Michigan Wolverines: Jack Miller
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.
No. 3: Center
Who’s in the mix: Graham Glasgow, Patrick Kugler, Jack Miller, Blake Bars
Glasgow was formerly a guard, and he's probably better suited there naturally. Kugler came in as a true center. At 6-foot-5 and 287 pounds, Kugler has good size for a center, though he needs to put on more weight. The average size of the six finalists for the Rimington Trophy last season was 6-4 and 304 pounds, so Kugler is still a bit small in comparison. However, Kugler is a bit more compact than Glasgow and has the benefit of spending a year in the playbook and weight room before playing a down for the Wolverines.
They say that if there’s going to be youth on the offensive line, it’s best to have it on the outside, which will likely be the case for the Wolverines in 2014. The opposite was shown this past season, as the youth was on the interior and Michigan averaged an almost-conference-worst 3.3 yards per rush and allowed 36 sacks, which was better than just two other Big Ten teams. Glasgow certainly has the upper hand when it comes to experience and the in-game chemistry he already gained with the likely guard starters, Kyle Bosch and Kyle Kalis. However, with Kugler’s football pedigree -- his father, Sean, is currently the head coach at UTEP and is a former offensive line coach with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Buffalo Bills -- and his time spent solely learning the scheme with Darrell Funk, Kugler could make this a battle.
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.
The Wolverines have started three different offensive lines through seven games. And while Michigan had its best game -- statistically -- last Saturday, it was against one of the worst defenses in the Big Ten.
“Even with that, Hoke was happy with the push from the offensive line and the protection it provided for quarterback Devin Gardner.
Obviously the big test in two weeks, you're playing one of the top five defenses in the country and in our conference in all the categories. We've got a lot of work to do before then.” Coach Brady Hoke on the Wolverines' next game at Michigan State.
“I liked the progress that they made,” Hoke said. “And even the guys who weren’t starting, the weeks that they had were significant in their development. The competition that we always have, I think, is helping us as a football team.”
That competition so far this season has provided enough talent for Hoke to shuffle faces around on the O-line. The three players who have started every game are Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield at the tackles and Graham Glasgow, first at left guard, and then moving over to center when conference play began.
One of the bigger personnel surprises was redshirt freshman Kyle Kalis being moved out of the starting lineup. Coaches had spoken highly of him from the beginning of fall camp, but even though he lost his starting spot to redshirt freshman Erik Magnuson, Hoke said that Kalis is still in the middle of that competition.
“I think he’s probably responded like you’d like him to,” Hoke said. “He has had a good week of practice -- came out and was physical, really understands that we’re going to need him. The next five games I can assure you we’re going to need every guy that we have in both fronts to play their best football.”
And they might be using that depth as they already have this season. Here’s a look at who played where through the first seven games this season.
Central Michigan to Connecticut:
LT: Taylor Lewan (Erik Magnuson)
LG: Graham Glasgow (Chris Bryant)
C: Jack Miller (Joey Burzynski)
RG: Kyle Kalis (Erik Gunderson)
RT: Michael Schofield (Ben Braden, Magnuson)
Minnesota and Penn State:
LT: Lewan (when Lewan got injured: Schofield, Gunderson)
LG: Chris Bryant (Burzynski)
RG: Kalis (Burzynski)
RT: Schofield (Magnuson)
LG: Joey Burzynski (Kyle Bosch)
RG: Magnuson (Kalis)
It will be interesting to see what Hoke and his staff decide to do with his group going forward.
On Monday, Hoke announced that Burzynski would be out the rest of the season with a torn ACL so that opens up the left guard spot again. When Burzynski exited the Indiana game, Hoke inserted Bosch, a freshman who held his own.
Whether Bosch can keep that spot, or if Hoke and his staff decide to shuffle more players around the line, will be something that plays out over the next week and a half as the Wolverines prepare for Michigan State.
The Spartans are the country’s best defense, allowing just 228 yards per game, including just 59 rushing yards per game. Considering the rushing performance the Wolverines had against Indiana, they’ll be heading into that game feeling confident, but they’ll certainly have their work cut out for them.
“Obviously the big test in two weeks, you’re playing one of the top five defenses in the country and in our conference in all the categories,” Hoke said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do before then.”
What we know so far
2. The linebackers might be the most solid position group on the team, even without Jake Ryan. Who would've thought that was possible? When Ryan went down with an ACL tear, for many Michigan fans it seemed as though their worlds were crashing down. But instead, Brennen Beyer has been a very good SAM linebacker, and Desmond Morgan and James Ross III both have been solid. Not to mention the depth behind those three in Cameron Gordon and Joe Bolden. With the expected return of Ryan sometime in October, it's pretty crazy to think how talented the linebackers will be and what exactly they'll do to distribute the wealth. Assuming Ryan is back in tip-top shape, the Wolverines could use Beyer on the both the D-line and at SAM ,as he has played both over the two years, or, Mattison could scheme completely differently.
3. The defense has bent but not broken -- under Greg Mattison this has seemed to be a trait of a Wolverine D. Whether it be because they lack depth at certain positions or the offense just keeps putting them in tough spots, the Michigan defense has found itself in a number of tight situations but been on the winning end nearly all the time. Between the quick-change situations because of turnovers or the quick scoring situations in other games, the Wolverines have found themselves trotting on the field just as quickly as they left it. In a lot of young teams, that kind of mental turnover can create mistakes, but Michigan hasn't been a victim of that too badly. The defense obviously needs work, but their focus and ability to respond hasn't gone unnoticed.
1. Is there enough talent/depth to put together an offensive line? Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield seem to be safe. However, the interior three spots are written in pencil, as Hoke and Al Borges have said over and over again. But the interior line has struggled quite a bit, specifically the last two games. Lewan said that Graham Glasgow, Jack Miller and Kyle Kalis displayed a sense of urgency in the second half against UConn, but that was about six quarters too late. Michigan really hasn't funneled anyone else through there, so the coaching staff was either waiting until the bye week to test guys at different positions, or they don't have enough depth (or they have too many injuries). It could be a combination of many things, but there's a decent chance that we won't see the same starting five against Minnesota.
2. What happened to Gardner? Can it really be fixed? Can it be avoided? Throughout his career, he seemed completely unfazed by the pressures of being a Michigan quarterback, going through a position change, stepping into the spotlight, what have you. But for some reason, all that came crashing down against Akron and UConn. The young, inexperienced Gardner came to the forefront, and for the most part, he looked out of synch. But give him some props -- when Michigan desperately needed a score against the Zips and Huskies, he got the Wolverines in position to get one. But outside of that, the turnovers looked atrocious. Worse yet, Hoke said they've reached a point where they're re-coaching him, or having to give him the same correction multiple times, because he's making the same error multiple times. That was not a problem earlier in his career. But it's crucial Michigan figures out what happened to Gardner, not only so they can fix it, but also so they can avoid it in the future.
3. Is the secondary going to step up? The Wolverines' defensive pressure up front has steadily improved through the non-conference schedule, and that has helped all the defenders behind it. It seems strange to start up front when discussing a problem with the secondary, but part of the reason the secondary is giving up so many big pass plays is the fact that the D-line's pass rush hasn't always been fantastic. Every single play of 20 or more yards the Wolverines have given up has been through the air. The secondary has played soft coverage time and time again, and the players keep getting beat. The Wolverines are going to face quarterbacks -- like Penn State's Christian Hackenberg, Nebraska's Taylor Martinez and Ohio State's Braxton Miller -- that will try to exploit that as much as they can, because that'll only open up the run game for their backs (or for themselves).
Michigan knew it would be young up front with three brand-new interior O-line starters -- left guard Graham Glasgow, center Jack Miller and right guard Kyle Kalis -- and while the struggles might not have shown up as much against Central Michigan and Notre Dame, they did against Akron and UConn.
So if there seems to be a place on offense that a new starter might emerge by the time the conference season hits, the offensive line might not be a bad bet.
“I think the three guys in the middle [of] the offensive line are always something that we look at,” coach Brady Hoke said. “There are some guys who have played well in there, but there’s great competition behind them. So if a guy has a good practice, good couple days, you may move him up.”
That’s a lot of pressure to put on three very young guys, but Hoke said that so far they’ve responded well to pressure.
But it wouldn’t just affect the interior line. Obviously, Hoke can’t make changes there without having it also affect left tackle Taylor Lewan and right tackle Michael Schofield.
But Lewan said he would be open to moving guys around or bringing news guys in if that’s what it takes to get the offensive line back to a Michigan standard.
“All of the offensive linemen on this team are great guys, as far as character, and if the coaches believe that another guy should get a shot, I’m going to work with him as much as I can,” Lewan said. “My job is to get this offensive line right, to get this team right.”
But he has also seen good, promising performances out of the youthful O-line.
Lewan said that he has seen intensity in the group, which is often a big jump to make, but that it hasn’t been quite as consistent as he wants it to be, nor has it always matched the intensity of their coaching staff.
“I saw a huge sense of urgency in those young guys [against UConn],” Lewan said. “Those guys are starting to build their legacy and build what they want in the future. ... I think it really clicked for them in the second half of the game.”
But the problem is that it’s taking a while for it to click, and Michigan doesn’t really have a lot of time left. With Big Ten play starting next weekend, the Wolverines know they’ll have to be perfect, or close to it, if they want a chance to play for the conference championship.
This bye week was well-timed to give the Wolverines a chance to try out a few new lineups. Perhaps Ben Braden, Chris Bryant or Erik Magnuson will get a shot on the O-line.
However, there will be growing pains because those players have even less game experience than Michigan’s current starting group.
Lewan said that maybe the younger guys are thinking too much about the pressures and the O-line gradings and how each step affects them down the road. It’s natural for a younger guy to think of those things as he’s fighting to secure a spot in the starting line or rotation. But if Michigan wants to have an offensive line that is effective, Lewan thinks they might just have to get rid of ... thinking.
“There comes a time when you have to be a student of the game, you have to watch film, you have to know what you’re doing,” Lewan said. “But when you’re on the football field, you kind of just have to turn your brain off and play football.”
2. Figure out the offensive line. Michigan’s tackles have done well, and generally speaking, so has right guard Kyle Kalis. However, left guard Graham Glasgow and center Jack Miller have looked in over their heads way too often for Michigan to feel confident about it’s O-line going forward. If the interior line can get its act together that will only help Gardner. It will also help the Wolverines' run game, so really, this might be the biggest issue Michigan needs to fix this week. Fans can’t expect Gardner to work miracles when there’s no consistent run game and no protection in front of him. It was hinted at that a few guys were banged up and since we really haven’t seen much rotation on the offensive line, we can likely assume that a few of those guys are offensive linemen. Maybe with two weeks to get better, they can compete better for spots in the interior line.
3. Shore up its secondary. Senior captain Courtney Avery returned to the starting lineup in Michigan’s game against UConn, but he really didn’t add that much to an already struggling secondary. The defensive backs' motto is to keep everything “inside and in front,” but they haven’t done that so far. The Wolverines have played pretty soft coverage so far this season and Michigan doesn’t really seem to have a very good reason for that. It has allowed big-play potential for opponents. Through four games, Michigan has allowed 15 plays of 20 or more yards, including three of 40 or more yards. And all 15 of those plays were passing plays. Michigan defensive backs need to defend those receivers better, but also, the defensive line needs to get a better pass rush to help out its defensive backs.
1. House party: If the second night game at Michigan Stadium is anything like the first, we'll all be thrilled (well, except for those Notre Dame folks). Michigan and Notre Dame delivered the drama two years ago under the lights, and the spectacle Saturday night in Ann Arbor should once again be incredible. The teams' past four meetings have all been decided by seven points or fewer (19 points total). The series sadly disappears after the 2014 meeting in South Bend, so enjoy it while it lasts.
2. Rees vs. Gardner: Notre Dame-Michigan features another appetizing quarterback matchup. While Tommy Rees remains a polarizing figure for some Notre Dame fans, it's hard to argue with what he has done against Michigan. Before last Saturday's opener against Temple, Rees' only 300-yard passing performance came against Michigan two years ago, and he led Notre Dame to victory last fall. Rees can stretch the field, as he had more passes of 20 yards or longer against Temple (7) than Everett Golson had in any game last season. Devin Gardner was Michigan's leading receiver last year against Notre Dame, but he's firmly entrenched as a quarterback. Gardner has been deadly in the red zone for the Wolverines, converting 19 touchdowns in 22 red zone trips as the starter.
3. Spartans looking for a spark: Michigan State basically has two more weeks to get its offense right before facing one of the nation's top defenses on the road at Notre Dame. The unit's opening act was highly disappointing, as Michigan State averaged just 3.8 yards per play against a Western Michigan defense that ranked 61st nationally in 2012. Head coach Mark Dantonio has kept mostly quiet about his quarterback situation this week as four players continue to get reps in practice. The Spartans need a solution there and at other offensive spots against South Florida, which allowed 56 points to McNeese State in its opening loss.
4. Illini aim to continue big-play ways: One of the nation's most feeble offenses in 2012 broke out last week against Southern Illinois, as Illinois recorded six plays of 30 yards or longer -- matching its total from all of last season! Senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase recorded a career-high 416 pass yards and featured weapons like Josh Ferguson and Ryan Lankford. The question is whether the Illini can come close to that type of production against a much, much tougher opponent in Cincinnati, which held Purdue to one short scoring drive and only 226 yards last week. We'll get a much better gauge about Illinois' offensive progress against Tommy Tuberville's defense.
5. Northwestern's health: After a mostly injury-free season in 2012, Northwestern already has been bitten by that pesky bug early this fall. The Wildcats will be without starting cornerback Daniel Jones (knee) for the rest of the season, putting redshirt freshman Dwight White in the spotlight against Syracuse. Top quarterback Kain Colter (head) and running back Venric Mark (leg) both are questionable for the game. If Northwestern can survive again like it did last week against Cal, it has a chance to get healthy in the next two weeks against weaker opponents before a two-week prep for Ohio State.
7. Indiana's offensive efficiency: Kevin Wilson's Hoosiers scored touchdowns on five of their first six offensive possessions in last week's opener against Indiana State, en route to a Memorial Stadium-record 73 points. If Indiana can come close to that type of efficiency Saturday against Navy, it will improve to 2-0. Possessions likely will be limited against the Midshipmen, as Indiana found out last year when it had only 10 offensive drives in a 31-30 loss. The Hoosiers had to settle for three field goals of 30 yards or less and need to be better about punching it in against Navy. "You don't get as many at-bats," Wilson said.
8. Second chances: Purdue and Iowa didn't get off to the starts they wanted in Week 1, and neither did Nebraska's defense, which surrendered 35 first downs and 602 yards to Wyoming in the opener. Fortunately, all three teams should redeem themselves against weaker competition on Saturday. The Boilermakers need to boost quarterback Rob Henry's confidence and fix their communication problems on offense against Indiana State. Iowa quarterback Jake Rudock must rebound from his late interception against Missouri State. The Huskers defense, meanwhile, aims to clean things up against a Southern Miss team that has lost 13 straight and scored just 15 points against Texas State last week.
9. Wolverines' youth put to test: Don't be surprised if Michigan-Notre Dame comes down to how well the Wolverines' young interior offensive line performs against an elite Fighting Irish defensive front led by nose guard Louis Nix III and end Stephon Tuitt, two potential first-round picks in next April's NFL draft. Michigan will start redshirt freshman Kyle Kalis at right guard, true sophomore Jack Miller at center and redshirt sophomore Graham Glasgow at left guard. They'll be challenged all night long (especially Miller) as they try to create running room for Fitzgerald Toussaint and protect Gardner.
10. Hack's home debut: Penn State fans have been waiting more than a year and a half to watch quarterback Christian Hackenberg take snaps at Beaver Stadium. They'll finally get their chance Saturday as the Lions face Eastern Michigan in their home opener. Hackenberg had a few expected hiccups in his collegiate debut against Syracuse but also showed why he can be such a special player for Penn State's offense. Head coach Bill O'Brien vows to put Hackenberg in better positions to succeed this week. Hackenberg also will have top weapon Allen Robinson at his disposal from the start, which should make a big difference.
Under the lights ... and two of college football’s oldest rivals in one of their last scheduled meetings … and College GameDay. Does it get any better than this? Only when Big Ten reporter Brian Bennett, Dame reporter Matt Fortuna and Michigan reporter Chantel Jennings get together to talk about it. Today, they discuss a few topics surrounding the highly anticipated matchup.
1. Over the past few years, this rivalry has seen its fair share of big stars excel during this game -- Denard Robinson's 502 yards in 2010, Roy Roundtree's game-winning catch in 2011, Manti Teo's defensive performance in 2012. Which player could you see having a mega game on Saturday?
Bennett: How about Jeremy Gallon? The Michigan receiver had the huge 64-yard catch that set up Roundtree's game-winner in 2011. While he wasn't as active in last year's game, that's primarily because the Wolverines were busy throwing the ball to Notre Dame. Gallon has been more effective ever since Devin Gardner started running the show, and I could see him burning the Irish secondary for some big plays.
Jennings: The heroes this game has helped create have kind of come out of nowhere in some instances. So I’m going to pick a guy who has been flying under the radar statistically, who I think has the ability to show up in big games, and that’s Michigan tight end Devin Funchess. He had a fine freshman year and a better offseason. I think we could see him be a big difference maker on Saturday.
Fortuna: If I'm Notre Dame, I'm gearing up for Gardner, since Michigan quarterback play has essentially decided these contests in one form or another in each of the past four years. From the Irish side, though, I think wide receiver DaVaris Daniels could break out. He was Notre Dame's best offensive player in the national title game loss to Alabama, hauling in six catches for 115 yards. On Saturday against Temple, the redshirt sophomore had three catches for 69 yards, including a pair of 32-yard touchdown receptions on the Irish's first two drives.
2. Which mismatch between these two teams are you most intrigued to watch?
Bennett: On paper at least, it's the Michigan interior offensive line vs. Notre Dame nose guard Louis Nix III. Center Jack Miller and guards Kyle Kalis and Graham Glasgow are talented and played well together last week, but they have very little experience. Nix, meanwhile, is a 357-pound man-mountain who helped anchor a championship-level defense last season. He commands double teams, and it will be up to Michigan's young inside guys to keep him in check so Stephon Tuitt and others can't wreak even more havoc.
Fortuna: I'll say Notre Dame's offensive line against Michigan's defensive line. The Irish have three starters back from last season, along with a very talented center in Nick Martin. One of the reasons they were able to jump out to a 17-point lead in Ann Arbor two years ago was because of their ability to run up the middle, as the Irish averaged six yards per rush on the night. Notre Dame is now in its third straight year of starting Zack Martin and Chris Watt together on the left side, and it has started using pistol packages in 2013 to tailor to the strengths of some of its young backs in hopes of establishing a downhill run game. This is far from a "mismatch," but with Michigan returning just three starters from last season's front seven, and with the teams so evenly matched across the board, I'd say this is where Notre Dame probably has the biggest edge. Conversely, I can't wait to see Tuitt and Lewan go head-to-head. Both will be a lot richer eight months from now.
3. Is there any way this game could one-up the last time these two teams met in the Big House?
Bennett: It's possible that this could be an even better overall game than the one in 2011, just not as flashy. People remember the Michigan comeback and the crazy fourth quarter, but it was a pretty lopsided affair until then. That wild finish was made possible by major defensive breakdowns on both sides, and both teams are much more sound defensively now. I believe these are two legitimate top-15 teams, so we should expect a tight game. The atmosphere won't be quite as special because it won't be the first time under the lights at the Big House. But Notre Dame-Michigan usually finds a way to amaze us.
Jennings: I was on the sideline for the final minutes of that matchup two years ago, and to call the atmosphere electric would still be selling it short. I don’t know if the Wolverines have had a game as exciting since, so I’m going to go with no. I think it’ll be a great game and the fact that it’s the last in Michigan Stadium for the foreseeable future adds a lot. But as far as the plays themselves, jam packed into that short amount of time, I just don’t see that being topped.
Fortuna: I said no to this same question two years ago and was sadly mistaken, so I'll try not to be as definitive in my answer this time around. Whether it was Denard Robinson or Tate Forcier before him, magic seems to always happen in the late moments of this game. I'll just go ahead and make the bold prediction that if Notre Dame takes the lead with 30 seconds remaining this time, its secondary will hold up and secure an Irish win. Like I said, bold.
It doesn’t hold quite as much drama as last year’s season opener against Alabama, but it’s official. College football is back and here are five storylines to watch for as the Wolverines take the field.
1. Youth and inexperience on Michigan’s offensive line.
This really is one of Michigan’s biggest question marks heading into the season. Graham Glasgow, Jack Miller and Kyle Kalis combine for zero starts. Much of the offense’s success rests on how well the offensive line meshes. If these young guys don’t play more experienced than they are, it could be trouble. Michigan wants to go with a group rather than tweaking throughout the season and the Wolverines definitely don’t want to be tweaking the line the following weekend against Notre Dame, so these three need to be stout in the middle.
2. How much the Wolverines give away offensively
On Wednesday, Brady Hoke said they wouldn’t hold anything back against Central Michigan. “We got nothing to hide. We really don't,” he said. “We've got nothing to hide in what we do and how we do it. I think that is really overblown when you're trying to keep something that maybe they haven't seen.” Now, there’s definitely truth to what he said. The Wolverines are going to be who they are and coaches know that. But Devin Gardner also said that this is the thickest the playbook has been at this point in the season since he has been here. They obviously won’t put everything in this weekend, but I do think they’ll show some. Some of that will be to work kinks out but I don’t think it’s completely insane to say that some of that will be to keep Notre Dame on its heels. For example, two seasons ago, Borges and Hoke unveiled the deuce package -- Gardner and Denard Robinson in at the same time -- in a 58-0 rout of Minnesota. Did Michigan need to use that then? Nope. But it did. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it was two weeks before the Wolverines traveled to East Lansing to play Michigan State. There were definitely a few wrenches thrown in Mark Dantonio’s game plan.
3. The return of running back Fitzgerald Toussaint
Michigan coaches say he’s 100 percent. He says he’s 100 percent. Teammates say he’s 100 percent. We’ll finally be able to see on Saturday. It’s more and more common these days to see athletes, like Toussaint, return from gruesome injuries, but it’ll be interesting to see how the coaches use him, how he moves on the field and how he takes that first hit. If the Wolverines get an early lead, don’t expect to see too much of him though. Michigan is still working with its running back depth and with six guys on the depth chart, the coaches will be looking for who can really be that third-down back or who they can rely on to step in for Toussaint to give him a rest (or who could overtake him, really). It won’t be too crazy -- depending on the score -- if we do see three or four guys get carries as Michigan tests the waters with multiple guys.
4. CMU’s senior running back Zurlon Tipton
Other than having the best name of anyone playing Saturday, he could also be the best running back on the field. As a junior, Tipton rushed for 19 touchdowns and 1,492 yards on 252 carries. His hands are solid and he accounted for 24 receptions for 287 yards last season. He’s going to be the Chippewas’ best offensive weapon and the Wolverines are prepared for that, but whether they’ll be able to stop him is another subject entirely. Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said Tuesday that Tipton is a "great cutback runner and he’s a very physical back. He earns a reputation. You watch him, he's running down the sideline and a lot of guys would step out of bounds. He turns back in to try and hit somebody." He should provide a test for the Michigan defense right out of the blocks.
5. The depth along Michigan’s defensive line
Mattison said Tuesday that he believes he has enough depth in the defensive line to run three-deep at each position. Obviously, we’d see more of guys like Jibreel Black, Quinton Washington and Frank Clark but don’t be too surprised if you do see second- or third-string players -- Willie Henry, Matt Godin, Taco Charlton, Mario Ojemudia -- getting into the game and making some plays. Mattison said he had this much depth once before, at Florida. The real test will come when we see if the second and third strings can get as much pressure, from a straight four-man rush, on the opposing QB. Because while Michigan might be able to run three deep against an offensive line and quarterback like Central, they might not be able to do the same against an Ohio State squad.
Now, on to this week’s questions…
1. Andre Davis, Evansville: What's the biggest weakness on this year's team?
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.
On Thursday at Big Ten media days, Lewan went whole hog on the details of his short-lived swine time. Getting a pet pig was the brainchild of him and his roommates Erik Gunderson, Michael Schofield, Jack Miller and Graham Glasgow, who are all fellow offensive linemen.
"So we bought a pig," Lewan started off, and if there's a better way to begin a story, I haven't heard it. "Offensive linemen are hogs, and that's how that works."
Where do you find a pig? Craigslist, of course. The linemen pooled their money and spent $250 for a teacup pig. As for the robust name?
"I don't know," he said. "I just wanted my pig to have a Ph.D."
The Wolverines players weren't quite prepared for what they had gotten themselves into, however.
"It was fun for about two weeks," Lewan said. "Then the pig got kind of mean. We weren't neglecting it or anything. We were being sweet to it."
The little porker's sour disposition wasn't totally his fault. The house Lewan and his teammates are renting has a lot of hardwood floors and tile, which does not combine well with a pig's hooves. Lewan said Dr. Hamlet III ended up confined to a small rug area roughly the size of a ballroom round table.
"I thought it was going to be a good deal, but I didn't realize the hooves of a pig struggle so hard with the tile," Lewan said. "It got in the kitchen one time, and it was like watching Bambi on the ice, if you've ever seen that movie. It was so comical."
After about two weeks, the players decided that their pig experience needed to end. Lewan said Gunderson arranged for Dr. Hamlet III to find a more suitable home.
"A living animal can't be confined to a small space like that," he said. "So we decided that the best thing for the pig was to give it away, and now he's a happy pig. We sent it to a farm where it could do pig things."
As for the Wolverines linemen, Lewan said they've given up on the idea of having a pet this year. Not even a dog or a cat?
"Nah," he said. "That's too normal for us."
And one of those candidates, Fitzgerald Toussaint, is close to entirely back to health.
“He’s been working hard under the radar,” safety Thomas Gordon said. “Getting back from that leg injury. He’s a hard worker and I can’t wait to see him get back on that field because we hated to see him go out last year.
Gordon said Toussaint has his speed and has cut well, but the redshirt senior from Youngstown, Ohio, has yet to take an actual hit with pads on since he broke his leg against Iowa on Nov. 17, 2012.
He missed spring practice rehabbing but insisted by the end of the spring he was close to being healthy. He rushed for 1,041 yards as a sophomore but struggled last season, rushing for only 514 yards and five touchdowns.
Toussaint will end up competing in the fall with freshmen Derrick Green and Deveon Smith. Between the three of them, one of them should end up winning the job.
“We haven’t seen too much of the freshmen,” Gordon said. “But from what I hear from my strength coaches, they have been working hard.”
Hoke happier with depth
When Brady Hoke took over at Michigan in 2011, the depth at his favorite positions -- the offensive and defensive lines -- was non-existent. They barely had enough to field a team on an actual game day and the depth was littered with walk-ons.
This season, Hoke’s third in Ann Arbor, he feels a lot better about both his line play and the amount of guys around. Michigan’s depth, despite the lack of a release of an actual depth chart, should have scholarship players throughout the two-deep on both offense and defense.
“Our numbers are up,” Hoke said. “I think our competition throughout spring. I think the competition that, in how they did things through summer have improved both positions, particularly the interior of the offensive line and the interior of the defensive line.”
While he hasn’t been able to watch any of the competition for the three open interior offensive line spots yet -- Ben Braden and Kyle Kalis are the presumed leaders at guard and Jack Miller at center -- he knows what he would like to see from them by the end of August.
Hitting. A lot of hitting.
“I want to see them knock people off the football and finish blocks,” Hoke said. “And not do it with good humor.”
Poole done playing football
Michigan linebacker Antonio Poole, who redshirted as a freshman and then missed last season with a pectoral injury, will no longer play for the Wolverines.
He will remain with the program, however, as a student assistant coach. The Cincinnati native was the No. 41 linebacker in his class coming out of Winton Woods High School. He was not expected to contribute this season.
1. We're less than a month to fall camp, which kink will it be important for the Wolverines to work out in those practices?
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Six of the top defenders Michigan will play are in the top five of their respective positions for the 2014 NFL draft as rated by Mel Kiper Jr. The top three could all challenge to be drafted as high, if not higher, than Michigan star tackle Taylor Lewan next April as well.
It isn’t a surprise, either, that six of the 10 top defensive players Michigan will play come from the Wolverines’ three major rivals: Notre Dame, Ohio State and Michigan State.
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Michigan Investigated By Feds
BIG TEN SCOREBOARD
Final Washington State 45 Colorado State 48 Final 20 Fresno State 20 25 USC 45 Final Buffalo 24 San Diego State 49 Final Tulane 21 Louisiana-Lafayette 24
Final Pittsburgh 30 Bowling Green 27 Final Utah State 21 23 Northern Illinois 14
Final Marshall 31 Maryland 20 Final Syracuse 21 Minnesota 17 Final Brigham Young 16 Washington 31
Final Rutgers 16 Notre Dame 29 Final Cincinnati 17 North Carolina 39 Final Miami (FL) 9 18 Louisville 36 Final Michigan 14 Kansas State 31
Final Middle Tennessee 6 Navy 24 Final Ole Miss 25 Georgia Tech 17 Final 10 Oregon 30 Texas 7 Final 14 Arizona State 23 Texas Tech 37
Final Arizona 42 Boston College 19 Final Virginia Tech 12 17 UCLA 42 Final Rice 7 Mississippi State 44 Final 24 Duke 48 21 Texas A&M 52
Final Nebraska 24 22 Georgia 19 Final UNLV 14 North Texas 36 Final Iowa 14 16 LSU 21 Final 19 Wisconsin 24 9 South Carolina 34 Final 5 Stanford 20 4 Michigan State 24 Final 15 UCF 52 6 Baylor 42
Final 13 Oklahoma State 31 8 Missouri 41 Final 12 Clemson 40 7 Ohio State 35