Michigan Wolverines: Thomas Gordon
1. The offensive is still in a bad place. With an emotional win and some big plays made down the stretch, the knee-jerk reaction to the game might be something along the lines of content and happiness. However, quarterback Devin Gardner was 24-of-43 and five or six of those incompletions could have been intercepted. And then, he was sacked five times, which yes, is an improvement for the offensive line from the previous two weeks in which he was sacked seven times each game, but it is still too high of a number. Michigan was 3-of-17 on third-down conversions and couldn't even get into the end zone after Northwestern's punter gave the Wolverines a gift of a eight-yard punt from his own end zone. Michigan needed to go 10 yards to get into the end zone and it ended up settling for a field goal. This offense -- even with this win -- is in a bad place right now.
2. "Put me in, Coach, I'm ready to play." The Wolverines played two true freshmen at running back and gained 120 yards on the ground between them, which was way more effective than anything Fitzgerald Toussaint has done of late. True freshman tight end Jake Butt caught his first TD pass of the season (and the Wolverines' only touchdown of the game) in a game in which Jeremy Gallon had his fair share of drops. The Michigan coaching staff has been very loyal to its upperclassmen but there is definitely some talent in the young guys on this team and throughout the season it has emerged more and more. It'll be interesting to see how much attention these younger players get over the next few weeks.
3. The defense showed the improvements Greg Mattison has been talking about. The Michigan defense has been talking about playing a complete game, about the difference between almost making a play and making a play, about the defense they want to be -- and for the most part, that's what it produced against Northwestern. The Wolverines recorded two sacks, including a huge 14-yard sack in triple overtime from Jibreel Black. That sack led to Michigan's one interception, a play made by Thomas Gordon. And the Wolverines accounted for six tackles for losses. It wasn't a perfect game, but it was far closer to what Mattison has been preaching than anything we've seen recently.
WR Jeremy Gallon. The senior set a Big Ten record with 369 receiving yards. He said he didn’t really sense he was on the verge of a record, and after the game guessed how many yards he had accounted for and said “200 or maybe 250." Gallon was the main target for the Wolverines receiving corps against the Hoosiers. Just seven games into his final season he has already surpassed his previous season bests for yardage and touchdowns.
QB Devin Gardner. The junior threw for a program-record 503 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions while adding 81 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns. His 584 yards of total offense was also a program record and was one yard shy of the conference total-yardage record. Gardner put together a consistent game while playing behind a new offensive line (new starters at both guard positions) and commanded the offense to show up in big moments.
S Thomas Gordon. His stat line was pretty bare -- no tackles, no pass break ups, no fumble recoveries. But his two fourth-quarter interceptions came in defining moments for this team. Gordon's first pick was with just under eight minutes remaining and with the Wolverines clinging to a two-point lead. Just a few plays earlier, Gardner had fumbled the snap and the Hoosiers had recovered at the two-yard line. With Michigan needing a play, Gordon picked of IU quarterback Nate Sudfeld at the 35-yard line and returned it 30 yards, setting up the Wolverines for a touchdown. A few possessions later, Gordon picked off QB Tre Roberson at the 6-yard line and returned it 11 yards, giving the Wolverines some breathing room with a nine-point lead.
Both teams enter the game with a big win over a smaller opponent in week one, and week two should offer higher competition.
Up front, Notre Dame’s talented defensive line, anchored by the 340-pound Louis Nix III, should present a challenge for the Wolverines offensive line, which features three interior linemen who saw their first starts last week. All-American Taylor Lewan will have his hands full with Stephon Tuitt as the two battle in front of what will likely be countless NFL scouts.
Alternatively, the Michigan defensive line will also be able to measure itself up against a stout Notre Dame offensive front. In a 59-9 win over Central Michigan, the Wolverines’ defensive front looked vastly improved with not only its four-man rush but also with more blitz schemes -- expect defensive coordinator Greg Mattison to get creative with what he throws at Notre Dame QB Tommy Rees.
Rees will be facing a Michigan secondary which didn’t play either starting safety against Central Michigan. However, strong safety Thomas Gordon returns from his one-game suspension and free safety Courtney Avery returns after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery two weeks ago.
Devin Gardner's challenge on offense doesn’t get any easier with Notre Dame’s stout front seven and its talented secondary. But in front of a home crowd that could likely surpass the stadium’s record (set two years ago at this same game -- 114,804), Gardner will have plenty of support.
The two teams face off at 8 p.m. and the game will be televised on ESPN.
- Purdue coach Darrell Hazell says he's encouraged despite his team's opening performance. Rob Henry is eager to make amends for his play at Cincinnati.
- Indiana's Shane Wynn -- who's back at practice after taking a scary hit -- gets his inspiration from doubters. Kevin Wilson is ready to get the Navy game over with (subscription required).
- Minnesota and Philip Nelson found a lot of mistakes from their opener that need to be corrected. A Minnesota native took a long road to play at New Mexico State, the Gophers' opponent this week.
- Wisconsin guard Ryan Groy was a pro at pulling in the opener. Melvin Gordon and James White showed they can run between the tackles. Reviewing the Badgers' defensive showing vs. UMass.
- Some Iowa injury and personnel notes. The Hawkeyes are still looking for their first sack of the season. AIRBHG follows Mika'il McCall to Southern Illinois.
- Bob Flounders discusses the Penn State running game in this mailbag. Defensive tackle DaQuan Jones made a big impact in the opener. Bill O'Brien focuses on the positives from the Week 1 win.
- Illinois dismissed running back Dami Ayoola. The Cincinnati game offers a reunion of sorts for Illini athletic director Mike Thomas. The Illinois running game is stuck in neutral.
- Pat Fitzgerald says he expects quarterback Kain Colter (concussion) to play versus Syracuse. Northwestern has come a long way.
- Freshman linebackers Josh Banderas and Nate Gerry played in crunch time for Nebraska. Footwork drills have paid off for Huskers receivers.
- Michigan got a huge donation from Stephen Ross. Safety Thomas Gordon wants to atone for his one-game suspension this week vs. Notre Dame. Freshman tailback Derrick Green "grew a little bit" in his Week 1 debut. Devin Gardner made a rapid development at quarterback.
- Michigan State's tailback situation is still unsettled. South Florida might be just what the Spartans' offense needs. One week into the season, Mark Dantonio is already shielding players from the media.
- Urban Meyer is putting extra emphasis on Ohio State's special teams play. Jordan Hall remains the Buckeyes' starting running back. Safety Christian Bryant is growing into his role as a leader.
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.
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. -- As Michigan’s preseason approaches at the end of this week, WolverineNation takes a look at the 10 players who are most indispensable for the Wolverines this season. This doesn’t mean the most talented players, but rather the players that if Michigan lost them, the team would be in the most trouble.
Redshirt senior safety Thomas Gordon was one of three players sent to the Big Ten Media Days, which generally means he’s a guy we’ll hear from a lot this season (which means he’ll probably be playing quite a bit, too, when he’s not talking to the media).
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Minnesota picked him off, and the one-time wide receiver went to the sideline. As he stewed, his predecessor at the position, Denard Robinson, pulled him aside and gave him a quick talk. The message had a lasting influence, even now, as Gardner has become the point man of the Michigan offense.
Publicly, Gardner still insisted late last season that it was Robinson’s team, saying so when asked directly. Personally, Robinson’s conversation propelled Gardner to believe the offense was his own.
Gardner played like it, compiling a 3-2 record and completing 75 of 126 passes for 1,219 yards, 11 touchdowns and five interceptions.
More than numbers, how Gardner worked through games and progressions in passing displayed the talent his coach, Brady Hoke, knew he had. Hoke’s initial issue with Gardner was that the quarterback didn't understand how Hoke wanted him to handle himself, in workouts, in practice and in games.
“Early in Devin’s career, Devin’s biggest enemy was Devin,” Hoke said.
At one point, Hoke threatened Gardner, telling him he might want to find another place to play. Hoke didn’t see the work ethic he wanted, and there was a small personality clash between the gregarious Gardner and the straight-laced coach.
Combine it with Gardner as the clear backup, and there would be reason for frustration. When he did play, one mistake could force him into another, because his opportunities were limited.
“He wasn’t happy with the way I was leading and the way I was performing,” Gardner said. “That’s happened with plenty of players in a lot of different programs. But I was determined to change his mind and help them have a different outlook on me.
“It was a long time ago. He didn’t really know me.”
Quarterback and coach became more comfortable with each other. Both, in Hoke’s words, matured. It culminated in Gardner choosing to move to receiver last season so he could get on the field.
Hoke saw Gardner work as a receiver after playing quarterback his entire life. Gardner learned a different part of playing football by being the guy who had to run routes instead of the one throwing them.
After Robinson was hurt against Nebraska on Oct. 27, Gardner came in the next week with a different understanding of what he wanted and needed to do. The verbal support from Robinson helped.
Then Gardner, who was the No. 5 quarterback in his high school class, became the quarterback he once expected to be when he left Inkster High School in Detroit. He became a starter.
“He doesn’t have that pressure of sharing time or changing positions,” safety Thomas Gordon said. “I think he feels a whole lot more comfortable. He’s a little less erratic at times.”
His teammates noticed, as he now jokes about his time moonlighting as a receiver. It is obvious in the way he carries himself and how he answers questions from the media.
He impressed George Whitfield Jr., the quarterback guru he worked with during the summer. Gardner said both Peyton and Archie Manning told him they were impressed with him after he worked out and coached kids at the Manning Passing Academy. He also is quick to add that the team he coached scored 42 points in a game, and kids wanted to play on his team by the end of the camp.
Gardner, though, is realistic. He is aware that while he has shown improvement, there are still things he hasn’t proved or doesn’t know yet. He has, after all, only started five games at quarterback.
“It’s always going to be that question mark,” Gardner said. “I haven’t won the big game. I haven’t really done much.”
For a while, he didn’t have his opportunity. Now he does, as more than another quarterback at Michigan or in the Big Ten; rather, as a player who is turning into the well-spoken, sharp-dressed face of the Wolverines' program.
And one of those candidates, Fitzgerald Toussaint, is close to entirely back to health.
“He’s been working hard under the radar,” safety Thomas Gordon said. “Getting back from that leg injury. He’s a hard worker and I can’t wait to see him get back on that field because we hated to see him go out last year.
Gordon said Toussaint has his speed and has cut well, but the redshirt senior from Youngstown, Ohio, has yet to take an actual hit with pads on since he broke his leg against Iowa on Nov. 17, 2012.
He missed spring practice rehabbing but insisted by the end of the spring he was close to being healthy. He rushed for 1,041 yards as a sophomore but struggled last season, rushing for only 514 yards and five touchdowns.
Toussaint will end up competing in the fall with freshmen Derrick Green and Deveon Smith. Between the three of them, one of them should end up winning the job.
“We haven’t seen too much of the freshmen,” Gordon said. “But from what I hear from my strength coaches, they have been working hard.”
Hoke happier with depth
When Brady Hoke took over at Michigan in 2011, the depth at his favorite positions -- the offensive and defensive lines -- was non-existent. They barely had enough to field a team on an actual game day and the depth was littered with walk-ons.
This season, Hoke’s third in Ann Arbor, he feels a lot better about both his line play and the amount of guys around. Michigan’s depth, despite the lack of a release of an actual depth chart, should have scholarship players throughout the two-deep on both offense and defense.
“Our numbers are up,” Hoke said. “I think our competition throughout spring. I think the competition that, in how they did things through summer have improved both positions, particularly the interior of the offensive line and the interior of the defensive line.”
While he hasn’t been able to watch any of the competition for the three open interior offensive line spots yet -- Ben Braden and Kyle Kalis are the presumed leaders at guard and Jack Miller at center -- he knows what he would like to see from them by the end of August.
Hitting. A lot of hitting.
“I want to see them knock people off the football and finish blocks,” Hoke said. “And not do it with good humor.”
Poole done playing football
Michigan linebacker Antonio Poole, who redshirted as a freshman and then missed last season with a pectoral injury, will no longer play for the Wolverines.
He will remain with the program, however, as a student assistant coach. The Cincinnati native was the No. 41 linebacker in his class coming out of Winton Woods High School. He was not expected to contribute this season.
What it takes for a true freshman safety to play:
A lot. Less than a handful of true freshmen made a strong impact in the last line of the Michigan defense. And even then, they didn’t have great success. One moved to receiver. One transferred soon after his freshman success.
That said, safety is a spot where freshmen could end up getting significant playing time in the future, especially as Michigan employs more nickel packages to combat spread offenses. It will be a position to watch.
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1. The Big Ten released its 2015 conference schedule on Monday. What struck you initially about the match ups?
Bob McClellan: The opener at Maryland. It’s the first opportunity for Michigan ever to play in College Park, and the Baltimore/D.C. area is an important one in which to recruit. Current Wolverines Blake Countess (Our Lady of Good Counsel) and Henry Poggi (The Gilman School) are from the area, and Michigan offered two of Countess’ former teammates who were members of the ESPN 150 in 2013. It’s reasonable to believe playing at Maryland every other year could pay recruiting dividends.
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So recruiting rules this week's Mailbag, comprised of your questions. Have questions for the mailbag? Send them to @chanteljennings on Twitter or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Now on to this week's questions:
KobeFan45 from The Den: With the basketball team reaching the national title game last season, what are the chances Michigan signs a five-star recruit?
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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 email@example.com 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.