Michigan Wolverines: Michael Schofield
Travel 60 miles northwest to East Lansing and the Wolverines are hated -- which the players love.
And there will certainly be plenty of boos for Michigan when it takes the field Saturday in Spartan Stadium.
The Spartans are undefeated at home this year while Michigan has struggled recently on the road.
In their first road game of the year, the Wolverines traveled to Connecticut and, after a slow start and turning the ball over three times, came away with a three-point win.
Michigan’s second road trip of the season was to Penn State, where the Wolverines suffered their only loss of the season in four overtimes at the hands of the Nittany Lions.
Neither of those games showed a true offensive identity. But on Saturday, the Wolverines will need to play their best game of the year as MSU is giving up just 12 points and 55 rushing yards per game.
Defensively, Michigan will also have to put together one of its best showings of the year. The Wolverines' defense wasn’t the biggest problem in either of their road games, but they’ll need to put together a very solid performance to stand up against a Michigan State offense that has found itself of late.
A common trend between those two road games, defensively, was that Michigan suffered from communication issues, rooted in the noise and the discomfort of being in an opponent’s stadium.
Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said that has been a main focus of this week’s practice.
“You have to over-coach that in a game like this,” Mattison said. “You have to make sure than any check or any adjustment that happens on that field has got to be communicated louder and more emphatically than ever. Games like this go down to communication sometimes. You have to have everybody on the same page when you’re playing in these kinds of games.”
Communication issues -- both offensively and defensively -- were a huge issue the last time the Wolverines traveled to Spartan Stadium. On Monday, offensive tackle Taylor Lewan admitted that Michigan got out-muscled in that game, which resulted in a 28-14 Spartan win.
In 2011, Michigan State accounted for seven sacks, and on the other side of the ball, the Spartans ran over Michigan, rushing for 213 yards.
Senior offensive lineman Michael Schofield said the team often thinks about that game and -- like Michigan State wanting to get rid of the sour taste in its mouth from last season -- the Wolverines want to get rid of the feeling of being outmuscled in front of an opposing crowd by a rival.
“I do like going to away stadiums,” Schofield said. “It gets you more excited because people are booing against you and it’s just kind of fun when you go out there, and especially when you quiet the crowd.”
And that’s exactly what the Wolverines will try to do on Saturday.
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.”
2. There’s the speculation at the top of the BCS standings, where No. 2 Florida State and No. 3 Oregon may leapfrog one another the next three weeks as their schedules ebb and flow. Then there’s the battle at the other end, where No. 17 Fresno State and No. 18 Northern Illinois are jockeying with one another and both trying to stay in front of No. 20 Louisville and No. 23 UCF from the AAC. If one of the former finishes ahead of one of the latter, that will guarantee a BCS bid. The BCS ratings always provide fodder.
3. Senior quarterback Clint Trickett left Florida State after spring ball when he realized that he wouldn’t beat out redshirt freshman Jameis Winston. On Saturday, Winston threw for 444 yards at Clemson and became a Heisman frontrunner. Trickett started at West Virginia and threw for 254 yards and a touchdown against Texas Tech. But the Red Raiders outscored the Mountaineers 21-0 in the last 20 minutes to win, 37-27. Over the last five possessions, Trickett completed 6 of 11 passes for 19 yards. The offense made one first down.
Obviously, Einstein didn’t play college football and didn’t account for the amount of chemistry gained by an offensive line from week to week (despite his work with chemistry).
But maybe on the football end of things Einstein had a point.
The Wolverines have been running with the same five up front. And for the most part (and especially of late), the results have been mediocre. The offensive line hasn’t opened enough holes for Fitzgerald Toussaint to really get going. And it hasn’t protected Devin Gardner enough to help him stave off the unnecessary turnovers.
Michigan coach Brady Hoke has talked about moving some guys around on the offensive line -- though left tackle Taylor Lewan and right tackle Michael Schofield would be safe. But with last weekend being the Wolverines’ first bye, it seems probable that if a change were coming, it would happen this weekend against Minnesota.
The Gophers’ defensive line allowed 246 rushing yards to Iowa last weekend in a 23-7 loss. Iowa’s offensive line opened up major holes in the run game as it picked up 13 of its 22 first downs on the run.
The Wolverines’ offensive line hasn’t been nearly that effective.
On Monday the depth chart showed no changes in the starting lineup, but Hoke said that he would know more after Michigan’s practice on Tuesday.
“We've talked a lot and done a lot during the bye week,” he said. “We got two real good work days with Tuesday and Wednesday, and I think really probably after Tuesday, we'll have a little better indication which way we want to go.”
If the Wolverines do decide to make a change, it seems most likely that redshirt sophomore Graham Glasgow would move to center and redshirt sophomore Chris Bryant would fill in at left guard, keeping redshirt freshman Kyle Kalis at right guard.
Hoke also brought up Joey Burzynski, so he could possibly be a guy competing for time, if the coaching staff decides that the group might be better off with Glasgow at center or any other mix that they “wouldn't have a problem making a change if that's what we deem we ought to do.”
But unlike most other position groups, changing up one player or one small piece can have a much larger domino effect in how the chemistry of the line operates. But according to Schofield, that wouldn’t be a problem because offensive line coach Darrell Funk has been moving players in and out of the line up all season.
“The whole season we’ve been shuffling guys in and out, trying to get guys going, like younger freshmen, get them reps,” Schofield said. “We’re just trying to get everyone acclimated.”
And while everyone might be acclimated and the chemistry is important, Hoke said that there are also other factors -- productivity, which this group, no matter how much chemistry it might have, hasn’t achieved.
“That might be more critical than chemistry,” Hoke said. “We've got to put the guys in there that give us the best opportunity to be successful.”
What we know so far
2. The linebackers might be the most solid position group on the team, even without Jake Ryan. Who would've thought that was possible? When Ryan went down with an ACL tear, for many Michigan fans it seemed as though their worlds were crashing down. But instead, Brennen Beyer has been a very good SAM linebacker, and Desmond Morgan and James Ross III both have been solid. Not to mention the depth behind those three in Cameron Gordon and Joe Bolden. With the expected return of Ryan sometime in October, it's pretty crazy to think how talented the linebackers will be and what exactly they'll do to distribute the wealth. Assuming Ryan is back in tip-top shape, the Wolverines could use Beyer on the both the D-line and at SAM ,as he has played both over the two years, or, Mattison could scheme completely differently.
3. The defense has bent but not broken -- under Greg Mattison this has seemed to be a trait of a Wolverine D. Whether it be because they lack depth at certain positions or the offense just keeps putting them in tough spots, the Michigan defense has found itself in a number of tight situations but been on the winning end nearly all the time. Between the quick-change situations because of turnovers or the quick scoring situations in other games, the Wolverines have found themselves trotting on the field just as quickly as they left it. In a lot of young teams, that kind of mental turnover can create mistakes, but Michigan hasn't been a victim of that too badly. The defense obviously needs work, but their focus and ability to respond hasn't gone unnoticed.
1. Is there enough talent/depth to put together an offensive line? Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield seem to be safe. However, the interior three spots are written in pencil, as Hoke and Al Borges have said over and over again. But the interior line has struggled quite a bit, specifically the last two games. Lewan said that Graham Glasgow, Jack Miller and Kyle Kalis displayed a sense of urgency in the second half against UConn, but that was about six quarters too late. Michigan really hasn't funneled anyone else through there, so the coaching staff was either waiting until the bye week to test guys at different positions, or they don't have enough depth (or they have too many injuries). It could be a combination of many things, but there's a decent chance that we won't see the same starting five against Minnesota.
2. What happened to Gardner? Can it really be fixed? Can it be avoided? Throughout his career, he seemed completely unfazed by the pressures of being a Michigan quarterback, going through a position change, stepping into the spotlight, what have you. But for some reason, all that came crashing down against Akron and UConn. The young, inexperienced Gardner came to the forefront, and for the most part, he looked out of synch. But give him some props -- when Michigan desperately needed a score against the Zips and Huskies, he got the Wolverines in position to get one. But outside of that, the turnovers looked atrocious. Worse yet, Hoke said they've reached a point where they're re-coaching him, or having to give him the same correction multiple times, because he's making the same error multiple times. That was not a problem earlier in his career. But it's crucial Michigan figures out what happened to Gardner, not only so they can fix it, but also so they can avoid it in the future.
3. Is the secondary going to step up? The Wolverines' defensive pressure up front has steadily improved through the non-conference schedule, and that has helped all the defenders behind it. It seems strange to start up front when discussing a problem with the secondary, but part of the reason the secondary is giving up so many big pass plays is the fact that the D-line's pass rush hasn't always been fantastic. Every single play of 20 or more yards the Wolverines have given up has been through the air. The secondary has played soft coverage time and time again, and the players keep getting beat. The Wolverines are going to face quarterbacks -- like Penn State's Christian Hackenberg, Nebraska's Taylor Martinez and Ohio State's Braxton Miller -- that will try to exploit that as much as they can, because that'll only open up the run game for their backs (or for themselves).
Michigan knew it would be young up front with three brand-new interior O-line starters -- left guard Graham Glasgow, center Jack Miller and right guard Kyle Kalis -- and while the struggles might not have shown up as much against Central Michigan and Notre Dame, they did against Akron and UConn.
So if there seems to be a place on offense that a new starter might emerge by the time the conference season hits, the offensive line might not be a bad bet.
“I think the three guys in the middle [of] the offensive line are always something that we look at,” coach Brady Hoke said. “There are some guys who have played well in there, but there’s great competition behind them. So if a guy has a good practice, good couple days, you may move him up.”
That’s a lot of pressure to put on three very young guys, but Hoke said that so far they’ve responded well to pressure.
But it wouldn’t just affect the interior line. Obviously, Hoke can’t make changes there without having it also affect left tackle Taylor Lewan and right tackle Michael Schofield.
But Lewan said he would be open to moving guys around or bringing news guys in if that’s what it takes to get the offensive line back to a Michigan standard.
“All of the offensive linemen on this team are great guys, as far as character, and if the coaches believe that another guy should get a shot, I’m going to work with him as much as I can,” Lewan said. “My job is to get this offensive line right, to get this team right.”
But he has also seen good, promising performances out of the youthful O-line.
Lewan said that he has seen intensity in the group, which is often a big jump to make, but that it hasn’t been quite as consistent as he wants it to be, nor has it always matched the intensity of their coaching staff.
“I saw a huge sense of urgency in those young guys [against UConn],” Lewan said. “Those guys are starting to build their legacy and build what they want in the future. ... I think it really clicked for them in the second half of the game.”
But the problem is that it’s taking a while for it to click, and Michigan doesn’t really have a lot of time left. With Big Ten play starting next weekend, the Wolverines know they’ll have to be perfect, or close to it, if they want a chance to play for the conference championship.
This bye week was well-timed to give the Wolverines a chance to try out a few new lineups. Perhaps Ben Braden, Chris Bryant or Erik Magnuson will get a shot on the O-line.
However, there will be growing pains because those players have even less game experience than Michigan’s current starting group.
Lewan said that maybe the younger guys are thinking too much about the pressures and the O-line gradings and how each step affects them down the road. It’s natural for a younger guy to think of those things as he’s fighting to secure a spot in the starting line or rotation. But if Michigan wants to have an offensive line that is effective, Lewan thinks they might just have to get rid of ... thinking.
“There comes a time when you have to be a student of the game, you have to watch film, you have to know what you’re doing,” Lewan said. “But when you’re on the football field, you kind of just have to turn your brain off and play football.”
And it’s the answer to why the Wolverines looked so out of place against Akron, a team that had lost 27 consecutive road games.
So it should surprise no one that when Michigan practices and prepares poorly, that’s the product that’s put on the field.
“We knew we didn’t give our best effort throughout the week, and we knew that everything that happened during that game, we deserved it because we didn’t give it all we had,” sophomore linebacker James Ross said. “Everybody, the whole team, it just wasn’t a good vibe.”
Was it a letdown from the previous weekend, when all the pomp and circumstance was brought in for the last Michigan-Notre Dame game in Michigan Stadium? Yes.
Did it become a wake-up call for the Wolverines? Yes. From the moment the game ended, the renewed sense of urgency was obvious among every player.
Is it a sign of something more troubling for Michigan? Absolutely. After all, technique and fundamentals are teachable. Attitude and effort are not.
Sometimes, fundamentals and technique trump attitude and effort. Chances are that Alabama or Oregon could’ve prepared poorly for a team like Akron and still won handily. They have an experience factor.
The Wolverines don't. They’re young across the board. And they’re especially young at some very crucial spots.
Their defensive line combines for 29 career starts. At times, coach Brady Hoke admitted, there was a lack of communication on the line. There were missed assignments and, because of it, wide-open gaps.
Without the pressure up front, Akron QB Kyle Pohl had time inside (and outside) the pocket. The Zips outgained Michigan in the passing game, 311 yards to 248 yards. On the ground, they rushed for 107 yards -- 11 more yards than the Fighting Irish gained against Michigan the previous week.
That goes back to game-week prep.
Michigan’s interior offensive line combines for nine starts. And that inexperience seemed evident as Akron packed the box with eight defenders on many plays, making it impossible to create double-teams on the interior line. It forced the Wolverines' young tight ends to block more, and as a result it put more pressure on quarterback Devin Gardner.
The Zips dared Michigan to beat them in the air, and Michigan didn’t. It couldn’t.
That goes back to game-week prep.
The Wolverines aren’t good enough to wing it. Yet they spent last week acting as if they could, apparently.
“We had a really bad week of practice, too, and it all just kind of played in together,” senior right tackle Michael Schofield said. “People kept saying, ‘Oh, you guys should beat them by 50. You guys should only play one half,’ and everything. We kind of let that get to our head.”
One reporter followed up: So you bought in to that?
“Yes,” Schofield said.
They bought into it even though one of the Wolverines’ goals is to get better every day.
Last week, Hoke had said he didn’t like the way his team practiced on Tuesday as he began installing game specifics for Akron. He didn’t think his team improved that day.
By 3:20 p.m. on Saturday, Michigan had defeated Akron 28-24. Even with the win, it was another day Michigan didn’t improve, according to Hoke.
By 4:07 p.m., Hoke had decided to call a Sunday practice in full pads, something he has rarely done at Michigan.
“We needed that,” senior left tackle Taylor Lewan said. “This team needed that. I think we were a tough, hard-nosed football team, and then we kind of got away from that this week. I think that was coach Hoke giving us a reality check.”
There were bright spots -- though few and far between -- in the win over Akron. When the Wolverines needed to score, they marched down the field and got Fitzgerald Toussaint into the end zone. And when Michigan needed a goal-line stand to win the game, the defensive line and linebackers Desmond Morgan and Brennen Beyer came up big.
Maybe that goes back to the two-minute drills the Wolverines practice. Those, perhaps, went well last week. And Hoke said he’ll implement an additional one of those in this week’s practices.
He and the rest of the Wolverines are working to get better each day this week, so they’re prepared when they take the field against UConn on Saturday night.
It’s another team that Michigan should beat. But the Wolverines know that doesn’t mean too much.
“I don’t have any doubt in my mind that this team understands what happened Saturday, that they know it’s not acceptable,” Lewan said. “They’re focused. And we’re going to prepare like no other team has ever prepared before.”
Week 4? It’s about time.
Michigan has had up-and-down success with its passing game, but when it comes to Fitzgerald Toussaint pounding the ball, it hasn’t always happened for the Wolverines. The Wolverines have been anything but consistent in the run game.
But according to left tackle Taylor Lewan, that isn’t completely Toussaint’s fault. Lewan has put that -- along with the offense’s failures on Saturday against Akron and the lack of preparation leading into the game against the Zips -- on his and the other offensive linemen's shoulders.
“Fitz is a great running back and he deserves the yards that he’s not getting right now,” Lewan said. “This offensive line will turn around and give him those yards.”
Through three games this season Toussaint has averaged 3.6 yards per carry, but when taking out his longest run from each game, that average drops to 2.6. And when taking out his two longest runs from each game, that average drops to just 2 yards. That means Toussaint has accumulated 52 percent of his yardage this season on just six carries.
On the other hand, Gardner, who has surprised a few with how often he has carried the ball, is the Wolverines’ lead rusher, averaging 7.9 yards per carry. However, it’s unclear whether Gardner will continue to rush the ball as much as he has. Hoke said Gardner was a bit banged up on Saturday but that his play wasn't affected.
If it did even in the slightest, however, then the Wolverines have a problem on their hands. Gardner rushing is often what has helped Toussaint find some of his yardage. And if defenses can key in even more on just Toussaint, Michigan becomes easier to defend.
Back up running back Derrick Green has rushed for 60 yards this season on 13 attempts (4.6 yards per carry). But that number is also skewed as his long of 30 yards against Central Michigan helped to pad his stats. When that run is taken out, the true freshman has averaged just 2.5 yards per carry.
Michigan has been close to breaking out on a few runs, getting tripped up by a weaker tackle or just a second away from what could’ve been a great decision, and Hoke sees that.
“I think you’re one guy away on a couple real big ones,” Hoke said. “Do we want more [yardage]? Yeah, we want more. We want to be more consistent.”
So consistency will key, specifically from the offensive line as it looks to spring Toussaint more as the Wolverines get closer to the conference season.
“I feel like we definitely need to be more consistent as an offensive line,” right tackle Michael Schofield said. “The first half we were all over the place. We were pretty sloppy with our technique and fundamentals. And then coming out in the second half, we had a couple good drives. We need to be like those drives -- that we scored our long touchdowns on -- every time. We have to be more consistent players.”
And if the offensive line can be more consistent, it’ll only make things easier for those playing behind it, specifically Toussaint.
The Wolverines’ schedule this season is favorable for a chance to get to the Big Ten title game, but before they can even get to conference play, they need to answer a few questions.
1. Will Michigan actually be challenged?
I’m not going to say that they won’t be challenged by any of these teams. Notre Dame is always a challenge, and that’s an opportunity for one of those signature wins that teams look for in the nonconference schedule. Michigan might not be challenged hugely by the other three teams (at least, not like it was against Alabama last season), but, the Wolverines will be challenged by themselves. These games allow the Wolverines to iron out the kinks in their offense and defense while building depth at positions. Michigan’s interior offensive line will be entirely new and their defensive front has a new look, too. The Wolverines’ secondary features new faces and guys at entirely new positions (here’s looking at you, free safety Courtney Avery). So while Central Michigan, Akron and Connecticut might not provide the drama or build-up (hello, MACtion), it will help Michigan prepare for the Big Ten season as it develops an identity.
2. Can the defensive line get a four-man rush?
This was a question that was consistently asked last season. According to Greg Mattison the defensive line is vastly improved and is getting to the quarterback. Frank Clark has been heralded as a top rush end, but can he be a Brandon Graham-like game changer? Three of the four teams Michigan faces in the nonconference schedule feature transitioning O-lines, which will obviously aid Michigan in looking like it has a solid four-man rush. CMU lost tackle Eric Fisher, the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft. Notre Dame and Akron are both replacing two starters on their offensive lines. UConn actually returns all five of its starters on the offensive line, but last season the Huskies only averaged 318 yards of offense per game, so how effective that experience will be remains up in the air. But if the Wolverines are going to be successful in the Big Ten, their defensive front must be stout. With the absence of linebacker Jake Ryan until at least October, Michigan will be better off if it doesn’t have to blitz every other play in order to make opposing quarterbacks uncomfortable in the pocket.
3. How tricky is Al Borges going to get?
That brings us to our next question…
4. How good is Gardner?
Gardner stepped in last season and finished out the season in an impressive fashion. With spring ball and the full offseason to gain chemistry with receivers and the offensive line, he should show major strides. Obviously, losing sophomore wide receiver Amara Darboh for the season is a blow, but Gardner can use the nonconference schedule (and the lack of elite defensive backs he’ll face) to build chemistry with other guys. Brady Hoke said Reynolds, Jehu Chesson and Jeremy Jackson were the three receivers stepping forward in Darboh’s absence.
Assuming Michigan can be effective in the run game, it should open up things in the air for Gardner. He was recruited as a dual-threat QB, and he has those skills. but Michigan might be a bit more conservative with him -- especially in the nonconference schedule -- just because if he goes down, the Wolverines are looking at a true freshman and then a walk-on, which doesn’t exactly inspire confidence for a championship season. But with Gardner being Gardner, don’t be too surprised if he tests the waters a bit. He’s not afraid to run, and if the opportunity presents itself, he’ll be looking to make plays by any means necessary.
5. Can Michigan stay healthy heading into the Big Ten schedule?
It’s no secret that Michigan is not deep at a few key positions at this point. If Gardner goes down, Michigan will scramble. If Fitzgerald Toussaint goes down, will Michigan will turn to Thomas Rawls? Justice Hayes? Drake Johnson? Derrick Green? Green came in highly touted but hasn’t impressed in fall camp the way most thought he would. Darboh’s injury leaves snaps open for wide receivers, but with any more injuries, the Wolverines could be working with a third-string receiver.
Defensively, Michigan is in a better place with depth, considering a lot of young players got experience last season, and Mattison has built depth at each position through recruiting. Jibreel Black missed some time during fall camp, which is likely why Frank Clark played some at three-technique. But having D-linemen with experience at multiple positions will only help. These four games can help Michigan to build that kind of experience.
Coach: Brady Hoke (66-57, 19-7)
2012 record: 8-5
Key losses: QB/RB Denard Robinson; WR Roy Roundtree; RG Patrick Omameh; C Elliott Mealer; DE Craig Roh; DT Will Campbell; MLB Kenny Demens; CB J.T. Floyd; S Jordan Kovacs
Newcomer to watch: There are a couple of freshmen who could see major snaps for Michigan, but the most notable is running back Derrick Green. He will push Toussaint for the starting job immediately and could end up as the featured back by the end of the season. The other two freshmen who could see major time are early enrollees: defensive back Dymonte Thomas and tight end Jake Butt. Neither will likely start, but both will be key reserves or used in subpackages.
Biggest games in 2013: Michigan had all of its key games on the road last season. This year, the Wolverines will have their two toughest games at home: Notre Dame on Sept. 7, and Ohio State on Nov. 30 in the regular-season closer. The Buckeyes, though, cap a difficult month for the Wolverines, who have trips to Michigan State on Nov. 2 and Northwestern on Nov. 16.
Biggest question mark heading into 2013: Who will run the ball? As the Wolverines complete their transition to a pro-style offense, they need a capable running back lining up behind quarterback Gardner. Considering the importance of play-action in what they will try to do offensively, they will need a back to gain yards to keep the whole offense balanced and a defense confused. The main candidates are Toussaint and Green, with freshman De'Veon Smith, redshirt freshman Drake Johnson and junior Thomas Rawls also pushing for time.
Forecast: Good. Like most teams that are near the end of a rebuilding phase, depth at certain positions is questionable, which means anything written here would be for naught if Gardner, Gallon or Lewan were injured for any length of time. Provided those three offensive stalwarts stay healthy, the Wolverines have a strong shot at making a run to the Big Ten championship game.
Michigan’s season could come down to whether it can beat Michigan State and Northwestern on the road. It is entirely possible that by the time the Wolverines and Buckeyes play in the regular-season finale that both will have wrapped up divisional titles and Big Ten title game trips. The best news for Michigan in all of this is how the schedule breaks down. After Notre Dame in Week 2, the Wolverines have only one real challenge -- at Penn State -- until November. This will allow a young offensive line to gain confidence and chemistry, and a young defensive line a chance to figure out how to beat Big Ten linemen.
A road win at any of those three places could lift Michigan into a different level, because one of the major issues with coach Brady Hoke has been his inability to win a game of any significance away from Michigan Stadium, where he has yet to lose.
This means more questions about actual football in this week’s mailbag. If you have questions next week, send them to Chantel at @chanteljennings on Twitter or email@example.com through the electronic mail.
Now on to your questions this week.
@saltybarb22 from The Den asksL Who is being developed for the tackle spots behind Taylor (Lewan) and (Michael) Schofield?
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His offensive line coach, Darrell Funk, is just glad Schofield is talking now.
“He’s finally passed the 50-word mark in two years,” Funk said. “He said about eight words the first year. He’s up to a little over 50 now.”
Schofield, entering his second season as Michigan’s right tackle and third year starting on the offensive line, is the antithesis of the Wolverines’ more well-known, publicized left tackle, Lewan.
“I’m kind of a shy guy in general,” Schofield said, and he used shy to describe himself every time he was asked. “I don’t really mind not being in the spotlight. I kind of like that Taylor is in the spotlight so I just kind of sit back.
“I don’t really mind at all.”
It’s why, on Michigan’s media day on Sunday, the 6-foot-7 Schofield crammed next to fellow offensive linemen Kristian Mateus and Gunderson on a bench, reporters occasionally approaching him. Lewan held court in a corner with multiple reporters and television cameras. Schofield noticed, shrugged and laughed.
He enjoys being somewhat unknown as Michigan’s other redshirt senior offensive tackle with NFL ambitions.
“I just recently started finding out things,” Lewan said. “I knew he had a huge family, dad is a firefighter. He wants to be a PE teacher. He doesn’t want that large and glamorous life.
“He just wants to live his life and be happy.”
Happiness for Schofield is surrounded by family, with four sisters, his parents and a younger brother, Andrew, who is an offensive lineman at the University of South Dakota. He never sought the spotlight as a kid with the crush of siblings around him. Even if he wanted it, he’d have to share it.
He hung with Andrew, competing at everything from checkers (Michael insists he’s better) to Super Smash Brothers on Nintendo 64, where Andrew’s Link usually destroys Michael’s preferred character of Pikachu the Pokemon.
The family life extends to the holidays the two middle Schofield children miss. With Andrew and Michael gone every Thanksgiving, their mother, Kathy, began a new tradition, now three years old.
“Schogiving” is a giant Thanksgiving party in either late July or early August, depending when the Schofield boys report to football camp. The party ballooned to 50 people this year with at least 15 pounds of pork tenderloin, a 35-pound turkey and a 20-pound ham. The food is prepared by Kathy in the Schofield kitchen.
“She kind of made up a holiday,” Schofield said. “She wanted to do it. Our whole family is there. She wanted to make a giant dinner and it became our entire family and friends.”
Kathy did this because fall Saturdays are spent following Michael and Michigan. At least one family member will usually attend Andrew’s games.
Over the past three seasons, the Schofields have seen their son mature from a first-time left guard to an NFL prospect at right tackle. Schofield realized the NFL was a possibility last season after he went up against Notre Dame’s Stephon Tuitt.
Then, in the Outback Bowl, Lewan cramped up and missed a few plays. Schofield slid from right to left tackle and hung in for a handful of plays against South Carolina’s superstar, Jadeveon Clowney. Those two performances helped give him NFL hopes as well.
It also forced Schofield to realize if he wanted to become a pro, he needed to focus on every opponent like he did Tuitt.
“My redshirt sophomore year, I would always get hyped playing the bigger-name guys,” Schofield said. “Then middle of last year I started to realize I had to dominate whoever I am going against.”
It is a lesson carrying into this season, where for the first time Schofield might go from anonymous bookend to a player recognized on his own merits. Not that it’ll change him at all.
“I’m not going to go out of the way to get attention, I guess,” Schofield said. “I’m just going to stay in the background and just do my thing.”
The one non-negotiable thing about Michigan’s season is if Gardner is hurt for any length of time, the Wolverines’ chances of winning any of those games almost disappears. Any Michigan offense without Gardner this season would be an adventure in experimentation at best.
So go buy some bubble wrap, pad the walls of his apartment or whatever else you want to make sure a random tree branch doesn't fell him. Michigan’s players, though, realize they can’t stop a random injury from occurring. They have enough faith Gardner can take care of himself.
“Random, freak injury, you can’t really control that,” senior receiver Drew Dileo said. “We look out for each other but if Devin rolls his ankle on a little bitty rock, I can’t control that. And vice versa.
“If I slip on the ice in the snow, I can’t control that.”
In other words, there won’t be an entourage accompanying Gardner to any of his graduate school classes this semester -- at least not for protective purposes.
Michigan can control how it uses Gardner during practices in the preseason. While the Wolverines aren’t isolating their starting quarterback or keeping him from making plays -- the repititions are too important for what he and Michigan hope to do this season -- having no healthy backup quarterback with even one snap of experience means more early practice snaps for freshman Shane Morris and redshirt freshman walk-on Brian Cleary.
It also keeps Gardner safe on the sideline.
Gardner might not be the most polished quarterback in the Big Ten or the most talented player on his own team -- that is left tackle Taylor Lewan. That lack of depth behind him, though, makes him more critical than any other player.
“He’s an important factor to the offense here,” senior receiver Jeremy Gallon said. “He has to set a tempo. He will set a tempo. His demeanor to the game is very important to us. How he comes out and performs and he’s willing to work hard for the team.
“That’s very important.”
Equally important is the lack of depth behind Gardner, which is why he is the most important player to stay healthy in the entire Big Ten. One could argue Ohio State’s Braxton Miller, but the Buckeyes have an experienced, serviceable backup in senior Kenny Guiton. But for what Michigan wants to do this season, it is Gardner -- and then a shoulder shrug of what would happen if he weren’t in the game.
So keeping Gardner upright and healthy is of supreme importance in Ann Arbor.
“That’s pretty obvious. I think that’s pretty self-explanatory,” Michigan receivers coach Jeff Hecklinski said. “Obviously we need to keep Devin healthy and that falls on all of us. Not just the offensive line, but the tight ends and wideouts getting open down the field in time so he doesn’t have to hold the ball and the running backs protecting him.”
The coaching staff doesn’t want to limit Gardner’s progress, though. If they start to have him lighten up in practice, it becomes almost an omen setting Gardner up for injury because they believe players are injured when they aren’t going hard enough and are concerned about it.
Gardner isn’t worried. He just keeps playing as he always has.
“I’m the same person on the field, practicing as hard as I can,” Gardner said. “Taylor [Lewan] sometimes tells me not to make certain cuts, but that’s just the way I play. You can’t get ready for the game unless you play the full speed, the way you’re going to play.”
Other than Lewan, Gardner said the only one who told him to maybe take it a little easy was Michigan’s strength and conditioning coach, Aaron Wellman.
Everyone else? They just want Gardner to play like he did over the final five games of last season, or even an improved version of that player. Keeping Gardner healthy does add a small amount of pressure, especially for those entrusted with protecting him.
“We have to make sure we are on our game with that pass protection-wise,” senior right tackle Michael Schofield said. “We don’t really verbalize it. That’s just kind of known.”
One day Morris or Cleary could end up as a good starting quarterback for Michigan. But for this season, the Wolverines have only one healthy non-freshman scholarship quarterback. They only have one quarterback who has any game experience. One quarterback who is designated and looked to as a leader.
That’s Devin Gardner. Michigan’s season rests on his health.
While Robinson’s replacement at quarterback, Devin Gardner, is set, much around him will be new or contested. Michigan will unveil a more fine-tuned version of the pro-style offense it ran last season with new linemen, new wide receivers and possibly a new running back to go with it.
The defense will be playing for the first time in the Brady Hoke era without Kenny Demens at middle linebacker and Jordan Kovacs at safety as the defensive anchors.
So here’s at some things to pay attention to over the next three weeks as Michigan prepares for its opener against Central Michigan on Aug. 31.
Top position battles
Running back: One of four positions on the Wolverines with no clear hierarchy entering camp, as any one of five players could potentially win the job. Redshirt senior Fitzgerald Toussaint is the incumbent, but is coming off a broken leg which ended his junior season. Freshmen Derrick Green and Deveon Smith could both see playing time and will likely compete with Toussaint for the majority of the carries. Junior Thomas Rawls, who has yet to show a true burst in two seasons, is another possibility if he has improved. The wild card here might be redshirt freshman Drake Johnson, who has track speed -- he was an elite high school hurdler -- and a good frame. He likely won’t win the job but could end up stealing carries.
Strong side defensive end: Keith Heitzman is likely entering camp as the leader here, but that’s a very tenuous lead at best. He has the most experience of the players competing at end, but the youth behind him will likely at least win a share of playing time. Chris Wormley, who, like senior Jibreel Black, could play both inside and outside, is a candidate here. Wormley was a player who many thought could have played as a true freshman last year before tearing his ACL. Two other redshirt freshmen, Matt Godin and Tom Strobel, are also candidates here. Much like what could happen at rush end with Frank Clark, Mario Ojemudia and Taco Charlton, you could end up seeing a three-man rotation here unless someone stands out heavily.
Defensive tackle: Quinton Washington is set at one position. The other, like the strong side end, is wide open. Like at end, Wormley and Black could make big moves here -- and Black might be the presumptive starter entering camp. Watch for Willie Henry to make a move. The redshirt freshman impressed last season’s seniors and he has the size to be a large complement to Washington. When Michigan goes jumbo, sophomore Ondre Pipkins, who will likely be in a rotation with Washington, could see time next to him.
Five reasons for concern
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- To many people other than Taylor Lewan, Taylor Lewan should be in his first NFL training camp right now, being hazed as a rookie and preparing for a career as a bookend tackle for whatever NFL franchise drafted him.
The redshirt senior chose to hold off on all of that for another season, surprising his teammates, his coaches and almost everyone else by returning to Michigan for his fifth season.
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