Michigan Wolverines: Drake Johnson

Picks To Click: Week 11

November, 7, 2014
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Michigan’s chances of reaching a fourth-straight bowl game under Brady Hoke might be at stake this weekend at Northwestern. The Wildcats (3-5) are also fighting an uphill battle to qualify for the postseason. The loser will have to run the table for the rest of November, and both have teams ranked in the top 15 remaining on their schedules.

Hope for the Wolverines (4-5) has buoyed with a win against Indiana last Saturday. Sophomore running back Drake Johnson provided an offensive spark with two rushing touchdowns in that game. He is one of our picks for players that Michigan will need to step up this week in order to keep the optimism in Ann Arbor.

Sophomore RB Drake Johnson: The Ann Arbor native ran for 122 yards in a breakout performance last Saturday. He had only five carries in Michigan’s first eight games. Hoke remained coy this week when asked if Johnson’s big day would earn him more reps, but it was clear he provides a burst the offense has been missing in the backfield. He could be the spark that finally helps Michigan’s offense come together.

Senior DE Frank Clark: Clark has been Michigan’s most physically impressive pass-rusher this season. He has 11 tackles for loss and three sacks. Northwestern ranks 108th nationally in sacks allowed per game (2.88). Clark will get his chances to apply pressure Saturday. In a game that is expected to be a low-scoring battle, a couple big plays behind the line of scrimmage could be enough to flip field position and give the Wolverines an edge.

Senior P Will Hagerup: Speaking of field position, no individual controls that more than the punter. Hagerup has punted 40 times this season for an average of 43.9 yards per attempt (23rd nationally). Michigan and Northwestern each average less than 22 points per game. One or two drives will likely decide Saturday’s winner, and if Hagerup can force the Wildcats to cover as much ground as possible, he could prove to be a difference-maker.

Michigan helmet stickers: Week 10

November, 3, 2014
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Michigan’s young talent got a chance to shine against an overwhelmed Indiana team during Saturday’s homecoming game in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines beat the Hoosiers, 34-10, thanks to an offensive outburst led by a pair of redshirt sophomores. They may be adding more stickers to their helmets before the season is over. For now, here are this week’s winners.

Sophomore RB Drake Johnson: The Ann Arbor native ran for 122 yards and two touchdowns on his 16 carries. Johnson had just five carries this season heading into the Indiana game, but gave Michigan’s offense a quicker, shiftier option in the backfield. Expect to see more of Johnson – who went to school across the street from the Big House and whose mother has coached Michigan’s cheerleaders for 31 years – during the final month of the season.

Sophomore WR Amara Darboh: Not only did Darboh lead the Wolverines' passing attack Saturday, he led the entire Big Ten with nine catches for 107 yards and a touchdown. After dropping a few balls in a loss to Michigan State, Darboh rebounded with the best performance of his career against the Hoosiers. Both Darboh and Johnson are rounding into form after missing significant time because of injuries earlier in their careers.

Sophomore DL Ryan Glasgow: Sticking with the redshirt sophomore theme, Glasgow was one on nine Michigan defenders to register a tackle behind the line of scrimmage on Saturday. He also knifed into the Indiana backfield in the third quarter, pried the ball loose from Indiana quarterback Zander Diamont and fell on the fumble. Glasgow’s individual effort helped set Johnson up for his first touchdown run of the game.

Michigan football mailbag

September, 4, 2013
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If you’ve been paying attention to college football over the last few seasons, Michigan’s rematch with Notre Dame under the lights this weekend is a game you’ve been waiting for. So why don’t we chat about it? You sent in your Michigan-Notre Dame questions and I answered. Here’s what we’ve got.

1. Paul, Chicago: Can Michigan’s O-line really hold up against Notre Dame’s defensive line?

A: That’s a great question. If Michigan doesn’t play well there, it doesn’t win the game. Plain and simple. Offensively, the Wolverines will have a really tough test with Notre Dame’s odd front (and front seven, but let’s just focus on the D-line for right now). On the inside, Louis Nix is going to be a challenge for the young interior offensive linemen. He’s 6-foot-3, 340 pounds, meaning the prospect of him outmuscling and overpowering center Jack Miller (6-foot-4, 290 pounds) isn’t completely out of the question. And defensive end Stephon Tuitt is going to be a challenge too, though one I think Taylor Lewan can handle.

2. Christian Sack via Twitter: Derrick Green arguably was one of the better RB's yesterday, will he share carries with Fitz Toussaint vs. ND?

A: I think we will. Offensive coordinator Al Borges still wants to have a featured back but he said Tuesday that from game to game we might see different looks. I think it’s smart to use both of them if both can be effective. I think as Green gets his sea legs we’ll still see more of Toussaint, but I don’t think it’s out of the question that we’ll see a fair amount of both.

3. Timothy, New York: Does Michigan have enough weapons in the passing game beyond Jeremy Gallon and Devin Funchess? Or is that all the Wolverines will need against Notre Dame?

A: I believe those will be the two biggest targets we see this season. However, Joe Reynolds proved himself effective on Saturday so I wouldn’t count him out for a reception or two a game, especially as Michigan works to get the ball in the air more. And Drew Dileo is a name that will always pop up. But if you have to pick just two guys who will be the big targets against Notre Dame, I would think it’s those two. They create mismatches (for different reasons) and the Wolverines will look for every way to exploit those.

4. Mark, Fowlerville: Why was Drake Johnson being used on special teams? Why would you have the No. 2 RB on special teams?

A: There are several coaches who look at special teams as the third tier of importance, however Brady Hoke doesn’t necessarily look at it that way. He has been very vocal about how there are three equally important parts of the team and he has offered scholarships to special teams players. Last season Blake Countess was also injured on special teams during the Alabama game, but I feel like both were injuries that could’ve happened in any aspect of the game. Now, Michigan has more depth at running back this season than it did at cornerback last season, if there’s any kind of silver lining here. However, it will be interesting to see if Hoke’s take on special teams changes at all going into the rest of the season.
When Michigan released its first depth chart of the season on Monday, six running backs were listed on it. As in, every single running back on the roster was on the depth chart.

[+] EnlargeMichigan's Fitz Toussaint
Rick Osentoski/US PRESSWIREAs Michigan's featured back, Fitz Toussaint is expected to get between 18-25 carries a game.
That’s pretty rare for a team, especially one like Michigan, which rarely likes to give anything away. But offensive coordinator Al Borges said he has done it before.

“At one point I did,” Borges said. “It may not have been at running back. Yeah, I'm sure I have at some place I've been. That's a lot, though. I will say that.”

Michigan coach Brady Hoke clarified Monday that while not every guy on the running back depth chart might carry the ball, he will play, whether it be as a back or on special teams.

But one name who we know we’ll see at running back is redshirt senior Fitzgerald Toussaint. He was named the starter midway through fall camp, and Hoke said he’d like to get Toussaint anywhere between 18-25 carries a game as a featured back.

“He just looks like the old Fitz,” Borges said. “Fitz is a hard worker and he goes hard every single down, and he's got great feel for our system and our run game in particular.”

Last season, when the Wolverines transitioned into a more traditional pro-style offense with Devin Gardner at QB, they actually stayed relatively consistent with carries. Through the first eight games of the season, Michigan averaged 40 carries per game. Beginning at Minnesota and through the rest of the season, when Gardner was the starting quarterback, that number dropped to 37 carries per game.

However, if Toussaint does carry the ball 18-25 times against Central Michigan, the additional seven 12-19 carries will be up for grabs, and they could go to any of the other five running backs.

Listed in the No. 2 spot is redshirt freshman Drake Johnson, who was a late addition to the Wolverines’ 2012 class. He’s a local kid who played high school football at Ann Arbor Pioneer, one block from Michigan Stadium. Hoke said he was impressive last season on the Wolverines’ scout team and through fall camp this season.

In the three and four spots are redshirt sophomore Justice Hayes and junior Thomas Rawls, respectively. Rawls was Toussaint's backup last season and finished with 242 yards on 57 carries and four touchdowns. But he has dropped behind Hayes, who had 18 carries for 83 yards and one touchdown last season.

Splitting the fifth-string position are freshmen Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith. Green was expected to compete for the starting spot with Toussaint during fall camp, but he hasn’t quite lived up to that expectation, whereas Smith has been more of an unknown.

However, it’s not too surprising to see the freshmen listed lower on the depth chart. It takes a while to adjust to the college game, and one of the biggest jumps true freshmen have to make, especially in Michigan’s offense, is pass protection.

“If you had to pinpoint one issue with a young back, it's trying to figure out all the pickup and the protections,” Borges said. “Whether it's six-man protection or whether there's play-action or whatever -- just figuring out who to target. That's not always easy to do.”

Toussaint said that was the hardest jump for him to make when he got to Michigan, too. He said that Michigan has really emphasized that this fall, but it's something that comes with experience.

“My best advice is to go out there and take a fast game and slow it down,” Toussaint said. “You have to get in the playbook. You have to know exactly what’s going to happen.”
It’s game week. If you’ve already started tailgating, there’s no judgment. It has been a long, long offseason. We have the mailbag every Wednesday, so feel free to drop me an email (jenningsespn@gmail.com) or send me a tweet (@chanteljennings) whenever questions pop in to your head and check back here to see if they make the final cut.

Now, on to this week’s questions…

1. Andre Davis, Evansville: What's the biggest weakness on this year's team?

[+] EnlargeDerrick Green
Tom Hauck for ESPN.comDerrick Green, who was ranked No. 38 in the 2013 ESPN 300, is well behind other running backs to start the season for the Wolverines.
A: Having not seen this team play yet, I’m going to go with the interior offensive linemen. Graham Glasgow, Jack Miller and Kyle Kalis combine for a total of zero starts, which isn’t exactly what you want to see. Don’t get me wrong, there are other areas of doubt, obviously. The wide receivers took a blow. We have no idea what the running back situation looks like. The secondary is pretty turned over, experience-wise. The defensive line may or may not be better than last season. However, if the offensive line isn’t effective then it puts Devin Gardner in a much more difficult situation. With Gardner in a more difficult situation, he has a tougher time getting the ball to Fitzgerald Toussaint or any of his receivers. If the offensive line can’t protect him, he faces injury and then Michigan is left with a true freshman or a walk-on, neither of which is a scenario I think people want to see played out. Those three guys up front need to have chemistry and need to play older and more experienced than they are if they want the offense to function like it can.

2. Mike Randazzo, Salt Lake City: How will Greg Mattison take advantage of the CMU QB being 2-of-4 passing in his career? Unleash blitzes early, or drop many back?

A: Well, junior Cody Kater was the understudy to a pretty talented quarterback in Ryan Radcliff (3,158 yards, 23 touchdowns as a senior), and I never underestimate what a player can learn while studying the guy in front of him. However, yes, he is inexperienced and the Central Michigan offensive line is in a worse place without No. 1 overall NFL draft pick Eric Fisher protecting the QB. However, I don’t think Mattison will just throw the kitchen sink at him. The goal is for Michigan to be effective defensively on a regular basis with a four-man rush. I’d imagine we’ll see some blitz schemes early just to get Kater on his heels and let the Chippewas know that they can, but I don’t necessarily think that means they will consistently.

3. Jacob Sharar, Clovis, Calif.: Who is more likely to have a break out season and compete for All-American status: Jeremy Gallon or Frank Clark?

A: That’s a tough question. Because you have to look at depth at the position nationally and if only one rush end is named and it’s between Clark and, you know, Jadeveon Clowney, I think we know who’s going to get the All-American status. However, even if Clark isn’t named a first team All-American, I think he’ll have the more successful season at his position. I expect Gallon will have a great season, maybe even a 1000-yard season. But when you look at who will contribute more to Michigan and how that will be seen nationally, based on how other people at the same position perform, I think the scales will tilt to Clark. If he lives up to his billing, I think he’ll be the one with the ridiculous stats at the end of this year.

4. Kellen, Detroit: Which position on the depth chart seemed the most surprising to you?

A: Probably running back. I already knew that Derrick Green wasn’t going to be first or second string, but I thought the coaches had been downplaying his fall camp. To see him listed as sharing the fifth-string position with De'Veon Smith, however, was just kind of a surprise. I think most expected Green to come in and compete for the starting spot from Day One. Now, this doesn’t mean he can’t or won’t do that. But if you want to trust the depth charts (which, Brandon Moore -- with a cast on his foot -- was listed as a first string tight end last season for many weeks), it means he hasn’t done that yet, which surprises me. Green has had a month to prove himself better than Drake Johnson, Thomas Rawls or Justice Hayes, and he hasn’t. I would imagine he’ll move up the depth chart at some point this season, but I definitely wouldn’t have guessed at any point since he committed last winter, that we’d see him as a fifth stringer.

Nonconference primer: Michigan

August, 26, 2013
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- It has been about nine months since the Wolverines played a game in Michigan Stadium. This weekend, the Wolverines will hit the field against Central Michigan and begin their month of nonconference opponents that they hope will prepare them for the Big Ten slate.

The Wolverines’ schedule this season is favorable for a chance to get to the Big Ten title game, but before they can even get to conference play, they need to answer a few questions.

1. Will Michigan actually be challenged?

I’m not going to say that they won’t be challenged by any of these teams. Notre Dame is always a challenge, and that’s an opportunity for one of those signature wins that teams look for in the nonconference schedule. Michigan might not be challenged hugely by the other three teams (at least, not like it was against Alabama last season), but, the Wolverines will be challenged by themselves. These games allow the Wolverines to iron out the kinks in their offense and defense while building depth at positions. Michigan’s interior offensive line will be entirely new and their defensive front has a new look, too. The Wolverines’ secondary features new faces and guys at entirely new positions (here’s looking at you, free safety Courtney Avery). So while Central Michigan, Akron and Connecticut might not provide the drama or build-up (hello, MACtion), it will help Michigan prepare for the Big Ten season as it develops an identity.

2. Can the defensive line get a four-man rush?

This was a question that was consistently asked last season. According to Greg Mattison the defensive line is vastly improved and is getting to the quarterback. Frank Clark has been heralded as a top rush end, but can he be a Brandon Graham-like game changer? Three of the four teams Michigan faces in the nonconference schedule feature transitioning O-lines, which will obviously aid Michigan in looking like it has a solid four-man rush. CMU lost tackle Eric Fisher, the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft. Notre Dame and Akron are both replacing two starters on their offensive lines. UConn actually returns all five of its starters on the offensive line, but last season the Huskies only averaged 318 yards of offense per game, so how effective that experience will be remains up in the air. But if the Wolverines are going to be successful in the Big Ten, their defensive front must be stout. With the absence of linebacker Jake Ryan until at least October, Michigan will be better off if it doesn’t have to blitz every other play in order to make opposing quarterbacks uncomfortable in the pocket.

3. How tricky is Al Borges going to get?

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesMichigan's Devin Gardner finally gets to put away the noncontact jersey this Saturday, although don't expect him to run too much in the nonconference season.
Don’t expect Borges to unload his playbook, but I do think we’ll see a few wrinkles in the season opener just to make sure Brian Kelly and Notre Dame are on their toes coming in to the Big House the following weekend. Borges and the rest of the offense will probably have a bit of a chip on their shoulders after their performance last season against the Irish. But the Wolverines will probably use their games against Akron and Connecticut to shore up the aspects of their offense not firing on all cylinders at that time. For example, they might run more toward Michael Schofield and Kyle Kalis’ side as Taylor Lewan doesn’t need quite as much work, or maybe Joe Reynolds or younger receivers will be targeted more. And without Denard Robinson, how does Borges’ level of trickery and wrinkles change with Devin Gardner?

That brings us to our next question…

4. How good is Gardner?

Gardner stepped in last season and finished out the season in an impressive fashion. With spring ball and the full offseason to gain chemistry with receivers and the offensive line, he should show major strides. Obviously, losing sophomore wide receiver Amara Darboh for the season is a blow, but Gardner can use the nonconference schedule (and the lack of elite defensive backs he’ll face) to build chemistry with other guys. Brady Hoke said Reynolds, Jehu Chesson and Jeremy Jackson were the three receivers stepping forward in Darboh’s absence.

Assuming Michigan can be effective in the run game, it should open up things in the air for Gardner. He was recruited as a dual-threat QB, and he has those skills. but Michigan might be a bit more conservative with him -- especially in the nonconference schedule -- just because if he goes down, the Wolverines are looking at a true freshman and then a walk-on, which doesn’t exactly inspire confidence for a championship season. But with Gardner being Gardner, don’t be too surprised if he tests the waters a bit. He’s not afraid to run, and if the opportunity presents itself, he’ll be looking to make plays by any means necessary.

5. Can Michigan stay healthy heading into the Big Ten schedule?

It’s no secret that Michigan is not deep at a few key positions at this point. If Gardner goes down, Michigan will scramble. If Fitzgerald Toussaint goes down, will Michigan will turn to Thomas Rawls? Justice Hayes? Drake Johnson? Derrick Green? Green came in highly touted but hasn’t impressed in fall camp the way most thought he would. Darboh’s injury leaves snaps open for wide receivers, but with any more injuries, the Wolverines could be working with a third-string receiver.

Defensively, Michigan is in a better place with depth, considering a lot of young players got experience last season, and Mattison has built depth at each position through recruiting. Jibreel Black missed some time during fall camp, which is likely why Frank Clark played some at three-technique. But having D-linemen with experience at multiple positions will only help. These four games can help Michigan to build that kind of experience.
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 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.

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. -- 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

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WolverineNation Mailbag 

April, 24, 2013
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Michigan’s potentially early entrants have made their decisions -- Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. in the draft, Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary out -- and now, the Wolverines roster for next season is starting to take shape.

Also, the most intriguing position battle on Michigan’s football team still has little definition entering the summer.

We address these issues in this week’s WolverineNation Mailbag. Send your questions for next week to @chanteljennings on Twitter or jenningsespn@gmail.com.

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WolverineNation Mailbag 

March, 20, 2013
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The NCAA tournament is here, but what does that mean for Michigan when the Wolverines start playing Thursday?

We discuss that and more in this week’s WolverineNation mailbag, filled with your questions. Send those queries for next week to Chantel at jenningsespn@gmail.com or @chanteljennings on Twitter.

Now, to this week’s questions.


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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.

Depth chart analysis: Special teams 

January, 28, 2013
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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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Michigan looks to fix run game 

January, 18, 2013
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Michigan's run game in 2012 was a disappointment. As a result, the coaches have ramped up their efforts to right the ship immediately. The Wolverines are hoping to use the 2013 recruiting class to get the ground game going as the post-Denard Robinson era begins.

Michigan's rushing attack produced 2,389 yards last season, a number that doesn't sound terrible until you further dissect the details. Michigan's two quarterbacks, Robinson and Devin Gardner, accounted for 1,367 of those yards and 14 of the 27 rushing touchdowns.

Robinson led the way, averaging 7.2 yards per carry, while the running back trio of Fitzgerald Toussaint, Thomas Rawls and Vincent Smith combined to rush for 918 yards, averaging only 4.1 yards per carry. That combined average would rank No. 80 in the country.

Without Robinson, Michigan is looking for help to transform the offense.


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