Michigan Wolverines: Jehu Chesson
By indispensable, we don't necessarily mean best. We mean the players who would be hardest to replace between now and the start of the season if they got hurt/suspended/involved in a time-travel mishap, etc. That could be because of their value to the team or because of a lack of depth at their position.
We'll pick two players from each team, usually offense and defense, but not always. Our next stop in the series is the Michigan Wolverines.
It's tempting to pick the other Devin here and go with quarterback Devin Gardner. And maybe that would be the smarter call. But Brady Hoke keeps insisting that Shane Morris has made progress and is catching up to Gardner, so the Wolverines could weather a prolonged absence from Gardner. Depth is a much more pressing issue at the position Funchess plays. After losing Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo to graduation and Jake Butt to injury, Michigan has few other experienced receiving options. Freddy Canteen turned heads this spring but is still just a true freshman, while other players such as Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh must prove themselves. Funchess caught 49 passes for 748 yards and six touchdowns last fall, and the converted tight end is a matchup nightmare, especially in the red zone. His playmaking skills would be sorely missed.
Frank Clark, DE, Sr.
The Wolverines are building talent and depth along their defensive line, but Clark is still the best playmaker up front. He led the team with 12 tackles for loss last season while adding 4.5 sacks. The 6-foot-2, 270-pounder has elite athleticism and is looking for a major breakthrough season as a senior. Michigan has other options at defensive end, including Taco Charlton and Chris Wormley. But Clark has a chance to be the leader for an improved defensive line that could be the key to the entire defense.
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.
- 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.
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.
Illinois: The Illini are looking for more from this group after losing top target Steve Hull, who exploded late in the season to finish just shy of 1,000 receiving yards. While running back Josh Ferguson (50 catches in 2013) will continue to contribute, Illinois could use a boost from Martize Barr, who arrived with high expectations but only had 26 receptions last fall. Another junior-college transfer, Geronimo Allison, could make an impact beginning this spring, but there's some mystery at wideout. Illinois looks more solid at tight end with seniors Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse.
Indiana: Despite the somewhat surprising early departure of All-Big Ten selection Cody Latimer, Indiana should be fine here. Shane Wynn is the veteran of the group after recording 633 receiving yards on 46 catches last season. Kofi Hughes and Duwyce Wilson also depart, so Indiana will be leaning more on Nick Stoner and Isaiah Roundtree. The Hoosiers have high hopes for early enrollee Dominique Booth, a decorated recruit who could fill Latimer's spot on the outside. Productive tight end Ted Bolser departs and several players will compete, including early enrollee Jordan Fuchs.
Iowa: Almost all the wide receivers are back from a group in which none eclipsed more than 400 receiving yards in 2013. Balance is nice, but separation could be nicer for the Hawkeyes this spring. Kevonte Martin-Manley is the most experienced wideout and has 122 career receptions. Tevaun Smith also returns, and Iowa fans are excited about big-play threat Damond Powell, who averaged 24.2 yards on only 12 receptions last season. Iowa loses its top red-zone target in tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz and will need Jake Duzey to deliver more Ohio State-like performances.
Maryland: When the Terrapins get healthy, they might have the Big Ten's best wide receiving corps. Stefon Diggs and Deon Long, both of whom sustained broken legs against Wake Forest last season, have the ability to stretch the field as both averaged more than 15 yards per reception before the injuries struck. Leading receiver Levern Jacobs also returns, alongside junior Nigel King and sophomore Amba Etta-Tawo, who averaged more than 16 yards per catch in 2013. Marcus Leak, who started seven games in 2012, rejoins the team after a year away. The Terps are unproven at tight end after losing Dave Stinebaugh.
Michigan: There's a reason why some Michigan fans want Devin Gardner to return to wide receiver for his final season. The Wolverines are thin on the perimeter after losing Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo. Redshirt sophomores Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh are both candidates to start, and Dennis Norfleet could be the answer in the slot. But there's plenty of opportunity for younger players like Drake Harris, an early enrollee. Michigan's best pass-catching option, Devin Funchess, is listed as a tight end but plays more like a receiver. The Wolverines will be without their second-string tight end, Jake Butt, who suffered an ACL tear in winter conditioning.
Michigan State: Remember all the justified angst about this group a year ago? It has pretty much gone away as the Spartans wideouts rebounded nicely in 2013. Bennie Fowler departs, but MSU brings back its top two receivers in Tony Lippett and Macgarrett Kings, who showed explosiveness down the stretch last fall. Aaron Burbridge had a bit of a sophomore slump but provides another option alongside veteran Keith Mumphery, who averaged 16.6 yards per catch in 2013. Josiah Price leads the tight end group after a solid freshman season.
Minnesota: Here's a group to watch during spring practice, particularly the wide receivers. Minnesota has proven it can run the ball and defend under Jerry Kill, but the passing game was putrid in 2013, ranking last in the Big Ten and 115th nationally. Youth is partly to blame, and while the Gophers still lack experience, they can expect more from promising players like Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones. Senior Isaac Fruechte provides a veteran presence. Minnesota looks solid at tight end with sophomore Maxx Williams, the team's receiving yards leader (417) in 2013.
Nebraska: The Huskers lose a significant piece in Quincy Enunwa, who led the team in receiving yards (753) and had three times as many receiving touchdowns (12) as anyone else in 2013. Kenny Bell is set to recapture the No. 1 receiver role, which he had in 2012, and comes off of a 52-catch season as a junior. Nebraska must build around Bell this spring with players like the mustachioed Jordan Westerkamp, who had 20 catches as a freshman, including a rather memorable one to beat Northwestern. Will Jamal Turner turn the corner this offseason? Juniors Sam Burtch and Taariq Allen also return. Cethan Carter started six games at tight end last fall and should take over the top spot there as Jake Long departs.
Northwestern: The passing game fell short of expectations in 2013, but there's reason for optimism as Northwestern returns its top three pass-catchers in Tony Jones, Christian Jones and Dan Vitale. The two Joneses (no relation), who combined for 109 catches in 2013, lead the receiving corps along with junior Cameron Dickerson. Speedy Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler provides a playmaking spark, possibly at slot receiver. Vitale, who had a somewhat disappointing sophomore season, has All-Big Ten potential at the superback (tight end) spot. Although Northwestern rarely plays true freshmen, superback Garrett Dickerson, Cameron's brother, could see the field right away.
Ohio State: A group that drew heavy criticism from coach Urban Meyer two springs ago is stockpiling talent. Devin Smith is the familiar name, a big-play senior who has started each of the past two seasons and boasts 18 career touchdowns. Ohio State must replace top wideout Corey Brown and will look for more from Evan Spencer. Michael Thomas has stood out in practices but must translate his performance to games. This could be a breakout year for H-back Dontre Wilson, who averaged nine yards per touch as a freshman. Buckeyes fans are eager to see redshirt freshmen Jalin Marshall and James Clark, and incoming players like Johnnie Dixon could make a splash right away. Ohio State returns an elite tight end in Jeff Heuerman.
Penn State: The Lions have very different depth situations at receiver and tight end. They're looking for contributors on the perimeter after losing Allen Robinson, the Big Ten's top wide receiver the past two seasons, who accounted for 46 percent of the team's receiving production in 2013. Brandon Felder also departs, leaving Geno Lewis as the likeliest candidate to move into a featured role. Richy Anderson also returns, but there will be plenty of competition/opportunity at receiver, a position new coach James Franklin targeted in recruiting with players like Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall. Things are much more stable at tight end as the Lions return three talented players in Jesse James, Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman.
Purdue: If you're looking for hope at Purdue, these spots aren't bad places to start. There are several promising young players like receiver DeAngelo Yancey, who recorded a team-leading 546 receiving yards as a freshman. Cameron Posey also had a decent freshman year (26 catches, 297 yards), and Danny Anthrop averaged 18.4 yards as a sophomore. A full offseason with quarterbacks Danny Etling and Austin Appleby should help the group. Tight end also should be a strength as Justin Sinz, who led Purdue with 41 catches last season, is back along with Gabe Holmes, who returns after missing most of 2013 with a wrist injury.
Rutgers: The good news is tight end Tyler Kroft returns after leading Rutgers in both receptions (43) and receiving yards (573) last season. Kroft will immediately contend for All-Big Ten honors. Things are murkier at wide receiver, where top contributors Brandon Coleman and Quron Pratt both depart. Leonte Carroo took a nice step as a sophomore, averaging 17.1 yards per catch and enters the spring as the frontrunner to become the team's No. 1 wideout. Ruhann Peele is another promising young receiver for the Scarlet Knights, who boast size with Carlton Agudosi (6-foot-6) and Andre Patton (6-4).
Wisconsin: The quarterback competition will gain more attention this spring, but Wisconsin's receiver/tight end situation could be more critical. The Badgers lose Jared Abbrederis, their only major threat at receiver the past two seasons, as well as top tight end Jacob Pedersen. Players like Jordan Fredrick and Kenzel Doe must translate their experience into greater production, and Wisconsin will look for more from young receivers like Alex Erickson and Robert Wheelwright. Help is on the way as Wisconsin signed five receivers in the 2014 class, but wideout definitely is a position of concern right now. Sam Arneson is the logical candidate to step in for Pedersen, but there should be competition as the Badgers lose a lot at the position.
How bad was it?
Obviously a 29-6 loss is pretty disheartening, especially considering the Wolverines had two weeks to prepare for this game. The -48 rushing yards have been mentioned numerous times, as they should. However, considering how Michigan says it relies upon the run game to open up the passing game, the Wolverines showed they didn’t need the run game to open up the airways against the Spartans.
Quarterback Devin Gardner managed to do quite well there, though the Wolverines failed to reach the end zone. The redshirt junior threw for 210 yards, which is the second best any QB has done against the Spartans this season (Iowa quarterback Jake Rudock threw for 241 yards).
But the rest of Michigan’s stats fell way short of the Spartan defense’s averages this season (or in the case of sacks, greatly exceeded them). Numbers can’t always tell the whole story, but these paint a pretty accurate picture.
MSU defense average | Michigan vs. MSU
- Yards per game: 210.2 | 168
- Rushing yards: 43.4 | -48
- Yards per rush: 1.6 | -1.7
- Passing yards: 166.8 | 216
- Yards per attempt: 4.9 | 7.2
- Points scored: 11.6 | 6
- Sacks per game: 2.8 | 7
Gardner completed 14 of 27 passes with one interception. The biggest surprise in the Wolverines’ passing game was redshirt freshman Jehu Chesson. He hadn’t caught more than a single pass since the Minnesota game (Oct. 5), but Chesson recorded three key catches for a team-high 82 yards. His average of 27.3 yards per catch made him the day’s most efficient receiver.
Jeremy Gallon continues to be Gardner’s security blanket as showcased by the fact that on three separate occasions on the game’s opening drive, Gardner went to Gallon. He finished the day with five receptions for 67 yards (13.4 yards per catch) and Devin Funchess, who spent most of the latter parts of the game with his hand on the ground, recorded six catches for 65 yards (10.8 yards per catch).
Of Gardner’s 13 incompletions, five each were targeted to Funchess and Gallon, one was thrown to Jeremy Jackson and two were thrown away. But the fact that Funchess was targeted as much (and probably could’ve been targeted even more) against the Spartans as Gallon shows his drastic improvement in the short time span that he has played wide receiver.
Down and distance
The Wolverines put themselves in some pretty terrible situations on the field due to some silly penalties, the seven sacks and their inability to get offensive momentum.
In fact, statistically, the Wolverines would’ve been better off to just forgo the first two downs in order to get a third-and-10. That would’ve put them in a better spot than Michigan did on its usual first and second downs against the Spartans.
Michigan’s averages: second-and-10, third-and-11, fourth-and-18.
Slow and steady wins the rivalry
Since 2004, Michigan scored fewer points against the Spartans than it did in the previous season. And, since Michigan State hired Mark Dantonio, the Wolverines’ scoring total has dropped 22 points and the Spartans have owned a 5-2 record against Michigan.
2013: 6 points (MSU wins, 29-6)
2012: 12 points (Michigan wins, 12-10)
2011: 14 points (MSU wins, 28-14)
2010: 17 points (MSU wins, 34-17)
2009: 20 points (MSU wins, 26-20)
2008: 21 points (MSU wins, 35-21)
2007: 28 points (Michigan wins, 28-24)
2006: 31 points (Michigan wins, 31-13)
2005: 34 points (Michigan wins, 34-31)
2004: 45 points (Michigan wins, 45-37)
Here are three players who earned themselves helmet stickers in this win for the Wolverines.
WR Devin Funchess: Yes, wide receiver Devin Funchess is getting a helmet sticker this weekend. Through four games as a tight end, Funchess had accounted for just one touchdown and 145 yards on eight receptions. Against Minnesota, he decided to one-up himself by basically topping all those stats in four quarters. Funchess recorded one touchdown and 151 yards on seven catches and posed a mismatch constantly for Gopher defensive backs. Because he was such a threat that required attention, it allowed other receivers like Jehu Chesson to get open.
RB Fitzgerald Toussaint: Toussaint rushed for two touchdowns and 78 yards against the Gophers. He averaged 4.6 yards per carry and had just one of his 17 carries result in no gain or negative yardage. The Wolverines relied heavily on Toussaint and the running game to open up the pass game, which they did. Freshman Derrick Green also played well and deserves noting in this category since his 10 carries took a bit of pressure off Toussaint. However, half of Green’s carries went for no gain or negative yardage -- that's not good. But as a unit, Toussaint and Green provide a good one-two punch for Michigan at the running back position, and through the rest of the Big Ten season, if they continue to grow, they could be very, very effective for the Wolverines.
QB Devin Gardner: It wasn’t his most spectacular game statistically, but if there were anyone on this team who needed to put together a solid performance for a confidence boost, it was Gardner. And no, he didn’t attempt a pass the entire first quarter, but by the time halftime came around, Gardner began looking like his old self. He finished the day 13-of-17 for 235 yards and one touchdown, but most importantly he didn’t throw a single interception. He was also smart with his feet, taking off seven times for 17 yards and one touchdown.
Honorable mention: CB Blake Countess: Yes, he had a huge 72-yard interception that he returned for a touchdown, but the Wolverines were already ahead 35-13 in the fourth quarter when that happened. Outside of that pick-six, he had just three tackles and one pass breakup the whole game. If we were picking the three best plays of the game, he’d get one, but a helmet sticker is for a performance, not a play.
1. Michigan’s linebackers.
Jake Ryan who? (Kidding!) Junior Brennen Beyer’s QB hurry on the final play sealed the Wolverines’ win. Beyer had just two tackles total and one other quarterback hurry, but he was clutch when Michigan needed it most. And just one play before, junior Desmond Morgan came up with a huge tackle for a loss when he pushed Jawon Chisholm back 2 yards to the 4-yard line. Morgan finished with seven tackles, including two for losses. But it was sophomore James Ross III who had the biggest day of any Michigan linebacker, leading the way with 10 tackles, including one for a loss and one pass breakup.
2. WR Jehu Chesson.
The redshirt freshman caught the first pass of his career and turned it into a 33-yard TD. He showed good hands and breakaway speed on the play. Michigan’s wide receivers had a decent day; senior Jeremy Gallon could be a helmet-sticker guy as he led Michigan’s receivers on the day. However, Chesson’s first career TD happens only once.
3. Akron kicker Robert Stein/Goal post
The Wolverines won by four. Stein missed two field goals. So, math … this one should be self explanatory. Had he made those two kicks, the game might’ve turned out differently. Stein had nailed the first 45-yarder of the game and missed the second. And the Wolverines should send fruit baskets and thank you cards to the post, which blocked Stein’s second FG attempt.
The Wolverines’ schedule this season is favorable for a chance to get to the Big Ten title game, but before they can even get to conference play, they need to answer a few questions.
1. Will Michigan actually be challenged?
I’m not going to say that they won’t be challenged by any of these teams. Notre Dame is always a challenge, and that’s an opportunity for one of those signature wins that teams look for in the nonconference schedule. Michigan might not be challenged hugely by the other three teams (at least, not like it was against Alabama last season), but, the Wolverines will be challenged by themselves. These games allow the Wolverines to iron out the kinks in their offense and defense while building depth at positions. Michigan’s interior offensive line will be entirely new and their defensive front has a new look, too. The Wolverines’ secondary features new faces and guys at entirely new positions (here’s looking at you, free safety Courtney Avery). So while Central Michigan, Akron and Connecticut might not provide the drama or build-up (hello, MACtion), it will help Michigan prepare for the Big Ten season as it develops an identity.
2. Can the defensive line get a four-man rush?
This was a question that was consistently asked last season. According to Greg Mattison the defensive line is vastly improved and is getting to the quarterback. Frank Clark has been heralded as a top rush end, but can he be a Brandon Graham-like game changer? Three of the four teams Michigan faces in the nonconference schedule feature transitioning O-lines, which will obviously aid Michigan in looking like it has a solid four-man rush. CMU lost tackle Eric Fisher, the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft. Notre Dame and Akron are both replacing two starters on their offensive lines. UConn actually returns all five of its starters on the offensive line, but last season the Huskies only averaged 318 yards of offense per game, so how effective that experience will be remains up in the air. But if the Wolverines are going to be successful in the Big Ten, their defensive front must be stout. With the absence of linebacker Jake Ryan until at least October, Michigan will be better off if it doesn’t have to blitz every other play in order to make opposing quarterbacks uncomfortable in the pocket.
3. How tricky is Al Borges going to get?
That brings us to our next question…
4. How good is Gardner?
Gardner stepped in last season and finished out the season in an impressive fashion. With spring ball and the full offseason to gain chemistry with receivers and the offensive line, he should show major strides. Obviously, losing sophomore wide receiver Amara Darboh for the season is a blow, but Gardner can use the nonconference schedule (and the lack of elite defensive backs he’ll face) to build chemistry with other guys. Brady Hoke said Reynolds, Jehu Chesson and Jeremy Jackson were the three receivers stepping forward in Darboh’s absence.
Assuming Michigan can be effective in the run game, it should open up things in the air for Gardner. He was recruited as a dual-threat QB, and he has those skills. but Michigan might be a bit more conservative with him -- especially in the nonconference schedule -- just because if he goes down, the Wolverines are looking at a true freshman and then a walk-on, which doesn’t exactly inspire confidence for a championship season. But with Gardner being Gardner, don’t be too surprised if he tests the waters a bit. He’s not afraid to run, and if the opportunity presents itself, he’ll be looking to make plays by any means necessary.
5. Can Michigan stay healthy heading into the Big Ten schedule?
It’s no secret that Michigan is not deep at a few key positions at this point. If Gardner goes down, Michigan will scramble. If Fitzgerald Toussaint goes down, will Michigan will turn to Thomas Rawls? Justice Hayes? Drake Johnson? Derrick Green? Green came in highly touted but hasn’t impressed in fall camp the way most thought he would. Darboh’s injury leaves snaps open for wide receivers, but with any more injuries, the Wolverines could be working with a third-string receiver.
Defensively, Michigan is in a better place with depth, considering a lot of young players got experience last season, and Mattison has built depth at each position through recruiting. Jibreel Black missed some time during fall camp, which is likely why Frank Clark played some at three-technique. But having D-linemen with experience at multiple positions will only help. These four games can help Michigan to build that kind of experience.
Now fans will have to wait another season to see that potential as the school announced Wednesday that Darboh would miss the 2013 season with a foot injury that would require surgery.
With the injury, Michigan is in a bit of a bind. Though Darboh didn’t register any catches last season and mainly just played special teams, he did have game-time experience, which is a huge factor when throwing players into the fire. He had been an expected starter (Hoke actually referred to him as such in the press release) and Gardner spent much of his time in the offseason building chemistry with Darboh.
But there are options at wide receiver for the Wolverines.
Gardner still has security blankets in redshirt senior Jeremy Gallon and senior Drew Dileo, though neither really fits the mold for what Al Borges wants in a big, rangey, downfield target. Neither is above 5-foot-10 and while both have proven effective for Michigan, they really don’t have the same skill set as Darboh.
Michigan’s likely option will be redshirt freshman Jehu Chesson, the 6-foot-3 former track star whose speed has impressed. Redshirt senior Joe Reynolds has had a nice fall camp as well, and at 6-foot-1 he could be a bigger target for Gardner.
The injury might also mean Wolverines have to burn some redshirts. In their 2013 class they have three wide receivers who are at least 6-foot-3 -- Csont’e York, Da’Mario Jones and Jaron Dukes. Michigan does require its wide receivers to block which many have said takes a lot of time to learn, but if any of these three could pick up blocking more quickly, they could have the chance to see the field this fall.
Considering the nonconference schedule, though Notre Dame’s secondary returns several players, Michigan will still have a bit of time to get younger or less experienced wide receivers into the swing of things.
But with Darboh being missing the season, it definitely leaves the Wolverines receiving corps feeling banged up as well.
But Darboh isn’t the only receiver in his class who should be receiving hype. Jehu Chesson redshirted last year, but his physical ability, coupled with the fact he did in fact redshirt, have made him a player to watch this year.
“Jehu has learned the game of football a lot more now,” wide receiver coach Jeff Hecklinski said. “I think he’s settled down. I think he’s nice and relaxed now. He’s a great kid, you can’t ask for a better kid. … He’s understanding more what it takes to play and all the little details that it takes to play.”
While Robinson’s replacement at quarterback, Devin Gardner, is set, much around him will be new or contested. Michigan will unveil a more fine-tuned version of the pro-style offense it ran last season with new linemen, new wide receivers and possibly a new running back to go with it.
The defense will be playing for the first time in the Brady Hoke era without Kenny Demens at middle linebacker and Jordan Kovacs at safety as the defensive anchors.
So here’s at some things to pay attention to over the next three weeks as Michigan prepares for its opener against Central Michigan on Aug. 31.
Top position battles
Running back: One of four positions on the Wolverines with no clear hierarchy entering camp, as any one of five players could potentially win the job. Redshirt senior Fitzgerald Toussaint is the incumbent, but is coming off a broken leg which ended his junior season. Freshmen Derrick Green and Deveon Smith could both see playing time and will likely compete with Toussaint for the majority of the carries. Junior Thomas Rawls, who has yet to show a true burst in two seasons, is another possibility if he has improved. The wild card here might be redshirt freshman Drake Johnson, who has track speed -- he was an elite high school hurdler -- and a good frame. He likely won’t win the job but could end up stealing carries.
Strong side defensive end: Keith Heitzman is likely entering camp as the leader here, but that’s a very tenuous lead at best. He has the most experience of the players competing at end, but the youth behind him will likely at least win a share of playing time. Chris Wormley, who, like senior Jibreel Black, could play both inside and outside, is a candidate here. Wormley was a player who many thought could have played as a true freshman last year before tearing his ACL. Two other redshirt freshmen, Matt Godin and Tom Strobel, are also candidates here. Much like what could happen at rush end with Frank Clark, Mario Ojemudia and Taco Charlton, you could end up seeing a three-man rotation here unless someone stands out heavily.
Defensive tackle: Quinton Washington is set at one position. The other, like the strong side end, is wide open. Like at end, Wormley and Black could make big moves here -- and Black might be the presumptive starter entering camp. Watch for Willie Henry to make a move. The redshirt freshman impressed last season’s seniors and he has the size to be a large complement to Washington. When Michigan goes jumbo, sophomore Ondre Pipkins, who will likely be in a rotation with Washington, could see time next to him.
Five reasons for concern
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- When Devin Gardner was a freshman and a sophomore, he would often look for wide receivers to practice with him so he could keep sharp as he had to wait behind Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson for a chance to play.
Getting receivers to work with the backup wasn’t always easy, but one player would show up more than most, would help out more than most. So to understand why Gardner and Jeremy Gallon appear so comfortable with each other on the field is not happenstance.
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1. Which position battle are you most excited to see play out during fall camp?
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We'll examine those topics in this week’s WolverineNation Mailbag, featuring your questions. Have questions for next week? Send them to @chanteljennings on Twitter or at email@example.com.
Now, on to this week’s queries.
M2go4blue from The Den asks: How well can we expect Michigan basketball to continue the success from the last two years, with the lack of upperclassman leadership this coming season? From last year, five seniors and a three-year starter in Tim Hardaway Jr. are gone. That's a lot of leadership missing.
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Yes, there will still be some big competitions on Michigan’s offense -- particularly at running back and wide receiver -- but there is now a better idea of who the Wolverines’ starting 11 will be in August when they open the season against Central Michigan.
WolverineNation takes a two-day look at what Michigan’s depth chart will be come fall, starting with the offense.
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