Michigan Wolverines: Keith Heitzman

Fitzgerald ToussaintLon Horwedell/Icon SMIFitzgerald Toussaint has been Michigan's starting tailback the last two seasons. But a broken leg suffered last year, along with talented youngsters behind him, has him in a fight for his job.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- As Denard Robinson adjusts to his new role as an offensive weapon playing a little bit of everywhere in Jacksonville, Michigan officially will begin its A.D. era as camp opens this weekend.

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

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Michigan spring wrap

May, 3, 2013
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2012 record: 8-5

2012 conference record: 6-2

Returning starters: Offense: 6; defense: 6; kicker/punter: 3

Top returners:

QB Devin Gardner, WR Jeremy Gallon, TE Devin Funchess, LT Taylor Lewan, RT Michael Schofield, DT Quinton Washington, LB Desmond Morgan, LB Jake Ryan, CB Raymon Taylor, S Thomas Gordon

Key losses

QB Denard Robinson, WR Roy Roundtree, OG Patrick Omameh, C Elliott Mealer, DE Craig Roh, DT William Campbell, LB Kenny Demens, CB J.T. Floyd, S Jordan Kovacs

2012 statistical leaders

Rushing: Denard Robinson (1,266 yards)

Passing: Denard Robinson (1,319 yards)

Receiving: Jeremy Gallon* (829 yards)

Tackles: Jake Ryan* (88)

Sacks: Jake Ryan* (4.0)

Interceptions: Thomas Gordon* and Raymon Taylor* (2)

Spring answers

1. Defensive line fine: Michigan had to replace a four-year starter in Craig Roh as well as defensive tackle Will Campbell up front. It doesn’t seem like it will be an issue. Michigan has a potential star in Frank Clark at rush end as well as depth at the position with Mario Ojemudia and Taco Charlton. Keith Heitzman, for now, seems to have locked up a spot at strong side end, but there is a lot of talent there, too. The Wolverines have depth at all four spots and while competitions will continue into the fall, Michigan should be able to rotate at defensive coordinator Greg Mattison’s leisure.

2. Devin Gardner’s progression: After the way he played toward the end of last season, there was not much doubt about Gardner as the starter, but Michigan’s coaches appear happy with his growth throughout the offseason. He has developed as a quarterback the way the coaching staff has liked, and this is even more critical because he is the only healthy scholarship quarterback until Shane Morris arrives next month. Gardner's teammates believe in him and he is setting up for a big year.

3. Tight end weapons: Michigan still doesn’t have great depth at tight end, but what the Wolverines do have is a young group of guys who will become big targets for Gardner as the position evolves into a more featured role. Devin Funchess could have a breakout sophomore season and Jake Butt has a similar skill set. A.J. Williams slimmed down as well, perhaps turning him into more than just an extra blocker.

Fall questions

1. Who runs the ball: Michigan was never going to be able to answer this question in the spring with Fitzgerald Toussaint coming off a broken leg and freshmen Derrick Green and Deveon Smith still not on campus. But none of the running backs who participated in spring made a lasting impression on the coaches, meaning if he is healthy, Toussaint will likely receive the first chance at winning the job in the fall.

2. Can Jake Ryan be replaced: Michigan seems confident with its grouping of Brennen Beyer and Cam Gordon at strongside linebacker, but part of what made Ryan Michigan’s best defender was his ability to instinctively be around the ball. Whether or not Beyer or Gordon can do that in games remains to be seen. If the combination of those two can approximate that, Michigan’s defense should be fine.

3. Can the interior of the line hold up: Michigan is replacing both of its guards and its center. While the combination of redshirt sophomore Jack Miller at center and redshirt freshmen Ben Braden and Kyle Kalis at guard has a ton of talent, none have taken a meaningful snap in a game before. How they mesh with returning tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield, along with how they connect with each other on combination blocks on the inside, could determine not only Michigan’s running success this fall, but also how many games the Wolverines win in Brady Hoke’s third season.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- While Michigan’s offense has a bunch of questions surrounding who will play where and how much time freshmen might see, the Wolverines’ defense has other issues.

These, though, aren’t so bad.

Michigan has significant depth -- albeit some inexperience -- at every spot on its defense. This allows the Wolverines to come closer to reaching defensive coordinator Greg Mattison’s goal of being able to rotate players at both defensive line and linebacker to keep them fresh for later in games and later on in the season.

Depth chart analysis: Strongside end 

January, 16, 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 position on the roster heading into the offseason.

Since Brady Hoke has taken over at Michigan, the strongside end has been a position of production for the Wolverines, from Ryan Van Bergen and Will Heininger in 2011 to Craig Roh last season. Now, though, the Wolverines will likely have a young, inexperienced player manning the spot for the first time in a few seasons.

Who that is will be up for debate.

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The Michigan defense has been a question mark the past few seasons to say the least. Dropping in rankings, and without a lot of help along the recruiting trail, it seemed as though the defense had bottomed out. That is until head coach Brady Hoke took over.

Not only did Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison turn around the defense in what seemed like an overnight transformation, Hoke and his staff also made it a point to hit the recruiting trail hard on the defensive side.

They took over at the tail end of the 2011 class and secured cornerback Blake Countess' commitment, also bringing in linebacker Antonio Poole, defensive backs Raymon Taylor and Tamani Carter and defensive ends Frank Clark and Keith Heitzman.

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Spring practice is over and now the wait until August begins. While the spring-ending scrimmage is just one practice and often will get overanalyzed to the point of exhaustion, there are nuggets and trends that can be gleaned from watching Michigan for a full practice.

Denard Robinson barely played. Fitzgerald Toussaint saw a little more time, but he didn’t receive nearly the carries he would have if he were competing for the starting job instead of knowing he has it.

And while the Michigan defense outplayed the offense Saturday, there were some things worth watching this offseason and heading into fall camp.

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WolverineNation mailbag 

March, 21, 2012
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Dennis NorfleetJamie Newberg/ESPN.comIncoming freshman running back Dennis Norfleet could be a factor as a kick returner very early in his Michigan career.
The Michigan basketball season ended in stunning fashion last week with an upset by Ohio. Michigan started its 133rd season of football when spring practice kicked off Saturday and already, there are questions about what will happen during the 2012-13 school year.

So that is where this week's Mailbag focuses, from Tim Hardaway Jr.'s future to that of Dennis Norfleet, wide receivers and Devin Gardner.

Remember, the Mailbag is only as good as the questions you ask. So get those to Chantel Jennings next week either on Twitter @chanteljennings or by email at jenningsespn@gmail.com or on The Den.

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