. Michigan really hasn't funneled anyone else through there, so the coaching staff was either waiting until the bye week to test guys at different positions, or they don't have enough depth (or they have too many injuries). It could be a combination of many things, but there's a decent chance that we won't see the same starting five against Minnesota.

2. What happened to Gardner? Can it really be fixed? Can it be avoided? Throughout his career, he seemed completely unfazed by the pressures of being a Michigan quarterback, going through a position change, stepping into the spotlight, what have you. But for some reason, all that came crashing down against Akron and UConn. The young, inexperienced Gardner came to the forefront, and for the most part, he looked out of synch. But give him some props -- when Michigan desperately needed a score against the Zips and Huskies, he got the Wolverines in position to get one. But outside of that, the turnovers looked atrocious. Worse yet, Hoke said they've reached a point where they're re-coaching him, or having to give him the same correction multiple times, because he's making the same error multiple times. That was not a problem earlier in his career. But it's crucial Michigan figures out what happened to Gardner, not only so they can fix it, but also so they can avoid it in the future.

3. Is the secondary going to step up? The Wolverines' defensive pressure up front has steadily improved through the non-conference schedule, and that has helped all the defenders behind it. It seems strange to start up front when discussing a problem with the secondary, but part of the reason the secondary is giving up so many big pass plays is the fact that the D-line's pass rush hasn't always been fantastic. Every single play of 20 or more yards the Wolverines have given up has been through the air. The secondary has played soft coverage time and time again, and the players keep getting beat. The Wolverines are going to face quarterbacks -- like Penn State's Christian Hackenberg, Nebraska's Taylor Martinez and Ohio State's Braxton Miller -- that will try to exploit that as much as they can, because that'll only open up the run game for their backs (or for themselves).

Big Ten helmet stickers: Week 4

September, 22, 2013
9/22/13
9:00
AM ET
Recognizing the best and the brightest from Week 4 in the Big Ten:

Iowa PR/WR Kevonte Martin-Manley and CB B.J. Lowery: Here's one way to ring up a bunch of points: Get four combined special teams and defensive scores. Martin-Manley scored on back-to-back punt returns in the second quarter, from 83 yards and 63 yards out, and Lowery brought a pair of interceptions to the house, from 35 and 13 yards away, in the Hawkeyes' 59-3 blasting of Western Michigan.

Ohio State QB Kenny Guiton: OK, it was only Florida A&M, which was wildly overmatched in the Horseshoe. Still, we have to acknowledge Guiton's unbelievable run as Braxton Miller's replacement. He set a Buckeyes' record with six touchdown passes while completing 24-of-34 passes for 215 yards in the 76-0 whitewashing. And now it's probably back to being the backup when Miller returns.

Minnesota QB Mitch Leidner: Subbing for the injured Philip Nelson (hamstring), Leidner set a Gophers quarterback record with four touchdown runs in a 43-24 win over San Jose State. He piled up 151 yards on 24 rushing attempts and was virtually impossible to bring down on first contact. Leidner only completed five passes for 71 yards, but Minnesota hardly needed to throw, as its ground game dominated.

Wisconsin RBs Melvin Gordon and James White: The Badgers' dynamic backfield duo was at it again versus Purdue. Gordon ran 16 times for 147 yards and three touchdowns, while White added 145 yards on 16 carries, as both averaged better than nine yards per attempt. White also had three catches for 49 yards in the 41-10 conference victory.

Michigan LB Desmond Morgan: He gets a sticker for just one play, but it was a big one. Morgan picked off UConn's Chandler Whitmer early in the fourth quarter and returned it 29 yards to set up the tying touchdown in Michigan's 24-21 escape in East Hartford. That might go down as a season-saving play for the Wolverines.

This is Michigan? Really?

September, 22, 2013
9/22/13
2:46
AM ET


EAST HARTFORD, Conn. -- This is Michigan.

Where it seems an acceptable explanation for why a player might be a good pass rusher or wide receiver is simply because he is a “Michigan man.”

Where coach Brady Hoke praises his team for its resiliency after a 24-21 victory over UConn. It’s where a team -- ranked No. 15 in the nation -- needed resiliency to put away a team that lost to Towson in Week 1.

It’s where the current team is cloaked in the history of the previous 133 teams. It’s where the quarterback, once shrouded in Heisman hype, is given the No. 98 to honor a 1940 Heisman winner but then ends up turning the ball over eight times the first three games he wears that uniform.

That is Michigan? Really?

“We all are trying to figure out where we’re at as a team,” Hoke said after his team left the field the second week in a row without really being able to celebrate the victory.

It might just be semantics, but “where they are” is not quite “who they are.” It’s two different statements. The latter seems to be the bigger question the Wolverines face right now. They’re staring the Big Ten schedule in the face -- with a bye week to help their bruised bodies and egos -- but they still aren’t sure who they are.

It’s certainly not Michigan to admit that it doesn’t have an identity. Especially this close to the conference schedule.

But some time after Under the Lights and during the Akron Hangover and the East Hartford Horror, Michigan was supposed to look like a complete team. And it hasn’t.

Michigan, right now, is Jekyll and Hyde -- a team making highlight reel plays one down and making bad teams look dominant the next.

It has succeeded in making wins embarrassing -- something few former Michigan players would’ve ever thought possible.

If there is a silver lining it’s that they know what they want to be. And at their best, that’s what they are.

But the downfall comes in the distance between how good their good is and how bad their bad is, and that fact that it should never be this hard to find their good against subpar teams.

Playing down to the level of competition is a trait of the decent, of the mediocre.

Not of Michigan.

Michigan knows it wants to be a team that pounds the ball down defenses’ throats. And against UConn, the run game showed some life. Running back Fitzgerald Toussaint rushed for 120 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries.

Want to know who did better?

Towson’s Terrance West in Week 1. He rushed for 156 yards and two touchdowns against UConn. And in week two Maryland’s C.J. Brown rushed for 122 yards last weekend (though he only scored one TD).

Michigan wants to be a good passing team with a pocket presence and a quarterback who makes solid decisions. But Gardner threw for 97 yards and was 11-of-23 with two interceptions and no passing touchdowns.

Take a guess (or two) at who did better.

Towson’s Peter Athens threw for 192 yards and one touchdown with just one interception and finished the day 13-of-20. Maryland’s Brown finished his day against UConn with 277 passing yards and one touchdown as well as just one interception and a 15-of-28 performance.

Michigan wants to be great -- or at least better than its equivalents at Towson and Maryland.

It wants a stout defense and at times against UConn, it looked that way. But it also gave up big plays -- a rush of 16 yards, passes of 18, 19 and 26 yards. They’re not deal breakers by any means. But a Michigan defense shouldn’t give those up to UConn offense.

On Saturday, Michigan needed its defense to come up big and it did. The defense coming up big isn’t the problem, it’s the fact -- once again -- that Michigan needed it to.

After spotting UConn a 21-7 lead, the Wolverines needed to claw their way back. And late in the fourth quarter, they were finally hitting their stride.

Linebacker Desmond Morgan came up with a huge one-handed interception in the fourth quarter while the Wolverines were down seven.

“That was pretty spectacular,” Gardner said of the play. “That’s going to be replayed a long time in Michigan history.”

And it will. It was full of athleticism and perfect timing. Morgan should be proud of that play and Michigan needed it. On its own, that play was beautiful.

But the surroundings of that play will spoil it for those who remember.

Because the greatest plays in Michigan football history, the ones that are replayed for a long time, aren’t supposed to come against UConn.

Charles Woodson’s famous interception was against Michigan State. Desmond Howard’s pose came in the Ohio State game and “The Catch” came against Notre Dame. Braylon Edwards' famous grab was in a Michigan State game in triple OT.

That’s when great Michigan men are made. Not in East Hartford, Conn. Not against Akron. Not when so many holes are evident.

At some point, the Wolverines will need to look complete. At some point, they need to find an identity. At some point, they need to be this “Michigan” that is preached about if they want to be relevant.

And Hoke believes they can get there, he believes they can be who they want to be.

“I know our team, we know our team,” he said. “They realize the things that they need to do better and we’ve got to give them the tools to do those things better, that’s our job and we’ll do that.”

That, apparently, is Michigan. At least for right now.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- James Ross III didn’t expect to play much the first game last season. Special teams, sure, but on the actual defense against Alabama, the linebacker’s head was stuck in high school.

So imagine his surprise when his coaches turned to him during Michigan’s season-opener last season and told him he was going in.

This was his introduction to college football, complete with moments that still stick out almost a year later as he moves from a situational role player to a full-time starter on Michigan’s defense.

James Ross
Lon Horwedell/Icon SMIJames Ross III was able to rely on physical tools as a freshman in 2012. Now he is focusing on a better understanding of Michigan's schemes.
“I’m on the sideline and the coaches tell me to get in,” Ross III said. “I’m like, ‘OK.’ I just look around the stadium and it’s packed. Has the big old jumbo screen going on. Ahh, it was, I don’t know.

“That offensive line was a pretty big deal, too. It’s real.”

Ross III, an undersized linebacker at 5-foot-11, already had this experience down. A month earlier at the start of fall camp, he looked at Michigan’s offense and saw offensive linemen all standing 6-foot-3 or bigger and realized he wasn’t playing in Michigan’s Catholic League anymore.

Plus, his knowledge of what defenses Greg Mattison wanted to run was minimal and it ended up being somewhat surprising Ross III played much at all. He was able to mask his lack of understanding by his instincts. He didn’t know all the plays, but he listened to what former Michigan linebacker Kenny Demens recited in the huddle, repeated it as if he knew what he was doing and then would go and try to make a play.

By the end of the season, Ross III said he knew about 75 percent of what Michigan was doing.

He had 36 tackles, a half-sack and 2.5 tackles for loss last season. He also started two games when Desmond Morgan was injured and made enough of an impact that the coaches moved Morgan to middle linebacker this spring to make sure Ross III played more this fall. Beyond that, Michigan’s coaching staff is pressuring him to be more active than last season and make sure he understands things better.

“He has, I think, pretty good instincts,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. “… I thought, we thought, that there’s more we could get out of him so we’re putting a lot of that pressure, a lot of the challenge to him to do a little better job getting off blocks and there’s times when you don’t need to take on the block.

“So just making the football itself the issue.”

Last season it wasn’t. There were playbook and communication issues and there was the adjustment to college football in general. Thus far this fall, the adjustments have been more subtle.

Instead of understanding the concept of the plays, he has focused on making sure his alignment is correct. Instead of relying on his teammates to announce and break down the play, he is starting to grasp everything on his own.

He’s even learning to use his size -- strong but short -- to his advantage.

“Being able to read a little better,” Ross III said. “Just like it’s difficult looking at a smaller running back, you can’t really see him so you can get lost a little bit in the shuffle. But those guys, we are shuffling downhill and trying to maintain our gaps so we aren’t shuffling around them.

“We have to go through them.”

Doing that isn’t an issue for Ross. He has always been a big hitter and strong for his size. His body, which didn’t look like a typical freshman when he entered camp a year ago, has continued to improve.

Now everything else is catching up.

Michigan season preview

August, 19, 2013
8/19/13
10:30
AM ET
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.

Backup QB a battle at Michigan

August, 9, 2013
8/09/13
10:00
AM ET
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- As Michigan moves its camp into padded practices the rest of the way, the Wolverines will be able to start to really discern which position battles are actually competitions and which are going to be wrapped up rather quickly.

[+] EnlargeBrian Cleary
Courtesy of Michigan Athletic DepartmentBrian Cleary is going toe-to-toe with Michigan's heralded QB recruit for the backup job.
Of a lengthy list of position competitions for a team still finishing its rebuilding stages in its third year under Brady Hoke, perhaps the second most-important battle lies between two players who might see less than 25 snaps combined this season.

The backup quarterback.

When Russell Bellomy tore his ACL in the spring, Michigan’s quarterback depth turned into junior starter Devin Gardner and then a morass of inexperience. Competitors either were not on campus yet (freshman Shane Morris) or had never played a meaningful snap (walk-ons Brian Cleary and, less so, Alex Swieca). And once Michigan declined to sign a junior college or fifth-year transfer, that became the lot behind Gardner.

An open competition with no player really having any advantage over the other. Four days in, it's still neck-and-neck between Cleary and Morris.

“They are both doing really well, splitting the two reps,” Gardner said. “If one guy made a great pass, the next guy will make a great pass again so I’m glad I’m not the coach. I can’t really decide which one.”

The decision will eventually come to Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges. Coming out of the spring, Cleary established himself as the backup, but Morris had been around the program even as a high school recruit at nearby De La Salle High in Warren, Mich. He didn’t enroll early but had been prepping for this moment since he committed almost two years ago.

The long-term commitment, plus his locale, allowed him be on campus often to pick up things from his coaches. He isn’t the first Michigan quarterback to do this. Gardner enrolled early in 2010. Drew Henson, perhaps Michigan’s most famous quarterback recruit in history, spent his afternoons in the spring of 1998 on campus trying to learn the playbook before his freshman year.

So Morris is not the typical freshman. He understands things a bit more.

“I would say he is (ahead of the curve),” Hoke said. “It’s great to have a smart quarterback. Being a smart quarterback and being a wise quarterback under heat time with guys chasing you around and decisions you make, that’s two different things.

[+] EnlargeShane Morris
Miller Safrit/ESPNShane Morris has taken advantage of living close to campus to get a head start on school.
“That’s what we’ll see more of from this point on.”

Thus far, Michigan has seen fairly accurate passers. Gardner said the three quarterbacks -- himself, Cleary and Morris -- completed almost every pass in a recent 7-on-7 drill. And while defenders can pick up obvious differences between Gardner and the two backups, the difference between Morris and Cleary is negligible.

“Devin has really come into his role, playing with the game experience he had last year,” middle linebacker Desmond Morgan said. “Shane’s just a freshman coming in. Brian’s a guy who didn’t play in any games or anything last year.

“So just the comfortableness of being in and seeing the defense, things like that.”

This is Michigan’s situation right now. In one aspect, it is good for the Wolverines because two inexperienced quarterbacks are forced to receive more of a chance than they would have if Bellomy had not torn up his knee in the spring.

It forced Michigan into an uncomfortable position -- but one which will give two unknowns more reps than they ever would have received before. Plus, with Gardner as the entrenched starter with no chance of movement unless there is an injury, Michigan can take its time making its decision of who would go in if Gardner ever has to go out.

“I would say because you do know the guy who you are expecting to start the season with,” Hoke said. “You in some ways can give a few more snaps to that competition area where who is number two.”
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)

Trades aren't happening in college football any time soon. Even if they were legalized, the thought of two hated rivals doing anything to potentially help each other out would make Woody and Bo start spinning in their graves.

But pretend for a second those laws were relaxed and the Buckeyes and Wolverines each had a need so pressing that the programs at least kicked around some ideas. As part of our ongoing look this week at "The Game," a couple ESPN.com beat writers took a shot to see just what they could get from each other that might spur on a championship run for the current roster. Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, here's a look at how a (fictional) deal might have gone down.

From: OSU_GM

To: UM_PersonnelDept

Subject: Don’t tell anybody

Mr. Rothstein:

We probably shouldn’t even be talking, and if word gets out that we even considered making a deal, we might need to consider looking for new jobs. But since the rules against trades in college football magically vanished and we were hired for some reason to become general managers for Ohio State and Michigan, respectively, I think we at least owe it to ourselves to pursue all options. As I’m sure you’re aware, the Buckeyes were hit pretty hard by graduation in the front seven after knocking off the Wolverines to cap a perfect season last fall (in case you forgot about the celebration in the ‘Shoe). And recently the program has seen a group of linebackers that was already thin lose a couple more bodies that could have offered some help off the bench this fall. Additionally, while the future looks pretty bright at tackle for Taylor Decker or Chase Farris, right now there is one spot without much experience that tends to stand out when there are four seniors starting elsewhere on the line. So, I don’t know what position is troubling you most as training camp sneaks up on college football, but if there’s a potential swap or two that might help us both out, I am all ears. But you didn’t hear that from me.

Sincerely,

Austin Ward

Interim Ohio State personnel director

---

[+] EnlargeMichael Schofield
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesThe Buckeyes wanted Michael Schofield for experience at tackle, but Michigan's demands in return were too rich for OSU's blood.
From: UM_PersonnelDept

To: OSU_GM

Subject: Too late

Mr. Ward:

Unfortunately for you, I'm mouthy. And I've already started rumors you are trying to trade Braxton Miller for the remnants of Rich Rodriguez's offense. Apologies in advance. Not going to lie, looking over my roster I have concerns at wide receiver, running back and I could use some experience on the interior of the offensive line. Also, while there's some depth at cornerback, wouldn't mind grabbing one or two from you. Oh, and since you're interested in giving up Miller, that would solidify some of the depth issues there. I see you're fishing for a tackle. Sorry, Taylor Lewan is not available. While I like Michael Schofield a lot, he is more available at the right price. So too are some of the linebackers. What interests you on the Michigan squad? I'm willing to listen for anyone except for Lewan and quarterback Devin Gardner.

Sincerely,

Michael Rothstein

Fake Michigan personnel director

---

From: OSU_GM

To: UM_PersonnelDept

Subject: Re: BRAXTON

Hey bud, these talks just about ended instantly with any mention of the franchise quarterback being available. Newsflash -- Miller won’t be on the market heading into his senior season either, so get used to trying to defend him. At any rate, Schofield would be an intriguing option for the Buckeyes because he could provide another veteran presence with ample experience in the Big Ten, potentially giving Decker or Farris another year to develop physically before moving into the starting lineup in 2014. After getting a glimpse at what Desmond Morgan could do last fall when he made 11 tackles (in a losing effort) against Ohio State, he might look good in Scarlet and Gray, especially if the spring gave him flexibility to play in the middle. I probably don’t need to mention that Bradley Roby is untouchable in the secondary, but there is no shortage of talent alongside him in the backend. Might want to take a look at the stable of running backs the Buckeyes have in the fold as well -- but feel free to skip over Carlos Hyde.

AW

---

From: UM_PersonnelDept

To: OSU_GM

Subject: No subject

(Read full post)

Fresh Ideas: Linebackers 

July, 5, 2013
7/05/13
9:00
AM ET
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Can a true freshman really contribute at the college level? Is it easier at one position than another? Over the summer WolverineNation has been breaking down the probabilities of playing time and projections of the Wolverines’ freshmen, position by position.

[+] EnlargeGreg Mattison
Lon Horwedel/Icon SMIMichigan DC Greg Mattison will experiment with different combinations at linebacker, which means some freshmen will be in the mix.
What it takes for a true freshman linebacker to play: The linebacker position seems to be a spot in which a true freshman can come in and contribute immediately. With the right combination of physicality, smarts and intensity, a freshman can rely on instinct and his foundation to make an impact on the field. That’s not necessarily the easiest thing to do, especially with defensive coordinator Greg Mattison wanting his linebackers to be more and more physical, but with more advanced strength and conditioning programs in high schools across the country (as well as several prospects working with individual trainers), the physical hurdle -- which used to be one of the highest -- now seems much more manageable.


To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Every Thursday our writers sit down to discuss a few topics in and around Michigan sports. With Tom on vacation this week, WolverineNation editor Bob McClellan joins the conversation to look at The Opening, freshmen and other varsity sports.

1. Of the 2015 offers, which prospect do you think should be No. 1 overall in Michigan's war room?


To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Region Series Quick Hits: Midwest 

June, 11, 2013
6/11/13
10:00
AM ET
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Quick Hits is a look at the must-know facts for each region in regard to Michigan and its football recruiting efforts. It will give you an idea of the Wolverines’ history in that region, as well as what one can expect from that region over the next few seasons.

MIDWEST

1. How many players on Michigan’s roster are from the region?


To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Michigan Outlook: 2014
Brian Bennett discusses the outlook for the Michigan Wolverines' football program in 2014.Tags: Michigan Wolverines, Braxton MIller, Brian Bennett, Devin Gardner
VIDEO PLAYLIST video