Michigan Wolverines: Justice Hayes

Spring game recap: Michigan

April, 7, 2014
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Spring (practice) has officially sprung for Michigan, which became the first Big Ten team to hold its spring game on Saturday at the Big House.

An estimated crowd of 15,000 took in the festivities, which included a non-scoring scrimmage. You can find coverage of the game here, here and here. And here's a brief recap:

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsQuarterback Devin Gardner threw two interceptions and completed just two passes in the Wolverines' spring game.
Star of the game: Cornerback Jourdan Lewis had two interceptions on the day, though he was also whistled for two pass interference penalties.

How it went down: It was just a spring game, and as most teams are wont to do, the Wolverines kept things very vanilla for their first public practice session of the year.

Still, fans had hoped to see some inklings of progress, especially from the new offense led by coordinator Doug Nussmeier, who was hired away from Alabama in the winter. Players had talked about making more big plays in practice in Nussmeier's scheme.

There wasn't much evidence of that on Saturday. On the very first snap of the scrimmage, Devin Gardner was intercepted by Lewis in his own territory. Gardner -- still not 100 percent on his healing foot -- would finish just 2-for-10 for 53 yards, though he's in no danger of losing the job. Backup Shane Morris went 5-for-11 for 73 yards, and his final throw was also picked off by Lewis, who started at corner and made a nice impression in that competition. (He'll need to keep doing that this summer, since Jabrill Peppers is on the way).

"I definitely think we're going to be tighter on offenses this year," Lewis said afterward. "We are playing more man-to-man and we'll be closer to those guys to break it up or intercept it."

The one big play was a 44-yard strike from Gardner to Freddy Canteen, the early enrollee who has been the talk of the spring in Ann Arbor. He looks like the real deal and will likely earn a starting job at receiver.

The running game produced mixed results. De'Veon Smith got the most reps with the first unit, running nine times for 21 yards. Derrick Green added 16 yards on six carries, while Justice Hayes had six attempts for 33 yards. The offensive line, which included early enrollee Mason Cole as the first-team left tackle, struggled to open up holes and get a push up front. The defense registered five sacks, including one each from defensive linemen Frank Clark, Brennen Beyer and Willie Henry.

"Inconsistent" is how coach Brady Hoke described the offensive performance.

"I think there were a couple good runs in there that they did a pretty good job with," he said. "We needed to be a little more consistent in the protection game. Through the course of the 15 practices, I think there has been some real improvements made."

Hoke has maintained all along that a team depending on many freshmen and sophomores will need some time to come together. On Saturday, they showed that in several key areas.

"There's no question," Hoke said, "we need a lot of improvement."

Spring position breakdown: RBs

February, 26, 2014
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Spring practice is off and running in the Big Ten, as Michigan took the field Tuesday and Northwestern followed on Wednesday. We're taking snapshots of where each team stands at each position group.

We've already discussed the quarterbacks -- and will have much more on the way -- so the series begins with the running backs.

Illinois: The Illini are in a bit better shape here than they were the past two springs, as veterans Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young both return. Ferguson averaged 5.5 yards per carry and added 50 receptions for 535 yards as the primary playmaker for Illinois' revamped offense. Young added 376 yards on 93 carries. The Illini are looking for others behind the top two, and Dami Ayoola is back with the team after being dismissed in September for a rules violation.

Indiana: Tevin Coleman quietly put together a superb sophomore season and leads the Hoosiers' running backs in 2014. Coleman provides big-play ability after averaging 7.3 yards per carry with 12 touchdowns on only 131 attempts in 2013. Indiana loses Stephen Houston but brings back veteran D'Angelo Roberts, who will play behind Coleman. Younger players such as sophomore Laray Smith could get a look here.

Iowa: Not only did the Hawkeyes toss AIRBHG to the side and get through the season without any major injurie, but they bring back everyone for 2014. Senior Mark Weisman leads the contingent after rushing for 975 yards and eight touchdowns last fall. Jordan Canzeri came on strong late in the season and is showing no effects from his ACL tear in 2012. Veteran Damon Bullock also returns to the mix, and Iowa has talented younger backs such as LeShun Daniels Jr. at its disposal. Good situation here.

Maryland: The Terrapins wide receivers tend to get more attention, but the team also returns its top three running backs from 2013 in Brandon Ross, Albert Reid and Jacquille Veii. Maryland also regains the services of Wes Brown, who finished second on the team in rushing as a freshman in 2012 before being suspended for all of last season. Joe Riddle is back in the fold as well. The group brings different strengths, from power (Brown) to speed (Veii) to a mixture of both (Ross, Reid).

Michigan: Sophomore Derrick Green enters the spring as the frontrunner to be Michigan's lead back, although coach Brady Hoke wants to ramp up competition everywhere. The Wolverines struggled to consistently run between the tackles, but the 240-pound Green could change things. Hoke also is excited about another sophomore, De'Veon Smith. Michigan moved Ross Douglas from cornerback to running back, and Justice Hayes and Wyatt Shallman also are in the mix. "We've got more depth," Hoke said.

Michigan State: Things look much more promising than they did last spring, when the Spartans ended the session with a linebacker (Riley Bullough) as their top back. Jeremy Langford emerged as a very solid option during the season, rushing for 1,422 yards and 18 touchdowns. He's back as the clear-cut starter, and Nick Hill also returns. It will be interesting to see if Gerald Holmes makes a push, or whether Delton Williams remains on offense.

Minnesota: Here's another team that finds itself in very good shape at running back entering the spring. David Cobb leads the group after rushing for 1,202 yards and seven touchdowns as a sophomore. Veterans Donnell Kirkwood and Rodrick Williams Jr. are still around, and highly touted redshirt freshman Berkley Edwards will take the field after missing last fall because of knee and ankle injuries. Perhaps the best news will come in the summer as decorated recruit Jeff Jones arrives.

Nebraska: Notice a theme here? Nebraska is yet another Big Ten squad that can feel very good about its running backs entering the spring. Ameer Abdullah elected to bypass the NFL draft for one final season at Nebraska, where he led the Big Ten with 1,690 yards on 281 carries as a junior. Abdullah will contend for national awards in the fall. Imani Cross, who rushed for 10 touchdowns last year, is one of the nation's top backups. Terrell Newby and others add depth behind the top two.

Northwestern: Top back Venric Mark (ankle) will miss spring practice following surgery, and reserve Stephen Buckley (knee) also is rehabbing, but Northwestern has no reason to panic. Treyvon Green, who filled in well for Mark last season with 736 rushing yards, will get much of the work. Warren Long also is in the mix after appearing in seven games as a true freshman. Northwestern also loaded up at running back in recruiting to solidify the position for years to come.

Ohio State: This will be a position to watch in the spring as Ohio State must replace Carlos Hyde, who was nearly unstoppable during Big Ten play last fall. Veteran Jordan Hall also departs, and Rod Smith will be the veteran of the group despite only 83 career carries. The Buckeyes have some talented young backs, from Dontre Wilson, who saw significant playing time last fall, to Bri'onte Dunn, Ezekiel Elliott and Warren Ball. Keep an eye on Elliott, who averaged 8.7 yards per carry in limited work last season but could emerge this spring.

Penn State: If it feels like Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton have been competing for carries forever at Penn State, it's because they have. Zwinak and Belton have been part of Penn State's running back rotation for the past two seasons and enter another competition this spring with talented sophomore Akeel Lynch, who rushed for 358 yards on only 60 carries last season. It will be interesting to see how much Lynch can push Zwinak and Belton in the team's first spring under a new coaching staff. Penn State has depth issues at several positions, but running back isn't one of them.

Purdue: The Boilers finished 122nd nationally in rushing offense last season, so the fact all of their running backs return might not spark mass celebration. Senior Akeem Hunt leads the group after recording 123 of the team's 319 rushing attempts in 2013. Other veteransBrandon Cottom and Raheem Mostert also are back, along with younger ball-carries such as Dayln Dawkins and three backs -- Keyante Green, David Yancey and Keith Byars II -- who redshirted last fall and could have much bigger roles.

Rutgers: Here's yet another team that returns basically its entire stable of running backs for spring ball. Paul James is the name to watch, as he rushed for 573 yards in the first four games last season before suffering a leg injury. James' health is a concern for Rutgers, which could also turn to Justin Goodwin, who showed some flashes following James' injury. Savon Huggins, who entered last season as the starter before losing ground, is in the mix as he looks to re-establish himself on the depth chart.

Wisconsin: How many teams can lose a 1,400-yard rusher and still claim to have the best running back group in the Big Ten? James White is gone, but Wisconsin remains in very good shape in the backfield. Melvin Gordon bypassed the NFL draft for another year in Madison after rushing for 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns on only 206 carries. Gordon should move into more of a featured role beginning this spring, although he'll be pushed by Corey Clement, who had 547 yards and seven touchdowns on only 67 carries. Jeff Lewis provides another option behind the top two.

Bowl game helmet stickers

December, 29, 2013
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It wasn't quite the ending Michigan wanted. The Wolverines dropped to 7-6, and in Brady Hoke's third year at the helm of the Michigan football program, he matched the win total of Rich Rodriguez's third year in the same position. But even with the loss to Kansas State in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, there were a few Wolverines that earned helmet stickers for their performances.

QB Shane Morris. The freshman stepped into a pressure-packed situation and excelled. He completed 24 of 38 passes for 196 yards. No, he didn't throw for any touchdowns and yes, he recorded an interception, but considering the stage, Morris handled himself like a veteran. He showed poise in the pocket and distributed the ball well, with nine different players making at least one reception. He also broke out for a late 40-yard run, showing that while he might not quite have the athleticism of Devin Gardner, he does have an eye for the hole and can make something out of broken plays.

WR Jeremy Gallon. The senior capped his excellent career for the Wolverines with nine catches for 89 yards while also connecting with Justice Hayes on a sneaky two-point conversion. Gallon broke the single-season receiving record (1,342 yards) and became the all-time leader in consecutive games with receptions (39). He certainly did the No. 21 jersey justice this season and was a huge contributor to the success the Wolverines did have.

Manager Jon Falk. Don't call this a cop out, because the man truly deserves a helmet sticker (we're going lifetime achievement award here). He has worked for Michigan since 1974 as the equipment manager. From Bo Schembechler to Gary Moeller to Lloyd Carr to Rich Rodriguez to Brady Hoke, Falk has been on the Michigan sideline, and Kansas State was his final game for the Wolverines. He always has stories and can tell the most ridiculous tales about people like Tom Brady or Desmond Howard while also knowing the name of every walk-on and scrub who came through Michigan in the last four decades. He loves Michigan so much and teared up every time this season I asked him about his retirement. He's a class act, and Michigan is going to have a hard time replacing him. Michigan didn't get the win for "Big Jon" on Saturday, but he gets a helmet sticker anyway.
When Michigan released its first depth chart of the season on Monday, six running backs were listed on it. As in, every single running back on the roster was on the depth chart.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, on to this week’s questions…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nonconference primer: Michigan

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

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

1. Will Michigan actually be challenged?

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

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

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

3. How tricky is Al Borges going to get?

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

That brings us to our next question…

4. How good is Gardner?

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, there will still be some big competitions on Michigan’s offense -- particularly at running back and wide receiver -- but there is now a better idea of who the Wolverines’ starting 11 will be in August when they open the season against Central Michigan.

WolverineNation takes a two-day look at what Michigan’s depth chart will be come fall, starting with the offense.

Quarterback

WolverineNation Mailbag 

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

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

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

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Michigan’s spring practice has ended and now the long wait for the Wolverines begin.

Michigan has a little over four months until its first game of the 2013 season against Central Michigan, and while the Wolverines still have some issues to deal with between now and then -- backup quarterback and running back among them -- some things stood out from the final, and only public, scrimmage of the spring.

Here are five strong takeaways from the last spring practice that Michigan can look at with comfort or concern heading into the offseason.

Taylor Lewan
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY SportsTackle Taylor Lewan and the left side of Michigan's line stood out in the final spring scrimmage.
1.Michigan will be better than expected on the offensive line. The talent level was evident even before Saturday’s open practice, and there was never a concern they wouldn’t be good. And yes, there were points on Saturday where Michigan’s defensive linemen blew right by their offensive counterparts, especially the guards. But the core group of six linemen -- tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield, center Jack Miller and guards Kyle Kalis, Ben Braden and Graham Glasgow -- all had moments of looking like a cohesive unit by the fall. The left-side combination of Lewan and Braden specifically stood out, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Michigan run a lot toward its left side this season. Considering Michigan ran a fairly base offense ,and defenses are usually ahead of offenses in spring games, this is a good sign for the Wolverines entering this fall.

2.Fitzgerald Toussaint, Derrick Green or Deveon Smith will be the starter in the fall. Michigan’s running back group was OK, but not overly impressive Saturday -- echoing what coaches have said all spring when no one separated himself. Justice Hayes got the start and had a couple of decent runs, but was also crushed in the backfield a lot. Thomas Rawls scored a 14-yard touchdown on a run to the left side and again showed flashes of his potential, but he didn't look much different from last year’s spring game. Dennis Norfleet has potential, but his size is still a concern for being an every-down back. All this means is the initial thought that Michigan’s starter will come from the backs either returning or coming in during the summer remains the likely scenario.

(Read full post)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Michigan is in its first Sweet 16 since 1994. Football spring practice is nearing its halfway point and that means a ton of questions in this week’s WolverineNation mailbag.

Have questions for next week? Send them to Chantel at @chanteljennings or jenningsespn@gmail.com. Now, on to this week’s questions.

SEnferadi37 from The Den asks: I will preface this comment with the fact that I know very little about college basketball and Kansas in particular. What I do know, from reading this forum and ESPN articles, is that Michigan struggles with big teams. Outside of Ben McLemore and Jeff Withey, what does Michigan need to plan for in order to beat Kansas? I know they took the two-point-guard approach against VCU. Is that something they would try again, or does that not work well against KU? Also, is that performance (or something similar) out of Mitch McGary something we can expect regularly?


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Michigan begins spring practice on Saturday with both some question marks and some major returning talent. Brady Hoke says of his team: "We're very young. But these guys have a lot of fight to them." There will also be a lot of fighting for starting jobs, beginning in a few days. I recently caught up with the third-year Wolverines coach for his thoughts on the approach of spring ball:

What are the main things you're looking for this spring?

Brady Hoke: Well, you know, we've got a lot of open spaces. Some guys graduated, some guys aren't with the program anymore and we've got a lot of young guys. I think we only have 11 starters back on both sides of the ball, so there's going to be a lot of great competition, which is exciting. I think the leadership of our seniors, they've done a nice job of holding everybody accountable. But when you get out there with the pads on, it's a little different than just running around in shorts.

[+] EnlargeBrady Hoke
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsWith only 11 returning starters, Michigan coach Brady Hoke said he's excited about the competition this spring.
Some of that competition will be on the offensive line, where you've got three open jobs on the interior. How do you see those battles right now?


BH: Well, I think the interior of both lines, there's going to be a lot of competition. We've got to find a center, and that's between [Jack] Miller and [Graham] Glasgow, and Joey Burzynski will try to figure that out a little bit, too. At the guard positions, Ben Braden is going to move down inside and start out at the left guard, but he'll have a lot of competition because Burzynski is back and so is Blake Bars. Kyle Kalis will move into the right side, and it will be interesting again with [Kyle] Bosch and some of the guys who have been here a little bit. I think it will be a really good competition at all three of those inside positions.

Having Taylor [Lewan] back is huge. I think it's great for him and great for Michigan. Mike Schofield has had a really good winter. He had some real bright spots during the course of last season, and I think his development is going to be something special.

You mentioned the defensive line, where you also lost a couple of veterans. How does that shape up?

BH: I think inside, we get Jibreel Black for another year and Quinton Washington. But once you get through that, there are a lot of young guys ... Willie Henry, Ondre Pipkins, Ryan Glasgow, Richard Ash and Chris Wormley are all guys who can either play the inside tackle or the strongside end. We'll find out the guys who are competitive. Tommy Strobel is another guy we think had a real good winter, and Keith Heitzman. So it's going to be fun to see them compete.

Does having so many young guys in key spots on the line make you nervous? Or do you have a lot of confidence in them because you recruited most of them?

BH: I think it makes you nervous if you think you may have recruited the wrong guys. But we like the work ethic. We like how they've come in to learn and with a lot of enthusiasm. I think there's some competitiveness that we need to keep pushing as a program. You know, we lost five games on the road. We've played pretty well at home but we've got to do better on the road and that's a mindset, a mentality that you have to compete through everything, on every down.

Devin Gardner goes into spring practice as your starting quarterback. How has he developed as a leader?

BH: I have been really excited about the progress he's made. I'm seeing that maturity that it takes and the leadership it takes and the competitiveness it takes to be the quarterback at Michigan. I think that's a real big part of how he's grown, and I think he's done a nice job with it. I'm liking the direction he's going, and hopefully he can just keep going and keep growing.

What about your running back position this spring, with Fitz Toussaint hurt and Derrick Green not there yet?

BH: You know, Fitz has come along pretty well. I don't think he'll do a lot of contact or anything like that, but I think he'll be cleared for a lot more drill work. That's gone real well. We've moved [Dennis] Norfleet back to running back and we're going to give him an opportunity. Dennis, he's a smaller guy, but he's a very competitive, very tough young man. Drake Johnson is a guy we redshirted a year ago, and we really liked the way he competed in scout situations. In the bowl practices, we did some scrimmages and gave him a lot of carries, and we're very excited about what he has to offer.

Thomas Rawls is coming back, and I think he learned a lot last year about the vision he needs to play with, and I like how he's competed through the [winter]. And Justice Hayes is a guy who gives you a little bit different look because of how he can get on the perimeter. He did some things in a couple of games last year, but now I think he'll have a big stage to prove himself more this spring. And he's a bigger guy now, he's 190-something pounds, so he's a little bigger.

[+] EnlargeDrew Dileo
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsMichigan coach Brady Hoke said that he's pleased by more than just the on-field success of WRs Drew Dileo and Jeremy Gallon.
You have Jeremy Gallon back at receiver, but you lost Roy Roundtree. You sounded excited about some of the younger guys there during bowl prep. Is spring their time to step up now?

BH: Yeah, I think so. First of all, I think the leadership with Gallon and Drew Dileo, they've done a really nice job being leaders at that position. They're not big guys, but they have a real spirit for the game and really do a nice job of working and leading. We have Amara Darboh, who played a little last year, and Jehu Chesson, who we redshirted a year ago. And I think Jeremy Jackson has had a very good winter; we're very excited about some of the progress he's made. Joe Reynolds is a guy who walked on here, and he's done a very nice job. And Bo Dever, his dad played here and he walked on. I think that during the course of the spring, we'll be in pretty good shape there. I think as we keep going, we'll keep improving at that position.

Linebacker was a strength for you last year and looks to be so again. Do you see some good competition there this spring, particularly at the weakside spot?

BH: Yeah, I think with Desmond Morgan and James Ross, there's going to be great competition. Joe Bolden and Royce Jenkins-Stone and Mike Jones are all guys who are very competitive, and I think the three young guys coming in are going to be guys who will give us a lot of good competition and a lot of good depth. Kaleb Ringer is coming back from injury, so we'll see what he can give us. At the sam linebacker, Jake [Ryan] is coming back, and we really like what Cam Gordon has done during the winter. So I think we feel a little stronger at that position.

How do you replace what Jordan Kovacs gave you in the secondary?

BH: I don't know if you ever replace that kind of leadership, but I really think Thomas Gordon, he's played a lot of football here, and it's time for him to demonstrate the leadership. And he's doing that. Because of the number of snaps and everything he's done, he's really fallen into his own a little bit. Courtney Avery has played a lot of football, and whether he's a corner a nickel or wherever, he's got to give us great leadership and great reps. Blake Countess is getting healthier; he'll do some things during the spring. Josh Furman, I think, has come on.

We've got to see where Terry Richardson is and where Marvin Robinson is. Both those guys have played a number of snaps. We've got Raymon Taylor back, who I think started every game for us last year, we're excited about his development. Dymonte Thomas is a guy who's going to compete, and he'll pressure some guys. Jarrod Wilson is another guy who played some last year for us. Ross Douglas is here early. Jeremy Clark is a 6-foot-4, 210-pound safety we redshirted a year ago, and it's going to be a big spring for him to make some moves.

So I think we may have more personnel back there. And even more in the fall when Channing Stribling gets in, and Reon Dawson gets in and Jourdan Lewis. I think it's going to add something to our secondary.

Finally, what has your message been to the team this offseason after last year's 8-5 season?

BH: Well, our message has been, we haven't met the expectations at Michigan. That's something that as a football community… that we really feel that we have to do a much better job in all areas, from the coaching aspect of it, from learning and playing with the competitiveness we want to have, from every player at every position playing with the intensity we want to play with. It's about having a mindset and a mentality of how we want to play the game. We make no excuses, but at the same time, we know we have a lot we can do to play better football.

WolverineNation Mailbag 

January, 30, 2013
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. – What a week for Michigan sports. A top ranking for the basketball team and a big commitment for the football team. But I believe that good things come in threes, so let’s consider this mailbag the third good thing for Michigan sports this week.

Next week Mike will be handling it, so send your questions to michaelrothsteinespn@gmail.com or @mikerothstein. Now on to this week’s questions.

1) Alex Koschik, via Twitter: How can Texas A&M have 32 commits when Michigan’s max is around 27?

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Michigan looks to fix run game 

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

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

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

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


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WolverineNation Roundtable 

January, 10, 2013
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Each Thursday, the WolverineNation staff sits down to talk Michigan sports. This week, they look at national championships, the basketball team’s young’uns and one of the last big recruiting targets.

1) The national championship has come and gone, so, with the recruits Michigan is getting and Brady Hoke's expectations, how long is it until the Wolverines are competing at that level?


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Depth chart analysis: RB/FB 

January, 8, 2013
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Over the next few weeks, WolverineNation will look at every position on the Michigan roster and give a depth chart analysis of each heading into the offseason.

Michigan’s running backs never got going this season. No matter who was in the backfield, other than quarterback-turned-athlete Denard Robinson, no Wolverines running back could do much of anything this season.

On a team with some major offensive questions, who will run the ball for Michigan next season might be the biggest -- and most critical -- question for the Wolverines’ season.

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Buckeyes' Marching Band Mocks Michigan
The Ohio State marching band performed a tribute to the "Wizard of Oz" on the classic film's 75th anniversary. The Buckeyes turned the Wicked Witch of the West into their rival, Michigan.
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