Michigan Wolverines: Erik Magnuson

Spring practice in the Big Ten has sadly come to an end, and we're both back home after some trips around the conference. Wednesday, we shared out thoughts on the Big Ten's West Division, and now it's time to turn our focus to the beast known as the East.

Brian dropped in on Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Indiana, and Adam stopped by Penn State.

Adam Rittenberg: Let's begin with your trip to the Mitten State. You made your first stop in Ann Arbor, where Michigan was wrapping up its first spring with new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. Michigan's top priority is the offense and fixing the line. What did you gather about the unit, and how are the changes on the defense -- player positions and coaching roles -- working out?

[+] EnlargeDoug Nussmeier
AP Photo/Tony DingNew OC Doug Nussmeier's top priority is fixing Michigan's offensive line.
Brian Bennett: Things definitely seem a lot smoother on defense. Jake Ryan adopted quickly to playing middle linebacker, and James Ross III is talented enough to play anywhere. Mark Smith picked a good time to take over the defensive line, as he'll have a pair of senior ends in Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer and some nice young talent to work with in Taco Charlton, Chris Wormley, Willie Henry, etc. Throw Jabrill Peppers into the mix in the back end this summer, and this has a chance to be a very solid defense.

It's just a matter of whether the offense can keep up. The Wolverines are very young on that side of the ball, and the line is full of redshirt freshmen and sophomores right now. Mason Cole enrolled in January and was starting at left tackle in spring ball, which said a lot about the state of the position. Michigan's season likely depends on whether that O-line can come together and raise its collective level of play. There are some good-looking athletes at receiver and running back, but not many of them are proven. Many big questions remain in Ann Arbor.

AR: There are fewer questions at Michigan State. How did the defending Big Ten/Rose Bowl champs seem to be handling their success? And how are they replacing defensive standouts such as cornerback Darqueze Dennard?

BB: Several players told me they were sick of talking about the Rose Bowl, which is a good sign. I saw a team that could definitely repeat as Big Ten champions. The offense brings back most of its major pieces and will add new weapons suchas tight end Jamal Lyles and quarterback/athlete Damion Terry. The early-season scoring droughts of years past should not happen again this fall.

No doubt Pat Narduzzi's crew lost a lot -- four All-Big Ten defenders, plus both starting defensive tackles. Michigan State has a big experience gap to make up, especially at linebacker. But this is a program that just seems to reload on defense now and has recruited so well to its system. Guys like defensive tackle Joel Heath, defensive end Demetrius Cooper and safety Jalyn Powell all came on strong this spring. Three of the corners vying to replace Dennard had interceptions in the spring game. I have supreme confidence that Narduzzi will have this defense dominating again in 2014.

AR: Ohio State's defense has many more question marks after a rough 2013 campaign. The line should be terrific but how did the back seven look during your trip to Columbus? And how are new assistants Chris Ash and Larry Johnson fitting into the mix? What else stood out about the Buckeyes?

BB: In my eyes, this is one of the most intriguing teams anywhere. The Buckeyes are almost frightfully young on offense outside of Braxton Miller and are breaking in lots of new players at linebacker and in the secondary. Yet they also have some impressive looking athletes and more overall explosiveness than the previous two seasons under Urban Meyer. Ash is installing a quarters coverage look, but maybe even more important is the fact that the safeties can really run and cover now. The revamped offensive line is a big question mark, as is the inexperience at receiver and the linebacker spot. But when you see young guys like linebacker Raekwon McMillan and tailback Curtis Samuel running around, you realize there aren't a lot of Big Ten teams that look like the Buckeyes.

Adam, you made it up to State College to check in on Penn State and new coach James Franklin. What's the vibe like up there?

AR: Electric. The charismatic staff has quickly formed bonds with the players, some of whom knew Franklin from the recruiting process. The defense should be better under Bob Shoop's leadership, as long as the starters stay healthy. There's decent depth up front and safety Adrian Amos and cornerback Jordan Lucas anchor the secondary. Linebacker Mike Hull is embracing his role as the unit's leader. Christian Hackenberg can really spin the ball -- very impressive. But can PSU protect him? No Big Ten team, including Ohio State, has bigger issues along the offensive line. Running back Bill Belton looked great, and I like the depth at tight end. Franklin is realistic about the depth issues and knows his team can't afford many more injuries.

You also visited Indiana this spring. How did the Hoosiers look, especially on defense with new coordinator Brian Knorr?

BB: You know the drill. Indiana could make some real noise if it could actually, you know, stop anybody. Knorr has them playing a 3-4, and hey have some major beef inside with the defensive tackles in 325-pounders Darius Latham and Ralph Green III. Ten starters are back and some promising recruits are on the way, so there's more depth on defense than before. But it's still a major construction project, and the offense might lose a little of its big-play ability as it tries to replace three of its top four receivers from a season ago.

OK, lightning-round finish. I still see Michigan State and Ohio State as the heavy favorites here, with Penn State a dark horse if its O-line issues can be solved. What about you?

AR: MSU is the team to beat because of the quarterback and the track record on defense. Ohio State definitely is in that mix, too. Michigan remains young at spots but could contend with a serviceable run game. Offensive line is a huge issue in this division. Sleeper-wise, I wouldn't count out Penn State, Indiana or Maryland, which could be dynamic on offense if it finally stays healthy.

Michigan spring wrap

April, 28, 2014
Apr 28
9:00
AM ET
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.

Video: Michigan OT Erik Magnuson

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16
10:30
AM ET
Michigan offensive tackle Erik Magnuson talks to Brian Bennett about the Wolverines' offensive line and running game.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Michigan players are taught to tune out what the outside world is saying about them. But they're still kids, and criticism still finds its way through.

And so the offensive linemen couldn't escape all the negativity floating around about them in 2013. After all, it was virtually everywhere.

[+] EnlargeKyle Bosch
Lon Horwedel/Icon SMIThe redshirt of Kyle Bosch, who was ranked No. 157 in the 2013 ESPN 300, was pulled in October last season as the Wolverines' offensive line struggled.
"It was tough last year, and I'm sure we probably didn't hear as much as there was because we're so busy," sophomore Erik Magnuson said. "Any time you're not labeled as a great offensive line when you're at Michigan or even a traditional Michigan offensive line, it definitely hurts."

The Wolverines didn't need outsiders to tell them what was obvious: they struggled up front, particularly in the three inside spots as coaches mixed and matched inexperienced players without much success. Michigan finished 11th in the Big Ten in rushing and tied for the second-most sacks allowed in the league.

This spring, the two most reliable players on last season's line -- tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield -- are training for future NFL careers. It's up to many of the same guys who struggled in their first major exposure to step forward and change the outlook.

"We know we don't have the option to not get better," guard Kyle Kalis said. "It's getting to that point where we can't really say we’re young anymore, because next year, no one is going to want to hear that. So we have to all come together."

Whether you see it as an excuse or simply reality, the Wolverines are awfully young on the O-line. They have one senior -- Joey Burzynski -- and two juniors in Graham Glasgow and Jack Miller. The rest are sophomores or freshman, and with Burzynski out with an injury and Glasgow serving a suspension, youth is dominating spring practice reps.

Consider the left tackle position. Magnuson, currently out with a shoulder injury, will likely start out atop the depth chart there when he's healthy. But right now, the three players battling to fill Lewan's shows are redshirt freshmen David Dawson and Logan Tuley-Tillman and Mason Cole, a freshman early enrollee. Cole has impressed his coaches and has an excellent chance of at least making the rotation. But the fact that a guy who should be a high school senior right now is getting so many reps at the most important offensive line position speaks volumes.

"I can't all of a sudden make them older, so we have to make sure we do what we can do," offensive line coach Darrell Funk said. "We’re so young that if every day we can get better at something, we’ll have what we want."

The good news is that players like Magnuson, Kalis, Kyle Bosch and Ben Braden all gained valuable experience as freshmen and should naturally improve with more seasoning. New offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier has simplified many of the blocking schemes and is emphasizing quick, decisive moves in a more north-south running game than predecessor Al Borges.

"You get the the chance to open these huge holes and then let the running backs take one or two steps right or left, find the hill and start running," Kalis said. "That’s a big difference from last year."

Last season's group also had a different dynamic with two established senior starters and a whole bunch of young players. Now, many of the players are close together in class and have gone through similar experiences.

"It was Taylor and Scho’s offensive line last year, which was fine because we needed that leadership," Kalis said. "But this year, it's kind of cool that we can let it be our line and really come together."

A lot of work remains, even though spring practice wraps up later this week at Michigan. Funk is still mixing and matching while trying to find the combinations that work best, and the returns of Magnuson, Burzynski and Glasgow will change the formula in fall camp. He said everything is still a work in progress right now, including the leadership on the line.

Funk knows that both he and the unit received scathing criticism last season, but he says the only thing that matters is moving forward.

"You take your lumps with young guys, and then the following years you see the rewards," he said. "I don’t think that will be any different in this situation."

Nobody has to tell those young guys that they need to improve in a hurry. The outside noise is mere motivation.

"We got the label of not being a good offensive line way too much last year," Magnuson said. "That puts a lot of fuel to the fire when you play at Michigan because you have such high expectations."
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. 1: The offensive line isn’t going to be quite as far along as some would like.

The offensive line is the position group that must improve the most between 2013 and 2014 if the Wolverines want to be better offensively. As good as Devin Gardner, Derrick Green, De'Veon Smith or Amara Darboh might be, it won’t matter too much if the offensive line struggles like (or for as long a stretch) it did in 2013.

What is often thought of as a prototypical Michigan offensive line is one that is stacked with juniors and seniors, guys who have paid their dues, learned from upperclassmen and are physically and mentally ready to step in. However, that wasn’t the case last season and, as much experience as some players might have gained in 2013, it won’t be the case this fall.

[+] Enlarge Kyle Kalis
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesKyle Kalis and Michigan's offensive line should be expected to make strides this spring, but perhaps just small ones.
The offensive line will still be very, very young. The projected starters on the interior are a sophomore (Kyle Bosch) at left guard, a junior (Graham Glasgow) at center and another sophomore (Kyle Kalis) at right guard. Glasgow also has experience at left guard. Between the three, they only combine for 20 career starts at their respective positions.

The trio also doesn't have experience as a starting combo. Kalis appeared in Bosch’s three starts (against Michigan State, Nebraska and Northwestern) but didn’t start. But they have played together before, which is more than could be said for the group last season.

So while it’s still a very young group, there could and should be some gains made in the interior of the offensive line. So the problem flip-flops from what it was last season to what it is this season -- the tackles, the strength of the line last season. In 2014, those two positions will likely be filled by two redshirt sophomores who have limited experience.

Ben Braden, who appeared in just two games, is taking reps with the top group this spring and Erik Magnuson, who started seven games and appeared in 12 games last season, is the likely leader for the spot at left tackle. Both have the physical attributes to be excellent tackles: height, weight and long arms. But last season showed what talent without experience looks like, and the idea of some of that inexperience protecting Gardner’s blind side is a bit worrisome.

On top of that, Magnuson underwent shoulder surgery this winter and isn't participating in spring practices. Redshirt freshman David Dawson is taking his snaps at left tackle, just continuing the revolving door of youth on the offensive line.

Last year the competition for the positions went on for weeks throughout the season. In the perfect world, coaches would at least be able to see the two-deep throughout the spring. That certainly won’t be the case as Magnuson is out and reserve players such as Chris Bryant and Joey Burzynski -- who have game experience -- are unavailable this spring.

Because fixing the offensive line is at such a premium for the Wolverines and because fans have taken such notice to it, expectations are high. But those expectations still need to be tempered, especially through this spring. If people show up to the spring game expecting to see the 1997 Michigan offensive line out there, then they probably want to stay home and try to watch replays. This group will make strides, but those strides aren’t going to be massive this spring.

B1G spring position breakdown: OL

February, 28, 2014
Feb 28
2:30
PM ET
We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the big uglies.

Illinois: This is another group that appears to be in significantly better shape now than at the start of coach Tim Beckman's tenure. The Illini lose only one full-time starter in tackle Corey Lewis, as four other linemen who started at least eight games in 2013 return. Senior tandem Michael Heitz and Simon Cvijanovic are two of the Big Ten's most experienced linemen, and guards Ted Karras also has logged plenty of starts. Right tackle appears to be the only vacancy entering the spring, as Austin Schmidt and others will compete.

Indiana: The Hoosiers have somewhat quietly put together one of the Big Ten's best offensive lines, and the same should hold true in 2014. Everybody is back, and because of injuries before and during the 2013 season, Indiana boasts a large group with significant starting experience. Jason Spriggs should contend for first-team All-Big Ten honors as he enters his third season at left tackle. Senior Collin Rahrig solidifies the middle, and Indiana regains the services of guard Dan Feeney, who was sidelined all of 2013 by a foot injury.

Iowa: The return of left tackle Brandon Scherff anchors an Iowa line that could be a team strength this fall. Scherff will enter the fall as a leading candidate for Big Ten offensive lineman of the year. Iowa must replace two starters in right tackle Brett Van Sloten and left guard Conor Boffeli. Andrew Donnal could be the answer in Van Sloten's spot despite playing guard in 2013, while several players will compete at guard, including Tommy Gaul and Eric Simmons. Junior Austin Blythe returns at center.

Maryland: Line play will go a long way toward determining how Maryland fares in the Big Ten, and the Terrapins will make the transition with an experienced group. Four starters are back, led by center Sal Conaboy, who has started games in each of his first three seasons. Tackles Ryan Doyle and Michael Dunn bring versatility to the group, and Maryland should have plenty of options once heralded recruit Damian Prince and junior-college transfer Larry Mazyck arrive this summer. Prince is the top Big Ten offensive line recruit in the 2014 class, according to ESPN RecruitingNation. New line coach Greg Studwara brings a lot of experience to the group.

Michigan: The Wolverines' line is under the microscope this spring after a disappointing 2013 season. Michigan loses both starting tackles, including Taylor Lewan, the Big Ten's offensive lineman of the year and a projected first-round draft choice. The interior line was in flux for much of 2013, and Michigan needs development from a large group of rising sophomores and juniors, including Kyle Kalis, Kyle Bosch, Jack Miller, Graham Glasgow, and Patrick Kugler. Both starting tackle spots are open, although Ben Braden seems likely to slide in on the left side. Erik Magnuson is out for spring practice following shoulder surgery, freeing up opportunities for redshirt freshman David Dawson and others.

Michigan State: The line took a significant step forward in 2013 but loses three starters, including left guard Blake Treadwell, a co-captain. Michigan State used an eight-man rotation in 2013 and will look for development from top reserves such as Travis Jackson (Yes! Yes!) and Connor Kruse. Kodi Kieler backed up Treadwell last season and could contend for a starting job as well. Coach Mark Dantonio said this week that converted defensive linemen James Bodanis, Devyn Salmon and Noah Jones will get a chance to prove themselves this spring. It's important for MSU to show it can reload up front, and the large rotation used in 2013 should help.

Minnesota: For the first time since the Glen Mason era, Minnesota truly established the line of scrimmage and showcased the power run game in 2013. The Gophers return starters at four positions and regain Jon Christenson, the team's top center before suffering a season-ending leg injury in November. Right tackle Josh Campion and left guard Zac Epping are mainstays in the starting lineup, and players such as Tommy Olson and Ben Lauer gained some valuable experience last fall. There should be good leadership with Epping, Olson, Marek Lenkiewicz and Caleb Bak.

Nebraska: Graduation hit the line hard as five seniors depart, including 2012 All-American Spencer Long at guard and Jeremiah Sirles at tackle. Nebraska will lean on guard Jake Cotton, its only returning starter, and experienced players such as Mark Pelini, who steps into the center spot. Senior Mike Moudy is the top candidate at the other guard spot, but there should be plenty of competition at the tackle spots, where Zach Sterup, Matt Finnin and others are in the mix. Definitely a group to watch this spring.

Northwestern: Offensive line struggles undoubtedly contributed to Northwestern's disappointing 2013 season. All five starters are back along with several key reserves, and coach Pat Fitzgerald already has seen a dramatic difference in the position competitions this spring as opposed to last, when many linemen were sidelined following surgeries. Center Brandon Vitabile is the only returning starter who shouldn't have to worry about his job. Paul Jorgensen and Eric Olson opened the spring as the top tackles, and Jack Konopka, who has started at both tackle spots, will have to regain his position.

Ohio State: Like Nebraska, Ohio State enters the spring with a lot to replace up front as four starters depart from the Big Ten's best line. Taylor Decker is the only holdover and will move from right tackle to left tackle. Fifth-year senior Darryl Baldwin could step in at the other tackle spot, while Pat Elflein, who filled in for the suspended Marcus Hall late last season, is a good bet to start at guard. Jacoby Boren and Billy Price will compete at center and Joel Hale, a defensive lineman, will work at guard this spring. Ohio State has recruited well up front, and it will be interesting to see how young players such as Evan Lisle and Kyle Dodson develop.

Penn State: New coach James Franklin admits he's concerned about the depth up front despite the return of veterans Miles Dieffenbach and Donovan Smith on the left side. Guard Angelo Mangiro is the other lineman who logged significant experience in 2013, and guard/center Wendy Laurent and guard Anthony Alosi played a bit. But filling out the second string could be a challenge for Penn State, which could start a redshirt freshman (Andrew Nelson) at right tackle. The Lions have to develop some depth on the edges behind Nelson and Smith.

Purdue: The Boilers reset up front after a miserable season in which they finished 122nd out of 123 FBS teams in rushing offense (67.1 ypg). Three starters return on the interior, led by junior center Robert Kugler, and there's some continuity at guard with Jordan Roos and Justin King, both of whom started as redshirt freshmen. It's a different story on the edges as Purdue loses both starting tackles. Thursday's addition of junior-college tackle David Hedelin could be big, if Hedelin avoids a potential NCAA suspension for playing for a club team. Cameron Cermin and J.J. Prince also are among those in the mix at tackle.

Rutgers: Continuity should be a strength for Rutgers, which returns its entire starting line from 2013. But production has to be better after the Scarlet Knights finished 100th nationally in rushing and tied for 102nd in sacks allowed. Guard Kaleb Johnson considered entering the NFL draft but instead will return for his fourth season as a starter. Rutgers also brings back Betim Bujari, who can play either center or guard, as well as Keith Lumpkin, the likely starter at left tackle. It will be interesting to see if new line coach Mitch Browning stirs up the competition this spring, as younger players Dorian Miller and J.J. Denman could get a longer look.

Wisconsin: There are a lot of familiar names up front for the Badgers, who lose only one starter in guard Ryan Groy. The tackle spots look very solid with Tyler Marz (left) and Rob Havenstein (right), and Kyle Costigan started the final 11 games at right guard. There should be some competition at center, as both Dan Voltz and Dallas Lewallen have battled injuries. Coach Gary Andersen mentioned on national signing day that early enrollee Michael Deiter will enter the mix immediately at center. Another early enrollee, decorated recruit Jaden Gault, should be part of the rotation at tackle. If certain young players develop quickly this spring, Wisconsin should have no depth issues when the season rolls around.
Tags:

Maryland Terrapins, Michigan Wolverines, Big Ten Conference, Illinois Fighting Illini, Indiana Hoosiers, Iowa Hawkeyes, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Northwestern Wildcats, Ohio State Buckeyes, Penn State Nittany Lions, Purdue Boilermakers, Wisconsin Badgers, Michigan State Spartans, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Jack Miller, Kyle Kalis, Evan Lisle, Patrick Kugler, Erik Magnuson, Kyle Bosch, Brandon Vitabile, Michael Heitz, Travis Jackson, Damian Prince, Brandon Scherff, Brett Van Sloten, Donovan Smith, Jeremiah Sirles, Rob Havenstein, Simon Cvijanovic, Spencer Long, Taylor Decker, Ted Karras, Pat Fitzgerald, Andrew Donnal, Zac Epping, Gary Andersen, Graham Glasgow, Ryan Groy, Joel Hale, Josh Campion, Dan Voltz, Jon Christenson, Jordan Roos, Jaden Gault, Paul Jorgensen, Blake Treadwell, Dan Feeney, Michael Deiter, James Franklin, Ben Lauer, David Hedelin, Tommy Olson, Zach Sterup, Kyle Costigan, Darryl Baldwin, Miles Dieffenbach, B1G spring positions 14, Andrew Nelson, Angelo Mangiro, Austin Blythe, Austin Schmidt, Betim Bujari, Caleb Bak, Cameron Cermin, Collin Rahrig, Connor Kruse, Conor Boffelli, Corey Lewis, Dallas Lewallen, Devyn Salmon, Dorian Miller, Eric Olson, Eric Simmons, Greg Studrawa, J.J. Denman, J.J. Prince, Jack Konopka, Jake Cotton, James Bodanis, Jason Spriggs, Justin King, Kaleb Johnson, Keith Lumpkin, Kodi Kieler, Kyle Dodson, Larry Mazyck, Marek Lenkiewicz, Mark Pelini, Matt Finnin, Michael Dunn, Mike Moudy, Mitch Browning, Noah Jones, Pat Elflein, Robert Kugler, Ryan Doyle, Sal Conaboy, Tommy Gaul

Spring football started Tuesday, so the competition for positions is well underway. This week, we’re counting down the five position battles that you should also keep an eye on over the next month. We've counted this down for a week, though you probably knew exactly which position would take the cake at No. 1.

No. 1: left tackle

Who’s in the mix: Erik Magnuson (injured), David Dawson, Dan Samuelson

What to watch: Of the top five position battles to watch, three have been on the offensive line, which makes sense considering the 2013 performance. The O-line needs to see some change going in to next season. They say if there’s youth on a line, it’s best to have it on the outside. If that’s the case, then the Wolverines are in good shape. It’s more than likely the Wolverines will be starting underclassmen at both tackle spots. Yesterday we looked at the struggles in replacing a three-year starter on the right side, but it’s an even bigger challenge to replace a four-year starter on the left side, QB Devin Gardner’s blind side.

Replacing Taylor Lewan isn’t going to be easy. The All-American started 48 consecutive games at left tackle for the Wolverines. He graded out with his best year of football during this past season and now the Wolverines will have to search for his replacement. Magnuson was the frontrunner but will miss the spring season while rehabbing from shoulder surgery. At 6-foot-6, 295 pounds Magnuson is a bit smaller than Lewan (6-8, 315), but is agile and athletic. Last season he played in 12 games and recorded seven starts at guard, which will only help his future as a tackle. Since he has experience at both positions, he’ll better know the nuances of the line as a whole, which will only help the chemistry of the left side of the line. However, with him sitting out for the spring, Michigan coach Brady Hoke said that Dawson has been taking reps with the first group. He’s a shorter option than the other tackles (6-4, 295) but assuming Magnuson comes back 100 percent, Dawson could likely be repping with the twos at either tackle spot. Samuelson is another option at tackle for the Wolverines. The rising redshirt freshman is 6-5 and 282 pounds.

The countdown:

Video: B1G shoes to fill, Michigan

February, 19, 2014
Feb 19
1:00
PM ET

Chantel Jennings takes a look at a key position and players to watch as the Michigan Wolverines look ahead to spring practice, which begins Feb. 25.
The struggles of the offensive line were well documented this season. With several starting lineups and no real cohesion until late November, the Michigan O-line acted as a real speed bump to the Wolverines offense ever finding any kind of momentum.

[+] Enlarge Kyle Kalis
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesThe good news in an otherwise tough season on the UM O-line is that young players like Kyle Kalis got plenty of experience.
THE GOOD: Several young players got game experience (this is the silver lining of having so many lineup changes throughout the season). So while it might have been frustrating that it seemed as though the offensive line never could find consistency with its five, the fact that several returning players -- Kyle Kalis, Graham Glasgow, Jack Miller, Erik Magnuson, Kyle Bosch -- all got real, in-game experience is going to be such a boost for them at Michigan. Obviously, it created havoc for the Wolverines in the short term, but in the long run it could be a good thing for Michigan. Also, it was good for Michigan to have Taylor Lewan named an All-American again this season. It keeps up Michigan’s tradition of having talented left tackles but also gives the players something to aim for.

THE BAD: Most of it. They say that if you’re going to have youth on the offensive line, then it’s best to have it on the outside. Unfortunately for Michigan, they had the experience on the outside. It was great for the Wolverines to have veterans at left and right tackle, but when you’re going into the season opener and your interior offensive line combines for zero starts, it’s generally a (really, really) bad thing. The fact that Michigan couldn’t figure out its starting lineup until far too late is the reason why the offense never got going and likely why Devin Gardner missed the bowl game (if he hadn’t gotten so banged up going into the Ohio State game, there’s a better chance he doesn’t injure his foot). For a program that emphasizes its strength in the trenches, this will be a season it looks to forget.

THE FUTURE: It could/should be bright assuming the talent that the Wolverines recruited is actually developed. Michigan really doesn’t have to worry about bodies. It has recruited the offensive line like crazy. In the 2012 class the Wolverines brought in four offensive linemen. In 2013 they brought in six, including five who were four-star recruits. And in 2014, they have commitments from two, including one who has already enrolled on campus. So as far as bodies go, they’re good. But this is where offensive line coach Darrell Funk needs to come in and really develop those players. The good thing about the players they do have is that they have experience on the interior, so as long as they can develop that, it should be much stronger than it was throughout the season.

Previous posts:
Quarterback.
Running backs.
Wide receivers.
Tight ends.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

December, 20, 2013
12/20/13
4:00
PM ET
Wishing you a great weekend. Check out the full ESPN bowl schedule (with broadcast teams).

Don't forget to follow us on Twitter if you aren't already.

To the inbox ...

Mike from Allentown, Pa., writes: Hey Adam, with all the talk about Penn State's bowl ban being looked into this offseason, I have a hypothetical question for you. If the NCAA were to drop Penn State's bowl ban, would the Big Ten comply and make them eligible for the Big Ten championship? Or, is it possible the Big Ten could extend that ban separate from the NCAA?

Adam Rittenberg: Mike, the Big Ten's penalties always were tied to the NCAA's. Big Ten rules state that if the NCAA declares a team ineligible for postseason play, that team can't play in the Big Ten championship game. So if the NCAA lifts the bowl ban, the Big Ten would declare Penn State eligible for a league title (the Lions already can win their division). Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany has been pleased with Penn State's response to former Sen. George Mitchell, the independent athletics integrity monitor assigned to the school. So I'd be shocked if the Big Ten added or maintained any sanctions against Penn State once the NCAA ones are lifted.


Josh from Indy writes: Have you ever thought about the comparison between Darqueze and his cousin Alfonzo? Both had great careers for their respective teams. Just wanted your take on this.

Adam Rittenberg: Josh, I definitely thought about it after Darqueze Dennard won the Big Ten's Tatum-Woodson Defensive Back of the Year award, which Nebraska's Alfonzo Dennard claimed in 2011. I can't imagine two family members have won the same award while playing for different teams in the same league. Pretty cool. Darqueze's numbers this season are more impressive than Alfonzo's in 2011, although Alfonzo was a true shut-down guy who basically eliminated one side of the field. Darqueze's pro prospects are better, as many peg him as a first-round draft pick. We'll never know where Alfonzo would have been drafted if he hadn't had the off-field trouble. Both are great players, though.


Derek from Preston, Iowa, writes: Hey Adam, I was just curious as to what you thoughts were on Derrell Johnson-Koulianos' Twitter tirade against Kirk Ferentz. Ferentz is beloved for the most part in Hawkeye Country, and this whole thing just seems weird. Why now?

Adam Rittenberg: The timing is interesting, Derek, as much of this happened three years ago. I understand Derrell's perspective that Ferentz blackballed him with the NFL and stifled his playing career. Some of his teammates back up the accusations against Ferentz and strength coach Chris Doyle. It's an unfortunate situation, but I would be very surprised if Ferentz or Iowa has anything to say about the accusations, especially so long after the fact. Iowa has moved forward and Ferentz's word still carries weight in NFL circles.

DJK has the right to air his grievances, and he has never held back on his views. Honestly, I can't think of a Big Ten player I've covered who fit in less with a particular program. But I doubt there will be major consequences for Ferentz or Iowa.


Fatback from Newark, Ohio, writes: Just wanting to know what your thoughts about Ohio State's defensive coordinator position. I know Fickell is an OSU guy, but we definitely need a change of pace. What do you think about Fickell moving down to just a position coach ( if he doesn't get another job this offseason), and hiring another person from the outside or moving Mike Vrabel up? I think with Vrabel we would play much more aggressive and sit back in all the zone coverage that teams seem to kill us on. Again, your thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: It would be tough for Ohio State to demote Fickell, who was the Big Ten's third highest-paid assistant this year ($610,000). You're not going to pay that salary to a position coach (at least you shouldn't). Fickell still brings a lot of value to Ohio State as a recruiter, and while his defense has its issues this year, youth in the front seven and Christian Bryant's injury didn't help matters. On the other hand, Urban Meyer has extremely high standards, and if he feels Fickell isn't helping the team to a national championship, maybe you make the change.

I've heard that Vrabel has definite head-coaching potential, and he did a nice job with a young defensive line this year. With Everett Withers reportedly departing to James Madison, don't be surprised to see a co-coordinator situation with Vrabel and Fickell. Perhaps Vrabel has more say on play calls. I just can't see Ohio State forcing out Fickell right now.


Joe from Kentucky writes: How can you guys leave off Blake Countess and Stanley Jean-Baptiste from the All-B1G selection for Bradley Roby? Roby was suspended for his off-the-field antics (looks really all-conference) and he got exposed by any of the good WRs he faced. Jared Abbrederis and Jeremy Gallon made him look silly to the tune of almost 400 yards combined. That does not sound like an all-conference performer to me. On the other hand, Countess led the conference in INTs and Jean-Baptiste was right there (if not tied). I think you guys were a little biased in trying to make MSU and OSU the top two represented teams (which their records show). Also, Ryan Shazier is the only person on that Ohio State defense to be named All-B1G.

Adam Rittenberg: Roby's one-game suspension really isn't relevant, as we included Carlos Hyde on the team despite his three-game suspension because he was the Big Ten's best running back in league play (few would argue). I agree that Roby struggled against Abbrederis in the Wisconsin game, but many of Gallon's yards didn't come against Roby in the Michigan game. Roby made a touchdown-saving tackle on Gallon, running completely across the field, one of several displays of athleticism he had this season. He had a very good Big Ten season and is one of the better special-teams players I can remember in this league. SJB had a nice season but no picks in Big Ten play. You could make a case for Countess, but I still feel Roby performed better in Big Ten play than any corner other than MSU's Dennard. Shazier is the only other Buckeye defender on our All-Big Ten team, although lineman Michael Bennett deservedly made the second-team.


Will from Columbus, Ohio, writes: Should I be concerned that Michigan will be breaking in two new starters at both offensive tackle positions in 2014? Lewan and Schofield took 99.9 percent of the snaps this year, likely making their replacements having VERY little, to no game experience. After the abysmal display on the interior of the line this year, I do believe there are positives in game time reps of the interior line translating to better protection up the middle next season. Will inexperience on the edge hurt the line more next year than the inside this year, or can you mask the youth more on the outside than in?

Adam Rittenberg: Some good points here, Will. I agree that Michigan's interior line will be improved next year because of all the experience gained, even through some tough times. It will be interesting to see what Michigan does with Erik Magnuson, who can play either guard or tackle but might be best at tackle depending on his development. The staff was excited about Ben Braden's development in the offseason, and he could step in for Lewan at left tackle. I'm really interested to see how the line performs in Arizona following bowl practices, but you're right that the group will continue to be under the microscope with both veteran tackles departing.


Ken from Carmel, Ind., writes: When Clifton Garrett recently committed to LSU, he mentioned the great game-day atmosphere. Having attended a game there, I agree. Sometimes I think the B10 doesn't get that -- and is slow to pick up other little things like that (night games) that can make the difference in winning or losing recruiting battles, and eventually games. As an Iowa grad, the large number of 11 a.m. games certainly don't help the game-day atmosphere. I get the feeling that the people at the top -- president, and A.D. -- don't understand this. You'll have a couple more arrests with later games, but most people just cheer louder and have more fun - a.k.a., better game-day atmosphere. Your thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: Couldn't agree more, Ken, and I've been writing this for years. The Big Ten needs to prioritize prime-time games and become more open to weekday games, which would get some of the smaller programs some much-needed exposure. The good news: the league is definitely warming up to the idea, adding more prime-time games and becoming open to November night games, most likely in the 2014 season. Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke said Thursday that the Big Ten's next television contract will feature more prime-time games. That's a good thing, as the noon ET and 3:30 p.m. ET windows just don't carry the same weight with recruits.
By Michigan coach Brady Hoke’s standards, this season was a failure.

However, Michigan’s participation in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl on Dec. 28 can be interpreted as a huge victory for the team, and specifically its youth.

Obviously, beating Kansas State will be put at a premium. But the coaching staff won’t overlook the fact that they’ll get extra practice time with the young players on this team.

There aren’t any special bowl-prep practice rules. Michigan can practice for the bowl as they did during the regular season -- 20 hours a week with a maximum of four hours a day.

[+] EnlargeBrady Hoke
AP Photo/Tony DingA bowl game gives Brady Hoke and his staff more time to work with underclassmen.
“The great thing about bowl games is that you get a chance to get so many more practices,” defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said. “In our case, we’re a very young football team and it gets our young guys another 15 or 12 practices to get better and to improve on the mistakes that they’ve made. That’s where the real plus in this bowl game is.”

And while Michigan isn’t going to scrap its depth chart and only work with the scout team over the next few weeks, it will be a huge opportunity for players who are lower on the depth chart or only played sporadically this season to get more repetitions.

Obviously, the offensive line had a bit of that throughout the season. Six freshmen and sophomores started at least one game this season, and while that created a lot of confusion and growing pains, left tackle Taylor Lewan preached about how much that would help the team in the next few seasons.

So during the next two-and-a-half weeks, young players such as Kyle Kalis, Erik Magnuson and Kyle Bosch will continue that growth. But it will be even more helpful as offensive line coach Darrell Funk is able to work with reserve player such as Ben Braden and Blake Bars or players who redshirted this season such as David Dawson and Patrick Kugler.

It’s the same story for the defense. Freshmen defensive backs Jourdan Lewis and Channing Stribling, linebacker Ben Gedeon and defensive lineman Taco Charlton each played this season, but during that time they were targeted by opposing teams from time to time specifically because they were freshmen.

And then there are players such as running backs Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith and tight end Jake Butt, who made large contributions by the end of the season, but didn’t really get the full season of experience as a first or second-stringer.

This cluster of practices will be like an extra three game weeks.

“A lot of these young guys have earned a right to play, and it didn’t start out the first week,” Mattison said. “It has been throughout the season, so every chance they get to play another game and to have this practice time is tremendous for us.”

While the 7-5 season isn’t what the Wolverines had hoped for, they’ll be able to use this as a new season going forward, a chance to go 1-0.

The fact that so many freshmen and sophomores played this fall shows how confident Hoke and his staff are in the job they’ve done on the recruiting trail.

“We’re very, very excited about our football team and we feel very strongly that the young men that we’ve recruited in the two or three years that we’ve been here now are the right young men,” Mattison said. “Now, it’s getting that experience. … You can’t put a price tag on these 15 more practices where you can gain on individual drills and become a smarter football player.”
Michigan was an inch, a second, a single miscommunication away from a loss on Saturday.

Without every last detail played to perfection in the waning moments of regulation, the Wolverines wouldn't have attempted that game-tying field goal and wouldn't have had a chance to play for an overtime win against Northwestern in Evanston, Ill.

[+] EnlargeMichigan Wolverines
David Banks-USA TODAY SportsThe Wolverines pulled off a hurry-up field goal in the final seconds vs. Northwestern to force overtime.
“It was one of the best team plays I’ve seen,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. “But that whole team and the team getting off the field did a tremendous job.”

There was Matt Wile finding kicker Brendan Gibbons to let him know Michigan would be running a hurry-up field goal. There was Taylor Lewan, Erik Magnuson and Kyle Bosch getting to the sideline in time. And then there were the other linemen getting on to the field in time.

There was Gibbons -- a player whose position is predicated on routine and detail -- getting to the 34-yard line, shuffling back and moving his weight back and forth a few times. In film, special teams coach Dan Ferrigno would tell Gibbons that steps are overrated.

There was snapper Jareth Glanda making sure to get to the ball in time, then waiting for the signal from holder Drew Dileo.

And then there was Dileo, fresh off a vertical route the previous play of the game, on the opposite side, unable to hear the coaches on the sideline. He didn’t know the play call until he saw Gibbons running on to the field. At that point he took off.

And then there was the play within the play -- Dileo’s slide (or as people on Twitter took to calling it, the #DileoPowerSlide).

The slide was for substance, not style (though it definitely added some style points to the game), because every millisecond mattered.

“At first, honestly no, I really didn’t [think I’d make it],” Dileo said. “I saw Brendan run on the field. I looked at the clock and it was six seconds left and so then I just put my head down and ran to where his foot was.”

Dileo remembers signaling for the ball with two seconds remaining, and after three overtimes, the Wolverines were able to successfully celebrate a road win, its special teams and the Dileo power slide.

That slide so perfectly encapsulated the chaos of the moment, the need to do whatever it took -- including a return to Dileo’s baseball days -- in order for the play to work.

Dileo didn’t know whether Lewan started the trend or if it were someone else on Twitter, but it blew up and suddenly -- after a full day of college football -- everyone seemed to be watching and talking about a special teams play that happened in a relatively inconsequential Big Ten game.

With the exception of the impromptu slide, however, that play for Michigan is relatively normal. The hurry-up field goal is something the Wolverines have practiced every week since Hoke and this coaching staff arrived at Michigan.

Though, admittedly, sometimes Hoke makes it a bit more difficult.

“Coach Hoke’s countdown is not a real countdown,” Dileo said. “Sometimes he goes from 10 to one in about four seconds. ... I think the game was probably just a culmination of practice the last three years and we executed really well.”

The execution was there, and for a team that has struggled to make big plays and give their fans something to be excited about, the Wolverines managed to come up the biggest in the moment with the smallest margin for error.

Michigan fans have been in awe of it and Hoke said it was one of the best he has ever been a part of, but was it the best team play Dileo had ever seen?

“I really think so,” Dileo said. “In the last couple days I’ve watched that play over and over and over. And it really is amazing that we got the ball off. Really the whole two-minute drive ... and them getting off the field. It really was amazing.”

Youth serves Michigan in run game

November, 18, 2013
11/18/13
3:15
PM ET
Last Wednesday, Michigan coach Brady Hoke was still committed to the idea of Fitzgerald Toussaint being his lead tailback.

But a “head concussion thing” led Hoke to believe Toussaint wasn’t quite practiced enough. That injury -- which Hoke said no longer is ailing the redshirt senior -- left Toussaint on the sideline and forced the hand of the Michigan coaching staff to turn to some of its youth in the run game. And that decision paid dividends.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Green
David Banks/USA TODAY SportsFreshman Derrick Green had career highs in carries (19) and yards (79) against Northwestern.
Freshman Derrick Green led the way with 19 carries for 79 yards, and fellow true freshman De'Veon Smith toted the ball eight times for 41 yards. For the first time this season, it really looked like Michigan was able to establish a run game that looks similar to the power game the Wolverines’ preach about week in and week out.

“Both of those guys are pretty much downhill runners,” Hoke said. “They have a chance to end up north and south because of their size and their style. They have pretty good vision most of the time.”

Coming in to the Northwestern game, Green had just 40 carries all season while Smith had accounted for just 15 carries over two games. But against the Wildcats, the two averaged 4.4 yards per carry, which is far more production out of the tailback position than the Wolverines have been accustomed to through the Big Ten schedule.

Because of the freshmen’s production, Hoke now has quite the decision -- one that will play out over the course of this week -- on whether to stick with his veteran running back who hasn’t gotten it going, or to take a chance on his young guns.

“We’ll see where we shake out at the end of the week with who will be the first back in,” Hoke said.

But not all of the accomplishments of the youthful running backs can be attributed to Green and Smith. The youthful interior line -- freshman left guard Kyle Bosch, redshirt sophomore center Graham Glasgow and redshirt freshman right guard Erik Magnuson -- played its part and really created space for the Wolverines for the first time during the conference slate.

“The running backs played well,” left tackle Taylor Lewan said. “But we also gave them holes to run through. That was huge. It was a good team effort.”

“I think the three guys inside really established the line of scrimmage,” Hoke added. “When you watch the tape [the running backs] were able to get started better.”

But the offensive line (and whichever back the Wolverines go with on Saturday) will face a tough test in Iowa. The Hawkeyes have allowed just four rushing touchdowns all season and one quarter of all opponent rushes have gone for 0 or negative yardage.

But it’s not impossible to have success in the run game against Iowa. Wisconsin rushed for 218 yards earlier this month, and Ohio State rushed for 273 yards against the Hawkeyes.

With the advancements the young interior line and young running backs showed against Northwestern, it should be a very interesting matchup in Iowa City.

“We weren’t perfect but some of the movement we had at the line of scrimmage -- trust me, that’ll be tested this week because of how Iowa plays the line of scrimmage and who they have playing it,” Hoke said. “We’ll be tested, but they got movement [against Northwestern] and it was really good to see the combination blocks working together.”

The driver's seat in the Legends division is up for grabs Saturday in East Lansing, and the Spartans have a bit of head start going in to that race. Here are five things to keep your eyes on as Michigan and Michigan State take the field in Spartan Stadium...

1. The offense's productivity. The Wolverines offense had a ridiculous showing against Indiana. And yes, that was Indiana, but it definitely got in a groove, and if it can keep up any of that momentum, it'll be a very good thing. The Spartans defense is giving up just 216 yards per game, so while the Wolverines most likely won't be able to put up 700-plus yards again, getting even one third of that total could tilt the scale in Michigan's favor. The main key here is going to be getting the attack started up front with a rushing attack. Whether that be via running back Fitzgerald Toussaint (what Michigan really wants) or quarterback Devin Gardner (less desired, but possibly more likely), the Wolverines need to make sure its rushing attack can open up the passing game.

2. Speaking of the Michigan passing game... That's also key. Basically every aspect of the offense and every player within the offense is key in order for Michigan to have a chance in this game. The Spartans have recorded nine interceptions in eight games and their secondary is led by senior Darqueze Dennard, who has two interceptions and seven pass breakups. Gardner is going to need to take his shots downfield and when called upon, Jeremy Gallon and Devin Funchess will need to rise to the occasion in order to make those shots count. Gardner has gone one game without an interception. If he can get through a second consecutive game --especially considering the second game is coming against the Spartans -- that would be a big, big deal.

3. The Spartans pass rush. It only makes sense that the first three things to watch about this game are in regard to the MSU defense because it's very, very good. If Michigan's offense is very good, then it'll be interesting to watch because of how well-played the game could be, but if Michigan's offense isn't good, then the Spartans defense will be making plays and providing highlights. But keep an eye on the pass rush because if Gardner throws an interception, it'll likely be because he gets forced out of the pocket because of the MSU pass rush. The Spartans have recorded 18 sacks this season, 13 of those coming from four defensive linemen -- Shilique Calhoun, Marcus Rush, Tyler Hoover and Denzel Drone.

4. Michigan defense's response. Enough talk of the MSU defense; let's discuss the Wolverines' defense -- which needs to make a big statement after the unimpressive performance against Indiana. The Michigan defensive line, which hasn't provided a consistent pass rush, will attempt to get MSU quarterback Connor Cook out of his comfort zone. But it'll need to be stout against the run too, as Jeremy Langford is really coming in to his own at running back.

5. The environment. Spartan Stadium is going to be rocking. "Comments" are going to be flying between the two teams. And the Wolverines, who've looked far from consistent on the road this season, will be thrown right in the middle of it. Redshirt freshman Erik Magnuson and true freshman Kyle Bosch will likely be starting on the offensive line. Funchess, a sophomore, will be expected to make big plays. Freshman Derrick Green could be used to pick up some yardage. And freshmen Channing Stribling and Jourdan Lewis, who've been so close to making plays in the Wolverines secondary, could get picked apart if they aren't on their 'A' games. This will be a big moment on a huge stage, and anything less than perfect could spell disaster for Michigan.

Planning for success: Michigan

October, 31, 2013
10/31/13
8:00
AM ET
Rivalry games are always physical. Each hit has an added level of emotion and pride to it. But when Michigan and Michigan State take the field this Saturday, it’ll be even more than that. This game takes it to another level.

“There’s always going to be that extra physical-ness before and a little bit after the whistle -- that’s what these games are all about,” tackle Taylor Lewan said. “That’s the beauty of a rivalry.”

[+] Enlarge Taylor Lewan
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesTaylor Lewan and the Michigan offensive line know that Michigan State's physical defensive line is going to get after them.
Last season, this game accounted for 13 total penalties, which was actually an improvement from the previous season in Spartan Stadium, which saw 18.

But the problem with that is that the Wolverines admit that they were outmuscled when it came to that physicality two years ago in East Lansing when they lost, 28-14.

And for a team that prides itself on physicality, especially in the trenches, that added insult to injury as the Wolverines headed back to Ann Arbor.

“I take it personally,” Lewan said. “Nobody likes to get bullied and that’s what they did two years ago, they bullied us, and that’s tough. ... I don’t like getting bullied, I don’t want it to happen. It’s going to be a physical game. It’s going to be a very physical game. We’re not going to get bullied this year.”

Michigan coach Brady Hoke prides his teams on their ability to match up physically to anyone in the country, though in each of the Wolverines’ losses over the past few seasons -- like the one in East Lansing two years ago -- it could be argued that his group was on the lesser end of the physicality scale.

The Wolverines will need to match up with the Spartans up front, which will be a tall task.

Most likely, Hoke will stick with redshirt freshman Erik Magnuson and true freshman Kyle Bosch at the guard positions, giving the Wolverines a very youthful offensive front.

The Spartans defensive front has given up an FBS-low 10 rushes of 10 yards or more this season. Alabama, Memphis and Ohio State are tied for second with 17 rushes of 10 yards or more. And 34 percent of opponent rushes against the Spartans gain zero or negative yards.

Undoubtedly, it’s a big measuring stick for the Wolverines offense, which will try to match the physicality and play of the Spartans, but Hoke avoided putting too many eggs in that basket earlier this week.

“Would this be a defining moment? I don’t know,” Hoke said. “I think it’s a learning moment. You learn a little bit more about your guys as a team. Until you put anybody in those kinds of games in that environment, and that’s where we’ve got to do a good job of what we do and the preparation for them.”

But a lot of that preparation will be for the Spartans’ level of physicality. Hoke said that this week in practice things have gotten chippy between a few players, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing as it shows that guys are willing to practice and play with an edge.

And they’re going to need that edge in East Lansing.

“We need to be the more physical team every single Saturday,” Lewan said. “If you want to win championships, especially in the Big Ten, it’s a physical conference, you’re going to get banged up a little bit. That’s what happens. You have to power through. ... The great teams keep going no matter what.”

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Drive Through: Big Ten Preview
VIDEO PLAYLIST video