Michigan Wolverines: Willie Henry

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- For many months, there has been hand-wringing and consternation about the state of Michigan's offensive line. But what about the other side of the trenches?

The Wolverines' defensive line has produced at a mediocre rate, at best, since Brady Hoke's first season in 2011. That's a fact that has to eat at both Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, who are both former defensive line coaches.

[+] EnlargeBrennen Beyer
Lon Horwedel/Icon SMISenior defensive end Brennen Beyer will be a key contributor for the Wolverines in 2014.
But unlike the offensive line, which exited spring with question marks remaining, there is hope that Michigan can turn this position into a strength again.

"I've been here for four years and I've seen three different defensive fronts come through here," senior defensive end Frank Clark said. "And I think it’s the best one we’ve had."

The group blends a mixture of veterans and youth, with many of the young players getting valuable exposure last season. Some of them were hyped recruits who display obvious size and athleticism, such as sophomores Taco Charlton (6-foot-6, 275 pounds), Chris Wormley (6-4, 292) and Willie Henry (6-2, 297). New position coach Mark Smith, who mentored the linebackers the previous three years, was understandably excited for a chance to mold those guys.

"I didn't inherit a bunch of plow horses, now," he said. "I inherited a bunch of thoroughbreds. We look good coming off the bus. We've just got to get the mental aspects of it and our philosophy and the mindset we want up front."

Clark epitomizes the D-line crew in many ways. Long heralded as a star in the making, he started to deliver on some of that promise last season with 43 tackles and 4.5 sacks. After briefly considering a jump to the NFL, he returned to campus determined to do even more in his last go-round.

"I’m the vet," he said. "I’m the big dog now."

Another senior, Brennen Beyer, will man the other defensive end spot. Beyer has moved around a lot in his career and sometimes is taken for granted. But Smith said Beyer is one of the best players and leaders on the defense.

Then there's Charlton, who has enough potential to make Michigan fans salivate. Given the nickname Taco from his grandmother when he was born prematurely and weighed less than three pounds, he's more like a fully loaded burrito now. Even playing last season as a true freshman, Charlton said he never felt overmatched physically.

"It wasn't really hard because of my body," he said. "But now I feel like a mature guy, and everything is coming more easily. I know what it takes to play, so I can really relax now and just play without much thinking."

"Taco has immeasurable potential," Smith said. "That kid can be as good as he wants."

How good the Wolverines' line will be this fall likely hinges on the inside spots, where the team replaces starters Jibreel Black and Quinton Washington. Henry and Wormley played a lot there in 2013 and should improve after getting a season under their belts.

"Chris Wormley is one of those guys who, when he walks in a room, you go, 'Ooh, that's what it's supposed to look like,'" Smith said. "He's come a long way, but in a lot of ways, he's still figuring out what it takes to be an every-down player here."

Redshirt freshman Maurice Hurst Jr. made a strong impression this spring at tackle, while sophomores Matthew Godin and Ryan Glasgow and early enrollee freshman Bryan Mone also saw a lot of reps. Ondre Pipkins will eventually be back from a knee injury. The coaching staff believes it has now developed depth that will allow it to comfortably rotate several bodies this fall.

The players just have to prove themselves on the field and show they can apply pressure on the quarterback without help, something that has been problematic the past couple of seasons.

"We have a multitude of pass rushers, and we've got physical guys in the middle," Clark said. "If four can rush the passer and let everybody else drop into coverage and do their jobs, that’s when you have a great defense."

Michigan hasn't reached that level in a while. The potential of the defensive line at least offers some hope of returning there.
Spring practice in the Big Ten has sadly come to an end, and we're both back home after some trips around the conference. Wednesday, we shared out thoughts on the Big Ten's West Division, and now it's time to turn our focus to the beast known as the East.

Brian dropped in on Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Indiana, and Adam stopped by Penn State.

Adam Rittenberg: Let's begin with your trip to the Mitten State. You made your first stop in Ann Arbor, where Michigan was wrapping up its first spring with new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. Michigan's top priority is the offense and fixing the line. What did you gather about the unit, and how are the changes on the defense -- player positions and coaching roles -- working out?

[+] EnlargeDoug Nussmeier
AP Photo/Tony DingNew OC Doug Nussmeier's top priority is fixing Michigan's offensive line.
Brian Bennett: Things definitely seem a lot smoother on defense. Jake Ryan adopted quickly to playing middle linebacker, and James Ross III is talented enough to play anywhere. Mark Smith picked a good time to take over the defensive line, as he'll have a pair of senior ends in Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer and some nice young talent to work with in Taco Charlton, Chris Wormley, Willie Henry, etc. Throw Jabrill Peppers into the mix in the back end this summer, and this has a chance to be a very solid defense.

It's just a matter of whether the offense can keep up. The Wolverines are very young on that side of the ball, and the line is full of redshirt freshmen and sophomores right now. Mason Cole enrolled in January and was starting at left tackle in spring ball, which said a lot about the state of the position. Michigan's season likely depends on whether that O-line can come together and raise its collective level of play. There are some good-looking athletes at receiver and running back, but not many of them are proven. Many big questions remain in Ann Arbor.

AR: There are fewer questions at Michigan State. How did the defending Big Ten/Rose Bowl champs seem to be handling their success? And how are they replacing defensive standouts such as cornerback Darqueze Dennard?

BB: Several players told me they were sick of talking about the Rose Bowl, which is a good sign. I saw a team that could definitely repeat as Big Ten champions. The offense brings back most of its major pieces and will add new weapons suchas tight end Jamal Lyles and quarterback/athlete Damion Terry. The early-season scoring droughts of years past should not happen again this fall.

No doubt Pat Narduzzi's crew lost a lot -- four All-Big Ten defenders, plus both starting defensive tackles. Michigan State has a big experience gap to make up, especially at linebacker. But this is a program that just seems to reload on defense now and has recruited so well to its system. Guys like defensive tackle Joel Heath, defensive end Demetrius Cooper and safety Jalyn Powell all came on strong this spring. Three of the corners vying to replace Dennard had interceptions in the spring game. I have supreme confidence that Narduzzi will have this defense dominating again in 2014.

AR: Ohio State's defense has many more question marks after a rough 2013 campaign. The line should be terrific but how did the back seven look during your trip to Columbus? And how are new assistants Chris Ash and Larry Johnson fitting into the mix? What else stood out about the Buckeyes?

BB: In my eyes, this is one of the most intriguing teams anywhere. The Buckeyes are almost frightfully young on offense outside of Braxton Miller and are breaking in lots of new players at linebacker and in the secondary. Yet they also have some impressive looking athletes and more overall explosiveness than the previous two seasons under Urban Meyer. Ash is installing a quarters coverage look, but maybe even more important is the fact that the safeties can really run and cover now. The revamped offensive line is a big question mark, as is the inexperience at receiver and the linebacker spot. But when you see young guys like linebacker Raekwon McMillan and tailback Curtis Samuel running around, you realize there aren't a lot of Big Ten teams that look like the Buckeyes.

Adam, you made it up to State College to check in on Penn State and new coach James Franklin. What's the vibe like up there?

AR: Electric. The charismatic staff has quickly formed bonds with the players, some of whom knew Franklin from the recruiting process. The defense should be better under Bob Shoop's leadership, as long as the starters stay healthy. There's decent depth up front and safety Adrian Amos and cornerback Jordan Lucas anchor the secondary. Linebacker Mike Hull is embracing his role as the unit's leader. Christian Hackenberg can really spin the ball -- very impressive. But can PSU protect him? No Big Ten team, including Ohio State, has bigger issues along the offensive line. Running back Bill Belton looked great, and I like the depth at tight end. Franklin is realistic about the depth issues and knows his team can't afford many more injuries.

You also visited Indiana this spring. How did the Hoosiers look, especially on defense with new coordinator Brian Knorr?

BB: You know the drill. Indiana could make some real noise if it could actually, you know, stop anybody. Knorr has them playing a 3-4, and hey have some major beef inside with the defensive tackles in 325-pounders Darius Latham and Ralph Green III. Ten starters are back and some promising recruits are on the way, so there's more depth on defense than before. But it's still a major construction project, and the offense might lose a little of its big-play ability as it tries to replace three of its top four receivers from a season ago.

OK, lightning-round finish. I still see Michigan State and Ohio State as the heavy favorites here, with Penn State a dark horse if its O-line issues can be solved. What about you?

AR: MSU is the team to beat because of the quarterback and the track record on defense. Ohio State definitely is in that mix, too. Michigan remains young at spots but could contend with a serviceable run game. Offensive line is a huge issue in this division. Sleeper-wise, I wouldn't count out Penn State, Indiana or Maryland, which could be dynamic on offense if it finally stays healthy.

Michigan spring wrap

April, 28, 2014
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The spring workouts are in the books and the long offseason has arrived. But before diving into summer and the painful wait for football to return, we're taking a look back at the developments from March and April and sneaking a peek at what to expect in the fall for Michigan.

Three things we learned in the spring

  • Front seven, front and center: The Wolverines didn't stand pat on defense this offseason. Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is now coaching the linebackers, while Mark Smith moved down to take over the defensive line. They also shuffled their linebackers, switching Jake Ryan to the middle and emerging star James Ross III to the strong side. The moves seemed to work out well this spring, with Ryan looking like his old playmaking self a year removed from ACL surgery. The defensive line could be one of the team's strengths, led by senior defensive ends Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer and improving youngsters Taco Charlton, Chris Wormley and Willie Henry. Mattison wants to blitz more this season and hopes the defensive line can get more pressure on its own.
  • Early enrollees, immediate impact: When players skip the final half of their high school senior years to enroll in college in January, the hope is that they will be more advanced than most freshmen. Wide receiver Freddy Canteen and offensive lineman Mason Cole exceeded those expectations. Both impressed the coaching staff right away, with Canteen drawing raves and Cole getting a lot of first-team reps at left tackle. Both were with the starting unit during the spring game and figure to have roles on the team this fall.
  • More QB clarity: Brady Hoke talked of a quarterback competition this spring, and Devin Gardner wasn't originally expected to do a whole lot while recovering from a broken foot. But Gardner surprised the coaches by fulling participating in all 15 spring practices and asserting his hold on the position. Hoke said Shane Morris closed the gap a bit on Gardner and that the competition would continue. But even though Gardner didn't play well in the spring game, it's pretty clear that this remains his team.
Three questions for the fall

  • Can O-line be less offensive?: New offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier has brought a simplified blocking scheme and a focus on running downhill. Players said there were times this spring when that was effective. But concerns about the youth and chemistry on the line remain, and not just because of another shaky performance in the spring game. When a mid-year enrollee (Cole) is starting at left tackle, that raises serious red flags. The return of Erik Magnuson and Joey Burzynski from injury and Graham Glasgow from his one-game suspension will help the experience and talent level. But for now, the line is full of young, unproven players who must find a way to raise their games between now and late August.
  • Skill position suspense: With Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo graduated, Devin Funchess is the only returning receiver with more than 15 career catches. Canteen's emergence provided another option at the position, but a lot of question marks remain at wideout. Michigan is hoping Jehu Chesson, Csont'e York, Da'Mario Jones and Dennis Norfleet step forward, Amara Darboh successfully returns from injury and freshman Drake Harris can contribute. But there are few sure things. At running back, the team is hopeful that Derrick Green breaks out as a sophomore and De'Veon Smith joins him for a powerful duo. Again, though, it's mostly optimism and little track record at this point.
  • Enough leadership? Hoke has suggested that he wasn't thrilled with the leadership during last season's 7-5 team. He and the players have said that the chemistry and accountability have been good this spring. The fact remains, however, that this team has only 12 seniors, and only seven of them are position players who see the field a lot. Leadership will also have to come from the junior class and elsewhere if Michigan wants to get over the hump of mediocrity.
One way-too-early prediction

Jabrill Peppers immediately becomes the team's best defensive back. That's a bold call, as Peppers isn't even on campus yet. But he was the No. 2 player in the 2014 ESPN 300 for a reason, and he should be the kind of physical, cover corner that Michigan has lacked. The Wolverines could try him in several different positions, but if he's the real deal, he can start quickly at cornerback. Program insiders believe his ceiling could be in the Charles Woodson neighborhood. No pressure, kid.

Spring game recap: Michigan

April, 7, 2014
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Spring (practice) has officially sprung for Michigan, which became the first Big Ten team to hold its spring game on Saturday at the Big House.

An estimated crowd of 15,000 took in the festivities, which included a non-scoring scrimmage. You can find coverage of the game here, here and here. And here's a brief recap:

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsQuarterback Devin Gardner threw two interceptions and completed just two passes in the Wolverines' spring game.
Star of the game: Cornerback Jourdan Lewis had two interceptions on the day, though he was also whistled for two pass interference penalties.

How it went down: It was just a spring game, and as most teams are wont to do, the Wolverines kept things very vanilla for their first public practice session of the year.

Still, fans had hoped to see some inklings of progress, especially from the new offense led by coordinator Doug Nussmeier, who was hired away from Alabama in the winter. Players had talked about making more big plays in practice in Nussmeier's scheme.

There wasn't much evidence of that on Saturday. On the very first snap of the scrimmage, Devin Gardner was intercepted by Lewis in his own territory. Gardner -- still not 100 percent on his healing foot -- would finish just 2-for-10 for 53 yards, though he's in no danger of losing the job. Backup Shane Morris went 5-for-11 for 73 yards, and his final throw was also picked off by Lewis, who started at corner and made a nice impression in that competition. (He'll need to keep doing that this summer, since Jabrill Peppers is on the way).

"I definitely think we're going to be tighter on offenses this year," Lewis said afterward. "We are playing more man-to-man and we'll be closer to those guys to break it up or intercept it."

The one big play was a 44-yard strike from Gardner to Freddy Canteen, the early enrollee who has been the talk of the spring in Ann Arbor. He looks like the real deal and will likely earn a starting job at receiver.

The running game produced mixed results. De'Veon Smith got the most reps with the first unit, running nine times for 21 yards. Derrick Green added 16 yards on six carries, while Justice Hayes had six attempts for 33 yards. The offensive line, which included early enrollee Mason Cole as the first-team left tackle, struggled to open up holes and get a push up front. The defense registered five sacks, including one each from defensive linemen Frank Clark, Brennen Beyer and Willie Henry.

"Inconsistent" is how coach Brady Hoke described the offensive performance.

"I think there were a couple good runs in there that they did a pretty good job with," he said. "We needed to be a little more consistent in the protection game. Through the course of the 15 practices, I think there has been some real improvements made."

Hoke has maintained all along that a team depending on many freshmen and sophomores will need some time to come together. On Saturday, they showed that in several key areas.

"There's no question," Hoke said, "we need a lot of improvement."

Big Ten lunch links

February, 24, 2014
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Congrats to Penn State students, who raised more than $13 million for pediatric cancer research at the school's annual THON event.
For the most part, Brady Hoke really doesn’t like recruiting surprises. The majority of his commitments at Michigan have come early in the recruiting cycle, and by the time signing day rolls around, there aren’t many spots left in Ann Arbor.

That’s largely the case again this season. Michigan had six early enrollees, so only 10 will sign Wednesday. The Wolverines are really waiting on only one possible signee -- in-state defensive lineman Malik McDowell. The 6-foot-6, 260-pound prospect out of Southfield, Mich,. will decide among Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Florida State.

Most later commits for the Wolverines have happened because Michigan offered a scholarship late in the process. However, the Wolverines have been in on McDowell for years. And on Wednesday, McDowell could join the very short list of Hoke’s signing day surprises. Here’s a look at those players from his first three classes.

2013 | Signing day: Feb. 1

RB Derrick Green | Jan. 26

[+] EnlargeDerrick Green
David Banks/USA TODAY SportsDerrick Green was a big signing for Brady Hoke at Michigan.
He was the last commitment in the 2013 class for the Wolverines and one of the freshmen who contributed the most this season. He chose Michigan over Auburn and Tennessee, who had both just gone through coaching changes. However, there was quite a bit of tension going into his decision day as to whether Hoke would be able to sign a player of Green’s caliber from outside the Midwest.

DB Reon Dawson | Jan. 14

Dawson changed his commitment from Illinois, the in-state school he had been committed to for nearly eight months. Michigan came in with a late offer, not until about a month before he committed to the Wolverines. However, Dawson attended high school with longtime commit Mike McCray, so he said he had heard plenty about Michigan.

OL Dan Samuelson | Jan. 12

Samuelson was a bit of a surprise for a few reasons. He had been committed to Nebraska for eight months (and before that, he had been committed to Pitt for less than a month). However, he decided he wanted to be closer to his Indiana home and Michigan was only three hours away. But the bigger surprise was that most observers believed the Wolverines' offensive line recruiting was pretty much completed, as Hoke had already secured five four-star linemen.

2012 | Signing day: Feb. 2

WR/KR/PR Dennis Norfleet | Feb. 1

He really has been the only game-time decision during Hoke’s tenure. The Wolverines were able to flip Norfleet’s commitment from Cincinnati in the final days. Hoke had offered a scholarship to Norfleet the week before signing day, but he didn’t decommit from Cincinnati until the night before.

DT Willie Henry | Jan. 31

Henry had taken his official visit to Michigan the weekend before signing day and then chose the Wolverines over MAC and Big East schools. Henry was an important late commit for the Wolverines because he kind of stopped the bleeding after several recruiting runner-up finishes for the Wolverines (TE Sam Grant, CB Armani Reeves, OL Alex Kozan, OL Josh Garnett).

2011 | Signing day: Feb. 3

The 2011 class as a whole was kind of a surprise class, as Hoke had less than two months to put it together. So there were a few guys, such as quarterback Russell Bellomy, offensive lineman Chris Bryant and linebacker Antonio Poole, who committed within two weeks of signing day. Today, that would seem like a lot of late commitments for Hoke, but for the 2011 class, it wasn’t that crazy. The Wolverines picked up three commitments in the few days leading up to Hoke’s first signing day at Michigan.

TE Chris Barnett | Feb. 2

Before Barnett got to signing day with Michigan, he attended four different high schools and broke commitments to Arkansas and Oklahoma. He ended up staying in Ann Arbor for only one season.

DE Frank Clark | Feb. 2

Clark was on campus for the first recruiting weekend of Hoke’s tenure. The late add of not only an Ohio kid, but a player from Cleveland Glenville -- an Ohio State pipeline school -- was impressive for Hoke in his first few months on the job.

RB Thomas Rawls | Feb. 1

Rawls had visited only Michigan and Central Michigan, so it wasn’t a huge surprise that he ended up choosing the Wolverines. However, in an interesting turn of events, Rawls was granted his release from Michigan following this season and will play for Central Michigan next season.
The offensive and defensive lines underachieved this season for Michigan. For a program that wants its identity to be in the trenches, this wasn’t exactly a poster year.

[+] EnlargeFrank Clark
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsFrank Clark showed signs of his potential and should provide leadership on Michigan's defensive line.
THE GOOD: Frank Clark didn’t have the season that many anticipated he would, especially after Taylor Lewan had said that when they went up against each other last spring and in the fall, he thought Clark could be an All-American. However, he did show that he could play in the Big Ten and beyond. He led the team in tackles for a loss (12 for 38 yards), sacks (4.5 for 26 yards), quarterback hurries (7) and fumble recoveries (2 for 24 yards). He’ll be back in 2014, which is a very good thing for Michigan. Brennen Beyer who will likely play on the D-line primarily, also returns. Beyer and Clark should provide leadership for some younger D-linemen. Another bright spot for this past season was redshirt freshman Willie Henry, who recorded 32 tackles -- second best on the team for a defensive lineman.

THE BAD: The goal was to get a solid four-man rush, and the Wolverines never consistently achieved it in 2013. Michigan decided not to hire a D-line coach when Jeremy Montgomery left. Instead, defensive coordinator Greg Mattison and head coach Brady Hoke took over the defensive line responsibilities. With those two leading the way, there was an assumption that this unit would have been more productive than they actually were. Michigan recorded 25 sacks (65th nationally, seventh in the Big Ten) and opposing quarterbacks completed 42 passes of 20 or more yards (69th nationally, eighth in the Big Ten). The sack totals are on the D-line. The long completions are shared by the defense as a whole, but it definitely would’ve been better if the defensive line had been able to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks this season.

THE FUTURE: Clark, along with Beyer, are the leaders of this group. They’ll probably be the two starting defensive ends. Taco Charlton is a name to keep track of as he’ll likely be a backup at both positions. Henry should look to be more productive inside and will spend the offseason gaining chemistry with Ondre Pipkins. Chris Wormley is another player who showed major potential and will be a big contributor in 2014, especially if the defensive line rotates as much as it did last fall. From the 2014 class, defensive tackle Bryan Mone enrolled early so he’ll have a jump start on the competition during spring football. At 6-foot-4 and 315 pounds, he already has very good size for a tackle. By comparison, Henry is 6-foot-2, 306 pounds and Pipkins is 6-foot-3, 315 pounds.

Previous posts:
Quarterback
Running backs
Wide receivers
Tight end
Offensive line
Earlier today, we presented our All-Big Ten team. Now it's time to honor the top freshmen from 2013 with our Big Ten all-freshman team.

Here it is:

OFFENSE
QB: Christian Hackenberg, Penn State (captain)
RB: Corey Clement, Wisconsin
WR: DeAngelo Yancey, Purdue
WR: Jordan Westerkamp, Nebraska*
TE: Maxx Williams, Minnesota*
TE: Jake Butt, Michigan
OL: Dan Voltz, Wisconsin*
OL: Ben Lauer, Minnesota*
OL: Jack Conklin, Michigan State*
OL: Jacob Bailey, Indiana*
OL: Kyle Kalis, Michigan*

DEFENSE
DL: Joey Bosa, Ohio State (captain)
DL: Austin Johnson, Penn State*
DL: Avery Moss, Nebraska*
DL: Willie Henry, Michigan*
LB: Michael Rose, Nebraska*
LB: Nyeem Wartman, Penn State*
LB: T.J. Simmons, Indiana
DB: Sojourn Shelton, Wisconsin
DB: Desmond King, Iowa
DB: Tyvis Powell, Ohio State*
DB: Matthew Harris, Northwestern

SPECIALISTS
K: Michael Geiger, Michigan State
P: Cameron Johnston, Ohio State
All purpose: Dontre Wilson, Ohio State

* -- redshirt freshman

It was a pretty strong year for freshmen in the league, highlighted by Hackenberg and Bosa. Shelton was terrific as well. ... Tight end is a promising position for the future. Penn State's Adam Breneman just missed, but he looks like a future star. And Michigan State's Josiah Price had a big impact in the Big Ten title game. ... Nebraska's young defense could really turn into something special. We also considered defensive lineman Vincent Valentine and linebackers Jared Afalava, Nathan Gerry and Josh Banderas. ... It was also a good year for rookie QBs, as beyond Hackenberg there was Purdue's Danny Etling, Nebraska's Tommy Armstrong and Minnesota's Mitch Leidner. ... Ohio State's Wilson didn't have a true position, but he did a lot of things and was a good return man, so that's why he gets our all-purpose slot. ... Some others we considered included Penn State receiver Geno Lewis and linebacker Brandon Bell, Purdue offensive lineman Jason King and Indiana defensive lineman Ralphael Green.

What we learned: Week 6

October, 6, 2013
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The Little Brown Jug will reside in Michigan for the next year. That, most people probably saw coming. But here are three other things we learned in Michigan's 42-13 win over Minnesota.

1. Boring is boring. But, boring is good. Saturday's game was probably not the most exciting game you've seen this season, but it did prove one thing -- fewer risky plays means fewer turnovers, fewer turnovers mean bigger scoring margins. Quarterback Devin Gardner didn't attempt a pass in the first quarter, but the Wolverines did get the run game going, which in turn opened up a few less risky plays in the air. If Michigan can continue to have a solid run game and take a few shots down field -- in moderation, and smartly, of course -- the Wolverines should be able to put together a complete offensive game plan. It might not be one that provides the best highlight-reel footage, but it could be one that provides wins.

2. Devin Funchess creates crazy mismatches. How many Big Ten teams have defensive backs that are really going to match up with the 6-foot-5, 235-pound Funchess? Really, the move to wide receiver makes sense. His blocking -- though Michigan had big hopes for him -- never really developed, and with the emergence of Jake Butt as a more complete tight end and the return of a blocking AJ Williams, the Wolverines really had more need for Funchess at wide receiver than tight end. His background in basketball has always helped him, but it seemed more evident Saturday as he showed off his ball skills with one touchdown and 151 yards on seven catches.

3. The defensive line still isn't getting enough pressure. The Wolverines allowed Minnesota to run right up the middle too many times (and way too many times on third down). Michigan's defensive line needs to step it up. The D-line's leading tackler was redshirt freshman Willie Henry with ... three tackles. Mario Ojemudia, Frank Clark and Quinton Washington also accounted for three tackles. Yes, the Wolverines are shuffling players in and out, but the first level of the defense should be able to pick up more tackles than that, especially when the opponent ran 41 times.
The Michigan football team kicks of its 2013-14 season Saturday at 3:30 p.m. against Central Michigan. The Chippewas are coming off an impressive season that included a win over Iowa and a victory over Western Kentucky in the Little Caesars Bowl. They pack a solid one-two punch with a talented wide receiver and running back, but their QB is a bit of a question mark.

It doesn’t hold quite as much drama as last year’s season opener against Alabama, but it’s official. College football is back and here are five storylines to watch for as the Wolverines take the field.

1. Youth and inexperience on Michigan’s offensive line.

This really is one of Michigan’s biggest question marks heading into the season. Graham Glasgow, Jack Miller and Kyle Kalis combine for zero starts. Much of the offense’s success rests on how well the offensive line meshes. If these young guys don’t play more experienced than they are, it could be trouble. Michigan wants to go with a group rather than tweaking throughout the season and the Wolverines definitely don’t want to be tweaking the line the following weekend against Notre Dame, so these three need to be stout in the middle.

2. How much the Wolverines give away offensively

On Wednesday, Brady Hoke said they wouldn’t hold anything back against Central Michigan. “We got nothing to hide. We really don't,” he said. “We've got nothing to hide in what we do and how we do it. I think that is really overblown when you're trying to keep something that maybe they haven't seen.” Now, there’s definitely truth to what he said. The Wolverines are going to be who they are and coaches know that. But Devin Gardner also said that this is the thickest the playbook has been at this point in the season since he has been here. They obviously won’t put everything in this weekend, but I do think they’ll show some. Some of that will be to work kinks out but I don’t think it’s completely insane to say that some of that will be to keep Notre Dame on its heels. For example, two seasons ago, Borges and Hoke unveiled the deuce package -- Gardner and Denard Robinson in at the same time -- in a 58-0 rout of Minnesota. Did Michigan need to use that then? Nope. But it did. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it was two weeks before the Wolverines traveled to East Lansing to play Michigan State. There were definitely a few wrenches thrown in Mark Dantonio’s game plan.

3. The return of running back Fitzgerald Toussaint

Michigan coaches say he’s 100 percent. He says he’s 100 percent. Teammates say he’s 100 percent. We’ll finally be able to see on Saturday. It’s more and more common these days to see athletes, like Toussaint, return from gruesome injuries, but it’ll be interesting to see how the coaches use him, how he moves on the field and how he takes that first hit. If the Wolverines get an early lead, don’t expect to see too much of him though. Michigan is still working with its running back depth and with six guys on the depth chart, the coaches will be looking for who can really be that third-down back or who they can rely on to step in for Toussaint to give him a rest (or who could overtake him, really). It won’t be too crazy -- depending on the score -- if we do see three or four guys get carries as Michigan tests the waters with multiple guys.

4. CMU’s senior running back Zurlon Tipton

Other than having the best name of anyone playing Saturday, he could also be the best running back on the field. As a junior, Tipton rushed for 19 touchdowns and 1,492 yards on 252 carries. His hands are solid and he accounted for 24 receptions for 287 yards last season. He’s going to be the Chippewas’ best offensive weapon and the Wolverines are prepared for that, but whether they’ll be able to stop him is another subject entirely. Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said Tuesday that Tipton is a "great cutback runner and he’s a very physical back. He earns a reputation. You watch him, he's running down the sideline and a lot of guys would step out of bounds. He turns back in to try and hit somebody." He should provide a test for the Michigan defense right out of the blocks.

5. The depth along Michigan’s defensive line

Mattison said Tuesday that he believes he has enough depth in the defensive line to run three-deep at each position. Obviously, we’d see more of guys like Jibreel Black, Quinton Washington and Frank Clark but don’t be too surprised if you do see second- or third-string players -- Willie Henry, Matt Godin, Taco Charlton, Mario Ojemudia -- getting into the game and making some plays. Mattison said he had this much depth once before, at Florida. The real test will come when we see if the second and third strings can get as much pressure, from a straight four-man rush, on the opposing QB. Because while Michigan might be able to run three deep against an offensive line and quarterback like Central, they might not be able to do the same against an Ohio State squad.
Fitzgerald ToussaintLon Horwedell/Icon SMIFitzgerald Toussaint has been Michigan's starting tailback the last two seasons. But a broken leg suffered last year, along with talented youngsters behind him, has him in a fight for his job.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- As Denard Robinson adjusts to his new role as an offensive weapon playing a little bit of everywhere in Jacksonville, Michigan officially will begin its A.D. era as camp opens this weekend.

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

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WolverineNation Mailbag 

May, 21, 2013
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Fall is just around the corner, well, a season away but that means football is coming up soon.

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 jenningsespn@gmail.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?

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- While Michigan’s offense has a bunch of questions surrounding who will play where and how much time freshmen might see, the Wolverines’ defense has other issues.

These, though, aren’t so bad.

Michigan has significant depth -- albeit some inexperience -- at every spot on its defense. This allows the Wolverines to come closer to reaching defensive coordinator Greg Mattison’s goal of being able to rotate players at both defensive line and linebacker to keep them fresh for later in games and later on in the season.

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Michigan begins spring practice on Saturday with both some question marks and some major returning talent. Brady Hoke says of his team: "We're very young. But these guys have a lot of fight to them." There will also be a lot of fighting for starting jobs, beginning in a few days. I recently caught up with the third-year Wolverines coach for his thoughts on the approach of spring ball:

What are the main things you're looking for this spring?

Brady Hoke: Well, you know, we've got a lot of open spaces. Some guys graduated, some guys aren't with the program anymore and we've got a lot of young guys. I think we only have 11 starters back on both sides of the ball, so there's going to be a lot of great competition, which is exciting. I think the leadership of our seniors, they've done a nice job of holding everybody accountable. But when you get out there with the pads on, it's a little different than just running around in shorts.

[+] EnlargeBrady Hoke
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsWith only 11 returning starters, Michigan coach Brady Hoke said he's excited about the competition this spring.
Some of that competition will be on the offensive line, where you've got three open jobs on the interior. How do you see those battles right now?


BH: Well, I think the interior of both lines, there's going to be a lot of competition. We've got to find a center, and that's between [Jack] Miller and [Graham] Glasgow, and Joey Burzynski will try to figure that out a little bit, too. At the guard positions, Ben Braden is going to move down inside and start out at the left guard, but he'll have a lot of competition because Burzynski is back and so is Blake Bars. Kyle Kalis will move into the right side, and it will be interesting again with [Kyle] Bosch and some of the guys who have been here a little bit. I think it will be a really good competition at all three of those inside positions.

Having Taylor [Lewan] back is huge. I think it's great for him and great for Michigan. Mike Schofield has had a really good winter. He had some real bright spots during the course of last season, and I think his development is going to be something special.

You mentioned the defensive line, where you also lost a couple of veterans. How does that shape up?

BH: I think inside, we get Jibreel Black for another year and Quinton Washington. But once you get through that, there are a lot of young guys ... Willie Henry, Ondre Pipkins, Ryan Glasgow, Richard Ash and Chris Wormley are all guys who can either play the inside tackle or the strongside end. We'll find out the guys who are competitive. Tommy Strobel is another guy we think had a real good winter, and Keith Heitzman. So it's going to be fun to see them compete.

Does having so many young guys in key spots on the line make you nervous? Or do you have a lot of confidence in them because you recruited most of them?

BH: I think it makes you nervous if you think you may have recruited the wrong guys. But we like the work ethic. We like how they've come in to learn and with a lot of enthusiasm. I think there's some competitiveness that we need to keep pushing as a program. You know, we lost five games on the road. We've played pretty well at home but we've got to do better on the road and that's a mindset, a mentality that you have to compete through everything, on every down.

Devin Gardner goes into spring practice as your starting quarterback. How has he developed as a leader?

BH: I have been really excited about the progress he's made. I'm seeing that maturity that it takes and the leadership it takes and the competitiveness it takes to be the quarterback at Michigan. I think that's a real big part of how he's grown, and I think he's done a nice job with it. I'm liking the direction he's going, and hopefully he can just keep going and keep growing.

What about your running back position this spring, with Fitz Toussaint hurt and Derrick Green not there yet?

BH: You know, Fitz has come along pretty well. I don't think he'll do a lot of contact or anything like that, but I think he'll be cleared for a lot more drill work. That's gone real well. We've moved [Dennis] Norfleet back to running back and we're going to give him an opportunity. Dennis, he's a smaller guy, but he's a very competitive, very tough young man. Drake Johnson is a guy we redshirted a year ago, and we really liked the way he competed in scout situations. In the bowl practices, we did some scrimmages and gave him a lot of carries, and we're very excited about what he has to offer.

Thomas Rawls is coming back, and I think he learned a lot last year about the vision he needs to play with, and I like how he's competed through the [winter]. And Justice Hayes is a guy who gives you a little bit different look because of how he can get on the perimeter. He did some things in a couple of games last year, but now I think he'll have a big stage to prove himself more this spring. And he's a bigger guy now, he's 190-something pounds, so he's a little bigger.

[+] EnlargeDrew Dileo
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsMichigan coach Brady Hoke said that he's pleased by more than just the on-field success of WRs Drew Dileo and Jeremy Gallon.
You have Jeremy Gallon back at receiver, but you lost Roy Roundtree. You sounded excited about some of the younger guys there during bowl prep. Is spring their time to step up now?

BH: Yeah, I think so. First of all, I think the leadership with Gallon and Drew Dileo, they've done a really nice job being leaders at that position. They're not big guys, but they have a real spirit for the game and really do a nice job of working and leading. We have Amara Darboh, who played a little last year, and Jehu Chesson, who we redshirted a year ago. And I think Jeremy Jackson has had a very good winter; we're very excited about some of the progress he's made. Joe Reynolds is a guy who walked on here, and he's done a very nice job. And Bo Dever, his dad played here and he walked on. I think that during the course of the spring, we'll be in pretty good shape there. I think as we keep going, we'll keep improving at that position.

Linebacker was a strength for you last year and looks to be so again. Do you see some good competition there this spring, particularly at the weakside spot?

BH: Yeah, I think with Desmond Morgan and James Ross, there's going to be great competition. Joe Bolden and Royce Jenkins-Stone and Mike Jones are all guys who are very competitive, and I think the three young guys coming in are going to be guys who will give us a lot of good competition and a lot of good depth. Kaleb Ringer is coming back from injury, so we'll see what he can give us. At the sam linebacker, Jake [Ryan] is coming back, and we really like what Cam Gordon has done during the winter. So I think we feel a little stronger at that position.

How do you replace what Jordan Kovacs gave you in the secondary?

BH: I don't know if you ever replace that kind of leadership, but I really think Thomas Gordon, he's played a lot of football here, and it's time for him to demonstrate the leadership. And he's doing that. Because of the number of snaps and everything he's done, he's really fallen into his own a little bit. Courtney Avery has played a lot of football, and whether he's a corner a nickel or wherever, he's got to give us great leadership and great reps. Blake Countess is getting healthier; he'll do some things during the spring. Josh Furman, I think, has come on.

We've got to see where Terry Richardson is and where Marvin Robinson is. Both those guys have played a number of snaps. We've got Raymon Taylor back, who I think started every game for us last year, we're excited about his development. Dymonte Thomas is a guy who's going to compete, and he'll pressure some guys. Jarrod Wilson is another guy who played some last year for us. Ross Douglas is here early. Jeremy Clark is a 6-foot-4, 210-pound safety we redshirted a year ago, and it's going to be a big spring for him to make some moves.

So I think we may have more personnel back there. And even more in the fall when Channing Stribling gets in, and Reon Dawson gets in and Jourdan Lewis. I think it's going to add something to our secondary.

Finally, what has your message been to the team this offseason after last year's 8-5 season?

BH: Well, our message has been, we haven't met the expectations at Michigan. That's something that as a football community… that we really feel that we have to do a much better job in all areas, from the coaching aspect of it, from learning and playing with the competitiveness we want to have, from every player at every position playing with the intensity we want to play with. It's about having a mindset and a mentality of how we want to play the game. We make no excuses, but at the same time, we know we have a lot we can do to play better football.

2014 Michigan WR targets 

February, 20, 2013
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The past two recruiting classes Michigan has brought in bigger receivers, none under 6-foot-2. The coaching staff has been unable to reel in the elite receiver they have been after though, and are hoping to do so in the 2014 class.

Here is a look at some of the wide receiver targets for 2014:

Offered Targets:

Drake Harris
Grand Rapids, Mich./Grand Rapids Christian

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