Michigan Wolverines: Patrick Omameh
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.
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.
For three seasons, Patrick Omameh was a significant, serviceable option for Michigan at right guard. He would rarely wow anyone off the line with a crushing block, but he also had his moments going against quality defensive linemen almost every week.
Now, though, Omameh is gone and Michigan will lose its most experienced offensive lineman. In his place, no matter who it is, will be someone with almost none.
It’ll close the season the same way.
The biggest difference might be in the Michigan helmet. While the Wolverines will still have their wings, the helmet is more of a matte look, complete with a lighter, shinier maize.
“I think they do look good,” senior Jordan Kovacs said. “I like how they stuck with the tradition, too, the winged helmet and the block ‘M.’ It’s pretty cool.’ “
Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon said before the season that his school would stick with traditional jerseys throughout the regular season after facing Alabama, but that the Wolverines could look at something different for a bowl game if they qualified.
So they are going with a slightly different look. This will be the seventh different jersey Michigan has worn since the beginning of last season -- the traditional home and away jerseys, home and away “legacy” jerseys against Notre Dame and Michigan State along with alternate jerseys for the Allstate Sugar Bowl last season and then the Cowboys Classic game against Alabama to open this season.
“I like the bowl uniforms,” senior offensive lineman Patrick Omameh said. “I’m a fan of the matte look.”
"You know what," Lewan told teammates Elliott Mealer and Jack Miller, "that guy's a good player."
Lewan had no idea at the time that he'd be spending most of December watching Clowney. Michigan faces South Carolina on Jan. 1 at the Outback Bowl, and no individual matchup in the game brings more intrigue than Lewan vs. Clowney.
Both men have appeared on All-America teams and earned conference recognition, as Lewan won the Big Ten's Rimington-Pace Offensive Lineman of the Year award and was a consensus first-team All-Big Ten pick. Clowney claimed the Ted Hendricks Award as the nation's top defensive end, the SEC Defensive Player of the Year award from the league's coaches and unanimous All-SEC honors. Clowney recorded 13 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss this season.
"I can't say enough about him," Lewan said. "He's a great player, and I'm excited about the opportunity to go against him. Big, physical player, gets his hands off, swings a lot."
Lewan hasn't faced a defensive end quite like the 6-6, 256-pound, freakishly athletic Clowney in the Big Ten this season. He said the closest comparisons are Ohio State's John Simon -- the 2012 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year -- and former Purdue star Ryan Kerrigan, who won 2010 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors before becoming a first-round pick of the Washington Redskins.
Lewan has been projected as a potential first-round draft pick if he chooses to forgo his senior season. Clowney can't enter the draft until after the 2013 season, but he's the most draft-ready true sophomore in college football. Lewan says he's not thinking about his draft decision, or whether a matchup against Clowney gives him a gauge of what he could do at the next level.
But he does plan to see plenty of the South Carolina star in Tampa.
"He lines up across from the left tackle every time, from what I've seen," Lewan said. "I'm not sure what their game plan is, but I'm sure we'll be going against each other a lot."
Lewan acknowledges that Michigan's offensive line has had its ups and downs this season. The Wolverines eclipsed 400 yards of offense six times and were held to fewer than 300 yards four times, including in a Nov. 24 loss to rival Ohio State in the regular-season finale.
Although "one game won't define us as an offensive line," Lewan knows there's a lot at stake against Clowney and a South Carolina defense that ranks in the top 20 nationally in total defense (12th) scoring defense (13th), rushing defense (15th), sacks (fifth) and tackles for loss (19th).
"There's three seniors on the starting offensive line right now (guards Patrick Omameh and Ricky Barnum and Mealer), and I want them to go out with a bang," Lewan said. "There'd be nothing better than going out with an Outback win."
Those issues showed throughout this season, as Michigan’s offensive line was mediocre for most of the year, strong in small spots and awful when finishing blocks in the run game.
It is a problem, though, that became a huge issue for the Wolverines in 2012, and one they hope to remedy as soon as possible.
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Offensive coordinator Al Borges has not yet spoken to the media after the loss and while Michigan head coach Brady Hoke didn’t give many answers, this week’s Mailbag tries to explain some of what went on.
Remember, the Mailbag is only as good as the questions you ask, so send those to firstname.lastname@example.org or @chanteljennings for next week.
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“Denard’s a guy that has thrusted himself into the talk of some of the greats at the University of Michigan,” Michigan defensive end Craig Roh said. “He’s been a guy that since Day 1, has been a huge factor in everything we’ve done. Really just the day-to-day, just the energy that he brings and I’ve almost never seen him in a bad mood.”
You also won’t hear much of Robinson’s thoughts this week, either.
Michigan is not making Robinson, the face of its program the past three seasons as he confounded opponents, wowed crowds and became a marketer’s dream, available to the media this week to discuss his Michigan experience before his final home game.
He might not play, either. Hoke would only say Robinson is “day-to-day” when asking about his availability, whether he’d be used at a role other than running back and also what he thought about whether or not fans would be disappointed not to hear from Robinson before his final home contest.
Plus, it's Wednesday, which should make everyone more excited because the weekly WolverineNation mailbag is here. We love hearing from our readers so keep sending your questions in any time you have them. Next week Mike will take care of this so email him at email@example.com or tweet him @mikerothstein.
Now, on to this week's questions…
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In the Wolverines’ second Big Ten game -- a 45-0 win over Illinois -- the coaches approached it with a similar plan as their first outing against Purdue, and again, they got the same outcome.
Run a lot, sprinkle in some passes, finish with a win.
And Robinson was right. Michigan’s O-line blocked well, albeit against a mediocre Illini defensive line. It was a part of the Wolverines’ game that showed it needed serious work early in the season after Michigan struggled to get much of a running game going. But against Illinois, it finally got going. The line opened up holes for the Michigan running backs, and the corps took advantage.
Senior Fitzgerald Toussaint, who Hoke said is still the No. 1 back, ended up as the third most effective running back on the day with 62 yards. Ahead of him were sophomore Thomas Rawls and redshirt freshman Justice Hayes, who ran for 90 and 66 yards, respectively.
“We feel that we are progressing week to week, which is a goal of ours,” offensive lineman Patrick Omameh said. “We never want to feel satisfied with any kind of progress we made or the position that we’re at but we can look at the mistakes we made today and continue improving.”
And Robinson was able to break through for a few of his own, which surprised no one. The senior rushed for 128 yards and two touchdowns.
With the running game coming at the Illini from several angles, the passing game opened as well. And like the running game, the passing game came at the Illini from everywhere. Nine players in total caught passes (though only seven from Robinson).
Robinson was 7-for-11 with two touchdowns and no interceptions. It was the second game in a row that Robinson didn’t turn the ball over, and his decision-making continued to improve. On long runs he avoided absorbing big hits by getting out of bounds and few of his passes left fans covering their eyes.
Hoke said that he feels as though the offense’s ability to be more complete, as a result of Robinson being more complete, stems from both Robinson’s maturity and his growing comfort with the Wolverines’ game plans.
“I think he obviously reassessed after Notre Dame a little bit. I think we all did, [with] where we were,” Hoke said. “And then I think some game plan-wise. We were bound and determined that we were going to run the football and the passing game, the play-action part of it, the part of the passing part of our offense that he felt more comfortable with.”
And with that added comfort level, Robinson did what he does best -- just enjoy playing the game, and it was why the Wolverines were able to be so effective against the Illini.
“I just go with whatever we get,” Robinson said. “I just go out there and play football, whatever I see, I just play with it.”
This time, as his teammate, Taylor Lewan said in an introductory speech, was different. This time, the party was for him.
Omameh was honored with a surprise ceremony Thursday night at the hospital for being part of the 11-member Allstate AFCA Good Works team, an award given to college football players for their community service work.
Sweating profusely, Omameh was stunned. He had known he had been named as part of the team, selected from a pool of 117 candidates and Michigan's first team member since Zoltan Mesko. He had no idea he would be presented his award in front of some of the families he helps each week, media members and around 20 teammates who showed up to help celebrate his accomplishments.
“I had no idea,” Omameh said. “No idea anybody was going to be here at all.”
Omameh started showing up at Mott his freshman year, when his offensive line coach, Greg Frey, mandated all his freshmen linemen go to Mott. He was further encouraged by a senior on that roster, David Moosman, to continually show up.
So he did.
And five years later, he is the face of Michigan football at Mott. Others may go, but Omameh apparently shows up the most to visit with the children hospitalized.
“I enjoy it. It’s one of the things that keeps me coming back,” Omameh said. “Just interacting with people in general. Being able to interact with them and making them have a better day, anybody would enjoy that.”
Omameh will often joke that he’s a tennis player with both a strong forehand and backhand. Teammate Jordan Kovacs, who often goes with Omameh to Mott, said the kids pretend they believe the 6-foot-4, 305-pound lineman, but they really don’t.
When Omameh enters a room, though, he sees the children become excited at his presence. Those moments make everything he does worth it -- for both Omameh and the children he is trying to help.
“One of my first visits, I was in a room with Pat and a cancer patient. I was in the room before and it was my first time meeting this kid,” Kovacs said. “Then Patrick walks in, it’s this kid’s 13th birthday, and as soon as Pat walks in this kid’s face just lights up.
“It was just unreal the spark in the room. That was just a special moment.”
One of many over the past five years for Omameh and Mott together.
When national titles are brought up around Hoke, he typically shifts the focus back to the Big Ten race.
Whether Hoke's singular focus excites you or disappoints you, it certainly rubs off on his players. Although they weren't happy about a 2-2 start to the season, they had no trouble turning the page to the Big Ten slate last week at Purdue. And if the Wolverines' performance in West Lafayette -- a 44-13 win -- is any indication, the Big Ten will bring out the best in them this fall.
"With the nonconference season, we had one of the toughest in the nation," Michigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan told ESPN.com, referring to games against No. 1 Alabama and No. 7 Notre Dame. "We took those games very seriously, but the goal's always a Big Ten championship. There's a little more fire in this team.
"We're excited about it, and every game is a Big Ten championship game."
Stifling defense and powerful offensive line play sparked Michigan in 2011, and the Wolverines appear to be reclaiming both hallmarks for the 2012 conference campaign. After struggling in just about every area against Alabama and seeing continued problems against Air Force, Michigan took a big step on defense against Notre Dame and also received better play from the offensive line as the game in South Bend went on.
Although turnovers doomed the Wolverines against the Irish, they made progress in both areas at Purdue. Michigan held a Boilers team averaging 51 points on its home field to 13 points, 213 total yards and 56 rushing yards (2.2 yards per attempt). It also controlled the line of scrimmage from the onset, holding the ball for 12:11 of the first quarter and opening the game with the program's sixth-longest drive (8:48) since 1978, a methodical 78-yard march that required 17 plays and 19 players.
Michigan's defense has surrendered only 13 points in each of its past three games, and opponents' yardage totals have dropped (259 to 239 to 213). The unit seemed to turn the corner at the same time last season, when it blanked Minnesota 58-0 in Week 5, allowing only 177 total yards. The Wolverines held six of their next seven Big Ten foes to fewer than 335 yards.
"What you're seeing is the younger guys who have been in the program for a second year, you would expect them to play up to their talent level, and that's what's happening," defensive coordinator Greg Mattison told ESPN.com. "Some of our talented young guys are starting to now become older, and play like older players."
"We're getting a lot better communication," Mattison said. "... When you're young, at an early part of the season, you're just kind of fending for yourself. You're just trying to get yourself to play. And when you get a little older in the season, whether you're a sophomore or a senior, you start feeling more comfortable. Therefore, you can do the things that are expected of you, and that is to communicate and get everybody set.
"These are guys that are now starting to feel like veterans."
Hoke singled out the linebackers as the group that has made the most strides in recent weeks. Ryan, who started 11 games last season as a redshirt freshman, has been particularly noticeable. "You can feel him on the field," Hoke said.
Ryan recorded five tackles and a pass breakup against Notre Dame and followed it with six tackles, including two for loss and a sack, against Purdue.
"The sky's the limit for Jake," Mattison said. "He has God-given talent, and he also has showed that it's very, very important to him. He's become a very good student of the game."
After Week 3, Lewan challenged the offensive line to "play angry, play nasty." While the group isn't quite there, in Lewan's estimation, there has been progress.
Michigan averaged 5.6 yards per rush against a talented Purdue defensive front, which failed to record a sack or a quarterback hurry against Denard Robinson (235 rush yards, 105 pass yards). The Wolverines' rushing attempts also are on the rise, from 30 per game in the first two weeks to 46 per game the past three weeks.
"In the Notre Dame game, it was somewhat of a change," Lewan said. "We saw we can move the line of scrimmage. We found out we have the capability to do that. It really came together at Purdue, but we have to be a better team this week than we were last week. Every week from now on is championship week because our goal is the Big Ten championship."
Lewan, who will make his 21st consecutive start Saturday against Illinois, welcomes a leadership role on the line. He shares the responsibility with fifth-year senior guard Patrick Omameh and fifth-year senior Elliott Mealer, a first-year starter at center.
"[Offensive coordinator Al] Borges put pressure on us, so did Coach Hoke, but at the end of the day, we need to put pressure on ourselves also," Lewan said. "Coach Hoke talks about it all the time. There's a standard you play at Michigan. I can throw cliché lines at you and every program says the same thing over and over, but the fact is we have the tradition to back it up. There's a tradition at Michigan, and there's a way you play."
Especially in the Big Ten season. There are still areas to improve -- Michigan needs to spark running back Fitzgerald Toussaint (169 rushing yards, 3.3 yards per carry) and its pass rush (five sacks in as many games, 104th nationally) -- but the team's identity is taking shape.
"You don't want to say the games leading up to the Big Ten don't count," Mattison said, "but when you come to Michigan, you come to win a championship. Now, it's on the line. Every game is on the line."
Now, though, he believes something else. With one week of Big Ten play put away, the redshirt junior said he thinks this year’s line has a chance to be “special.”
So what does “special” mean, exactly?
But Michigan had some surprises in its offensive depth chart when it was released Monday -- starting at running back. The will-he, won’t-he, should-he, shouldn’t-he debate of junior Fitzgerald Toussaint playing Saturday ratcheted up when the junior was listed as the No. 1 running back on the chart given to the media.
Michigan coach Brady Hoke said again Monday that he had not made a decision on Toussaint’s availability against Alabama after Toussaint was arrested on suspicion of Operating While Intoxicated on July 21. He further went to say he had an idea of which wasy it was leaning but wasn’t sure when he’d let the public in on that.
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"That young man has had a tremendous camp," Mattison said. "You talk about consistency -- if you graded every play, I'd like to see that grade, because he's really working hard and he has been the most consistent."
Mattison said several other players have had consistent practices, but no single player has strung together consistently solid practices the way Kovacs has.
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Big Ten Weekend Wrap: Sept. 23
BIG TEN SCOREBOARD
12:00 PM ET South Florida 19 Wisconsin 12:00 PM ET Tulane Rutgers 12:00 PM ET Iowa Purdue 12:00 PM ET Wyoming 9 Michigan State 12:00 PM ET Northwestern Penn State 1:30 PM ET Maryland Indiana 3:30 PM ET Minnesota Michigan 6:00 PM ET Cincinnati 22 Ohio State 9:00 PM ET Illinois 21 Nebraska