Michigan Football is presently suffering through one of the longest droughts in program history. The Wolverines haven’t won a Big Ten title since 2006 and they are fresh off a lackluster 7-6 season. Expectations for the upcoming season have been reduced to the lowest levels in my lifetime.
Brady Hoke is entering his fourth season as Michigan’s head coach. He has posted a 26-13 record and a 15-9 mark in the Big Ten. The roster is now overwhelmingly populated by players that Hoke and his staff have recruited.
There are some reasons to be excited about the upcoming season, we’ll get to those shortly. First here are a few things that have caused many a Wolverines fan a few sleepless nights.
Reasons to be concerned
1. The offensive line is far and away the biggest question mark as the team heads into the upcoming season. Surrendering 36 sacks, with a mobile quarterback, and paving the way for a paltry 3.3 yards per rush will do that. The Wolverines must replace both starting tackles and their most experienced lineman, former walk on Graham Glasgow, has been suspended for the season opener. Michigan ranked 102nd nationally in rushing offense last year. If it wasn’t for the superhuman efforts of Devin Gardner, their passing offense would have ranked much lower than the modest 51st they ended up in the final national rankings.
Brady Hoke and his staff have done a tremendous job recruiting blue chip offensive linemen to Michigan. What we haven’t seen yet, is any of the Hoke era recruits develop into a force on the offensive line. Last year, several young linemen, Kyle Kalis, Kyle Bosch and Erik Magnuson, got their first dose of regular playing time. The results were unsatisfactory. However, all three should be better prepared for the rigors of Big Ten play in 2014.
The line has to be more physical and start taking control of the line of scrimmage. If they can establish a running game, Gardner will be even more dangerous this season than he was last season. There has to be signs of life, some tangible progress in the development of the line, if not it could be another long season.
2. As a team last year, the Wolverines registered just 25 sacks which was good for seventh best in the Big Ten, but was also 17 behind the conference leading Buckeyes. Michigan’s defense generally ranked in the middle of the conference in most statistical categories. The Wolverines weren’t very aggressive and seemingly played a little bit of the bend but don’t break style of defense.
Some of that can certainly be attributed to the Jake Ryan injury. Having him at full speed will make a world of difference. Some of it can also be attributed to a less than dominating defensive line and average to poor production from the safety positions. In addition to the Ryan injury, Michigan suffered a significant blow to the defensive line when freshman Ondre Pipkins was lost for the season.
The defensive line this season should be a position of strength with senior rush end Frank Clark leading the way. There is also a host of young, promising players ready to make an impact, guys like Taco Charlton, who looks like a future star.
3. The schedule is unkind to the Wolverines this year. Thanks to conference realignment they will play at Michigan State for a second straight season and they also hit the road for games against Notre Dame and Ohio State. The home slate is underwhelming with a night game vs Penn State as the marquee match up.
4. I know everybody is tired of hearing this, but the Wolverines roster is once again very young. There are just 11 seniors and a whopping 38 freshman eligible players.
Reasons for optimism
1. There are several playmakers on both sides of the ball. First and foremost among them is Devin Gardner . He struggled in the early going last year with turnovers as he tossed 7 touchdown passes against 8 interceptions in the non-conference portion of the schedule. However, in conference play he turned that around to the tune of 14 touchdown passes and just 3 interceptions. He also, playing on an injured foot, almost willed Michigan to what would have been a stunning victory over Ohio State, with 451 yards and 4 TDs through the air, plus 25 yards and another TD on the ground. He’s now a more experienced player who still possesses a wealth of talent.
Gardner will have the luxury of throwing passes to the freakishly talented Devin Funchess. At 6-5, 230, with great hands, a huge catch radius and excellent speed, he is a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses. Funchess, who reeled in 49 receptions for 748 yards and 6 touchdowns, had one of the finest seasons ever for a Michigan tight end. Now a junior, he figures to be more explosive and more polished in 2014.
Both Gardner and Funchess have been named to the Maxwell Award Watch List. The Maxwell Award has been given to America’s college player of the year since 1937.
2. Jake Ryan is now far removed from the knee injury that ravaged his junior season. He is an outstanding football player, a playmaker on the defensive side of the ball and somebody that opposing offenses have to account for on every play. Ryan could easily notch upwards of 20 tackles for loss and 10 sacks in his senior season. Having him on the field makes everybody else on the defense a little bit better.
Ryan and fellow senior, Frank Clark, have both been named to the Bednarik Award Watch List. The Bednarik Award has been presented to the college defensive player of the year since 1995
3. One of Michigan’s 38 freshman eligible players is Jabrill Peppers. He is the most hyped recruit to come to Ann Arbor in a long, long time. He is a rare, once-in-a-decade type of talent. If you haven’t heard of him yet, here’s a quick rundown. Peppers played on four state championship teams during his high school career. He was named the USA Today Defensive Player of the Year. He checks in at 6-1, 202 and is really fast. Peppers won the 100 and 200 meter dash in the New Jersey Meet of Champions posting times of 10.55 and 21.48 respectively. He accomplished the same feat last season and is just the second runner in New Jersey history to do so.
He will likely start the season at safety, but can impact the game in a variety of ways. He brings with him a swagger that can be infectious and he will surely become a fan favorite right away.
4. Michigan has a diverse set of running backs on the roster. Redshirt sophomore Drake Johnson was going to be one of the main options at running back last year, but he, like many other players mentioned in this article, suffered a season ending injury. De’Veon Smith and Derrick Green are both sophomores. Redshirt freshman Ross Douglas has been moved from defensive back to running back. However, the biggest boost may come from transfer Ty Isaac who is awaiting word on a hardship waiver that would make him eligible to play this fall.
In effort to improve the offense, Brady Hoke brought in Doug Nussmeier to take over as offensive coordinator. He has installed a new, more simplified blocking scheme and will feature a downhill, one-cut style of running game.
5. Besides Peppers, there are a number of other young players on the roster who could make an impact this fall. I already mentioned Taco Charlton. Also keep an eye on true freshman receiver Freddy Canteen, he has the size, speed and ability to make an instant impact. Sophomore linebacker Ben Gedeon showed a glimpse of his vast potential in the Ohio State game last year, when he recorded a team-high six tackles and a sack. Redshirt sophomore Amara Darboh was in line to start at receiver last year before he suffered a season ending injury. Fellow R/S sophomore Jehu Chesson showed flashes last year with 15 receptions for 221 yards and one touchdown. Sophomore cornerback Jourdan Lewis will likely be a full time starter this year. He is a very talented player. Remember the impact Jake Butt made last year as a true freshman tight end? The Wolverines have another true freshman tight end on the roster this year in the form of the 6-foot-7 Ian Bunting.
6. As unexciting as the home schedule is this year, there is a high probability that the Wolverines go 7-0 at home. If Michigan can upend one of their rivals, Notre Dame, Michigan State, or Ohio State, on the road there is a good chance they post a winning road record, which would result in a likely 9 or 10 win season. Michigan also has a well-timed bye the week before they play at MSU.
I was talking with Joe White recently about Michigan Football and Brady Hoke in particular. We agreed that there is no doubt Hoke is a tremendous individual who is beloved by players and opposing coaches. What we haven’t seen so far is whether or not he can develop players. Which players have dramatically improved under Hoke’s watch? Joe made this observation about Hoke, is he the Tommy Amaker of Michigan Football? Amaker was also highly regarded as a good guy, but player development during his regime was lacking.
This is a critical year for Hoke. Through three seasons, Hoke has compiled a 26-13 record. As a point of reference, through three seasons at Michigan State, Mark Dantonio had posted a 22-17 record. Since that time Dantonio has led the Spartans on a prolific run. This is Hoke’s team, full of his recruits. As I mentioned at the start, everything hinges on the offensive line, where Hoke and his staff have recruited very well. Will the players on the line start to improve this season? If they do that is a good sign in more ways than one. If they don’t it could lead to another long season for Michigan fans and raise more questions about the direction of the program.
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