Michigan Wolverines: Taylor Lewan
In that spirit, we discuss a lot of redshirt freshmen, pure freshmen and linebackers in this week’s WolverineNation mailbag. Oh, and also the perfect summer treat of deliciousness.
Questions for next week’s mailbag can go to @chanteljennings on Twitter or firstname.lastname@example.org through the email.
On to your questions.
andrewwink from The Den: Which redshirt freshman do you think will have the biggest impact on this year's team?
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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.
When you live in Louisville, horse racing and handicapping are about all you can think of this time of year, in between bites of Derby Pie. So, like last year, I've imagined what the Big Ten 2013 program would look like if the championship chase were more like a horse race. I think the odds would go a little something like this (like the Churchill Downs toteboard, our odds only go up to 99-to-1),:
Ohio State: Even
Despite being scratched from last year's race by NCAA probation, the Buckeyes are the odds-on favorites this time around. They've got big-time winners both at trainer (Urban Meyer) and on the reins (Braxton Miller), and their schedule looks like they should get a clean trip.
The Wolverines are switching running styles this year, ditching the spread for a more traditional passing offense led by Devin Gardner. No need for blinders, as Taylor Lewan has the blind side locked down. Still, this entry hasn't had enough first-place finishes in its recent past performances.
The Huskers have been like one of those tantalizing horses in the program with a huge Beyer speed figure that always disappoints when you put the big money on them. Expect them to be a major pace-setter because of their early schedule, but that defense will determine whether they can make a long-awaited trip to the winners' circle.
Pretty good value here for a three-time defending champion of the Run for the Rose Bowl. Still, the Badgers are operating under new connections this time around (new coach Gary Andersen) and will have to prove they can track down Ohio State in the Leaders Division.
Another good option for those seeking value, as the Wildcats might be the wise-guy pick after last year's 10-win season. The problem is the potential of a very bumpy trip with that schedule (Ohio State and Wisconsin as crossover opponents). And there will be a lot of jostling in that Legends Division.
Michigan State: 20-to-1
Some bettors like to look for the bounce factor, meaning they seek out otherwise successful horses who are coming off one bad outing. The Spartans look like the best bounce candidate following last year's 6-6 season, which came after two straight double-digit win seasons. They have a more favorable post position (er, schedule) this time, but their early works suggest some lingering questions about the offense.
We've reached the real long shots now. Jerry Kill has shown that his charges take off in their third year of training, and the Gophers have turned in some encouraging works. Still, they'll need to run a perfect race to factor in the money.
This would be a Giacomo-level upset. An exotic pick, at best. But with the Hoosiers' ability to score points, they could pull off a shocker if everyone else falters.
Handicappers got burned by picking Purdue as their sleeper last year. The Boilermakers might be even more of a mystery horse this year with a new trainer in Darrell Hazell. Still looks like an also-ran, but don't forget that they seem to run neck-and-neck with Ohio State lately, for whatever reason.
Failed to fire last year, and the speed figures aren't pretty. If you're betting the Hawkeyes, you're basing it on the pedigree of Kirk Ferentz. Should show more fight this time, but might be too much of a plodder to hit the board.
Stumbled out of the gate, no rally, didn't factor in 2012. Equipment changes on offense (new coordinator Bill Cubit's spread system) should help. But Tim Beckman has a lot of work to do to show he's not saddling another nag.
Penn State: Scratched
DQ'd by the NCAA. (Now accepting future wagering on 2016).
So there's how I'd write the program. What kind of odds would you give to each team, and who would you put money on in 2013?
Next week Mike will take care of the mailbag so send any questions you have to him: @mikerothstein or email@example.com. Now, on to this week’s questions ...
1) Darryl G., Ypsilanti: Realistically, how excited can we be about either line next season?
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Yes, there will still be some big competitions on Michigan’s offense -- particularly at running back and wide receiver -- but there is now a better idea of who the Wolverines’ starting 11 will be in August when they open the season against Central Michigan.
WolverineNation takes a two-day look at what Michigan’s depth chart will be come fall, starting with the offense.
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The former Michigan quarterback was drafted by the Jacksonville Jaguars with the 135th pick in the 2013 NFL draft, the second pick in the fifth round.
Robinson now continues to make the transition from record-setting spread option quarterback to professional hybrid -- something started when he aggravated the ulnar nerve in his right elbow against Nebraska on Oct. 27, 2012. Robinson sat for two games and returned in a role as a hybrid receiver, running back, quarterback with Devin Gardner as Michigan’s starter.
His healing process has been slow. He struggled to grip a football throughout the remainder of his Michigan career and early on in his professional transition. In his college career, he caught three passes for 31 yards.
Robinson set the NCAA record for career quarterback rushing yards with 4,495 and was the first player in FBS history to pass for 2,500 yards and rush for 1,500 yards in the same season in 2010.
He finished his Michigan career second in rushing yards, behind only Mike Hart, and third in career rushing touchdowns with 42. He is fourth in Michigan history in passing yards with 6,250 and fourth in touchdown passes with 49.
He has more total yards than any Michigan player, with 10,769, and scored 91 total touchdowns, more than any other Wolverine.
Robinson chose Michigan over Florida and UCF in his recruiting process. Robinson and Taylor Lewan are two of the better prospects former Wolverines coach Rich Rodriguez signed during his three years at Michigan.
Michigan went without a selection in the first three rounds of the NFL draft for only the fifth time since 1970 -- joining 1976, 1989, 2006 and 2009. The Wolverines went without a pick in the first four rounds for the first time since the 1968 NFL/AFL draft, when Rocky Roesma went to the St. Louis Cardinals in the fifth round.
Other stories on Robinson:
Many college coaches, even those at traditional power programs, concern themselves only with the present and the future. Michigan's Brady Hoke puts the past on a pedestal.
Hoke's players know what the numbers 134 and 42 mean -- Michigan enters its 134th year of football and boasts 42 Big Ten championships. They know about the program's national titles and award winners. They see the Bo Schembechler quotes, the Big Ten banners and the legends lockers dedicated to program greats.
Many of the current Wolverines hadn't put on a helmet and pads in their lives the last time Michigan won a national title in 1997, but they know what the program was like because coaches like Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, both Michigan assistants that season, tell them about it all the time. Offensive line coach Darrell Funk, who had no ties to Michigan before arriving with Hoke in 2011, often shows his players tape of former Wolverines stars Steve Hutchinson, Jake Long and Jon Jansen.
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesBrady Hoke and the Wolverines are working to get the program back to where it once was.
Senior linebacker Cam Gordon was 6 years old when Michigan won the national championship and 13 when the Wolverines claimed their last Big Ten title (2004, co-championship). But he hears about the glory days from coaches like Mattison and new outside linebackers coach Roy Manning, who played for Big Ten championship teams in 2003 and 2004.
"I do remember the stories about Michigan," Gordon said. "Before they even stepped on the field, the game was won."
The constant history lessons taught inside Schembechler Hall don't stem from an unhealthy state of nostalgia. Hoke wants his players to understand the standard at Michigan. He's also extremely blunt about the fact that the Wolverines have yet to meet it.
Hoke guided Michigan to 11 wins in his first season and ended the seven-year losing streak against archrival Ohio State. He has yet to lose a game at Michigan Stadium. He has pulled Michigan out of the fog of the Rich Rodriguez era. Recruiting is undoubtedly on the upswing, and Michigan looks more like its old self on both sides of the ball.
But Hoke's tenure to this point, by his own barometer, has been a failure.
"We didn't get it done," he said of the 2012 season, when Michigan went 8-5. "We were still in a second year of changing a culture and changing a philosophy to some degree, offensively and defensively and the whole scope of what we try and do as a team. But still, at the end of the day, this is about winning Big Ten championships. We have 42 of them, and we need to start on our 43rd."
Hoke's message is heard loud and clear from the team's best player on down.
"The standard at Michigan is a Big Ten championship every single year," All-American left tackle Taylor Lewan said. "That's the minimum. Everything else is a failure. The Sugar Bowl, the BCS game, that was awesome. It was such a great experience, Bourbon Street was cool, New Orleans was cool -- failure. Outback Bowl, close game, lost in the last 20 seconds -- failure.
"Those are all games that are failures. The only way this team would be happy, would be satisfied with one season, is if we win a Big Ten championship."
Things weren't that way when Lewan arrived in 2009.
"The main goal was to make it to a bowl game," he said. "I don't know if that's how it's supposed to be at Michigan. I don't know how much my opinion counts, but I think it should be a Big Ten championship every single year. These coaches have done a great job of preaching that.
"We're not going to settle."
It has been nearly a decade since the Wolverines could call themselves league champions, their longest drought since a lull between 1950 and 1964. Every year that passes without a title means Michigan moves a little further away from the great times, a little further away from regaining the mystique Mattison and others preach about.
Talking about a winning culture in the past only goes so far without establishing a winning culture in the present. It's why much of Michigan's offseason work has been from the neck up.
"There were times where we were down in games and we came back and won the game based off our mental toughness," wide receiver Jeremy Gallon said. "And there were times in games where we didn’t come back, and it was our lack of mental toughness."
Defensive tackle Quinton Washington said Michigan worked on breaking "mental barriers" this spring, one of which is playing better away from the Big House. The Wolverines dropped three road games (Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State) and two neutral-site contests (Alabama, South Carolina) last fall.
AP Photo/Dave WeaverTaylor Lewan (77) knows expectations are high for every player who wears a Michigan uniform.
"We didn't play well on the road," Hoke said. "We didn't play with the toughness that it takes. We learned a lot in the bowl game about us as people, especially the guys coming back, good and bad."
Hoke has a Sun Tzu quote displayed in the weight room that reads: Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win. The goal is for the Wolverines to enter games with the same mindset as their predecessors.
Many think the Michigan mystique is dead, but Hoke's players are driven to revive it.
"If they don't fear Michigan," Gordon said, "then obviously that's something that we're going to have to change."
Beginning this fall.
"Anywhere you go in the world, everyone knows Michigan," defensive end Frank Clark said. "Anywhere in the nation, as far as college football, everyone knows Michigan. For the last couple years, we haven't lived up to those expectations. This next season, we have to.
"It's time. There aren't anymore excuses."
Michigan has a little over four months until its first game of the 2013 season against Central Michigan, and while the Wolverines still have some issues to deal with between now and then -- backup quarterback and running back among them -- some things stood out from the final, and only public, scrimmage of the spring.
Here are five strong takeaways from the last spring practice that Michigan can look at with comfort or concern heading into the offseason.
2.Fitzgerald Toussaint, Derrick Green or Deveon Smith will be the starter in the fall. Michigan’s running back group was OK, but not overly impressive Saturday -- echoing what coaches have said all spring when no one separated himself. Justice Hayes got the start and had a couple of decent runs, but was also crushed in the backfield a lot. Thomas Rawls scored a 14-yard touchdown on a run to the left side and again showed flashes of his potential, but he didn't look much different from last year’s spring game. Dennis Norfleet has potential, but his size is still a concern for being an every-down back. All this means is the initial thought that Michigan’s starter will come from the backs either returning or coming in during the summer remains the likely scenario.
1) What will you remember most about the Michigan-Louisville game?
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For those just joining us, we're each picking a Big Ten game to attend each week of the 2013 season. We aren't bound by a travel budget, pesky editors or anything steering us to a particular destination. If the game appeals to us, we can be there. What a world. We're trying to mix up our itinerary, and while we can stand to be in the same press box together, there are some weeks where we'll grin and bear it. Remember, this isn't our actual itinerary for the season.
There's one week left in the Big Ten season, and here's the slate for Week 14 (Nov. 29-30):
Iowa at Nebraska
Minnesota at Michigan State
Northwestern at Illinois
Ohio State at Michigan
Penn State at Wisconsin
Purdue at Indiana
Adam Rittenberg's pick: Ohio State at Michigan
The Game is the default pick for Rivalry Saturday in the Big Ten, but I also think it could be the most exciting and competitive contest on the slate. Perhaps it's wishful thinking on my part, as the Ohio State-Michigan game hasn't been a huge hit since we launched the blog in 2008. Michigan was down from 2008-10, and Ohio State backslid considerably in 2011. While last year's meeting pitted a good team (Michigan) against a great one (Ohio State), the Buckeyes' postseason ban took something away from the contest. I'm still waiting to cover an Ohio State-Michigan clash featuring two great teams in the running for a Big Ten championship. This year's game very well could meet those demands.
Michigan gets the game at home, where it has yet to lose under coach Brady Hoke. The Buckeyes had some close calls away from Columbus in 2012 -- Michigan State, Indiana, Wisconsin -- and will need an efficient performance on both sides of the ball to win. Junior quarterback Braxton Miller enters the season among the top contenders for the Heisman Trophy. His performance in Ann Arbor could make or break his campaign. The quarterback matchup between Miller and Michigan's Devin Gardner pits two exceptional athletes with varying styles who both can generate a lot of production.
I'm particularly interested to see what happens at the line of scrimmage. Ohio State boasts in my view the Big Ten's top offensive line, while Michigan is looking for difference-makers on its defensive front and hopes to spark a better pass rush. The Wolverines have arguably the nation's best offensive lineman in left tackle Taylor Lewan, who likely will go against dynamic young defensive end Noah Spence. Brace yourselves. Gardner and his receiving corps take aim at a Buckeyes secondary led by cornerback Bradley Roby, who talks big and usually backs it up. Michigan star linebacker Jake Ryan is rehabbing from ACL surgery, but hopes to return for the stretch run. Ryan could help Michigan neutralize Miller, Carlos Hyde and the Buckeye attack. The linebacker matchup between Ryan and Ohio State's Ryan Shazier would be tremendous.
Ohio State might be eying a spot in the national title game, and both teams should be in the mix for division titles and a spot in Indianapolis. The Game always has added meaning for both programs and both fan bases, but it has been too long since both teams had other goals on the table. This year's clash should be a great one, and I don't want to miss it. Who knows, maybe there will be a rematch the following week in Indy.
Brian Bennett's pick: Ohio State at Michigan
I seriously considered taking Northwestern at Illinois, since the Illini are the only team I haven't seen on this 14-week fantasy excursion. And the Land of Lincoln rivalry could be fun. But the odds are that Tim Beckman's team will be eliminated from bowl contention long before the final weekend.
Who knows? Maybe some of the other finales will have major implications, such as Wisconsin trying to win the Leaders Division, Nebraska attempting to clinch the Legends or Indiana possibly securing bowl eligibility.
Still, c'mon. This is The Game we're talking about. It's an easy choice -- even if I have to sit next to Rittenberg.
Week 1: Adam at Northwestern-Cal, Brian at Purdue-Cincinnati
Week 2: Brian and Adam at Notre Dame-Michigan
Week 3: Brian at UCLA-Nebraska, Adam at Wisconsin-Arizona State
Week 4: Adam at Michigan State-Notre Dame, Brian at Purdue-Wisconsin
Week 5: Adam at Wisconsin-Ohio State, Brian at Wisconsin-Ohio State
Week 6: Adam at Ohio State-Northwestern, Brian at Penn State-Indiana
Week 7: Adam at Penn State-Michigan, Brian at Northwestern-Wisconsin
Week 8: Brian at Iowa-Ohio State, Adam at Indiana-Michigan
Week 9: Adam at Nebraska-Minnesota, Brian at Penn State-Ohio State
Week 10: Brian at Michigan-Michigan State, Adam at Wisconsin-Iowa
Week 11: Adam at Nebraska-Michigan, Brian at Penn State-Minnesota
Week 12: Brian at Michigan State-Nebraska, Adam at Michigan-Northwestern
Week 13: Brian at Minnesota-Wisconsin, Adam at Nebraska-Penn State
We’ll call it a draw for humanity.
So in the spirit of the basketball frenzy that has taken over, I’ll answer your roundball questions this week as the Wolverine fans prepare for what is an historic day. Mike will take care of the mailbag next week, so send your questions on to him at @MikeRothstein or firstname.lastname@example.org. Now, let’s talk some basketball ...
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And now, theoretically, the redshirt freshman has to learn a new position. Braden, who was recruited as an offensive tackle and is the potential heir apparent to Taylor Lewan, is now lining up at guard.
Making the move inside will be a transition, but it might end up helping Braden in more ways than he realizes. Moving to guard, be it for a year or even just the spring if he is beaten out for the job, gives him more versatility for his Michigan career. And for a potential career in the NFL later on.
Andrew Weber/US PresswireO-lineman Taylor Lewan likely would have been a first-round draft pick, had he opted to leave U-M after last season.
“People,” Lewan said, “think I’m crazy.”
When someone turns down the potential for millions of dollars to play a violent, unforgiving game for free for another year, the questioning makes sense. Lewan understands that. He appreciates that.
But it was his decision, and Michigan and Lewan's coaching staff are happy for it.
Lewan’s return offered immediate dividends for Michigan. It could place him easily at left tackle, not worry about the results, and focus on shoring up the interior of an offensive line which has no experience at all.
Michigan offensive line coach Darrell Funk said recently he’d like to have at least one, maybe two of the spots solidified by the time fall camp starts. In a perfect scenario, the Wolverines would have their entire offensive line set by the end of spring, but that seems unlikely, considering the emphasis coach Brady Hoke has placed on summer development in the past.
That development aided Michigan last season when it eventually leaned on Elliott Mealer to start at center and Ricky Barnum to start at left guard after the two entered fall camp at each other’s eventual positions.
As with much of the final month of last season for Gardner, the result was unsurprising. The pass was complete.
Lon Horwedel/Icon SMIThe transition to a pro-style passing game with Devin Gardner at quarterback is now underway.
The 6-foot-4 quarterback has begun to take advantage now that it is his team, his position to lose and an offense that fits his skills. He watches a copy of every spring practice at least twice. He has spent time watching cutups of NFL quarterbacks Jason Campbell, whom offensive coordinator Al Borges coached at Auburn, and other NFL teams in an effort to learn a little bit of everything.
“I took it upon myself to watch those guys and see how well they are doing in a pro-style setting,” Gardner said. “It would be sinister for me not to watch those guys.”
All of the preparation for watching other quarterbacks is in part to help accelerate the learning curve. A redshirt junior with only five career starts, Gardner showed potential over those final five games, completing 75 of 126 passes for 1,219 yards, 11 touchdowns and five interceptions. But for him to really thrive and reach his goal of being a quarterback in the NFL, he has to improve.
It is why he’ll sometimes send a text message to Borges looking to add something to the expanding Michigan playbook -- waggle passes are a personal favorite -- or go over something with him he saw during his own private film study.
“He has done a nice job,” Hoke said. “Wrapping his arms around his responsibilities.”
Part of that responsibility has been understanding the need to fill in for where Robinson left off as a leader. Teams naturally look to their quarterbacks anyway as an almost de facto offensive leader and Gardner’s personality helps that along.
His style is the opposite of most coaches and even other players. He will rarely call out a player in practice -- trash talking is something else; he’ll gladly do a lot of that -- but will often explain something to a player off to the side.
It comes from his own personal preference. He would prefer not to be called out by a teammate in front of everyone, so why should he do it to others.
“He’s done a great job using his personality and his humor to lead this team and help, especially with the receivers, the younger guys Amara Darboh and Jehu [Chesson],” senior offensive tackle Taylor Lewan said. “Those guys have really learned a lot from him.
“He’s your starting quarterback now.”
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Michigan’s biggest question entering the spring resides on the offensive line, where the Wolverines are replacing both guards and the center. This is important for many reasons, including they are the main conduits for blocking for quarterback Devin Gardner and whomever emerges out of the running back competition.
As Michigan saw last season, when the offensive line isn’t strong and cohesive, an offense can stall.
The most intriguing of all the offensive line prospects is redshirt freshman Ben Braden. The Rockford, Mich., native doesn’t have as much experience as some of his classmates, let alone some of the upperclassmen he’ll be competing with. But his raw potential, build and willingness to move inside if it means playing time makes him the WolverineNation No. 1 player to watch this spring.
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