Michigan Wolverines: Kyle Bosch
And so the offensive linemen couldn't escape all the negativity floating around about them in 2013. After all, it was virtually everywhere.
The Wolverines didn't need outsiders to tell them what was obvious: they struggled up front, particularly in the three inside spots as coaches mixed and matched inexperienced players without much success. Michigan finished 11th in the Big Ten in rushing and tied for the second-most sacks allowed in the league.
This spring, the two most reliable players on last season's line -- tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield -- are training for future NFL careers. It's up to many of the same guys who struggled in their first major exposure to step forward and change the outlook.
"We know we don't have the option to not get better," guard Kyle Kalis said. "It's getting to that point where we can't really say we’re young anymore, because next year, no one is going to want to hear that. So we have to all come together."
Whether you see it as an excuse or simply reality, the Wolverines are awfully young on the O-line. They have one senior -- Joey Burzynski -- and two juniors in Graham Glasgow and Jack Miller. The rest are sophomores or freshman, and with Burzynski out with an injury and Glasgow serving a suspension, youth is dominating spring practice reps.
Consider the left tackle position. Magnuson, currently out with a shoulder injury, will likely start out atop the depth chart there when he's healthy. But right now, the three players battling to fill Lewan's shows are redshirt freshmen David Dawson and Logan Tuley-Tillman and Mason Cole, a freshman early enrollee. Cole has impressed his coaches and has an excellent chance of at least making the rotation. But the fact that a guy who should be a high school senior right now is getting so many reps at the most important offensive line position speaks volumes.
"I can't all of a sudden make them older, so we have to make sure we do what we can do," offensive line coach Darrell Funk said. "We’re so young that if every day we can get better at something, we’ll have what we want."
The good news is that players like Magnuson, Kalis, Kyle Bosch and Ben Braden all gained valuable experience as freshmen and should naturally improve with more seasoning. New offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier has simplified many of the blocking schemes and is emphasizing quick, decisive moves in a more north-south running game than predecessor Al Borges.
"You get the the chance to open these huge holes and then let the running backs take one or two steps right or left, find the hill and start running," Kalis said. "That’s a big difference from last year."
Last season's group also had a different dynamic with two established senior starters and a whole bunch of young players. Now, many of the players are close together in class and have gone through similar experiences.
"It was Taylor and Scho’s offensive line last year, which was fine because we needed that leadership," Kalis said. "But this year, it's kind of cool that we can let it be our line and really come together."
A lot of work remains, even though spring practice wraps up later this week at Michigan. Funk is still mixing and matching while trying to find the combinations that work best, and the returns of Magnuson, Burzynski and Glasgow will change the formula in fall camp. He said everything is still a work in progress right now, including the leadership on the line.
Funk knows that both he and the unit received scathing criticism last season, but he says the only thing that matters is moving forward.
"You take your lumps with young guys, and then the following years you see the rewards," he said. "I don’t think that will be any different in this situation."
Nobody has to tell those young guys that they need to improve in a hurry. The outside noise is mere motivation.
"We got the label of not being a good offensive line way too much last year," Magnuson said. "That puts a lot of fuel to the fire when you play at Michigan because you have such high expectations."
Prediction No. 1: The offensive line isn’t going to be quite as far along as some would like.
The offensive line is the position group that must improve the most between 2013 and 2014 if the Wolverines want to be better offensively. As good as Devin Gardner, Derrick Green, De'Veon Smith or Amara Darboh might be, it won’t matter too much if the offensive line struggles like (or for as long a stretch) it did in 2013.
What is often thought of as a prototypical Michigan offensive line is one that is stacked with juniors and seniors, guys who have paid their dues, learned from upperclassmen and are physically and mentally ready to step in. However, that wasn’t the case last season and, as much experience as some players might have gained in 2013, it won’t be the case this fall.
The trio also doesn't have experience as a starting combo. Kalis appeared in Bosch’s three starts (against Michigan State, Nebraska and Northwestern) but didn’t start. But they have played together before, which is more than could be said for the group last season.
So while it’s still a very young group, there could and should be some gains made in the interior of the offensive line. So the problem flip-flops from what it was last season to what it is this season -- the tackles, the strength of the line last season. In 2014, those two positions will likely be filled by two redshirt sophomores who have limited experience.
Ben Braden, who appeared in just two games, is taking reps with the top group this spring and Erik Magnuson, who started seven games and appeared in 12 games last season, is the likely leader for the spot at left tackle. Both have the physical attributes to be excellent tackles: height, weight and long arms. But last season showed what talent without experience looks like, and the idea of some of that inexperience protecting Gardner’s blind side is a bit worrisome.
On top of that, Magnuson underwent shoulder surgery this winter and isn't participating in spring practices. Redshirt freshman David Dawson is taking his snaps at left tackle, just continuing the revolving door of youth on the offensive line.
Last year the competition for the positions went on for weeks throughout the season. In the perfect world, coaches would at least be able to see the two-deep throughout the spring. That certainly won’t be the case as Magnuson is out and reserve players such as Chris Bryant and Joey Burzynski -- who have game experience -- are unavailable this spring.
Because fixing the offensive line is at such a premium for the Wolverines and because fans have taken such notice to it, expectations are high. But those expectations still need to be tempered, especially through this spring. If people show up to the spring game expecting to see the 1997 Michigan offensive line out there, then they probably want to stay home and try to watch replays. This group will make strides, but those strides aren’t going to be massive this spring.
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.
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.
However, Michigan’s participation in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl on Dec. 28 can be interpreted as a huge victory for the team, and specifically its youth.
Obviously, beating Kansas State will be put at a premium. But the coaching staff won’t overlook the fact that they’ll get extra practice time with the young players on this team.
There aren’t any special bowl-prep practice rules. Michigan can practice for the bowl as they did during the regular season -- 20 hours a week with a maximum of four hours a day.
And while Michigan isn’t going to scrap its depth chart and only work with the scout team over the next few weeks, it will be a huge opportunity for players who are lower on the depth chart or only played sporadically this season to get more repetitions.
Obviously, the offensive line had a bit of that throughout the season. Six freshmen and sophomores started at least one game this season, and while that created a lot of confusion and growing pains, left tackle Taylor Lewan preached about how much that would help the team in the next few seasons.
So during the next two-and-a-half weeks, young players such as Kyle Kalis, Erik Magnuson and Kyle Bosch will continue that growth. But it will be even more helpful as offensive line coach Darrell Funk is able to work with reserve player such as Ben Braden and Blake Bars or players who redshirted this season such as David Dawson and Patrick Kugler.
It’s the same story for the defense. Freshmen defensive backs Jourdan Lewis and Channing Stribling, linebacker Ben Gedeon and defensive lineman Taco Charlton each played this season, but during that time they were targeted by opposing teams from time to time specifically because they were freshmen.
And then there are players such as running backs Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith and tight end Jake Butt, who made large contributions by the end of the season, but didn’t really get the full season of experience as a first or second-stringer.
This cluster of practices will be like an extra three game weeks.
“A lot of these young guys have earned a right to play, and it didn’t start out the first week,” Mattison said. “It has been throughout the season, so every chance they get to play another game and to have this practice time is tremendous for us.”
While the 7-5 season isn’t what the Wolverines had hoped for, they’ll be able to use this as a new season going forward, a chance to go 1-0.
The fact that so many freshmen and sophomores played this fall shows how confident Hoke and his staff are in the job they’ve done on the recruiting trail.
“We’re very, very excited about our football team and we feel very strongly that the young men that we’ve recruited in the two or three years that we’ve been here now are the right young men,” Mattison said. “Now, it’s getting that experience. … You can’t put a price tag on these 15 more practices where you can gain on individual drills and become a smarter football player.”
Without every last detail played to perfection in the waning moments of regulation, the Wolverines wouldn't have attempted that game-tying field goal and wouldn't have had a chance to play for an overtime win against Northwestern in Evanston, Ill.
There was Matt Wile finding kicker Brendan Gibbons to let him know Michigan would be running a hurry-up field goal. There was Taylor Lewan, Erik Magnuson and Kyle Bosch getting to the sideline in time. And then there were the other linemen getting on to the field in time.
There was Gibbons -- a player whose position is predicated on routine and detail -- getting to the 34-yard line, shuffling back and moving his weight back and forth a few times. In film, special teams coach Dan Ferrigno would tell Gibbons that steps are overrated.
There was snapper Jareth Glanda making sure to get to the ball in time, then waiting for the signal from holder Drew Dileo.
And then there was Dileo, fresh off a vertical route the previous play of the game, on the opposite side, unable to hear the coaches on the sideline. He didn’t know the play call until he saw Gibbons running on to the field. At that point he took off.
And then there was the play within the play -- Dileo’s slide (or as people on Twitter took to calling it, the #DileoPowerSlide).
The slide was for substance, not style (though it definitely added some style points to the game), because every millisecond mattered.
“At first, honestly no, I really didn’t [think I’d make it],” Dileo said. “I saw Brendan run on the field. I looked at the clock and it was six seconds left and so then I just put my head down and ran to where his foot was.”
Dileo remembers signaling for the ball with two seconds remaining, and after three overtimes, the Wolverines were able to successfully celebrate a road win, its special teams and the Dileo power slide.
That slide so perfectly encapsulated the chaos of the moment, the need to do whatever it took -- including a return to Dileo’s baseball days -- in order for the play to work.
Dileo didn’t know whether Lewan started the trend or if it were someone else on Twitter, but it blew up and suddenly -- after a full day of college football -- everyone seemed to be watching and talking about a special teams play that happened in a relatively inconsequential Big Ten game.
With the exception of the impromptu slide, however, that play for Michigan is relatively normal. The hurry-up field goal is something the Wolverines have practiced every week since Hoke and this coaching staff arrived at Michigan.
Though, admittedly, sometimes Hoke makes it a bit more difficult.
“Coach Hoke’s countdown is not a real countdown,” Dileo said. “Sometimes he goes from 10 to one in about four seconds. ... I think the game was probably just a culmination of practice the last three years and we executed really well.”
The execution was there, and for a team that has struggled to make big plays and give their fans something to be excited about, the Wolverines managed to come up the biggest in the moment with the smallest margin for error.
Michigan fans have been in awe of it and Hoke said it was one of the best he has ever been a part of, but was it the best team play Dileo had ever seen?
“I really think so,” Dileo said. “In the last couple days I’ve watched that play over and over and over. And it really is amazing that we got the ball off. Really the whole two-minute drive ... and them getting off the field. It really was amazing.”
But a “head concussion thing” led Hoke to believe Toussaint wasn’t quite practiced enough. That injury -- which Hoke said no longer is ailing the redshirt senior -- left Toussaint on the sideline and forced the hand of the Michigan coaching staff to turn to some of its youth in the run game. And that decision paid dividends.
“Both of those guys are pretty much downhill runners,” Hoke said. “They have a chance to end up north and south because of their size and their style. They have pretty good vision most of the time.”
Coming in to the Northwestern game, Green had just 40 carries all season while Smith had accounted for just 15 carries over two games. But against the Wildcats, the two averaged 4.4 yards per carry, which is far more production out of the tailback position than the Wolverines have been accustomed to through the Big Ten schedule.
Because of the freshmen’s production, Hoke now has quite the decision -- one that will play out over the course of this week -- on whether to stick with his veteran running back who hasn’t gotten it going, or to take a chance on his young guns.
“We’ll see where we shake out at the end of the week with who will be the first back in,” Hoke said.
But not all of the accomplishments of the youthful running backs can be attributed to Green and Smith. The youthful interior line -- freshman left guard Kyle Bosch, redshirt sophomore center Graham Glasgow and redshirt freshman right guard Erik Magnuson -- played its part and really created space for the Wolverines for the first time during the conference slate.
“The running backs played well,” left tackle Taylor Lewan said. “But we also gave them holes to run through. That was huge. It was a good team effort.”
“I think the three guys inside really established the line of scrimmage,” Hoke added. “When you watch the tape [the running backs] were able to get started better.”
But the offensive line (and whichever back the Wolverines go with on Saturday) will face a tough test in Iowa. The Hawkeyes have allowed just four rushing touchdowns all season and one quarter of all opponent rushes have gone for 0 or negative yardage.
But it’s not impossible to have success in the run game against Iowa. Wisconsin rushed for 218 yards earlier this month, and Ohio State rushed for 273 yards against the Hawkeyes.
With the advancements the young interior line and young running backs showed against Northwestern, it should be a very interesting matchup in Iowa City.
“We weren’t perfect but some of the movement we had at the line of scrimmage -- trust me, that’ll be tested this week because of how Iowa plays the line of scrimmage and who they have playing it,” Hoke said. “We’ll be tested, but they got movement [against Northwestern] and it was really good to see the combination blocks working together.”
The driver's seat in the Legends division is up for grabs Saturday in East Lansing, and the Spartans have a bit of head start going in to that race. Here are five things to keep your eyes on as Michigan and Michigan State take the field in Spartan Stadium...
1. The offense's productivity. The Wolverines offense had a ridiculous showing against Indiana. And yes, that was Indiana, but it definitely got in a groove, and if it can keep up any of that momentum, it'll be a very good thing. The Spartans defense is giving up just 216 yards per game, so while the Wolverines most likely won't be able to put up 700-plus yards again, getting even one third of that total could tilt the scale in Michigan's favor. The main key here is going to be getting the attack started up front with a rushing attack. Whether that be via running back Fitzgerald Toussaint (what Michigan really wants) or quarterback Devin Gardner (less desired, but possibly more likely), the Wolverines need to make sure its rushing attack can open up the passing game.
2. Speaking of the Michigan passing game... That's also key. Basically every aspect of the offense and every player within the offense is key in order for Michigan to have a chance in this game. The Spartans have recorded nine interceptions in eight games and their secondary is led by senior Darqueze Dennard, who has two interceptions and seven pass breakups. Gardner is going to need to take his shots downfield and when called upon, Jeremy Gallon and Devin Funchess will need to rise to the occasion in order to make those shots count. Gardner has gone one game without an interception. If he can get through a second consecutive game --especially considering the second game is coming against the Spartans -- that would be a big, big deal.
3. The Spartans pass rush. It only makes sense that the first three things to watch about this game are in regard to the MSU defense because it's very, very good. If Michigan's offense is very good, then it'll be interesting to watch because of how well-played the game could be, but if Michigan's offense isn't good, then the Spartans defense will be making plays and providing highlights. But keep an eye on the pass rush because if Gardner throws an interception, it'll likely be because he gets forced out of the pocket because of the MSU pass rush. The Spartans have recorded 18 sacks this season, 13 of those coming from four defensive linemen -- Shilique Calhoun, Marcus Rush, Tyler Hoover and Denzel Drone.
4. Michigan defense's response. Enough talk of the MSU defense; let's discuss the Wolverines' defense -- which needs to make a big statement after the unimpressive performance against Indiana. The Michigan defensive line, which hasn't provided a consistent pass rush, will attempt to get MSU quarterback Connor Cook out of his comfort zone. But it'll need to be stout against the run too, as Jeremy Langford is really coming in to his own at running back.
5. The environment. Spartan Stadium is going to be rocking. "Comments" are going to be flying between the two teams. And the Wolverines, who've looked far from consistent on the road this season, will be thrown right in the middle of it. Redshirt freshman Erik Magnuson and true freshman Kyle Bosch will likely be starting on the offensive line. Funchess, a sophomore, will be expected to make big plays. Freshman Derrick Green could be used to pick up some yardage. And freshmen Channing Stribling and Jourdan Lewis, who've been so close to making plays in the Wolverines secondary, could get picked apart if they aren't on their 'A' games. This will be a big moment on a huge stage, and anything less than perfect could spell disaster for Michigan.
“There’s always going to be that extra physical-ness before and a little bit after the whistle -- that’s what these games are all about,” tackle Taylor Lewan said. “That’s the beauty of a rivalry.”
But the problem with that is that the Wolverines admit that they were outmuscled when it came to that physicality two years ago in East Lansing when they lost, 28-14.
And for a team that prides itself on physicality, especially in the trenches, that added insult to injury as the Wolverines headed back to Ann Arbor.
“I take it personally,” Lewan said. “Nobody likes to get bullied and that’s what they did two years ago, they bullied us, and that’s tough. ... I don’t like getting bullied, I don’t want it to happen. It’s going to be a physical game. It’s going to be a very physical game. We’re not going to get bullied this year.”
Michigan coach Brady Hoke prides his teams on their ability to match up physically to anyone in the country, though in each of the Wolverines’ losses over the past few seasons -- like the one in East Lansing two years ago -- it could be argued that his group was on the lesser end of the physicality scale.
The Wolverines will need to match up with the Spartans up front, which will be a tall task.
Most likely, Hoke will stick with redshirt freshman Erik Magnuson and true freshman Kyle Bosch at the guard positions, giving the Wolverines a very youthful offensive front.
The Spartans defensive front has given up an FBS-low 10 rushes of 10 yards or more this season. Alabama, Memphis and Ohio State are tied for second with 17 rushes of 10 yards or more. And 34 percent of opponent rushes against the Spartans gain zero or negative yards.
Undoubtedly, it’s a big measuring stick for the Wolverines offense, which will try to match the physicality and play of the Spartans, but Hoke avoided putting too many eggs in that basket earlier this week.
“Would this be a defining moment? I don’t know,” Hoke said. “I think it’s a learning moment. You learn a little bit more about your guys as a team. Until you put anybody in those kinds of games in that environment, and that’s where we’ve got to do a good job of what we do and the preparation for them.”
But a lot of that preparation will be for the Spartans’ level of physicality. Hoke said that this week in practice things have gotten chippy between a few players, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing as it shows that guys are willing to practice and play with an edge.
And they’re going to need that edge in East Lansing.
“We need to be the more physical team every single Saturday,” Lewan said. “If you want to win championships, especially in the Big Ten, it’s a physical conference, you’re going to get banged up a little bit. That’s what happens. You have to power through. ... The great teams keep going no matter what.”
Brady Hoke endears himself to Michigan fans by embracing all things maize and blue, but he outlines the standards for the Wolverines program in black and white.
Success: a Big Ten championship and a trip to the Rose Bowl.
Failure: anything else.
Ricky Bobby would be proud.
Or he simply thinks Michigan shouldn't settle for anything but championships. Again, refreshing.
It has been eight seasons since Michigan last won a Big Ten championship. That should never happen.
While Hoke undoubtedly has done some good things in his two-plus seasons as Michigan's coach, his tenure to date, by his own standards, has fallen short. Maybe that's too harsh an assessment, given the fragile program Hoke inherited from Rich Rodriguez. Then again, if Hoke judges himself that way, why shouldn't we?
He's in Year 3, enough time to have Michigan positioned for a championship push, regardless of the issues when he took over. As November dawns, Hoke and the Wolverines embark on a stretch that will determine exactly who they are -- champions or guys who talk about championships at a school that has won more than any in the Big Ten.
"The month of November is when you win championships," Hoke told ESPN.com. "A lot of that has always been because of the meat of your schedule, who you're playing. When you look at our schedule and the divisional games are all over that schedule, it's important."
It begins Saturday when No. 21 Michigan visits No. 22 Michigan State. The Spartans are the only Legends Division team without a Big Ten loss. Michigan's lone defeat came in a cross-division game at Penn State, and a loss to Michigan State would essentially put the Wolverines 2½ games behind the Spartans with four weeks to play.
"If we want to win a championship," Michigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan said, "we have to go through Michigan State."
Could Michigan still achieve its goal with a loss Saturday afternoon?
"You're counting on a lot of things to happen," Hoke said. "It gets out of your hands to a certain degree. Are we a good football team? Yeah. Are we perfect by any ways? No, and we haven't been. We've been inconsistent, but we have won six games and lost one in four overtimes where we had plenty of opportunities.
"We've grown, but obviously [if you lose] you put yourselves behind the eight ball."
Michigan has been an enigma this season, impressively beating Notre Dame in Week 2 but struggling against Football Bowl Subdivision bottom-feeders Akron and Connecticut and losing to an unremarkable Penn State squad. The Wolverines are one of the Big Ten's most talented teams, bolstered by the recruiting success Hoke and his staff have engineered, and they're certainly capable of blossoming into a division champion in the next five weeks. They also could crumble as the competition gets tougher.
The next five weeks not only will provide answers about Team 134 but also about Hoke and his ability to meet his own standards.
Several of Hoke's achievements at Michigan can't be touched. He has ended long losing streaks against rivals Ohio State and Michigan State. He boasts a 19-0 mark at Michigan Stadium and became the first Michigan coach to go undefeated at home in his first two seasons since Fielding Yost (1901-02). He has made significant upgrades in recruiting, as Michigan signed top-10 classes in 2012 and 2013 and likely will do so again in February.
He also blends seamlessly with the Michigan family, unlike his predecessor, and oversees a program that lacks the drama that seemed to surface throughout Rodriguez's tenure.
Hoke has achieved many of the things Rodriguez could not, but that's not enough at this type of program. He has yet to make the Big Ten championship game, even with Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State in the other division. Michigan had fortune on its side in Hoke's first season, as it beat the worst Ohio State team in a generation, received a BCS at-large berth ahead of a Michigan State team it lost to and beat a Virginia Tech team in the Sugar Bowl that many believed had no business being in New Orleans. Last year, Michigan lost to all the elite teams it faced and finished a disappointing 8-5.
Hoke's teams are just 6-8 away from Michigan Stadium, including a 28-14 setback two years ago at Michigan State, an emotion-charged contest that featured six personal foul penalties on the Spartans.
"Two years ago up there, we, as a team, flinched too many times," Hoke said. "That bothers you, so I wasn't expecting that from the Michigan teams that I've been around before."
Hoke hopes to see more poise Saturday from his team, including young players like starting guards Kyle Bosch and Erik Magnuson, a true freshman and a redshirt freshman, respectively. He needs to see better tackling technique from a Wolverines defense that surrendered 47 points and 572 yards in its last game against Indiana.
He needs to see great leadership from players like Lewan, who embraces Hoke's championship-or-bust mentality and passed up millions in the NFL for one more title shot at Michigan.
Lewan recognizes what's on the line for Michigan and ensures anyone who doesn't will by week's end.
"Just staying in their ear, over and over again, letting them know what this game is about," Lewan said.
How close is Michigan to being a championship team?
"Golly," Hoke said, "the best way I would say it is we need some more seasoning, some more experiences."
There's no better experience than the one Michigan will have Saturday at Spartan Stadium. A win gives Michigan control of the division. A loss likely extends Michigan's title drought for another year.
The stakes are spelled out for the Maize and Blue in black and white. Hoke would have it no other way.
The Michigan offense has lacked consistency this season, so this week will give the Wolverines an opportunity to find that and jell more as they begin what will be a tough stretch to end the season. Defensively, Michigan had appeared stout until last weekend against Indiana, so this off week gives that group a chance to regroup and examine what went wrong.
Here’s a closer look at what this week means on both sides of the ball.
Offensive coordinator Al Borges has a lot of talent on his side of the ball, but it hasn’t always come together to show the most cohesive, productive unit.
Taylor Lewan, Michael Schofield and Graham Glasgow are safe at the tackles and center spots, but it doesn’t really matter how well those three play if the guards let pressure through on both sides. Kyle Bosch, Kyle Kalis, Erik Magnuson and Chris Bryant all seem to be battling for those guard spots. With two full weeks to prep for the Michigan State game, it does seem likely -- at least with what the coaches want -- as though the starting group against the Spartans will be what Michigan will go with the rest of the season.
“We’re not eliminating anybody,” Borges said. “We still have some talented kids in the wings. We’re trying to keep this thing competitive. We got to this point where we’re pretty functional now, because we’ve kept it competitive. We don’t like doing it this way. We’d rather just have the same five from the beginning, but it hasn’t worked out that way.”
The O-line showed cohesion against Indiana and gave quarterback Devin Gardner plenty of time in the pocket. Gardner likely spent the week watching film with Borges to figure out how to attack the Michigan State defense. The Spartans boast the best defense in the country and have given up fewer than 14 points per game this season.
Gardner is going to need to continue improving his accuracy, as MSU will make sure to put its defense in prime positions to make plays on the ball. Already this season the Spartans have accounted for five defensive touchdowns.
However, they haven’t had to game plan against a tandem as unique as Jeremy Gallon and Devin Funchess. Both are effective but completely different as playmakers, and when one draws attention from a defense, the other seems to make big plays.
The Wolverines were ultra-effective in the pass and run game last weekend largely because they showed such a diverse offense, which in turn opened up the game for Gardner and allowed him and the playmakers to make plays.
“We’re not becoming a spread team but we’re going to have that dimension in our offense,” Borges said. “We’re going to have the ability to take you sideline to sideline; we’re going to have the ability to mow you over. If you have both, certain games one is going to be better than the other.”
Michigan’s defense looked so solid up until last week.
But it wasn’t the point total or the yardage total that disappointed defensive coordinator Greg Mattison the most. Instead, it was the fact that there weren’t 11 helmets running to the ball on every play. If the Wolverines want to take care of business next weekend in East Lansing, that (and many other things) will have to change.
“I feel very confident in our guys, because we’re going to work every second to do it,” Mattison said. “I know we’ll have Michigan defense back on that field the way it’s supposed to be when we play that game.”
The coaches haven’t come out and completely said what their plan is for Jake Ryan at this point. But if he is 100 percent and still has that quick step and instinct, it doesn’t seem like they’ll continue the three-play rotations they’ve employed with Ryan, Brennen Beyer and Cam Gordon for much longer.
If Ryan begins picking up more reps for the MSU game, it wouldn’t be too big of a surprise to see Beyer moved back to the defensive line to bring an extra body and experience to that group, while also being able to give Ryan a break here and there.
The secondary needs to clean it up this weekend. The Wolverines allowed several big plays over the past two weeks, and on many of them it seemed as though the defensive backs were right there but didn’t finish. But almost doesn’t cut it in football.
Mattison said Saturday’s disappointment for each position group on the defense could be a positive experience in the long run, as it’ll fuel each player for the rest of this season.
“That experience from Saturday -- you can’t pay for that, that feeling, and them seeing how it isn’t supposed to be,” Mattison said of the Indiana game. “You can’t pay for that. If you’re going to be a great defense, they’re going to remember that for a long time.”
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.”
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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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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.
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.
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.
Michigan Outlook: 2014
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