Michigan Wolverines: Inside the Game: Michigan-OSU

The "Inside the Game" position preview series continues with the crux of any defense -- and long a position with a lot of lineage at both Michigan and Ohio State: Linebackers.

BuckeyeNation’s Austin Ward and WolverineNation’s Michael Rothstein take a look at the men in the middle of both defenses.

Michigan’s linebackers can rejoice. For the first time since any of them has been a Wolverine, they will play in essentially the same defensive scheme with the same defensive coordinator for the second season in a row.

And if you think that doesn’t make a difference, you’re kidding yourself. Even defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said as much, that having the players learning the same system for the second year allows for a faster refresher course along with more advanced teaching. And for the linebackers more than any other defensive position group, this is critical.

Michigan has the bulk of its main playmakers at the position back, including fifth-year senior Kenny Demens in the middle along with sophomores Desmond Morgan and Jake Ryan on the outside.

Demens is Michigan’s leading returning tackler with 94 last season, including three sacks. Morgan, as a freshman, was fifth in tackles with 63. At linebacker, that kind of production is expected.

That starting group, though, will be pushed. Junior Cam Gordon is fighting with Ryan for time, as is senior Brandin Hawthorne behind Morgan. Also involved are a gaggle of talented freshmen, including James Ross III, Royce Jenkins-Stone, Kaleb Ringer and Joe Bolden, who enrolled last spring and could see a lot of time his freshman season.

Still, though, it is a young group with a lot of room to grow and likely won’t see its true potential for another season or two.

Ohio State
There may not be a linebacker with the name recognition of the Ohio State legends that have come before them.

By its own admission, the current group of Buckeyes didn’t live up to the expectations established by those predecessors.

But even without a Hawk or Laurinaitis this fall, the middle of the defense should be much improved even if there isn’t any established star on the roster during training camp.

Perhaps by the time the Buckeyes take on their rivals at the end of the season, though, sophomores Ryan Shazier and Curtis Grant could make themselves a lot more familiar to folks around the Big Ten. Shazier in particular began building some buzz for himself during a three-game tackling barrage when he was inserted into the starting lineup due to injury last season and responded with 30 takedowns.

Now Shazier appears to have a more permanent spot in the rotation, and along with Grant and senior Etienne Sabino they should give defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Luke Fickell a solid foundation to start with. While there isn’t much experience in reserve to work with right now, the Buckeyes loaded up with five talented signees in February who will ultimately be charged with restoring the program’s proud defensive tradition.

There probably won’t be as much pressure to do it right away with arguably the best line in the nation in front and a skilled, veteran secondary behind them. But they should be able to get things back on track either way.
The Inside The Game Ohio State-Michigan positional previews with BuckeyeNation’s Austin Ward and WolverineNation’s Michael Rothstein continue today with a look at perhaps the biggest question marks on the offense for both schools.

The wide receivers and tight ends.

Ohio State
Ward: Urban Meyer didn’t sugarcoat his assessments in the spring, and those words have surely been ringing in the ears of the targets in the passing game all summer.

Maybe the new Ohio State coach was simply trying to send a message to the receivers about how important they are in the spread offense. Perhaps Meyer is truly concerned about the talent he’s inherited at those skill positions -- or maybe it’s a combination of the two.

Regardless, after posting some of the worst receiving numbers in the country last season, the Buckeyes are counting on more from the passing game and the group already on campus is going to be responsible for the improvement.

Devin Smith and Evan Spencer both have the ability to produce on the perimeter, and Corey “Philly” Brown has emerged as a viable candidate in the hybrid pivot position thanks to his speed and elusiveness. All of them earned a starting spot coming out of spring practice, but the player that perhaps excited the most for the Buckeyes during camp was Michael Thomas. The true freshman pulled down 12 catches in the spring game -- only two fewer than the highest total anybody posted for the entire 2011 season.

But the guy who might really help the offense and quarterback Braxton Miller take off is tight end Jake Stoneburner, an invaluable security blanket with a knack for turning his catches into points. Of the senior’s 14 catches last season, half of them went for touchdowns.

Rothstein: The biggest question for Michigan this season, offensively or defensively, is who is going to catch the ball consistently for the Wolverines. The coaches have preached having confidence in fifth-year senior Roy Roundtree and junior Jeremy Gallon, but neither has the size the graduated Junior Hemingway did.

Both have had productive seasons in the past -- Roundtree caught 72 passes for 935 yards as a sophomore in 2011 and Gallon had 31 catches for 453 yards last season -- but neither has shown great consistency.

Otherwise, Michigan is staring at a bunch of unknowns. Receivers Drew Dileo, Jerald Robinson and Jeremy Jackson have shown promise, but hardly ever in game situations. Incoming freshmen Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson both have the size and speed potential offensive coordinator Al Borges desires, but no experience.

Tight end, where Kevin Koger was a reliable option the past three seasons, is an even bigger question. The tight ends on the roster combine for two career catches, 28 yards and even less experience.

Fifth-year senior Brandon Moore -- once a highly-touted recruit -- is the likely starter here but otherwise the Wolverines are looking at two freshmen, Devin Funchess and A.J. Williams, and a fifth-year senior walk-on, Mike Kwiatkowski, to fill the role.

As good as Michigan’s run game may be, its receivers and tight ends could stall the offense unless they are able to identify consistent producers.

Inside Michigan-OSU: RBs

August, 1, 2012
Welcome to Inside The Game, a weekly discussion of some aspect of the Michigan-Ohio State football rivalry with BuckeyeNation’s Austin Ward and WolverineNation’s Michael Rothstein.

Today, Ward and Rothstein continue their look at the Michigan and Ohio State rosters with a peek at the team’s running backs.

Ohio State
Urban Meyer identified the playmaker he needs in his spread offense.

The Ohio State coach just won’t have him available when the season starts.

Senior Jordan Hall emerged from spring practice as the starting running back, but perhaps more importantly, he’s the leading candidate for the pivot position thanks to his speed, elusiveness and versatility out of the backfield. A freak injury in the summer will keep him from locking down that spot in training camp, and Hall also figures to be on the shelf for the first two weeks of the season as he recovers from the tendon he cut in his foot after stepping on a piece of glass.

That puts the pressure on Carlos Hyde to perform early, and if he lives up to his potential as the likely feature back in September, Hall might have a hard time getting the ball back from him. But if both are healthy and productive, Meyer and the Buckeyes should have enough flexibility with the offense to make life tough for opposing defenses.

If they have to keep looking for more help, sophomore Rod Smith has shown in flashes that he could be a weapon.

Rothstein: Michigan’s best running back is its quarterback, Denard Robinson, but when it comes to the actual position, its featured back -- much like Ohio State -- is currently unavailable.

Fitzgerald Toussaint has been suspended indefinitely following a drunken driving arrest earlier this month and as long as the 1,000-yard rusher is out -- Michigan coach Brady Hoke has not set a timetable for his return -- the Wolverines will be woefully inexperienced at the position.

The bulk of the carries will likely fall to sophomore Thomas Rawls, who saw very limited action last season, or senior Vincent Smith, who is a strong back but not what Michigan wants in a featured back at 5-foot-6, 175 pounds without the speed of a Reggie Bush.

It is unlikely Toussaint will be out for the season, so at some point Michigan will have its featured runner back, but until then it’ll be a mixed bag for the Wolverines.

Hoke and Robinson both expressed a lot of confidence in Rawls at Big Ten media days, praising how difficult he is to tackle and his running style. However, if he is playing in a featured role early, he’ll be learning a lot on the fly, which could prove difficult with defending national champion Alabama as the season opener.

Redshirt freshman Justice Hayes, whose skill set is more of a hybrid back/receiver than power back, could also see some time. True freshmen Drake Johnson and Dennis Norfleet likely aren’t ready to see any time yet, especially once Toussaint returns.
Welcome to "Inside The Game," a weekly discussion of some aspect of the Michigan-Ohio State football rivalry with BuckeyeNation’s Austin Ward and WolverineNation’s Michael Rothstein.

To kick things off, Ward and Rothstein will make arguments for each position group as to which has a better unit -- Michigan or Ohio State. Then you get to decide. The two start where almost everything starts on a college football team -- the quarterback.

Thrown into the pool as a freshman, Braxton Miller didn’t drown.

Playing in an offense that might not have been ideally suited for his skills, the sophomore now has a spread system and a new Ohio State coach in Urban Meyer who is salivating over his athleticism.

A year older and with starting experience, still as dynamic but in an offense tailor-made for his abilities, Miller could be on the brink of exploding on the national scene.

And assuming he stays healthy, he’ll have almost another full season of action under his belt by the time the Buckeyes take on their rivals in November -- a showdown that could include two of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the country.

Miller might not have quite as much national recognition as his counterpart just yet, but what might give the Buckeyes an edge is the depth they have under center this fall thanks to a similar set of skills backup Kenny Guiton brings to the table.

Both players are more than capable of making plays on the ground, and while there might have been some initial concern about accuracy or arm strength, Meyer tested his passers plenty in the spring and clearly feels comfortable with both options heading into camp.

Denard Robinson is back for one final go-round and if he wants to have the kind of success he’d like this season, all of it will start with how accurate his passing is. Gone are his two biggest safety nets -- Junior Hemingway and Kevin Koger -- and in their place come Roy Roundtree, Jeremy Gallon and a lot of inexperienced players at receiver and tight end.

This means Robinson will have to be more accurate with his passing.

His running will be there and he has a shot at breaking Pat White’s NCAA quarterback rushing record with a good season. But for the Wolverines to have success, he has to finally mature as a passing quarterback as much as a rushing one.

Robinson has already made great strides in other areas. His leadership has improved. His public speaking has grown exponentially. All of that could help him on the field, but if he puts the type of effort into the on-field growth as much as he did with his off-the-field stuff, he could have a special year

Teams still don’t know totally how to stop him and he’s going on his third season as a starter. All of that could line up for a special final season for Robinson at Michigan.


Which Players Have The Most To Prove In 2015?
With spring football upon us, Chris Low looks at which college football players have the most to prove in 2015.