Michigan Wolverines: Mario Ojemudia
Nonetheless, there were a few individuals who stood out about the rest and are receiving awards in our penultimate round of helmet stickers.
Senior LB Jake Ryan: Ryan topped 100 tackles on the season during his final game at the Big House. He finished with a game-high 13 stops, which led the Big Ten on Saturday. On Monday, he was named one of the five finalists for this year's Butkus Award, given to the nation's top linebacker.
Junior C Jack Miller: Miller is the cog in the middle of a much-maligned offensive line that has steadily improved this season. Michigan's running attack in November has been as good as we've seen from the Wolverines in the past two years. It gained 292 yards on the ground against Maryland. If nothing else, Miller deserves some recognition for representing his team well while answering questions about their shortcomings throughout the season.
Junior DE Mario Ojemudia: Ojemudia and fellow lineman Taco Charlton played well while replacing dismissed senior Frank Clark. Ojemudia made five tackles, one behind the line of scrimmage and batted down a screen pass that he nearly turned into an interception. He stepped into a bigger role on Saturday and did so without stumbling.
The Wolverines(5-5) host Maryland(6-4) Saturday afternoon in the better of two remaining chances to get a sixth victory and become bowl eligible. Michigan has won three of its past four games. Here's a trio of players who will need to be at their best to win a fourth during that stretch.
Junior DE Mario Ojemudia: Ojemudia will likely make his second career start Saturday. He and sophomore Taco Charlton are responsible for replacing senior Frank Clark, who was dismissed from the team following his arrest earlier this week. Ojemudia had two sacks in a 10-9 win over Northwestern two weeks ago. Maryland's offense is at its best when quarterback has C.J. Brown has time to throw deep. Ojemudia can help eliminate some of that with a good pass rush.
Junior RB Justice Hayes: Michigan's running game has turned a corner during November. Head coach Brady Hoke said the offensive line played its best game against Northwestern before last week's bye. Drake Johnson and De'Veon Smith produced back-to-back games with a 100-yard rusher. Now it's the speedy Hayes' turn for a big day against a Maryland defense that allows nearly 200 rushing yards per game on average.
Senior QB Devin Gardner: The intangible effect in a game expected to be decided by less than a touchdown will come from seniors like Gardner, who is in the home stretch of his up-and-down career in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines should be capable of sending their seniors out with a win, but need to avoid the turnovers and other mistakes that cost them games earlier in the year. If Gardner came play relatively mistake free, he'll give his team a good chance to win.
Mail call ...
Lance from Mooresville, N.C., writes: Some hypotheticals for you in regards to the 2013 Spartans: 1. If Le'Veon [Bell] would have stayed, would MSU have won a national title? Or would MSU have used him as a crutch like it did in 2012. 2. If MSU would have beat tOSU in the BIG CCG by 20-plus points and not given tOSU the lead back in the third quarter, would it have gone to the NCG? 3) How crazy is it that the BCS came a year too late for U of M and they didn't get an outright national title, and the playoff came a year too late for MSU, and it didn't get a chance to play for one either.
Adam Rittenberg: 1. I don't think Le'Veon Bell, as good as he is, would have been the difference in Michigan State winning a national title. And as you note, it might have changed how the coaches approached the quarterback position. MSU needed to lean more on its QB, partly because Bell wasn't there, and it allowed for Connor Cook to emerge. 2. Maybe if Missouri had beaten Auburn, MSU could have vaulted into the No. 2 spot. There was a strong push to get the SEC champ in the game after the run of national titles, but Missouri didn't have the backing that Auburn did. 3. I guess the college football powers-that-be are anti-Mitten State. It's really too bad MSU didn't have a chance to participate in a playoff last year.
Puck from Chesapeake, Va., writes: What impact does Taco Charlton make the for Wolverines this fall? I want him to be a game-changer!
Adam Rittenberg: Puck, few young players impressed me more physically on my spring trips last year than Taco Charlton. Freshmen simply don't look like that very often. He got a small taste of game action last fall, appearing in 10 games as a reserve and recording two tackles. I'm interested to see if he makes a significant jump in Year 2. Michigan needs more pass-rushing production, and while Charlton is behind Brennen Beyer, he could have a bigger role. Frank Clark and Mario Ojemudia are on the other side and boast more experience, but I don't know if any Michigan defensive end has Charlton's physical gifts.
Leo from Philadelphia writes: I grew up in close proximity to both Maryland and Rutgers. I feel like I know what both schools represent (having lots of friends from each), and I can't see either being a rival to Penn State (for obvious reasons). I understand why people from those schools try to justify it, but in reality Penn State has no true rival in the B1G. Ohio State might be the closest thing, but at the end of the day it's not (for obvious reasons). If the Big Ten caters to it, Nebraska, Wisconsin or Michigan State have serious potential (mainly Nebraska). Thoughts?
Adam Rittenberg: Leo, the only way Maryland or Rutgers becomes Penn State's rival is if one or both start beating the Lions on a regular basis. James Franklin's connection to Maryland makes that series more interesting, but I can't call it a rivalry until the Terps start winning. Penn State will see Ohio State, Michigan and MSU annually in the East Division, but all three programs have bigger rivals. A lot of Penn State and Nebraska fans wanted to see that series continue annually, but the division realignment makes it tough. Penn State might never have a true Big Ten rival. At least Pitt returns to the schedule in 2016.
Stephen from Mount Prospect, Ill., writes: Where do you stand on conference games beginning from Week 1? I think one of the more overlooked parts of the early part of the schedule is the effects it has on rankings and conference prestige. More early conference games will truly show who are the top teams. Look at the Michigan game when it lost to App State. It was the first game of the year, and the Wolverines were ranked fifth. It was a huge deal that they lost, and the perception was that the Big Ten was bad that season. If they played them at the end of the season with three losses, it wouldn't have been as big of a story.
Adam Rittenberg: Stephen, some really good points here. I've long been in favor of earlier conference games because they add some spice to those September Saturdays. No one like the Big Ten's MAC/FCS Invitational, which seems to take place one Saturday per season. Sprinkling in earlier league games, as we'll see in the near future, ensures the league remains somewhat relevant in the national discussion. But your point about early league games shedding light on which teams are good and which teams are not is very valid. I hate preseason polls and early-season rankings, but they would be slightly more accurate if teams faced stronger competition in September.
Al Baker from Lincoln, Neb., writes: It's Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, not Edwardsville, a much smaller satellite campus.
Adam Rittenberg: Actually, the Illinois state senators were referring to the Edwardsville campus, in the context of having a Big Ten candidate closer to a larger media market (St. Louis). Carbondale brings nothing to the Big Ten in terms of market. Same goes for Illinois State, Northern Illinois and most of the highly unrealistic candidates for Big Ten expansion. SIU-Edwardsville at least has location in its favor, but not much else.
1. Boring is boring. But, boring is good. Saturday's game was probably not the most exciting game you've seen this season, but it did prove one thing -- fewer risky plays means fewer turnovers, fewer turnovers mean bigger scoring margins. Quarterback Devin Gardner didn't attempt a pass in the first quarter, but the Wolverines did get the run game going, which in turn opened up a few less risky plays in the air. If Michigan can continue to have a solid run game and take a few shots down field -- in moderation, and smartly, of course -- the Wolverines should be able to put together a complete offensive game plan. It might not be one that provides the best highlight-reel footage, but it could be one that provides wins.
2. Devin Funchess creates crazy mismatches. How many Big Ten teams have defensive backs that are really going to match up with the 6-foot-5, 235-pound Funchess? Really, the move to wide receiver makes sense. His blocking -- though Michigan had big hopes for him -- never really developed, and with the emergence of Jake Butt as a more complete tight end and the return of a blocking AJ Williams, the Wolverines really had more need for Funchess at wide receiver than tight end. His background in basketball has always helped him, but it seemed more evident Saturday as he showed off his ball skills with one touchdown and 151 yards on seven catches.
3. The defensive line still isn't getting enough pressure. The Wolverines allowed Minnesota to run right up the middle too many times (and way too many times on third down). Michigan's defensive line needs to step it up. The D-line's leading tackler was redshirt freshman Willie Henry with ... three tackles. Mario Ojemudia, Frank Clark and Quinton Washington also accounted for three tackles. Yes, the Wolverines are shuffling players in and out, but the first level of the defense should be able to pick up more tackles than that, especially when the opponent ran 41 times.
It doesn’t hold quite as much drama as last year’s season opener against Alabama, but it’s official. College football is back and here are five storylines to watch for as the Wolverines take the field.
1. Youth and inexperience on Michigan’s offensive line.
This really is one of Michigan’s biggest question marks heading into the season. Graham Glasgow, Jack Miller and Kyle Kalis combine for zero starts. Much of the offense’s success rests on how well the offensive line meshes. If these young guys don’t play more experienced than they are, it could be trouble. Michigan wants to go with a group rather than tweaking throughout the season and the Wolverines definitely don’t want to be tweaking the line the following weekend against Notre Dame, so these three need to be stout in the middle.
2. How much the Wolverines give away offensively
On Wednesday, Brady Hoke said they wouldn’t hold anything back against Central Michigan. “We got nothing to hide. We really don't,” he said. “We've got nothing to hide in what we do and how we do it. I think that is really overblown when you're trying to keep something that maybe they haven't seen.” Now, there’s definitely truth to what he said. The Wolverines are going to be who they are and coaches know that. But Devin Gardner also said that this is the thickest the playbook has been at this point in the season since he has been here. They obviously won’t put everything in this weekend, but I do think they’ll show some. Some of that will be to work kinks out but I don’t think it’s completely insane to say that some of that will be to keep Notre Dame on its heels. For example, two seasons ago, Borges and Hoke unveiled the deuce package -- Gardner and Denard Robinson in at the same time -- in a 58-0 rout of Minnesota. Did Michigan need to use that then? Nope. But it did. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it was two weeks before the Wolverines traveled to East Lansing to play Michigan State. There were definitely a few wrenches thrown in Mark Dantonio’s game plan.
3. The return of running back Fitzgerald Toussaint
Michigan coaches say he’s 100 percent. He says he’s 100 percent. Teammates say he’s 100 percent. We’ll finally be able to see on Saturday. It’s more and more common these days to see athletes, like Toussaint, return from gruesome injuries, but it’ll be interesting to see how the coaches use him, how he moves on the field and how he takes that first hit. If the Wolverines get an early lead, don’t expect to see too much of him though. Michigan is still working with its running back depth and with six guys on the depth chart, the coaches will be looking for who can really be that third-down back or who they can rely on to step in for Toussaint to give him a rest (or who could overtake him, really). It won’t be too crazy -- depending on the score -- if we do see three or four guys get carries as Michigan tests the waters with multiple guys.
4. CMU’s senior running back Zurlon Tipton
Other than having the best name of anyone playing Saturday, he could also be the best running back on the field. As a junior, Tipton rushed for 19 touchdowns and 1,492 yards on 252 carries. His hands are solid and he accounted for 24 receptions for 287 yards last season. He’s going to be the Chippewas’ best offensive weapon and the Wolverines are prepared for that, but whether they’ll be able to stop him is another subject entirely. Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said Tuesday that Tipton is a "great cutback runner and he’s a very physical back. He earns a reputation. You watch him, he's running down the sideline and a lot of guys would step out of bounds. He turns back in to try and hit somebody." He should provide a test for the Michigan defense right out of the blocks.
5. The depth along Michigan’s defensive line
Mattison said Tuesday that he believes he has enough depth in the defensive line to run three-deep at each position. Obviously, we’d see more of guys like Jibreel Black, Quinton Washington and Frank Clark but don’t be too surprised if you do see second- or third-string players -- Willie Henry, Matt Godin, Taco Charlton, Mario Ojemudia -- getting into the game and making some plays. Mattison said he had this much depth once before, at Florida. The real test will come when we see if the second and third strings can get as much pressure, from a straight four-man rush, on the opposing QB. Because while Michigan might be able to run three deep against an offensive line and quarterback like Central, they might not be able to do the same against an Ohio State squad.
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
Last season, Michigan heard a lot about following up a surprisingly strong first season under Brady Hoke and SEC speed, considering the Wolverines opened against Alabama in Arlington, Texas. Michigan was confident then.
A little over a month and a blowout later, Michigan’s chances at a national title were history.
There won’t be that type of talk this season -- either of the SEC or national championship variety -- over the next few days. But here are five questions that will likely be asked and probably not fully answered about Michigan.
1. Who will be Michigan’s running back?
2. How will Michigan cope without Denard Robinson?
The Wolverines gave a peek at that answer the last third of last season when Robinson injured the ulnar nerve in his right arm. Still, what Gardner and offensive coordinator Al Borges ran over the final month of the regular season was still a very basic version of what Michigan could use now. Expect to see more play action, more running the ball and a more pro-style offense. Borges -- and Brady Hoke -- have always favored this. That’s the general answer. Exactly what Michigan’s offense will look like, including wrinkles specifically for Gardner, will be unveiled in the fall.
3. What happens if Devin Gardner gets hurt (or, who is Michigan’s backup quarterback)?
Again, the answer is somewhat known. The first answer, for Michigan, would be to have major concerns. Gardner is the only healthy quarterback on the roster who has any significant game experience. With Russell Bellomy sidelined with a torn ACL, his backup is either freshman Shane Morris or a pair of walk-ons, Alex Swieca or Brian Cleary. As Michigan did not secure a fifth-year graduate transfer or a junior college transfer, it will look to one of those inexperienced players if Gardner goes down. Of anything else that could happen to Michigan this season, this would be high on the list of concerns.
4. Who is pressuring the quarterback for Michigan’s defense?
Yet another viable question. Linebacker Jake Ryan, MIchigan’s leader in tackles for loss last season, is out indefinitely with a torn ACL. The school is hopeful he can return by midseason. Along the defensive line, inexperience remains. Tackle Quinton Washington is a fifth-year senior,\ but has never been the focal point of the line. Ends Frank Clark and Mario Ojemudia have talent, but have not put things together consistently. The rest of the options have barely played. Considering Michigan’s issues with its defensive front and quarterback pressure a season ago, more inexperience will remain a concern until proven differently, no earlier than Aug. 31 in the season opener against Central Michigan. Michigan, though, will likely say it likes its defensive line.
5. How often will Brady Hoke call Ohio State “Ohio?”
The answer is, well, every time. Entering his third year, the whole thing has worn a little thin. But the over/under here on how many questions he receives about Ohio State, Urban Meyer, Braxton Miller is around 30 throughout the two days. Add in rivalry questions and that’ll probably bump it up to 40. Apparently Hoke’s phrasing for Ohio State is catching on as Florida coach Will Muschamp called Ohio State “Ohio” at SEC media days last week.
2012 conference record: 6-2
Returning starters: Offense: 6; defense: 6; kicker/punter: 3
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
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)
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.
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.
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.
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Which one of these guys will be able to play right away?
In basketball this is a way of life. In football it can get dangerous, depending on the competition. As Michigan builds up its roster, it has had to rely on freshmen less and less, but this season the Wolverines still will need to look to some first-year players to be key contributors on offense and defense.
Here’s a look at five freshmen -- or spots -- where you could see rookies this fall.
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- While Taco Charlton is just one of the six early enrolling freshmen this spring, but the defensive end is more intriguing than most for the simple reason that he’ll potentially have a chance to play.
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One of the bigger issues Michigan had defensively this season was pressure from its front four, which is a major tenet to any good defense run by defensive coordinator Greg Mattison. And while the Wolverines return a lot of their options at rush end from last season, this is not necessarily a bad thing.
All three of their returning players, plus an incoming freshman, have major potential to improve and the competition among the four might be the most intense of the spring and preseason.
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And yes, life After Denard [Robinson] will look markedly different for the Wolverines, one of the topics hit on in this week’s WolverineNation Mailbag.
Have questions for the Mailbag? Send them to @chanteljennings on Twitter or firstname.lastname@example.org. Now, on to what you want to know:
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With the unknown as the metric, the Wolverines’ defensive line did surprisingly well. There were some obvious flaws and holes -- the middle of the defensive line was spotty at points and the pass rush was non-existent for stretches -- but what could have been a glaring weakness turned into a serviceable group.
Considering what Michigan was working with -- mostly youth and old inexperience other than Roh -- the Wolverines held up well here.
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Harbaugh Torn Between NFL, Michigan Job
BIG TEN SCOREBOARD
Final Nevada 3 Louisiana-Lafayette 16 Final Utah State 21 UTEP 6 Final 22 Utah 45 Colorado State 10 Final Western Michigan 24 Air Force 38 Final South Alabama 28 Bowling Green 33
6:00 PM ET Marshall Northern Illinois 9:30 PM ET Navy San Diego State
12:00 PM ET Central Michigan Western Kentucky 8:00 PM ET Fresno State Rice
1:00 PM ET Illinois Louisiana Tech 4:30 PM ET Rutgers North Carolina 8:00 PM ET North Carolina State UCF
1:00 PM ET Cincinnati Virginia Tech 2:00 PM ET 15 Arizona State Duke 3:30 PM ET Miami (FL) South Carolina 4:30 PM ET Boston College Penn State 8:00 PM ET Nebraska 24 USC
2:00 PM ET Texas A&M West Virginia 5:30 PM ET Oklahoma 17 Clemson 9:00 PM ET Arkansas Texas
3:00 PM ET Notre Dame 23 LSU 6:30 PM ET 13 Georgia 21 Louisville 10:00 PM ET Maryland Stanford
12:30 PM ET 9 Ole Miss 6 TCU 4:00 PM ET 20 Boise State 10 Arizona 8:00 PM ET 7 Mississippi State 12 Georgia Tech
12:00 PM ET 19 Auburn 18 Wisconsin 12:30 PM ET 8 Michigan State 5 Baylor 1:00 PM ET 16 Missouri 25 Minnesota 5:00 PM ET 2 Oregon 3 Florida State 8:30 PM ET 1 Alabama 4 Ohio State
12:00 PM ET Houston Pittsburgh 3:20 PM ET Iowa Tennessee 6:45 PM ET 11 Kansas State 14 UCLA 10:15 PM ET Washington Oklahoma State